Palestinian women against bourgeois feminism – a commentary

By Saher Al Khamash
March 18, 2024

The writer is a Palestinian organizer with the Bronx Anti-war Coalition in Bronx, New York.

Bourgeois feminism is a political perspective that overlooks the material realities of oppressed women of color in favor of upholding a capitalist, imperialist system. Bourgeois feminism splinters feminist liberation movements, often by co-opting progressive ideas about women’s rights while using racist tactics to justify colonization. Western colonizers and imperialists have used bourgeois feminism as a longstanding tool for manufacturing consent for invasions of much of the Arab world, including Palestine, and for abhorrent levels of catastrophe in these places.

Women fighters with Omar Al-Qasim Forces in Gaza.

It is crucial that we reject bourgeois feminism, not only for the insidious ways it justifies the colonizer’s violence, but also because it obstructs our path towards true liberation. We must recognize that women’s liberation in Palestine is intertwined with national liberation. Palestinian women are the experts of their struggles, and therefore they will be the leaders of their own liberation, not any white savior.

For those of us in the imperial core, it is our responsibility to recognize the strategy of co-opting women’s rights to advance imperialist and colonialist agendas. The fact of the matter is if U.S. political leaders genuinely cared about women’s rights, they would not be orchestrating this genocide. If the well-being of women in West Asia were truly a priority in Western corporate newsrooms, headlines would focus on U.N. reports of sexual violence by “israeli” officials against Palestinian women political prisoners and the pregnant women giving birth under constant “israeli” bombardment. They would report on how the zionist blockade deprives pregnant women of proper medical care, like anesthesia, mothers of food for their newborns, and feminine hygiene products for Palestinian girls starting their menstruation. However, upholding such journalistic integrity by reporting these injustices would expose the horrific realities of Western imperialism.

While Palestinian women suffer tragedies daily as the genocide continues, the imperialist media leans on racist and Islamophobic stereotypes to justify their crimes. Unsubstantiated claims accusing resistance groups of sexual violence are repeated by Western journalists to support imperialist goals. In reality, it is these resistance movements that are fighting against Western imperialism to reclaim their lands. Never has it been more apparent that the media is an arm of the imperialist apparatus. We must be wary of falling for and perpetuating its lies. We who believe in truth and freedom must continuously expose these narratives and develop our own news outlets.

Colonial objectification of women in Algeria and Palestine

“Jamila, the Algerian” is a movie based on the true story of Djamila Bouhired, a revolutionary woman fighter arrested and tortured by the French occupation forces in Algeria.

“Jamila, the Algerian” is a movie based on the true story of Djamila Bouhired, a revolutionary woman fighter arrested and tortured by the French occupation forces in Algeria.

Throughout history, colonial powers have strategically utilized the concept of women’s liberation and portrayed Islam as an adversary to further their own agendas. Reflecting on the period of French occupation in Algeria spanning from 1830 to 1962, it is evident that the media played a role in legitimizing their settler colonial project by promoting the narrative that Algerian women required intervention from the French to protect them from Islamic beliefs.

When postcards were first introduced in the early twentieth century, France emerged as the leading global producer. Many of the cards featured images of Algeria, with half showcasing landscapes and the other half depicting Algerian women, often nude. The portrayal of nude Algerian women as individuals, contrasted with the depiction of Muslim women in hijabs and burkas as faceless masses, implied a biased viewpoint.

This binary presentation suggested that Algerians who adopted more Western customs were seen as individuals, while those adhering to traditional Muslim attire were not. The images of nude women were used to promote the idea that French intervention was liberating Algerian women from oppressive cultural norms. In reality, French photographers did not persuade Muslim women to undress for them; instead, they paid Algerian sex workers to pose in these photos. This manipulation of media was not only used to support French colonialism ideologically, but also served as a practical and economic strategy to attract French men to relocate to Algeria by offering them the opportunity for exotic interactions with Algerian women.

These postcards provide insights into the colonial mindset and the objectification of Indigenous women, highlighting the deep connection between women and land. The posture of these women on the postcards suggests a desire for sexual conquest, mirroring the colonial belief that they were eager to embrace French ideals.

This narrative parallels the justification used by colonizers, claiming that the colonized territories were in need of liberation from their own societies. In reality, colonialism and imperialism mimic the dynamics of rape, exploitation and abuse, with the colonizer exploiting the natural resources of the colonized without acknowledgment of the harm inflicted.

Seize the means of knowledge production

Bourgeois feminism’s portrayal of Palestinian women as victims of Islamic values and Palestinian men as villains hinders liberation for all genders. This narrative overlooks the patriotic roles that Palestinian women play in the national liberation movement as resistance fighters, as well as the compassionate actions of Palestinian men who rescue their people trapped under the rubble, provide emotional care to traumatized Palestinian children and ultimately repair their society again and again after each bombing campaign. Bourgeois feminism’s hypocrisy can only denounce sexual violence in the Arab world when it reinforces stereotypes of Palestinian men as aggressors and women as victims.

Western media purposefully ignores the sexual humiliation and abuse that the occupying forces commit against Palestinian men, because it subverts this Manichean [good vs evil] logic.

The insidious nature of bourgeois feminism cruelly perpetuates capitalist and imperialist systems, callously ignoring the struggles of colonized women and people. Today, Western colonial powers hypocritically cloak themselves in feminist rhetoric to justify their violent occupation of places like Palestine, echoing the atrocities seen in Algeria at the hands of the French. Through manipulative media tactics, Arabs and Muslims are dehumanized, furthering colonialist agendas and perpetuating false narratives of liberation and cultural superiority. It is imperative that we expose these deceitful tactics and narratives, for true liberation for women can only be achieved by dismantling the oppressive systems of imperialism and colonialism.

We must understand the dominance the bourgeoisie has had in the production of news, enabling them to manufacture public consent for their acts of exploitation and oppression. With this understanding, we begin to recognize the value of taking ownership of our own methods of knowledge production to amplify the voices of those who have been historically silenced.

In the words of revolutionary Assata Shakur: “The Black press and the progressive media have historically played an essential role in the struggle for social justice. We need to continue and to expand that tradition. We need to create media outlets that help to educate our people and our children and not annihilate their minds. … I feel that people need to be educated as to what is going on and to understand the connection between the news media and the instruments of repression in Amerika.”