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Rafia Zakaria’s ‘Against White Feminism’ is a cathartic read for a non-white feminist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/09/2021 - 4:34am in

But can radical inclusion be accomplished without silencing white feminist allies?

I was a first-year student at a prestigious U.S. women’s college, back in 1989, when the college’s alumnae association invited me to speak at a large event about my experience in coming to America. It wasn’t very long into my first semester, and I’d just arrived from Karachi. I was 17 years old.

Karachi had been wracked by ethnic violence for more than a year, with student groups clashing all across the city and the entire province of Sindh.  That was a very frightening time, with the media reporting daily death tolls and the military enforcing 24-hour curfews. It is still fresh in my mind.

There were two other speakers at the event, both women: one was a youth organizer and peace activist in her troubled Black urban community; the other had survived a slave camp in Southeast Asia and had been subsequently adopted by an American family. The audience, however, was composed almost exclusively of white American women, many of them rich, older, well-traveled, and educated. Yet for all their worldliness, they seemed unaware that they had propped us up on a stage as though we were exhibits on display.

The three of us stood and told our stories in turn, while the women in the audience looked sad and sympathetic. I don’t remember much of what I said: I do remember being in tears as I said I wanted to study and to live in peace, but that my city didn’t provide much opportunity for that. Afterward, we joined the audience for dinner. We three speakers were overwhelmed by all the attention from the alums, who came up to us to tell us how “brave” we were. But while I stayed in touch with the other speakers, never again did I hear from any of the alums or from the association.

That I had been asked to perform my story of misery and woe for an audience of white women was a realization that came only years later. Those women meant well and obviously cared about our stories, but they used my life and the lives of my fellow speakers to make themselves feel better about their comfortable American existence. Not only were they more fortunate than a girl from troubled Pakistan, a former child slave from war-torn Southeast Asia, or a Black girl from a rough urban neighborhood, but they were also providing them with a platform to amplify their stories.

Rafia Zakaria’s Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption reminded me of this uncomfortable experience, now more than 30 years old. Indeed, the author describes an experience that felt remarkably familiar to the one I describe above: in her case, Zakaria believed she had been invited to a 2012 feminist event in the American Midwest as a speaker—only to be told, upon her arrival, to sit at a stall in a “global bazaar” and sell Pakistani trinkets.

It was a cathartic read, which helped me place my experience at the alumnae association against a backdrop of a white feminist agenda that is oftentimes self-serving, and which leaves behind women of other ethnicities, countries, experiences, faiths, and societies. Beyond just leaving us behind, this type of feminist activism uses us in order to leave us behind: by demonstrating the inferiority of our lives, white feminists continue to play the role of “expert” in the gender development establishment.

Zakaria deftly deconstructs the modern conundrums facing mainstream (white) feminism, with insightful examples, such as the lack of inclusivity at the 2017 Women’s March; while the organizers were Black and Brown, the vast majority of attendees were white middle-class women. More broadly, she points to issues of intersectionality and how class and color affect women who struggle to make it out of poverty, but who cannot access essential tools like legal assistance. She also examines the pitfalls of addressing issues like so-called honor killings and female genital cutting/mutilation through a culturally limited white feminist lens.

In the first instance, she draws a parallel between honor killings and “crimes of passion”: while the crimes are similar, she points out, only one serves as an indictment of an entire culture and religion— i.e., Islam, eastern, “foreign.” About female genital cutting, she points out there is no attempt to understand the nuances and complexities of the issue or to distinguish between a ceremonial “nick” and an outright excision of the genitals. Zakaria does not defend honor killings or advocate for FGM. She challenges the idea that there is an innate moral superiority to Western culture, which presents itself as exclusively on the “right” side of these issues.

Zakaria, an attorney and author who lives in Indiana, intersperses these chapters with her own experiences as a young Pakistani-Muslim woman. Born in Pakistan, she consented to an arranged marriage with a Pakistani man in the U.S. when she was 17. It was an unhappy and violent union that she escaped at age 25, fleeing with her toddler to a women’s shelter. She went on to law school and a job with a Black-owned law firm, and to helping immigrant women make their way through the American justice system. With this life story she establishes herself as the opposite of a white feminist, but one who possesses, as the result of her lived experience, a deep understanding of the phenomenon.

Against White Feminism turns middle-class white feminism inside out, like a garment, so that we can view the weaknesses of the seams and the sloppiness of the stitching. It’s eye-opening for anyone who identifies as a feminist but has not thought about how strongly its prevailing principles, tenets, and history are rooted in systemic racism and capitalism.

The book is probably strongest, however, in its analysis of how the U.S. justified its 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by claiming they were partly motivated to save women from Taliban oppression. American feminists threw their weight behind the war effort, and the ostensible goal of saving oppressed brown women from oppressive brown men. In doing so, they lent their voices to the American military industrial complex, which visited untold suffering upon Afghan women with bombings, drone attacks, massive displacement, and the destruction and displacement of their families.

Certainly, the situation of some Afghan women—i.e., those in urban areas—improved immeasurably after the coalition forces routed the Taliban. Over the past 20 years, a whole generation of women attended university and built careers. But with the Taliban now back in power and female journalists, teachers, artists, and activists having fled or gone into hiding, the long war seems futile. With reports in The New Yorker and from the Brookings Institution showing that the U.S. presence made rural Afghan women’s lives a hell, white feminists are now forced to confront the limitations of their support for the 20 year Afghan project and the putative gains in women’s empowerment that it touted.

A debacle like the invasion and withdrawal from Afghanistan does not happen without important historical context. Zakaria looks at the British suffragist movement of the early twentieth century, pointing out that the women who fought for the right to vote ignored the suffering caused by their country’s colonialism and imperialism in places like India. Zakaria also examines how contemporary white feminists engaged in “development” work abroad design aid programs that ignore activists on the ground who would provide crucial cultural and sociological moorings to any program for lasting, deep-rooted change.

The result of this failure to include local activists: campaigns and interventions that are myopic and deeply racist, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation program that gave sewing machines and chickens to poor women in the Global South. These programs endow women with the white feminist’s fantasy of what a simple livelihood in undeveloped countries looks like, instead of envisioning creative solutions that enable women to access complicated and complex power, as well as agency and respect in their communities.

For the most part Zakaria makes her arguments lucidly; at other times, however, they are a stretch. For example, she dismisses Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom’s attempt to introduce feminist foreign policy as empty promises from a disingenuous white feminist.  The truth is more nuanced than that: Wallstrom tried very hard to stop Sweden from selling arms to Saudi Arabia because of its poor record on women’s rights, but her government, influenced by powerful arms traders in the Swedish military-industrial complex, overrode her efforts. Zakaria glosses over these facts, perhaps trying too hard to find case studies that conform to her arguments.

In another section of the book, Zakaria refers to a letter signed by Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep in favor of the invasion of Afghanistan back in 2002. However, the source for this claim is a 2015 article that Zakaria wrote for Aeon, in which she made the same claim. The original article on the Aeon website does not have a source, and there is no trace of the open letter anywhere on the internet. This, I suspect, is a consequence of sloppiness rather than malice, but it does not serve the book well in its call for a higher kind of feminist ethics.

Perhaps the most glaring shortcoming, however, is Zakaria’s failure to offer a proper definition of the term “white feminism” until close to the end of the book; she should have laid it out at the beginning, since her entire argument is a response to white feminism. Zakaria describes it as a system that excludes the needs, voices, and expertise of brown and Black women, “a set of practices and ideas that have emerged from the bedrock of white supremacy, itself the legacy of empire and slavery.” But there is a danger in using “white feminism” as a shorthand for the entire system Zakaria is calling out. Pitting brown and Black feminists, a minority in America (the book is written very much for an American audience, which is an unavoidable shortcoming), against the “white” feminist majority is momentarily empowering, but, in the long term, dispiriting and exhausting. It can leave everyone feeling like there’s no point in trying to come together because the gap created by past divisions is too vast to bridge.

Zakaria’s indignant refusal to make excuses for white feminists is satisfying, but it leaves very little room for allies among white women. It also leaves little room for brown and Black women who want to work in solidarity with white women, or for those who want to access the networks and power structures that white feminists have benefited from for decades. Instead, Zakaria advocates a further splintering of the feminist movement into “Black feminisms, Muslim feminisms, queer feminisms.” Will this breakdown into feminist specializations lead to a more effective global feminism— one that accomplishes the goals of women’s equality? Zakaria does not say.

It’s important to point out the injustices and weaknesses of the dominant feminist movement vis-a-vis women of color. It’s certainly not the job of non-white women to provide the roadmap to reconciliation, and there is nothing in Against White Feminism to make white feminists feel more comfortable—rightly so. But the balkanization of feminism is hardly a movement from which women of the world, brown and Black, can achieve true gains. Power-sharing between all women, white, brown, and Black, under the current system, seems impossible if we are to take Zakaria’s perspective to heart. Surely we can envision a system where no woman has to step down in order for everyone to step up, together.

The post Rafia Zakaria’s ‘Against White Feminism’ is a cathartic read for a non-white feminist appeared first on The Conversationalist.

Kathy Acker’s Astrologer Told Her She Would Meet Somebody—and That Was Me

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 18/09/2021 - 4:00am in

Photo Credit: Claire Potter Claire Potter: Let’s begin where the book begins—your relationship with Kathy Acker. McKenzie Wark: I should start by...

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Why Does the Texas Legislature Believe That Embryos Have a Heartbeat?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/09/2021 - 10:00pm in

Image credit: Nevit Dilmen/Wikimedia Commons ____ The Texas statute that went into effect last week is one of many similar...

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How Banning Abortion Will Transform America

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 08/09/2021 - 4:00am in

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, 1976. Photo credit: Fototeca online a comunismului românesc, photo #LA380, 380/1976 (09/06/2021) / Wikimedia Commons _____...

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Handing Power Back to the Vigilantes

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/09/2021 - 10:00pm in

Photo credit: Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com _____ The new anti-abortion law in Texas is not just about abortion; it is...

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Are You Looking for Jane?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/09/2021 - 12:15am in

Photo credit: Julian Leshay / Shutterstock.com _____ This week, when a Supreme Court majority permitted Texas to eviscerate Roe v. Wade and...

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Texas Women Just Lost Their Right to Their Own Bodies

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 04/09/2021 - 3:37am in

Photo credit: michelmond / Shutterstock.com _____ I am frothing and devastated watching the Supreme Court allow Texas to functionally overturn...

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Is capitalism structurally indifferent to gender?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 31/08/2021 - 7:00am in


Blog, Feminism

A sweep through key arguments about the abstracting logic of capital will yield a common emphasis, which is a stress on the “indifference” of capital to those it exploits.

For sure, this is evident in some of Marx’s own writings. Witness points in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts on how capital stands in an indifferent relationship to labour, with the latter existing as ‘liberated capital’. Or, equally, Marx’s more sophisticated remarks in Grundrisse that ‘since capital as such is indifferent to every particularity of its substance’ then ‘the labour which confronts it likewise subjectively has the same totality and abstraction in itself’.

More widely, though, this emphasis crops up in the writings of others, such as Moishe Postone, William Clare Roberts, or Martha Giménez. At first blush, it may seem reasonable to contend at an abstract level that capitalism is “indifferent” to the social identities of the people it exploits. But does adhering to this form of abstraction result in a flawed theory of labour and social mediation under capitalism? As Doreen Massey reminds us, is there an abstracting logic here that fails to recognise that the world is not simply the product of the requirements of capital?

We pursue these questions (and more) in our latest article in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space through an engagement with debates in Marxist Feminist social reproduction theory.

Specifically, we take issue with the arguments of Ellen Meiksins Wood who delivers decidedly contentious standpoints on human emancipation and the role of gender, race, and class struggle within and against capitalism. Take this point of hers in a volume on The Socialist Feminist Project:

The first point about capitalism is that it is uniquely indifferent to the social identities of the people it exploits.

Hence Wood holds that there is a structural indifference of capitalism to extra-economic identities, meaning for her that a world of gender equality and racial equality could be logically envisaged without portending the end of capitalism. To cite Wood again, from her magnum opus Democracy Against Capitalism, ‘capitalism could survive the eradication of all oppressions specific to women as women—while it would not, by definition, survive the eradication of class exploitation’.

In our article, we demand more Marxist Feminist curiosity about the so-called ‘indifference’ of capital to extra-economic identities and specifically gender relations.

Let’s briefly return to Marx and the case of Mary Anne Walkley in the chapter on the working-day from Capital, Volume 1. The suffering and death of Mary Anne Walkley, argues William Clare Roberts, did not result from her own individuality but rather from the circumstances that attended her labours, ensuing from capitalist exploitation and her role qua labourer. Hence the reassertion by Roberts that ‘the aim of capital—the realisation of surplus value—is indifferent to the particular aim of the labour on which it depends’.

However, we argue that the death of Mary Anne Walkley in 1863 from ‘simple over-work’ should be revisited. For doing so, would reveal a much more complex intertwining of expropriative practices of living labour. Not all labourers are alike, for Mary Anne Walkley is presented as a white slave, officially deceased due to apoplexy, but whose conditions of labouring constantly for more than 26 hours was due as much to garment making for the guests at a ball given by the Princess of Wales; or the gendered working conditions of consumption, undernourishment and malnutrition; or the forced supply of alcohol to her and other women to sustain their failing labour-power; or the demand for needlewomen (over men) to ‘conjure up magnificent dresses for the noble ladies’, rather than simply over-work and overcrowding within the capitalist specificities of the millinery industry.

Equally, when Marx conjectures in Wage Labour and Capital that ‘What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other. A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations’, he misses the explicit racialisation process. As Cedric Robinson argues in Black Marxism, the “Negro” is itself a construct that became an exploitable source of slave-labour power and colonisation prior to becoming centrally constitutive to racial capitalism. In sum, for us, racial domination and gender oppression are constituent underpinnings in the making of capitalism and a Marxist Feminist curiosity would immediately and easily reveal the specification of such relations of racial and gendered power as class relations.

Our article explores these issues by identifying two different routes within Marxism Feminism that reflect on the social reproduction of labour power. Our argument is that both these routes deliver a value-theory of reproductive labour but in distinct ways. These are:

  1. A strand of social reproduction theory that identifies a division between labour-power as productive of surplus-value and unpaid domestic (or unproductive) labour as not producing surplus-value (e.g. inter alia Tithi Bhattacharya, Susan Ferguson, Lise Vogel, David McNally); and
  2. A different set of Marxist Feminists that assert the inner character and substance of social reproductive labour as value-creating within the capitalist-patriarchy nexus as constitutive of commodities (e.g. inter alia Leopoldina Fortunati, Silvia Federici, Maria Mies, Alessandra Mezzadri).

Under the rubric that we categorise as a value-theory of reproductive labour we highlight the existing tensions within Marxist Feminism and the forms of struggle for living labour that flow from the value question between these two routes.

For both routes to a value-theory of reproductive labour that we identify, there remain different consequences for everyday spaces of living, producing, contesting capitalism. Our conclusion, though, is that capital is not unassumingly indifferent to the identity of those that it exploits as it works through the differentiation of, and discrimination within, the labour force.

The argument that capitalism is structurally indifferent to gender, or race, as extra-economic identities, is therefore a misnomer.

The key future task is to do more work to put the different routes of a value-theory of reproductive labour to work.

The post Is capitalism structurally indifferent to gender? appeared first on Progress in Political Economy (PPE).


Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 27/08/2021 - 5:38pm in

Radical Gender Theory and the Left

As a trans person, I’ve really been struggling with the idealism of trans activism as it pertains to identity. They seem to say that however you identify your gender is who you are. So if you say you’re a woman, you’re a woman, and if you say you’re non-binary, then you are. But isn’t this the core of idealism, to put identity in the determinant position? 

—comment on Reddit’s r/communism forum

In his latest series of documentaries Can’t Get You Out of My Head (reviewed by Guy Rundle in Arena no. 6), sociologist and film-maker Adam Curtis focuses on a number of individuals who sit at the uneasy intersection of modern individualism, an increasingly technologised vision of the human mind and human behaviour, and a liberatory politics denuded of grand historical narratives. Key portraits in this gallery include the US rapper Tupac Shakur, who attempts to recreate in music something of the political radicalism of his mother (the Black Panther Afeni Shakur) but finds himself trapped by celebrity culture, and the countercultural author Kerry Thornley, who sought to satirise conspiracy thinking, only to succumb to it in later life. But perhaps the most interesting figure of all, in terms of the ideological positioning of the contemporary ‘mainstream’ radical Left, is the transgender activist Julia Grant, whose story Curtis glosses in an article for the Guardian

Julia Grant grows up near Blackpool in the 1970s. She comes to London—and realises that she wants to live as a woman. She is part of a shift that will sweep through modern society that says that true freedom doesn’t come any longer from changing the world—but changing yourself—to become who you know inside you really are. At the start of the 1980s, Julia sets out to take on the medical establishment. An anonymous psychologist behind the camera in the TV documentary A Change of Sex wants to stop her. Julia has extraordinary courage—and decides she will stand up to him and what he represents about an old uncaring society in Britain.

Here, as in the documentary itself, Curtis’s admiration for Grant is more than tinged with reservation. For while Grant does indeed show plenty of courage in her clashes with her (assigned) psychiatrist, who is callously unsympathetic to her desire for gender reassignment surgery, she is also a paradigmatic case of the individualisation of politics that is one of Curtis’s principal themes. The question, for the Left no less than for Curtis, is whether this ambivalence necessarily implies a demotion of Grant’s struggle for recognition. If Julia’s claim to womanhood is bound up with a more general malaise, what do we make of the claim itself?  

I find it surprising that this question has barely arisen in the responses to Curtis’s documentary. As one of the first ‘transsexuals’ to share their story with a mainstream audience, Grant would have cut an exotic figure when she first came to prominence in the 1980s. But in recent years transgender issues have entered mainstream culture and politics with remarkable rapidity and force, such that we now have an entirely new language in which to talk about sex, gender and the relationship between the two. For some, this new language contains a recognition that the old one could not fully register, or even perhaps begin to register, the rich complexity of sex and gender, while for others it represents an attempt to rewrite the rules of nature itself. Indeed, and whatever else they denote, words and phrases such as ‘gender fluidity’, ‘non-binary’, ‘cisgender’ and ‘heteronormativity’ are ideological Rorschach prints that will strike the culture warrior as either the conceptual architecture of a new and hopeful gender politics or the modish cant of ‘cultural Marxists’ bent on revolution by stealth. Grist to the outrage-media’s mill, the status and rights of transgender people—i.e. people whose gender identity is at odds with their birth sex—is an issue in which the underlying themes of our political era coalesce. Identity, safety, rights, language, expertise and techno-science are all in the discursive mix. 

For a section of the contemporary Right, the issue of transgender activism is now an ideological twofer that allows it to hold its conservative/reactionary and liberal/libertarian troops together for the sake of a few raids into progressive territory. On the one hand, it can take the claims of transgender activists as an opportunity to press its case for traditional notions of sexuality and gender, and on the other it can present the style of that activism (not always erroneously, it should be said) as an attack on classical liberal verities such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. No doubt it is significant that the conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson came to prominence on the back of a controversy about an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act, which, he argued, would compel Canadians to modify their use of gendered pronouns when addressing transgender and non-binary people—a stance that it suited him to present as a liberal defence of open debate but was also, clearly, an antechamber to his views on the ‘crisis of masculinity’ that had come about as a consequence of postmodernism and identity politics. Similarly, the Safe Schools anti-bullying program was characterised as both a postmodern assault on long-established beliefs and behaviours and as an example of intellectual policing, all the more sinister for being aimed at kids whose sexuality and critical faculties were both in the early stages of development. (Again, this characterisation was not entirely erroneous. The materials for the Safe Schools program do appear to channel a view of the body as a ‘blank slate’ onto which culture projects gender, while the decision to introduce such subject matter in the form of an anti-bullying program, instead of as part of the syllabus, may appear from a certain angle to be an attempt to get one’s retaliation in first.) 

In broadly progressive circles, by contrast, support for transgender and non-binary causes is acquiring the quality of a shibboleth. Clearly, much of this support is based on simple solidarity with a marginalised group subject to prejudice and violence, and on a deep (and deeply liberal) conviction that it is wrong to require someone to live in a way that feels untrue to their ‘real’ self. But there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that radical gender theory has left its mark on progressive politics as well, even if only superficially. The sudden prominence of the word ‘cisgender’ to describe those whose gender identity correlates with their birth sex, the incorporation of pronoun preferences into social media profiles and the like, the passing of laws that make it permissible to change the sex on one’s birth certificate without assessment or reassignment, and a succession of highly mediatised controversies around allegedly ‘transphobic’ statements on the part of celebrities and journalists, suggest not only broad acceptance (or unthinking assimilation) of the core tenets of radical gender theory but also a desire to put that acceptance in the shop window of progressive politics. The recent statement by Duncan Maskell, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, that academic freedom does not extend to comments that cause ‘harm’ to transgender people, will strike many on the Left as overreach, and some of us as ludicrous (not because we are in favour of harm, but because we see how the extension of the harm principle is eroding what’s left of the public sphere). But it is the symptom of a more general feeling that the question of transgender selfhood is settled, and that statements to the contrary are politically toxic. 

TERF wars 

In some progressive circles, however, the idea that one’s gender identity can be neatly separated from one’s physical being, or that one’s physical being is itself ‘gendered’ in a way that makes any talk of its reality necessarily ideological, is proving deeply controversial. For an older generation of feminists, in particular, the prominence of transgender issues can often seem like a challenge to, and even a rejection of, some very different shibboleths to the ones on offer from GLAAD and its analogues. Often characterised (not always unfairly) as ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ (TERFs), these activists and commentators may make the point that some of the men who identify as women (and vice versa) are apt to reproduce the stereotypes that underpin patriarchal attitudes. More basically, their objections stem from a feeling that transgender politics downplay or deny the centrality of the body to female lived experience. It was this issue that got J. K. Rowling into hot water when she objected to the phrase ‘people who menstruate’ in an article on menstrual health in the global South. Or here is the journalist Suzanne Moore, in the article that got her sacked from the Guardian:

The radical insight of feminism is that gender is a social construct—that girls and women are not fated to be feminine, that boys and men don’t have to be masculine. But we have gone through the looking-glass and are being told that sex is a construct… Female oppression is innately connected to our ability to reproduce. Women have made progress by talking about biology, menstruation, childbirth and menopause. We won’t now have our bodies or voices written out of the script. 

In an article in The Sociological Review, a number of British academics characterised these comments, and others like them, as inseparable from a reactionary campaign against transgender and non-binary rights, and it is true that the doctrine of ‘my enemy’s enemy’ will mean that any criticism of queer/radical gender theory will be taken up and weaponised by those whose opposition to ‘transgenderism’ is fuelled by simple prejudice. But to assume that criticisms such as Moore’s are therefore channelling such prejudice is obviously a non sequitur that serves to stifle genuine debate, precisely in the way that the Right often claims. Moreover, it stifles debate about precisely the thing we need to be debating as we move deeper into the techno-scientific era—namely, the ontological status of the human being/animal in a society that invites us to regard ourselves as in some sense above, or remote from, nature. Reading the criticisms of Moore and Rowling, and many other commentators besides, one has the sense that biological sex (or, more usually, ‘biological sex’) is regarded as, at best, a red herring, and, at worst, a Trojan horse from which, when night falls, the forces of reaction will emerge and set about their bloody business. But of course for certain traditions within feminism, and also for the wider material Left into which those feminist traditions were marbled, the issue of whether there is a physical ‘nature’ that is prior to and influential on cultural meanings or ‘scripts’ is one of foundational importance.

As Arena’s Simon Cooper has noted, in a piece on the fallout from Germaine Greer’s comments on the status of transgender women, ‘it’s one thing to distinguish between sex and gender; it’s quite another thing to say embodiment and biology float free of history and culture, subject to the needs of identity’. Greer has suggested, with characteristic indelicacy, that she doesn’t ‘believe a woman is a man without a cock’ and that ‘If you didn’t find your pants full of blood when you were 13, there’s something important about being a woman you don’t know’—comments that have earned her a severe dressing-down in some sections of the mainstream press. Nevertheless, and as Cooper suggests, we should look past Greer’s off-colour flourishes to her invocation of those ‘markers of embodiment’ that are, for her, inseparable from the experience of being a woman. As he puts it:

Greer’s listing of some of the features and biological processes of the female body—ovaries and uterus, menstruation and menopause—is not simply biological essentialism but indicates how these things are integral to gendered identity. They are physical processes subject to culture and to forms of social integration and understanding, and they are experienced over time. Their meanings can/should be challenged as part of a political project, but they cannot be dismissed by an act of will.

That such meanings, derived in part from biology, are ‘dismissed by an act of will’ is evident from some of the reactions to the Greer controversy, and to others, in progressive circles. In an essay in Meanjin, for example, Eleanor Robertson referred to Greer’s ‘biological essentialism’ and accused her of ‘policing a line of demarcation she perceives as the enabling force of collective struggle’ and of attacking ‘nascent forms of solidarity she doesn’t understand’. Engaging in a bit of ‘policing’ of her own, Robertson describes as ‘morally and organisationally bankrupt’ the idea that there may be a biological basis for female solidarity, though why such a basis must always lead back to the ‘class interests of men’ she doesn’t say. Similarly, the revelation in 2015 that a US anti-racism activist had been ‘passing’ as Black caused many progressives to tie themselves in knots in response to (often mischievous) comparisons between the activist in question, Rachel Dolezal, and the transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner. What should have been an opportunity to think through a few important distinctions, and to consider the ways in which gender and race are socially and psychically constructed on the basis of biological differences that may or may not shape experience in ways prior to those psychosocial constructions, descended into a brawl in which any comparison between Dolezal and Jenner was treated in progressive circles as axiomatically transphobic and racist. The (Black) professor Adolph Reed, a tireless critic of identity politics, was happy to point out what he and others regarded as a double standard: ‘The transrace/transgender comparison makes clear the conceptual emptiness of the essentializing discourses, and the opportunist politics, that undergird identitarian ideologies. There is no coherent, principled defense of the stance that transgender identity is legitimate but transracial is not, at least not one that would satisfy basic rules of argument’.

It is not, then, transgender people as such but the informing assumptions of radical gender theory that need to be debated and challenged. The idea that there is no significant relationship between sex and gender carries with it an assumption about human beings that should strike those on the material Left as a challenge to an idea of freedom without which ‘the Left’ as a political entity would never have come into being at all—the idea that human beings can only flourish if certain material needs are met, and that these needs derive from our status as creatures that are bound by and are a part of nature. Indeed it is precisely the materiality of freedom that separates the Left from the (liberal) Right. While the right-libertarians of the Institute of Public Affairs regard freedom as reducible to negative rights such as freedom of speech or the freedom to own property, socialists are supposed to know that freedom entails enabling conditions that are ultimately based in our creatural needs—that arise, so to speak, from embodiment

Indeed, radical gender theory presents the Left with an ‘identity crisis’ of its own, in a way that goes beyond the usual (and often legitimate) gripes about how the politics of identity has taken contemporary progressives away from issues of class or material distribution. That crisis does not begin with radical gender theory. Nor, rest assured, will it end with it. But it is very important to understand exactly what is at stake in this debate, and the very different visions of the future that necessarily emerge from it. 

New subjectivities 

As Guy Rundle demonstrates in his article, ‘How radical gender theory hijacked Marxism and why we need to get it back’, published in Crikey in 2016 in the midst of the Safe Schools controversy, the route from revolutionary socialism to radical gender/queer theory is based on two problematic aspects, or perceived aspects, of Marx’s thought. The first is the idea that the economic ‘base’ dictates the cultural and institutional arrangements that constitute the ‘superstructure’, up to and including the family unit; and the second is the idea that human liberation entails a transcendence of our biological condition—an idea based, in my opinion, on a highly tendentious reading of Marx. (For a thorough critique of this idea, see Norman Geras’s Marx and Human Nature.) In the 1960s, as the limitations of the base-superstructure model became apparent, some on the Left looked to deepen the idea that social and cultural meanings were ‘constructed’ by turning, first, to structuralism—an idea from anthropology that stressed how societies create meaning and hierarchy by constructing oppositions (e.g. male/female) that effectively define each other—and then to the ‘post-structuralist’ idea that social meanings are entirely constructed. When this notion of the arbitrariness of social meaning combined with the notion that liberation necessitates a radical break with nature, many radicals moved decisively beyond the philosophical materialism that had defined revolutionary socialism and adopted the idealism (as I take it to be) of post-structuralism. Fleshed out in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), the new ‘queer theory’ asked us to consider ‘the duality of sex’ as itself a construction. ‘[W]hat is “sex” anyway?’ Butler asked; ‘Is it natural, anatomical, chromosomal, or hormonal, and how is a feminist critic to assess the scientific discourses which purport to establish such facts for us?’ But as important as these questions were, the underlying notion that social meanings are entirely constructed—that they are ideological ‘all the way down’—has militated against any clarifying answers. For a large section of the radical Left, it has simply become enough to say that there is no relationship between sex and gender. 

As Rundle notes in his article, such beliefs are connected in a deep way to a particular form of being in the world. The post-industrial economy in countries such as Australia is one in which a newly expanded class of ‘knowledge’ or information workers deals principally in data, texts, images, statistics and the like. It is a world not of old-style manual labour but of representations of the world, and it is within such a cultural and intellectual ecology that something like queer theory (in its hard and soft versions) is able to take hold and flourish. Indeed, it is significant that queer theory was nourished in the academic fields of criticism and cultural studies before being re-exported to the social sciences—a history to which the many references to ‘tropes’ and ‘scripts’ and ‘performances’ attest. ‘There’s a lot of identities, selves, and self-shaping in the literature of Safe Schools’, writes Rundle; ‘there’s a decided absence of actual bodies and sex, the viscous, vicious, unequal, powerful and chaos-bringing embodiment of sex, which is pretty uppermost in adolescents’ lives’. Queer theory offers a dematerialised activism for increasingly dematerialised thought-worlds. 

The sudden prominence of radical gender theory, then, is consistent with a form of life in which identities do indeed appear to float free of embodied being. But of course it is precisely this ‘freedom’ that capitalism in its current phase finds it so rewarding to cultivate, not least through new technologies in which it is not only possible but necessary to perpetually construct one’s identity—technologies to which performance is central. As grounded social life recedes in the face of neoliberalism, our relations with others become increasingly mediated, as well as increasingly ephemeral and fraught; and the more we are remade as individuals who must continually remake ourselves, the more we turn to the marketplace. This is not to adopt a crude base-superstructure-ideology model, or to suggest that queer theorists are neoliberalism’s useful idiots, but to stress the way in which new subjectivities are folded into both techno-scientific capitalism and certain kinds of activism. In a time of ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman), ‘fluidity’ is celebrated, albeit often in the contradictory form of a great proliferation of new fixed sexual/gender identities. 

The focus on the psychic ‘safety’ of transgender and other minority groups is central to this picture. For the Right, the progressive emphasis on safe spaces, trigger warnings, no-platforming and so forth is evidence of a ‘snowflake’ generation; but this is to misunderstand entirely the cultural shift that is taking place. For while accusations of offence and bullying are often tiresome and politically expedient, they are also clearly related to the cultural and technological developments described above. Subject to constant curation and monitoring, and scattered across a range of media, identities need to be shielded from injury lest they break apart entirely. The endless expansion of the ‘harm principle’ is a necessary bulwark against psychological crack-up—a supplement to the new armouring competencies of mindfulness, resilience and empathy. That queer theory was introduced to mainstream Australia through an anti-bullying program is in this sense perfectly explicable. 

Radical gender theory, then, is difficult to separate from the wider shifts that are taking place as capitalism steers us ever deeper into the techno-scientific era—an era that even now offers ways to change or transcend our given embodiment, through implants, brain–computer interfaces and (perhaps most important in the long run) CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology. At the moment, many of these technologies are subject to rigorous ethical constraints, though the medical imperative to ‘do no harm’ is as likely, in my view, to permit new interventions as it is to hold them back. But as we become habituated to such technologies as are already extant, and as the market continues to heroicise the sovereign, wired-up individual, they are sure to become less marginal. What this will mean for gender and sexuality in the long term is impossible to say, but surely it is significant that the sector that is often held up as exemplary in its attitude to LGBTQ issues is the one charged with innovating such transformative tech. Indeed my sense is that radical gender theory makes for a pretty tidy fit with the body-as-hardware/mind-as-software view of human beings favoured by many in Silicon Valley and its analogues. Though worlds apart in many ways, the informing assumptions of radical gender theory share a common base with the technological ‘transhumanism’ that seeks to dramatically extend human life and even replicate human consciousness in a way that ‘liberates’ us from our bodies entirely. 

Such an ambition remains in the realms of fantasy. But the view of human life that fuels it is sure to sanction—will continue to sanction—interventions that radically recast the relationship between human beings and the ‘natural world’, up to and including the human body. In such circumstances, one would want to see a Left that could think critically about the subjectivities that allow such promethean dreams to flourish, and demand not only common ownership of such technologies as are already with us (as per the ‘fully automated luxury communists’) but also an urgent moratorium on a developmental ethos that is itself inseparable from techno-scientific capitalism. My fear is that radical gender theory, and the ways of seeing to which it is related, make that difficult, if not impossible. 

A promethean synthesis? 

It seems to me that many progressives are desperate to avoid the questions thrown up by radical gender theory, not least because its most strenuous advocates have mounted guard over the rights and safety of transgender and non-binary people with passion and single-mindedness. For these progressives, the idea that ‘all claims to liberation from an inherited conservative order are valid’ (Rundle) is the fundamental political value. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that many of them would accept the full implications of radical gender theory in its Butlerite form, and it is here that the progressive attitude to science and/or expertise is likely to play an important role. As the expert-managers of the knowledge economy, rightly appalled by the Right’s stupidity and nihilism in respect of climate change and vaccination, many ‘soft’ progressives now evince a more or less reflexive regard for scientific or credentialled opinion. Positions are asserted (often correctly) on the basis of ‘the science’ alone, rather than any worked-out position, and my sense is that, in the case of trans issues, this reflexive reverence has now combined with a spirit of solidarity and compassion in a way that effectively removes the topic of gender theory from the sphere of contention. Dan Andrews’ comments in March 2016 on proposed government changes to the Safe Schools program, which set the experts against the ‘bigots’, were in this sense representative of a more general progressive stance. Similarly, the ABC’s documentary on the paediatrician Michelle Telfer, who has been subject to a vicious campaign from The Australian, stressed both her compassion and her professional rigour, but had little to say about the science and psychology informing the process of gender reassignment it is her role to facilitate.

My point is not that the small minority of transgender people who want to transition shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Such transitions may indeed be what some people need in order to be/feel free. My point is about the way an issue of identity and recognition has quickly become a taken-for-granted good, and medicalised under certain pressures. No longer able to think outside the social and economic conditions in which they play a central role, progressives have shifted the burden of decision to social actors they trust as ‘theirs’: the activist charity, the medical practitioner, the academic with a feel for how conventional notions of x or y are replete with bias and bigotry, and, of course, the experience and choices of those who would live differently, outside the mores of mainstream society. If this process can occur with an issue as central to human culture as sex and gender, it can occur with almost anything.  

For all the (very real) threats we now face from the new reactionary Right, the most momentous development of our era has been the continued subordination of nature by techno-scientific capitalism—a socioeconomic ensemble to which a certain idea of liberation is central. It follows that a radical left-materialism must begin by acknowledging our groundedness in nature, reflect on the cultural and intellectual conditions that have permitted a contrary world-picture to flourish, and identify, as aspects of the same delusion, the idea that we can endlessly manipulate the environment, and the idea that we can manipulate ourselves to better fit the cultural reality that has grown up in the shadow of that promethean project. Today techno-scientific capitalism presses in on us at every turn. A socialism that has nothing to say about that, and about the kinds of creatures we are, is a socialism that will reproduce its radically antihuman assumptions and facilitate its assault on ‘all that is solid’.

Rural women’s resistance to neoliberal agricultural reform: the women of Monaragala Sri Lanka

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/07/2021 - 8:00am in


Blog, Feminism

Although often depicted as victims of climate change, poverty, land dispossession or gendered violence, rural women from agrarian communities are active political agents who seek to dismantle gendered relations and structures of colonial power. From countries in Latin America, South Asia, East Asia, and the African Continent, rural women leaders struggle for justice by engaging in various forms of resistance within the rural economy. In this brief blog, we draw on our research in Monaragala, Sri Lanka, to highlight how women’s engagements in the 1980s and the 1990s in response to the introduction of the foreign-funded sugarcane industry in Pelwatta, led to the politicisation of women leaders. The leaders continue to work in that area today and we look at why women’s resistance is important and how it has continued to date. 

Throughout the transition of the economy and ecology of Monaragala from subsistence-based agriculture to the commodification of labour, during the Pelwatta struggles and at present in their current work and leadership; women activists from Monaragala display both power and agency in agro-ecological initiatives.  As identified by Li Zhang in China, “rural women are not merely passive victims of transformations” in agrarian society and economy, but they too are “leaders in struggles for justice and food sovereignty”. This observation is also relevant to the Monaragala district in relation to the activists politicised through the Pelwatta struggles. The Pelawatta struggle was a turning point in post-independence feminist activism in the agricultural sector and in general against state repression in Sri Lanka. As new challenges manifest daily with the ongoing flexibilisation of labour and the introduction of new development initiatives to the Monaragala district, women activists persist in challenging disempowering developments to obtain gender and ecological justice. 

The labour systems of the Monaragala Agricultural Promotion Zone 

With the establishment of the Agricultural Promotion Zone (APZ) in Monaragala in 1982, sugarcane cultivation became a targeted area for foreign investment. As part of the APZs, approximately 19,000 acres of land from Pelawatta, Monaragala was cordoned for cultivation. The Pelwatta Sugar Company (PSC) was established in 1981 as a joint venture between the state and international investors (the cultivation started in 1982 and the factory was built in 1986 and the formal operations began then). The ownership and management of PSC oscillated between a joint venture, to being state-run over subsequent years, to finally trading as the Lanka Sugar Company PLC (for more details see HERE). It is locally known as Lanka Sugar Company Limited–Pelwatta, or simply Pelwatta for short. Currently, Pelwatta produces sugar and molasses

Socio-Economic and Environmental Impact

Livelihoods and lifestyle associated with traditional cultivation practices such as chena and paddy changed with the introduction of sugarcane (chena is a method of cultivation used in Sri Lanka where shifting cultivation is used by clearing the fields through ‘slash-and-burn’). A key change with land dispossession, the move away from subsistence and the introduction of the stratified labour system, was widening gender inequality as documented by Nandini Gunawardena. Women not only lost the main means of their livelihood but were also drawn into the field labour force of the PSC.  Within this system, women’s jobs were subordinate to men, impacting their roles, agency, and the “valuation of their productive contributions to society”.  

By 2019, villagers noted severe environmental impacts as local ecosystems were altered, largely attributed by them to the clearing of forests for PSC. They contended the rivers dried up and there was a water shortage (interview with villagers, July 2019). The resulting low yields made farmers dependent on agrochemicals which the farmers and activists believe to be a cause for the high numbers of Chronic Kidney Disease of an unknown aetiology (CKDu) cases in the Pelwatta area mostly among men. There is an increasing dual burden on women as they become the sole breadwinner of the families and with their care burden increasing attending to the sick in the households (based on interviews with Nanda in 2018). 

“Accumulated vision and consciousness”: Women’s resistance against dispossession and better labour conditions 

As noted by Sunila Abeyesekera in Law & Society Trust Review (1991), organised resistance against the PSC emerged in the 1980s with the involvement of Mehta International, another private investor which had been allocated 12,000 acres of land which included the Haddawa forest. This affected 625 families. Further, environmentalists outside of Pelawatta also began to protest the destruction of the commons. Access to common land was important for women as it enabled them to generate some form of livelihood.

The women took a prominent part in the agitations. As documented by Abeyesekera, women had distributed petitions, conducted meetings and confronting the Mehta International officers. They had protested, preventing the workers from bulldozing the land and had been part of the delegation who met state officials to discuss the issue. In 1985 around 200 people including the women had walked 2 miles to where the company’s nursery was and had uprooted the sugar cane plants and had planted banana instead. As women were at risk of losing access to common land, they were prominent in the protest. 

In addition to this leadership, as noted by Abeyesekera women also gained experience in organising struggle, mobilising people, networking with other groups and also in confronting authorities. She refers to the following as “the accumulated vision and consciousness” of Monaragala women, framing them as agents rather than passive victims of land dispossession: 

The women of Monaragala who were at first reluctant to even participate in a small village meeting, gained maturity, strength and self-confidence through their exposure to struggle. In the process, they learned not only about the role of women in such agitation campaigns, but went on to broader discussions regarding the question of women’s subordination and the experiences of women’s struggles in the other parts of the world. 

In the 1992 struggle, farmers did participate, and this time, they received countrywide publicity. This struggle was led more by the trade union activism of the United Agrarian Services Association (Eksath Krushikarmika Sevaka Sangamaya). By this time the company had become established and people including villages and settlers were also working with Pelawatta. On 13th February 1992, the farmers held a peaceful protest in Buruthahandiya, Pelawatta with more than 10,000 people. Prominent politicians, lawyers and activists had joined this protest and travelled from various parts of the country. As a response to their demands, PSC made available grants for technical support to recover from the damage of harvest, drivers were absorbed into the permanent cadre, the price for a metric ton of sugarcane was increased from LKR 1000 to LKR 2500 and the daily wage for workers was increased from LKR 33 (1986) to LKR 55 and then to LKR 110 both during the 1990s.

Both protests were notable because of the context in which they unfolded. The protestors were not just resisting private capital. Activists were also facing and challenging the state and its authority. The exercise of state power at that moment in time was brutal and has led to the disappearance of two activists attached to the Pelawatta struggles. 

Women’s agency and importance to feminist movements 

These protest are a forgotten but important moment for the Sri Lankan feminist movement as they lead to the politicisation of a number of women leaders continuing to organise in the area today. Four activists, Chandra Hewagallage, K.P.Somalatha, Gunawathi Hewagallage and R.G. Premalatha, who engaged in the Pelawatta struggles in their youth, recalled and shared the stories of how the establishment of PSC contributed for them to becoming activists in their areas and mobilised women against the PSC. Two of these activists shared their experience on how they took leadership of the women’s sections from Wellawaya and Buttala. They began to work with the Community Education Centre (CEC). All four activists eventually worked with the CEC, and later founded three women’s organisations in the Monaragala district – Vikalpani Women’s Federations in Monaragala, Uwwa Welassa Women’s Organisation (UWWO) in Wellawaya and Community Resource Protection Centre, Monaragala. These activists are currently leading these organisations. Remaining in their local communities, they report their activism is always  grounded in their local political and social realities. UWWO was formed in direct response to the issues which women had to face as a result of the establishment of the PSC.

Over time, other women also engaged in resistance.  Fighting against labour exploitation, and  against gender-based violence, both individually and collectively led to them joining the women’s groups above. One of the women who worked as a daily wage earner and a group leader in the PSC is now an activist attached to UWWO, promoting organic farming. Another woman who lost land due to the establishment of the PSC is also working as an activist attached to UWWO. She too is working with women farmers, facilitating the processes of selling organic produce to buyers from Colombo. 

The Pelawatta struggles were turning points in feminist activism in the agricultural sector and in general against state repression in Sri Lanka. The core group of leaders who emerged from the struggles of the late twentieth-century, continue to be at the forefront of struggles, whether it is against land grabs, against the use of agro-chemical and fighting against the spread of CKDu, fighting for the rights of workers in agro-companies, or in challenging the patriarchal norms and structures of society. They represent women on both national and international platforms and raise issues facing mainly women farmers in Monaragala.  

Increasingly, women leaders are seeking alternatives to large agricultural development projects. As a form of resistance, both UWWO and Vikalpani Women’s Federations are promoting organic, ecological farming and subsistence agriculture among women resonating with the global push for alternative or diverse economies

The set image is a photograph from the collection of Mr J. A. Sumanadasa from Wellawaya. Women’s participation in the peaceful protest held on 13 February 1992, in Buruthahandiya, Pelawatte. First row – Ms Gunawathi Hewagallage (second from left), Ms R. G. Premalatha (fourth from left), Ms K. P. Somalatha (fifth from left) and Ms Chandra Hewagallage (sixth from left).

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