An exchange on Feminism and Revolution: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Julie Matthaei’s essay is certainly one of the most inspiring pieces I have read so far, and I have saved it to my library to refer to it again and again.
The essay expressed everything that I have reflected upon before regarding unsatisfying practices and institutions, not just here in the “patriarchal Arab World” (as some say), but also, I would emphasize, the “patriarchal whole World, including the Western,” which I will explain shortly.
First of all, it is important to make clear that when we talk about patriarchy vs. feminism, we are talking about two opposing worldviews/paradigms, rather than men vs. women. One of the most wonderful aspects of the essay is how it shows that the feminist movement has evolved from viewing its issue as gender equality (just women getting equal rights with men in the market, akin to workers getting their equal share with the bourgeoisie in Marxism), to broadening its issue toward changing the whole system—cultural views, practices, and institutions, starting from the family, up to school, the workplace, the society, and the whole globe. The goal becomes ending oppression in all its dimensions (intersectionality), not just man vs. woman, but also, adult vs. child, boss vs. worker, in-between classes, races, ethnicities, and nationalities. In other words, or at least from what I gleaned from the essay, feminism has transformed from being a women’s equality movement to a worldview and systemic change movement.
While reading the essay, I remembered a wonderful study in social psychology that I read a while ago: “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism,” by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, Sena Koleva, et al.1 This study shows (through many experiments done) that there are five moral orientations that are innate in the human mind: care, fairness, authority, loyalty, and sanctity. It also shows that generally humans are divided into two groups (by effect of social/cultural learning): humans who give more emphasis to care and fairness, and humans who give more emphasis to authority, loyalty, and sanctity. What’s even more intriguing is that the study says that these results were found through many cross-cultural surveys, that this difference is greater than variations between cultures/nations (meaning that this moral emphasis difference among humans exists and is more important than variances in nationality, culture, race, ethnicity, and perhaps even gender).
The study finds this difference to be consistent with the two political groups of liberals and conservatives. But I’d say that this is a difference between two whole cultural paradigms/worldviews. We can use any terms for them: liberal vs. conservative, feminist vs. patriarchal, caring vs. oppressive, egalitarian vs. domineering. At the end, they are two worldviews that bypass gender, race, occupation, nationality, and any other “intersectional” position.
For the purpose of abbreviation, I will continue on the rest of my comment with the terms feminist vs. patriarchal worldviews, but I hope that my point (and I think it’s the essays’ point as well) is clear that this is not necessarily related to gender: indeed, there are a lot of feminist men, and a lot of patriarchal women.
We need to know how we evolved to become aware of where we are now, and it is through this “evolutionary perspective” that I will try to make a point for critical theory and postmodernism, explaining how our whole global system (including Western societies) is patriarchal (from the perspective I explained earlier, of patriarchy being a worldview and system, not mere equality between men and women).
Before reading this essay, I read another wonderful essay, Janet Chafetz’s “Gendered Power and Privilege: Taking Lenski One Step Further,” which explains very succinctly the evolution of the system of patriarchy.2 Indeed, it shows that patriarchy isn’t a new phenomenon related to Western capitalism, but is a specific world-system/worldview that dominated human history longer before that, that applying socialism alone, rather than changing this whole system, is not enough.
It seems this world-system/worldview has begun with the Neolithic/agricultural revolution, and has been ruling human societies all over the world ever since. Although this system is dynamic and complex, I will try to dissect it into several parts, for simplification:
1) Ecological/technological changes: surplus economic production; increase of human population in small, concentrated urban areas; invention of metallurgy; domestication of animals; scarcity of immediate survival resources in urban populated areas.
2) Social changes: some people possessing lands and resources more than others (creation of classes); enforcing authoritarian rule to control the newly created chaos of overpopulated small urban areas with low survival resources (creation of ruling elite vs. the masses, and of bureaucracy); warfare between tribes, cities, and empires over controlled land; domination of man (as the one who's more able-bodied to “control” domesticated animals, do hard work with plows through large fields, and perform violent war against other human groups) over women in both public and private spheres (transformation from matrilocality and matrilineality to patrilocality and patrilineality).
3) Cultural changes: valuing wealth, material possessions, consumerism; valuing power, violence, masculinity, control, domination over others; valuing “competition” for this power and wealth; creation of “hierarchy” or the “Great Chain of Being,” in which human dominates over life/nature/animals and plants, man dominates over woman, adult dominates over child, the able-bodied/healthy/powerful dominates over the disabled/ill/weak, the White dominates over the Black (and this is not only in Western societies, but in all societies), the wealthy/elite dominates over the poor/mass, the citizen/national dominates over the immigrant/stranger/foreigner, (recently) the Northerner dominates over the Southerner, and finally God “AlMighty and Powerful” dominates over everyone else!
All in all, it is a whole anthropocentric, patriarchal world-system of wealth, power, violence, competition, and domination that gradually “dominated” our Earth as humans moved from their simple egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups in nature to their more complex agricultural-industrial urban societies.
This system is certainly still dominating our human societies. Indeed, with modernity, Western societies have become, on the surface, more progressive than other societies around the world (providing some equal rights to women, blacks, and the poor, but more in the form of adaptation of the system as-it-is, rather than a system change). Although I don’t want to seem like a non-Westerner devaluing the benefits of Western modernity (of which I, myself, am a beneficiary, as Western modernity is affecting all other regions around the world), I view Western modernity as another patriarchal civilizational progress within the series of patriarchal civilizational progress phases that human history has witnessed so far (agricultural revolution–Axial Age –industrialization –modernity)—the great philosophers, thinkers, and prophets of modernity (as in the Axial Age) being all “men” who propose visions of human progress and enlightenment that do not, yet, break out of the big box of the patriarchal world-system/view that humans have been imprisoned within since the agricultural revolution over 12,000 years ago.
Hence, modernity advocates, for example, equality between men and women, the White and Black, in the competitive struggle for power and wealth, while the core of the problem actually lies, not within this surface equality/inequality, but rather within the practices, institutions, and the whole system that advocates and maintains a life of competition for power and wealth. Therein comes the role of critical theory and postmodernism that try to deconstruct this whole system. A system that has driven, say, the American government, which gives equal rights to men and women, white and black—while having a black woman, Condoleezza Rice, as a secretary of state advocate and commit one of the worst massacres (warfare for control of oil wealth and regional/world power) in at least the recent human history, in Iraq, that has spilled over a great regional (and perhaps in the future, world) civil war that (among other factors) oppressed our own attempts to gain our freedom (including women) in the Arab World (through the Arab Spring). Needless to mention, Western governments’ support of the regimes in the Arab World that fasten us to our miserable “(de)constructive chaos”—using Condoleezza's words (with military weapons and with money—through the international economic system of “wealth accumulation at all human/moral costs”), that maintain oppression of all groups in the Arab World.
I don’t want to seem pessimistic (although, by the result with which the Arab Spring ended up until now, pessimism overwhelms me, with regard to the Middle East, and therefore, the whole world in which the Middle East is embedded in and affected by), or just blaming others. One of the biggest problems that we, I hope, learned from in the Arab Spring, and that I reflected upon while reading Matthaei’s essay, is that of “postponing” important issues while women were struggling with workers, to break capitalism first and then deal with gender inequality: Indeed, this is a problem we encountered in Egypt. During the beginning of the revolution, many activists advocated that we stay united against the regime regardless of our ideological differences—that we should first overthrow the regime, and then talk about our differences in cultural views. Although this is a very attractive argument (because indeed, the military regime itself unites all possible allies to resist change), we found out later that the cultural differences between revolutionaries were huge. Many of the revolutionaries were Islamists (who advocated the application of a certain regime that excludes all the others who don't adopt their religious view), and many of the remaining non-Islamists (so-called seculars) were patriarchal and held the same traditional values that are widespread in the society.
And what’s more appalling is that we found out that among us revolutionaries, those who are most organized are the ones who are the most traditional/non-liberal (e.g., Islamists), and thus when we’d overthrow the regime, we would only be replacing it with another authoritarian traditional regime.
Sadly, those who are truly liberal, or hold a feminist worldview (at least from my experience here in the revolution in Egypt), are very few, disorganized, and perhaps even nearly non-existent (the only women-related movements that arose during the revolution were only related to anti-sexual-harassment). As I said before, I don't think the problem, even here in the Middle East, is with equality because, as women here, we work the same jobs as men. Actually, in my place of work, women are larger in number. We are getting even more education than men, and in universities, we outnumber men, who are pressed from their young years to work in simple jobs and to save money to be able to get an apartment and get married. The problem rather lies with the patriarchal worldview/system—cultural values, practices, and institutions—that dominates our life and world.
I realized then, like Matthaei says, that it’s not about what we oppose, or what we want to break down (we cannot unite with others, who have a patriarchal view, just to oppose or overthrow the military regime, or the capitalist regime, or the theocratic regime, etc.), but rather it is about what we stand for and what we want to build anew (the feminist world-system/view). It is around this new emerging worldview that we should organize and unite (on a global scale—transcending gender, race, nationalities, etc.), to build its new world-system.
I am very happy to hear about the many organizations and local communities that have begun to (r)evolutionize our world-system, by beginning to build from the inside-out, from the local to the global, the new values, practices, and institutions that we want our Earth-world to change into. However, at the same time, I feel sad that I can’t find such organizations (as far as I know) here in Egypt, or in the larger Middle East—perhaps as people struggle here with many wars, manipulation, and depression from the immediate results of the Arab Spring, they don’t yet have the energy and soul to commit to such gradual (r)evolutionary local change that could in time surpass the countless obstacles that drowns this region in its seemingly endless mire! But I still have hope, because with the spread of such examples of organizations and local eco-communities, and with the global virtual network of the Internet that spreads new ideas and experiences from the local to the global level, patriarchal-to-feminist change will ultimately spread all around the world, even in the Middle East.
All in all, the Great Transition—the feminist transition (again, not based on gender) that we seek—is a truly immense and transformative task. It is more immense than the transitions of the Axial Age or Modernity, because it is a transition that requires us to break out of the patriarchal world-system cage that humans have been stuck in since they began to collect together in larger tribes and cities and moved from hunter-gathering groups to agricultural societies. The great “male” prophets and philosophers of the Axial Age and Modernity have sought to enlighten the human mind and condition, creating new visions and philosophies that still couldn’t break through the great cage of the patriarchal worldview/system that their consciousness level was trapped in. In our present globally networked information age, for the first time in human history, we have reached the level of self-consciousness with which we finally know the whole process of our human (and cosmic) evolution, and the evolutionary social/economic/cultural traps we have fallen in while learning to cope with our rising social complexity, and thus we have finally become aware and enlightened about the way toward radically transforming the human life on Earth, and socio-culturally adapting—without fear—to our Earth's environment and to the globally-connected diverse human population in it—certainly not by technologically regressing back to hunting-gathering groups, but to get rid of (transform) the negative social and cultural consequences that have evolved along with our rising technological and social complexity. I would say to break free from the parasitic qualities of patriarchal power, competitive domination, masculine violence, possessive wealth, and divisive national/religious/ethnic identities, and regress back to our childish innocence, feminine care, collective altruism, and the equality of pre-Neolithic humans, while resuming our technological advancement and rising complexity.
We need a whole worldview/system change. This is an immense undertaking. But we have already taken the most important step ahead, which is reaching this self-awareness for what we need to change into.
1. Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, Sena Koleva, et. al., “Moral Foundations Theory: The Pragmatic Validity of Moral Pluralism,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 47 (2013): 55–130.
2. Janet Chafetz, “Gendered Power and Privilege: Taking Lenski One Step Further,” Sociological Theory 22, no. 3 (June 2004): 269–277.
Cite as Noha Tarek, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on Feminism and Revolution,'" Great Transition Initiative (June 2018), www.greattransition.org/roundtable/feminism-revolution-noha-tarek.
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