This morning, after sleeping less time than I spent writing about my personal experience of sex work, I couldn’t stay asleep when I started thinking about it again, which quickly led to re-thinking the motivations I have for making many of the arguments I give concerning the autonomy of women who struggle with radically different forms of oppression than I have experienced and continue to be subjected to. I especially take the time to argue against categorical generalizations of women who live at the intersection of racism and sexism. But more specifically, this morning my thoughts went to arguments such as “Stop calling burqas a symbol of oppression against women in the Middle East” and “Stop painting all acts of female genital cutting with the same colour of helpless victim“, at which point it occurred to me why I take these under-represented stances:
What the end of gendered violence sounds like isn’t “We’re going to stop this from happening to you ever again, regardless of whether or not it was your choice to begin with.” The sound of freedom from gendered violence is the right to choose for oneself, the right to be heard as the primary subject of one’s own experiences, and the right to be respectfully engaged and educated about one’s choices, even if in the end, that decision runs counter to popular opinion.
The thing that everyone who is busy arguing about all women in burqas, or all racialized women with modified genitalia, or even all female sex workers, consistently seems to forget in all this arguing, is that the same principle on which they construct drug-legalization arguments needs to be applied to women’s rights too. Not all women will choose the same thing, given the choice to make that decision themselves. Therefore, it is not up to us to choose for them by removing all options apart from the one(s) we feel are safest or the most superior way to live and express oneself as a woman. We simply cannot, as a world, move women’s rights forward by ignoring women’s autonomy — especially in those cases where we see a violation of the most widely promoted social norms. When we fail to protect that right to choose, we fail to protect the rights of the people who made that choice.
I will neither dispute nor deny that a lot of women are subjected to violence, up to and including violation of their basic human rights and loss of life. I will neither dispute nor deny that this is wrong. Every time another woman is threatened, stalked, harassed, beaten, raped, maimed, or murdered, it hits me where all but the last one have happened to me — and it hits me where I’ve very narrowly avoided being murdered on multiple occasions. Every time a woman takes her own life to stop and endless wave of oppression against her, it hits me where I spent entire days sobbing through my own suicidal ideations. I am literally so upset about what I know happens to women all over the world every day, that it consumes my conscious thoughts and paints my nightmares with their blood as well as my own.
But a government telling me that I can’t cover up my body to obscure my body’s shape isn’t going to help advance my rights. A government telling me that if I don’t unveil my face while I swear the oath of citizenship means that I have fewer rights than women in this country had prior to the suffrage movement, isn’t going to stop the constant wave of oppression against me. A world-wide campaign to systematically eradicate a pillar of my culture that is treated, even in communities where we operate with consent, as a horrible atrocity is not going to eradicate all gendered violence along with it. And my government depriving me of the right to create legal and sustainable safeguards while I engage in sex work with police cooperation and protection, is only going to help people who would exploit that vulnerability to erase me from the face of the planet when everyone’s back is turned.
When many of these inequalities apply exclusively to racialized women, I am even more outraged. It’s not me as an individual who is injecting racism into the dialogue, and I’m not individually responsible for constructing a world in which their skin colour and ethnic identity distinguishes them in diminishing ways. What racialized means as a word, is that race is a social construct that is systematically projected onto the lives of people of colour all over the globe. There is only one human race, but the lasting costs of colonialism to all people of colour into the present day mean that not all people are born with equal status. It’s as painfully simple as that. I’ve written before about the cost of colonialism to white lives, and how avoiding the responsibility of tallying that up is only causing us more harm as a society on the whole. But racist stereotyping and racializing are our favourite scapegoats (if you’ve never looked up the historical root of this word in the history of the Jewish faith, I suggest you read about it now — the differences between what it meant then and what it means now are subtle, but astonishing).
To conclude my sleepless sentiments, we all need to stop basing our support for the advancement of women’s rights on the assumption that they have no autonomy until we remove certain options for all of them (especially regarding racialized women). Virtually any current events about the war on women’s rights to access birth control and safe abortions in the United States will serve up a heaping pile of why. The only reason I haven’t yet written about any of that is because I’m still in emotional and cultural shock from the successful passing of a-fetus/egg-is-a-person legislation that literally criminalizes abortion, oral contraceptive, and even pregnancy.