As the Danish government (being true to its colonising and repressive traditions) prepares to confiscate items of jewellery in the hands of Syrian refugees, the Norwegians have started training black and brown men on how to treat women, in a mixture of white cis feminist and Nordic norm-entrepreneurial undertones. The artist duo DarkMatter, in a social media status update, have provided an excellent and critically engaging analysis of the Norwegian move.
Norway as non-colonial? A blatant myth!
‘Did history begin yesterday?’ is the question that immediately sprang to mind as I read through the NYTimes article on the Norwegian move. That Norway was never a colonising power and is hence irrelevant to discourses on colonial oppression, racial and gender violence is all but a blatant myth. Research carried out by Norwegian historians over the last few years clearly demonstrate the extent to which Norway used to be actively involved in, and how the Norwegian business establishment (especially shipping companies and overseas investors) tremendously benefitted from, colonial exploits carried out in partnership with major colonising powers. Some companies that exploited cheap ‘black’ labour, such as Société du Madal in present-day Mozambique, still continue to run, with strong Norwegian business interests and involvement (for more information, suffice to browse through Kjerland and Bertelsen 2015, and readers of the Norwegian language can consult Reiersen 2006, Bang 2008, Kjerland 2010, Kjerland and Rio 2009 – full references appear at the end of this post).
A prejudiced approach?
Today, Western powers, especially in continental Europe, pursue a ‘black-and-white’ approach to issues related to what they term ‘integration’, ‘gender equality’ and ‘violence’ . Coloured masculinities (especially black and brown) are systematically perceived as backward, un-cultured, with no clue as to ‘how to treat women’. Such masculinities therefore pose a ‘threat’ to Western societies – safe havens for women where women can do whatever they want, dress however they wish, and live their lives the way they choose to. Coloured masculinities should, to follow this line of argument, be therefore ‘tamed’.
This line of argument, so unquestioningly and near-unanimously accepted in policymaking circles (especially in immigration-related authorities, ministries that deal with diversity, social cohesion, migration and women’s rights) is, to the thinking person, deeply and excruciatingly problematic.
How come coloured masculinities in many a society in the global South have such a reputation when it comes to gender issues and women? How come women in many countries across the global South are, and are widely publicised to be, constantly victimised, violated, suppressed, and grossly mistreated? Without understanding the broader paradigms at interplay here, and the pivotal role of the so-called ‘West’ in making societies in the global South so intolerant, the issues at hand simply cannot be addressed. In this sense, the Artist Duo DarkMatter’s following statement is worth quoting at some length:
The fact that you are unaware about the long and brutal history of the West “training” the Global South into gender and sexual norms (read: imposing Victorian sexual ethics, codifying the gender binary, importing homophobia and transmisogyny, etc.) has everything to do with colonialism. The fact that it’s easier for you to think of Black & brown masculinities as sexist/homopohbic moreso than white European culture (the most (trans)misogynist of all!) has everything to do with colonialism. It reveals a deep and misplaced anxiety that white supremacy has always held: that immigration is really about penetration, that opening white imposed borders for Black & brown men is inviting in rape. (Newsflash: White people already did this very thing: it’s called colonialism!) Colonialism IS rape culture (emphasis mine).
This is a reality that Western authorities, and even a large number of somewhat well-meaning people refuse to come to terms with. Western colonialism destroyed foundations of sexual, relational and affective interactions in societies, imposing Abrahamic gender binaries and ‘straight-jacketing’ of gender identities, sexualities and relationships according to Abrahamic (in the case of Western colonisation, Christian) hierarchies. This process involved, from the First Nations people in North America to South Asia, the erasure of non-binary gender identities, which had a special presence and an oftentimes prized position in many a non-Western society. Colonial endeavours, such as British Empire’s imposition of Victorian values among colonised peoples of British colonies, and the repressive, abjectly misogynist and inherently violent colonial forays of countries with strong Catholic traditions (to name but two…), –which took pride in rape, murder and plunder – are pivotal to an understanding of what colonised peoples and their societies have become.
An unchanged priority?
One thing that remains unchanged since the colonial times is that the focus, whether it be stuffing Victorian puritan ideas in colonised peoples’ heads, or today’s lessons to male migrants on how to treat women, is that both these had, and continue to have, the same objective – protecting whiteness and white female-ness, and ensuring the supremacy, superiority, control, and exemplary nature of whiteness and white female-ness. The coloured folks are asked to follow suit, and learn from the Masters, who, surely know better.
When it comes to challenging gender-related violence and challenging patriarchies, there is no simple, clear-cut way ahead. It is a constant, intense and ongoing struggle, and most pioneering and fearless exponents of which can be found among people of colour (or, to borrow from DarkMatter, ‘black and brown people’), amidst women’s empowerment and Trans justice advocates.
Dismantling patriarchies: not a concern for Western authorities
Dismantling patriarchies, as things stand today, is certainly not a concern for Western authorities. For them, what matters is taking pride in white (and invariably cis) feminism, obliterating black and brown anti-patriarchy activists, women’s rights advocates, minorities’ rights advocates and Trans’ empowerment activists. The elephant in the room here is that (as DarkMatter commendably highlights) this white-feminist discourse avoids any discussion of, and gives carte blanche to white criminality, cis-and-transmisogyny, and violence against black, brown and other non-Western white peoples. It also seeks to erase how white rulers of the past, especially the ideological, and in some cases direct political and familial forefathers of today’s right-wing political movements in many a Western country, inflicted decades and centuries-long cycles of violence on colonised women, sexualising and fetishising them, thereby categorically reducing non-white womanhood to sex objects for the gratification of the white phallus. It is simply impossible to deny that rape cultures in the global South are, most of all, colonial inheritances that continue to oppress marginalised groups.
What can be done better?
If a message is to be sent out to the Norwegian Utlendingsdirektoratet and other related government bodies, it is this: read through the work of Norwegian scholars who have worked extensively on Norway’s colonial adventures in colonised lands. If you are seriously keen to make your societies safer for women, LGBTQI people (especially Transpeople), well, do organise training sessions for cisgender men, but make it a point to include, most importantly, white cis men together with men of colour. The priority here is that of being consistent, and dealing with the issue/s wholesomely, instead of playing petty political games to appease/hearten right-wing extremist white supremacist (and invariably, the most cis-and-trans-misogynist) political persuasions in your midst. Profiling and pushing people of colour against the wall, as your forefathers did with colonised people when they imposed Christian/Victorian conservatisms on them, won’t lead you anywhere – definitely not towards a more equitable society. Instead, it will only perpetuate a vicious cycle of oppression and violence.
Voices of black, brown and other non-Caucasian people’s resistance/s: the centre-point of change?
If a genuine change to the better is on the table, an absolute priority for Western governments is to give a heed to the work done by feminist (including, most importantly, Transfeminist) activists in Black, Brown and other non-white communities, and engage in conversations with their work, learn about their travails, and work towards strengthening their hands. They are the primary victims of historical legacies of oppression, domination of patriarchies and repressive systems. Western structures of ‘protection’ often sideline them, and at best Western authorities deploy them as fodder to promote their political agendas. The sharpest resistance to patriarchy and gender-based violence is expressed in their work, and their struggle is one against patriarchy that surpasses racial boundaries, and includes, prominently, white male patriarchy – the foremost agent of physical and ideological oppression of peoples, including, very specially, cis and trans women, non-heterosexual people and non-binary people (and of course cis and trans men) in black, brown and other non-white communities across the world.
White cis feminism is a thing of yesteryear, and no longer corresponds to the challenges and transformative needs of our times.
Kjerland, Kirsten Alsaker and Bjørn Enge Bertelsen (Eds) 2015. Navigating Colonial Orders: Norwegian entrepreneurship in Africa and Oceania. New York and Oxford, Berghan Books.
Bang, Anne K. 2008. Zanzibar-Olsen: Norsk trelasthandel i Øst Afrika 1895-1925. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget,.
Kjerland, Kirsten Alsaker. 2010. Nordmen i det koloniale Kenya. Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.
Kjerland, Kirsten Alsaker and Knut M. Rio, (eds). 2009. Kolonitid: Nordmen på eventyr og big business i Afrika og Oceania. Oslo: Scandinavian Academic Press.
Kjerland, Kirsten Alsaker and Anne K. Bang, (eds). 2002. Nordmen i Afrika – Afrikanere i Norge. Bergen: Vigmostad & Bjørke.
Reiersen, Elsa. 2006. Fenomenet Thams. Oslo: Aschehoug.