The Invisibility of Gender in the debate on Race and Violence

‘Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.’ Blogger comment

Last week, from New York to LA, it was reported that thousands of protesters took to the streets to voice outrage over the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who was cleared of the murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. President Obama described the death of Trayvon Martin as “a tragedy”, but appealed for calm and called on Americans to accept the acquittal of the teenager’s killer, George Zimmerman. It is a tragedy. However, the level of public outrage, frustration and media coverage about the killing of a black man sadly says more about our current current double standards and sexist attitudes to female homicide victims than it does about racism.

At the time of Trayvon Martin’s killing, the media also exposed the vicious murder of an American-born Iraqi woman, Shaima Alawadi, to redress the clear sexism of the public focus on Martin’s murder alone.  Alawadi was only 32 years old when she died and was a mother of five. She was attacked in her home, succumbing to her injuries a few days later. Online writers and activists drew attention to her race and religion as opposed to her gender, attempting to draw parallels with Martin’s murder. Yet, afterwards, when it became clear that she may have been murdered simply for being a woman (allegedly killed by her husband), the case was buried by the media. As Michael Moynihan wrote in ‘Behind the veil of Islamaphobia’:

The killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia?…There is, though, a general sense that violent racism is endemic to modern American society. Thus the hate-crime hoaxer naturally sees a racially motivated incident as a reliable way of attracting attention to a particular cause or, as seems to be the case with Shaima Alawadi’s husband, a reliable way of distracting attention from the commissioning of a crime, while provoking a media referendum on the ubiquity of American intolerance.

If we need further proof of this, where is the public interest in justice and the outcome of the Alawadi case? Alawadi it appears was used by writers and activists to whip the public into a frenzy over the supposed ‘endemic racial intolerance’ in America as opposed to any genuine interest in justice for her and her family. So why the hypocrisy and double standards? Shortly after Martin’s killing, I wrote about it and Alawadi in ‘To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals’  and discussed how crimes of violence are often simplistically reduced to race if the victim is a person of colour, yet the gender of the majority of perpetrators of violent crime is ignored:

 The fact that Martin’s murder generated far more headlines, public outrage, and support shows that a man’s death is still considered worse than a woman’s. Yet, with three women per week in the U.S. being murdered by their former or ex-partners, why is that? Paying lip-service to the notion of equality and justice, by tagging Alawadi’s death on to Martin’s murder, insults everyone’s intelligence.

My article, which also queried the parallels being drawn between a hoodie and a hijab, was publicly attacked by over 80 North American feminist academics and subsequently censored after threat of legal action. Despite this excessive reaction, the point still remains though.

Women of all colours are being raped and murdered every day by their male partners, family members, policemen, soldiers, strangers and so on. In the US (and globally), domestic violence homicides (in normal parlance, women being brutally beaten and murdered by people they know) are at epidemic levels. However, I have yet to hear about or see such an outpouring of anger, grief and frustration at a the unjust killing of a black or brown woman. As Jamila Aisha Brown says in ‘If Trayvon Martin had been a woman…’ We would probably never have heard of her:

Instead, the victimization of young women is subsumed into a general well of black pain that is largely defined by the struggles of African-American men. As a result, any insight about this important intersection of race and gender is lost under the umbrella of a collective sense of persecution.

This sentiment was supported by Marissa Jackson in her brilliant analysis, ‘Who’s going to march for Marissa Alexander?’:

 And so, Trayvon Martin became our named plaintiff in 2012, to the exclusion of numerous other stories warranting the nation’s attention and outrage–including Marissa Alexander’s. The chopping down of a young man in his prime–the offense against masculinity–has always been considered more valuable than kidnappings and rapes, murders, sterilizations and wrongful convictions of women of color, by people of all ethnic backgrounds. It has become clear that the civil rights paradigm is simply unsuitable for those of us interested in liberty and justice for all.

Indeed. I would go further than that though, it is not just women of colour who are generally invisible to the public eye when men murder them, it is women of all creeds, religions and colours. If we actually started to recognise and acknowledge the gender element inherent in most crimes of violence, on an individual as well as societal level, then attitudes towards how girls and boys are being socialised by gender from an early age could start to be addressed. Scientific testing and analysis of the effects of testosterone, diet and so on and how they can increase or decrease aggression levels could be utilised. The role that alcohol and porn play in violent crime could be taken more seriously. However, if we live in denial that gender is a defining factor in violent crime the issue and double standards remain. As I stated in my previous article:

If people want to see an end to racism, and I certainly do, then we need to see an end to the celebration and perpetuation of patriarchal norms, values, and institutions. In the twenty-first century, to be anti-racist is to be feminist.

Adele Wilde-Blavatsky, Copyright 2013.

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