Feminist, anthropologist, writer and co-founder of Agora Juntas, a collaborative feminist hub in Rio de Janeiro.
THE INSPIRATION TALK
HI ANI, TELL US WHERE YOU ARE FROM AND WHAT WERE YOU DREAMING OF DOING WHEN YOU GREW UP?
Hi Lisa! I’m from NYC, I grew up in Queens raised by a single mother who is an immigrant from China. I think I always dreamed about travelling even when I was little, I only read books about other countries, fairytales, myths, etc… So from a very young age I began to travel.
HOW OLD ARE YOU?
YOUR PATH IS PRETTY IMPRESSIVE: RESEARCHER, WRITER, ACTIVIST FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND EQUALITY, AND YOU JUST OPENED A COLLABORATIVE FEMINIST HUB IN RIO. DO YOU FEEL YOU FOUND YOUR VOCATION?
Ever since I came here I feel I’ve definitively been experimenting with my career, because once you leave the country where you have your work rights, you have to create not only your career but your whole life. So I feel it has been a very creative process to create my life and career here. Nothing I did here was planned. I didn’t know I was going to love doing research nor did I know I was going to write, which I started only after the impeachment campaign in Brazil (editor's note: President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016). I was upset and felt powerless so I began to write for international newspapers. The collaborative feminist house is also an experiment with feminist mobilization. I feel I’ve found my vocation when I think about what I want to do with my life but I think there is always different ways to reach the same goal.
OUT OF ALL THE COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD, YOU CHOSE BRAZIL, ONE OF THE FEW ONES WHERE WOMEN STILL DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT TO ABORTION. WAS THAT PART OF YOUR DECISION TO STAY HERE AND WORK FOR THAT CAUSE?
I definitely and specifically came to Brazil because of the complicated situation with reproductive rights in the entire region, it’s been an interest and a focus of mine for a very long time. I’m interested in looking at how feminist mobilization tries to change this legal and political situation. It is something I am personally passionate about. I am very involved in all the protests that are pro-legalization of abortion along with different collectives and organizations that talk, discuss, debate reproductive justice. So yes, it is a reason why I came and stayed here.
ASIDE FROM THE FEMINIST ASPECT THAT YOU LATER BECAME PASSIONATE ABOUT, WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION WHEN YOU FIRST DECIDED TO COME TO BRAZIL?
I’ve always known that I wanted to come to Brazil and so I prepared myself for when the moment would come (laughs).
So when I went back to school after taking two years off to travel, I started to study Portuguese in New York. NYU allows you to study a bit everywhere in the world, unfortunately they didn’t have any compatible programs with Brazil. So I decided to go to the next closest country where I could go through my university and it was Argentina. But it was as if I was never in Argentina because every single free moment that I had, I came to Brazil. So it was definitively in a holiday context but after my semester there was over, I came to Rio for two months and I arrived the day the protests began so I just threw myself in the situation without really understanding what was happening. I guess that was like a "research summer": there were so many social movements and so many conflicts that I became very interested in terms of a researcher’s point of view. It was also very interesting to me as an Asian-American woman who had travelled all over the world, to be accepted as a person from the country. Everyone here thought I was Brazilian as I was very much involved in what was happening here, with the protests, the fact that I was speaking Portuguese… There is definitively a sort of identity connection. And then I went back to the US to finish my studies and finally moved here the next year, in 2014.
IN 1405, CHRISTINE DE PIZAN, MAYBE ONE OF THE FIRST OFFICIAL FEMINIST KNOWN, WROTE THE BOOK OF THE CITY OF LADIES, IN WHICH SHE COMBATS STATEMENTS ABOUT WOMEN BY CREATING AN ALLEGORICAL CITY OF LADIES. EACH WOMAN CHOSEN TO LIVE IN THE CITY ACTS AS A POSITIVE EXAMPLE FOR OTHER WOMEN TO FOLLOW AND ARE ALSO EXAMPLES OF THE POSITIVE INFLUENCES WOMEN HAVE HAD ON SOCIETY. CHRISTINE ASKS IF WOMEN SHOULD BE TAUGHT AS MEN ARE AND WHY SOME MEN THINK WOMEN SHOULD NOT BE EDUCATED. OTHER QUESTIONS THAT ARE EXPLORED ARE: THE CRIMINALITY OF RAPE, THE NATURAL AFFINITY IN WOMEN TO LEARN, AND THEIR TALENT FOR GOVERNMENT.
WHEN YOU SEE THAT ALREADY SO EARLY ON WOMEN HAD PERCEIVED AND VOICED THE INJUSTICE FELT BY RIGHTS UN-EQUALITY, AND YET TODAY WOMEN ARE STILL NOT GRANTED THE SAME RIGHTS AS MEN, DO YOU THINK TRUE GENDER EQUALITY WILL EVER BE REACHED?
I’m not a big fan of the words « gender equality ». I think that has been a misunderstanding with people trying to equate feminism to gender equality and say that men and women are the same. I believe that inheritably men and women are different, not in terms of intellectual capabilities but in terms of socialization, perception, etc… I don’t know if I’m fighting so much for gender equality as for women to have the rights that they deserve given that they are different… For example: they are reproductive. So what about reproductive rights? Should women have the same reproductive rights as men? It is stupid. Men are not reproductive beings. I believe that if women had more opportunities and the rights they deserve, society would be different. Unfortunately I think oppression will continue to exist and in different forms but the way women govern and work with each other, how they raise families and build communities, is done in a very different, more peaceful, more prosperous, more connected way of existing in the world. And I think the masculine, violent, hierarchical, dominant, oppressive world that we live in is what it is because it was built by men.
WAS THIS REFLEXION PART OF YOU WANTING A STRONGER VOICE AND MADE YOU REALIZE YOU WANTED TO PUSH IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
When I realized I wanted to work with women’s rights, I didn’t have a very developed understanding of feminist work, but I knew I wanted to work for that cause when I was travelling alone for two years. I took that time off school to reflect on what I wanted to do with my life. I was studying anthropology and didn’t know what I wanted to work in and thought it was a waste of time to continue studying without a goal. So it was a long process, there is a lot of things that I learned just from the process of existing in those countries that I travelled to and lived in. And each time, I tried to learn from women’s rights in those countries.
When I was in India I had a conversation with myself about where I should draw the limit of where I could work, be vulnerable, expose myself, you know, put my life at risk… I guess doing what I do now could be seen as the direct result of these two years of witnessing women’s conditions around the world and the reflection I had around it…
THE IMAGE CONVEYED BY THE MEDIA ABOUT FEMINISTS IS QUITE VIOLENT AND AGGRESSIVE AND MAINLY EMBODIED BY THE PUSSY RIOT. DO YOU THINK THIS IS THE BEST ATTITUDE TO PASS A MESSAGE OR CAN IT BE DONE IN A LESS “SHOCKING” WAY?
The first thing that I have to say is that the media all around the world are very sexist because they are run by men and they are very connected to politics. And feminists movements are very threatening to political movements, because they articulate a different type of society. And so the media have done a very good job in painting feminists movements as extremely radical when in reality they have absolutely no understanding.
I think there are very diverse feminists movements with different strategies to be heard. Those who use performance or more public interaction, definitively have their reasons. I’m a big fan of Pussy Riot personally as opposed to Femen which was actually founded by a messed-up man who manipulated women into believing that if they exposed themselves they would fight for feminist liberation. Femen is not an example of public intervention that I like but unfortunately the media love cases like that. And they paint all feminists movements with one example and that is not fair to the diversity of the movements and messages.
Personally I admire people who work with art and performances, I don’t believe that they are always trying to shock; I believe that they are trying to dialogue with a public that maybe someone who works more with research or debate won’t reach. I have a friend who works with some collectives here and they specifically do public art interventions, like setting up graves of women who have died of clandestine abortions or domestic violence and yes, maybe that is shocking to some people but the truth is shocking and if women are dying in the hands of oppressors like the State not allowing them the right to abort in safe medical conditions, then this is the truth and it has to be told. But I also understand that all publics are not open to hear that truth. I think once you decide to do so, it exposes you personally. At the moment, I am not interested in having such a public profile. I guess I am still in the process of learning.
But I definitively go to the protests. And if that shocks people, then too bad for them. Women have been excluded from protests for too long. So for them to have their own space to occupy with their own body, if you really sit and think about it, it's revolutionary! Just as the Black Lives Matter mouvement: after being exploited for labor or being killed for no reason other than racism, for them to physically resist and politicize their body is very shocking to some people, but not to me.
WHAT MESSAGE DO YOU WANT TO TELL THROUGH YOUR ACTIVISM AND THE AGORA JUNTAS PROJECT ?
This project is so complex, I think it is still building itself. It is definitely a feminist network and the idea was to build a physical collaborative space run by women for women, a non-hierarchical place to exchange.
DID YOU FEEL THERE WAS A NEED FOR A PHYSICAL SPACE FOR THESE WOMEN TO MEET AT?
I mean both of us and all these kids today, we grew up in the Internet age and I’ve been a nomad for a very long time so there are multiple layers of feeling disconnected in so many ways: disconnected from my home, disconnected from my family, disconnected from cities because I stayed there for six months and then I moved again…
With Rio I have a very different connection. Once I came here I knew I wanted to live here and build a life here. And when I moved here, I immediately found communities. I was very lucky because I found a group of friends, I found a collaborative house and that is where I went to work every single day and that was a community of people who believed in the collaborative and creative economy. We all took care of the house, we all paid for the house, we ate lunch together and that is when I had the idea for Agora Juntas. The house was run by men. I always thought if women were running this place it would be so different. We would be having coffee with the neighbors every day. There is just a inherent considerateness that women have for each other and for space and for the feeling of harmony in a neighborhood, or just the natural instinct of creating a home. Probably one day I would love to write a book about all these different aspects. There is a lot of things that I wanted to subvert because I think every single woman involved has a different relationship to the project but for me, the house in which I had this idea, which was a collaborative house, was a house of work and creation. There I saw the same gender dynamic even though it wasn't a residential house. Who was responsible for the logistics of the house like taking care of money or repairing stuff: the men. And then who was responsible for when people left rooms dirty or when there were dishes left in the sink: the women. I thought this was so interesting; it was not a residential house, nor a family unit. This was a work place where a group of so-called progressive, educated, liberal people came together and created. But yet we inherently normalize the same gender dynamics in any space with men and women! Women will talk less and be less interested in taking a decision… So I thought, what if we created a house where the logic of women in a house was subverted? What if we created a house of work and creation and feminine mobilization? It is a clear resistance and a kind of contestation to the type of society we live in.
That was my motivation. We are literally taking care of the house for other women.
HOW DO YOU FINANCE THE HOUSE?
We are inspired by other collaborative houses and self-sustaining communities that already exist in Brazil and in other countries in Latin America. The costs of the house are transparent to everyone and we ask every single person who comes into the space to make a conscious contribution according to their financial capability, their desire, their generosity. We are keeping the space we are occupying open; it was a feminist institute named after a great woman called Rose Marie Muraro. She was a Brazilian intellectual who was named «Matron of Brazilian Feminism». She recently died and her institute stopped receiving money from the government. I think money is an indicator of our values. We are literally putting our money where our values are and we ask that other women do the same. That is why this project is not just political or just feminist; it is also economic as it involves the collaborative – solidary- economy. I think that is really what feminist movements are lacking. We know women already make less money but yet we need to get the funding in order to actually implement the transformative agenda.
DO YOU THINK THIS IS BECAUSE THE CONTENT IS NOT INTERESTING ENOUGH TO GET PEOPLE TO FUND IT?
The content is too radical for them. There is a famous expression that says “the revolution will not be funded”; why would a dominating oppressive system finance movements or organizations that have a transformative justice agenda? So of course there is not enough funding. Sadly, in order to get funded you try to emphasize “women rights”, “gender equality” and silence the word “feminist”.
SO WHAT YOU ARE SAYING IS THAT YOU’D BETTER BE “SHOCKING” TO GET THE ATTENTION OF THE MEDIA WHO LOVE SENSATIONALISM BUT AT THE SAME TIME TONE DOWN YOUR VOICE WHEN LABELING THE ACTION IN ORDER TO GET FUNDS TO GO ON WITH THE MOVEMENT? KIND OF DISCONCERTING.
WHAT IS THE FAVORITE PART OF YOUR JOB?
I actually work on different things : I'm a research consultant, a writer, I work on Agora Juntas… So all together, the favorite part of my job would be meeting so many amazing women from around the world and different organizations. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by such extremely intelligent, visionary and strong people. There's a lot of women who I feel are role models for me.
WHO DO YOU ADMIRE AND WHO INFLUENCES YOUR PATH?
There are so many people.. I would have to make a very long list!
You know, working internationally I don't actually get to always see the people I work with. Of course I skype with them but the only times I meet them in flesh is during conferences. Recently I went to an international conference called AWID forum which is the Association of Women’s Rights in Development and the largest international association of women's rights organizations. That was a forum where I finally got to meet about 50 people that I had only interacted with online. Getting to meet these women who I followed online was very powerful. What I’ve learned from that is that you need to have references to look up to in order to get going. For me, as an Asian-American women working internationally and living in Brazil, I need to have a reference of someone who looks like me and who has achieved something that I want to achieve and the same goes for black women, for indigenous women, for any woman.
But to be more specific, I could say I admire and was influenced by my previous boss, who is a half-Cambodian half-American and runs FRIDA The Young Feminist Fund. There is also Amina Doherty, a Nigerian feminist ARTivist, who has contributed so much to feminist philanthropy and advocacy around the world. She has the most amazing work portfolio with the most incredible women’s foundations. To be able to have such an international network and recognition and be valuable in different organizations is super inspiring. She lives on an island in the Caribbean and yet still has this global impact.
In 2016 I discovered more Asian feminists and that has been really inspiring because I never really saw myself as Asian; I feel so disconnected from where I am from. Asia is a patriarchal region; it is a whole different level there. Take China (where my parents are from) for example: it is one of the worst places to be a woman. It is so depressing if you are a feminist. The government represses it so much, you can’t be a lesbian, a queer, a transgender, if you are 25 years old and still not married they call you a “leftover woman”… I believe that every woman needs to have references. That is the whole point of writing about other women. We really need to have references of what is possible for us to do.
YES THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT I WAS AIMING TO ACHIEVE WITH OUISIMONE.
I THINK IT IS IMPORTANT FOR WOMEN TO IDENTIFY WITH OTHER WOMEN WHO FEEL HAPPY AND SUCCESSFUL WITH WHAT THEY CREATED, SHOULD IT BE PROFESSIONALLY OR PERSONALLY.
I feel my life has changed in so many ways this year. I have never contemplated myself as an Asian feminist and I have always rejected that part of my identity. I mean, I am from New York, it really irritates me when people think I'm Brazilian of Japanese descent or when they think I am Chinese… I was born and raised in NY. I am more from NY than the people who moved to NY from Oregon who within three years are caught calling themselves New Yorkers. For my entire life I had to justify myself. But you know what? It doesn’t really matter anymore because when they interpret me as Asian, they impose that on me and nothing will change that perception they have. So this year I joined these different “Asian” feminists digital groups and it’s been amazing to meet those women who became real life motivations and references to me.
AND TO FINISH... TELL US WHAT SONG WILL ALWAYS PUT YOU IN A GOOD MOOD, NO MATTER WHAT?
Coming to Brazil has been such a great journey of discovering Brazilian music so I would say any of the carnival songs make me really happy. Carnival is my happy moment. I feel human and connected, unified with everyone during that period.
THANK YOU ANI! X