The Problem with “Innocent” Ignorance: Racism, Whiteness & the Working Class

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.

Angela Davis in Egypt: on feminist solidarity

angela-davis

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about feminist solidarity and how it can be created. On the one hand, the legacy of Western feminism has made solidarity an extremely difficult feat, while on the other hand, there are multiple examples of successful feminist organizing between different groups of women. I have always been interested in the ways in which non-white women internalize or resist hegemonic Western ideas, especially within the feminist movement. How do Arab feminists see African-American feminists, for example? Do they internalize Western feminist misconceptions about black women, or do they more readily identify with black feminists and see them as allies against both global patriarchy and Western feminism that tends to exclude non-white women? I realise this is a very broad question and that it differs from woman to woman, but at the same time the tactics of divide and rule exercised by hegemonic groups often tend to be very successful and for this reason I have always been particularly interested in solidarity between different groups of feminists.

I just finished a chapter by Angela Davis in her book ‘Women, culture and politics’ which was based on her experiences visiting Egypt. I had been looking for this chapter for months, because I thought it would be an especially interesting text on how transnational feminism could look like if practiced from a postcolonial, Marxist perspective. Angela Davis is of course one of the most famous African American feminists, known for her Communist views and anti-racism activism. I also thought it would be interesting in terms of understanding how a feminist from an African-American background would relate to feminists from an Egyptian background. In other words, would she reproduce white feminist ideas about Egyptian women or relate to Egyptian women because of her own (negative) experiences with Western feminism?

She begins her story with this:

When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectemy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.

Davis therefore already makes clear her position: she doesn’t want to be part of a project that aims to save Egyptian women from female circumcision. She goes on to talk about how she had trouble with the “myopic concentration” on female circumcision in U.S. feminist literature on African women, which often implied that women would magically be liberated once they managed to end female circumcision, or “once white Western feminists accomplished this for them.” These feminists sensationalise the issue to such a degree that they become insensitive to the dignity of the women in question. This in turn makes the act of solidarity impossible because these women are not equal human beings but rather objects to be saved.

Davis draws the connection between the obsession with female circumcision on the part of American feminists with their obsession with birth control and black women:

It is easy to understand why that movement, as righteous as its intentions may have been, aroused hostility in Afro-American women, because it often portrayed us as bestial and oversexed, indiscriminately reproducing in such numbers that the rule of the white majority might be ultimately challenged.

This is the first connection Davis draws between Egyptian women and African-American women, and it is in relation to the way Western feminists have approached both groups. She goes on to point out that while many Americans express disgust at female circumcision, they don’t think twice about the lengths to which some American women go in order to surgically change their bodies and conform to social standards of beauty that are set by a capitalist patriarchal system. She ends the anecdote by writing: “I realised that I could not in good conscience write about genital mutilation and other examples of sexual oppression in Egypt without acknowledging the manipulation of these problems by those who fail to consider the importance of the larger economic-political context of male supremacy.” She therefore situates herself in solidarity with Egyptian women right from the start: she is sensitive to the way in which female circumcision has become an issue of ‘white women saving brown women’ and clearly states that she would never be a part of that.

A quote from an Egyptian feminist named Dr. Shehida Elbaz whom she meets is especially striking:

Women in the West should know that we have a stand in relation to them concerning our issues and our problems. We reject their patronising attitude It is connected with built-in mechanisms of colonialism and with their sense of superiority. Maybe some of them don’t do it consciously but it is there. They decide what problems we have, how we should face them, without even possessing the tools to know our problems.

A recurrent theme throughout the chapter is her focus on class, women, and global capitalism. For example, she mentions the many homeless people she came across on her trip from the airport. It is not new to hear visitors comment on the prevalence of poverty when they visit Egypt. What struck me, however, was that she explicitly linked it to Sadat and capitalism:

This (homelessness) was the the legacy of Sadat’s open-door policy: the transnational corporations that had greedily rushed into Egypt under the guise of promoting economic development had created more unemployment, more poverty, and more homelessness.

She then linked this increase of poverty with sexual relations, which was very different from other feminists who have visited Egypt and spoken about sexual oppression(s). Instead of approaching it from a cultural or religious perspective, she made the clear links between the economy, liberalisation, and the effects on the family and women.

Elbaz argues that Egyptian women began to suffer more after the open-door policy and the new connections with the US and Israel. She quotes Hoda Badran:

The economic system in Egypt, because it is tied to the West, is hindered from being productive. Egypt is being transformed into a consumer society. In a situation where you don’t have jobs and people try to find scapegoats…that is why there is more prejudice against women. Also in a country which has been transformed into a consumer society, it is easy, through the mass media, to use women as sex objects.

Another interesting anecdote was when Angela was having dinner with women at the house of an Egyptian feminist and she mentioned that she had been asked to write an essay on Egyptian women and sex. Before she could explain that she had decided not to, the room erupted into anger. She writes about how her initial response was to be defensive, especially when she saw how angry the women were. “I laboured to convince myself to refrain from attempting to defend my own position. After all, was I not in Egypt to learn about the way Egyptian women themselves interpreted the role of sexuality in their lives and their struggle? And was I not especially interested in their various responses to the unfortunate chauvinism characterising attitudes in the capitalist countries toward the sexual dimension of Arab women’s lives?”

She managed to overcome her initial defensiveness (an almost reflexive response) and instead try and learn from the experience. This made me wonder why it is that so many other feminists can’t do the same? She went on to say that she understood the anger: the Egyptian women she was with were emphasising that an isolated challenge to sexual inequality would not solve the problems associated with economic and political dependency, which affect both women and men.

Latifa Zayat said this to Angela:

If you were simply an American research worker, I wouldn’t have come to see you. I would have even boycotted this meeting, because I know that through this research we are being turned into animals, into guinea pigs. I would boycott any American who is doing research on Arab women because I know that we are being tested, we are being listed in catalogs, we are being defined in terms of sexuality for reasons which are not in our own interests.

I think that is honestly the best statement I have ever read on why social science research on Egyptian women is so problematic.

To go back to the discussion about sex and Egyptian women, it struck me how much of a sensitive topic this still is. This is not to say that sexual justice is not important to Egyptian women and men, or that Egyptian feminists ignore it. Rather it is to unpack the reactions on the part of these Egyptian feminists to the suggestion that Angela write on sex and nothing else. The regular obsession on the part of the West (in which Angela was situated by these women) with “sex” in the Arab world was and is tiring, and if anything only leads to a situation in which it becomes less of a priority precisely because it is obsessed over by foreigners. This not only serves to separate it from economic, social and political issues which are all interrelated, but it also constructs Egyptian men/culture as backwards and barbaric, as well as static.

Angela Davis goes on to quote Fathia al Assal’s comment about how women should not be shy to discuss sexual liberation, since history shows that private property emerged at the moment when women became the sexual property of their husbands. This constant linking between women’s problems and the economic situation is a trend throughout the chapter.

Even when it comes to the veil, Davis is careful to note not only the problematic Western obsession with it, but also the different reasons for the veiling resurgence in Egypt, as well as the fact that it differs from class to class. She shows through her conversations with many women how it is a very complex subject with literally hundreds of understandings and explanations. That said, her focus on the veil even after she critiques the tendency of Western feminists to focus on it shows her pervasive the fascination with veiling is.

It is clear that Davis identities with Egyptian feminists on multiple levels. One important one is in the way they conceptualise patriarchy, which they see as a system that oppresses both men and women, and as a set of relations that constructs masculinities and femininities that are harmful to everyone. This means that feminism’s goal is not to wage war against men, but rather to wage war against patriarchy, alongside men if possible.

What becomes clear from the chapter is the willingness to learn and listen on the part of Angela Davis. She came to Egypt expecting not to “know” anything, and this made her receptive to the multiple viewpoints and experiences she encountered. She didn’t come to help or save, but just to see. Even when she was angrily attacked by Egyptian women for mentioning an article on sex; even when she came into contact with practices she found different; even when she found herself unable to communicate with many Egyptian women; she was always open and self-critical. She constantly questioned herself and her opinions, and not once made a condescending or patronising comment or observation. She was constantly aware of her own privilege and bias, and was always making connections between Egypt and the imperialist countries (especially the US) and between different oppressive structures that affect Egyptian women.

So now I want to ask: how many feminists who have visited or worked on Egypt can say they’ve done the same?

Transnational feminist solidarity is possible. But it means unlearning, forgetting, and being humble and open. I started reading the chapter hoping that her experiences would show that solidarity is possible, as difficult as it is. And they did. I’m sure this is partly because she is a Communist and because as an African-American woman is sensitive to Western feminism’s problems. But it also seems to be because she has adopted a critical perspective that allows her to constantly question herself before questioning others, something that I am sure is crucial to any relationship of solidarity.

Her final quote:

The goal of women’s equality in the fullest sense might not be attainable in Egypt’s immediate future, but I felt profoundly moved by the invincible determination of so many women to keep the fires of their struggle burning.

Voting and the question of meaningful change

Just now I was browsing through my favourite news site (commondreams.org) and I realized most of the pieces are on the US election. Commondreams is a more leftist site, and so most of these articles tend to be pro-Obama. It got me thinking, for the millionth time, why so many American progressives/leftists are ignoring all of Obama’s faults in a series of desperate bids to win him this election? We get it: Romney would be worse. But Obama is far from what these leftists/progressives stand for. To many outsiders, it seems like the US system just keeps reproducing itself with a new face every 4-8 years. Whether that’s Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Romney, it’s likely that the US will continue to be a negative force in the global geopolitical arena, with wars, drones, and continued economic dominance over other countries.

Then I started thinking about Egypt’s last presidential election, between Ahmed Shafiq and Mohamed Morsi. And realized I was kind of being a hypocrite. During that election, which many Egyptians saw as having to choose between two horrible candidates, it was traumatic to have to support either the Muslim Brotherhood or the regime the 2011 revolution tried to bring down. And the question that kept coming up was: WHY? Why are we in this position, one year after having a revolution? Why do we have to choose between these two candidates when we know Egypt has so much more to offer?

The answer is that the system is too strong. In the US and in Egypt, widespread discontent with policies are not enough to bring about change. In Egypt even a revolution wasn’t enough to ensure that we could choose between more than just two Mubarak-era figures. The US seems to be in a similar situation, where the system is proving to be much stronger than the people. In the end, we are left with these ‘choices’ that are supposed to convince us that we live in a ‘democracy.’ But really, what’s the difference? Is Shafiq that different from Morsi? Were either of them actually going to bring about social justice, dignity, bread and freedom – the main demands of the revolution? Are either Romney or Obama going to create an economic system in the US that is fair and just? Are they going to end discrimination? Are they going to prevent the US from continuing to be an imperialist force int he world that brings death and destruction to countless people? Or are the institutions and class interests too strong to be influenced by the people through a system of voting?

In the words of Jean Paul Sartre,

When I vote, I abdicate my power — that is, the possibility everyone has of joining others to form a sovereign group, which would have no need of representatives. By voting I confirm the fact that we, the voters, are always other than ourselves and that none of us can ever desert the seriality in favor of the group, except through intermediaries. For the serialized citizen, to vote is undoubtedly to give his support to a party. But it is even more to vote for voting, as Kravetz says; that is, to vote for the political institution that keeps us in a state of powerless serialization.

Since by voting I affirm my institutionalized powerlessness, the established majority does not hesitate to cut, trim, and manipulate the electoral body in favor of the countryside and the cities that “vote the right way” — at the expense of the suburbs and outlying districts that “vote the wrong way.”

I’ve heard countless people say “Not voting means giving up your power.” Really? What power, exactly? Can’t the act of voting itself be seen as giving up one’s power?

I remember myself clearly telling people that Morsi was horrible, but he was better than Shafiq. It was better to have someone like him than to bring the regime back to power. And I guess that’s what many American leftists are doing by supporting Obama: pointing out that while Obama has faults, Romney would be much worse.

But is this it? Is this just the reality of politics? We accept the fact that we actually don’t have power, and that decisions are made behind closed doors? Accept the fact that even revolutions aren’t always powerful enough to change things?

Why am I going to vote? Because I have been persuaded that the only political act in my life consists of depositing my ballot in the box once every four years? But that is the very opposite of an act. I am only revealing my powerlessness and obeying the power of a party. Furthermore, the value of my vote varies according to whether I obey one party or another.

Actually, everything is quite clear if one thinks it over and reaches the conclusion that indirect democracy is a hoax. To vote or not to vote is all the same. To abstain is in effect to confirm the new majority, whatever it may be. Whatever we may do about it, we will have done nothing if we do not fight at the same time — and that means starting today — against the system of indirect democracy which deliberately reduces us to powerlessness. We must try, each according to his own resources, to organize the vast anti-hierarchic movement which fights institutions everywhere.

The Power of Discourse

A few weeks ago,  I woke up to the news that Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old Iraqi refugee in America, died after being beaten by a group who entered her home. The mother of five was found with a note that read: “Go back to your country. You are a terrorist.” Read more here. (The story seems to have changed now; it is no longer clear who killed her. I’ll keep the example however since it illustrates the point I’m trying to make.)

My first reaction was to think of Trayvon Martin, a similarly racialized crime that happened very recently. I then began to think of the many discourses (or not so many, actually) that are present in the west about Muslims, Arabs, the Middle East, and Iraq. These discourses inevitably lead to some sort of violence against these groups, whether symbolic or actual. When entire groups are dehumanized or painted in a negative way, the risk of them being attacked/marginalized is huge. Someone tweeted that they hold everyone who is Islamophobic and spread these discourses in society personally accountable for what happened to Shaima, and I completely agree. Discourses & ideas are not just abstract things that float above us – they form us and impact our behaviour. They are very, very real.

Then I began to think of the Middle East, and the way the Salafis have spread their ideology during the past 30 years to the point of it constituting several major discourses in society. If we argue that Islamophobia lead to Shaima’s death, then shouldn’t we also be self-critical and question how certain Salafi ideas are leading to the dehumanization & marginalization of specific groups in Egypt, including the Copts, women, and liberals? It is clear tat Egypt has become increasingly conservative, largely due to the funding coming from Saudi/Qatar as well as the millions of Egyptians that went there to work during the oil boom. What kinds of discourses did they bring back? How did these discourses spread through society? How do they impact people in a very real way?

A final example is in the Netherlands, where discourses about Muslims/Moroccans/Turks/Surinamese etc are overwhelmingly negative. Some of my Dutch liberal friends *somehow* think these discourses are just “annoying little things that don’t really mean anything.” I beg to differ. These discourses are what led to what happened to Shaima, are what justified the invasion of Afghanistan & Iraq, are what cause many Dutch people to make extremely racist remarks and think it’s okay since they’re just saying what they think. These discourses hurt people, they marginalize people, they put people into boxes that are difficult to get out of.

As Foucalt said, discourses do not constitute themselves. They are produced by us & at the same time produce us. This makes them much more powerful than we think.

The issue of “culture”

I think one of the most dominant pillars of the current Euro-American neocolonial project is the way it has used the notion of “culture” to oppress those in the East while at the same time freeing itself. There is little doubt that when a violent or negative event happens at the hands of someone who is not a white male, more often than not, that event falls on the shoulders of everyone in the race/gender/class/religion that the single person who committed the event is from. So when a Muslim man steals, this reflects on all Muslims. When a black woman abandons her child, this reflects on all black people. At the ideological level, this has become very predominant lately. When one Muslim is homophobic, not only are all Muslims homophobic – Islam itself is homophobic. When a woman spends hours in front of the mirror doing her hair, not only are all women obsessively into appearances – the female gender has some intrinsic quality that makes them obsess about appearance.

I was just watching an interesting lecture with Lila abu-Lughod, who criticizes this idea that “cultures of violence” only exist in lands far away from America. She points out that everyday in the US, women are raped, beaten, abused, and stigmatized – but American culture is never blamed. But when the focus is on Egyptian “culture” or Nigerian “culture” or Colombian “culture”, suddenly the violence becomes cultural. The problem with this is not only that it essentializes culture into one homogenous thing, but it is the fact that these discourses apply to “Others” and not to those who are in power. When a white male steals money from millions of Americans, this does not reflect on all white males, nor on American culture, nor on Judeo-Christianity. It reflects only on him. In other words, it is individualized. If he were anything but white, it would have been collectivized – i.e. all people sharing those characteristics would have been made to carry the burden/stigma.

A while ago I wrote a post on the global LGBTQ movement, and Steffo left this amazing comment in reply to another reader who asked what Muslims should do to fight homophobia, even if it was a result of colonial policies:

Homophobia/ queerphobia/ transphobia are always horrible, yes. But we have to look at the fact that if a colonized person is homophobic, that is made to represent their culture as a whole— this does not happen for the colonizers. So when homophobic or transphobic hatecrimes are carried out by white people, this is not seen as representing all white people. We do not find people saying that “white people are homophobic.” But when brown people do bad things, they are seen to represent all brown people. This is racist.

This is exactly what we need to fight against. Why are 2 billion Muslims suffering now because one man crashed into a building in New York? Why are all African-Americans seen as lazy and sexually promiscuous? Why are Eastern Europeans seen as opportunistic and violent? These discourses are extremely prevalent in not only the mainstream media but in academic and intellectual circles as well. This shows how effective the Empire has been at locating certain issues in “culture.”

Cultural arguments are distributed unevenly around the world as explanations for what we are seeing, and if I had to think of one culture to blame for the violence affecting women in the Arab world, it would be that of armed conflict and militarism exemplified by invasions and occupations, like the US of Afghanistan and Iraq; and of Israel to Palestine. We don’t normally relate militarism to American culture or to Judaism or Protestantism, though in these cases, one could say that. But we don’t. We call it politics. And we see that it is connected to economics and so on (Lila abu-Lughod).

Lila gives an example from Palestine, where she shows how Palestinian feminists have traced forms of family violence to the larger political situation of harassment, humiliated men living in poverty, of besieged families living in fear in inhumane conditions. Palestinian women point at the larger structural issues affecting their lives, without brushing under the carpet local family issues. You cannot isolate gender relations from the context of occupation and simply blame it on “Palestinian/Islamic culture.” Not only is this simplistic, but I also don’t believe it is a coincidence or mistake. It happens, repeatedly, in order to produce people of colour/women/LGBTQs as essentially backwards/violent/problematic. 

This reminds me of an article I read last year about how the experiences of going through Apartheid in South Africa can be directly linked to the widespread violence among black men today in the country. The author gave a detailed historical overview of thee effects of Apartheid on black men; economically, politically, socially, psychologically, personally; and then went on to show how these are still manifesting themselves in modern-day South African society. But instead of analyses such as this one, we constantly hear how (black) South African men are naturally violent/can’t control themselves/dangerous and therefore that they need to be disciplined. Again, the reasons are “cultural” and in this case specifically “racial.”

As long as we focus on gendered violence of the personal sphere as though it were detached from the larger, global political sphere, and as long as we selectively blame other cultures or religions for women’s suffering instead of focusing on bigger structures that dictate how women live their lives, structures we in the west are hugely responsible for creating, we won’t be able to solve anything (Lila abu-Lughod).

Occupy the World

I was having a conversation with my best friend yesterday about the Occupy protests that have been spreading across the globe, and we talked about how scary it must be for those in power that these protests have gone global. For generations now, humans have been divided (often purposely) by sometimes artificial constructs like race, religion, gender, nationality, ideology, sexual orientation. For generations we have learned to see each other through prisms of identity that don’t say much about a person but are easy and neat. Categories have become the currency of identity and communication, and it is enough for us to know which boxes people fit into for us to judge them and decide whether we want to know more or not.

The last decade has seen an intensification of identity politics, with many countries across the globe becoming more nationalistic and more fanatic. The “Other” is an even stronger enemy today than it was decades ago, and this has divided us even more. Through all of this, it is easy to forget that there is more that unites than divides us, and that most of what divides us has been socially constructed for political ends.

So what is happening now across the globe must be absolutely terrifying for those controlling a system that thrives on divisions. October 15 saw Occupy events all over the world, from Tokyo to New York; Amsterdam to Seoul; Rome to Boston; Madrid to Costa Rica. Millions of people across the globe came together to protest the same issues: capitalism, a global political system that is destroying people, livelihoods, cultures, human relations, just so that the rich 1% can continue to accumulate wealth while everybody else falls deeper and deeper into debt, starvation, hopelessness.

Did the 1% ever expect this movement to come? Did they even think that people could unite, above all divisions, against a brutal economic/political/social system that is literally killing people as we speak?

Did they expect people to KNOW what was happening, to be AWARE of what the system was doing to them? Did they not realize that people were just exhausted from fighting for daily survival, tired from working working working, and so did not have the time or energy to rise up?

But this time they were pushed too far and it happened.

Starting with the revolutions in the Arab world and now with the Occupy movement, people are showing that they KNEW, they were AWARE, and now they are fighting back. The patriarchal, neo-colonial, capitalist system needs to come down. We shouldn’t be afraid of what comes after it – is chaos such a bad thing? We shouldn’t convince ourselves that capitalism and dictatorship are better because they are the enemy we know best. Humans are infinitely creative and capable, and we have seen that first with the revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa, and now with the Occupy protests. The world is changing, and it’s scary. But it’s also very, very exciting.

Sexual Harassment

Originally I had planned to write my Masters thesis on the issue of sexual harassment (SH), so I started doing research on the topic. Most of the work on it has come from the US, where sexual harassment first became a major issue in the workplace. One major explanation for SH was that it was a way for men to let women know: “you don’t belong in the public sphere, so we are going to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible.”  In this case the public sphere referred especially to the workplace, which until today is mainly the preserve of men.

I wondered whether this explanation made sense in the Egyptian context. SH has reached unprecedented levels in Egypt and has become a major social problem.  Many explanations have been given, mainly by the media, including economic problems keeping youth on the street, a conservatism couched in religiosity has been spreading, and a general degradation in morals due to strict dictatorship. None of them really seem to explain why SH is so widespread.

The public sphere argument made the most sense to me: men just didn’t want women to feel comfortable when they were out in the public sphere. They want women to feel out of place so that men can continue to feel that the street belongs to them. I feel this every single day when I leave my house to get into my car. Cars drive by honking, men who are standing around turn and look. All of it makes me want to step back inside and never leave the house again. And it definitely has a cumulative effect.

A few days ago, I interviewed Alaa al-Aswany, who is a famous Egyptian author (Yacoubian Building) and political commentator. We touched on the issue of SH and his explanation was that men did it because they felt humiliated by the state and society, and so felt the need to make someone else feel humiliated. This explanation makes the most sense to me for a few reasons. One is that men here don’t seem to harass because they think they will get a girl’s attention; they do it in a way that is just harmful, disrespectful, and demeaning. I’ve never felt that a guy harassing me is flirting or wants to talk to me – he just wants to make me feel bad about myself. Another reason is that Egypt is not a sex-deprived society, and so it cannot be the case that men are harassing for that reason. Also, Egyptians have been continually humiliated for decades, and this has hit the youth especially hard, so it makes sense that many people just want to make sure they aren’t in it alone; that they won’t be humiliated alone.

It is also possible that there isn’t *one* explanation for SH in Egypt. I definitely reject the argument made by some westerners that it is just “how Egyptians are.” Aside from being racist, essentialist and neo-Orientalist, it is also historically inaccurate since SH in Egypt is a new phenomenon. Until now, the two explanations above are the only convincing ones, and the only ones that could help explain why SH is so widespread. During the revolution, it is a fact that for 18 days, not a single case of SH was reported in Tahrir Square. What does this mean? Of course moments of euphoria, national consciousness, and bonding lead to positive behaviors, but then this would have lasted past the revolution. Instead, right after Mubarak stepped down, the SH resumed. My thoughts would be that this happened because the system hadn’t changed, and people continued to feel undignified in their everyday lives. Only when the entire system changes, will social issues like these disappear.

Some thoughts

I’ve been in Cairo for a week and a bit now, and until today wordpress wouldn’t let me write a new blog post :S Looks like it’ll finally work today!

A few things I’ve been thinking about lately…

I wonder how affected designer brands and the luxury sector in general are doing during this recession. Walking through malls in Cairo makes it look like they are doing just fine. Is this because the rich haven’t really been affected by the crisis, and in fact have probably continued to make more and more money? Following the revolution in Egypt, where many shops got vandalized, Starbucks re-opened weeks afterwards. I wonder whether small, family-owned businesses were able to do the same, whether they could afford it? Feels like the sad reality is that our current economic system is killing the poor; making the middle class struggle to just survive, and continues to make the rich richer.

Finding out more about US presidential candidates made me realize how fast the American empire is crumbling.  The economic crisis was the beginning; the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were another sign; but the sheer stupidity, racism, bigotry and homophobia found in the election campaigns are just ridiculous, and show why the US was never going to be an empire or superpower for long.  While large parts of the world are becoming more aware of neo-colonialism and societal problems, it seems like many Americans are becoming more and more racist, Islamophobic, and petty. Focusing on things like birth certificates and the building of mosques says a lot about current discourses in America.

Then again, Europe isn’t much better. On my plane ride from Amsterdam to Cairo there was a Dutch guy coming to “help Egyptians choose who to vote for.” In classic Orientalist style he was very worried about the “tension” between Muslims and Christians, and the “threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood. I was dying to ask him why he was even going to Egypt.  I would say Dutch people are in desperate need of help when it comes to “choosing who to vote for” – Wilders? Really?

Why does extreme poverty exist?

The Islamophobia Industry

Just came across an amazing blog called “muslimerican” and found this great post on the Islamophobia Industry in the US:

It would be hard for anyone to ignore the growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States. (If you hadn’t noticed it, this horrifying video will bring you up to speed.) The transition seemed to begin during the 2008 presidential campaign, when a segment of the Republican party used Islam as a smear against Democratic candidate Barack Obama. In 2010, the “ground zero mosque” controversy went further, establishing Islamophobia as a force to be reckoned with in mainstream American politics. While this seemed inevitable to some people, it was not a natural development; this was the the triumph of a well-oiled PR campaign.

In the last couple of decades, a full-blown industry has developed before our eyes, driven by best-selling authors, prominent media personalities, influential nonprofit organizations and terrorism “experts” all bent on portraying Islam and Muslims as threats to the United States. These voices include non-Muslims, ex-Muslims, and even a few self-styled “devout Muslims”.

He also adds some great links for anyone interested in the subject:

Sheila Musaji at The American Muslim (TAM) has taken the time to create a list examining almost every major anti-Muslim personality in the US. This is the most exhaustive tally I’ve seen, and it is being updated continuously: “A Who’s Who of the Anti-Muslim/Anti-Arab/Islamophobia Industry“.

A second list, compiled by media watchdog FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), is also helpful. “Smearcasters: Islamophobia’s Dirty Dozen” profiles 12 of the most prominent figures in the anti-Muslim industry. If you don’t have time to pore over Musaji’s list, be sure to look at this one; it is much more brief.

Finally, there are four outstanding pieces of journalism that explore the ins and outs of this world, revealing its disturbing influence in law enforcement circles and murky connection to right-wing politics. Pour yourself a cup of tea, get comfortable, and read these essays. What you learn will surprise you.