An Open Letter to All Feminists: Statement of Solidarity with Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim Women Facing War and Occupation
by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira
As feminists and people of conscience, we call for solidarity with Palestinian women in Gaza suffering due to the escalating military attacks that Israel turned into an open war on civilians. This war has targeted women and children, and all those who live under Israeli occupation in the West Bank, and are also denied the right to freedom of movement, health, and education.
We stand in solidarity with Iraqi women whose daughters, sisters, brothers, or sons have been abused, tortured, and raped in U.S. prisons such as Abu Ghraib. Women in Iraq continue to live under a U.S. occupation that has devastated families and homes, and are experiencing a rise in religious extremism and restrictions on their freedom that were unheard of before the U.S. invasion, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” in 2003.
At this moment in Afghanistan, women are living with the return of the Taliban and other misogynistic groups such as the Northern Alliance, a U.S. ally, and with the violence of continuing U.S. and NATO attacks on civilians, despite the U.S. war to “liberate” Afghan women in 2001.
As of March 6, 2008, over 120 Palestinians, including 39 children and 6 women (more than a third of the victims), in Gaza were killed by Israeli air strikes and escalated attacks on civilians over a period of five days, according to human rights groups.1 Hospitals have been struggling to treat 370 injured children, as reported by medical officials. Homes have been destroyed as well as civilian facilities including the headquarters of the General Federation of Palestinian Trade Unions.2 On February 29, 2008, Israel ‘s Deputy Defense Minister, Matan Valnai, threatened Palestinians in Gaza with a “bigger Shoah,” the Hebrew word usually used only for the Holocaust.3 What does it mean that the international community is standing by while this is happening?
Valnai’s threat of a Holocaust against Palestinians was not just a slip of the tongue, for the war on Gaza is a continuation of genocidal activities against the indigenous population. Israel has controlled the land and sea borders and airspace of Gaza for more than a year and a half, confining 1.5 million Palestinians to a giant prison. Supported by the U.S., Israel has imposed a near total blockade on Gaza since June 2007 which has led to a breakdown in basic services, including water and sanitation, lack of electricity, fuel, and medical supplies. As a result of these sanctions, 30% of children under 5 years suffer from stunted growth and malnutrition. Over 80% of the population cannot afford a balanced meal.4
Is this humanitarian crisis going to approach a situation similar to that of the sanctions against Iraq from 1991-2003, when an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children died due to lack of nutrition and medical supplies, and the woman who was then Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, proclaimed that the death of a half million Iraqi children was worth the price of U.S. national security?
As feminists and anti-imperialist people of conscience, we oppose direct and indirect policies of ethnic cleansing and decimation of native populations by all nation-states.
In the current climate of U.S.-initiated or U.S.-backed assaults on women in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we are deeply troubled by one kind of hypocritical Western feminist discourse that continues to be preoccupied with particular kinds of violence against Muslim or Middle Eastern women, while choosing to remain silent on the lethal violence inflicted on women and families by military occupation, F-16s, Apache helicopters, and missiles paid for by U.S. tax payers. This is a moment when U.S. imperialism brazenly uses direct colonial occupation, masked in a civilizational discourse of bringing Western “freedom” and “democracy.” Such acts echo the language of Manifest Destiny that was used to justify U.S. colonization of the Philippines and Pacific territories in the 19th century, not to mention the genocide of Native Americans. U.S. covert, and not so covert, interventions in Central, South America, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean have devastated the lives of countless indigenous peoples, and other civilians, in this region throughout the 20th century. The U.S., as well its proxy militias or client regimes, has inflicted violence on women and girls from Vietnam, Okinawa, and Pakistan to Chile, El Salvador, and Somalia and has avenged the deaths of its soldiers by its own “honor killings” that lay siege to entire towns, such as Fallujah in Iraq.
It is appalling that in these catastrophic times, many U.S. liberal feminists are focused only on misogynistic practices associated with particular local cultures, as if these exist in capsules, far from the arena of imperial occupation. Indeed, imperial violence has given fuel to some of these patriarchal practices of misogyny and sexism. They should also know that such a narrow vision furthers a much older tradition of feminist mobilizing in the service of colonialism — “saving brown, or black women, from brown men,” as observed by Gayatri Spivak.
While we too oppose abuses including domestic violence, “honor killings,” forced marriage, and brutal punishment, we are disturbed that some U.S. feminists — as well as Muslim or Middle Eastern women who claim to be “authorities” on Islam and are employed by right-wing think tanks — are participating in a selective discourse of universal women’s rights that ignores U.S. war crimes and abuses of human rights.
While some progressive U.S. feminists claim to oppose the hijacking of women’s rights to justify U.S. invasions, they simultaneously evade any mention about the plight of women in Palestine, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Their statements continue to focus only on female genital mutilation or dowry deaths under the guise of breaking the “politically correct” silence on abuses of women in the “Muslim world” that the Right disingenuously laments.5
Some progressives may support such statements with good intentions, but these critiques ignore the fact that Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim feminists have been working on these issues for generations, focusing on the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationalism. Their work is ignored by North American feminists who claim to advocate for a “global sisterhood” but are disillusioned to discover that women in the U.S. military participated in the acts of torture at Abu Ghraib.
We are concerned about these silences and selective condemnations given that the U.S. mainstream media bolsters this imperialist feminism by using an (often liberal) Orientalist approach to covering the Middle East or South Asia. For example, on March 5, 2008, as the death toll due to Israeli attacks in Gaza was mounting, the New York Times chose to publish an article just below its report on the Israeli military incursions that focused on the sentencing of a Palestinian man in Israel for an honor killing; the report was deemed worthy of international coverage because the Palestinian women had broken “the code of silence” by resorting to Israeli courts.6
The implications of this juxtaposition of two unrelated events are that Palestinians belong to a backward, patriarchal culture that, rightly or wrongly, is under attack by a modern, “democratic” state with a legal apparatus that supports women’s rights. Others have shown that the New York Times gave disproportionate attention to the Human Rights Watch report in 2006 on domestic violence against Palestinian women relative to its scant mention of the 76 reports of Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Israeli organization, B’Tselem.7
Similar coverage exists of women from other countries outside the U.S. that are portrayed as victims only of their own cultural traditions, rather than also of the ravages of Western imperialism and predatory global capitalism. No attention is paid in the mainstream U.S. media to reports such as that in Haaretz documenting that Palestinian women citizens of Israel are the most exploited group in the Israeli workforce, making only 47% of the wages earned by their Jewish counterparts in Israel, and with double the rate of unemployment of Jewish women.8 Little is known in the U.S. about what the lives of Iraqi women are really like now that they are pressured to cover themselves in public or not work outside the house, nor of Afghani women whose homes are still being bombed in a war that was supposed to have liberated them many years ago.
We stand in solidarity with feminist and liberatory movements that are opposing U.S. imperialism, U.S.-backed occupation, militarism, and economic exploitation as well as resisting religious and secular fundamentalisms.
We also support the struggles of those within the U.S. opposing the War on Terror and racist practices of detention, deportation, surveillance, and torture linked to the military-industrial-prison complex that selectively targets immigrants, minorities, and youth of color. We are grateful for the courageous scholarship of academics who are at risk of not getting tenure or employment because they do research related to settler colonialism or taboo topics such as Palestinian rights and expose controversial aspects of U.S. policies here and abroad.
At a moment when U.S. military interventions have made “democracy” a dirty word in much of the world, we strive for true democracy and for freedom and justice for all our sisters and brothers.
Piya Chatterjee, University of California-Riverside
Sunaina Maira, University of California-Davis
Campaign of Solidarity with Women Resisting U.S. Wars and Occupation
South Asians for the Liberation of Palastine