A Power List That is Not a List
Power is endlessly fascinating. Power is perennially enigmatic. The more complex society becomes the harder it is to define exactly where power resides. How do things happen? Why do things happen the way they do? Safe to say the vast majority of the world’s population are unanimous in knowing, for sure, that they are not powerful but rather pawns in the hands of those who have and wield power over their lives. If only people knew their names, knew who these powerful people are, perhaps they could be confronted, and directly held accountable for the workings of power. Yes, let’s confront the power structures directly. All we really, really need is a list that identifies, quantifies and ranks the people responsible, the real power holders, the names to conjure with who chart the course of other people’ lives.
Thus the fascination with power lists. They come in all manner of categories, regularly published by newspapers and magazines, broadcast on radio, television and the internet. Time 100, the magazine’s annual list of the most influential people in the world. Forbes’ Hundred Most Powerful Women. Name a category and there will be a power list for you to play with
– 50 Most Influential People in Sport/Hollywood/PR; 100 Most Powerful Gays and Lesbians; there are even various power lists of Muslims. All good fodder for the insatiable needs of opinion formers, significant members of the chattering classes, and our celebrity obsessed culture. A mention on a power list can be the passport to just such media exposure and thereby cement the impression of being a powerful name to conjure with. In this way lists mould and make more lists. And we all take notice. So, how better to conclude an edition devoted to the subject of power than with a power list of our own. We don’t have to be formulaic. Who, for example are the world’s most powerful Muslim women?
They have to be very Critical Muslim – slightly unexpected, rather chic, definitely cutting edge.
Well, there is Sheikha Al-Mayassa, sister of the Emir of Qatar, barely into her thirties, considered the most powerful woman in the art world. Armed with a £1 billion annual budget, the Sorbonne and Duke University educated Sheikha, is noted for her high-profile acquisitions including Cezanne’s ‘The Card Players’ bought in 2012 for over £150 million and a Damien Hirst pill cabinet purchased for almost £10 million. Everyone knows Malala Yousafzai, the world’s favourite goody two shoes; and the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She has even produced an autobiography while still a teenager! Surely, you have heard of the glamorous Amal Alamuddin, the human rights lawyer, who is powerful because she has married one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, George Clooney; and serves as an adviser to UN Special Envoy Kofi Annan and the King of Bahrain. We mustn’t be sectarian. So let us include Maryam Mirzakhani, the Iranian-born, Harvard-educated mathematician and Stanford University professor. She has subverted religious, cultural and gender stereotypes to become the first woman to win the acclaimed Fields Medal for her work on geometric structures of surfaces and their deformations; and was one of the top ten ‘people who mattered in 2014’ identified by the influential science journal Nature. To make things a little bit more interesting, we could include the superhero Kamala Khan, created by two other powerful Muslim women, the Marvel Comics editor Sana Amanat and the brilliant writer G. Willow Wilson. Kamala is a second-generation Pakistani-American with shape-shifting powers, who negotiates her Muslim-ness in the same way that any teenage second-generation Muslim Pakistani-American girl may struggle with issues of identity and cultural conflict.
But let us pause for a moment. Let us sit upon the ground and calmly contemplate by means of our critical faculties what power lists actually tell us and what is so wrong about this list-making genre.
A list by its very nature suggests priority, rank and precedence. A power list is inherently hierarchical. It explicitly puts forward the proposition that some are more powerful than others. But how are such judgements made? What distinguishes the potency of the power held by someone married to a Hollywood superstar as compared with a brilliant mathematician or a teenage Nobel laureate in peace? How powerful and influential is an oil-rich Sheikha from Qatar compared to the Queen of England or the Secretary General of the United Nations? Are more people influenced by pop stars than authors, the literary legends of yesterday or today? Is an army general really powerful or do politicians hold the whip hand because they can determine when military might is to be unleashed? Surely all of these are invidious questions because they demonstrate how complicated the whole subject of power is. The hardest thing to know about power is precisely the priority, rank and precedence of one dimension of power as compared to another.
Power lists inevitably reflect the predilections of the list makers. List making is in its own way a power trip. Making a list is to exercise the power to confer notoriety and distribute public exposure. It is a very sophisticated version of parish pump gossip, reflecting publicly available information, a measure of tittle tattle and the titillation of thinking one has an insider’s view of what’s what in the world. The fact that it may all be smoke and mirrors never features on the list.
There is an old aphorism to the effect that power is not so much in the eye of the beholder as residing where we believe it to be. This is of course the Tinkerbell theory of power, and not to be entirely derided. The powerful in many ways get away with the liberties the public permit. Rank has its privileges and power its latitude and licence: the liberties power is allowed to get away with because of the intimidation, real or imaginary, it exudes. Power resides in being able to scoff at moral hazard – as we now all know to our cost. Banks and financial institutions that are too big to fail, now that is a definition of unmistakable, unmitigated power. No wonder they continue to behave much as before the nods at contrition doing little to disguise the fact that fat cat culture is purring along creamily.
As pawns we know power exists, like the banks much of its exercise is unmistakable. But how can power be curbed? How can we contain or constrain the routines of power that are patent abuses of best interests of the rest of society? That is not a conundrum which can be resolved by list making.
Now think back, if you will, to that hastily abandoned idea of a list of the most powerful Muslim women. Sadly, I have to admit that Muslim women do not rule the world (as of yet!). Though in contradiction to this self-evident statement Muslim countries have exceeded the global average in generating women prime ministers: Pakistan (one woman, twice); Bangladesh (two women, serially), Turkey (one woman, sadly forgotten), Indonesia (one woman, who made a second attempt) – so we are only talking of the four most populous Muslim nations on earth! And the largest Muslim minority population is to be found in India, which also had a notable women leader. So how are the realities of female agency and power to be computed? Is it not equally true that while women can rise to important positions in politics, business, the media and academy in South Asia, across India outrage spurs a campaign to protect women from the increasing frequency and horror of gang rape; an invasion by foreign forces is justified by protecting the right of women to vote and be educated in Afghanistan, while the most common effect of Muslim clamour for Shariah power, particularly in Pakistan, is the application of zina laws which make women culpable for adultery under any and all circumstances, including rape, and always exonerate the men.
So would a power list of Muslim women be a harbinger of hope or a record of unfulfilled dreams which came true for those who managed to be part and parcel of the elite ranks of society and thereby had access to privileged advantage anyway? Lists can chart the potential and possibilities of ideas yet to come, there is power in the idea of what may yet come to be. There is little a power list can do to make it so.
Or is the purpose of such lists to stir the conscience and rouse the engagement of the public? Is a list designed to show us the power structures so that we can act upon them, confront them directly, know the culprits and assign culpability? In which case the question is do you ever feel incensed by reading a power list? Does it, has it, ever changed your view of the workings of power? Have you been inspired to consider the varied and diverse nature of where power resides and might be exerted? Has a list ever given you the urge to go and confront anyone directly? Have you been stirred and shaken by any power list to change your attitudes or actions? I would think not!
It is necessary to record an important reason for the impotence of power lists. Have you ever yet read a power list of any category with which you actually agreed? Shaken and stirred to social action, no. But shaken and stirred to fulminating irritation – almost inevitably! The makers of lists are, on the most cursory of glances, quite clearly buffoons, villains, dolts and innocents devoid of taste, discernment and sadly deficient in critical faculties. How could anyone possibly think a list accurately reflects a general and agreed ranking and hierarchy of anything? The world does not do such unanimity. As varied as the types of power that can be listed are the interpretations of who and how power is distributed, appropriated, and at work in the world. However much a list insists on its own view of the nature and importance, the power and potency of its rankings, all it really achieves is to stimulate the beholders dissent and alternate reading of reality. All that is enlisted is one’s capacity to think for oneself and believe one’s own judgement is infinitely superior. I think this makes the power list making genre the ultimate vanity project for both its makers and consumers, which is quite a feat!
Publishing power lists is essentially a journalistic tour de force. It intimates far more than it contains; it fascinates and irritates consumers making them think somehow it really matters in some way. And it generates and fills inordinate amounts of column inches. It is lazy work because it infers far more than it can possible mean. Yet the public’s fascination with power lists is such that there never will be an end to filling whole supplements and issues with these specious flights of fancy.
So what of our power list of Muslim women? Well here’s one Muslim woman exerting her power to foil you. Sorry, you shall not know, I will not divulge, and have sworn everyone to silence. True power does not advertise itself. If you want a list of powerful Muslim women – go make your own!