I Defended the Women’s March Organisers. I Was Wrong

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.

Demonstrators march during the Womens March, Jan. 21, 2017

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.

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated

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.

In a now deleted 2011 tweet, Sarsour, comparing Ali to anti-Islam activist Brigitte Gabriel, had said: “Brigitte Gabriel=Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s asking 4 an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away – they don’t deserve to be women.”

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.

About Beatrice Louis

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International lawyer, sexual violence researcher, e-governance and democracy activist. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri and see more of her work at https://medium.com/@Beatrice.L

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8 comments

  1. Islam uses their own definitions which suit their agenda – thus the lies start at that level!!
    https://www.city-journal.org/html/why-feminism-awol-islam-12395.html

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this. To admit to having been wrong is very big of you. I was involved in feminism but when I pointed out to some about Sarsour’s track record was demonised for doing so, though some other feminists were quietly supportive of me, but no one dares publicly say it. The reality is some Islamic extremists have hijacked feminism and the left for their own causes. There is no fault in being duped, but I think now the truth is coming out feminists and the left don’t want to get egg on their face by admitting they were wrong, they need to come out and say we took these people at face value and we were hoodwinked and we are sorry we were wrong. No shame in that, but it is shameful to defend people like this and demonise people who call them out once you realise you were wrong.

    I’ve now been trying to do my own thing but am saddened that the feminism that I supported has now become supporters of people who wish to see women subjugated in Islamic countries. Please check out my blog , Facebook, Instagram or YouTube channel for my videos re a link between female genital mutilation (FGM) and halal certification, our grocery purchases are contributing to Indonesian girls being genitally mutilated through halal certification. Please feminists and all take up this cause. Thanks again Beatrice you have given me hope for the resurgence of a better Feminist movement.
    YouTube, Facebook, Instagram search EndGenderApartheid or blog http://www.endgenderapartheid.com

    • What about american boys being genitally mutilated?

      • Female genital mutilation is actually more equivalent to castration, as the partial or complete removal of the clitoris means most women will never be able to orgasm. In more severe cases where the woman is virtually sewn up then intercourse will be extremely painful, childbirth dangerous etc.

        I am not aware of mass male castrations being performed anywhere in the world or any operation being performed on males whereby the majority can never orgasm, and sex is extremely painful for them.

        If however you are referring to male circumcision, this is a separate issue, which whilst worthy of discussion, does not compare to the severity that is female genital mutilation. Imagine millions of women never being able to orgasm or have pain free sex, so the effect that this has on women is more equivalent to male castration.

        But getting back to male circumcision, this to me is a complicated issue because I’m aware of some adult men who have had this done for health reasons as they have had some problem with their foreskin. I am not a defender of male circumcision but I know there are health arguments for and against it, whereas there are no health benefits for female genital mutilation. On balance it does seem to me though that male circumcision is largely unnecessary, but I am an expert on female genital mutilation not male circumcision, because they are separate issues.

        If however your point is that there is not enough outrage against male circumcision, and if you or men you know have been directly adversely affected by this then I understand why you would want something done but please be aware that when people like yourself show no sympathy for what women, who have been virtually castrated, go through and immediately hijack the issue to talk about male circumcision it gets women upset because it seems you don’t care that these women will never know the pleasure of an orgasm, unlike circumcised men, and will have to grit their teeth to endure the pain of intercourse.

        On the other hand this is not denying that male circumcision is an issue, the fact you are upset about it obviously indicates it has some adverse effects on you. So my suggestion is if you want sympathy about this show some sympathy first regarding FGM, acknowledge that whilst you realise FGM is worse you would also like to see something done about male circumcision, then outline your reasons why you think male circumcision is bad. You will get much more support that way, because the one thing I think we can all be united in, is that religions should not be able to mutilate any child for purely religious reasons, unless there is a medically proven health benefit.

  3. the biggest “dangers in the US” to females is Extinction!. Or birth control carried to logical conclusion!

  4. The only time you can believe a Muslim is when he says he will try to kill you.

  5. I quite agree that feminism is bigger than Sarsour’s singular loyalty to the causes she holds dear. However it is also bigger than loyalty to the freedom of the female, for in essence it is as you also state about gender equality. Here i feel you fail when it comes to genital mutilation as this is one area where gender based discrimination disadvantages boys. It would serve the cause of feminism to come of age and fight against discrimination irrespective of sex. The fact is that the reasons and practices that have perpetuated various forms of violence on the bodies of little girls are no different in essence to those perpetuated against bodies of little boys which is in fact far more widespread and supported by your government!

    Just as FGM is painful, frightening and irreversible, a practice born of ancient cultural beliefs and since reinforced by religious endorsement so is MGM. So no quite inexplicably “we” do consider a cut on a sensitive portion of a child’s body uden strong medical reasons all the time, as long as it is a male child! All genital mutilation of children is a horrifying, vile practice, and no amount of religious / cultural privilege should be permitted to be invoked in its defence. Lets talk about childrens rights not girls or boys rights.

  6. you forget one big difference. A girl is sentenced to a life of compromised sexual pleasure. Is a boy so sentenced? I think not.

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