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Above: Kassim Alhimidi (left) and Trayvon Martin (right)
By Unrepentent Jacobin (Reblogged from Jabobinism):
On the Hounding of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky
There is a damaging idea fast gathering influence on the Left that – like a lot of contemporary postmodern Leftist thought – urgently needs dismantling. This idea holds that racism is only possible when prejudice is married with power. The corollary of this premise is that racism may only travel in one direction – from the powerful to the powerless – and it is therefore nonsensical to discuss, still less condemn, racist attitudes expressed by ethnic minorities. In the West, racism is the preserve of the white majority who use it – often, it is claimed, unconsciously – to sustain their advantage and to oppress those they deem to be ‘other’. In the geopolitical sphere, meanwhile, this racism is the preserve of the world’s wealthy democracies and is expressed as Orientalism, Military and Cultural Imperialism, and Neoliberalism, all of which are used to dominate and subjugate the Global South.
Furthermore, racism exists independently of individual prejudice and cultural mores – like the power systems of which it is a part, it is abstract; metaphysical; unavoidable; unchanging. It is all-pervasive, ‘structural’, endemic, systemic, and internalised to such a degree that even (or especially) white liberal Westerners who perceive themselves to be broad-minded and non-prejudicial are not even aware of it. It is therefore incumbent on every white person, male or female, to ‘check their white privilege’ before venturing to comment on matters pertaining to minority cultures, lest they allow their unconscious ethnocentricity to reinforce oppressive power structures. Instead, moral judgement of minorities by universal standards should – no, must – be replaced by a willingness to indulge and uncritically accept difference.
In the view of this layman, this kind of thinking is wrong, both morally and in point of fact.
Postmodernism is notoriously unhappy with anything as concrete as a dictionary definition. However, the inconvenient fact is that racism remains clearly defined in the OED, and by the common usage its entries are intended to reflect, as follows:
Racism, n: The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races. Hence: prejudice and antagonism towards people of other races, esp. those felt to be a threat to one’s cultural or racial integrity or economic well-being; the expression of such prejudice in words or actions. Also occas. in extended use, with reference to people of other nationalities.
That the effects of this prejudice and antagonism are aggravated, perpetuated and sometimes institutionalized by the effects of power is undeniable, but this is a separate issue. Many unpleasant aspects of human nature and behaviour (greed, for instance) are also exacerbated by power, but that doesn’t change the ugly nature of the behaviour itself, nor allow us to infer that the powerless are incapable of making it manifest.
Efforts to effect an official change to this definition should be strongly resisted on grounds of egalitarianism (an idea the Left once cared about deeply). The difficulty with the power + prejudice formulation lies, not just in its dilution of what makes racism so toxic, but in a consequent moral relativism which holds people to different standards. It is manifestly unjust to hold some people to a higher standard of thought and behaviour based on their unalterable characteristics. However, it is far worse to hold others to a respectively lower standard based on those same characteristics, which insists on the indulgence of viewpoints and behaviour by some that would not be tolerated from others.
This separatist thinking has given rise to identity politics, moral equivalence, cultural relativism and what Ayaan Hirsi Ali and others have called “a racism of low expectations”. As Hirsi Ali remarked in her memoir-cum-polemic Nomad (excerpted here):
This Western attitude is based on the idea that people of colour must be exempted from “normal” standards of behaviour. There are many good men and women in the West who try to resettle refugees and strive to eliminate discrimination. They lobby governments to exempt minorities from the standards of behaviour of western societies; they fight to help minorities preserve their cultures, and excuse their religion from critical scrutiny. These people mean well, but their activism is now a part of the very problem they seek to solve.
Identity politics reinforces the racist argument that people can and should be judged according to their skin colour. It rests on the same crude, illiberal determinism, and results in what the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner has described as a “racism of the anti-racists”. This, as we shall see, leaves those vulnerable to oppression within ‘subaltern’ groups without a voice and mutes criticism of chauvinism and out-group hatred when expressed by minorities.
The alternative to this, now routinely derided as ‘Enlightenment Fundamentalism’, is a principled commitment to egalitarianism and universalism – the notion that what separates us (culture) is taught and learned, but that what unites us is far more important and fundamental: that is, our common humanity. On this basis, the same rights and protections should be afforded to all people.
This is what underpinned the idealism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence, two of the most noble documents produced by Enlightenment thought. It was the foundation for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted and adopted in the wake of the carnage of the Second World War. And it is the basis upon which civil rights groups and human rights organisations have sought to advance the laws and actions of nations and their peoples.
The answer to prejudice, and to the division and inequality it inevitably produces, is not exceptionalism based on a hierarchy of grievance, but to strive for greater equality on the basis that we belong to a common species, divided only by our ideas. As Martin Luther King declared on the steps of the Lincoln memorial:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
On 20 December, the feminist writer and activist Adele Wilde-Blavatsky published an article in the Huffington Post entitled Stop Bashing White Women in the Name of Beyonce: We Need Unity Not Division. Wilde-Blavatsky’s post was a rebuke to those – on what she described as the post-colonial or intersectional feminist Left – who use identity politics and arguments from privilege to delegitimise the voices of white feminists speaking out about the abuse of women in the Global South and within minority communities in the West.
Wilde-Blavatsky’s decision to use a paragraph in an otherwise banal review of Beyonce’s latest album by Mikki Kendall as the starting point for her argument was, in my view, unfortunate. Not simply because there are better examples of the divisive effect that identity politics has on debate (the quarrel over gender segregation being only the most recent), but because the comparatively unimportant matter of the politics of Beyonce’s music risked trivialising what followed. Nor did the provocative decision to announce a twitter hashtag #stopblamingwhitewomenweneedunity strike me as especially wise.
Nonetheless, such grumbles aside, Wilde-Blavatsky’s substantive quarrel with the malignant effects of identity politics and the cultural relativists who espouse it is one with which regular readers of this blog will be familiar.
She argued, first of all, that Kendall’s casual suggestion that “white feminism” is uniformly anti-male and hostile to the self-empowering feminism Beyonce’s music represents was an unjustifiable extrapolation from the comments of only a few white feminists. This, she said, ignored the pluralism of experience and opinion amongst white feminists and “literally ‘whitewash[es]‘ me and all other white women to a flesh colour.” This was predictably interpreted as special pleading on Wilde-Blavatsky’s part, who it was claimed wanted to muscle in on subaltern victimhood. But what she was objecting to here is in fact the straightforward logical fallacy I’ve addressed above.
More importantly, she argued that this pointed to a broader tendency to essentialise ‘white feminism’ as elitist, arrogant, out-of-touch and coddled by privilege, all of which was being used to disqualify white feminists of all stripes from commenting on vital issues of women’s rights within minority groups:
The clear message [is] that if you’re white you cannot criticise anything that is done or said by non-white people unless it follows a certain kind of left liberal ‘post-colonial’ strain of thought.
In support of this claim, she linked to an article by the feminist academic Swati Parashar entitled Where Are the Feminists to Defend Indian Women? in which Parashar wrote:
Those who are quick to condemn governments which kill women and children in drone attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or who are quick to point out that Western policies have endangered lives of civilians in many parts of the world, find no words to speak out against the violence women in the Global South face repeatedly and every day. Violence against women that is routinely normalised in certain cultures, in certain societies, in certain countries, and violence that cannot be traced to Western militarism or Western foreign policy does not find easy critics. That would not be politically correct nor would it reflect commitment to anti-racism, perhaps .To which Wilde-Blavatsky added:
[T]o ‘blacken’ the name of the work and efforts of white women in the feminist movement and to portray them as the ‘enemy’ of women of colour is a great disservice not only to white women but also to women in general. In addition, it only serves to further divide women and empower patriarchy and misogyny [...] It is no accident that right-wing, religious, misogynist patriarchs are all too happy to recite post-colonial theory and cultural relativism to justify and perpetuate their power and cultural practices that restrict and oppress women of all colours races and cultures [...] Issues such as marriage, physical safety and autonomy, access to good family planning and health care, pregnancy, abortion, rape, domestic violence, slut shaming, denial of opportunities in work and education and so on still effect women across all cultures, races and nations (albeit in differing ways). If we allow race and ‘culture’ to divide rather than unite women then the patriarchs have won.
The response to this argument from the bien pensant Left ranged from the incredulous to the vitriolic.
In the comment thread below her article and in a storm which overwhelmed her twitter handle and her hashtag, Wilde-Blavatsky (who tweets as @lionfaceddakini) was derided with accusations of arrogance, ignorance, bigotry, racism and cultural supremacism. She was advised that she had not listened sufficiently closely to authentic voices of women of colour. Others declared her to be beneath contempt and an object example of white feminism’s irrelevance. She was accused of using a fraudulent call for unity as a way of advancing an argument from white victimhood. It was demanded that she immediately re-educate herself by reading various academic texts on the subject. Her “white woman’s tears” were repeatedly mocked, as were her protestations that her own family is mixed-race. And, of course, there were the predictable demands for retraction, penitence and prostration.
The rhetoric of anti-racism has come a long way since Martin Luther King’s passionate call for egalitarian unity, and I submit that it has not been traveling in the right direction. Wilde-Blavatsky retains a faith in King’s idealism her critics appear to have lost. And, to their fury, she won’t budge. But she knew what to expect. After all, as she points out in the piece itself, she’s been here before.* * *
On 21 March 2012, Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old married Iraqi mother of five living in El Cajon in Southern California, was murdered in her own home. Her skull had been smashed in four places (with a tyre-iron or similar) and she was discovered “drowning in her own blood” by her 17 year old daughter Fatima, who was in the house at the time but claimed not to have heard the assault. Alawadi was rushed to hospital in a coma but on 24 March her life support was switched off and she died. Pictures were circulated of her bereaved husband holding his dead wife’s photograph and the day after her death, it was reported that a note had been found by her unconscious body which read: “Go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” Speculation was rife that Alawadi was the victim of a racist or Islamophobic hate crime.
Barely a month earlier, on 21 February, in a case which received far more attention, a young black teenager, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford Florida by George Zimmerman a mixed-race Hispanic.
Anti-racist campaigners and bloggers were quick to draw a connection – if not a direct equivalence – between the two crimes and to claim they exposed the lie of a supposedly ‘post-racial’ America under Barack Obama. What clearer evidence could there be of America’s endemic racism and that people of colour there live in a state of siege? Martin had been killed for wearing his hoodie. Alawadi had been targeted for her hijab (headscarf). A 1m Hoodie March was organised in solidarity with Martin, and those campaigning on behalf of Alawadi responded by announcing a 1m Hijab March. Further protest marches were organised in cities and on campuses across America, uniting the two causes under one banner. Most were well-intended gestures of solidarity but others were promoted using language that was positively inflammatory:
At the time Adele Wilde-Blavatsky was a member of the editorial collective for a website called The Feminist Wire (TFW). She decided that the equivalence between hoodie and hijab was absurd and dangerous, and on April 13 2012, she published an article on TFW’s site explaining why entitled To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals (cross-posted at the Shiraz Socialist blog here).
What I take issue with here is the equating of the hoodie and the hijab as sources of ethnic identity and pride. The hijab, which is discriminatory and rooted in men’s desire to control women’s appearance and sexuality, is not a choice for the majority of women who wear it. The hoodie, on the other hand, is a choice for everyone who wears it. The history and origin of these two items of clothing and what they represent could not be more different; like comparing the crippling footbindings of Chinese women with a `Made in China’ Nike trainer.She accused those making the equivalence of cultural relativism and a misplaced respect for the sanctity of culture, a charge she also used to indict Germaine Greer’s notorious claim that attempts to outlaw Female Genital Mutilation represent “an attack on cultural identity” because “one man’s beautification was another man’s mutilation” (Greer’s use of the male pronoun is revealing here).Wilde-Blavatsky insisted that her instincts were libertarian, and that she would not recommend banning practices unless, as with FGM, they resulted in physical harm. But nor would she be compelled to suspend her moral judgement or forfeit the right to challenge the degree to which women’s choices to conform with patriarchal religious dress codes were meaningfully free. And even if they were free, she reserved the right as a feminist to challenge regressive choices – whether they be to wear the hijab or to work in pornography – and what those choices represent.She warned that respect for cultural difference and a fear of being accused of racism was preventing feminists from addressing issues of misogyny and patriarchal violence within minority communities and ended with an ominous reminder of the folly of seeing oppression and violence as something primarily across cultural divides:
[W]hy has there been centuries of caste discrimination and violence in countries like India? Why are Muslim women beaten and murdered by Muslim men for refusing to wear the hijab? How did both these deaths occur in a country that is led by a black male President? How does it explain the fact that about 150 black men are killed every week in the U.S. – and 94 percent of them by other black men?
What was needed, she argued, was a reframing of the whole conversation about the defence of women’s rights and the need for a feminism that was, if not blind to cultural difference, then at least not subordinate to it.
TFW opened the article to unmoderated comments and the initial reaction was indistinguishable from that which greeted her HuffPo piece (which rather emphasises the reluctance of many of her critics to engage with the argument at hand). Wilde-Blavatsky later wrote that:
[My article] generated not only a huge amount of online debate but also abuse in terms of my skin colour (white), character (non-Muslim) and motivation (imperialism). I was called a “racist” and “white imperialist” and was even accused of using the ‘ties’ of my mixed-race family to “obfuscate my whiteness.”
There was a brief confusion over the extent to which TFW endorsed the contents of the article when Wilde-Blavatsky posted it on their facebook page and then began to field responses using TFW’s account rather than her own. But while invective was rained down on their colleague, TFW’s official response remained a pusillanimous silence. Considering what came next, Wilde-Blavatsky might be forgiven for looking back on this brief interlude with something like nostalgia.
Two days later TFW published a scathing open letter (cross-posted here) in response to Wilde-Blavatsky’s piece, organised by Dr. Dana Olwan and Sophia Azeb and co-signed by no less than 77 feminist activists and academics. The letter – a masterwork of condescension, pompous jargon and passive-aggressive bullying – was addressed to “Our friends and allies at The Feminist Wire”. And it began:
It is with loving concern with which we, the undersigned feminist writers, activists and academics from diverse racial, religious, economic, and political backgrounds, write to this brilliant collective today.
It went on to accuse Wilde-Blavatsky of being “[o]blivious to the important cross-racial and cross-ethnic connections and solidarities made in light of the tragic murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi”, of “revealing her own [white Western] biases” and “showcasing a lack of knowledge of the history and function of the hijab.” She was ignorant. She was patronising. She was not cognizant of her own privilege. “In writing this [article]” the letter’s 77 signatories averred…
…the author has all but stripped women of colour of an intersectional understanding of violence against women, one that is attuned to both patriarchal and racist violence. Instead, Muslim women and women of colour feminists are reduced to a piece of cloth and the experiences of people of colour and practioners of an increasingly racialized and demonized religion are repeatedly questioned and denied.
Having dealt with Wilde-Blavatsky, the letter then moved onto shaming TFW, the collective of which she was a member and which had agreed to publish her work:
As feminists deeply committed to challenging racism and Islamophobia and how it differentially impacts black and Muslim (and black Muslim) communities, we wish to open up a dialogue about how to build solidarities across complex histories of subjugation and survival. This space is precisely what is shut down in this article. In writing this letter, we emphasize that our concern is not solely with Adele Wilde-Blavatsky’s article but with the broader systemic issues revealed in the publication of a work that prevents us from challenging hierarchies of privilege and building solidarity. We hope The Feminist Wire will take our concerns to heart and initiate an honest conversation about privilege, racism, and Islamophobia within feminist collectives and movements.
Watching this unfold, the veteran free speech campaigner and US Director for the think tank The Centre for Secular Space, Meredith Tax, decided that she was witnessing a campaign to intimidate and censor.
Why should a group of—count them—77 “feminist writers, activists, and academics” have thought it necessary to write a blistering critique of a blog by a young writer of whom they had probably never heard? Was their purpose to make sure this young woman never wrote anything again? Or to prevent the Feminist Wire from publishing anything in future that might contravene the orthodoxy of identity politics?
Quite. It is not as if the letter’s signatories are simply concerned laypersons of the kind who might sign an online petition. Every one of the 77 names at the foot of the letter carries with it a title which testifies to the signatory’s expertise in these matters, and which carries with it the implied weight of their scholarship, experience and pedagogic authority. To describe its effect as merely intimidating is to do its authors a disservice. It was intended to destroy Wilde-Blavatsky and to disqualify her views from legitimate conversation. As Tax pointed out:
Say the seventy-seven:
“Adele Wilde-Blavatsky attempts to address the important question of what it means to be an anti-racist feminist in the 21st century. Her article, however, serves to assert white feminist privilege and power by producing a reductive understanding of racial and gendered violence and by denying Muslim women their agency.”
Clearly this is meant to end the discussion. Why discuss anything with someone who is racism incarnate—as is shown by her “questioning of women’s choice to wear the niqab.[sic]”
Feminists should be encouraging discussion of such questions rather than trying to shut it down. Congratulations to the editors of the Feminist Wire for having had the guts to publish something controversial.
Alas, Meredith Tax and anyone else inclined to put any faith in TFW’s courage were to be disappointed. Paralysed by the intensity of the initial response, the letter and the subsequent renewal of criticism finally galvanised TFW into releasing a public statement on behalf of the collective.
On 19 April, 4 days after the publication of the letter and 6 days after the publication of the original article, TFW published an unsigned and positively craven article, of which its unnamed authors ought to be thoroughly ashamed. There was much agonising about the unintended offence that had been caused and the catastrophic damage that had been done to TFW’s reputation. Noticeable in its absence was a single mention of Adele Wilde-Blavatsky by name or any words of explicit support at all. Instead, affecting a spurious balance, the article’s authors declared:
Not all of us agreed with the argument expressed in the original article, nor did all of us agree with the statements expressed in the Collective Response on April 14th. We are diverse, and we absolutely support different viewpoints. But collectively, we all recognize that the author of the original article and especially her Facebook responses failed to advance TFW’s mission. And, more corrosively, the incident eroded trust among the Collective and among our readership, and we have taken, are taking steps to reinstitute that trust.
TFW’s profession of an “absolute” support for different viewpoints could hardly have been made in worse faith. Earlier that day both Wilde-Blavatsky’s article and the letter from the 77 had been removed from TFW’s website and their respective comment threads deleted.
And, although their statement makes no mention of the fact, one of the steps taken by TFW had been to dismiss Wilde-Blavatsky from the editorial collective, a decision of which she was informed by email. Prior to the publication of the Letter from the 77, TFW’s founder Tamura Lomax had assured Wilde-Blavatsky that space would be cleared for her to offer a “refereed response”. Her detailed reply to the 77 which she submitted to TFW in her own defence was never published there.
Accounts of the events leading up to the removal of her article differ. Wilde-Blavatsky claims she was informed that should she repeat her claim that three members of the collective had read her article and cleared it for publication – and that two of them had described it as “excellent” – she would find herself on the end of a lawsuit. She says that it was her threat to counter-sue that led to the deletions.
TFW, meanwhile, dispute this account, improbably claiming that Wilde-Blavatsky’s article had been seen and cleared by no-one prior to publication and insisting that it was she who had first threatened legal action.
Email correspondence between Lomax, editorial board member Darnell Moore, and Wilde-Blavatsky, in which Lomax thanked Wilde-Blavatsky warmly for her submission, does seem to bear out the latter’s version of events. Certainly neither Lomax nor Moore expressed any reservations about the article’s content during the exchange as they discussed possible publication dates.
In any event, what is not in dispute is that TFW had now tossed their colleague to the wolves. The only question that remained was whether or not they had been right to do so.
For many, TFW had done the right thing. They had committed a terrible error of judgement, but they had listened indulgently to the mob’s demands and had cleaned house accordingly. Adele Wilde-Blavatsky had sinned and, unrepentant, been swiftly excommunicated. In a move of Stalinist absolution, TFW then purged their site of all her previous writing. It was a defeat for racism and a victory for intersectional tolerance and empathy.
But a small number of feminists dedicated to combatting regressive cultural traditionalism and the political influence of the Islamic far-right refused to see it that way. They were aghast at Wilde-Blavatsky’s treatment and on 22 April they co-signed the following statement declaring their unequivocal support for the embattled writer. The full statement which was posted on the blog of the ex-Muslim and Iranian dissident Maryam Namazie, read:
We extend our full solidarity to Adele Wilde-Blavatsky for such a clear and rare analysis from feminists in Europe and North America, in which women’s resistance to the Muslim Right – including by resisting all forms of fundamentalist veiling – is made visible and honoured, rather than sacrificed on the altar of anti-racism and anti-imperialism.
- Marieme Helie Lucas, sociologist, Algeria, founder and former international coordinator of the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), coordinator Secularism Is A Women’s Issue
- Fatou Sow, Researcher, Senegal, international coordinator, Women Living Under Muslim Laws
- Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All and Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, Iran/UK
- Karima Bennoune, Professor of Law, Rutgers University, USA
- Khawar Mumtaz, Shirkat Gah, Pakistan
The same day over at her Butterflies and Wheels blog, the feminist and secularist writer Ophelia Benson posted her own furious reply to the Letter from the 77 entitled You Know What You Can Do With Your Collective Response. And in a personal note, later made public, Fatou Sow reaffirmed her support to Wilde-Blavatsky as follows:
Dear Adele, I again congratulate you on your wonderful courage. You are absolutely right: the hoodie is not the hijab. As an African Muslim woman, no one can convince me that the headscarf and the Islamic veil are signs of my female or Muslim identities. I am sorry that such brilliant women have taken up their pens to condemn your arguments as white supremacy. That is facile, when so many women in the world fight against these injustices. I urge you to continue writing to express your anger against all of these alienations that mark us in body and spirit. Please be assured of my support and my friendship.
This rather moving and dignified gesture of solidarity might have been the end of it.
However, as 2012 drew to a close, long after TFW had consigned Wilde-Blavatsky’s article to post-colonial feminism’s dustbin, the investigation into the murder of Shaima Alawadi developed in a way that many of the more level-headed commentators, feminists and activists had always feared it might.* * *
On November 9, 2012, police announced they had arrested Kassim Alhimidi, Alawadi’s 48-year old husband, and charged him with her murder. His four youngest children had been taken into protective custody. The racist note, according to court reports seen by UT San Diego, turned out to be a copy not an original (although a copy of what exactly was not specified).
Muslim and feminist campaigners unencumbered by the politically correct demands of intersectional feminism and post colonial politics, and who had shared Wilde-Blavatsky’s dismay at the hoodies and hijabs campaigns, were incensed. On learning of the arrest, Raquel Evita Saraswati, a practicing Muslim and a feminist campaigner of courage and integrity, tweeted the following:
* When Shaima Alawadi was killed, I spoke w/several Muslim women on here who also believed it was a family member. Because of loud (1/2)
* assertions that it was ethnically motivated (“hijabs&hoodies” remember?) they didn’t feel they could say publicly what they suspected (2/2)
* Insisting #ShaimaAlwadi case was ethnically/racially motivated hate crime before case solved = massively irresponsible (1/2)
* Not only unfair to victim and gives criminal leeway, but also reduces chances ppl will believe true causes of ethnically-motivated crimes.The last of these tweets produced the following exchange (which can be seen in tweet form here) between Saraswati and the Eqyptian-American Muslim and feminist writer, Mona Eltahawy:
Mona Eltahawy: And at the time people would bombard with “aren’t you going to tweet in support of Shaima? aren’t u?” emotional bullying. Raquel Saraswati: yes, I remember!!! Shame on them. If we didn’t, the “sellout” cries came. Shame shame shame Eltahawy: Fuck them all. Saraswati: said it then, I say it now. Agreed. Saraswati: ppl – Muslim women! – felt they couldn’t ask Qs about signs pointing to family. That’s how intense it was. Eltahawy: Apparently she was going to file for divorce. V sad. Saraswati: they found the divorce papers at the time. Daughter “did not hear” mother screaming while being killed.All obvious.
Aside from Alawadi’s divorce, it transpired that Fatima, the couple’s eldest daughter who contacted police to report the crime, was distressed at an impending forced marriage to her cousin and had attempted suicide. Those able to count backwards had also figured out that Alawadi must have married her husband when she was only 11 years old and given birth to their first child when she was just 13. This was not, in short, a family environment in which women were afforded the luxury of choice and agency, still less what the 77 had called “an intersectional understanding of violence against women, one that is attuned to both patriarchal and racist violence.”
By the time Kassim Alhimidi was arrested, no-one much cared about Adele Wilde-Blavatsky’s arguments anymore. But the uncomfortable truth is that they had been vindicated. The Trayvon Martin shooting and the Alawadi murder were not remotely similar or equivalent, and while debate continues about whether or not the jury were right to acquit George Zimmerman of Martin’s murder, there is no longer any question that Alawadi’s killing has anything to say about racism or ‘Islamophobia’ in America.
But this points to an interesting blind spot in Wilde-Blavatsky’s analysis of the crime. For while she understood that undue respect for culture was blinding Western feminists (of all skin colours) to the misogyny and violence against women, she did not apply her reasoning to the facts of the case at hand. Despite the plausible doubts already circulating about the hate crime theory at the time she wrote her article, it did not countenance that Alawadi might have been the victim of an ‘honour’ killing and instead affirmed that the assailant was a white male.
A clue as to why she did this might be found in her recent Huffington Post piece in which she writes:
The irony of [judging the opinions of feminists by the colour of their white skin] is the whole point of post-colonial theory was to expose such non-inclusiveness and encourage people to recognise and celebrate their differences not to suggest white feminism is a ‘one size fits all’ for white women either.
Wilde-Blavatsky is engaged in an attempt to rescue post-colonialism from the excesses of its misguided new prophets. It was this – I suspect – that enraged her critics more than anything else. But it may also be that in trying to reconcile her arguments with the post-colonial notion that the West is unavoidably racist and xenophobic, she derailed her own analysis. A case, perhaps, of privilege-checking clouding judgement. Or a brief relapse from a writer in post-colonial recovery.
I have to wonder if her struggle is worth the effort. The determinism of the identity politics to which post-colonial theory is wedded is not readily reconcilable with universalism. Nor do her intended audience strike me as an especially reflective or receptive bunch. They do not even bother to follow their own rules. They instruct others to listen to the experiences of people of colour, but that experience, it transpires, is only valuable if it confirms their pre-existing ideology. What is actually being sought here is conformity of thought.
Those people of colour who dissent are declared outcasts. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is dismissed as a bitter Islamophobe. Mona Eltahawy’s essay for Foreign Policy on Arab misogyny was greeted with accusations that she is a ‘native informant’ reinforcing racist stereotypes. Ed Husain has been described the same way. The Iranian Wall Street Journal critic Sohrab Ahmari was recently described as an “Uncle Tom” by a compatriot. The counter-extremism think-tank the Quilliam Foundation are routinely derided as government stooges and sell-outs, as is Sara Khan, head of counter-extremism think-tank Inspire. The list goes on and on.
Just as post-colonial guilt is a cudgel used to shame and silence white men and women, so accusations of ’inauthenticity’, ‘Westernisation’ and betrayal of their tribe are used to shame and silence people of colour who will not fall into line and accept their ascribed position as the wretched of the earth.
The Feminist Wire and their fellow travellers do not have a monopoly on women of colour’s experiences which, as they are happy to point out when it suits them, are not homogeneous. Adele Wilde-Blavatsky speaks for herself. But in upholding universal human rights, standards and values, she aligns herself with those progressive activists in the Global South and the West bravely striving for reform of their cultures. Identity politicians and cultural relativists, meanwhile, who insist on respect for cultural difference above all else find themselves aligned with reactionaries and cultural chauvinists in whose interest it is to preserve tradition. This is, to say the least, an odd position for any progressive to take, let alone one espoused in the name of fighting racism.
When, towards the end of her HuffPo piece, Wilde-Blavatsky states that “It is not acceptable anymore to ignore white privilege and intersectionality in feminist discourse” I think she concedes too much to her enemies. For how is one to quantify the awareness of this privilege? And who will judge that a sufficient level of awareness has been attained before an opinion is offered?
To accept that one’s unalterable characteristics can play any part in the validity of an opinion is to submit to the tyranny of identity politics and endorse an affront to reason. Arguments about rights and ethics must be advanced and defended on their merits, irrespective of who is making them. There is no other way.
Following the deletion of The Feminist Wire article and the subsequent Letter from the 77, WLUML archived the whole saga here, including Meredith Tax’s full comment. Adele Wilde-Blavatsky’s reply to the Letter from the 77, which The Feminist Wire refused to publish, was posted at Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies and Wheels blog here on May 1. The Feminist Wire responded to an approach for comment with this public statement.