On gender and hierarchies

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I think one of the first things I learned about feminism was an inherent contradiction that didn’t strike me as such when I first heard it: on the one hand, there are universal solutions to gender inequality, such as education, employment, sexual rights, and so on – these are not necessarily context-specific (the details can be) but need to happen everywhere in order for gender equality to become a reality. And yet on the other hand, there are very different levels of gender inequality across the world. This very difference  in the level of inequality could point to the need for different kinds of solutions, but this did not seem to be the case. Instead this difference functioned to create a very clear – even if rarely labelled such openly – hierarchy in terms of gender equality. At the top of this hierarchy we have the role model countries: Scandinavia, Western and Northern Europe, and sometimes Australia, the US and the UK. And then underneath we have a series of levels with different countries. Typically Egypt and other Arab and African countries come somewhere at the bottom.

While this may seem very simplistic, I would urge anyone reading to think of conversations they’ve had, conversations in the media, comments at events, readings they’ve covered to think of the common sense assumptions reproduced about where gender inequality is a big problem and where it continues to be a problem. The categorizing I did earlier seems simplistic precisely because it is. The idea that we can divide countries – and cultures and religions – into a hierarchy based on gender inequality is extremely simplistic. And yet it really is one of the most common sense ideas in the world today.

Many people have already critiqued this hierarchy and have pointed out that the assumptions used to create it are problematic. Take for example the gender gap index, which relies on very specific indicators to measure gender inequality. Aside from the fact that gender inequality cannot and should not be measured, there is also the fact that this ignores power relations in the world today that allow some countries to continue to be economically developed, while others continue to be exploited. This dynamic is relational – in other words, some countries are poor because others are rich, and some are rich because others are poor. It is not a coincidence nor is it the result of hard work and innovation or laziness and corruption. It is not accidental but dependent on specific historical political and economic processes – which is precisely why power matters.

What I have increasingly found interesting is that this hierarchy continues to be reproduced because of how central it is to the formation of the self-identity of specific countries. In this post I will focus on the Netherlands because I am familiar with it, although I do think it applies across Europe and also in the US. The understanding the modern Dutch citizen has of him or herself is very much intertwined with the understandings this citizen has of “the Other.” This Other is not only far away in Africa or Asia, but is now also inside the Netherlands: Surinamese, Moroccans, Turks, and so on. While we may agree that Dutch racism exists and that there are problematic views about non-white people in the Netherlands, the idea that these views are constitutive of Dutch identity is less acceptable. And yet this is strongly apparent. For us to be civilized, it means there are people who are uncivilized. For us to be modern, there must be places that are not modern. For us to be one of the most gender progressive countries, there must be countries that are not so progressive.

Here is the thing about hierarchies: they are dependent on a modern teleology of progress. A hierarchy exists and this suggests that whoever is at the bottom must be given the chance to get to the top. This ignores that if everyone was at the top, modern structures such as capitalism, patriarchy and racism would fall apart – something the very people calling for equality are against as it would mean they would lose their privileges. But it also means that entire industries are created in order to – supposedly – demolish this hierarchy, even as this serves to further strength and reproduce the hierarchy. Development is the most prominent example of such an industry. An entire apparatus is created whose aim is to lift whole countries out of poverty, to get rid of gender inequality, to promote freedom. Experts are created, who identify problems and solutions. These “problems” may or may not have existed before these experts identified them, and the solutions may also have or have not existed. That is not important. Development is not just about very material changes, such as funding or the building of dams, but it is also about the creation of new categories such as “poor people” or “third world women.” As Escobar has argued in Encountering Development, before the development industry emerged, the category “poor people” did not exist. No one used this label. It did not represent an actual category of people. But because development needed something to intervene in and improve, it needed poor people. And so the category was created, and now we have underdeveloped countries. But what happened here was also the co-creation of its opposite: developed countries.

This is precisely what has happened with gender. The “third world woman” Chandra Mohanty has identified constituted its opposite: a first world woman. What separates them is a hierarchy. Talking to feminists in the Netherlands and attending events on gender has made it very clear that the Dutch self-understanding and self-representation of the modern Dutch self as progressive on gender is directly dependent on the understanding and representation of the Other as regressive on gender. The two are not separate. And so when it comes to gender inequality, it is always somewhere else. You may hear a Dutch feminist say “we still have some work to do here” but this some is important. We have some work to do but you have much more.

As long as gender is not contextualized within other structures such as capitalism, racism, heterosexism and so on, it will continue to be understood as a hierarchy. A hierarchy needs to continually be reproduced to survive. On the one hand this is done by these very structures. But on the other hand it is done through discourse and representation. It is done through small comments such as “don’t worry, gender equality took a long time to happen here” or “what is it about culture over there makes life hard for women?” It is done through industries such as the media, development, and education. Through all of this, the idea that there is a hierarchy has become common sense: of course there is. How could we even imagine putting Sweden next to Egypt? The point is not that women in Egypt face the same problems as Sweden. Certainly life is more precarious for a woman in Egypt. But not only is this connected to global structures and histories, but the point is that we can make that point without comparisons that only serve to continue to reproduce a problematic hierarchy. Why do we need these comparisons? Why can’t we speak about gender inequality in Egypt or gender inequality with Sweden without comparing and ranking them? What are the political ramifications of these comparisons? Precisely that they reproduce this hierarchy and thus strengthen the categories we need to start deconstructing, namely those of “third world woman” and “first world woman” or “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Indeed what is ultimately ironic is that those who critique postcolonialists for reproducing an “us” and “them” and simplifying everything to “West” and “East” are the very same people who do this by reproducing this hierarchy.

Sexual Politics in the Middle East

Recently there have been a few articles that discuss sex and women in the Middle East, including Mona el Tahawy’s piece in the New York Times. In response, many critical feminists critiqued the focus on sex and sexuality, arguing that it further reified Middle Eastern women as not only oppressed, but mainly oppressed in terms of their sexuality. One piece in particular points to the ways in which sexuality has become definitive of women’s liberation. Rafia Zakaria writes: “The emphasis on sexual freedom permitted the taming of radical feminism to fit the capitalist society from which it emerged. If sex was understood as a commodity that women were choosing to consume, then its problematic aspects could be disguised.” Zakaria looks back at texts from feminists in the 1970s who did not divorce sex from politics – something that seems to be more the case today. This reminded me of a book I read recently by Shulamith Firestone – one of the leaders of the radical feminist movement – called “A Dialectic of Sex.” While she makes many excellent points, her book remains ethnocentric and heavily relies on a Freudian analysis of sexuality that can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

This has all been part of a larger debate that has been going on for decades. Middle Eastern women have often been represented as being oppressed by men and culture. In other words, when we think of patriarchy in this region, we think of it in terms of domineering males who make use of a sexist culture to oppress women. It is no surprise then that autonomy from men, throwing away culture, and a general move towards individualism are seen as the solutions for Middle Eastern women facing patriarchy.

And yet this ignores the fact that patriarchy as a term cannot be defined singularly, and is always historically contingent. What constitutes patriarchal oppression in one era may not constitute it in another; and the same goes for different places. In our current moment, we face the increasing tendency to frame patriarchy as “gender inequality” whereby women are seen as oppressed because they do not have the same rights as men and where they need to be able to become full individuals in order to be liberated. Lean-in feminism is part of this wave, and so are articles that call for women to speak out about sex openly, and to explore their sexuality. This approach looks to women to become fully emancipated by becoming full individuals with equal rights. When the focus is on the Middle East, this gets translated through the older prisms of sexualizating women in order to show just how backwards Middle Eastern men are.

In a recent article, Nadje al Ali addresses the question of how feminism should look at the issue of sexual violence and ISIS. She asks why there is a sudden focus on sexual violence now, when it is perpetrated by ISIS, even though “Iraqi women and men were confronted with sexual and broader gender-based violence in pre-invasion Iraq as well as in the post-invasion period,” (pp. 1). She goes on to write:

I argue that it is important to historicize and contextualize the extreme forms of sexual violence associated with ISIS, not in order to belittle its scale and detrimental consequences but to deepen our understanding about its roots, context and ways to tackle it. With my article I aim to intervene in recent feminist debates of how to approach and explain sexual violence in relation to the Middle East, while also paying attention to the various ways that sexual violence has been instrumentalized by a range of relevant constituencies and political actors.

This struck me for two reasons. First, it is equally relevant as a response to articles that continue to call for “sexual liberation” in the Middle East without contextualizing and historicizing sexual violence. Second, it reminded me of an older debate that took place among Egyptian feminists on the problem with focusing on sexual inequality in a vacuum. It is this debate I want to briefly touch on, and I want to suggest that it could help us answer the question of how to approach the question of sexuality in the Middle East today without being ahistorical, sensational, or reductionist.

In response to the tendency of American researchers to always focus on Egyptian women and sex, various Egyptian feminists suggested that what is needed is for sexual relations to be contextualized within broader structures. Many of the Egyptian feminists positioned sexuality and sexual problems within the broader context of economic, political and social change. Hoda Badran, for example, wrote:

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 feminist, Fathia al Assal, has noted that 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. In both of these reflections we see a conscious effort to connect sexual inequality and liberation to the broader economic structures. It is precisely this type of effort that seems to be lacking today in much of the work being done on sexuality and sex in the Middle East.

This was in response to Angela Davis’ trip to Egypt, of which she wrote:

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.*

In fact she draws a parallel between the obsessive focus on circumcision by Western feminists with their equally pervasive obsession from African American women’s sexuality:

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. 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.

This admission that writing about sexual oppression in Egypt brings with it difficult political questions echoes Nadje al-Ali’s similar concern that when we write about sexuality in Middle Eastern contexts, this can often be instrumentalized. In the past this has seemed to lead to an impasse: do we continue to write about these issues knowing they will be instruementalized? Or do we abandon these discussions completely, knowing that this may delay social change that is badly needed?

Shehida el-Baz was quoted by Angela as saying:

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.

El-Baz goes on to point out that researchers looking at gender in England, for example, focused on topics like “women and politics,” whereas researchers looking at gender in Egypt always focused on the question of sex. It is this divorcing of sex from other social relations and structures, as well as the almost obsessive preoccupation with it, that was problematic then and continues to be problematic today.

It is interesting to see that feminists working today face the same issues that these Egyptian feminists struggled with in the 1960s and 1970s. Nadje al Ali reflects:

Over the past years, I have spent lots of time and energy as an academic and as an activist to argue against the ‘culturalization’ of gender-related issues – particularly with reference to gender-based violence in the Iraqi context. For years, I have felt compelled to say and write: It’s not about ‘their culture’, but it is about political economies. It is about authoritarian dictatorships and conservative patriarchal interpretations and practices. It is about foreign interventions and invasions and their gendered politics. (pp 3-4)

The idea that women in the Third World have to consciously fight a battle on two fronts is a widely acknowledged one. The idea is that on the one hand, there is a battle against patriarchy, often assumed to be “local.” On the other hand, there is imperialism and racism—the most visible form in our current moment being Islamophobia—understood as stemming from Western empire-building. These two battles have positioned women as vulnerable to multiple forms of oppression and as having to constantly navigate different structures. There is little doubt that this touches on a reality experienced by many Third World women and women of colour, namely that experiences are made up of multiple layers and are conditioned by multiple social categories. Intersectionality is the most recent theory to address this. However, I want to ask whether this binary view—of women having to oppose patriarchy and/or racism is a problematic one that does not provide a useful framework for either understanding or resisting oppression. Rather, the binary needs to be broken down and patriarchy and racism need to be seen as co-constitutive. And here it is precisely the debate among Egyptian feminists quoted above that seems to do this – to see racism/imperialism as part and parcel of gender relations, and vice versa.

Reading al Ali’s concern about not over-emphasizing the neocolonial or international at the expense of the national, I found myself identifying with her suspicion that feminists positioned in the West often do not pay enough attention to local forms of patriarchy. Being a mixed-nationality feminist who has lived in both Europe and Egypt, I found myself easily recalling the conditions of European academia and public debate that push feminists to focus on Western power structures and to respond defensively to what are essentially racist attacks. At the same time, I also find myself in the position of having to explain why feminists should talk about Orientalism and imperialism when the “real” threats to women in Egypt come from Islamists, conservatives, and local customs. These two positionalities seem to imply that there are multiple ways of understanding gender oppression in Egypt. What I instead posit is that while there are multiple layers to the story, these layers do not represent easily separable causes or ways of understanding gender relations; rather they indicate precisely the ways in which race, gender, class, and other social categories constitute one another and in this way produce gender relations.

In other words, while we seem to posit a split between international structures of power versus national structures of power, I wonder if this has always been the case. I would be very interested in exploring more work by Middle Eastern feminists from earlier periods to try and see how exactly they conceptualized these national and international structures, and how they navigated these layers. In the quotes above, there does not seem to be a denial of patriarchy in Egypt, nor of conservative religious discourse or problematic cultural traditions. But these are always contextualized – they are always to be understood as the result of processes that are neither just national or international. It is not a blame game of blaming either “local patriarchy” or “imperialism.” It is more complex than that – it is about the dialectic between the two.

In a sense I think Nadje al Ali answers her own question – one most of us have struggled with – brilliantly, when she points out that understanding sexual violence in the Middle East always necessitates contextualizing and historicizing what is happening. In this sense, it is neither about focusing obsessively on sex, talking about sex, having sex, or sexual violence; nor is it about ignoring that sexual violence and sex exists in the Middle East. It is about talking about it in a different way – and for that maybe we need to look to feminists of the past.

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* In the 1970s, Angela Davis visited Egypt. These excerpts are from a chapter in her book Women, Culture and Politics.

The difference between difference and diversity

Over the past few months I’ve read a few of the women-of-colour feminist classics. Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider” and Trinh Minh-ha’s “Woman, Native, Other” were probably the most moving ones. Lorde and Minh-ha come from a very particular generation of feminists and their books deal with very particular ideas and ways of articulating these ideas. I found myself both relating to this – in the sense that it was these women who laid the foundations for my own feminist consciousness – but also not relating in some cases. I found that this was most acute when the topic of difference came up.

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Lorde and Minh-ha, as well as so many other feminists of colour from that generation – Gloria Anzaldua, Angela Davis, Alice Walker – spoke often of difference as something good. Differences existed, and had to be acknowledged. But beyond this acknowledgement, there was a call to unite across these differences, or to unite through difference.

I found myself getting uncomfortable every time this came up in these books. And I eventually realized that this was because my generation of feminists have experienced the co-optation, whitewashing and repackaging of difference into the concept of diversity. When someone uses the term difference, I automatically associate it with the idea of diversity, and find myself reacting negatively. I assume that this person means we should all unite and be friends, that difference should not divide us, that diversity is great. All things I know are untrue, and dangerous to believe. And so my association with the terms difference and diversity are negative.

This generation is told that diversity is a good thing, it shows that we don’t need radical politics anymore because equality is near. Ultimately it has acted as a very depoliticizing tool. Through certain institutions and people, including the university, the idea of difference was de-radicalized, sanitized, and turned into the neoliberal-friendly idea of diversity. Many feminists have written about the problems with diversity as a concept, including the amazing Sara Ahmed. Diversity can never be a radical notion, or even a political one. But I had never noticed this particular genealogy: that those using the idea of diversity in feminism probably drew directly from these feminists of colour in the 1960s, 70s and 80s who spoke of difference.

But when these women spoke of difference, they spoke of it at two levels: the differences between women of colour and white women, which are, as Minh-ha, writes, awkward, difficult, fraught with tension. And then there are the differences among women of colour, or women of colour in the West and Third World women, or lesbian women and heterosexual women, and so on. In other words, there is a binary at play here that distinguishes different levels of difference. Not all differences are equally valuable. And not all differences should be treated in the same way. Differences between women of colour are very real, but these can act as a source of energy and inspiration. These are the types of differences that propel movements forward, that lead to difficult conversations that can be life-saving. In other words, these differences are very valuable.

This is not to say that differences between women of colour and white women are invaluable, or only cause harm. I have always believed that these differences are also important to discuss, interrogate, try to unpack. But this must be done while bearing in mind that there is a specific hierarchy always there, and not necessarily in the background. And when it is a material and ideological hierarchy, rather than simply vertical divisions, it can be difficult to unite and struggle together for the same causes.

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The point is that they saw difference in a very positive light because they understood difference differently than we do today, where the term has been repackaged. Differences between women had to be acknowledged, because they were responding to first and second wave feminism that insisted on universal sisterhood. Difference was therefore something productive, a way of uniting to create a different type of society. This was never framed as something easy, or based on simplistic notions of quotas or tokenism. It was always based on radical political struggle and change. Today we have learned to assume that difference is accepted, and that it is not political. But it seems to me that returning to this more radical understanding of differences could act as a very important source of energy for critical, radical, decolonial and postcolonial feminists today.

The Rational vs. the Emotional – or feeling/knowing

Two posts ago I wrote about vulnerability. About how having certain emotions seems “wrong” because of a certain tendency to over-analyse and to be harsh with ourselves when we feel a certain way. This post is related to that, but I want to focus more on the age-old supposed dichotomy between feeling and thinking. This dichotomy has been packaged as emotion vs. rationality, and is of course a highly racialized and gendered one. Women feel, men think. Women are emotional and let their feelings make decisions, while men are rational and are able to control their feelings. Feminists have spent a long time trying to destabilize this dichotomy. This has been done not only by pointing to the fact that men are emotional and women are rational, but also by arguing that we can’t separate rationality from emotion.

I have always faithfully subscribed to this view. For as long as I can remember, I have believed that everyone is both emotional and rational and that it is very difficult to separate the ’emotional’ and the ‘rational’ in any given decision. I do think that certain personalities relate to the emotional/rational in different ways and to different degrees, but I don’t think this is related to gender. While I do think these feminist arguments are extremely important, I think that in some ways they have failed to argue against seeing emotions or being emotional as negative. In other words, in order to argue that women are not simply emotional beings and are rational too, we haven’t really argued that being emotional is not only fine, but necessary.

This continued negative aura surrounding emotionality has meant that in any situation where I may be feeling something very heavy or intense, my automatic response has always been to rationalize it; to turn to rationality; to think things through; to analyze; to understand. This is not to say that these things are simply rational and not linked to emotion. But at the same time, they often mean a turning away from feeling things. I have found myself hiding from what I am feeling precisely by trying to understand it “rationally.” It is almost as if I am hoping that by understanding why I feel this way, it will go away. Of course that never happens. Logic or making something legible is not the same as your body, mind and heart feeling something it needs to feel. One process cannot replace the other; they must both happen.

It seems to me that many women these days are told that we have to understand why we are the way we are. Therapy, self-help, tough love from friends, and all these other mechanisms are there to help us understand so we can change. I don’t see anything wrong with that, other than that it assumes that everything is understandable in a logical way. It tells us that once we understand why we do these things, we’ll stop. But understanding our feelings is not the same as feeling them; understanding pain or why we feel pain is not the same as actively feeling that pain. Just like understanding what makes us happy will never be a substitute for us actually feeling happy. In this way there seems to me a clear disjuncture between knowing and feeling. And in this way it seems clear why it is dangerous and ultimately futile to try and replace feeling with knowing.

Thinking this through reminds me a bit about religion. There is something in Islam that I have always been touched by, and that is the emphasis on the inability of humans to know. The aim is not to understand everything, and definitely not to understand God or why things happen the way they do. The emphasis instead is on a way of connecting with each other and with God, and this connection is ultimately based on accepting certain things: that we don’t need to know everything, and that we need to accept that we will never understand why some things happen. Of course in this day and age, with our ingrained ideas about modernity and humans-as-knowers, it is very difficult to accept the idea that we can’t understand something. We exist as humans in a state of demanding to know everything. Accepting that we can’t know or understand everything that happens to us doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about why it may have happened; but it does point us towards acceptance rather than resistance. If we can’t understand, we have no choice but to accept – and it is through this that we feel. Accepting something means feeling the pain and disappointment that comes with it. Continually trying to understand it means delaying the moment of pain; it means hoping that once we understand, we won’t feel the pain, or even that once we understand, we can change it.

It seems to me that the path of acceptance -> pain is what can eventually lead to understanding, because we’ll be in a better place to understand. We won’t be trying to understand to avoid something; we’ll be understanding because we have felt what we need to feel, and are ready to confront why it is we had to feel that way.

As someone who is an academic, who likes to try and understand things, and who is a control freak in general, it’s obviously been very difficult over the past few months for me to accept things and deal with the feelings that come with acceptance. Accept choices I made, accept that some years are harder than others, and accept that things will work out in the end. I constantly fought against this, by trying to rationalize what I was feeling. There is also the gendered element here: I was always afraid to let myself feel things because I was conscious of the tendency of women to “over-feel” or so we are told. So I was always conscious to not let myself feel too much, or to not let my feelings cloud my judgement. But maybe that was my mistake: I should totally have let my feelings cloud my judgement! Maybe my feelings were supposed to be telling me what to do. Sure, our feelings can often be based on insecurities and other things that we should be trying to work on and get better at; but feelings are also intimately connected to who we are. Looking back, I can see that many times my feelings were trying to tell me something that my brain just didn’t get yet, or didn’t want to get.

So this is what I would do as a feminist: of course the feeling/knowing dichotomy is not as solid as we think; and of course it isn’t related to gender or race. But at the same time, we have been brought up to value knowing and devalue feeling. But it is feeling that puts us in touch with things we have slowly lost touch with as we have grown up. It is feeling that allows us to continue growing. And it is feeling that makes us know in a more expansive way. So here’s to feeling, whether the feelings are good or bad.

On repetition and power

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of why certain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have ben accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.

May quotes Audre Lorde to address the question of why certain things have to constantly be repeated:

“We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?”

It’s clear that it isn’t about how many times it has been said before, but about how many times it has been ignored before. May writes:

An intersectional approach to asking, and answering, “why repetition?” requires recognizing asymmetries of power within rhetorics, social imaginaries, and cognitive authority, such that one state of obduracy necessitates that another, equally persistent worldview be continually rearticulated.

Writing this I couldn’t help but be reminded of other subjects in which repetition is necessary to survival. I began to think about the ways in which looking at what needs to be constantly repeated is an interesting way of understanding power relations within fields. Here I thought of Middle East women’s studies, and the constant need to disavow culturalist understandings of gender oppression in the Middle East. I thought of political science, where one has to navigate the simplistic understandings of political economy in the Middle East and constantly repeat that class and capitalism matter. I thought of development studies, where repeating the structural biases of international institutions like the UN and World Bank is imperative if we want to see development as an industry rather than as progressive. Working and writing within all of these fields means constantly repeating certain things, and coming up against walls when you do (thanks to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant conceptualisation of seeing opposition as a wall).

One wall is when you’re asked why you focus on X instead of Y. For example, when someone asks why you always talk about imperialism and orientalism when you talk about gender in the Middle East, and never about Islam or corrupt regimes. The ‘simple’ answer: you really can’t separate imperialism from corrupt regimes, or global power dynamics and modernity from modern Islamist movements. In other words, the ‘external’ and ‘internal’ are not neatly separable; and neither are the global and the national. Another wall is when you’re asked to ‘prove’ something, a wall I’m sure any political scientist is familiar with. Here we see that data, statistics, bar graphs and charts become the test your theory has to pass through, a test fashioned by the very system of capitalist modernity your theory is critiquing.

And then there is the wall of “this has been said before, why are you repeating it?” Or: “why are you addressing an old debate?” Well, because certain things have to be repeated or they will be left out, forgotten. We have to keep talking about intersectionality – even if it means we are critiquing it – because it does not become an old debate as long as there is still work in gender studies that ignores race, or the global division of labour. Similarly, we have to keep insisting that “class matters” in Middle East studies as long as there is work that aims to understanding politics in the Middle East without once addressing class, capitalism, or its more recent form, neoliberalism.

So it’s clear that repetition is necessary. Repetition is an act that pinpoints nodes of power. We should be asking, when we see certain topics debated over and over, why these debates keep happening. What is it about society and academia that makes repetition necessary? If, as Audre Lorde says, “this has all been said before,” then what are the stakes if we stop saying it?

On emotions, vulnerability, and strong women

There are certain subjects that seem to me strange to write about, and emotions is one of them. This is probably because academia in general prefers hard, empirical subjects. But I think it also has to do with a certain private/public dichotomy that works to make us think that talking about how we feel is something private that should not be done in public – as though we are not emotional beings once we are out in public.

The last few months have been particularly difficult for me. I’ve been juggling different responsibilities, changes, and problems and this past month everything has started to seem very overwhelming. When this happens I start to frantically look for the “WHY” so I can somehow attempt to fix things. This search usually leads to over-analyzing and over-thinking the past and the present, and instead of giving me something concrete to change about myself or my situation, it gives me even more to be upset about.

I eventually – after a lot of over-thinking – came to realize that there is one pattern that keeps repeating itself that has been particularly debilitating. And that is the distinction between what “is” and what “should be.” I find myself constantly, when I’m upset about something, thinking: “this is how things should be instead.” But even worse than this, is the way in which I apply this logic to my own emotional reactions. Say there is a setback in my PhD work, or a I have a fight with something I care about. My instinctive response is almost always: “I should have reacted this way” or “I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” I shouldn’t feel this upset or this angry. I shouldn’t be this dependent on this person. On the one hand, I realize that the way we feel emotions – which emotions and to what extent = depends on many different factors, including our family histories, our values and beliefs, our gender, and so on. We are socialized by many different things to feel certain ways at certain times. On the other hand, my intense sensitivity to this fact – that emotions are constructed and somehow not “real” has made me unable to have emotional reactions without feeling guilty about them.

I started to think about this from the perspective of feminism, and how as men and women we are taught to feel certain things. And this is where I find the disjuncture. As a woman I have supposedly been socialized to be fine with expressing weakness, vulnerability, sadness, and so on. It is somehow okay for women to display emotion and vulnerability. But in actual fact, because I am a woman who is in academia, who is a certain age, and who is seen as strong, it becomes difficult to balance the right type of emotion with the persona that I am seen to embody. This balancing act creates tension, not necessarily between me and other people, but between me and myself. It is this tension that creates the guilt when I do find myself reacting in ways that I see as out of sync with who I embody. When I do find myself expressing vulnerability, sadness, or weakness I am always the first person to get angry. This anger may be directed at myself (followed by guilt) or may be directed at other people whom I see as incapable of “being there for me” in the way that I need them. In actual fact, it is more likely that I am directing my own anger and disappointment about myself towards other people than actually feeling that they are not there for me. It is my own failure to support myself that I am angry at.

Given the focus in feminism on how society polices women and creates the confines within which women can feel or act, I have found these last few months fascinating because they show the ways in which these confines are not simply out there in public, but are recreated within us. Depending on the type of woman we are, we recreate the limits of emotionality and behaviour within ourselves, except this time it is us judging and delineating. I can’t let myself feel something without asking if it is legitimate. But this legitimacy is conferred by a host of complex power dynamics both within and outside of me. If I am angry, I ask if I have the right to be. If I am sad, I ask if I’m over-reacting. And if I am sad for days, weeks on end I start to panic at my lack of self-control or my inability to get things together.

There is something to be said about people’s responses to vulnerability, because I think they shed light on why we so often police or turn away from ourselves when we feel vulnerable or weak. Seeing someone else’s vulnerability reminds us of our own; seeing someone else’s weakness does the same. Because we are not taught how to deal with vulnerability or weakness in a productive way, when we come face to face with it in ourselves, we turn away quickly. Last week two different female academics that I look up to, one two separate occasions, wrote posts about personal disappointments in their lives that had upset them. I was surprised, initially, not just because social media is usually a space where people construct a persona that is happy, positive, successful, and so on – i.e. a persona they would like to embody. But also because it is rare to see strong women, in academia, who are older, express vulnerability. The responses to these posts were beautiful, and they reminded me of what a dear friend told me once: “When you are open with someone, they will be open with you – when you are vulnerable with someone, they will also be vulnerable with you.”

And this is my ultimate conclusion. The anger and disappointment I feel about certain life choices, about things that have happened in the past are enough without me adding the anger and disappointment of my emotional responses to these choices and events. I think at some point, strength is nothing more than the ability and willingness to confront emotions without questioning or turning away from them.

My favourite books of 2015

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2015 was a great reading year, and since I made a list of my 30 fav books last year I thought I’d do the same again:) This year I really felt the benefits of balancing fiction and non-fiction, as well as reading on subjects outside of the research I do academically – it somehow refreshes you and was a way for me to recharge. Hands down the best books I read this year were Elena Ferrante’s four-part series: My Brilliant Friend; The Story of a New Name; Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay; and Days of Abandonment. In these novels she shows how a skillful fiction writer can say more about the socities we live in than any academic, no matter how brillaint.

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In no particular order:

  1. Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa
    Patrick Bond
  2. Liberalism: A Counter-History
    Dominico Losurdo
  3. Frantz Fanon
    David Macey
  4. The Postcolonial Unconscious
    Neil Lazarus
  5. The Woman from Tantoura
    Radwa Ashour
  6. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others
    Sara Ahmed
  7. Caliban and the Witch
    Silvia Federici
  8. Postcolonial Studies: A Materialist Critique
    Benita Parry
  9. What Fanon Said
    Lewis Gordon
  10. Islam in Liberalism
    Joseph MassadScreen Shot 2015-12-26 at 12.29.01 PM.png
  11. Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies
    Kevin B. Anderson 
  12. Petals of Blood
    Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
  13. Reading Capital Politically
    Harry Cleaver
  14. God Help the Child
    Toni Morrison
  15. Fortunes of Feminism
    Nancy Fraser
  16. Expectations of Modernity
    James Ferguson
  17. Phantom Democracy: Corporate Interests and Political Power in America
    Carl Boggs
  18. Left of Karl Marx
    Claudia Jones
  19. The Republic Unsettled
    Mayanthi Fernando
  20. Remaking the Modern
    Farha GhannamScreen Shot 2015-12-26 at 12.29.10 PM.png
  21. Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt
    Donald Reid
  22. Between the World and Me
    Ta-Nehisi Coates
  23. The Geography of Malcolm X
    James Tyner
  24. Waiting for the Barbarians
    J.M. Coatzee
  25. Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale
    Maria Mies
  26. The Many-Headed Hydra
    Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker
  27. Beyond the Pale
    Vron Ware
  28. Red Rosa: A Graphic Novel
    Kate Evans
  29. Women and Socialism: Race, Gender, Capital
    Sharon Smith
  30. Empire of Cotton
    Sven Beckert

Hannah Arendt, the Nazis and the Banality of Evil

 


It’s been a while since I read a book that made me think as much as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Her central premise is of course well known: that evil is almost boring in its  expression. She writes,

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied that this new type of criminal commits his crime under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.

Evil is not located in a few psychopaths but rather can be found in most ordinary human beings given the right conditions. It is this focus on the conditions that create or bring out evil that makes this book fascinating.

My favourite part was when she goes through each European country to discuss the details of how they tackled the “Jewish problem.” Here what seemed to matter above all was the extent to which the general population itself was anti-Semitic; and following this, how deep this anti-Semitism was and whether it was directed at foreign Jews or native Jews. In countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, almost no Jews were deported or killed because the general population rebelled against directives from Germany to deport their Jews as part of the Final Solution. Denmark above all is an extraordinary story, where the King himself said that he would be the first to wear a yellow star. When Denmark was basically forced to hand over their Jews, they managed to sneak half of them into Sweden where they would be safe, and the other half went into hiding in Denmark and survived. In Bulgaria there were massive strikes against the government when Germany began to demand the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.  And in Italy, although the government did not outright disobey Germany, they played a cat and mouse game which resulted in almost no Jews being deported.

Compare this to countries such as Germany, Poland, France and Romania where almost the entire Jewish population was murdered. Romania in particular, which Arendt designates as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, actually began killing its Jews before Germany did, and many of these killings were done by ordinary Romanians in unorganized pogroms that were especially violent. In fact when Germans found out about this, they were disturbed (!) stating that killing should not be done in such an uncivilized manner.

Arendt’s discussion of Holland was particularly interesting. A large number of Dutch Jews were killed and I had always assumed this was because of Dutch collaboration. She points out that because Holland’s government had fallen and the country was effectively under German command, the Nazis were able to infiltrate and identify and deport most Jews. She points out that Holland was the only country where students went on strike when Jewish professors were fired from universities. The Dutch also offered hiding places to almost half of all Jews in the country. The only reason so many were discovered is precisely because the Nazis had infiltrated the country so well.

What is perhaps most shocking about her report is her consistent demonstration of the central role played by Jewish leaders in orchestrating the destruction of European Jewry. In almost all countries, a Jewish council was formed which basically allowed Jewish leaders to decide who to save and how (usually based on financial leverage) and which almost always resulted in the majority of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Highlighting the role  Jewish leadership in the Holocaust got Arendt into a lot of trouble and yet seems central to understanding how the Holocaust happened the way it did.

To conclude, I want to return to this idea that the level of anti-Semitism in a country played a major role in determining the fate of its Jews. How does this reflect on Europe today where we not only see rising levels of anti-Semitism but also high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. What does this mean about constructions of European selfhood, identity and nationalism? Why did some countries resist the Nazis while others went even further in exterminating Jews? Returning to Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, how can we connect particular discourses of race, modernity, nationhood, belonging, rationality, science and development to events such as the Holocaust, and indeed to continuing tensions in Europe related to the creation of an us/them dichotomy?

And above all, how have many of these dynamics been reproduced in Israel itself? Indeed Arendt’s warning at the beginning of the book about how the Israeli state was setting itself up as extremely strong and repressive state is above all important in our current time. She notes that because Jews felt so weak after the Holocaust, Israel was the means through which strength was to be projected outwards. This has, of course, happened at the expense of Palestinians. One act of ethnic cleansing has led to another. And yet, when we think of the banality of evil, it makes sense in the context of Israel even more: it is the belief that the killing and torturing of Palestinians is not wrong; it must happen for a whole host of reason. This is precisely what evil is and how it materializes – in the everyday acts and acquiescence of whole populations who believe that a certain thing is necessary.

Race/Gender/Capitalism

Over the past few days I’ve had several discussions around the same topic: the role of race and gender within capitalism. Even phrasing the question that way reveals an assumption that race and gender are within capitalism and therefore not systems outside of or co-existing with capitalism, and so somehow subservient to the main system: capitalism. This represents a major debate within Marxism, but also outside of it. Many people seem to agree that racism and sexism existed before capitalism, but this is where the agreement ends. While some argue that capitalism merely instrumentalizes race and gender for its own ends and could exist without them, others point out that capitalism would not exist without racism and sexism – the three systems are closely dependent on one another. I tend to lean more towards this second point of view.

Marxist calls for the working class to organize as a class have always made me wonder about specific historical periods during which this was simply not feasible. In one recent discussion there was the example of the Black Panthers, with the statement that they should not have organized around a subjective identity – race – but should have organized around an objective one – class. But taking America in the 1960s and 1970s, how exactly were the Panthers supposed to organize around class when the racism of the white working class was so deeply entrenched? Were they supposed to devote their energy to addressing this racism in order to win the white working class over? Or wait until white workers realize that they had been duped into a false sense of superiority? It seems to me that Black Power was a response to the deeply racialized nature of American society that took class into account (many were Marxists) but that did not privilege class in a way that downplayed race. I don’t think that overthrowing capitalism at that moment would have ended racism. Indeed some have noted that in the US today, respectability politics gets you nowhere: you could be upper-class and Black and still get killed by police brutality – class doesn’t simply trump race, although it does have its effects.

At the same time, we can also see that organizing around race has its problems. How can a Black Power movement today organize around race when there are major class divisions that have led to the emergence of a Black elite who hold white ideals (see: Obama)? Or without acknowledging that American capitalism depends on a Black underclass? What I am getting at is that organizing around one or the other is almost impossible because of the ways in which race and capitalism are interconnected today. And yet there is a clear racial element to the emergence and consolidation of capitalism: slavery as a racialized mode of production almost single-handedly built the American and European economies.

A second example that comes to mind is the idea that the working class around the world should unite, despite imperialism placing workers in a specific hierarchy that privileges workers in Western countries. Marxist work has shown that part of the reason workers in Europe were able to achieve a social democratic bargain is because elites and multinational corporations found masses of exploitable labour in the “Third World.” In other words, Third World workers paid the price for the benefits European workers started receiving. Bearing this in mind, how are “workers of the world” supposed to unite? Should the struggle be a class struggle divorced from an imperialist struggle, as if capitalism is not imperial? And again, who bears the burden of raising the consciousness of European workers to the global division of labour from which they benefit at the expense of other workers?

A third example is that of gender. White feminist calls to organize around gendered oppression have been critiqued endlessly and rightly for assuming a universal woman. But don’t Marxist calls for organizing around class oppression assume a universal woman worker – and more, a universal worker? What about the ways in which women’s reproductive labour is a central means through which capitalism reproduces itself? This alone makes it difficult to speak of a class struggle that does not look at the ways in which class is gendered (and gender is class-based).

I understand the difference between objective and subjective identities. Belonging to a certain class is objective because it directly affects our ability to survive and reproduce ourselves. But aren’t ideologies such as race and gender also material? Don’t they have very material effects, just like class? Are the three even separable?

The idea that even if we had gender and racial equality, capitalism would still oppress us is a tempting theoretical idea, but I somehow doubt that it is that simple. We are at a point today where we cannot get rid of sexism or racism or capitalism individually because of their interconnectedness. Much gender inequality today is capitalist in nature, but capitalism also needs gender inequality to reproduce itself. Racism is often a result of global capitalism, but global capitalism needs racism to maintain itself.

It seems to me, drawing on an idea put forward by Sara Farris, that when we deal with this question theoretically, it seems easy to draw distinctions between race, gender and capitalism and to then assume that the first two are merely instrumental for capitalism. But when we instead look at historical instances, it becomes clear that racism and sexism have indeed been integral to capitalism from the beginning. Starting with slavery as a mode of production – a clearly racialized mode – and moving to the ways in which women’s unpaid reproductive labour is been used for capital accumulation, we see that throughout struggles over the past century, it has not been easy to simply organize around class.

These are difficult questions precisely because capitalism, racism and sexism have managed to create deep divisions among and between groups that are not easily dissolved through action or protest.

I realize there is no simple answer, but just wanted to write down these thoughts in light of the continuing idea within certain Marxist strands that racism and sexism are not integral to capitalism. They have not only been integral to capitalism – capitalism would not be what it is today without them – but they are also deeply intertwined with it and with one another.

On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass

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Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.

A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.

She then goes on to criticize Black women who did not call out the sexism of Black men in the Black Power movement, writing: “Why do black women, so shrewd about their men in general, settle for this patronizing, impersonal and uninspired kind of love?” Here again, because of her reliance on Freud as well as her totalizing views of women vs. men, Firestone is unable to locate these dynamics within broader societal structures. The Black Power movement was a movement against white supremacy and the extreme brutality with which it was met should partly explain why for Black women the issue of sexism was a very complicated one, and certainly more complicated than it was for White women. One only needs to read the memoirs of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown and other former Black Panthers to realize just how painfully aware they were of the balance between supporting Black Power and addressing sexism, homophobia, and so on. Firestone does not touch on any of these dynamics, showing the weaknesses of relying on sexuality (and Freud) as an overarching framework.

What I did like about Firestone’s book is the points she makes about love and relationships, because I think these issues have been under-theorized in strands of feminism such as postcolonial feminism. She talks about women’s constant need for approval, the ways in which male culture lives off of women’s emotional strength, the fact that for every successful relationship, there are 10 unsuccessful and destructive ones, and the role of envy and possessiveness in modern relationships. Above all, her point that love can never happen when there is an unequal power balance in a relationship is exceedingly important:

I submit that love is essentially a much simpler phenomenon – it becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance in power. We have seen that love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive: the destructive effects of love occur only in a context of inequality (pp. 185).

This section also relies extensively on Freudian analysis, however. While I do not have an issue with this per se, I do think that Freudian analysis can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).

While Firestone admits that men are often in pain or suffering because they are socialized to be unable to love, she still does not make the point that this demonstrates how patriarchy is a system that creates suffering for all genders, not just women. Moreover, in her attempt to show how men treat women in relationships, she often generalizes in the extreme. For example she writes: “The question that remains for every normal male is, then, how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in return?” No doubt in many relationships there remains the issue of women committing more than men, but to universalize this to all “normal males” is quite the jump, and again reveals ethnocentrism (after all, is this the case across time and space?). Additionally, even in men where this is true, how do we deal with the question of awareness? In other words, I assume that this desire for love without commitment is often present in males without them being aware of it. This is precisely why patriarchy is so powerful, because so many of these desires have become subconscious or “common sense.” How then do we deal with it? Do we still see men as horrible perpetrators of sexism? Or is it deeper than that?

Overall, for a book that has become quite the classic feminist text I found it a bit disappointing in its over-reliance on Freudian analysis. I had expected the Eurocentrism because second-wave feminism is famous for that, but somehow I hadn’t anticipated that there would be so much Freud. The book left me thinking about how easy it is to organize a movement around texts such as this that are full of generalizations and that are very angry. And I mean angry in a good way, because I do think feminist texts should be angry. But is it possible to write a text like this today, considering where feminism is after the popularity of post-modernism? Probably not. And maybe that’s exactly why it has been almost impossible to form a feminist movement in recent decades, after the euphoria of first and second wave feminism, and the many critiques of these waves that emerged from postcolonial and Marxist feminists afterwards. We now have moment in feminism that is about critique and undoing the damage done by Eurocentric feminisms. This has come at a price, with more attention being paid to critique (of each other) than to imperialism, neoliberalism and other forces that are ravaging the globe.

To conclude, one thing I appreciated about Firestone’s book is the emphasis she put on Marx while also noting his limitations when it came to gender. She writes:

Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family, the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated. We shall need a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems (pp. 30).

And yet she doesn’t show very clearly how this is supposed to happen. She often discusses women as an underclass, and yet rarely points to the international division of labour where some women (white, Western) in fact have more power than the majority of men. Indeed this is precisely why it is difficult to theorize women as an underclass, or even as the quintessential underclass. And yet perhaps this is the lesson: Firestone shows us that women are not an underclass – and have never been. Today’s underclasses are made up of men and women. Any feminism that fails to grasp this, and fails to see why we need to analyze different structures simultaneously, is unlikely to gain traction.