The death toll in Bangladesh IS a feminist issue

A couple of weeks ago I extensively ranted about how neoliberal feminism has kind of become the default/ the neutral*. Some people were offended by my statements (I won’t bore you with an account of that as the offenses were mostly taken to Twitter). A week or so later and unrelated to my attempt at analysis of neoliberal feminism, I was told I had to “separate” issues of race, poverty, etc from feminism because they were not related.

This morning I woke up to news of an updated death toll: 1000 people so far, have died in the factory fire in Bangladesh.

In September 2012, when the European Union went through a short moment of outrage at the discovery that people from Bangladesh were attempting to cross borders into the EU, I wrote **:

Here is what neither the WSJ [ED: Wall Street Journal] nor European media or Frontex reports usually address: Bangladeshi migrants are escaping a desperate economic situation brought upon by decades of Western intervention and the perpetuation of an economic model based on sweatshop labor and lack of basic rights to feed the consumption patterns of the US and the EU.

According to a report published by the International Monetary Fund (not exactly a paradigm of humanitarian research), exports of textiles, clothing, and ready-made garments account for 77% of Bangladesh’s total merchandise exports. Bangladesh’s garment exports – mainly to the US and Europe – make up nearly 80% of the country’s export income. The country has more than 4,000 factories employing between two and three million workers and the industry currently employs 1.5 million workers, approximately 80 % of whom are women. More than 4% of the clothes sold in the EU are made in Bangladesh. The conditions in which these clothes are made, with salaries that do not even cover the bare basic necessities, conveniently forgotten when discussing migration patterns.[…]

Women, who make more than 80% of the labor force, are often subjected to sexual harassment and rape.

Here’s the problem I have with this neoliberal feminism: they have traded an in depth geopolitical and social analysis involving gender and the position of women in the West in relation to women everywhere else for the promotion of consumer empowerment dressed up as “choice” and career advancement. “Here, improve your chances at success by wearing the garments of your choice!” or “Here, see the latest fashion trends and pretty outfits! Wear this to succeed in your office job”, promoting this aspirational, mind numbingly decontextualized consumerism. The role models of this neoliberalism parading their manuals to better lean in and “having it all” chants as the only kind of gender analysis we are afforded. As women, we should aspire to rule the corporations that caused this death toll; as consumers, we should aspire to close the wage gap that prevents us from buying more “stuff”, with nary a word about how that “stuff” is produced, by whom and under which conditions. And when faced with over a thousand deaths, this neoliberal feminism will induce us to some form of rightful indignation (OMG all these people died! OMG this is terrible! ad infinitum) while obscuring the root causes of this death toll. Then, when the people that have to live day in, day out in these appalling conditions eventually leave and become undocumented migrants somewhere in a Western country, this very same neoliberal feminists will tell us that “migration is not a feminist problem” and we should “separate” these issues from gender.

To close in another self referential moment, I once said that this feminism thrives to make us better managers of exclusion. Nowhere is this more clear than in the atrocious death toll of Bangladeshi textile workers who supply Europe’s garments. Gender equality, it seems, is all about becoming the CEOs of the corporations that make these living and dying conditions possible.

* Yes, I am self referential today but I can sort of explain that: usually, I go through topics in a more or less long term way, with some of them recurring for years. There are a few themes always underlying whatever topics or news items I explore/ think about. I suppose I could call those the basis of my belief system and politics (notes on racism, xenophobia, immigration, feminism, varying degrees of leftist ideas, etc) and then I tend to spend days, if not weeks, just thinking of topics, even way past the time I posted something. So yeah, I tend to become self referential because those issues occupy a lot of my idle time simply thinking of them or reading further about them.

** See note above about being self referential.

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