On gender and hierarchies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On repetition and power

I just finished an article on intersectionality and its critiques by Vivian May. Among other points, she addresses the critique that intersectionality didn’t bring anything new to the table and that it is just Black feminism recycled. Aside from the point that this is arguably false, she points to the important question of why certain things have to be repeated again and again. Should we be focusing on repetition as necessarily bad, or should we be asking why certain things, in certain fields, need to be repeated over and over?

Of course the field of gender studies and feminism are the quintessential example here. Debates about universal sisterhood, about structure versus agency, about the biological versus the constructed, and so on have been happening for decades upon decades. But the point here is that certain points – which should by now have ben accepted – must be constantly made and defended. The most prominent example is the idea of multiple structural intersections that de-center gender as the most important axis of oppression or identity. In other words: race, sexuality, nation and a whole range of other social categories matter just as much as gender. Significantly, they can’t really be neatly separated from one another – I am racialized and gendered, and I can’t exactly separate my racialization from my gendering. Intersectionality is the most recent reiteration of this basic point, but it has been made before, by Black feminists, by Third World feminists, and by feminists during the era of decolonization. Hence the idea of repetition.

May quotes Audre Lorde to address the question of why certain things have to constantly be repeated:

“We find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over. For instance, how many times has this all been said before?”

It’s clear that it isn’t about how many times it has been said before, but about how many times it has been ignored before. May writes:

An intersectional approach to asking, and answering, “why repetition?” requires recognizing asymmetries of power within rhetorics, social imaginaries, and cognitive authority, such that one state of obduracy necessitates that another, equally persistent worldview be continually rearticulated.

Writing this I couldn’t help but be reminded of other subjects in which repetition is necessary to survival. I began to think about the ways in which looking at what needs to be constantly repeated is an interesting way of understanding power relations within fields. Here I thought of Middle East women’s studies, and the constant need to disavow culturalist understandings of gender oppression in the Middle East. I thought of political science, where one has to navigate the simplistic understandings of political economy in the Middle East and constantly repeat that class and capitalism matter. I thought of development studies, where repeating the structural biases of international institutions like the UN and World Bank is imperative if we want to see development as an industry rather than as progressive. Working and writing within all of these fields means constantly repeating certain things, and coming up against walls when you do (thanks to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant conceptualisation of seeing opposition as a wall).

One wall is when you’re asked why you focus on X instead of Y. For example, when someone asks why you always talk about imperialism and orientalism when you talk about gender in the Middle East, and never about Islam or corrupt regimes. The ‘simple’ answer: you really can’t separate imperialism from corrupt regimes, or global power dynamics and modernity from modern Islamist movements. In other words, the ‘external’ and ‘internal’ are not neatly separable; and neither are the global and the national. Another wall is when you’re asked to ‘prove’ something, a wall I’m sure any political scientist is familiar with. Here we see that data, statistics, bar graphs and charts become the test your theory has to pass through, a test fashioned by the very system of capitalist modernity your theory is critiquing.

And then there is the wall of “this has been said before, why are you repeating it?” Or: “why are you addressing an old debate?” Well, because certain things have to be repeated or they will be left out, forgotten. We have to keep talking about intersectionality – even if it means we are critiquing it – because it does not become an old debate as long as there is still work in gender studies that ignores race, or the global division of labour. Similarly, we have to keep insisting that “class matters” in Middle East studies as long as there is work that aims to understanding politics in the Middle East without once addressing class, capitalism, or its more recent form, neoliberalism.

So it’s clear that repetition is necessary. Repetition is an act that pinpoints nodes of power. We should be asking, when we see certain topics debated over and over, why these debates keep happening. What is it about society and academia that makes repetition necessary? If, as Audre Lorde says, “this has all been said before,” then what are the stakes if we stop saying it?

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.

The financial crisis

I just went to a fascinating talk about the current financial crisis by one of my professors, Howard Nicholas. I think he is one of the most influential professors I’ve had, especially in terms of understanding economics and the global financial system. Some of his main points:

  • We will see a major shift in global power relations in our lifetimes. This will be due to a massive shift of wealth from the advanced countries to the developing ones. Multi-nationals have already started this shift: they are laying off thousands of people in western countries and moving more and more offices and plants to developing ones. In 20 years it is predicted that there will be unemployment rates of 30% in European countries. Phillips, for example, has shifted major parts of its Research & Design sector to Singapore.
  • The power shift is already happening. The US accounts much less of global trade than it did 30 years ago, and its GDP has reduced dramatically in comparison to other countries. Now they comprise 33% of world GDP.
  • One major reason that the west will decline is the fact that it is cutting education budgets. ALL western countries except Germany have made cuts in education, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands didn’t even have to make big cuts, but it chose to do so in education. This means that in 30 years, there will be lower levels of education in the west, as compared to the developing world where there is MASSIVE investment in education now, especially in the private sector. Thus we may see an imbalance in the future, with westerners having to occupy low-level jobs and people from developing countries filling the skilled jobs (I can’t believe I might live to see this day!)
  • Yet another problem for the west is its aging infrastructure. The infrastructure in many western countries is old and thus in need of repair/upgrading. In the US, a proposed budget of $3 trillion would only fix 5% of roads and bridges in the country! The developing world, on the other hand, has relatively new infrastructure.
  • A major problem for the advanced countries today is the amount of debt they have. The US debt, for example, is 1500% of its GDP – that’s the highest it has ever been. Developing countries, on the other hand, have extremely low levels of debt. China is 20%, India is 70%.
  • The roots of the crisis in the US have not been properly addressed. The government has given money to the banks (who are responsible for the crisis), and the banks have started lending again. Consumer debt is startin to rise again, suggesting that many Americans haven’t learnt their lesson or are forced to continue borrowing to survive/pay off previous debt.
  • Before the crisis, banks were making 40% of ALL profit made in the US market. This shows how much power and control they had. Today, AFTER the crisis, they continue to make over 40%!
  • Much of US debt is in the hands of China, and this is significant in terms of global power relations. Although China is also vulnerable and tied to the US, it is in no way as vulnerable as the US is right now.
  • Pure capitalism is only being practiced by countries in East Asia. This comprises of a strong state which controls capitalism, that stifles the financials sector (especially the banks), and that builds infrastructure. Re-distribution (as in Taiwan for example) is also an aspect. The IMF, which has always been against capitalism for developing countries (don’t want any competition for the west) managed to ensure that most developing countries did not apply pure capitalism. This destroyed many of these countries, but they are coming back now (Brazil, Argentina) and they’re pissed (hahaha).
So basically we may see something monumental happening in our lifetimes: the decline of the west and the rise of the developing world. I have to say, this would be simply amazing. Not that the west will decline (after all I doubt they would reach levels that the developing world reached due to colonialism), but that the developing world will rise. After centuries of brutal colonialism and exploitation (usually by the west), the people in the Global South deserve a break.