Why aren't more western feminists speaking up for Gaza's women?

The support being extended to the victims of the Ukraine and Palestine conflicts couldn't be more different

Powered by automated translation

The concept of Women, Peace and Security is an ancient one – going back more than two thousand years to Greek literature. And yet it was not adopted by the UN Security Council until the year 2000, through the landmark Resolution 1325 urging actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all peace and security efforts.

In theory, the concept of WPS is vital, as it attempts to persuade entities to protect women and girls, and to be more inclusive. But the execution of the principles is often little more than a talking shop. A lot of funding is rightly poured into women’s initiatives, girls’ education, reducing gender inequality in areas such as language or the workplace or “peace labs” or conferences. But when it comes to protecting women when they need it the most, it falls short.

Nowhere is this more apparent than what is happening right now in Gaza.

On the frontline of the ongoing horror – of starvation, destruction, chaos, freezing cold, disease, and children being mutilated and orphaned – are women and girls. The UN says that about 70 per cent of the fatalities have been women and children.

According to The Lancet, there are 52,000 pregnant women and 68,000 breastfeeding women in Gaza in urgent need of protection. I don’t know about other mothers out there, but pregnancy was terrifying enough for me, let alone under constant bombardment and starvation, and lack of pain relief.

Doctors in Gaza report having to listen to patients scream in pain for hours because they have no medicine to give them. Imagine giving birth, the most vulnerable of human acts, in hospitals getting bombed.

In February – and things are much worse now – UN Population Fund’s Palestine representative, Dominic Allen, described the nightmare situation that he witnessed on his recent visit to Gaza. He met women and girls living with the constant threat of bombs, and pregnant women suffering from thirst, malnutrition and ill health. The only functioning maternity hospital in Gaza was described as “a catastrophe”.

While a number of feminists in the West have written articles and appeared on social media condemning Hamas’s acts against Israeli women, many fall painfully silent on Palestinian women.

Some organisations have called out to Israel’s leadership to halt the violence, but media statements are no longer enough

Except for a few brave voices – such as the singer Annie Lennox, the actress Susan Sarandon and others – voices of some of the world’s most acclaimed feminists have been silent. Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the hero of the sisterhood, has said little. In fact, she has said that she was “not shocked” by the casualties of Gaza, because “that is what happens in war”. So much for compassion.

After a report in The New York Times – now being disputed for accuracy – played up Hamas’s crimes against Jewish women (which are contested), Sheryl Sandberg, who knows a thing or two about how to influence the media, spoke at the UK House of Lords without a word about the anguish of Palestinian women.

These include mothers who are burying their children or pulling them out of the rubble, sisters who have to take care of orphaned babies, adolescent girls who are getting their first periods without any sanitary products. Not to mention the women struggling to feed their families among a coming human-made famine.

Addameer, a Palestinian prisoner support association, has reported how women in Israeli detention are being subjected to torture, including beatings, isolation and sexual violence. But politicians such as Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly, who has given voice to the pain of Ukrainian women and has pledged financial assistance to victims of Hamas’s crimes on a recent visit to Israel, has not said one word for Palestinian women who are victims of military, and alleged sexual, violence.

I have worked in Gaza since the First Intifada, and the past five months have been excruciating, not just because of friends who are trapped inside under the most horrific conditions, but because the dehumanisation of Palestinians has increased globally. And yet Palestine should be a forefront feminist issue. The marches that took place last week for International Women’s Day should have highlighted more their desperate situation.

So why aren’t enough western feminists defending their Palestinian sisters? Maryam Aldossari, a gender equality researcher, has written about what she considers deeper, more systemic problem – that “their brand of feminism perceives Palestinian women as oppressed primarily not by Israel or any other outside force, but by Palestinian men. For them, Palestinian women have little to no agency and are perpetual victims of a society that has gender-based violence engrained in its very core”.

Ms Aldossari explains that there is a perception among westerners that Palestinian men – especially those belonging to socially conservative groups – abuse and oppress women. To their minds, the Israeli army, with all its brutal tactics, is forcefully “liberating” them, the way American soldiers forcefully “liberated” Afghan and Iraqi women during their invasions.

And yet the lens is rarely ever turned on ultra-orthodox Jewish groups living in deeply patriarchal communities, highlighted in Deborah Feldman’s book (and later Netflix series) Unorthodox. Ms Aldossari deems it modern “colonial feminism” that justifies the occupation, the cruelty of the invasions and the extreme violence that Israel wages against Palestinians.

It is true that some organisations, such as Vital Voices (supported by Ms Clinton and feminist activists such as Diane von Furstenberg) have called out to Israel’s leadership to halt the violence, establish a ceasefire and adhere to international and humanitarian law.

But media statements are no longer enough. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ceased listening to US President Joe Biden – his most important and most strategic ally – then there needs to be a more urgent response to protecting the women and girls (and all civilians) of Gaza.

UN Women says that every day the war continues in the territory, 63 women will be killed, 37 of whom are mothers, leaving their families devastated and unprotected. More than four out of five mothers in Gaza, as of March 1, report that their families eat “half or less” of the food they ate before the war started.

The worst feeling for a mother is having a child who is hungry and cold. If every mother on the planet put herself in the shoes of a Gazan mother for just one moment, there would surely be more outcry at the absolute injustice of what is happening in Palestine.

Unless there is a ceasefire, many more women will die, and families will crumble. The international community needs to act now.

Published: March 20, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: March 21, 2024, 10:26 AM