Tuesday, March 20, 2007

SOAS: Feminism, cultural relativism, academia and activism

“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")


Korakious said...

I just came across this blog and it seems quite interesting.

On topic now, this seems to have been a rather stimulating and thought provoking conference. How do you think however that identity issues should be addressed concretely, within the context of a socialist organization, and that of broader society?

While a lot of good quality work has been done on how identities are created and then go on to form the ways we perceive society and relate to it, I can't say I've seen much work on how they should inform our political action as socialists. Admittedly, I'm not an expert on identity theories, but the concrete political arguments I usually get out of relevant texts/lectures/seminars range from "the left must not ignore identity" at best, to advocating a post-modernist collapse to identity politics (only the personal is political) at worst.

We in the Scottish Socialist Party have adopted a system of 50:50 representation for women and men on all elected bodies, while we have also encouraged self-organization through networks. I think that so far this seems to have worked, although this could just as well be the effect of the lessons of the split, or just that the majority of activists are already identity conscious, so to speak.

Anyway, I've lately started to follow a number of LGBT blogs, socialist and non-socialist and I've developed quite the interest on how socialist organizations should overcome their tokenistic support for LGBT, women's etc struggles in favour of a positive fusion of socialist and identity political goals.


Louisefeminista said...

This is a quick response (will come back fully later) but I think identity is an interesting area of debate. People do have multiple identities that are social constructs.

Identities which have been imposed on us cause conflict and contradictions. I have been re-reading Edward Said. I also agree with what you say about just accepting identity politics without seeing it in a context of class and power.

Like I said this is a quick response and will reply fully later but I do think as Socialists we need to grapple with these issues and formulate a critique. I would recommend Lynne Segal's latest bk, Making Trouble, there's a chapter on "identity" in relationship to feminism and unravelling what it means to be a woman with multiple identities that are social constructs in a patriarchal capitalist society.....

AN said...

I must say that when i heard Elaheh Rostami Povey speak previously I was somewhat suprised by what she said, and I discussed it with friend of mine who are women asylum seekers from Iran, and they think it is bollocks about the system opening up opportunities for women.

Certainly Iran is a more complex place than the stereotypes tell us. And I was recently forwarded an interetsing article from the Jerusalam post about Iranian Jews returning from Israel to Iran, becasue they are more accepted in Iran than Israel. (I am having internet trouble at the moment, I'll post a link to that article later)

AN said...

And on identity issues, a big question at the moment is national identity, for example Scottish, or British.

Wheras the brit-left try to force everyne into a vanilla falvoured "working class identity"

Snowball said...

'Wheras the brit-left try to force everyne into a vanilla falvoured "working class identity"'

That is because socialists who try to 'reclaim' English or British nationalism are playing a game that they cannot win - because national identities are always socially constructed, and nations are 'imagined communities'. This does not mean socialists can just pretend say British or English nationalism does not exist - but rather that they should point out that nationalism is not in the material interests of the working class but internationalism is.

This does not of course mean that where national oppression exists socialists should not fight for national liberation. John Molyneux has written well on this topic.

Louisefeminista said...

AN: I don't dispute what your women Iranian friends say. She did come across as being soft on the Iranian regime and when she was asked a critical question about the democracy movement her reply was luke warm. So, yes, I am kinda cynical about the what she said. But, this is a question a question to you, do you think opportunities could be opening up for women not because of the theocracy but despite it? Is it a case of pragmatism and women negotiating equality to a certain extent?
I think you are correct about the fact that Iran is much more complex place.

I think national identity is certainly an important and yeah, there is this problem of forcing everyone into a WC identity.

AN said...

Yeah Loiuse, I wasn't implying your agreed with Povey!!!

There is a space opening becasue the current regime is not very popular, and after 20+ years of theocracy, a lot of Iranians are not all that religious.

My friend told me one good story about how women protested and had their slogans written on their head scarves and veils, so the police couldn't tear them off without compromising their modesty!

AN said...

Snowaball. there are loads of things wrong with your argument.

Firstly, you are confusing "nationalism" (a political movement that puts nation above all other factors), with debates about national identity and independece.

Secondly you are abstaining from an actually existing debate in the working class, about what being scottish or English means, on the basis that workers in your ideal world wouldn't be having it.

Thirdly your absract position leads you to equate the fictitious imperial identity of Britishness, as being no more reactionary that then possible future Scottish and English identities that are now subject to debate. Whereas in fact if English and Scottish workers rejected the imperial identity of britishness and there was a debate about what bieing Englism Welsh or Scottish means, then that could open opportunities for the left.

Also,, just beacuse identites are socially cosnstructed does noot mean they are imagined. I can only assume you have not spent a lot of time living and working abroad if you assume that the national deifferences between English and Germans for example are imaginary.

Also you make a false counterposition between national independecne and internatinalism, becasse the actual choice is not between an international workers republic, ,and an independenct Scotland (for example), but the actualy existing debate is between the blood splattered imperial fiction of a british national identity on the one hand, and a new country on the other that opens the door to a debate about what sort of Scotland it should be.

Incidently, I refer you to the economic benefits of independence for the working class in Svotland offered by independence:

How do you think Scottish workers suffering a decimation of industrial jobs in the intersets of South east England stock brokers, helps build class unity with English workers?

Rich Heaton said...

AN: "How do you think Scottish workers suffering a decimation of industrial jobs in the intersets of South east England stock brokers, helps build class unity with English workers?"

erm the goverment acting in the interests of the ruling class, whatever next? More pertinently, do you imagine there are no stock brokers in Scotland or any other sort of bosses outside the SE of england for that matter?

Let's get things straight -the drive for scottish independence comes from the Scottish ruling class, not the working class. Their aim is to have the majority revenues from North Sea gas and oil flow through Edinburgh and not London, and to have greater negotiating power within the EU, a carrot among this would be the possibility of greater welfare spending (of course the result of diverting North sea revenues is to reduce welfare spending in the rest of the UK). The scottish labour movement has a proud tradition of working class activism and solidarity. Only donkeys follow carrots.

Snowball said...

Andy - Scottish national identity and English national identity are as tied up historically with Empire as British national identity is. Scots were in the vanguard of spreading British imperial power around the world for example while 'England' has long been associated with 'whiteness'.

Of course there national identities are not imaginary - they exist alright - my point was that they are always 'imagined'. You can dream whatever dreams you like about what a socialist England might look like - and socialists are right to celebrate the long history of progressive and radical movements and ideas in both countries as a tradition to help us go forward today - but ultimately the idea that the left can reclaim these identities and celebrate them is at best naive and at worst dangerous.

The peoples flag is red - and stays red. As George Galloway puts it, 'my country is the future, my loyalty is to my conscience'. Or as Tom Paine put it, 'my country is the world, my religion is to do good'.

AN said...

Hi Rich,

Well the latest opinion polls show 44% of Scots in favour of independence. I would require more evidence before accepting this was motivated by the “ruling class” – what is your evidence?

The question here is not that New labour is governing for the benefit of the "ruling class" as you so quaintly put it, but a particular choice of the new Labour government to favour finance capital by over-valuing the Pound - by 12% according to Goldman Sachs - this is to keep London as a major financial hub.

Brown’s policy has also been to promote a boom on the back of private debt, encouraged by equity withdrawals based upon inflated property prices, predominantly in the South East. Thus New labour’s economic policy (and social policy as refusal to build social housing is also designed to inflate property prices) does in fact super-heat the SE England economy. This is at the cost of manufacturing jobs around the UK, in England and Wales as well as Scotland.

Your argument is very crude in seeing no differentiation between different interests within the capitalist economy and society, and does not seem to be informed by the specific arguments about Gordon Brown's economic policy. A more sophisticated argument would accept that even within a pro-capitalist government, there are different choices that have different impacts upon the workers movement, and workers living standards.

And are there Scottish stock-brokers? Well there may be a few individuals, but an independent Scotland would find its economy largely decoupled from the specific interests of London as a financial centre – as Dublin is today.

Anonymous said...

I think Elaheh is keen to emphasise that there are strong movements of opposition WITHIN Iranian society and show that the society is not monolithic because of the drive towards military intervention from WITHOUT.

SWP members may know her better as the author of the section on Iran 1979 in the book "Revolutionary Rehearsals" written under pseudonym. Generally considered on the best accounts from a marxist perspective of the Iranian revolution


Anonymous said...

One other thing. I have met many young Iranians in the UK who think the Shah was great (despite not having been born when he ruled!) - it is important to emphasise that the revolution needed to happen in 1979. AJ

Korakious said...

I'd like to voice my agreement with An. She has pretty much covered me.

However, there's a glaring inaccuracy in Rich's post that I can't help pointing out.

Let's get things straight -the drive for scottish independence comes from the Scottish ruling class, not the working class.

Do you even live in Scotland mate? Why do you think that the most prominent pro independence party has maintained itself consistently to the left of Labour, opting for a social-democratic image?

Also, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of British history should know that there is no Scottish ruling class. Britain is ruled by one unified, indivisible class that has been carved out by years upon years of imperialist plunder. Scottish independence is as much a project of the ruling class as the setting up of the welfare state was. The only reason the ruling class may chose to go along with independence is because it wants to be able to control it. This is why the more the SNP sucks up to big business, the more similar it becomes to its counterpart from Catalunia. I made a post about this a couple o days ago, if you'd care to read.

As far as issues of identity go, we should remember that unlike Italy for example, Britain was not unified with the framework of a radical bourgeois-democratic struggle against the ruling class of the era. It was a ruling class project all along which is why it has always been reactionary in nature. The break up of the British state into democratic republics is something we should all work towards.

AN said...


I totaly love the idea of a progressive squirrel vanguard, I assume these are red squirrels, not grey ones?

Korakious said...


Considering that grey squirrels are actually imperialist agents that have been robbing red squirrels of their livelihoods, then aye, the vanguard can only be composed of red squirrels, although we will try to educate grey squirrels to the ideal of interracial solidarity. :)

AN said...

Snowball, this disavowal of national identity seems to be a particularly English trot peculiarity.

The acceptance of national identity and cultural identity is an ideological batttleground, and we either surrender it to uncontested to the right, or fight to accentuate those progressive aspects as the normative ones.

For example we could promote racial inclusiveness and cultural tolernace as aspects of an English culture we wanted to promote, and which has some aspects of truth, compared to many other European countries.

Korakious said...

I think the left should lay off Trotsky a bit and read up on Connolly, Maclean etc. I'd say that they understanding of British reality was far better than that which Trotsky can offer, for obvious reasons.

Louisefeminista said...

Yeah Korakious, Connolly I agree though Trotsky has his uses!

I would also recommend Edward Said and Frantz Fanon on colonialism and imperialism (identity). The problems with identity is that it can be bound up with post modernism and the politics get sucked out. And I have seen good socialists get drawn into post modernism as they think it says more for the oppressed. Well, it don't!

Korakious said...

Oh aye, I think Trotsky's quite useful too. I too, am a Trot to an extent.

However, I get a wee bit annoyed when I see people referring to Trotsky to back their arguments on the British national question.

Louisefeminista said...

Well yeah I agree, I just wish people would also include a more extensive reading list and be a bit more open to ideas.

You are a Trot then Korakious?

Anonymous said...

Much of Fanon's theories are actually borrowed from Sartre and seminal essays he wrote like "Anti-Semite and Jew".


Korakious said...

Well yeah I agree, I just wish people would also include a more extensive reading list and be a bit more open to ideas.

You are a Trot then Korakious?

I am a Trot to the extent that I recognize the value of PermRev theory and (mostly) accept Trotsky's analysis of soviet degeneration. I am not a Trot of the "Look at me, I lead my very own 4th International" type.

As to openness to new ideas, I too think it's time.

AN said...

Yeah - one of the things I really like about the culture of the SSP is getting away from categorisation of socialists as different types of "ists"

Interersting what you say about permRev, as i find that one of the wakest parts of Trotskyism, but I think that is a debate for another time.

Korakious said...

Yeah - one of the things I really like about the culture of the SSP is getting away from categorisation of socialists as different types of "ists"

Thankfully, we are moving away from this mindset, even though some of our members cling to it.

In fact, I think that my blog entry for today will be about our political culture.

AN said...

Yes i carefully said "is getting away from" to describe an ongoing process, rather than "has got away from" to imply you have got there yet :o)

Louisefeminista said...

Good to see you value the importance of permanent revolution, Korakious...

Oh and AJ, I admit my knowledge of Sartre is hazy (read Nausea and that was over 20 years ago......)Know more about Simone de Beauvoir. Frantz Fanon on psychiatry is informative.

I am not not a fan of Foucault for instance but reading his book on prisons was good and also on "madness"...