I wrote this post a year ago and just remembered it after seeing this quote from Toni Morrison:
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.
Radical feminism has always been a strand of feminism that I have been uncomfortable around. Part of this is because of my own internalized sexism that makes me shy away from very radical demands, especially in the realm of personal relationships, beauty standards, and so on. But a bigger issue I have had with it is its blatant Euro/US-centrism that makes it almost useless in contexts such as Egypt. I finally had a chance to read one of radical feminism’s most famous texts, “A Dialectic of Sex” by Shulamith Firestone. I have to admit that I was very pleasantly surprised, even as the text confirmed many of my problems with radical feminists. On the one hand, I see clear benefits in these kinds of texts – they are very clear in terms of identifying who is responsible for patriarchy and because of this they are able to make clear demands that movements can organize around. They also touch on parts of gender relations that other feminist strands tend to leave under-theorized, notably questions of love, relationships, and psychology. On the other hand, it is clear that these texts use European and American societies as the norm, and when they do mention non-Western societies it is usually to say that they are “more primitive” or that they are headed in the same direction as Western forms of patriarchy once they develop a little more. Some of the key differences I see between radical feminism and postcolonial feminism, for example, are in the ways that men are conceptualised, and how the family and culture are conceptualised. Another difference is that in texts such as Firestone’s that use Freud so heavily, there is bound to be the question of whether we can generalize about the “female psyche” across space and time. These are some of the questions I want to think through in this post.
A major problem I found was her ethnocentrism, which becomes clear at specific moments in the text. One example is when she writes about how turning to “primitive matriarchies of the past” as examples of times where patriarchy did not exist was “too facile.” She then goes on to quote Simone de Beauvoir to make her point. Her discussion of Black Power as well as the sexism of Black men in America is another moment that made me pause. Her heavily Freudian analysis seems to somewhat hide the more clearly racialized political and economic aspects of the Black question in America. In her attempt to argue that “racism is a sexual phenomenon” she seems to emphasize the sexual at the expense of the racial. So while she raises important questions about the ways in which Black men relate to Black women, for example, her attempt to answer these using Freud is problematic.
She then goes on to criticize Black women who did not call out the sexism of Black men in the Black Power movement, writing: “Why do black women, so shrewd about their men in general, settle for this patronizing, impersonal and uninspired kind of love?” Here again, because of her reliance on Freud as well as her totalizing views of women vs. men, Firestone is unable to locate these dynamics within broader societal structures. The Black Power movement was a movement against white supremacy and the extreme brutality with which it was met should partly explain why for Black women the issue of sexism was a very complicated one, and certainly more complicated than it was for White women. One only needs to read the memoirs of Angela Davis, Elaine Brown and other former Black Panthers to realize just how painfully aware they were of the balance between supporting Black Power and addressing sexism, homophobia, and so on. Firestone does not touch on any of these dynamics, showing the weaknesses of relying on sexuality (and Freud) as an overarching framework.
What I did like about Firestone’s book is the points she makes about love and relationships, because I think these issues have been under-theorized in strands of feminism such as postcolonial feminism. She talks about women’s constant need for approval, the ways in which male culture lives off of women’s emotional strength, the fact that for every successful relationship, there are 10 unsuccessful and destructive ones, and the role of envy and possessiveness in modern relationships. Above all, her point that love can never happen when there is an unequal power balance in a relationship is exceedingly important:
I submit that love is essentially a much simpler phenomenon – it becomes complicated, corrupted, or obstructed by an unequal balance in power. We have seen that love demands a mutual vulnerability or it turns destructive: the destructive effects of love occur only in a context of inequality (pp. 185).
This section also relies extensively on Freudian analysis, however. While I do not have an issue with this per se, I do think that Freudian analysis can sometimes become very detached from the material – the political, economic and social – and rely excessively on the psychic and the sexual (the sexual as psychological rather than material).
While Firestone admits that men are often in pain or suffering because they are socialized to be unable to love, she still does not make the point that this demonstrates how patriarchy is a system that creates suffering for all genders, not just women. Moreover, in her attempt to show how men treat women in relationships, she often generalizes in the extreme. For example she writes: “The question that remains for every normal male is, then, how do I get someone to love me without her demanding an equal commitment in return?” No doubt in many relationships there remains the issue of women committing more than men, but to universalize this to all “normal males” is quite the jump, and again reveals ethnocentrism (after all, is this the case across time and space?). Additionally, even in men where this is true, how do we deal with the question of awareness? In other words, I assume that this desire for love without commitment is often present in males without them being aware of it. This is precisely why patriarchy is so powerful, because so many of these desires have become subconscious or “common sense.” How then do we deal with it? Do we still see men as horrible perpetrators of sexism? Or is it deeper than that?
Overall, for a book that has become quite the classic feminist text I found it a bit disappointing in its over-reliance on Freudian analysis. I had expected the Eurocentrism because second-wave feminism is famous for that, but somehow I hadn’t anticipated that there would be so much Freud. The book left me thinking about how easy it is to organize a movement around texts such as this that are full of generalizations and that are very angry. And I mean angry in a good way, because I do think feminist texts should be angry. But is it possible to write a text like this today, considering where feminism is after the popularity of post-modernism? Probably not. And maybe that’s exactly why it has been almost impossible to form a feminist movement in recent decades, after the euphoria of first and second wave feminism, and the many critiques of these waves that emerged from postcolonial and Marxist feminists afterwards. We now have moment in feminism that is about critique and undoing the damage done by Eurocentric feminisms. This has come at a price, with more attention being paid to critique (of each other) than to imperialism, neoliberalism and other forces that are ravaging the globe.
To conclude, one thing I appreciated about Firestone’s book is the emphasis she put on Marx while also noting his limitations when it came to gender. She writes:
Marx was on to something more profound than he knew when he observed that the family contained within itself in embryo all the antagonisms that later develop on a wide scale within society and the state. For unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family, the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated. We shall need a sexual revolution much larger than – inclusive of – a socialist one to truly eradicate all class systems (pp. 30).
And yet she doesn’t show very clearly how this is supposed to happen. She often discusses women as an underclass, and yet rarely points to the international division of labour where some women (white, Western) in fact have more power than the majority of men. Indeed this is precisely why it is difficult to theorize women as an underclass, or even as the quintessential underclass. And yet perhaps this is the lesson: Firestone shows us that women are not an underclass – and have never been. Today’s underclasses are made up of men and women. Any feminism that fails to grasp this, and fails to see why we need to analyze different structures simultaneously, is unlikely to gain traction.
I’ve been thinking about feelings lately and the ways in which the validity of certain feelings and the invalidity of others act as forms of self-censorship of self-punishment. It wasn’t until I came across Sara Ahmed’s work on phenomenology and feminism that I was finally able to articulate some of the feelings I had towards being a feminist and the ways in which that is seen and the ways in which I am seen because of identifying with feminism. Sara Ahmed’s notion of always being a killjoy has been particularly useful because for me it sums up the crux of the matter: feminists are seen as killjoys, and for that reason it is something that is frowned upon, dismissed, made fun of, or even attacked violently.
It should come across as no surprise that calling oneself a feminist is not exactly something that makes one popular or wins over lots of people. The word feminist itself has become so associated with negative imagery that even within certain “critical” circles it’s become difficult to identify as a feminist. This is even more pronounced somewhere like Egypt where the term feminist comes with imperialist connotations, which, fair enough, do exist. But my concern is more with people who dismiss the term because it is “too radical” or “too hateful.” Feminists hate men, live in women-only enclaves, and are always angry. The problem is when we try to counter this argument by saying that “not all feminists” do those things or are like that, because that of course is a trap in and of itself. Plenty of feminists do take very radical approaches to men, and most are probably angry (as am I). But not subscribing to radical feminism (I’m not a big fan either, for different reasons) is still not enough of a reason to denounce feminism as a whole.
What is even more astounding about the feminist-as-killjoy “accusation” is that it is feminists who have to defend themselves by showing that they’re *not* angry, sensitive, PMSing, and so on. The burden of proof (proving our civility and happiness and proving that we won’t be killjoys) lies with feminists and women, so that we can show that while we may have specific views on gender, no need to worry since we’ll be careful not to bother you with them. So here the focus is not on patriarchy or the many reasons why women may be angry. Instead attention is deflected away from that and put on the women themselves.
I’m sure we’ve all had these moments (everyday) where someone says something sexist or does something sexist, and you point it out. Sometimes you even point it out as a joke so you don’t kill the mood *too much.* But still…the mood gets killed, people roll their eyes, everyone is like “oh that again” and somehow the whole conversation has become about the person pointing out the problem rather than the problem itself.
This is what I find fascinating…how disrupting hegemonic performances is such a threat that any disruption must be pathologized and attacked. Any attempt to disrupt an act of patriarchal masculinity or patriarchal femininity is met with so much resistance that over time the only effect is to wear down the person doing the disrupting. And this brings me back to my initial point – that this all ends with self-censorship. Not at the shallow level of censoring oneself consciously: “Oh, don’t say that cause he’ll respond with this.” It operates at a much deeper level by creating questions in ourselves about our own positionalities and our own beliefs. Above all, it creates questions about the validity of the feelings we are having. The question of over-reaction, of sentimentality, of anger, of PMS – these have all become all-too-common discussions I’ve had with feminist friends.
And yet these questions bring us straight back to square one – patriarchy functions precisely by assigning emotionality to women and rationality to men. Whether women are too angry, too happy, too flirty, or too dramatic, there is always a state of feeling – women are always feeling something, and feeling too much of it. It seems to me that the damage this has done to feminism is quite notable, in the sense that this has been transplanted onto feminists as well, who happen to be mostly women: feminists also feel too much, and react too often, to situations that are in fact quite rational and do not need to be reacted to in an overly-emotional manner.
And yet all of this creates, within women, a constant state of agitation. On the one hand, you notice hegemonic masculinity everywhere, and you see the ways in which patriarchy is performed, even among men who may identify with feminism. And this by itself is disconcerting, and often painful. On the other hand, the price of disrupting patriarchy is so high that you constantly have to ask yourself questions about the validity of what you are feeling. And yet, you felt something. But…did you really need to feel that way? Isn’t it just another case of you over-reacting? Maybe it’s that time of the month? Maybe you just need to see patriarchy everywhere since you’re a feminist and that’s what feminists do? Maybe it wasn’t intentional? But. I still felt a certain way.
Women are always told to doubt their feelings and question the validity of what they are feeling. I will never forget a conversation I had about a month ago, with a woman who I had just met. I was telling her about a guy situation, and that I felt angry, but that I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t think I had the right to be angry about what had happened. All she said was: “Ok. But you are angry. So what if you should or shouldn’t be?” And I actually stopped and thought…what a revolutionary way of looking at feelings!
This is not to say we shouldn’t be self-reflexive about how we feel and what we feel. As human beings (as in…men and women) we all over-react at times, are sensitive about certain issues, and get emotional when we’re hungry. But to my knowledge, only one sex is socialized to always question how they feel. And all this does, in the end, is make the distance between what we feel and what we *should* feel huge, and this doesn’t seem like anything but a form of self-punishment.
This post is inspired by a Facebook post I saw the other day that was posted by Black Girl Dangerous:
How would conversations between oppressed peoples with common interests be different if we didn’t spend so much time worrying about how privileged people who were listening in were gonna interpret/appropriate/use for their own agenda what we say to *each other*? We put so much energy into worrying about what they think that we miss opportunities to do the healing work we need for ourselves in our communities. Which, of course, is one very efficient way oppression operates.
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and something I am guilty of. It feels like a lot of feminist conversations these days revolve around critiquing white feminism rather than trying to create solidarity or a strong transnational feminist movement (white feminism here of course refers to the movement itself, not being “white” – many brown and black people, for example, adopt a white feminist approach). This is something I do too and have started to find problematic, not because it isn’t necessary but because it seems to create a momentum in and of itself that prevents non-white feminisms from moving forward. So in that sense I definitely relate to the quote above: worrying about how white women are going to interpret something we do or say is not only energy-consuming, it is ultimately pointless because no matter how many disclaimers you might add to something you write, many are simply going to see what they want and interpret it through their own theoretical lens and experiences.
I used to spend ages worrying about writing about gender in the Egyptian context precisely for this reason, because I knew that even admitting that gender oppression exists was enough to legitimate imperialist views and policies. To this day many feminists in the Middle East will not discuss issues such as female circumcision in specific spaces because they know it won’t be understood outside of the Arab-men-are-especially-barbaric narrative that has come to dominate. This makes it difficult to have transnational conversations because hegemonic understandings of feminism (white feminism, basically) continue to dominate. So in this sense, I understand why so many feminists focus on deconstructing white feminism, something I often do myself. I also think it’s important to continue to critique white feminism, but my question is whether it is useful to move away from focusing on that and instead focus more on constructing other solidarities.
But my frustration stems from the feeling that we are now at a point where white feminism has been critiqued and deconstructed, but that these critiques have not extended outside of the small bubble of postcolonial/critical/brown/black feminists. And I think this is why many of us continue to make these critiques. Even though they have been made a million times within this bubble, they still haven’t managed to become dominant and displace white feminism. But it seems to me that continuing to make them won’t change that: they will continue to fall on deaf ears. The reality is that white/liberal feminism continues to dominate, and in fact has transformed itself into an approach that appears to look critical but in fact is based on the same assumptions as first and second wave feminism. (I just want to add that I do understand the value of continually making these critiques in an emotional sense – the post is focused more on how to spread these critiques further.)
This morning I saw a Twitter exchange between two of my favourite feminists – Flavia Dzodan and Sara Ahmed, about white feminists and the often-racist articles they write. Sara Ahmed tweeted: “Yes when I read something like this I wish for it to be shocking but the familiar is exhausting, it gets hard to be shocked!” And this is exactly how I feel these days. I think she was referring to white feminism as the ‘familiar’ and I would add to that my own exhaustion of the familiarity of critiquing white feminism as well. It just seems too familiar.
This dynamic explains why whenever I start writing a piece on feminism by critiquing white feminism, I immediately feel like it’s already all been said and done. And it has – but only within the bubble. And here I use the term bubble instead of circle precisely because ‘bubble’ implies that it is somewhat removed from other groups and people (not to mention the fact that academia in general constitutes one big bubble). The question of how to move outside of the postcolonial feminist bubble (an even smaller bubble within the bubble of feminism) is a complicated one that I still haven’t managed to think through myself. Structural constraints are an important factor, including the continued dominance of positivist and liberal approaches in general, within which white feminism fits nicely. There is also the important point of internalized white/liberal ideas, which leads to many non-white scholars and activists reproducing problematic narratives that in the end aid in perpetuating a system that oppresses them.
A friend of mine suggested that the unwillingness on the part of postcolonial feminists to reach out and engage is part of the problem. I don’t really agree that this is the fault of postcolonial feminists. I think a large part of this is because of the structural constraints I mentioned before as well as the fact that many white feminists don’t want to engage as it would imply an admission of error on their part. Postcolonial feminism isn’t merely critiquing aspects of white feminism, but rather the entire ontology and epistemology underlying white feminism. In other words, there is no common ground, or little common ground, between white feminism and other forms of feminism that are critical or postcolonial. After having a conversation with @ebnee_e I also want to highlight that critique is a form of engagement, thus further proving that the lack of engagement isn’t really coming from the postcolonial feminist side.
On the other hand, I see my friend’s point in the sense that feminists often focus on feminism as a discipline that does not transcend itself. My own view is that gender relations are a part of all social relations and structures, and therefore gender studies should not exist as an isolated field in and of itself. Instead it may be more useful to focus on disciplines and try and understand how gender relations are part of social structures. A good example of this is how feminists working within International Relations have managed to critique the existing masculinist bias of most research and insist that gender relations become part of the agenda. In this sense, these feminists have forced other IR scholars to engage with them and address their critiques, and even though many IR scholars have resisted these new ideas, some have embraced them. In the end, it is clear that there is a feminist trend in IR, as small as it may be. I lean towards thinking of this as more useful than having feminism as an isolated discipline.
What is interesting, however, is that it seems as though postcolonial feminists have focused on working within a discipline that is not feminism – postcolonialism – and yet have still not managed to transcend the bubble. Postcolonial feminists have worked on politics, economics, psychology, sociology, and many other issues from not only a feminist perspective but a postcolonial one. This is why postcolonial feminists are such a major part of postcolonialism in general. And yet this has not managed to challenge the dominance of white feminism, even if it has made inroads in challenging the positivism and Eurocentrism of disciplines such as IR, sociology, economics, and so on. After thinking about it, it seems to me that critical feminists have managed to challenge specific disciplines by engaging with them because they have support from other critical voices within the discipline. So in IR, for example, it wasn’t only Cynthia Cockburn, Cynthia Enloe or Christine Sylvester making the critique that IR is Eurocentric, liberal and masculinist – other (male) scholars did so as well, and perhaps this is why it was somewhat successful.
So the question remains – how to create a challenge that is strong enough to displace white feminism? The problem does not seem to be theoretical or based on content – postcolonial feminism(s) certainly have done enough work in terms of deconstructing and problematizing white feminism. The problem lies more with reaching out. But this brings me back full circle: is it about reaching out, or is it about having someone willing to listen on the other side? I continue to believe that is is more about structural constraints (funding, the dominance of positivism, Eurocentrism) that prevent postcolonial voices from being heard (and this is not only a problem for feminists). I also think that isolating ourselves within a discipline and constituting feminism as a discipline in and of itself has done some harm, in the sense that other disciplines have managed to ignore gender relations. It seems as though only by forcefully engaging other scholars in multiple disciplines can feminists ‘bring gender in.’
The question of displacing white feminism, however, remains unanswered. It is not only about the unwillingness on the part of white feminists to listen and engage, but also about the fact that the current imperial neoliberal system continues to create situations of exploitation from which white (and well-off) women benefit. This is why the politics of privilege is so important and has to constitute the starting point of any transnational solidarity. But this is where we always get stuck. We end up with things like lean in feminism or campaigns by feminists for ‘Hillary 2016’ without any kind of self-reflexivity or acknowledgement that these strands of feminism actively oppress other women (and men). Moreover the continued exclusion of trans* and disabled women from white feminism further consolidates it as an exclusionary movement. The reality is that it is not about white feminists themselves (and these feminists don’t have to be white to adopt white feminism) or about what they say or do. It is about the underlying ontological assumptions they have and epistemological choices they make. A focus on liberalism is a key example of this. Because the critiques by postcolonial and critical feminists are so deep (in that they challenge the assumptions themselves), it is perhaps understandable why white feminism has been unwilling to engage.
Engagement in and of itself also doesn’t mean transformation. As is clear from the IR example, although feminists have engaged, and (some) IR scholars have engaged back, the discipline continues to reproduce its masculinist bias. While there are critical strands, there is by no means a critical consensus, as is the case across disciplines – again, I would argue, because of structural constraints. In this sense, feminism is not alone, although it is more extreme. Speaking to another friend, he asked me why the question of engaging white feminism was important to begin with. He suggested that it was impossible since there are no common grounds on which to engage them. This sits more comfortably with me. Rather than focus on feminism, then, it may be more useful to focus on postcolonialism, since postcolonialism challenges global structures and thus any critique of these structures will include a critique of white feminism. This will also allow feminism to transcend disciplinary boundaries and create transnational solidarities not simply among other feminists but among all groups. This approach would also mean an acknowledgement of the fact that gender is not an isolated structure but rather is produced and reproduced by and through other structures, including capitalism, racism, etc.
Perhaps, then, the question of engaging white feminists is what is problematic. Isn’t it better to construct solidarities with people who share the same ontological assumptions? In this sense, it is not about postcolonial feminism but about postcolonialism itself. Postcolonialism challenges not only white feminism but white supremacy as a totality. The global structure becomes the focus of critique and thus feminists are not isolated, because gender intersects with multiple other relations within this global structure. “The advantage of postcoloniality is that it unveils a global structure that can unite struggles that are not only feminist but also racial, etc. under one umbrella thus leading to a global revolution. The global revolution should be what postcolonial scholars aim at following their ontological and epistemological frames.”* Following this, the priority should be on building transnational alliances that are postcolonial and critical in nature, rather than constantly attempting to engage white feminism.
Going back to the quote at the beginning, maybe the answer is to focus less on critiquing white feminism and more on building transnational feminism. But this is difficult to do because white feminism constitutes the ‘gaze’ that structures knowledge production and activism, since it is dominant. Maybe the solution is to not just critique white feminism but go beyond that. I read an article that gave an overview of the field of African feminist studies, and the author pointed out that the most recent scholarship no longer focuses on critiquing white feminism and instead focuses more on internal dialogue.** This means not avoiding topics like female circumcision just because white feminism might co-opt your voice, but instead having the conversation as though white feminists are not listening in. Then again, this has its own risks because putting these narratives out there can easily be used to justify wars and other interventions that have concrete material effects on women of colour, as we saw with the war in Afghanistan and instrumentalization of Afghan women’s voices by Laura Bush and co. But can voices that are critical be instrumentalized in the same way? Perhaps the solution then, is to have internal dialogues that are critical. (Of course no dialogue is ever ‘internal’ but I mean in the sense that the audience addressed is not white feminists but other postcolonial and transnational feminists.)
So I suppose the conclusion is that I don’t have any answers, other than that the focus should move away from addressing white feminists towards creating solidarity with each other and other critical thinkers. I would love to hear thoughts from other people!
* Ahmed el Hady
** Twenty-Five Years of African Women Writing African Women’s and Gendered Worlds by Nwando Achebe
I just finished reading a fascinating critique of intersectionality by Eve Mitchell, which can be found here. I want to first go over her main argument, and then go into her proposed solution (Marxist feminism) and why I think a more Gramscian approach would be more useful.
Mitchell’s main point in the article is that intersectionality relies on identity politics, which is a bourgeois and individualistic approach to struggle that ignores the materiality underpinning gender and gender relations.
In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US.
Under capitalism, new gender relations developed, including:
- The development of the wage (theorized as a tool of coercion);
- The separation of production and reproduction (reproduction meaning more than having babies – also housework, taking care of family, etc) – reproductive labour was generally “free” while productive labour received a wage. This has been theorized as the ‘patriarchy of the wage’ since women tended to be in the reproductive sector;
- The contradictory development of the nuclear family – on the one hand, the nuclear family was strengthened through the gendered division of labour, while on the other hand it was weakened by the separation of men from women all day long while they were at work;
- The development of identity and alienation – “Women and people of color experience something similar in the development of capital; a shift from engaging in certain types of labor to engaging in feminized, or racially relegated forms of labor. To put it another way, under capitalism, we are forced into a box: we are a bus driver, or a hair stylist, or a woman. These different forms of labor, or different expressions of our life-activity (the way in which we interact with the world around us) limit our ability to be multi-sided human beings.”
Eve Mitchell’s critique thus revolves around this concept of identity and the alienation that accompanies it. Mitchell rightly points out that intersectionality arose in the US as a response to the gendered and racialized division of labour:
To be black meant to be objectified, relegated into one form of labor: producing and reproducing blackness. Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will.
She argues that women organized in order to break free from the alienation of ‘womanhood.’
Since women’s use of their bodies is a unique form of alienated labor for women under capitalism, it is historically the site of struggle for liberation.
This came up against the tendency in second wave feminism (and first wave I would argue) to focus on reforming capitalism as a means of emancipation: ‘equal wages for equal work.’ Both of these approaches used identity politics as a means of challenging oppressive systems. In other words, women organized on the basis of womanhood.
This continued with the theory of intersectionality. It was assumed that shared experiences formed as a bond between different kinds of women – “some individuals or groups are differentiated from other individuals or groups based on their experiences. This can be cut along many different identity lines.” Moreover, being oppressed puts you in a privileged position within the struggle – similar to the idea of standpoint theory, which argues that marginalized people have a more ‘authentic’ view on social reality, since they see both the workings of power and the effects of it (on the marginalized). This means that only the marginalized can write about their own experiences.
Mitchell’s main critique is that intersectionality is unable to overcome identity politics, and is in essence a bourgeois ideology. Mitchell agrees that it is essential to identify as a woman, or as black, or as queer – but that is not enough.
Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.”
Identity politics assumes that the basis for struggle is an equal distribution of individualism. “This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.” In other words, the increased individualism that is a result of the crisis of capitalism manifests itself in identity politics – even by those who claim to be anti-capitalist. Mitchell claims that ” theories of an “interlocking matrix of oppressions,” simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context.”
She is not the first person to make this critique of intersectionality. Judith Butler argues that the ‘etc.’ that often follows at the end of lists of social categories signals an “embarrassed admission of exhaustion” as well as an “illimitable process of signification.” Nina Yuval-Davis disagrees with Butler, arguing that such a critique is only valid within discourse of identity politics, whereas within intersectional research it is necessary to separate the “different analytical levels in which social divisions need to be examined…the ways different social divisions are constructed by, and intermeshed in, each other in specific historical conditions.” Yuval-Davis also questions the critique that the process of breaking down is illimitable by arguing that in specific situations, certain social divisions are more important than others. Moreover, relationships between positionings are central and not reducible to the same ontological level. Yuval-Davis’ call for focusing on the historical conditions that construct social divisions is perhaps one way of combining mainstream intersectionality with Mitchell’s call for a more class-based approach. I will come back to this later.
Mitchell’s solution to the problem she outlines is a form of Marxist feminism.
To be a “woman” under capitalism means something very specific; it is even more specific for women in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for black lesbians in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for individual women. But, in a universal sense, to be a “woman” means to produce and reproduce a set of social relations through our labor, or self-activity.
In essence, Mitchell is grounding identities within the labour process and material basis of production. Her critique is thus not that intersectionality is wrong, but that it is incomplete. She points out that gender relations are real and concrete – an indirect critique of more constructivist views that have tended to dominate intersectional feminist work, especially of the postmodern and poststructural kind. There is a materiality underpinning gender and gender relations, and this materiality is often ignored by intersectional feminists.
Moreover, the individualization of the struggle that results from an intersectional approach that relies on identity politics takes away from the universality of the class struggle: “Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worse.” Reducing the struggle to “equal rights” or “equal representation” reinforces identity as a static category. While this is an important critique, I think the difficulty results from the near impossibility of researching identities in a fluid manner – something intersectional theorists are clearly struggling with, especially within an academy in which positivism still dominates.
I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.
A Gramscian approach would also attempt to understand how hegemony “filters through” societal structures, including the economy, culture, gender, ethnicity, class and ideology. This kind of approach is already intersectional, in the sense that hegemony is an over-arching reality, based on specific material modes of production, that works through different social structures, of which gender is one. In a sense, then, Gramsci already spoke of understanding gender as more than simply womanhood or manhood, but rather as one societal structures among many.
A philosophy of praxis, common among Gramscians, also favours reflection that begins in experience – another similarity with intersectionality. Moreover, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has long influenced feminists working on patriarchy and the ways in which consent (on the part of those marginalized by patriarchy) functions. Many feminists who have used the concept of hegemony do not see it as a form of class rule, however, which takes us back to Mitchell’s critique: the point is to locate feminist struggles within the broader class struggle. The conceptualization of hegemony could also provide a way for feminists to establish a counter-hegemony: “a popular mobilisation capable of highlighting the contradictory and exploitative nature of hegemonic ideas and arrangements, providing an alternative mode of organisation that is ethical and inclusive” (Beth Howieson).
A focus on hegemony would also address the problem of identity politics. Perhaps it was put best by Margaret Ledwith, who pointed out that mini-narratives had displaced meta-narratives, which was in one sense positive, but in another served to ‘individualize’ struggles – precisely the critique Mitchell makes. Gramsci’s view of the state as including civil and political society is also useful for feminists, as he points out that the distinction between civil and political society is artificial. This is mirrored in the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ Finally, a Gramscian approach would also serve as a response to critics of Marxism who claim that Marxists ignore gender and focus excessively on class. Gramsci’s approach tends to be much less economistic than Marx’s, and his focus on both materiality and ideas is a testament to this. Moreover, even when he speaks of ‘production’ it is meant in the broadest way possible: it includes the production and reproduction of knowledge and social relations, morals and institutions that are prerequisites to the production of physical goods (as has been expanded on by many neo-Gramscians, including Robert Cox).
Of course, it is important to note that Gramsci himself did not focus on gender, nor do most of the scholars who use this approach. Moreover, the Eurocentrism implicit in much of his work is problematic. Nevertheless, I think a feminist approach that combines Gramscian insights with postcolonial feminist ones could be an extremely useful way forward.
In conclusion, the limits of the identity politics that are present in the intersectionality approach can be addressed by adopting a Gramscian approach to feminism that on the one hand makes materiality and capital central, while on the other hand emphasizing the production of knowledge, social relations and morals and how these intersect with social structures such as gender.
I don’t usually find myself getting very emotional when I watch interviews or debates, especially between academics. But this talk with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry somehow managed to make me feel a lot of things I hadn’t before. There is no doubt that bell hooks is one of the most formative feminists out there, whose work has made postcolonial feminism and intersectionality what it is today. But there’s something else about her, the ease with which she speaks about her own personal life and struggles, and weaves them together with her theoretical understandings of global gendered structures, that makes her truly unique. There isn’t a distinction between ‘theory’ and ‘real life’ because they are co-constitutive, and yet we see time and again the inability of academics to show clearly how they use everyday experiences in their own theoretical work, or how their theoretical work can be useful for non-academics. bell hooks doesn’t have this problem. Reading or listening to her, it becomes painfully clear how the experiences we go through are constituted through complex power relations. I guess the best way to put it is that she is so relatable. She speaks and people, especially women of colour, simply relate. So it made me want to write down a few of the things she said that really resonated with what I’ve been feeling these past few months.
At the beginning of the interview she spoke about how Melissa had recently taken down an economist on her show, and how immediately people condemned her for being too harsh, too ‘out of control.’ She was characterised as ‘the angry black woman’ even though, as bell said, she hadn’t been rude, or condescending. She had simply demolished the other person’s argument. Now the ‘angry black woman’ trope should be familiar to anyone who has been in a power relation like that before. The classic example is the woman-man situation, where no matter what the woman says or does, she is often labelled as overly-emotional, overly-sensitive or just angry. (“Are you pmsing?” – the question all women love to hear.) Not only do these types of questions create a dynamic of powerlessness and function as a way of silencing women (especially women of colour in relation to both men and white women), they also construct emotion and anger as negative and as not belonging in a ‘rational discussion.’ This has never made sense to me. Women are angry, women should be angry. Why are we still stuck on the myth of rational and objective exchanges? Why does anger, or the expression of anger, delegitimise? Clearly it’s linked to age-old notions of people of colour and women as inferior because of their irrationality, whereas men (especially white men) are constructed as rational, calm, objective and in control. I love the way Melissa put it: “I’m mad, but I’m mad about something. I’m not mad as an inherent part of being a black woman.”
bell hooks talks about how white feminists saw her first book as such as angry book and she had no idea what they meant because to her it didn’t feel that way. It seems to me that accusations of ‘you sound angry’ or ‘you’re not being rational’ often emerge in spaces where one group (in this case, white women) feel threatened and feel that there might be a possible shift in power dynamics, and therefore immediately go on the defensive and attack the Other (bell) as being too emotional, too angry, and too aggressive, thus not focusing on the content of the book itself. “People are constantly using anger and ‘being difficult’.” And that’s exactly what it is – a tool to silence. It reminds me Sara Ahmed referring to herself as a feminist killjoy. That’s exactly how it’s perceived – you’re ‘killing the mood’ or being a ‘buzzkill’ – in other words, you’re challenging power (the status quo) and making people feel uncomfortable. A good example is this piece by a good friend of mine, Usayd, where he talks about the everyday sexism of men. I wonder how many men call out their friends when they say sexist or homophobic things? Who wants to be a killjoy in the end? Being told you’re angry or difficult is exactly a way of maintaining the impenetrability of power structures.
When bell talked about how little power we have over how our representations are received, it made me think of a quote from Lila Abu Lughod’s recent book, ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ She wrote, “It’s hard to hear through the noise of familiar stories.” And it seems like a lot of this talk is about that. About how difficult it is to create new representations and new ways of thinking about black women. And how does one do this without being reactionary? One example is when Muslim women are portrayed as liberated by Islam, a clearly reactionary narrative that is simply responding to Western assumptions about Islam, women and oppression. Such reactionary narratives often end up creating a new type of representation that is equally problematic and serves to further embed the power dynamics the representation was trying to undo.
The part where bell talks about white female complicity in the patriarchal-capitalist system was reminiscent of how influential she’s been in theorising that reality. There are many days (most) when I question the term ‘feminist’ itself because it seems impossible to move away from its foundations, from the reality that as a term and as a movement it was defined by white women, women who – undoubtedly – at the time were implicit in imperialism and capitalism. Women who saw non-white or non-affluent women as Others, as victims to be saved, as objects, as indicators of their own progressiveness. And this isn’t even a thing of the past. Until today, I have rarely met white women, even those who call themselves feminists, who are not implicitly imperial in their approach to non-white women. There is always something, whether it’s a comment, a justification, a defensiveness when you critique white feminism. And so today we have postcolonial feminism, which has managed to create alternative notions of what feminism is, but it also seems to be a bubble. When people hear ‘feminism’ they think ‘white feminism’ and this seems almost inescapable at this point. We have feminists like Nancy Fraser writing in the Guardian about how neoliberalism has co-opted feminism – yes, true, but why is this a revelation in 2013 when feminists of colour (including bell) have been talking about it for decades? And why are you surprised that it was so easy for neoliberalism to co-opt a feminism that was inherently liberal in and of itself? What are the major differences, anyway? And why did Fraser frame this ‘discovery’ as something that deserved praise, as an example of white feminists being self-reflexive and critical? All it was, to me, was proof that white feminists continue to ignore feminists of colour, as simple as that. Because engaging with feminists of colour would have meant that Fraser would have reached this ‘discovery’ some time ago.
Another thing that struck me was when bell talked about the cognitive dissonance black and brown people experience, where on the one hand they know that white capitalist supremacy is a real, actual thing (or at least most seem to know) but on the other hand, seem to believe that democracy, justice, equality, etc. are also real things. She speaks of this as the ‘innocence about whiteness’ and it struck me how many people I know who have this. Who think that yes, there is racism and bad things happen, but it’s just kind of there, not because white people or a white system enable it. They seem to have bought the ‘good intentions’ argument where if a white person says they didn’t mean something or aren’t perpetuating something, then it’s fine, all’s forgiven. I was at a conference 2 weeks ago, at a panel on the EU and migration, and Germany was being criticised for how it treats migrants. This German guy there puts up his hand and says “You mean the German state, right? Because I’m German and I have nothing to do with it.” And it was just shocking to me, that someone could so easily brush off his own involvement and – by extension – his own guilt. Because that’s just it: it is about him, too. We are all tied to oppressive structures and implicated in them. The way out of that is not to deny it and transplant the blame onto someone else. The way out – or through it – is to be be self-reflexive and self-critical. But I guess it’s easier to go on and on about how we’re ‘post-racial’ and ‘post-imperialism’ and how it’s all a conspiracy.
Melissa, during the q & a, answered a question from a lady who talked about how she gets criticised by other black women more than by white women. She had four children by three different men, and talked about how other black women constantly told her that it was her mistake and that she should have made different choices. Melissa made the excellent point that this individualizing of misery – where when something goes wrong it’s about the wrong choices you as an individual – made and not about structural violence or structural inequality – is the problem. And this is a direct legacy of the neoliberal world we live in, as well as of the Enlightenment era (the two of course being linked) where it is all about rational individuals and “choice.” If someone is poor, they chose to be poor, or they’re lazy, or they didn’t try hard enough. If a single mother is struggling to raise her children, it’s about the bad choices she made. It’s never about structures. I never quite realised how strong this narrative is until I lived in the Netherlands and saw how the liberal illusion of choice is simply untouchable. At a deep level, it is so dangerous – as Melissa points out – because it prevents people of colour from collective organising that would bring about structural change. bell also mentioned how traumatic shame is, and how useful it is to control groups of people. This reminded me of how prevalent shame is postcolonial contexts and how it continues to shape narratives and identities in relation to imperialism.
Finally, the most striking moment was when bell quotes Paulo Freire, who said: “We cannot enter the struggle as objects, to later become subjects.” And I think that one line sums up, for me, the problems with feminism and non-white women; the problems in general with trying to ‘reform from the inside’ structures that are seen as exclusionary to you. Because the reality is, you are probably not seen as a subject, as even deserving of being in the struggle. Worse, the struggle has already been defined. Ramón Grosfoguel, borrowing from Fanon, uses the concept of the zone of being and the zone of non-being. The argument is that racism is a structure of power and domination along the line of the human being. People in the zone of non-being are not recognised as full humans. While there are people who are oppressed within the zone of being (women, queers, etc), it is important to realise that they have racial privilege that the people in the zone of non-being do not have. The way the system regulates conflicts in the different zones is important. In the zone of being, conflicts are regulated, and are peaceful with exceptional moments of violence. In the zone of non-being, the system manages conflicts through violence, appropriation and dispossession. Thus the norm is violence with exceptional moments of peace. People in this zone are oppressed along class, gender, sexuality, AND race. So then how can feminism be defined as including people that have historically been in the zone of non-being? Or more importantly, has feminism (I mean mainstream, hegemonic feminism) even recognised that these two zones exist?