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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lack of solidarity – why not struggle together?

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

This very famous quote from Martin Niemöller spoke about the Holocaust, and how it would not have happened if people had stood up for each other, not just for people who were “like them.”

This logic seems to have continued till today. Instead of seeing our struggles as intersecting and complimentary, we tend to stick to our own narrow social constructions and categories. So feminists tend to focus only on feminism and women’s issue, rather than race, class, religion, and other marginalized groups or issues; activists focusing on queer/gay/lesbian/transgender issues tend to focus only on those, rather than also working towards ending sexism, racism, Islamophobia, capitalist oppression, etc.

My problem with this approach stems from two issues. One, every human is a complex construction of norms, values, identities, and experiences. Therefore I am not just a woman; I am a woman that is 23 years old that has a Dutch mother and an Egyptian father, that grew up in Zambia and Egypt and that self-identifies as queer, and that likes cupcakes. So for me, the fight is not just against patriarchy. It is against neocolonialism, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, and a range of other oppressions. This means that feminists who focus only on gender will never address the complexity of my being nor the complexity of my issues.

The second issue is that many marginalized groups suffer from the same intersecting systems of oppression. Capitalism, for example, affects women and racial minorities, albeit in different ways. So rather than women focusing on women and racial minorities on racial minorities, why not unite and fight the battle together?

Unfortunately, my experiences have showed me that very often, people internalize society’s stereotypes of Others, even if they themselves are an Other. I always expected gay men to not be racist, or black women to not be Islamophobic. When you’ve lived your life as an Other that was marginalized, wouldn’t you recognize and sympathize with people who have also been through that? But no, instead many of them tend to unquestioningly internalize the same stereotypes and misconceptions about “Others.”

I’m still not sure whether this state of affairs has always existed or whether it was put in place at some point by those  in power in order to separate us from one another. We know that “divide and rule” was used repeatedly by European colonizers, but has it been used more widely in societies in general? This would be an interesting topic to research. But whether this is the case or not, it seems to me that we need to find a way to overcome this. We need to find a way to make sure that what happened in the quote above does not keep happening; that we are not silent when it is someone else. Because then they will be silent when it is us.

Global solidarity

What I find absolutely fascinating about everything happening in the world today is how connected our systems of oppression are. The Arab uprisings that have happened in 2011 were inspired by the Iranian Green Movement and the Palestinian intifadas; the Occupy Wall Street movement was inspired by the Arab uprisings; and the global Occupy movements were inspired by Occupy Wall Street. The fact that similar uprisings with similar demands are happening all over the world should tell us something about the nature of our oppression. In Egypt we are not being oppressed in a vacuum. Mubarak was not an isolated dictator. Rather he was a tool of a neo-colonial, capitalist, patriarchal system that oppresses people in every single country.

I just came across a letter from Mexico to Egypt, expressing their solidarity with the revolution:

This demand by the people is just and legitimate, and we know very well how the governing elites of the towns will answer, they don’t care about our demands, they only care to maintain power, especially when you’re demanding the end of military rule.
The dignified and rebellious people of Oaxaca show our solidarity with the more than 46 assassinated (people of Egypt) and we say don’t be intimidated by the force of the police and military state.
Know that our eyes see in your eyes your indiginity, and our conscience together will show the way to decide how we want to live and this gives peace and justice to the comrades who were assassinated by the tyrannical government.
We would like to be physically present with you comrades but we can’t go there because in each place there’s something pending to be resolved with the damned government that represses us, kills us, hurts us and jails us, but we still send you our best energy that will contribute to fortify the heart and the necessary wisdom to continue with your fight.
Put your wager on changing the base and do not depend on government structures to decide our destiny, and the solidarity that cloaks the people of Egypt is the same as that which cloaked Oaxaca in 2006. Go onto the street and proclaim that there is a different way to live.
(Full letter here.)
This amazing letter is beautiful and inspiring, as well as extremely heartbreaking. But it makes me feel like as long as there are people out there who continue to struggle and fight against all types of oppression, so should I.