Colonial feminism

Lila Abu-Lughod speaks of the “chasmic divides”, assumed by many a westerner, between the “civilized” west, and the terrorists of Afghanistan, for example (cf. Abu-Lughod 2002: 784). It’s as if murder is only murder once it is committed by the non-person, the one unrecognizable within the imperialist matrix of intelligibility. If America bombs an other, it is in the name of justice; if the other bombs America, they are a terrorist. This gives rise to a “colonial feminism” (cf. ibid.), whereby the westerner who laments that the plight of the non-western woman who has yet, under the regimes of the Taliban-terrorists, to receive the “good news” of the west. Laura Bush once said that “[t]he fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women (Bush, quoted in Abu-Lughod 2002: 784)”; the “rights and dignity of women” are the rights and dignity of women according to the gospel of the white imperialist. Terrorism is something non-western, while the rights and dignity of women is. The anti-imperialist move, then, is to say, as Noam Chomsky does, that America too is a terrorist (indeed, the biggest of them all, being the imperialists they are).

Abu-Lughod’s remarks on the veil were spot on, I think, and reminded me of a recent article posted on the Immanent Frame blog, by Jennifer A. Selby and Mayanthi L. Fernando, entitled “Short skirts and niqab bans: On sexuality and the secular body”.[1] In France, the niqab was banned. But, as Selby and Fernando point out, this ban takes place within a normative framework regarding what constitutes femininity— underlying it is the expectation that all women in the public sphere adopt to secular modes of dress. It is taken for granted that this ban is part of a confessional outlook, that “like forms of religiosity, secularity too includes a range of ethical, social, and physical dispositions (Selby & Mayanthi 2014)”. Thus, “model of femininity is naturalized”, as Selby and Fernando put it. What results is a “secular hegemony”, as Roberts (2008: 303) calls it. Or, as Abu-Lughod puts it: “If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion,’ (p. 786).”

As Talal Asad expresses, this “imperializing orthodoxy, this doctrine demands of us a universal way of ‘being human’— which is really a singular way of articulating desire, discourse, and gesture in the body’s economy (Asad 1993: 121).”



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