Judith Butler and Afghan women

Yesterday on Twitter, I wrote an angry tweet. It went like this:

“I just really need to know how Judith Butler’s definition of women applies to Afghan women who are being beaten on the streets by the Taliban. Have you ever considered that your academics really don’t fit the lives of women in the global South?”

I posted the above tweet after reading about the now infamous Guardian interview in which Butler said that TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists) align themselves with right wingers and fascists. I don’t identify as a TERF, or much of anything really (cis? that too feels like an imposition upon me) because this debate about trans rights and gender identity seems so far removed from the lived reality that I and millions of women in the South Asian/Central Asian region experience. I certainly don’t align myself with right wingers and fascists in my thinking, which is different and far more independent from the groupthink or pressure that people in, say, an academic environment face as they adapt to new rules and laws about gender.

But it was Judith Butler’s statement that “we need to rethink the category of women” that got me going. It coalesced from quite a lot of thinking I’ve been doing about gender identity theory as it is being adopted in Western countries. And it comes at the same time as I’ve been watching Afghan women getting beaten by the Taliban as they protest for their rights, for safety and security and for inclusion in the government, and for the freedom to work and study.

Afghan woman: Save me from the Taliban

Judith Butler: We’ll redefine womanhood, you’ll be fine


I was asked to clarify my thinking about my statement, because it seemed vague or perhaps obtuse to people for whom gender identity theory is far more familiar and agreeable. It’s good to be challenged because it forces you to think harder about what it is you really believe.

In Afghanistan (extreme example) but also in Pakistan, where I live, in India, in Nepal, Bangladesh, Middle Eastern countries, North Africa, women (or people with female bodies) are being abused, harassed, assaulted and killed not just because they have female bodies, but because they refuse to hand those bodies over to men to do with as they please.

Because this possession and ownership of female bodies is absolutely tied to female biology and the production of children and sexual comfort for those men, separating sex from gender completely negates this form of oppression which is hugely insulting to all of us who are still fighting to end sex-based discrimination in our countries and regions. 

At the same time a particularly empowering thing for women is the fact that their bodies are capable of producing life. This is something so innate to women’s identities and sense of themselves in Muslim/global South/non-white countries that to insist it is something that does not belong to them is actually a form of mental and emotional violence on them, a double trauma visited upon them by Western Feminists who wish to impose their ideas of gender and sex on those of us whose understanding and experience of these issues is very different

Imagine a Muslim woman in the UK who escapes a violent marriage and threats of honor killing. She goes to a shelter where she feels safe because it is a female-only space. Not just because she is away from the realm of immediate male violence, but because as a Muslim woman she does not feel comfortable sharing intimate quarters with a person with a male body. This allows her to reconcile her awful situation as well as her need to feel she is acting in congruence with her identity and principles of modesty as a Muslim woman.

But if a trans woman with a penis is in the same space, then the Muslim woman will be in a terrible conflict about her actions in leaving her home. Suddenly, she is not able to remove her hijab or undress because she cannot do those things in front of a person with a male body who is not a family member. This not a hypothetical, there are Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu women who are now excluded from single sex-only spaces because the definition of woman has changed to include women with penises. To call that Muslim woman a TERF because she expresses discomfort is yet another abuse for her. 

All this to say that we have yet to negotiate safety and freedom for women with female bodies and not ignore or override minority women in the West or women from my part of the world out of these negotiations. Afghan girls and women have in fact had to disguise themselves as boys and men in order to move outside the home, earn a living or perform vital chores during the rule of the Taliban. Would this be called “performing gender” as Judith Butler calls it, or a resourceful survival strategy that Afghan women adopted in order to be able to live?

Nadia Ghulam Dastgir is an Afghan woman who spent ten years posing as her dead brother to evade the Taliban’s strictures against women

I’m afraid the trans rights activists are acting like Western colonisers and imperialists all over again, imposing their ideas of gender and sexuality on us the same way their Empire was imposed on us for a good part of the 20th century. I don’t really want gender colonialism in the 21st century. Do you?

Thank you for coming to my TERF Talk.

PS: I’m a fiction writer by trade. Please check out this list of dystopias about controlling women’s bodies, headed by my 2018 novel Before She Sleeps.

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