Basuli Deb’s colloquium, “Saving the Muslim Woman,” was recently featured in the Daily Nebraskan.
American feminism may be failing on a global level.
When the United States launched its controversial War on Terror and invaded countries in the Middle East, its ideals and philosophies, such as democracy and women’s rights, followed. However, America’s definition of feminism has largely ignored the cultural and religious values that these countries had previously held.
Basuli Deb, an assistant professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said the United States’ effort to secure equality for women around the globe has led to further disruption and inequality in their lives.
“The mainstream kind of feminism in this country, I have seen as imperialistic feminism, where we march forward for the rights of women in other countries to serve our own purposes,” she said. “We are imposing what we want on the lives of women whose choices might be different.”
This semester, Deb spoke at a colloquium called “Saving the Muslim Woman,” based on the book she recently finished writing. The book, which will have a finalized contract soon, deals with the topics of imperialistic and transnational feminism and how the United States has caused harm to the countries that have been invaded during the war on terror.
“In a nutshell, we shouldn’t try to save (Muslim women),” Deb said. “That’s what my colloquium was about. We are saying ‘saving’ but it’s really an annihilation for them. We started hurting them immediately. How can we say we are saving women if we are killing their fathers, sons and brothers? And these women are left on their own to care for the children.”
Deb is from India, where she grew up hearing about her family's participation in the Indian people's revolution against British rule. Her interest in imperialistic countries can be traced back to her family’s history.
“My grandparents were revolutionaries against the British rule in India,” she said. “My grandfather and grand-uncle were the leaders of the revolution and worked very closely with Gandhi and the first Prime Minister of India Nehru. They were seen as terrorists and thrown into prison for eight years. And to disorient the leadership, they were moved around frequently.”
Not only did the males in Deb’s family fight for independence, but her female ancestors were just as involved. According to her, countries with oppositional female leadership don’t see the difference between genders; they just see a revolutionary.
“My grandmother was very involved with the revolution,” she said. “My grand-uncle was arrested at the national convocation with my grandfather while they were addressing the meeting. Their mother took over the meeting.”
After receiving her undergraduate and professional degrees from universities in India, Deb moved to the United States to pursue doctoral studies in post-colonial women’s literature at Michigan State University. While living in Connecticut, her proximity to Yale allowed her to teach and attend workshops at the university. But UNL’s emphasis on research and innovation caught her eye.
Between the English and women’s and gender studies departments, Deb teaches several different classes at UNL. One of her classes, Transnational Feminism, Islamaphobia and Queering the War on Terror, deals specifically with the differences between imperialistic and transnational feminism, which according to her, is not a very well-known field. She said the United States, while usually thought to be good in intent, practices an imperialistic feminism that causes harm to other cultures.
“Imperialistic feminism is imposing our choices on others,” she said. “Transnational feminism is arguing that all women have the right to make their choices and choices are different. It’s important to recognize cultural and religious differences.”
When compared with the countries that it has invaded, the economic power of the United States is much greater, allowing it a large presence within the economies of these countries. With more economic power comes the ability to influence the politics and policies of these countries. When a country is largely influenced by American trade, it begins to resemble American culture. This is how ideals such as feminism are rapidly spread without the appropriate cultural context.
Along with the spread of imperialistic feminism, Deb’s book questions the United States foreign policies in the Middle East. Even though the War of Terror has gained many critics over the last decade, the United States continues to maintain a presence in the Middle East. The topic of using torture to gain information, which is no stranger to controversy, is examined, as well as the loose translation of the word “terrorist,” which is subjective, according to Deb. In many ways, the American definition of terrorism parallels the spread of its definition of feminism; it forgets to acknowledge cultural and political differences.
“The work that I’m doing on terrorism is basically showing the other side,” Deb said. “I’m talking back to the mainstream of society, saying ‘Hey, look. This is what you’re calling terrorism. But you’re the one who instigated it in the first place, so all they are doing is resisting.’”
One of Deb’s students and research partners, SaRena Freet, echoed Deb’s statements by adding that imperialistic feminism often neglects the differences in race, sexuality, religion and class. Freet was Deb’s UCARE student in the summer of 2012 and was a large contributor to the research and background information that is in the manuscript of Deb’s book. As a student that has worked closely alongside Deb, Freet said she sees her as a valuable asset to the university.
“Basuli has contributed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln not only as an educator, but also as an activist and researcher,” Freet said. “She actively challenges her students to engage with difficult material and ideological questions in relationship to race, class, gender, and sexuality, within a broader global context.”
While the field that Deb specializes in is still largely unknown and leaves a lot of room for growth, there seems to be an interest at UNL for continuing the conversation on imperialistic and transnational feminism. The spring colloquium drew more than 40 students who Deb said looked hungry for more information.
“I think there is a lot of interest in this work, especially among students,” she said. “I can see students gobbling this up. I was stunned by the focus and concentration in the audience.”
By Kieran Kissler