I just wanted to share a piece I wrote for The Feminist Wire on Decolonial Intersectionality and a Transnational Feminist Movement :)
“The assassination of Lumumba was an act of colonial reconquest.
The Congo’s mineral wealth, copper, cobalt, diamonds, gold, uranium, oil, gave the orders from the depths of the earth.
The sentence was carried out with the complicity of the United Nations. Lumumba had good reason to mistrust the officers of troops that claimed to be international, and he denounced ‘the racism and paternalism of people whose only vision of Africa is lion hunting, slave markets,and colonial conquest. Naturally they would understand the Belgians. They have the same history, the same lust for our wealth.’
Mobuto, the free world hero who trapped Lumumba and had him crushed, held power for more than thirty years. The international financial recognised his merits and showered him with generosity. By the time he died, his personal fortune was nearly equal to the foreign debt of the country to which he had devoted his energies.
But Lumumba had announced:
‘History will one day have its say. It will not be the history taught in the United Nations, Washington, Paris, or Brussels. Africa will write its own history.’
The tree where Lumumba was executed still stands in the woods of Mwadingusha. Riddled with bullets. Like him.”
- Eduardo Galeano, ‘Mirrors’
“In the middle of 1960, the Congo, until then a Belgian colony, celebrated its independence.
Speech followed speech, and the audience was melting from heat and boredom. Belgium, a strict teacher, warned of the dangers of freedom. The Congo, grateful pupil, promised to behave.
Then Patrice Lumumba’s speech exploded and ruined the party. He spoke out against the ‘empire of silence,’ and through him the silenced found a voice. He paid homage to the fathers of independence, the murdered, the imprisoned, the tortured, and the exiled, who throughout so any years had fought to ‘bring an end to the humiliating slavery imposed on us by force.’
His words, received in icy silence by the Europeans present, were interrupted eight times by ovations from the Africans in the audience.
That speech sealed his fate.
Lumumba, recently released from prison, had won the first free elections in Congo’s history, and headed up its first government. But the Belgian press called him a ‘delirious and illiterate thief.’ In Belgian intelligence cables, Lumumba was dubbed Satan. The director of the CIA, Allen Dulles, sent instructions to his agents:
“The removal of Lumumba must be an urgent objective.”
Dwight Eisenhower, president of the United States, told British Foreign Secretary Lord Alec Douglas-Home:
“I wish Lumumba would fall into a river full of crocodiles.”
Lord Douglas-Home took a week to reply:
“Now is the time to get rid of Lumumba.”
At the beginning of 1961, a firing squad of 8 soldiers and 9 policemen commanded by Belgian officers shot him along with his two closest collaborators.
Fearing a popular uprising, the Belgian government and its Congolese tools, Mobuto Sese Seko and Moise Tshombe, covered up the crime.
Two weeks later, the new president of the United States, John Kennedy, announced:
“We will not allow Lumumba to return to the government.”
And Lumumba, who by then had already been killed and dissolved in a barrel of sulphuric acid, did not return to the government.”
- Eduardo Galeano, ‘Mirrors’
“In the 1990s and 2000s, favela tours took on a mission of education and community service that aimed at demonstrating the ‘reality’ of the favela and countering the prejudice of the media. Enterprises such as Jeep Tours and Favela Reality Tours emphasized and idealized the safety and diversity within favelas. The guides insisted that favelas were the safest place in the city. The typical favela tour worked to erase the boundaries between the elite visitor and the shantytown resident by insisting on the sameness of lifestyle. Favelados were hardworking, television watching, morally up-right citizens who aspired to be and often achieved the dream of middle-class status. But this sameness was performed in a realm that was externalized from the normal city by the militarization of the regime, the sexualization of trafficker masculinities, and the racialization of favelas as a whole.
Tours tend to portray the favela community as untainted by the paramilitary organizations that occupy them. Of course, paradoxically, it is precisely the violence of the police-narcotraffic war and its impact on racialized public paces that drew the tourists. Moreover, the vehicles that tourists took into the favelas theatricalized the dynamics of militarization and racialization. Foreign or elite Brazilian guests on favela tours were confined to large military jeeps, a spectacle resembling the entry of military vehicles into a bombed city at the end of World War Two. Favela tours insisted that the borders and differences between the favelados and the ‘normal’ population could and must be overcome, but the drama of the tour itself restaged and spotlighted the fear and exhalation of crossing a taboo frontier and entering an outlaw zone, all the while highlighting the dangerous nativeness of the local vs. the detached immunity of the international observer.”
- Paul Amar
‘The Security Archipelago
This post is inspired by a Facebook post I saw the other day that was posted by Black Girl Dangerous:
How would conversations between oppressed peoples with common interests be different if we didn’t spend so much time worrying about how privileged people who were listening in were gonna interpret/appropriate/use for their own agenda what we say to *each other*? We put so much energy into worrying about what they think that we miss opportunities to do the healing work we need for ourselves in our communities. Which, of course, is one very efficient way oppression operates.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and something I am guilty of. It feels like a lot of feminist conversations these days revolve around critiquing white feminism rather than trying to create solidarity or a strong transnational feminist movement (white feminism here of course refers to the movement itself, not being “white” – many brown and black people, for example, adopt a white feminist approach). This is something I do too and have started to find problematic, not because it isn’t necessary but because it seems to create a momentum in and of itself that prevents non-white feminisms from moving forward. So in that sense I definitely relate to the quote above: worrying about how white women are going to interpret something we do or say is not only energy-consuming, it is ultimately pointless because no matter how many disclaimers you might add to something you write, many are simply going to see what they want and interpret it through their own theoretical lens and experiences.
I used to spend ages worrying about writing about gender in the Egyptian context precisely for this reason, because I knew that even admitting that gender oppression exists was enough to legitimate imperialist views and policies. To this day many feminists in the Middle East will not discuss issues such as female circumcision in specific spaces because they know it won’t be understood outside of the Arab-men-are-especially-barbaric narrative that has come to dominate. This makes it difficult to have transnational conversations because hegemonic understandings of feminism (white feminism, basically) continue to dominate. So in this sense, I understand why so many feminists focus on deconstructing white feminism, something I often do myself. I also think it’s important to continue to critique white feminism, but my question is whether it is useful to move away from focusing on that and instead focus more on constructing other solidarities.
But my frustration stems from the feeling that we are now at a point where white feminism has been critiqued and deconstructed, but that these critiques have not extended outside of the small bubble of postcolonial/critical/brown/black feminists. And I think this is why many of us continue to make these critiques. Even though they have been made a million times within this bubble, they still haven’t managed to become dominant and displace white feminism. But it seems to me that continuing to make them won’t change that: they will continue to fall on deaf ears. The reality is that white/liberal feminism continues to dominate, and in fact has transformed itself into an approach that appears to look critical but in fact is based on the same assumptions as first and second wave feminism. (I just want to add that I do understand the value of continually making these critiques in an emotional sense – the post is focused more on how to spread these critiques further.)
This morning I saw a Twitter exchange between two of my favourite feminists – Flavia Dzodan and Sara Ahmed, about white feminists and the often-racist articles they write. Sara Ahmed tweeted: “Yes when I read something like this I wish for it to be shocking but the familiar is exhausting, it gets hard to be shocked!” And this is exactly how I feel these days. I think she was referring to white feminism as the ‘familiar’ and I would add to that my own exhaustion of the familiarity of critiquing white feminism as well. It just seems too familiar.
This dynamic explains why whenever I start writing a piece on feminism by critiquing white feminism, I immediately feel like it’s already all been said and done. And it has – but only within the bubble. And here I use the term bubble instead of circle precisely because ‘bubble’ implies that it is somewhat removed from other groups and people (not to mention the fact that academia in general constitutes one big bubble). The question of how to move outside of the postcolonial feminist bubble (an even smaller bubble within the bubble of feminism) is a complicated one that I still haven’t managed to think through myself. Structural constraints are an important factor, including the continued dominance of positivist and liberal approaches in general, within which white feminism fits nicely. There is also the important point of internalized white/liberal ideas, which leads to many non-white scholars and activists reproducing problematic narratives that in the end aid in perpetuating a system that oppresses them.
A friend of mine suggested that the unwillingness on the part of postcolonial feminists to reach out and engage is part of the problem. I don’t really agree that this is the fault of postcolonial feminists. I think a large part of this is because of the structural constraints I mentioned before as well as the fact that many white feminists don’t want to engage as it would imply an admission of error on their part. Postcolonial feminism isn’t merely critiquing aspects of white feminism, but rather the entire ontology and epistemology underlying white feminism. In other words, there is no common ground, or little common ground, between white feminism and other forms of feminism that are critical or postcolonial. After having a conversation with @ebnee_e I also want to highlight that critique is a form of engagement, thus further proving that the lack of engagement isn’t really coming from the postcolonial feminist side.
On the other hand, I see my friend’s point in the sense that feminists often focus on feminism as a discipline that does not transcend itself. My own view is that gender relations are a part of all social relations and structures, and therefore gender studies should not exist as an isolated field in and of itself. Instead it may be more useful to focus on disciplines and try and understand how gender relations are part of social structures. A good example of this is how feminists working within International Relations have managed to critique the existing masculinist bias of most research and insist that gender relations become part of the agenda. In this sense, these feminists have forced other IR scholars to engage with them and address their critiques, and even though many IR scholars have resisted these new ideas, some have embraced them. In the end, it is clear that there is a feminist trend in IR, as small as it may be. I lean towards thinking of this as more useful than having feminism as an isolated discipline.
What is interesting, however, is that it seems as though postcolonial feminists have focused on working within a discipline that is not feminism – postcolonialism – and yet have still not managed to transcend the bubble. Postcolonial feminists have worked on politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and many other issues from not only a feminist perspective but a postcolonial one. This is why postcolonial feminists are such a major part of postcolonialism in general. And yet this has not managed to challenge the dominance of white feminism, even if it has made inroads in challenging the positivism and Eurocentrism of disciplines such as IR, sociology, economics, and so on. After thinking about it, it seems to me that critical feminists have managed to challenge specific disciplines by engaging with them because they have support from other critical voices within the discipline. So in IR, for example, it wasn’t only Cynthia Cockburn, Cynthia Enloe or Christine Sylvester making the critique that IR is Eurocentric, liberal and masculinist – other (male) scholars did so as well, and perhaps this is why it was somewhat successful.
So the question remains – how to create a challenge that is strong enough to displace white feminism? The problem does not seem to be theoretical or based on content – postcolonial feminism(s) certainly have done enough work in terms of deconstructing and problematizing white feminism. The problem lies more with reaching out. But this brings me back full circle: is it about reaching out, or is it about having someone willing to listen on the other side? I continue to believe that is is more about structural constraints (funding, the dominance of positivism, Eurocentrism) that prevent postcolonial voices from being heard (and this is not only a problem for feminists). I also think that isolating ourselves within a discipline and constituting feminism as a discipline in and of itself has done some harm, in the sense that other disciplines have managed to ignore gender relations. It seems as though only by forcefully engaging other scholars in multiple disciplines can feminists ‘bring gender in.’
The question of displacing white feminism, however, remains unanswered. It is not only about the unwillingness on the part of white feminists to listen and engage, but also about the fact that the current imperial neoliberal system continues to create situations of exploitation from which white (and well-off) women benefit. This is why the politics of privilege is so important and has to constitute the starting point of any transnational solidarity. But this is where we always get stuck. We end up with things like lean in feminism or campaigns by feminists for ‘Hillary 2016′ without any kind of self-reflexivity or acknowledgement that these strands of feminism actively oppress other women (and men). Moreover the continued exclusion of trans* and disabled women from white feminism further consolidates it as an exclusionary movement. The reality is that it is not about white feminists themselves (and these feminists don’t have to be white to adopt white feminism) or about what they say or do. It is about the underlying ontological assumptions they have and epistemological choices they make. A focus on liberalism is a key example of this. Because the critiques by postcolonial and critical feminists are so deep (in that they challenge the assumptions themselves), it is perhaps understandable why white feminism has been unwilling to engage.
Engagement in and of itself also doesn’t mean transformation. As is clear from the IR example, although feminists have engaged, and (some) IR scholars have engaged back, the discipline continues to reproduce its masculinist bias. While there are critical strands, there is by no means a critical consensus, as is the case across disciplines – again, I would argue, because of structural constraints. In this sense, feminism is not alone, although it is more extreme. Speaking to another friend, he asked me why the question of engaging white feminism was important to begin with. He suggested that it was impossible since there are no common grounds on which to engage them. This sits more comfortably with me. Rather than focus on feminism, then, it may be more useful to focus on postcolonialism, since postcolonialism challenges global structures and thus any critique of these structures will include a critique of white feminism. This will also allow feminism to transcend disciplinary boundaries and create transnational solidarities not simply among other feminists but among all groups. This approach would also mean an acknowledgement of the fact that gender is not an isolated structure but rather is produced and reproduced by and through other structures, including capitalism, racism, etc.
Perhaps, then, the question of engaging white feminists is what is problematic. Isn’t it better to construct solidarities with people who share the same ontological assumptions? In this sense, it is not about postcolonial feminism but about postcolonialism itself. Postcolonialism challenges not only white feminism but white supremacy as a totality. The global structure becomes the focus of critique and thus feminists are not isolated, because gender intersects with multiple other relations within this global structure. “The advantage of postcoloniality is that it unveils a global structure that can unite struggles that are not only feminist but also racial, etc. under one umbrella thus leading to a global revolution. The global revolution should be what postcolonial scholars aim at following their ontological and epistemological frames.”* Following this, the priority should be on building transnational alliances that are postcolonial and critical in nature, rather than constantly attempting to engage white feminism.
Going back to the quote at the beginning, maybe the answer is to focus less on critiquing white feminism and more on building transnational feminism. But this is difficult to do because white feminism constitutes the ‘gaze’ that structures knowledge production and activism, since it is dominant. Maybe the solution is to not just critique white feminism but go beyond that. I read an article that gave an overview of the field of African feminist studies, and the author pointed out that the most recent scholarship no longer focuses on critiquing white feminism and instead focuses more on internal dialogue.** This means not avoiding topics like female circumcision just because white feminism might co-opt your voice, but instead having the conversation as though white feminists are not listening in. Then again, this has its own risks because putting these narratives out there can easily be used to justify wars and other interventions that have concrete material effects on women of colour, as we saw with the war in Afghanistan and instrumentalization of Afghan women’s voices by Laura Bush and co. But can voices that are critical be instrumentalized in the same way? Perhaps the solution then, is to have internal dialogues that are critical. (Of course no dialogue is ever ‘internal’ but I mean in the sense that the audience addressed is not white feminists but other postcolonial and transnational feminists.)
So I suppose the conclusion is that I don’t have any answers, other than that the focus should move away from addressing white feminists towards creating solidarity with each other and other critical thinkers. I would love to hear thoughts from other people!
* Ahmed el Hady
** Twenty-Five Years of African Women Writing African Women’s and Gendered Worlds by Nwando Achebe
I just finished reading a fascinating critique of intersectionality by Eve Mitchell, which can be found here. I want to first go over her main argument, and then go into her proposed solution (Marxist feminism) and why I think a more Gramscian approach would be more useful.
Mitchell’s main point in the article is that intersectionality relies on identity politics, which is a bourgeois and individualistic approach to struggle that ignores the materiality underpinning gender and gender relations.
In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US.
Under capitalism, new gender relations developed, including:
- The development of the wage (theorized as a tool of coercion);
- The separation of production and reproduction (reproduction meaning more than having babies – also housework, taking care of family, etc) – reproductive labour was generally “free” while productive labour received a wage. This has been theorized as the ‘patriarchy of the wage’ since women tended to be in the reproductive sector;
- The contradictory development of the nuclear family – on the one hand, the nuclear family was strengthened through the gendered division of labour, while on the other hand it was weakened by the separation of men from women all day long while they were at work;
- The development of identity and alienation – “Women and people of color experience something similar in the development of capital; a shift from engaging in certain types of labor to engaging in feminized, or racially relegated forms of labor. To put it another way, under capitalism, we are forced into a box: we are a bus driver, or a hair stylist, or a woman. These different forms of labor, or different expressions of our life-activity (the way in which we interact with the world around us) limit our ability to be multi-sided human beings.”
Eve Mitchell’s critique thus revolves around this concept of identity and the alienation that accompanies it. Mitchell rightly points out that intersectionality arose in the US as a response to the gendered and racialized division of labour:
To be black meant to be objectified, relegated into one form of labor: producing and reproducing blackness. Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will.
She argues that women organized in order to break free from the alienation of ‘womanhood.’
Since women’s use of their bodies is a unique form of alienated labor for women under capitalism, it is historically the site of struggle for liberation.
This came up against the tendency in second wave feminism (and first wave I would argue) to focus on reforming capitalism as a means of emancipation: ‘equal wages for equal work.’ Both of these approaches used identity politics as a means of challenging oppressive systems. In other words, women organized on the basis of womanhood.
This continued with the theory of intersectionality. It was assumed that shared experiences formed as a bond between different kinds of women – “some individuals or groups are differentiated from other individuals or groups based on their experiences. This can be cut along many different identity lines.” Moreover, being oppressed puts you in a privileged position within the struggle – similar to the idea of standpoint theory, which argues that marginalized people have a more ‘authentic’ view on social reality, since they see both the workings of power and the effects of it (on the marginalized). This means that only the marginalized can write about their own experiences.
Mitchell’s main critique is that intersectionality is unable to overcome identity politics, and is in essence a bourgeois ideology. Mitchell agrees that it is essential to identify as a woman, or as black, or as queer - but that is not enough.
Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.”
Identity politics assumes that the basis for struggle is an equal distribution of individualism. “This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.” In other words, the increased individualism that is a result of the crisis of capitalism manifests itself in identity politics – even by those who claim to be anti-capitalist. Mitchell claims that ” theories of an “interlocking matrix of oppressions,” simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context.”
She is not the first person to make this critique of intersectionality. Judith Butler argues that the ‘etc.’ that often follows at the end of lists of social categories signals an “embarrassed admission of exhaustion” as well as an “illimitable process of signification.” Nina Yuval-Davis disagrees with Butler, arguing that such a critique is only valid within discourse of identity politics, whereas within intersectional research it is necessary to separate the “different analytical levels in which social divisions need to be examined…the ways different social divisions are constructed by, and intermeshed in, each other in specific historical conditions.” Yuval-Davis also questions the critique that the process of breaking down is illimitable by arguing that in specific situations, certain social divisions are more important than others. Moreover, relationships between positionings are central and not reducible to the same ontological level. Yuval-Davis’ call for focusing on the historical conditions that construct social divisions is perhaps one way of combining mainstream intersectionality with Mitchell’s call for a more class-based approach. I will come back to this later.
Mitchell’s solution to the problem she outlines is a form of Marxist feminism.
To be a “woman” under capitalism means something very specific; it is even more specific for women in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for black lesbians in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for individual women. But, in a universal sense, to be a “woman” means to produce and reproduce a set of social relations through our labor, or self-activity.
In essence, Mitchell is grounding identities within the labour process and material basis of production. Her critique is thus not that intersectionality is wrong, but that it is incomplete. She points out that gender relations are real and concrete – an indirect critique of more constructivist views that have tended to dominate intersectional feminist work, especially of the postmodern and poststructural kind. There is a materiality underpinning gender and gender relations, and this materiality is often ignored by intersectional feminists.
Moreover, the individualization of the struggle that results from an intersectional approach that relies on identity politics takes away from the universality of the class struggle: “Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worse.” Reducing the struggle to “equal rights” or “equal representation” reinforces identity as a static category. While this is an important critique, I think the difficulty results from the near impossibility of researching identities in a fluid manner – something intersectional theorists are clearly struggling with, especially within an academy in which positivism still dominates.
I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.
A Gramscian approach would also attempt to understand how hegemony “filters through” societal structures, including the economy, culture, gender, ethnicity, class and ideology. This kind of approach is already intersectional, in the sense that hegemony is an over-arching reality, based on specific material modes of production, that works through different social structures, of which gender is one. In a sense, then, Gramsci already spoke of understanding gender as more than simply womanhood or manhood, but rather as one societal structures among many.
A philosophy of praxis, common among Gramscians, also favours reflection that begins in experience – another similarity with intersectionality. Moreover, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has long influenced feminists working on patriarchy and the ways in which consent (on the part of those marginalized by patriarchy) functions. Many feminists who have used the concept of hegemony do not see it as a form of class rule, however, which takes us back to Mitchell’s critique: the point is to locate feminist struggles within the broader class struggle. The conceptualization of hegemony could also provide a way for feminists to establish a counter-hegemony: “a popular mobilisation capable of highlighting the contradictory and exploitative nature of hegemonic ideas and arrangements, providing an alternative mode of organisation that is ethical and inclusive” (Beth Howieson).
A focus on hegemony would also address the problem of identity politics. Perhaps it was put best by Margaret Ledwith, who pointed out that mini-narratives had displaced meta-narratives, which was in one sense positive, but in another served to ‘individualize’ struggles – precisely the critique Mitchell makes. Gramsci’s view of the state as including civil and political society is also useful for feminists, as he points out that the distinction between civil and political society is artificial. This is mirrored in the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ Finally, a Gramscian approach would also serve as a response to critics of Marxism who claim that Marxists ignore gender and focus excessively on class. Gramsci’s approach tends to be much less economistic than Marx’s, and his focus on both materiality and ideas is a testament to this. Moreover, even when he speaks of ‘production’ it is meant in the broadest way possible: it includes the production and reproduction of knowledge and social relations, morals and institutions that are prerequisites to the production of physical goods (as has been expanded on by many neo-Gramscians, including Robert Cox).
Of course, it is important to note that Gramsci himself did not focus on gender, nor do most of the scholars who use this approach. Moreover, the Eurocentrism implicit in much of his work is problematic. Nevertheless, I think a feminist approach that combines Gramscian insights with postcolonial feminist ones could be an extremely useful way forward.
In conclusion, the limits of the identity politics that are present in the intersectionality approach can be addressed by adopting a Gramscian approach to feminism that on the one hand makes materiality and capital central, while on the other hand emphasizing the production of knowledge, social relations and morals and how these intersect with social structures such as gender.
I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about feminist solidarity and how it can be created. On the one hand, the legacy of Western feminism has made solidarity an extremely difficult feat, while on the other hand, there are multiple examples of successful feminist organizing between different groups of women. I have always been interested in the ways in which non-white women internalize or resist hegemonic Western ideas, especially within the feminist movement. How do Arab feminists see African-American feminists, for example? Do they internalize Western feminist misconceptions about black women, or do they more readily identify with black feminists and see them as allies against both global patriarchy and Western feminism that tends to exclude non-white women? I realise this is a very broad question and that it differs from woman to woman, but at the same time the tactics of divide and rule exercised by hegemonic groups often tend to be very successful and for this reason I have always been particularly interested in solidarity between different groups of feminists.
I just finished a chapter by Angela Davis in her book ‘Women, culture and politics’ which was based on her experiences visiting Egypt. I had been looking for this chapter for months, because I thought it would be an especially interesting text on how transnational feminism could look like if practiced from a postcolonial, Marxist perspective. Angela Davis is of course one of the most famous African American feminists, known for her Communist views and anti-racism activism. I also thought it would be interesting in terms of understanding how a feminist from an African-American background would relate to feminists from an Egyptian background. In other words, would she reproduce white feminist ideas about Egyptian women or relate to Egyptian women because of her own (negative) experiences with Western feminism?
She begins her story with this:
When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectemy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.
Davis therefore already makes clear her position: she doesn’t want to be part of a project that aims to save Egyptian women from female circumcision. She goes on to talk about how she had trouble with the “myopic concentration” on female circumcision in U.S. feminist literature on African women, which often implied that women would magically be liberated once they managed to end female circumcision, or “once white Western feminists accomplished this for them.” These feminists sensationalise the issue to such a degree that they become insensitive to the dignity of the women in question. This in turn makes the act of solidarity impossible because these women are not equal human beings but rather objects to be saved.
Davis draws the connection between the obsession with female circumcision on the part of American feminists with their obsession with birth control and black women:
It is easy to understand why that movement, as righteous as its intentions may have been, aroused hostility in Afro-American women, because it often portrayed us as bestial and oversexed, indiscriminately reproducing in such numbers that the rule of the white majority might be ultimately challenged.
This is the first connection Davis draws between Egyptian women and African-American women, and it is in relation to the way Western feminists have approached both groups. She goes on to point out that while many Americans express disgust at female circumcision, they don’t think twice about the lengths to which some American women go in order to surgically change their bodies and conform to social standards of beauty that are set by a capitalist patriarchal system. She ends the anecdote by writing: “I realised that I could not in good conscience write about genital mutilation and other examples of sexual oppression in Egypt without acknowledging the manipulation of these problems by those who fail to consider the importance of the larger economic-political context of male supremacy.” She therefore situates herself in solidarity with Egyptian women right from the start: she is sensitive to the way in which female circumcision has become an issue of ‘white women saving brown women’ and clearly states that she would never be a part of that.
A quote from an Egyptian feminist named Dr. Shehida Elbaz whom she meets is especially striking:
Women in the West should know that we have a stand in relation to them concerning our issues and our problems. We reject their patronising attitude It is connected with built-in mechanisms of colonialism and with their sense of superiority. Maybe some of them don’t do it consciously but it is there. They decide what problems we have, how we should face them, without even possessing the tools to know our problems.
A recurrent theme throughout the chapter is her focus on class, women, and global capitalism. For example, she mentions the many homeless people she came across on her trip from the airport. It is not new to hear visitors comment on the prevalence of poverty when they visit Egypt. What struck me, however, was that she explicitly linked it to Sadat and capitalism:
This (homelessness) was the the legacy of Sadat’s open-door policy: the transnational corporations that had greedily rushed into Egypt under the guise of promoting economic development had created more unemployment, more poverty, and more homelessness.
She then linked this increase of poverty with sexual relations, which was very different from other feminists who have visited Egypt and spoken about sexual oppression(s). Instead of approaching it from a cultural or religious perspective, she made the clear links between the economy, liberalisation, and the effects on the family and women.
Elbaz argues that Egyptian women began to suffer more after the open-door policy and the new connections with the US and Israel. She quotes Hoda Badran:
The economic system in Egypt, because it is tied to the West, is hindered from being productive. Egypt is being transformed into a consumer society. In a situation where you don’t have jobs and people try to find scapegoats…that is why there is more prejudice against women. Also in a country which has been transformed into a consumer society, it is easy, through the mass media, to use women as sex objects.
Another interesting anecdote was when Angela was having dinner with women at the house of an Egyptian feminist and she mentioned that she had been asked to write an essay on Egyptian women and sex. Before she could explain that she had decided not to, the room erupted into anger. She writes about how her initial response was to be defensive, especially when she saw how angry the women were. “I laboured to convince myself to refrain from attempting to defend my own position. After all, was I not in Egypt to learn about the way Egyptian women themselves interpreted the role of sexuality in their lives and their struggle? And was I not especially interested in their various responses to the unfortunate chauvinism characterising attitudes in the capitalist countries toward the sexual dimension of Arab women’s lives?”
She managed to overcome her initial defensiveness (an almost reflexive response) and instead try and learn from the experience. This made me wonder why it is that so many other feminists can’t do the same? She went on to say that she understood the anger: the Egyptian women she was with were emphasising that an isolated challenge to sexual inequality would not solve the problems associated with economic and political dependency, which affect both women and men.
Latifa Zayat said this to Angela:
If you were simply an American research worker, I wouldn’t have come to see you. I would have even boycotted this meeting, because I know that through this research we are being turned into animals, into guinea pigs. I would boycott any American who is doing research on Arab women because I know that we are being tested, we are being listed in catalogs, we are being defined in terms of sexuality for reasons which are not in our own interests.
I think that is honestly the best statement I have ever read on why social science research on Egyptian women is so problematic.
To go back to the discussion about sex and Egyptian women, it struck me how much of a sensitive topic this still is. This is not to say that sexual justice is not important to Egyptian women and men, or that Egyptian feminists ignore it. Rather it is to unpack the reactions on the part of these Egyptian feminists to the suggestion that Angela write on sex and nothing else. The regular obsession on the part of the West (in which Angela was situated by these women) with “sex” in the Arab world was and is tiring, and if anything only leads to a situation in which it becomes less of a priority precisely because it is obsessed over by foreigners. This not only serves to separate it from economic, social and political issues which are all interrelated, but it also constructs Egyptian men/culture as backwards and barbaric, as well as static.
Angela Davis goes on to quote Fathia al Assal’s comment about how women should not be shy to discuss sexual liberation, since history shows that private property emerged at the moment when women became the sexual property of their husbands. This constant linking between women’s problems and the economic situation is a trend throughout the chapter.
Even when it comes to the veil, Davis is careful to note not only the problematic Western obsession with it, but also the different reasons for the veiling resurgence in Egypt, as well as the fact that it differs from class to class. She shows through her conversations with many women how it is a very complex subject with literally hundreds of understandings and explanations. That said, her focus on the veil even after she critiques the tendency of Western feminists to focus on it shows her pervasive the fascination with veiling is.
It is clear that Davis identities with Egyptian feminists on multiple levels. One important one is in the way they conceptualise patriarchy, which they see as a system that oppresses both men and women, and as a set of relations that constructs masculinities and femininities that are harmful to everyone. This means that feminism’s goal is not to wage war against men, but rather to wage war against patriarchy, alongside men if possible.
What becomes clear from the chapter is the willingness to learn and listen on the part of Angela Davis. She came to Egypt expecting not to “know” anything, and this made her receptive to the multiple viewpoints and experiences she encountered. She didn’t come to help or save, but just to see. Even when she was angrily attacked by Egyptian women for mentioning an article on sex; even when she came into contact with practices she found different; even when she found herself unable to communicate with many Egyptian women; she was always open and self-critical. She constantly questioned herself and her opinions, and not once made a condescending or patronising comment or observation. She was constantly aware of her own privilege and bias, and was always making connections between Egypt and the imperialist countries (especially the US) and between different oppressive structures that affect Egyptian women.
So now I want to ask: how many feminists who have visited or worked on Egypt can say they’ve done the same?
Transnational feminist solidarity is possible. But it means unlearning, forgetting, and being humble and open. I started reading the chapter hoping that her experiences would show that solidarity is possible, as difficult as it is. And they did. I’m sure this is partly because she is a Communist and because as an African-American woman is sensitive to Western feminism’s problems. But it also seems to be because she has adopted a critical perspective that allows her to constantly question herself before questioning others, something that I am sure is crucial to any relationship of solidarity.
Her final quote:
The goal of women’s equality in the fullest sense might not be attainable in Egypt’s immediate future, but I felt profoundly moved by the invincible determination of so many women to keep the fires of their struggle burning.
Feminist critique and Islamic feminism: the question of intersectionality Just wanted to share a piece I wrote for an amazing new journal called The Postcolonialist on Islamic feminism and intersectionality. The journal has loads of great articles and I’m really happy to have been part of this project! Would appreciate any feedback on the article!
I don’t usually find myself getting very emotional when I watch interviews or debates, especially between academics. But this talk with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry somehow managed to make me feel a lot of things I hadn’t before. There is no doubt that bell hooks is one of the most formative feminists out there, whose work has made postcolonial feminism and intersectionality what it is today. But there’s something else about her, the ease with which she speaks about her own personal life and struggles, and weaves them together with her theoretical understandings of global gendered structures, that makes her truly unique. There isn’t a distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘real life’ because they are co-constitutive, and yet we see time and again the inability of academics to show clearly how they use everyday experiences in their own theoretical work, or how their theoretical work can be useful for non-academics. bell hooks doesn’t have this problem. Reading or listening to her, it becomes painfully clear how the experiences we go through are constituted through complex power relations. I guess the best way to put it is that she is so relatable. She speaks and people, especially women of colour, simply relate. So it made me want to write down a few of the things she said that really resonated with what I’ve been feeling these past few months.
At the beginning of the interview she spoke about how Melissa had recently taken down an economist on her show, and how immediately people condemned her for being too harsh, too ‘out of control.’ She was characterised as ‘the angry black woman’ even though, as bell said, she hadn’t been rude, or condescending. She had simply demolished the other person’s argument. Now the ‘angry black woman’ trope should be familiar to anyone who has been in a power relation like that before. The classic example is the woman-man situation, where no matter what the woman says or does, she is often labelled as overly-emotional, overly-sensitive or just angry. (“Are you pmsing?” – the question all women love to hear.) Not only do these types of questions create a dynamic of powerlessness and function as a way of silencing women (especially women of colour in relation to both men and white women), they also construct emotion and anger as negative and as not belonging in a ‘rational discussion.’ This has never made sense to me. Women are angry, women should be angry. Why are we still stuck on the myth of rational and objective exchanges? Why does anger, or the expression of anger, delegitimise? Clearly it’s linked to age-old notions of people of colour and women as inferior because of their irrationality, whereas men (especially white men) are constructed as rational, calm, objective and in control. I love the way Melissa put it: “I’m mad, but I’m mad about something. I’m not mad as an inherent part of being a black woman.”
bell hooks talks about how white feminists saw her first book as such as angry book and she had no idea what they meant because to her it didn’t feel that way. It seems to me that accusations of ‘you sound angry’ or ‘you’re not being rational’ often emerge in spaces where one group (in this case, white women) feel threatened and feel that there might be a possible shift in power dynamics, and therefore immediately go on the defensive and attack the Other (bell) as being too emotional, too angry, and too aggressive, thus not focusing on the content of the book itself. “People are constantly using anger and ‘being difficult’.” And that’s exactly what it is – a tool to silence. It reminds me Sara Ahmed referring to herself as a feminist killjoy. That’s exactly how it’s perceived – you’re ‘killing the mood’ or being a ‘buzzkill’ – in other words, you’re challenging power (the status quo) and making people feel uncomfortable. A good example is this piece by a good friend of mine, Usayd, where he talks about the everyday sexism of men. I wonder how many men call out their friends when they say sexist or homophobic things? Who wants to be a killjoy in the end? Being told you’re angry or difficult is exactly a way of maintaining the impenetrability of power structures.
When bell talked about how little power we have over how our representations are received, it made me think of a quote from Lila Abu Lughod’s recent book, ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ She wrote, “It’s hard to hear through the noise of familiar stories.” And it seems like a lot of this talk is about that. About how difficult it is to create new representations and new ways of thinking about black women. And how does one do this without being reactionary? One example is when Muslim women are portrayed as liberated by Islam, a clearly reactionary narrative that is simply responding to Western assumptions about Islam, women and oppression. Such reactionary narratives often end up creating a new type of representation that is equally problematic and serves to further embed the power dynamics the representation was trying to undo.
The part where bell talks about white female complicity in the patriarchal-capitalist system was reminiscent of how influential she’s been in theorising that reality. There are many days (most) when I question the term ‘feminist’ itself because it seems impossible to move away from its foundations, from the reality that as a term and as a movement it was defined by white women, women who – undoubtedly – at the time were implicit in imperialism and capitalism. Women who saw non-white or non-affluent women as Others, as victims to be saved, as objects, as indicators of their own progressiveness. And this isn’t even a thing of the past. Until today, I have rarely met white women, even those who call themselves feminists, who are not implicitly imperial in their approach to non-white women. There is always something, whether it’s a comment, a justification, a defensiveness when you critique white feminism. And so today we have postcolonial feminism, which has managed to create alternative notions of what feminism is, but it also seems to be a bubble. When people hear ‘feminism’ they think ‘white feminism’ and this seems almost inescapable at this point. We have feminists like Nancy Fraser writing in the Guardian about how neoliberalism has co-opted feminism – yes, true, but why is this a revelation in 2013 when feminists of colour (including bell) have been talking about it for decades? And why are you surprised that it was so easy for neoliberalism to co-opt a feminism that was inherently liberal in and of itself? What are the major differences, anyway? And why did Fraser frame this ‘discovery’ as something that deserved praise, as an example of white feminists being self-reflexive and critical? All it was, to me, was proof that white feminists continue to ignore feminists of colour, as simple as that. Because engaging with feminists of colour would have meant that Fraser would have reached this ‘discovery’ some time ago.
Another thing that struck me was when bell talked about the cognitive dissonance black and brown people experience, where on the one hand they know that white capitalist supremacy is a real, actual thing (or at least most seem to know) but on the other hand, seem to believe that democracy, justice, equality, etc. are also real things. She speaks of this as the ‘innocence about whiteness’ and it struck me how many people I know who have this. Who think that yes, there is racism and bad things happen, but it’s just kind of there, not because white people or a white system enable it. They seem to have bought the ‘good intentions’ argument where if a white person says they didn’t mean something or aren’t perpetuating something, then it’s fine, all’s forgiven. I was at a conference 2 weeks ago, at a panel on the EU and migration, and Germany was being criticised for how it treats migrants. This German guy there puts up his hand and says “You mean the German state, right? Because I’m German and I have nothing to do with it.” And it was just shocking to me, that someone could so easily brush off his own involvement and – by extension – his own guilt. Because that’s just it: it is about him, too. We are all tied to oppressive structures and implicated in them. The way out of that is not to deny it and transplant the blame onto someone else. The way out – or through it – is to be be self-reflexive and self-critical. But I guess it’s easier to go on and on about how we’re ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-imperialism’ and how it’s all a conspiracy.
Melissa, during the q & a, answered a question from a lady who talked about how she gets criticised by other black women more than by white women. She had four children by three different men, and talked about how other black women constantly told her that it was her mistake and that she should have made different choices. Melissa made the excellent point that this individualizing of misery – where when something goes wrong it’s about the wrong choices you as an individual – made and not about structural violence or structural inequality – is the problem. And this is a direct legacy of the neoliberal world we live in, as well as of the Enlightenment era (the two of course being linked) where it is all about rational individuals and “choice.” If someone is poor, they chose to be poor, or they’re lazy, or they didn’t try hard enough. If a single mother is struggling to raise her children, it’s about the bad choices she made. It’s never about structures. I never quite realised how strong this narrative is until I lived in the Netherlands and saw how the liberal illusion of choice is simply untouchable. At a deep level, it is so dangerous – as Melissa points out – because it prevents people of colour from collective organising that would bring about structural change. bell also mentioned how traumatic shame is, and how useful it is to control groups of people. This reminded me of how prevalent shame is postcolonial contexts and how it continues to shape narratives and identities in relation to imperialism.
Finally, the most striking moment was when bell quotes Paulo Freire, who said: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects, to later become subjects.” And I think that one line sums up, for me, the problems with feminism and non-white women; the problems in general with trying to ‘reform from the inside’ structures that are seen as exclusionary to you. Because the reality is, you are probably not seen as a subject, as even deserving of being in the struggle. Worse, the struggle has already been defined. Ramón Grosfoguel, borrowing from Fanon, uses the concept of the zone of being and the zone of non-being. The argument is that racism is a structure of power and domination along the line of the human being. People in the zone of non-being are not recognised as full humans. While there are people who are oppressed within the zone of being (women, queers, etc), it is important to realise that they have racial privilege that the people in the zone of non-being do not have. The way the system regulates conflicts in the different zones is important. In the zone of being, conflicts are regulated, and are peaceful with exceptional moments of violence. In the zone of non-being, the system manages conflicts through violence, appropriation and dispossession. Thus the norm is violence with exceptional moments of peace. People in this zone are oppressed along class, gender, sexuality, AND race. So then how can feminism be defined as including people that have historically been in the zone of non-being? Or more importantly, has feminism (I mean mainstream, hegemonic feminism) even recognised that these two zones exist?
‘Modernity’ is one of those words that is often thrown around and rarely defined. What is modernity? More importantly, who decides what is modern and what is not? While the answers to those questions are complex, a point that we can all agree on is that claims of being modern are often made using women, and more particularly, the bodies and values of women. This has especially been the case in relation to women of colour, women who belong to communities and nations that are taken for granted as un-modern. Discussions over women from these communities often revolve around their lack of emancipation, freedom, or worth—all traits associated with modernity. These kinds of discussions therefore frame some women as modern and others as “un-modern” or yet-to-become-modern.
Unfortunately, this need to appear modern or represent oneself (and therefore one’s entire nation) as modern has been internalized by many within these communities that have been designated as un-modern. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment by Nadia Fadil who pointed out how men in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s would show how modern and enlightened they were by proclaiming that women should have more rights. If the question is how compatible Egyptians are with modernity, the answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and “culture”) treat women. Within this context, the act of unveiling, for example, becomes a marker of progressiveness: men who encourage their wives to unveil are seen as closer to European norms and values and therefore closer to a thing called modernity.
This kind of response can only be termed reactionary: it is an attempt to include oneself (and one’s community or nation) within the folds of a project (in this case modernity) through representing specific aspects of one’s identity in specific ways. In this instance, women are being represented in a very specific way: as in need of becoming modern. Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices. These practices have already been set by “modernity” and are not open to debate. What is additionally problematic is that much of Western feminism has also adopted these practices as signifiers of women’s liberation.
This, in turn, has led to much of the rhetoric coming from civil society and feminist organizations within Egypt become reactionary. The narratives tend to focus on proving either that Egyptian women are lagging behind women in other parts of the world and thus need to be modernized (through development organizations or ‘cultural’ changes), or that Egyptian women are “modern.” What are never questioned are the categories that are used in deciding what is modern. More importantly, why the need to assert oneself (and by logical extension one’s entire culture) as “modern” when modern clearly means a prescribed set of characteristics that have historical roots outside of Egypt?
Within development these processes are especially clear. Lila abu Lughod’s critique of the Arab Human Development Report delineates just how certain “targets” are set for Arab women which reproduce certain ideas of progress and modernity.* Specifically, the use of the “human rights” discourse privileges individuality and autonomy above other modes of social organization. Setting aside the fact that reports such as these play into the common narrative of the backwardness of Arab women as compared to women in the West, there are numerous problems with reports such as these. One of the main problems is that the reason given for so many of the problems facing women in the Arab world is a mix between “Arab” and “Islamic” culture. Rather than economic exploitation, autocracy or unequal positioning within the global political economic system, the vague term “culture” becomes the go-to explanation. As abu Lughod writes, “this contributes strongly to civilizational discourse by attributing a significant role to Arab and Islamic culture in its diagnosis of gender inequality.” The focus on culture ignores other systemic problems and creates “Others” that are traditional (as opposed to modern).
The near-obsession with education is another clear marker of modernity, and is infused deeply within development discourse. Education for girls is seen as the main barrier to their emancipation. Not only does this assume that standardized education is the only form of knowledge that is worthy, it is also a classist narrative employed by elites who see it as their duty to save the ignorant masses. One sentence on Bedouin girls read: “they are unable to read or write and thus express themselves—and have never heard of their human rights. This erodes their very human status.” Employment is another major focus of the report, implying that women’s employment (after their education) is the main path to emancipation. This not only ignores the fact that integration within the capitalist world economy is not automatically a positive thing, but also ignores the multiplicities of power and privileges involved in the employment market. As abu Lughod points out, employment is not by its nature liberating. It must be of a certain quality to provide economic independence.
The focus on individuality is another concession to the project of modernity and its liberal underpinnings. Women are advised to “live their own lives” and reject interference from outside. One could ask whether individualism is the highest moral state, and how this excludes other forms of social organization. Feminist work has shown that individualized women are not automatically better off than women that are more tied to their families and communities. Moreover, these families and communities are not always seen as a “burden” for Egyptian women—rather this is an assumption made on the part of Western development practitioners, feminists, and others.
This report is a clear example of the reactionary way in which women’s “rights” are approached by many in civil society in the Middle East. The implicit undertone is one of liberalism, which poses specific narratives as central to becoming modern, among these education, employment and individuality. Thus civil society aims to show how Egyptian women either fit or don’t fit into these narratives—they are either modern or un-modern depending on these already-prescribed measurements. Rather than organic attempts to understand processes that are happening on the ground on their own terms, these narratives are imposed and in turn construct realities that were not there before. This kind of epistemic violence is rarely spoken of. As long as much of feminist work continues to be reactionary in a misguided attempt to be “modern” or on-the-way-to-“modernity,” it will be difficult to break away from the assumptions underpinning the project of modernity and question why we need to be modern anyway.
* Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Dialects of women’s empowerment: The international circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41.01 (2009): 83-103.