The Political is Personal

 by Sara Salem

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

The personal is political has become one of the most famous feminist slogans, created to confound the notion that what happens in the home is detached from what happens in the so-called public sphere. Over time feminists have used it to address a whole array of questions related to gender relations, patriarchy (Hanisch 1970, 2006), and race (Lorde 1979, 1984). I use the personal is political to show how it has been personal experiences and events that have led me to feminism. However, there is not a straight line between my ‘personal life’ and my becoming a feminist; often, it was my feminist convictions that impacted my ‘personal life.’

I put ‘personal life’ within quotations because I do not see a clear distinction between my personal and political life; the two are extremely porous. I believe the converse, the political is personal, is an even stronger testament to feminist history.

The varieties of feminism as well as the feminist issues that I am most interested in today, it seems, are completely divergent from the questions I had five or ten years ago; and yet, without the questions I had five or ten years ago, I would never have arrived at this point, now. Today, the questions that most interest me about feminism are centred around three areas: transnational feminism, feminism and class, and feminism and women. Each can be traced to specific events and experiences in my own life that led me to look at gender relations in specific ways. These questions and experiences are intertwined with other questions and experiences, and often contradict one another. Rather than attempt to outline a chronology, I will take each area by itself and try to trace a trajectory in my thinking. My aim is not to simply present an individualistic account of my feminist journey, but rather to highlight some of the broader debates within feminism, that continue until today, that have been central to many feminists, and that are therefore key to any feminist movement.

Transnational feminism

My father is Egyptian, my mother is Dutch, and I spent the first sixteen years of my life in Lusaka, Zambia. Since then, I have spent a total of seven years living in Egypt, three in the Netherlands, and one in the United States. On the one hand, this has meant that there is a feeling of weightlessness when it comes to nationality and ethnicity—a feeling of not really being tied down to one place, or being from one place. On the other hand, it has also meant a very acute awareness of the role of the nation, the state, ethnicity, race, and geography. The feeling of weightlessness has often been a negative experience that has led me to place unduly high value on national belonging. Related to this is the role of language: coming from an English-speaking home and having been educated in British schools, I think and articulate myself using English, the language with which I have become most comfortable. Over time, I have become intensely aware of what this means for my involvement in feminist projects in Egypt and the Netherlands, or more concretely, the limits that this places on my understanding of gender issues in diverse societies.

Recently, these feelings—of weightlessness and that I don’t really know any one context well enough to represent it or work to change it, that my knowledge of different languages is not as deep as it could be—continuously drive me to re-evaluate the role I see for myself in feminist activism and scholarship in Egyptian, Dutch, or Zambian contexts. Here the work of postcolonial feminists has been crucial to my conception of myself as limited in terms of offering a feminist analysis of certain spaces. The first time I read Chandra Mohanty’s Under Western Eyes (1988) I remember thinking: yes, this makes sense! For a long time, I had internalized liberal (white) feminist notions of what gender justice meant: equality, allowing women the choice to be like men through adopting more ‘masculine’ traits, a focus on legal reform, the right to work, the right to education, and so on. Along with this came a view of men that did not see them as similarly affected by patriarchy, but more as an enemy that needs to be attacked. I know where I got these ideas from: from my British education (where the curriculum did not teach Zambian history, languages, culture, geography or anything remotely connected to the actual place in which we were); from the media and literature to which I was exposed (from Jane Austen to Hollywood movies); and from my community (made up of many Western expats and Zambians from a certain class, a result of overt race and class segregation in most post-colonies). And yet these ideas never struck me as a specific ideology or worldview; they were natural and common sense. The moment I began to be exposed to ‘alternative’ ideas of feminism, from postcolonial feminism to Black feminism, I got the shock of my life. Many writings have been key here, from the work of Angela Davis to bell hooks, Nawal el Saadawi to Fatima Mernissi, and Chandra Mohanty to Gayatri Spivak. Although I have come to disagree with some of these writers, there is no doubt that without having had access to these formative texts, my feminist journey would have been very different.

The main inspiration that came from these writings revolved around the key idea that patriarchy was not simply about men oppressing women. “Intersectionality” has now become a buzzword, but this is precisely what these writers have shown for decades now: that women are oppressed by many different interlocking social structures. Angela Davis’ Women, Race, Class (2011) was essential here, as was Gayatri Spivak’s focus on nation and imperialism (1988). Nawal el Saadawi (2005), writing about Egypt, clearly shows the connections between capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy, and Mohanty demonstrates how liberal (white) feminism has managed to elide all of these complexities and write a very different story, where all women are assumed to be white, Western, and middle class, and where all men oppress women in the same way. The question of patriarchy and men was another learning moment: the concept that patriarchy is a structure that affects men adversely was something I saw articulated very well in the work of Black feminists. Their arguments stemmed from the fact that in places like the US, women suffered more at the hands of racism and capitalism than simply at the hands of ‘men.’ Moreover, the conditions in which marginalized groups lived served to exacerbate patriarchal violence and therefore feminists saw the need to target these structural conditions, and not merely rely on notions of men as aggressors and women as victims. Conceptions of Black men as aggressors also served to further racist notions of Black male violence, notions which Black feminists were wary of reproducing. This resonated with me, as it was what I felt about patriarchy in the postcolonial contexts of Zambia and Egypt. It seemed too simplistic to tell a story entirely about men as aggressors and women as victims as this ignored a whole host of structures implicated in patriarchy. I slowly realized that this was not a mistake or something that liberal (white) feminists had overlooked; rather it was a specific outcome of the very theoretical and material structures that gave birth to liberal feminism. In other words, liberal (white) feminists benefitted from the global structure of inequality, and were therefore often unlikely to be aware of, or able to critique, the very relations constituting this structure.

Given all of these divergences, the question that remains pertinent to me today is whether a transnational feminist movement is possible. It is clear that there are very strong dividing lines between various strands of feminism, and that they cannot be overcome simply with calls to dialogue or pluralism, both liberal ideas to begin with. The very real material differences between women around the world are one of the main reasons solidarity remains untenable. Rather than analyzing these differences through the lens of privilege—which has become extremely popular—I believe it is more productive to look at these differences from the perspective of structures and representations. Indeed it seems to me that as feminists, our goal should be to dismantle these very structures and representations that produce divisions between women (and men) rather than to simply focus on patriarchy. Patriarchy as a structure is not isolated but rather co-constituted by other structures such as race, religion, and so on. All of these structures are conditioned by the capitalist moment we are in. Similarly, representations are intrinsically tied to more than one structure, and therefore cannot be analyzed separately from them or from one another. The way Egyptian women are represented in a given text or film, for example, is connected to the economic, to the political, to the social, and so on. The picture is therefore complex with regards to transnational feminism. It is not simply about, for example, white feminists recognizing their privilege they have racially; it is about the very structures producing that privilege and the question of how to dismantle it.

Class politics

There is little doubt that growing up in Zambia and later living in Egypt—both previous British colonies, although Egypt was more of a protectorate while Zambia was a full-fledged colony—made it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore questions of class. My own class privilege also played a big role, as it attuned me to how feminist movements in African contexts are often dominated by middle and upper class women (and men) and that this can easily result in paternalism. However, including class in my analysis did not necessarily mean focusing on capitalism, and to this day I am wary of analysis that claims to do class analysis but that takes class as simply designating income or socioeconomic indicators. My exposure to Marxist approaches to the question of capitalism happened during my MA degree at the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands. As an institute, it is an extremely critical space where critiques of capitalism and neoliberalism were commonplace. It was during my time there that I became acquainted with neoclassical and Keynesian approaches to economics, as well as Marxism. I went through the same process with neoclassical economics that I had gone through with liberal feminism: the initial shock that what I had thought was common sense was in fact one approach of understanding the economy among many others, followed by an increasing attraction to historical materialism.

Another crucial development that attuned me to the question of capitalism was the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Here was an event, taking place in a society that had undergone significant neoliberalization over the past few decades, and yet much of the analysis was silent on the question of capitalism and Egypt’s position within the global economy. Here again I saw the difference between work that looked at ‘class’ simplistically, and work that instead looked at capitalism and class. It struck me as absurd that Egypt could be analyzed separately from the global system. This again comes from my experiences of living in both Zambia and Egypt, and the similarities I saw between them. The British had colonized both, and both countries had their economies restructured to facilitate the export of precious raw materials; cotton in the case of Egypt and copper in the case of Zambia. In the words of Frantz Fanon:

‘Colonialism hardly ever exploits the whole of a country. It contents itself with bringing to light the natural resources, which it extracts, and exports to meet the needs of the mother country’s industries, thereby allowing certain sectors of the colony to become relatively rich. But the rest of the colony follows its path of underdevelopment and poverty, or at all events sinks into it more deeply,’ (1963, 7). 

Both Egypt and Zambia suffered from a native bourgeoisie subservient to global capital, which claimed to represent nationalist sentiments but did little more than reproduce imperialism. Fanon described this bourgeoisie and how thoroughly damaging they are to any goals of independence.  He has written, for example, that ‘[t]he national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner,’ (Ibid., 152-153). In considering these two major similarities between the two countries, I saw that there is an international division of labour, determined by capitalism, that is both heavily racialized and heavily gendered. Connecting this to the Netherlands, I saw that the Dutch people could not have the standard of living they did unless people in the Global South experienced drastic amounts of poverty and deprivation. All these were connected; and it seemed that Marxists were, thus far, the most astute at analyzing these global connections. Here, the most important writer who influenced me has been Samir Amin, an Egyptian Marxist who has worked on capitalism and imperialism (1974, 1979, 1980); another is Patrick Bond, whose work I discovered very recently. Bond’s writing on South Africa and Zimbabwe from a Marxist perspective resonated with my own experiences in Zambia and Egypt (2000, 2003).

All of this led me to the inevitable question of feminism and capitalism. Here I have found a field that has posed perhaps the most important critique of liberal feminism. The centering of class has meant that liberal assumptions about what constitutes gender equality—the right to work, for example—have been thoroughly critiqued. Silvia Federici has written that,

‘The women’s movement must realize that work is not liberation. Work in a capitalist system is exploitation and there is no pleasure, pride, or creativity in being exploited. Even the “career” is an illusion as far as self-fulfillment is concerned. What is rarely acknowledged is that most career-type jobs require that you exert power over other people, often other women, and this deepens the divisions between us,’ (2012, 57).

Marxist feminism has shown the class bias of liberal feminism and this has played a central role in critiques of liberal feminism in general. Here I have been influenced by Selma James, Angela Davis, Cinzia Arruzza, Silvia Federici, and Maria Dalla Costa. This work is increasingly important as ideas of ‘lean-in feminism’ become more popular (Sandberg 2013).

Despite the strong critical trend within Marxist feminism, there have been questions raised about its Eurocentrism. However, I have found the work of Federici, James, and Davis illuminating as excellent examples of how a theory developed within Europe can provide conceptual tools that can be used elsewhere. Indeed, the strong focus on imperialism and its connections to patriarchy across the globe have allowed some Marxist feminists to move beyond Eurocentrism. Silvia Federici, for example, has provided excellent analyses of patriarchy and capitalism at the global scale: ‘There is a tendency to view the problems women face internationally as a matter of “human rights” and privilege legal reform as the primary means of governmental intervention. This approach however fails to challenge the international economic order that is the root cause of the new forms of exploitation to which women are subject. Also the campaign against violence against women, that has taken off in recent years, has centered on rape and domestic violence, along the lines set by the United Nations. It has ignored the violence inherent in the process of capitalist accumulation that, through the ’80s and ’90s, have cleared the way to economic globalization,’ (2012, 66). It seems to me that many Eurocentric Marxist feminists have also been able to address critiques they have received from Black feminists, among others. In Michele Barrett’s classic book, The Marxist Feminist Encounter (2014), she admits in her updated preface that she had been wrong in her conceptualization of the family as a space that was oppressive by default . Following critiques from Black British feminists, who argued that for them the family was not an oppressive space but rather one within which women recovered from racism from the state, Barrett realized that racism complicated assumptions many European Marxists had taken for granted. Similarly, the Italian Marxist feminists associated with autonomous Marxism, such as Maria Dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, drew extensively on critiques they received from Black and postcolonial feminists about some of their Eurocentric assumptions (Bohrer 2014). What has been refreshing has been the incorporation of these critiques as a way of expanding the critical potential of Marxist feminism.

Feminism and the woman question

Feminist approaches that look at gender relations as a whole have been more inspiring to my own journey than those that take women as the center of analysis. It is not a question of denying the presence of patriarchy in African contexts, nor the destructive gender dynamics it produces, but by focusing on patriarchy as though it is something only affecting women, we not only obscure masculinities and gender relations, but we also de-emphasise how patriarchy, as a social structure, is part and parcel of other social structures, from capitalism to racism. Precisely because of these issues, I am finding it increasingly difficult to write about ‘Egyptian women’ or ‘African women.’ Indeed, it is even difficult to write about ‘gender in Egypt.’ Because once this becomes an essentialised sphere of knowledge, it is difficult to come to a complex understanding of how gender and patriarchy reproduce, and how we can undo them.

Recent work that has used ethnography has been useful in showing how gender is created through femininities and masculinities, as well as how men are also affected by capitalism, nationalism, and other social categories. Farha Ghannam’s Live and die like a man: gender dynamics in urban Egypt (2013) has been a favourite of mine. She clearly shows, for example, that neoliberalization has had extremely adverse impacts on Egyptian men and how this has affected notions of masculinity. The point is not to detract from the fact that patriarchy benefits all men—albeit to different extents—but rather that it is also a structure that oppresses all men. Gender justice will therefore come about through the elimination of patriarchy, not simply the empowering of women.

Reflecting on the question of ‘women’ and feminism began when I was thinking of what I wanted to write for my PhD dissertation. I had just finished an MA on gender and development, and it was a year after the Egyptian revolution. My instinct was to focus on gender and the revolution. I wanted to ‘do gender’ and understand ‘gender and the 2011 Egyptian revolution.’ But this soon began to feel like I was analyzing only part of a story. I chose to do something different: focus on the revolution as a political economic event that needs to be contextualized and historicized. Instead of taking gender or women as my subject, I have taken the event itself as a subject and have been using feminist tools to analyze it. It has been difficult and trying, and yet I think this is definitely one way forward to move away from the tendencies to understand events only by looking at the role of women in them.

Of course this is not new. I have been fascinated with how some feminist scientists have taken feminist methodologies and applied them in science, which has led to groundbreaking research (Martin 1991, Harding 1986). Doing this within the field of African feminism could be just as promising: a way to furthering the feminist cause as well as move beyond seeing women as a solitary and simplistic category of analysis. It could also move us past the focus on gender as part of a field called gender studies, and instead spread feminist methodologies throughout disciplines. I’m still trying to think through this idea of feminist methodologies rather than feminism as a field or discipline on its own (which makes it easy to ghettoize it). This would mean African feminists working in all disciplines on all topics, rather than working only on the question of gender in African contexts. This would be one way of spreading the incredibly useful tools we have gained from feminists doing gender analysis and making them truly inter-disciplinary. For the foreseeable future, this is my project, as a feminist while African.

Works cited

Amin, Samir, and Samir Amin. “Accumulation on a world scale.” (1974).

Amin, Samir. Class and nation, historically and in the current crisis. Monthly Review Press, 1980.

Amin, Samir. “Unequal development: An essay on the social formations of peripheral capitalism.” (1976): 525-541.

Barrett, Michele. Women’s oppression today: The Marxist/feminist encounter. Verso Books, 2014.

Bohrer, Ashley. “Fanon and Feminism: The Discourse of Colonization in Italian Feminism.” Interventions ahead-of-print (2014): 1-16.

Bond, Patrick. Elite transition: From apartheid to neoliberalism in South Africa. London: Pluto Press, 2000.

Bond, Patrick, and Masimba Manyanya. Zimbabwe’s plunge: exhausted nationalism, neoliberalism, and the search for social justice. University of natal Press, 2003.

Davis, Angela Y. Women, race, & class. Vintage, 2011.

El-Saadawi, Nawal. “Imperialism and sex in Africa.” Female Circumcision and the Politics of Knowledge: African Women in Imperialist Discourses. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger (2005): 21-26.

Fanon, Frantz. The wretched of the earth: The handbook for the black revolution that is changing the shape of the world. Grove Press, 1963.

Ghannam, Farha. Live and die like a man: Gender dynamics in urban Egypt. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Harding, Sandra G. The science question in feminism. Cornell University Press, 1986.

Martin, Emily. “The egg and the sperm: How science has constructed a romance based on stereotypical male-female roles.” Signs (1991): 485-501.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses.” Feminist review (1988): 61-88.

Salem, Sara, and Karim Malak. “Reorientalizing the Middle East: The Power Agenda Setting Post-Arab Uprisings.” META (2015). Forthcoming.

Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean in: women, work, and the will to lead. Knopf, 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the subaltern speak?” (1988).