The female subject has been imbricated into the reproduction of the ‘Self’ to continue Orientalist discourses within nationalist formations of exceptionalism.
Yet gender exceptionalism does not mark the end of patriarchy, but its reproduction through the female figure. It renderes existing forms of patriarchal organizing invisible and allowes their continuation by relegating oppression to the spaces of the ‘Other,’ unrelated to the Self.
In line with her Orientalist formation the female subject is herself a social construction marking her freedom against the oppression of the Orient and thus the exceptional gender norms of the Self. In this manner a discursive binary has been draw between the exceptional and oppressive, the modern and backwards, the good and the bad. With these colonial and Orientalist roots in the production of the female subject, her construction has become a tool for imperialism.
Particularly interesting to me has been conversations I’ve had with a solider for the New Zealand Defence Force. We’ve had several conversation on feminism, once where he stated a critique of Middle Eastern culture is that it is patriarchal. In fact it is very common to hear this, ‘I am against Muslims because they are patriarchal’ (ie. ‘we,’ the self, are not, while the Other is)
Focusing on our solider friend, firstly, this is a person who ended up ripped my mum off $100. He didn’t seem so concerned about Middle Eastern women, or gender exceptional, then. (Yea this is a rant and thus not well sourced or written.)
Also he is a person who rejects and mocks feminism in general. His position of rejecting feminism actively denies women agency in knowledge production and understanding of their oppression. As if he understands gender dynamics better than women can, as if their experiences and understandings of gendered dynamics which marginalize them are irrelevant and should be ignored. Being against feminism in the manner that he asserts also implies that there isn’t discrimination against women in our own society and so gender is not a relevant means of theorizing. He easily erases agency of women in our own society, their contributions to understanding gender dynamics, and renders invisible our patriarchal culture which enforces violence on women.
Yet he suddenly turns concerned for women when it comes to the Middle East, to homogenize, ahistoricize, and criticize their culture by borrowing discourses from same women thinkers he denies as having legitimacy.
Though the Orientalist production of gender exceptionalism is common to the military and follows a history of imperialist/liberal feminism being used as justification to invade the Middle East. ‘Saving brown women’ was indeed used as justification for colonialism and has again been utilized in the War on Terror to ‘save Afghani women,’ justifying imperialism through using the body of the female to present militarism as feminist humanitarianism.
In her book ‘Western Representations of the Muslim Women,’ Mohja Kahf argues that gendered exceptionalism was more than just a part of colonialism but was in fact necessary to conjure support for colonial occupation of the Middle East. Many feminist groups supported colonialism to ‘save brown women from brown men’ just as liberal feminist and queer rights groups have supported the invasion of Afghanistan to ‘save Afghani women’ or queers.
Within such Orientalist theorizing the Self is valorised as liberatory – it is seen that the presence of our exceptional men against their oppressive men will bring freedom to Othered women, through imperialism.
Yet imperialism with its patriarchal, hyper-masculine, heterosexist, and capitalist connotations has never been helpful for the feminist cause or in bringing freedoms, but has mobilized these discourses for its justification. As Islamic Feminists have shown (a group who people often laugh at when when mentioned, as if Islam is contradictory to feminist thought and their existence is nothing but a paradox), Islam is not necessarily misogynistic. As opposed to rejecting local Middle Eastern cultures as ‘sexist,’ like dudes in Western countries, Muslim feminism work within their cultures in rejecting patriarchy.
Women were not considered when propping up Karzai with continues flows of millions in ghost money. Or when building ghost schools and pretending to have brought a wide range of centers for education. Instead the veil became the main symbol of oppression for Afghan women and removing it became a symbol of freedom. As if the biggest concern for Afghan women was their veil and their concerns had nothing to do with military occupation (which destroys their communities and has killed innocent women), colonial history (which has imported patriarchy when Islam had granted women more independence), or the political economy which either exploits or excludes Afghani women. As if wearing a veil was as a common concern among Afghani women in general. Yet Afghani women have and continue to utilize their veil in undermining Taliban influence through activities such as sneaking books into school, using their veil as a means of aiding with education.
There has been, in a manner, a larger concern over what women wear rather than the women themselves.
Nor has the female subject of the Self been considered when gendered discourses are used to justify imperialism, with the alarming rates of female soldiers being raped by male soldiers. Or when Afghani women are raped by occupying forces. Nor has it been considered how army bases and military aggression always import rape and violence by the invading men against the invaded women.
This is all erased when feminism is used to justify imperialism, favoring instead to align with Orientalist reproductions of the Self as gender exceptional and a champion of women’s rights globally – a perfectly narcissistic justification for imperialism. Indeed, the female has been imbricated into the production of the Self not for women’s rights but to socially reproduce narratives of the Self and Other, utilizing Orientalist notions of us and them which discursively draw the boundaries of good and evil.
I wonder if our solider friend is as worried about the millions of women who have been bombed to pieces, murdered or raped due to the war he is a part of. Or is he only worried about Muslim women when it justifies discrimination against their societies and valorisation of the Self to continue this violence against Muslims. Will the Self only theorize the Muslim female to continue Orientalist discourses of us and them?
Yet drawing such discursive dichotomies homogenizes, ahistoricizes and depoliticizes. However in hopes of keeping this brief I want to focus on how it also erases the overlap between the constructions of Self and the Other – how the oppression of Othered women is often enforced by the Self.
The Taliban, who Afghani women were to be ‘freed’ from, had themselves come into power due to US foreign policy in Afghanistan during the Cold War. Imperialism and colonialism have a history of reconfiguring gender dynamics to enforce or exaggerate male dominated rule and oppression of women, either directly or inadvertently.
Imperialism with its capitalist connotations has also reconfigured the political economy to exploit the labour and resources of the Orient. This has hit women of the Global South with even greater force and violence, yet it has drawn much silence.
Little do economist theorize about how the global economy is being sustained by women slave labours in sweatshops. So where are our liberal feminist claiming to believe in freedoms and women’s rights when it comes to women in the Global South? Are cheap commodities more important than their enslavement to the political economy? When women are enslaved by our action and denied their freedoms when producing our commodities, where is our dedication to women’s rights?
Realizing this disturbs our narrative of gender exceptionalism, a narrative which we hold more closely than an actual dedication to anti-patriarchal politics. It also disturbs capitalist and imperialist narratives of the political economy, highlighting how our commodities are produced through exploitation of the Other.
The imbrication of the female subject in the reproduction of the Self has meant women are not heard when Orientalist narratives are disturbed by their voices and experiences.
Will our societies be recognized as patriarchal? Will capitalism be recognized as patriarchal? Will colonialism be recognized as patriarchal?
They are not recognized as such. The Self and Other are socially constructed as unrelated binaries and discursively distanced from one another, with the Self reflecting exceptionalism and the Other marking the spaces of oppression.