Women are prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia. Photo: Getty
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Why doesn’t patriarchy die? Time to break away from parochial arguments about feminism

If we are going to talk about how feminism is too white, Anglocentric and insular, we have to put our money where our mouth is.

As soon as I tweeted about my new book project I'm working on with Beatrix Campbell, called Why doesn't patriarchy die?, some wag – no, misogynist – tweeted back that this was like asking: "Why doesn't Godzilla die?"

Another tweeter helpfully explained that this meant: "Awesome things are forever, ha!", which led to the original twit clarifying, "just like Godzilla, patriarchy theory is fiction".

In case my little female brain hadn’t quite got it, he then went on to dazzle me and contradict himself with Some Science: "Why is the force of gravity 32 feet per second square?"

He was upbraided by an equally witty friend, showing a faux-sympathy with feminists, that, "Mathematics is oppressive. It's the language of the Patriarchy."

The next tweet told me that our question had already been answered by Steven Goldberg’s book, The Inevitability of Patriarchy, which was based on the premise that men were biologically superior to women, a book that was published in 1971. How I miss another Seventies term, "male chauvinist pig", for which we have found no satisfying modern equivalent to describe this tweeter.

But by the standards of a twitterstorm, this was a breeze.

We suspect that a more sophisticated version of these attitudes is to be found on the editorial boards of some publishers. Initial excitement at our project would be replaced with interminable tinkering with the proposal before it was dropped altogether. We think that a Nancy Fraser view of feminism continues to dominate in some circles, including elements of the left, a view that is essentially a modernised version of the trope that feminism is the Trojan horse that betrayed the class struggle.

Fraser believes that feminism has entered into a dangerous liaison with neoliberalism. As I have argued elsewhere, "It is not so much that feminism legitimised neoliberalism, but that neoliberal values created a space for a bright, brassy and ultimately fake feminism."

And as Beatrix Campbell has argued, Fraser’s case that feminism sups with the devil is a heresy that has gone too far: "her apostasy becomes absurdity". 

While the question that we are addressing will come as no surprise to feminists – the survival of patriarchy – what we want to try and understand is what contributes to its resilience. What is it about patriarchy that means it works with the successful functioning of all political regimes, be they capitalist, socialist or theocratic? If we can understand what weakens its potency in some societies, perhaps it will help us develop a strategy to pry it loose in others.

And conversely, where and why does feminism thrive? Even before we have fully embarked on our project, our preliminary research has shown us that the entire gamut of the patriarchal writ, from being super-dominant to undergoing challenges, runs from Saudi Arabia to Rojava, a Kurdish enclave in Northern Syria, within a distance of only 1500km.

Both regions are predominantly Muslim, both are based in the Middle East and considered to be hugely oppressive towards women, where polygamy, forced marriage and honour crimes are legion. And yet, they could not be further apart. In Saudi Arabia, women are famously banned from driving; in Rojava women peshmerga fighters have pushed back Isis, a territorial victory but also one of ideas, given that Isis promotes various forms of sex-slavery.

Furthermore, in Rojava, three self-governing cantons, influenced by the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Turkish Kurds, a radical experiment in democracy is taking place where every committee and neighbourhood council is co-chaired by a man and a woman. Despite the war situation, cultural practices like forced marriage and bride price have been criminalised. We would visit both areas to report firsthand on the conditions that enable women to live such different lives.

Much of the research will be desk-based and Skype-based interviews, but travel is essential. We managed to raise money from a trust to cover our travel expenses, but we had no money for a project so ambitious that it is likely to take up to two years' work for both of us.

So we decided to use a crowdfunding platform, Byline, a bold new concept in funding journalists when print sales are declining, blogs are proliferating and the whole economic model is in transition. Readers can pay small sums of money, say £1 a month, to read a regular column by their favourite writers and thus enable them to earn a living. Byline’s slogan is "Nothing between you and the news", which is developed further in their mission statement: "We're taking out the middlemen  the newspaper proprietors and advertisers who have agendas of their own  and giving power back to the reader and the journalist."

As Byline is fairly new, and we’re new to crowdfunding, we set a modest target of £10,000. We've also built in a series of rewards for donors that involves additional work like travel diaries and monthly progress reports. For the top donation of £250, we have offered to cook dinner, and that dinner is to be hosted by brilliant, funny person and national treasure, Sandi Toksvig.

Among our supporters, there appears to be real excitement at the prospect of engaging with the big questions. One donor who has been urging her friends to donate points to the parochialism of some of our political work: "Women's inequality doesn't start and end in the workplace. It is deeply rooted within many cultures. I can't wait to see the outcome." Nor can we!

If you would like to donate to our project, crowdfunded via Byline, please click here.

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.