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Why the Left is (Still) Sexist

Dec 2015

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A dialogue on “Sexism in Leftist and Progressive Spaces” was organized by the Feminist Collective in Lahore on November 21, 2015.

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Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.
– Jacques Ranciere, ‘The Politics of Aesthetics.

Dare I suggest that it isn’t so much that the Left needs to rethink its gender politics, but that the Left needs to rethink its politics?

What is really being said when someone says “more women need to join the Left”? What is the assumption behind the statement “women need to be radicalized/awakened”? What do we imply when we say, “I have never felt harassed/discriminated against in the Left as a woman, so neither should you”? Or when we say, “The Left is very interested in The Woman Question”? What biases are revealed in the oft-repeated formulae that feminist or women-dominated groups are bourgeois and classist, whereas male dominated groups from the same social backgrounds, meeting in the same bourgeois spaces, are not? 

Like the mind/body dualism, modern thought reproduces the private/public distinction in the unlikeliest of places, even within Marxist discourse. Politics is what men do, because politics is what concerns the public domain. Since women’s bodies do not properly operate in this domain, they need to be brought in.  Since women’s concerns are private, they are by default not political, and an awakening to the public and the political is something that needs to take place before they can count as radical. If some women manage to prevail in these political spaces, then, surely, no structural exclusion of women exists? Surely, a majority of women refuse to join because they simply lack the will to politics? Surely, The Woman Question is the correct form to speak of these matters because women are first and foremost gendered beings and only then, if ever, laboring beings, while men are always laboring beings and never gendered?

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Last month, some of these questions came to a head as a result of an event on female mobility in public spaces organized by Girls at Dhabas and the Awami Workers Party Islamabad. Some participants attending the event raised the question of allegations of sexism and sexual harassment within the Awami Workers Party (AWP), and were swiftly shut down. In the face of critique of the event on social media, a recently formed Feminist Collective decided to organize a dialogue on Sexism in Leftist and Progressive Spaces in Lahore (To read a detailed description of the event, please see I Talk, You Listen by Kyla Pasha in Chay Magazine.) The event opened up a much-needed conversation on gender issues both within progressive spaces as well as public spaces more generally.

The fact remains that such conversations and critiques are actively avoided within the official spaces of leftist organizations, even during conferences and conventions held specifically on The Woman Question. That we need to resist this tendency and to begin to push for calling out harassment and misogyny goes without saying.

But, I would suggest that this conundrum requires a critical self-assessment at a more fundamental level. It requires an expansion of our understanding and practice of politics itself. In the quote above, Ranciere alerts us to the centrality of political aesthetics, or form. What becomes possible to think, see, hear and say when politics is not just electoral – a practice in accessing state power – but a way to dis-order and re-order our world? What happens when we acknowledge that such a politics requires us to remain vigilant of the order within which we already operate, and which we reproduce in our own practice?

If we continue to ignore the aesthetic dimensions of our politics; to render any call to self-reflexivity as post-modern confusion or a bourgeois and liberal obsession; to be allergic to critique both from within and outside our organizations; and to reify binaries like inside versus outside in the first place, what political possibilities do we close down?

Much like other schools of modern thought, leftist political practice assumes that content matters but not so much the form. This allows left movements to speak of women’s rights unceasingly and thus project themselves as pro-women without once giving the floor to the very women whose rights are in question. It allows them to instrumentalize women’s work and even their critique, in order to promote their own events (and establish their feminist credentials) without making an effort to engage with these women in any meaningful way; to let men take up important speaking positions at such events, and even draw up a set of demands and resolutions on behalf of women–without their input! It allows leftist organizations to present themselves as committed to calling out sexism, while simultaneously placing the onus of emotional labor on the shoulders of women.

If there was one thing that stood out about the dialogue on “Sexism in Leftist and Progressive Spaces,” it was that form matters!  The dialogue was framed with the knowledge that historic injustices and power differentials prevalent in our society make it next to impossible for women to be heard in settings that assume gender neutrality. Men, both feminist and not so feminist, speak over women, silence them, and render their presence irrelevant. They use their feminist credentials to portray women’s critique as ill-founded, hysterical, emotional and apolitical. Simply invoking women as a leitmotif, or labeling their discourse as pro-women’s rights, allows them to get away with not thinking more deeply about the aesthetic dimensions of their politics.

It was precisely this problematic that generated the need to hold the dialogue. To acknowledge that form matters means that we see our infrastructures, our supposedly silent backdrops, our seating and speaking arrangements, the rules and assumptions that frame our debate, the levels of formality and informality and our invisible structures of hierarchy, as active agents with important effects on human interactions and determinant of the very content of our politics. It means that we acknowledge our institutional infrastructures to be dispositional i.e. in the words of Keller Easterling, we acknowledge that our infrastructures are active, not because they possess kinetic movement, but rather because of the unfolding relationships inherent in their arrangements which shape the very politics that we propagate.

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It was with these issues in mind that the dialogue was organized so that women could sit in a circle on the floor, while men, who were invited to listen but not speak, were seated at the back of the room. Transport and child-care were offered to women, and men were requested to volunteer to help. While some men found this to be an illuminating experience, others took to the Facebook event page to lampoon the format as “unequal.” In contrast, women spoke fiercely, and the majority found the format and the space to be liberating. For a change, their words were not minced, and their critique not deferential.  Rather, they expressed a very visceral anger–one that comes only from having the lived experience of oppression, and from the constant and unrelenting dismissal of their struggles as secondary to some larger cause for which they serve as tools rather than active agents.

To be serious about women’s rights and about making leftist spaces radical, transformatory and inclusive therefore means, among other things, to be mindful of form and to embrace a feminist methodology and not just a feminist slogan. It means we desist from the urge to continue with business as usual. It requires us to re-imagine leadership; to give up our desire to stand at a podium and talk down to women; to invest in listening to and engaging with their voices, instead of simply being content with having our own voices echoed back to us.. It also means making allowances for the fact that not all women are the same – class, ethnicity/race, etc. matter – and women’s ideas, demands and concerns can vary greatly. It means that we understand that patriarchy is structural and embedded, and that the call to arms for women to simply grit their teeth, toughen up, stop depending on men, and fight individual battles to prove themselves (whether in ordinary life or in leftist organizations) before they are worthy of joining the quintessential boys’ club, is deeply problematic. In the last instance, it means that we strive to understand feminism and gender as issues that affect everyone (including hetero-sexual and cis-gendered men), that we try to deconstruct concepts of masculinity and femininity that impact not just male and female bodies but our very categories of thought (for example rationality as masculine, emotionality as feminine), and that we allow such a deconstruction to inform our political praxis.

Sonia Qadir is a lawyer-researcher, a member of the Awami Workers Party Lahore, and a founding member of the Feminist Collective.

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