The “Women’s” Marches and Neo-Liberal Outrage Politics

On 21 September, 2013, several thousand people gathered in Peshawar to protest the American drone strikes within Pakistan that embarked days after Barak Obama took office.  Organised by پاکستان تحريک انصاف Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), the political party formed by Imran Khan, PTI was outspoken against the American drone strikes which have plagued the country since 2004.  Obama not only defended these strikes through the doctrine of a “just war,” but he executed ten times more strikes than his predecessor, George W. Bush.  During the Obama administration (2008–2016) alone, the 272 drone strikes killed between 257 and 645 civilians.  Pakistan Body Count, an independent research website run by Zeeshan-ul-Hassan, provides a detailed public record of these drone attacks demonstrating that during the Obama administration civilian casualties ranged between 1,124 and 2,123 of which a significant number were children and women.

What do these events have to do with the “women’s marches” which took place this past Saturday?  I would argue everything.

Marches are politically effective when there is a clear rationale with specific demands.  Like the thousands in Peshawar, repeating their protest two months later in an attempt to stop Nato supplies from passing through the northwest of the country, their demands were clear: that the US cease its drone attacks on the country.

Conversely, I cannot say that there was any such clarity in the organisation of the “Women’s March” in London or Washington D.C.   Initially spun as a protest in retaliation to the US election and as an action against Donald Trump, this protest against a democratic election smacked of hypocrisy.  As elections are their own protest against the powers that be, manifesting against an electoral fait accompli wastes valuable resources that could be better placed elsewhere, such as voter registration.  This protest against Trump did not serve a higher purpose, not even in response to “Pussygate.”

First, there is the issue of the “pussy hats,” from those who claim such imagery “heralds a renaissance of resistance,” some who viewed this pink hat a symbol of “revolution,” and others who view “pussy” as a denigrating vision of woman as synecdoche.  There was even a prelude to the march which disingenuously misconstrues neoliberalism in order to deflect the various critiques of this hyper-individualist discourse which vastly contributed to Trump’s electoral win.  As protest, the pink pussy hats invoke all the reductionist views of females in one go—that women are necessarily soft, naturally gravitate towards the colour pink, love knitting, and are all too willing to “put aside differences.”  Except, when they don’t.  Here is my resistance.

There is great irony in many of the journalistic responses to the events of this past Saturday.   For instance, Eve Ensler’s article on the 600 plus marches around the planet, initially focuses on women’s bodies, healthcare, and sexual assault, suddenly veering through a list of human rights struggles (ie. Standing Rock, mass incarceration).  Ensler’s initial focus upon the female body is quickly abandoned by the imperative she assumes upon women, since “struggle is valiant and more satisfying than pursuing only our own personal happiness.”  Similarly, in 2015, the performance of her piece, The Vagina Monologues, was cancelled at Mount Holyoke College for not being inclusive to transgender students. So while advocating for Saturday’s demonstration of solidarity with women who are paradoxically under siege for “living in a woman’s body,” two years earlier Ensler penned an apologia regarding the cancelled performance, stating, “I never defined a woman as a person with a vagina.”  Where feminist politics are imperative for naming the root of female oppression—the body—, this difference can just as easily be back-peddled.

And Josephine Livingstone’s critique of the pink, fluffy vagina hat as the metonymic reduction of women to a vagina, completely misses the reality of the body for women:  biology is not inflected by choice as the sexed body is central to the oppression of females. Identity is not a luxury for females since biology couldn’t care less how we frame ourselves within language. It is not that the vagina is the synecdoche of woman, it is that women have socially been circumscribed to the vagina through economic and political discourses to include some of the mind-fuckery that Livingstone employs by instructing women how to detail their oppression and their bodies (ie. by being inclusive to males).  This tired social surveillance which obliges women to consider others in naming their oppression must stop.

And because women are expected to be “inclusive of” oppressive discourses, this march had no apparent ethos.  Repeating the phrases “women’s march” and “millions of women” merely discloses “woman” as an empty signifier, especially given the constant scorn by many activists towards women who refer to their body.  Just as the pink pussy hats ostensibly “take back” the term “pussy” from Trump, this cooptation of the term ends up trivialising women as a homogenous bloc without empowering them to name the practical struggles that women in the USA and the UK confront, to include those in existence long before Trump came to power.   It is as if Trump has become a convenient scapegoat to obfuscate the larger, very real conditions affecting women while glossing over the antagonisms between various feminist discourses.  Instead of addressing the political injustices that women suffer from country to country, pink pussy hats (oddly understood by some as “cat-eared hats”) were marketed in a very short time-frame ultimately failing to symbolise anything beyond the cliché that fluffy, pink clothing items denote for females. The pussy hat symbolises the desire to be political without actually engaging in anything political whatsoever.

Not coincidentally, the masses who took to the National Mall and Trafalgar Square were overwhelmingly representative of a demographic which had the combined luxuries of money and time to attend these marches.  And many of these folks guard quite cautiously the sacredness of “their march” as a feminist wrote that we need to “unite around the things we agree on and fight for women’s rights without being too concerned with our own purity.”  I pointed out that women are not a political monolith (one has only to see Trump’s electorate), that the biological scope of women and the female body is currently under dispute, and that the lead up to the DC march was mired in problems from the pro-prostitution lobby, identity politics, and the clear lack of focus on issues specific to females rendered this march more a feel-good happening.  In response to my observations about the rather apolitical nature of this event, I was called “anti-woman.”

I have been contemplating these past few days more profoundly how the observations that I share with other leftists would necessarily equate being “anti-woman.”  Might it be, as Brendan O’Neil demonstrates in his analysis of “the people,” that “women” for liberal feminists might uniquely stand for that “good type” of woman who must shut up in obeisance to the greater good?  Are there now only “good feminists” who are worthy of being Clinton bobble heads mirroring the  grandeur of “millions of people…united in resistance”?  For what I observed about this march did not involve a politics of solidarity, but instead was wrapped up in layers of conformism and bourgeois comfort.  If we cannot critique the superficiality of words, slogans, and pussy hats set up as surrogates for political action, what can women in the west hope to attain?

My thoughts return to Pakistan where dozens of demonstrations over the past eight years did not immediately end the drone strikes, but which did communicate to Washington and Islamabad the need to end the violence.  In part, as a result of these protests, the drone strikes diminished significantly over the past three years and are now virtually frozen.  Whatever women’s rights mean to the protesters in Washington and London, we never saw them, with the exception of Code Pink in 2012, marching in solidarity with women overseas.

Instead, the women’s marches have resulted in  multitudes of women in the USA buying pink yarn at Hobby Lobby, the craft store which won the 2014 Supreme Court case mandating that certain types of employers (dependant upon company formation and status), are exempt from paying for birth control as part of its insurance coverage.  So in their eagerness to form a “revolution,”  these pussy hatters have been financially supporting an industry that fought and won the right to discriminate against women.

In order for feminism to be an effective political discourse, women need to speak unapologetically about their material reality and their bodies while working towards objectives within specific political theatres. They must also refuse to yield to the pressure of neoliberal narratives which seek to break down political momentum for the purposes of incorporating perceived excluded narratives. For if feminism is supposedly “everything,” then it also means absolutely nothing. Women cannot have a movement of empowerment that necessitates our role in conferring our own oppression.

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Julian Vigo is a scholar, film-maker and human rights consultant. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). She can be reached at: julian.vigo@gmail.com

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