Caught between the uneven pillars of humanism and cultural pluralism

Life will be better if we approach each other with generosity and curiosity instead of automatic suspicion and judgment.

FEMEN activists want to subvert the patriarchy and create a more just society for women by protesting topless [AFP]

Social movements employ several tactics to challenge prevailing power structures, including the tricky tool of provocation. Although agent provocateurs have long existed among the fringes of social movements, their effectiveness has been hard to measure.

For a provocation to be helpful it has to be clever in idea and flawless in execution or risk dangerous blowback – which is precisely why the most effective provocation campaigns have been clandestine.

On the other hand, the tool of spectacle is designed to bring media attention to an issue and inflame opponents of it. The usual result of such dramatic displays is hardening of positions all around as evidenced by the explosive show that FEMEN treated us to this week.

While I consider myself an active member of the women’s movement, for at least two decades, apparently I have not been paying close enough attention. When we reach the point where “Western women” have become the face of oppression and racism to Muslim women, we can be sure something has gone horribly wrong in the sisterhood.

In the past few days, I have learned that thanks to bloggers and highly educated academics, my belief in a global sisterhood is now considered at best quaint at worst “colonialist” or even “racist”.  

Apparently, I am now supposed to very carefully distinguish between: Western Feminism (also referred to as Imperial Feminism), Third World Feminism and Islamic Feminism.  A big thank you to Cultural Identity, Feminist and Gender Studies University programmes everywhere for generating much paper on the subject.

In this new nomenclature, where women are labelled based on geography, GDP, or religion, the colour of your skin seems to determine what you are allowed to say to women with a different skin tone. The terms “agency” and “cultural specificity” keep cropping up, but their exact meanings are still muddled for me. (Forgive me, I am just catching up.) 

 Spain’s women turn to sex for money

‘Sextremist’ approach

Into this fractured arena, enters FEMEN, the Ukrainian hatched, grassroots, extremist feminist group that has decided the best way to subvert the patriarchy, and create a more just society for women, is by protesting topless. Their mantra of “sextremist” has appealed to other women, who have happily joined with these Viking descendant Slavs to protest at symbols of institutional power with provocative slogans written across their bare breasts. (Lest I be accused of being an Imperial Feminist, I should point out that it was actually African women who first bared their breasts in protest.) 

Through the wonders of the internet, a Tunisian artist, a young lady with a fire in her belly it seems, felt compelled to join in FEMEN’s games. When Amina Tyler’s controversial actions got her into very hot water, with the powers that rule her land, she wisely went into hiding.

But her temperamental FEMEN sisters just could not resist organising an act of solidarity with her. Their spectacle, officially called “International Topless Jihad Day”, was tasteless, offensive and counterproductive. Now we have women shouting insults at each other across the internet and who wins when that happens?

As a humanist who cares about the dignity and well-being of all people, I am deeply saddened by this week’s events. As an American of Ukrainian descent, I am disappointed by the immaturity and narcissism of my Ukrainian sisters.

As a social justice activist, who has participated in the Palestinian cause since I was 16, I am confused and hurt by my Arab and Muslims sisters who so quickly jumped to label the members of FEMEN as racists, colonialists, imperialists, orientalists and Islamophobic with gusto.

At this point, I am tempted to blame the Dalai Lama, who famously declared at a peace conference in Vancouver back in 2009, “The world will be saved by Western women”. At the very least, his Holiness has some explaining to do to the hordes of women who enthusiastically took up his challenge and set up organisations, foundations and networks in an attempt to make the world a better place for humans, animals and Mother Earth. 

The thing is that although I am now identified as a “white feminist”, I cannot shake my outrage at abuse towards women, no matter their skin colour, ethnicity, or religion. How am I supposed to reconcile my belief in universal human rights when behaviour towards women in one land is considered abuse, punishable by law, and in another land the same behaviour is considered “culture” or “religion”? I seem to be caught between the uneven pillars of humanism and cultural pluralism.

Since I am not quite sure how I feel about all these “isms” and their intellectual underpinnings, it might be best to share how I feel about the plight of women today with a real world example.

Last fall, I was invited to a screening of an award-winning documentary on the sex trafficking of Eastern European women called The Price of Sex. Written and directed by Mimi Chakarova, a professor of photography at the University of California, Berkeley, it profiles young women who have escaped sex slavery and abuse.

The documentary focuses its investigation of this dark world on the current top destinations for sex traffickers – Istanbul and Dubai. I had an awareness of the issue before the screening, but this harrowing film shook me to my core.  

Sex slavery and abuse

One woman’s experience, a Moldovan beauty, continues to haunt me. Sitting on a frayed couch, eyes dimmed, chain-smoking, she defiantly faced the camera to tell her story. Within weeks of being dumped in a Dubai brothel, she became pregnant. Her captors continued to keep her busy servicing clients (local and foreign), she had to pay off her “debt” you see.

One day, when she was 7 months pregnant, a regular client, of British origin, convinced her “boss” to let her leave the brothel for a few hours. This British man drove her about an hour away where a party was taking place. Her hosts had prepared a special bed, to accommodate her pregnant belly and took turns doing to her what they felt they were entitled to do. 

“When we reach the point where ‘Western women’ have become the face of oppression and racism to Muslim women, we can be sure something has gone horribly wrong in the sisterhood.”

In the film, her voice quivers as she describes how she felt during this brutal assault on her body, her “agency” if you prefer. She said she closed her eyes and imagined her unborn child completely deformed. She was convinced only a monster could survive such an inhumane experience.

When two months later she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl, she wailed with fright. Later, when an Emirati man helped her escape, she had no legal right to take the baby she had carried and birthed, and returned to Moldova without her daughter.

I cannot tell you how many times I have thought about that baby girl, now 8 years old, who was left in a stranger’s home in Dubai. Will the man who took her in treat her with kindness or contempt? What will she know of her conception? Will she ever see her mother again?

I worry that in a few years she will become a woman and have to learn how to navigate a man’s world to avoid danger. She alone will be responsible for deflecting a man’s gaze, in the name of “modesty”, or face the consequences. 

Call me what you must, but I will continue to work towards justice and equality for my sisters everywhere. I suppose I am the sort of feminist who refuses to abandon the feminine principles of relatedness and caring. And if you foolishly believe that the plight of this Moldovan woman does not affect you, you have a loose grasp on the natural laws of the universe. What happens in the microcosm reflects the macrocosm, always and forever.

While I encourage both intellectual debate and freedom of expression, I simply ask that in the midst of our big words, our hurt feelings and our provocative spectacles, we do not lose sight of the great human suffering around us. I am also confident that life would be better if we approached each other with generosity and curiosity instead of automatic suspicion and judgment. 

And on the topic of religious doctrine, I offer this compelling excerpt from a protest letter written by a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, former leader of a powerful country, a deeply religious man and a dedicated humanist – President Jimmy Carter:

“The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”  

As women continue to birth and raise our leaders, let us not forget the power we as women have to change our future. 

Maryna Hrushetska is an art curator, storyteller and global citizen. From 2005 to 2010, she served as the Executive Director of the Los Angeles based Craft and Folk Art Museum.  

Follow her on Twitter: @msCosmopolite