Protesting FGM is sensitive, but women’s rights activism demands the courage to do such things. It seems the Women’s March are either afraid or don’t care.
The day after the inauguration of United States President Donald Trump, news outlets both online and offline were teeming with updates about the Women’s March that took place in several cities all over the United States, as well as in several other countries around the world. Liberal leaning outlets lauded the turnout, heralded it as the symbol of the resistance to the sort of civil consciousness that had elected a man like Donald Trump to power, and predicted that sexist measures by the administration would not go through without a fight. Indeed, it was an impressive show of opposition, with women turning out in unexpectedly large numbers. Shortly after, I came across many other pieces blaming the March for being focused on ‘white feminism’ as they called it, for being insensitive to Native American needs, and for being less than ‘intersectional’ – the current holy grail in feminism. Ironically, another section of the internet erupted with scorn and derisive contempt for several reasons – for the ‘pink p***y’ hats, for the ‘gall’ of American women to complain when they already lived privileged lives, but mostly, for the fact that one of the co-chairs was Ms. Linda Sarsour, the famous civil rights activist who makes it a point to emphasise that she is a Muslim, Palestinian American in the opening line of her speeches.
I encountered countless people who decried the Women’s March for associating with Ms. Sarsour who had previously openly endorsed Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women, and considered that among many benefits to Sharia law included interest free loans. Her by now infamous tweet attacking Ayaan Hirsi Ali also resurfaced, and was making the rounds, with innumerable commenters denouncing feminism as having sold out to, as they called it, a ‘sharia apologist’ and failing to stand up for women like Hirsi Ali.
As a self-identified feminist, I argued in vain against many of these individuals who I felt were being unfair in their attacks on the March – after all, simply because American women had it comparatively better than women in highly repressive, conservative countries was no reason to deny them their rights in full, especially with reproductive rights being under constant attack in the US. I pointed out that the involvement of Ms. Sarsour, whose credentials and history are definitely a little concerning, did not mean that the March itself, and the thousands of women who took part in it, had to be condemned. I’d hoped that the other organisers had perhaps not known of Ms. Sarsour’s troubling positions, or that the benefits of having her on board for the sake of all women outweighed the concerns. Ultimately, the organisers had pulled off a very impressive feat, and their interests in the well-being of women was not something I doubted. Yet it sadly seems that they have a very narrow conception of what it means to stand up for women.
“As a self-identified feminist, I argued in vain against many of these individuals who I felt were being unfair in their attacks on the March”
In the past two weeks, there has been considerable furore over the bill under consideration in the legislature of the state of Maine in the US to criminalise FGM. The bill failed last week, although some hope it can be revived. Disappointingly, the Women’s March has not issued any statement in endorsement or even of engagement, even in the form of criticism with the process in the past several weeks. None. Their twitter account is populated with birthday wishes, laudable calls to remember women who have been victimised because of their gender, but apparently an issue that is so obviously crucial to the living escaped their notice. Indeed, it seems that around that time they were preoccupied with defending their co-chair Linda Sarsour from the increasing political controversy engulfing her, whether it be her careless comments on jihad, or her association with Imams known for their sexist and homophobic views.
Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Sarsour’s ill-advised tweets on Hirsi Ali spoke of wanting to take away their vaginas. What is clear, however, is that this fundamental issue of bodily autonomy seems of little relevance to the organisers of the March. Just a few days ago, in a powerful, evocative message on Facebook, Sarsour challenged her detractors and condemned a version of feminism that did not have space for her hijab, her Islamic faith, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fight to liberate Palestine. Firstly, her arguments are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of ‘intersectional feminism’ as the concept was introduced. In very simple terms, the perspective urges an activist to take into account multiple forms of disadvantage that may impact a person, and urges laws and policies to be aware of this – an issue that must be dealt with elsewhere. Secondly, Sarsour’s challenging note is well written, but conveniently cherry picks the specific causes she chooses to support or highlight, and bundles it all into the umbrella of feminism whether or not the specific issues are primarily derived from gender based discrimination. That is not to say that these issues are without merit (they are) and that they don’t have implications for gender (they do), but in her defiant throwing down of the metaphorical gauntlet, Sarsour’s version of feminism is even more reductive and narrow than the one she accuses.
More fundamental to feminism than its association with other political causes, is the concept of free-thought. The first feminists were freethinkers. They had to be. They were women who breached the orthodoxies, labels, and expectations of their world, and who liberated their minds from everything they had been conditioned to believe. Essentially, they questioned tradition, they questioned culture, and refused to indulge in anything that was patently harmful to the female. They challenged the authority of that bastion of sexism – religious authority, embodied in the church in the West. So perhaps Sarsour should be reminded that feminism is bigger than her singular loyalty to the causes she holds dear. That to be, and identify as a feminist, above all, requires loyalty to the freedom of the female, and the courage to question everything.
In 2017, it’s clear that the feminist movement appears to be undergoing a definitional overhaul, and it is impossible for any one person to say what is and isn’t feminist, especially with the surfeit of theories out there. I would not presume to do so, but if there were the equivalent of a Hippocratic oath for feminists, the first line would be protection of the girl child. Of their helpless bodies that history and the present exploits, enslaves, and uses as a slate on which to practice the latest whim or fancy. Our first duty as feminists is to examine and deconstruct the reasons and practices that have perpetuated various forms of violence on the bodies of little girls. Female genital mutilation, by whatever name one calls it, is indefensible. The lack of medical benefits has been proved, and there is no reason to inflict that on a child. Classifying it according to whether it partially or completely removes the clitoris, whether done in a ceremony or in a hospital, is a banal distraction. We would only consider a cut on a sensitive portion of a child’s body for strong medical reasons. There are none. It is a horrifying, vile practice, and no amount of religious / cultural privilege should be permitted to be invoked in its defence. Compromise by politicians was expected, yet it seems even the Women’s March, ostensibly fighting for women’s rights, dropped the ball on this crucial issue that affects little girls. Ironically, young girls at far greater risk to the procedure, in countries where they cannot rely on the government to protect them, are finding innovative means to protect themselves and their sisters. Activists who have lived these experiences have fought enormous pressure from communities to help fellow women. Yet those leading the March were unable to hold to this moral absolute.
“Female genital mutilation, by whatever name one calls it, is indefensible”
If the Women’s March could not take a stance on such an obvious issue, what guarantee can they offer that they have the interests of women in mind? Or that they will stand courageously against political compromise or watering down of women’s rights? Why should women trust that they understand the myriad ways in which religion, society, culture and tradition have worked in tandem for centuries to suppress women? FGM is painful, frightening and irreversible, a practice born of ancient cultural beliefs and since reinforced by religious endorsement. An issue that requires decisive opposition, not malleability. The Women’s March failed on these counts.
Does this mean feminism is a failure, or that it is simply irrelevant and ineffective to achieve goals of gender equality? Am I now supposed to disassociate from and decry the philosophy and movement because one of its more visible representations appears to have failed? I would argue that that is uncalled for as well. Feminism as a concept is still powerful, and still vitally necessary to remind the world of the specific dangers that girls and women face. Even in the US, where dangers and issues are certainly less gut-wrenching than in war-torn countries, the feminist movement is important in calling out latent sexism, blatant discrimination, and the war of the religious right on women’s bodies. To disparage the whole idea because of the flaws of some agents within would be a mistake, and it’s becoming clearer than ever that adherence to a simpler form of feminism is required. So I refuse to stop identifying as a feminist and abandoning its lessons because some personalities have distorted it. Its soul is the memories of women who broke all the rules – mental and physical – to afford girls the rights they have today. That remains untarnished.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.