On comparing oppressions and treating Islamophobia as more urgent than patriarchal oppressions.
That a fight against patriarchy does not always, if ever, receive a fair amount of attention from those who otherwise condemn other forms of oppression, such as racist oppressions, has already been recognized by feminists. As bell hooks, for instance, asks, “Why is it many contemporary male thinkers, especially men of color, repudiate the imperialist legacy of Columbus but affirm dimensions of that legacy by their refusal to repudiate patriarchy?” (bell hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations, p. 239.) For hooks, Columbus’s legacy is marked by the gendered violence that he inflicted on those whom he invaded. This refusal to repudiate, to critique patriarchy while condemning the imperialism of white colonizers “is a tactic that seeks to minimize the particular ways gender determines the specific forms oppression may take within a specific group.” (hooks, Outlaw Culture, 239) I’m not unproductively suggesting that sexist oppressions are more important than racist oppressions. Instead, I ask why one form of domination—imperialist, colonialist— is more deserving of critique and resistance than another—patriarchal domination? I am questioning the current prevailing power structures that display a sexist pattern in determining which forms of domination and violence are perceived as more relevant and urgent, more significant. This sexist pattern is related to the desire and effort to preserve male privilege, male entitlement—and gender hierarchy more broadly.
When male revolutionaries and warriors fight, they don’t necessarily, or ever, fight for women’s rights. Their ideas of social justice typically fail to extend to women’s rights. Women’s struggles are not viewed as relevant, urgent enough to be engaged. It is as though a system is worth fighting only when it fails to serve these male intellectuals and activists; if they benefit from an oppressive system, such as patriarchy, the fight (for women’s security, rights, dignity) “can wait.” In this selective fight against oppression, women matter only when their rights, their security, their dignity, their humanity come as part and parcel of men’s rights, security, dignity, and humanity. In other words, in order to be taken seriously, women’s rights and concerns must come as part and parcel of men’s rights and concerns. Women’s rights are not in and of themselves entitled to security; women are merely to serve as collateral beneficiaries of a larger, men’s rights struggle. Thus, so long as women’s activism for justice does not center on men, it will not be taken seriously. So long as struggles for justice “for all” (read: men) benefit men, they matter.
What do I mean by collateral beneficiaries, though?
Ever heard of the word collateral damage? It’s used a lot in the discourse on American terrorism abroad. Like, “We’re sorry we killed all the children of this village; we swear they were juts collateral damage! We didn’t mean to kill them. We were trying to kill the Taliban. The children were in the way, damnit!”
Collateral = secondary, not direct, marginal, along the edges.
Beneficiary = a person/group that receives benefits or advantages, or that profits from something.
Collateral beneficiary = a beneficiary by accident, a group or individual that benefits from something because they were in the way; they were not the intended target of the benefits.
In a conversation about this argument of mine that women are *always* treated as collateral beneficiaries, a friend of mine wondered if collateral beneficiaries is the right word here because beneficiary means that “you are reaping some kind of benefit from whatever policy. ” Yes, precisely! That policy (or system) in this case is racism and Islamophobia. In other words, women’s concerns are relevant so long as they are part of a “bigger” (i.e., men’s!) struggle, of a system that is designed to benefit men only, and women just so happened to benefit from it in some cases well, as in the fight against racism. Once this friend realized what I was arguing, he said in agreement that there are so many examples that show that women’s concerns and rights do always take the back seat except when it serves men’s interests. (See more examples here.) He pointed out that Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists don’t care about white women (we know they don’t care about women of color at all, so that’s that) only when they want to protect white women from men of color. Or when these terrorists (Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists) have something to gain from white women’s rights, when they imagine a need to protect white women, whom they claim as “our women,” from black men, from Muslim men, from men of color – form “those uncivilized men.”
This is not to oversimplify the fact that power dynamics are not always very clear, or always clearly gendered. People cannot easily be categorized into either the oppressors or the oppressed. More on this in Patricia Hill Collins, On Intellectual Activism, e.g., on p. 14, when she says:
Everybody wants to be on the good side. No one wants to self-identify as an oppressor.… In everyday life, negotiating these boundaries is virtually impossible because most of us experience contradictory positions. We are oppressed by someone, and then we oppress someone else. This is what happens with African American men, who clearly experience racial oppression but who also enjoy a degree of gender privilege, especially in the home. They may be oppressed by their race, but privileged by their gender.
Since oppressions are complicated, racism privileges white women, while patriarchy oppresses them. Similarly, patriarchy privileges men of color, while racism oppresses them. No system exists, however, through which women of color benefit by virtue of being women of color. If nothing else, this—this awkward place that women of color occupy in various power structures—is what makes the struggles, the experiences, the concerns of women, of women of color, urgent and relevant.
However, these various forms of oppression, be it class, gender, or race, are not interchangeable. (More on this in Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, where she discusses the idea of gender/sexual oppressions as relating to “the personal” while race and class oppressions are perceived to be more social, political.) Because of patriarchy’s role in family dynamics and hierarchies, relegating women’s concerns to “the personal” has historically proven to be an effective strategy in dismissing them. One does not, the idea goes, fight publicly what occurs privately inside the home. But, as Second Wave American feminism has taught us, the personal is political.
But there’s something I disagree with other feminist thinkers on, including bell hooks and Patriarcia Hill Collins – and many non-black postcolonial feminists of color.
See, Collins explains that the reason gendered oppressions are not taken seriously (not her words), that they do not face resistance at least the ways that racial oppressions do,
may be because racial oppression has fostered historically concrete communities among African-Americans and other racial/ethnic groups. These communities have stimulated cultures of resistance…. Existing community structures provide a primary line of resistance against racial and class oppression. But because gender cross-cuts these structures, it finds fewer comparable institutional bases to foster resistance. (Black Feminist Thought, p. 226.)
That is, the prevalent reluctance, particularly among communities of color, to take gendered oppressions seriously is due at least partly to racist oppressions. For instance, the idea that women’s rights, gender justice, and the fight against patriarchy “can wait” until the “bigger” struggles, such as racism—or in Western Muslim contexts, Islamophobia—have been addressed may be a result largely of the existence of these other forms of oppressions.
I am not convinced, however, by the relationship between historical, colonialist forms of oppression and the large dismissal of women’s oppression. When men of color, such as Muslims, invoke historical and existing power structures in justification of not taking women’s struggles seriously, what they are really doing is to claim the women of their communities as their women, as “our women.” When violence against the women of their communities occurs, these men take it seriously only if the perpetrators are “outsiders.” (See image, to the right, of my commentary on Nabra’s murder and Muslim men’s reaction to it.) Yet, they do not take seriously the violence against women in their communities when the perpetrators are among themselves. Sure, formerly colonized communities developed important strategies of resistance in order to liberate themselves from their colonizers, but sexist oppressions were always real and alive in the coloninized communities as well. Is it not telling that even though patriarchy has been in effect for far longer than colonialism, and yet, … societies still don’t take injustices against women seriously? But why?
The reality is that women’s oppression is urgent and relevant everywhere at all times. The longer that communities, be they communities of color, take to address the different levels of oppression of women, the longer the women and their whole communities will continue to suffer. The longer we drag sexism, the longer we’ll have other societal problems that are fundamentally linked to patriarchy. Women’s rights cannot wait, especially when there will, inevitably, always be a “larger” battle to fight, such as Islamophobia in current western Muslim contexts, and wars and other forms of racism and violence in other contexts. So, no, women’s rights CANNOT wait. Women cannot wait. It’s been too long already.
Here’s more on my argument that misogyny in the Muslim community is very much Islamophobia, the resistance to Islamic feminism IS Islamophobic *even when Muslims are the ones resisting it*; and here’s more on who we imagine to be the ideal victims and perpetrators/enablers of Islamophobia. This is especially important because occasionally, when I make this reminder to Muslims on my Facebook, there’s at least one or two Muslims who’ll come and say, “as an expert on racism, I declare you wrong. Muslims cannot be racist, Muslims cannot be Islamophobic because they do not have the power.” #iroll. k, whatevz. Who doesn’t have the power? In what contexts do they not have the power? I’m starting to hate this word because too many people use it incorrectly.
And yet, theses same people will turn around and attack Muslim women (like Asra Nomani, whom I don’t support) of being Islamophobic. Funny, because I thought Muslims couldn’t be Islamophobic…
More later, because this isn’t over. I have more to say on why exactly it is that Muslim Americans think Islamophobia is more urgent than the sexism they inflict on the women in their communities. This is not over.