A Reflection on Talking about Misogyny Here and Everywhere
When I am reading online and offline newspapers, I am struck by the constant barrage of articles, editorials, and commentaries about the relentless misogyny in the world.
Some topics seem to have regained visibility. One of them is the issue of sexual violence and rape. It was initially brought out into the open during the early days of the Second Feminist Movement in Western societies. Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) is still the corner stone of the enormous accomplishment that opened up conversations and understanding of one of the most pervasive forms of violence against women and girls. In the meantime, we learned and recognized that many boys and men also endure this form of violence as victims and victim-survivors in their lives although it still remains a taboo topic for many. In fact, in my own scholarship I address male rape but also other forms of sexual violence found in the Hebrew Bible and elsewhere.
Yet in the 1990s, the issue of sexual violence became less discussed in feminist circles. It seemed to invite universalizing approaches about gendered experiences as if women anywhere shared the same predicaments. As the feminist debate had moved on to intersectional analyses of gender, sexual violence and rape did not easily seem to fit the current feminist debates anymore. I still remember the powerful remark of feminist historian Atina Grossmann during a lecture she gave at Columbia University in the mid-1990s. She stated that German women, raped by Russian “Red Army” soldiers during the occupation at the end of the Second World War in 1945, had not been “raped” as such because the women had been Nazi Germans and thus the events had to be understood on the basis of the intersectionality of gender and nationality, not only on the basis of gender. In other words, the topic of rape seemed strangely monolithic and lacking sophisticated and multivalent theoretical insight. This assessment about rape still lingers somewhat in feminist theoretical circles, I would say, but the public recognition of the preponderance of sexual violence and rape has changed. The topic is on the mind of the public today for a variety of reasons into which I do not want to go here.
Still, one question remains present in feminist debates about rape and sexual violence that is not new to feminists. It has to do with the question of who can talk about what, how, and why. Already in the 1990s, this question was discussed although it came up about a different topic than rape.
It was Alice Walker’s activist work on female circumcision in African countries that brought to the forefront the problem of how feminists ought to analyze misogyny within and beyond Western-Northern contexts. In 1992, Walker published a novel on the African practice of female circumcision; it is entitled Possessing the Secret of Joy. The question was whether it was legitimate for the renowned feminist writer, thinker, and activist to publicly oppose a practice that was endorsed by many women in far-away cultures with very different histories and sensibilities than Walker’s.
Was Walker falling prey to colonizing discourse when she unabashedly critiqued a practice that was not part of her own context? Did her feminist convictions turn her into an intellectual from the West whose views dominated women leading very different lives than she did?
Many years after Walker’s novel and the ensuing controversies about it, this question is still popping up, as for instance in Bessie A. Winn-Afeku’s 2011-blog. Winn-Afeku sides with Walker, but she also references Oyeronke Oyewumi who, in 2001, sharply criticized Walker for opposing female circumcision. In fact, Oyewumi characterizes Walker’s work as “an assault on Africans in the guise of an evangelizing mission to eradicate female circumcision in Afrika.”
These debates and controversies are difficult and painful. I am thinking about them when I read about middle- to upper-class Chinese women travelling to South Korea because they want to get plastic surgeries for their faces. Could I write a blog on this situation and compare it to Dallas’s women also getting plastic surgery and why?
I also ponder the question when I read about Haredi Jews who refused to sit next to passengers of the opposite sex on a Delta Airlines flight from New York to Israel. Or about Ethiopian girls being gang-raped, similar to the gang-rape cases in India so widely publicized last year. Then there are the gang-rapes in Pakistan and the horrific gang-rape of Amina Bibi who self-immolated after the release of the main suspect from custody. Must we all be silent on these recent events and who can talk about them and how? Would my mention reinforce a Western colonizing positionality by the mere fact of me talking about them? Would my silence be a silence for which “good cause”?
Then there is the preponderance of reports on rape in the US-military and on US-American colleges that I also want to mention, now even with a debate about “who suffers most from rape and sexual assault in America.” My own university is in the process of confronting sexual assault and harassment on campus since 2012, but I have seen very few feminist analyses on the increasing legal procedures being implemented. Do we as feminist scholars assume that these legal procedures are for the better or simply the result of institutions trying to protect themselves legally? Who is talking about it and if they do not, should they? If not, why not?
And how about the men’s world at Hollywood and the hesitancy to hire female directors? Or the fact that there are only 25.7% of “theology” doctorates earned by women right after logic (23.4%) and civil engineering (23%) but before astrophysics (27.0%)?
In other words, I wonder how to write about the gruesome realities present in so many women’s and girls’ lives. If I remain silent, why do I stay away from this or that topic, and who should address the manifold stories of misogyny here and everywhere? I also wonder about the kind of “identity politics” we require of ourselves in this post-postmodern age. Who gets silenced and who can speak? Do we participate in the voluntary process of restricting our freedom of speech, this time under our own feminist banners?
It seems to me that the early debates about feminist free speech and who can talk about what and why have been far from resolved. In fact, they are alive and “well” in the sense that feminist speech is still not necessarily encouraged in its diversity, variety, and differences of viewpoints. Perhaps foremost on our agenda should be how feminists need to hear each other into our various free speeches on misogyny here and everywhere because talking about misogyny is still a difficult thing to do, even among feminists.