A Poem – On Meeting a Liberal Feminist

Nancy Lindisfarne

Thinking about Afghanistan – Nancy Lindisfarne

In the spring of 2006, I had tea with a woman I knew slightly but thought might become a friend. We sat at a low table in the Senior Common Room at SOAS. The room is attractive, curved at the far end, light and airy. A portrait of the explorer Richard Burton looked down on us.

My new acquaintance was short and dressed in beige in an academic hippy style. She began, without preamble, before we’d properly settled in: ‘I’ve travelled in the Middle East’, she said, and then, with that presumed authority some English women can manage, she let fly the racist crap.

‘I’ve seen what it’s like.’ Unstoppable, wringing her hands, she told me of her concern for Afghan women and began telling stories. Horror stories, every one.

‘Did the women themselves tell you these stories?’ I asked. ‘Well, no, not exactly.’

I kept my mouth shut, screaming inside. Some for sure had been true once, but these were stories that had been around a long time. They were recycled, mythic. One was already a repeat when I read it again in a UN report on Afghan women in the early 1990s.

By 2006, for forty years, my life had been focused on Middle East. Listening to liberal feminists spout orientalist shyte was part of the deal. And this one, like others, was determined to keep me silent. She was determined to protect her perfect sense of right and wrong. And though I tried, I couldn’t counter her certainty – about American aims, and aid, about NGO aims and aid, about the torrent of money that flowed into the country along with the violence.

In this conversation she diminished me. Far worse, she denied the humanity, the complexity and evil in our world.

She evinced no interest in real people, no empathy for real women, or men, or children or even cats and dogs. But somehow, she knew best and she knew it all – what was under the veil, beyond the veil and, frankly, up the veil.

She was hateful and made me angry. When I went home, I wrote a poem.

On Meeting a Liberal Feminist

Don’t you understand, you wee mousey creature who sits despairing,
Whispering distress, and blurring your eyes with crocodile tears?

Well, yes, probably you do.
You victim; you victimizer with your capacity to hurt.
You’ve hurt me.
You’ve judged me with your old, locked up feminism,
Not wanting to see that your tired truth
Can’t help you answer a question both you and I think really counts.
You ask, ‘Why women?’ I say, ‘Why make them the deal?’
You say, ‘And Afghan women?’.
And I ask, ‘How do they become the measure of what’s wrong with the world?

These are good questions – we all know that.
In our world run through with power-crazed greed, racism rules.
The real bad guys tell us the other bad guys are Muslims, aka wogs and worse,
The folks that are the wrong colour in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The folks who believe in One God and Mohammad is his Prophet.

But your questions are limited,
Blinkered by veils, vaginas, virginity, voluptuous women and voracious men.
Or, as you grandly put it, ‘one inevitable unifying theme’.

It’s an obsession, your focus,
Your blinkers are problematic, your are questions lame.
I can tell you why. In outline, at least.
But you really don’t want to hear.

If you listened, you’d have to give up a belief or two.
You’d have to think a bit.
You’d have the understand that, however smug you are,
Saying you’re a feminist is not enough.
It is not the same as Doing Feminism,
Even when you repeat it over and over,
Saying you’re a feminist is never enough.
It is not the same as struggling to make changes,
Struggling to fight the bad guys who use gender as a weapon to hurt both men and women.

And you’d have to understand that the answer to your questions isn’t simply sexism.
But maybe once you did know that.
Why, in social science, or any science, or history or philosophy, come to that,
You are not allowed to explain x in terms of x,
To explain something in terms of itself.
I’m sure that once you did understand about tautologies.
That the answer ‘gender’ can’t explain battered wives, women’s rights, or sexual pain.
No more than the answer ‘racism’ can explain mean-as-snakes bigotry or the bitter, bitter taste of violence and fear.

Circularity just doesn’t work.
So you have to make other connections.
You have to look for the right-angles, the perpendiculars, the ninety degree turns
That will cut through the confusions in your head,
And these will unsettle you a bit.

‘Right angles’, you asked. You didn’t understand.
‘What do I mean?’ I said, and then tried to explain.

Well, as a first principle, let’s assume that thinking and doing need to connect.
So let’s look at who uses sex and gender to hurt you, to hurt us, to hurt all of us? 
It is the ‘who’ that’s important, and then there is the where and the when and the how.
But it’s the ‘who’ whom we’re after. The right angle is is about power, about status, class and empire.
And believe me, you’ll find plenty enough to begin.

And racism – well, it’s the same thing, isn’t it?
When you try to fight it you begin to understand.
You learn who’s against you,
What the odds are,
How high as the sky are the stakes.
Understanding comes from fighting the bad guys who use colour,
And other bits of bodies like cunts and dicks to hurt you, to hurt us, to hurt all of us.

And Islamophobia? 
Well, you tell me how it differs from misogyny, homophobia and race.
The words they use
– ‘Bints, bitches, black bums, bloody Muslim buggers and terrorist swine’ –
all sound pretty much the same to me.

Run together this hatred creates its own monsters,
Chimera, so powerful
They scare the socks off the richest people in the world.
Chimera so frightening they can be used to justify
Sanctions, air strikes, pre-emptive war,
And all the civilians – the people they call ‘bints, and black bitches and Muslim fanatics’ – Are dead in their tens of thousands.

Abrusco, Texas; Unocal, Afghanistan; Shell in Nigeria; Haliburton in Iraq.
That is the mantra of power.

But bints and bitches, bloody blacks and Muslim buggers –
Those words aren’t just an excuse for hurt.
Once in place, they are their own horror,
They are also the hatreds that divide us and allow the fat cats to rule.

Or try another mantra.
Saudi oil, Saudi weapons, Saudi women, veiled,
Watched every minute by the morals police.
Doesn’t that tell you something?
Do the Saudi royals live in the desert all alone? Not likely.
So think connections – between the oil, the weapons and the women.
That’s what’s provocative. That’s what bugged Osama.
And that is where you will find the clues.

Think Saudi billionaires, and how they connect
With arms dealers and anti-abortionists in the USA.
How they pretend to be holier than thou by keeping Saudi women down.
Pretend to be holier than thou by keeping the Saudi people down.
Pretend to be holier than thou by keeping their servants down,
The Yemenis, Nepalis, Philippina scrubbers, wet nurses and sex slaves.

Think of ex-pat Brits making a Saudi fortune and going home rich.
How they pretend to be holier than thou and keep the Iranians and Iraqis and Egyptians at bay.
Pretend to be holier than thou and control the oil, and hold on to power.
And ally themselves with the richest fat cats in the world.

So what do we need to know to think clearly – to understand?

It’s the Who? that’s important. Who benefits? Who gains, when lives are ruined?
And then Where? and When? and How? do these terrible deeds get done?

The answers, my mouse-friend, if you think hard, will help you understand the Why?

So don’t kid yourself with your PC stuff.
You play into this, you really do.
Do you really think feminist ‘difference’ builds bridges?
Of course, we’re all different, so why not focus on what is the same?

Maybe multiculturalism and identity politics were meant to make people feel good.
But I don’t want to be put in a box, fill a quota, be a plaything of politics and power.
I want to be this person one day, and that person the next,
I want to be partial, and vague, and as elusive as a will-o-the-wisp, or a jinn.
And I’ll bet you do too. It’s what we’d all choose if we had a chance.

Labels are bad, loaded.
So what’s good about throwing people into this box or that?
Hey, mouse, are you a secret tidy-er?
Unscrambling eggs, eager to tie up other people’s loose ends.

Do you expect them to kneel and pray because their parents came from Pakistan?
Do you expect them to like goat and ginger beer because their Mam sailed here on the Windrush?
In which case, you won’t mind if we make you into a Morris-dancing mouse?
Or a freckled, English rose?
Or the little woman who has bread and butter pudding for her tea.

Maybe you do know better – you from beyond the pale.
But maybe also you don’t want to know, you freckled, faded rose.
So, cling to your tired feminism,
Feminism gone limp once you’ve lost the memory of struggle,
Feminism gone limp once you focus only on women,
Feminism gone limp once you let yourself slide into talk, talk, talk.
Abstract, ivory tower talk about gender and sex.

Or feminism and gender. Chalk and cheese.
Feminism is politics and not guaranteed. Gender is what you want to explain.
Hey, mouse. Remember the circles? The tautologies? The comfortable traps.
My liberal mouse, do you know what I mean?
Your feminist roundabout is an easy ride,
But it doesn’t explain – neither wealth, nor war, nor women-not-men.
No, it doesn’t explain. Not anything much. Not really.

But mouse, can you let go?
No? You shake your head.
No? No? Maybe not?
Is it because your feminism is your only prop?
Is it what your bargain with patriarchy is all about?
Because it is your place, your career, your life, your loves?
A place where you can say, ‘I’m a feminist and I’m okay.’

You could, however, drop your magic cowl, your victim-hood,
But, careful, mouse. It is high risk.
It is tough to revise the difficult questions and start to think.
Because if you did, you would not ask, ‘Why women?’
You would ask instead, ‘Who is playing us?’
‘Who is saying what?’
And ‘What do they gain?’

Feminism is the doing in the struggle against power.
It all connects. The whole kit and caboodle.

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Afghan Women, Universities, Hunger and Climate Change, January 2023

Afghanistan: The End of the Occupation, August 2021

Afghanistan: The Climate Crisis, September 2021

3 thoughts on “A Poem – On Meeting a Liberal Feminist

    • It was the contradictions which got to me. I had lived and worked in Afghanistan for a year in the early 1970s, and had been following Middle Eastern politics closely ever since. And my heart was breaking.

      My acquaintance looked mild and seemed unassuming, but, by way of ‘protecting Afghan women’ she seemed to think her kneejerk racism towards Afghan men, and indeed all Muslim men, was just fine, appropriate, deserved.

      In effect, her determined focus on women allowed her to turn blind eyes to both the connections between oil politics and the inequality, sexism and racisms rich elites favoured, and the extreme poverty of ordinary Afghans and how the American war and occupation was killing thousands of women, as well as their husbands, brothers and sons and small children.

      And yes, it got up my nose that she bought into the media ‘saving Afghan women’ justifications which started with public statements from Laura Bush and Cherry Blair right at the beginning of the war in the autumn of 2001. My sense was that her concern for Afghan women allowed her to see herself as an activist, dedicated internationalist and a classy woman and liked herself a lot for all those reasons.



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