SlutWalks: confronting the attacks on women’s rights
Feminists across the globe were angered as they learned last month that the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and French presidential hopeful, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, would likely be exculpated from the charges of attempted rape of a Guinean immigrant working as a maid due to questions about her credibility. Regrettably, Strauss-Kahn’s defense and the capitalist media have colluded to tarnish her image by digging up details from her past, including alleged forgery on her taxes.
Notably missing in big media reports is information that is readily available about Strauss-Kahn’s history of sexist and abusive behavior. Indeed, another of his victims has already come forward. That the defense’s questionable slander may be enough to discredit her case both in the public imagination and in court underscores the flimsiness of the American legal system and its quickness to dismiss complaints of working and immigrant women.
Unfortunately, the direction taken in Strauss Kahn’s case is not surprising to feminists internationally but merely affirms a common experience among women in which the sex crimes of wealthy, powerful men are regularly justified.
Feminists are watching Diallo’s case carefully after having just witnessed a major defeat for the women’s labor movement, in which the class-action suit against WalMart filed by 1.6 million militant female employees was recently dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court despite ample evidence of WalMart’s sexist discrimination. This defeat left people across the U.S. with a bitter taste in their mouths as they learned that the most powerful multinational corporations are beyond accountability. The decision should come as no surprise given what we know about heavy representation of corporate interests in the American political system, as evidenced by collaborative bodies such as ALEC—the American Legislative Exchange Council—a group that joins state legislators and powerful corporate representatives in order to draft corporate-friendly anti-labor bills to be introduced in state governments across the United States.
The reproductive rights movement also has faced mounting attacks this year, which has set a new record for the number of new laws that infringe on reproductive freedom. So far this year, 19 states have enacted 162 laws seeking to hinder women’s access to reproductive health-care services, including abortion.
Along with recycled tactics aimed at curbing reproductive freedom such as redefining fetal viability to an earlier period of gestation, launching media campaigns centered on fetal personhood, and defunding the procedure, anti-abortion forces are becoming more creative in their campaigns. Five states have passed laws this year that ban abortions after 20 weeks, claiming that this is when the fetus begins to feel pain. New legislation reflects an egregious infringement on women’s privacy, such as a proposed Georgia bill that would mandate police investigations of all women who miscarried their pregnancies, including victims of rape, and require the issuing of a fetal death certificate. If enacted, this would disproportionally affect women of color, who must already contend with heightened discrimination and criminalization by police.
Some liberals attribute these attacks to a reaction against what they perceive as a progressive administration in Washington that will secure gains for women. Despite campaigning as a pro-choice candidate, however, President Obama disappointed women across the country when, as part of his health-care overhaul, he renewed the Hyde amendment—a virulent erosion of Roe v. Wade, which prevents federal funding for abortion (including Medicaid) and effectively precludes low-income women, including high numbers of women of color, from their right to the procedure.
So how can we make sense of this mounting offensive on reproductive and other rights of women? In the midst of an economic recession that threatens to duplicate the Great Depression of the 1930s, it is predictable that women are under attack. Within the capitalist system women serve as a reserve army of labor that can be conveniently manipulated according to the needs of the economy, thrown in and out of the remunerated labor force and used to drive down wages for all working people.
In periods of economic downturn, when there are not enough jobs to go around, women’s rights are threatened—similar to the rise in attacks on undocumented immigrants. During the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1800s, women were brought into the workforce when it was a necessity for the capitalist class to maintain profits—only to be shoved back into the home when their economic purpose had been served. This happened again after the Second World War. Both in and out of paid work, women are expected to shoulder the burden of unpaid domestic, labor including physical and social reproduction and rearing of the next generation of wage slaves. Ruling elites presume that when working women are preoccupied with surviving and have to struggle to address their most basic needs, they will be a weakened force and unable to unite and stand up to demand their rights.
Specific attacks against women are being waged alongside the broader anti-worker campaign of the ruling class, which has already threatened the collective bargaining rights of workers across the country this year. Despite deepening antiwar sentiment throughout the nation and epidemic levels of unemployment, legislators have focused their energy not on job creation or diminishing the war budget, but on increasing attacks on workers as they usher in record profits for themselves.
Within this caustic political climate, there has been an inspiring, if imperfect, development in recent months—the series of contagious demonstrations against rape and institutionalized victim-blaming known as “SlutWalks.”
What began as a modest initiative of five Canadian women has put people into motion on an international scale. The actions have carved out a space for women transnationally to voice their experiences with sexual assault. Indeed, several of the satellite SlutWalk websites have been transformed into blogs for women to share their stories, many for the first time. Perhaps one of the most significant outcomes has been the growing dialogue on how to create a movement that includes and represents the experience and voice of women who live at the intersection of multiple avenues of oppression.
As feminists within communities of color have been quick to explain, the dominant perspective reflected in the SlutWalk is that of privileged and white women, for whom it is easier to don revealing outfits while re-appropriating sexist slurs than for women of color, who suffer doubly from widespread characterizations of sluttishness, pornographic objectification, and sexual victimization often at the hands of law enforcement.
Undeniably, the SlutWalk has a post-modern flavor. It attempts to celebrate individual choice without reflecting on how these choices affect our most oppressed sisters. In doing so, the SlutWalk conveniently ignores that as women our choices are severely constrained within a patriarchal society and conceals diverse definitions of an empowered womanhood across ethnic and class lines.
As South Asian organizer and writer Harsha Walia aptly notes, “In the post 9/11 climate, the focus on a particular version of sex(y)-positive feminism runs the risk of further marginalizing Muslim women’s movements who are hugely impacted by the racist ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate and state policies against the niqab.”
Further, the character of the actions can be interpreted as an extension and endorsement of “raunch culture” perpetuated by the multi-million dollar porn industry, which commodifies women’s bodies and sexuality for large profits.
The SlutWalk has magnified a generational divide in ideology and tactics between second and third-wave feminists and has facilitated imperative inter-generational discussions on the best strategy toward women’s liberation. While younger generations of women and men have been quick to join in, many who came out of the women’s movement of the 1970s are cautioning against sacrificing hard-won gains. Although they support the message and are moved by the energy it has harnessed, they remain turned off by the problematic packaging.
As Rebecca Traister noted in a New York Times op-ed, “To object to these ugly characterizations is right and righteous. But to do so while dressed in what look like sexy stewardess Halloween costumes seems less like victory than capitulation (linguistic and sartorial) to what society already expects of its young women.”
SlutWalks have now been organized in over 70 cities in the U.S., Australia, Sweden, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, and South Africa. Most recently, SlutWalks have spread to India and South Korea. International organizers have faced challenges adapting the SlutWalk to local cultural norms and sensibilities while trying to preserve its objectives and character. In Delhi, Indian organizers have had a tough time reassuring women that dressing in minimal clothing is not a prerequisite for participation. They have also had to alter the name in order to make it culturally appropriate.
Such adjustments highlight the complications that arise in a global movement for women’s rights and call attention to the need to include women of all ethnic backgrounds when setting an agenda for an international movement. These obstacles stem from the fact that the SlutWalk was originally developed as a small-scale response to a local incident and was organized in large part via Facebook.
Despite legitimate and vital critiques, the grassroots uprisings are an inspiring and welcomed development. They indicate that women and their allies are ready to fight institutionalized sexism in the face of a national blitzkrieg on women rights.
We must attempt to understand the aspirations that these layers of women have for sexual liberation, encourage others to join in and work with participants toward the development of a more inclusive feminist politics that addresses the class and ethnic specificities of all working women.
That said, the feminist movement cannot be reduced to the SlutWalk. As the politics of the SlutWalk develop and are continually shaped by global and cross-cultural influence, other efforts to combat rape, attacks on abortion and sexual freedom must continue. Although the SlutWalk has garnered substantial attention, it is hard to say where it is headed and what potential it has to engender real change. We’ve seen movements for women’s rights go awry through collaboration with the Democratic Party and law enforcement in the past.
Socialist Action argues for a grassroots mass movement that is independent of the capitalist parties. The rights that women have today were not handed to them or gained by pleading with politicians or begging for help from law enforcement. True women’s liberation means sexual freedom for all women despite ethnicity, class, or immigration status. It includes free and comprehensive health care, decent wages and the elimination of the wage disparity, job security, and safe, affordable child care. It means free and accessible birth control and abortion on demand and quality sex education from an early age. This is impossible under a wage-profit system, but is possible under an economy based on human need. Because the oppression of women is inextricably linked to the capitalist system, full liberation of women requires nothing short of a socialist revolution.
> The article above was written by Ona Tzinger, and first appeared in the August 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.