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Written by: Roula Seghaier
First, let us agree that writing is a reductive act because it is based on portrayal and representation of realities and individual and societal desires and needs through the means of language. Ironically, that is exactly what I am about to do in this article.
Academic writing presents us with “the knowledge that deserves to be known.” For instance, it tells us that written history outweighs the oral, and that statistics are more valuable than a single narrative to understand a certain reality. Since we live within a patriarchal system which exercises its primary authority to suppress women and other marginalized groups, and since (cis)men’s power within this system is based on their ability to control the private and public spheres, the “knowledge worthy of knowing” is the fruit of the elite-controlled patriarchal capitalist system. This patriarchal system attributes certain traits such as intimacy and subjectivity to the private sphere and calls them feminine, while it attributes so-called masculine treats of rationality and objectivity to the public sphere. Extending this binary to writing, we are taught to consider some products to be “academic” and “credible.” These products are worthy of knowing, whereas others are not, they are opinions, or essays, or doodles.
We must ask ourselves multiple questions in regards to the production of knowledge: who created it and conducted the research? What are the backgrounds of the people or institutions that made this knowledge prevalent? Who is their audience? In general, the academic knowledge available to us, is one that the system allowed us to know. This system includes universities, journals, publishing houses, the people and funds behind them, among others. Thus, patriarchy controls the final cognitive product we obtain. As an example, we only read what we read after it passes multiple tests, whether calls for papers, evaluation criteria, or censorship devices. Most importantly, the process of this unnatural selection is a historical product of patriarchy’s victorious men, those who wrote histories and established institutions. Therefore, we must ask these questions among others: we must discuss these texts’ structure and content, but most importantly, we must evaluate the political values they spread. They do so through various representations.
Representation #1 or the myth of “Scientists say:”
This representation is based on a number of underlying assumptions, the most important of which are the expertise of the writer and the objectivity of the written material.
- Expertise: By claiming expertise over the studied, the writer takes intellectual agency away from the subject of the study. The subject of the study is the means towards conclusions that are framed within the author’s expertise. Not only does the myth of expertise bulletproof the writer against criticism, but it is also guilty of the dissemination of non-intersectional values, claiming that an issue can be addressed intellectually through one area of specialization. For example, the myth of expertise encourages one-dimensionality: it is up to defense experts, not economists or educators, to address the issue of “terrorism.” This knowledge thus contributes to the acquittal of many sectors by their omission from the discussion.
- The myth of objectivity: It draws some of its history from concrete sciences. To solve a mathematical or physical issue, for example, we have to start from a given of fixed facts, such as the roundness of the earth or the presence of gravity, which makes solving these issues possible. If we use the same standards in humanities, that is if we pose “fixed, objective, and unquestionable facts” as givens, we put entire societies at risk of injustice. Academia perpetuates political values by making some knowledge readily available and unquestionable. Numerous studies argued the idea that there is something cultural about the MENA that makes dictatorships resilient, then the uprisings overthrew some regimes in our regions. Fortunately, these studies were disproved by this drastic turn of events. Yet when events and alternative narratives are obscured, such academic writing reproduces tyranny. Hence, we seek an alternative and feminist knowledge, one that requires awareness of the required agencies and positionalities of the individuals involved, including ourselves, in relation to external and internal constraints and social conditions that burden our liberation. Alternative academic writing requires a consciousness based on feminist epistemology, that is practices based on women’s knowledge and experience.
Representation #2 or the “trend of models:”
- The model of “a woman”: Who is a woman for “Women’s rights” for example? Such mainstreamed concepts vulgarize struggles. This one specifically speaks as if women represent a cohesive group and have a set of identical desires regardless of their class, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. Analyzing patriarchy as a unified concept among cultures leads to the creation of another abstraction, the reduced and rigid concept of “women of the third world” as ahistorical, and subject to a common injustice regardless of their different positionalities.
- The model of the developed West: The adoption of Western experiences such as the standard reference and empirical framework in academia does not benefit feminism, because it reproduces colonial rhetoric using orientalist patterns. This Orientalist discourse shapes women from the Global South as “others” who are victims of “others” who are “savages.” These women are seen as victims of an Arab family system or of an Islamic law. Such narratives assume that the European and Western system of governance is the model to follow, similarly to middle-class women’s assumptions in the dawn of feminism that their values are exemplary. Thus, the Orientalist discourse takes control of liberation movements in these areas and dismisses the essential and distinctive complexities of the lives of these women.
Alternatively, Women’s awareness is centered on the perception of our belonging to a secondary category that is exposed to material and historical injustice on a socially imposed basis, not based on uniform biological characteristics among us. It is our duty to create alliances based on solidarity between women and to provide an alternative vision for the social system and political values, because, as per the feminist formula, “the personal is the political.” That said, objectivity is purely a patriarchal myth that we must overcome in cognitive production.
Representation #3: Quantitative and/or Liberal Assessments in Research:
I will start from an example: Increasing the number of women in parliaments/organizations/offices is a liberal type of feminism generally advocated by middle-class and bourgeois women. While representation is necessary, it does not find basis on the principle of acquiring part of the spoils under an existing unjust system that values hierarchy such being white, European, able-bodied, heterosexual, and belonging to the middle and upper classes. Since academia legitimizes certain knowledge as that “worthy of knowing,” and since it creates political value that we assume as scientific, in the remainder of my talk I will try to explain the dangers of quantitative research and liberal findings on gender justice.
So what we mean by gender justice as feminists? What is often deliberately forgotten by development programs’ research is that a quantitative equality based on quotas or on state feminism is not necessarily feminist. Rather, this celebration of quantitative data expresses a general obsession with numerical results that fall short from producing new political values. For instance, we do not care if what gender are our murderers and torturers; having more women or gender non-conforming people kill us and torment us does not advance gender justice, but reproduces a more-inclusive system of oppression. What this kind of developmental research does is that it appropriates the struggle and its language, and produces knowledge on the behalves of our movements, thus distorting its radical dimensions by complying with the imperialist worldview and a value system created by the authority. Feminism as a school of thought and a way of life thus becomes a joke on the lips of the victims of oppression, those who became the numbers of quantitative studies in development projects.
As we produce our knowledge and when we speak justice, we do not seek to involve women in systems that are by default repressive and exploitative. Gender justice does not benefit from the inclusion of women in the prison industrial complex, or the Israeli occupation army, or the institutions of censorship and control… All of this is just a settlement; patriarchy offers a small part of power to women of its choice thus co-opting and silencing them. Thus we see that women move to a secure intersection of the patriarchal space, leaving the class system and the socioeconomic injustices as they are. These women acquire authority position at the expense of marginalized communities, and some academic writings celebrate this victory and legitimize it through their quantitative research.
We must restore writing as a feminist act, by exposing the violence of political systems that rely on classist, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and other discriminatory practices to survive… Those among us who work in academia sometimes emphasize the existing system through creating “knowledge worthy of knowing” or falling short from challenging its boundaries, or reproducing it in our demands and radical movements. Some of us overuse academic jargon and help sustain the ivory tower of academia. Some of us get their foothold on respectability through these practices and become honorable academics.
When we are ready to lose the privileges, when we trouble the boundaries between what is academic and non-academic production of knowledge, when we recognize our involvement in this system, only then can we speak of justice.