Imperialist feminism: a response to Meredith Tax

A new generation of thinkers and activists are actively seeking a larger framework than the one liberals such as Tax can provide.

Deepa Kumar
17 December 2014

Meredith Tax seems very keen to discredit my arguments about Imperialist Feminism. In her essay on the “Antis”—a term she coins to describe me, Saadia Toor, and our ilk—she charges us with being anti-feminist, sectarian, and reductionist. She further states that we are largely irrelevant, since “few will read us,” but that we are nevertheless dangerous because we focus our “attack exclusively on liberal feminism” and don’t understand how to fight against fundamentalism and for women’s rights. 

Before I debunk Tax’s various distortions of my arguments, let me state clearly where I stand on the question of Imperialist Feminism.

As I described in my essay titled “Imperialist feminism and liberalism,” the key focus of Tax’s attack, the framework of Imperialist Feminism is “based on the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire.” This framework has a long history that goes back to the 19th century. A range of scholars such as Lila Abu-Lughod, Reina Lewis, Leila Ahmed, Marnia Lazreg, Rana Khabani, Saba Mahmood, Lata Mani, and others have written extensively about what has variously been called colonial feminism, gendered Orientalism and imperial feminism. If Gayatri Spivak coined the phrase “White-men-saving-brown-women-from-brown-men,” to describe this phenomenon, Abu-Lughod in her recent book Do Muslim Women Need Saving analyzes the development of imperial feminism since then. She argues that since the Afghan war a new ubiquitous commonsense has emerged that sees militarism as the means to advance women’s rights.

Historically, brown women have not been “liberated” by imperial action, as we see from Egypt under British occupation to Afghanistan under US-NATO occupation. I have therefore argued that the struggle for women’s liberation should come from below, through global grassroots movements which mobilize against larger social structures that produce sexism and misogyny. In my lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, I state that feminists should reject the intervention of imperial states like the US and learn the lessons of history.

Certainly the elite have learned their lessons. A wikileaks exposé of a CIA red cell propaganda memo shows the spy agency advising European governments on how the suffering of Afghan women might bolster flagging public support for NATO occupation of Afghanistan. They state that “initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe.” This is not new. Colonialism has historically relied on native spokespersons and native collaborators to ideologically secure the colonial mission.

This is not to suggest that Afghan women who speak of the atrocities faced by the Taliban are automatically “native informants” or collaborators with empire. Women have a right to speak out about their oppression no matter where they are located. However, there are those who either consciously or inadvertently enable empire. Brown Skin, White Masks offers a trenchant critique of Azar Nafisi, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and others who peddle women’s rights as a cover for imperial intervention. In short, the ideology of Imperialist Feminism doesn’t only emerge from elites and their institutions in the West but from people in and from the Global South as well. Saadia Toor discusses new forms of Imperialist feminism and outlines various actors, including Meredith Tax, who have reshaped this discourse and given it liberal form.   

Now let’s look at how Tax systematically distorts my arguments in order to prove her own (Saadia Toor will take on Tax’s misrepresentations of her arguments in another piece).

Tax begins her essay by stating that a new theory has become “influential” among US academic feminists that blame the feminist movement, particularly white liberal feminists in the West and their native informants in the global South, for the suffering of women in Muslim majority countries. She then uses my recent essay on openDemocracy as an example of this trend.

First off, there is no such fashionable theory that exclusively blames feminists for the problems encountered by women in Muslim majority countries. Tax provides absolutely no citations to back up this claim. Instead, she focuses on my piece which she distorts to advance her own argument. My piece is about how Imperialist Feminism as a framework permeates politics, news and culture in the 21st century. As part of this analysis, I argue that historically liberal feminists in the West, and their collaborators in the South, have supported imperial missions due to their flawed understanding of the state (and empire).

Tax completely ignores this and instead argues that my “evidence” fails to support Tax’s “thesis”! I did not argue that the Feminist movement is responsible for the suffering of Muslim women rather I point to how women’s rights in Muslim majority countries need to be understood in terms of nation, region, class, nationalist politics, the part played by Islam in political movements, etc. I also highlight how Western commentators fail to acknowledge the agency of Muslim women and the struggles for women’s rights, for instance, in “Morocco, Iran and Egypt.” Tax conveniently skips over these statements and charges me with ignoring the “the struggles of women against politicized religion in Muslim-majority countries.”

Tax argues that initially RAWA did not oppose the US war. In fact, RAWA activist Tahmeena Faryal in her speaking tour of the US shortly after 9/11 stated clearly her opposition to the US bombing campaign. Writing about her talk in Chicago, a Chicago Tribune article notes that Faryal’s message was that “the people of Afghanistan, particularly women, have been persecuted for too long, and America’s bombing campaign is only making their lives worse.”

Additionally, I do not attack feminism in general much less homogenize various branches of feminist thought. Instead, I highlight the need for structural analysis. Liberal feminist groups, no matter their location, tend not to fight against the economic and political structures of society. As Arundhati Roy notes, while NGO’s in India have done good work, they have stayed away from challenging neoliberalism. She argues that the NGO-ization of the women’s movement has made Western liberal feminism (the most funded brand of feminism) the key definers of what feminism is. The net result has been a feminist analysis “short of social, political and economic context.”

This is why I emphasize the imperial political context, but Tax purposely distorts that to say that for “the Antis, the only struggle that counts is the one against imperial imagery.” Rather than engage seriously in an honest debate, Tax prefers to create a straw person that she then proceeds to attack.

She argues that I see no need to “focus on secondary issues like Islamism.” If I thought so, I would not have spent two chapters of my book on Islamophobia discussing Islamism and the attitude that leftists should take towards them. Had Tax deigned to read my book, rather than cherry pick arguments, she might have learned that I have a nuanced approach to Islamism. In chapter four, I outline the part played by the US in fomenting political Islam. Viewed as a bulwark against secular nationalism and the left, the US supported, funded, and trained Islamists in a range of countries. In chapter six, I look at the local conditions that allowed Islamists to grow such as the failure of secular nationalists and the left to adequately address political and economic crises.   

Tax, however, chooses not only to distort my analysis she also conveniently omits the part played by the US in bolstering Islamism. This omission is arguably intentional since for Tax, and for liberal imperialists, the emphasis has been on equating the parties of political Islam with Nazi fascism. While Islamists like ISIS and the Taliban are indeed horrific in their brutality, such an ahistoric parallel with the Nazis is analytically deficient, doing nothing to arm activists with the analysis they need to counter Islamists. Its ultimate goal is fear mongering that paves the way for Western military intervention.    

It is curious why Tax chose to direct her ire at myself and Saadia. Perhaps because I am a Marxist and publish in socialist outlets, Tax believes she can use tired red baiting arguments to discredit me. Or perhaps what irked Tax is that my piece on openDemocracy was listed as “most popular” receiving extensive readership (just as other series critiquing liberalism on openDemocracy from a left perspective have been hugely successful). What I infer from this is that a new generation of thinkers and activists are actively seeking a larger framework than what liberals like Tax can provide—a structural analysis of capital and empire—as the basis from which to understand and fight racism, sexism and various forms of oppression and exploitation. I welcome this development and hope to continue contributing towards a productive discussion and debate. We have a world to win.   


This article is part of the Gender and Race strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.

Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London

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