The underwear of Palestinian women has become a symbol of how Israel’s ethnic cleansing has permeated even the innermost sanctity of private, domestic life in Gaza. This International Women’s Day, as Israeli soldiers shame Palestinian women, the silence of Western feminists is deafening.

By Nadeine Asbali

In the half-light of a Gaza neighbourhood obliterated by Israeli bombardment, Israeli soldiers rummage through a boot full of underwear that has been looted from the houses they’ve pillaged and destroyed.

“I swear,” one of them says to the camera, “Palestinian women are the sluttiest in the world.”

Amidst all the horrors that have been live-streamed from Gaza, the underwear of Palestinian women in the hands of Israeli soldiers has become a sickening motif.

There is something deeply uncomfortable about how normalised this violation of Palestinian women’s private life has become. We can scarcely open a social media app without seeing yet another image of the intimate garments of our sisters in Gaza tied to the tanks that just decimated their homes or wielded like trophies by taunting occupiers.

This disturbing obsession is glaring evidence that Israel’s so-called war is about so much more than self-defence or eradicating Hamas. It is about dehumanising an entire people in order to legitimise their brutal eradication.

The underwear of Palestinian women has become a symbol of how Israel’s ethnic cleansing has permeated even the innermost sanctity of private, domestic life in Gaza.

The obsession of Israeli soldiers with Palestinian women’s underwear is a reminder that Muslim women’s bodies have always been metaphorically and physically intertwined with Western colonial pursuits.

But if this brazenness incenses me then what really infuriates me is the silence of feminists who are unmoved by this sight, who have nothing to say about the growing pile of bloodied corpses in Gaza, who are unstirred by the prospect of men in the uniform of a state upheld by the entire Western world trifling through the underwear drawers of the women whose lives they have turned to rubble.

This International Women’s Day, as we celebrate Rishi Sunak doing the dishes and the kind of pink-tinted feminism found in Barbie, the silence of feminists has never been more deafening.

Israel, we are told, is a beacon of liberalism and progressiveness in the Middle East. A shining light of Western values in the dark Arab, Muslim world. A LGBTQ+ haven, the one true democracy in the region, the only country for miles with genuine equal rights between men and women. Apparently.

But what does it mean for a state that is everything the West stands for to spawn an army obsessed with posing for videos and images holding the underwear of Palestinian women? For soldiers representing the last colonial outpost to share these images unabashed and for its citizens to laugh along at the view?

Of course, it reveals what those of us routinely oppressed by the West already know. It cements the very truth that Israel as a state is built upon. That Palestinian women, Arab women, Muslim women, aren’t women at all. They are objects to be criminalised and fetishised in equal measure. Eradicated and sexualised all at once.

Look at some of the captions shared with these images, like ‘kinky jihad’’. Rather than serving as a stark reminder of their humanity (as it would with any other group) the presence of underwear in Gaza homes becomes an excuse to dehumanise the people who lived there.

The rudimentary and the domestic are warped by the Israeli army into a weapon of war: a signal that if you are Palestinian, even the contents of your underwear drawer are not sacred, everything is collateral damage to Israel and its allies.

Perhaps we can expect no better from a state that relies on the violent erasure of Palestinians from their own homeland in order to exist.

But what we should be able to expect better from is a mainstream feminist movement that buckled over in solidarity for the women of Iran when they fought for the right to remove their hijabs, the women in America whose right to an abortion was eroded or heralded Ukrainian women for fighting back against Russian occupation.

“The obsession of Israeli soldiers with Palestinian women’s underwear is a reminder that Muslim women’s bodies have always been metaphorically and physically intertwined with Western colonial pursuits”

But for Palestine? No. There has been no mass feminist outrage at the pillaging of Palestinian women’s underwear by soldiers.

Unlike the ‘feminist’ celebrities who cut off an inch of their split ends in solidarity with the women of Iran or donated their designer wardrobes to help the displaced women of Ukraine, there has been no feminist campaign for the women of Gaza.

There may have been anger at Barbie getting snubbed at the Oscars, but when the women of Palestine are having caesareans without anaesthetic, giving birth in bombed out hospitals with no electricity, burying the children they spent a decade trying to conceive, ripping up tents for sanitary towels, mainstream feminism looks the other way – or chooses to peddle unsubstantiated claims about systematic sexual violence by Hamas.

Mainstream feminism’s silence is because mainstream feminism is in fact white, Western feminism. It cares about equal pay and getting women’s football on par with men’s and electing a female president but it has no interest in dismantling white supremacism or battling imperialism when it requires these realities for its own survival.

Western feminism sees Muslim women as its collateral damage; its perpetual victims; the recipient of its superior, liberal feminism and never an active participant in it. No matter how intersectional it may claim to have become, Western feminism is still concerned with forcing its liberal ideals upon us.

But that’s why the issue of Gazan women’s underwear has unsettled me so much. Doesn’t white, progressive, liberal feminism fight for women’s rights to obtain sexual freedom and body positivity? Doesn’t it demand it? After all, that’s why it cares about women being forced to cover up and never the other way around.

Shouldn’t it be up in arms at the sight of men using the props of a woman’s bodily autonomy to humiliate, shame and oppress them?

Hollow as the act would be, if this was happening to Western women, it’s not hard to imagine feminist figures taking to the street with knickers and bras in protest against this misogynistic act by a state’s army.

But when it comes to Muslim women, it seems we are doing it wrong. We aren’t supposed to experience such liberation in the confines of the home, within the sanctity of marriages that feminism has declared patriarchal anyway.

Within the framework of Western feminism, we will always be characterised by our otherness, our Muslimness. To secure liberation for Muslim and Arab women, we need to look at the structures of support already there in our faiths and communities.

This International Women’s Day, as Western society applauds itself for its egalitarianism and wears pink, I’ll be thinking of the women of Gaza and how the world doesn’t care anymore about their pillaged underwear than it does about their brutalised corpses. –

Nadeine Asbali is a secondary school teacher in London.

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