GIRIJA SHIVAKUMAR | 31 JULY, 2020
Sisterhood is not an ego-boost.
Internet things move like wildfire, and sometimes, it’s hard to make any sense of it. Something similar happened this week when I saw scores of monochrome images on my Instagram feed. These artsy black-and-white self-portraits used the #ChallengeAccepted, had a caption about supporting women in their lives, and “challenged” several other women by nominating them to do the same.
The virality of this hashtag campaign is stunning: as I write this, there are over six million posts on Instagram. Celebrities across the globe have embraced the trend and the narrative. As we watch this unfold online, one thing is clear: Performative wokeness is here to stay.
I have nothing against people participating in a viral trend, but it's confusing to see the value behind a vague and symbolic attempt to support another woman by posting your own picture. While the intention is not malicious, the campaign in itself feels futile and ineffective. It purports to be empowering while simply being self-serving.
Also, what’s the “challenge” really? Supporting another woman is the bare minimum one can do. To expect a pat in the back for something that’s basic human decency is the epitome of privilege and impunity. It keeps us from moving on to step that matters most – accountability. The campaign doesn’t hold anyone accountable for how they actually treat other women in real life. That’s where it starts becoming ‘optics’ rather than a genuine appreciation for sisterhood.
Moreover, all the posts I stumbled across were mostly pictures of able-bodied, cis-women with class/economic privilege. The premise of the campaign is based on a "nomination" or "invitation" a model that's likely to systematically under-represent tons of women on the internet, including women of color, LBGTQIA+ women, trans persons, non-binary folx, and women with disabilities. Why you ask? Because our personal networks and friendships are likely to be victims of the same unequal structures we continue to fight. Here’s a quick thought experiment: How woman/friends do you know personally who are not cis-het? How similar or different are your friends’ social and economic privileges to your own? If the value of the whole campaign is to make women more visible or “represented”, this hardly moves the needle.
What’s interesting about the hashtag itself is that it has multiple origins. For instance, in 2016, a similar campaign on Facebook raised awareness of cancer. It’s hard to trace the exact origins of the “challenge.” More recent use of the hashtags has been traced to a Brazilian journalist, Ana Paula Padrão.
Several users on Instagram also pointed out the hashtag campaign is part of Turkey’s national conversations around the rising rate of ‘femicide’, or female victims of violence and abuse. The campaign resurfaced following the murder of Pinar Gutelkin, a 27-year-old woman, who was allegedly killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend earlier in July. The campaign was a reference to the black and white images of female victims of violence one saw in the news in Turkey. What further intensified the protests was the Turkish government’s attempts to withdraw a human rights treaty called the ‘Istanbul Convention’ that sought to protect women from gender-based violence. Turkey has witnessed a record number of cases of violence against women. Close to 500 women were killed in Tukey in 2019 alone, the highest number recorded in the decade, according to The Guardian.
However, the hashtag started once again after U.S. Congress Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent speech in the House of Representatives. In her 10-minute long address, she called out Florida Rep. Ted Yoho for calling her a "fucking bitch" in the premises of the U.S. Capitol.
What I find very interesting about these different narratives is how diverse and far-reaching it is. This makes one wonder if there was a more meaningful way to engage with issues that women face day in and day out. Was there something to embrace with this campaign about the intersectionality of feminism today? This could have been especially significant given the trying times we live in. For instance, what are women entrepreneurs losing out now during the crisis? How do we ensure women don’t fall further into the spiral of unpaid, care work? And, what can we, as feminists, do to hold ourselves accountable for how we use our place and privilege in the world? How do we lift each other up, without necessarily engaging in vanity and self-promotion dressed as activism?
However, at present, #ChallengeAccepted is being reduced to a mere overshadowing of Turkish women’s rallies against femicide. In fact, it’s ironic that a campaign that has gained traction to empower women is actually drowning out marginal voices. It’s also an important lesson in how unequal the same space can be for different groups of women.
The need for women to help each other rise up has never been more important…but never have the stakes been so low. Women telling women that they support each other is a genuine and powerful gesture but to dub it a “challenge” underplays the struggles women endure. The point is: #WomenSupportingWomen is much larger than #ChallengeAccepted; so let’s put to use our voice and privilege and move beyond just virtue signaling.