For Grace and Pala Molisa, though it may not do you justice.
On the surface of things, it appears that New Zealand has a thriving feminist movement. Several thousand women marched on the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2016, liberal feminist platform Ace Lady Network has over 4,000 followers online, mainly local; and public figures from the Herald‘s Lizzie Marvelly to the Green Party’s Jan Logie wear the label “feminist” with pride. But since it is the course of all liberation movements to be appropriated for profit and palatable popularity – something with which to gain votes and sell papers – could popular feminism in New Zealand be a mirage? Or do we truly have an organised women’s movement here, committed to ending male violence?
It is perhaps a question of accountability: the project of women’s liberation has always placed the needs of women worst affected by systematic male dominance first. So as a privileged Pacific country, if feminism was thriving in New Zealand, it would be lifting what Zohl dé Ishtar calls the “veneer of silence” from over women in the Pacific region. It would centre the voices of a diverse population including many Asian migrants and refugees. The responsibilities that come with New Zealand’s global position as part of the OECD would be reflected in the priorities we attach to the project of women’s liberation. Our overall understanding of feminism would not just tokenistically “include” the Pacific, Asian, African and Middle Eastern women who live here in New Zealand; it would be informed by feminist struggles against colonisation, sharia law and sex trafficking. If feminism were alive and well here, it would mean that our collective analysis was proving effective in pushing back against the systems of oppression keeping women enslaved.
“The majority of the world’s women fighting male supremacy are not white,” says Papuan-Australian feminist Dani Tauni. “They are by and large indigenous feminists fighting agribusiness takeover of their land and culture.” Women like Tina Ngata in New Zealand are also fighting oil corporations, and in the Northern Marianas, Micronesia, Chailang Palacios fights corporate tourism. In Honduras, Berta Cáceres lost her life for her environmental activism in 2016, and feminist organisation Gabriela fights militarism and prostitution from the Philippines. Part of Ninotchka Rosca‘s work at Gabriela is to educate women globally about the inextricable connections between colonisation, militarism, prostitution, and male violence.
These women are all engaged in decolonisation struggle. In Australia, Marcia Langton has long resisted the oppression of Aboriginal Australians; Susanna Ounei was an important leader of Kanaky independence struggle. In New Zealand, Falema’i Lesa and Melani Anae have fought the treatment of Samoans as second class citizens in New Zealand, a country that colonised Samoa. The most urgent of these struggles in the Pacific today takes place through the activism of women like Esther Tapnesa in West Papua: Tapnesa fights for West Papuan liberation from Indonesia’s genocidal occupation. She finds support in Aotearoa from activists and groups like Oceania Interrupted, Leilani Salesa and Tere Harrison.
Among the closest allies to West Papuan liberation struggle have been the women of Vanuatu and Fiji, who also established the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific. The women involved in this work, which enabled New Zealand to take its anti-nuclear stance in the 1980s, have had to fight patriarchal colonisation whilst dealing with male dominance within their own movements. In 1987, Grace Molisa wrote these words in her poetry collection, Colonised People:
of Colonised People
the Free Men
In Fiji, Suliana Siwatibau and Vanessa Griffen have described how the concept of “custom” is used as a means to control women. “Culture has often been used as an excuse,” stated Siwatibau in 1989, “to ensure continued domination of men over the women of their societies.” Griffen agrees that “Culture, or custom, is the commonest argument used against any call for a new image of women in the Pacific.” A paper titled Women in Vanuatu states that
The main reason for the subservient role in which women are cast is described by men who say it is the custom or the traditional way of things. Closer examination of it reveals that it is a glib and falsely attractive answer. Traditional practices are not unchanging… Custom is being used as an instrument of oppression to deny women equality which is theirs and a moral right.
In not acknowledging the layered struggles women in the Pacific are engaged in, white New Zealand “feminists” contribute to leaving women in the region “wrapped in a veneer of silence”, as dé Ishtar writes in her book Daughters of the Pacific. Women like Rhian Sanau in the Solomon islands and ‘Ofa Likiliki in Tonga present clear challenges to male violence that we simply do not hear or grasp. In New Zealand, the indigenous feminist voices of women like those comprising Oceania Interrupted, as well as Shona Rapira-Davies, Robyn Kahukiwa and Emily Karaka also go underappreciated in the art world, in favour of the more conformist, sexualised and pop “feminist” work of their (white) peers.
Pan-African feminist Minna Salami echoes the statements of Molisa, Griffen, and Siwatibau in a blog essay titled Tradition is the key challenge for African feminists. She writes about how African female freedom fighters have always “met additional opposition from male militias who, under the guise of tradition, claimed that women should not be part of the struggle.” Ama Ata Aidoo, of Ghana, has also written that
If, as a woman, you try to flex your muscles as a revolutionary cadre where your comrades are predominantly male, you can hit the concrete wall with such force you might never recover your original self… And don’t be shocked if – when victory is won – they return you to the veil as part of the process of consolidating the revolution.
Elvia Alvarado put the problem most clearly in her memoir Don’t Be Afraid Gringo, about organising with fellow Honduran campesinas:
the hardest part about organizing women was that their husbands were so opposed. The men thought that organized women would want to wear the pants in the family, that they would want to start bossing the men around. They said that men should tell women what to do, not the other way around.
In her book Man’s Dominion, Sheila Jeffreys addresses what motivates many feminists in the West to ignore these layered realities, in the interests of cultural relativism and white guilt.
Multiculturalism requires that there should be respect for cultural difference and the right of citizens to practice their ‘culture’ within the private sphere of marriage and the family without the interference of the state. Unfortunately, as feminist critics point out, ‘cultures’ are based on understandings of sexual difference that are dangerous to women’s safety and equality, mainly through the subordination of women in marriage and the family.
Of course, the use of romantic ideas like “custom” and “culture” to excuse male violence is a patriarchal, not an indigenous, phenomenon. Mainstream Western feminism has simply lost all sensitivity to it, making for an irresponsible and complicit mainstream “feminism”. Under sharia law too, practices like female genital mutilation (FGM) are justified as “cultural”, largely through the Muslim concept of “honour”. In her 2016 book Cut, Hibo Wardere writes how “[t]he whole framing of FGM as a cultural tradition conceals the ugly truth that it is a barbaric and inhumane practice.”
FGM is not just an issue “out there” for New Zealanders. Women from Egypt, Ethopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Indonesia and Somalia – where Wardere comes from – all live in New Zealand, and all come from countries under sharia law, where FGM is practised. From Egypt, legendary feminist author Nawal El-Saadawi echoes Wardere’s words when she writes that
There is a distorted concept of honour in Arab society. A man’s honour is safe as long as the female members of his family keep their hymens intact… He can be a womanizer of the worst calibre and yet be considered an honourable man as long as his womenfolk are able to protect their genital organs.
Though not against the violence of FGM, which El-Saadawi describes as a control and silencing tactic.
In these same countries, forced marriage is also practised – something that women from Thailand and India have also spoken out about in New Zealand. Shakti Women’s Refuge has been working to draw attention to the issue of forced marriage in New Zealand for several years. Through the lens of forced marriage, it becomes apparent that mainstream feminism in New Zealand as not only insensitive to the romantic ideas that often underpin practices of dominance and control: it is celebratory.
According to NGO Girls Not Brides, without reduction in child marriage, the number of girls married as children will reach 1.2 billion globally by 2050. New Zealand feminists could be working to dismantle the institution of marriage to fight back – but instead, despite the fact that marriage is not only a patriarchal and homophobic institution but a growing global industry; despite the fact that there is a domestic violence call out in New Zealand every 4.5 minutes, and despite the fact that marriage relegates many women in New Zealand to lifetimes of domestic servitude, here in New Zealand, feminists celebrate marriage. They would rather campaign for “wages for housework” than touch this institution with a barge pole; New Zealand feminists even celebrate the institution on behalf of lesbians, who have always been at the forefront of efforts to dismantle it.
Another misogynist global industry we sanction and celebrate in New Zealand, through arts and activism produced in the name of feminism, is prostitution. Never mind the disproportionate numbers of Chinese, Maori and Pacific women and children trafficked into New Zealand brothels, and the layers of racism that piles on top of the misogyny they face. Suzie, a Korean woman prostituted in New Zealand has testified to the racism of punters “who told her they preferred Asian women because they were cheaper and “prepared to do more””. On New Zealand punter website adultforum, one john criticises another for “complaining” about his experience of raping a prostituted Asian woman. “Cheap bastards deserve all you get,” says his online mate,
you were looking for cheap and nasty and you found it. There are quality ladies here and many of them offering sublime service, but no! You want bargain basement and grizzle when you don’t get it.
It is this racialised sexism that sees Thai women, who used to constitute the largest group of trafficked women in New Zealand, fighting prostitution in Asia; and sees women like Nayoung Kim and Suzanne Jay doing the same through Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. New Zealand also accepts a number of refugees from Rohingya – it is disgusting for us to sanitise the realities of sex trafficking with language like “migrant sex work”, within so-called “feminist” activism, whilst women from Rohingya escape the refugee camps in which it thrives to traumatic effect.
The celebration of prostitution as a personal “choice” in mainstream “feminism” is based on the individualistic identity politics of neoliberalism. Concepts of identity and choice, sacrosanct to neoliberalism, are white society’s equivalents of “custom” and “honour”. They serve as props for male dominance, and through colonisation, compound on top of the other forms of misogyny women experience globally. One example that illustrates this clearly is in the way that the International Monetary Fund justifies the devastating, neoliberalising, Structural Adjustment Packages (SAPs) it forces upon countries accept its financial loans. SAPs have lead to unprecedented destitution and poverty among women in Africa, Asia and postcommunist Europe. Yet as Maria Bargh writes in Resistance: Indigenous responses to neoliberalism, the IMF claims that this destitution is opted for. “SAPs are an overt mechanism to embed neoliberal policies,” writes Bargh. Yet,
Despite widespread condemnation of these kinds of policies as a ‘one size fits all’ model, as inappropriate when applied locally en masse, and as encouraging large-scale projects which are often environmentally and socially destructive, the IMF responds that these are actually chosen by countries.
As Siddharth Kara has pointed out in his book Sex Trafficking, the devastation SAPs have caused have in turn increased the vulnerability of women from affected countries to sex trafficking. Asian countries now having the highest total number of women and children in sex slavery; and Eastern Europe the fastest growing number. These women, through processes described plainly by Julie Bindel in The Pimping of Prostitution, are then often preyed on by the global sex trade lobby as it claims to represent “sex worker rights”. The sex trade lobby’s party line is that women in the sex industry – however they ended up there – have chosen it themselves. It is their “choice”. And so the layers of blame pile onto the layers of oppression and layers of justification: culture, honour, religion, identity, choice.
To accept the idea that prostitution is something women “choose” is to swallow neoliberal politics; ignore the layers of oppression women face; ignore the brutal murder of women like Ngatai Manning in Christchurch, and ignore the testimony of survivors who say there is no way they chose prostitution. It is also to ignore the sadomasochistic nature of prostitution, and the voices of feminists from Sojourner Truth to Audre Lorde and Cherry Smiley whose writings oppose all forms of racialised violence against women. As Smiley states,
prostitution is not a traditional activity for aboriginal women and, in fact, is “the world’s oldest oppression.” It is a system, like Canada’s residential school system, that has been imposed on our aboriginal communities. Prostitution is part of the continuum of colonial male violence against aboriginal women and girls, telling us incorrectly that we are disposable in life and that predators can harm us without recourse.
In her 1988 essay Sadomasochism, Audre Lorde rejected the promotion of sexual practices based on dominance and submission – and the fact that mainstream “feminism” ignores that pornography and prostitution are such practices has devastating consequences. Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names includes a harrowing passage describing a group of African children who click into the world of online pornography while living in America. They are sent to a link with a film that promises to be especially interesting. Bulawayo writes,
The first thing we see is the caption This film contains some disturbing images… I shrug… but then this crazy scream just explodes and we all stop what we are doing.
The scream sounds like it has devoured all the pain there is and is now choking on it… I’m thinking of how it sounds so familiar, like I’ve heard it before, but I can’t really figure out where, and from whom…
Then this woman comes in the picture and goes for the girls’ legs, and the girl starts kicking like there’s a devil inside her. Then this gang of women comes in and pounces on the girl, pinning her down…
Only one woman is not taking part in the holding down, and it’s because she is the one with the long knife… I want to ask what she is going to do with the knife but I know that if I open my mouth there will be no words.
What Bulawayo is describing here is a group of African children, in America, discovering that there is a market for the distribution of filmed female genital mutilation as pornography. Whitewashed feminism has women facilitating scenes like the one Bulawayo describes through a whitewashed feminism. What the passage also demonstrates is that forms of women’s oppression are not separate – they intersect.
Promoting neoliberal identity politics in New Zealand – which Ace Lady Network, Lizzie Marvelly and the Green and Labour parties all do – means justifying and worsening the situation for women globally. Another example of this comes in whitewashed discussions of gender itself as “identity”, “culture” and “choice”. In Iran, a country from where about 3,000 New Zealand citizens have come, many homosexuals are pressured to change their gender expression to conform to the patriarchal system of compulsory heterosexuality. In Afghanistan, too, the practice of bacha posh – girls being raised as “boys” – arises not from “choice”, but from the fact that life is intolerable for too many females. Trafficking investigator Siddharth Kara relays being told by a Thai woman how “In Thailand… the best thing a woman can do is be reborn a man.” According to many Buddhist ideals, being born female is punishment for wrongdoing in a previous incarnation. In countries like India, these attitudes and the reality of female oppression is the reason for the sex-selective abortion and female infanticide practices that now skew the sex ratio, in turn fuelling more trafficking of women from outside India’s borders.
By divorcing the concept of gender from the reality of female oppression and celebrating it as “culture” and “identity”, mainstream New Zealand “feminism” embeds global misogyny more deeply. Identity politics does this further by rendering female biology dirty and unspeakable – for instance through the banning of “pussy hats” at women’s marches, and insisting on references to “pregnant people” instead of pregnant women by organisations like Abortion Law Reform New Zealand and midwives’ organisations. Women are dettered from relating our experiences of oppression to our bodies or biology, lest we be deemed “transphobic”. When we accept this, we again turn a blind eye to a typical patriarchal practice. As El-Saadawi writes from Egypt:
Ignorance about the body and its functions in girls and women is considered a sign of honour, purity and good morals and if, in contrast, a girl does know anything about sex and about her body, it is considered something undesirable and shameful….
Women, therefore, tend to nurture their ignorance and simple-mindedness so that society continues to look upon them as being virtuous and of good reputation…
This cult of ignorance does not apply to matters related to sex and men alone, but is advocated in so far as all matters related to the female body are concerned. Arab girls are therefore brought up in an environment of darkness and silence concerning everything related to the body and its functions. They are often seized with shock, therefore, on the day when, opening their eyes in the morning, they perceive a trickle of red blood between their thighs and a scarlet stain on the white sheet beneath their buttocks.
For El-Saadawi, headscarves imposed on women and girls are also part and parcel of this female “educational circumcision”. Yet the hijab, also campaigned against so vociferously by Masih Alinejad in Iran, is another practice celebrated in New Zealand “feminism”.
We also celebrate the surgical and medical mutilation that goes hand in hand with gender transition or “sex reassignment”, never mind the implications for anti-FGM activism, for homosexuals subjected to conversion therapy in Iran, or for girls like Zahra Cooper, the Northland teenager who only accepted that she was female, and lesbian, after undergoing the irreversible effects of conversion therapy in the form of testosterone treatment. Readers of leftist media outlet the Spinoff have hungrily followed the story of one woman’s gender transition and double mastectomy – because she “chose” it. Never mind that 66% of Somali girls are reported to accept FGM – we refuse to critique our own neoliberal politics of “choice”.
Promoting gender identity in the name of “takatāpui” too, ignores the appropriative component of colonisation; the critiques of “custom” as a concept used to justify male violence levelled by indigenous women, and the history of medical experimentation on Pacific island women that has come with colonisation. The technology of so-called sex reassignment is traceable back to the Nazi doctors, who developed both surgical reassignment and medical sterilisation techniques. Medical experimentation was inflicted on the Herero of Namibia by German troops in 1907; and nineteenth century gynecologists used women in slavery for experimentation before that. The prescription of carcenogenic birth control to indigenous, including Pacific island women, continues. In Daughters of the Pacific, dé Ishtar also notes how the United States’ nuclear testing in Micronesia, which led to still births, miscarriages and what women called “jellyfish babies” was also an intentional human and gynecological experiment. These testimonies and histories should lead us to remain wary of any ideology that promotes medical experimentation through appropriated and racialised concepts.
Feminists throughout the Pacific have long fought technological fanaticism, ecocide and colonisation. Hibo Wardere and Nawal El-Saadawi resist female genital mutilation and the demonisation of women’s bodies; Suzanne Jay and Cherry Smiley fight against the trafficking of women into prostitution. What are the consequences, when we celebrate these institutions: marriage, the burqa, prostitution and gendered medical experimentation? Well: girls and women from China, Korea, Thailand and the Pacific are being trafficked into the sex trade that we in New Zealand condone as a woman’s “choice”. Families from countries where child marriage is illegal have been conducting forced dowry marriages under the radar. New Zealand couples contribute to the demand for the surrogacy trade. Somali families in Britain are now able to pay surgeons to have FGM carried out under anesthetic – will that be possible in New Zealand, soon?
Women are too often told that feminism should not be concerned with truth-telling. In the context of feminism, “truth” becomes a naughty word, sacrified for pluralism. We are meant to be content with feminisms: not a coherent analysis, but many stories. This is quite politically unprecendented: peace movements, indigenous resistance, black civil rights and nationalist movements, unionists, prison abolitionists, environmentalists, party political leftists – these groups do not forefeit coherent analysis and truth-telling in favour of ultimately indefineable and pluralistic, and therefore disorganised and ineffective, activism. This is a special, patriarchal response to women’s liberationists.
The cost of this is high, because the cost is solidarity. Individualistic narratives of personal “choice” that undermine truth-telling destroy and trample all possibility of international solidarity among women. What those of us blinded by patriarchal white society are left to offer our sisters in struggle in the Pacific and around the world, then, is pity. Individualistic “choice” narratives keep women mystified about the reality of global patriarchy, they keep us in a stupor. Pity is what is left when empathy is dehumanised through such mystification. Pity is empathy that has been hollowed of solidarity, because it is fast asleep; it is empathy hollowed of solidarity and so hollowed to nothing – mutated to insult.
New Zealand feminists would not be reduced to offering nothing but pity to women waging feminist resistance globally, if we stopped justifying patriarchal institutions on the basis of mere individual “choice”, “identity” and “culture”. If we started thinking about how institutions like marriage, prostitution, surrogacy and medicalised concepts of gender subordinate women globally and keep us commodified and oppressed, we would not be so mystified, complicit and pitiful. We could offer solidarity. We could lift the handbrake off women’s liberation movement. And that is what women – all women, everywhere – deserve us to do.