The Battle isn’t over: #metoo and the fall of Raqqa
While the Western media feasts on the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, Sophie Williams looks to the Middle East and the women fighting for feminism armed with more than hashtags.
For the last three weeks, the front page of every paper in the Western world has painted its pages with the face of Harvey Weinstein, the grotesque straw that broke the back of a Hollywood propped up by patriarchal values and institutional sexism. It exposed an industry in which sex not only sells, but buys; buys vulnerable young women their ‘big break’ and ensures that acts, no matter how damaging, never get in the way of art. The shock of the Harvey Weinstein revelation is multi-faceted. Shocking because so many influential people knew about his actions and did nothing, because only when there is safety in numbers, do women feel they can speak out.Shocking because it has taken a scandal of this magnitude and world famous victims to shed light on the deeply ingrained and inescapable nature of sexual harassment. Shocking because, in many ways, it’s not a shock at all, especially to those at its epicentre.
When I started to think of women who inspired me, I jumped immediately to the women who have stood up against Weinstein, who have had the bravery to speak out against a monster who abused his power on many levels.And consequently, to the #metoo movement that has seen women come together to share their stories of harassment, to share the moments which may have seemed like ‘nothing,’ but which proliferate to form the chunky brush strokes of a damning picture. A picture of a society in which women have to look over their shoulders every time they walk alone and in which ignorance has male friends seeing a walk home as nothing but a means to an end. Weinstein has, in many ways, provided a catalyst for women to speak out against harassment and bring it to the forefront of national and international discourse. Women across the Western world are now supported by the influence of A-listers who haveexposed issues further reaching thanBeverly Hills hotel rooms and the lingering ghosts of unwanted advances. The collective movement has been the only positive outcome of the sordid Weinstein affair, and has raised theprofile of an issue whose magnitude has barely registered until now. But the #metoo hashtag, along with all of its positives and its progress, is problematic in one crucial way. And that is in its exclusivity. An exclusivity which makes it a tool and a platform for the voices of women in the West, but actually emphasises the silence of those who have no voice, those in war torn countries in Africa and the Middle East. Last week Raqqa, the last remaining ISIS stronghold in Syria, fell to Kurdish and Sunni Arabic forces. Among the troops were the female fighters of the Kurdish Women’s protection unit, or the YPJ. Among those liberated were the Yazidi sex slaves of the ISIS soldiers. These are women who can’t join in with #metoo and who don’t have a collective platform or digital movement to instigate change. It is these women who are largely forgotten in the eyes of the Western media; they too should occupy front pages and they too deserve to be heard, to be looked up to.
On October 22nd, while the Weinstein accusations piled up, ISIS lost control of their capital, the centre of the ‘Caliphate’ since 2014. The city once-adorned by black flags and ruled by strict sharia law was breathing its last breath. Its crumbled walls had fallen to reveal the relics of an oppressive and criminal state, sites of beheadings, unjust murders, public rape and crimes against humanity. The fall of Raqqa isa turning point in the power balance of ISIS, removing its last remaining physical fortress. This has pushed it into the dissociative state of being a ‘state’ united purely by ideology. The photos are striking:bleached buildings bent double, mounds of ashen rubble rising out of cracked concrete streets. But the most striking thing of all? The prominence of female soldiers.Every other image shows a woman, dressed in uniform, bearing a flag and a smile at the freeing of the Syrian city. While women in the West gather momentum in their fight against sexism, women in the East fight against the machine guns and nail bombs of the Islamic State. These are women who deserve to be looked up to and who deserve to join the conversation in the fight for equality. Their war, however, goes far beyond one of words, or rather, hashtags.
The women of Kurdish Women’s Protection Unit, or YPJ, have been fighting ISIS for over four years. There are 24,000 of them operating within a country in which traditional ideas of female and male gender roles are entrenched. The YPJ challenge these roles and, upon joining the force, women learn ‘Jineology,’ a form of feminism with a focus on gender equality and secular attitudes. The YPJ are women who are not only fighting for liberation from a fundamentalist ideology and for the Kurdish cause, but who are fighting for the women who are enslaved under ISIS rule. Those include the Yazidisex slaves of whom there are an estimated 3000 still unaccounted for, the women who for over four years have suffered with no rights, no freedom and no independence. Who have suffered being bought and sold like cattle on the open market. These women and young girls are raped daily by multiple men, fearing for their lives and, more tragically, ending them in order to escape the trauma. The YPJ have helped rescue some of the 2950 Yazidi women who have escaped,and lost fellow female soldiers at the hands of ISIS. These women have looked death, capture and rape in the eye on a daily basis and have fought for women less respected than an animal in a western home. We cannot begin to fathom the experience of these women, both those fighting and being fought for. We cannot relate to them. We cannot say #metoo, and hopefully we will never have to. But the collective voice of women over the last few weeks has raised the profile of gender politics and harassment to the forefront of international conversation, and we cannot only fight for what we can relate to. While we think about all the women who have shared their stories and whose lives have been affected by harassment, while we think about the #metoo movement, we need to think about those who can’t share their stories. We have to fight for those who can’t be heard and whose battle is far from over.
As Harvey Weinstein and the sexist values of old Hollywood continue to crumble, there is a running parallel this story of another fall and another fight. Raqqa has been released from the grip of ISIS - why are these battle cries not being heard? There is a certain synergy in this. We are all fighting for freedom from inequality at every level, and this is why we need to give a platform to these women who have been through the unthinkable. We can’t say #metoo to their plight, or give them celebrity endorsement, but we can look up to the YPJ who are fighting for women’s rights in a bloody civil war. We can look up to those whose memories will never be free from horror. We can’t say #metoo, but we can look up to them. We’re women and their war is our war.