I am interested in the issue of fairness. Anyone with siblings might be I would think. Whether it’s about making sure everyone gets an equally sized piece of cake or equal chances to speak, fairness has been a driving force in my life that I might have inherited.  As one of three daughters it was very important to our parents that we were treated fairly. So every birthday and Christmas we got the same kinds of presents, matching housecoats, matching crockery and so on. I kinda like the way I can go to both my sisters’ houses and enjoy drinking from the same cups. But over the years I’ve realised that treating people the same (is universalism) isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be and sometimes we need to treat people differently (particularism) to support them to get their needs met. For example, my parents have a prolific avocado tree and out of all my sisters I like avocados the most (hint hint), therefore is it fair that we all get the same number of them? This issue has resonance in health too, treating everyone the same can result in differential outcomes and sometimes you need to treat people differently to get the same outcome-for example for different population groups to have a long life different strategies might be needed. Which brings me to the issue that’s driving this blog post. How can we ensure that what we do is fair? and how do we define what fairness is? How might discourses invoking equality reinforce inequity and oppression?

The backlash against KONY 2012 did something useful. It made people think twice before re-posting items on their newsfeed and drew attention to the ways in which activism through social media can go horribly wrong. Joshua Foust says KONY 2012 accentuated the challenges “of enthusiastic support for someone who seems to be doing the right thing without really investigating whether their methods are the best, and privileging the easy and fun over the constructive”. In the case of the social media whirl around Russian punk band Pussy Riot, Foust’s criticism is that a serious concern about the erosion of political freedoms and civil liberties has been converted into a celebration of feminist punk music and art, detracting from the brutality and mistreatment being meted by Putin’s government to Russian activists or political prisoners.

It’s been a lousy few weeks for women in the west. The Julian Assange saga, Republican Todd Akin’s stupidity and comments that women can’t get pregnant from rape and more. But even more grump inducing has been the appearance on my Facebook feed of more white saviour complex campaigns, this time run by white feminists. Feminism is supposedly about building a fairer and more just society for women, but these campaigns only reinforce the limitations of western feminisms for engaging with axes of oppression such as ethnicity, racialisation and social class. This isn’t my only beef with western feminisms, the others are that they have a decidedly liberal tone with a focus on individual rights and also the frequency with which feminist discourses are co-opted for neoliberal ends. For example, the way in which western feminisms have legitimated expansionist neoliberalism, think Muslim women needing to be rescued from the Taleban by the Enlightened West in Afghanistan.

This hero/martyr narrative in this annoying image from Feminists United is illustrative of a hierarchy that pits western women against non-Western women.

The advert represents a white woman as a hero, both educated and modern and able to freely exercise choice and control over her own body. In contrast, the ‘non Western woman’ is represented as oppressed by her culture, other women and tradition, all of which impinge on her sexuality. The comments on this image included:”Indeed, a horrific practice that comes from satan’s kingdom of darkness and needs to end; ” and “In Africa 3000 girls every day!!!”. Thankfully commentators also pointed out the racist and imperial assumptions of this advert. The comments recentre Western feminisms rather than expose the limitations of Western epistemological frameworks for making sense of women’s experiences outside the West. Given my own health background, I’m conscious of the ways in which FGM/C is constructed as a health issue. The image implicitly reifies the superiority of Western medicine for having the values most emblematic of Western civilisation such as enlightenment, benevolence and humanitarianism. We’ll just ignore the collusion of Christian missionary medicine and biomedicine in the advancement of colonialism and imperialism.

One of my intellectual and political concerns is with the ways in which certain practices and subjectivities are privileged through liberal feminist discourses that actually replicate the colonising impacts of heteropatriarchy (even though feminism was developed to critique it). These liberal feminist discourses construct femininity within particular norms such as being liberated that are within normative modes of middle class white behaviour. Racialised “oppressed” women are constituted as a threat to the liberal and neoliberal projects of self regulation and improvement which in turn reinforce the centrality of a white world view

The comments on the second set of images that popped up on my feed were also disturbing, viewing Muslim women as victims of their male partners. The comments framed the woman as unagentic and Muslim males as dominating and unable to control their sexual drives. The inability to recognise sexism and misogyny closer to home in the context of Todd Akin talking about “legitimate rape” were interestingly absent. This ‘fighting sexism with racism’as Sherene Razack (1995) calls it fills me with dismay, especially when differences are framed as a civilisational clash between western liberal values of equality and individualism versus the patriarchal, hierarchical and communal values of the ‘other’.

As Arundhati Roy articulates in a pointed essay:

Western-liberal feminism (by virtue of its being the most funded brand) [has become], the standard-bearer of what constitutes feminism. The battles as usual, have been played out on women’s bodies, extruding Botox at one end and Burkhas at the other. (And then there are those who suffer the double-whammy, Botox and the Burkha.) When, as happened recently in France, an attempt is made to coerce women out of the burkha rather than creating a situation in which a woman can choose what she wishes to do, it’s not about liberating her, but about unclothing her. It becomes an act of humiliation and cultural imperialism. Coercing a woman out of her burkha is as bad as coercing her into one. It’s not about the burkha. It’s about the coercion. Viewing gender in this way, shorn of social, political and economic context, makes it an issue of identity, a battle of props and costumes. It’s what allowed the US Government to use western feminist liberal groups as moral cover when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were (and are) in terrible trouble under the Taliban. But dropping daisy-cutters on them was not going to solve the problem.

These coercive aspects reeking of cultural imperialism and humiliation have been close to home this week in Aotearoa with the furore over the decision by Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum to ban men from seeing a video work by Qatari-American Sophia Al-Maria. The video Cinderazahd: For your eyes only was filmed in a woman only section of her grandmother’s home in Doha and shows Muslim women preparing for a relative’s wedding without their veils. Al-Maria requested that it only be shown to women and children in keeping with the belief that male strangers should not see their faces. However, this ban on mail viewers has resulted in complaints of gender discrimination to the Human Rights Commission.

The Dominion Post argues:

The real issue is that the Dowse is a ratepayer-funded organisation. As such, it should not be using the public purse to stage exhibits from which some ratepayers are excluded. The sum involved in this case – $6000 for the complete exhibition of 17 artists – is small, but the principle is important.

Clearly, the conflict between Al-Maria offering a work that can be seen only by women and the gallery’s duty to ensure equal access to all those who contribute towards funding it cannot be reconciled. That being the case, the Dowse should withdraw the video from the exhibition and Al-Maria should find a private gallery in which to show it.

Luckily there’s been some great responses from the blogosphere. Especially from QOT who says:

There’s a lot of argument going down around the fact that the Dowse is publicly-funded, is this discrimination, do we owe it to the poor oppressed brown women to tear away their autonomy because they’re too stupid to know they’re oppressed … yeah, guess where I fall on that one.

QOT checks our Human Rights legislation and notes that it is not unlawful to discriminate on the ground of religious belief (within particular circumstances). QOT acidly remarks that this legislation is what enables Catholics to ban women from the priesthood, but who’s complaining? If the primary complainant was a male student taking a third-year compulsory Art History paper where half the final exam marks were based on the film this would then disadvantage the males in the class. But is not being able to see that exhibit going to disadvantage the complainant really? Wise words also from Gaayathri, pointing out how important it is for those who are marginalised to be able to create and have access to safe spaces. Gaayathri cynically notes how the incident smacks of using Islamic women’s rights as a political football and if we indeed gave a damn then listening to their wishes would be a great start, and even better respecting the boundaries that have been set for the viewing of the work.

Contemporary racism is covert and subtle, a response to the social taboo against the open expression of racist sentiments. It is also more likely to be denied by majority group members.What I find most interesting about the Dowse drama is how the parameters of cultural consumption can only be set by the dominant culture. Whether it’s invoking the white saviour discourse or railing against so-called Islamic oppression, it’s the dominant white settler culture who decides how much culture is palatable and in what form. Setting boundaries results in the range of devastating comments that you can see on the interweb and it shows me that the veneer of civility is wafer thin. Kiwis can indeed hold negative views of particular groups in tandem with liberal principles of equality, tolerance, fairness and justice and just as quickly invoke these liberal values of fairness and equity in the service of  Islamophobia and racism. Our attitudes and beliefs in New Zealand haven’t been tested in the same way Australians have. They are forever in the spotlight about asylum seekers, but what it does make me think is that we should not be too complacent in New Zealand about the moral high ground. In all of this, what I am most grateful for is that like KONY 2012, these frustrating and painful incidents provide an opportunity to consider more deeply questions of freedom and liberation and more importantly to find out who our allies are.

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