Sunday, 22 December 2013

Priyamvada Gopal's Double Bind

Gender Segregation and the Postmodern Politics of Despair

[M]y concern here is less with postmodernism as a slippery epistemological stance and more with its effect on our political climate and mood - its well-advertised but fictitious radicalism (which rapidly dissolves into a celebration of cultural difference), its privileging of the "local" (as against "master narratives" emphasising universal rights) and, consequently, its curious affinity with the most reactionary ideas of Islamic fundamentalism. For the two share a common ground - an unremitting hostility to the social cultural and political processes of change and knowledge and rationality, originating in the West, known as modernity. 
Haideh Moghissi quoted by Meredith Tax in her pamphlet Double Bind

 *    *    *

In August 2010, Time magazine responded to the leaking of classified documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan with a gruesome cover story reminding its readers of the misogyny and sadism of the Taliban. It featured the face of a young Afghan girl whose nose and ears had been cut off after she fled abusive in-laws. The caption read: "What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan".

In the Guardian, a Cambridge-based academic named Priyamvada Gopal declared herself scandalised. "Misogynist violence is unacceptable," she allowed, "but...."
...we must also be concerned by the continued insistence that the complexities of war, occupation and reality itself can be reduced to bedtime stories. Consultation with child psychologists apparently preceded Time's decision to run the image, but the magazine decided that in the end it was more important for children (and us) to understand that "bad things do happen to people" and we must feel sorry for them.
Gopal, it seems, felt emotionally blackmailed by Time's stark representation of one of Afghanistan's most terrible realities. I feel I ought to assume that some part of her understands that pre-medieval religious codes mandating the mutilation of 18-year olds are completely deplorable. But nowhere in her article could she bring herself to actually say this. For to have done so, in Gopal's mind, would have been to endorse a neo-colonialist narrative which invokes women's rights only to denigrate the "other" and to drum up support for Imperialist wars of aggression.

So, instead, she buried her concerns about the spiteful disfigurement of Afghan girls and women, and instead mounted a furious defence of Afghan culture and an equally furious denunciation of the West's alleged hypocrisy. Time's use of such an emotive image, she argued, was simply another instance of the West egregiously misrepresenting the Global South as inferior and backward:
Formulaic narratives are populated by tireless Western humanitarians, sex-crazed polygamous paedophiles (most Afghan men) and burqa-clad "child-women" who are broken in body and spirit or have just enough doughtiness to be scripted into a triumphal Hollywood narrative.
Apparently by now oblivious to the fact that the young girl in question was - and still is - a survivor of real and horrific male violence, Gopal dismissed her image with this:
The mutilated Afghan woman ultimately fills a symbolic void where there should be ideas for real change.
...before concluding:
[The affluent West's] bankrupt version of modernity has little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators. A radical people's modernity is called for – and not only for the embattled denizens of Afghanistan.
And there it is. Free societies are reduced to bikini lines and talk shows even as theocratic barbarism is defended with accusations of intolerance and demands for context and nuance. Meanwhile, what this proposed "radical people's modernity" consists of or how Gopal's "ideas for real change" were to be attained remains a mystery...

Three years later, we find Gopal on the Rationalist Association website (of all places) fretting about the controversy surrounding gender segregation of public meetings organised by Islamists.

To recap: a body known as Universities UK had issued guidance recommending campuses segregate audiences by gender at the request of religious speakers. The rationale for this was that a failure to do so would preclude the speaker from appearing and would therefore violate his right to free speech. UUK were evidently concerned that defending the neutrality of public space, the equality of men and women, and the freedom to sit where one likes, might be perceived as the intolerant imposition of Western norms. The satirist behind the Jesus and Mo cartoons had his protagonists explain the Möbius-strip logic of UUK's advice like this:

So, naturally, Gopal's article begins with a long attack - not on the religiously-mandated subordination of women, but on its opponents. These awful people, we are given to understand, are the chauvinistic defenders of fraudulent and oppressive 'Western values', or what Gopal describes as "an intolerant Western 'liberalism’ passing itself off as ‘secular’, ‘enlightened’ and more knowing-than-thou".

Singled out for particular abuse is a counter-extremism organisation called Student Rights, whose alleged double-standards (it is strongly implied but not quite stated) betray racist motives. (The Rationalist Association afforded Student Rights a right of reply, and their spokesman Rupert Sutton's patient response to Gopal's litany of insinuations and accusations can be read here).

Beyond a glancing, scornful reference to 'decent nice liberal men', principled left-wing opposition to University UK's dismal guidance is omitted, as is the involvement of what Gopal would call 'people of colour'. All the better to paint the opposition as cynical, reactionary and opportunistic, which is precisely what Gopal spends the first half of her article doing:
The battle lines were drawn once again between so-called ‘muscular liberals’ (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices.
Gopal immediately declares herself tired of this "exhausted binary" but the language with which she describes it makes it clear where her sympathies ultimately lie, and it is not with ghastly, bullying Western secularists and egalitarians.

Nonetheless, something does appear to have changed in the three years since Gopal directed her splenetic diatribe at Time magazine. Her bug-eyed loathing of the West remains undiminished, but her discomfort with the treatment of women within some 'subaltern' groups and sects seems to have increased.

Of course, once she finally gets around to tackling the issue, the tone of Gopal's article changes completely. Gone is the invective, the derision and the venom with which she attacks the campaign against UUK's advice. In its place is an almost deferential tact with which Gopal now gingerly approaches the messy business of criticising the cultural practices of the already 'marginalised' and 'othered':
I grew up in a context where gender segregation in many public spaces is common and ostensibly voluntary but far from making me comfortable with custom, it caused me and others concern [...] Are such arrangements always just ‘harmless symbols’ of community identity? Selective attacks on our communities make the job of self-analysis more difficult but we should not let our thoughts and actions be entirely determined by those we oppose.
In seeking to adopt a more critical stance without renouncing her postmodern dogma, Gopal has entangled herself in a double-bind. Her support for the underdog requires her respectfully to suspend criticism of communities she perceives as persecuted. But this seems to be colliding with a nagging suspicion that segregation by gender on the basis of patriarchal religious codes is objectively demeaning to women. And so she furrows her brows and she wrings her hands:
The fact is that challenging traditions and questioning authority are practices common to all societies; changing in response to circumstances is a human capacity and not one limited to a particular culture. It is at our peril that we, particularly women who come from non-European communities, cede or suppress that capacity in the cause of anti-racism, vital though the latter is.
This is in fact remarkably similar to the conclusion reached by a pamphlet on this very subject released by Gita Sahgal's think tank The Centre for Secular Space. The pamphlet, written by leftist American academic Meredith Tax, is entitled Double Bind: The Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights. In its pages, Tax sets out to explore why the soi dissant anti-imperialist Western Left are prepared to find common cause with the Islamic far-right, when it is perfectly possible to oppose racism whilst also opposing regressive cultural and religious traditionalism within minority communities.

The big difference is that, having argued this, Tax goes on to put it into practice, condemning those NGOs and leftists willing to align themselves with the Islamists. Gopal, on the other hand, never gets around to actually condemning gender apartheid. How can she? Meredith Tax, Gita Sahgal and the Centre for Secular Space believe in the universality and indivisibility of human rights. Gopal appears to believe that morality and rights are culturally-specific and therefore relative. So to unequivocally condemn Islamist gender segregation requires a moral judgement she does not feel herself authorised to make. To do so is to risk promoting exactly the kind of Western cultural supremacism she most abhors.

If she starts to embrace moral objectivity and universalism, her cultural relativism will simply fall apart, and she will be forced to confront the unhappy fact that the West's democracies, while imperfect, have a lot to recommend them in terms of the liberties, rights and protections they afford their citizens. On the other hand, now that Gopal has voiced her concerns about religiously-mandated gender apartheid - weak and tentative though they may have been - she can't easily return to a relativist free-for-all in which respect for cultural difference is absolute. On the contrary, her doubts about the beliefs and practices of the Islamic far-right may multiply. So she is trapped. And the predictable upshot is dissonance and paralysis.

For all its fulminating, Gopal's article adds up to nothing more radical than a polite request that she be allowed to raise her concerns, providing they are carefully weighed and that she first reaffirm her own anti-racist credentials with a bitter tirade against the alleged agenda of The Right. Like all big political postmodern ideas, when you strip this one down it's just another prescription for agnosticism and inaction. If Gopal can't decide whether or not gender apartheid ought to be defended or condemned, then the chances of her actually doing anything about it one way or the other are nil.

The double-bind can only be resolved by agreeing to the universality of individual human rights, the axiomatic worth of liberal, democratic values and the consequent need to defend them where they exist and to support those fighting for them where they do not. This requires discarding the following faulty assumptions governing much of Western postmodern and anti-imperialist thought:
  • The Muslim Right is anti-Imperialist
  • "The Defence of Muslim Lands" is comparable to National Liberation struggles
  • The problem is "Islamophobia"
  • Terrorism is justified by revolutionary necessity
  • Any feminist who criticises the Muslim Right is an Orientalist and ally of US Imperialism
"Solidarity" concludes Tax, "is the only way to cut through the double bind."

Gopal, however, will have none of this. She prefers the late Edward Said's advice: "Never solidarity before criticism". Theoretically, this is good advice, and informs Tax and Sahgal's criticisms of Amnesty's alliance with Cage Prisoners, for instance. Alas, no doubt following Said's own example, Gopal's 'criticism' amounts to accusing anyone disinclined to share her nuanced view of Islamist dogma of bad faith and racism.

On twitter, she dismissed the leftist journalist Nick Cohen's passionate and principled opposition to UUK's advice (here and here), by declaring: "I would fervently hope that nothing I say is as crude or bigoted as Nick Cohen". When asked by Cohen to elaborate she replied:
Yes, didn't think you understand. My critique comes from a very different place from yrs...Mine is not white boy muscular liberalism--zero time [for] it, makes our lives harder.
And when the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain asked if they could expect her support in future, she retorted:
When you do something for the right reason and in the right company, certainly. Not impressed with some of your current allies.
She rejects Cohen's support because he is white and male. She refuses CEMB's support because they accept Cohen's. She ignores completely the contribution of principled female activists 'of colour' like like Yasmin Alibai-Brown, Sara Khan (who received so much abuse for her position, she locked her twitter account), Gita Sahgal, Nahla Mahmoud, Pragna Patel, Marieme Helie Lucas, Yasmin Rehman and countless others - the very voices she find it expedient to claim are being silenced by the xenophobic, racist right.

Given that her exacting standards of what constitutes legitimate criticism or authentic solidarity appear to depend upon the unalterable characteristics of the speaker and not the reasonableness or otherwise of the views they espouse, it's almost comical that Gopal should cry:
Why are some women pilloried as traitors or ‘Useful Idiots’ if they express a dissenting view from that of traditionalists on such matters [as gender-segregated seating]? 
...and then immediately follow that with this:
There is no doubt that both racism and xenophobia is on the rise, with Muslims and Islam singled out for attack. It is essential to fight back.
If you aggressively peddle persecution narratives and identity politics and encourage a siege mentality, then this is what happens. Dissent will be treated with suspicion and free thought as betrayal. Open debate will, inevitably, be replaced by fearful conformity. Dissidents in migrant communities - especially women - already face considerable obstacles when it comes to speaking out, from the rigid, patriarchal values they oppose. The kind of divisive tribal narrative Gopal is selling only poisons the environment further. As Tax explains:
Any feminist in the UK or North America who raises issues of gender politics in Muslim majority countries is likely to be called an Orientalist [...] If she is white, she will be told she is colonialist; if she is a woman of colour or feminist from the Global South, she will be considered to lack authenticity. She will be accused of "essentialising" political Islam and ignoring differences within it; of lacking nuance and failing to contextualise; of having internalised ideas of Western superiority; of perpetuating binaries as progressive vs. reactionary, liberal vs conservative, secular vs fundamentalist; of being a traitor to her community and culture. 
It never seems to occur to Gopal that it is her strongly-implied argument that gender equality is peculiar to the West that best reflects the paternalistic chauvinism of Imperialism. As the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner once argued:
The Enlightenment belongs to the entire human race, not just to a few privileged individuals in Europe or North America who have taken it upon themselves to kick it to bits like spoiled brats, to prevent others from having a go. Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied - as is so often the case - by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn't guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the "calamities" of progress.
There was, in fact, nothing remotely sinister about the ad hoc coalition formed to protest the UUK guidance. It was a loosely knit group of activists, writers, bloggers and secularist campaigners, male and female, Muslim and non-Muslim, brown and white, from both the left and the right, all of whom had decided that the principle of gender equality was worth defending for all men and women.

And with some success! As a result of the controversy and powerful writing on the subject in the Spectator and the Times, politicians from all three main political parties denounced UUK's guidance and it was hastily withdrawn.

I can only assume Priyamvada Gopal is dismayed by this development. Or at best conflicted. After all, while segregating people by gender may or may not be "problematic", UUK's retreat was a small but important victory for the 'muscular liberalism' she spent so much of her article denigrating. Gopal, incapacitated by indecision and ensnared in a postmodern double-bind of her own creation, made herself irrelevant to the discussion she claimed she wanted to have. For all I know, she may sincerely believe that her childish hostility to Western modernity and her embrace of the counter-Enlightenment are the stuff of fearless radicalism, but her views could hardly be more reactionary. As Tax remarks:
Academic postmodernism reached its zenith as part of the rightward political turn of the 1980s and 1990s, when globalised capital appeared triumphant and all hope of radical, positive change faded; it is, in short, the politics of despair.