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Marginalized Politics: Discussions on Feminism and the Egyptian Revolution

December 29, 2011

Both in the real and cyber worlds, I have always had a tough time engaging with Western liberal feminist narratives. There is an element of betrayal there that I have never managed to forgive.

A couple of years ago, I sent the following email to some people I knew in the real world that sums up my problem [context irrelevant].

[…] growing up immigrant and colored means experiencing firsthand that the feminist movement is made visible by the most priviledged among us. I cannot count the number of discussions, debates, fights I have had with white feminists who simply could not understand how or why somebody in a burqua could also be a feminist, that immigrant women are also feminists, that queer/disabled/women of colour are all part of this movement. (And not communities who direly need some feminist re-programming) Patriarchy is not just about gender. It is class, caste, religion, sexuality. There is a strong partriachy towards marginalized women communities within the feminist movement that I am tired of witnessing.

I have long switched off feminist politics that do not engage with things like class, sexuality, race and nationality. And I think because my feminist grounding does not come from Western politics (necessarily) I have come to accept a couple of things. That even with my issues with feminism, it’s still on my side at the end of the day — it’s not my enemy. Patriarchy is. And importantly, that despite its complicated and diverse history — feminism, as a whole, remains marginalized in its politics.

Feminism is routinely stuffed with straw and accused of taking positions that it never actually does.

In South nations, “The West” itself is a tool for right-wing voices to justify countless inequalities. For example, being queer or feminists or both is an imitation of Western culture — a corrupting force, an inauthentic other. Never mind that these queer and feminist politics come from non-white, non-western communities, after all it’s about silencing and de-legitimizing.

Feminism gets evoked, while un-originally blaming women for men’s predatory sexual behavior. [Here is an excellent response to the former]. It is used as an incredibly lazy attention-grabber to rising HIV prevalence rates. And feminist messages on reproductive health is manipulated to suit patriarchal non-arguments.

A recent facebook post from a (presumably feminist) male voice caught my attention last week (mostly for its sheer weight in condescension).

Let Egyptian women teach you, mighty Western world of intellectualized language, what feminism looks like, outside of libraries and academic journals, outside of arguments over “who should pay the bill”, outside of talk, and into the wild frontier of action.

Ah, forget 100 years of (heavily documented) women’s history, Western feminists spend their time writing journal articles about “who pays the bills”! They have never ventured into “the wild frontier of action”!

Never-mind that feminists all over the world (including the West) are in solidarity with the Egyptian women’s struggles.

He goes on:

Women are inherently strong beings, and show great power when society (men and other women) hold them to higher expectation. But, if instead, society expects women to wear the costumes of brothels, to seek validation by attention-seeking through exclusively superficial means, to seek/expect emotional dependence from sources outside of themselves… women will instead remain marginalized in a role that is somewhere between human and animal. […] I believe, in the landscape of the global female struggle, an encounter with such a resistance as we are seeing in Egypt – in relation to arguments over whether it’s sexist to refer to a female as a “girl” as opposed to a “woman”, or discussing the empowering vs oppressive qualities of striping – helps put things into perspective for men and women, alike.

It is unclear why this person gets to name struggles as “real” or “superficial” in the first place. Especially when one of the struggles deemed “unreal” is politics around stripping. What is unreal is that this is said in the context of a female protester being shamed (and assaulted) via stripping in a public space. While the two situations might be different, the question of women’s bodies and its relationship to dress (or undressing), patriarchy and policing is a core theme in the Egyptian women’s movement.

In further comment posts, it is clear that this person is making arguments about the need for intersectionality in Western feminism — a discussion that many Western feminists do engage with, of course. Even as feminists provide different approaches, nuances and positions — there will always be a few who must take the loudest, the most obnoxious arguments and assign it an identity called “Feminism”.

Everyone seems to want a feminist straw-woman to beat up. Don’t do it. How do you know you might be arguing against a straw feminist position? Here are 3 easy ways to check yourself. [Also, check yourself extra carefully if you are a man. You don’t, in fact, shed your privilege just because you woke up one day and discovered feminism.]

1. The feminist positions you are arguing against are imaginary. You have made up a feminist who say what you want them to say so that you can argue back and seem radical. It doesn’t work that way.

If you do have actual women saying atrocious things, then by all means — name them, state what they are saying, and we can collectively get rid of all that hay!

2. You have ignored what most feminists around you are actually saying. Mostly because you have not bothered to find out what this might be. I know it’s more fun to get outraged, but don’t get lazy. Google search works.

3. Recognize that feminism has many points-of-view and many histories. Don’t simply choose one (the most vocal is not the most relevant) and call it ‘Feminism’.

From another commentator (presumably) Western feminist:

Expectations of women as feminists to behave a certain way or follow certain causes, and accusations of us not being proper as such? …again a type of bullshit dominance that helps no one. Here in the U.S. women are also trafficked, beat, murdered, imprisoned (and beat, trafficked, murdered while imprisoned), yet there is no platform to fight, as no one wants to listen. But timing is everything, and just because some of us aren’t as vocal on facebook as others does not mean we are inactive. And in reference to the comment of us worrying about the oppression vs. empowerment of stripping…we most definitely should continue discussing the ways in which women are portrayed in our male-driven sex industry…this is not a superfluous cause. Females have desires, and should be allowed to express themselves sexually without it becoming a show of misogynistic control, control that directly correlates to issues of violence, restriction, and ultimately…human trafficking. So instead of bullying western feminists and our intellectual ideation, why don’t you just support all of our determination to overcome? My own empathy for the struggles women everywhere on earth face runs deep

I would agree. I don’t see the value of disparaging any one way (i.e.academia) of grappling with the inequalities that we as women face everyday. No matter how hard women fight, there is always the message lurking in there somewhere that we are not good enough, smart enough or relevant enough.

Sidenote: Also, this video on straw feminism in Hollywood.

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