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?

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* 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.

On gender and hierarchies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The difference between difference and diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the question of radical feminism and women as an underclass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reproduction of racialized systems of social control

Over the past few days I’ve been reading two sets of texts and I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between them. The first text is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the second set of texts are articles on human rights and democracy as the new standards of measuring how civilized countries are.

In her book Alexander argues that the prison industrial complex is basically a transformed version of the Jim Crow system. Her main point is that following the civil rights movement and the collapse of Jim Crow, white supremacy had to find a new way to maintain racial inequality. This was done through two related processes: the War on Drugs and the expansion of the prison system. In other words, white supremacy persisted in a different form, and is perhaps even more dangerous because it is not overt anymore. No one is speaking about race the way they did during Jim Crow; but the systemic effects are the same.

An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were (1).

Around the same time, I began reading articles on the shift in global politics in the 40s and 50s where a “new international society” was created. This meant that what constituted civilized or barbaric countries was no longer explicitly stated along racial or cultural lines, but instead was made dependent on new markers, such as human rights and democracy. So just at the moment when it seemed like the international system was opening up and that any country could be an equal member, and just when decolonization was happening and states were no longer using the language of civilized vs. barbaric, an entire new system of subjugation was being introduced. This new system still ranked countries and still reproduced a civilizational hierarchy, but instead relied on different standards: human rights, liberalism, democracy, gender equality. So just as Michelle Alexander points out in the US post-Jim Crow, a new way of speaking about civilization was emerging, but the systemic effects are exactly the same.

As Buzan (2014, 588) notes:

Because the doctrine of human rights sets benchmarks against which all can be assessed, it naturally generates a performance hierarchy among states. That tendency is endlessly reproduced as the standards of human rights themselves evolve. So as the human rights issue becomes more influential within international society, it probably cannot avoid resurrecting something like the ‘standard of civilisation’.

Development and aid are naturally part of this new system. “The colonial obligation of the metropolitan powers to bring the natives up to a European ‘standard of civilisation’ morphed into an obligation on the part of the rich world to assist in the development of the ‘third world’ or ‘less developed countries’.”

The key point in both set of texts is that nobody is talking about race anymore (except those who oppose these new systems). As Michelle Alexander says, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind” (1). This can be extended to the ways in which the development industry or human rights discourse do not explicitly speak of race, and yet the norms they employ clearly refer to a civilizational hierarchy which, following John Hobson, is clearly a racialized one. Another similarity between these two cases is the formative place of anti-blackness within both systems. In the US, it is anti-blackness that underlies slavery, Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex, just as globally, the racist system underpinning notions of development, democracy and human rights is intricately tied to anti-blackness as well as other forms of racism such as Orientalism.

What this shows is why we should be apprehensive when certain trends, concepts of systems are presented as “over” or “dead.” As an ideology that has structured the world for centuries, it is unlikely that white supremacy or Eurocentrism will disappear without attempting to morph or transform itself. As Alexander shows, in the US it has successfully continued the same system in place during slavery and Jim Crow, except it has relies on implicit and covert racialized language and narratives. For example, the idea that a Black man can be president of the US is used as a rhetorical tool that deflects attention away from the fact that most Black men can’t become president of the US. And, as Alexander says, white supremacy doesn’t mean that there can’t be exceptions to the rule. Similarly, the new international regime of neoliberal capitalism relies on new markers of civilization that relegate countries of the Global South to the category “underdeveloped.” And it would be a mistake to not see this as related to white supremacy and race.

All of this is not to say that we should not be nuanced in the way we speak about white supremacy, and it is also not to say that other groups do not have agency or power. But often when we are called on to be “nuanced” it is a call to stop complaining about hegemonic systems and instead accept that we are somehow all equally responsible for what is happening. We can be nuanced about white supremacy in terms of pointing out its variations, the ways in which it differs according to context, and the ways in which it can be fought. But this nuance should not include accepting that white supremacy is no longer hegemonic, or accepting that groups oppressed by white supremacy hold some kind of responsibility for what has happened to them. While it is true that there is agency everywhere, this agency is not equal, because people are not equal, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

 As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” However as long as the narrative continues to be one of separation and elimination – i.e. racism as something that is in the past and no longer exists – as opposed to continuity and reproduction, it will become increasingly difficult to fight against white supremacy in all of its formations. Moreover, as long as we continue to speak of racism as something some people do (often accidentally), we continue to mask the systemic and institutionalized nature of racism. White supremacy is a system of racialized social control that continues to structure the globe today just as it has for the past few centuries.

The feminist bubble

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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!

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* Ahmed el Hady

** Twenty-Five Years of African Women Writing African Women’s and Gendered Worlds by Nwando Achebe

Some thoughts on bell hooks – on angry women and postcolonial feminism

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?

On the Muslim Brotherhood and the national security/terrorism narrative

Military in Tahrir. Source: BBC.
Military in Tahrir. Source: BBC.

I don’t want to use this post to discuss what happened earlier today or to predict what will happen next. I want to instead focus on how the international discourse of terrorism and national security is currently being used in Egypt.

Prior to the June 30 protests, the Muslim Brotherhood were criticized in a number of ways by people against them: they were seen as inefficient, corrupt, fundamentalist, focused on power grabbing, and exclusionary. Post the military intervention, however, a new framing was introduced: the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists. This framing can be explained by analyzing its origin (the military) as well as the broader global narrative of terrorism.

The Muslim Brotherhood have long been portrayed as a sinister, secretive and radical organization that wants to co-opt power in order to establish an Islamic state (locally) and an Islamic caliphate (globally). These assumptions constituted the grounds for the terrorism narrative, and since they have been reproduced over decades by different Egyptian regimes, constitute a powerful narrative in the public imagination. In particular, the continual link made between the MB and violence cannot be underestimated. This again fits into global view of Islamism: Islamists are regularly portrayed as overly and irrationally violent; as exclusionary, and as so dangerous that they cannot even be negotiated with. (An important debate that isn’t within the scope of this article is the extent to which the MB have reproduced these narratives about themselves. E.g. to what extent do they view and speak about themselves within this framework that has been set by global powers.)

Following the election of Muhammad Morsi, however, it became clear that the MB enjoyed a lot of legitimacy in Egypt (a fact that is not surprising considering they were the most organized political force in Egypt post-Jan 25 2011). Thus any attacks against them were made based on their governing, as well as on other stereotypes often associated with Islamism: specifically the way they treat women and the way they treat minorities. This is not to say that Morsi & the MB did not have problematic approaches to either group; I am simply reflecting on how the approach to criticizing the MB was already based on assumptions that, again, operate on a global level.

Immediately after the military intervention on July 3, the framing of the MB in Egyptian media began to change. To simplify, they began to be shown as violent, irrational, desperate for power, unwilling to negotiate and difficult to deal with. A new word entered the discussion: terrorism. Along with this word came an entire discourse operating in many countries today: that of national security. Suddenly the military had to exercise its power in order to preserve Egyptian national security – all under the assumption that the MB are a terrorist organization that will not hesitate to bring down Egypt.

My aim here is not to discuss the strength of these claims. I do not want to answer how violent or unwilling to cooperate the MB were (and are), nor do I want to discuss whether they can be labelled a terrorist organization. Similarly, the discussion of whether al-Qaeda is what American officials say it is is a separate one from the discussion of how American officials use that construct to justify certain actions. In that vein, I want to briefly touch on what the military has been able to do through portraying the MB in this particular manner.

The entire public debate has now centered on the issue of stability and security. Many are convinced that the MB pose a significant threat to the stability of Cairo and other cities, as well as to the security of the country as a whole. This, in turn, has allowed the military to emerge as the protectors of this “stability” and thus as a necessary part of the Egyptian political scene. This is not entirely new – the military intervening on July 1 was welcomed by many precisely because they were worried that a bloodbath/civil war was coming. So already the military were seen as saviours/protectors, a view that has now deepened because the military has not only repeated it, but actively influenced events in order to portray themselves that way.

Sinai is another important example. The portrayal of the “bad guys” in the Sinai conflict as either radical Bedouins or armed militants (often Hamas) has a long history in Egypt, and has been used by regime after regime to justify the military’s actions and strong presence in Sinai. The conflict with the Bedouins in particular is complicated and revolves around issues of nationhood and territory – many Bedouins do not accept Egypt as a nation state and thus reject state authority, a position which poses a key threat to both the state and the military. The conflict in Sinai occurring now is thus framed as a response to radical militants who cannot be negotiated with.

At the same time, the “Hamas narrative” has strengthened over the past few weeks and has now become the key justification for many of the military’s activities in that region. The closing of the border with Gaza was justified using the rhetoric of Islamic militants, and thus also falls under the terrorism frame of reference. The use of this framing in relation to Hamas has in turn created anti-Palestinian sentiment in some segments of the Egyptian population. Again, we see the links between local and global: Hamas have also played a crucial role in the international arena in discussions revolving around terrorism/national security.

While it is difficult to predict where this is going, it is good to be cautious about celebrating or rationalizing what the military is currently doing. These past few decades have shown how the importance of national security has been deeply internalized, and how many “democratic sacrifices” have been made in its name (particularly in the United States, a country from which the narrative can be said to originate). While there is little doubt that there is some truth to the claim that “there are terrorists out there” – the entire narrative is built by self-serving politicians, military men and economic elites, supported by the media and think tanks. This should give us pause, and make us question what they are saving us from, as well as where this saving will lead us to.

The masses have not revolted anew out of a desire for military rule or love for the feloul liberal alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood.  They have revolted anew because Morsi and the Brotherhood betrayed the revolution (Sameh Naguib).

A final note on the military. Everything the military have done thus far has been to serve their own interests, as well as to prevent the January 25 2011 revolution from overthrowing them.

For if al Sisi had not intervened to dislodge Morsi, the revolution would not have stopped with the overthrow of Morsi and the Brotherhood, but was – and still remains – competent to transform into a complete social revolution which would oust the entire capitalist state, including the leaders of the military institution (Sameh Naguib).

The military have consistently portrayed themselves as the Egyptian nation. This rhetoric is strong and powerful because it relies on more than seventy years of socialization; it relies on historical events such as the wars with Israel; and it relies on the legitimacy all militaries enjoy within the nation state system. However this should not prevent us from seeing them as political actors with their own interests, which they will not hesitate to protect.

The military institution is hostile to the Egyptian revolution; it got rid of Mubarak to save itself from the crossfire of the revolution. The military is now getting rid of the Brotherhood and Morsi, its erstwhile allies, in fear of the time when the earthquake of the revolution will reach it. And just as broad sections of the populace were affected by the illusion of army neutrality and its stand with the revolution at the beginning of SCAF rule, they are affected today by the lying propaganda about the heroism and revolutionary allegiance of al Sisi and his generals. But just as the masses quickly left behind that propaganda in the days of Tantawi through experience and struggle, they will pass anew through the illusion that “the army and the people are one hand” in the weeks and months to come (Sameh Naguib).

Many foreign analysts, politicians and journalists are now trying to portray the military as the barrier to democracy, and the MB as the victims, neglecting to see that the military are using an international narrative to attack and discredit the MB. In other words, what the military is doing now is using a narrative that originated in the US to carry out actions that are widely condemned by American analysts and politicians. The terrorism/national security framing has become the number one legitimate justification for acts against enemies, whether they be Islamists, dissidents, whistleblowers, or communists. It is important to look at where this framing originated, and whether analysts have been as vocal in denouncing it when it was employed by other governments.

The reason the Egyptian military is able to use it so effectively is precisely because Egyptians, along with everybody else in the world, have been socialized to accept it as not only legitimate, but as unquestionable. The nation state structure requires these types of discourses, that arouse both patriotism and fear, so that institutions such as the state and the military can then act without impunity in order to “protect” the “people.”

Unfortunately we never think of the “people” who are attacked, because the discourse has already rendered them as outside “the nation” and therefore as sub-human.

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Quotes from Sameh Naguib are from this piece.

Disclaimer: although I know it will happen anyway, I want to clarify that I am not “taking sides with the MB” by writing this. I am discussing the military and how they are using events and narratives to justify their actions. Whether these actions are “wrong” or “right” is not what I tried to address here. I protested on June 30 (for better or worse) and I was against MB policies during the year they were in power. But I don’t think criticizing them should be our only focus now, since the military is obviously the bigger problem.

Why I don’t like the “Arab Spring” label

Since the Tunisian uprising in late 2010, various countries in the Middle East & North Africa have experienced uprisings by the people against entrenched dictatorships. This series of uprisings has been labelled the “Arab Spring,” which now appears to be a widely-accepted term. It is even being used at conferences and in academic settings, despite the problematic nature of the term.

There are 2 reasons why I don’t use the label. First, the word “Arab” by definition excludes many groups and countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It was arguably Iran, in 2009, that set the precedent and built the momentum for the uprisings that were to happen in Tunisia and Egypt; and yet by using “Arab Spring” we are automatically excluding Iran from consideration. Another group that is excluded are the Kurds, who do not necessarily identify as Arab, yet have been struggling for a very long time to achieve political, social and economic rights in various different countries. Are their struggles not part of the uprisings happening in the ME and NA?

The second reason I am against the term is because of its origin. It was basically coined by mainstream American media, and seemed to imply that the Arab world was finally waking up from apathy and laziness, to a “new Spring.” This discourse basically sees people in the Middle East as apathetic to democracy, human rights, change, etc, and reminds me of the infamous “Arab exception” – the widespread belief in academia that Middle Eastern countries possess structural barriers that prevent them from being democratic (and by structural it is implied cultural and religious, of course). Soon after the Islamists began winning seats in elections in both Tunisia and Egypt, the mainstream western media coined another term: “Islamic winter.”

I was browsing Twitter one day a few months ago when I saw an interesting suggestion from a Palestinian activist (don’t remember who exactly now): why don’t we refer to the struggles across the Middle East as intifadas? There is no doubt that the Palestinian intifadas were important in inspiring many young Middle Eastern people to challenge their own corrupt regimes. Moreover, the word intifada simply means “uprising” – which is exactly what these struggles are. By using the label intifada, we can be inclusive to different groups in the Middle East, and at the same time stop using terms such as Arab Spring, with all their Orientalist baggage.

I recently attended a conference in Cairo entitled “Narratives of the Arab Spring.” A very prominent Iraqi women’s studies scholar, Nadje el-Ali, raised the problematic nature of the term “Arab Spring.” She mentioned the origins of the term as well as that many Kurds she spoke to felt left out because of the word “Arab.” Her point really made me reflect on the importance of labeling and the inclusionary/exclusionary nature of language. When we say Arab instead of Middle East, so many groups in the ME are left out; and the same happens when we say “Islamic world” instead of Middle East.

Since hearing Nadje’s point, I have consistently referred to the struggles happening in the ME and NA as uprisings or intifadas. I have also tried to see the struggles from a comparative perspective in order to offer more solidarity to groups in the ME that have been long marginalized by major Arab countries such as Egypt. Little attention is given to Iran or to the Kurds, for example, and this is very problematic. Another important groups is the Copts in Egypt, who are facing more & more insecurity as certain strands of Islamism gain ground. One cannot call for freedom, equality, and dignity for some groups and not others. Indeed the only way to fight a system that is so strong is through solidarity, and the only way to do this is to see our struggles as linked and to support one another.

Understanding women’s movements historically

When studying the history of women’s movements in the Middle East and Africa, it is extremely important to start from the assumption that the linear, modernist conception of women’s rights that emerged from post-Enlightenment Europe cannot be applied universally (or even within Europe, really). Scholarship on women’s issues from the ME has challenged this idea, by showing that women’s rights and movements ebb and flow; they did not start at one point where there was severe oppression and continue either improving or deteriorating. Rather, we see that during different time periods and contexts, women’s issues changed and the fight for equal rights and representation either strengthened or weakened.

To give a quick example, in the late 1800s, Egyptian feminists (including men) began organizing and calling for gender reforms. Although modest in comparison to today, their demands were very progressive for the time. These demands were complicated, though, by the strengthening of the British colonial state, the fight for independence, and then the military coup of 1952. Since then, a variety of societal factors have led to increasing social conservatism, political repression, and a declining standard of living largely due to the introduction of neoliberal economic policies by Sadat in the 1980s. This has meant that the “women’s issue” has constantly been relegated to the backburner, as “more important” issues are dealt with at the national level. Therefore it is clear that the women’s movement made stronger gains in the early 1900s than in the early 2000s, due to specific barriers that are present today that were absent a century ago. This shows how crucial it is to take into consideration the context and the period, and not assume a linear progression of history.

This logic can be applied at the international level as well. The critique of many western feminists towards “Arab/Muslim” women is that they are lagging behind the “emancipation” happening in the west. How come western women have “developed” so much faster than Muslim women? Why do western women have “more rights” than women in the Muslim world? While it may be the case, according to certain indicators, that women in certain segments of western society are living a better life than women in certain segments of Muslim society, it is important to see this as a reality at a particular point in time, not as a generalizable fact. 800 years ago while women were being treated like slaves in Europe, they enjoyed significant rights and power in parts of the Islamic empire. This shows that we shouldn’t essentialize things like “Muslim women,” “Islamic masculinity” or “European culture” as historically consistent, as the status of women different greatly from period to period and from context to context. It is quite possible that in 100 years, it will be Muslim women, again, that will have a status higher than women in Europe.

Writing this, I realize yet again how difficult it is to speak of women’s issues at an international level. Who defines what freedom is, what equality is, what a woman’s status is? Are women in Europe better off than women in the Middle East (excluding economically)? Who decides that, how is it is measured? More importantly, why is it so important for Europeans and Americans to consistently construct themselves as advanced on gender issues, especially as compared to the backwards Muslim world? Why is the first complaint from Europeans/Americans usually about “the way Muslim women are treated”? Whose power interests do these Orientalist stereotypes serve?

At the same time, we cannot let this stop us from working on feminist activism within Muslim and Arab societies. Yes, our women have consistently been used by the west to show how “backwards” or societies are, and in extreme cases even been used to justify war (Afghanistan), but sometimes it is necessary to look past this and focus internally on how we can work from local, organic perspectives to better the situation of women in our countries. This does not mean importing western ideas of emancipation, gender equality, or feminism. It means working with what we have, which is a lot, and trying to solve problems from a local perspective. We have a long, rich history, of which gender struggles have been present at different points in time. We need to use this history, these discourses, these thinkers, and begin to seriously challenge both the strong patriarchal trends we have at home, as well as the strong Islamophobic, neo-colonial rhetoric we have coming from the west. This is what I see as the big struggle for me as a Middle Eastern feminist: fighting both western Orientalism, and the patriarchy in our societies.