Whenever I talk about feminism, the f-word makes some people bristle. I really don’t know why, because feminism is all about equality and justice; it seeks an even playing field for everyone without fear or favour.
However, I despair and wonder what has happened to the global sisterhood when it comes to Palestine. It’s as though Palestinian women and their very real struggles — often of a life and death nature — don’t exist. Searches in the indexes of most feminist books are fruitless; Palestine should be in there somewhere between Pankhurst and patriarchy but it is usually absent.
With the rare exception of individuals like Cynthia Enloe and the late Maya Angelou — who was no stranger to brutality, tyranny and persecution in her own life and so had a natural affinity with Palestinian women — I’m afraid that the majority of feminists around the world have let down our sisters in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Among the huge piles of feminist books I have accrued over the years, from Simone de Beauvoir to Betty Friedan, no one seems to have time for one of the most hard-pressed, persecuted group of women on the planet. These are women who are often forced to give birth in ambulances and cars held up for hours at checkpoints by a malicious and brutal occupation army. Some have died in the process, as have their babies.
The late Edward Said met Simone de Beauvoir in 1979 in France for a conference on Middle East peace following the Camp David Accords. As an ardent promoter of all things Palestinian and the author of the seminal “Orientalism”, Said was disappointed by the encounter.
Beauvoir was in full swing lecturing against the Iranian women’s cloak which leaves only the face exposed. Wearing her famous turban, she told the audience how she was going to demonstrate in the streets of Tehran against the chador. I suppose that such a debate is still ongoing in feminist minds if the obsession over hijabs, niqabs, burqas and other traditional Muslim women’s dress is anything to go by. Sadly, our feminist sisters cannot get beyond the deeply ingrained, racist Western conceptions of the East.
“Beauvoir had been a serious disappointment,” wrote Said, “flouncing out of the room in a cloud of opinionated babble about Islam and the veiling of women.” The Christian Palestinian academic was disappointed by the fact that although both Beauvoir and her long term partner Jean-Paul Sartre supported the Algerians in their struggle for independence, neither could muster a similar sense of outrage over the plight of the Palestinians.
This brings me to the latest feminist spat over the first hijab-wearing model to appear in a L’Oreal haircare campaign. Amena Khan’s appearance in the brand’s latest advertisement for its haircare line was said to challenge traditional hair advertising because she wears a hijab, but she pulled out of the deal after posting some anti-Israel tweets
During its murderous 2014 assault on the people of Gaza she described Israel as an “illegal state” and posted a tweet referring to the country as a “child murderer”. A third post directed at Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow, said: “Your ‘children of Gaza’ piece was incredibly moving. Israel is a sinister state & the one who suffer most are innocent children.” Someone bent on making mischief unearthed them — who keeps this sort of stuff archived? — and brought them to L’Oreal’s attention.
What followed was pathetically predictable; beauty blogger Khan apologised and the cosmetic firm parted company with her. Everyone was full of “regrets”. Of course they were.
Just as the dust was beginning to settle on this the experience of another empowered young woman — blogger, writer and entrepreneur Amani Al-Khatahtbeh — came to light. Unlike Khan, who was criticised for signing up to L’Oreal, Al-Khatahtbeh sent shock waves through the industry when she refused an award from cosmetics giant Revlon because Hollywood star Gal Gadot is its brand ambassador; that’s “Wonder Woman” Gadot, who has served in the Israeli army and is a reservist in the brutal occupation force.
Al-Khatahtbeh’s move was empowering in as much as she still received recognition for her work, but she basically gave Revlon the message that the company will never control her. This was a revolutionary act for the Palestinian-American with her own brand, MuslimGirl.com; you just have to admire her integrity.
Naturally all sorts of comments and comparisons — good and bad — were made before another group of so-called empowered women from the Jewish-Muslim woman’s network Nisa-Nashim got involved. They sent an open letter to Khan to give her an ever so gentle sisterly slap on the wrists: “Words can hurt, words can divide, words can offend. And the tweets that you sent a few years back have done just that.” They even had the audacity to quote Angelou in their patronising piffle.
It is time to say enough; enough of this feminist bullshit. How dare they even think about hijacking and whitewashing Angelou’s words? Don’t they know that she stood in solidarity with the Palestinian people when she honoured the late Rachel Corrie, another heroic woman who put her life on the line for the women and children of Gaza, and was killed by an Israeli soldier for doing so?
Words do hurt, no doubt; but they don’t kill or rip the heads, arms and legs off babies like Israel’s missiles do in Gaza. Israeli atrocities in numerous brutal military offensives against Palestinian civilians include the use of chemical weapons which burn through skin and bone dropped on a UN school used as a shelter by women and children. That is the reality of the Israel “Defence” Forces praised so much by Gal Gadot.
Khan didn’t lie in her tweets, she was brutally honest. No doubt she upset the Zionists but she didn’t tell lies, and she certainly didn’t kill or injure anyone. Shame on L’Oreal for distancing itself from her, and shame on Khan herself for not standing her ground.
The biggest shame of all, though, is the silence of the majority of feminists around the world who said nothing, tweeted nothing and looked the other way in 2014 as 2,220 Palestinians living in one the most densely populated civilian areas in the world were slaughtered by the Israeli war machine. More than a third of those who died were women and children. Khan was right; blunt but true, the Israeli state killed babies, hundreds of them, and not for the first time. Israel’s soldiers are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. No doubt that upsets the sensitivities of the pro-Israel lobby, but it will be easier to get over that than the loss of loved ones, blown to pieces by Israeli bombs.
Today, feminists will be trampling over each other in the rush to condemn those vile captains of industry, politics and finance who recently attended a men-only dinner in London where hostesses were apparently groped and sexually harassed. Verbally kicking lumps out of these vile sex pests and dinosaurs is easy; it’s popular and, yes, I’m sure there’s a feel good factor to it all, but it’s hardly ground-breaking, cutting edge or radical. For sure, these largely white, privileged elite men deserve everything that’s coming to them.
Feminists, though, need to start standing up for women from the East who are exploited and worse, including the women of Palestine. They don’t need rescuing from Hamas or their hijabs, they need protection against a brutal, misogynistic army which targets women and children, puts them in prison, disrupts their education and destroys their lives.
I don’t recall Labour’s Emily Thornberry venting outrage at the imprisonment of 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi by the Israelis, although I know that the Shadow Foreign Secretary is a fierce defender of women’s rights. We shared a platform in honour of suffragette martyr Emily Wilding Davison who paid the ultimate price for her feminist beliefs when she fell under the King’s horse during the Epsom Derby in 1913. Thornberry clearly cares about such matters, but she is silent on her little sister Ahed and other Palestinian children behind Israeli bars.
Defending its decision over Khan, L’Oreal Paris says that it is committed to tolerance and respect towards all people. Are feminists really suckered in by that claptrap of an excuse to get rid of her due to a few tweets? The “Because I’m Worth It” campaign was created by the cosmetics company in the early 70s when feminism was flourishing and it struck a chord with women everywhere. Now is the time to strike a chord for our Palestinian sisters and reclaim those words for the bravest women in the world today, because they truly are worth it.