Feminist doc turned on by controversy

The winner of the Lillian Hellman/Dashiell Hammet award is not a standard academic, reports Mercedes Sayagues

Judged on her writings alone, Dr Patricia McFadden appears to be an African Valkyrie in metal breast-plates, who sees the world through rigid prisms of gender and race.

But when you meet her, she is a warm woman with a friendly smile and a belly laugh.

Dreadlocked, often in jeans, she is not the standard PhD academic so highly prized on the lecture circuit.

She is 47, the single mother of two, recently a grandmother, and wears a caftan and shells in her hair.

McFadden was selected by Human Rights Watch to receive this year’s Lillian Hellman/ Dashiell Hammet award for writers who are targets of political persecution.

A Swazi citizen, McFadden was deported by Zimbabwean authorities in 1997, after a battle for resources at the Feminist Studies Centre which she co-directed.

She says she was accused of being a lesbian and a threat to the women’s movement in Zimbabwe. By giving up her position at the centre, she retained her work permit until the end of 1999.

McFadden’s writings consistently annoy men and women, single and married, black and white, old patriarchs and other feminists.

Hate mail and threats of physical violence followed one of her most contentious articles, about relationships between black men and white women.

No subject is too controversial: interracial couples, sugar mommies, her personal feelings. Asked what turns her on, she mentions thinking, writing, crossing boundaries and the body of her male partner of two years, who is 20 years younger.

She believes it is time an African won the Hellman/Hammet award.

“It recognises the feminist energy that’s coming out of Africa, all the African feminists who work hard for human dignity. For a long time we were the broken back of the global women’s movement. Now we are recognised as part of it,” she says.

McFadden believes feminism is “the most beautiful identity” a woman can have.

“It means you are whole. You are free. When I hear women say they don’t want to be called feminists but women activists, I tell them they still have some homework to do.

“Women must become knowers, they must participate in the definition and creation of knowledge. A lot hinges on the ability of African women to conceptualise themselves and to articulate theoretical positions.

“We are newcomers to academia, where, as a black feminist activist, I find these currents – masculine arrogance, sexual exclusion and women’s politics. Some of the worst intellectual hatred I have felt has been at South African universities.”

McFadden says she is an African, but often has to fight for the right to claim this identity.

“Africa is a black identity. Colour and privilege construct your identity.

“Whites and Asians cannot have an African identity. They have a right to live in Africa but are not African.

“I consider myself black but sometimes I am not allowed into this identity because of my blue-eyed grandfather. But when I land at Heathrow [airport in Britain], I am treated as an African. I live in this tension.”

She says she is not particularly concerned about being considered “controversial”.

“Many feminists go into the development or the nurturing discourse. Others are well mannered, feminine, as expected.

“I don’t care. I go for it. It turns me on.”

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