This is my response to a letter I got in response to my previous post about racism and marginalisation of the experiences and issues of women of colour in the feminist movement by the person who actually made the comments which I talk about there. The whole letter is shared here, part by part (and enclosed in quotation marks), and my response right below each part, with a note of my own at the end – not included in my response to the letter writer. I thought I should share since it deals with a few questions many might have. The letter started with “Dear author of [the name of my post]”
“I’m sorry that I made those claims that were so offensive to you about the image of the young woman of South East Asian decent being Islamophobic and later Orientalism, while also accusing you of white privilege. I’m truly sorry that I allowed my white privilege to get ahead of trying to understand your social location.”
Thank you for apologising. I appreciate it. I was apprehensive you would ignore it and jump in to defend yourself. I should’ve expected more than such a negative response, you being a feminist would know more than most others about different forms of privilege. However, I have met many feminist women who did not accept any privilege(s) they might have due to race, class, being cis, etc; I think it is not wholly unwise of me to be wary.
“My misinterpretations of your intentions has all to do with reading your imagine solely from my social location and set of beliefs. I strongly believe in questioning the dominant culture, but I try to be wary of colonialism in my own words and the words of others. I would never say one culture is better than another, never demand another culture end its cultural practice, and maybe that’s too politically correct of me, but I’ll take the risk.”
Yes, I can understand why you (and countless others) do that. You are entrenched in privilege; you are used to seeing things YOUR way, you and your problems being the default – be it on social networking sites, blogs, discussion forums, etc – with a token piece on Asian/African problems. Sometimes. And even then, can’t be too harsh, can it? I also appreciate that you try to question and be wary of your own privileges. That is good – and more than most do. Yes, all cultures are different. And of course you shouldn’t go about telling cultures to stop their practices (I sure wouldn’t go to a beach and tell people “dress how my culture dresses, you indecent people!”)
Not that they are, I don’t judge people on their clothes and I wish most people thought that way. However, there is a difference between a “cultural practice” and human rights violations. I won’t say “Hey, y’know what? That pro-life stand? It is totally American culture. Let me not condemn it or try to raise awareness of the horrible laws being passed.”
Perhaps it will not matter much, because online feminist spaces are largely monopolised by first world countries and you may say “OK, go on – do it. I won’t stop you”. See, it won’t matter much to you – you are privileged enough to know that even if I don’t speak out, there will be many more who will because (and I’m repeating myself) the online feminist spaces are largely monopolised by first world countries. And here is the basic difference. You can afford to have a few people not speak out. I can’t. I can’t afford to have every attempt of mine to talk about my issues silenced, I can’t afford to have my culture’s issues not talked about, I can’t afford to have people, even if they are not willing to talk, shut me up from talking and not giving me enough space to have my voice heard. I can’t afford any of that. I can’t afford to NOT have a voice when a woman in India is raped every 30 min, a crime against a woman is committed every 3 min, where a woman dies a dowry-related death every 70 min (approx) [and these were the statistics in 2006], apart from marital rape STILL not being criminalised because apparently Indian families would be shattered, foetuses are aborted everyday simply BECAUSE THEY ARE FEMALE, infants are killed right after their birth (or within a few days or weeks at the most) because they are female, the mortality rate for girl children (up to 5 yrs of age) in India is 40% higher than boy children, a vast majority of females are not sent to school because they are females, even in “privileged” classes, and of that small minority who are educated, few become qualified to the extent males are (“who would want such an educated girl?”), even poverty-stricken people somehow send the boy child to school, but not the girl (because, after all, the boy is going to look after and earn for the parents in their old age, and will also “bring a wife” to do all the housework, she will be a baby-making machine and a sex slave, with sexual exploitation by family members as well, and even if she DOES complain, which she probably won’t because it is a matter of her “honour”, the Indian judicial system will do bullshit to help her, i.e., IF it goes to the judicial system and does not remain stuck in the “I filed an F.I.R” stage and the consequent moral lecture by the police – the girl is the property of her husband and his family) and add to that the pay gap, constant objectification as a sex object, being thought of as lesser than human who needs her husband/brother/father/son/closest male relative to make her decision for her, her “honour” being associated with the family’s – more specifically the males in the family’s “honour”, stricter gender roles than you can ever imagine, more internalised misogyny than you have ever seen, forced to marry, conceive, abort if the foetus is female, conceive again, abort again, sold off if she turns out to be “useless” or killed, harassed constantly for dowry, forced to put her needs after everybody in the family (and the larger society’s ideas of propriety), and SO MANY OTHER THINGS. I don’t even know from where I should start addressing these issues. And unlike in first world countries, such restrictions are not mostly psychological restraints, these are REAL, material restraints where you can be KILLED for deviating from social norms, where most women do not even have the basic means for emancipation, do not even know they have human rights, that their life is valuable too. Add to those MRAs and Save Indian Family foundation, an “organisation of harassed husbands”, who wish to turn the clock back on WHATEVER LITTLE HAS BEEN ACHIEVED.
You would never demand that other cultures’ practices end even when they so grossly violate a human life’s integrity? Forget about the whole race issue for a while; do you not feel that you have an ethical duty to protest against this? Please don’t endorse these crimes, because that is what you’re doing under the guise of “culture”. This is what plenty of people in India do too, they endorse it in the name of “culture” and “tradition”. You have a voice, an elite minority here has a voice. They do not. Please do not inadvertently support the misogynists, patriarchs, and sexists here.
Now, I’m not asking you to be patronising to women of colour, or speak for them but at the very least you can support them? And by the way, protesting against human rights violations does not mean patronising. Protest against them, listen to us on how we protest, what ways we figure out to fight such practices (telling us how to fight The Patriarchy – unique in its manifestations in this part of the world – more violent than most other places, how to solve these issues is patronising), but fight we must, protest we must, not endorse it with “culture”.
“I posted on that image because I have seen numerous images like it held up by white people here at home, I have heard there meaning behind it and there is nothing subtle about it. I am a racist because I am white in a white-privileges society and could do so much more to speak out against racial oppression and discrimination when all to often I fall silent. I am sorry that the time I thought I could speak up, was the time I was absolutely wrong to do so.”
You know what? In India, we have Muslims and Hindus at each others’ throats all the time (“oh, look at the criminal’s name! Those Muslims/Hindus are all like that!”). I know how it feels when another community is targeted and it is implied (and sometimes said out loud) that whatever misogyny/sexism, etc is prevalent is due to some intrinsic vice the community has. Like no amount of laws, education, change can help the society be anything BUT misogynist/sexist/racist/casteist, like it is something inextricably moulded into the genes of the people from a particular community. It is wrong, and liberals realise it. What often happens after that is that we try to defend any/all actions done by the community in the name of “culture”, “traditions”, “who are you to say they can’t do that? Bigot!”. That is also wrong. The right way to approach it would be to recognise that there is nothing biologically wrong with the people of a particular community which influences them to act this way, but that currently, the community/nation/religion does act in a misogynist/sexist/bigoted manner, and the violation of human rights is socially sanctioned by the particular group, and it is our ethical duty to protest that, to fight that, to support our sisters in the fight.
Will you see me saying “oh, FGM is in their culture, I do not believe in telling other cultures to end their practices, I’m politically correct, I can’t help it!”?
Absolutely NOT. I also do not believe in telling other cultures what to do/wear, etc. I do not believe in saying “just stop wearing dresses, STOP IT”. You know what I also don’t believe in? Endorsing human rights violations in the name of “culture” and/or turning a blind eye towards it. It is not only you (unknowingly or not) who does that. Many people in this part of the world also do that. And that contributes much to the tolerance of such abominable violence.
“You are absolutely right to call me on my limited knowledge, and cultural biases — I know they exist. I am sorry for offending you, and by extension all women of colour who have fought to end there unique gender and racial oppressions. I’m truly sorry at how misdirected my comments were.
In future, how do you think I should react to such imagery?”
I hope you did not take anything as a personal insult (saying this feels weird, you should not be insulted by me expressing my views on how such violence is endorsed by first world feminists too [other than the usual people who simply do not care about a woman and her struggles], just like a man should not feel insulted when he learns about male privilege and how he knowingly or not, endorses the current social order).
I think you will find the answer to that question in previous paragraphs. Hopefully, we feminists can work together in the future, supporting each other and women of colour will stop being silenced, their issues will stop being marginalised, the misogyny they face will stop being endorsed.
I have often read about how “warm and welcoming” the “arms of feminism” are, but.. does that hold true for only white, cis women?
I used to feel joy and pride whenever I read such statements – when I didn’t speak about such issues. But, now? I don’t know… is this whole “feminism realises and includes the experience of women regardless of whether they are lesbian/trans/women of colour etc “ just a sick pretence where basically very few things have changed in practice from the time it was mainly a white, heteronormative, middle-class movement?
I’m starting to wonder.