It is a familiar scene: women by the thousands holding placards, banners, and flags, taking over urban streets. Many are dressed appropriately for the weather, many more teeter in heels or in knee-length black boots, over fishnet stockings laced with garter belts. Some parade in bikinis. They are likely to be university educated, armed with polemics, radiating energy. They are young, they are determined. They are white. This is SlutWalk, the feminist movement de jour, aiming to liberate women through the spectacle of sexual liberation.
“As Black women and girls we find no space in SlutWalk, no space for participation and to unequivocally denounce rape and sexual assault as we have experienced it. We are perplexed by the use of the term ‘slut’ and by any implication that this word, much like the word ‘Ho’ or the ‘N’ word should be re-appropriated. The way in which we are perceived and what happens to us before, during and after sexual assault crosses the boundaries of our mode of dress. Much of this is tied to our particular history. In the United States, where slavery constructed Black female sexualities, Jim Crow kidnappings, rape and lynchings, gender misrepresentations, and more recently, where Black female immigrant struggle combine, “slut” has different associations for Black women. We do not recognize ourselves nor do we see our lived experiences reflected within SlutWalk and especially not in its brand and its label.”
Likewise, a statement was released that same year by the Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Refeudalization and Marginalization (AF3IRM), a transnational feminist organization based across the United States:
“Our collective transnational histories are comprised of 500 years of colonization. As women and descendants of women from Latin America, Asia and Africa, we cannot truly ‘reclaim’ the word ‘Slut.’ It was never ours to begin with. This label is one forced upon us by colonizers, who transformed our women into commodities and for the entertainment of US soldiers occupying our countries for corporate America. There are many variations of the label slut: in Central America it was ‘little brown fucking machines (LBFMs)’, in places in Asia like the Philippines, it was ‘little brown fucking machines powered by rice (LBFMPBRs).’ These events continue to this day, and it would be a grievous dishonor to our cousins who continue to struggle against imperialism, globalization and occupation in our families’ countries of origin to accept a label coming from a white police officer in the city of Toronto, Canada.”
SlutWalk, despite its mainstream success, does not, as the Black Women’s Blue print Collective and AF3IRM have stressed, reflect the collective history and political realities of all women, in particular, transnational women of colour. The political exclusion and lack of understanding of the sexual distortion and commodification of brown and black bodies are concerns for women who do not racially fit into SlutWalk. While sexual liberation is an integral component towards full emancipation, it fails to empower women of colour who must contend with sexual violence on a daily basis. While many—but not all—middle and upper-class white women are able to choose a liberation based on sexuality alone, poor, transnational women of colour who have been sex trafficked, and working-class women of colour whose labour is tied to their grossly eroticized and exoticized bodies, cannot claim the same sort of “liberating” path.
For the purposes of definition and for this essay, transnational women are the daughters of migrant or immigrant parents, or they themselves are migrant or immigrant women. Many will eventually settle in the country where they are able to find long-term—but not sustainable, or meaningful—employment. Many, and the women who follow after them, will remain in the permanent loop of migrating from one country to another, working as contractual workers in the minimum-wage service industry. The majority of those who fall under the transnational scope are women whose ancestries are from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. Transnational women have a diverse history, yet share a common distortion of their sexuality, one that has been perverted since the days of European colonialism and slavery in the United States. Because of the distinct sexual distortion among transnational women, their social liberation through a movement premised on sexual freedoms cannot structurally dismantle the social, political and economic conditions that singles out and oppresses them.
The constant movement for survival, a displacement created by the demands of capitalism’s pursuit for cheap labour, is the daily economic reality of transnational women. Transnational labour is the currency of a globalized world—and transnational women are its mules and cash cows. In Transnational is a Noun: Break the Pattern, Change the Narrative, feminist and writer Ninotchka Rosca reports that “213,943,812 is the estimated number of migrants in the world today, rapidly inching up to a full quarter of a billion people even as we speak—a quarter of a billion people moving across borders, working, living and moving again, in a kind of perpetual motion.”
Migratory work undoubtedly shifts power from one country to another, from one class to another, pitting employer against employee, where women bear the brunt of a chaotic, unjust system. Rosca further notes that “[w]e have countries…where migrants are actually the absolute majority of the national population. The smallest percentage is nearly one-fourth. How, one may ask, can a country be said to be a country of Qatars if more than 80% of the population is foreign-born?” Without the political power to influence concrete change, from migrant labour laws to negotiating wage increases, transnational women are locked into a power play that renders them indentured and vulnerable.
The inability to determine their political reality paralyzes transnational women from shaping a liberation and future that is compatible to their experiences and desires. This is the crux of the debate within movements such as SlutWalk, and for those who are in the position to define the parameters of liberation. Social differences divides women particularly along class and race lines; to ignore the narratives of marginalized transnational women is to uphold class and race hierarchies. This is the current practice of mainstream feminism and it must be confronted. According to feminist anthropologist Gerda Lerner, “if one ignores ‘differences’ one distorts reality. If one ignores the power relations built on differences one reinforces them in the interest of those holding power.”
Such ignorance of power and privilege is widespread, and further exacerbated within capitalist culture—a culture that is as flexible as it is constricting. Diversity within mainstream feminism is encouraged—in as far as this diversity does not radically alter the system—by way of “inviting” women of colour to participate. Women of colour may even lead such movements for as long as they are coopted into, and espouse the class and race principles of the dominant culture. This methodology of racism and class oppression is repackaged and indoctrinated in each and every one of our psyches in our so-called post-racial and post-feminist era.
The dismissal of racism within SlutWalk in particular, is not a new problem within the overall feminist movement in general. Since the 1960’s, women of colour, while identifying and organizing against sexism and gender oppression that all women are subjected to, white feminists have been adamant to acknowledge the internalized racism within the feminist movement, choosing instead to campaign for universal “sisterhood” issues. However, a genuine sisterhood understands that race, class and gender oppression differs from woman to woman, but are nonetheless related to, and further frustrated under a capitalist system.
“Sisterhood,” while it has the revolutionary potential to concretely bond women, the ignorance of structural power relations within feminism will ultimately cripple revolutionary ties and commitment. This complicated solidarity, according to bell hooks:
“was based on the idea of common oppression. Needless to say, it was primarily bourgeois white women, both liberal and radical in perspective, who professed belief in the notion of common oppression. The idea of ‘common oppression’ was a false and corrupt platform disguising and mystifying the true nature of women’s varied and complex social reality. Women are divided by sexist attitudes, racism and class privilege, and a host of other prejudices. Sustained woman bonding can only occur when these divisions are confronted and the necessary steps are taken to eliminate them. Divisions will not be eliminated by wishful thinking or romantic reverie about common oppression despite the value of highlighting experiences all women share.”
Ignoring racist and class divisions within a movement that seeks to liberate women has only serves to intensify racism and class oppression. This is especially true in Canada whose national history has been obscured by policies such as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and the Indian Act, state agendas and policies that preserve colonial traditions and perpetuate systemic racism.
A contemporary example is the situation of Indigenous women who are some of the most oppressed and poorest women in Canada. Indigenous women in Canada hold one of the highest murder rates, and they are among the most visible in terms of prostitution and trafficking. Their poverty and displacement necessarily makes them more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation—a reality that does not evoke liberation or agency.
According to the 2012 Missing Women’s Inquiry Report:
“[a] disproportionate number of the missing women and murdered women were Aboriginal: while 3% of BC’s population consists of Aboriginal women, they compromise approximately 33% of missing and murdered women from the DTES. Of the 33 women whose DNA was found on Pickton’s farm, twelve were Aboriginal. Aboriginal women experience higher levels of violence, both in terms of incidence and severity, and are disproportionately represented in the number of missing and murdered women across Canada. Aboriginal women as a group have heightened vulnerability simply because they live in a ‘society that poses a risk to their safety.’
The very society that puts Aboriginal women at risk “must be understood within the larger context of the legacy of colonialism in Canada—a legacy of racism, colossal neglect, violence and abuse… [resulting] in a devastating set of social and political consequences: dislocation, dispossession, erasure, decimation of populations and pernicious racism.”
Not surprisingly, the report tied “Aboriginal women are significantly over-represented in the sex industry. This over-representation is seen to be a result of economic marginalization, the trauma of colonization, and the persistence of sexist and racist stereotypes about Aboriginal women’s sexual availability, which are ever-present in mainstream media. Historic and continuing racism operate both directly and indirectly to marginalize Aboriginal women.”
Federal policies, and false concepts of sisterhood are reflective of an escapist, individualistic culture influenced by capitalism’s definition of “freedom” and “choice.” A feminist movement positioned on faulty notions of freedom and choice can never truly transform a society fraught with economic instability and political chaos. By this ignorance, SlutWalk essentially chooses to exclude transnational women. The exclusion of transnational women coupled with the affirmation of so-called “choice” and individual “freedom” simply reveals the class nature and aspirations of that movement. Anti-pornographer and feminist Gail Dines, in her 2012 lecture, From the Personal is Political to the Personal is Personal: Neoliberalism and the Defanging of Feminism explained that:
“Oppression destroys our capacity for empathy. Otherwise, we would all be up in arms enraged at the fact that there are people out there who are oppressed…[For] those of us who are not starving…how do you make sure we don’t march and say that’s not fair?…[Y]you create a material reality, i.e. Capitalism, which is unfair and then you develop an ideological support system to legitimize that inequality…In neoliberalism there is the sovereignty of the individual that means the only thing that matters, the only level of analysis is the individual decontextualized from the collective realities of that individual’s life.”
The individualistic culture is projected and celebrated within SlutWalk and third wave feminism. Prior to the 1980’s capitalist heyday, second wave feminism embraced the collective interests of women. Today, third wave feminism has taken a severely individualistic approach, eschewing political struggles that integrates race and class and gender. “Feminism is something individual to each feminist,” championed third wave feminist provocateur, Jennifer Baumgardner. This is the magic of capitalism’s every person for themselves culture.
To further quell the collective interests of women, it is imperative for capitalism to appropriate and hijack extensive anti-racist, class-based analysis in order to dismantle social movements as Chandra Talpade Mohanty observes that “radical theory can in fact become a commodity to be consumed; no longer seen as a product of activist scholarship or connected to emancipatory knowledge, it can circulate as a sign of prestige in an elitist, neoliberal landscape.”
Without the stories, theoretical contribution and political leadership of transnational women and feminists, third wave feminist actions such as SlutWalk, in the long-run, cannot sustain its energy, and will eventually lose its potential to affect real political structural change.
To further understand the contradictions within SlutWalk and its polarizing effects on transnational women, this essay will further discuss the experiences of women of Asian ancestry, the hyper-sexualization of their identities, and how these perversions are manifested in popular culture. The American colonization of the Philippines and the Vietnam War will serve as the historical context of the commodification of Asian women’s sexuality.
The final part of this essay will look at the rise of the transnational feminist movement, where transnational women have a critical leading political role. It is necessary to understand that transnational feminism is not an alternative to mainstream feminism, but a feminist movement for all women.
Pearls of the Orient
The military invasion of the Philippines at the end of the 19th century marked the new colonial expansion by a rising Western power into Asia. Almost 70 years before the Vietnam War, the Philippine-American War, a United States-led war of aggression that erupted in 1899, enabled the newly-minted imperialist power to perfect its colonial pursuits by snapping up Spain’s former colonies. The military occupation of the Philippines was not just a war strategy to economically position the United States as the emperor of the Pacific—it was a pilot project on how to exploit and commodify the sexuality of Asian women which was instrumental and conditional to empire building and the maintenance of power across the Pacific.
The proliferation of brothels in the Philippines while under the “protection” of the US military forces paved the way for trafficking and the sex tourism industry. The colonial objectification of Filipino women’s sexual identity was incumbent to selling a commodity—women’s bodies— that would otherwise be considered a human rights violation under any other economic system that does not rely on plunder for profit.
In Genesis of the Philippine Sex Trade, Ninotchka Rosca illustrates how prostitution and militarization are relational systems—one cannot do without the other:
“Organized prostitution in the Philippines began with the establishment of Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base in the late 1940s. In the former, the ‘comfort stations’ were ten reed huts within the base perimeter; a dozen Filipinas served as dance partners. These women were direct employees of the base, with the requisite employee pass to enter the base. In the 1950s, when this germinal entertainment industry grew, the base contracted its perimeters and gave birth to the Strip, a part of Angeles City studded with bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, brothel houses. To date, over a million Filipinas have seen service in the domestic sex trade.
The American War in Vietnam, which brought half a million GIs to Southeast Asia, provided the impetus towards an unprecedented growth of the sex trade. Thailand, which had to close US bases in its territory because of popular opposition, passed a law in the 1960s supposed to regulate nightclubs, bars, and something called ‘hired-wife services.’ The bill had a rider, however, which permitted American GIs to enter Thailand for ‘rest and recreation.’ Overnight, the number of bars, nightclubs, massage parlors, and ‘hired wife services’ tripled while Thailand’s revenues from ‘tourism’ increased ten-fold. To date, some two million Thai women have seen service in the sex trade and sex tourism is Thailand’s most important revenue earner.”
The surge of the sex trade through the expansion of the US bases across Asia produced the erotic-exotic Asian woman, the pearl of the orient, a dangerous stereotype that prevails and has been a source of pleasure, profit and mockery. Miss Saigon, the 1989 Broadway phenomenon, has romanticized the militarization and nuclear devastation of Vietnam by way of a love-affair narrative between an American GI and a poor Vietnamese woman. On the production of cultural realities, Miss Saigon is one of many examples that has been able to explain away the atrocities of war and legitimize the hyper-sexualization of Asian women and their bodies.
The identity construction of an entire people is an act of classification, an operation that Stuart Hall discusses as a process of representation. Representation is not always a negative; however, representation endangers certain races and communities if they are socially defined to a meaning of a derogatory nature that is supposedly unchanging and fixed, “so firmly that, after a while, it comes to seem natural and inevitable.” Hence, the hyper-sexualization of women of Asian ancestry, cannot, as fixed concepts go, be separated from their social identities—their sexual identities becoming their social identities. This is a dangerous construct.
In the summer of 2013, Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: Our Truth Project, “a photo and story project to counter the racist, sexist, colonialist musical Miss Saigon” was launched. With dozens of pictures featuring American women and men of Asian ancestry holding up posters of personal narratives charged with accounts of racism and sexism, the startling portraits are telling of the impact of colonialism and sexual abuse on a community two generations removed from the Vietnam War, located in a country far away from Asia.
“…I come from a long legacy of fierce Vietnamese womyn who have survived wars, refugee camps, patriarchy AND racism. We don’t need Miss Saigon to disrespect our collective stories and struggles with lies about who we are and what our community has been through,” says one.
“People assume I am passive and weak…I am approached almost daily by men who bow, wink and smile at me as if I want nothing more than to sacrifice my power to them…” says another.
In their mission statement Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: Our Truth Project explains that:
“Many defenders of Miss Saigon, a play written by two white men based on a photograph they saw, insist that the play is ‘truthful’ and ‘historically accurate.’ What is especially problematic is that Miss Saigon is the longest running and most enduring pop culture representation of Vietnamese people in the Western world – and to a certain extent and by extension of racism, it presents a narrow lens through which all Asians are viewed…
[W]e also see that institutional racism, sexism, and colonization continually reinforce shallow stereotypes of people of color, and the ‘truths’ that are most often lauded and supported are exploitative works that reproduce and validate harmful power structures and chauvinism that ultimately harms the people they claim to portray. Miss Saigon is such a spectacle: a big budget ode to colonialism that romanticizes war and human trafficking.”
In the same year, Los Angeles-based band, Day Above Ground, capitalized on the stereotypes of Asian women by releasing their debut summer track Asian Girlz. The highly racist and sexist lyrics included:
I love your sticky rice
Butt fucking all night
Bitch I love you
I love your creamy yellow thighs
Ooh your slanted eyes
It’s the Year of the Dragon
Ninja pussy I’m stabbin’
So baby marry me
Come on, sit on my lap
Or we’ll send you back.
Dismissed as a juvenile “parody” by the band, AF3IRM, through an international social-media political campaign, was able to have the music video removed from YouTube less than a week of its launch, stating that Asian Girlz “was more like burrowing into the old-time envelope of racism, misogyny, and the history of violence against Asian and Asian American women. The band cannot be so ignorant of what’s going on around them as not to know the vicious undercurrent of racism and misogyny sweeping through this land.”
The distortion Asian women’s sexualities by Western myth-makers elucidates that sexual liberation cannot emancipate transnational women—especially when their sexualities have been so alienated from them. What makes these stereotypes all the more alarming is that they render transnational women invisible, non-human—mere objects for abuse and humiliation.
Daughters of the Tsunami: Transnational Fourth Wave Feminism
This essay so far has critiqued the divisiveness of SlutWalk and the political implications by excluding transnational women, by ignoring their sexual history, and current realities. This section will focus on the urgency to build a feminist movement with a transnational perspective and leadership.
One of the key aims of transnational feminism is to radically transform the material reality of women. By including the narratives of transnational women—as concrete experiences, not extensions to the stories of white women—a feminist vision that encompasses a comprehensive race, class, and genuine sisterhood analysis will emerge, and could be such a force as to influence real political, structural changes. In a culture that is as individualistic as it is ahistorical, third wave feminism can no longer reject transnational women if it hopes to reproduce itself into the next generations of feminists. Thus, third wave feminism must change. A genuine feminist movement cannot exclude transnational women because although they hold little to no political influence, transnational women are nonetheless the majority of the working-class; the majority of the immigrant and migrant labour force; the majority who are among the poorest and most oppressed—their political involvement will undoubtedly liberate all women in the long, protracted struggle.
Mandatory to a comprehensive liberation is an anti-racist, working-class movement that runs parallel with the struggle to end sexual violence and gender oppression. A solid feminist movement cannot opt out of this, nor can these strategies be seen as temporary measures or as token allotment for the sake of racial diversity, or for the façade of social progress. To surrender to this practice will blunt the growth of true sisterhood. The resistance to confront flaws within the feminist movement are behaviours of privilege that bell hooks writes in Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability:
“When the women’s movement began in the late 1960’s, it was evident that the white women who dominated the movement felt it was ‘their’ movement, that it is the medium through which a white woman would voice her grievances to society. Not only did white women act as if feminist ideology existed solely to serve their own interests because they were able to draw public attention to feminist concerns. They were unwilling to acknowledge that non-white women were part of the collective group women in American society.”
For the most marginalized transnational women, accessing basic needs is at times impossible. How much more troublesome will their lives be by joining a movement that appropriates and invalidates their lived experiences of sexual violence? For poor, women of colour, entering prostitution for example, is not a choice based on liberated conditions; rather, the decision to sell one’s body is rendered on socio-economic circumstances. This is a serious reminder and reiteration that not all women can be liberated on sexuality alone. The implications of sexual identity politics of a cursory nature surrenders transnational women to more violence and oppression, as their bodies have already been socially predisposed to appalling levels of sexual debasement and exploitation.
A feminist majority that consciously ignores half of their potential membership will fail at making society less dangerous for all women. Feminism must move beyond sexual identity politics, and shift into high gear towards an ideology and vision that fuses race and class to facilitate a radical movement with a pro-woman agenda. According to Gail Dines, “women need to take to the streets – but not for the right to be called slut. Women should be fighting for liberation from culturally imposed myths about their sexuality that encourage gendered violence. Our daughters – and our sons – have the right to live in a world that celebrates equally women’s sexual freedom and bodily integrity.”
Questions of course, have arisen in regards to the longevity and long-term relevancy of transnational feminism. Is transnational feminism a temporary movement until transnational women are able to flex their leadership within the mainstream feminist majority? What is the role of white feminists within the transnational feminist movement? Do white feminists have a role in transnational feminist movement? Must the leadership of the transnational feminist movement always be held by women of colour?
While these questions are crucial, it is difficult at this historical moment to concretely define the role of white feminists within transnational feminism while the contradictions of race and class remain unresolved. Needless to say, alliance work among white and transnational feminists is vital to further propel feminism for the total emancipation of all women, it is with absolute certainty that transnational feminism will be a permanent movement for as long as global capitalism continues to create the need and demand for migrant labour, where transnational women are squeezed of their labour power, and are displaced from one country to another. Therefore, transnational feminism must be led by women of colour, as it is up to them to define and formulate concepts and actions of liberation, sexual and otherwise, through a transnational lens.
It is dire that transnational feminists have a clear and united identity based on their political reality with a radical social transformation perspective in order to stake a claim in the world and within feminist structures. Transnational feminism, after all, is not only a movement, it is a home for the displaced, for women who are always in transit; for women whose sexual identities are considered malleable and exploitable; it is an anchor for women who have been thrown out of their countries and alienated from social movements. This is not to say that transnational feminism puts sexual liberation on the back-burner. On the contrary, sexual liberation is an imperative, but it cannot be separated from the historical and social development of women, and must develop in relation to political and economic emancipation. Hence, the responsibility of transnational feminists is to prioritize theory-building as to not only systematically locate the struggles of transnational women, but to create an ideology based on our unique history and material reality. This is compulsory to protect and empower all women, fostering along the way a genuine sisterhood that fits our stormy, yet colourful, layered narratives.
Dines, Gail. “From the Personal is Political to the Personal is Personal: Neoliberalism and the
Defanging of Feminism.” London Radical Feminist Conference, London, UK. July 2012. Keynote Address.
Dines, Gail and Wendy J. Murphy. “SlutWalk is not Sexual Liberation.” The Guardian 8 May
2011, London. Web. <http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/may/08/slutwalk-not-sexual-liberation>
Hall, Stuart. “The Work of Representation.” Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Ed. Stuart Hall. London: Sage Publications, 2004. 15-73. Print.
Hooks, Bell. “Racism and Feminism: The Issue of Accountability.” Ain’t I A Woman: Black
Woman and Feminism. Boston: South End Press, 1981. 119-57. Print.
Hooks, Bell. “Sisterhood: Political Solidarity Between Women.” Feminist Theory from Margin
To Center. Boston: South End Press, 1984. 43-65. Print.
Lerner, Gerda. “Differences Among Women.” Why History Matters: Life and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. 132-45. Print
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Transnational Feminist Crossings: On Neoliberalism and Radical Critique.” Signs. Vol. 38, No. 4. (2013): 967-91. Print.
Rosca, Ninotchka. “Genesis of the Philippine Sex Trade.” GABRIELA Network, New York,
- n.p., n.d. Keynote Address.
Rosca, Ninotchka. “Transnational is a Noun: Break the Pattern, Change the Narrative.”
Counterspin: Breaking a New Path, Congress of Progressive Filipino-Canadians, Montreal, QC. April 30, 2010. Keynote Address.
Straus, Tamara. “A Manifesto for Third Wave Feminism.” Alternet. Web. 23 Oct. 2000
The Women’s Movement Is Not Monochromatic. Association of Filipinas, Feminists
Fighting Imperialism, Refeudalization and Marginalization, 2011. Web. 25 Sept. 2011. <http://www.af3irm.org/2011/9/af3irm-responds-slutwalk-women%E2%80%99s-movement-not-monochromatic>
AF3IRM Thanks Supporters for Swift Action on Racist, Sexist Music Video; Calls for GreaterVigor to Defeat Cultural War on Women. Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Refeudalization and Marginalization, 2013. Web. 5 Aug. 2013. < http://www.af3irm.org/2013/8/af3irm-thanks-supporters-swift-action-racist-sexist-music-video-calls-greater-vigor-defeat-cu>
An Open Letter from Black Women to the SlutWalk. Black Women’s Blueprint, 2011. Web. 23
Don’t Buy Miss Saigon: Our Truth Project. Don’t Buy Miss Saigon Coalition, 2013. Web. n.d.
British Columbia. Missing Women Commission of Inquiry. Foresaken: The Report of the
Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, Volume 1: The Women, Their Lives and the Framework of Inquiry, Setting the Context for Understanding and Change. By The Honourable Wally T. Opal, QC, Commissioner. Vancouver: Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, 2012. Print.