Question of agency: Women, life, freedom, and the Left

Four recent global news stories have revealed the varieties of women’s empowerment, showing how the politics of sex and gender can either challenge or reinforce existing power structures. For Western liberals, understanding these dynamics will be crucial to beating back the new right.
Iran women protesting
Iran women protestingReuters

SLAVOJ ZIZEK

CHENNAI: Four events centering around women have made headlines over the past month: Giorgia Meloni’s electoral victory in Italy, Queen Elizabeth II’s death and funeral, the release of the film The Woman King, and the widespread protests in Iran following the killing of Mahsa Amini by the country’s morality police. Taken together, these four stories highlight essential features of the political terrain.

With the left failing to offer an adequate response to the crisis of liberal democracy, the rise of new right-wing governments in Europe is not particularly surprising. But women’s central role in this movement has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Right-wing leaders like Meloni and Marine Le Pen in France are presenting themselves as stronger alternatives to traditional mainstream masculine technocrats. They embody both right-wing hardness and features usually associated with femininity, such as a focus on care and the family: fascism with a human face.

Now consider the televised spectacle of Elizabeth II’s funeral, which highlighted an interesting paradox: as the British state has fallen ever further from its former superpower status, the British royal family’s ability to inspire imperial reveries has only grown. We should not dismiss this as ideology masking actual power relations. Rather, monarchical fantasies are themselves a part of the process whereby power relations reproduce themselves.

Elizabeth II’s death reminded us of the modern distinction between reigning and ruling, with the former being confined only to ceremonial duties. The monarch is expected to radiate compassion, kindness, and patriotism, and to stay out of political conflicts. As such, monarchs represent not the transcendence of ideology but rather ideology in its purest form. For seven decades, Elizabeth II’s role was to serve as the face of state power. The coincidence of her death with Prime Minister Liz Truss’s rise to power may have been highly contingent, but it was also deeply symbolic of the shift from Queen to Woman King. In her new role, Truss has partly pre-empted the left by mixing energy subsidies with tax cuts for the rich.

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King also deals with the political logic of monarchy. A historical epic about the Agojie, an all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, it stars Viola Davis as the fictional general Nanisca. She is subordinated only to King Ghezo, a real-life figure who ruled Dahomey from 1818 to 1859, and who engaged in the Atlantic slave trade until the end of his reign.

In the film, the Agojie’s enemies include slave traders led by Santo Ferreira, a fictional character loosely inspired by Francisco Félix de Sousa. But, in fact, de Sousa was a Brazilian slave trader who helped Ghezo gain power, and Dahomey was a kingdom that conquered other African states and sold their people into the slave trade. While Nanisca is depicted protesting to the king against the slave trade, the real Agojie served him.

The Woman King thus promotes a form of feminism favoured by the Western liberal middle class. Like today’s #MeToo feminists, the Amazon warriors from Dahomey will ruthlessly condemn all forms of binary logic, patriarchy, and traces of racism in everyday language; but they will be very careful not to disturb the deeper forms of exploitation that underpin modern global capitalism and the persistence of racism.

This stance involves downplaying two basic facts about slavery. First, white slave traders barely had to set foot on African soil, because privileged Africans (like the kingdom of Dahomey) furnished them with an ample supply of fresh slaves. And, second, the slave trade was widespread not only in western Africa but also in its eastern parts, where Arabs enslaved millions, and where the institution lasted longer than in the West (Saudi Arabia didn’t formally abolish it until 1962).

Indeed, Muhammad Qutb, the brother of the Egyptian Muslim intellectual Sayyid Qutb, vigorously defended Islamic slavery from Western criticism. Arguing that “Islam gave spiritual enfranchisement to slaves,” he contrasted the adultery, prostitution, and casual sex (“that most odious form of animalism”) found in the West with the “clean and spiritual bond that ties a maid [a slave girl] to her master in Islam.” One still hears such talk from some conservative Salafi scholars, such as Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, a member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body. But one wouldn’t know it from listening only to Western middle-class liberals.

Fortunately, Islam’s historical associations with slavery need not impede predominantly Muslim societies’ emancipatory potential. The massive protests in Iran have a world-historical significance, because they combine different struggles (against women’s oppression, religious oppression, and state terror) into an organic unity. Iran is not part of the developed West, and the protesters’ slogan “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“woman, life, freedom”) is not some mere offshoot of #MeToo or Western feminism. Though it has mobilized millions of ordinary women, it speaks to a much broader struggle, and it eschews the anti-masculine tendency that one often finds in Western feminism.

The Iranian men who are chanting “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” know that the struggle for women’s rights is also the struggle for their own freedom – that the oppression of women is merely the most visible manifestation of a larger system of state terror. Moreover, the events in Iran are something that still awaits us in the developed Western world, where the trends toward political violence, religious fundamentalism, and the oppression of women are accelerating.

We in the West have no right to treat Iran as a country that is desperately trying to catch up with us. Rather, it is we who must learn from Iranians if we are going to have any chance of confronting right-wing violence and oppression in the United States, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and many other countries. Whatever the immediate result of the protests, the crucial thing is to keep the movement alive, by organising social networks that can continue to operate underground in the event that the forces of state oppression achieve a temporary victory.

It is not enough simply to express sympathy or solidarity with the Iranian protesters, as if they belong to some faraway exotic culture. All the relativist babble about cultural specificities and sensitivities is now meaningless. We can and should see the Iranian struggle as synonymous with our own. We don’t need female figureheads or Woman Kings; we need women who will mobilise us all for “woman, life, freedom,” and against hate, violence, and fundamentalism.

Slavoj Zizek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London

Project Syndicate

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