The Chain
Emma Harrison
University of Sussex

Is refusal a feminist possibility?

We might characterise the following actions as ‘refusal’. 

  • Refusal to shave your bodily hair 
  • Refusal to submit to the neoliberal work ethic (only carrying out the hours stipulated in your contract; no unpaid overtime; non-participation in arduous ‘wellness’ schemes intended to heighten your economic output; prioritising solidarity above competition; prioritising mental and physical health above imperatives to overwork; etc)
  • Refusal to vote
  • Refusal to move (wilful obstruction of the highway; squatting an unused property, etc)
  • Refusal to partake in surveillance infrastructures and bureaucratic networks (attempts to live ‘off the grid’; obscuring elements of your face to subvert CCTV, etc ) 

Following this, we might take ‘feminist refusal’ to mean the refusal to partake in ideological and political formulations that contribute towards forms of discrimination on the basis of (non-exhaustively) gender, race, class, sexuality, nationality and disability. From the short list I’ve compiled above, we can see that acts of refusal can be more individualised and symbolic (for example, ‘I’m not going to, out of principle’), or they might be constitutive of/require collective action (‘with these other people, I am not going to move from obstructing this highway because we are undertaking direct action’). There is a lot of variation in what refusal can be, and the scope of its consequences. There is also a lot of variation in terms of who might experience violence as a result of undertaking some of these acts.

Some have explained what they mean by the term refusal through comparing it to notions of resistance. Lisa Bhungalia understands it as a shift in emphasis: resistance is underscored by the axiom ‘I oppose you’, while refusal leans more toward the idea that ‘your power has no authority over me’ (2020, p. 389). Elliott Prasse-Freeman further explains, ‘resistance

describes opposition to direct domination, [while] refusal marks the disavowals, rejections and manoeuvrings with and away from diffuse indirect forms of power’ (2020, p. 3). Refusal, we might say, is purposeful non-participation. 

This is all well and good – I, for instance, have liked to tell myself that neoliberal academia ‘has no authority over me’, whilst scrambling to churn out unpaid journal articles to corporate journal repositories in hopes of keeping a roof over my head in the future – but it does necessitate the question of who exactly can make this claim. While I appreciate the statement is perhaps more a rhetorical and/or symbolic pledge than it is a rigid set of rules about how to live out your politics, it is nonetheless worth pointing out that a person’s capacity – and need – to refuse is very much tied with the extent of that person’s oppression and/or privilege. We can think of this both in terms of the violence a person or social group might experience following acts of refusal, or in terms of the felt necessity to refuse that stems from experiences of structural violence. This is a double-edged sword in which those who have the most need to refuse are often those that will face the most violence for refusing.

In his book The Utopia of Rules: Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber discusses how the threat of physical violence is integral to structural violence. His writing resonated with me: it is not difficult to think of numerous examples from this past year alone in which a person belonging to a marginalised group has faced fatal consequences for merely existing in a world that denies and stigmatises their skin colour, sexuality, gender, or way of life. These stories shape how the marginalised move in the world. He writes:

This is what I had in mind when I first began using the phrase ‘structural violence’ – structures that could only be created and maintained by the threat of violence, even if in their ordinary, day-to-day workings, no actual physical violence need take place. If one reflects on the matter, the same can be said of most phenomena that are ordinarily referred to as ‘structural violence’ in the literature – racism, sexism, class privilege – even if their actual mode of operation is infinitely more complex (2015, p. 59)

I draw on his arguments as they point towards something pertinent. It is not difficult to pinpoint where these logics manifest in life constraining and ultimately life threatening circumstances. During my PhD, one of my main areas of research was around initiatives for financial inclusion that target areas of the Global South (Harrison, 2020). 

These initiatives were oriented towards ‘enabling’ those living in impoverished conditions to ‘formally participate in democratic, education, healthcare and economic activity’ through forms of digital identification (Adams, Kewell and Parry, 2017, p. 136). The ‘identityless’, this rhetoric goes, are fundamentally unable to participate in these spheres. The gateway out of poverty is thus through digital identity schemes that can supposedly help those living in poverty access financial aid and services with greater ease and less corruption.  I was very critical of these initiatives. I argued that they were part of a broader neoliberal ideology in which the causes of poverty are not attributed to systemic violence, but rather, to instances where individuals do not meet the requirements of the systemically violent system (Harrison, 2020, p. 126). The reason banks and states have a vested interest in enveloping further areas of the globe into identification schemes is not to reduce poverty. The reason, of course, is economic. In the grand scheme of things, expanding the reach of Western governance systems is certainly not the answer to eliminating global poverty. 

That is absolutely not to say that I think those living in such circumstances should refuse these schemes if it helps them individually to access financial help, housing, and healthcare. It is not their responsibility to do that labour. There is clearly a distinction between those like myself who have the time and space to deliberate what terms like ‘refusal’ might mean, and those who need to access basic necessities in order to survive. The statement ‘your power has no authority over me’ is next to meaningless in the latter of these situations.  

It is those that are in a position of power who are the most able to refuse; to circumvent bureaucracy; to act outside of the law.  Melayna Lamb argues that what makes police power operative are its capacities to suspend or act outside of the law (2019). This line of argument extends upon Walter Benjamin and Giorgio Agamben, where ‘states of emergency’ and ‘states of exception’ are invoked by states and governments to circumvent normal laws in crisis scenarios. 

What began in contexts of war (for example martial law; states of siege in World War One) has been extended to cope with economic crises and what is framed as social disorder. 

This includes use of police violence to control non-violent Black Lives Matter protests; use of police violence to control Sarah Everard vigils; human rights violations in UK detention policies; everyday abuses of stop and search powers in predominantly Black neighbourhoods; etc (Agamben, 2005; Humphreys, 2006). 

For many writing in this area, the ‘exception’ has become the norm; and for Lamb specifically, it is a characteristic of policing that is intrinsic to its power that has extended beyond crisis situations into the everyday (2019). This then allows for non-accountability, and the endless abuse of police and state powers. Furthermore, these ‘exceptions’ produce specific experiences of oppression where marginalised peoples are forced to prepare for the worst when it comes to the policing of their day-to-day life.

My point, then, is not against refusal. Whether it is symbolic or action-focused, refusing to adhere to the demands and violences of capital – as and where we can – is pivotal to the survival of our communities: physically, collectively, and spiritually. My point is that a person’s capacities for refusal are tied with that person’s proximity to whiteness, and to privilege. White people; men; those on permanent, well-paid contracts: there is work to be done.

So, after refusal, what do we do?


Adams, R., Kewell, B. & Parry, G. (2017) ‘Blockchain for Good? Digital Ledger Technology and Sustainable Development Goals’, in Leal Filho, W. et al. (eds.) Handbook of Sustainability and Social Science Research. United States: Springer International Publishing

Agamben, G. (2005) State of Exception. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London 

Bhungalia L (2020) Laughing at power: Humor, transgression, and the politics of refusal in

Palestine. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 38(3), pp. 387–404

Graeber, D. (2012) The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. London and Brooklyn: Melville House

Harrison, E. (2020) Activism, Refusal, Expertise: Responses to Digital Ubiquity. PhD Thesis. University of Sussex. Available at: 

Humphreys, S. (2006) Legalizing Lawlessness: On Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception. The European Journal of International Law. 17(3), pp. 667-687

Lamb, M. (2019) On Order and the Exception: A Philosophical History of Police. PhD Thesis. University of Brighton

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