Novelist, academic, lawyer, and human rights advocate Randa Abdel-Fattah, who took part in a recent edition of QF’s Doha Debates focusing on gender equality, on why balance goes beyond a battle of the sexes.
This month, I participated in Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates, at an event that focused on the question of gender equality and gender quotas. I spoke as an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian woman author who has worked as a lawyer, and is now an academic researching race, Islamophobia, gendered racism, intersectionality, youth identities, and the war on terror.
In identifying myself in this way, I am going against objective scholarly conventions which erase identity, social location, and power relations in the name of objectivity and the myth of depoliticised identities. We are all the bearers of politicized identities, and so I approached the debate by being unapologetically upfront about the need to disrupt not only gender hierarches, but equally, racial hierarchies centering race in my analysis.
How could I not do this? I come from Australia, where 94.4 percent of the elected members of our Federal Parliament and almost 95 percent of senior leaders and executive teams are of Anglo-European background. I come from an academy where 97 percent of Vice-Chancellors are of Anglo-Celtic/white European background (the percentage of non-white university vice-chancellors in Australia rose from zero to 2.6 percent between 2016 and 2018 due to a single appointment of a non-white Vice-Chancellor in the University of Canberra).
It seems straightforward to me. To advocate for gender quotas is not about introducing a policy of affirmative action. It is about shifting an already-existing policy of affirmative action from men to women.
Affirmative action is already in operation by default, a historically in-built mechanism in our political, corporate, and academic institutions that has produced a reality where men overwhelmingly dominate parliament floors, boardrooms, and senior leadership positions, giving them the greatest access to the arenas of political, social and economic power. But the reality is that gender inequality, historically and today, impacts on women differently.
That is why the debate over equality of opportunity or equality of outcome must be framed by an overarching question: opportunity or outcome for whom? Just 2.8 percent of Fortune 500 directors are women of color. Of the approximately 19,000 professors in the UK, there are 4,000 white women and 25 black British female professors.
We need to push the debate on gender quotas so that it applies the tools of intersectionality to take into account the nexus of gender and race.
We need to push the debate on gender quotas so that it applies the tools of intersectionality to take into account the nexus of gender and race, recognizing that women of color are both women and people of color, and therefore face sexism and racism. And yet the gender quota debate, particularly in Western countries, mostly approaches women as a group defined by a single axis of oppression. ‘Woman’ becomes a master category, half of humankind, ignoring the fact that race continues to have social and material relevance for that half.
And yet what became instantly clear to me, during the debate and the online discussions that followed, was how debates on gender equality place the burden of proof onto women and women of color to devise one-size-fits-all solutions, justify their right to inclusion, mount a case against the presumption that they lack merit or are not good enough or will cause division and resentment, and that they deserve a seat at the table. To advocate for gender quotas, to call out gender inequality and specifically white privilege, is interpreted as a call to arms against men and against white women. The debate is framed as a binary opposition between ‘evil men and white women traitors’ and women of color ‘victims’.
The result is a fundamental impasse; one that anybody who uses an intersectional framework will also be all-too familiar with. The discussion is reduced to individuals, not the structures and systems that are with us today as a consequence of historical, social, and material processes. Morality, good intentions, and goodwill are irrelevant. There are no individual enemies and allies. There is an undeniable structural and institutional status quo: men dominate the upper echelons of the political, business and academic world. And yet women, especially women of color, are asked to have faith in goodwill declarations, and trust that the status quo will eventually, ‘organically’, open up space for them
For something to grow organically, you need the right soil and conditions. This isn’t a zero sum game. Gender quotas are not the only solution.
For something to grow organically, you need the right soil and conditions. This isn’t a zero sum game. Gender quotas are not the only solution. They are one part of a bigger project of overturning and cultivating the soil that continues to overwhelmingly sprout white men and white women.
What also became clear was that the problem with the debate on gender equality and gender quotas is that the narrative becomes constrained by a focus on women’s under-representation. We are asked to explain how we will not be tokenized as ‘quota women’. How do we feel about being judged and defined by our ‘identity politics’? Why can’t we all be accepted as individuals, for our individual merits, rather than as representatives of a group? ‘We are all human beings’ is a statement that can only be made if you ignore the fact that whiteness is an identity too. It is only afforded the luxury of ‘neutrality’ and ‘invisibility’ because it is considered to be a taken-for-granted universal.
What if we flip the narrative? What if, instead of asking why women – or women of color – are not fairly represented in the highest levels of politics, academia and business, we ask: why are men over-represented? Why does their over-representation escape scrutiny? Why is there a presumption they are there because
of merit? Are they not ‘quota men’, enjoying a position because of the presumption that men deserve the most senior executive roles, or the most academic professorships, or the most seats in parliament? This is rarely given a second thought because the myth of meritocracy has socialized people to believe in the insulting proposition that a system supposedly based on inherent talent and merit inevitably produces a majority of men because they are naturally superior and deserving.
Gender quotas that are not interested in intersectionality as a project for elevating all women serve to prop up the project of white women at the expense of women of color. White women enjoy racial privilege as they fight sexism in a male-dominated society, and, more importantly, such racial privilege can collude with sexism to further marginalize and discriminate against women of color.
I am not interested in gender quotas that produce parliaments, boardrooms, or an academy that is equal part white men and white women. That is not empowerment or equality – that is mainstream feminism entrenching racial domination. We need to use gender quotas as one tool in a wider transformational project, to pursue a radical redistribution of this power dynamic.