Stealthy Freedoms and the Colonial Gaze

by Zishad Lak.

Zishad is a PhD student in Canadian Literature in University of Ottawa. Her thesis examines the relation between names and migration in contemporary Canadian novels.

A few months ago a Facebook page created by a London-based Iranian journalist caught a lot of attentions and was shared mainly by my non-Iranian friends on Facebook: Stealthy Freedoms. Stealthy Freedoms is a Facebook page where Iranian women post their pictures with headscarves removed in public to protest the compulsory head cover. Their hair is often romantically disheveled by the wind; smiles are in order for the camera: pictures worthy of Facebook profiles. In fact, if one did go through the Facebook profile pictures of Iranian residents I suspect they will find a large number of women among them are not wearing a scarf in these pictures and a number of these unveiled clichés are taken outdoors in public spaces. This is not in any way to justify the compulsion of certain attire on women, that is absolutely not defendable, but rather to maintain that the mere uncovering of hair in public is no longer shocking in Iran, if it ever were, nor does it break a taboo. It is in no way comparable to Amina Tyler’s denudation that risked her life. The difference between the method used by FEMEN and the pictures posted on Stealthy Freedoms Facebook page is worth pondering.

In the past decade or so we have been seeing an emergence of queer and feminist movements of colour criticising the white supremacy inscribed in what they call white feminism. This has been a place of contention and has often created a gap between feminists of colour that found themselves silent victims in the discourse of white feminism and white feminists who refuse to see and accept their privileges. The latest Twitter hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, attests to this divide; one that I believe invokes much needed debates and is an essential part of a dynamic feminism, or any decolonising movement for that matter. Those feminists who deny such divides choose to close their eyes on the omnipresence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy and reduce the movement to mere legal equalities in a justice system that is inherently sexist and racist.

Whoever claims to be a feminist is then a feminist, no question about it, far from me to police that. Feminism after all, is a political imperative, an affirmation that such a movement is required here and now. But this does not mean that every unthoughtful action in the name of resistance must be praised. Feminism comes with a commitment and a responsibility. It is costly; if it isn’t you are not doing it right. It is lonely; if you are praised by right and left you are not disturbing much. So sometimes lighthearted, non-radical actions don’t translate into small contributions or do not simply die in obscurity but impose set backs on the movement.

We saw that following her release from detention, Amina Tyler bared her body again, this time, inscribed on it were words that denounced FEMEN’s Islamophobia and in doing so she set an example of how a dynamic decolonisation must constantly interrogate itself and the repercussions of its actions. So it is not necessarily the group, FEMEN, whose leader in turn denounced Amina, that I evoke but rather the method of protest that is used by this group or similar manners of protest (such as this) The subject in these protests is not still, she interrupts a formed body and unsettles the naturalised norm before those most loyal to it.

In the opening picture of this article, for example, FEMEN protesters appear topless before the eyes of anti-abortion protesters and their children. The parents cover the eyes of their children to protect them from being exposed to desexualised breasts, breasts that unlike those of their mothers, are not maternal and do not serve any purpose in reproduction. What is more, the rage of heterosexual men in online forums and comment boards against these demonstrators illustrates the unsettling effect and affect of these bodies. I have read men use the most abominable terms to describe these women’s bodies, expressing their utter disgust over the exposed cellulites, criticising the women for being too thin, too fat, but most importantly and most often as sexually undesirable. These de-monstrating bodies are monstrous in that they deny these men the object of their desire. They move, are moving; for these women often march into an event to disrupt it. When captured in picture, the text inscribed on these bodies compels the eyes of the spectator to move, these bodies are not still, not even in the picture. I cannot however help but see in the picture of a woman, with wind in her hair and smile on her face the reproduction of the immobilised object before the gaze of the other. It is then not surprising that reaction to these pictures were often times positive. Many on social media hailed these women for exposing ‘the beauty of a woman’s hair’, the reason for which, expressed these users, it should not be covered. If breasts of topless FEMEN protesters are desexualised, hair in the case of these Facebook freedoms becomes the object of fetish, much like it originally was for those who imposed the compulsion in the first place.

 My second point, going back to my introduction about the feminist divide, is the gaze. Feminism has traditionally bemoaned, and continues to do so, rightfully might I add, the male gaze and its dictating dominance. Yes, that is still there. But – and this is why the uphill battle for racialised women is steep – what is often neglected in mainstream feminist discourse is the colonial gaze, including that of ‘white’ feminists. This gaze, much like the male gaze, objectifies the subject. The body becomes the picture, the picture represents the ‘affectable other’ aspiring to be human. As Andrea Smith justly points out, in her article, “Queer Theory and Native Studies”, ‘the very request for full subjecthood, implicit in the ethnographic project to tell our ‘truth’ is already premised on a logic that requires us to be objects to be discovered.’

There is of course a danger to criticisms like the one I presented in this post and it is a valid one at that: local resistance risks being thrust into obscurity to be protected from colonial interpretations. What we should be wary of is the audience or the interlocutor that is implicit in the message around which the actor organises her actions. I find it hard to believe that the Stealthy Freedoms’ page was set up merely as a local resistance, the fact that the organiser herself does not reside in Iran confirms to a great extent my suspicion. Iranian feminists inside of Iran, much like other feminists all around the world, are faced with and fight against the heteropatriarchal powers in micro and macro levels. As Western feminists we have a responsibility too: to be critical about the kind of struggle that is brought to our attention and reflect upon the reasons behind the publicity they receive. As coloured feminists, we should be alert about the colonial relations that appropriate our movements and not hesitate to denounce them, as Amina Taylor did so bravely and in doing so exposed the racism engraved in certain Occidental feminist movements. I strongly believe that despite all the good intentions behind it, Stealthy Freedom is deeply invested in a naïve heteropatriarchy that makes of immobilised women objects to be saved by the humanity of the universal subject. The struggle faced by women of colour cannot be assimilated into a universal and international feminism. For as long as the universal is defined by the Western subject, women of colour are, to use Andrea Smith’s words, a particular aspiring to humanity, to the universal humanity of the ‘self-determined’ Western subject.

(Image from a Toronto Sun report of the event (Tony Caldwell/QMI Agency))

1 Comment | Comment on This Post

Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion Couldn’t Come at Better Time

Guest post by Jill Cambidge

Today, September 28, marks the International Day of Action for the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion, an effort for organizations to campaign for women’s reproductive rights worldwide. The movement began with the struggle to address the public health crisis of unsafe abortions in Latin America before spreading to include countries and organizations across the globe. This year’s action holds even greater meaning for Canada since it falls on the very same week that Motion 312, which sought to re-open the abortion debate in Canada, was struck down in Ottawa.

Now, since some of you reading this probably think you are experiencing a horrifying case of déjà vu, allow me to clarify exactly what that last sentence means.  On April 26, 2012, parliament debated a motion introduced by Conservative MP, Stephen Woodworth. Motion 312 sought to appoint a special committee to review the section of the Criminal Code that states that a fetus becomes a child only after complete birth. While the rhetoric of Woodworth’s motion may try to frame the issue as a “medical evidence” seeking mission focusing on the definition of what constitutes a human being, many Canadians were not fooled by the thinly-veiled attempt to re-open the debate on women’s right to abortion.

According to Woodworth, “the current law dehumanizes and excludes an entire class of people”. That’s interesting. I would think that taking away a woman’s basic right to choose what to do with her own body would dehumanize and exclude about half the population in Canada. You know, that half that can ACTUALLY GET PREGNANT.

Immigration Minister and prominent Conservative MP, Jason Kenney, also voted for the motion stating before the vote took place that he believes, “we can have a respectful debate” on the issue. Prime Minister Stephen Harper voted against the motion although it has already been pointed out that allowing M-312 to be tabled at all goes against his promise that he would open the abortion debate. Essentially, all it does is shift the blame from himself while giving his Conservative MP’s the chance to vote the motion in.

So, it appears these privileged white men really believe they know what’s best for women’s bodies. Cue the collective groan of feminists everywhere.

For many, this back-door attempt to re-open the abortion debate stirs up memories of the hard-fought battle it took to legalize abortion in Canada in the first place. Let’s recap. In 1969 Pierre Trudeau’s government became the first one in Canada to legalize abortion for some women, under certain circumstances. Women had to present their case before a panel of mostly male doctors who would determine whether or not her request for abortion was “medically necessary”. This ruling presented obvious flaws since it defined the terms of what constitutes a “legitimate reason” for wanting an abortion in medical terms and failed to address the reality that many women choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy for a myriad of reasons. Reasons such as, inadequate finances, not being ready for the responsibility, having a problematic or abusive relationship with the father, feeling too young, health problems, or maybe just plain not wanting to be pregnant.

Women were granted full legal access to abortion by the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark ruling of Roe vs. Morgentaler in 1988 which states that, “the decision whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is essentially a moral decision and in a free and democratic society, the conscience of the individual must be paramount to that of the state.” In other words, the government has absolutely no say on what women decide to do regarding their bodies. According to Statistics Canada, over 3 million abortions have been performed since the act was first decriminalized in 1969.

M-312 was debated for one hour in parliament last Friday and MP’s voted on the motion on Wednesday, September 26, 2012. The motion was denied with a vote of 203-91, meaning that Canada’s Criminal Code, which currently states that life begins at the moment of complete birth, will stand as it should; unchanged.

This victory can be attributed to a number of women’s groups and human rights activists who rallied against M-312 to safeguard women’s right to choose. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada released this statement condemning the motion and have since called for the resignation of Conservative MP, Rona Ambrose, as Minister for the Status of Women after she voted in favour of the motion on Wednesday.

Radical Handmaids, so named after Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, have been petitioning and protesting the motion since its introduction in April. On Wednesday, the group took to Parliament Hill adorned in red capes and white hats while MP’s voted in the House of Commons. Leadnow, a democracy-seeking public advocacy group, raised money to place this ad for MP’s to see in the pages of the Ottawa Citizen on the morning of the vote.

Despite the victory for women’s reproductive rights in Canada this week, the fact that Motion 312 was even introduced proves that this fight is not over. While abortions are covered by healthcare in most provinces, many women living in rural areas of the country struggle to safely access abortion. In Yukon, Nunavut, Nova Scotia, and the Northwest Territories abortion clinics are not among the services offered. Not to mention the women living in Prince Edward Island do not have any access to safe abortions. Furthermore, as the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion highlights, our sisters’ across the world still face tremendous obstacles for autonomy over their bodies and their right to choose abortion. For countless women the battle for fair reproductive rights is not over. In fact, for many it is just beginning.

The state of abortion rights in countries outside of Canada can be summarized in this brief statement from the GCDA’s website:

Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic continue to uphold the complete ban on abortion in any circumstances, even if it is necessary to save the life of the woman. Currently in Colombia 99% of abortions performed in the country remain illegal and occur in unsafe conditions despite Colombia’s 2006 Constitutional Court ruling that legalised abortion in certain circumstances. Poland already has some of the strictest abortion restrictions in Europe and continues to run the risk of instigating a complete ban on abortion in all circumstances due to increasing conservative pressure. 

According to an article written for the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the estimated number of women worldwide who die from unsafe or so-called back-alley abortions is 68,000, while related injuries are around 8 million. It is no surprise that most of these numbers come from the more poverty-stricken areas of the world in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia. In Canada, before the legalization of abortion, it is estimated that around 4,000-6,000 women died between 1926 and 1947.

So the basic facts stand as follows; even if women do not have access to legal and safe abortions, guess what, THEY ARE STILL GOING TO DO IT. Women are willing to risk their own lives in unsafe conditions to rid themselves of an unwanted pregnancy. We know this has happened here and is happening in other areas of the world. It is now more important than ever to recognize the struggles of women everywhere as we continue fighting for our right to abortion. The lives of women depend on it.

For more information and to take action with the Global Campaign for the Decriminalization of Abortion visit

Jill Cambidge is a recent graduate from Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication.

3 Comments | Comment on This Post

Global organizing gone awry: why international neo-liberal feminist movements are bad for women and bad for feminism

By Natalie Hill

Natalie Hill is an MA student in the Centre for Women’s and Gender Studies. She graduated from the School of Journalism at Carleton University, is a core organizing member of WAM! Vancouver (Women, Action and the Media). She is interested in effective transnational activism to end violence against women.


Feminists organizing for women’s rights in 2011 face a unique challenge: as community organizers, just what defines “our” community? Anyone reading this blog can likely recognize the oft-repeated mantras: we live in a borderless society; we are a global community.

The phrases “global feminism” and “transnational feminism” have surfaced in recent decades, and are now thrown around (often interchangeably) when discussing international feminist movements, gatherings or alliances.  But there is a big difference between global feminism and transnational feminism.  It boils down to whether we are committed to wide-reaching, yet locally sensitive organizing, or if we prefer to promote a one-size-fits-all, please-all-the-world diluted pseudo-feminist politic.

Margaretha Geertsma, an associate professor at Butler University’s Faculty of Journalism and Communication, has written extensively on this topic in recent years.  She describes global feminism as a white, hegemonic US-based feminism, blind to difference and unique global contexts in the pursuit of a movement that “unites” all women (“Look! We all did a Slutwalk! My signs are in English, yours in Tagalog, we are one.  Success!”).  Other critics of the concept of a “global sisterhood” go even further, describing them as homogenizing, narrow, Eurocentric and imperialist.

Transnational feminism, on the other hand, treats difference – in experience, location, context, and identity – not as a challenge to be overcome, but rather as invaluable wisdom that should inform our activism.   Acknowledging these differences can only make international feminist organizing, and of course, the lives of real women around the world, better.

At the recent Women’s Worlds 2011 conference, held in Ottawa from July 3-7, the partnership of Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter and la Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle presented Flesh Mapping: Prostitution in a globalized world/La Resistencia de las mujeres/Les draps parlent.  It was an interactive multimedia installation that featured video shot in both Vancouver and Montreal, and 70 bed-sheet art canvasses, demonstrating the connections between global trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women.  On display for three whole days, the exhibit was accompanied by both spontaneous dialogue among viewers, as well as structured roundtable discussions among Canadian women (women of colour, Aboriginal women, Quebecois women, white women), as well as women from Norway, Haiti, Nigeria, Morocco, Bangladesh, Japan, Mexico, South Korea, Denmark, Israel and Australia.  These speakers included women who have left prostitution, front-line workers, and community organizers.  Ninety-minute roundtable discussions were simultaneously translated into French, English and Spanish.

While the women involved were united in their recognition of the root of women’s inequality and sexual exploitation worldwide (patriarchy and capitalism, a mutually reinforcing, toxic dyad), their unique local experiences and contexts were honoured and highlighted, not glossed over for the sake of letting Western experiences and approaches prevail.  From all appearances each participant was an equal contributor to the knowledge that was shared – no one woman’s wisdom was privileged over another.

Twelve countries, three languages, countless unique voices and experiences, all coming together in a powerful display of feminist organizing.  This is transnational feminism at its finest.

It succeeded at being transnational, I argue, because organizers refused to depart from their radical approach.  They did exactly what Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan prescribe in their book, Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and transnational feminist practices; instead of operating on some pretense of “global sisterhood,” these women created true solidarity by forming alliances with women from all over world, who, while differing in their experiences and local contexts, were united in their efforts to examine, work against, and bring down patriarchy.  For the transnational feminist, the only universal is patriarchy.  Ergo, transnational feminism is, and can only be, radical in nature.

In the debates over how and when to take a transnational approach, some have argued it should be treated as an alternative between two extremes popular in international mobilization.  On the one side is religious dogma of all stripes, undermining women’s rights outright, and on the other, universalist, liberal feminism, which undermines women’s loyalties, local contexts, and unique experiences.  According to some feminist writers, transnational feminism offers a safe route between the two.

But can we really treat transnational feminism simply as an “alternative”?  There is no denying the real threat from religious fundamentalists who continue to spread their messages worldwide, whether in the form of a viral sermon or a horrifying act of domestic terrorism.  Feminists of all leans would agree these groups pose an immediate threat to women worldwide.  But is universalist, liberal ‘feminism’ – pole-dance if it makes him happy, I’m radical if I say I am ‘feminism’ – really that meek by comparison?  Keep in mind this approach is often influenced by what others have referred to as the Congo effect: “Sure Canadian men still get away with battery and harassment on a daily basis and earn 20% more than women do, but hey, at least this ain’t Congo; as long as we’re not living in the rape capital of the world we should just shut up and say thank you.  In the meantime, let’s march in, save these women, and show them how equality is really achieved!” Can we really afford to say this kind of global feminism is one way, but transitional feminism is better?  We cannot, and we should not.

When we allow Canadian, American or Western European-born ‘feminist’ movements that place individual ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment’ at their centre (of course within a Canadian, American or Western European context) we let centuries of feminist energy dedicated to dismantling patriarchy fizzle into marches and legal battles focused on very privileged women remaking age-old sexist practices (prostitution, sexual assault victim-blaming) into ways for them to profit; both literally, as profiteers in this capitalist system they seem happy to continue to perpetuate;  or metaphorically, as the women who gain worldwide fame for making ‘feminist’ activism fun, sexy and enjoyable by all.

The de-radicalization of feminist organizing worldwide makes it easy to pretend we’re fostering some magical global sisterhood.  But feminism ain’t about what’s easy.  It’s time to think, act and organize transnationally, for the good of all women on their terms,  not just the good of women like “us,” on ours.

7 Comments | Comment on This Post

Prostitution in Canada: Imagining Alternate Realities

Last night, I was inspired and moved by the powerful, passionate, political voices of three women:renowned legal scholar and anti-prostitution activist Gunilla Ekberg, anti-prostitution activist Trisha Baptie and Sherry Smilie of AWAN, who spoke yesterday at Prostitution and Women’s Equality, calling for the abolition of prostitution in Canada .

I’ll admit that despite the media coverage prostitution gets in Vancouver, in particular when discussing the DTES, the arguments for criminalizing the buying of sex are not something I’m thoroughly familiar with, or used to hearing. Far more time and space is given to those arguing that sex work and the activities surrounding it should be decriminalized in favor of a harm reduction approach (see this earlier post by Meghan Murphy for current legal challenges moving us towards decriminalization).

Thorough discussions of what the abolition of prostitution means are covered here, here and here, and last night’s panel discussion will be aired on the F-Word soon in case you missed it, so I will not delve into the details of this political vision here.

Instead, I am going to tackle three questions Gunilla Ekberg posed to the audience, challenging us to understand that prostitution is violence against women.

Firstly, who are the women used in prostiution?

Second, what is done by men to prostituted women?

Third, what are the effects of prostitution on women in prostiution, and society at large?

Think about these points for a moment, and consider the realities in Canada.

Who are the women used in prostitution?

We know, from collective knowledge and stats like these that women are prostituted in a context of poverty, racism, colonialism, and systemic sexual and physical abuse stemming from a patriarchal society that is tolerant of and complicit in, violence against women. In this context, can it ever be said that a woman is involved in prostitution based on her own free will? The context in which this ‘choice’ has been made cannot be ignored.

What is done by men to prostituted women?

Prostituted women’s bodies are used by men for sex, and that includes a myriad of acts that are humiliating and violent. Prostitution is synonymous with violence. We know this. It’s always lumped into that statement ‘high-risk lifestyle’ –as if it is a lifestyle choice to be at constant risk of violence and death. Prostituted women are beaten, raped, and murdered daily here in Vancouver. This is what is done by men to prostituted women.

What are the effects of prostitution on women in prostitution, and society at large?

Women in prostitution are degraded and devalued, their bodies are abused and trafficked, and they are used by men for pleasure and for profit. When we allow women’s bodies to be purchased and profited from, we perpetuate a patriarchal society that does not value women as equal citizens, a society where violence against women is systemic and alarmingly prevalent.

Examining these three questions, it is pretty clear that prostitution is violent and harmful to women who are directly involved in prostitution and to society in general; it perpetuates inequality between men and women, and contributes to a culture that normalizes violence against women.   Things aren’t going to change though, until we acknowledge that prostitution is violence against women, that men do not have an inherent right to access women’s bodies, and and it’s decriminalization will only serve to push it out of public view.

7 Comments | Comment on This Post

Celebrations and frustrations at the United Nations: or how I was unable to come up with a clever title

In a particularly debbie downer moment I once blurted out to my old roommate, “It’s a shame that gender equality will never be attained while I’m alive…I wish it was a trendier movement…like the environmental movement.” We had just listened to an interesting lecture on community farming. So, I had really turned a positive into a negative, and of course, truthfully I think that social and environmental justice movements are all interconnected (I mean I’m sure Treebeard’s ex-wife would have something to say about feminism and the fact that all the female Ents were called Entwives).  My pragmatic roommate fired back that I was being silly and that there is progress everywhere. Case in point: A new United Nations entity was created this year with the focus of working for the empowerment of women and girls around the world.  Holy Schlmoly how did that fly under my radar.  Maybe because a lot of us don’t actually understand what the UN does, and the fact that the following quotation always pops into my mind when I read about the UN:

Reporter: How many people work at the UN?
Kofi Annan: About half of them.

I’m not sure if he actually said that but you get the sentiment. So, anyways, I figured I might as well stop being a patty pessimist and see if I can pinpoint what “UN Women” is all about:

  • According to the UN Women or the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women’s website the group was created in July 2010
  • A number of people think the name sounds ridiculous. The French prefer their translation of ONU Femmes. “…just sounds so much better than ‘unwomen.’”
  • UN Women “will merge and build on the important work of four previously distinct parts of the UN system which focus exclusively on gender equality and women’s empowerment.” This, I like, because it’s a lot easier to point towards one international group when it comes to organizing and funding and large efforts of mobilization and education.
  • The budget? At minimum member states have said $500 milion. For some perspective, UNICEF get over 2 billion dollars a year.
  • On September 14th it was announced that Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, would be the new Under-Secretary-General for UN Women. Having a women from the Global South as head of this agency is, of course, symbolically important and Bachelet seems to have sound backing from the feminist population. Whether or not she was successful in combatting entrenched sexism in her home country during her time as president.
  • On November 10th, members will be voted on to fill the 41-member executive board. Iran and Saudi Arabia are expected to fill two of the seats. Naturally, human rights groups are wary of this development.

UN Women won’t actually be in operation until January 2011. I am cautiously hopeful about what a large scale international entity can do for the large scale problem that is gender inequality.

One British feminist in a BBC video interview said of the proposed international women’s entity: It’s gotta be big. It’s gotta be resourced. And, it’s gotta be respected.

We have yet to see if UN Women will carry all three traits.

5 Comments | Comment on This Post

Blog Categories


The purpose of the blog is to create dialogue and debate around current issues related to women, feminism, and social justice.
We enjoy active participation in the blog, however, we reserve the discretion to remove any comments that are threatening or promote hate speech.

Search This Blog:

Site by Anne Emberline