‘Liberal Anxiety’ is not the Problem, Colonial Feminism Is: a Response

A response to Salon’s “Stop Making ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ about Your Liberal Anxiety”

We haven’t yet spent much time talking about basic feminist principles that undergird the philosophy and movement here in the US, but today I want us to launch a bit ahead and talk about its relationship to colonial and post-colonial feminism. 45’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Ivanka Trump in tow to talk about female “empowerment,” and a Salon article on The Handmaid’s Tale moved this topic to the front of my list. They’ve all introduced problems we can label as colonial feminism, and here I’ll talk about what that means, particularly in the context of feminist movements over time and that Salon piece.

Second- and Third-Wave Feminism, Highly Abridged
A women’s march in the 1970s. Library of Congress photo in the public domain.

American feminism, particularly in the 1970s’ second wave, suffered from a narrow vision that limited its impact. Chiefly, it was white women’s feminism and middle-class feminism which got the most traction, leaving the needs of women of color, working-class women, and so on out of the conversation. We’ll delve into all of this further later, but in a nutshell, what the movement was missing was intersectionality. Interesectionality is the idea that people have multiple variables to their identities beyond just “woman” and that such elements shape their needs and goals as women. Missing that, second-wave feminism did not represent many issues beyond those women of the white middle-class.

Third-wave feminism is generally much better at intersectionality than second-wave was, but still struggles with using that lens to see the rest of the world. Such a problem often gets bound up with a “savior complex” that centers, intended or no, on implicitly white goals.

So what’s Colonial Feminism?

Here’s how the problem usually goes: we know what we want here at home in terms of feminist goals. To summarize, without intersectional contours or details, the umbrella generally includes political, social, economic equality, as well as reproductive health access. (Again, these are just the big elements—we’re not getting into, say, the problem of rape culture, what it means when people can’t recognize pay disparities based on gender and race, or even the basic constructs of power here in the US. All are topics we’ll talk about later, but not here.)

Then, we look overseas and we see other women, many of whom live in situations less feminist than our own. Saudi Arabia is usually a good place to look as its misogyny is so blatant, but other countries—other women—often get the same gaze from Americans. And then we assume they must want our values as their values, and when we seek to “help” them, we often do so with that lens firmly in place. In doing so we don’t ask those women what their feminism might look like, what their values are, what their goals might be. Thus the feminist lens we use is a colonial one. We assume they a) want our help and b) want it on our terms and thus we embody a colonial ethos, reminiscent of political colonialism in which people (white men, chiefly) told people in other countries (usually POC) what they wanted, and that it was good for them, through their white, colonial lens. Yes, there’s a huge difference between actual colonialism and a colonial feminism, absolutely—but the comparison makes sense for our purposes here.

Corley’s Take
From Hulu.

Salon published an essay on Saturday titled, “Stop Making ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ about Your Liberal Anxiety” that got me thinking about all this. It’s written by Deirdre Corley, who’s got some editorial experience at publications like the Hairpin; this essay appears to be her first out there on its own. I feel kind of bad pulling it apart, but here we go. The gist of what she’s saying is that we shouldn’t spend time writing think pieces on the ways in which we see the Handmaid’s Tale in our current US or speculating on its possibilities when women live in Gilead-ish societies now. Those societies should be our focus.

To wit:

“For a title that has received a more thorough exploration of its meaning and place in society than most, rarely are the lines drawn to other modern societies outside the U.S. where people, and women in particular, are suffering Gilead-level oppression (or worse) at this very moment. It seems that Americans now only have one lens to view things through, and it’s tinted orange.”

Now if she were encouraging women in or from those societies to pen their own think pieces, she’d have a nice point. But the problem is that what she says next about Saudi Arabia can be taken to be more broadly applied, and that’s where the trouble begins:

“Clad in robes, blinkered by headpieces, unable to travel without an escort, and barred from controlling money or property, the women of Gilead look quite a bit more like the women living under Saudi Arabia’s guardianship system than your modern American woman does or likely ever will.

While women in Saudi Arabia gained the right to vote in 2015, the mix of state and socially sanctioned rules they live under mean they still require the permission of their male guardians to travel or use most social services. They’re even banned from driving cars (though not bikes any longer). When thinking of the kingdom’s dress code for women — which includes the form-covering abaya and head-covering hijab, often paired with a full-face veil — it’s difficult not to draw a parallel to the Handmaids’ robes and face-obscuring hats. This, from a functioning, recognized state that recently received a seat on the U.N. Women’s Rights Council.”

Linda Sarsour. By Festival of Faiths from Louisville, United States. CC license.

Many Saudi women have worked for change in that nation to weak results (in contrast to Ivanka Trump’s claim that the country is great about women’s rights, a comment she made after they gave her foundation $100M). And while you and I would firmly reject a state-mandated dress code, the way in which Corley talks about that dress code implies that the dress is the problem, rather than the existence of the code itself. After all, plenty of women wear conservative dress by choice and don’t feel “blinkered” by those choices. Further, because of the nature of this essay, she’s implying (however unintentionally) that conservative Muslim dress is the real problem, Again, this approach disregards that many women choose hijabs, and some even choose burkas, as a reflection of their faith, and still fight a feminist mission. Linda Sarsour is a stellar example here, as is this 2015 HuffPo piece.

Thus…

When Corley makes her argument, even as she takes pains to say it’s about Saudi Arabia, she is, however unwittingly, indulging in a colonial feminism in which the (white, non-Muslim) American way is implied as superior to a Muslim way. If we’re not to express our “liberal anxiety” through analysis of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s because our life is still far superior to others. There’s a condescension here that ignores the extremely difficult lives plenty of American women lead, some in rigid religious circumstances, others hamstrung by the ways in which the systems of power we have limit certain women’s access to power, control and opportunity.

Lastly, Corley implies that we can’t care about both the erosion of our democracy AND the status of our sisters in other countries. We can worry about both, but let those women lead the way in determining what solutions to their oppression might look like.


(Incidentally, I feel like there’s an essay in here on the intersections of colonial feminism and conservatives who insist 45 isn’t the problem because some countries have Sharia law. Maybe someday.)

(Also, look at Iran pre-1979: they, too, didn’t think a fundamentalist revolution could happen in their cosmopolitan country—a little “liberal anxiety” guarding our values is rarely a bad thing.)

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2 thoughts on “‘Liberal Anxiety’ is not the Problem, Colonial Feminism Is: a Response

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