The following thoughts came to me after a recent Melbourne Free University lecture on the Future of Feminism. The insightful presentation given by Melbourne Feminist Collective’s Neda Monshat and Alexia Staker led to a fascinating discussion in the second part of the event. Two points in particular finally convinced me to write about feminism and its future, if it is to have one.
My first concern is related to the presenters’ wish for all feminists to forget their differences and stand in solidarity with a broader movement, all allied behind a common cause. While this sounds like a great idea, I would argue that it is not only impossible, but not something to be wished for: some of the differences that exist between feminists and feminisms cannot and should not be overcome for the sake of unity. In fact, it would seem to me a defeat if progressive feminists were to make a pact with reactionary ones to create a unified movement over massive ideological disagreement. To me, this would signal the end of feminism as it should be. One recent example of the irreconcilable divide between different kinds of feminism is the ‘hijab affair’ and its various reactions in the western world.
In the early 2000s, some feminist groups in France came out in support of a law which proposed to ban all religious symbols in schools. Despite the advertised ‘non-discriminatory’ purpose of the law, as it banned all religious signs, hardly anyone in France would have believed this law was not targeting Islam. Prominent self-proclaimed feminists like Elisabeth Badinter expressed a view which subsequently appeared in the mainstream media as the general feminist position. Although some smaller and less mediatised associations such as Femmes Publiques stressed their rejection of the law, for many in France it became clear that banning the hijab, and later the burqa, would do women a great service. French nouveaux philosophes jumped on the bandwagon and denounced the ‘sexisme des banlieues’ (ghetto sexism) which was fiercely opposed to the feminist foundations of the French secularist Republic. As well as being stigmatising, this law and the campaign proved extremely counterproductive for the struggle against sexual and sexist abuse, as they singled out the Muslim community as the only overt community in France where sexism was rife. In turn, it exonerated the rest of the population which could not be sexist for they were republican. How convenient. To friends of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it was impossible for him to be suspected of sexual assault. The Americans just did not understand this ‘seducteur’; in fact women should feel honoured that a man of his standing expressed this kind of interest in them. On the other hand, similar accounts of offensive acts perpetrated in a Muslim community are labelled just another proof that Muslim men cannot be trusted when it comes to respecting women (here, Australia is not exempt of criticism). Class is a huge determinant and while the sexism of the wealthy is to be downplayed and even commended, that of the lower classes must be denounced and generalised.
To understand the situation in France in the wake of the hijab affair, a bit of background is necessary. It started in 2003 when a few teenage girls turned up to their first day at school wearing hijabs. While these girls had decided of their own accord to wear it, even against their parents’ wishes, major parts of both the left and the right began to militate against this expression of free will. Suddenly, the hijab represented the ultimate insult against secularism and gender equality. Very few questioned the speed with which gender equality became the number one priority of politicians, not particularly known for their feminist tendencies. When the law was debated, women and girls wearing the hijab were not consulted, nor women in general. The decision was ultimately made by an institution hardly representative of those primarily concerned by the law, or even the population at large in terms of class, sex, religious beliefs or age.
The main argument put forward by these politicians, but also by the feminists who supported the law, was that the hijab was historically oppressive. While this argument holds much truth, what was particularly shocking to those who opposed the law was that the hijab was the only sign of sexist oppression under attack, which showed clearly the target of this law. The sexualisation and commodification of women’s bodies was ignored despite clothes and the mainstream fashion industry playing an equally important part in this type of sexist oppression. Isn’t it hypocritical to ban the hijab because it could be worn to satisfy men’s wishes, and not ban mini-skirts or G-strings which can be worn for the same reason? If we assume that some women can decide to wear mini-skirts and G-strings of their own accord, why couldn’t they do the same with the hijab? Is being forced to show one’s body for men’s pleasure more acceptable than being forced to hide it? It is obvious that the hijab can be used as an oppressive tool. However, it is a very subjective view that is not applied consistently to our society. The feminist struggle to ban this particular garment was more akin to a crusade, as it only targeted one minority (others did suffer the consequences, in the same way that others were ‘collateral casualties’ of the bloodthirsty crusaders on their way to the holy land in the middle ages). Interestingly, the reasons used to denounce the hijab today are the same which were used to denounce high heels, bras, make-up and other western sexist attributes in the 60s and 70s. While it was eventually agreed that the western woman’s own choice could make the wearing of these items not sexist (even possibly emancipatory?), the lesson learnt was not extended to Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab.
In this affair, women lost what should be central to the feminist cause: their agency. Not only are these sectarian laws stigmatising, but they are also extremely counterproductive in regard to the original progressive feminist values. Banning the hijab has both prevented some young French girls from attending school and alienated others who have found themselves singled out for making an independent decision. In fact, the law of 2004, which prohibited religious signs in public schools, was against the principle of emancipation that schools were to uphold under republican ideals: it either prohibited some students from benefiting from public education, or prevented those who left their hijab and religion at home from freely testing their judgement, opinions and beliefs with others so as to eventually make their own free choice.
As a result, a paternalist and anti-egalitarian assumption was cast upon part of the population, implying the inability of some women (perhaps even women in general) to make a rational personal judgement. Therefore, for reactionary feminists in accord with politicians, upholding ‘republican values’ meant that these people should be forcibly ‘guided’ in the right direction, in a manner usually reserved for criminals. In a perverse twist, these ‘feminists’ argued that they were pushing for equality. However, the equality they promoted was not the universal form, which acknowledges the equality of all human beings for the simple, sole and axiomatic, reason that they are human beings. The equality advocated by the supporters of the 2004 law was reactionary as it saw equality as a final goal: one becomes equal when one conforms to what someone else (someone better?) has decided is real equality: only the ‘Other’ who becomes like ‘Us’ can be our equal. Strikingly, when the law banning the burqa was passed in September 2010, the Orwellian Minister of Immigration and National Identity declared that it would allow ‘life in society and civilisation to be explained’ to those victims. Thank (Christian secular) God for leading women down the right path!
To sum up my first point, while some feminists opposed the law and many remained undecided, others joined the ranks of the most reactionary politics. While all claim to be feminists in their own right, it seems to me that the progressive kind of feminism cannot align itself to the reactionary kind without losing its universal progressive credentials. I know for one that I would no longer support this movement.
This leads me to my second point: what does, or what should bring progressive feminists together? Clearly, it is not this western exclusivist patriarchal vision promoted by the reactionary feminists who defended this stigmatising law. This vision is closely entwined with an individualist vision which cannot be separated from the oppressive and hegemonic patterns drawn by capitalism. As such, it cannot be emancipatory and can only reinforce and perpetuate previous patterns of oppression. It is not rare to hear feminists call for better representation of women in powerful spheres of our society. Of course, it would be somewhat successful to have as many female Members of Parliament as we have male ones, as many women on the boards of companies as we have men, as many GI Janes as we have GI Joes. Yet while it would promote some sort of equity, would it really be equality? Would it really be desirable? Wouldn’t it be just perpetuating all patterns of domination and exclusion at the expense of others (both women and men)?
I think that this superficial kind of equality would actually simply displace a problem which must be understood in broader socio-economic terms. We should not wish for more Margaret Thatchers as they would only end up harming more people. That is not to say of course that we should want Ronald Reagans instead. In fact, we should not wish for more elitist politicians, male or female, who have pledged allegiance to the market to be our elected ‘representatives’. We should not wish for women to be on the board of corporations either, as here again, they would only succeed at the expense of their fellow men and women. Those who think a woman would bring ‘tenderness’ or ‘common sense’ to a board or a government should think again because it is not only sexist, but it is also fairly idealistic when one looks at the actions of Thatcher, Angela Merkel, or new IMF chief Christine Lagarde. To succeed, these women had to become the equal of powerful white men, which did not necessary emancipate them insofar as they merely became powerful white men, a tiny minority. How many times do we hear that a woman must become ‘one of the boys’ to succeed in an area dominated by men? Is this really what women want, to be powerful men (and more particularly white men)? Is this really what men should aspire to anyway? Or is the problem a lot deeper?
The crux of the matter is in what the aim of feminism is defined as. Many feminists will say that the ultimate goal is to reach equality, to achieve equality. As always, words are crucial. Here, they embody the very impossibility of such goals, the acceptance into the patriarchal system which has ruled for over two thousand years in the west. Women as a whole will never be the equal of men if what they need to do is become powerful men, occupying the positions which were created under an oppressive paternalist and capitalist regime and can only be occupied by a few. And what goes for women goes for minorities as well, and even for most men. They can try to become the successful other, maybe even get close to succeeding, but will never achieve this equality. Equality cannot be achieved as we live in world thriving on inequalities. If feminism is to be emancipatory and progressive, it should strive for the a priori acknowledgement of equality. Equality is here and has always been here: we are all human beings, let’s just enact it. Only by keeping the concept of equality as a starting point rather than as a goal, can we break the patterns of oppression central to the system we live in at the moment. Under such universal guidelines, the oppression of women should be fought coherently. Under such guidelines, women who are forced to wear the hijab or mini-skirts should be supported in their own struggle for emancipation, and their oppressors should be combated as much as those who are forcing them not to wear, do, say what they have decided and chosen to.
Cross-posted from BriefandFalseAdvertising.
Aurelien Mondon is a Melbourne-based researcher. His work focuses mostly on populism and racism and their impact on democracy. He is the co-founder of the Melbourne Free University. Some of his writing can be found on his blog, BriefandFalseAdvertising. He tweets @aurelmondon.