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.

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Reactionary feminism and the need to be “modern”

‘Modernity’ is one of those words that is often thrown around and rarely defined. What is modernity? More importantly, who decides what is modern and what is not? While the answers to those questions are complex, a point that we can all agree on is that claims of being modern are often made using women, and more particularly, the bodies and values of women. This has especially been the case in relation to women of colour, women who belong to communities and nations that are taken for granted as un-modern. Discussions over women from these communities often revolve around their lack of emancipation, freedom, or worth—all traits associated with modernity. These kinds of discussions therefore frame some women as modern and others as “un-modern” or yet-to-become-modern.

Unfortunately, this need to appear modern or represent oneself (and therefore one’s entire nation) as modern has been internalized by many within these communities that have been designated as un-modern. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment by Nadia Fadil who pointed out how men in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s would show how modern and enlightened they were by proclaiming that women should have more rights. If the question is how compatible Egyptians are with modernity, the answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and “culture”) treat women. Within this context, the act of unveiling, for example, becomes a marker of progressiveness: men who encourage their wives to unveil are seen as closer to European norms and values and therefore closer to a thing called modernity.

This kind of response can only be termed reactionary: it is an attempt to include oneself (and one’s community or nation) within the folds of a project (in this case modernity) through representing specific aspects of one’s identity in specific ways. In this instance, women are being represented in a very specific way: as in need of becoming modern. Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices. These practices have already been set by “modernity” and are not open to debate. What is additionally problematic is that much of Western feminism has also adopted these practices as signifiers of women’s liberation.

This, in turn, has led to much of the rhetoric coming from civil society and feminist organizations within Egypt become reactionary. The narratives tend to focus on proving either that Egyptian women are lagging behind women in other parts of the world and thus need to be modernized (through development organizations or ‘cultural’ changes), or that Egyptian women are “modern.” What are never questioned are the categories that are used in deciding what is modern. More importantly, why the need to assert oneself (and by logical extension one’s entire culture) as “modern” when modern clearly means a prescribed set of characteristics that have historical roots outside of Egypt?

Within development these processes are especially clear. Lila abu Lughod’s critique of the Arab Human Development Report delineates just how certain “targets” are set for Arab women which reproduce certain ideas of progress and modernity.* Specifically, the use of the “human rights” discourse privileges individuality and autonomy above other modes of social organization. Setting aside the fact that reports such as these play into the common narrative of the backwardness of Arab women as compared to women in the West, there are numerous problems with reports such as these. One of the main problems is that the reason given for so many of the problems facing women in the Arab world is a mix between “Arab” and “Islamic” culture. Rather than economic exploitation, autocracy or unequal positioning within the global political economic system, the vague term “culture” becomes the go-to explanation. As abu Lughod writes, “this contributes strongly to civilizational discourse by attributing a significant role to Arab and Islamic culture in its diagnosis of gender inequality.” The focus on culture ignores other systemic problems and creates “Others” that are traditional (as opposed to modern).

The near-obsession with education is another clear marker of modernity, and is infused deeply within development discourse. Education for girls is seen as the main barrier to their emancipation. Not only does this assume that standardized education is the only form of knowledge that is worthy, it is also a classist narrative employed by elites who see it as their duty to save the ignorant masses. One sentence on Bedouin girls read: “they are unable to read or write and thus express themselves—and have never heard of their human rights. This erodes their very human status.” Employment is another major focus of the report, implying that women’s employment (after their education) is the main path to emancipation. This not only ignores the fact that integration within the capitalist world economy is not automatically a positive thing, but also ignores the multiplicities of power and privileges involved in the employment market. As abu Lughod points out, employment is not by its nature liberating. It must be of a certain quality to provide economic independence.

The focus on individuality is another concession to the project of modernity and its liberal underpinnings. Women are advised to “live their own lives” and reject interference from outside. One could ask whether individualism is the highest moral state, and how this excludes other forms of social organization. Feminist work has shown that individualized women are not automatically better off than women that are more tied to their families and communities. Moreover, these families and communities are not always seen as a “burden” for Egyptian women—rather this is an assumption made on the part of Western development practitioners, feminists, and others.

This report is a clear example of the reactionary way in which women’s “rights” are approached by many in civil society in the Middle East. The implicit undertone is one of liberalism, which poses specific narratives as central to becoming modern, among these education, employment and individuality. Thus civil society aims to show how Egyptian women either fit or don’t fit into these narratives—they are either modern or un-modern depending on these already-prescribed measurements. Rather than organic attempts to understand processes that are happening on the ground on their own terms, these narratives are imposed and in turn construct realities that were not there before. This kind of epistemic violence is rarely spoken of. As long as much of feminist work continues to be reactionary in a misguided attempt to be “modern” or on-the-way-to-“modernity,” it will be difficult to break away from the assumptions underpinning the project of modernity and question why we need to be modern anyway.

* Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Dialects of women’s empowerment: The international circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41.01 (2009): 83-103.

Article on Femen in Le Monde

An article I wrote about Femen was published in Le Monde. Here is the English version:

Femen are a group of Ukrainian-based feminists who have become well-known over the past few years for their provocative tactics and confrontational strategies. Most notable among these is the tactic of protesting topless, in an effort to reclaim their bodies as their own rather than as instruments of patriarchy. Because women’s bodies are constantly instrumentalized by men and the media, their protests act as a way of re-appropriating the female body as a symbol of resistance against patriarchy. Stripping is therefore a means by which women can “take back our bodies” in the broader fight against patriarchy.

While this logic is accepted by some feminist circles, it is not my aim in this article to discuss feminist tactics. Rather I want to focus on Femen’s tendency to universalize their brand of feminism that renders their activism and organization as neocolonial.

The issue of universalizing feminism is not a new issue. First wave feminism in Europe and America had the same problems: they based their feminism on their own experiences, and expected it to apply to women from all over the world who had completely different experiences. These women also ignored the fact that their own lives were affecting the lives of women elsewhere. For example, many first wave feminists were unable to see how imperialism and colonialism on the part of their governments was destroying the lives of women in other parts of the world. In fact, many western feminists actively participated in the colonial process, by trying to “civilize” and “modernize” women in Arab and African countries. For these women, feminism was about becoming like them.

There was a backlash to this kind of feminism, coming mainly from post-colonial feminists from decolonizing countries, from African-American and Latina feminists in the US, and from some second-wave feminists in Europe and the US. These feminists argued that feminism was more complicated, and that it had to represent the diverse lives and views of women around the world. They also introduced the concept of intersectionality: the idea that women are not only affected by gender, but also by other identities such as race, nationality, sexuality, and so on. This meant that feminism had to account for multiple identities and the ways in which they interacted with one another.

Despite coming after this backlash, Femen seems to be going back to the tendencies of first wave feminism. A large part of their work has focused on Muslim women, in an effort to “liberate” and “save” them from Muslim men, Muslim culture, and Islam in general. At one protest in front of the Eiffel Tower, they wore burkas and then stripped, in an effort to bring attention to the fact that the burka is oppressive. In another protest, they marched through a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in France, they decided to march down the streets naked, in an effort to convince Muslim women to unveil. It is clear that for Femen, liberation is defined in a very specific way: as being free from religion, culture, and oppressive dress codes.

In this view, the more you wear, the more oppressed you are. It is only within this context that a process of stripping can be seen as a liberating process. This kind of logic ties women’s liberations to their bodies and the way they dress, which is very problematic. Who decides what is oppressive and what is not oppressive for women to wear? Also problematic is the assumption that all women who veil or wear the burka are oppressed and need to be liberated. These assumptions reveal a certain view of the world that is Eurocentric and cannot be generalized universally.

My view as a feminist is that women should be able to choose. These choices depend on our socio-cultural, economic and political environment, and cannot be dictated from outside. Femen’s recent stunts in Tunisia show how out of touch they are with the Middle Eastern and North African contexts. Instead of spreading awareness about gender issues, they are instead prompting a backlash from a society who does not see them as anything except outsiders imposing their views on women, similar to the colonial process that occurred decades earlier.

The Middle East and North Africa is already home to a wide array of gender and feminist movements, projects, and activism. If the goal of Femen is to act in solidarity with women around the world, then they should contact these indigenous movements and ask how they can help. The politics of solidarity in a post-colonial world that is full of power imbalances is a difficult process, but it certainly will not go anywhere if movements like Femen keep imposing themselves and asserting that “their” feminism is the “right” feminism.

Women of colour have struggled too long to show how feminism can only help them if it is more diverse and not just about heterosexual white middle-class Euro-American women’s experiences. Unfortunately the amount of coverage Femen is getting is undermining the progress made in this arena. Moreover, the current global climate in which Muslims are already seen as problematic makes the situation much worse. Nevertheless, the criticism Femen has received is a good sign, and it comes from both Euro-American feminists as well as feminists from the Global South. The simple point at the bottom of many of these critiques is that feminists should be careful not to draw new lines of exclusion and to accept that feminism will only succeed if it accepts a plurality of voices.

A response to Mona el Tahawy

Yesterday, my Twitter feed & Facebook timeline were both full of comments praising Mona el Tahawy’s latest article, which you can find here. Even tweeps who I know usually disagree with Mona’s politics were praising this latest work, and that made me very curious to read it. This morning I finally sat down and went through it.

And it is yet another disappointment.

First, the disgusting pictures that are dispersed throughout the article: what and why? I know that often publications choose the pictures that will appear in articles or books, but why didn’t Mona say anything? I mean how orientalist can imagery get?

The title is the second problem. “They” and “us.” That’s when I knew this was going to be an extremely complex analysis.

The article itself basically consists of 3 pages of incidents that have happened recently in various Middle Eastern countries that have affected women, and then half a page of some kind of “solution” which is basically to keep revolting against men. It’s fine that she listed all these incidents. Yes, they have happened, and yes, we need to talk about them. But where is the analysis? Where are the reasons behind why these incidents have happened? Why does patriarchy exist? How do we get rid of it? An article that is so widely praised should at least have a more complex analysis than “men hate women.” Oh wait, “Arab men hate women.”

At the beginning of the article, Mona writes that it is impossible to discuss Arab sexism without Arabs bringing up the fact that sexism exists in the West too. The reason I, for one, do that, is to show that patriarchy is UNIVERSAL, that it is not limited to certain cultures (Arabs) or certain religions (Islam). I do that to show that global systems of oppression that exist today (capitalism among them) oppress ALL men and ALL women and create specific types of gender oppressions.

Moreover, I really hate the simplistic analysis that argues that all men hate all women. Patriarchy oppresses men as well as women. Moreover, patriarchy works in very complex ways, which is why it is so difficult to get rid of. Ask men whether they hate their mothers, sisters, daughters, etc and most will say no. Yet they are sexist because they have internalized patriarchy and sexism in complex, latent ways. Personally, I believe feminism means fighting patriarchy (which is intertwined with other systems such as religion, capitalism, etc) and NOT fighting individual men. After all, many women are also sexist and patriarchal because they have internalized sexist discourses, and many men are not sexist because they have unlearned patriarchy.

Take the issue of female virginity tests, for example. Is this simply because the Egyptian military men hate women? Or is it linked to politics, power, patriarchy, militarization? Is it as simple as the officer hating Samira Ibrahim? No. It’s not. And by making it that simple, you are whitewashing the event and misrepresenting the women and men involved in it (since you somehow claim to speak for them).

My final issue is with the publication itself. The majority of Foreign Policy’s audience is western. For them, such a shallow “analysis” will only serve to consolidate and confirm their suspicions and stereotypes about Arab men: the violent, sexist Arab men hate their women. The next step would simply be for westerners to come and save the poor Arab women, who in el Tahawy’s article have yet again been portrayed as victims. (Oh wait, this narrative sounds familiar.)

My point is that it is better to write a long, complicated article that few people will read; than a short, simplistic one that gets lots of attention but does absolutely nothing in terms of social justice or social change. What has this article done for Arab women? What solutions has it proposed?

Mona reveals her liberal, western-oriented worldview very clearly in this article. And I find it extremely insulting to the many amazing Arab and Middle Eastern feminists who have worked tirelessly in order to show how complicated Arab patriarchy is, and how the solutions, too, are complicated. Feminists such as Nawal el Saadawi, who have been so damn careful to show that Egyptian women are oppressed by many forces in many ways, and that Egyptian men too, are oppressed by these same forces, in different ways, who have spent their life being rigorous, careful, and trying to not exclude any experiences. This article is insulting to them, and to feminists such as myself who spend every day being conscious of ways in which I am being patriarchal, or racist, or exclusionary in any way. Who spend my days trying to unlearn the stereotypes I have been socialized into, only to read an article like this that in 4 pages reproduces all these stereotypes and simplistic analyses.

Patriarchy is not simple. Culture is not simple. Women’s experiences and oppression are not simple. And by trying to make them simple, you are insulting and demeaning people’s real experiences.

The Female Circumcision Cake

I’ve been traveling so I haven’t managed to sit down and write this post until now. On the way to Istanbul I saw a picture on my FB timeline of what looked like a black woman cake. I opened it and found this image:

At first I thought it was some kind of big joke. I mean how can a scene like this happen in 2012? Then I read the caption: Swedish minister at anti-female circumcision event, feeding cake of black woman who was just metaphorically circumcised to the head of the artist.

What?

The more I read & thought about it, the more crazy it seemed that this sh*t still happens today. The Swedish MINISTER OF CULTURE!

But then, how surprising is it, really? Living in the Netherlands has proven to me how racist discourses are still VERY strong, latent as they may be. Discourses such as the “white man’s burden” or “black culture oppressing Africans” or “we need to save them from themselves” are so prevalent that it isn’t actually *that* surprising to see an event like this happening in a country like Sweden.

And then defenders of the event & “art installation” bring up the fact that the artist is black, as though that makes everything okay.

The only good thing to come out of this disaster is the amount of brilliant, inspiring critiques from both Africans & Europeans (some at least). Just as with the Kony 2012 disaster, the outcry has been big. Since so many amazing critiques have already been written, I will just quote a few here, with whom I completely & utterly agree:

The event was launched with Swedish minister Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth cutting the first piece of cake from a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, which we understand was created by the Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman,  and is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake.

Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts off the genital area (clitoris)from the metaphorical cake, as the  artist Makode screams distastefully.  The gaze of the predominantly white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who  is positioned  at the crotch end,  as they look on at their visibly ebullient culture minister with seemingly  nervous laughter as she becomes a part of the performance – a re-enactment of FGM  on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman.

The work is definitely not empowering or transformative for women who are victims of FGM  in any shape or form, and the racial overtones of this project re-inscribe the exploitation and dehumanisation of black African women, which clearly cannot be denied.

One does not need to be subjected to the epistemic violence  underpinning the grotesque reconstruction of FGM,  in the form of a black woman having her clitoris cut off to the sound of  a laughing crowd with a fixed gaze,  drinks in hand, to raise awareness of this very serious issue.

 Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake.

As such We/African Women/African-Americans and many women of the African Diaspora the world over view this as an assault on our foremothers, sisters and our selves who have worked tirelesslly in different historical and cultural contexts to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular  and stereotypes of black women as  sluts, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent.

We view it as a racialised slur and an attempt at erasure of all that we have struggled for historically in order to genuinely empower African women the world over.

No one, including the artist seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities.

What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.

You can read the rest of this stunning critique here.

On a lighter note:

DAKAR. Africans say they have little hope that Europe will ever become civilized, after a week in which Spain’s King Carlos went on an elephant-killing spree and the Swedish Culture Minister was entertained by a racially offensive cake. “You can take the European out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the European,” sighed one resident of Kinshasa.

Read the rest here.

Needless to say, this is yet another shameful event in Europe that shows how integral & definitive their colonial “past” continues to be in defining their present.

The issue of “culture”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Black Gold

 

I went to see an interesting movie today called Black Gold, about the production of coffee in Ethiopia and how it relates to global trade and cooperatives. What struck me the most is how coffee is the second most traded commodity worldwide, and yet Ethiopia, a major producer of coffee, is one of the poorest countries in the world. And this appears to be a trend: the more naturally rich a country is, the poorer they are in terms of GDP. Congo is another example of this.

There are around 2 billion cups of coffee drunk each day, and yet the price of coffee has fallen drastically in the past few decades. This is because corporations have taken over the market and so basically coffee farmers are forced to accept the “market price” for their coffee, which is almost nothing. Many can’t even survive anymore, despite the fact that more coffee is being drunk and coffee is such a major commodity.

Then there was a part of the movie about the World Trade Organizations, probably up there with the IMF and World Bank when it comes to useless organizations that are killing millions of people. They discussed how the IMF and World Bank has forced African governments to STOP subsidies to their farmers, while the EU and US continues to massively subsidize their own farmers. But since all the negotiations at the WTO happen behind closed doors among the powerful countries, Africa is usually left out and continues to lose more and more economic and political clout by the year. One woman described the WTO as a “power-based association.”

The movie also stated that Africa’s trade has now fallen to 1% of global trade. How the hell is that even possible when so much of Africa’s resources are being shipped to other countries? From diamonds to cobalt to coffee, it is virtually impossible that the trade amounts to 1%. Does that mean that most of what leaves Africa is stolen, not traded?

On the whole, the movie was yet another description of the current capitalist neo-colonial system we are living in. It did make me realize, though, that one solution is the cooperative. I have been following someone on Twitter (@thebrinos) who tweets a lot about cooperatives and their benefits, and this movie also tried to portray them as extremely useful as they cut out the middle-men who take a lot of money for their “services.” Could cooperatives be one way out of this mess, since it doesn’t look like capitalism will crumble anytime soon?

Ted X Rotterdam

So last week I attended Ted X Rotterdam, an event meant for the “top students in the Netherlands.” There were over 1,200 top students there, and I am mentioning this because it will make this story even more shocking.

I’ve always loved TED because it is more critical and less mainstream than other media. The lectures are often inspiring, thought-provoking and original. So I had high hopes for the locally organized TED event in Rotterdam.

Basically, after 10+ hours of lectures and performances, I was left disgusted, angry, and repulsed by the narratives I was hearing. Other than the musical performances, it was an absolute disgrace. Almost every lecture had an undertone of white European superiority. The non-European/Western world was only brought up as “the third world” – rarely a specific country – and only as a helpless, victim that the superior west had to help, out of its infinite kindness.

So what has changed since colonialism? This is EXACTLY what the colonial mindset was. Superior-inferior; first world-third world.

And what was discussed when the third world came up? Famine. War. Disease. AIDS.

Bad bad bad.

Not a single positive thing. Even after revolutions, social movements, and major shifts across the so-called “third world” this year. Even though the third world comprises the majority of the world’s population. Even though the “third world” is beautiful, complex, diverse, lovable, traumatized, and millions of other things.

So why do we only see it as a victim? As a picture of a starving child? We don’t even need to know where the child is from – we just know it is African because that is all the media shows us.

We don’t need to understand HOW the “third world” became “under-developed.” How the west did most of this, and continues to do most of this. No. We just need to know this is how it is and that we should donate a few euros and forget about it.

Dutch people probably left the event feeling superior, safe; all their stereotypes confirmed. Nothing about what they can do POLITICALLY to help. Nothing about how the Netherlands is responsible for many of the problems in these countries. Nothing dangerous; nothing critical.

Its disgusting. It made me want to be back in the “third world” because there is no denial; no sense of cultural superiority that I have seen in too many Dutch people. Read a history book, and then tell me you are proud of what your country has done and CONTINUES to do.

I looked around the hall at people applauding yet another lecture about death in the third world and how Dutch people need to donate more money, and I thought: wow. I don’t care how hard life is in countries less well-off economically. I would rather live there and not be brainwashed, than live here and think that this is how the world is.

Let’s not forget…

We often get only one side of the story. When we hear about sexual slavery or trafficking, we hear about the “third world” countries these women and men come from, the brutal conditions they lived in, and the corruption, poverty and lack of social institutions that basically force them into a life of slavery. What we don’t hear about are the people who make up the market: the (usually) rich, First World men, who consume these slaves and who constitute the market that makes sexual slavery and trafficking possible. To end sexual slavery, shouldn’t we also target the people who consume it and therefore make it possible?

It’s the same thing with drugs. We keep hearing about the drug problems, cartels, gangs etc in Latin America. But who is consuming most of these drugs? Yes, Americans. Would this many drug cartels exist if the market for drugs wasn’t so big? So instead of only focusing on the origin of drugs or sex slaves, maybe people should try and EDUCATE the people consuming these “commodities.”

I recently finished reading one of the most amazing books ever, called “Encountering Development: The Making & Unmaking of the Third World’ by Arturo Escobar. He gave a poignant example at the end of the book:

Under the title “The Lesson that Rio Forgets,” the cover of the Economist shows an undifferentiated mass of dark people, the “teaming masses” of the Third World. The “lesson” is population: the expanding masses of the Third World have to be curbed if sustainable development is to be achieved.

The fact that the populations of the industrialized world consume a strikingly higher percentage of world resources than their Third World counterparts does not enter into the Economist’s equation. 

By a curious optical twist, the consumption of people of the North is rendered invisible, whereas the dark hordes of the South are consigned to a new round of gluttonous vision.

I have never thought about it this way. While countries like Egypt are constantly being told to “control their populations” because the world is suffering, people in tiny developed countries continue to consume MUCH MORE. How is that logical?

The problem is we are usually told ONE side of the story, where the Third World is somehow blamed for everything. And even more disappointing is how many First World and Third World people fall for this ridiculous narrative.