Brown Lives For A White Utopia: The War From The West


Every year, to mark International Women’s Day, Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi hosts a breakfast in Sydney. Following is one of the speeches delivered yesterday morning, by Randa Abdel-Fatah.

There are many atrocities that occur around the world daily.

Our media coverage of disaster, terrorism, injustice in the Global South/third world mediates our emotional and moral engagement with the distant suffering of brown bodies.

But last year, in the long list of atrocities and unspeakable crimes committed around the world, one incident sank deep within me. I don’t know why this incident in particular. I can remember where I was. I was sitting in Abu Dhabi airport, in transit, going through my Facebook feed when I came across a Greens’ press release. And it shifted something about my way of thinking about human rights.

In October 2015, the international medical organisation Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, was attacked in a horrific aerial bombing by international Coalition forces.

MSF’s hospital was the only facility specialised to provide free high-level life- and limb-saving trauma care in north-eastern Afghanistan. Fourteen staff members and twenty-four patients, including three children, and four caretakers were killed. Patients burned in their beds, media staff were decapitated and lost limbs, and others were shot by circling AC-130 gunship while fleeing for safety.

Just a month earlier, MSF had provided the GPS coordinates of the trauma hospital to Coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials.

Dr Kathleen Thomas, an Australian doctor there at the time, reported: “The staff that had tirelessly looked after victims of war trauma for the past six days, had now sustained the same injuries as their patients – limbs blown off, shrapnel rocketed through their bodies, burns, pressure wave injuries of the eyes and ears.”

The Greens press release that I read in my Facebook feed in the middle of the night at Abu Dhabi airport described how a motion to offer condolences to MSF and call for an independent investigation were refused by the Turnbull government.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

I’ve been deeply embedded in Palestinian activism for years now, so if any conflict introduces one to the harsh reality of the blatant double standards of the United Nations and the selective application of human rights and international humanitarian law, it is that.

And yet, at that moment, something shifted for me.

As I read that press release I began to wonder whether I had this whole human rights business all wrong. And the realisation was sobering, but also a catalyst for rethinking how one can try to effect change.

The realisation was that time and time again, international human rights law, the United Nations, our own governments, instil the expectation of universality in us all, and yet deny this universality at the very moment they encourage us to claim it.

We are hailed into answering the call of ‘humanity’, of ‘human’, of ‘everyone’, of ‘women’.

But how many times is the call of the ‘universal’ answered, only to be met with a brutal reminder that actually, no, you are not part of the universal? You are not the human we mean by human rights. You are not the woman we mean when we talk about women’s rights?

The women who were murdered in MSF’s hospital, the women who lost their loved ones, the women who have been maimed and scarred, are these the women we think about in the West when we imagine women?

When I turn on the television, or watch a movie, or listen to the radio, or go to a literary or film festival in Australia, Europe or the US, I know for a fact that the films I see, the books that are given the most prominent reviews, the news reporters who deliver the news, the panel shows that discuss the issues of the day, the stories, histories, lives that are privileged are overwhelmingly white women, white humans.

White is universal and the woman of colour is an exotic deviation from the universal. In our speech acts we talk about the universal, obscuring how particular it is in life and death.

We need to ask: Who is the human in human rights? Who is the women in women’s rights?

While I was at a conference in New York last year, I listened to a researcher discussing her experience interviewing Syrian refugees in Turkey. She told us about a mother who had fled Aleppo because she had a three-month-old baby.

The mother told her she fled not because she was scared of her or her baby dying. Her greater security issue was that the baby was scared of the noise bombs made. The mother was looking for a ‘safe’, ‘quiet’ place to live so the baby would not be unsettled by the noise.

For this Syrian woman, death is not the worst-case scenario. I listened to this woman’s story, and I thought about the babies I’d brought into the world in Australia. The lullaby music apps I’d downloaded to calm my baby into sleep. The settling classes I’d attended with midwives who taught us all about routines, and timetables and ambient environments. Am I, a mother in the West, the same as a mother in Syria?

Are these the woman we imagine when we work to ‘change the world’ as feminists in the west?

The refusal to offer condolences to the people who died in that hospital is more complex than merely hardball politics. It speaks to something fundamental in the way our world is structured. So why did this realisation have such a profound shift on my thinking, work and my activism?

From the grounds of the bombed hospital, the MSF staff in Kunduz sent their deep appreciation to everyone around the world who stood in solidarity with them. Three weeks after the event this is the first time they've see each other again. (IMAGE: Medecins Sans Frontieres)
From the grounds of the bombed hospital, the MSF staff in Kunduz sent their deep appreciation to everyone around the world who stood in solidarity with them. Three weeks after the event this is the first time they’ve see each other again. (IMAGE: Medecins Sans Frontieres)

What if the reason we cannot imagine women – their struggles, hopes, aspirations, beliefs, values, dreams – beyond the women we see dominating our political, social, economic and cultural spaces in the West is because the cost of such an imagining is too high? What if it’s not double-standards? What if we abandon the charade and acknowledge that it is different standards because that is the way we have allowed the world to be structured?

The fact is that the bombing of Afghan human beings is a lesser crime than the killing of Western human beings.

Wouldn’t admitting this mean, at the very least, that we can start to take an honest look at who we speak for, who we listen to, whose rights we privilege, whose safety and security we deem more worthy, and what it is that we can do in our lives to expose the exceptionalism – not universalism – of human rights?

When I was in high school I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s dystopian short story, ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’. It had quite an impact on me but I didn’t think about it again until I came across a reference to it in an essay on tolerance by Christos Tsiolkas. It was another moment of epiphany that I think speaks to this.

In LeGuin’s short story, Omelus is a city of utopia. A city of happiness. But the people’s happiness is based on a bargain: the misery of one child. Under the city a single child is kept locked in a closet, half-starved, naked, sitting in dirt and its waste. This child is revealed to Omelans when they reach adolescence and they realise that their happiness is predicated on this child’s misery.

They must choose whether to remain in Omelas and consent to this trade-off, or whether they will leave. Thus, in making that choice, the people’s happiness is the direct cause of the child’s suffering.

We are all, in our own ways, Omelans. The extent to which we succumb to this utilitarian paradigm differs. But we are citizens of one of the wealthiest nations on earth. We live in a country where successive governments are simply unprepared to do what it takes to truly address the continuing legacies and injustices on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of our settler-colonial past and continuing practices.

We have successively voted in governments that consider it right and proper that human beings fleeing persecution should be caged up in deplorable conditions, either in remote detention centres on our mainland, or offshore in legal gulags.

We lock up people fleeing wars that we are involved in. Wars we are involved in because we consider the enemy is so brutal, so vicious, so barbaric that we must fight them – but they are not so brutal, not so vicious, not so barbaric if you are a refugee trying to escape.

We are allied to the US and the UK in the war on terror, a war prosecuted to avenge the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans. Three thousand innocent American lives have been avenged with millions and millions of innocent non-Western lives.

Remember Madeline Albright said, about half a million children dying from US sanctions, that ‘the price was worth it’?

We made that trade-off.

We live in a country where successive governments support imperialist wars that kill, maim, dispossess and displace women. Shakira Hussein, in her recent book From Victims to Suspects interviewed women in remote parts of Pakistan. Women there told her that they have given up sending their children to school because the threat of American drones killing their children means that there is no point to school.

We consume commodities, goods and services made via by women in the global south who have bigger employment problems than a failure to follow Sheryl Sandberg’s advice and ‘lean in’.

New York City. (IMAGE: Kolitha de Silva, Flickr)
New York City. (IMAGE: Kolitha de Silva, Flickr)

The global north represents one quarter of the world’s population but controls four fifths of the income earned anywhere in the world. The global South is three quarters of the world populations but has access to one fifth of the world income.

Are these the women imagined when movements and organisations led by white middle class women think about the next fight to take on? What is the point of any activism if we are not prepared to challenge the fact that our privilege is based on the oppression and exploitation of the majority of the world’s female population?

I know I must sound accusatory. Please understand that I am also complicit and I am speaking back to myself as well. I am the daughter of a Palestinian father who was dispossessed of his homeland because of the creation of the state of Israel. I am the daughter of an Egyptian mother whose parents migrated to Australia because they stood to lose everything when Jamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Egyptian economy.

With the injustices my family have endured – injustices entangled in Western intervention in the Middle East – I recognise that I was born in a country that exists because of a brutal colonisation and dispossession of the first people’s of this land, the legacy of which they continue to deal with today.

I cannot escape the excesses of capitalism, so matter how hard I try. So I too am complicit.

But this makes me feel even more strongly the urgency of interrogating equality and justice and a rights discourse that have just become grand abstractions and polemics. We need to face the reality that there is a child kept locked in a room in the bottom of this country, starved and miserable, in order for us to be able to go about our daily lives.

We need to confront liberal hypocrises which treat racism and patriarchy as separate struggles. We need to challenge what is articulated casually, matter-of-factly and as common sense the idea that patriarchy and violence against women is inherent to the ‘third world’ and exceptional in the west.

Surely International Women’s Day is about asking which women should we be listening to? Who needs to stop talking to allow others to speak up?

For almost every day of the year it is Western women in this world whose rights, narratives, priorities, security, liberties, dreams and aspirations are privileged and advanced.

So what can we do? Short of challenging the entire basis of an increasingly destructive, degrading and dehumanising social, moral, economic and political global order, we all have the power to create our own ripples. I wanted to leave you today with four challenges.

The first addresses the need to recognise that the feminism we know in the West is not universal. It is highly particular and the denial of its particularity means it is not inclusive of feminisms ‘of colour’ or ‘Third-World’ feminisms. What we need is to abandon the discourse of rescuing women and instead listen to women on a footing of respect.

Which leads me to the second challenge. One of the effects of the privileging of white histories, stories, dreams and experiences across the world is that we fail to encounter and indeed imagine women around the globe, except through the prism of pity and victimhood or the exotic.

We often think of how we can rescue them. Teach them.

The wall built by Israel, which has been the scene of numerous deaths. (IMAGE Bradley Howard, Flickr).
The wall built by Israel, which has been the scene of numerous deaths. (IMAGE Bradley Howard, Flickr).

I will never forget my last trip to Palestine. I was at a checkpoint and an old woman was in front of me, next to her young granddaughter. The Israeli soldier, in his broken Arabic accent, yelled at her ‘imshi! Imshi!’ to move her along faster.

In Arabic this was the equivalent of yelling out get lost or eff off. It’s gutter language and tone, and was calculated by that soldier to humiliate her in front of her young granddaughter.

The grace and dignity and strength of this woman, and the sheer spunk of her granddaughter who stood head high as she clutched her grandmother’s hand, shamed me. It reminded me that I had nothing to teach or offer these women and everything to learn.

And yet, when we often think of women in the Middle East or Asia or Africa, we think of victims to be rescued, when in fact their courage, ingenuity, creativity, strength and resilience is what should shape and direct our feminism, not the other way around.

The third challenge is to understand that feminism’s particularity is based on the premise of Western superiority. To challenge that superiority means understanding some fairly important but often silenced histories. That the originating roots of Western wealth and hegemony is built on colonialism, slavery, dispossession and genocide.

Consider that the fragility of contemporary Africa is a direct consequence of two centuries of slaving, followed by another of colonial despotism. That is the historical record.

We need to understand the link between imperialism, colonialism, western government’s intervention in the third world and the destruction of civil society institutions and nation building projects that are fundamental to guaranteeing basic rights for women.

The idea that the West can lecture the rest of the world on human rights is a joke when the US and the UK make millions of dollars selling arms to despots and autocrats to enable them to oppress, exploit and abuse their populations.

That goes to the heart of what I was saying before. This doesn’t occur because of double standards. We are happy to outsource, injustice and tyranny because people in the third world – and those escaping the third world who are naïve enough to think we will care and not lock them up for trying – only understand violence; they don’t value freedom like we do.

This is the mentality that allows the government of this country to refuse to offer condolences to those murdered in Afghanistan. They are human beings, sure, but less. Admitting that is the moral status quo is a good place to start effecting change.

The last challenge is personal and it is a request to reflect on your own emotional and activist alliances, and to question the basis for why you may feel stronger about one cause or one group than another.

These circuits of activist or sympathetic alliances produce the very cultures that either silence the realities of the world, or expose them.

This is not an invitation to ‘rescue’ women. It’s about being honest with ourselves about the people we champion, respect, listen to as equals, and the people we judge or ignore.

Doesn’t it shame us as feminists in 2016 that Indigenous women will die younger than all other women in Australia? Where is our outrage about the NT intervention? About Indigenous deaths in custody?

Turning to the global. We are very good at campaigning against FGM or veiling practices, for example, but where are these voices when Israeli occupying forces refuse to issue travel permits to women in Gaza and the West Bank and prevent them seeking life-saving treatment for breast cancer?

How many people put a colour filter of the French flag on their facebook profile after the horrific bombs in December last year but ignored the bombs in Beirut the day before?

I ask all these questions because I am conscious that our emotions, alliances and moral allegiances are the product of a deep socialization that is reinforced in every aspect of our lives, and which shape our response to human beings based on whether we are taught to see them as more or less.

This is why I feel so privileged and honoured to address you today, as difficult and confronting as the subject matter is. Because it is not often that women of colour are invited to speak as equals, on our own terms.

I want to thank Mehreen Faruqi for this opportunity. In the end, my message is quite simple. We are all Omelans, who face a choice.

We can choose to ignore the child locked in misery in order for us to enjoy our privileges and freedoms, or we can start to work together and produce a cultural, moral and political revolution that demands a world where one person’s freedom need not come at the expense of another.

Lofty and idealistic perhaps. But Oscar Wilde put it nicely I think: A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.

That, for me, is enough to motivate us to at least try to make a difference.

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a third year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching Islamophobia and everyday life from the point of view of the perpetrators. Randa practiced as a lawyer until 2012 and is also an award-winning author of ten novels. While conducting her PhD research, Randa was inspired to write a novel on the side, enabling her to translate some of the theories and academic themes she was researching into a fictional work for a young adult audience. The novel is due for release in 2016. Randa is also working on the film adaptation of her first novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? and is keen to use her intervention into popular culture to reshape dominant narratives around racism and multiculturalism.