Edit: Check out my follow-up piece, ‘In Defense of the Term Regressive Left‘, inspired by dismissive reactions to this one.
My dear liberal, feminist, anti-racist and otherwise progressive allies—
I want to talk about what we’ve been calling the ‘regressive left’, and invite you to a more critical humanistic attitude.
For an example one of the most egregious manifestations of the regressive left, let me quote Sarah Peace from her (very good) piece ‘Has it become racist to condemn FGM’ (if reading the full piece please be warned that it contains a graphic photograph and descriptions of FGM and violence done to women):
“When probed on the matter, a representative of the Goldsmiths LGBT society responded that as a white person, she “cannot condemn FGM because of my colonial past.” Is this putative desire to carry the burdens of the past squarely on one’s shoulders echoed among feminists? Germaine Greer once argued that attempts to outlaw FGM amounted to ‘an attack on cultural identity’, stating: “one man’s beautification is another man’s mutilation.” Greer was widely condemned, almost unanimously. Nearly 20 years on, some fields of study in academia including critical race and gender theory are reawakening the same argument albeit from a postcolonial perspective – the difference now being that a generation of ethnic minority students have themselves, bought into this defeating narrative. The stance becomes reactionary, and any cause that contravenes the ugly history of colonialism becomes appealing, regardless of the implications.”
I really like that last sentence. Let me repeat: “…any cause that contravenes the ugly history of colonialism becomes appealing, regardless of the implications.”
It’s those implications that I want to talk about, the collateral damage that comes from a too-strong urge to be uncritical of the practices of Other cultures, especially when combined with erroneous assumptions about the geographic proximity of the problems in these cultures—such as the assumption that the only pressing issue plaguing Muslim communities in the West is (the very real, pervasive phenomenon) of anti-Muslim bigotry (and thus it is paramount to combat that at all costs) rather than things like FGM, forced hijab, honor violence, and dehumanizing familial control, which are often not even thought of as problems in the West. An example, to quote Peace again:
“FGM, like veiling is not a practice confined to far off lands. FGM continues to be practiced illegally on British born girls, with a case reported in the UK approximately every 2 hours. If FGM is carried out on a white child in Britain, it will be regarded as criminal – so why does this position shift when a Somali child is violated?”
Unfortunately the above hesitation to condemn FGM is only one example of the resistance we conscientious dissenters from Muslim-majority cultures face, it has come to feel like, everywhere we turn when we try to talk about the violence and bigotry ravaging our home communities. (If you are feeling an urge to #NotAllFeminists right now, remember the conscientious objections to #NotAllMen—that this rhetorical move to absolve individual actors of responsibility obscures the nature of a pervasive phenomenon that is a problem and does need to be part of the conversation).
I have little doubt that with the majority of our allies, intent is good, borne of honest wariness against enabling bigotry against Muslims, and a careful assessment of their own positionality as outsiders to the situation at hand. What I write here is based on that assumption.
I often see a resistance to be critical of the practices of Other cultures framed almost tautologically—that the Western feminist is not in a position to condemn the practices of Other cultures because they come from Other cultures. This seems confusing to people unfamiliar with critical race theory, because surely something being part of a particular culture does not speak to its positive or ill effects, its virtue or value or lack thereof whatsoever. Using language about ‘culture’ is in my understanding an attempt to humanize those often viewed simplistically and caricatured (i.e. Other cultures). It is also a misguided attempt precisely insofar that it doesn’t go far enough—you will see what I mean.
Saying ‘it’s their culture’ is often a shorthand for saying that there are a set of norms, expectations, and social structures that, once properly contextualized, render a practice that might be opaque to outsiders meaningful—in short, that these practices have utility and function within the framework of that culture. And in fact, this is often a thing that people legitimately don’t see when approaching a practice in an Other culture that they might consider bizarre, upsetting, or simply bad—that it looks different when you plug it into an entire framework of social behavior—what might seem to be harsh or bad actually turns out to be benign or good.
This is true of the practices of virtually every society, including Western ones, and manifests on a micro level as well as a macro level. Let me give two examples (unrelated to this subject of this discussion for simplicity’s sake). One, subcultures like BDSM engage in behavior that seems legitimately alarming and abusive but that once plugged into the Safe, Sane, Consensual model and a larger understanding of human sexuality and sexual needs becomes not only benign, but potentially healing and transformative. Two, the type of ‘Guess Culture’ common in the Midwest and the South (and very many other places in the country and the world) that espouses politeness norms. For instance, encouraging people to say No when they mean Yes (eg saying No to an offer for a refreshment out of politeness, knowing the host will repeat that offer and insist) or to make disingenuous offers expecting polite refusal (eg offering food you bought for yourself to your friends beside you). To an outsider, this behavior is strange and potentially harmful dishonesty gearing folks for all sorts of misunderstandings and violations of boundaries—but when normalized, it fits into a framework of larger social expectations that have social utility (demonstrating generosity and respect) while minimizing harm (due to a broader implicit understanding of what is going on).
The first thing to acknowledge is that yes, there are often cultural practices that become stigmatized, and the people practicing them are dehumanized and mistreated and even violently attacked partly because their practices are not properly contextualized. It is combating this harmful refusal or inability to see the contexts from which Other cultural practices arise that is one impetus for critical race theory.
However, not all cultural practices fall into this category, and too often they seem like they do, and this is where part of the problem lies. Even properly contextualized—sometimes especially properly contextualized, a lot of normative cultural practices are still radically objectionable. In the above two examples, BDSM fits into the former category, and I would argue that Guess Culture fits into the latter—yes it creates social utility, but at the expense of a myriad of other, more invisible social harms (see here and here for examples and arguments).
Unfortunately, the move to humanize practices from Other cultures often does not transcend contextualization to arrive at a critical examination of whether the properly contextualized practice in question is still an objectionable one. To give a much more related example, I present to you a specimen of this at play. In this piece in the Atlantic, “Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised“, the author learns a number of things about the social and personal utility of female genital cutting in one community where it is normalized and comes away with a more accepting view of the practice, failing to move forward to a critical examination of all of that new information.
In a sense, it seems almost bizarre that this should happen. The discovery that, for instance (in this case), women play an active role in female genital cutting (rather than it being imposed in a more detached manner by a monstrous patriarchy) and that there are women who vehemently defend the practice and their freedom to partake in it is treated almost like a revelation, despite both concepts being nothing new to the Western feminist, and despite being perfectly expected given gender socialization and the division of gender roles. Again, mechanics not new to the Western feminist.
In fact both these features (women do it to themselves and each other + women defend their right to partake in it) are true of countless (more and less harmful) patriarchal practices in the West, such as women adhering to a more or less fixed beauty standard. Yet these things do not erase the larger implications of normative beauty practices, which are still subject to vehement criticism from a feminist perspective. And it is all the more bizarre that the larger implications of something as egregiously violent as FGM are so easy to be uncritical of.
What is happening here? Where does it come from, this inability to move past cultural contextualization bringing to the fore the function and utility of a practice, to then examine whether that function and utility are worth keeping? Why is there a lack of a critical attitude beyond learning information that makes an Other culture appear less caricatured and simplistic?
This is a hard question, especially considering how frighteningly willing people can be to accept the violent cultural practices of others. See for instance, this piece “What happened when anti-FGM campaigner asked people in the street to sign a petition in favour of mutilating girls”–spoiler alert, a lot of people signed it simply upon hearing that the activist wanted to protect her culture, tradition, and rights.
It is even a harder question considering that it stems from an unwillingness rather than an inability to be critical in productive ways. Western feminists like the one encountered by Sarah Peace who ‘could not condemn FGM’ seem to have no problem both recognizing the function and utility of the Western patriarchal practices that harm them while also being critical about them, examining and analyzing the ways these functions break down, the systems of power and control they uphold, the harm they end up doing to the individual despite whatever collective or social good they may also serve. They also recognize that there are indeed ways to critique a harmful cultural practice without simultaneously enabling bigotry against those who practice it or are subject to it. The ability, the social and linguistic tools to undertake this type of critique are present. So why is that critique not happening?
I suspect that part of the problem may come from a belief that Western feminists are in fact unable to engage in appropriate critique, and this makes them unwilling. This belief seems to hinge on several factors, two of which I will address. One, the notion that one’s positionality as an outsider renders one unable to comment, and two, a heightened consciousness of perhaps perpetuating a tradition of ideological and cultural hegemony and imposition on the bodies and wills of people from Other cultures. Hence the Goldsmith representative’s inability to condemn FGM ‘because of her colonialist past.”
To address the first factor: Many Western feminists are very conscious of the fact that their proximity outside of a certain culture renders them ill-equipped to grasp the nuances of its practices. It is intended, I believe, as a radical form of respect to acknowledge that there is likely a lot an outsider must be missing, and this comes hand-in-hand with stepping back and allowing the people more directly involved to talk about what they know best. While it’s true that there is much an outsider can’t know, because some forms of knowledge of social mechanics and their effects are accessed through immersive, intimate relation to a culture and its practices, I would argue that it’s an insufficient reason to disengage. There is a very real risk here that turns people into authorities by virtue of simply being from the Other culture, without more than perhaps a cursory examination of the positionality of that person in that culture and their motivations…which very much influence the type of narrative they will propogate and the rhetoric they will adopt.
The truth is that there are not in fact unified narratives for people from a particular Other culture, and narrative hegemony does occur virtually everywhere, whereby some narratives are elevated at the expense of others, and it is often the case that it is the proponents of a misunderstood cultural practice whose voices are heard. To give an example I often reference, as it frustrates me personally, there is far more visibility for the free-choosing hijabi woman defending her veiling in the West than there is for those speak of the damage and coercion they suffer under Muslim modesty doctrines. This is especially the case when Western feminists can only interface with those members of the Other culture who already have the type of linguistic and geographic accessibility that elevates their voices. This often means you mostly hear from members of Muslim communities in the West who are themselves somewhat removed from the normative realities in Muslim-majority countries and in more insular immigrant Muslim communities in the West. This unevenness in representation not only creates narrative hegemony, but obscures it, because countercritical narratives are not also presented to add to the pool of information and discussion. A hyperrawareness of one’s positionality as an outsider might serve to create an uncritical reverence for voices ‘more informed’, without an adequate assessment of the positionality of those voices themselves.
I will also argue that awareness of the limitations of one’s positionality is made even less useful because it is applied selectively. It should properly apply just as strongly if not more strongly to the idea that it is perhaps more difficult to access the problematic aspects of a cultural practice, and not just the cultural contextualization that will render it meaningful. If there is so much an outsider cannot really know about the function and significance of a cultural practice, it stands to reason that there is much the outsider cannot know about its ill effects as well. This is especially the case when listening to the proponents of a cultural practice to the exclusion of those who might argue otherwise. Which means radically insufficient access to the ‘inside’ to really perceive many of the ways these practices end up being harmful. The hijab is again a good example of this–I could write books on the thousands of ill effects potentially borne of the modesty doctrine and its practice, but I suspect that when the positive explanation of hijab-as-combat-against-sexual-objectification is presented by a proud hijabi, this might make it harder for the Western feminist to realize how much very ugly stuff could be festering beneath the surface. Especially if that explanation presents new ideas that suddenly put a bizarre-seeming practice (why are you women covering yourselves head to toe?) in a light that makes it make sense (oh, to stave off sexual objectification and focus on mind rather than body). I suspect that for many of us, it is often hard to move past a new realization to a critique of that realization. The famous Aristotle quote comes to mind: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Unfortunately this is not always easy when there is so much motivational impetus to be wary of critiquing an Other culture, and skewed flow of information cannot help. The voices of the proponents of cultural practices like the hijab are in fact often elevated while the voices of dissenters are dismissed or erased or simply not very accessible.
And while general dynamics of silencing and control serve to marginalize a subset of voices pretty much anywhere, it is much more likely for conscientious dissenters in any society to fall into that group, by virtue of opposing their own cultural zeitgeist. Yet short of being listened to when we do find vocal visibility, we are instead often dismissed as inauthentic commentators because we don’t adhere to the norms of our home cultures (eg, I write a piece about my experiences growing up as a Muslim woman and many people summarily dismiss it because I am no longer Muslim) and called dehumanizing slurs like ‘native informant’ and ‘new McCarthyites‘. Further to this, it is not only true that conscientious dissenters lack visibility and are often dismissed or smeared, they also tend to have urgent causes and be the most vulnerable subgroup within the larger minority of an Other culture.
This crude and often vicious dismissal makes it clear that awareness of positionality is not the only factor contributing to an uncritical spirit. It seems like only a very inadequate, partial explanation at best, because voices better positioned are dismissed, and because some cultural practices are so clearly or extremely objectionable that explaining them away should be rather a difficulty than anything else no matter your positionality. For instance, the ill effects of something like FGM are very blatant and clear, yet they nonetheless manage to be explained away or the practice enabled (see for instance these US gynecologists advocating for the legalization of female genital ‘nicks’).
That brings us to the second factor–a strong motivation to not further a long Western tradition of exploitation of persons from Other cultures. The burden of ‘white guilt’ is not useless– it is part of what motivates many a well-meaning Westerner to anti-racist activism, a type of activism we all crucially need. However, it also makes some people eager not to enable any negative commentary about an Other culture whatsoever, especially in line with an assessment of which problems have more social proximity or are more urgent–hence the unilateral focus on fighting anti-Muslim bigotry stemming from an assumption that it is the gravest and most dangerous issue facing Muslim communities in the West today, and that it’s really the only problem Westerners are equipped to combat. This also serves to uphold a narrative hegemony, and we see the effects of this type of phenomenon not just pertaining to Muslim communities, but other racialized spaces. For instance, in the US, Black feminists often rightfully complain about not being heard, and this is partially due to the urgency of combating the racism experienced by the Black community often given priority over the misogyny experienced by Black women in Black cultures. Too many experiences of patriarchal violence and control are erased or obscured for fear of enabling the type of racism that views Black men as dangerous and predatory. To give another example from a non-US context, in the Arab world, rhetoric upholding the Nakba as the seminal Palestinian narrative serves to obscure and erase the plights of Palestinian women and their disenfranchisement.
Western feminists and activists surely don’t intend to uphold this type of narrative hegemony, but the moral urgency of fighting racism when one ‘comes from’ exploitative legacies often results in an extreme wariness against incidentally or accidentally enabling racism (in this case anti-Muslim bigotry), and the collateral damage is unfortunately very easy to ignore, especially because most vulnerable and marginalized are also the most invisible. Part of that collateral damage is in turn obscuring the exploitative legacies that people from Other cultures also bear–for instance Arab and Muslim imperialism and its longlasting effects, or a particularly Muslim brand of patriarchy. Too often if overarching oppressive forces in Other cultures are acknolwedged at all, their existence is attributed to Western colonialist imperialist influence, ignoring the historical facts and absolving members of Other cultures of responsibility for their own exploitative legacies.
Further to this, the impetus to not enable any bigotry against people from Other cultures results not only in a lack of an appropriately critical attitude, but adoption of unwarranted defense of Other cultural practices that serve to erase their significant features. Again, unintended collateral damage. What I refer to most often seems to manifest in an attempt to humanize by comparing patriarchal practices in the West to others in Other cultures, finding parallels and relations between them to somehow indicate ‘see, we are not much different’ and argue for equal treatment on those grounds. And while it’s often useful to have an analogous frame of reference, the comparison is often not accompanied by requisite contrast, causing quite worrisome conflation. Let me give two examples.
First, this article shared on Facebook objecting to a discussion of violence against women as honor crime in Pakistan, comparing the numbers to those of women murdered by partners in the United States, saying “The media are quick to target women murders in Muslim-dominated countries. Maybe they should also look at the facts in the US and Canada.” Setting aside the fact that partner violence in the US is definitely being addressed within Western feminism (if still inadequately, but arguably above all else) in a way that honor violence in Muslim-majority societies is not, the urge to compare the two issues to assert that there is really not much difference between them runs the risk of obscuring the very significant differences between honor violence in Pakistan (and larger Muslim-majority communities) and domestic violence against women. The cultural features that do not compare could constitute their own essay, but briefly: in many, many Muslim-majority societies, honor is not an emotion, but a deeply-rooted, explicit axis of cultural expression, almost a currency, that manifests in particular patterns that are impacted by family and social considerations that are simply not at play in most domestic violence in the West, especially partner violence. These features absolutely should impact how honor violence is both dealt with and prosecuted. For instance, in many Muslim-majority countries there are strong social norms or even laws enabling honor violence, like reduced sentences for honor crimes or penal codes that exonerate convicted rapists if they ‘save’ the victim’s family honor by marrying her. Also, in cases where prosecution of honor crime does happen, often only the actual assailants or murderers are tried with anything at all although there’s often a familial collusion aspect to the crime that makes it a conspiracy. While most domestic violence against women in the US is partner violence, a dizzying amount of honor violence in Muslim-majority societies is committed by fathers, uncles, non-partners who have particular familial stake in “guarding” women’s purity.
It is a different phenomenon and needs to be taken on its own terms. In a well-meaning attempt to contest the notion that patriarchy in the West is ‘not as bad’ as patriarchy in Muslim-majority societies, relevant aspects of a heavily honor-based ideology are erased, and someone like me finds myself stripped of the terminology to discuss the events in life in a meaningful manner with my Western interlocuters.
The second example involves conflating hijab with dehumanizing modes of dress enforced by Western patriarchy, like high heels, bikinis, and restrictive underwear, despite the fact that the influences normalizing either form of dress look very, very different, and that the the effects of dissent are also very different. I sometimes want to cry to hear this continuous comparison, the bikini and hijab, when I think of my 15 years living under the norms of a morally stringent modesty doctrine policing my every move and holding my physical safety and mobility hostage based on my compliance. Sarah Peace writes:
“In the seminar that alerted me to the pervasiveness of this sinister trend, my lecturer failed to make a distinction between veiling and FGM, simply conflating the two as cultural modes of being that are parallel to western secular thought. The argument for veiling can certainly be made: Muslim women choosing modesty, piety and privatisation of their own bodies in order to maintain power – in what they deem a patriarchal world in which women’s bodies are objectified, sexualised and commodified.
“As much as that would be true for them, it does not negate the fact that women are punished with lashes and acid for refusing to abide by the law where veiling is enforced. Sudan’s morality police routinely harass women for unveiling, while in northern Nigeria, the charge of indecent dressing can be levied on any woman found not to be complying – not to mention the aggressive policing of the veil in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The comparison to bikinis and mini skirts as equivalents to the veil do not hold, because no woman is ever flogged, burned or stoned for not showing enough skin.”
Peace relates some of the legal consequences for immodesty without touching upon the social and familial ones, crucial, devastating pressures and punishments that need to be discussed in detail when interrogating the practice of the hijab, but that become obscured when facile comparisons are made between hijabs and bikinis.
In conclusion, this is my hope and wish to my dear Western liberal, feminist, anti-racist allies:
When you seek to listen, understand, and contextualize the practices of an Other culture, ask yourself whether you are listening for the truth, or trying to exonerate an Other culture at all costs, and what crimes you may be inadvertently covering up in that process.
Ask yourself whose voice you may not be hearing, and why. Ask yourself at whose expense the causes you selectively take up may come.
Seek to apply the same standards to contextualized cultural practices that you do when considering the social practices imposed on you in your society.
In your urge to humanize, be wary of conflating problems you know with problems elsewhere that have certain similar features– it is okay that different patriarchies look different. It is okay that some are worse in various ways than others. Embrace this fact. Denying it does not change it, and only hurts the most vulnerable further.
And thank you.