‘A revolution in consciousness is an empty high without a revolution in the distribution of power.’ – Abbie Hoffman
I first came across the political whirlwind that was Abbie Hoffman whilst a new activist in university. I was studying for an honours degree in Middle East studies, and living in a commune in Camden, NJ. The forty-minute commute between Camden and West Philadelphia, where my university was located, brought me through some of the U.S.’s poorest neighborhoods. In fact, my own city of Camden had routinely made the list of ‘America’s most dangerous cities’ due to the high homicide rates relative to the size of population. The contrasts between my abstemious life at home in Camden, and the cloying wealth of the University of Pennsylvania was vast.
Though, even at the tender age of 19, contrasts of privilege and power had already seeded an avid political consciousness in me. Growing up as a minority in the U.S., I knew contrast. As a child of ‘mixed’ parentage – my mother an American of Irish descent, and my father Iranian, and an immigrant – our family was codified within the racially ambiguous term ‘blended’. Yet, in my experience, the word blended fails to capture much of the reality, as our family was probably better characterised as immiscible, in other words, we did not ‘blend’.
Already strained by the burden of attempting to cope with normative gender roles that seemed to confirm Carol Hanisch’s observation that the ‘personal is political’, my parents’ marriage seemed to suffer particularly by the inverse of that famous slogan, ‘the political [was] personal.’ My parents divorced in 1986 when I was not yet three years of age. In November 1985, the Reagan administration began secretly and illegally selling arms to the Iranian government, just at the height of the Iran-Iraq war, as means of funding Right-wing paramilitaries (aka ‘the Contras’) in Nicaragua, who were under sanction by the U.S. congress. Whilst the Reagan administration made pronouncements condemning various governments’ ‘support for terrorism’ or ‘lack of democracy’ it was, if not instigating, fueling wars from Latin America to the USSR to the Middle East.
Unwilling to challenge the undemocratic, often surreptitious policies that have characterised U.S. foreign policy since Reconstruction, the media turned its gaze towards those who were largely its victims. In the case of Iran, the media became 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.
These depictions were not simply the fantasies of doltish, American journalists. They were, rather, the consequence of economic, political, and social contexts, and intended to conjure specific kinds of reactions and affirm particular world views. In these ‘stories’, Iranian women were all the same; they did not have subjectivity, they did not ‘act’, and their reactionary politics was driven by ideology and ‘false-consciousness’. Of course these are the very discursive maneuvers that have, since the Enlightenment, helped to formalise Islam as a counterpoint to the West with the issue of women’s rights as the cornerstone. Today, the paradigm that the ‘West’ and the ‘Islamic world’ are caught in an intractable conflict continues to set the tone of debates – and worse, policies – with disastrous effect.
In recent history, one consequences of the harm of maintaining this spurious characterisation is the War [of] Terror, and the invasion into Afghanistan, that successfully mobilised mainstream feminist groups, like the Feminist Majority, to support it under the guise of ‘protecting the rights of women and girls.’ The so-called ‘mission of hope in Afghanistan’ – as described by Laura Bush with little recognition of the deeply colonial frame such a description provokes – included several partners from post-colonial states, including Ireland. Through its ‘peace partnership’ with NATO, Irish troops maintained a modest presence in Afghanistan from 2002 – 2014.
These political realities are the contrasts and complexities of the world I was born into, and the one in which we are all bound to dwell. They are maintained by structures of injustice, disparities of wealth and power, and animate the spatial landscapes that determine the worldview of many. This is why it is important to notice, for instance, certain postcodes have well-funded schools and well-connected services, and others struggle to maintain a modicum of these rights. It is also important to notice that issues of inequality such as those Hanisch’s essay articulate, were not merely ‘personal’ without political consequence, but deeply political and connected to material structures of discrimination that narrate those structures as ‘natural’.
Further, where Second Wave feminism championed Hanisch’s slogan through a myriad of campaigns like reproductive rights and equal pay for equal work, Third Wave conceptions brought the slogan into the reverse: the political was personal. The difference between the two is subtle yet critical as a means to disturb some of the ways in which certain streams of feminism have colonised what it means to be a ‘feminist’ and what feminist collective action looks like.
The difference is also important in terms of framing; our strategies of resistance to hetero-patriarchy (centrally) need to be constitutive of a larger political imagination. An imagination that both asks and attempts to answer the question: what kind of society do we want to live in?
When I began integrating the idea that the ‘political was personal, ‘several questions arose. The first went back to my childhood and my parents marriage and eventual divorce. 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. As my parents made attempts to salvage their relationship in the early 1980s, the political backdrop created new challenges that put considerable stress on them that became too much to bear. Reagan’s decision to sell weapons to both Iran and Iraq in the 80′ prolonging a brutal war that killed nearly half a million people over eight years. The war also displaced millions, with a fortune few, like my family, able to migrate away from Iran (and Iraq) and settle in places like the U.S. and Europe.
However, though it is possible to travel away from war, it’s futile to believe you can be ‘free from war’. For my family, there was a constant tension over fears that any single day could deliver news of a relative’s death, a beloved city bombed, or the further consolidation of authoritarian power in Iran. It was a political personalism never intended by Hanisch, but just as ostensible.
Like my parents’ ill-fated attempts to save their marriage, the U.S. and Iran never regained their ‘special relationship’, and as a result, I’ve never been able to visit Iran. Nevertheless, I was always defined by it, not least because of my name, but also as a result of the particularities of my experience – those contrasts – that have come to define and determine my life. Like those whose identity and self-definition has led them to distinguish themselves outside the binaries of sex and gender, I’ve refused the homogenising spaces meant to govern the performative aspects of one’s ethnic (or racial) identity. Similar to how I moved from my early activist days seeing patriarchy as the supremacy of men over women–instead of the creation of gender as an exercise of power—so too have my thoughts on feminism at the intersection of race evolved.
I no longer seek to strictly define feminist or feminism under a single, over-arching notion of equality or choice as determined by Western neo-liberalism. Nor do I condone the idea of ‘cultural relativism,’ as what we define as culture is neither fixed nor free from structures of injustice that shape it positively and negatively.
Instead, I have found the work of artists, activists and scholars committed to ending patriarchy and building a society of inclusivity to be most instructive and most able to actively maintain a space of diversity.
Sometimes diversity will be dialectical and emancipatory, exemplifying an almost seamless congruence of the widest array of thoughts and identities. At other times, diversity will be the (mundane beauty of) work necessary to hold opposites in tension.
For feminists of our time (or womanists or gender justice activists – widely defined) there is an urgent need to re-examine and re-claim the political project of feminism from its co-optation into capitalism, Eurocentrism and heteronormativity. How we do that (in other words our strategies for resistance) is as important as the results. I think our strategy begins with what many have described as ‘de-colonising feminism’. This process has largely given way to the post-Third wave feminist paradigms that have sought to expand beyond the limiting dichotomies of Western epistemology. These epistemes attempt to simplify and bifurcate what are the very rich and complex diversities into one thing and its opposing twin: East/West, Modern/Backward, Us/Other, Mother country/Colony, Civilised/Uncivilised, White/Black.
This vision of the world is dangerous in the way in which it has defined most of the colonised world outside of the realm of ‘civilisation’, and assumes there is a normative, natural hierarchy in which the world is organised. Those at the top of this hierarchy, mainly the U.S. and Europe, are thus able to colonise all visions of what it means to be modern and civilised – and that everything that is not ‘Western’ is therefore the uncivilised, traditional, and backwards.
In fact, Edward Said, post-colonialism’s most well-known scholar, argued that there has been a sustained pattern of misrepresentation of the Islamic world for the specific purpose of justifying Western hegemony. Chandra Mohanty expanded on Said’s research by relating how one of the central tropes of Western colonial literature in the 20th century is the depiction of the ‘oppressed Muslim woman’ in need of ‘saving’. This trope racialises women of the ‘Islamic world’ on the basis of their racial /ethnic identities in many of the same ways patriarchy attempts to subordinate women identified and non-binary people on the basis of their gender identities.
For feminists interested in de-colonising their feminism, Angela Davis’ Women, Culture and Politics is instructive. In the book Davis describes a trip she made to Egypt in the late 1980s where she came face to face with the complexities of her location as subaltern woman of the global North in relation to her fellow subaltern women of the global South. In this relation, Davis’ identity, even as an African American woman of colour, was privileged vis-a-vis many of her fellow Egyptian female identified counterparts. This encounter prompted Davis to write about the necessity of never taking identity or relations of power for granted, and of the imperative to always interrogate one’s own power in connection to shifting relationships.
Davis’ reflexsive approach shouldn’t be seen as something that is simply ‘morally good’, but as a feminist praxis that centres the subjectivity of her fellow feminist activists over her own assumptions. In so doing she actively made space for the voices of her fellow feminist activists from less privileged positions of power than her own to be heard. Today’s Black Lives Matter movement describes this approach as ‘leaning out’ to allow others to ‘lean in’. What’s more, Davis uses her subaltern identity to progress the reach of her feminist solidarity by offering her own platform as a space to bring in others even more marginalised than herself.
Her example asks the important question to all feminists: how do we cultivate a radical anti-capitalist / anti-systemic politics, which is constitutive of, but goes beyond, the confines of identity politics?
One way I’ve chosen to struggle with that question publicly is to start a blog called Steal this Hijab (StH). My blog was created for me to both demonstrate that the Islamic world has a rich, diverse and long-reaching history of gender justice movements, but also as a way of discussing and debating de-colonial feminisms. StH’s names was ‘stolen’ from a work of a similar title, Steal this Book by Abbie Hoffman, an American anti-war activist (in)famous for his theatrical approach to political engagement. As the passage at the outset of this essay relates, Hoffman knew that raising the consciousness of people would only be an initial step; one that would inevitably remain elitist and ineffectual without being tied to acts of political dissent. Hoffman called this ‘critical resistance’ and offered that it could be achieved whilst maintain imagination and a sense of humour.
Finally, the capacity for feminists to aspire towards changing the societies in which we live is not separate from the political and cultural regimes within which our lives are intertwined. By understanding the complex dynamics of our identities and their contexts we can transform the dominant narratives that frame our personal and political lives and make genuine solidarity possible.