November 2005

From Bacon to Foucault, here you have it:

Why I Am a Feminist.
(Written July 2005)
Due to a heated discussion this past weekend about a marriage ritual whereby one family gives their girl to another family and the receiving family sends their own girl as collateral, I thought it necessary to explain in full detail why it is exactly that I feel that culture, the background social experience that is usually taken for granted, should be questioned and re-questioned. I feel it is necessary to explain why I am a feminist.
What is Feminism?
A feminist can be male or female. A feminist is someone who believes in women’s rights in all aspects of life. These rights directly affect a woman’s quality of life. The most fundamental right is the right of a woman to make her own choices. For myself, this is the cornerstone of feminist thinking – that a woman lives by her own principled and informed choices rather than by the dictates of culture or men (where the former is usually constructed by the latter).
Feminism itself is not one ideology. In feminist philosophy there are three major perspectives: Feminist empiricism, Standpoint feminism and Postmodern Feminism. There are also so-called radical, liberal, socialist, Marxist, queer, Third World, Black, Chicana, Asian feminists, etc. Feminism means different things to different people. This is a good thing because feminist theory can never be all encompassing. If it was, it would undercut one of its major assumptions – that a woman’s personal experience is valid. Therefore, each personal experience is worth as much as any other and deserves representation and description.
However, privileged & white women have been criticized as putting their experiences in the center while marginalizing other experiences.
Will Feminism Change the World?
It depends. Change in this world, as most people are well aware, is slow and controversial. There are always problems determining in which direction the world should change because of the normative assumptions inherent in the word change. Change could be better or worse but each of these situations depends on the person experiencing the change and how they feel about it. That seems like a rather subjectivist view, as though negative/positive change is only negative or positive based on the way people perceive it. This leads us into philosophical “relativism” which is something that I do not normally subscribe to because it leads us down a slippery slope and forces to accept many absurd conclusions. The important thing here is to realize that the evaluation of change is contextual. For example: A village (let’s call it “A”) ends up getting access to clean, running water. For the first time ever the people in the village do not have to walk 2 miles to the nearest well to retrieve water. The only problem is that the developers designed village A’s sewer system so that it drains into village B’s water source, which is a river that they have been depending on since the oldest villager can remember.
Of course, clean water is a great improvement for village A but its implications for village B make it not such a positive change. This is what I mean by context relative. Change is positive for village A but negative for village B. Their contexts make all the difference.

Furthermore, each culture perceives change differently. Liberal cultures embrace and foster it while conservative cultures are wary of change. But it could also be said that liberal cultures are wary of change when their “liberal” assumptions are questioned. In this sense, liberal culture can be just as dogmatic as the cultures we typically think of as uncritical and hesitant to change.
If a woman desires to change her situation, then being a feminist puts her in a suitable position to do so because of the importance it puts on personal agency. However agency cannot be created, it needs to be fostered and supported. Feminists can help to do this even if the woman in the situation does not necessarily see herself as a feminist.

The ideals feminists adopt include anti-oppression in the broadest sense:
Anti-sexism (most obvious)
The ideals encompass almost every form of human oppression and attempt to subvert them. It is the case that feminists, having their own personal privileges, could oppress other women without being aware. My job as a feminist is to question my interventions at all stages. In each word and action, I should keep in mind how I might affect my sisters (and brothers). But this is not just heart-felt compassion because I would want others to be aware of how they might affect me as well. So it is rather a self-interested principle – to critically analyze our words and deeds.

Why Do People Have Problems Saying They Are Feminist?
It’s been my experience that some feminists disown their label. In many cases it is not a matter of disowning but a matter of not knowing fully what a feminist is, or can be. A feminist is critical and so it is viewed as threatening to the status quo. New ideas are threatening but the best way to view feminism for me is to look at it historically to see how it is not at all a new phenomenon. It is not a phenomenon at all. In fact, there have always been women and they have always had their own interests it was just a matter of women being able to express them. When a feminist sees a woman in a situation where she is unable to express what her interests are, then it is her responsibility and, in my view, moral obligation (capacity-building), to help her help herself. Sometimes people do not want to say they are a feminist because they think it is male-bashing/hating when in fact it is really the opposite. Feminism represents options for living with men – our husbands, brothers, uncles, harassers, lovers – in a more authentic way so that woman say and do what they really feel rather than pretending they are happy with the way things are. In this sense, feminism is a type of liberation and can therefore be uncomfortable for a lot of people, men and woman alike. What successful revolution has ever been comfortable?

Can Illiterates be Feminist?
The core of this question asks: is feminism restricted or limited to theoretical/Western/privileged women? The answer is No but it must be qualified. It is true that feminist thinkers cited in classes are Western woman because of the western predisposition to written communication over oral communication but for the most part the most fervent feminists are women who live their lives in resistance without any theoretical background. In fact, the practice informs the theories (since experience is first). The feminist writer Gayatri Spivak wrote in 1989 “Can the Subaltern Speak?” with the above question in mind. The question is, are western thinkers/activists/feminists silencing Third World people? Do we represent them wrongly? Does representation do an injustice to their causes (namely economic and political oppression). Do they have a say in how we view them or do we construct their realities as we are documenting them? The answer Spivak gave was that indeed the subaltern (economically disadvantaged) cannot speak. This is a huge problem and there seems to be as of yet no solution. The only thing I see as necessary is for feminists to constantly question culture but to constantly question themselves as to why, how, and for what purpose they are questioning culture. Self-reflexivity is the most important feminist trait.

Why I Am A Feminist?
I am a feminist because I love my culture and I want every person to enjoy it equally. I am a feminist because I see the hardship women are faced with in this world and am determined to do my part in making sure this does not go unnoticed and unchecked.

Met some people this weekend that were real cool and we had a great time.
There was one point in our very engaging conversation on Friday night that made me want to post.

One of the guests was asking me what I’d like to do when I’m finished with school. He assumed because I research education policy that I’d like to work for government.
I didn’t even blink before I answered, “no, I’d like to work separate from government.”
And he responded, “oh, you rebel”.

Although we went on to other conversation, I kept thinking…I’m a rebel for not wanting to work in government? But after further consideration I reminded myself that many people work outside of government, geographically and institutionally, but tow the gov’t line. For example, diplomats.

Diplomats are unique in that they are immune from the repercussions of states – unlike the average citizen. In their post and depending on their tier (there are 3 tiers in Canada as opposed to U.S. where there are 6 diplomatic ranks and 3 “flag” ranks) they have privileges that could make some people nervous. For example, we don’t know exactly what diplomats DO. They are not in the same way accountable to citizens as Ministers of Finance or your MP politician is. (Of course, it’s arguable if any politicians are in fact at all accountable to citizens – the Canadian sponsorship scandal by the Liberal government testifies to the fact that accountability is a distorted ideal rather than a reality…)

But, diplomats can also be rebels, if they choose to be. Foreign service officers in Canada are usually only fired for criminality and not incompetence. This means that when they spend the required 60% of their time overseas, their actions are not regulated the same way as in Canada.

Diplomats have the discretion as to whose visa to stamp, whose cases to investigate and what issues occuring abroad to highlight as important to thier nation. Although the bureaucracies of their home and host countries tend to mitigate the amount of corruption and bad decisions, we all know what politics is like at the higher/executive levels. It doesn’t take a cynic to understand that politics has more to do with the gestures and whispers outside the decision-making process than in the boardroom. Like corporations, back-room politics within government is more influential than public statements.

So rebels can be diplomats and diplomats can be rebels too.

…but to me, at 12:07pm, it’s good morning.

I couldn’t sleep last night. Two nights in two weeks, an average of once a week. I slept at 5:45 am. This is after I wrote my blog on IMAN, checked email and wrote a response to the editor for The Economist. I could post it here but, ok, let me post it here:

SIR- Your last issue (France’s Failure, Nov. 12-18) noted lack of employment and inclusion for racialized people in France as the reason for the riots. Ironically just three weeks before the riots, I heard Francis Fukuyama speak on “Identity, Immigration and Liberalism” at the University of Toronto; his focus was this very issue. This era of transnationalism, as he put it, (following his previous thesis on the “End of History”), facilitates violence because recognition – of identities, cultures, religions- is the problem now to be faced in so-called democracies in the West. Deterritorialization and migration of culture has created much resentment and resistance in European countries that neglect migrants’ rights to proper citizenship, including the rights to labour, health, education and shelter. And we see now that each country deserves the citizens it gets. Other policy analysts have said the same thing for years about France, Netherlands, Italy. For some reason I didn’t expect such an astute analysis from The Economist. I stopped reading this paper while an undergraduate student in 2001 due to a headline on Africa’s ‘Political Geography’ as the reason for the continent’s perceived misery. But I think I’ll pick The Economist back up. Your report on Ethiopia as a puppet of the Western governments, particularly when it comes to international aid, was also very apt. As an Eritrean, I am sick and tired of the diplomatic apathy that has met the government of Eritrea and, consequently, its people, following repeated requests through various channels for assurance that Ethiopia complies with the border ruling of December 2000. Nothing has been done. In both cases I’ve mentioned- the lack of employment and respect for immigrants in Europe, and the lack of enforcement on international legal rulings in Ethiopia/Eritrea- serve to show that the world is not yet ready to be proactive. When will we learn that ignoring problems only makes them blow up? No pun intended.
Helen Tewolde Toronto, ON

I’m posting this here because I feel it is too long to get published. And if they DO publish it, then it will be edited to the point of no return. So here is the full integrity of my letter.


Hey y’all…I’m back on track. Got the high speed connectivity at home. Forgot how distracting it can be. And talking about distractions, I’m getting BET for the first time in my life. Why are the videos so repetitive? And what is so hot about wearing the chains that look like they’re about to bite off the p***s? Too heavy and too bling. Just saw the MTV Video Awards (yes, I’m behind) and Ludacris is wearing a diamond chain with a full diamond pendant in the shape of the motherland. Africa. Why?

Let me go ahead before I lose my mind.

IMAN! I saw Iman today. She is one of the most….

…ok you know what? I’m not about to lie. I don’t really care for Iman because I don’t follow supermodel careers that intensely. I respect her grace and business sense but frankly I don’t wear her makeup line except for a few lipsticks I got on sale last year; to be really honest, I think they smelled funny. Kind of like wax. I threw out two of them. She was the right face at the right time. And that’s exactly what she said during her speech today. A man asked her if she’s ever modelled while she was a Political Science student in Nairobi in 1975. She was offered money for her tuition and then she took some pictures. The rest is history. She was a model for 15 years and has run her cosmetics line for 10. She’s married to David Bowie, not that this would define her in anyway cause as we all know the husbands are defined by their wives. Lucky him!

She didn’t speak for long, only a few mins. but she greeted her Somali sisters in the audience in Somali, which I thought was cool. She could have just neglected to recognize them which a few Africans in the limelight do. We asked questions and I asked her if and when she goes back to Somalia. She talked briefly about “our” country (she thought I was also Somali) and how the political situation seems to be more hopeful with a new president-elect. One lady asked longwindedly about how she could better cover up her dark circles under her eyes. She could have saved this question for a cosmetician…Iman is a business woman more than a beauty consultant. However, her new book begs to differ. Her new book is on Beauty for women of colour. Some good tips in there, but nothing you can’t get off the internet or, better yet, common sense. But even Common Sense has gone crazy. No pun intended.

But seriously, I took a picture with Iman for the sole reason to have a picture with Iman. I just wanted to have a picture with Iman. I mean, no reason. But when I got up there and we were face to face I had nothing to say. I didn’t want to say I respected her for breaking down barriers because it would seem trite. I couldn’t say she was beautiful – too redundant. What do you say to an African millionaire with a thriving business career, good genes, charming personality and cultural sensitivity? Then it just hit me: “Can I have a picture”?

Anyway, as we were leaving the venue some interviewers asked my friend Lemlem and I a few questions. Looks like we’ll be on Fashion Television talking about IMAN. Catch us on TV! (Watch it be some snippet where I’m scratching my head talking about nothing important). Y’all know how the media do.


Apparently my brushes with Buddhism were impermanent and indeed my pragmatic nature took over.

I’m writing to say hello to this new month of ours. However, I am VERY busy and must go.

Let me let you in on a few recent accomplishments and failures:

1. Conference Done. Conference successful.
2.Working Laaaast Minute on a 150 page Reading I have to finish this week.
3. Have a 292 page assignment to read a World Bank document (just released) on ‘brain drain’. Will be tedious but worth it I’m sure
4. FAILURE: Have not called a few friends.
5. FAILURE: Have picked fights with significant other although other deserves it.
6. FAILURE: Have been ultra-critical with friends and family.

Well talk to you soon. peace.