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Gender(ed) Paradoxes

Feminist, anti-imperialist and student movements of the 1960s and 1970s brought to the fore the concept of the ‘personal [as] political’. Since that time, the ‘personal [as] political’ has become axiomatic, offered as a means of dismantling the dichotomy between the public and private spheres of our gendered lives. Feminist activists and scholars often use ‘the personal [as] political’ to address a diversity of questions related to gender, patriarchy (Hanisch, 1969), class and race (Lorde 1978; 1984). Similarly, I use the personal [as] political to show how it has been personal experiences and events that have attracted me to feminism. However, there are few causal lines between my ‘personal life’ and my adopting a feminist politics. Rather, it is my feminist principles that much affect on personal life.

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My mother, her friend Parviz, and my brother and I in the U.S. in 1986.

I come from a ‘blended’ family; my father is Azeri-Iranian, and my mother is white, American of Irish descent. I put ‘blended’ in quotation marks because finding a comfortable articulation of my ethnic identit(ies) is not as simple as the analogy alludes.

1979 was the year my father and mother met and fell in love, and was also the year that the romance between the U.S. and Iran went afoul. Just as my parents made plans to assist my father’s family moving to the U.S., and avoiding mandatory military service, the U.S. had lost control over one of its most prized assets in the Middle East.

The period is commonly invoked to discuss the genesis of the contemporary world’s trenchant ‘clash of civilisations’ discourse. However, the polarisation of these ‘civilisational discourses’ has real-world effects on the lives of people like my parents. A political personalism perhaps never intended by Hanisch, but just as ostensible.

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My father ‘Baba’ with friends in Iran in the 1970’s.

 

As a child, I learned to navigate the deep rift between my parents following their divorce. My mother emerged from the marriage embittered by what she described as ‘Iranian patriarchal culture’. Her making sense of her experiences is exemplified by my ability to quote extensively and from memory sections of Brian Gilbert’s Not without My Daughter (1991); a film I now regard as acutely embedded in the Orientalist narrative tradition. My father, for his part, was intentionally unconscious of the dynamics my mother struggled through as the outsider in her home.

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The film poster for Brian Gilbert’s Not Without My Daughter

My father left our home in Chicago for Louisville, KY in 1986. For the next two decades, my brother and I were ferried back and forth between my parents several times a year. I remember feeling the five hours between cities felt like fifty, transporting us from one place where we were white, spoke English and lived in the suburbs, to another where we were the ‘Muslim kids’ in the South, our family speaking an assortment of ‘exotic’ language (between us there was Turkish, Farsi, French and Arabic), eating unusual food, and blasting Googoosh as if she were Madonna.

The confusion I felt about my identity was further amplified by paradoxes I saw in the media about the Middle East. One example is that of the Iranian hostage crisis, where global North media coverage appeared obsessed with curating Islam as cultish, and fixated on perfunctory depictions of Iranian women, clad in billowing, black chadors (invariably) shouting: Marg barg Amerika! (death to America) at any opportunity. I would glance over from the T.V. to my ahmeh (aunt) Mahnaz sitting on the couch next to me, dressed in whatever was the latest fashion of the suburban Louisvillian homemaker, religiously flipping through Vogue, her fashion mores forged more by the ‘cult religion’ of Dynasty.

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Iran, 1982

Thus, my coming of age was formed by a politicisation of Islam in the global North (‘West’) antagonised by an equally polarising discourse of ‘Islamic modernity’ proposed by Khomeini and several emerging Islamist movements. Within that contracting discursive space, many lives were either crushed, mangled, displaced or were forced to remain within a country immersed in the fervour of a needless, bloody war—provoked by the West. Others, like my family, were exiled and ‘obliged’ to re-invented themselves in new places, scattered across the globe and potted into enclaves of ‘foreignness’ they were regularly asked to account for.

What emerged from these dichotomies and ambiguities of my childhood was a very fluid sense of national identity and feeling of place. However, that fluidity also stirred a critical awareness of the role of the state, ethnicity, and race at a young age. This dissonance (or nuance) is what attracted me most to considering this topic: the attempt to find a more inclusive articulation of feminist politics that I could locate some of my own experiences within.

A politics, as Barbara Christian (1987) conveys,

[that] cannot be narrowly conceived, for we cannot change our condition through a single-minded banner (ibid: 4).

Thus, the feminism that spoke most to my political leanings and self-identity was subaltern feminism(s).  Subaltern feminism(s) is a contemporary paradigm rooted in postcolonial, anti-racist and transnational feminisms, and features critiques of the notion of ‘global sisterhood’ (Morgan, 1970).

Subaltern feminist critiques of global sisterhood often refer specifically to the term used by Robin Morgan in her edited anthology Sisterhood is Powerful where she defined the term as an emphasis on collective struggle, activism and feminist theory amongst women (ibid: 39). However, as many subaltern writers have underlined, the emphasis on collectivity in Morgan’s anthology often meant assuming there was a universal definition of ‘woman’ (white, middle class, North American/European) and that gender could be used as a primary category exclusive of material differences such as race/ethnicity and class (Bahramitash, 2009).

Reading the works of subaltern feminists, especially Chandra Mohanty’s (1984) essay Under Western Eyes was revelatory.  It was that essay in particular that provoked me to think critically about the ways I had internalised notions of gender justice as:equality vs. equity; the ability to mimic masculinities; ‘choice’; pragmatisms, especially in terms of an emphasis on approaching gender justice through legal reform, policy and a concentration on human rights based approaches.

One of the most important ideas introduced to me through this literature was to consider how liberal, global North feminism(s) had conceived of men (and male-identified persons) as ‘the’ problem, rather than analysing the ways in which men too, and gender in particular, were defined by and thus affected by patriarchy. Mohanty and others also scrutinised definitions of patriarchy, describing how

[a]n analysis of “sexual difference” in the form of a cross-culturally singular, monolithic notion of patriarchy or male dominance leads to the construction of a similarly reductive and homogeneous notion of what I call the “Third World Difference”-that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all the women in these countries. And it is in the production of this “Third World Difference” that Western feminisms appropriate and “colonize” the fundamental complexities and conflicts which characterize the lives of women of different classes, religions, cultures, races and castes in these countries. It is in this process of homogenization and systemitization of the oppression of women in the third world that power is exercised in much of recent Western feminist discourse, and this power needs to be defined and named (ibid: 335)

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Mohanty’s work had helped me to recognise that these approaches to feminism were not instinctive – but taught.

A Feminist (re)Education

Encountering these critical perspectives on feminism(s) compelled me to engage in a process of re-education, and I did that through reading the work of Selma James, Fatima Mernissi, James Baldwin, Ali Shariati, Ben Okri, Farough Farrakhzad, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Mastoureh Ardalan, Adrienne Rich and Gayatri Spivak amongst others.

These writers were particularly formative to my current understanding of patriarchy: not singularly about men as ‘aggressors’ and women as ‘victims,’ but rather as a system of oppression that creates gender identities as an exercise of power. These writers also illuminated the ways in which intersecting systems of oppression work together to destroy the potentialities of human solidarity.

A few standout examples were Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) work, which argued for the necessity of those who have been defined as subjects of imperialism to see themselves as agents of their self-determination.

While Angela Davis’ (2011) writing about her interface with her positionalities as a Black American woman in Egypt was critical in teaching me the necessity (and strength) of decolonising identities, even marginalised ones. Davis demonstrates how the process of self-reflexivity can be a practice of freedom; expanding and incorporating more categories of being and dimensions of existence.

Roxanne Varzi’s (2006) work was also very influential in establishing how the private sphere was a significant space of political resistance for Iranian women’s contestations against the contemporary state. And, finally, Mohanty’s (2003)  articulation of how liberal, global North feminism(s) have managed to collapse the complexities of capitalism, patriarchy and imperialism into a single story, where all women are assumed to be white, ‘Western’ and middle class, and where all men oppress women in the same way.

The works of Alice Walker (1989),  (2000), Kimberle Crenshaw (1991), and James Baldwin (1956; 1963), problematised the notion that patriarchy in the black American experience, was something particular to men rather than an expression of racism and capitalism that also affected men, especially marginalised men, in adverse ways. These authors demonstrated to me how patriarchy as a structure is not isolated, but rather co-constituted by other structures such as race and religion, and conditioned by other systems such as capitalism. Similarly, representations are intrinsically tied to more than one structure, and should not be determined separately from them or one another.

How I related these critical works to my experience was to notice how, for example, the depictions of Iranian women represented in the media during the ‘Iranian hostage crisis’ were curated by economic, political, and social contexts, and intended to conjure specific kinds of reactions and affirm particular world views. These writers’ insight into the ways in which patriarchy is intensified by the conditions under which historically disenfranchised communities are forced to live, in a position often of extreme violence, meant that feminism was never and could never be simply a story about sexism or individual enterprise.

Rather, feminism, and other gender justice movement(s) were political projects whose principle social function was to struggle against structural conditions of inequality and injustice, and inspire new modes of social organisation and definitions of what it meant to be human.

Further, many of these writers identified the ways in which gender was used to racialise specific categories of men as antagonists, aiding discourses of ‘black male violence’ or ‘brown male terrorists’. Thus, the subaltern feminist approaches that examined gender relations from a structural, de-colonised and intersectional perspective provided a far more expansive political imagination for feminism as a movement(s) than those that simply took women as the centre of analysis.

Today, there are very significant divides between various strands of feminism(s) that will not be overcome with calls to dialogue or pluralism. Rather, structural differences, many material but also conceptual, are chief obstacles to cultivating meaningful solidarity. In contrast to analysing these differences through the lens of ‘identity politics’, it is much more valuable to consider them from the perspective of structures and representations– in other words, its not ‘being white’ which is the problem, it is what whiteness –how it is socialised, what it represents, how it is used, that needs to be examined.

New H[er]stories

Interpreting feminism in these more nuanced ways elicited a yearning to engage with subaltern feminist historiographical literature, especially Spivak (1985), Lazreg (1988), Tucker (1983), Keddie (1979), Afary (1996) amongst others. Armed with critical ‘deconstructions’ (to use Spivak’s notion) I began to identify how critiques present in subaltern feminist scholarship had existed as antagonisms within feminist movements that pre-dated the Suffragist movement, traditionally recognised as the starting point of contemporary feminism.

For example, many women, especially women of colour, who were leaders in the Abolitionist movement against slavery in the United States, challenged the burgeoning feminist movements’ single-minded attention on suffrage. These activists, such as Sojourner Truth, spoke at length about the need to be inclusive in the demands for suffrage for all women, but especially black women.

Nevertheless, the mainsream Suffragist movement traded the opportunity presented to them to organise for the votes of all people–men and women, black and white — for the votes of white women, which they articulated at the time as ‘more achievable’, but centrally because many white women did not see black women as their equals. It wouldn’t be until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that racial discrimination in relation to voting laws would be lessoned, allowing for the first time, black women the right to vote. [1]

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‘For everyone everything. For us nothing. Struggle! (fight)

Despite this early adamance on inclusive political principles  concrete divides between various strands of feminism cannot be overcome simply with calls to dialogue or pluralism (in other words education, though valuable, is not sufficient in of itself to address these differences).

Rather material differences (or those based in economic structural inequalities) between people around the world are one of the central difficulties in cultivating meaningful solidarity.

Further, subaltern feminism(s) teach that ‘women’s history’ is not an accurate reconstruction of objective experiences. That doesn’t mean giving up on the project of writing the history of women’s experiences. Rather, it obligates us to construct a new understanding of and methodology for such an enterprise. This new historical practice could combine the concerns of historians of women and historians of gender. From historians of women, it could retain its attention to ‘experience,’ but it could also redefine this term, considering experience as being produced by and mediated through cultural forms that are not only gendered but  also represented through other ways of organising meaning—through constructions of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, etc. The challenge would be to analyse how changes in the representation of cultural forms relate to changes in experiences that particular groups of people construct for themselves.

 

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The point of such an enterprise rests on what Jane Caplan (1989) warns, when she says ‘there is the danger in representing power as so diffuse and decentered that there is no agency, and there are no oppressors’ (ibid: 30). This means that feminist scholarship would need to develop the skills and perceptions that might enable us to manipulate cultural forms in ways that would alter our understandings of past experience, as well as our political commitments for the future. As a scholarly endeavor, this would be explicitly political in its attempt to specify how oppression is perpetuated and experienced, as well as how it may be resisted and escaped. It would also search for ways to analyse historical change and remain committed to theorising a kind of agency that retains some relationship between experience and representation, between people and power.

New [I]dentit(ies)

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Today, I see my identity as very much still evolving. The ethnic and religious origins of my family, my ancestors, play a significant role in how I understand and define myself–even as I also carve out my own ways of engaging in that identity.

For those that come from majority communities in Europe, from more homogeneous backgrounds or from roots that are easier to access and to experience in everyday life, the need, less the desire, to formulate and root identity might seem peculiar and puzzling. I believe that those that live as a majority, be it because of race, nationality, religious identity or sexual orientation (or live as a majority within the circles of your social life) may struggle to grasp the profound need those in the minority feel about (re)claiming a strong sense of self- and collective- identity.

Whilst I also think that those in the minority, struggle to identify themselves in terms of future possibility instead of past traumas, especially those experienced inter-generationally. Creatively constructing new futures might advance novel identities in the present, remaking ourselves alongside the world we dream of.

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[1] Nevertheless, racial discrimination in relation to voting remains a prime challenge to any true ‘equality before the law’ whilst the U.S. maintains laws barring felons–disproportionately men of colour– from enacting their basic inalienable rights.

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