Instead of worrying about “manspreading” or subtle displays of sexism, feminists in the West need to focus on major problems affecting women in the world, like being shot going to school or female genital mutilation.
Like many of you, I grew up reading about historical heroines of the suffragette movement. These were women who faced imprisonment, risked their lives, or even willingly gave their lives to bring attention to their plight. These were women who were on the outskirts of society. They were disrupting the status quo. They were a threat to order. Not only did men find them threatening, as their cause was in direct resistance to the male-dominated society, but women were threatened by them as well.
Many of these suffragettes had to lead double-lives, fighting in secret, as their fellow women preferred the safety and security of allowing society to putter along quietly. Demanding progress meant upheaval. It meant strife and potential hardships. They just wanted these suffragettes to leave well enough alone.
Well, thank goodness they didn’t. These women broke new ground and started to pave new roads for women. They are the people I have to thank for the world I was born into—a world where second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem were larger than life. A world where even though I was not afforded the exact same opportunities as my male counterparts, much of the way had already been paved. Throughout my life, I have watched things improve for women almost daily. It was not a drastic change born through bra-burning or other protests; it was a slow change, as we all shifted and maneuvered ourselves to the idea that women are equal members of society…so now let’s act that way.
As a young woman from an Arab family living in Canada, I watched significant changes happen in media—as movies, commercials, and music became much more aware of avoiding sexist stereotypes and much more conscious of allowing women depth and breadth in roles as opposed to just being the star’s wife who had maybe a cliché line or two. I watched Sheryl Sandberg rise to prominence with her book Lean In. I learned from her and from Oprah Winfrey and from Michelle Obama and from Beyoncé and from countless other women in popular culture that were examples for young women growing up in North America. As Geena Davis asserts in her documentary Miss Representation, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” But I could see. I could see a lot of women whom I regarded as heroes.
I think a lot of young girls, the generation after me, saw these heroes as well. And, like me, they wanted to join the fight. They, too, wanted to be an example, an inspiration, and to continue to pave the road that had been laid by the brave women before us. But, unlike the women before us who had to tear down old growth, thousand-year-old trees and build new roads one stone at a time, these young girls were born into a world where there were bulldozers at the ready, willing to support them in their endeavor.
The work was happening; the fight had essentially been won. We didn’t need to convince anyone that there needed to be roads to equality. Everyone was already on board. But these young women wanted to build roads too. However, since all the good ones were taken, these young women were so full of energy and exerted their efforts in different directions. They began to discuss whether we should start calling ourselves “womxn,” if air conditioning is sexist, and how to counter the social evil phenomenon known as “manspreading.” With no legitimate problems to overcome, they invented problems so that they could fulfill that desire to solve them.
If only those women knew that there was a way to travel back in time, to link hands with the history-making heroines who risked their lives to fight for freedom. There was a way that they could channel their energy into supporting women who just wanted to be regarded as equal human beings to the men in their societies. There was a way they could support girls who just wanted to go to school without fear that they might be shot in the head. There was a way that they could help girls who didn’t want to be married off as children. All of these issues, and so many more, are right under their nose.
Instead, unfortunately, they are largely ignored because feminists in the West are afraid that by supporting their fellow sisters, someone might misconstrue that as ethnocentrism or racism.
And we don’t need to go centuries back in time to find these women. They exist today. Women who get arrested and disappear because they dare to take a scarf off their head in Iran. Women who are arrested and disappear because they drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Women who are arrested or killed for showing their face and hair on social media in Pakistan or Iraq. Those brave women exist all around us, and they want nothing more than to be supported by feminists in the West.
Instead, unfortunately, they are largely ignored because feminists in the West are afraid that by supporting their fellow sisters, someone might misconstrue that as ethnocentrism or racism. And, even worse than just ignoring them, the West is actively supporting the very thing that these brave women fight against. Barbie, once a beacon of femininity and feminism, now dons a hijab so that she does not entice men who might rape her. Marks and Spencer, one of the UK’s largest department stores, sells hijabs for three-year-old girls.
The free West, where these girls used to look to as beacons of light and hope, is supporting their oppressors and ultimately fighting against their progress. In Saudi Arabia, women are burning their niqabs. In Iran, women tie their hijabs on sticks and sway them silently, defiantly in the streets as they are arrested in droves. In the West, we put a Nike swoosh on it. We accept and willingly support the subjugation of our sisters to the East that we would never accept for ourselves or our sisters in the West.
It is mothers that take their daughters to have their clitoris cut off by another woman. All of that is done because men prefer to have a cut wife. We hold down our screaming five-year-old daughters and allow a woman to take a razor to her genitals because a man will prefer her that way.
It is devastating to see this disconnect. Young women here in the West are looking for a fight, and young women there desperately need fighters to stand with them. It should be a match made in sisterhood heaven. If only women were willing to link hands together across borders, patriarchy would not stand a chance. Patriarchy cannot exist without the active participation of women.
It is mothers that take their daughters to have their clitoris cut off by another woman. All of that is done because men prefer to have a cut wife. We hold down our screaming five-year-old daughters and allow a woman to take a razor to her genitals because a man will prefer her that way. We must stand up and say no. Mothers must stand up for their daughters. Sisters must stand up for their sisters. And neighbors must stand up for their neighbors.
We will only succeed if we work together. Women in the East must work together. And women in the West, please reach back your hand and pull them up the road to equality with you.
Yasmine Mohammed, author of the upcoming memoir The Girl Who Would Not Submit, is an Arab-Canadian college educator by day and a passionate human rights advocate by night. Her main focus is on women, especially women living in the Islamic world, who are subjected to Sharia law. Find Yasmine on Twitter or Facebook.