A second response to Meredith Tax - straw men make poor argument

Tax's misleading interpretation of my arguments do little to counter the central realities - that liberals and imperialist feminists have been prominent supporters of authoritarianism and state violence.

Saadia Toor
19 December 2014

In November we published Deepa Kumar's widely read essay, 'Imperialist Feminism and Liberalism'. In response, 5050 published an essay by Meredith Tax, 'The Antis - anti-imperialist or anti-feminist?' Deepa Kumar's response to Tax can be read here. This second response is from Saadia Toor.

Meredith Tax’s response is exactly what one would have expected it to be. It exemplifies the ‘straw man’ style of argumentation, and of necessity misrepresents our arguments, our critique and our politics. I say ‘of necessity’ because it is only through misrepresentation that Tax can get away with not actually having to address the actual substance of our critique and answer our charges against today’s imperialist feminists.

I’d like to begin by addressing some of Tax’s claims before moving on to articulating the substance of our critique of imperialist feminism.

Tax caricatures our argument when she claims that we ‘reduce the problems of women to side effects of "capitalism and imperialism"’. I have never made the absurd claim that women’s problems are either side-effects or even products of capitalism or imperialism alone. But I do hold, following in the footsteps of socialist/Marxist/materialist feminists, that to fail to pay attention to political economy when discussing gender/sexuality is to commit a huge error. Women’s ‘problems… involving the family, cultural traditions, religious institutions, and systematic institutionalized sexism’ do not simply ‘[predate] capitalism’ or imperialism, as Tax helpfully points out. They are transformed by them, even as capitalism and imperialism create new problems for women and feminist politics. It is especially important to invoke political economy when discussing women’s status and issues within the context of Pakistan specifically, and the ‘Muslim world’ generally, precisely because it tends to be absent from feminist analysis pertaining to this region. Tax’s charge of reductionism is ironic given that in fact it is liberal/imperialist feminists who tend to reduce the various issues faced by Muslim women (especially in Muslim majority countries) to ‘Islam’, and/or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. 

Tax remarks that ‘I always thought feminists … recognized the existence of diverse patriarchal formations’. If Tax had been in the least bit familiar with my work, she would have known that I not only agree that there are ‘diverse patriarchal formations’, I have argued that their existence is precisely why studies of Muslim women in Muslim-majority countries must not begin with the premise that ‘Islam’ is the root of (all) the problems. A blinkered approach to women/gender in the context of Pakistan which only sees one explanatory variable—Islam—misses the complexity of what is actually going on, because ‘Islam’ is as often rejected as invoked in patriarchal maneuvers

The claim that we want to shut down a discussion of the Muslim right is similarly absurd. We consistently talk about the Muslim right, but do so in a way that is attentive to history and contemporary domestic and international politics. At a time when self-proclaimed “progressives” in the US and Pakistan are too often to be found either openly cheering on US and Pakistani military operations, or supporting them with pinched noses “in the last instance” as “necessary evils”, it is understandably inconvenient to have to face the historical role played by these honourable institutions in creating and nurturing the very forces they now claim to be fighting. This is especially glaring in the case of Pakistan, where the Pakistani military continues to shield its ‘good’ Taliban (not to mention the other violent extremists it has cultivated) while fighting those it designates as ‘bad’ ones – it’s worth noting that these designations fluctuate opportunistically. From the genocide in East Bengal in 1971 to the killing fields of Balochistan today, the considerable might of the Pakistani military (nurtured, historically, by the US) has been most successfully deployed against its own citizens whose only crime has been to demand their democratic rights. This is the military that the members of Pakistani ‘civil society’ gave their support to this past summer when it launched yet another military operation in North Waziristan to ‘flush out the baddies’. This operation came at the heels of relentless drone strikes that the people of North Waziristan had already been subjected to for years - drone strikes that have, to date, killed anywhere from 168-204 children alone. This latest military operation has displaced upward of a million people. This military violence is nothing less than a form of collective punishment which the people of Pakistan’s tribal regions have been subjected to since the establishment of the Pakistani state.

Tax quotes Afiya Zia as saying "Their [i.e. our] attempts to malign liberal and secular feminists and human rights activists as supporters of war, drones, and military intervention end up confirming right wing accusations of the same." This is an odd statement. It implies that the idea that liberal and secular feminists and human rights activists support war, drones and military intervention is somehow nothing more than a malicious rumour. And yet, in Pakistan (and elsewhere) this is precisely what they have done.  Repeatedly.  In Pakistan, critiquing drone strikes within liberal/secular feminist/human rights circles immediately results in one being branded a ‘Taliban apologist’. On a large (and publicly accessible) email discussion list this past summer, Ms Zia made it clear that she supported the statement put out by the Women’s Action Forum (Pakistan’s most well-known feminist organisation) endorsing the Pakistan military’s latest military operation in North Waziristan. This collusion of liberals with authoritarianism is not new, in Pakistan or elsewhere. In fact, in my book (which Tax generously mentions) I show that throughout Pakistan’s history, liberals consistently sided with, and thereby shored up, the forces of the Right (religious or secular) in opposition to the (secular) Left.

This brings us to the fact that there is a method in the madness of Tax’s response – the bluster, the mischaracterizations, the red-baiting are all designed to draw attention away from what anti-imperialist feminists find objectionable in imperialist feminist politics, and specifically those of Tax and co. I have made this case before, and will just share a couple of examples here for the benefit of the readers of openDemocracy:

1. In 2010, Tax attacked the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union for bringing a suit against the American government on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki, the first US citizen targeted for assassination by his own state for his political ideology. A group of Algerian feminists (and CCR board member Karima Bennoune) then sent a letter to CCR in which they explicitly argued that the focus within the human rights community in the West on Muslim men as victims of the war on Terror comes at the expense of the well-being of Muslim women because it effaces the role played by Muslim men as perpetrators of violence against Muslim women. Bear in mind that this was at a time when human rights advocacy in the West on behalf of the victims of the War on Terror was fairly muted. As I argued in my essay “Imperialist Feminism Redux”,

What is important to note is that this critique of Western liberals and international human rights organizations for their misplaced and dangerous focus on Muslim men comes at a time when Muslim men qua Muslim men continue to be the explicit target of the GWoT,and an anti-Muslim racism which understands all Muslim men as dangerous intensifies in North America and Western Europe’. This critique also assumes that it is impossible to have a progressive politics that is concerned with the rights of both Muslim men and Muslim women. In fact, it posits all Muslim men as (by definition) perpetrators of violence against women. Supporting their rights (even their right to life, their right to a fair trial, their right to free speech, etc), even in the context of war, can only strengthen their ability to oppress Muslim women.

2. On its website, the Center for Secular Space (an institution with which many of those who express imperialist feminist views—from Tax to Gita Sehgal, Karima Bennoune and Afiya Zia—are associated) lament that, in Europe “‘discussions of still-existing racism have been replaced by discussions of Islamophobia’” implying that, (i) the actual problem at hand is not an increase in Islamophobia itself but increasing ‘discussions of Islamophobia’, and (ii) that these discussions distract attention away from ‘racism’, as if Islamophobia was not the pre-eminent form which racism in Europe has taken today.  The mind, as they say, simply boggles.

These are only a few examples – one can provide more. For now I leave it up to the good readers of openDemocracy to judge for themselves whose politics shores up the existing structures of power today - Tax & co., or those of us who are working hard to fight the metastasizing, anti-people (and deeply misogynist) national security states across the world. I would love to see a refutation of these specific charges from Tax rather than the sound and fury that she conjures up to distract attention away from inconvenient truths.

Our own position vis a vis the GWoT and ‘Islamic extremism’ and our critique of imperialist feminism should not need to be repeated, having been made in several places and several forms over time. However, in the face of Tax’s mischaracterization, I’ll state it loud and clear once again:

Despite Tax’s attempt to engage in what Hamid Dabashi has called “politically expedited historical amnesia”, this latest imperialist war (the ‘GWoT’) had strong liberal support in its early stages, fueled in no small part by ‘concern’ for Afghan women. This liberal support seemed to dissipate after the attack on Iraq, but as the deflation of the anti-war movement after the election of Barack Obama clarified, liberal opinion continued to remain in favour of the ‘good war’ in Afghanistan. War and other actions of Empire require legitimation. It is not enough—especially as the war in question drags on endlessly and spreads to large parts of the globe—to secure the consent of the far-right, neoliberals, and hawks, especially when a Democrat is in power.  Legitimacy is thus needed and sought from across the political spectrum. For obvious reasons, Islamophobia has played a very important role in securing consent for the war, both domestically within the US (and Canada/UK/Europe) and abroad, again across the political spectrum. This is the context in which the sort of imperialist feminism exemplified by Tax & co.—an international conglomeration of feminists with left-liberal credentials—emerged and the reason why it demands intense scrutiny.


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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