Zoe Read

Why are so many feminists supporting abusive men?

Men like my father, a 'revolutionist' and crony of Syria's Hafez Assad, have proved they too can break a woman’s soul
President Hafez al-Assad and Syrian Armed Forces.
President Hafez al-Assad and Syrian Armed Forces. (via YouTube)

“He was the former president of Syria, a dictator. This is what corruption looks like.”

It was week three of my sophomore year in college, and I didn’t know where to hide. “Oh no,” I whispered, as my college professor pointed to a picture of Hafez al-Assad and his 1970s mob squad regime. I was frozen, afraid they’d find out: standing next to Assad is my father.

My father was the Syrian military attaché under President Hafez al-Assad’s dictatorship rule. Childhood for me was as abusive as you might imagine as the daughter of a high-ranking military officer in the Syrian army. My therapist used to say that kids from abusive homes are taught to normalize dysfunction. Turns out, she was right. I had, in fact, embraced life with a mentally ill abuser, and its name was Feminist Theory.

Sadly, a movement that started off as a legitimate movement for social justice now erases women’s stories. A lack of empathy and a distorted belief that raping women is a legitimate means to achieve a political goal: this is what feminism looks like today.

I’m a Canadian-Arab physician who stands at the bedside of survivors of abuse; and — since October 7, 2023, when Hamas terrorists raped, murdered, and abducted hundreds of Israeli women at the Nova music festival and from their communities in southern Israel — an ex-feminist.

I wasn’t always an apostate: I graduated from law school, finished medical school, won a Fulbright scholarship, and studied at Stanford University. Through it all, I declared myself a feminist activist. I even wrote a book about it, and dedicated my story to the movement I loved. I thought feminists cared about protecting women from abusive men. I thought we were on the same side. But I was wrong.

On October 7, 2023, Hamas released a video of 23-year-old German-Israeli tattoo artist, Shani Nicole Louk. It showed Hamas terrorists parading Shani’s near-naked body along the streets of Gaza in the back of a pick-up truck. “God is great!” the men chanted proudly, pointing their AK-47s to the sky. One man’s leg dangled over Shani. She was lying face down, dead.

Two days later, the Interim Revolutionary Feminist Committee-Southern California Chapter (IRFC) published an article. They claimed Israeli women’s stories of mass rape by Hamas during the music festival massacre were “unsupported.” They also said the video of Shani Louk did not show “any conclusive evidence of sexual assault.”

IRFC denies the existence of “rape as genocide.” But the focus on rape’s scale as a marker of injustice erases Shani Louk’s individual story. We don’t need a mass scale of rape to happen, for it to be a problem; what happened to Shani Louk was enough.

Contrary to what feminists have been told, a person can be an activist and abuse women. I learned so many lessons as a result of growing up with a father who claimed to stand for freedom and justice, but actively participated in the subordination of women. Radicalized men like my father are exhausting, dehumanizing, and they will break a woman’s soul. I’m telling my story because I don’t want people defending or ignoring abuse, no matter the social justice cause.

My father was a self-proclaimed “revolutionist for the people of Syria,” and dedicated himself to activism with boisterous anti-corruption campaigns for the people he claimed to love. This sounds like a virtuous cause, but like most of Assad’s cronies — who diverted millions in humanitarian aid through under-the-table bribes — my father stood for the people of Syria alongside his ongoing abuses of power.

For most of my life, I lived with a paranoid tyrant, and all I wanted was a normal dad. On most days, he dragged himself around whispering incomplete sentences about a life once lived. I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about; I was born and raised in Canada. I had never been to Syria, and couldn’t understand why after-school activities morphed into a complex analysis about the geo-politics of the Middle East. “Dad,” I’d say, with one foot out the door, “I don’t care about the government of Syria, I care about soccer practice, and I don’t want to be late.” I was only 12 years old, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like to live in a country where the government was so erratic that it shot people in the head for having an opinion; I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

It’s easy to assume that my family’s story is a classic liberal fairy tale about endangered refuges saved by Good Samaritans in the west. Instead, this is a story about a corrupt man who gained political asylum into Canada, but never quite learned how to play nice. My father celebrated the day the Twin Towers went down. He leapt from the chair with his hands held high: “Allahu Akbar!” he sang. Then he called his delinquent friends and they all reveled in the news.

To the outside world, my father was whip smart with a bucket full of charm. He spoke five languages, had a PhD in Middle Eastern history, and was dedicated to social justice. He fought for Arab women’s rights in education. And people cheered his name. “Equality!” “Go-Arab Women!” they yelled from the stands. Never mind the fact that he was violently beating his only daughter at home. Even after his death, I lived in fear of being killed for expressing myself. Some of that was trauma, but most of it was because he swore that he would.

There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world today. Most of them are not abusers. But violence against women is a systemic issue: Culture and the distortion of Islam by proud radicalized men like my father and the women who cheer them on leads to violence, rape, honor killings, and female genital mutilation in the Arab world.

And it led to the death of 23-year-old Shani Louk.

I am shocked when feminists ignore Israeli women’s trauma. It reminds me of Sunday breakfasts with my father, and how he used to say that “nobody has suffered like an Arab has suffered.” He could have expressed empathy for the fact that plenty of people suffer more than Arabs. But he didn’t want to be distracted by facts. Later in life, he told a friend that he found stories about the Arab slave trade awful — not because 18 million Africans were enslaved by Arab colonizers, but simply because the stories portrayed Arabs in a negative way. He was looking for something softer, more sympathetic to what he had endured. So, he developed a self-centered interpretation of reality and became oblivious to the pain and suffering of others.

Research shows that a group that is completely preoccupied with its own suffering can develop “egoism of victimhood,” where members are unable to empathize with the suffering of others. I think this is probably what’s happening with a lot of feminists. Israeli women’s “claims” of sexual assault, IRFC says, “overshadow the history of sexual violence imposed on Palestinians.” But an Israeli woman’s lived experience with oppression doesn’t erase a Palestinian woman’s lived experience with oppression. Both stories can co-exist. Feminists’ denial of all other forms of oppression that exist outside of themselves — their belief that Palestinian women’s lived experience is the only lived experience that’s worth listening to — is power and privilege in a nutshell.

“Islamophobia,” feminists say, when I refer to Hamas as rapists. Islamophobia is the fear or dislike of all Muslims, and feminists are quick to dub me an “anti-Muslim extremist” because I call an abuser an abuser, a rapist a rapist, and a terrorist a terrorist. But it’s not anti-Muslim to call the tyrants who raped, abducted, and killed Israeli women and children on October 7 terrorists, because they are.

Feminists don’t label me a white-phobic anti-Christian extremist when I call the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) white Christian terrorists. Yet they’re bizarrely reactive when I criticize Hamas. I’m not sure why they’re defending abusers who distort Islamic teachings in order to justify raping and killing women. The KKK is of a similar ilk, except they distort Christian principles to justify murdering people. Both of these groups are terrorists, and talking about terrorists doesn’t mean I’m talking about the religion they appropriate.

Let me be clear: I am not afraid of Islam, a religion that most of my family practices. I am afraid of abusers and rapists. I am afraid of men who don’t value women’s lives. I am rape-phobic of all extremists, not the cloak they hide behind.

The truth is, I am afraid of a lot of things, most notably publishing this piece about my dad. The only reason I found the courage to write this article was that, a few weeks ago, I overheard a woman in a public bathroom say that the video of Shani Louk is a “problem for Jewish women.”

You don’t have to be Jewish for the video of Shani Louk to be a problem. If you are a woman, what happened to Shani is your problem, too. By using Shani’s body as a symbol of freedom, Hamas is sending a powerful message to every woman around the world: this is what Arab supremacy looks like.

When I talk about Arab supremacy, I am referring to the racist belief that Arab people constitute a superior race. This is what my father believed. And make no mistake: Arab supremacists like my father attack with the intent to kill. They hate women who are free. Women who are made of flesh and bone, full of agency and choice. Along with democracy, these kinds of men want nothing more than for a free woman to die. It’s dangerous for anyone to insert themselves into a conversation about power, privilege, and oppression in the Middle East, and erase the story of Arab supremacy and Islamic extremism. Forget your jargon. Listen to our stories.

What happened on October 7 was about the hatred of women, and the hatred of Jewish people. It was about power and the desire to humiliate, shame, and punish Israeli women for their very being. This is the story of Islamic extremism, infected with characters who are seemingly righteous, but supremely dangerous, made of rebel-slogans and activist cheers, full of ongoing violence towards women.

Being a physician has taught me that gender based violence is never accidental. It is always the result of systematic inequalities. To understand what is happening in our world, we have to stand at the bedside of survivors. We have to listen to their stories. In the wake of the October 7 trauma, we must understand the experience of Israeli women and fiercely protect the right for their stories to be heard and believed. There is power in listening.

I don’t know what story every Israeli woman has to reveal. I have no way of knowing such a thing. But the courage to help them uncover those experiences, the ability to bear witness to their trauma, that’s what a health activist looks like.

If we are serious about protecting women from violence, call out feminists for the erasure of Israeli women’s stories talk about Shani Louk. Make her story visible. Stand against violence of all women, not only a select few. Look out for Jewish women. Forget the jargon. Listen to her story.

We can’t smash feminist theory in a day.

We can’t smash abusive stories overnight

But it’s a start.

About the Author
Zoe Read, J.D., M.D. is a Canadian physician, Arab Zionist and pro-Israel writer who specializes in women's health and gender based violence. A self-declared ex-feminist, her mission is to end the normalization of antisemitism, one story at a time.
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