Dr Katherine Brown writes a response to Swati Parashar’s previous post, ‘The Silent Feminism

Kaveri Jain- Delhi Rape protests 29 December 2012

Image courtesy of Kaveri Jain

I wrote this in a heart felt response to Swati Parashar. In her article on the silence of feminism the sense of abandonment was palpable, her despair and irritation spoke volumes. However I did not feel able to speak directly about the gang-rape and murder in India that triggered her writing. Indeed, Swati continues to remind us of the on-going struggles women in India face, and I am constantly humbled by her passion and knowledge. But I felt compelled, and still do, to stand tall in my own feminist skin and side by side with her in these struggles. This piece is therefore a call to think about how global solidarity among feminists can be sustained without diminishing the different contributions made by different feminists across the world. However, such solidarity, I believe must also come with a strong impulse to reflexivity and self-critique. This piece is a contribution to such feminist reflection, but nevertheless hopes to speak outwards too.

This comment piece started life as a very personal response to her article, unlike some I do feel held to account for my Silence. The first draft of this post was a defence of self, as a Western hegemonic academic, my silence I wrote was premised not because I was misguided or self-serving career publicist but because I am ignorant, ‘what do I know of India?’ nothing much beyond what Swati posts if I am honest; because as a white English speaking feminist academic I am worried about being imperialist and replicating hierarchies of domination; because sometimes well intentioned interventions do more harm the good.

But in writing this, I could hear these excuses, and wondered whether while I believe there are no angelic pure victims nor entirely evil villains, no matter what the newspapers would wish, I have yet to accept there are no perfect supporters either. In a note on face book Anu Arunima at JNU wrote on the protests in Delhi that we should stop criticising the protesters for not being communal enough, stop requiring they be less middle class, stop demanding they be more erudite in their demands, stop insisting they be concerned with Indian women in remoter places, etc etc etc…  She wrote we should not wait for an idyllic protest movement to be ‘worthy’ of our support but should work with what exists. Perhaps too I am guilty of expecting feminism to be a perfect response to the crime, and if it can’t be then better to be silent? It is however increasingly apparent that this is unsustainable in the face of such crimes, and while action without thought is mere thuggery, no action perpetuates violence and oppression.

But perhaps Swati also wants a perfect feminism? In her piece “western hegemonic feminists[1]” were labelled as self-serving, career obsessed, armchair critics with no appetite for protest or activism. She is not alone, just read through Tumblr White Feminists to get a sense of exasperation, or this beautiful but challenging poem White Feminist: Intersections. A  Comment Piece on the meme femininstryangosling certainly agrees, the author concludes:

while I can appreciate that this meme might be amusing for those already “in the know” with respect to academic feminism, it is exceptionally alienating to those coming into feminism cold, and very much reaffirms extant criticisms of elitism coming from outside the walls of academia.

Feminists are seen to live as a rare breed in the enclosure of the university. But that feminism is not perfect and does live in the “realworld” is abundantly clear when we recall why “western hegemonic feminism” emerged, and the ways in which feminism has been used in the service of imperialism.  As  Chela Sandoval writes in the Methodology of the Oppressed:

any ‘liberation’ or social movement eventually becomes destined to repeat the oppressive authoritarianism from which it is attempting to free itself, and become trapped inside a drive for truth that ends only in producing its own brand of dominations.

Cauvery Rajagopal- women hands

Image courtesy of Cauvery Rajagopal

Our feminist silencing of women and feminists of faith (as I commented previously) is one such example of this continuing practice. Where this is more than a matter of academia is, for example the ongoing campaigns by Muslim women to gain equal access and services in Mosques in the U.K. which have been delegitimised and undermined by the well-meaning interventions of feminists and government. Indeed a number of critics of Swati’s post, perhaps writing as “hegemonic western feminists” were saying that Indian women don’t need “saving” by Western feminist academics, that they have their own voice. See also Leila Abu Lughod’s article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? explaining her hesitation over the appropriation of feminism in the “GWOT”.  But Swati was saying the problem is not that Western “hegemonic feminists” are not rescuing Indian women, but that they are not activists or protestors standing alongside them as they reject the status-quo, there is a distinct lack of solidarity she argues. Western hegemonic feminists are not even amplifying Indian women’s voices: they/I/we are not getting close to the risks of over-dubbing or scripting them! Perhaps we (western hegemonic feminists) are as guilty of not listening to the diverse sets of protestors and Indian women, as much as Swati argues their government fails to hear them too? But how to speak with Indian feminists and women and not over them?

And can and should academics be activists and protestors and educators and researchers and commentators, can they be perfect feminists? There is a reason “hegemonic western feminist” academics write and research on the things they do, because these matter too. But first, I speak to those who criticise feminism carte blanche, and not just western hegemonic femininsts, such as some of the commentators to Swati’s piece, and ask that you please stop and think a little about what feminism does do, is doing, and has done for You. To borrow from a famous bumper sticker in the UK – “if you can read this, thank a Feminist”.  Also instead of demanding feminists abandon their books, lets also look at what western hegemonic academic feminists do as well. While I don’t think Swati is engaging in a game of “victim top-trumps” as some commentators to her piece implied (although see Emer O’Toole for some comparisons), I do however contend that “western hegemonic feminists” are not entirely silent.  I think in the year it became ok to “Blame the Victim”; when drones Terrorise civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the name of security; when women’s bodies everywhere are instrumentalised, brutalised and subject to state violence, then its important to remember what “western hegemonic feminists” write about these global feminist issues. Additionally and going back to my earlier comment, without thought action is mere thuggery, imperfectly feminist academics are contributing to thought and understanding. Intersectionality, imperialism, essentialism, orientalism, and patriarchy, among other things, mark women’s and mens lives in gendered forms. These are not abstract obtuse categories designed only to get more citations, but terms that help us understand the complex ways in which a class of human beings labelled as female-feminine are oppressed daily, institutionally and personally.

Furthermore, as an aside to critiques of feminist academics: if our careers were all we were concerned about then we would not be teaching gender and sexuality, we would not be writing on “women’s issues”, we would not be researching on gender inequalities in order to understand them better, because femaleness and femininity are already liabilities for Academic careers without adding feminism to it too. Perhaps, given a climate of feminist bashing, feminisms seeming inability to convey its message(s) “western hegemonic feminism” is not actually hegemonic at all? Indeed as Houria Bouteldja argues western hegemonic women are in need of your solidarity too.

So where next, perhaps, the role of feminism is quite simply to fight against patriarchy wherever and however it manifests itself; the responsibility of feminist’s as Christine Sylvester once put it, is not to give ourselves a microphone as we do so; and our name, imperfect feminism?

Note: The article first appeared on the Gender and Global Governance Network. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Dr Katherine E. Brown is a lecturer at King’s College London, working in the Defence Studies Department. Her primary research looks at gender, political Islam and counter terrorism and counter radicalisation, with a focus on the UK and Pakistan. She is also interested in issues of higher education, community engagement and human rights. She regularly contributes to the policy-academic crossover feminist website: http://genderinglobalgovernancenet-work.net/ and her academic publications and further details can be found at http://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/dsd/people/dsd-a-to-z/brown.aspx


[1] I cannot find a definition of this term, so will leave the term in inverted commas. But I think Swati is using it to refer to a post-colonial or post-modern feminism.