Friday, April 12, 2013

Chitra Nagarajan: Femen's obsession with nudity feeds a racist colonial feminism

International solidarity should take its cue from the women affected, not try to impose values on communities
"Its defenders may say that Femen means well but having good intentions is far from enough. There is a long and problematic history of colonial feminism and the "good intentions" of outsiders using racialised notions to "save women over there". This actively causes harm, including when communities react to this by holding on to static notions of "culture" and "tradition" in the face of outside challenge as a way to resist colonialism and racism. Women's rights becomes the battleground with feminists from these communities and countries often left in a double bind, stuck between trying to reject racist ideas of black men and communities and challenging their attitudes.

We need a politics of international feminist solidarity that integrates a gender, race and post-colonial power analysis and takes its cue from the women affected and those who are already challenging gender inequality. As I have argued elsewhere, a more holistic and nuanced approach would consider how patriarchy combines with racism, neo-colonialism and global capitalism to create a fundamentally unjust world. We need to think about how our decisions, from where we shop to the issues about which we remain silent, affect the lives of women and girls in other countries.

Femen has continued to be unapologetic about its tactics and language and refused to address its blatant racism. When you are criticised by those "for" whom you are meant to be working, the response should be to think critically on your actions. Its latest piece offers no self-reflection or attempt to acknowledge criticism from women's rights activists from the region, only self-aggrandisement. To paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, white women will not save black women from black men. The role of feminists from outside should be to support the work of the women in the communities concerned, not add to the problem. International feminist solidarity is crucial but this is not the way to do it. A true ally does not use racism to attempt to defeat patriarchy."
Read the entire Guardian (April 12) article here.

Comment: This is an excellent though brief deconstruction of the 'post-racial' pretense that freedom and justice for women anywhere can fit into a one-size-fits-all universalized struggle paradigm.

Chitra Nagarajan is essentially critiquing whiteness - particularly its commonsense assumptions - when she points to the orientalized colonialism that Femen relies on to criticize women who wear hijab, for example.

It is ironic to note that Femen argues that hijab silences women and subordinates them yet they fail to see how a reliance on preferring and advocating nudity as a primary/ultimate form of feminist resistance in effect erases Muslim and other traditional women who define their struggles against patriarchy differently.

The problem is one of diagnosis from an imperial view and this is what describes Femen's ignorance of the substance of feminist struggle in black and brown and/or Other contexts.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Femen has been the recipient of growing support from the anti-Muslim right - particularly in France (See Mona Chollett's article "The Fast-Food Feminism of the Topless Femen" (via International Blvd from Le Monde Diplomatique: March 26, 2013).

The diagnosis of the Other by Femen relies on a colonial myth of the Muslim woman as the anonymous and unspoken slate onto which Western/white conceptualizations can be marked.  

Giyatri Spivak's deconstruction question, "Can the subaltern speak?", is negated; hence the consequential disfigurement of black and brown women.

In other words the bodies and struggles of the female Other are described and prescribed upon by what is essentially a racist and imperialist view/gaze.  And this is true even where women of color join Femen's cause as the case of Egyptian blogger Alia al-Mahdi illustrates (For more in-depth discussion of this point see Sara Salem's article "Femen’s Neocolonial Feminism: When Nudity Becomes a Uniform" Al-Akhbar English, December 26, 2012).

This critique of Femen in my thinking does not say/prescribe how women should wage their battles.  What it does say - as Chitra Nagarajan more precisely argues - is that there is no monolithic struggle for women.

To assume that there is a monolithic feminist struggle and to advocate that struggle in terms situated in the West is ignorant at best and racist at worst.

The intersectionality of place, class, caste, age, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, particularly in its relationship to capitalized and racialized power, require a much more rigorous analysis of the purpose - including the goals - of a global struggle to emancipate women and girls everywhere.

In these terms Femen's current methods and advocacy assume the racist and imperialist gaze of historical whiteness and its still too prevalent/dominant power to define whatever it wishes.


1 comment:

Vincenzo Luciano said...

Ms Nagarajan, Greetings. I am not an intellectual like you so my apology in advance if I sound dumb. I appreciate how you feel about Femen and totally agree with all that you have said but at the same time I would like to say it would have been better if you have harped upon other issues of much greater and grave nature that Femen has raised than obsessing about Femen's obsession with nudity. The issue was not their nudity, their nudity is but a manifestation of a problem of a much serious nature and its not a problem in itself.If you try to have eagle's eye view of what's going on in the world at the moment you would most certainly find Femen's nudity a very insignificant issue. There is a war going on worldwide and the target of all warring parties is women. So when Taliban comes to power in Afghanistan the rape victims are thrown behind bars or executed, little girls are punished for painting their nails and their poems are taken away from them, a woman is executed in Iraq because she was a cross dresser, another woman is sentenced to 200 lashes because she was gang raped in Saudi Arabia, in India atrocities against women are used as an excuse to put more restrictions on women-no going out after dark unaccompanied by someone related to them by blood, no jeans, no mobile phones, no short clothes! Now in Europe same forces are clammoring for Sharia, condemning the very culture that gave them life better than what they had back in their hell holes, they call western women as immoral, say Sharia is the only hope, Burqa they want, female genital mutilation and what not.Philosophy is best practised in times of peace, we are at war at the moment and the war is being fought between the forces that want to drag humanity back to the stone age, enslave and oppress women once again and the ones who are all for more freedom and equality for women. The weapon, the only weapon the women have in this war is their body, the same body men have been using and abusing for centuries, and I think by deciding to go naked Femen has done no wrong. When you talk about Femen's obsession with nudity, please do talk about world's obsession with violence and sex which is a more dangerous obsession that their nudity. Nudity in itself is not sinful, its not vulgar, its the human mind that is. I am particularly shocked that instead of supporting them and their cause you choose to criticize the mode of their protest, you an India, a country where millions of girls die either as a result of female infanticide or malnutrition, burnt for dowry or killed for family honour and if none of these its rape and murder, you a woman who has seen it all, the religion ans religious based social customs and values in which a woman is not allowed to enter the kitchen because she is on her monthly cycles!!!