The triple whammy: towards the eclipse of women’s rights

Open Democracy 50:50

DENIZ KANDIYOTI 19 January 2015

Caught in the cross-fire of political opportunism, neo-liberal triumphalism and geopolitical adventurism, feminist platforms are in retreat. Only a politics of coalition building can avert their eclipse.

Eclipses are rare and mercifully transitory phenomena. They come about when planets enter into a specific alignment that plunges us into darkness. Had there been a political equivalent of such phenomena I would venture to say that women’s rights- which have ostensibly never enjoyed greater international visibility- are heading for dangerously turbulent times. No single or dramatic incident presages this possibility. It is, rather, the persistent drip-drip effect of a myriad of apparently unrelated influences that feed into a “feminism-phobia” that, sadly, has become quite a la mode.

You may well wonder what led me to this gloomy prognosis at a point in time  when a leading UK newspaper declared 2014 as “the best year ever for women”, celebrating it as “ a year of feminist insurrection against male violence: a year of mounting refusal to be silent, refusal to let our lives and torments be erased or dismissed” There  is little room for such complacency. On the  contrary, there is a strong case to be made  that a trio of influences is impoverishing the debates relating to women’s rights and constricting the discursive spaces for a feminist agenda.

Before embarking on a discussion of these influences, I would like to draw attention to an apparent paradox.  Between 2011-2014, we opened aplatform on openDemocracy 50.50 to monitor and analyse the gender effects of the 'Arab spring' and of protest movements in the Middle East more generally.

One of the most hopeful features of youth-led protests, which tookunprecedented forms for the region, was their anti-authoritarian and anti-patriarchal thrust and their recognition of the primarily political nature of gender based violence.  Not only were women taking part in street protests and being vocal in the public domain, but they were joined by many men of their generation in an unprecedented display of cross-gender solidarity. These movements were not clamouring for an Islamic state, nor did the parties of political Islam play a key leadership role despite their initial prominence in successor regimes. Notwithstanding the  devastating developments that followed, there were unmistakable signs of heightened aspirations and a demand for inclusive citizenship, gender justice and equality in the protests themselves.  

Dancing in Gezi Park. Credit: Uriel Sinai

Yet despite evidence of grass-roots mobilization in pursuit of a broad range of rights, including women’s rights to freedom from violence and to public participation, at the level of academic, political and popular discourse, feminism was being increasingly discredited and dismissed as either irrelevant or passḗ or, even worse, as the handmaiden of imperialism and of overbearing security states. How can we explain this disjuncture? How did the struggle for women’s rights- which started out as one of the emancipatory movements of the past two centuries alongside the fight against slavery and racism- end up being kicked about and maligned not only by right wing misogynists or clerical establishments demanding a monopoly on the regulation of gender and sexuality, but by authors and commentators who consider themselves left-wing or liberal? Could we conceive of being told that the fight against racism had “gone too far” or “gone wrong” (except in extreme white supremacist quarters)? Yet it is quite commonplace, even banal, to hear this charge in relation to feminism. How did we get here?

The ugly sisters of feminism: the global nexus and its perverse appropriations 

There have been at least three defining encounters between women’s movements, which are historically diverse and context specific, and powerful global influences.  

The first is the encounter with the global “institutionalization” of standards and mechanisms for gender equality through the workings of the United Nations (UN) system and major international donors. Leaving aside the broader debates on the shortfalls or merits of international human rights law, it is important to acknowledge the diverse ways in which  women’s rights platforms became depoliticized  through co-optation by donor- assisted governments (most glaringly so in the case of repressive, non-democratic regimes). In the case of the Arab uprisings, the previously opportunistic nature of engagements with gender equality platforms contributed to their rapid derailment and demise and to attempts to claw back existing rights.

Jumping on the gender equality bandwagon was a “soft option” used by numerous authoritarian regimes to indicate their commitment to ademocratization process they had no intention of honouring. The same logic applies to other attempts to co-opt liberal norms in the realms of gender and sexuality, such as pinkwashing Israel to boost its democratic credentials, thus deflecting attention from the human rights abuses perpetrated against Palestinians.

Do these appropriations of liberal/egalitarian norms turn women’s rights activists using international frameworks as a point of reference into uncritical dupes? What is there to be gained from a nihilistic approach to rights enshrined in international law? And what are the risks involved? These are questions that cannot be dismissed lightly.

The second ill-fated encounter took place after the global turn to neo-liberalism since the Regan-Thatcher era. Whereas initially many women’s movements were explicitly committed to social justice and redistributive goals, their incorporation into donor-funded machineries in the neo-liberal age produced both an ‘ngo’isation of political movements , with women’s ngos often acting as contractors for governments and donors, and the de-radicalization of their objectives, now transformed into technocratic fixes for the “empowerment” of women within the parameters of a market economy. In the West, this gave rise to a triumphalist boardroom or corporatist feminism extolling the virtues of the capitalist market for women who “make it”. In the South, meanwhile, the spaces left vacant by evaporating state provision and the dearth of social welfare were occupied by actors and social movements with conservative agendas and roots in faith-based organizations (whether these be Catholic, Evangelical or Muslim). Populist and religious movements claiming to speak on behalf of the poor, the marginalized and the powerless in different regional contexts increased their appeal regardless of the often authoritarian or dogmatic overtones of their political messages. The drifting apart of gender justice and social justice goals was to have grave consequences: it marked out women’s rights as the alleged preoccupation of a privileged elite, especially in societies where top-down modernization agendas were implemented by authoritarian regimes. Losing sight of the fact that feminism cannot be divorced from a broader social justice agenda was to exact serious costs.

The final and most devastating encounter was yet to come. It took shape in the geopolitical   context of the War on Terror following the  9/11 events in the United States and Operation Enduring Freedom that led to the overthrow of the Taliban. The invocation of oppressed Muslim women as part of the rationale for military intervention provoked predictable outrage in the face of the naked instrumentalism behind the feminist conversion of the Bush administration. This spawned a veritable cottage industry of critiques of feminism as imperialism (about which I shall say more below) and of the place of women’s rights as tools in this arsenal of oppression.

One of the inadvertent consequences of these critiques, is to deligitimize the struggles of women in Afghanistan who attempt to expand their rights by whatever slender means at their disposal (including references to international conventions such as CEDAW and participating in donor-funded projects). Could they do so now without incurring the risk of being accused as abetters of imperialism? Does the fact that Western powers used the plight of Afghan women as propaganda material to drum up public support for the NATO intervention turn women into “native collaborators” when they opt to fight for their rights in the framework of international law? Or would they have been altogether better advised to keep silent or even find virtue in what the Taliban has to offer them  -  something that some Western commentators did in fact suggest at a point when negotiations for a political settlement with the Taliban were on the table.

Such powers of dissuasion and intimidation can be overwhelming in polarized and conflict-ridden societies. This intimidation is already being perpetrated, by force of arms, by formations such as the Taliban; a Greek chorus of critics denouncing feminism as imperialism can only add to their woes and boost the propaganda arsenal of those opposing them. But why is it that women are being made to face such perverse choices? 

Beyond feminism-as-imperialism 

Critiques of feminism as imperialism are neither new nor the product of the War on Terror. Indeed, as early as 1984 Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar  used the term “imperial feminism” in the British context to argue that the pretensions of white-middle class women’s movements to represent  global “sisterhood” were based on a denial of racism (and difference) and of the more general oppression of Third World women by relations of imperial domination. Said’s Orientalism, published in 1978, became the foundational text for feminist post-colonial scholarship which  has a long and distinguished pedigree. This legacy is now being built upon by Anti-Imperialist-Transnational-Feminist Studies (AITFS), albeit in an intellectually messier way since anti-imperialism is sometimes made to serve as the “silver bullet” to address all oppressions.

No one is contesting the fact that the colonial feminism perpetrated by European powers rested on the Orientalist trope of a backward and misogynistic Muslim world whose women needed liberation through the agency of an enlightened West. Indeed, this came to constitute the “original sin” of women’s movements. The entanglements of feminism with the politics of colonialism meant that women activists and early reformers were left with impossible choices. Those who sought an expansion of their rights under nominally secular post-colonial regimes were under enormouspressure to conform to anti-colonial nationalist priorities that singled women out as the repositories of cultural authenticity, even before resurgent Islamist tendencies got into the act of upping the stakes even further. Feminists engaging with Islam and attempting to unsettle patriarchal interpretations of the Sharia were undoubtedly seeking a way out of this sterile bind.

But, alas, far from alleviating this enduring predicament the current conjuncture has led to a further hardening of positions.  During the long history of anti-colonial movements, from the Haitian revolution of the 1790s to the independence movements of the 1960s and ’70s in Asia and Africa, the struggles against colonialism did not rely on a wholesale repudiation of the revolutionary ideals of the West. In the polarized context of contemporary geopolitics, however, anything assumed to emanate from the imperial West may be considered as tainted goods by theoretical purists who denounce the products of the Enlightenment, most particularly secular humanism, as the fount of all evil.  I followed this line of argumentation with a mild degree of intellectual curiosity at first, followed by mounting ennui (given the repetitive and almost formulaic nature of restatements of this position) until I got my wake-up call: never mind secular rights activists, even Muslim feminists endeavouring to find an indigenous voice for change and reform were now in the crosshairs of critics. To the extent that they fail to repudiate the principles of egalitarianism enshrined in international law- another tool of empire- could they not be similarly tainted with liberalism and, by association, imperialism?

This logic may, of course, equally apply to any attempts at reform within Islam since Western powers are not only interested in, but actively, and quite ineptly, promoting the search for a so-called “moderate” Islam as a means of containing jihadi tendencies seen as a terrorist threat. To add yet another rhetorical question to my list, I would like to ask, again, : should the poisoned atmosphere of geopolitics permanently muzzle secular, ( or, indeed religious) dissenters in the Muslim world?  Those voices, by the way, have always existed and been systematically persecuted.  Let us not add to their burden.

Playing a weak hand 

We have now reached a disabling cul-de-sac that must be overcome if we wish to open up rather than constrict and constrain the spaces within which diverse feminist voices and positions can find legitimate articulation. The exchanges on imperialism and feminism featured on openDemocracy between Deepa KumarMeredith TaxSaadia Toor and Afiya Zia, point to the urgency of transcending the parameters of  these discussions. The protagonists - all women, all on the left, all pacifists and none inimical  to women’s struggles for their rights - were not, in my view,  arguing about imperialism per se but ultimately  about the types of alliances feminists  might entertain, condone or refrain from in pursuing their objectives. Even the all pervasive tensions around the secularist/Islamist dichotomy appear to me as surface phenomena  concealing the deeper messiness of politics in countries like  Pakistan. Here, a US- funded military has nurtured jihaditendencies for its own geopolitical and domestic ends, tendencies which have destabilized the entire polity and become the target of the US War on Terror.

Where does one even begin to draw the lines of entanglements with imperialism in such a context? With women’s NGOs benefiting from WoT funding largesse under Musharraf’s military regime? With feminists- and other groups- giving qualified support to the military for finally turning against jihadi groups with US assistance in the hope this may jolt the noxious nexus of Pakistani politics onto a new track? Let us face the fact that women’s rights activists are frequently thrust into impossible situations not of their own making and must muddle through, making pragmatic choices and alliances in order to play what is an extraordinarily weak hand. Because this is exactly what we are talking about; not the fiction of a powerful movement with the might of empire behind it, but the reality of  weak and politically marginal constituencies whose meagre legal and political gains are at the mercy of political forces over which they have very little control. And whose rights, tenuous and fragile, have long been and continue to be the punching ball of male-dominated politics.

It may serve us well to go back to basics and remember the words of British suffragist Rebecca West when she said “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”  Let us not delude ourselves that this objective has been achieved. We do not need anything as dramatic as the IS slave markets of Mosul to remind ourselves of that fact. We only need to inject some common sense and realism into our evaluation of where women’s rights really stand when we take a broader perspective. Let us not overlook the fact that there are powerful transnational alliances cutting across continents and world religions aiming, above all, to establish the principle that matters relating to sexuality, to the control of female bodies, and to reproductive choice do not belong to the sphere of civic deliberation, public choice, or human rights but to a domain of non-negotiable morality defined by doctrinal imperatives. Such is the momentum of these platforms that the UN failed to pass a resolution for a Fifth World Conference on Women from fear of the consequences of re-opening international agreements on women’s rights. Furthermore, this kulturkampf  over the politics of gender does not readily map onto  North / South or  Christendom/Islam divisions.  While some mobilize for gay rights in the US, others are busy bombing abortion clinics.  And it is not only in Uganda that gays fear for their lives. No region, country or religion holds a monopoly on fanaticism or plain bigotry. Nor do these positions necessarily pit men against women since there are cross-gender alliances on both sides of these arguments; this, in short, is about politics. Ultra-conservative forces, diverse as they are, are better established, better organized and better funded and many are not adverse to the use of violence. It is time to join the dots of this challenging conjuncture and creatively seek political alliances that can help to make the most of the weak hand most women’s rights movements and sexual liberties platforms have been dealt around the world.  

To return to my astronomical metaphor, unless some planets rotating blindly in their set orbits are knocked off their course through our deliberate efforts and our skills at coalition building we shall unwittingly be expediting and legitimizing an eclipse of women’s rights. The principal ray of hope in this difficult landscape is that the sociological realities of many societies are running ahead of the ideologies of social control and authoritarian governance that power holders wield.

A younger generation with new sensibilities-  women and men, secular and religious, diverse in backgrounds and sexual orientation- is speaking to us with a new voice. Their demands for bread, freedom and dignity are still unmet. Let us listen with humility and open our minds to new possibilities.

Read more articles on 50.50's platform Women and the 'Arab spring' monitoring and analysing the gender effects of the 'Arab spring' and of protest movements in the Middle East more generally.