The most personal things are always the most difficult to write about. Even as I think of what I want to say, I can feel myself heating up. My fingers twitch, and what I want to do is close my laptop and go and make some tea. But, inspired by Elene Ferrante’s letters in Frantumaglia, a book I cannot put down, I felt the need to explore the subject of my accent.
A seemingly strange subject, I’m sure, but this small detail about myself reveals so many aspects of me and who I am that if I had to choose one thing to tell someone about me, it would be this. To be more accurate, I don’t have one accent, but three. I have my English accent, which sounds American now but hasn’t always. I have my Dutch accent, that doesn’t sound quite Dutch. And I have my Arabic accent, which sounds more like Arabic than my Dutch one sounds like Dutch, but still—not quite. This should come as no surprise, since I am half-Egyptian, half-Dutch, and grew up in Zambia, where English is the official language. I was educated in a British school and an American university. My family speaks English at home. And so English is the language I feel most comfortable in. It’s a language that is mine. I speak it without thinking, and I am able to stretch it and bend it and play with it.
But at the same time, English is not my language. It is not the language that I am supposed to be most comfortable in. Instead, the languages that I am supposed to be comfortable in cause me immense amounts of discomfort. It is not that I don’t know Arabic, or Dutch. There is a level of knowing that is purely rational. My brain hears them and understands. If it’s a conversation, my brain then puts together a response. But that is where things have always gotten difficult. The response has to be pushed out by me. It has to be pulled out by the other person. It has to be accompanied by panic. If I’m feeling brave, then it eventually comes out. If I’m not, then my body relaxes, I let out a deep breath, and what comes out is invariably in English.
Is it that I can’t respond in Arabic or Dutch? Is it that I need to learn them properly, to practice, to force myself to speak only in those languages? For a long time I convinced myself that it was about knowledge, or a lack thereof. My parents didn’t speak to me in Dutch or Arabic growing up, and so I just didn’t know the languages well enough. But when people have pushed me beyond this, when I’ve been prodded into giving a real response, my two-word answer has tended to me “my accent.”
What does that mean? Don’t we all have accents? But it is more than just a strange accent, or mispronouncing a few words. It means revealing something about me that I don’t want people to know, simply because I myself haven’t come to terms with it. We know, from sociology to linguistics to history, from everyday life to novels and films, that languages are essential to nationalism. They create webs of belonging and bind people together in cultures. They provide windows into understandings of how the world works, what life means, who we are, and what our past is. In other words, they matter. But an accent—an accent disrupts this. It creates a bubble around me that works as a barrier between me and that feeling of belonging. It feels as though I can’t grasp it; I am always reaching for it but I can never quite make it mine.
I have never been a fan of the discourse of “third culture kids” or “citizens of the world.” I think that being mixed and not having grown up in either country is a highly fluid positionality. In many ways, it has given me ways of seeing and understanding things I know I would not have otherwise. In other ways it has made me very self-conscious of my identity; it has made me always look for a home in people, since I do not have that feeling with a physical place (and that is not always healthy). I don’t know that my feelings about my accent are about confusion surrounding identity as much as about a search for something tangible and anchoring. My accent is a constant, daily, hourly, reminder of my lack of an anchor. I have a home in England. My parents and sister have a home in Egypt. I have had homes in other places. But none of these homes have come with what I have always assumed a home is: a city or town in which you are completely comfortable, to which you completely belong—even if you don’t always fit in—a place that you know.
I don’t have that relationship with Egypt, or Holland. My relationship with Egypt is much more complicated, because I am much more attached to it than to Holland. What does it mean to Egyptian? A loaded question, but my response is to always see it as something I lack. I feel as though I know many things about Egypt. I have many ties to it. But do I know what it feels like to be Egyptian? These questions are complex, and difficult. Most of the time, I have been lucky to have friends who understand what it is to feel these things. Who have experienced the disruption of not knowing where “home” is or will ever be. Other people have found it difficult to deal with. Some have even used it against me, saying I expected things from them I shouldn’t have because I was a foreigner and didn’t understand Egypt or Egyptians. When this was said to me, I knew it was untrue because their point did not make sense; but still—it hurt. It hurt much more than it should have because of how raw this issue is for me, and because this person knew that and used it against me. It was, and continues to be, a vulnerability. For others it is not a question of relating to it or finding it difficult; it is simply puzzling. They don’t really get it: what’s the big deal?
And increasingly, that is what I have asked myself. What is the big deal with having an accent? Yes, it is an affirmation of not belonging, of not having roots or a past in a place that I want so desperately to have those things. It reminds me that I will never have that anchor that seems to tie so many people in place, even if they move around. I know many people who say that they do not see themselves as connected to the place they are from, and yet they are, in many ways. It is not about liking or loving a city or country; it is about knowing it intimately, about understanding it and feeling it, about knowing how things work there. It’s a type of visceral knowledge that can’t be learned later in life. As I get older, I find myself losing interest in the novelty and excitement of moving to new places. There is an immense amount of privilege in that, and so many amazing experiences that come with it. But precisely because I do not have that anchor, it feels as though I am drifting. That is not me; I am someone who likes, and needs, stability and so drifting or exploring without certainty is scary.
It is difficult for me to admit that I do not have that type of a relationship with Egypt, even if I very badly want it. Hearing myself trip over Arabic words is a reminder of that. Realizing that I can never write in Arabic the way I write in English is another reminder. Feeling guilty that people I speak to talk to me in English even though they’d be more comfortable talking in Arabic—another reminder. I tell myself I just don’t know it well enough. It’s easier to speak in English. And it’s true: it is easier. But not because I don’t know Arabic well enough; I know it very well. But speaking it in an accent that reveals my unbelonging distances me from a place that I love too much to want to be separate from.
The irony in all of this is that I have been told I don’t have an accent; that my Arabic sounds fine. Maybe the accent is in my head, and is a metaphor for these deeper feelings of being unanchored and unsafe. Maybe ultimately the courage I need to just speak, accent or no accent, is equally about the courage to come to terms with my own relationship to Egypt. It has been a blessing, intellectually, to not be closely tied into a country, a religion, a nationality, because that has largely made me think about things in a more fluid way. But the downside has increasingly become clear, one that is not intellectual but emotional. There is a lot of support that comes from these identities, and with support comes comfort. Anchors can be restraining, but they can also be like a childhood bed that we come back to when we need to take a break from what is happening; like old smells and recipes that remind us of simpler times; and of friends and family who know you so well that you don’t have to think about who you are or what you say when you are with them. As much as I want that place to be Egypt, and as much as I have struggled and tried to make it Egypt, I know that it can’t be. It is not a situation that can be willed into existence; it simply isn’t. But maybe there is a way to collect all of the feelings I have for all of the different places in which I have lived and make something out of that. I am who I am because of all of these places and people; histories and cultures have mixed and blended together; and while I may not intimately know one place in the way I’d like, I do know many places in many different ways.
A new BBC2 skit called “Real Housewives of ISIS” has caused quite some controversy. While some see it as harmless fun that brings to light how ridiculous Islamophobic views are, others see it as tacky, dangerous, and as further strengthening those very stereotypes. (For a great piece by Shafik Mandhai on the diverging views, check out this link.) The topic of race and comedy is a tough one, particularly when the audience is largely British and the topic is ISIS. Setting aside the very problematic decision to use ISIS as the subject through which to employ long-lasting and much-used tropes about Muslim women, suicide bombing, and so on, there is another point to be made about humour being used without context, and how this ultimately does not do anything about the very stereotypes it aims to make fun of.
This skit reminded me of something that happened to me over 5 years ago. An Iranian friend of mine was at my house, and he found a book on my bookshelf called “Burka Babes.”
I had found the cartoons inside hilarious, and thought he would too. After flipping through it, he put it down and told me that it was a horrible book. He sounded so serious that I felt my heart fall. I asked him why, since they were just jokes that showed how stereotypes about women in burkas are wrong. He told me that all this book did was dehumanize women who wear burkas and turn it into a subject to be laughed at by Dutch people. I started to think about how this book, written by a white Dutch man, presented nothing but a series of cartoons making fun of women who wear burkas. While some people, like myself, may have seen how they shed light on how ridiculous Dutch stereotypes about burkas are, I knew that the majority of Dutch people would see these cartoons as nothing more than a few minutes of laughter and comedy. There was nothing in it that showed the long history of Orientalism and in particular gendered Orientalism. There was nothing in it that touched on why white/liberal feminism is not the only lens through which we can understand how women relate to their bodies. And there was nothing in it about how the Netherlands has become one of the most Islamophobic and racist countries in Europe by reproducing these types of views over and over. Instead, it probably made Peter lots of money, made lots of Dutch people laugh, and is now lying forgotten on many Dutch bookshelves.
But I don’t think that means there is no place for comedy that tackles race and racism. One of my favourite shows, Black-ish, actually does it very well, and I think the reason for that is because it does an amazing job of contextualizing the many jokes about race in each episode. At the start there is usually a few minutes about real historical and contemporary American events that explain why we have particular stereotypes about Black people and why the jokes in the show are not just jokes or a few seconds of laughter; they touch on issues that are deep-rooted and serious. I wasn’t surprised to recently read a piece that said many white American viewers were “uncomfortable” when they watched Black-ish. What made people uncomfortable was the “continued discussion of race” on the show. It isn’t just a series of jokes that people can laugh at and then forget. The way the show frames these jokes is what turns it into a discussion about race, and what ultimately makes white people uncomfortable. The episode about police shootings, which was uncharacteristically serious, made a strong point with its sombre tone. And the fact that the show has covered so many controversial and contemporary issues in current debates about racism shows how and why context is key. I recently rewatched all 3 seasons with my best friend, who also kept noting how each episode touches on issues that are so serious without making them seem less serious than they really are. Sadly, Real Housewives of ISIS didn’t even come close to that.
It would be nice to think that when we produce something, we don’t have to think about the audience or about the effect it will have. But when you make a comedy about ISIS using Muslim stereotypes, it does matter that your audience will be largely British, and it does matter that nothing in your skit provides any sort of context for the jokes being made. Making people laugh at Muslim stereotypes ultimately just reproduces them without getting most people to think deeper.
As cliché as it sounds, 2016 really was one of the most difficult years I’ve had. Everyone warns you about how stressful it is to finish a PhD, but you never quite expect it. More than anything, it’s the ups and downs of it – one day you love what you’re writing and the next you feel like it’s not new enough/edgy enough/critical enough or just plain doesn’t make sense. Finishing a dissertation is also by default a lonely process; you’re the only person who knows the intimate history of what you’re trying to do, as well as the politics surrounding your institution. On the other hand, it really is something you see growing and transforming into something you had no idea it could be. The feeling of finishing and finally submitting it is priceless. I will never forget the moment when I sat down to write my acknowledgments section; it was then that I realized that while a PhD may feel lonely, it really is such a collective project. The care and effort so many friends and family put into pushing me forward, encouraging me, and also giving me tough love when I needed it makes me speechless. Most people did this without once complaining or feeling like it, or I, was a burden, and for that I will always be grateful.
Other parts of this year have also been a rollercoaster of learning and unlearning. I learned that some mistakes have to be made twice for you to realize they aren’t what you are meant to be doing with your life. I learned that – finally – you can’t control everything and that sometimes you get opportunities after you’ve all but given up. I’ve learned that the most valuable thing in friends, family, and significant others is feeling safe and secure; knowing that you’re in something together and that you can make mistakes, fight, and talk things out in the end. For some reason 2016 was a year during which so many things changed in so many of my friend’s and family’s lives. It really was a rollercoaster; but, that said, rollercoasters can be rewarding because all of the lessons you learn about yourself and others (afterwards, when the panic and adrenalin dissipates, of course).
But above all I think I’ve learned that timing is everything. Things happen when they are supposed to and with the people they are supposed to happen with. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking that at age X I should have XY and Z. Some of it has happened earlier than I thought it would, some of it later, and a lot of it hasn’t yet. Sometimes people are ready for something, and sometimes they aren’t. Despite my being a die-hard control freak, 2016 was the year I accepted I can’t actually plan anything (at least I’ve hopefully accepted this!). I did a lot of things this year I’m proud of. Some of it worked out, and some of it didn’t. But without my friends and family, I wouldn’t be at the end of this year reflecting on the good things rather than fixating on the bad. And, OF COURSE, my books 🙂 So, finally, the subject of the post.
My favourite books, in no particular order:
- The Country Life – Rachel Cusk
- Egypt’s Long Revolution – Maha Abdelrahman
- States of Injury – Wendy Brown
- The Folded Earth – Anuradha Roy
- Golden Gulag – Ruthie Wilson Gilmore
- The Door – Madga Szabo
- Shapeshifters – Aimee Meredith Cox
- From Black Power to Hip Hop – Patricia Hill Collins
- Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde
- The Vegetarian – Han Kang
- Woman, Native, Other – Trinh Minh-ha
- Human Rights and the Uses of History – Samuel Moyn
- White Innocence – Gloria Wekker
- Reversed Realities – Naila Kabeer
- Dark Matters – Simone Brown
- Ladivine – Marie Ndiaye
- Political Life in Cairo’s New Quarters – Farha Ghannam
- Shadow Lines – Amitav Ghosh
- White Teeth – Zadie Smith
- The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 – Ilham Khuri-Makdisi
- The Wages of Whiteness – David Roediger
- The Biopolitics of Mixing – Jinthana Haritaworn
- Gramsci’s Common Sense – Kate Crehan
- The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh
- The Sellout – Paul Beatty
- A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
- In the Wake: On Blackness and Being – Christina Sharpe
- The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt – Omnia el Shakry
- Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology – David Price
- Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest – Anne McClinktock
One of the more interesting debates that has come out of Trump winning the US presidency has been about the role of the white working class in perpetuating racism. Although the white working class did not constitute the majority of white votes Trump received, they have been scapegoated by some as being the reason for why Trump won. This scapegoating, I believe, is wrong, particularly since in this particular case most of Trump’s support came from the white middle class. A class that has increasingly been confronted with the neoliberal reality of the “American Dream” and who have lost more and more as they have become deeply embroiled in a system of debt, credit, and precariousness. However, this class can’t only be analysed in pure class terms, since it is precisely the white middle class that voted for Trump in large numbers. Part of the story is also a backlash to Obama – the first Black president – as well as to the increasing focus on racism in public debates following the excruciatingly high rates at which Black men and women are being killed and imprisoned. As Christina Sharpe has argued in her new book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” the Atlantic slave trade is a living, breathing part of the United States; it is not the past nor a historical legacy; it is what has formed the US today; Black people are not left out of the system; Black exclusion is the system.
Despite all of this, I have seen a lot of people engage in the discourse of humanising the white working class American who voted for Trump (even if they are not in the majority). We have heard of many stories from white working class America, especially the Rust Belt: men and women who have been forgotten by their politicians, who suffer great economic difficulty, and who the system has failed. They voted for Trump because they wanted change; it is that simple. They did not vote for Trump because they are racist, or sexist, or want a white America. It was a protest vote, as simple as that.
Now obviously this is a very problematic reality. As some have pointed out, it shows the power the white working class still as due to its whiteness: the power to not care about issues of race; to still vote someone who will institute racist policies simply because he aligned with their views on other issues. In other words, Trump’s racism was not a deal-breaker for these voters because his racist policies – a matter of life and death for millions of Americans – did not affect them directly.
Obviously there is sympathy to be had with the white working class. The US is a settler colony founded on capitalism. It has always been brutal to anyone outside of a small elite who amass massive profits off of the exploitation of the rest. For many different reasons, the US ruling class has been able to create an ideology strong enough to maintain its hegemony for centuries: this ideology includes ideas about the American Dream, about working hard till you make it, about material wealth being the result of pure hard work, and so on. We all know it since it’s been exported everywhere. Coming to terms with the reality that this ideology is precisely that – an ideology – has been shattering for working classes across the West, who found this out a long time ago. In fact it’s been the middle classes that have been extremely slow to catch on. And so that is where sympathy lies: with the exploitation of workers by capital.
Now when you ask these people who engage in the discourse of understanding white workers as angry at the system, as opposed to racist, how the connection between the system and racism hasn’t yet been made, they often turn to the age-old response: white ignorance, or, more aptly I would say, white innocence. These voters voted for Trump for economic reasons, and so they cannot be called racist, even if Trump himself is racist and has a racist platform. They voted in their economic interests. But those interests hurt other people. Well, maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they are ignorant. I’ve heard this from people speaking about white working and middle class support for the far right in Europe as well: people are seeing their lives changing, everything is being taken away from them, and so they vote for parties who talk about change. They may be ignorant and so they blame immigrants, but what they *really* mean is that they want economic security.
However, where I think this discourse needs to go is to ask what role this ignorance, or white innocence, plays in perpetuating US imperialism inside and outside of the US, and what role this ignorance, or innocence, has played in allowing Europe to expand its empires everywhere. If, until now, the white working and middle classes have not realized the connections between capitalism and racism, then it is not a matter of innocent ignorance – it is a matter of willful ignorance. European and US capital remains unscathed; the blame has so easily fallen on people of colour and immigrants that they have not even had to justify themselves. When I found out that members of my Dutch family voted for right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, I found myself shocked. Even though they knew us? Even though we had grown up together? Why? Because they could see economic cuts being made around them; they could see that they would not live the life their parents had lived. Things were being taken away from them. Yes, I agree. But by who? Who is cutting the European welfare state? Not the people you think. But how can we excuse this type of innocent ignorance? How can we make excuses for it when we know the very real consequences it has?
In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party developed an entire program that showed how US capitalism is racialized – the two cannot be separated. Before them, Black scholars and activists had made this same connection. The slave trade is emblematic of this coming together of capital and race; it could not have happened without the development of both of these systems. The spread of capital needed racism; the spread of racism needed capitalism. And so the Black Panthers realized something that still rings true: liberation meant that both had to go. The Black Panthers have been criticized for not reaching out to the white working class at the time, and for instead organizing along racial lines. Not only is this historically inaccurate, but it puts the blame on the Panthers for another instance of white innocence/ignorance. Now obviously the US state and ruling class played a big role in brutally crushing the US working class, the unions, the Left, as well as any collaborations between the white working class and the non-white working class. They knew that once that alliance was made, there would be a real threat to US capitalism, and no one has shown this better than Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States.”
The point of this post is not to say that white people should be more aware, or to suggest that it is all about race and not about capitalism. In fact the Black Panthers clearly articulated the dangers of the rising Black middle class and how they had been co-opted by the US ruling class. This is something we see across the postcolonial world as well, and something Fanon talked about: the native class that imitates the Western elites. This class gets its power precisely from its class position: it is the class that opens up markets for transnational capital after colonial rule could no longer play that role. The point instead is to point at where the fissures between race and capital lie, and to show that we cannot understand the decision by the white working and middle classes today to vote based on their own economic interests as separate from a long history of them ignoring how their interests depend on the exploitation of others.
It is this white silence, and the history of this white silence, that is important not to excuse. Yes, the white working class and the white middle class are suffering, in both the US and Europe. Yes, neoliberalism has affected them greatly, and yes, they will not live the lives they thought they would. But that does not detract from the fact that in the hierarchy of these countries, they are still – by virtue of their race – above many others. What Fanon has called the zone of being. Their innocent misunderstanding of how this zone is dependent on the zone of non-being has historically caused immense suffering and destruction. Their ignorance of how their position is dependent on the exploitation of others has allowed European and US imperialism to spread without much resistance. They are concerned with their lives, as we are all taught to be, like good individualistic subjects. They work to make a living, and they vote based on their economic interests. The point is that, not everyone has that privilege.
Historically there have been instances of massive solidarity with non-white struggles on the part of the white working class. Unions have often looked at racism and sexism and how they interact with class. There are enough historical precedents for us not to accept the excuse of white innocence today, and for us not to engage in the discourse of understanding the white working class as acting on economic motivations alone because they still do not see – or do not want to see – the ways in which these are tied to racism and imperialism. My Dutch family member who voted for Wilders is someone I can empathise with from an economic point of view; but her actions have broader consequences. She is able to ignore the effects of her actions and her views, just as I’m sure Dutch people – working class or not – decades ago were able to do when the Netherlands brutally colonised other countries. But the question is: who has the privilege of being ignorant? And who pays the price?
* The idea of white innocence comes from Gloria Wekker’s book on the Netherlands, in which she explores a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.
The recent image out of France that show policemen surrounding a woman who is removing her veil have struck many people because of how overtly Islamophobic they are. France – a country that constructs itself as being open and secular – recently imposed a fine on women who wear a ‘burqini’ at the beach. This announcement was controversial, and seeing images of this fine in action is bringing even more attention to the new rule.
What struck me about this image and this story in general is the clear ways in which different structures are intersecting with one another in order to produce this one moment in time. I have seen some of the commentaries talk about how this demonstrates yet another instance of patriarchy and sexism: men telling women what they can and cannot wear. My own reaction was to affirm this – it does seem to be a common denominator when it comes to the different types of violence faced by women across the globe. Women’s bodies are put under the control of patriarchal norms through a variety of mechanisms, from laws to domestic violence to street harassment. The effect of these myriad mechanisms is that women are constantly conscious of what we look like, how we dress, how we take up space (public or private), and how we interact with men. It is a daily reality to know, on some level, that you are never really safe from some type of intrusion – whether it be sexual harassment or severe sexual violence. There are a whole range of ways in which patriarchy – exercised mainly through men but also through women – controls women’s bodies.
But this is not the whole story. This photo and this moment are also a clear instance of a very racialized interaction. We see white French policemen surrounding a woman who appears to be of Arab descent and who is veiled. In Europe today the veil and Muslim identity in general has often been made to represent a ‘cultural’ identity when in fact it is a heavily racialized one. It is not a distinction between “French” and “Muslim” culture – whatever these are – but between white French and Brown/Black not-quite-French. And so we see that alongside patriarchy there is racism as a determining structure. Indeed it is not Brown policemen who are carrying out this act – even though it could have been. This shows that it is not about the race of the actual individuals involved; it could just as easily have been a Brown policeman who fined this woman and stood by and watched her undress (just as it could easily have been a policewoman). What is behind these agents is, again, structural: it is a legal system, a collection of norms and values, an economic system, and a political system. It is these that produce agents, and it is here that we need to locate race and whiteness. This is precisely the myth of secularism: that it is value-free, neutral, that it avoids the subjectivity of religion. And yet we have seen time and time again that secularism in France is white and that it is increasingly being produced through a clear distinction between us and them – white and non-white – French and not-quite-French.
And so the intersections between race and gender are clear – not just any race in France could have produced a law or rule that would fine the wearing of the burqini. And not just any gender in France would have allowed for such a blatant instance of the policing of women’s bodies. These are both racist and sexist mechanisms of rule – and both can be exercised by any race of by any gender, even as they disproportionately impact one race and gender more than others. As I wrote elsewhere:
We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s mainstream media in Europe, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims and/or Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive and modern Europe is, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/or as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (despite this drawing them into a capitalist structure of repression). Not only does this create a narrative of women in Europe being ‘free,’ which is far from the case; it simultaneously creates the narrative of women who do not look like European women (whatever that is) or act like European women as backwards/traditional. Once this narrative is constructed, it becomes the lens through which women in non-European cultures are understood.
Other commentaries have focused on capitalism and class as a means of explaining why these types of incidents are becoming more common. Here we see the European economic crisis and a slow down in accumulation as an explanation for why nationalism and the right-wing are gaining ground. And certainly it is important to understand the class dynamics present in this picture: the particular position of Muslims in France’s economic structure; the role France has played in exploiting colonies in Africa as an instance of primitive accumulation; and finally the particular class dynamic within government structures such as the police and the military. Indeed the class position and history of Algerians – for instance – in France is very different from that of other African or Arab migrants to other European countries or to the United States and UK. It is the particular interaction of class and race that lends much-needed context to these types of images, particularly in European countries where migrants (a term applied to most people who are not white, regardless of how many generations have lived in Europe) are often seen as “stealing welfare and not working.” Here the language of productivity has been key to demonizing non-white Europeans – they are seen as lazy and unwilling to work. The trick here is that those who do work and fulfil their duty as active (capitalist) citizen are still not really there yet – not quite white.
I have tried to think through this moment by turning back to the older triad of race/gender/class. I think each structure and the relations it produces in and of itself cannot explain this instance or the heavy baggage behind it. Taken alone they also cannot explain the current articulation(s) of French secularism. Finally, they also do not explain the silence on the part of French and European feminists to what is blatantly an instance of male control over female bodies. But together we see that they condition one another and clearly produce this moment through their intersections.
We have seen the intersection of these structures over time and through history. Indeed this image brings back other images from decades ago; images of Algerian women in Algeria being forced to unveil by the French, for instance. It is an old story. A story so old that it is deeply ingrained in the fabric of French society and culture. Secularism in France is white and founded on a binary between white and non-white (civilized and uncivilized as they used to say back in the day), and once we accept that, images such as these should no longer be that surprising.
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.
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.
* In the 1970s, Angela Davis visited Egypt. These excerpts are from a chapter in her book Women, Culture and Politics.
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.
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.
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.
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.