Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

What’s feminism got to do with Samantha Lewthwaite?

“At least she’s done something for feminism.”

This is what a friend said to me when she told me that one of the identified leaders behind al-Shabab is a woman, Samantha Lewthwaite, known as the “white widow”. My knee-jerk reaction was to defend feminism by saying that feminism is about non-violence and even when a woman is the head of an organisation that is violent, immoral and hurting humanity (a terrorist group in this case), she may not be acting on behalf of feminism. In fact, she’s done feminism no favours.

In trying to explain her position, my friend elaborated by saying that having a woman lead a terrorist organisation means that the narrative of terrorists being men is being overturned (as though that were a good thing). When I questioned her further we decided that whether she was a man or woman, the only way to overturn the narrative of terrorism is to create an international community where conflicts among countries do not result in senseless murders as we see with the recent attack in Kenya and suicide bombings that are associated with terrorism.

The narrative that is more interesting when it comes to terrorism would be the role Islam has played as most terrorists are often seen as religious fanatics committing jihad in the name of Islam. This is the most dangerous narrative because not all Muslims are terrorists and perhaps not all terrorists are Muslim. Those who are staunch, peace-loving Muslims condemn the use of Islam in the name of terrorism. Questioning the religious aspect of terrorism would yield more answers rather than focusing on whether the so-called terrorist is a woman or a man.

But let’s pretend for a moment that the leader of al-Shabab was a feminist, or that there are more people who think that the leader of al-Shabab is a feminist. Where does that leave feminism? Feminism already has a bad reputation. Lumping feminism with a terrorist who happens to be a woman means that there’s still a misconception about what feminism is about. Just because a woman is a leader in any sphere does not necessarily mean she’s a feminist. Having a person in any position who happens to have a vagina does not guarantee anything, least of all a peaceful society. The true test of a feminist is whether or not they change the structures in society that oppress women. And in the case of the “white widow” she’s become the face of an organisation that has destabilised a nation resulting in many deaths. Not only can one question her feminism but her humanity is in question as someone who denies others the right to life.

Feminism is not about violence and killing innocent people, it is not simply about replacing men with women in key positions in organisations. It’s about humanity and how the lives of women can and must be changed. The conversation I describe tells me that people are quick to have an opinion about feminism without having interrogated or perhaps read about what it is. When we see a woman doing something that men ordinarily do, we blame feminism for letting women think they can run the world. Instead of saying something bad about the chauvinism we experience every day, people would rather invoke feminism instead.

It’s easy to bash feminism. Some people may also think that if it weren’t for feminism society would be a better place because women would know their place. This calls into question another misconception about feminism: feminists are women who want to be men. Feminists do not want to be men because feminists are men and women who want a healthy society where men and women have equal opportunities and equal rights. The conversation I described above highlights the need to understand feminism more and not lump it together with women who happen to be in powerful positions but replicating practices that are not good for both men and women.

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