Nancy Fraser’s recent article, “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden and How to Reclaim It” has led to some interesting discussions among Iranian women and men inside Iran and in exile. In her article, Fraser argues that the second wave of feminism has abandoned its original ideal of social justice and has been co-opted by capitalist careerism.
By Frieda Afary
March 13, 2014
Source: Radio Zamaneh
Nancy Fraser’s recent article, “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden and How to Reclaim It” (1) has led to some interesting discussions among Iranian women and men inside Iran and in exile. In her article, Fraser argues that the second wave of feminism has abandoned its original ideal of social justice and has been co-opted by capitalist careerism. She specifically argues that the feminist movement has aided neo-liberalism in three ways: 1. Abandoning the idea of a family wage, 2. Focusing solely and one-sidedly on identity politics at the expense of economic justice, 3. Allowing its critique of the patriarchal welfare state to be used by neo-liberalism’s drive to dismantle the welfare state. Fraser then recommends three pathways for feminism to reclaim its justice-centered ideals: 1. “Militating for a form of life that de-centers waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including—but not only—carework” 2. Not separating the struggle against sexism from the struggle for social justice. 3. Engaging in participatory democracy to constrain capital.
Soon after the publication of this article, two different translations of it by Hamid Parnian and Firoozeh Mohajer appeared on two important sites: Zamaneh, an independent radio station and website based in Holland (2) and Naqd-e Iqtisad-e Siasi (Critique of Political Economy), an independent website inside Iran. (3)
Within a few days, Firoozeh Mohajer, a well-known Iranian feminist translator who had translated Fraser’s article inside Iran, also published a translation of a reply to Fraser by Brenna Bhandar and Denise Ferreira da Silva. (4) This reply which was entitled “White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome”(5) challenged Fraser for not mentioning earlier critiques of the limitations of second wave feminism by women of color like Angela Davis, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Patricia Hill Collins. Bhandar and Ferreira da Silva argued that long before Fraser, these feminist theorists had written about the intersection of gender, class and race.
Subsequently, Zamaneh, began conducting a series of interviews with Iranian intellectuals concerning the content of the critiques made by Fraser and women of color, and whether these critiques are applicable to the Iranian feminist movement as well. Zamaneh also created a page for unsolicited responses to this debate.
The views expressed in these articles and interviews can be categorized in the following ways: 1. Those who think that Fraser’s critique may apply only to feminists in the West and not Iran which does not have a liberal capitalist democracy with extensive female employment in the labor market. 2. Those who think that feminism as an idea is mainly concerned with opposition to gender discrimination within the context of the existing capitalist system. 3. Those who view the critiques issued by women of color as relevant to ethnic minority and lesbian women in Iran. 4. Those who discuss Fraser’s contributions and limitations. Below, I will offer further details.
- Limiting Fraser’s Critique to Western Democracies
Fahimeh Tafsiri, an activist inside Iran argues that for Iranian feminists, the main challenge is not taming unrestricted capitalism but creating a parliamentary democracy with basic rights for women in the face of an autocratic system. She critiques Iranian leftists who valorize Fraser’s critique and equates them to “servants of traditional conservatism.” She claims that their critique of feminism arises from an opposition to modernity and concludes that they aid the existing Iranian regime.(6).
Hassan Makaremi, an Iranian psychologist at Sorbonne University in France believes that the dominant economic system in Iran is not yet capitalist. Hence, in his opinion, the Iranian feminists’ main concentration should be bringing women into the labor market and giving them basic rights. For example he argues that women’s maternity leave time should be determined on the basis of the needs of the labor market for women workers and employees. (7)
The above commentators seem to have two presuppositions in common: 1. That Iran’s economic system is not really capitalist because it is owned and run by a religious theocracy and a militarized governmental monopoly called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, instead of private capitalists engaged in free-market competition. 2. That a true capitalist system would be necessarily accompanied by a parliamentary democracy, political freedoms and all the benefits of modernity.
Although there is no doubt that Western capitalist nations offer far greater political freedoms than the Iranian regime, it is unfair to conclude that those who criticize capitalism are necessarily against modernity or that criticizing capitalism today is synonymous with defending religious fundamentalism. Secondly, the characterization of the Iranian economy as “not yet capitalist” or “not truly capitalist” is based on a specific definition of capitalism which ignores the existence of state capitalism. This definition has been challenged but remains the dominant view among Iranian intellectuals, including many on the Left.(8)
Hence, Said Peyvandi, a sociology professor in Paris also claims that Fraser’s critique is not relevant to Iranian feminists because “here the challenge is not liberal capitalism but entering the job market and breaking the barriers that prevent women from finding occupations commensurate with their areas specialization and abilities.”(9)
- Limiting Feminism to Legal Equality
Another way in which some Iranian feminists have challenged Fraser’s call is by questioning her very definition of feminism as contrary to the original idea of feminism and claiming that she only presents the views of a minority of feminists.
Sima Rastin, a feminist writer based in Germany critiques Fraser for lumping a variety of feminisms into one and attributing an anti-capitalist character to a past “mythical” feminism. She claims that the first wave of feminism never claimed to go beyond the limits of the existing system. Furthermore, she argues that the second wave of feminism contained a variety of tendencies, only a minority of which was critical of capitalism. As a whole, she argues that the second wave of feminism wisely made the most of a flexible high tech capitalism in order to benefit women’s drive for individual identity and demand for legal equality within the context of the existing system. (10)
Jalal Ijadi, a sociology professor in France also claims that feminism has not been a movement for challenging capitalism. Instead, it has aimed to democratize society. Ijadi believes that feminism should not be asked to come up with an alternative to capitalism. Feminist demands are necessary but not sufficient for a more expansive transformation. (11)
Mohammad Reza Nikfar, a philosopher based in Germany and the chief editor of Zamaneh, argues that although feminism as a social and intellectual movement has always been tied in with the issue of justice, from its inception, there have been debates between the liberal concept which limited justice to legal equality, and the socialist concept which claimed that there could be no justice so long as there was class inequality. (12)
III. Drawing on Women of Color’s Critiques of Feminism
Some who support Fraser’s call for a return to the ideals of social justice also strongly identify with the ways in which women of color have criticized both the first wave and the second wave of feminism.
Azadeh Kian, a political sociology professor and head of the Gender Research Center at the University of Paris refers to the ways in which Black feminists have critiqued the second wave of feminism for solely focusing on the issue of gender and sexuality at the expense of class, race, ethnicity, national and religious identity. She emphasizes that Iranian feminists need to pay a great deal more attention to economic justice and the demands of ethnic minority women. Citing her fieldwork in Baluchistan, she demonstrates that Baluch women are exploited on three levels: as women, as members of a national minority, and as an economically disadvantaged population. (13)
I have also argued that Angela Davis’s and Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s views on the intersection of gender, class and race/ethnicity can help the Iranian feminist movement pay more attention to prejudices faced by Kurdish, Azeri, Arab, Baluch and Turkmen women. We can learn from Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class, a work which demonstrates that in the U.S. true social progress for the whole population has only come about when movements for the emancipation of women, African Americans and workers have come together. In fact, Davis emphasizes that African American women often embody three dimensions– woman, oppressed minority and exploited worker — and cannot compartmentalize these dimensions of their being. Similarly, Iran’s ethnic minority women who are economically disadvantaged cannot separate the prejudices which they face for their ethnic minority status from the prejudices which they face as women. (14)
Shadi Amin, a lesbian activist based in England also draws on the contributions of women of color in the U.S. and emphasizes that feminism has never been an undifferentiated whole. She calls on Persian speaking and heterosexual Iranian feminists to help air the voices and concerns of ethnic minority and lesbian women.(15)
- Fraser’s Contributions and Limitations
In summing up Fraser’s contributions, Mohammad Reza Nikfar states that her work is especially important because she is critical of the current dominance of identity politics within feminism and instead speaks of the connections between the discrimination against women and the general problem of social inequality, the lasting foundation of which is class division. He places Fraser’s concept of justice within the Critical Theory tradition, the aim of which was human emancipation. Toward that aim, he carefully discusses the three components of Fraser’s theory of “distributive justice”: redistribution, recognition and representation, and demonstrates that Fraser does not reduce the question of emancipation merely to the redistribution of wealth. She also accounts for the recognition of one’s identity and sexual orientation, and the need for political representation. At the same time, Nikfar points out that Fraser’s intellectual horizon is synonymous with social democracy. “She wants a more tolerable capitalism.” (16)
This problem of the lack of an alternative to capitalism on Fraser’s part manifests itself in various ways. For instance, Fraser’s statement: “[m]ilitating for a form of life that de-centers waged work and valorises unwaged activities, including—but not only—carework” has been severely criticized by some Iranian feminists. Both Amin and Rastin take her statement to mean that she is calling on women to leave the labor market and go back to the single wage-earner household. I interpret Fraser’s statement differently as a challenge to the inhuman priorities of capitalism which devalues domestic work and child rearing. Nevertheless, Fraser does not distinguish what she means by “valorize” and how that might be different from the capitalist concept of “value.” Making such a distinction would require a return to Marx’s Capital and his critique of the capitalist mode of production which reduces “concrete labor” to “abstract labor” or the “substance of value.”(17)
Fraser’s claim that feminism’s abandonment of the call for a family wage was responsible for flexible and high tech capitalism’s increasing use of women for part-time jobs has also been a subject of criticism among Iranian feminists. She seems to place too much blame on feminism instead of addressing the objective developments in capitalism itself. I would argue that what led to the increasing use of women for part-time jobs at the expense of full-time jobs that could support a family was the logic of capital which uses any force, any technology and any development as a means for the self-expansion of value. (18)
Finally, neither Nancy Fraser nor Angela Davis offers a comprehensive response to those critics of socialist feminism who point to the oppression of women in the former Soviet Union and Maoist China. Fraser has been very critical of what she calls “Soviet-style state socialism.” Davis who for many years actively defended the Soviet Union as a “socialist society,” has become more critical since the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, neither has analyzed the relationship between women’s oppression and the economic nature of those states which some Marxist thinkers have analyzed as “state capitalist.” (19)
As a whole, the Iranian debates on the critiques and contributions offered by Nancy Fraser and women of color have raised enough questions to merit a conference. Is Fraser’s critique of feminism valid for Iranian women even though they do not live under a liberal capitalist democracy? Is capitalism synonymous with democracy? Was feminism radically justice-centered from its inception or limited to achieving women’s legal equality? What can Iranian feminists learn from women of color on the inseparability of race, gender and class? What accounts for women’s oppression in states that have called themselves Communist? How can feminists participate in theorizing an alternative to capitalism?
These questions reveal that the democratic opposition movement which arose inside Iran in 2009 and involved women’s active participation, is still alive but grappling with some very critical issues on which the future of this movement depends.
March 13, 2014
This article was originally published by Radio Zamaneh. http://archive.radiozamaneh.com/english/content/iranians-discuss-nancy-fraser%E2%80%99s-and-women-color%E2%80%99s-critiques-feminism
- Nancy Fraser, “How Feminism Became Capitalism’s Handmaiden and How to Reclaim It.” The Guradian. Oct. 13, 2013
- نانسی فریزر.آیا فمینیسم کلفت سرمایه داری شده است؟ ترجمه حمید پرنیان. 27 مهر 1392 .
- نانسی فریزر. چرخش ظالمانه ی جنبش زنان. ترجمه فیروزه مهاجر. نقد اقتصاد سیاسی. 18 اکتبر 2013
4.برنا بندر و دنیس فرایرا داسیلوا. نشانگان خستگی فمینیسم. ترجمه فیروزه مهاجر. 27 اکتبر 2013
- Brenna Bhandar and Denise Ferreira da Silva. “White Feminist Fatigue Syndrome” Critical Legal Thinking. Oct. 21, 2013
6.فهیمه تفسیری. چپ انقلابی چگونه تبدیل به نوکری برای محافظه کاران سنتی شد. مدرسه فمینیستی. 27 آبان 1392 This article was originally published by the site Feminist School inside Iran, and then reprinted by Zamaneh.
- Esmail Jalilvand. Interview with Hassan Makaremi. Zamaneh. 20 Aban 1392.
- Frieda Afary. “The New Persian Translation of Marx’s Capital and the Iranian Economy” in Beitrage zur Marx-Engels Forschung. Neue Folge 2011. Also available in
- Mohsen Kakaresh. Interview with Said Peyvandi. Zamaneh. 28 Azar 1392.
10.سیما راستین. کدام فمینیسم؟ نانسی فریزر با که سخن می گوید؟ زمانه. 9 آذر 1392 Sima Rastin. “Which Feminism? To Whom Does Nancy Fraser Speak?” Zamaneh. Nov. 30, 2013
11.جلال ایجادی. فمینیسم، دمکراسی و نولیبرالیسم. زمانه. 29 آبان 1392 Jalal Ijadi. “Feminism, Democracy and Neo-Liberalism.” Zamaneh. 29 Aban 1392
- Avat Ayar. Interview with Mohammad Reza Nikfar. Zamaneh. 11 Aban 1392
- Esmail Jalilvand. Interview with Azadeh Kian. Zamaneh. 6 Aban 1392
- Esmail Jalilvand. Interview with Frieda Afary. Zamaneh. 28 Aban 1392
- Aida Qajar. Interview with Shadi Amin. Zamaneh. 15 Bahman 1392
- Avat Ayar. Interview with Mohammad Reza Nikfar. Zamaneh. 11 Aban 1392
- See Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism by Peter Hudis. Haymarket Books: 2013. See also Time, Labor and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory by Moishe Postone. Cambridge University Press, 1993. For a comprehensive study of Marx’s views on gender, see Marx on Gender and the Family: A Critical Study by Heather A. Brown. Haymarket Books: 2013
- Esmail Jalilvand. Interview with Frieda Afary. Zamaneh. 28 Aban 1392
- For the views of a Marxist feminist philosopher and economist who wrote extensively on women, race and class and developed an analysis of the Soviet Union and Maoist China as “state capitalist” societies, see Raya Dunayevskaya, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: A 35 Year Collection of Essays, Historic, Philosophic, Global. Humanities Press, 1985.