Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Women, culture, and dispossession

Financial Times:
Ms Atiyat says some of her friends will face pressure from conservative parents to stay at home. One of them, a talented writer, is lobbying her parents to relent so she can go out to work. If this fails, she plans to pursue a back-up plan of freelance editing and journalism.

The courage to challenge authority is necessary as campaigners such as Ms Awadhi chip away at the edifice of the [United Arab Emirate's] patrimonial society.
Capitalism wrecks traditional cultures something fierce, and the effects can be awesome. Marx admired this process, I think, because he favored the secular thrust of capitalism over the "backward" cultures of pre-capitalism, not least of all for the scientific and technological foundation it presupposed. In other words, Marx would have rooted for Ms Atiyat to betray the dictates of her parents and adopt the cosmopolitan outlook of the international businesswoman, because this could at least be justified on the basis of rational, economic self-interest, whereas blindly following a religious authoritarianism could not.

The condition of Middle Eastern women under contemporary religious rule is interesting to think of in terms analogous to the experience of American women in the 1950's. Not unlike Ms Atiyat, American women ultimately forged an alliance with corporate patriarchy in response to the unholy alliance of domestic patriarchy, religion, and the state. Under the circumstances, this made sense: corporate patriarchy granted women far greater freedom and independence than domestic serfdom; and insofar as it solicited educated white women in particular, it could recruit some of feminism's most influential actors in exchange for making their personal struggle that much easier.

Much global conflict, particularly with regard to "non-state actors," terrorists and so on, boils down to the violent interface between property rights as asserted by capitalism on one hand, and the sovereignty of traditional orders on the other. As CUNY professor David Harvey observes, most of this is happening around issues of "dispossession" -- the appropriation of traditional community resources by private interests, usually through state violence. Marx might have applauded this for the sake of "progress"; indeed, by some measures "progress" occurs, as with women in need of an ally against some worse offense.

On the other hand, women's entry into pursuits of profit is one part of an equation which also includes famine, disease, warfare, and the critical support of groups like the Taliban or the House of Saud when they are perceived to be sufficiently useful to business concerns. As with the American experience, many women lose even as others "advance" within institutions that are not their own.

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