Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? – Thoughts on Khader’s Work

Closer to the beginning of this year I wrote a post titled Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze. In it, I wonder about the impossible standards placed on women – “impossible” in the sense that gender roles demand we do and be contradictory things. I question what the morally appropriate response is – or if there even is one at all – given that however women act, we will be conforming to one set of patriarchal constraints or another. I was assigned to read a paper for one of my classes called Empowerment Through Self-Subordination? by Khader which inspired some related thoughts.

Khader’s focus is significantly more narrow than mine; she is solely concerned with women living in poverty in societies which are highly and rigidly patriarchal. She raises a similar, albeit more acute, puzzle: Women’s empowerment is the increase in women’s agency, and reducing poverty increases agency. So, reducing women’s poverty should empower women. The problem is that, in practice, this is often not the case. Actually, anti-poverty interventions yield mixed results when it comes to helping women.

I believe Khader is writing this piece amidst a background of well-meaning but problematic intervention policies. A recurring problem of organizations “helping out” poverty-stricken communities in non-Western countries is their working under the assumption that Western values (individuality, autonomy, democracy, etc.) are objectively superior rather than taking the local culture’s values seriously. When interventionists evaluate non-Western cultures through an exclusively Western lens, they devalue and disrespect the very people they are trying to help.

The results of such interventions are thus mixed: By one set of standards, impoverished people are better off. By another set of standards, they are not – in the worst cases (which Khader points out are often reasonably probable) impoverished people are actually left worse off than before the intervention.

To diagnose this puzzle Khader draws a distinction between two kinds of agency: welfare agency, which is the knowledge that one’s welfare is of value coupled with the ability to pursue it, and feminist agency, which is the kind of agency that challenges sexist norms. It is the latter type of agency that is associated with women’s empowerment as it is normally conceived (in Western circles).

The key point, Khader argues, is that welfare agency and feminist agency can work against each other: A woman’s welfare agency may be enhanced through a decrease in her feminist agency. Particularly in highly patriarchal societies, women are dependent on men for basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. Securing these necessary resources requires women to be viewed as desirable by men, which in turn requires adherence to sexist norms and expectations. Khader believes that the internalization of these ideologies by women can oftentimes be the best way for individual women to enhance their welfare because it allows for a coherent self-concept. Thus in many cases women in poverty are forced to forego feminist agency to advance their welfare agency.

I take it that Khader’s response to the puzzle above regarding the mixed results of anti-poverty interventions, then, has two elements: first, the failure to distinguish between two types of agency (and their corresponding aims), and second, the implicit assumption that the goal of intervention ought to be women empowerment.

Khader claims that we ought not so easily dismiss the importance of securing welfare agency over feminist agency, but she does not go so far as to argue that, as a matter of principle, we always ought to prioritize the former.

Thus I take Khader to be expressing a similar (but, of course, more developed and better defended) sentiment to the one I express in my post Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze: It is very doubtful there is one appropriate response or set of values we ought to privilege when acting in the interest of women as a group and as individuals. It’s complicated.

I wonder if an argument inspired by this sort of reasoning could be made to refute SWERFs (sex work-exclusionary radical feminists) or those believe that BDSM is inherently problematic because of the expectation of and indulgence in the ultra-submissive roles that women often play. Arguments against these sorts of things often cite the reinforcement of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, and assume that it is a short leap from that to the continued subjugation of women. But, as Khader has shown, a woman who partakes in sex work of submissive BDSM roles may actually be increasing her agency. (For example, sex work allows women financial stability and independence they may not have otherwise had.)

A deeper look into this possibility would probably include more on when it is appropriate to prioritize welfare agency over feminist agency, why sex work/BDSM would meet these terms, and more exploration on the differences and tensions involved in advancing women as a group versus advancing women as individuals.

Feminism and Catering to the Male Gaze

One thing I have found particularly hard to navigate as a feminist is finding a balance between respecting women’s autonomy and ability to thrive in a male-dominated society, and denouncing practices and institutions which have their roots in patriarchal ideology. More specifically, how to find that balance in my own actions.

I partake in practices which, despite my claims that they are “for me”, have roots in my desire to cater to the male gaze: wearing makeup, dressing in revealing clothes, sharing provocative pictures on Instagram, and the like. (This is not to say that I do these things specifically because they cater to the male gaze. I used to. Nowadays I do them to make myself feel good, but I think deep down the reason that they feel good to me is because in the past I have learned to associate them with male approval.) There are some such practices that, through some work, I have managed to cease finding desirable or pleasurable, such as shaving my legs and underarms, but others I want to keep around.

Obviously I can do what I want with my body, but sometimes I wonder if I should actively try to rid myself of aesthetic preferences which, at their core, stem anti-feminist ideology. As a feminist and an activist, I wonder what my own responsibilities are with respect to this issue, and I also wonder whether or not it would be better for me (on account of my identifying as a feminist/activist) to speak out on such issues and challenge other women to be more reflective and critical of their actions. Or, should I simply accept that living under a patriarchy has placed impossible demands on myself and other women, and respect and support us in whatever way we choose to respond to those demands without challenging our choices?

Being a Filipina in White Academia: Why Affirmative Action isn’t Enough

Recently Jennifer Morton gave a talk at my university on the undermining of representation at elite universities. She argued that merely enacting affirmative action practices in the admissions process (i.e., making sure a certain percentage of the incoming class comes from some underrepresented group) will not necessarily lead to an increase in diversity.

Morton’s focus was primarily on the divide between those from an upper middle class background versus those from a low income background, and she noted two phenomena within the group of low income students in elite universities: firstly, that they try not to draw attention to themselves as low income students, and secondly, that they try to assimilate their interests and perspectives to better match those of their upper middle class peers. Thus the result of affirmative action (in this case), rather than increase diversity, is the assimilation of students of an underrepresented group into a homogeneous, upper middle class culture.

This part of Morton’s talk really struck me, and I was shocked at how well this captured my own experiences. I’m not from a low income background, but I’m a Filipino who’s been attending predominantly white academic institutions since high school. My (public) middle school was comprised overwhelmingly of people of color, with white students making up only 10% of the student population. Instead of continuing to a public high school with roughly the same demographics, my parents instead placed me at a private high school in which the majority of students were white and came from families with a much (much) higher average income than those of my middle school. It was a huge culture shock for me – one I wasn’t at all equipped to deal with.

I ended up doing exactly as Morton described: assimilating. My friend group (for most of high school, at least) was almost exclusively white and my hobbies, tastes, and even mannerisms changed to more closely mirror those of my peers’. A lot of this I carried into college with me, especially the first few years, and now I think it’s just part of who I am. I’ve been forcing myself to “fit in” for so long that I really don’t know what it’s like to not be a white-washed Asian.

But the past three years or so I’ve been really working to accept my Filipino/Asian heritage instead of actively trying to hide it. And I’m doing a lot better – even if some of the changes are only noticeable to me.

So anyways, all this is to say, if Morton’s argument can be generalized to me, it can probably be generalized to lots of other underrepresented groups (it’s worth stating explicitly here that the experiences of people from different marginalized/underrepresented/minority groups aren’t so straightforwardly comparable, and just because you’re part of an underrepresented group doesn’t mean that you understand what it’s like to be part of any underrepresented group), and that’s a big problem. More needs to be done to diversify academia; affirmative action in the admissions process isn’t enough. Beyond that, we need to be actively working to make sure that these students feel accepted as they are and comfortable using their unique experiences and backgrounds to enrich the educational experience for everyone.

I’m not really sure how to best go about doing that, but it’s something I promise to keep as one of my primary goals throughout my entire academic career.