“I thought you were doing feminist stuff?”

Sara Salem

I recently gave a presentation on my PhD work, and found some of the questions afterwards fascinating, especially the one I seem to get every time I mention what I’m doing my PhD on: “Oh but I thought you were doing feminist stuff?” Because my PhD is on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and political economy in general, there is always the assumption that it has nothing to do with gender, and that by extension I am not doing anything on feminism. This seems to surprise people because they know me as someone who “does feminism/gender” or who at least has written on those subjects before (Facebook rants included).

When this question comes at me, I find myself pausing. Should I take the easy route and answer that no, my PhD is not on feminism or gender; or take the difficult route and point out that everything is gendered, that no piece of writing can really exclude gender, even if it technically excludes it by not mentioning it. I could point out that my PhD, while not explicitly on feminism or gender or women as a lone subject of analysis, actually uses quite a bit of theory that comes from feminism and feminists. I could also point out that any analysis of the 2011 Egyptian revolution should and has to look at how gender and gendered bodies were part and parcel of events that we usually assume as only political or economic. In other words, the political and the economic are always gendered.

When I first started out my PhD, I was dying to do something “on gender.” But I also wanted to do something on the revolution itself, and thus found myself at a crossroads. I eventually realized that gender is everywhere, that any good feminist will “do gender” even if her (or his!) topic of research is not a glaringly obvious gender topic. And that is exactly what I hope I end up doing – incorporating feminist tools and theory into areas of analysis that usually pretend they are not gendered (ahem, political economy, ahem).

All of this raises the important point that understanding feminism as a field or discipline has also had the side-effect of isolating it, making it easier for other disciplines to ignore what feminists are saying, as well as to ignore the methodologies and tools being developed by feminists. On the other hand, there are clear benefits of understanding feminism as a discipline – it provides a much-needed “safe space” for feminists as well as the kind of solidarity needed to develop the research that has been so important to the development of social science in general. And yet I wonder if the price has not been very high; that the ease with which feminism-qua-discipline has been isolated has made the process of bringing critical gender analysis to other disciplines much more difficult.

It seems to me one way out of this is to apply the research and tools developed by feminists to other disciplines, to questions that may not appear to be the normal topics of feminist research, to research problems that have usually ignored the question of gender. Certainly not an easy task, but I have found that using feminist IR scholars, for example, has been invaluable to my own research on how global capitalism operates, how women and men are made part of this system on different terms, and how gender has been instrumental in creating an international division of labour. I have also found feminist work using intersectionality (as problematic as the concept remains) to be useful in conceptualizing gender in the Egyptian context as not simply being about men and women, but about multiple social categories that are always intersecting. Finally, I have found Marxist feminist work extremely enlightening in showing the ways in which class and wealth are not only gendered, but that the coercion that is part of the capitalist system also plays out in gendered ways.

So to answer the question about me not doing feminist stuff? Everything a feminist works on is “feminist stuff”!

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