Some thoughts on Western feminism, imperialism and when to be silent

Last night I happened to read an utterly unconvincing argument in favour of maintaining a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia. It is written by a man, Ahmed Abdel-Raheem, who wants to let Saudi women speak for themselves – providing, one assumes, it is via his good self. And as the self-appointed male spokesperson for Saudi women, Abdel-Raheem has this to say on their behalf:

People in Saudi Arabia have their own moral views and needs. What works in other societies may not fit in Saudi, and the reverse. In short, instead of launching campaigns to change the driving laws in the kingdom, the west should first ask Saudi women if they really want this or not, and western countries should accept the result, even if it’s not to their liking.

I don’t know if it’s just me but I think there’s a very basic philosophical problem here. Surely the moment you start asking a person who’s been banned from doing something whether or not they’d like the ban lifted you’ve already ceased to respect the terms of the ban. If Saudi women get to choose whether or not they’re forbidden from driving then they’re not really forbidden. They’re just choosing not to drive. You might not notice any difference on the roads but you’ve already changed the status of all non-driving women, simply by deigning to ask for their views. It seems to me Abdel-Raheem has already conceded the point he seeks to challenge.

But enough about crap arguments. One thing that also struck me about Abdel-Raheem’s piece was his borrowing from intersectional feminist discourse to support a fundamentally non-inclusive view. He associates allowing women to drive with “continuous attempts from the west to impose its values elsewhere” and claims that “western feminism […] is not what many women in the kingdom want”. By bringing to mind the clumsy arrogance of certain strands of western feminism, he manages to suggest that supporting the lifting of the driving ban is tantamount to signing up as a member of Femen. Despite the broader illogicalities in his argument, I think this is a clever tactic.

Western feminists like me can think our vision of equality is “normal” without even noticing the cultural conditioning that surrounds it. We can also make the mistake of believing that doing something is always better than doing nothing. For instance, in Fifty Shades of Feminism, Sayantani DasGupta reiterates a point made by Nawal El Saawdawi that western feminists can do more harm than good when speaking out on genital cutting and by calling it FGM:

She argued that they were rendering real resistance to genital cutting by African/Middle Eastern feminists ineffective. Local feminists had to fight against the perception that their activism was somehow a part of an imperialist Western project rather than resistance to a cultural project from within.

I’d never heard this argument applied to the term FGM and, to be honest, a part of me is still resistant to it (“cutting” sounds so much less powerful — and how does a need for silence then relate to responses to the practice in the West?). But I think it’s an important lesson in listening and in knowing that sometimes the broader impression you create as a western feminist can have more resonance than the arguments you are, somewhat messily, trying to support.

Annoyingly (because obviously I don’t want it to) I think this probably applies to the Saudi ban on women driving, too. Get behind it – but not too noisily. Wait to be asked to play your part, if you even have one. And then, next time the low-level sexists around you ask why you don’t focus on real problems “like FGM or what happens in Saudi Arabia”, bite your tongue.

It doesn’t feel like activism, does it? And yet it is. There’s obviously a part of me that still resents the very idea that feminism shouldn’t be all about me.

4 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Western feminism, imperialism and when to be silent

  1. This isn’t about just different types of feminism. This is about being objective around the issue of individual rights.

    There is no compelling argument to forbid any rational human from driving. Restrictions on individual rights are not acceptable, regardless of whether they take place in the so-called West or the so-called East. They are not acceptable whether it is men, women, or gender rebels who are being oppressed by the State.

  2. That’s very thought provoking. I think you’re right in that sometimes the best support may come from not taking a public stand. Unfortunately this resonates with all sorts of unhelpful female stereotypes like ‘the power behind the throne’ etc.

  3. Using the negative image of imperialist feminism against Saudi women, making it all about us, when it has always been a protest by Saudi women themselves. Cheap & nasty trick.

  4. It helps me to think of how I feel when men talk about feminism: it’s almost always awkward. If I talk about a campaign that’s not about me, then it’s probably also really awkward. Unless someone who the campaign is about has asked me to talk about it… And then I have to accept I might still make it awkward and can’t go ‘but you asked!’ It’s tough

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