Imperialist feminism

This is a modified version of a presentation given 
at Socialism, a conference held in Chicago in July, 2015. Audio files of presentations from this yearly event can be found at wearemany.org.

On International Women’s day this past March, a global campaign was launched to tackle gender inequality and violence against women. This is certainly a much-needed campaign, especially if we look at what women have experienced over the last few years. For instance, in the United States military, rape and sexual assault is a major problem. In 2012, an estimated 26,000 rapes and sexual assaults took place—and keep in mind that only one in seven victims report these attacks. In Britain, after the financial crisis of 2008, domestic violence spiked dramatically, and by 2010 had increased by 35 percent. In Afghanistan, after the US/NATO occupation and the rise of the warlords to commanding positions, sexual and physical violence against women increased significantly. Last year, when Israel attacked Gaza and killed over 2,000 people, a significant percentage of the dead were women and girls. Looking at this picture, we can

conclude that there is a dire need to build an international campaign to fight against the physical and sexual violence that women experience around the world from the United States to the UK, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, and beyond.

However, this global campaign is not that. Backed by a large number of international organizations, this campaign, which is calling itself India’s Daughter, in fact doesn’t address any of the issues noted above. India’s Daughter is a British documentary film made by Leslee Udwin that tells the story of a brutal gang rape in Delhi in December 2012 that led to the death of Jyoti Singh, 23, a medical student, and the month-long street protests that followed demanding an end to violence against women.* The campaign is tied to this film which has been shown in numerous countries around the world from Canada to Norway to the United States, with the support and backing of celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto. If you look at the issues included on the campaign website, it lists everything from rape to domestic violence, “honor based violence,” child marriage, infanticide, and so on. But what’s interesting is that the only time that white women in the West make an appearance as victims in this so-called “global campaign” is in the section on “Equality,” where the wage gap between men and women in the United States and UK are discussed. The section on rape doesn’t mention rape in the United States (either in the military or college campuses, where one in five women are raped); instead, the focus is on war rape and the examples given are of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Yugoslavia. Is it any wonder, then, that the first goal of this campaign is to target 20 million school pupils and rural communities in India?

The question we might ask is why this campaign is called “India’s Daughter” rather than “America’s Daughter” or “The American Problem” because, after all, not only is sexual violence against women a massive issue in this country but also, around the same time as the Delhi rape, in Steubenville, Ohio, a sixteen-year-old girl was gang raped and sexually assaulted by a group of men. Why didn’t this case become the focus of a documentary and global campaign? What stands out for me is that the rape was filmed by a bystander who thought it was so normal and amusing for a young woman to be repeatedly raped that he posted it on YouTube. In the video, you hear him laughing hysterically and saying things like “She is so raped right now,” “She is deader than Trayvon Martin,” “They peed on her, that’s how you know she’s dead.” You see here how race and gender intersect, a point I will come back to. When this story broke, the level of misogyny shocked people, just as another story in 2014 did when a young man named Elliot Roger set out on a misogynistic campaign to kill women at a sorority house in Isla Vista, California for rejecting him. 

The India’s Daughter campaign says nothing about these “First World” problems. Instead the message is that rape, sexual violence, and other forms of female oppression take place elsewhere: in the Global South, in cultures that the West considers backward and barbaric, and not only is it not a problem here, but it the responsibility of women in the West to wage a moral crusade to rescue their Brown and Black sisters. This then is the logic of imperialist feminism in the twenty-first century, shaped by the deeply racist framework of the “clash of civilizations,” which is based on the idea that the West is a superior culture because it believes in democracy, human rights, secularism, women’s rights, gay rights, freedom of speech, and a whole host of other liberal values, whereas the Global South is barbaric, misogynistic, driven by religion, and illiberal. From this follows the “white man’s burden” and the “white woman’s burden” to intervene through any means necessary, including wars of colonization, to “liberate” less fortunate women in other parts of the world.

There are three points I want to explore and I welcome comments and suggestions since these are my preliminary thoughts on this issues. First, how did we get to a point where an India’s Daughter campaign can become the face of global feminism? I will argue that a number of factors come together in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that shape the language and practice of imperialist feminism today. What is the historic context in which a number of factors have come together to shape imperialist feminism as it expresses itself in the twenty-first century? These factors include the neoliberal gutting of social welfare programs, the space that this has opened up for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the corresponding NGO-ization of feminism, the launching of the “war on terror”, the appropriation of older orientalist tropes to serve imperial aims, and finally, the remaking of Western nation-states in line with the clash of civilizations framework. In other words, I think it is not enough to understand the phenomenon of imperialist feminism simply as liberation at gunpoint, instead we need to situate it within a broader historical context and examine the economic and political conditions that enable its rise to the level of what is today seen as common sense, not just in the West but among the middle and ruling classes in the Global South as well. 

Second, I will unpack the origins of imperial feminism going back to its heyday in the nineteenth century and argue that it is not enough to look only at how Brown and Black women were constructed within the dominant colonial logic, which is the focus of much scholarship on the topic, but to understand how white women were implicated within colonial politics. Some middle- and upper-class women supported colonialism, seeing it as a means to win rights for women. In reality, empire does not liberate women either in the colonies or in the metropole. I argue that women in imperial centers, particularly working-class women, have little to gain from empire. 

Finally, drawing on the work of various feminists I lay out a framework for how to talk about transnational feminist solidarity and present a few analytical propositions for how we might create a genuine grassroots global feminist movement.

Neoliberalism—the current form in which capitalism is organized—has brought with it a series of changes over the last few decades. In contrast to earlier economic models where the state, or the government, provided for its citizen’s needs in the form of social welfare programs, subsidized food programs, public schooling, state provided health care, and so on. (Here I am drawing a global picture—in the United States other than Medicare and Medicaid, we’ve never had an entirely state-run healthcare system like in Canada or the UK. In developing nations you have subsidized food programs that are far more extensive than the limited food-stamps program that we have here. In a previous era there was a notion that the state had a part to play in meeting the social needs of a society.) This notion has been attacked, and all these programs either gutted or dismantled in the era of neoliberalism. 

Privatization and the attack on social programs do two things for neoliberalism: they open up new opportunities for investment (private parks, private schools, privatized child care etc.), and they force onto individual families various social reproduction tasks which invariably fall on the shoulders of women, who provide them, free of cost out of “love” and “duty.” Working-class families are especially impacted. Because they cannot afford various things that have been privatized, they are more vulnerable at the workplace, more reliant on their low-paying jobs, and less able to resist the neoliberal assault. 

There is another unique form created by neoliberalism: the NGO. The withdrawal of state and public resources from the processes of social reproduction creates a gap that NGOs have been able to fill over the last few decades. We have seen a massive growth in NGOs from the 1980s to the present. Today it would not be an exaggeration to say that NGOs have become crucial players in national and global politics, especially on questions related to women’s welfare and rights. By 2000 they were disbursing between twelve and fifteen billion dollars, by 2012 in some parts of the world, the NGO sector had become more powerful than the state. 

But it is in the 1990s that NGOs become a force to be reckoned with, and half of all international NGOs were focused on three issues—women’s rights, human rights, and the environment. This focus on human rights is not accidental; it comes into being with the end of the Cold War, and the birth, or rebirth, of humanitarianism as the justification for imperial interventions in a whole host of countries from Iraq to Somalia to Yugoslavia. In this context, humanitarian NGOs and human rights groups abandoned their tradition of neutrality in conflicts, calling instead for military intervention by Western powers, and even collaborating in invasions and occupations. CARE agitated for UN intervention in Somalia to end the famine in the early 1990s. World Vision and Human Rights Watch argued for military intervention against Serbia to protect Muslims in Srebrenica; Oxfam argued for the NATO attack against Serbia to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. In later decades, Amnesty USA would conduct a campaign to ask NATO to continue its occupation of Afghanistan. The United States has been happy to incorporate NGOs into military planning, operations, and postwar occupations. Colin Powell had this to say about humanitarian NGOs in Afghanistan: they were a “force multiplier for us, an important part of our combat team.” After military conquests, aid agencies took on state-like functions such as running health, education, and welfare systems.

The appeal of NGOs in the war on terror, and for neoliberalism generally, is that they privatize social functions and put various social reproduction needs in the hands of entities that are easily controlled by corporations and powerful states. Because NGOs rely on funds from various donors, they are bureaucratically organized entities designed to be accountable to their donors, be they governments or private institutions. Needless to say, these entities are seen as less threatening than social movements, which can’t be controlled as easily.

Feminist and women’s NGOs operate in this general context. Additionally, they have been shaped by various UN conferences on women held in Mexico City, Nairobi, and Beijing. It was actually at the Beijing women’s conference in 1995, the conference at which Hillary Clinton made her now famous speech that “women’s rights are human rights,” that NGOs came to world attention and to the forefront of feminist activism.

Sabine Lang refers to this process as the “NGO-ization of feminism,” and what she means by this is not only the massive growth of feminist NGOs over the 1990s and 2000s, but also a process whereby feminist activism has shifted from participation in political/social movements to advocacy and action in and through feminist NGOs. Now this is not all bad; feminist scholars have pointed out that in regions where there is little or no social support, NGOs provide badly needed services and have been advocates for women’s rights. NGOs aren’t a monolith; there certainly are some NGOs doing good work in many parts of the world. But it is also important to note that the best funded NGOs, and therefore the most powerful NGOs, are tied to all sorts of corporations and international agencies, and have also co-opted and demobilized movement activism in favor of a liberal rights-based approach and a politics of capitalist development with an overall framework that upholds the legitimacy of empire and capital. 

For example, in Gaza and the West Bank there has been a massive increase in the number of NGOs since the 1990s, but the result of this has been to demobilize the Palestinian women’s movement, which used to be political, activist, and grassroots. Additionally, various human rights activists and researchers have complained that work they had done documenting the impact on women of the Israeli occupation and its siege of Gaza miraculously just disappears from the final reports produced by groups like Human Rights Watch. The result is that the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which is an important and foundational context for the oppressive conditions that Palestinian women live under, is erased from the picture. In this way, the structuring reality of occupation and empire is removed, which then makes it possible to offer limited individualistic solutions that don’t challenge the underlying causes. To make matters worse, social movements are demobilized and the best activists are sucked into NGOs. 

Another trend is the commercialization of human rights work; take the case of the eight-month campaign called “Beauty without Borders” in Afghanistan. It was funded by Revlon, L’Oreal, and other cosmetic companies to the tune of three quarters of a million dollars. The goal was to teach Afghan women how to be beauticians as a route to liberation. (Of course the beauty companies got a nice little public relations boost out of it, not to mention profits and new markets for the sale of their products.) 

One of the women who ran the program said, “When I first came to Kabul, I was shocked at what these women did to their hair and faces.” She added, “They would use henna, which is horrible for your hair. The scissors looked like hedge trimmers. They used buckets from nearby wells outside to rinse hair. I asked one of the girls to do my make-up once and I looked like a drag queen.” So teaching beauty tips became a crusade for this woman, because that was apparently the most serious need for women in war-torn Afghanistan. Rather than ask why women have to get water from nearby wells not simply to wash their hair but also for their daily needs, and what might be done to provide clean running water in people’s homes, this NGO staffer was focused instead on beauty standards. Of course, not all people who work for NGOs are this ignorant or racist, but we do have to question the logic behind such programs. The logic is to provide beauty skills to women so that they can start a beauty salon, which is based on a developmental/modernization approach that “empowers” women by training them to be entrepreneurs. This modernization framework of training individuals to own their own business as a means of liberation is a dominant framework in the NGO world. This is why Jyoti Singh can become the poster-girl for a documentary like India’s Daughter. While Singh should be admired for her hard work and determination—she worked a night job to put herself through medical school and harbored dreams of building a hospital in her home town—she is the kind of person who can be appropriated into the individualistic logic of developmental modernization. She is lionized for taking advantage of the all opportunities afforded her by neoliberal India while leaving unquestioned a system that forces people like her to work night jobs when in fact education should be free. 

At any rate, there are many examples of the commercialization of women’s liberation like the “Beauty without Borders” campaign. As Lila Abu-Lughod in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? notes, 

The One in Three Women Global Campaign to raise awareness around violence against women asks that you buy their cards, charms, and dog tags. Peacekeeper Cause-metics asks you to support women’s causes by purchasing their lipstick and nail polish. They only give a fraction of this money to fight violence against women in Muslim-majority countries. Hirsi Ali’s foundation is only the most recent to pick up this commercialization of women’s rights inviting us to get our own high-quality “honor” tote bag for a donation.

Today, the way to show solidarity with women around the world is reduced to shopping and charity. 

The upshot of all these processes is that by 2010 we have a situation in which neoliberalism has thoroughly saturated and consolidated the practice and rhetoric of imperialist feminism. It is in this sense that the imperialist feminism today is of a different kind than its nineteenth-century counterpart. While it shares much in common with its precursor, it also has its own unique characteristics. 

What is similar between what was called “Colonial Feminism” and what is today called imperial feminism?

Colonial Feminism comes into being in the nineteenth century in the context of European colonization of large parts of the world. In order to justify colonialism, as Edward Said teaches us, a new body of ideas was produced called Orientalism, based on the notion that the West is superior and the East, which is backward, is in need of civilizing. Eastern and Muslim women would become a central part of this Orientalist framework. Many scholars have shown that Muslim women were cast in one of two ways: first as sex objects in a fantasy world of the harem, or second as downtrodden victims who were imprisoned, secluded, shrouded, and treated as the slaves of men. In both constructions, it fell upon various colonial officials and overlords to supposedly rescue these women.

In reality, of course, the liberation of Eastern women has never been on the agenda for colonial powers. As one nineteenth-century French official put it, “If we are to strike against Algerian society’s capacity to resist, then we must first of all conquer their women,” adding, “We have to go and find these women, under the veils they hide behind.’”

In her book Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, Christine Delphy, following Marnia Lazreg, states that the 

French did nothing to help North African women. But they carried out a few “un-veiling” campaigns during the Algerian War . . . under the pretext of “liberating women.” In reality, the purpose of these campaigns—like the rapes committed by soldiers or the use of “lascivious” native women in brothels—was to demoralize the Algerian men by “stealing” their last bit of property: women.

Additionally, attacks on the veil and attacks on Islam were a means by which to de-fang the national liberation movement that used Islam as an ideological glue to bring people together to stand up to French imperialism.

When the British invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882, Lord Cromer, who oversaw the occupation, claimed to be liberating women. He had very specific views about Islam, about women and the veil, and he wrote about all three. He wrote that Islam as a religion is a “complete failure” and is responsible for the “degradation of women.” Unlike Christianity, which he claimed led Western men to “elevate” women to a high status, in Islam the practices of veiling and segregation leads Muslim men to “degrade” women and in the process they wind up inferior themselves. To uplift Egyptians, according to Cromer, they must be “persuaded or forced to imbibe the true spirit of Western civilization.”

It is important to note that it was not just colonial overlords who developed this line of argument, there were various native collaborators who helped with this project too. Qasim Amin, a French-educated upper middle-class lawyer, wrote a book called The Liberation of Women (1899), which reflected and reproduced colonial arguments. It is rumored that Cromer actually asked him to write this book and indeed, Leila Ahmed’s analysis shows how it is not only obsequious in its praise for the West and harsh in its denunciation of Egypt, but it is actually antifeminist. Amin argued that Muslim societies had to abandon their backward ways and follow the Western path to civilization and success, and this would happen by Muslim mothers following the “noble duty” that mothers in “advanced societies” had, which was to raise good sons. Liberation meant liberation from Islam, so that Muslim women could be turned into good, docile, Victorian mothers. The Liberation of Women is not about the liberation of Egyptian women or European women, but about making them better adjuncts and caregivers to men. Did Cromer’s policies liberate Egyptian women? Absolutely not. Ahmed shows how the British placed all sorts of restrictions on women’s education that were detrimental to their advancement.

Instead, Cromer and Amin are obsessed by the veil and insist that women remove it. Critics of Cromer and Amin, particularly Egyptian feminists in the early twentieth century, argued that the veil was a red herring. They argued that what was needed to advance the cause of women’s liberation was access to education and health care, the ability to work outside the home, and rights related to marriage and divorce. Without these rights, simply taking off the veil would do nothing to elevate the status of women.

In addition to men like Cromer and Amin, various women also participated in the project of imperialist feminism. Various missionary women who traveled to Egypt and other parts of the world would argue that only Christianity could save the poor, downtrodden Muslim women. Here is how one European missionary put it: “Muslim women needed to be rescued by their Christian sisters from the ‘ignorance and degradation’ in which they live.” British feminists, particularly upper- and middle-class white women who were active in the struggle for suffrage, would also jump on this bandwagon. As Antoinette Burton shows, the argument that suffragists made was that if Britain was to be a truly great civilization and great colonial power, then what was needed was to give women equal rights. In other words, various suffragists adopted the Orientalist notion of the West as superior, and used that line of argument to assert that women deserved the right to vote in order to make the Empire truly great. Writing about British women supporters of empire, Indrepal Grewal in Home and Harem says: 

As travelers, ethnologists, missionaries, and reformers, Englishwomen could show their equality with Englishmen by participating in the colonial project that was defined in purely heterosexual, masculinist terms as a “penetration” and “mastery” of “virgin” territory of feminine and weak cultures. By such participation, they could uphold their supposed racial and national superiority over Eastern women that, many Englishwomen felt, justified their possession of equal rights with men.

In reality, colonialism did not benefit the cause of women’s rights in either the colony or  the metropole. For instance, Lord Cromer, the supposed champion of Egyptian women’s rights, was a strong antisuffragist in Britain. He was a founding member and the president for a period of the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage. We can call him a hypocrite, but in fact he was not; he was simply using women’s rights to advance empire in Egypt, and back home he upheld Victorian gender norms. Keep in mind that British women at the time had few rights—neither the right to vote, to own property, to sue, etc. When she was married she pretty much became the property of her husband and, as such, marital rape was the right of husbands. This was the order that Cromer sought to uphold in Britain.

This is why the imperialist feminist narrative is a false feminism. It not only fails to address or “liberate” Eastern women, but it also does a disservice to Western women. In presenting Western women as being already liberated because they are a part of a “superior civilization,” this rhetoric obscures the very real oppression faced by women in the heart of empire. It further drives a wedge between Eastern and Western women that is predicated on racism, nationalism, and the logic of civilizational superiority. Even though ruling-class white women in Britain may have benefitted financially from the spoils of empire, they too, like their working-class counterparts, lost out politically. 

The same attitude was expressed by Lord Curzon, viceroy of India. When he finished his term and was set to leave India, he gave a speech lavishing praise on his wife for the work that she had done to “uplift” Indian women. However, upon returning home, he took over from Lord Cromer the presidency of the League to Oppose Women’s Suffrage. Grewal writes:

A list of antisuffragists published in 1910 and 1911 by the Anti-Suffrage Review lists Kipling, Cromer, Curzon, and Joseph Chamberlain, all men who had much to do with England’s imperialist policies. For these men, the empire was a symbol of masculinity and Englishwomen were the keepers of morals and the angels of the house; colonial matters . . . were not to touch these women, as Kipling’s fiction reveals. Furthermore, women were considered unqualified to make decisions in the masculine enterprise of empire. For instance, a member of Parliament, Mr. J. A. Grant, said in the House of Commons in 1913: “In controlling a vast Empire like our own, an Empire built by the mental and physical capacity of men, and maintained, as it always must be maintained, by the physical and mental capacity of masterly natures—I ask; ‘is there a place for women?’”

The answer to this question, of course, is “no.” Empire, and particularly war, is a masculine enterprise, and it relies on a notion of white femininity that is docile and supportive. Such a world view does not benefit women but grants them, at best, second-class status. 

Even today, empire is still a masculine and sexist enterprise, but what has changed in the twenty-first century is that there is now a “place for women.” Thus, we see the likes of Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright. But it is not just white women who are agents of empire; Black men like Colin Powell and Black women like Condoleezza Rice have been given leadership roles in the new imperial project. Additionally, native-collaborator roles are represented by women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Qasim Amin of today, having done more than anyone else to malign Muslim majority countries and sing the praises of empire, all the while masquerading as a “feminist.” But even with women and people of color at the helm of empire, racism and sexism still remain central to the imperial mission. 

Take Hillary Clinton for instance. She is a hawk and a strong defender of US imperialism. This means of course that she is silent on human-rights and women’s-rights violations in countries that the United States regards allies, such a Saudi Arabia, but when useful she will position herself as feminist. Her main claim to being a defender of women’s rights is the speech she made in Beijing in 1995, when she stated that women’s rights are human rights. Of course, if you look at her record back home you see that she willingly participated in the violation of women’s rights by supporting her husband’s move to end “welfare as we know it.” She had little to say when Bill Clinton threw Lani Guinier, his initial choice for assistant attorney general, under the bus, and she cozied up to the health care industry and sold out universal health care. [Since this talk, a new anthology, False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton was published which explains why she is not a feminist]. But even beyond Clinton’s policy choices it would be fair to say that she has always accepted the status of a second-class citizen in relation to her husband. The most obvious instance of this is not just the adoption of his name but the contradiction between her persona abroad and that at home; even while she argued for women’s rights in Beijing, back home she remained the dutiful wife of Bill Clinton standing by her man despite his numerous infidelities. As much as roles change for women and people of color in the imperial drama, imperial feminism remains mired in sexism. 

This hasn’t stopped various Western nations from remaking themselves in the era of the war on terror as bastions of liberalism. Whether looking at France, the UK, Canada, or the United States, there is a pattern whereby these nations have branded themselves as the upholders of liberal values in a world where war, assassination through drone strikes, extensive surveillance, indefinite detention, and other such practices are presented as the only means by which to keep the “barbarians” at bay; illiberal actions are necessary to preserve liberalism. In other words, Islamophobia and racism are once again central to national identity in ways similar to what occurred at the highpoint of colonialism in the nineteenth century. This explains France’s ban on the headscarf and then the veil, all in the name of laïcité and the supposed liberation of Muslim women. This devotion to secularism is, however, highly selective. The French government pays for the upkeep of 36,000 churches, and pays the salaries of priests, pastors, and rabbis; half of all French children and teenagers are educated in religiously run, mostly Catholic schools. Take also the defense of “free speech” after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Charlie Hebdo journalists were celebrated as defenders of free speech, because, it was claimed, they criticized all religions equally. In truth, Islam was the target of the “most frequent and vicious attacks” writes French feminist Delphy. There are also double stands in relation to French free speech laws; the “Gayssot law” makes it a crime to raise questions about the Holocaust. Thus, some kinds of speech are allowed and others disallowed. 

The end result is a selective appropriation of women’s rights, of secularism, of free speech as a way to remake the nation in classically colonial terms, with racism as its bedrock. The January 11, 2015 march for “national unity” was about strengthening French “values” and French nationalism in the context of a world supposedly characterized by a clash of civilizations. It is not surprising, therefore, that at this march were present Benjamin Netanyahu, Angela Merkel, and a whole host of other global leaders casting the West as a beacon of civilization fighting against the supposed barbarism of Islam. 

This is true not just of France but various Western nations. In the UK, schools are required to promote “fundamental British values.” John Nash, the schools minister, explained the program and these values as follows: “We want every school to promote the basic British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs. This ensures young people understand the importance of respect and leave school fully prepared for life in modern Britain.” 

Thus, Modernity=West. Liberalism=West. 

After the Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage in this country, the British surveillance agency GCHQ, probably the most invasive and extreme surveillance agency in the West, decorated its headquarters in rainbow colored lights! The CIA does the same; it routinely trots out its LGBTQ employees or showcases women in leadership positions, as ways to demonstrate its progressiveness. This strategy has been perfected by Israel, in what is called “pink washing.” 

In other words, what we have seen in the era of the war on terror is not only the remaking of Western nation states in classically colonial forms, albeit with important differences, but also the appropriation of the gains of various social movements, including feminism and gay liberation, as a way to advance the agenda of empire.

So, if we reject imperialist feminism as a false feminism, what alternative ways might we think about and how might we formulate a transnational feminist movement?

There is a lot we can say about this question, and feminists like Chandra Mohanty and others have written extensively about transnational feminism. What I want to emphasize are two central pillars of what I think would constitute real solidarity and internationalism. First, in place of charity, shopping, and donations as a way to address the oppression of women in the Global South, we need to insist that solidarity is about the recognition of mutual oppression. This means taking a comparative approach, one that admits that women all over the world face oppression, even if it looks different in different parts of the world, different within various regions in a particular nation, different for different classes of women, and different if we account for factors such as sexuality, race, ethnicity, age and ability. This is the basis from which people can work cooperatively with one another based on the recognition that all women, despite the aforementioned differences, face sexism. The universality of women’s oppression is due to the structuring reality of capitalism and imperialism. Second, and this follows from the first, we need to root our analysis of women’s oppression within the larger structures that produce this oppression and reject simplistic explanations that say religion or culture are primarily to blame.

What does it mean to take a comparative approach? First, we have to move away from the imperialist notion that misogyny only exists elsewhere in countries with “backward” cultures and religions, take a long hard look at the oppression that women face in the heart of empire, and explain how both are tied together. 

For example, women in various countries around the world are killed by family members. In Pakistan, this amounts to about a thousand. Pakistan is a country of 140 million people. This is a serious problem, and as feminists, progressives, and leftists, we shouldn’t paper over these realities. However, we should also challenge the ways in which these murders are characterized. To call them “honor killings” as if religion and culture are solely responsible for the murder of women, gives a complete pass to the larger economic, political, and social conditions that produce this violence. 

These conditions are important because a similar set of conditions produce horrific levels of violence against women in the United States. Here, 1500 women are killed by their spouses or boyfriends each year in what are called “crimes of passion.” From 2002 to 2012, the number of women killed by intimate partners was 15,462. The US has a population of 300 million, twice the size of Pakistan, but the figures nonetheless are comparable. However, in the mainstream framing of the issue of violence against women, we hear about the murders of women “out there,” but rarely about what happens here. Every day about four women are killed by intimate partners in the United States, but we don’t know their names, we don’t know their stories, and even when we do it is discussed as individual aberrations, crimes driven by passion, rather than by a society that systematically treats women as second class citizens. So rather than resort to this clash of civilizations framing, where “our” misogyny is either papered over or reduced to individual aberrations, while “theirs” is viewed as a product of their backward culture, what we need to do instead is to conduct a concrete analysis of what produces violence against women globally. This necessarily involves looking at structural factors rather than just culture, either “rape culture” or “Islamic culture.” 

Let me give another example: in the autumn of 2003 sexual violence and the trafficking in Iraqi women and girls rose dramatically. The fall back analysis to explain this spike is to say that Islam is to blame because Islam turns women into sexual slaves. In fact, this is not just lazy, but wrong. Feminists who have studied the situation for women in Iraq after the US invasion have shown that a major explanation for the rise in violence and trafficking is the loss of jobs for women. Seventy percent of salaried women in Iraq had government jobs, and when entire government ministries were dismantled by the United States after its invasion of that country, women lost their jobs. This meant that they had to earn their subsistence by selling their bodies. When we look at structural factors we find that claims that “culture” and “religion” are solely responsible for women’s oppression in the Middle East fall flat. This is why imperial feminists avoid structural analysis, because such an analysis reveals that empire bears the brunt of the blame. Let’s be clear about one more thing: Women in the West do not benefit from imperial feminism, particularly the vast majority of women who don’t occupy positions of power and wealth. When men are trained to be ruthless killers by the military, their wives, partners, and fellow female soldiers also pay a price. Domestic violence in military families is significantly higher than in civilian families, and tens of thousands of women are sexually assaulted every year in the military. Women also pay a price when trillions of dollars are spent on empire, money that could have been used to meet basic social reproduction needs.

At the end of the day, transnational solidarity is about tying together the struggle of people like Emma Sulkowicz (the Columbia University student who carried around the mattress she was raped on in order to call attention to the shoddy in way in which she was treated by the Columbia administration after she filed a rape complaint) with that of Jyoti Singh. There is a story to be told about the links between the rape of women on college campuses in the United States and the sexual violence that poor women in India experience. Take the case of rural Indian women who, because Pepsi is depleting the water table, have to walk long distances to collect water and who along the way are raped and sexually harassed. Those who run Pepsi back in the US, who are part a class of men who typically go to school at Columbia University and have been encouraged to think of themselves as “masters of the universe,” dehumanize women here in ways similar to the people they exploit in developing nations. 

It is not enough to simply talk about rape culture and misogyny here and “backward cultures” there, but instead to ground our analysis of sexual violence within the structural context of neoliberal capitalism and the ways in which it is restructuring people’s lives in various locations in the twenty-first century. When our feminism is based in an anticapitalist and anti-imperialist politics, we have a real basis for solidarity, one, moreover, that is rooted in material interests rather than morality and charity. At the end of the day, it is not beauty campaigns that are going to liberate women but their own self-activity and a politics of transnational solidarity based on a rejection of neoliberalism and empire. 

• For more on India’s Daughter, see ISR #97.

Books Cited

Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993).

Antoinette Burton, Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women, and Imperial Culture, 1865–1915 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, (London: Verso Books, 2015).

Conor Foley, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War (London: Verso Books, 2008).

Inderpal Grewal and Victoria Bernal (eds), Theorizing NGOs: States, Feminisms, and Neoliberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

Inderpal Grewal, Home and Harem (Duke University Press, 1996).

Marnia Lazreg, Torture and the Twilight of Empire: From Algiers to Baghdad (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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