Oppression vs. Empowerment

I found all of the dialectic tensions presented in the readings to be valid and engaging; however, I think there is a definite bias in the definition of empowerment, as it is explored in the text. Whereas dissemination, dialogue, fragmentation, and unity seem to be largely unproblematic definitions, the configurations of control, emancipation, oppression, and empowerment are far too complex to be standardized by anyone outside of the community engaging in those dialectics. I will draw specifically on the author’s treatment of the dialectic of oppression and empowerment to demonstrate my point:

In the text, Papa and Singhal discuss how the veiling practice of purdah is simultaneously empowering and oppressing for women in India. According to the authors, veiling exhibits a clear subjugation to patriarchal codes that keep women in the domestic domain; nonetheless, these practices, within their framing patriarchal order, also bestow respect and honor on women. Thus, Papa and Singhal make sure to first criticize the patriarchal order for it’s purdah practices which are, apparently, self-evidently oppressive, but then go on to ambiguously cite that patriarchal order in invoking the honor and respect it bestows upon those women who veil themselves. This example demonstrates a clear Western-feminist bias against patriarchal orders, subsuming that such orders are inherently oppressive towards women- in all cases, times, and places- while largely ignoring the empowerment of women that is inextricable from innumerable patriarchal orders and practices throughout the world. While Papa and Singhal take great care to cite interviews and anecdotal evidence to support some of their other dialectic tensions, there is no such engagement in the discussion of oppression and empowerment. It is simply assumed that all women feel themselves to be restricted and subjugated by veiling practices, without any consideration of individual agency and subjectivity.

This Eurocentric delineation of feminine empowerment reminded me of an article I read recently by a Muslim feminist, Fatemeh Fakhraei, about the tendency of Western feminists to project their conceptions of liberation onto foreign contexts without any consideration for the desires and beliefs of the women within those contexts. These projections, as well as the ones invoked in the readings, evidence clear ethnocentrism, prejudice, and victim constructions that sleight any effort towards ‘liberation’ undertaken or proposed by such alien agents. The standardization of liberation is itself a problematic example of the dissemination that the authors seem so apprehensive of in their texts. These authors disseminate their biased perspectives without any consideration of constructive dialogue, only to go on to critique such disengaging practices later in the text.

In my opinion, rather than simply disseminating self-projected biases, the individuals engaged in struggles towards emancipation and empowerment should set the framework for their own struggle. A foreign definition of freedom should never dictate the liberation struggles of native populations. This act is itself a form of colonialism that should be opposed by all those who wish to retain their self-determined autonomy and independence.

This piece reminded me of a poem I have heard recited a few times by various Muslim women, both native and non-natives, here in the United States, to demonstrate and criticize the presumption and cultural judgment inherent in several arguments against hijab. There is specific reference to oppression in the poem, with subsequent reaffirmation of the hijab as a source of empowerment. This youtube video shows a young Indian girl reciting the poem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tqJtReLceI

link to Fatemeh Fakhraei’s article: http://www.altmuslimah.com/a/b/a/3171/


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