The ‘F’ Word and Who Owns It

Originally posted as : Who’s Fight is it Anyway – The Clamour for the Voice of Feminism 

On August 12, 2012, a 16-year-old girl, incapacitated by alcohol, was sexually assaulted by two high school football players in the city of Steubenville, Ohio, USA.

The horrifying events that constitute the Steubenville rape case and the backlash to CNN’s coverage of the case’s sentencing have refocused attention on how the U.S. and Western society define gender roles and performance thereof. Now, more than ever, it has become apparent that society still preaches “don’t get raped” rather than the obvious “do not rape”. Not only does society emphasise women as ‘complicit’ victims to the crime being inflicted upon them, but it also casts men as being unable to control their masculine urges. The West has a rape culture problem. One that has been present for centuries, yet still remains.

Why is it that when two teenage boys rape a girl, document it photographically, and use social media to boast about their crime, the media mourns their football careers? It is because it sees two boys, with names, families and lives that it can identify with. Above all, it sees itself and how easy it would be to become the parent of one of those boys sat in that courtroom. It sees context. It sees context to such an extent that it allows it to surpass the actual heinous crime of rape in importance.

This context seems to be exactly what the West is missing when it looks to other cultures. Whether it is mainstream media or feminist organisations, all too frequently the choice is made to place gender roles and what constitutes gender equality within a decidedly Western culture-centric and liberal framework.

It is human nature to fear that which we cannot understand. Western society cannot begin to understand why rape culture continues to exist because it would be forced to admit its failure and vulnerability. Such an admission should be the first step in an already fraught struggle towards equality. In the Steubenville case, the media chose to relocate this fear, shifting it towards the fear that parents should have of how a rape could destroy futures, even if those are the futures of the rapists. To admit that the social climate in Steubenville was so rotten that these boys felt that their crimes weren’t even crimes is to admit that there’s a problem that we haven’t figured out how to solve. And that’s a terrifying prospect.

This peculiar focus that the media chooses when it comes to such issues is also apparent in its treatment of several recent gang rape cases that have occurred in India. Immediate responses were that India had a rape culture problem and was not a safe space for women to be travelling on their own. More importantly, the subtext read that India was incorrigible:   a third world country, with third world problems that they were unlikely to solve.

Yet what is most poignant is the response to each of these situations. After Steubenville, CNN, Fox News, CBS News and others were vilified for their reporting. But the reality for girls like the Steubenville Jane Doe remained the same, as embodied by the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons.  Swiftly after, online hacker group Anonymous placed great pressure on the Canadian government to act or else they themselves would pursue Parson’s rapists.

In India, thousands took to the streets in protest, chanting “enough is enough” and the Indian government has now signed into law stricter anti-rape measures. The political climate around the issue has even escalated to the point where young Indian women under the name “The Red Brigade” are patrolling the streets to make them safer for women like themselves.  Hardly the reaction of an “incorrigible” nation.

When you read the above, did you draw a comparison between the two responses? Chances are you did, because that is exactly what we’ve been taught to do. Western society has decided what equality must look like and transplanted it abroad. Such a comparison is flawed because Northern America is not the same place as India, nor will it ever be. But both suffer from deep-rooted issues of rape culture and distorted views of gender roles. To change these problems, they will require introspection and a fine re-examination of what exactly is going disastrously wrong within their cultures. The solution lies in a culturally sensitive approach. A culturally sensitive approach is something that the broader feminist movement could use a good dose of.

Check Your Privilege

These days, the door to feminist dialogue is clearly labelled “check your privilege”.  In a movement for equality, one must tread lightly not to enforce the oppression of the already oppressed. For a feminist to discriminate against others seems an inherently flawed logic. Fighting for equality while oppressing others seems counteractive. Thus, awareness of one’s privilege (whether it be based on economic standing, ethnic background or religion) is key to understanding why equality is necessary. Issues of privilege and cultural contextualisation are ones that pervade both feminism and feminist discourse in the media and have led to theories of intersectionality. All too frequently we are presented with images of white, Western, women fighting for their equality. This, in itself, is not a problem. It is, however, a problem when these images shift towards those same women fighting for the rights of Muslim women (or any other women for that matter), with total disregard for their opinions.

This is exactly what happened when radical feminist group Femen launched its “Topless Jihad” earlier this year. Initially it was a tribute and show of support for Egyptian blogger Alia Magda Elmahdy, who had posted a nude picture of herself online as an artistic protest against the constraints that she felt Egyptian society was placing on her freedom of expression.  What it became, however, was Femen’s “jihad” to liberate Muslim women from the oppression of their headscarves. The result was a backlash from many of these Muslim Women themselves. They united under the name “Muslimah Pride” and accused Femen of Islamophobia, racism and neo-colonialist views. The struggle for the voice of feminism in this arena had been unleashed.

Although initially Muslimah Pride and Muslim Women Against Femen both provided a much needed check on Femen’s “Topless Jihad”, gradually they fed into a polarisation of the issue of feminism within Islam. The public was forced to choose between two trains of thought – Femen’s “all of Islam is evil and systematically oppresses women” or Muslimah Pride’s “attacking Islam’s anti-feminist aspects isn’t up to white, Western women”. What began as a struggle on the path to abolishing patriarchal oppression soon became a detour to a clamour for the ownership rights to feminism.

The insight that U.S. mainstream media coverage of the Steubenville rape case and the crocodile tears cried for the perpetrators gives us into Western rape culture is a shocking one. It also draws a bizarre parallel between the huge hurdle that feminism must overcome in the West and the ones that feminists are attempting to shatter in Muslim countries.

Fostering a Conversation

Society is based on power, power that has a strong marginalising gaze. If we are unable to see past our own societal constructs, cultural frameworks and norms, we will never achieve equality for all. Femen has succeeded in garnering massive amounts of media attention, but in such a manner that there is no space for discourse. All Muslim women are oppressed, and bare-breasted Western women are donning their capes to save them. That image is one that drips with paternalism, ethnocentrism, and blind cultural insensitivity.

As long as rape culture continues to exist in the West, feminists must seek to examine what the causes thereof are. Without understanding this, yet latching onto an inherently liberal definition of women’s rights and equality, the danger of wreaking havoc abroad looms eerily close.

In Femen’s fight to “liberate” Muslim women from the “oppression” of their headscarves, they have failed to step outside of their Western liberal perception of what exactly oppression is. Yes, there are women who are forced to don a headscarf by their families and by their religion. Yes, Sharia law frequently disadvantages women. No, this does not mean that Islam is an inherently oppressive religion. No, this doesn’t mean that a non-white, non-Western woman automatically needs saving by white feminist crusaders.

If what we seek is equality and a world in which everyone, regardless of gender, race, religion can live their lives free of fear, oppression and discrimination, then we must seek to understand each other. Such goals can only be achieved through inter-cultural communication and exchange of knowledge. Rape culture and oppression should not be defined as normative concepts in order to simplify them, but taken apart as the complex culturally defined phenomena that they are.

The logic of “we know what’s best for you” has failed on countless occasions, and it’s time we learned from our mistakes. Western society and the feminists that have grown from it must come to terms with the flaws that their framework contains. They must seek to overcome these flaws as a means of having a positive impact on gender equality beyond their borders. Feminism should be open to all. To “hijack” it is to fuel division and marginalisation and to regress into the oppression that it seeks to counter. The voice of feminism should be one in which we hear a chorus of all those seeking equality, not simply the solo of those who sing loudest or those easiest to listen to.