Understanding the purpose of an ally
The American right-wing’s voracious opposition to the feminist movement is no secret. MRAs (Male Rights Activists) claim that the rising popularity of feminism in the last decade, poses an existential threat to masculinity itself and hence the rights of men. Feminism is not only a laughable movement worthy of being trolled to death online, but also a malevolent force that suppresses freedom of speech and contaminates important political affairs.
Until, of course, Muslim women enter the equation.
Patriarchy is a lie, until it is time to rescue Muslim women from oppression, and criticise religious practices deemed sexist. The feminist movement, in the mind of an anti-leftist, ceases to be purposeful when employed for the welfare of women outside the Islamic world. It exists solely to rescue the ethnic people from their own backward cultures.
Such dissonance has been on full display for the last several weeks with the emergence of Linda Sarsour as one of the figureheads of the Women’s March. Every variety of Trump supporter, misogynist, and Muslim-phobe (often one and the same thing) has developed a hyper-acute awareness of the devastating effects of patriarchy, and the welfare of Muslim women. Sarsour, one of the prominent organisers of the successful Women’s March, is under siege for her own religion-inspired political views that are allegedly patriarchal. She has been criticised for a series of tweets that reek of apologia for overt misogyny in Saudi Arabia, as well as an apparent joke about female genital mutilation.
The question isn’t whether Sarsour’s views are insufficiently ‘feminist’. Many experts on the subject agree that such statements are highly problematic. But so is the context in which these statements are being used by the opposition, to attack Sarsour.
The same people who until two weeks ago were refusing to acknowledge the existence of gender inequality, have developed new found interest in combating the patriarchy; and this fight begins the ceremonious burning of Sarsour’s effigy. She is unfit to lead this women’s movement, it is said. But said by whom? The same people who want think feminism is a sham, and are actively betting on the failure of this movement?
The truth is obvious. Most opponents in this case have little interest in challenging the patriarchy. They march alongside women only to the town square where they get to hurl a tomato at a Muslim, before turning back. This is not an alliance. This is an attempt to hijack the feminist wagon, steer it away from Trump and towards Muslim Americans, and run them over.
This wouldn’t be the first attempt of its kind. As the Bush administration began setting stage for the war in Afghanistan, the American feminist became curiously obsessed with the suffering of Afghan women under the decidedly regressive rule of the Taliban. Laura Bush penned a passionate piece about the trials faced by Afghan women. Years later Time magazine featured the image of an Afghan girl with a severed nose captioned, “What happens if we leave Afghanistan”.
These concerns were never unfounded, and women were suffering tremendously under the tyrannical regime of the Taliban (though I can’t say for certain if warfare improved their condition). But the US establishment had managed to co-opt the feminist movement to serve its own agenda of invading Afghanistan without excessive resistance from the liberals of the world.
When you render your worthy support to any rights movement, say the LGBTQIA+ movement, be sure to ask yourself what motivates you. When a man – such as myself – cheers for the feminist movement, he does so from a position of relative privilege and safety. It’s the women who are the raison d’etre of the movement; women who do the heavy lifting; and women who face the brunt of the backlash, from harassment to rape threats. The male feminist, if he is sincere to the cause, must accept that his task is not to steer the feminist movement; ironically implying that men are better than women, even when it comes to leading women’s own rights movement. The task is not to bask in limelight as the saviour of the disenfranchised, but to cede the spotlight to the disenfranchised themselves so they may be better seen and heard.
Our misfortune is that rights movements are often co-opted by malicious elements to run them into conflict with one another. And they are used by the powerful for personal gains. PPP, for instance, recently chided PTV for the culture of harassing women in the organisation; perhaps with the expectation of upholding its image as the party of progressive politics. The same party, however, reacted far slower to the harassment of a woman lawmaker by a PPP minister in the Sindh Assembly, to the amusement of some of his fellow party members.
Rights movements are not made to serve as profit-centres for the very forces that they’re usually resisting. Be sure to bear in mind that we’re seeking friends and allies, not replacement speakers.