International Women’s Day: nothing to celebrate

Summary: women and their children in Gaza are paying a terrible price as Israel continues its genocidal campaign but where, a young Tunisian woman asks, are the voices of Western feminists in denouncing the Gaza war?

We thank Tharwa Boulifi for today’s newsletter. Tharwa is a 22 year-old Tunisian writer and medical student who was first published at the age of 15. She writes in Arabic, French, English and Spanish focussing on women’s rights with an emphasis on Arab and African women, culture and LGBTQ+ rights. Her work has been published widely in, amongst others, Teen Vogue, Herizons, Africa in Motion, The New Arab and Newsweek. Tharwa is a regular contributor to the AD newsletter. You can find her podcast Tunisia’s Gen Z here.

Today, UN WOMEN celebrates International Women’s Day under the theme “Invest in women: Accelerate progress.” The UN WOMEN website calls for gender equality and the closing of gender gaps in employment and gaps in care. It makes no mention of Gaza where more than 30,000 have been killed, 21000 of whom are women and children. Take a moment to let that number, 21000, sink in. While UN officials are busy looking for ways to “create prosperous economies”, two Palestinian mothers are killed every hour, and the remaining ones are feeding their children bread made from animal feed. As I write this mothers are seeing their children starving to death in Gaza.

Since 7 October, Western UNSC permanent members, as well as most Western politicians, corporate media, and their journalists ridiculously and shamelessly defend Israel, despite its crimes being broadcast right under their noses. Such unsurprising behaviour from these entities, who’ve already flagrantly displayed their diplomatic/professional hypocrisy, can be borne. However, choosing to avoid telling the truth and taking the right stance cannot be accepted from the United Nations.

Despite the long history of prominent Western countries’ crimes in the Middle East and Africa, the UN retains in many Global South citizens’ psyche, the shiny image of a saviour and justice maker; political opponents in oppressive regimes often seek the UN’s protection, MENA law students and feminists see in the organisation an ideal work environment to realise their ideas and put into actions the values they strongly believe in and that they defend with great courage and determination. All of that is now undermined.

UN experts say they have seen “credible allegations” that Palestinian women and girls have been subjected to sexual assaults, including rape, while in Israeli detention, and are calling for a full investigation [photo credit: IDF]
Israeli soldiers have photographed themselves posing with the lingerie of Palestinian women they have displaced or killed in Gaza [photo credit: IDF]
I look at this year’s Women’s Day and see it isn’t a celebration shared by all women anymore; it’s become rather the festivity of women privileged enough to live in safe environments free from daily airstrikes and able to put food on the table for their families. If MENA citizens have gotten used to Western governments and their own regimes letting them down, the region’s women and feminists didn’t expect such cowardliness from a United Nations organization, which through its bland statements has shown a wilful denial of reality.

I recall that on 1 December UN Women released a statement that denounced – in the context of condemning violence against women during wars – the abuse of Israeli women in the 7 October attack. Yes any attack on women needs to be condemned. But where after two months of a genocidal war that had already killed thousands of women and children was condemnation of Israel? Such an unbalanced approach has only heightened anger and a feeling of betrayal among MENA women.

During the UN Women conference in Tunis, Tunisian feminists interrupted the event to protest against double standards in dealing with violence against women in war zones. They confronted UN officials who choose silence and inaction in the face of the tragedy women in Palestine are living every day and every hour of every day. As expected, those officials, with their usual “professional” attitude, listened to everything the activists had to say. However, they offered no meaningful response at all.

While it is true UN Women issued a statement on 1 March about the Gaza situation it needs to do much more. Today on International Women’s Day the organisation needs to unequivocally condemn Israel for the war crimes it is committing against women. It needs to call for an immediate ceasefire and to demand that Israel immediately end its brutal blockade of food, medicine, water and electricty to the starving, sick, wounded and dying in Gaza. It needs to mobilise the global feminist movement to end this genocidal war. It angers me that it has failed to do so.

Today, as a North African and Arab woman, and like millions of Arab women, I feel betrayed by the West’s human rights and feminist organisations. Besides, I feel even more duped by Western values, with which from my youngest age I grew up and which have always impressed and inspired me. This major disappointment has also made young Arab and North Africans women doubt the core values we’ve believed in our whole lives. For feminists from the MENA region, this war unveiled many things, the most important of which is the fact that the lives of Arab women don’t matter as much as those of Western women. The second hurtful discovery is that MENA feminists who thought that they were advocating, within this so-called human rights organisation, UN Women, for a fairer and safer world for all women around the world, were only being used as a tool of propaganda to brighten the image of the organisation and increase the credibility of prominent Western countries in the Global South.

Today, no reasonable person should find a reason to celebrate. How can some women remember the long way they’ve come through history to be gradually emancipated from patriarchy while Palestinian women are being slaughtered and their children are starving? As they participate in International Women’s Day celebrations where is the voice of Western feminist organisations speaking loudly for the women of Palestine? This hypocrisy, this serious injustice is causing Arab women to reflect on feminism and the role of the West’s propaganda in it. For generations now, and especially with globalisation, the West has succeeded in laying the foundations of the feminist movement, establishing from a merely Western perspective its structures and the organisations representing it like UN Women. Western feminist organisations have also managed to set limits to feminist advocacy and convince women that it can only be done one way, their way.

No, International Women’s Day isn’t a day of celebration for MENA women. So let it be an occasion for us to be emancipated from Western propaganda and feminist models that diminish us.

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