Black Lives Matter: Navigating Global And Local Resistance
The global protests against racism that are raging under the banner of Black Lives Matter (BLM) have followed on the heels of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment. Both these spectacular mass movements are inspirational and invite a conversation about the potential, limits and lessons for local resistance politics everywhere.
Misgivings past and present
The first redoubt that needs to be vacated is the apologia and discrediting of radical rights-based movements because they are perceived as ‘western’. The modern versions of historic protests against racial, sexual and gender discrimination have risen in America and then swept as waves globally and today, the revival wave has followed in exactly the same direction. To acknowledge this is not to ignore or undermine the USA’s concurrent imperialist savagery, the independence of the Arab Uprisings, or freedom movements in Palestine, Kashmir or Hong Kong, and the routine localised class, race and gender-based struggles against injustices by courageous souls around the world. It is to acknowledge the ‘contradictions of capitalism’ and the resistance led by minorities, women, and the young who are most affected by oppressive practices universally. Their common quest is most often for liberal freedoms.
Secondly, there is some anxiety that these current protests may be performative and identitarian but they are also radical in their confrontation against the capitalist, patriarchal, brute, militarised, United States. The changes that are being demanded are not discursive but rooted in the material while actively challenging social power relations.
Third, protest on streets as the sites where anger and resistance are being expressed is relevant because these movements have resurged after decades of blurry “post” politics that have stalled activist thinking and fossilized revolutionary ideas in ivory towers and think tanks. Poststructuralism, postmodernism, postracialism, postfeminism, postIslamism have directly questioned and fragmented collectivism, as sponsored and promoted by neoliberal media and academia.
In contrast, the BLM and MeToo movements clearly identify the oppressor – white supremacy and patriarchal sexism – without going into the minutiae of their ‘complex subjectivities’. These movements are also resisting attempts to deflect their dissent by the usual suspects who want to bring up ‘broader narratives’, or subsume everything under ‘western imperialism’, or which make appeals for contextualizing violence, or for not holding the ‘immediate perpetrator’ (white police and powerful men) as culprits directly responsible for their crimes.
Yes, all lives matter but black lives matter right now, when they are systematically being gunned down with impunity. There were similar petty refrains when Malala was shot in the head by the Taliban that questioned why people weren’t interested in ‘other Malalas’ and, when the APS students were mass-murdered, why children who died as ‘collateral’ in state operations in the tribal areas were not the focus of liberal antipathy for religious militancy at that time. ‘All lives matter’ was as much an obfuscation of that moment, encouraging equivocation then, as it does now.
Fourth, the current wave of political populism is not limited to right wing or reactionary political leadership. The role of influencers on politics and movements has enabled wider consciousness about human rights violations but also spread confusion and disinformation.
The informalised opinion machinery has made everyone into social justice warriors who do not limit their outrage to mainstream politics, public policy, or op-eds. Social media and blogs are sites to launch judgements about humanitarian projects, human rights advocacy and public intellectuals anywhere in the world. An influencer or opinion need not hold disciplinary expertise or even basic knowledge on any given subject and need not verify or retract wrongful disinformation.
Duplicity of cancel cultures
The added challenge is that in these woke times when everyone is an activist, there is little patience and a considerable number of competitive players lurking in wait for a perceived error, flippant thought, misplaced humour or half-baked tweet and even, unproven gossip. Social media rumours alleging racism, sexism or political incorrectness can inspire a global storm of domino cancellations.
One of the best comments on the cancel culture was when a canceller regretted the toxicity and exclusionary politics of this cancel culture but then comforted herself by saying ‘but today’s exception is worth it, so I cancel xyz’. It’s a passive-aggressive addiction and method of silencing debate and dissent of the non-friend. Very often, the source of these cancellations is self-righteousness rather than fact-checked information. Cancellations can be dependent on whim, mood, injury, competitiveness and who the target is rather than on specifics, quotes, evidence, principle or track record.
Some cancellers have directed their online indignation at cis male-only events but have themselves hosted or ‘moderated’ all-male panels or, continue working with or writing for ‘cancelled’ organisations. Challenging lack of inclusivity is critically important but easy – more vital is to organise and host alternative events which demonstrate the ethical way of organising cross-representative panels. In which case, the organisers must then not be defensive but open to criticism about their own choice of experts and representatives and accept grievances about their selections too.
The hypocrisy of activist-celebrities such as, Priyanka Chopra, Shahrukh Khan and some in the Pakistan entertainment industry who claim woke support for black lives but sell fairness creams, makes them easier targets to shame. However, all situations are not neat. In some cases of high-profile call-outs against sexual harassment or assault, the #MeToo activists in South Asia and certainly Pakistan, have not been consistent on the principle of unequivocal support for all survivors who call out their perpetrators. This selective silence is determined by the power behind and social relationships with the alleged perpetrator.
Inconsistencies mean that some accused in call-outs are repeatedly outed and cancelled at every point-scoring opportunity, even when there is no legal case but there is radio silence on another accused even when a case is filed against him. Such is the slippery slope of overwokeness that it has made a fetish of the concept of ‘believe the survivor’. Vigilant activists are poised with their call out and cancellation clicks but now, some survivors too, conduct proxy call-outs for other survivors based on the principle of unconditional belief in all allegations. This raises ethical issues.
An excellent explanation of the cooptation of the believeher hashtag turning into believe-all-women after being hijacked to serve a “right wing trap” is outlined by Susan Faludi (NYT, 18 May, 2020). The slogan ‘believe women’ is a signalling to correct the century-old practice of ‘doubt women’ and their experiences of violence and harassment– by families, police, courts and the media. This does not mean we should reify call-outs such that the wrongful ones are weaponised to discredit the movement.
All feminists do not agree on political positioning or strategies and that is feminism’s strength, not weakness as judged by masculine norms. Social media activists need to curb their competitive take-downs of those who do not subscribe to their individualistic opinions – dialectics and consensus in groups takes far more democratic effort and discussion than individual outrage.
Specific to a growing feminist consciousness in Pakistan, there are several conceptual challenges and in this limited space can only be selectively summarised in a rudimentary way.
Women’s rights, women’s empowerment or equality, and feminism, tend to be used either interchangeably or as mutually exclusive. For example; ‘I am a feminist but I don’t believe in class equality or redistribution of wealth’ or, ‘I am no feminist but I believe in women’s equality or reject gender stereotypes’. A common paradoxical fear is also found in the statement; ‘I believe in women’s equality/feminism but I am a Muslim first’. There is some disappointment when celebrities or politicians make such claims and which leads to…yes.…cancellations, or even mocking and derision. But the canceller is often confused himself.
Women’s rights/empowerment activists believe that social differences between men and women lead to gender discrimination, and they struggle for rights that are equal to those enjoyed by men. They demand improvement in services for their given status as mothers/wives/workers. Feminists, however, do not seek compensation or equality only but are committed to dismantling the very system (patriarchy) that sustains the oppression of women, the working classes and all minorities and marginalised genders and queer peoples.
The lines between women’s rights and feminist activism are not neat but the agenda, mobilisation and methods often are. So, it is not a betrayal if a personality says she believes in women’s rights but is not a feminist. The worry is that equal rights for all women cannot be achieved this way because the source of inequalities (patriarchy) is not being acknowledged by the equal rights camp. Women’s rights struggles will net only a series of compensations for some women, at best.
All feminists do not agree on the source or systems of oppression either and so, the terms patriarchy and intersectionality are also used interchangeably. Intersectionality was a scholarly attempt to broaden the inadequacy of the term ‘patriarchy’ which was seen as too generalised and monolithic a description of gender oppression. The argument was that patriarchy stressed on gender oppression and privileged the white feminist priority of sexual oppression over all other sources.
Chandra Mohanty’s ‘Under Western Eyes’ (1984), and Kimberle Crenshaw’s term ‘intersectionality’ (1989) built up on earlier Black Feminist work from the 1970s that stressed on a more nuanced investigation of how categories of race, ethnicity, sexuality, culture, nation, capitalism and gender intersect to oppress women through socially constructed differences (Collins and Bilge 2016).
Transnational feminism (Grewal and Kaplan 1995) was another approach proposed to encourage deeper investigation in to how these categories intersect oppressively, not as a phenomenon limited within nation states but how they are mutually formed and transformed through transnational powers like, imperialism, colonialism, and neoliberal globalisation.
In the mix is the emergence of a smaller wave of Islamic feminism, which looks to uproot patriarchies with a specific focus on masculinist interpretations of Islamic laws and the exclusion of the woman question from Islamic ethical traditions/fiqh.
Marxist feminists tend to take exception to many of these streams that stress on social constructions in their effort to depart from white feminism (Bannerji 2005; Carpenter and Mojab 2019). Marxist feminists explain that class is not just another add-on identity to be included in the matrix of intersections. For them, social relations are the result of modes of production and it is through our class that we experience gender, race, ability or sexuality. Unless the capitalist mode is dismantled all other approaches will be inimical to equality.
Post 9/11 challenges
In the post 9/11 period, the additional challenges for feminists in Muslim contexts have seen proposals to reject liberal secularism and for finding appropriate rights within (a reinterpreted) Islam. This has led to debates about multiculturalism in European countries, questioning whether Muslims should have to assimilate and adhere more closely to European norms of human and women’s rights, or be free to pursue their own cultural practices and religious morality.
In Pakistan, a similar paradox has confronted women’s movements when some military rulers have acceded more legal and social rights than civilian governments. Since the 1980s, allegations against Pakistani feminists have abounded – either for contriving subservience for their own class interests, or for “supporting” the state and even the military. These critics have been mostly diasporic Pakistanis who, the late feminist lawyer, Shehla Zia in 1998 described as follows; “women scholars, many of whom live outside of the country away from the conflicts and tumults which confront the movement, who criticise its ‘conceptual’ framework, without any real perception of the situation on the ground”.
Most are aware that feminists in Pakistan have been the ones who courageously stood up against all the military regimes, on principle. The few that collaborated in the Musharraf period (directly or indirectly) were challenged by many of us at that very time but it’s also important to acknowledge that these women did negotiate to extract maximum rights for women. Reforming an Islamic law is no easy task in any Islamic state and other structural changes, such as increasing parliamentary seats, have had unprecedented progressive results. On record, I have not agreed to this strategic decision, along with many others – sometimes at the cost of personal friendships and even careers – but despite that, refusal to recognise these achievements is intellectual dishonesty. Internal debates and disagreements are the built-in corrective mechanisms for collectives. Outsiders and newcomers– men and women – should seek to understand rather than judge groups out of some sense of competitive smugness or baseless lies.
Currently, there are some core tensions within Pakistan’s expanding feminist/women’s rights movements. State-led violence – whether the Hudood Ordinances, enforced disappearances, and mid-wiving then warring with religious militants – have been neater issues to take stands on. The difficulties now lie in the next stages.
Post-zina reform, the question of sexual autonomy and consensual relations now looms. How do activists take principled stands on this without legal, social and religious backlash? As piety seeps deep into societal norms and women religious leaders are more empowered to challenge feminists and aurat marchers, how do feminists propose to ‘engage’ and respond to the genuine offense these agentive women take and who are committed to oppose freedoms that they consider sinful?
Beyond sexual politics, what avenues are left for democratic expansion under military controlled governance and for minorities confronting an emboldened religious right? Most of all, how do feminists re-centre the class question when these other intersects absorb so much of our online energies and argumentations?
Bannerji (2005) “Building from Marx: Reflections on class and race.” Social Justice, 32(4), 144–160.
Crenshaw (1989) “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1, Article 8.
I.Grewal and C. Kaplan (1995.) “Introduction: Transnational Feminist Practices and Questions of Postmodernity” in Grewal and Kaplan (eds). Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices. Minnesota: University of Minnesota.
C.T. Mohanty (1984) “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” boundary 2, Vol. 12/13, Vol. 12, no. 3 – Vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 333-358.
P.H. Collins and S. Bilge (2020) Intersectionality, Polity Press. 2nd edition (first edition 2016).
Mojab and S. Carpenter (2019) “Marxism, feminism, and “intersectionality”, LANDS, Volume 22 (2), 275-282.
Zia (1998) “Some Experiences of the Women’s Movement: Strategies for Success” in F.Shaeed et al (eds) Shaping Women’s Lives: Law, Practices and Strategies in Pakistan, Lahore, Pakistan: Shirkat Gah.
Afiya Shehrbano Zia is a feminist scholar based in Karachi and author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan: Religious Agency or Secular Autonomy? (SAP, 2018). She has written for various news outlets in Pakistan and abroad. Afiya Shehrbano Zia can be reached at [email protected]