On gender and hierarchies


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.


Women, feminism and the validity of feelings

I’ve been thinking about feelings lately and the ways in which the validity of certain feelings and the invalidity of others act as forms of self-censorship of self-punishment. It wasn’t until I came across Sara Ahmed’s work on phenomenology and feminism that I was finally able to articulate some of the feelings I had towards being a feminist and the ways in which that is seen and the ways in which I am seen because of identifying with feminism. Sara Ahmed’s notion of always being a killjoy has been particularly useful because for me it sums up the crux of the matter: feminists are seen as killjoys, and for that reason it is something that is frowned upon, dismissed, made fun of, or even attacked violently.

It should come across as no surprise that calling oneself a feminist is not exactly something that makes one popular or wins over lots of people. The word feminist itself has become so associated with negative imagery that even within certain “critical” circles it’s become difficult to identify as a feminist. This is even more pronounced somewhere like Egypt where the term feminist comes with imperialist connotations, which, fair enough, do exist. But my concern is more with people who dismiss the term because it is “too radical” or “too hateful.” Feminists hate men, live in women-only enclaves, and are always angry. The problem is when we try to counter this argument by saying that “not all feminists” do those things or are like that, because that of course is a trap in and of itself. Plenty of feminists do take very radical approaches to men, and most are probably angry (as am I). But not subscribing to radical feminism (I’m not a big fan either, for different reasons) is still not enough of a reason to denounce feminism as a whole.

What is even more astounding about the feminist-as-killjoy “accusation” is that it is feminists who have to defend themselves by showing that they’re *not* angry, sensitive, PMSing, and so on. The burden of proof (proving our civility and happiness and proving that we won’t be killjoys) lies with feminists and women, so that we can show that while we may have specific views on gender, no need to worry since we’ll be careful not to bother you with them. So here the focus is not on patriarchy or the many reasons why women may be angry. Instead attention is deflected away from that and put on the women themselves.

I’m sure we’ve all had these moments (everyday) where someone says something sexist or does something sexist, and you point it out. Sometimes you even point it out as a joke so you don’t kill the mood *too much.* But still…the mood gets killed, people roll their eyes, everyone is like “oh that again” and somehow the whole conversation has become about the person pointing out the problem rather than the problem itself.

This is what I find fascinating…how disrupting hegemonic performances is such a threat that any disruption must be pathologized and attacked. Any attempt to disrupt an act of patriarchal masculinity or patriarchal femininity is met with so much resistance that over time the only effect is to wear down the person doing the disrupting. And this brings me back to my initial point – that this all ends with self-censorship. Not at the shallow level of censoring oneself consciously: “Oh, don’t say that cause he’ll respond with this.” It operates at a much deeper level by creating questions in ourselves about our own positionalities and our own beliefs. Above all, it creates questions about the validity of the feelings we are having. The question of over-reaction, of sentimentality, of anger, of PMS – these have all become all-too-common discussions I’ve had with feminist friends.

And yet these questions bring us straight back to square one – patriarchy functions precisely by assigning emotionality to women and rationality to men. Whether women are too angry, too happy, too flirty, or too dramatic, there is always a state of feeling – women are always feeling something, and feeling too much of it. It seems to me that the damage this has done to feminism is quite notable, in the sense that this has been transplanted onto feminists as well, who happen to be mostly women: feminists also feel too much, and react too often, to situations that are in fact quite rational and do not need to be reacted to in an overly-emotional manner.

And yet all of this creates, within women, a constant state of agitation. On the one hand, you notice hegemonic masculinity everywhere, and you see the ways in which patriarchy is performed, even among men who may identify with feminism. And this by itself is disconcerting, and often painful. On the other hand, the price of disrupting patriarchy is so high that you constantly have to ask yourself questions about the validity of what you are feeling. And yet, you felt something. But…did you really need to feel that way? Isn’t it just another case of you over-reacting? Maybe it’s that time of the month? Maybe you just need to see patriarchy everywhere since you’re a feminist and that’s what feminists do? Maybe it wasn’t intentional? But. I still felt a certain way.


Women are always told to doubt their feelings and question the validity of what they are feeling. I will never forget a conversation I had about a month ago, with a woman who I had just met. I was telling her about a guy situation, and that I felt angry, but that I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t think I had the right to be angry about what had happened. All she said was: “Ok. But you are angry. So what if you should or shouldn’t be?” And I actually stopped and thought…what a revolutionary way of looking at feelings!

This is not to say we shouldn’t be self-reflexive about how we feel and what we feel. As human beings (as in…men and women) we all over-react at times, are sensitive about certain issues, and get emotional when we’re hungry. But to my knowledge, only one sex is socialized to always question how they feel. And all this does, in the end, is make the distance between what we feel and what we *should* feel huge, and this doesn’t seem like anything but a form of self-punishment.

Gender representation

Following on my previous post about representation, I wanted to talk about it a little more by giving a concrete case.

Last night, my friends and I went to a panel about Islam & politics. We got there and found four men on the panel, and zero women. This was following a panel last week about Islamic feminism, on which (of course) there were four women and no men. Our issue was not so much that there should have been men on the feminism panel, but that it was strange that there were no women on the politics panel – a topic that affects everyone. 

During the Q&A, Asma Barlas brought up the fact that there were no women on a panel that professed itself to be a critical and decolonial panel. Someone in the audience responded by asking why it matters that there are no women on the panel, as long as it was a critical and interesting panel. In other words it is more about the discourse being used and arguments being made by members of the panel, and not the gender. 

On the one hand, I see where this comment comes from, because all too often we demand “token women” who end up perpetuating uncritical arguments, since (obviously) not all women are automatically decolonial or critical. On the other hand, there are critical women out there that could have been invited to this panel. Our knowledge always depends on our positionality, and so to exclude women from panels means excluding knowledge produced from this positionality and location. 

Another point is that it matters symbolically – seeing no women in these positions of authority and power does affect people’s gender perceptions. In fact throughout the program I’ve been at, I have seen people react differently to the same argument depending on whether it is made by a female scholar or by a male scholar. Like it or not, we are still not used to seeing women that are confident and that take themselves seriously and demand to be taken seriously. 

Of course the quota system is problematic. Of course demanding a “token woman” is problematic. But isn’t it better than continuing to see all-men panels? And does the “token woman” argument even make sense anymore, considering we have so many women that can and should be on these panels?

Are we at a point yet where we can say it’s all about what is being said, and now about who is saying it? Can we ever reach that point, given that our knowledge production and our positionality are always intertwined in complex ways?

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?

Science & objectivity

Many of us were raised in contexts that valued science above all other ways of understanding the world. Science was above religion, above social “sciences”, above local knowledges.  This was largely due to the fact that it was seen as more objective than any other form of knowledge. It was only recently that I started to question this assumption: why is science the “best” way to understand? And is it really objective and value-neutral. I just read a fascinating article that demonstrates exactly why science is not as neutral as some of us may think. The article is The decline of the one-size-fits-all paradigm, or, how reproductive scientists try to cope with postmodernity by Nelly Oudshoorn.

She begins by pointing out that the field of andrology (medical study of the reproductive functions of men) is barely known, whereas its sister gynaecology is one of the striking examples of the institutional and discursive process of othering in the biomedical sciences. Before the 18th C, the male and female body were seen as the same, except that the female body was a ‘male turned inside herself’ and basically a lesser version of the male body. Then in the 18th C, biomedical discourse began to conceptualize the female body as the Other, a body essentially different from the male body. 

Biomedical discourse showed a clear shift in focus on similarities to differences. This shift seems to have been caused by epistemological and socio-political changes rather than by scientific progress. New liberal claims led to new ideals about social relationships between men and women in which complementarity was emphasized. This was meant to keep women out of competition with men, designing separate spheres for men and women.

This is an extremely important point, as it shows how medical discourses don’t just “naturally” come out of nowhere, but are created and influenced by social, political and economic contexts and discourses.

Following this shift, the female body became the medical object par excellence, emphasizing women’s unique sexual character (Foucalt).

The search for the cause of women’s otherness (a search created BECAUSE women had begun to be seen as the Other) eventually led to setting women’s bodies apart in a medical specialism: gynaecology. Women became a special group/type of patient. As Foucalt has highlighted in his work, when such a “special” group is created, entire discourses, justified by science, come to be created.

The quest for universal contraceptives is the ultimate consequence of the process of othering. Instead of seeing the diversity among women, it was assumed that they were all the same and thus a universal contraceptive could be invented.

Although the pill was developed as universal, it nevertheless contained a specific user: a woman, medicalized enough to take medication regularly, who is used to gynecological examinations and regular visits to the physician, and who does not have to hide contraception from her partner. This portrait of the ideal user is highly culturally specific.

Moreover, it was women of colour who were used in the Pill experiments. The choice to test hormones on women of colour could only be made because scientists did not recognize any fundamental differences between women. Again, science reflecting society.

In the 1970s, scientists concluded that they had failed to create a universal contraceptive.  This admission came with the collapse of the dreams of modernity – again, science mirroring society. Crisis in modernity eroded the belief in one technological fix to improve the human condition, although I would argue that this way of thinking has now resurged.

What is also interesting is that when looking to control population growth, scientists chose to focus on women rather than men. Today, around 20% of contraceptive-using couples rely on male methods, even though female methods such as the Pill have a large amount of side effects (seriously, who wants weight gain, bad skin and mood swings?).

Rather ironically, reproductive biologists have argued that, in terms of population control, it would have been more efficient to choose men as the major target for controlling fertility because men have a much longer fertile life than women.

Yet somehow it always was and still is about women. Could that be science reflecting sexism? Maybe 🙂