Dear western feminists, As a woman raised in Afghanistan, I cringe when I type the word “western”. I know that the experience of being a woman in this world is fundamentally the same. When I write “western”, I don’t write it because I believe that you are physically different to me. After all, what better evidence is there for our basic common humanity as women than breast cancer? The disease has no respect for our ethnic or cultural particularities. It attacks all of us equally, with the indiscriminate force of universality.
Breast cancer knows the truth of our basic communality. But do we know it, too? Do we, for example, believe that we belong to the same human species? The answer is no. Right now, there are two species of women. Western women and women in the rest of the world. The standards applied to each species are fundamentally unequal.
Here’s a recent example. Do western feminists believe that rape is rape regardless of culture and ethnicity? Or do they believe that one rape is more “rape” than another rape? Let’s take the case of Brock Turner, who has been convicted of rape, and the media attention his case very rightly received.
Turner was a University of Stanford student who sexually assaulted an unconscious woman at night near a skip. Turner was stopped by two Swedish graduate students who happened to be cycling nearby. Turner was then sentenced to six months in prison for sexual assault, and his low sentence has been widely condemned, receiving wide news coverage.
Contrast this with the news that ISIL has taken numerous sex slaves from captured Yazidi women and girls on the basis of their interpretation of Sharia law. Or contrast the Turner case with news that the Indonesian government forces female applicants to the army and police to undergo a virginity test that can only be described as a violation of bodily integrity. “What’s the problem?” Indonesian army chief General Moeldoko said, when asked about the virginity tests, which women describe as both extremely painful and invasive.
In the United States, we hear much about the rape committed by Turner but little about the Indonesian virginity tests and ISIL’s taking of sex slaves. There seem to be two classes of victims: first-class victims, who are oppressed by western men, usually white, and second-class victims, who are oppressed by males who are not western and not white.
Western feminists seem to privilege the western man, holding him to higher standards, reforming him for his own good. He gets all our attention. Non-western women are left to fend for themselves, in cultural contexts in which they wield comparatively little power. By respecting the boundaries of culture and ethnicity, western feminists have abandoned non-western women to the vicious patriarchy of the non-western world.
Why do the crimes of the western male against women matter more? Is it because western feminists believe that he matters more?
By dislodging the white male from his pedestal, western feminists in fact put him back on it, this time for a different reason. What they do in effect is to say that the western man is superior to other men, men who commit the same crimes but since they are not western, they should not be held to the same standards of moral behaviour. The other men, non-western men, are treated like mischievous children who should be tolerated because they’re different and special. But these men are not children. They, too, sometimes commit acts of rape and murder, often invoking culture and religion.
Western feminists usually remain silent, petrified of causing offence and of being accused of racism by non-westerners. I’d like to ask them: what is your priority? If your priority is your reputation, then, it’s your image that really matters to you. If your image is your top priority, then you risk being precisely the kind of western woman you try to reform – obsessed with her image and with how society judges her.
Again, I ask the question: is rape by a white male more worthy of attention or a worse crime than rape by ISIL? Judging by the strikingly unequal coverage in the media, the answer is yes. From this it follows that all women are equal but some women are more equal than others. This is how, albeit unintentionally, we have created a class system for the victims of patriarchy.
First-class victims are those oppressed by the white male. In response, the white male can be taken to court, shred to pieces in public opinion and made to go to prison and apologise. But what about those women who are oppressed by non-western men? By applying the standards of cultural relativism and race, we have turned them into second-class people. In trying not to be racist, we have left non-western women in the lurch. In trying not to be racist in intent, we have risked acting like racists in effect.
In doing so, what we have done is worse. We have supported patriarchy by accepting implicitly that the women of the non-western world first and foremost belong to their men and their culture. We have effectively decided that non-western women should be exempted from universal women’s rights – that, in their cases, cultural and religious exceptions should apply.
By taking this position, we have sided with the states and terror groups whose official policy draws on superstitious misogyny. We have abandoned our fellow women for the sake of appearing virtuous.
The concept of cultural authenticity risks being abused to justify the oppression of women. When western feminists see a non-western woman, they don’t see a being who shares the fundamental experiences of girlhood, puberty, womanhood and motherhood. Instead, they see an artifice of culture. They ignore that the culture they seek to protect is masculine and defines women’s roles according to men’s emotional needs. They bow to this artifice and abandon fellow women to systematic misogyny written in law.
Selling girls in markets was supposed to be history but it is back with ISIL’s revival of supremacist patriarchy. Turkey’s chief patriarch, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calls childless women “deficient”.
This is what happens when in search of a morally safe option, western feminists abandon non-western women to patriarchy. Patriarchy flourishes. It reintroduces medieval punishments, slave markets and so forth. It turns women into birth factories, creates overpopulation and launches war in the name of religion, nationalism and supremacy.
Again, I ask western feminists the following question: whose side are you on? Really?
Nushin Arbabzadah is a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles