MAY 11, 2019
I HAD MUTED HIM for months on end. We weren’t close, but I knew him pretty well — we’d hung out a few times over the past decade or so, attended the same sparse cultural events. He likes to write. His gift is irony. And his social media platform of choice, like that of most Mauritians, is Facebook. He’d have diatribes at the ready on everything from poverty to politicians, crafted in his signature tone, a perpetual smirk. The smirk would give way, in the last line or so, to genuine feeling. The technique made him seem like a generally good dude, caught in the Mauritian system like everyone else but with the audacity and wit to write about it. He amassed quite the following. In 2016, he started writing posts on feminism, the kind that elicited LMAOs and general approval sans sincere twist. He irritated me, but I wasn’t worried. I thought Mauritian men were mostly like that: retrograde, patriarchal. I thought that progress was coming whether they liked it or not and that soon, in a decade or so, they’d be embarrassed by their youthful rancor. I had hope in our generation — well educated and directional, ravenous in ambition, ravenous for the world. I knew about the alt-right, but thought the word stood for “white supremacist” and little else; 99 percent of our population isn’t white; I hadn’t even entertained the notion that this European-American export had found a following here. I’d muted him and the chronology of his radicalization.
Earlier this year I shared two pieces on the ties between domestic abuse and the alt-right. “What is toxic masculinity?” he commented. “Is simply being a man who stands up for his opinions considered toxic? […] Is it reasonable to impliedly dismiss the fact that a substantial amount of women are radicalising, too?” He carried on, effervescent, using diction I’d never heard before: “Cultural Marxism,” “Regressive Leftists,” “Red Pill.” He assured me he’d read feminist theory, cited Katherine K. Young’s Sanctifying Misandry: Goddess Ideology and the Fall of Man. Young is a disgraced academic; she doesn’t appear when you Google “feminist theory.” He could only have heard of her in the undergrowth of the internet. He retaliated when I blocked him, posted screenshots of our conversations, said he thought I was “open to dialogue” and that he would definitely talk to me about toxic masculinity when we next saw each other. It seemed natural to him that he should impose his presence on me, ask for free emotional and intellectual labor, take up my time under the guise of “debate.” His friends quickly provided him with support: “What of toxic femininity?,” “holy crap that mindset reached Mauritius,” “that reads like foreplay.”
On March 8, International Women’s Day, a piece in a supposedly prestigious local paper made the rounds on social media. “Overcoming Feminist Ideology for Equality” by Yasheel Awootar contains all the necessary references to Jordan Peterson and Camille Paglia. Awootar’s a young Mauritian clinical psychologist who’d trained in England. The piece’s highlights include: “Feminist ideology is responsible for having turned the whole women’s rights movement into a joke”; “[Feminism] is also responsible for the widespread and yet twisted view that throughout history, women have been oppressed by a ‘male-dominated patriarchy’”; “All heterosexual women have to choose between career and family-building at some point in their lives, and that is the PREDOMINANT reason for which [sic] we do not see a proportional gender distribution in politics, or in most other traditionally male-dominated professions, for that matter […] a disadvantage imposed on women by NATURE, not by some loosely-defined ‘male-dominated patriarchy.’” My former friend praised the article, and was undoubtedly proud, too, of his own contribution to International Women’s Day: a post titled “Gender Equali–cunt,” in which he said, “Don’t forget, it’s women who have the monopoly on equality narratives. Men don’t suffer and women can do no wrong. All men are shit, all women are great. Remember this well. It’s a new social rule.” His friends were jubilant. The editor-in-chief of another local paper openly endorsed his post: “For once I totally agree with you! You’ve spoken the truth.”
If a Mauritian writer’s words are to have any validity whatsoever, they must be published abroad. When Ananda Devi and Nathacha Appanah write about violence they are taken seriously, though not much is ever done.
I grew up with stories of men murdering their female partners with crossbows and other implements, dismembering the women in their lives with grinder machines, raping their step-daughters, tossing female bodies into forests. I saw school friends married off at 15 to men twice their age. Saw bruises on the bodies of the women who cared for me. Women with nerves so frayed they’d break whatever it was they were holding — glasses, plates, cups would just fall out of their shaking hands even when they were well away from their husbands. I know what it’s like to feel unsafe walking on the street in the late afternoon, or walking alone at any time of day. I know trans women and queer women who’ve sought asylum in Europe, since it’s still illegal for them to be themselves here. I know what it’s like to live in a country where abortion is illegal. When I was 14, two of my friends became pregnant; the first kept it, was shamed by the entire Catholic school we attended; the second managed to secure an abortion, saw her fetus dumped in the toilet.
“He helps me, of course. So it’s a trade-off. He gives me books, he pays more attention while correcting my papers. […] He tells me that he’ll tutor me.” I read Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins too late, after I’d finished school. It was the first time that I had seen, in print, what I thought would forever be condemned to whispers. Girls across the island were, and still are, at the mercy of predatory teachers. Sexual harassment and abuse by teachers didn’t just happen to women living in precarious circumstances, though it happened to them at a greater rate. Our confessional and public schools were — perhaps still are — not schools; they were places where we wasted six hours every day, unless we had one or two good educators. Even then, some of these educators would tell us outright that if we hoped to pass our exams we’d need to pay them for tuition after class. Our only shot at learning anything of value was in private tuition, which we’d attend from the time the bell rang until late at night, weekdays, weekends, 30 or 40 students crammed into tight rooms, often garages. We’d seek out those who’d taught the scholarship winners. There were two or three illustrious tutors for every subject in the whole country; you secured your place months in advance and you’d endure. You’d need to prepare yourself psychologically before going into their homes. There was an accountancy tutor so depraved that my friends would blanch in the hours leading up to the end of school. He’d hit, he’d caress, he’d married a former student or two.
I’d still take the violent, copybook-throwing, spittle-splattering men over the tutor I had every Thursday afternoon for that unique subject we all had to sit, Cambridge International Examinations’ “General Paper,” a test of English fluency, reasoning, general knowledge. The tutor was highly esteemed, a bastion of the English language in Mauritius, chair of associations, committees, boards, prizes. He held his lessons in his house. He liked it when girls came in and kissed him on both cheeks, which my friends and I refused to do. We’d work silently in the main room before being called into his private office for a good 10 to 20 minutes or so, individually, so he could check and correct our work. We’d sit alone in this office, at a knee’s distance from him. His hands could easily rest on our legs. If our pens fell to the floor we were warned by other girls never to bend down and pick them up; he wouldn’t move to create space. Once, as part of his weekly exercises, he asked me to write a sentence using the word “thin.” I handed him my copybook. He waxed poetic on how I, for instance, wasn’t thin. I was slender. I don’t know what happened the day I came back home and told my mother I wasn’t going there anymore. I’ve blanked it out. “You’ll lose your chance for the scholarship,” my mother menaced, her throat tight, her jaws clenched. I cried. She understood and said nothing. My parents were wealthy; my scholarship wasn’t necessary but it was prestigious, the sole gateway to the absolute best universities. I could refuse to go, but I knew that all over the country parents glossed over the miseries of their daughters for the sake of their becoming one in 21 lauréates. There was no choice. This is how they earned their future.
“There was the nothing of my father’s eye, which alcohol had turned oily. The nothing that was my mother’s mouth and eyelids, both of them stapled shut […] [My mother has] deliberately insulated herself so as not to feel or regret life,” says Eve. My mother can’t stand Eve. “Too violent,” she says of Devi’s work in general, indigeste, violence that won’t be excreted away; but when I asked her if she thought Eve was a realistic portrayal of Mauritius, she said yes. My mother’s eyes were always open. She was the paranoid watchwoman of my body. She screamed when I left the house at 14 wearing a top with the subtlest décolleté. “Someone will reach out and grab you like this! Do you want that to happen?” She grabbed my breast and hurt me. It had happened to her, when she was around my age; a man on a bike cornered her into a bamboo hedge. Eleven years later, when I told her of sexual harassment at work, she told me how she was thrust into a car by a former boss; her chances of promotion were dependent on what she’d be able to do for him. These stories are routine.
In Nathacha Appanah’s Blue Bay Palace, poor, low-caste Maya falls in love with Dave, a Brahmin with sugar-estate wealth. Dave claims he loves her, uses her, endlessly talks about his feelings and himself. He doesn’t tell her he is engaged; she finds out about the wedding in a newspaper announcement. Even then he uses her, spews on about how he hates all the other women in his life. Maya’s story is poignant, but it is her cadaver of a mother who stays in my mind after the book is done:
My mother obeys a rigid ritual: make tea […] arrange the morning’s food […] watches me as I eat breakfast in silence. She stays there, fiddling with her hair, and if I say something banal she nods her head and says hm, hm … As soon as I finish my tea, she hurries to clean up and, before I’ve even left the table, she carefully pads the crumbs up with a sponge. I get up and kiss her quickly because she’s already washing up. She doesn’t look at me. She says Okay and I never know if it’s a question or an affirmation of something. She always speaks using the same hasty tone, it’s difficult to know. She is like that, my mother, always in a hurry to make the minutes and the hours pass by as quickly as possible. She frets about, filling space and time with movement and noise.
My mother isn’t a husk of a woman. She vowed to live as freely as she saw fit, never to marry a local man. A spinster, by my country’s standards, when she met my father at 27. She is an exception. Around me I see once youthful women reduced to filaments of their selves by their early 30s, exhausted by the effort it takes to live here.
The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2018 ranks Mauritius 109th out of 149 countries. So much for Africa’s supposedly shining star. In terms of educational attainment, we’re placed 78th; in economic participation, 119th. Makes sense, since most of the girls I went to school with have all left with the firm intention never to return. They’ve forged brilliant careers for themselves far away from an island where they’d be certainly paid less for the same work, where they’d face endless harassment, where they’d never be as good as a heavily connected person’s child, where they’d be bullied into “settling down” at 21. Mauritius is 116th in political empowerment. “Is a bitch worth more than this female journalist?” a local MP asked last year. He’s still in office. We have few female politicians in the National Assembly, which boasts 70 members, and they are castigated almost daily just like those few women in the opposition. I’ve seen the gleeful misogynoir to which black female politicians are subjected — women who have no record of corruption, who weren’t given the prominence they deserved. I think too of another, younger rising politician, controversial for her selfies, bashed for her work promoting women’s rights, for calling out sexist advertising, for helping to eliminate our tampon tax. The alt-right lambasts her, shares cartoons illustrating how they believe she rose to such prominence: she must have slept with a politician to have gotten anywhere at all.
Together with a small group of academics, writers, and translators, I have been compiling a quasi-historiography of the local alt-right. We have over 300 screenshots of their conversations, and have tracked what they say, share. We add new material almost every day. There are many of them, and they are — for the most part — all friends with each other. The alt-right unites young Mauritian artists, professionals, pseudo-intellectuals, those who have studied abroad, those who never left. They are prominent on social media and have garnered a fan club, which isn’t difficult in a country of 1.2 million people.
The Mauritian alt-right is formulaic to a fault. Virulently transphobic — transphobia is almost their primary, defining characteristic — homophobic, misogynistic, and, at times, racist. They seek the freedom to hurt, subjugate. They pick and choose the trash narratives that empower and soothe them. Their posts range from general feminist bashing to sponsoring the men’s rights initiative to bewailing civilizational decline to promoting rape culture. “The sheep say wolves just bite. The year has changed, they say it’s unacceptable for wolves to bite and that sheep can no longer leave their homes,” says a man who is invited to give lectures on his artistic practice. He believes he has crafted a cryptic metaphor when he says, “If it’s for pleasure or pride, it’s in its nature to bite sheep. He’s genetically and biologically programmed to do so. You can’t blame him.” He goes on: “Every animal has a mating ritual, in our species, men are judged for those.”
Members of the Mauritian alt-right mock “victim ideology” but position themselves as victims, all too ready to threaten those who call them out on their bullshit. When “Overcoming Feminist Ideology for Equality” was published, it was shared on the Shame Them Facebook group, a safe, anonymous space for Mauritian women to speak of their abuse and receive support. The very act of sharing one’s experiences is radical here; it is radical to speak of being groped and violated on public transport, in doctor’s offices, on the street, at work. Alt-right vitriol quickly followed: “Triggered! The feminist starter pack: weirdo, man hater, fact hater, victim card premium level, easily triggered, sore ass loser rejects”; “all the intersectional bullcrap”; “[not] one iota of proof […] to support their arguments […] the author had the decency to write his opinion in a national newspaper […] there is too much feminism.” That last comment was supposedly by a woman; a quick look at her profile suggests that it’s fake; she’s only friends with the alt-right, has no history. Some of the alt-right, naturally, took issue with Shame Them as a whole: “I love this page for the laughs it gives me […] I hate it because people propagate hate and rumours and completely false statements […] #shamethemforspewinglies.” One man was openly accused of propagating hate, of being part of the alt-right. He messaged the moderators of the group and said he’d sue for defamation.
The Mauritian alt-right is multicultural. They tell you they’re not alt-right but intellectual renegades, whipping up wit and humor taken from the 4chan and Reddit maelstrom. They don’t want to be associated with white supremacists, but they share pieces from Breitbart and Quillette. They claim they cannot possibly be racist, but their opinions are, at best, white supremacist lite. One man was kicked out of a group called “Decolonizing and Understanding Cultural Appropriation”; he had issues with the fact that “one of the group’s rules is that white people can’t comment unless they are invited to react to a post. The guy was proponing [sic] unity in a thread where some intense black and brown people were jerking each other off about the horrors of cultural appropriation.” He posts things on Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, disgraced evolutionary biologists who left their posts speaking against anti-racist protests on campus.
The brown Breitbart sharer has found a community with the Christian far right; he welcomed the mosque attack in New Zealand. He is an exception to the group, though: most of these men seem to have complex relationships with religion. They don what they believe to be an edgy intellectual look — more Jordan Peterson, less Charlottesville Nazi. They repudiate their fathers’ old-school religious devotion, forge a new idea of the 21st-century Mauritian male. They are not ready, however, to abandon the patriarchal values inherent in religion as practiced in this country: the ideal woman is sacrosanct, virginal; she knows her place in the order of things and is willing to serve. Peterson came to them as a revelation. They proudly quote bits of Nietzsche. They share, at length, Peterson’s faux-historical tautologies, his explosive, vacuous analogies, his circular tenets. “Enforced monogamy”: arranged marriage, but make it fashionable. 12 Rules for Life: their ultra-conservative uncle’s monologues at dinner, but updated for the 21st century with a minimalist cover. They adore him, this übervater who orders them to clean up their rooms. Though Peterson’s glorification of “Western civilization” may not have gone down so well in this country as his other tirades, it has inspired a counter-ideology. The Heying-Weinstein enthusiast has essentialized his Hindu faith to a farce, plucking and crafting his beliefs into a fetish of vulgar Orientalism, one of mysticism and tantric sex. His followers call him “Mahadev,” another name for Shiva. It is perhaps his way of affirming that his religion, too, has power, is glamorous.
I wonder if our particular postcolonial predicament has something to do with all of this. The alt-right has gifted Mauritian men with that most elusive of dreams, that most cherished of things: a white friend, albeit from abroad. This is still a country where white people are treated with reverence and fear. Local whites make up about one percent of the population, and as a general rule they tend to live and socialize among themselves; true friendships across color lines are rare. A prominent politician rose to power in the 1970s and ’80s in part because he was so successful at positioning himself as the white friend of all Mauritians. And that’s what these men are really after: friends. Now all they need to do is to create a Reddit account, participate in the correct subculture, master the group’s diction; an instant community is there to congratulate, welcome, nourish, endorse, add on Facebook, follow on Twitter. A cure to island isolation and its discontents. Finally, a connection to the world.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein were fired from their posts.