For feminists, silence on Gaza is no longer an option

It is a feminist responsibility to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

Palestinian women mourn as they hold the bodies of children killed in Israeli strikes, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, at the Indonesian hospital, in the northern Gaza Strip November 18
Palestinian women mourn as they hold the bodies of children killed in Israeli strikes, at the Indonesian hospital, in the northern Gaza Strip November 18, 2023 [Fadi Alwhidi/Reuters]

Like many around the world, I am emotionally drained.  I spend most of my waking hours scanning the news, reading about one tragedy after the other,  and yearning for a lasting end to the relentless war in Gaza. I am also physically worn out. My weekends are spent marching, driven by a desperate hope that maybe, if enough of us consistently take to the streets and speak up, our collective voice could urge our leaders to finally call for a permanent ceasefire.

But beyond this physical and emotional exhaustion, I am also consumed by a deep anger, a profound disappointment, towards feminists in my country, the United Kingdom, and beyond, who appear completely disinterested in the suffering of women in Gaza.

Every day, I come across opinion pieces and social media posts by feminists rightly condemning Hamas’s egregious actions towards Israeli women during their October 7 attack and their treatment of female hostages in its aftermath. These arguments and statements are unquestionably valid and undoubtedly necessary. Such grave crimes against women and girls, against anyone, should never be ignored, excused or forgotten.

And yet, these very individuals, these self-proclaimed feminists, are eerily silent about Israel’s similarly egregious actions against Palestinian women.

Israel’s near-total siege and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza have already killed, maimed and disappeared under the rubble tens of thousands of Palestinian women and children. Many more have been displaced and left to survive the harsh winter without appropriate shelter and supplies. The almost complete breakdown of the healthcare system, coupled with the lack of food and clean water, means that some 45,000 pregnant women and 68,000 breastfeeding mothers in Gaza are facing the risk of anaemia, bleeding, and death. Meanwhile, hundreds of Palestinian women and children in the occupied West Bank are still imprisoned, many without trial, and trying to survive in abominable conditions.

This catastrophe is playing out in the open, but the majority of feminists in Britain, and more generally in the West, seem to have nothing to say about it.

Why are the stories of Palestinian women ignored? Why do the struggles of Palestinian women and children seemingly not merit the same level of concern? Increasingly, I am led to believe that this is not just a lapse in attention, but wilful blindness – the consequence of a moral compass that may be broken beyond repair.

In the past three months, I’ve pondered these questions deeply.  I immersed myself in numerous “feminist” texts by authors I once held in high regard, to try and understand their interpretation of feminism, and why it does not seem to include Palestinian women.

Gradually, I’ve come to realise 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. Further, in their eyes, Palestinian men are synonymous with deeply patriarchal, religious, and socially conservative groups like Hamas that are known to abuse and oppress women. Thus, these “feminists” buy into Israel’s claims that its assault on Gaza will help “liberate” Palestinian women from the clutches of Hamas, and ignore the actual, grave harm the war has been inflicting on them.

This approach is part of a disconcerting historical pattern – a form of feminism imbued with colonial and imperial prejudices and preconceptions. “Feminists” of this ilk supported the US invasion of Afghanistan because it supposedly aimed to “liberate Afghan women”, but they would never think of arguing for the forceful “liberation” of, for example, Jewish women living in deeply patriarchal and religious communities in Israel.

In this brand of feminism, empathy and outrage is aligned not with universal feminist tenets, and a desire to give all women agency and power, but  with personal identities and political affiliations. This results in a hierarchy of concern, where some feminist struggles – and especially those against Muslim, brown men – are given precedence over others, allowing for the rhetoric of women’s liberation to be co-opted to further the aims of the powerful, often at the expense of the oppressed.

In this context, the Western feminist silence on the necessity of a ceasefire in Gaza represents not only a moral lapse, but also a political one. It perpetuates a brand of feminism intertwined with colonial and imperial power structures, which have historically inflicted harm under the pretence of protection.

This silence is emblematic of a modern “colonial feminism”, where the rhetoric of “liberating women” conceals deeper acts of violence. It justifies invasions and occupations under the guise of aid, portraying Palestinian women as mere victims in need of rescue, while simultaneously denying their right to resistance. Ultimately, the selective empathy of Western feminists serves to reinforce power structures that continue the cycle of violence.

Meanwhile, some feminists excuse their refusal to call for a ceasefire by pointing to the Palestinian society’s complex stance on LGBT rights. Hamas imprison or do worse to LGBT individuals, they say, so the war should continue until the group is eliminated in full.

However, this rationale overlooks a crucial element often heralded in feminist discourse: intersectionality. While the challenges faced by the LGBT community in Gaza under Hamas’s rule are indeed significant, using these as a pretext to abstain from advocating for an immediate ceasefire sidesteps the larger humanitarian crisis at hand. Such a selective approach not only disregards the pressing needs of thousands of women and children enduring daily violence and oppression, but also belies a concerning trend of selective empathy. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Israel’s war is also killing and maiming LGBT Palestinians.

Withholding support for a ceasefire due to Palestinian society and Hamas’s perceived animosity towards the LGBT community undermines the core tenet of feminist solidarity – the commitment to protect and uplift all women and marginalised communities, irrespective of their sociopolitical circumstances. By withholding support for a ceasefire on these grounds, these feminists inadvertently place ideological purity above the urgent necessity to halt further loss of life and suffering. True feminist activism should transcend geopolitical biases, upholding the rights and dignity of all women and vulnerable groups, regardless of their background or the complexities of their societal contexts.

Beyond those who point to Hamas and the wider Palestinian society’s oppression of women, and apparent prejudices against the LGBT community, as reasons for not endorsing the calls for an immediate ceasefire, there are also feminists who remain silent on the issue because they want to remain “neutral” on a “complex” issue. Perhaps this stance perplexes, and infuriates, me more than any other.

In the face of such overwhelming terror, there can be no neutrality.

Today, Palestinian women are living through horrors that fundamentally challenge the core values of feminism. Mothers are burying their children with bare hands; families are grieving for their lost homes and shattered lives hungry, and under a rain of bombs.

Under these circumstances, silence is not a neutral stance. Silence today is a passive endorsement of the ongoing tragedy. How many more lives must be torn apart before these careful and politically “neutral” feminists find the courage to call for a ceasefire? The rising death toll isn’t just a tally; it represents individual lives, stolen futures, and a direct challenge to the principles that underpin feminism itself.

Today, what remains unsaid has as much importance, and impact, as what has been said.

Numerous prominent “feminist” voices, always vocal in their views on gender, sex and society, are still conspicuously silent on the struggles of Palestinian women. While their platforms have the power to bring critical issues to light, they also have the subtle power to relegate others to the sidelines. Too often, we see that the concerns of non-Western women are being pushed to the periphery by the reluctance of these high-profile activists to write and speak about them.

This selective silence challenges the universality of feminist solidarity. Especially when it comes from prominent feminists who many others look up to, silence becomes a form of complicity. Do you believe your silence on the tragedy of Palestinian women has gone unnoticed? I hate to break it to you, but your silence is deafeningly loud, and has stripped your work of any credibility in the eyes of many.

If you are one of those “feminists”, who do not speak about the suffering of Palestinian women, or endorse the calls for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, for whatever reason, I have one, very simple demand from you. Look at the photographs coming out of Gaza. You may have been avoiding them, dismissing them as mere propaganda – but for one second, leave your biases and smart excuses behind, and look at them. Look at the images of mothers cradling the lifeless, bloodied bodies of their children. Look at the images of confused toddlers, often missing limbs and flesh, lying alone on hospital floors. Look at the images of young women, with dead eyes, trying to collect fragments from their lives and murdered families in the rubble of their destroyed homes. Look at those images, really look at them, and then explain to me why you think “it is not right to demand a ceasefire now”. And after seeing those images, really seeing them, you still want to stay “neutral”, stay silent, or talk about “Islamist oppression” and “LGBT intolerance”, don’t call yourself a feminist. Because you are not one.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.