Where were all of the feminists? Oh, right, busy planning a “Boobquake”
So I went to a protest a little while ago — more specifically, a demonstration against the Islamophobic, sexist, ableist, and racist Bill 94 here in Quebec — and I was struck by both the low attendance (between 60 and 120 according to news outlets), and the demographic composition of the attendees. Based on my conversations and observations, the main groups of people that I observed were:
- Muslim women who wear the niqab, hijab, or no covering at all, and their male friends, husbands, partners, relatives, counterparts, children, etc.
- Representatives of other faiths showing solidarity (Jewish organizations and Montreal’s Anglican diocese)
- Representatives from groups such as the South Asian Women’s Association
- A small group of language teachers, who were responding to the incident that provoked all of this hubbub (wherein a woman was expelled from her language class for refusing to take off her niqab) by asserting that they can teach a student with a covered face just fine, and it is insulting to their profession that the government should think otherwise
- Libertarians, who oppose any government intervention of this type
- GLB, Queer, Trans, and gender-variant folks, who felt compelled to show solidarity because this bill is a human rights violation, and also because government prohibitions on certain types of clothing (hoodies, for a facetious example) could just as easily adversely affect them in the future (“THEY CAME FIRST for the women wearing the niqab, and I didn’t speak up because I didn’t wear a niqab…)
- Social-justice activists and academics, including the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, and the representatives from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute (who also released and handed out a statement on the matter); these protesters rightly asserted that “tearing the clothing off of women’s bodies is violence against women.”
Maybe I just don’t go to enough protests, but it seems like such a blatant human rights violation would attract more attention, I mean, more than 120 protesters. Unfortunately, Bill 94 is supported by over 95% of Quebecers, and 4/5 Canadians, so I understand that it is not popular to oppose it. However, I’ll be damned if I have not personally met well over 120 feminists in Montreal — where the hell were they?
I wasn’t as angered about this dearth of feminist interest in an OBVIOUS feminist issue until the recent furor over the Facebook “Boobquake” (67,003 attendees) and “Brainquake” (1484 attendees), and more recently the “Femquake” (331 attendees) taking place today, all of which have collectively garnered hundreds of times the support of the protest I attended. I understand that it is easier to click “like” on Facebook than it is to get your ass down to city hall, especially when one does not live in Montreal, but before any more folks break out the patronising “obvious logical” response to this disparity, please consider that the protest comparison is an illustrative point.
The three events were started in response to an Iranian cleric’s proclamations about women’s immodesty and promiscuity causing earthquakes, and have subsequently been supported by members of such prominent feminist sites as Feministing.com, Jezebel.com, and Feministe.com. I was initially intrigued by the idea as a sort of campy and playful way to collectively disprove an idea, but after about 5 minutes of perusal, it became glaringly apparent that this North American response to an Iranian cleric was more about Islamophobia and ethnocentrism than the rights of Muslim women. The events are a vector for the co-option of feminist rhetoric to further objectify women, and a demonstration of the smug North American sense of moral and developmental superiority over those “other” brown folks in the Middle East. The people who should REALLY be leading the response to the statements made by the cleric are IRANIAN and MUSLIM WOMEN, who have, you know, the LIVED EXPERIENCE of dealing with these statements every day, but their voices are silenced by us obnoxious and entitled white-educated-secular types who feel the need to make a BOOBQUAKE instead of really listening and standing in solidarity. Our form of protest also bars and mocks women who CHOOSE to dress modestly — such as women who wear the niqab – from participating in and being at the forefront of the protest, a protest which actually affects their lives far more than ours.
Therefore I ask: why is it so easy for feminists to organise around a chance to show off some cleavage in order to belittle one man overseas who would police the lives of Muslim women, whereas it is so difficult to get feminists to organise around a chance to protest a powerful provincial government who would police the lives of Muslim women?
To quote the above statement from the Simone de Beauvoir Institute about Bill 94:
“As feminists, we are committed to supporting bodily and personal autonomy for all women, as well as all women’s capacity to understand and articulate their experiences of oppression on their own terms.”
Or at least we SHOULD BE committed to doing so, but we are really just paying intersectionality lip service when we pull stunts like these Boob-, and Fem- quakes. I am sure there is a good idea there, but the cause around which we’ve rallied — the “othering” and demeaning of Islam as backward and oppressive — fuels wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, racist immigration laws, racial profiling in airports, “reasonable accommodation,” and legislation like Bill 94. My feminism won’t be complicit in that.
It is time for this to change. Feminism should not avoid its domestic problems while subjecting others to a scrutinizing neo-colonial gaze: it’s time for Western feminists to stop talking about Female Genital Cutting abroad with such moral authority, and to start talking about the unnecessary surgical procedures performed on Intersex children in North America; it’s time for non-Muslim women to stop talking about the hijab, and start talking about the high heel; it’s time for white feminists to stop telling womanists who they are, and to start interrogating the racial problems of the feminist movement; it’s time for hipster feminists to stop accusing indigenous feminists of being “angry,” and to start talking about what it means to live on stolen land.
It’s time for us feminists to own up to our own privileges.
NOTE: I am getting a lot of traffic and commenting on this post, so just to save everyone some time before you comment:
Here are some things I am NOT saying:
- that everyone needs to fly up to Canada and protest, or else you are a bad feminist
- that YOU PERSONALLY are a terrible person for ‘Boobquaking,’ or having white/Western privilege
- that we shouldn’t talk about FGC, and the hijab, etc. EVER
- that feminists can’t multitask and care about lots of things
Things that I AM saying:
- the ‘Boobquake’ is patronising
- the ‘Boobquake’ prioritises the experiences and reactions of Westerners
- a lot of the discussion surrounding the ‘Boobquake’ is steeped in privilege
- we should talk about these things — like FGC, the hijab, and Iranian clerics – but without ‘moral authority’ (as if we are the arbiters over other people who have been historically marginalised by people like us). Voices of the people with the lived experience should ALWAYS be prioritised. We don’t take to kindly to cis men setting the agendas and determining the responses of feminism, but we seem to feel comfortable defining those things for women overseas.
Strawman arguments that I will not put through moderation:
- that I am suggesting that: ‘feminists can’t care about a lot of things at once,’ (we can and do, but sometimes we silence others in the process)
- that ‘it is discriminatory towards privileged people that they can’t talk about everything with authority’ (reverse-discrimination arguments don’t fly here, maybe they do elsewhere, but I don’t buy it.)
- that ‘judging and critiquing other culture’s practices does not mean I am positing myself as superior’ (Oh but it does…)
- that ‘Muslim women over there don’t speak for themselves, so we must speak for them’ (this is really not true, Google is your friend, let’s take a break and LISTEN instead of always TALKING.)
- That I am the ‘condescending feminist police’ (c’mon, I am calling out prejudice and privilege when I see it, I would expect the same from anyone else if I were acting in a privileged way, in fact, I HAVE been called on my white privileged bullshit before when it comes to race: see this thread; we live and learn. Learning to listen and take criticism is part of learning to be an ally.)
And after all that, I would like to say, thank you for reading! Let’s get some good discussion going.
Thank you to the following bloggers/websites for quoting/supporting this post:
“So I have to tell you that I’ve wondered quite a bit about what “my feminism” looks like in the past 24 hours. I’ve asked myself some hard questions about internalized misogyny—and also whether I’m going to just agree with the idea that anything someone wants to do, whether out of a desire to produce activism or satire, is a good thing for feminist causes. I’ve wondered about what “our” feminism looks like, and whether it’s really just paying lip service to intersectionality. And frankly, in some ways it’s difficult to avoid that conclusion. I don’t, for example, think it’s an accident that when we write about trans health, or immigration, or racism, that no one gives a shit, while the mere mention of the fucking Boobquake brings everyone out of the woodwork. And I don’t think that this is a trend we’re alone in, as I’ve noticed it a bit throughout the feminist blogosphere.
This is a problem. It’s not a problem because I’m soooo much more awesome at being intersectional than you. I’m not trying to hold myself up as an example here; I agreed that I made a mistake by not being clearer in my last post. But I am saying that there’s something legitimate to worry about in the Boobquake situation—not in the pearl-clutching way, but in the “hey, this maybe isn’t doing the thing that it’s supposed to be doing” way, or even the “hey, what you’re doing right now is patronizing and demeaning of a bunch of people” way. And I think that if we can’t fucking say that, if we can’t wonder about whether our words and actions have (even unforeseen) effects that are actually counter-productive to feminist or anti-oppressive goals…well, then, I’m not sure what we’re doing here.“
“. . .it is striking to see what feminists in North America and Europe choose to protest when it comes to subjects affecting Muslims. While the Boobquake inundated Facebook and Twitter, there were barely a few lone feminist voices protesting the niqab ban in Quebec. What is wrong with these white privileged feminists, one wonders.”
“The author made a very good point about the huge amount of viral support for Boobquake compared to the lack of attendance at a protest against Quebec’s racist, sexist Bill 94 which bans the niqab in a ton of situations and is basic religious oppression at its worst. I saw a lot of western feminists whine at this comparison – obviously we can’t all get our asses to Quebec to protest, whereas clicking on a Facebook link is easy - but the author’s point still stands. Boobquake isn’t just popular because it’s easy “activism” – it’s popular because it cuts across ideological lines to condemn and mock another culture and religion, one that is widely feared and derided in the west.”
“Aside from my own feelings of discomfort at being told that I was a bad feminist by not getting my tits out, there was something else that struck me as not quite right, though it took most of the day for me to properly put my finger on it.”
“Some Iranian cleric said something about women dressing immodestly causing earthquakes and Western feminists decided to protest through the radical activity of posting pictures of their cleavage on Facebook. This then resulted in other feminists engaging in the also radical activity of slut-shaming and deciding to host a “brainquake” for feminists who are too smart to post their cleavage on Facebook. There was also a “Femquake” but I don’t know what that involved. Meanwhile, Iranian women’s calls for solidarity went ignored.”
“. . .it’s painfully obvious that western feminism really has no friggin clue how to think outside it’s own box a lot of the time: Iran Gender Equality – A little bit of a reality check.”
“Time we rethink our priorities.”
“A lot of the rhetoric that comes with something like Boobquake also often comes from a point that is disturbingly racist and imperialist. The idea that Muslim women are always subjugated and must be stupid because they pick a religion that oppresses them; that to dress modestly is to play into patriarchal sentiments like the cleric’s statements (which is an interesting contrast to the Boobquake counter-protests); that Muslim women can’t speak for themselves.
I’ve had to call out people on their highly limited views on the burqa, niqab, hijab, or other Muslim veil. On their assumption that Female Genital Mutilation is inherently a Muslim thing. That Muslims are more interested in terrorism than in “assimilating” to local culture. There is a lack of awareness of different cultural norms, of the difference between culture and religion, of historical significance, of time, of having a different perspective on life. Hell, even things like “the burqa must be really uncomfortable!” when it’s actually really handy for sandstorms and besides, a lot of women’s shoes aren’t very comfortable either!
It takes away the agency of the woman, her right to make up her own damn mind about how she expresses her faith, or what her faith is. Whether she wants to show her boobs or cover them up – that’s her choice.
There’s also a disturbing anti-theistic “haha see religious people don’t know science” view streaming through. A lot of militant atheists and anti-theists claim that the mere existence of religion is the cause of human suffering, and that without religion or superstitious beliefs we’d all be better off. However, they’re coming from a very limited, Western-centric view of religion that assumes all religious people fervently pray to a Bearded Man in the Sky in exchange for points, completely ignoring that for many “religious” people there isn’t even a single deity. Stuff they dismiss as superstition (alternative medicine is a good example) is stuff that people from a lot of different cultures know (not just believe) to be true, based on their own history and experience. I’d like to see someone like Richard Dawkins try to tell Aboriginal elders that their stories and cultures were based on falsehoods (if only so they could respond with “you ignorant white boy” and maybe give him a whack on the head). There’s no consideration as to context; everything’s dissected from a white Western privileged viewpoint.”
And to folks on Tumblr who’ve quoted this post:
- Think on This (abbyjean)
- One Bad Cripple (annaham)
- The Unscientific Method
- She Thinks
- Random Findings
- Robot Heart: Sex, Religion, Politics
- Baubles of My Mind’s Eye
- Starting Over
- Jane Doe #225
- Wear Sunscreen (edibleshoes)
“It doesn’t help Iranian women get longer maternal leave,” she says. “It doesn’t provide better health care. It doesn’t help them get jobs. It doesn’t achieve anything, other than to create entertainment.”
. . .
Moreover, Bashi says Iran already boasts a vibrant feminist community that fiercely responded to Sedighi’s incendiary claims.
“People think that women in Iran are just sitting back and accepting these words from the cleric,” she says, heatedly. “It’s just not true. Women in Iran respond to every single, stupid thing that is said by its leaders.”
. . .
“Obviously, Jen McCreight is an intelligent woman,” Bashi says. “She’s probably among the brightest young women in the country. But the joke is on Iranian women—the joke she started.”
As a counterpoint, Bashi questions why Western media would focus on a Muslim cleric’s comment when so many non-Muslim religious leaders make equally backward remarks.
“Is it a fascination with the Eastern, the supposedly more primitive Muslim nation?” she asks.
As an alternative to participating in Boobquake, Bashi suggests women would do Iranian women more good by donating to causes that advocate their rights, such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.
“Now the intersection — what are feminists saying about this issue?
To me this is an obvious feminist issue through and through, and it goes way beyond a human rights injustice. I’m checking myself as an ally to Muslim women, and supporting their right to bodily autonomy and self-determination.
However I’ll tell you this much — the amount of mainstream feminist response I’ve read regarding the lack of inclusion of contraception and abortion in maternal child health from Canada’s Conservative government in the G8 summit far exceeds the coverage I’ve seen regarding the niqab ban. In fact, I’ve barely seen any feminist press at all on the niqab ban. And I’m not surprised — reproductive rights gets lots of feminist attention, even if not mainstream media coverage. Intersecting race and culture? Not so much.”