“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian or Canadian or woman or Muslim or American are no more than starting points which, if followed into actual experience for only a moment, are completely left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a world scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively white or black or Western or Oriental”. (Edward Said)
I attended a meeting on Feminism, Cultural Relativism, Academia and Activism at SOAS today. The room was packed with mainly young women with a couple of young blokes.
First speaker was Dr Laleh Khalili who is in the process of writing a book on colonial prisons. She has written about the experiences of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon that she visited in Nov 2001. She spoke about the anxiety and worry experienced by the refugees about imminent attacks by the West in reprisals for 9/11. As a researcher she was aware of how she was influencing the people she had met at the camps. She identifies herself as an Iranian woman who lives in the West with Eurocentric views. She argued that multiples identities play a significant role within the boundaries of the public domain and private sphere which are power laden social constructs.
The space between the personal and the political are fake barriers. When she visited the camps she explained about her Iranian background but veiled instead her American background. Personal history can open or close doors. She also saw herself as an affluent Western Iranian in a position of power and how this impacted on the people she was working with. She saw multiple identities such as being Iranian, American, Western and a woman and how this impacts on her work. She said feminism is relevant as it explains where you stand as a woman. And also other power relationships are woven in such as race, religion, sexuality.
I think what struck me listening to Laleh was the old slogan, “personal is the political” from the woman’s liberation campaign embedded in her talk and that it is still as important today.
Elaheh Rostami Povey spoke first about the academic Stuart Hall and how he defined his own Black identity. How identity is very complex. It also reminded me of the psychiatrist Frantz Fanon when he, living in French Martinique, saw himself as French yet when he moved to France was seen as “inferior” and not at all equal. After 9/11 Elaheh reclaimed her Muslim identity even though she is a secular Iranian. She identified with Muslims as a reaction to racism. She spoke about how she saw feminism as a “good ideology” though she has “mellowed in her old age”! She dislikes the term “gender studies” in academia as she believes it is an excuse not to talk about women.
Most of her academic work has been set in Iran and Afghanistan. She interviewed women in Iran during the early 1990s. Her hypothesis was that women were marginalised because of Islam and economic contribution was negligible. She found the opposite. Iranian society opened up opportunities for women in theocracy. Around 64% of university students are women.
She also spoke about how strong the fight for women’s rights in civil society. Muslim feminists argue that Islam is not repressive to women but the male interpretation of the readings of the Koran. The women’s movement in Iran has pushed for reforms. One successful reform is that women with foreign husbands can now pass their citizenship to their children (Egypt is the only other Muslim country to do this).
Anti-imperialist women are at the forefront of the democracy movement in Iran. Thirty women were arrested this month for protesting and showing solidarity with four other women who have gone on trial for organising a protest last summer. According to Povey they should be released within the next couple of days. She argued that any attack by imperialist forces on Iran will destroy the gains women have made.
Many of these women describe themselves as feminists and have been influenced by western feminism but have, correctly critiqued the limitations of Eurocentric feminism.
She then spoke about her interviews with Afghan women in Afghanistan, USA and UK. She found that before the invasion women felt better equipped to fight for rights and met little resistance from men. The occupation symbolises western culture to these women. In the USA and UK women have found it harder to challenge inequalities because they don’t want to break ranks and the bigger picture being racism. In her final bit of her speech she quoted Edward Said who described the “superior western culture” and the inferior “other” culture such as Islam.
Finally Lynn Welchman spoke about bridging the gap between academia and activism. She briefly discussed her book, “Honour: Crimes, Paradigms and Violence against Women” (written jointly with Sara Hossain). She discussed the importance of alliances and letting people speak for themselves as opposed to someone speaking for them. She spoke about the rejection of blaming it on “culture” (“white women and men saving brown women from brown men”.) and how this has its own echoes in colonialism.
There was a brief question and answer session towards the end. All three spoke about the importance of feminism and how it has had an enormous influence on their consciousness. The need, as well, to strip away those identities along with the conflicts, the contradictions, privileges and the power. Incidentally, Laleh Khalili said she asked students in her class if any of them were feminists (this was around 3 years ago) and only one said yes. She found that depressing.
The chair asked the women in the room to put up your hand if you described yourself as a feminist. All the women in the room did (including myself...).
I am still digesting everything I heard and was interested in what the speakers said about identity and how we unravel those multiple identities as social constructs (I have been reading about this in Lynne Segal’s latest book, Making Trouble). And how we perceive ourselves along with others. The other interesting issue is about letting people speak for themselves which to me is really about self-determination.
(The picture is of an oil painting by Arab woman artist, Fatima Abu Roomi, entitled "Fatima")