Counter Narratives | Redefining Feminism: Overcoming the Legacy of Exclusion

Sara Salem traces the history of the modern feminist project, and explains why the theory of intersectionality allows us to decentre elite Western feminism

Counter Narratives, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, January 18, 2013 0:00 - 2 Comments

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Egyptians march for International Womens Day 2012

Feminism has become one of the most contested terms of our times. Questions about what the “feminist project” entails are endless, ranging from when it began to what the project itself involves. While it is clear that the feminist movement had led to major gains for women worldwide, it continues to face much resistance from both men and women, for a variety of reasons. In this article I want to focus particularly on the case of the Middle East in order to problematise some of the dominant themes within the feminist movement, and to discuss ways in which feminism can be made more inclusive.

In much mainstream feminist literature, the start of feminism is dated to the first wave, which occurred primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By understanding the problems with locating the start of the feminist project at this particular juncture, it becomes possible to address the following question: why do so many women and men in the Middle East continue to dissociate themselves from the feminist project while simultaneously practicing or endorsing the supposed ideals and goals of said project?

feminism was not just about patriarchy: any feminist analysis that was to be inclusive had to incorporate other types of oppression

In order to answer this question, it is important to trace the history of the modern feminist project, which is usually located at the start of first wave feminism. Soon after the spread of this first wave in America and Europe, critiques began to emerge from women who felt excluded by the narratives being used. Above all, the claim to represent women universally was challenged by women who felt that their experiences were very different from the average white western middle-class woman—in other words, the type of woman that the first wave feminist movement largely comprised. Of particular importance was the critique that feminism did not function outside of other dominant social relations. In other words, feminism was not just about patriarchy: any feminist analysis that was to be inclusive had to incorporate other types of oppression such as race, imperialism, religion, and other social realities.

African American feminists were the first to argue that mainstream feminism did not—and could not—represent their experiences. They insisted that their realities were far more complex than this: they were women, but they were also black, poor/rich, urban/rural, educated/uneducated, and so on. All of these aspects of their identities combined in order to create a spectrum of realities. The emphasis on contextualizing women’s realities was a direct critique to the claim of a universal feminism.

Marxist, lesbian and post-colonial feminists soon joined African American feminists in theorizing feminism in a more inclusive manner. This led to the theory of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw. Crenshaw often used the imagery of a crossroads to explain intersectionality: “Intersectionality is what occurs when a woman from a minority group tries to navigate the main crossing in the city … [T]he main highway is ‘racism road.’ One cross street can be Colonialism, then Patriarchy Street. She has to deal not only with one form of oppression but with all forms, which link together to make a double, a triple, multiple, a many layered blanket of oppression.”

Intersectionality became a highly debated approach within the social sciences and feminism, and spurred a number of debates about how the theory should be defined or put into practice. But what remained constant was the basic premise of intersectionality as a way of complicating feminist research in order to look at different layers of identity. This process inherently included a focus on power relations and voices that are usually marginalized. It is essential to remember that intersectionality arose as a direct response to the exclusionary nature of much of mainstream feminism, hence the emphasis on the function of power, and its ability to include/exclude.

Intersectionality can be a powerful tool with which women in the Middle East can reclaim a feminist project that has often excluded and objectified them. Taking the case of Egypt, it is clear that the fight for women’s rights began long before first wave feminism in the West. In fact, Egypt has a long history of debating and discussing gender issues in the public sphere. However, colonialism brought first wave feminism to Egypt, which imposed a foreign understanding of gender and feminism onto Egyptian society—a society which had already built its own feminist movement. Some of the ideas of first wave feminism were propagated by well-known Egyptian reformers such as Mohamed Abdou and Qasim Amin, who encouraged Egyptians to adopt the values and mannerisms of the West, especially with regards to gender. As happened with many colonial societies, colonial feminism either became the dominant form of feminism or became deeply intertwined with local variations. This became problematic following the process of decolonization, as many saw feminism as a foreign import—which it, strictly speaking, was.

It is simply not possible to understand women’s lives in the Middle East by only looking at gender

Although first and second wave feminism are now widely seen as problematic and out-dated, some of their core assumptions continue to inform much of mainstream feminist discourse, both in the West and among some Arab feminists. Many self-proclaimed feminist authors continue to claim that Arab or Muslim “culture” homogenously oppresses women, while ignoring the many intersections of identity that cross with gender. A recurring example is when an author speaks extensively about oppressed women in the Middle East without discussing the continuing imperialism we see today across the region, ranging from the occupations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, to the continued economic subservience of Arab countries within the global capitalist system. It is simply not possible to understand women’s lives in the Middle East by only looking at gender. Imperialism, race, religion, and class all intersect with gender to inform the daily realities of women in the region. Ignoring this and turning patriarchy into the most oppressive system of all—without looking at how patriarchy intersects with and reproduces other oppressive systems—is bound to result in one-dimensional analyses that fall back on cultural essentialism.

Intersectionality provides a way out of the cultural essentialism, objectifying and infantilising that often occurs when the Middle Eastern woman is the subject of feminist research or writing. It takes into account different positionalities, as well as whether these positionalities marginalize, empower, or grant privilege. It addresses power and inequality, as well as how different systems of oppression interlock, such as capitalism, patriarchy, imperialism, etc. It encourages self-reflexivity, and a constant awareness of one’s own assumptions, background, and position within the social, political and economic spheres.

Carrying out research from an intersectional perspective allows us to decentre Western feminism. This would mean no longer locating the “start” of the feminist project in first wave feminism, but to see women’s activism as a process that has happened across many places during different times. It would mean acknowledging the importance of other systems of oppression that have been downplayed by Western, white feminists, such as race, religion, class, imperialism, and so on. Finally, it would mean an explicit focus on power relations. In essence, using an intersectional approach is one way of reclaiming the feminist project and making it a project all women can be part of.

Intersectionality can also be seen as one of the most important critiques of the exclusion, simplicity and objectification that have plagued feminism for far too long. In order to avoid the problems of mis-representation, it is important to be reflexive and open to views different from our own. This allows for knowledge to be built from the bottom upwards, and allows us to become conscious of power relations and hierarchies within societies. Once this awareness is created, it becomes easier to dismantle these oppressive systems.

The question of how we can reclaim feminism is a difficult one to answer. In this article I have tried to suggest that intersectionality offers one way of doing this. By becoming reflexive and conscious researchers, we can become more aware of privilege and the multiple intersections of identity in people’s lives. We can focus less on helping, saving or representing women and men, and more on forming bonds and alliances. We can talk less about the “Arab” or “Islamic” oppression of women, and more about the universal oppression of women and how it manifests differently across space and time. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can learn to listen to voices we are taught to ignore, and through this process, be open to being completely wrong about everything we thought we knew.

Sara Salem

Sara Salem is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. Her work focuses on historical and institutional perspectives on political economy, and centers specifically on the recent wave of uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa. Her interests include decolonial theory, third world feminism, critical political economy, and theories of post-development. She can be found on twitter @saramsalem.

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Susan Ferner
Jan 19, 2013 17:10

Thanks for this, an enlightening and enjoyable piece, ” We can talk less about the “Arab” or “Islamic” oppression of women, and more about the universal oppression of women and how it manifests differently across space and time.” Well put! I live in Manchester, a city which has the largest amount of languages in UK, so I’m told. We urgently need these kinds of discussions.

Counter Narratives | Redefining Feminism: Overcoming the Legacy of Exclusion « The Bad Gurlz Club
Feb 10, 2013 2:07

[...] Counter Narratives | Redefining Feminism: Overcoming the Legacy of Exclusion [...]

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