Editor’s Note: This is the text of a talk that Neferti Tadiar delivered as part of a round-table discussion at Columbia University. Tadiar’s most recent book, Remaindered Life (Duke 2022), won the John Hope Franklin Prize for the best book published in 2022 at the American Studies Association. She is a Barnard College Professor in the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and, among her many activisms, is one of the co-founders of the Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine on her campus.
On Feminism and Palestine
A Faculty Roundtable
4 December 2023, 6:00-7:30 p.m.
Joseph D. Jamail Lecture Hall Pulitzer Hall,
Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
Thank you so much to my colleagues, Sarah Haley, Lila Abu-Lughod, and Jack Halberstam, for organizing this roundtable and for continuing to support and hold space for those of us whose feminist commitments have led us to solidarity with the Palestinian people.
There are many feminisms, and I do not aim to speak on contemporary and historical, dominant versions of feminism that call for imperial wars in the name of protecting women. There is a considerable body of scholarly and activist work that has critiqued these forms of imperial feminisms, as well as what my colleague Elizabeth Bernstein calls carceral feminism, and their call for and mobilization of the racist, sexist forms of collective punishment implemented by the modern sovereign state, the inheritor and agent of Western European and Anglo-American colonial power.
Today, I want instead to speak specifically on what my own decolonizing Filipina feminist perspective and scholarly work bring to an understanding of the global importance of the Palestinian struggle for our collective liberatory futures – indeed, for most peoples, for the very possibility of a future at all.
The critical feminist perspectives I draw on have developed out of the radical tradition of Third World feminism, which has always taken up questions of gender, sexuality, and power in the context of vastly unequal geopolitical relations, transnational and national structures of colonial and neocolonial subordination, capitalist exploitation, and imperial masculinist, militarist violence. In concert with their radical Black and Indigenous feminist sisters, radical third world feminists understand that the conditions of oppression and violence that women in our communities face daily and intimately are inseparable from the continuing afterlife and consequence of histories of imperialism, colonialism, and slavery. We see that the very delimited, normative, binary ways that women (as well as men) are defined and made use of, our gendered and sexual bodies and lives regulated and controlled, our pleasures and possibilities curtailed and foreclosed, are the products and instruments of these continuing histories.
This is not, however, a politics of blame – of moral categories of innocence and culpability, of timeless victims and perpetrators. Third world feminists also understand that the historically oppressed and colonized can come to adopt the very same social, political, and economic logics and techniques of their oppressors and colonizers, becoming themselves exemplary agents of the orders of dispossession and genocidal violence that their own peoples were subjected to, and that they now displace onto others, including the most marginalized and unprotected among their own. We recognize this in the contemporary global system of postcolonial states, military, police, landowners, and corporations undertaking continuing projects of colonial devastation which they are both perpetrators and beneficiaries of.
In his partnership meeting with former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in 2018, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled that “the Philippines was the only Asian country that voted for the establishment of the State of Israel in the UN resolution in 1947.” As a neocolony of the U.S. the Philippines has provided auxiliary forces, including sexual labor, for all U.S. wars of security and counterinsurgency, including against its own peoples, from the Cold War to the present, serving as a pivotal military base for U.S. security wars in the Asia-Pacific and its connective sea channels to West Asia, where Israel similarly functions as a crucial anchor and key operative piece of global security architecture. Among the bilateral agreements that Duterte and Netanyahu came to was IDF training of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in counterterrorism techniques and the Philippines’ purchase of missiles, radars, and drones, in exchange for reduced brokerage fees for the now around 30,000 Filipinx caregivers in Israel, the largest ethnic group of caregivers in Israel, since they were brought in to replace expulsed Palestinian labor after the second intifada. Duterte, we should not forget, oversaw a cleansing operation of his own, which he favorably compared to the task of Hitler, killing around 30,000 poor Filipino slum dwellers in his 6-year war on drugs. Today, under Duterte’s successor, the son of the dictator Marcos, the Philippines is the third largest buyer of Israeli weapons, and trade between Israel and the Philippines grew 70% in 2022, an integral part of Netanyahu’s “Pivot to Asia” policy.
Feminism allows us to see these dead exchanges of care and arms as a reproductive issue: the trading of the life worth expending of many for the life deserving of care of some. Like Israel, the state project of the Philippines is the enabling condition of and participant in the global urban capitalist economy, the logistics of its supply chains, and its entire gendered reproductive machinery (the global service economy). One of the biggest suppliers of export labor for the global reproductive domestic, care work, and service industries today, the Philippines is a huge supplier of racialized, gendered forms of serviceable life offered up to the world to maintain and facilitate the valued life of their employers – those global citizens deemed human, that status of colonial supremacy, protected belonging, and freedom (defined as exemption from enslavement, servitude, and punishment), which defines the very life-form of value animating contemporary global capitalism. But their serviceable life is only a temporary redemption from the pool of disposable life that its own state’s participation in imperial wars of dispossession creates.
Feminism allows us to see then this ongoing catastrophic devastation inflicted on the Palestinian people as an intensification of a repeated logic of imperial, settler colonial dispossession required for the preservation and expanded reproduction of this monstrously iniquitous global order of life. It is a capitalist geopolitical order that the genocidal U.S.-Israel war and its support by institutions deeply invested in its settler colonial project and this very same global order, is an attempt to morally vindicate and practically secure, against a growing decolonization movement emerging all over the world.
I want to end my remarks, however, by adding that as feminists, we see that zones of war are also zones of living. Feminism urges us to see the broader connections of our cooperative survival and life-making, the expanse of relations and activities and capacities that sustain ourselves and our communities. We are compelled to trace our relations to others not already defined as our own, to find how deeply bound our lives are to each other, and to seek commitment and belonging in insurgent yearning for another life that we might share. We are moved to notice and tend to the world-making life-making of the dispossessed – the life that the poet Rafeef Ziadah says Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world – as the grounds of an abolitionist, demilitarizing, decolonizing feminist project of radical planetary transformation. In this way, freeing Palestine frees us all.