The question of representation

At a summer school about decolonialism in Granada at the moment, and a very interesting issues came up at one of the lectures today.

Tom Reifer, an anti-Zionist Jew, was presenting on the Palestinian question. He identifies as a radical of Jewish background, and his entire presentation was extremely critical of Israel and the manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust in order to occupy and ethnically cleanse Palestine today.

Afterwards, a Palestinian woman in the audience criticised his talk and claimed it was not decolonial, because in a talk about Palestine she had expected a Palestinian to be present as well. In the end the talk had focused more on the Holocaust and his experiences as an anti-Zionist of Jewish background, than on Palestine. Her critique was mainly that in a talk about Palestine, we were hearing the narratives of Jews who are against Israel.

This critique is interesting because it brings up the question of representation. On the one hand, Tom is a radical and decolonial speaker who was as critical of Israel as many Palestinians I have heard speak, if not more so. But he is not speaking from personal experience, living as a Palestinian, either in occupied Palestine or in the diaspora.

But this debate brings up the question of whether someone who comes from an oppressed group is automatically decolonial? We know that not all women are anti-sexism and that not all Arabs are anti-imperial. The reason these systems work so well is because they have been internalized not only by those who benefit, but by those who are oppressed.

Does that mean that having a Palestinian speak on a panel about Palestine is necessary? Does it mean they will present a more decolonial perspective than an anti-Zionist Jew? In other words, can someone who doesn’t have these experiences be the only one to speak on the Palestinian question? (I’m not suggesting Tom shouldn’t have been on the panel, but that perhaps he shouldn’t have been the only one.)

But then I started thinking about this in terms of gender. How many times have we been to panels on gender, comprised of only women, that present very sexist views on gender, femininity, masculinity etc.? Being a woman, and having the experiences that come with that, does not necessarily mean being anti-sexist and it doesn’t mean that one has unlearned all the internalized sexism and patriarchy we are bombarded with from when we are born.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma. On the one hand, I don’t agree 100% with standpoint theory, which states that those who have experienced oppression should be the ones to speak on oppression, since they have experienced it. There are many who haven’t experienced oppression and yet are very good at critiquing these systems. On the other hand, I do sympathise with the idea, especially after hearing white feminist after white feminist demand the right to talk about “third world women” because everyone should be able to.

There is also the issue of authority. At the end of the day, anti-Zionist Jews are better able to influence audiences that are not pro-Palestine, because they are seen as “more objective” than Palestinians themselves (which is bullshit, but unfortunately widespread) and that if a Jew is criticising Israel, it might be something worth paying attention to. This process happens in terms of gender too, where male feminists get much more attention (and praise) for criticising patriarchy. Of course it is always meaningful when someone who benefits from a system then criticises that system, although this should not simultaneously de-legitimise or silence critiques from those oppressed by the system. But in terms of effectiveness, there may be something to be said for anti-Zionist Jews speaking on Palestine. I am pretty sure, for example, that many Dutch people would have been more likely to take Tom Reifer seriously than a Palestinian.

So what to do? Should we be able to speak (authoritatively) about systems and situations we have not experienced? Does this mean we will lose decolonial voices who have not experienced these systems and yet are critical of them? But at the same time, does it mean we have to continue accepting that the voices who dominate these debates are those that have not experienced oppression and are also not critical or decolonial? And I guess the most important question: who decides?


The emergence of the “Muslim woman question” in Egypt

Qasim Amin's book
Qasim Amin’s book

I just went to a talk by Nadia Fadil about “Islamic feminism and decolonialism” which was absolutely fascinating! What I really like about her work is that she traces the history of feminism in the Middle East in order to show its clear links to European modernity, the Enlightenment, and colonial processes. These links informed the way feminism was discussed and debated in countries like Egypt, and continues to influence the way we talk about gender today.

She argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for them to assert themselves as political and modern subjects.

She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalized women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

Asserting women’s rights becomes a way for Amin to assert himself as a full modern human subject.

Therefore it is clear that the The “woman’s question” in the Middle East emerges as a derivative of the Muslim question. The question is: how compatible are Egyptians with western liberal modernity? The answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and culture) treat women. Therefore for Amin to be seen as compatible with western liberal modernity, he has to see and treat women in a certain way (as do all Egyptians).

Amin choosing to focus on the “woman’s question” had less to do with position of women (and how to advance it), and more with the extent to which Egyptians can enter history and be seen as modern political subjects (i.e. through certain views of women). The civilizational hierarchy was thus defined through gender. Egyptians need to adopt a certain language to be seen as equal. Egyptian men needed to speak in this language (especially about women) in order to be considered as equal political subjects, to be given political agency and to be granted the right to speak.

This whole discussion reminded me of how gender was invoked during the Egyptian revolution, with questions of “where are the women?” and whether the revolution could be considered “successful” if women’s rights hadn’t been achieved (rights being defined in a very specific way). This discourse serves once again to implicate gender into any questions of modernity and progress: Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices.

The decolonial option

Ramon Grosfoguel is one of the most important decolonial thinkers in the world today. I recently went over one of his readings on modernity & the decolonial option, and wanted to share some of it with you.

Unlike other traditions of knowledge, the western is a point of view that does not assume itself as a point of view. In this way, it hides its epistemic location, paving the ground for its claims about universality, neutrality and objectivity. The decisive difference between this essay and neo-liberal, neo-marxist, marxist, weberian, wallersteinean or globalisation political-economist academic production is, then, that I am not hiding the epistemic location from where I am thinking.
Border thinking, one of the epistemic perspectives to be discussed in this article, is precisely a critical response to both hegemonic and marginal fundamentalisms.
Far from having overcome the linear evolutionist and paternalistic model of Europe being the developed and the rest being underdeveloped, academics continue labeling the conceptualizations of subaltern subjects as ideas that belong to the past, which, unsurprisingly, Europe has long-gone overcome.
We always speak from a particular location in the power structures. No one escapes the class, sexual, gender, spiritual, linguistic, geographical, and racial hierarchies of the ‘modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system’.

In western philosophy and sciences the subject that speaks is always hidden, concealed, erased from the analysis. The ‘ego-politics of knowledge’ of western philosophy has always privileged the myth of a non-situated ego, ego meaning the conscious thinking subject. Ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location and the subject that speaks are always decoupled. By delinking ethnic/racial/gender/sexual epistemic location from the subject that speaks, western philosophy and sciences are able to produce a myth about a Truthful Universal knowledge that conceals who is speaking, as well as, obscuring the geo-political and body-political epistemic location in the structures of colonial power/knowledge from which the subject speaks2.

Just because one is socially located on the oppressed side of power relations, does not automatically mean that he/she is epistemically thinking from a subaltern epistemic location. Precisely, the success of the modern/colonial world-system consists in making subjects that are socially located on the oppressed side of the colonial difference, think epistemically like the ones in the dominant positions.

Rene Descartes, the founder of modern western philosophy, inaugurates a key moment in the history of western thought in which he replaces God – as the foundation of knowledge in the theo-politics of knowledge of the European Middle Ages – with western man as the foundation of knowledge in European modernity.

We went from the 16th century characterization of ‘people without writing’ to the 18th and 19th century characterization of ‘people without history,’ to the 20th century characterization of ‘people without development’ and more recently, to the early 21st century of ‘people without democracy’.

We went from the 16th century ‘rights of people’ (the Sepulveda versus de las Casas debate, in the school of Salamanca in the mid-16th century), to the 18th century ‘rights of man’ (the Enlightment philosophers), and to the late 20th century ‘human rights’. This changing nomenclature is part of global the strategies articulated to the simultaneous production and reproduction of an international division of labor of core/periphery that overlaps with the global racial/ethnic hierarchy of Europeans/non-Europeans.

The global gender hierarchy is also affected by race: contrary to pre-European patriarchies where all women were inferior to all men, in the new colonial power matrix some women (of European origin) have a higher status and access to resources than the majority of men in the world (who are of non-European origin). The idea of race organizes the world’s population into a hierarchical order of superior and inferior people that becomes an organizing principle of the international division of labor and of the global patriarchal system. Contrary to the Eurocentric perspective, race, gender, sexuality, spirituality, and epistemology are not additive elements to the economic and political structures of the capitalist world-system, but an integral, entangled and constitutive part of the entangled whole European modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world system.

The old national liberation and socialist strategies of taking power at the level of a nation-state are insufficient to the task because global coloniality is not reducible to the presence or absence of a colonial administration or to political/economic structures of power.

We continue to live within the same colonial power matrix. With juridical-political decolonization we moved from a period of global colonialism to the current period of global coloniality.’ Although colonial administrations have been almost entirely eradicated and the majority of the periphery is politically organized into independent states, non-European people are still living under crude European/Euro-American exploitation and domination. The old colonial stratifications of European versus non-Europeans remain in place and are entangled with ‘the international division of labor’ and accumulation of capital on a world-scale.

Herein lies the relevance of the distinction between colonialism and coloniality. Coloniality allows us to understand the continuity of colonial forms of domination after the end of colonial administrations; such domination is produced by colonial cultures and structures in the modern/colonial capitalist world-system. Coloniality of power refers to a crucial structuring process in the modern/colonial world-system that articulates peripheral locations in the international division of labor with the global racial/ethnic hierarchy and third world migrants’ inscription in the racial/ethnic hierarchy of metropolitan global cities. Peripheral nation-states and non-European people live today under the regime of global coloniality imposed by the United States through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Pentagon and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (see for example Lander, this issue). Peripheral zones remain in a colonial situation even though are not any longer under any particular colonial administration.

The mythology of the decolonization of the world obscures the continuities between the colonial past and current global colonial/racial hierarchies and contributes to the invisibility of coloniality today.

The global racial/ethnic hierarchy of Europeans and non-Europeans, is an integral part of the development of the capitalist world system’s international division of labor (Wallerstein, 1983; Quijano, 1993; Mignolo, 1995).

Nationalism provides Eurocentric solutions to a Eurocentric global problem as it reproduces an internal coloniality of power within each nation-state and reifies the nation-state as the privileged location of social change.

Struggles above and below the nation-state are not considered in nationalist political strategies.

On the one hand nationalism is complicit with Eurocentric thinking and political structures. On the other hand, third world fundamentalisms of different kinds respond with the rhetoric of an essentialist pure outside space or absolute exteriority to modernity. They are anti-modern modern forces that reproduce the binary oppositions of Eurocentric thinking.

If Eurocentric thinking claims ‘democracy’ to be a western natural attribute, third world fundamentalisms accept this Eurocentric premise and claim that democracy has nothing to do with the non-west.

Critical border thinking is the epistemic response of the subaltern to the Eurocentric project of modernity. Instead of rejecting modernity to retreat into a fundamentalist absolutism, border epistemologies subsume/redefines the emancipatory rhetoric of modernity from the cosmologies and epistemologies of the subaltern, located in the oppressed and exploited side of the colonial difference, towards a decolonial liberation struggle for a world beyond eurocentered modernity. What border thinking produces is a redefinition/subsumption of citizenship, democracy, human rights, humanity, economic relations beyond the narrow definitions imposed by European modernity. Border thinking is not an anti-modern fundamentalism; it is a decolonial transmodern response of the subaltern to Eurocentric modernity.

We cannot assume a Habermasian consensus or an equal horizontal relationship among cultures and peoples globally divided between the two poles of the colonial difference.

Instead of a single modernity centered in Europe and imposed as a global design to the rest of the world, Dussel argues for a multiplicity of decolonial critical responses to eurocenteric modernity from the subaltern cultures and epistemic location of colonized people around the world. In Mignolo’s interpretation of Dussel, transmodernity would be equivalent to ‘diversality as a universal project’ which is a result of ‘critical border thinking’ as an epistemic intervention from the diverse subalterns (Mignolo 2000).

Diverse forms of democracy, civil rights or women liberation can only come out of the creative responses of local subaltern epistemologies.

The international left never radically problematized the racial/ethnic hierarchies built during the European colonial expansion and still present within the world’s coloniality of power.

Liberal or radical democracy cannot be fully accomplished if the colonial/racist dynamics treat a large portion or, in some cases, the majority of the population, as second-class citizens.

Development projects that focus on policy changes at the level of the nation-state are obsolete in today’s world-economy and they lead to development illusions.

A system of domination and exploitation that operates on a world-scale, such as the capitalist world-system, cannot have a national solution, and inversely, a global problem cannot be solved at the nation-state level — it requires global decolonial solutions.

Thus, the decolonization of the political-economy of the modern/colonial capitalist/patriarchal world-system requires the eradication of the continuous transfer of wealth from south to north, and the institutionalization of the global redistribution and transfer of wealth from north to south. After centuries of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (Harvey 2003), the north has a concentration of wealth and resources inaccessible to the south.