When Lynndie Rana England, along with eleven other American military personnel, was convicted of sexually assaulting and torturing detainees in Abu Gharib, a peculiar stance surfaced in the contemporary discourse of feminism: Among liberal feminists and a certain strata of radical feminists, this comparatively young, white and Western woman was being heralded as righteous harbinger of justice against the specter of the bearded and brown Muslim man. We were told – aggressively and indignantly – that the acceptable strength of womanhood lies in utilizing the liberal state’s apparatus in spreading ‘democracy’ abroad – specifically in the scary Muslim majority East. It was insisted that England was a feminist icon – just like Laura Bush – for hauling Iraqi men around on a leash and assisting the strappado hanging of Manadel al-Jamadi that led to his death. Conveniently omitted from this prototypical account of American justice was the fact that another female American soldier had also recorded the ‘corrective’ rape of an Iraqi teenage boy.
Back home in the United States, Laura Bush was less a feminist and more of a sidekick of her husband. While terming the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as a feminist attempt to rescue women from local patriarchal violence, Bush occupied both countries but what he did not mention was how on his very first day in the Oval office, he cut off monetary funding to all international family-planning organizations that offered abortion services to the economically abject and counseling to women suffering domestic abuse. This was nothing new: Former heads of neo-colonial and imperial states have normally hijacked feminist rhetoric for their own nefarious goals. One only needs to throw a cursory glance over the ‘gender egalitarian’ rhetoric of generals from the British Empire that aspired to ‘save’ women from colonies while neglecting the gender violations within their own lands. What did raise eyebrows, however, was the increasingly complicit silence Western feminists displayed while the often-male, often-white heads of states would engage in repressive foreign policy as well as cementing prison industrial complexes in their own countries, which specifically targeted men belonging to the lower socio-economic strata of society.
The theft of feminism is nothing nascent to anyone studying the chronological order of feminist waves but in the past decade – or more now – one cannot help but notice that female liberation has become ensnared in a perilous liaison with neoliberal efforts to construct a free-market society. This is what we call neoliberal feminism; a feminism that finds nothing inherently depraved with the mechanism of neoliberalism. It is not limited to willfully adopting cutthroat capitalist ideals of power that throw families on the fringe of social institutions but it is also, in Foucauldian terms, a ‘conduct of conduct’ that remains pathologically obsessed with individualist achievements attained primarily in the center of neoliberal bureaucracy. The male is, as the author of Saving the Muslim Woman Basuli Deb explained brilliantly, normative in neoliberal feminism and nothing is changed. Under neoliberal feminism, women aspire to corporate ideals of success that – like it or not – largely infringe upon the basic rights of the working class. There is a reason why young women are being purposefully advised by the likes of ex- State Department officials such as Sheryl Sandberg to ‘lean in’ instead of critically questioning the dynamics of elite liberal feminism.
Furthermore, this (quite literally commodified) brand of feminism is produced as the faux discursive modality to portray the West as the bastion of progression and freedom when it is anything but. Let us take into consideration the harrowing fact that the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with at least 2.2 million people present in the nation’s prisons or jails. Under this neoliberal democracy, a 500% increase over the last forty years has been witnessed as the prison industrial complex grows like a cancer. Absent from the analysis of American liberal feminists fixated on ‘saving women in the Middle East,’ through M16s and missiles is the state-sanctioned precarity that black and brown American women become victims of. You will not hear Laura Bush, or any First Lady of a neoliberal empire, raise this contention and bring international focus – let alone humanitarian intervention – to it. Of course, it gives a bad impression but most importantly, it reveals how hollow the feminist rhetoric of neoliberal feminism is as it only upholds the security of the upper and upper-middle classes while throwing the poor man – and woman – under the roaring bus.
Some would argue that the demise of feminist politics began when Reagan and Thatcher collaborated to promote privatization and deregulation for the sake of safeguarding the freedom of the individual to compete and consume without interference from the state. What many present-day activists for women’s rights forget – or choose to remain blind to – is the mode through which capitalism co-opts all sorts of opposition to its own ends. It’s a slippery and ugly slope. An example of this distressing reality is the emergence of pseudo-emancipating ‘feminists’ who state that pornography – a male-dominated, for-profit exploitative industry built on the flesh of women including underaged girls – is a medium through which women can ‘reclaim’ their sexuality. The irony renders one nauseous but even worse: This liberal understanding of a lone individual’s ‘empowerment’ becomes a tool in the destruction of lives on a macro-social level. Stoya and Sasha Grey, we are told, are the real feminists of modern age while women who refuse to become traumatized objects for male consumers are prudish and ‘anti-liberation.’ Yet again, neoliberal feminism partakes in the physical, sexual, mental and economic abusive profiteering of a woman and her rights.
Material feminism – one that is cognizant of the effect of class on a woman’s life – is vital. A bourgeois variant of feminism serves the bourgeois woman alone, no one else. We have seen the outcome of the imperial feminist and her entrepreneurial sister – both often the same person – and we know what good is the stance to drop bombs on women to save them and the stance that bellows of empowerment meanwhile employing child labor for domestic work. If young feminists of today seek a better tomorrow, they must materialize efforts on collective social justice – instead of individualist advancement – that is exceptionally compassionate to the needs of the overburdened and impaired. It is the only way forward. There is no other way.
Written for The Nation, Pakistan.
Note: On a similar note, it seems as if leftist circles finally see there’s something wrong with Hillary Clinton/militarist feminism. In other news, water is wet.