Weeks before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Indian theorist Chandra Talpade Mohanty published her book, Feminism without Borders, in which she discusses the hegemony of Western feminism and its deadly transnational effects. In doing so, Mohanty did not reveal a truth that other feminists had somehow missed. She did, however, theorize what she called “third world difference”–that brute pedestal upon which western feminists stand as they survey the world. Mohanty uses the term to critique the problematic practices and relationships through which western feminism purports to speak for third world women. Mohanty describes this “difference” as “that stable, ahistorical something.” Through this difference, or perhaps a chasm, middle class culture and its history becomes a “code” that subsumes everyone’s experiences and moves them at will.
Many question the importance of difference to feminist thought. These questions can often turn into simplistic lectures on the importance of the unity of women and a belief in their shared weakness. This belief relies on the commonly held notion that men are all-powerful in society. I do not, however, want to address the matter of the gender identity and daily experiences that a “woman” and “man” are presumed to have. What I do wish to address is this repulsive idea of unity. Mohanty makes an important point when she states that “patriarchy is always necessarily male dominance, and the religious, legal, economic, and familial systems are implicitly assumed to be constructed by men,” critiquing the widely-held belief that these institutions were simply dropped upon women from the heavens.
In this context of men allegedly creating patriarchal systems, women appear pessimistic and passive, victims even in their attempts to write a counter-narrative about their experiences and resistance. Questions about difference are marginalized and summarized as “automatic self-referential, individualist ideas of the political (or feminist) subject.” That is, the experiences of women in marginalized classes and groups, or subaltern groups, become simply a tool to measure the extents of gender oppression.
In that case, how can we use difference to dismantle western hegemony on the body of feminism?
I thus write this manifesto against the Woman. Against the Woman who erected her phallus in my direction and policed me. I do not write against women, for no women can be spoken with or about. I write against the Woman, this single bothersome entity. Just like the women at the weddings my mother used to force me to attend. I often felt anxious and disturbed by spaces that were designated as only-for-women, like those for social events and as public waiting rooms. In these “safe” spaces, where we are assumed to be able to expose ourselves, it is impossible to move under the intense and piercing gaze of patriarchy without noticing it. In women’s spaces, I do not find the permitted but rather the profaned.
I write against the Woman who thinks brazenly that we are one. She, whose behind perches upon the comfortable chair of citizenship, class, and race. Against the Khaleeji “kafila” [female sponsor] who goes to work and becomes a good citizen and liberated woman on the backs of Asian servants in her home, or goes on vacation and is exempted from work at night because of the Indian or Egyptian migrant. Against the Woman who cries foul about multiple wives (polygyny) but not about having multiple servants. This Woman resembles her state and class, not other women.
I write against the Woman citizen, the excited participant in the “democratic process,” searching for an “equality” that includes only her. In Kuwait, women citizens fear the mere suggestion of granting citizenship to children of Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaitis. I remember a disapproving comment, during an electoral campaign, that opposed such a law because it “[would] allow these [children] to become equal to my own children.” The Woman citizen abhors absolute equality.
In her work on women and citizenship in Saudi Arabia, scholar Soraya Altorki has argued that citizenship can’t be a tool or path to change the status of women in Saudi society because it is a Western concept based on individualism. Thus, Altorki suggests that women should use the institution of the family in order to negotiate a better status for themselves. Altorki, a member of the Saudi elite, does not seek to demolish patriarchy, but rather assumes its timelessness and insists on its importance as a medium for change for the Saudi woman. In a chapter, published in the anthology Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, Altorki mentions no women in Saudi Arabia other than Saudi women themselves. My own research on novels by Saudi women writers, even those celebrated and translated, reveals a total absence of the Other Woman except as a passing shadow, a silent worker, a thief of husbands, or a passionate and misbehaving body.
Citizenship is membership into an exclusive society distributed by the state to create a collective reactionary identity. It is the “vehicle of nationalism,” as Suad Joseph argues, a “key concept without which the idea of the nation-state cannot be translated into practice.” The power of citizenship rests upon the power of exclusion. Like her peers among the members of the state, the Woman citizen feeds this power as she practices conditional “equality” and customizes it to her benefit. Joseph reminds us that women often ally with their social groups (class, race, religion) over or against other women.
We can never assume that women will stand with women: such an alliance as I have mentioned can only be presumed once “woman” has been fully defined. Rather, I want to say that I am against the Woman because she carries patriarchy on her shoulders, because she thrives like others on the benefits of the state, class, and the institutions of family, motherhood, and womanhood. This Woman does not marry because of her family, she does not become pregnant for her husband, she does not prefer to give birth to a son for the son’s sake, rather she does so because such acts often are a way for her to gain power and for a share in this patriarchy.
In this spirit, I conclude my call to incitement against the Woman with a poem I wrote last year called “Kumari”:
I, of course, do not know if Kumari was really your name,
It became a custom in the Gulf to change the name of the servant upon arrival,
The mama says to you, “Your name is Maryam/Fatima/Kumari/Chandra,”
Even before she gives you your cotton apron,
The same apron that the previous Kumari used
before she ran away
and became free
crowded in a single room with ten others
watching their pictures on the walls
fading under the air conditioners.
They may talk to you in English
and give you your own room,
but they will dress you in a pink uniform,
For the concubine is no longer required to seduce.
Or they may talk to you in Arabic and the language of fingers,
That which depends on hand signs in some days,
or on slapping your cheeks in others.
You might have to help the son
discover his sexual desires,
Or even sacrifice
for the father’s bodily failures.
In both cases, do not run to the police station,
From there all fathers and sons come.
You must cut your hair regularly,
Mama might get angry one day
and claim your braid as a rope in her hand.
Write all the songs that you love in a notebook,
No forgotten songs can be found here.
Get angry, Kumari,
Hang yourself with the clothesline,
Use your knife outside the kitchen,
Teach the Mama and the Baba and the Bacha a lesson,
Let them create all those myths about your gods
who ask you in your dreams
for some Khaleeji blood
to feed the belly of history.
Run, Kumari, run
And steal everything you find;
A ghost gotta act like one.
[This article was translated to English by Saqer Almarri.]