Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Feminism of Fools

If anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools, as August Bebel said, and anti-Americanism is the anti-imperialism of fools, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices (which tend to go hand in hand, due to the stereotypical equation of Arabs with Muslims) today are the feminism of fools.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, in her famously recondite essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" (whose argument is often misunderstood as a claim that the subalterns -- especially women of the oppressed classes on the margins of capitalism -- are doomed to remain voiceless), argued that imperialism's self-image as the promoter of "the good society" all over the world is marked by its "espousal of the woman as object of protection from her own kind" (Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988], p. 299), presenting white men (and nowadays elite white women and women of color at the heart of the empire, too) as "saving brown women from brown men" (p. 297). In dialectical response to imperialists' feminist disguise which masks their own sexist agenda, patriarchal anti-colonialists offer themselves as protectors of women from Western corruptions. Women's bodies, quite often, become the battleground over which two contending political rhetorics clash. Women's own voices, in the war of pseudo-feminisms, seldom get heard -- sometime because women's voices are distorted beyond recognition in the echo chambers of sexist imperialism and patriarchal anti-colonialism, sometimes because no viable political vehicle exists which can carry their voices, sometimes because others refuse to listen to women who are speaking, even shouting at the top of their lungs.

The case that can best illustrate an impossible position into which "brown women" are politically pushed today is the struggle of Muslim women. As Homa Hoodfar wrote:
In the West, Islam has come to epitomize the worse kind of oppression of women, usually symbolized by the veil, polygyny, and more recently, by stoning. Muslim women are assumed to have passively accepted their bleak lives, either because they know of no alternative or because they have no means to fight this faith prescribed by God and administered by their male masters. . . .

Despite its ubiquity, the category of Muslim women implies a false homogeneity. As a classification, it is vague and ahistorical. However, due to the frequency of its historical use and misuse, the abstraction "Muslim women" has evolved to be a political rather than analytical concept, now used by diverse factions. In the media which cater to the dominant Western cultures, it is used to imply the many kinds of women's oppression. ("Dossier 21: Muslim Women on the Threshold of the 21st Century," September 1988)
The "false homogeneity" serves both ethnocentric Western men and conservative Muslim men: "A frequently heard comment, and self-definition, of Maghrebi men goes like this: 'We are Muslims: our women don’t (go out alone, wear lipstick, etc.), unlike French women, who do'. Frenchmen contribute to this claim to distinctiveness by making exactly the same distinctions about Muslim women" (Rachel Bloul, "Dossier 19: Engendering Muslim Identities: Deterritorialization and the Ethnicization Process in France," February 1998). The ahistorical abstraction may even serve as justification or rationalization of a war of aggression:
Evidently, the trope of rescuing women has played a major role in shutting down popular American resistance to the attacks on Afghanistan, even though it has been well recognized that the discourse of saving women is only a front for ongoing U.S. military activity in that country. The urgent need to rescue Afghan women is successful as a front, because it necessarily interacts with many other American discourses with pretensions to 'saving.' As a front, however, it plays the important rhetorical role of tapping into the senses of inexorability and urgency that the prevalent apocalyptic and covenantal discourses carry. There is an urgency to 'do something' to save the women of Afghanistan from the evil they face. The 'something' that is accepted as the only option is American military aggression, because it fulfills expectations about the United States' savior role in the world. (Erin Runions, "Biblical Promise and Threat in U.S. Imperialist Rhetoric Before and After September 11, 2001," The Scholar and Feminist Online 2.2, Winter 2004)
As Shahnaz Khan emphasizes, liberal feminists may also unwittingly "sustain stereotypes about muslim women," reinforcing "commonly held assumptions in North America that conflate Islam and the fundamentalist groups" and creating the "timeless Islamic tradition" alone responsible for Muslim women's oppression, even while they "challenge the United States government to ensure human rights for women in Afghanistan" ("Between Here and There: Feminist Solidarity and Afghan Women," Genders 33, 2001), if they consciously or unconsciously omit the role played by US and Pakistani interventions in the ascendancy of Islamism in Afghanistan.

Not only in Afghanistan, where women indeed suffered under the theocratic Taliban regime, Washington, confident that it could count on the prevailing American assumptions about Muslim women, went so far as to masquerade its invasion of Iraq -- where women under the secular Ba'ath regime had long enjoyed more gender equality in education and employment than in most predominantly Muslim nations -- as a project to "improve the status of women's rights": "[The town meeting with U.S. Representative Cliff Stearns (R)] included a Power Point presentation on the Iraq war. This fascinating presentation included the statement that part of the intent of the invasion was to improve the status of women's rights in that country" (Fay Baird, "Meeting Not Just a Pep Rally," Gainesville (FL) Sun, May 14, 2003), prompting the US feminist collective Redstockings' intervention against the ridiculous propaganda: Redstockings, "Women in Iraq: Illusions, Confusions, and Coverup."

Washington's propaganda about Afghan and Iraqi women should serve as a wake-up call to activists, revealing the dire consequences of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudices. If we are to act in solidarity with women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, we cannot but vigorously fight the feminism of fools, following the example of Redstockings and putting insights of such feminist critics as Spivak, Hoodfar, Bloul, and Khan into practice: represent diverse Muslim women's conditions accurately, paying attention to differences due to classes, nations, regions, and so on; strive to offer historically informed analyses that do not neglect to examine the impacts of not just national but also international politics; and refuse to allow Muslim women to be reduced to the status of passive victims and objects of protection.

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