Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – feminism and 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and because I find myself about to move again, I’ve been thinking a bit about this past year and the many ways in which I have both confronted new challenges and ways of thinking and at the same time the ways in which many of the same debates and issues have kept coming back. The circular process of working through issues and questions is always so interesting to me, because of how new experiences and new knowledge can so easily be reworked into old ways of understanding things rather than open new spaces of thought. This has become especially clear to me on a personal level, where so many unconscious patterns, habits, and reactions continue to structure the way I approach people, places, and experiences. More often than not, it seems like our responses are so reflexive and automatic, and this makes it so difficult to change patterns that we know can be damaging or restrictive. Realising this in terms of my own personal life made me reflect on how this affects broader structures – we become so attached to how we perceive the world that it becomes difficult to change it in any drastic way. And above all, so much of this is unconscious. I am a big believer in the strength of the unconscious and really think that we are not conscious of so much of what we think and feel. This highlights not only why we often work through emotional issues unknowingly (which of course adds stress) but also highlights the importance of the media in impacting these unconscious ways of perceiving the world.

I think nothing highlights this contradiction between growing and yet coming back to the same place as much as my relationship with feminism. Feminism continues to be close to me not because I’m a woman and experience sexism daily, but because I still see it as one of the most politicised disciplines/movements available to anyone working within a postcolonial framework. Nevertheless, I have continued to come back to the “battle” between liberal feminism and postcolonial feminism, and the continuing impossibility of building bridges between the two. This came full circle at a panel I attended last week at a conference in Washington DC. The panel was comprised of some of the most well-known feminists working on the Middle East, and it seemed that the main issue was the following: By being so obsessed with countering Orientalism and countering Islamophobia, we have lost sight of what is happening on the ground in Middle Eastern countries and in fact have been so scared of criticising Islamists because we might be seen as being Orientalist that Islamists have gotten away with a lot simply because of that. While I have no doubt that this does happen – there is little doubt that many postcolonial feminists are careful about what they say and where they say it in order to not be co-opted by Western imperialist discourse – I think it sets up a binary that does a disservice to some of the amazing work being done by scholars and organizers working on/in the Middle East, who consistently view the issue in a nuanced manner. It seems strange to me to separate Orientalism from what is happening on the ground in Egypt, for example, since it is clear that global structures that are detrimental to the Global South have very clear and specific effects on Egyptians. So to talk about gender in Egypt without talking about neoliberalism, the continued effects of Orientalist cultural and media production, or the global gender regime that is heavily racialized, would be to talk about gender and Egypt in a vacuum. And so I suppose my point is this: we keep having to do the same things and argue the same points because those structures are still around. Feminists were writing against Orientalism in the 1950s and 1960s and feminists today continue to write about it because it is still there, even though it has changed in some ways. Indeed this is where the circular nature of things comes in – some of the very same debates that were happening back then, are happening again now. Not necessarily because they weren’t resolved, but because they could not be resolved without changes in the very structures and relations that were being debated.

Another shift that has happened in my feminist thinking has been re. intersectionality. I think there is little doubt that intersectionality has been one of the most formative theories to emerge in Black feminist studies, and has been central to my own development. But I think the time has come to ask some critical questions about where intersectionality has been taken these past few years, and what this means. I still stand by intersectionality as it was formulated in the early 1990s by Black feminists, and I think that what was articulated then was full of radical potential. However, looking at the academic work coming out on intersectionality now (and I emphasise that my critique is towards intersectionality in academia, not in movements/organising), it seems clear that something has gone wrong. When a liberal feminist can happily use intersectionality and therefore claim to be critical, something is off. It should come as no surprise that once intersectionality became part of the neoliberal academy it became simultaneously sanitised and de-radicalised. But the question remains: where to go next?

A final shift has been my introduction to more Marxist forms of feminism, and the potential they hold. I still remember sitting in my supervisor’s office in January this year and talking to him about intersectionality. He had an issue with it because he thought there was a problem with saying “intersectional feminist” as if that clarified anything ontologically. He went on to argue that Gramscian feminism and Marxist feminism generally held more promise, and at the time I wasn’t sure I agreed. Now I am starting to see his emphasis on materiality and why forms of feminism that do not take it seriously are bound to miss out on the essence of women’s oppression. The usual critique of Marxist feminist approaches is of course the claim that they do not theorise race, religion, or other social markers. This may have been the case back in the day but it certainly isn’t the case now. In fact some of the most complex theorisations of race and feminism I’ve seen this year came from feminists using Marxist frameworks. Understanding the dialectic between race and modes of production is made central and this makes it impossible to take seriously forms of feminism that ignore either race, neoliberalism, or the way the two co-constitute one another.

And so I guess that’s why I titled this post plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Because it seems to be the same set of questions, the same issues, the same contradictions that I was thinking through last year. And yet so much has changed. New inspirations, new approaches, and a lot of new experiences. It seems increasingly clear to me that we will continue to deal with so many of these central issues simply because not much is changing structurally. And perhaps what has surprised me most of all is the universality of the gender “problem.” Of course sexism plays out differently in different times and spaces. And of course it is intertwined with other structures such as race and religion. And yet…the more places I live in, the more it strikes me that there is a global regime of gender oppression that functions differently and yet also so similarly. And it seems more and more difficult to think of dismantling it in any meaningful way. So maybe this is where Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will comes in.

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