(estimated reading time 6 minutes)
On Saturday I joined 100,000 other people in London, and over 3 million people worldwide, for the Women’s March. Like a lot of other people who took part, I’ve never marched before or even held a sign in protest before. And I’m sure, if you asked us newbies, we would have a variety of explanations for what the orange man in the White House had done to rattle us into action. Judging by a lot of the signs declaring that “This Pussy Grabs Back!” or some variant thereof, a lot of people were just furious that an unrepentant, self-confessed sexual predator had been elected to such a globally significant office. Other signs, such as those bearing the CND logo, protested Trump’s apparent love of the bomb. And still other signs proclaimed no particular agenda other than a general anti-Trump sentiment, such as the banner that proclaimed only one word: “Dickhead”.
And OK, fine. Dickhead, Bellend, Trump stinks. Trump’s done enough to deserve all of these and more. However, the march organisers said it wasn’t specifically an anti-Trump protest, and frankly, I wouldn’t have shown up if the agenda was simply a festival of hate directed at one particular “short-fingered vulgarian” – there are, after all, plenty of terrible leaders in the world who warrant tens of thousands of angry people in the streets.
I think, instead, that Trump was just a catalyst for protest at the kind of politics he embodies, and the kind of world he and his administration – and so many other administrations worldwide – seek to create. In particular, this was a global protest against the global phenomenon of misogyny.
I’ve already written about why I’m pro-choice, and how I want to live in a world where every woman’s rights to bodily autonomy and family planning are respected. That’s the real reason why I decided to march, and holding a pro-choice sign at that: not just for women in the USA who now have one of the most viciously anti-choice US presidents ever to take office, but for women in Poland, Ireland, and throughout South America who have to live with the impact of anti-choice legislation. And I marched for women right here in the UK, too, especially Northern Ireland. My march had a focus, and that focus wasn’t making fun of Trump. It was a march for something women everywhere desperately need in order to stay alive and healthy.
In the days since the march, there’s one refrain I’ve grown tired of hearing: “What about Saudi Arabia?! Why are you marching against Trump and not against Saudi Arabia?” Most notably, this sentiment was tweeted out by Piers Morgan:
I’m planning a ‘Men’s March’ to protest at the creeping global emasculation of my gender by rabid feminists. Who’s with me?
My Men’s March will start by the Saudi, not US, embassy. We will show our masculine strength by protesting at THEIR treatment of women.
Here’s the thing: Saudi Arabia is bad for women. Really bad, in fact. You couldn’t pay me to live there (I know that’s true because I’ve been offered a job there and turned it down). But believe it or not there are places where in some ways it’s even worse to be a woman. In 2015, more Saudi women attended university than men. Saudi women are entitled to maternity leave (something that even Trump the hard-nosed businessman has promised to introduce in the USA), and Saudi Arabia has national health provision, which obviously and importantly promotes maternal health. I wonder if this use of Saudi Arabia as shorthand for “misogynist hellhole” reveals a lack of awareness of the state of women’s rights and treatment worldwide, because there are a number of countries that could be used in its place.
But it’s no accident that these critics can always be depended upon to use Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, as their point of reference. It seems to be just one part of a broader assertion that western feminists only really care about women in the western world and refuse to criticise misogyny in Islamic countries and cultures.
OK, I’m going to take a deep breath and admit it: there is a kernel of truth to that assertion. In recognition of Islam as a religion mainly composed of non-white people, and people who are in the west often the targets of unfair criticism and misunderstanding, some feminists can be reluctant to criticise misogyny that’s informed by Islam or that takes place in Islamic nations. Exhibit A: the depressing reaction of Goldsmith University’s Feminist Society to the disruption by Islamic fundamentalists of Maryam Namazie’s speech. Namazie is a communist ex-Muslim feminist who stressed again and again during her talk at Goldsmiths that Muslim women themselves are at the forefront of protesting and resisting misogyny in Islamic countries. Rather than speaking up for Namazie and condemning the extremists who disrupted her talk, however, Goldsmiths Feminist Society condemned her and defended the Islamic fundamentalists.
I was disappointed, too, when I found out (post-march) that one of the protest partners, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has opposed so-called “partial birth abortions”. Although CAIR has stayed silent on all other forms of abortion, and have a different focus than reproductive rights, I don’t believe they should have been a partner organisation in this march. I think they were still included simply because they are an Islamic group and the march organisers were keen to express solidarity with Muslim women.
And yes it’s an uncomfortable truth that all too often, the oppression of women in developing countries just registers as background noise to those of us in the western world. However, that’s true for both westerners who identify as feminists, and those who don’t.
It seems to me that those who criticise the western feminist response to the plight of women in the Islamic world rarely make similar criticisms of western men who protest their own low wages or long hours; after all, factory workers in Bangladesh have it much worse. There isn’t usually an expectation to refrain from political protest on the grounds that someone else has it worse – unless there’s an opportunity in it to bash feminists or Islam.
Perhaps we should acknowledge that it’s harder to effectively protest events that aren’t happening in your country, or in a culture you connect to, or to people you know. I think we feel like it’s inevitable and immutable that people elsewhere will suffer, and perhaps that’s because we feel powerless to change anything and don’t know where to start. But having a man like Trump elected right here in the developed western world rather than “over there somewhere” was a wake-up call and a call to arms, shaking western women from complacency; telling us that we have to do something – for women everywhere.
The international nature of the protest proved that whatever the catalyst for it, the march had a global scope. Trump, too, appears to have grasped this point: as if to punish the women of the world for defying him, in the days following the march he reinstated the so-called global gag rule, which will kill poor women worldwide under the cover of protecting the unborn (spoiler alert: it won’t protect the unborn). This is exactly the kind of anti-woman legislation that we were marching against.
And we haven’t all been entirely complacent about Saudi Arabia. Put aside, for a moment, the fact that a Woman’s March was in fact scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia, at the Marriott in Riyadh; I’m sure that people who showed up to the Women’s March all over the world actually have, and do, speak up against bad treatment of women and girls in Saudi Arabia and other countries. I’m one of them: I’ve signed petitions. I’ve written letters. I get action alerts from Amnesty emailed to me, and I routinely take those actions. I try to stay informed about women’s rights, and what I can do to help. I vote for candidates who want to stop aiding Saudi Arabia in its human rights violations. How many men using the “What about Saudi Arabia?” line (and there’s a lot of them) can say the same? I don’t know. I harbour a suspicion, though, that many of them only speak out against the bad treatment of Saudi Arabian women when they are chastising feminists for not speaking out against the bad treatment of Saudi Arabian women; that it’s just a stick they can beat western women with when we speak up for ourselves.
After all, if Piers Morgan and other men who shouted “Saudi Arabia!” want to protest against the state of women’s rights specifically in Saudi Arabia, what’s stopping them? They could organise a protest anytime. They could go ahead and arrange the men’s march they claim they want. Piers himself has a media platform that many of us don’t have. Instead, he uses Saudi Arabia as a rhetorical point, confusingly asserting that “rabid feminists” are emasculating men globally while simultaneously criticising Saudi Arabia for oppressing women. I’m not sure he is qualified to judge whether western women ought to be out marching when his own views are so incoherent.
Women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. If we don’t stand up for women who are oppressed globally we get asked why we’re not doing it. But when one cold Saturday we stand up as a global voice, we’re told that we are being selfish because Saudi Arabia is the worst possible place for women and most places aren’t Saudi Arabia so stop whingeing; we are told that we are emasculating men; we are told that “strong women” don’t need feminism anymore and that the march was for weak women and rabid feminists with a victim complex, as though individual women having the forceful personalities of “strong women” is a sufficient substitute for rights for all women. We are told to walk every individual man’s subjective line between justified anger at oppression and whatever he feels is “rabid feminism”; otherwise, we can expect no support from him. We are told that we better be furious about how Saudi Arabia treats women, but how dare we “emasculate men globally” by getting all angry and shrill about it like we did on Saturday. A certain kind of man (or woman) is going to be set against us no matter what. It’s just a shame that now one of them is in the White House. But then, that’s why we marched – and the march is far from over.