The ethics of feminist engagement: discussing feminism-as-imperialism

The responses by Saadia Toor and Deepa Kumar to Meredith Tax's article depend on a one-dimensional and tired discussion of a collusive feminism as the continuing source of justifications for imperialism.

Afiya Shehrbano Zia
19 January 2015

Exceptionalising Islamophobia

In the wake of the ‘War on Terror’, academic and political accusations against feminism no longer emanate just from anti-feminist misogynistic sources. More than religious lobbies or conservatives, discrediting feminist politics seems to have become the curious pastime of self-identified groups of progressives who Meredith Tax calls the “Antis”.

Before discussing the ethics of feminist engagement when debating such issues, I want to draw attention to a few specific points made in Toor’s defense against Meredith Tax’s contentions about the anti-feminist strands among those who claim to be left-wing sympathisers.

Saadia Toor’s polemic centres around her uncritical acceptance of the term and practice of ‘Islamophobia’ as some proven and permanent global condition. She objects to the fact that Tax and the Centre for Secular Space (CSS) consider the focus on ‘Islamophobia’ to have displaced that of racism in Europe. The implication is that the CSS necessarily denies that religious discrimination also exists and this opens them to charges of being Islamophobes themselves. In fact, Tax discusses the toxicity of anti-Muslim policies in Europe in her own book Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left, and Universal Human Rights, and the CSS made this observation based on statistical information showing that racism prevails over religious discrimination. The point was that to exceptionalise ‘Islamophobia’ deflects attention from the pervasive racist immigration policies and general attitudes of right wing European governments.

More importantly, ‘Islamophobia’ is commonly found in scare quotes precisely because there is a debate on the usefulness of conflating the violation of an abstract religion (Islam), with that of a human rights violation (racism). Is it a human rights concern to shield a religion from being criticized, or should we be concerned about the non-figurative Muslim individual who may face discrimination on the basis of her race or of being prevented from practicing her faith? Are all Muslims discriminated against because of their faith, and therefore victims of a reductive ‘Islamophobia’, or are there more complex dynamics at work? In fact, the popular usage of the term ‘Islamophobia’ has merged religious and racial categories now, but why Toor’s mind should be easily “boggled” by this, and why she should censure those who remain sceptical about the uncritical usage of the term, is itself puzzling.

Feminist complexity

In any case, due to her dependence on Dabashi's views, Toor chooses to ignore the specific instances where feminisms in Muslim contexts, such as Pakistan, have challenged and remain committed to resisting multiple sources of oppression. Katherine Allison, for instance, recognises how Pakistani feminists such as “Nazish Brohi and Afiya Zia have explored the [complexity of how the] War on Terror logics extend beyond the primary protagonist, the US, and intersect with domestic contests in Pakistan over gender politics,” with far more acumen than Toor is able to. Toor is averse to referencing any formal article, essay or book written by Pakistani feminists in the post 9/11 period, and relies instead on labelling, accusations and email discussions. This allows Toor to selectively implicate some feminists in Muslim contexts as complicit with US imperialism, while exempting many who could demonstrably be shown to be directly serving US and/or, imperialist interests in mutually beneficial ways.

Toor warns against feminists and human rights organisations for their “misplaced and dangerous” activism that “targets Muslim men”. But, feminists in Muslim contexts specifically challenge Muslim men when they are the powerful majority who take shelter behind discriminatory Islamic laws and collude with the Islamic state and its anti-secular, anti-women, anti-minority bent.

The advice that Toor offers Tax is taken from her essay, “Imperialist feminism redux”, which argues that Muslim men should not be the focus of feminist activism because of their apparently universal, post 9/11 vulnerability. The disingenuousness of this is all too obvious when read in the light of the specific struggles against the practice of patriarchy in Muslim contexts. Islam is the divine shield and resource used with impunity that is most beneficial to Muslim men in Islamic states, and affords unaccountability - not just in the perpetration of injustices against Muslim women, but against non-Muslims across all classes. This ranges from resistance to land reforms and to unequal inheritance, as well as lesser legal and social status for women and minorities (who become easy targets of blasphemy laws and vigilantism).

Toor’s Orwellian method of dealing with criticism is instructive in itself. She objects to my riposte to her and her online-activist colleagues’ vilification of Pakistani liberals/secularists. The accusations that they are war-mongers and drone-supporters, I say, is identical to the method used by conservatives to demonise these same liberals/secularists. Instead of disproving this deeply problematic connection, Toor repeats the common and dated criticism that several of us have already made over the last decade - that there are sectors of liberals/secularists who did support General-President Musharraf, who are in favour of US assistance and aid, and some of whom condemn religious militancy but not always as a permanent and exclusive product of US imperialism. However, Toor refuses to name either these ‘sectors’ or the apparent multitudes of these liberal sell-outs. If anything is odd, it is this omission. But I will assist in addressing this oversight below.

Even if we accept Toor’s original accusation, are there only the four disparate imperialist feminists in Pakistan that she names?  She also pretends none from the left, particularly men, and even liberal male activists, editors and other progressives were willingly co-opted by the Musharraf regime. Many of these liberal left men support anti-Taliban operations and are against political Islam, but somehow escape the charges of imperialism that Toor levels at feminists. Dabashi can say what he likes, but what stops Toor and Kumar from making the case that it is not just feminism that can be co-opted to serve imperialism but very much, if not more effectively, the spectrum of male left to right political ideologies, too? Below I will offer some helpful tips on how Toor can locate these positions in the case of Pakistan.

Selective targeting

Most significant is the choice of exemptions that defines Toor’s own “method of madness” that she accuses Meredith Tax of deploying. For the sake of argument, let’s accept Toor’s selective definition of imperialist collaborators and even her criteria of who qualify as the pawns of a neoliberal political economy. This would mean that all those left-wing feminists who have headed and run donor-funded NGOs for decades, should stand indicted too.

Leading feminists who have been scathingly critical of the Ngo-isation of the women’s movement, continued to run their own NGO programmes all through the Musharraf years, when Pakistan elected to be the front-line ally of the US in the War on Terror (WoT). This was the time when WoT aid flooded the development sector of Pakistan, and Musharraf’s ‘enlightened moderation’ rule attracted millions of dollars for all sorts of schemes for “women’s empowerment” from which many benefited. There was hardly an NGO that didn’t cash in on the bullish market on gender and development in those days. This was also the time that a handful amongst us refused to engage with any institution or programme related to the military regime. But many left-wing feminists and men took no such rejectionist stance, and some even went on to become directors of American and multi-donor aid agencies. (Toor may want to check the records of her colleagues in the anti-imperialist left party she associates herself with).

Many of these feminists/activists also participated in the Musharraf government’s plans of action, prepared reports, cooperated with the national commission, and some represented the Pakistan government at international meetings. Several even accepted national awards, while nearly all engaged with the local and national elections.

Practically all the NGOs headed by these feminists were involved in the 2002 electoral process under Gen Musharraf’s presidency. Admittedly, this politicised and empowered thousands of women, but it also legitimised the military regime and reinforced something called “controlled democracy”. Still, it seems those of us who remained aloof and criticised it from the margins out of some misguided principle that this would bolster the military regime, weaken democracy and tarnish feminist goals, deserve opprobrious accusations, while others are exonerated and exempted from their guilt by association, which is only reserved for a few feminists.

If one is to follow Toor’s very tenuous logic of guilt-by-association, does this historical lapse not make them, her, and the parties on the left, guilty of the same imperialist culpability? Who decides on the boundaries and associations of such imperialist collusion? 

Is it possible that Toor suffers from the same “politically expedited historical amnesia” that she cites from Dabashi and attempts to pin on Meredith Tax? Since many or most of the feminists mentioned above belong to the Punjabi elite, Toor may have personal reasons for not discussing NGO-led feminist imperialism. This is unfortunate, because it would have been a concrete example of her claimed commitment to expose the links between the political economy and imperialist feminism.

It would have made it easier for Toor to make her case too, because many of these left-wing feminists are also members of Women’s Action Forum (WAF). They have also doggedly and tirelessly campaigned against Islamist politics and the same Muslim men that Toor defends as unjustified targets of imperialist feminist politics. These feminists have been vocal and unrelenting in their anti-mullah views and anti-Sharia political campaigns. WAF is a non-funded pressure group, but many members in other capacities have also been steadily funded by the imperialist West for their opposition to Islamic laws - such as the Hudood Ordinances - and for their resistance to Islamist politics for decades now. Many of these feminists and left-wing men are unarguably, the gatekeepers of the bulk of foreign funding of neoliberal development projects for Pakistan.

This is precisely the kind of deflection found in the left blame-game against feminism that Meredith Tax has criticised in her analysis of the “Antis”. If every response to such critique is that ‘we’ raise real issues (by using the words “political economy” but not discussing a single instance of its workings in relation to the thesis advanced) and ‘they’ raise “strawmen”, then a debate is bound to collapse into the personalised kind that Toor has resorted to in her original article, and in response to Meredith Tax’s criticism.

Methods beyond madness

Tax’s article commented on the pattern of “Anti” arguments carried in an academic journal and online magazine by Toor and Kumar, respectively. My own views have been presented elsewhere and do not have to be rehearsed again.  However, the Tax, Toor and Kumar exchanges are to my mind, an opportunity to talk about another aspect of this debate: the methodology and ethics of critical exchanges on feminist politics. Toor could not expect that her competitive effort to tarnish some feminists, in order to justify her own political positioning, would not evoke a response. The two methodological concerns are first, the selectivity and process of accusatory evidence through which Toor makes her case against a loosely defined imperialist feminism, and the ethics of the usage of sources and new forums where feminist exchanges are taking place.

In her original article, Toor named a select few Pakistani feminists as aiders and abetters of imperialism. Ergo, by association this was presented as proof of imperialist feminism in action, and by implication made into an overarching reason why the ‘War on Terror’ thrived in Pakistan.

This tactic of selectivity and compartmentalisation is not unusual for the collective of self-identified ‘scholar-activists’ (a problematic identity-assemblage in itself) who depend on labelling and delegitimising some independent activists as ‘liberals’ and ‘native informants’, so as to claim their own identities as unimpeachably radical. Most of the activism of such scholars (students, in most cases, who are ‘active’ by way of the research they conduct for their PhDs) is dependent on cyber exchanges and web politics.

Since I don’t subscribe to social media, I can only cite some cut-and-paste versions of such tweets and facebook exchanges sent to me by those who are themselves on the circuit of the Toor collective. There seem to be no codes of confidentiality on this social media instrument precisely because it’s ‘social’, not private. Historically, I have been only amused and sociologically intrigued by what has been shared with me, but would never think to reference them, mainly because I find the forum and content to be by definition social-lite, rather than academic or political. From what I gather, it is often anti-intellectual, and to some, an impoverished form of ego-tripping.

However, Toor has opened up this grey area in her formal riposte to Tax, by referencing correspondence from an email list-server of the Socialist Pakistan Network (SPN). This is not ‘publicly accessible’, as Toor claims to justify the source, but in fact requires subscription for access. Since she’s presumably more authoritative on the responsibility and ethics of such practice, I feel it’s safe now to bring such informal correspondence and personalised commentary and opinions into play here.

In some of these social media discussions, Toor has chosen to ignore the content specific arguments or detailed points in my articles that have been critical of her and her colleagues’ works. Instead, she and her male colleagues discuss how they have enjoyed the annoyed reaction of Pakistani feminists to the article in which she accuses them of being imperialist feminists.

There are other sexist comments available on social media by the male colleagues of Toor who comment routinely on articles I have authored over how “ ‘she’s’ at it again”. They also take pride about getting their male friends to gang respond to certain articles, on twitter and facebook. In particular, Toor’s online response to a published critique that I had authored, of a conference attended by her and her colleagues, was outright offensive.

Apparently, to write repeatedly and ad nauseam against ‘liberalism’ and liberals is justifiable, heroic even, but to critique these views, articles and texts with specific references, and to challenge the fallacies of these or of Islamist politics, is to be “obsessed”. Some fashionable topics - on Islamist subjectivity and criticism of liberal-secularism - are apparently fire-walled from any criticism or engagement.

Who qualifies as a liberal collaborator?

Specifically, with reference to the online debate that Toor cites as proof of (what she diagnoses as) my paradoxical ‘liberal collaboration with authoritarianism’, the method of proving her case is instructive. The debate she references in her openDemocracy article is on the ‘Zarb e Azb’ military operation in Pakistan’s tribal areas against the Taliban in the summer of 2014. Toor refers to the SPN online debate on this operation in order to selectively reproach me as the “endorser” of the Pakistan military. This is based on the fact that I am a member of Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which had issued a statement in support of the operation. As I understand it, this was a consensus position that emerged from a joint forum which included other organisations and members of the left in Karachi.

With ahistoric imprecision, Toor singles me out as a member in order to indict the left-leaning, secular women’s rights group, WAF, for being a liberal colluder of authoritarianism. The accusation somehow does not apply to the other male-led organisations who signed the statement endorsing the Zarb e Azb. This is a familiar pattern also seen in Toor’s essay on “Imperialist feminism redux” where she equates prominent Pakistani activists Asma Jahangir and Hina Jillani, to ‘Rushdie type liberal hawks’, and myself as a third-world token woman member who lends “authenticity” as advisory member to the Centre for Secular Space. By contrast, Toor’s appointment at an American university is fully deserved and independent of her race, religion and colour, while respectful of her ‘radical’ political posturing.

What Toor deliberately fails to mention in her haste to indict WAF members of being war-mongers - their historical struggle against military regimes aside - is that the WAF position on Zarbe Azb categorically stated that:

“WAF is mindful that the state has had an ambiguous unwillingness to confront its 'assets' in the jihadists whether they are in FATA or South Punjab. It is in support of the political decision to confront these forces through the current operation that WAF supports it because it believes this may finally lead to a severance of military patronage of terrorists.”  

Further, if Toor had chosen to, she would have found a fairly large amount of critical positions on the military establishment in independent articles authored by myself, as well as by WAF, over the last decade. And those are publicly accessible. By referring to those sources she would have been able to cite the sustained and repeated criticism and opposition to the Pakistan military establishment, its jihadist nexus and the Musharraf regime. Along the way, she may even have happened upon some of the activism and political resistance of WAF members, including Asma Jahangir, Hina Jillani and myself. In particular, our distancing, non-cooperation, resistance and activism against the Musharraf regime right from 12 Oct 1999 may have helped her to contrast this stance with that of her colleagues and some left-affiliated feminists who worked in donor agencies and NGOs, and who were certainly direct beneficiaries of the unprecedented aid that poured into Pakistan under the 'War on Terror' rubric.   

The shaky moral perch of the Left

Here’s the most interesting feature and evidence of Toor’s selectivity. While citing the debate on Zarb e Azb on the SPN network and slating all NGO and WAF positions, she chooses to omit mention of her own political position, and the confusion and chaos that her cohort within the left Awami Workers Party (AWP) created on the same issue, and which played itself out on the same list server.

In defiance of the original statement by the AWP which supported the military operation, Toor’s cohort (that associates itself with the AWP) issued a contradictory statement that “unconditionally opposed” the Zarbe Azb operation. Interestingly, this was not endorsed by the leadership or by many of her senior colleagues, but mostly by a younger generation whom she mentors. When I asked those who did sign the Toor et. al, ”opposing statement” which rejected all military operations unconditionally, some confessed they had done so purely out of “solidarity rather than conviction.” Others admitted that they supported military action under “certain circumstances” and they just weren’t sure how and when these would be opportune.

Unlike Toor, I think it serves no ethical purpose to ‘out’ these members on the basis of email exchanges, and just to make a case that this left party is no more moral, righteous, ideologically consistent or radical as they imagine themselves. The intent was clear from the start, when Toor, Tahir and others sent out e-mails pressing individuals and organisations in mocking tone and language asking what their personal/political positions were on the Zarb e Azb, and then defended the exercise as “fact-finding.” If this is the result of such journalistic ethics, progressive politics is in even deeper trouble in Pakistan than we thought.

Subsequently, the leadership of the AWP retracted this dissenting and oppositional position (which, it was noted, was closer to the conservative position of the Imran Khan-led opposition party, Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf, or read as an invitation to an IS-like situation in Pakistan). Toor accuses WAF of cheering on, or at best supporting Pakistan’s military with “pinched noses”, but doesn’t mention that it was with the same “pinched noses” that the AWP also supported Zarbe Azb with the acknowledgement that the role of the military is to defend the state from terrorists committed to defying its constitution, killing its citizens (including those in tribal areas) and attacking its institutions. Reportedly, the AWP central committee took disciplinary action against those who made the non-consensual move to circulate a counter-position.

Paradoxically, the same military that Toor implies should not be carrying out any operations, and should, presumably, be totally disbanded because terrorism is a “dead horse”, is simultaneously called upon by her colleagues, to conduct operations to dismantle state-sponsored jihadist outfits in Punjab. More recently, this cohort has taken the surreal position that ‘we should not be looking to the state for resolving problems that it created’, but then goes on to pledge support for other liberal activists who are lobbying against the ‘Taliban sympathisers’ in the Laal Masjid (a state owned mosque), and who are demanding that the state should arrest the clerics who run it, and are asking the state to reclaim such properties to prevent mosque-based hate-incitement. Such confusion and backtracking is common currency in the positions of such ‘radicals’.

Feminists are not dupes

In many ways, what Toor has done inadvertently is to open up the internal challenges and generational and even locational differences that political organisations of the Left and feminists face. The WAF statement on military operations was clear in its historical opposition to military dictatorships and regimes, particularly on the military’s adventures in the name of jihad. Toor deliberately erases the complexity of feminist arguments reflected in the WAF position when it stated that:

“WAF is also completely open to alternative recommendations that other progressive forces may have to make in the light of this military operation. Perhaps those who claim they are anti-war under all circumstances could advise WAF and other liberal civil society members of what their proposals are for the terrorists’ war waged against innocent working-class victims. As long as these are not vague, fence-sitting and hollow 'anti-war' slogans only, WAF would be happy to incorporate those into its own position as stated above. Otherwise we end up endorsing the army's own historical ambivalence over fighting our Taliban brothers which many believe, prevented resolution of the conflict a long time ago. Simply asking for transparency is not a position on whether a military operation is needed or not."

Toor’s original attacks on feminist politics in Pakistan and selective myopia continue to inform her arguments against just the national security state as misogynistic, while advising silence on the internal hegemonic challenge of virile Islamist politics pitted against women, minorities and working class men, because according to her that would amount to ‘Islamophobia’. Consequently, Toor simply confirms the very essence of Tax’s warnings about the anti-imperialist mask that shields the anti-feminist implications of such arguments.



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