Save the Brown Woman!

History, Politics, Society

The Guardian has an article by Priyamvada Gopal on the troubling tendency of Western liberals to see the fight for gender equality as an exclusive quality of Western civilization, with its corollary — its frequent invocation to justify dubious interventions in the name of saving Brown Women from Brown Men.

The article is a butchered version of the original — all the significant details have been taken out. Read the original underneath:

At a Demos fringe event during the Lib Dem conference, a handful of us pondered the question of identity in multicultural Britain. Diverse panelists came to pleasing agreement that people had multiple identities. We rejected New Labour’s quasi-American model of Britishness, with its flags on the lawn, national days, and monolithic British story’.

Luckily, this genial consensus soon came to an end. As we spoke of opening up cultural categories, a familiar canard soon made its inevitable appearance. Voiced in eminently reasonable tones, it goes like this: British liberals respect individual choice and Other Cultures. But what happens when these cultures reject the core Western liberal value, the Equality of Women? It’s a frequently asked genuine question’. I heard it most recently from an American woman who deplored Bush but feared that Islam would end the wearing of bikinis (which apparently symbolizes the achievements of Western liberalism).

Now, a great many women (and men) from outside the enlightened Western world also believe passionately in the equality of women. No moral relativists,’ we have successfully countered Hindu chauvinists, Islamists, Syrian Christian clerisy, Sikh zealots and Catholic fundamentalists, not to mention sundry secular manifestations of sexism. In India, the women’s movement has challenged innumerable practices that patriarchs deem essential to a particular culture,’ including unfair divorce and inheritance laws, female foeticide, and sexual violence (including marital and sex worker rape). In Pakistan, women’s activists have fought discriminatory Hudood ordinances and in Egypt, campaigned for reproductive rights and against clitoridectomy. In practice, culture has always been a battleground between authoritarian and progressive forces, not a clearly defined static object, whatever patriarchs of various ideological hues would have us believe. There is no such thing as an entire culture that unanimously believes in inequality- just powerful forces within them that do.

The insistence that human rights, equality and freedom are Western concepts to be defended against the incursions of Others or somehow bestowed on them (as suggested, for instance, by the Euston manifesto) relies, apart from double standards on colonialism and occupation, on a continued and convenient deafness to resistant voices from outside Judaeo-Christian contexts. (Except when the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali concoct a suitable story of oppression and liberatory flight to the West). This, ironically, makes such self-proclaimed liberals useful collaborators for authoritarian chauvinists from outside the West. For they are all in curious agreement that women’s equality is a Western concept and call for it, accordingly, to be either enforced (that’s why we sent in the troops) or rejected (keep her secluded). They are ably assisted by a minority on the left who regard sexism and homophobia as markers of legitimate cultural difference.

That they are not. Women from non-Western cultures have long mounted their own challenges to patriarchal subjection, even before John Stuart Mill denounced the legal subordination of one sex to the other’. In India, women learned self-assertion and the rejection of injustice not from him but from medieval female Hindu poets like Mirabai and Akkamahadevi, and fierce Tarabai Shinde who in 1882 wrote a stinging denunciation of male double standards. Early 20th century Muslim women like Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Ismat Chughtai and Rashid Jahan attacked a range of injustices including seclusion, disinheritance, lack of reproductive choice and illiteracy. They also taught Western feminism that women’s subjection could not be endorsed in convenient isolation from race, caste and class oppression. They wrote critically on matters such as the niqab, apparel that is far from widely embraced in all Muslim societies and one that has always been the subject of debate rather than a simple expression of culture.’ Nowhere, even in these societies, has there been consensus that denying women access to education, work, health and dignity is an expression of culture’.

The talismanic invocation of women’s equality as the key difference between Us and Them is worrying. Apart from the simple hypocrisy of people whose own societies have yet to fully address systemic gender, race and class inequalities, there is a long, dismal history of using the subjection of women’ to justify cultural condescension and colonial occupation. White men rescuing brown women from brown men’ is how scholar Gayatri Spivak describes the attendant fantasy. An anti-war British woman once told me that she was, nevertheless, glad that Iraqi women could now go to school!

Gender inequality no more inheres to non-Western cultures than to European cultures, notwithstanding scriptures and clerics. Like all cultural practices, it is an historical phenomenon subject to human intervention and transformation. Western cultures not have a monopoly on change. Suggesting that other’ cultures are inherently and immutably sexist on the basis of select practices and ideologues is no different from claiming that Western culture or Christianity is inherently racist because of colonialism, apartheid, the British National Party, or indeed, images of foul darkness in the Bible or Shakespeare. Oddly, the same people who defensively insist that racism must be understood in its historical context cannot extend that analysis to gender inequality elsewhere.

Brutal patriarchal thugs and ideologues who seek to control women’s minds and bodies are just that, whoever and wherever they may be. They can and should be fought as such, like the doughty Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) did, at great risk, for many years before Bush played feminist. Claiming sole Western ownership of the concept of women’s equality robs such women of their struggles, their victories and, ultimately, their dignity.