Marxist feminism as a critique of intersectionality

I just finished reading a fascinating critique of intersectionality by Eve Mitchell, which can be found here. I want to first go over her main argument, and then go into her proposed solution (Marxist feminism) and why I think a more Gramscian approach would be more useful.

Mitchell’s main point in the article is that intersectionality relies on identity politics, which is a bourgeois and individualistic approach to struggle that ignores the materiality underpinning gender and gender relations.

In order to understand “identity” and “intersectionality theory,” we must have an understanding of the movement of capital (meaning the total social relations of production in this current mode of production) that led to their development in the 1960s and 1970s in the US.

Under capitalism, new gender relations developed, including:

  • The development of the wage (theorized as a tool of coercion);
  • The separation of production and reproduction (reproduction meaning more than having babies – also housework, taking care of family, etc) – reproductive labour was generally “free” while productive labour received a wage. This has been theorized as the ‘patriarchy of the wage’ since women tended to be in the reproductive sector;
  • The contradictory development of the nuclear family – on the one hand, the nuclear family was strengthened through the gendered division of labour, while on the other hand it was weakened by the separation of men from women all day long while they were at work;
  • The development of identity and alienation – “Women and people of color experience something similar in the development of capital; a shift from engaging in certain types of labor to engaging in feminized, or racially relegated forms of labor. To put it another way, under capitalism, we are forced into a box: we are a bus driver, or a hair stylist, or a woman. These different forms of labor, or different expressions of our life-activity (the way in which we interact with the world around us) limit our ability to be multi-sided human beings.”

Eve Mitchell’s critique thus revolves around this concept of identity and the alienation that accompanies it. Mitchell rightly points out that intersectionality arose in the US as a response to the gendered and racialized division of labour:

To be black meant to be objectified, relegated into one form of labor: producing and reproducing blackness. Black Power was therefore the struggle against the alienation and one-sidedness of blackness, a struggle to liberate labor, releasing its multi-sidedness, unifying labor with its conscious will.

She argues that women organized in order to break free from the alienation of ‘womanhood.’

Since women’s use of their bodies is a unique form of alienated labor for women under capitalism, it is historically the site of struggle for liberation.

This came up against the tendency in second wave feminism (and first wave I would argue) to focus on reforming capitalism as a means of emancipation: ‘equal wages for equal work.’ Both of these approaches used identity politics as a means of challenging oppressive systems. In other words, women organized on the basis of womanhood.

This continued with the theory of intersectionality. It was assumed that shared experiences formed as a bond between different kinds of women – “some individuals or groups are differentiated from other individuals or groups based on their experiences. This can be cut along many different identity lines.” Moreover, being oppressed puts you in a privileged position within the struggle – similar to the idea of standpoint theory, which argues that marginalized people have a more ‘authentic’ view on social reality, since they see both the workings of power and the effects of it (on the marginalized). This means that only the marginalized can write about their own experiences.

Mitchell’s main critique is that intersectionality is unable to overcome identity politics, and is in essence a bourgeois ideology. Mitchell agrees that it is essential to identify as a woman, or as black, or as queer – but that is not enough. 

Identity politics argues, “I am a black man,” or “I am a woman,” without filling out the other side of the contradiction “…and I am a human.”

Identity politics assumes that the basis for struggle is an equal distribution of individualism. “This is a bourgeois ideology in that it replicates the alienated individual invented and defended by bourgeois theorists and scientists (and materially enforced) since capitalism’s birth.” In other words, the increased individualism that is a result of the crisis of capitalism manifests itself in identity politics – even by those who claim to be anti-capitalist. Mitchell claims that ” theories of an “interlocking matrix of oppressions,” simply create a list of naturalized identities, abstracted from their material and historical context.”

She is not the first person to make this critique of intersectionality. Judith Butler argues that the ‘etc.’ that often follows at the end of lists of social categories signals an “embarrassed admission of exhaustion” as well as an “illimitable process of signification.” Nina Yuval-Davis disagrees with Butler, arguing that such a critique is only valid within discourse of identity politics, whereas within intersectional research it is necessary to separate the “different analytical levels in which social divisions need to be examined…the ways different social divisions are constructed by, and intermeshed in, each other in specific historical conditions.” Yuval-Davis also questions the critique that the process of breaking down is illimitable by arguing that in specific situations, certain social divisions are more important than others. Moreover, relationships between positionings are central and not reducible to the same ontological level. Yuval-Davis’ call for focusing on the historical conditions that construct social divisions is perhaps one way of combining mainstream intersectionality with Mitchell’s call for a more class-based approach. I will come back to this later.

Mitchell’s solution to the problem she outlines is a form of Marxist feminism.

To be a “woman” under capitalism means something very specific; it is even more specific for women in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for black lesbians in the US in 2013; it is even more specific for individual women. But, in a universal sense, to be a “woman” means to produce and reproduce a set of social relations through our labor, or self-activity.

In essence, Mitchell is grounding identities within the labour process and material basis of production. Her critique is thus not that intersectionality is wrong, but that it is incomplete. She points out that gender relations are real and concrete – an indirect critique of more constructivist views that have tended to dominate intersectional feminist work, especially of the postmodern and poststructural kind. There is a materiality underpinning gender and gender relations, and this materiality is often ignored by intersectional feminists. 

Moreover, the individualization of the struggle that results from an intersectional approach that relies on identity politics takes away from the universality of the class struggle: “Identity politics reproduces the appearance of an alienated individual under capitalism and so struggle takes the form of equality among groups at best, or individualized forms of struggle at worse.” Reducing the struggle to “equal rights” or “equal representation” reinforces identity as a static category. While this is an important critique, I think the difficulty results from the near impossibility of researching identities in a fluid manner – something intersectional theorists are clearly struggling with, especially within an academy in which positivism still dominates.

I would perhaps suggest that a Gramscian approach to feminism may be even more useful than the Marxist variety she proposes. Yuval-Davis’ suggestion to locate the historical conditions that construct social divisions reminded me of the Gramscian tendency to centre historical processes in any analysis. The Gramscian assumption that production creates the material basis for all forms of social existence functions as a means of centering materiality. What is unique about Gramsci, however, was his insistence on looking at both materiality and ideas – “Ideas and materialism are always bound together, mutually reinforcing one another, and not reducible to one another.” In other words, understanding gender means unpacking the ways in which gender as an ideology resulting from the material forces of production produces and is produced by gender as a set of ideas that are constructed. This, by definition, requires a historical approach. Context is important, as is clear from his emphasis on historical specificity.

A Gramscian approach would also attempt to understand how hegemony “filters through” societal structures, including the economy, culture, gender, ethnicity, class and ideology. This kind of approach is already intersectional, in the sense that hegemony is an over-arching reality, based on specific material modes of production, that works through different social structures, of which gender is one. In a sense, then, Gramsci already spoke of understanding gender as more than simply womanhood or manhood, but rather as one societal structures among many.

A philosophy of praxis, common among Gramscians, also favours reflection that begins in experience – another similarity with intersectionality. Moreover, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony has long influenced feminists working on patriarchy and the ways in which consent (on the part of those marginalized by patriarchy) functions. Many feminists who have used the concept of hegemony do not see it as a form of class rule, however, which takes us back to Mitchell’s critique: the point is to locate feminist struggles within the broader class struggle. The conceptualization of hegemony could also provide a way for feminists to establish a counter-hegemony: “a popular mobilisation capable of highlighting the contradictory and exploitative nature of hegemonic ideas and arrangements, providing an alternative mode of organisation that is ethical and inclusive” (Beth Howieson).

A focus on hegemony would also address the problem of identity politics. Perhaps it was put best by Margaret Ledwith, who pointed out that mini-narratives had displaced meta-narratives, which was in one sense positive, but in another served to ‘individualize’ struggles – precisely the critique Mitchell makes. Gramsci’s view of the state as including civil and political society is also useful for feminists, as he points out that the distinction between civil and political society is artificial. This is mirrored in the feminist claim that ‘the personal is political.’ Finally, a Gramscian approach would also serve as a response to critics of Marxism who claim that Marxists ignore gender and focus excessively on class. Gramsci’s approach tends to be much less economistic than Marx’s, and his focus on both materiality and ideas is a testament to this. Moreover, even when he speaks of ‘production’ it is meant in the broadest way possible: it includes the production and reproduction of knowledge and social relations, morals and institutions that are prerequisites to the production of physical goods (as has been expanded on by many neo-Gramscians, including Robert Cox).

Of course, it is important to note that Gramsci himself did not focus on gender, nor do most of the scholars who use this approach. Moreover, the Eurocentrism implicit in much of his work is problematic. Nevertheless, I think a feminist approach that combines Gramscian insights with postcolonial feminist ones could be an extremely useful way forward.

In conclusion, the limits of the identity politics that are present in the intersectionality approach can be addressed by adopting a Gramscian approach to feminism that on the one hand makes materiality and capital central, while on the other hand emphasizing the production of knowledge, social relations and morals and how these intersect with social structures such as gender.

Angela Davis in Egypt: on feminist solidarity

angela-davis

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

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

She begins her story with this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latifa Zayat said this to Angela:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her final quote:

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

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?

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.

On feminism, religion and religious women

The debate over the meaning(s) of feminism seems to be an endless one.  A common problem facing any social movement is that of definition: what are the goals we are fighting for, what are our values, and how do we bring about change? Answering these questions in the case of feminism has proven to be more divisive than inclusive, and has alienated many who previously identified as feminists. An important question is whether defining feminism should even be a goal in and of itself? In other words, is the process of defining feminism a process of exclusion?

In this post I want to bring up some of the tension(s) that have often arisen between the feminist project and the issue of religion. Feminism has long had difficulties in engaging with women who are religious. On the one hand, many believe that religion is an inherently oppressive institution, that by nature excludes women and renders them unequal to men. On the other hand, the fact that many women continue to see themselves as both feminist and religious raises important questions about the ways in which feminism has approached the question of religion. Key among these questions is the following: if feminism advocates women having the freedom to make choices (insofar as a choice is ever ‘free’), then what happens when a woman makes a choice that is seen as oppressive? More importantly, who has the right to decide which choices are oppressive and which aren’t?

My aim is not to debate or decide whether religion(s) are patriarchal, or whether they are essentially oppressive to women. My aim is to question the consistently exclusionary approach on the part of mainstream feminism towards women who see themselves as religious. I will focus specifically on the Islamic context because that is what I am most familiar with.

In an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua, it is argued that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholars has meant that they do not see the full picture:

On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist “blindness” of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hands, there is a “religious paradigm” type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by western scholars on Muslim countries.

One of the main issues is that women are often denied subjectivity when religion is seen as unquestioningly oppressive. Authors such as Saba Mahmood have pointed out that many women choose to be submit themselves to God, and do not see this as a form of oppression. Indeed by deciding for these women that their choice is illegitimate from the perspective of feminism, other women can be said to be exercising oppression over these women.

Nevertheless Mahmood does acknowledge that the women she worked with (Islamist women in Cairo) are choosing to be part of structures that see women as unequal to men. This leads us to the question of choice feminism. It often happens that feminists speak of feminism as being the freedom to choose. But what happens when women choose to be part of structures that see men as superior and thus reproduce gender inequality? These two questions are closely linked to debates about the nature of choice. To clarify, I do not believe ‘free choice’ exists in the sense of making choices outside of power structures or hegemonic systems. However, in today’s world certain “choices” have been designated as feminist, and others as oppressive. The way this designation has happened is closely linked to power relations coming from both patriarchy and feminism, but this is an entirely separate post.

This brings us back to the key problem that confronts feminism: who gets to decide? Our ideas of what are wrong and right; good and bad; or healthy and unhealthy, all come from the ways in which we have been socialized. Although it seems almost natural to accept that certain ways of dressing are demeaning to women (think of the hijab or burqa), the reality is that this dominant worldview can be deconstructed and demolished, once we un-learn what we have been brought up to believe is “truth.”

One of the main arguments in this debate is that religion, in this instance, Islam, is important to many women. While religion itself is a highly contested term, there is little doubt that to many, it provides a spiritual framework with which to view, and experience, the world. This spirituality also serves as a counter-point in a world in which rationality is valued above all other systems of meaning.

A feminist perspective should also be careful about not judging religion as per se oppressive for women, without listening to different voices of real women all over the world who are balancing between their identities as women and their places in religious communities.

This balance is an extremely important aspect in the lives of millions of women, who experience religion as an intrinsic aspect of their everyday lives. The quote also highlights another important point: that feminism needs to listen to the different views of real women. In its battle to become inclusive rather than exclusive, the various feminist projects need to move away from Feminism and try to explore the option of multiple feminisms. In a world as complex as ours, no two realities are the same, which means that every single woman will experience oppression differently. It also means that every single woman will find peace differently.

Another key tension in the feminism vs. religion debate is the question of patriarchal texts. Often feminists who are against Islam tend to focus on patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, and ignore movements that call for more inclusive or feminist readings of these texts. They claim that the religion is patriarchal, no matter what the interpretation. This, however, leads us away from choice feminism and towards a feminism where oppressive structures are decided upon beforehand (but by who?) and are strongly rejected. My issue is not with feminists who engage with these reinterpretations of Islamic texts and then reject them as patriarchal or as not coming up with a new framework of understanding. My issue is with the lack of such engagement on the part of most feminists. In other words, the many attempts to re-interpret Islam on the part of Muslim women are seen as further proof of false consciousness. This is a problematic stance for a movement claiming to take women (and their experiences) seriously.

There are similarities between religious fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalist feminists: both tend to see women as passive recipients of brainwashing, and both see religious institutions and traditions mainly as men’s territory.

The view of religious women as brainwashed and passive is, needless to say, problematic. Where is the space for different subjectivities? Where is the space for women who, on a daily basis, choose to be Muslim? When we tell women that Islamic feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an are flawed, wrong, or wishful thinking, then are we simply confirming that the texts belongs to male scholars, and men in general? Are we saying that no matter how hard women try, they can never take back these texts?

(On a side note, after having engaged with a lot (if not most) of the Islamic feminist literature, I was personally not convinced that it manages to completely deconstruct or “reconcile” patriarchal aspects of the Qur’an or Hadith (speaking specifically only about scholars who call themselves Islamic feminists and their work, not about “Islam” generally or any other types of interpretations, nor am I talking about the Qur’an itself). In fact much of it falls into the trap of either over-historicizing problematic surahs/hadith, or over-interpreting them so as to change the meaning completely. That said, there are scholars within Islamic feminism who have instead opted to accept the contradictions within the Islamic texts, and see that the need to “reconcile” doesn’t need to always be central. Kecia Ali is a good example of this.

Nevertheless, despite disagreeing with the conclusions of much of the work within Islamic feminism, I do think it is an extremely important project, and a good example of trying to challenge knowledge production and meaning making within a confined space. Traditional Arab male interpretations have reigned supreme for centuries and this elite group of interpreters have managed to construct “Islamic ideals” that have not sat well with many Muslims. Simply the idea of a feminist interpretation of Islam is already a challenge to this, and in some ways an attempt to imagine a different reality, which in my opinion is an exercise of power.)

A feminist critique of religion stresses the dismantling of religious legitimization for certain political and cultural practices; it critically analyzes the power structures of religious communities; it reminds us that there is no one Christianity of Islam but different forms and interpretations; and that the determinant role of religion in society should be questioned.

The answers to all of the questions I’ve asked aren’t likely to fall on either side of a binary. Religion is too diverse and complicated to be seen as either oppressive or liberatory. Whose religion, which interpretation, which individual and to what end? The same can be said of feminism: it is not, and should not be monolithic. Given its history of exclusion, one would expect the feminist project to be more wary about rejecting the experiences of millions of women.

On the other hand, the question of who decides what continues to be pertinent to feminism. One could argue that everything is imposed, and that imposing the idea that religion is oppressive on women is just another type of imposition that in the end is more beneficial for those women. After all, we all have our ideas of what a better world consists of, and what type of feminism is “right” or more just. In other words, we all have specific subjectivities that we want to spread. It isn’t just about living the way I want to live. If I say that I want to fight patriarchy, then that implicitly involves changing the views and lives of other people. But who is to say that me changing these views is better than those views continuing? Who is to say that me telling other women that you can’t be a feminist and religious is better than these women believing they can be religious feminists?

This goes back to the old debate about whether different subejctivities can co-exist or whether people who are sure their subjectivity is more beneficial should impose it on others. Another way of looking at it is to assume that subjectivities are always imposed, so why not attempt to impose a more just one? But who defines justice? Back to square to one!

In conclusion, I would argue that my issue is not so much with the need for feminist projects to accept Islamic feminism or Islam in general, or to refrain from critiquing what they see as systems that perpetuate patriarchy. Rather my issue is with the lack of willingness to even engage women who identify as religious, and to pre-judge them as suffering from false consciousness. The process of critical engagement is what has been lacking from feminism since its inception. Through such a process (and I don’t mean dialogue in a liberal sense), power relations inherent to feminist movements will become more visible and can thus be challenged more openly.

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.

My thoughts on Femen & feminism

I just finished watching an episode of al-Jazeera Stream, where one of the women from the feminist group Femen was speaking. Femen have become widely known over the past few years, particularly for their tactic of stripping to protest patriarchy. Their logic goes like this: women’s bodies are consistently used by men and the media and don’t really belong to us, so we must take them back by re-appropriating them as a symbol of resistance of patriarchy. Therefore stripping becomes an act of “taking back our bodies” and a way to stand up against patriarchy. While I completely agree with this logic, as well as with the fact that in today’s world our bodies still don’t belong to us, what I find problematic about Femen is their tendency to universalize their feminist vision. What works for them, should work for all women, everywhere.

Now this isn’t the first time feminism has confronted this issue. First and second wave feminists in the US, for example, were notorious for excluding women who weren’t like them: white, middle-class, American. Their feminism was distinctly local, but was branded and spread as ‘universal’ and if women didn’t adopt it then they were anti-feminist. The woman form Femen who was on al-Jazeera was eerily reminiscent of those kind of discourses, especially when she accused the other participants of not being feminists because they didn’t agree with Femen’s tactics.

Femen have also been famous for their focus on Muslim women (again, what’s new). Their protest in Paris in front of the Eiffel Tower where they wore burqas and then stripped, as well as their decision to march naked through a Muslim neighbourhood in Paris demonstrate their belief that the way most Muslim women dress is against feminism and against liberation. In this case they have defined liberation in a very specific way, and that is the main issue I have with them.

Many feminists define liberation as essentially wearing as little as possible. 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. While this may be the case for some women, it is certainly not the case for me, or for most women I know. That doesn’t mean we aren’t feminists—it means that we see liberation differently. The reason I’m a feminist is because I believe every woman should have a choice in how she lives. These choices are obviously dependent on socially constructed ideas, norms and values. What a woman can choose in Egypt is not the same as what a woman can choose in Paris, simply because societies see different things as “good” or “bad.” Contrary to what western feminists may think, not every woman wears the veil because she’s forced to by her violent, patriarchal father. By labelling specific things as “feminist” or “anti-feminist,” you are yet again imposing rules and boundaries on women—which is exactly what you claim patriarchy does.

Feminism can only succeed if we accept diversity. There is no way we can fight against a system as strongly entrenched as patriarchy if we keep up all this in-fighting about who is a good feminist and who isn’t a feminist at all. Feminism shouldn’t be about whether a veil is “okay” or not—it should be about whether a woman was forced to wear a veil, just as it should be about whether a woman in Paris was forced to wear a mini-skirt. It should be about the effects of capitalism, of racism, of Islamophobia on the everyday lives of women. Feminism has the potential to be greatly emancipatory by adopting an anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic and anti-Islamophobic rhetoric, instead of often actively being racist, homophobic, transphobic and Islamophobic.

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 Symbolic Use of Women

Does this picture actually help Muslim women? Or does it simply reproduce the same orientalist discourse of the eternally oppressed Muslim woman who is covered & treated like trash by her culture/religion/men? Yet again, women's bodies being used to make a point about the Other.

I have always found it difficult, intellectually, to draw the line between resistance & independence. For example, if one argues that the rise of Islamism and conservatism in the Middle East is a reaction to colonialism, neo-colonialism, and westernization, does this take away all agency from Middle Eastern people to shape their own future? Does this mean that what happens in the Middle East is purely a reaction to outside forces? I have always secretly believed that Islamism IS a reaction to (forced) westernization, but have felt uncomfortable saying it because it almost renders people in the Middle East powerless. It’s like saying, yes we got rid of our colonial powers but they’re pretty much still shaping everything we do. Which is true at many levels *cough* neoliberal capitalism *cough* but is it useful as a generalization?

To take Egypt as an example, it is clear that the past 40-50 years have seen increasing social conservatism, spurred mainly by the rising prominence of Islamism and Islamic organizing. A major reason for why I believe Islamists are reacting to westernization is because of the kinds of discourses they use and the issues they focus on – issues that have basically been used by the west consistently to show how backwards and primitive Muslim societies are. The number one issue here is, of course, WOMEN.

There is nothing new in using women as a cultural battleground.Women have regularly been used as symbols that signify and reproduce nations, cultures and religions; and the norms and values that constitute these. When the French colonized Algeria, for example, they used the status of women (as if it is a homogenous fact) to “prove” how backwards and uncivilized Algerian (read: Muslim) culture was, and therefore justify their civilizing mission. The fact that (some) women were covered, for example, supposedly showed the need for the French to liberate them – a discourse that actually still exists in France today when you see their laws re. the burqa.

The Algerian freedom fighters manipulated this French assumption by using women to carry weapons. Since the French assumed that women were passive, they did not check them thoroughly at checkpoints. This allowed many women to smuggle weapons to the freedom fighters because of a stereotype the French had about them and Algerian cultural in general. So again, we see Algerian men using stereotypes about Algerian women for their own benefit (although one could argue that Algerian independence was a struggle both Algerian men and women supported & fought for).

We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s western mainstream media, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims/Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive & modern Europe/America are, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/miniskirts/as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (or have been sucked into another oppressive structure known as capitalism). Not only does this create the discourse of women in the west being “free”, which is far from the truth; it also simultaneously creates the discourse of women who do not look like western women or act like western women as backwards. Once this discourse is created, it is then taken to represent other cultures in general: women in the Middle East cover their hair because they are oppressed by culture/religion/etc.

Campaign poster for a far-right political party in Switzerland, using women's bodies to delineate civilized Europe from the backwards Muslim world.

Today we see many Islamists using women as well. Symbols related to gender have started to signify resistance to western imperialism. This is clear in the various discourses they use. Women must be conservative, remain pure and untouched, because they represent the nation in particular and Islam in general. Any laws or movements that are seen as trying to  “liberate” women are usually branded as western and imperialistic, and therefore must be crushed. While it is true that many women’s movements in the ME *are* western and imperial, it is useless to categorize them all this way.

Islamists showing the difference between a veiled woman and an unveiled woman, thus using women & their bodies to make a point about what they see as "Islamic morality."

In both cases, it is not women’s best interests that are at heart. When an American magazine prints a picture of a woman wearing a bikini and reproduces the discourse that the less a woman wears, the more liberated she is, it is not doing this out of a genuine concern for women or women’s issues. Similarly, when an Islamists wants to “protect” women from immoral behaviour and maintain their purity, they are not doing this out of a concern for women, but rather because of bigger religious and national interests/beliefs. Either way, women lose.

We lose because it is always decided for us what liberation or oppression means. It is never a choice. Women who cover their hair in the Netherlands are seen as oppressed by their own culture/religion/men; and women who wear miniskirts in Cairo are seen as oppressed by consumerism and a culture obsessed with women’s bodies & sex. And within these binary discourses, how free are we, as women, to choose what we want to wear, be, think, feel, or do?

This is complicated even more if you are a non-white woman, because then it is not only patriarchal men trying to decide for you and using you to make their point; it is also patriarchal/colonial women (sometimes they even call themselves feminists) who are trying to manipulate and use you. Did Laura Bush *really* want to help Afghan women when she argued that that was one of the primary motivations for invading Afghanistan? Or was she just stupid enough to somehow think that (1) wearing a burqa automatically means you are oppressed and (2) bombing the hell out of you will somehow get read of sais oppression? Or is it more likely that she was simply yet another tool used by Empire to achieve their goals; and in the process of her becoming a tool, she in turn used other women – in this case women in Afghanistan (who are of course one homogenous group).

As a woman, you have to always be alert when you hear someone say they want to “liberate” you. Do they really have your best interests at heart? Are they really trying to understand your situation and context? Or is it just another case of someone using women to make a point/justify a war/fulfill some religious commandment?