Around 4,000 academics, scholars and activists gathered from March 16-18th at Pace University’s annual Left Forum conference. As a recent Occupy activist, I was ecstatic to come across a conference that centers on issues of capitalism and imperialism, along with panels that focus on the importance of feminist discourse to envision an alternative world. The Left Forum has been organized annually for many years and its 2012 theme – “Occupy the System: Confronting Global Capitalism” – was chosen in light of the uprisings in the Arab World and Europe, as well as North America’s Occupy movement, which stemmed out of Wall Street, New York.
The Occupy Movement has been criticized for being a struggle of the white middle-class and heteronormative strata of society. As issues popped up surrounding the movement’s failure to adopt a nuanced and holistic analysis of power that would include how indigenous communities and women and people of colour in particular experience oppression at the hands of capitalism and neo-liberalism, there has been the belief that the movement doesn’t have a place for people in those groups. To some extent, I do agree. Through my experience, which I wrote about in an article for rabble.ca, the struggle of getting people (namely, men) with white heterosexual privilege to begin to unlearn their privileges became exhausting, forcing me to reconsider my position within the movement.
However, besides these frustrations, I was rejuvenated by the female panelists of colour at the Left Forum, who unapologetically called out the hypocrisies of left, progressive organizers and activists who fail to deconstruct race, gender, sexuality and class power dynamics simultaneously. One panel, entitled “Feminisms in the Time of Empire: Complicities, Contestations and Solidarities,” was composed of five women of South Asian and Arab descent who brilliantly discussed how images and discourse of gendered Muslim bodies are produced and embedded in the current capitalist and neo-liberal system. The panel was chaired by Stanford University PhD candidate and member of the Pakistan Solidarity Network, Aisha Ghani. On the panel were Saadia Toor, a teacher at CUNY university in New York; Dina Siddiqi, who teaches at the same university and whose research focuses on Islam, human rights discourses and transnational feminist politics; Maya Mikdashi, a PhD candidate at Columbia University who is also the co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya Ezine; Shefali Chanda of Washington State University; and Mitra Rastegar of New York University whose research centres on the racialization of Muslims and Arabs via the U.S. liberal media and activist discourses.
The panelists shared a common theme in that they discussed the ways that Islamophoba, in conjunction with constructions of gender and sexuality, have been formulated and used by secular feminist and human rights activists both in the West and in Muslim countries. Toor succinctly explained the role of the “clash of civilizations” ideology and its use to justify the war in Afghanistan along with increased militarization in Pakistan. Mikdashi examined how Islamophobia and the idea that “gender happens over ‘there’” has been used to frame the struggles of women and LGBT people in the Middle East, and in particular within the journalistic accounts of the Arab uprisings.
However, the most fascinating presentation was that of Dina Siddiqi, who talked about how the hegemonic Western images of Muslim peoples and places have been adopted by progressive feminists and activists, which incorporates these activists into the fabric of neo-liberal and capitalist forms of domination.
Siddiqi’s country of study is Bangladesh, a country that she noted doesn’t have a strategic role for American interests, but which is considered to be religiously moderate compared to its neighbor, Pakistan. Her presentation was based on three points that, although set within the context of Bangladesh, could easily be applied to any location where Muslim women live, including within the borders of North America. [Read more...]