Climbing the Mountain of Oppressions

By Jane Derishu

During the last Shabbat dinner in the house of one of my aunts, I got into a conversation with my cousin and his girlfriend. With my values and beliefs, I always tend to trigger quite a lot of “entertainment” in my right-wing, chauvinist, racist, nationalist family, and often they ask for my opinion about social issues in a way that makes me feel like a child who says funny things.

The good news is that each generation within our family becomes more progressive; the bad news is that they do it in very small steps.

In fact, as we were talking, my cousin’s girlfriend told me that her mother always tells her she will accept her no matter what. However, there is one thing that she will not accept: if she were to marry an Arab man. My gendered mind immediately asked itself whether an Arab woman would be fine, but since I had already brought negative energy with me when I refused to take part in the Kiddush, I decided to choose my battles for the evening and I saved the comment for myself. When I asked her what was wrong with an Arab man, I received a horrified look from both her and my cousin, which clearly asked ‘Are you crazy?’ My cousin’s girlfriend added ‘They beat their wives’, as if no non-Arab woman had ever been a victim of domestic violence. When I told her that there are Jewish women who also suffer abuse, she told me it is not the same.

There are so many things wrong with what she said, irrespective of the racist aspect. Putting aside her perceptions and representations of Arab men and women, what bothered me for a few days after this conversation was her tendency to create hierarchies between oppressions. I continued to struggle with the questions: Can we quantify suffering? Or can we quantify oppression and decide that a certain person is more oppressed than another? That a certain culture is more oppressive?

Maybe when we talk about privileges, it’s a bit simpler to measure it, but every time I try to create a hierarchy between oppressions, I find myself stuck. Is the gender-role division worse than sexual violence? Perhaps the reason I cannot answer this is because oppression is individual. One person would feel that sexism is the most oppressive aspect in their life while another would feel the same for a different form of oppression. Now, I want to be cautious and clear. I am not arguing that oppression is subjective. There are mass oppressions but I do claim that oppression is experienced in an individual way even if we experience the same oppression. If I sit with my amazing ‘Feminist Friend A’ and someone makes a sexist or racist comment, there is almost a 100% chance that we will both notice it and will probably talk about it later, but at the moment it happens, each of us experience it separately.

And so I am ashamed to say that in a way I agree with my cousin’s girlfriend that it is different but that this difference is not due to culture or religion or ethnicity, it is much deeper. It is different for each person. EACH WOMAN KNOWS HER OWN OPPRESSION. I really believe this is the case. It is not possible to compare between cultures because female oppression is not cultural, it is universal and individual at the same time. Oppression is experienced differently by every woman, even if we experience the same kind of oppression. I believe it is also related to the gap between knowing and experiencing. We can “know” (I put it in quotation marks because knowing is a very complicated term, especially in a feminist context) that there is oppression which is based on gender, race, ethnicity and so on, but when we experience it, it becomes individual even when we know it affects a larger group and that other people have experienced the same. For example, I know that the existing wage gap between men and women is oppressive but I feel oppressed when I receive sexist comments, when people (even feminists) comment on my clothes or when I’m told to limit myself in certain spaces.

The arrogance that comes with comments about oppression in other cultures should disappear along with those comments. Not only because it uses dehumanisation in order to muffle oppression that is right in front of us, in our own “culture”, but also because it is not relevant. A woman (she might even be Jewish…) who is abused by her partner is not more oppressed than I am because of her culture (whatever the concept of culture means) — we are oppressed in different ways. For this reason I will stand by her when she struggles. I will believe her words when she claims she is oppressed, because she is the only one who knows how it feels to live her life as her, while I am the only one who knows how it feels to live my life as me.

In gender studies, I’ve been taught that the worst crime in the world is to generalize oppressions. Saying that all women are oppressed is not feminist (or at least worth an F grade). I am still struggling with this postmodernist narrative (conservative me), and in order to solve this dissonance I started to believe that oppression cannot be generalised, not because it is relative due to time, place, culture and so, but because we experience it on individual bases and it’s quite hard to generalise individual experience.  

So please, when a woman tells you she’s oppressed, trust me, she knows what she is talking about; she knows her own oppression.

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