The unfolding debate about the Palestinian hip hop group DAM’s new music video “If I Could Go Back in Time,” and Lila Abu-Lughod and Maya Mikdashi’s critique of it, has generated an intense visceral reaction on the part of many readers on Jadaliyya and in the blogosphere. DAM produced this music video in collaboration with the director Jackie Salloum and the renowned singer and activist Amal Murkos, to tackle the heinous crime of honor killing in Palestine. Abu-Lughod and Mikdashi took the video to task for treating the horrible phenomenon of honor killing as a social rather than a political problem. Many readers, as well the members of DAM, however, mistook their piece as an attempt to exonerate Arab patriarchal structures of culpability. Admittedly, Abu-Lughod and Mikdashi do not go far enough in condemning these sexist cultural traditions. But as Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Suha Daher-Nashif cogently demonstrate, the oppressive patriarchal structures in Palestine have worked in cahoots with the Israeli apartheid policies to perpetrate gender inequality.
It is interesting to note that the bellicose comments on the Abu-Lughod and Mikdashi piece have been constructed around various binary oppositions that pitted activists against academics (theory), gender against nation, rooted nationals against diasporic critics, and arts against politics. In her critique of Abu-Lughod and Mikdashi, for example, the Bethlehem Blogger states:
Women can’t describe their experiences without two Diaspora academics telling them (in English) what sort of language to use when they talk. This for me is the most disturbing aspect of Abu Lughod and Mikdashi’s writing: their (ab)use of feminist and anti-colonialist language to make an argument that is very damaging to women.”
Unpacking the binary oppositions that underpin this kind of rhetoric is beyond the scope of this essay. But suffice it to say, these oppositions actually depend on and inform, rather than negate, each other for their coherence.
I am definitely sympathetic to Abu Lughod and Mikdashi’s critique of the culturalization of honor killing in relation to current histories of colonialism and patriarchy. However, I would like to suggest here that (intra-family) femicide, to be more precise, must be understood at the level of the formal constitution of the structural source of the problem itself: namely, global capitalism. Since the capitalist mode of production constitutes the totality of social relations today, the critique of the culturalization of political problems should, therefore, be radicalized. After all, global capitalism ultimately generates the contradictions and conditions within which these heinous crimes are perpetrated. As the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues, “the problem with global capitalism . . . is not reduced to imperialist expansion and colonialist oppression but it involves its own logic of exclusion.” Israeli colonial policies may not explain violence against women in Arab countries or the world, as DAM members correctly note in their rejoinder to the original critique. However, reframing femicide and gender inequality in relation to global capitalism reveals a common thread that has remained invisible in the DAM controversy. Making global capitalism visible locates intra-family femicide within the material realities of economic globalization. It can also reveal the extent to which global capitalism uses colonialism and patriarchy to reproduce, and at the same time conceal, the hegemony of the global economic order.
Situating intra-family femicide within the global economy and the feminization of poverty in the new world order makes it possible to interrogate the ubiquity of misogynistic violence in patriarchal cultures not only in Arab countries but also around the world. In its global expansion to the remote corners of the world in search for new markets and cheaper sources of labor, the neoliberal ideology of economic globalization recodes women’s labor and redefines the parameters of their mobility. Consequently, traditional gender formations themselves get disrupted as Western notions of freedom and the division of labor are negotiated and appropriated. This cultural disruption happens in complete disproportion to the deteriorating economic conditions among Palestinians. More than ever, the Palestinians are excluded from Israel’s capitalist economy, which is now increasingly outsourced to migrant workers from around the world. And the crisis of tradition and gender, in turn, is violently acted out on women’s bodies.
Read in this context, the connections among the many shapes that misogynistic violence takes around the world can be discerned, be it “intra-family (honor killings), infanticide, multicidal femicide (serial killers)[,] and systemic femicide (in war zones).” These diverse forms of misogynistic violence—whether it is the one hundred million missing girls in South East Asia and East Asia that Amrtya Sen talked about over two decades ago, the commerce in refugee Syrian women in the Jordanian matrimonial market, or the hundreds of young women who are killed in the maquiladoras in the US-Mexico trans-border towns—are all connected to the hegemony of the capitalist mode of production.
In the context of the expansion of neoliberal economics in Palestine, it becomes apparent that Palestinian femicide victims like Asia’s missing women, the maquiladora workers, the Syrian refugees, or the victims of sex and labor trafficking, are rendered as a disposable property and defenseless sexual commodities. They inhabit the lowest rung of the capitalist market and about whom no one cares. This explains, as Kevorkian-Shalhoub and Daher-Nashif correctly point out, why local configurations of patriarchal authority work in cahoots with the oppressive Israeli state apparatuses and colonialist structures to regulate women’s sexuality. It also explains why the authorities do not bother to investigate these crimes or crack down on the culprits. According to the capitalist logic of surplus value, covering up these heinous crimes is more profitable than investigating them. Hence, it becomes generally acceptable that these women are exploited as workers and as women before they are marked for disposal.
In particular, this relational (not relativist) materialist analysis allows us to examine the connections between femicide in Palestine and other forms of misogynistic violence in the region. This is especially true for gender oppression in the context of the increasing polarization of wealth between the haves and have-nots in the Israeli colonial state. These forms of violence have been directly and indirectly correlated to the militarization of Israeli society and the intensification of its colonial and apartheid policies. At the same time, the increasing privatization of Israel’s welfare structures and the expansion of neoliberal economics should also be brought to the fore. For example, in 2005 Ha’artz reported that the “sharp increase in the rate of deadly domestic violence against women within Israeli households must also be seen as an indirect result of the military conflict” (emphasis added). What this report leaves out is the question of the direct cause of this violence against women in Israel. Global capitalism and its contradictions remain thus comfortably invisible.
Since the fundamental antagonism of the class struggle is the constitutive split which forms society in the capitalist mode of production, the dominant ideology will do all it can to cover up this hole in the fabric of social relations. In the name of national (Jewish) identity, hegemonic Zionist ideology in Israel will obfuscate the extent to which women in Israel—whether they are secular or Haredi Jews, migrant workers, forced laborers, or African refugees—bear the burden of these socio-economic and political policies on their bodies. As the neoliberal economic policies demand the integration of Palestinian labor force in the Israeli market, violence against women in Israel takes different forms to maintain state control over women’s bodies. This can explain the recent emergence of anti-assimilationist Zionist fundamentalist groups such as Lehava, which began organizing vigilante-style patrols to save and redeem Jewish women who are romantically involved with non-Jews, “minorities,” and foreign laborers. No wonder then that inter-ethnic dating is deemed an act of “national treason” by more than half of Israeli Jews, who frame public discourse on this issue in typical colonialist tropes that represent the Jewish woman as an innocent victim of the exploitation of the hyper-sexualized Arab man. It is in this context, moreover, that we should also comprehend not only the violence against women, and men, from different countries around the world who are trafficked in Israel for commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor, but also the violence against Israeli women who are themselves trafficked abroad to Europe and North America.
When it comes to femicide and other forms of misogynistic violence, therefore, a relational materialist analysis reveals how deeply implicated so-called “civilized and modern” countries are in the business of misogynistic violence. Even the world’s foremost superpower still refuses to ratify CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women). This relational perspective renders the racist, Orientalist basis of the culturalization of femicide moot. If the critics are concerned about the manipulation of gender violence in Orientalist discourses and racist representations to further demonize Palestinians and Arabs in the court of public opinion, it becomes imperative then that we critically examine systemic forms of inequalities in women’s lives within a materialist framework that connects violence against women to the same power structures that operate globally to exploit women and their labor.
In raising questions about the UN funding of DAM’s song, Abu-Lughod and Mikdashi have accurately touched upon the fundamental antagonism that is inherent to the capitalist mode of production. Like it or not, institutionalized forms of cosmopolitan law and the human rights regime are embedded within the ideological universe of global capitalism. To justify its expansionist policies, the latter demands the fabrication of certain images of victims of patriarchal traditions. In turn, these images are used to transform these victims into eligible candidates of international aid and humanitarian intervention. Needless to mention, humanitarian interventions have been legitimately criticized for their expansionist (neo-colonialist) agenda that is believed to usher Western democratic principles, but that in fact only facilitates the exploitation of the other as she is integrated into the global economy.
Linking honor killing to global capitalism allows for formulating an alternative politics of liberation that can align people around the fundamental antagonism of class struggle, which cuts across all genders, races, and nations. This requires not only interrogating the investment of cosmopolitan law in local social problems, but also articulating the work of progressive activists and anti-sexism cultural workers like DAM beyond the “conscious raising” strategy. Lest my point here be misunderstood, let me make it clear that it is important for men’s activism in combating misogynistic violence to be recognized. After all, violence is clearly gendered masculine, in that men inhabit a structural position of power in patriarchal societies that allow them to commit, often with impunity, the majority of gender violence in the world.
In the context of the silence about all forms of misogynistic violence in the Arab world, in particular, to have a group of men speak up against gender violence sends a powerful statement about men’s unwillingness to remain silent and complicit. Men should, and can, do a lot socially and culturally to bring an end to misogynistic violence. It is vitally important, however, to establish a direct correlation between gender violence and the crisis of masculinity that has resulted from the latest economic recession and conditions of precarity. Needless to mention, such a crisis is exacerbated under conditions of colonial occupation and apartheid such as the one we witness in Palestine. The performance of masculinities, in short, is always mediated through gender and colonial social divisions. However, class remains the most fundamental antagonism that can more cogently explain the implications of the reconfiguration of gender politics and women’s mobility and freedom in relation to the traditional gender structures and the declining powers of the male breadwinner.
To clarify, the critique of colonialism and patriarchal oppression is an important part of the global struggle for emancipation and freedom, but it must always be drawn back to the class struggle. The singular and concrete experiences of the have-nots, those who are excluded from the system, the “part of no part,” to use the French philosopher Jaques Rancière’s phrase, stand for the radical gesture of universality that is opposed to the empty principles of constitutional equality. It is through their oppression and exploitation that we can discern a glimpse of the urgency of reimagining a truly just world order.
While groups oppressed by sexist, racist, homophobic, and colonialist power structures should strive to assert their concrete universality based on their specific experiences, it is important that they also analyze these specific forms of struggle at the level of the formal constitution or fundamental antagonism of the global capitalist system. Otherwise, we will endlessly continue to add on a new dimension of oppression after another without addressing the real issue that seemingly remains impossible to symbolize. This is the only way that we can address the problem of honor-killing and the legitimacy of the struggle for gender justice, without displacing, compromising, or de-politicizing the need to formulate the universality of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid politics.
[The author would like to thank Sherene Seikaly for her valuable comments on various drafts of this essay.]