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Monday, January 28, 2013

Why Feminism is AWOL on Islam

"Conservatives want to be your daddy, telling you what to do and what not to do. Liberals want to be your mommy, feeding you, tucking you in, and wiping your nose. Libertarians want to treat you as an adult." - David Boaz

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Why Feminism is AWOL on Islam
U.S. feminists should be protesting the brutal oppression of Middle Eastern women. But doing so would reveal how little they have to complain about at home.

"In relatively modern Jordan, honor killings were all but exempt from punishment until the penal code was modified last year; unfortunately, a young Palestinian living in Jordan, who had recently stabbed his 19-year-old sister 40 times “to cleanse the family honor,” and another man from near Amman, who ran over his 23-year-old sister with his truck because of her “immoral behavior,” had not yet changed their ways. British psychiatrist Anthony Daniels reports that British Muslim men frequently spirit their young daughters back to their native Pakistan and force the girls to marry. Such fathers have been known to kill daughters who resist. In Sweden, in one highly publicized case, Fadima Sahindal, an assimilated 26-year-old of Kurdish origin, was murdered by her father after she began living with her Swedish boyfriend. “The whore is dead,” the family announced...

Where are the demonstrations, the articles, the petitions, the resolutions, the vindications of the rights of Islamic women by American feminists? The weird fact is that, even after the excesses of the Taliban did more to forge an American consensus about women’s rights than 30 years of speeches by Gloria Steinem, feminists refused to touch this subject. They have averted their eyes from the harsh, blatant oppression of millions of women, even while they have continued to stare into the Western patriarchal abyss, indignant over female executives who cannot join an exclusive golf club and college women who do not have their own lacrosse teams.

But look more deeply into the matter, and you realize that the sound of feminist silence about the savage fundamentalist Muslim oppression of women has its own perverse logic. The silence is a direct outgrowth of the way feminist theory has developed in recent years. Now mired in self-righteous sentimentalism, multicultural nonjudgmentalism, and internationalist utopianism, feminism has lost the language to make the universalist moral claims of equal dignity and individual freedom that once rendered it so compelling. No wonder that most Americans, trying to deal with the realities of a post-9/11 world, are paying feminists no mind...

Though not entirely discrete philosophies, each of three different feminisms has its own distinct reasons for causing activists to “lose their voice” in the face of women’s oppression...

Radical feminists do not simply subscribe to the reasonable-enough notion that men are naturally more prone to aggression than women. They believe that maleness is a kind of original sin. Masculinity explains child abuse, marital strife, high defense spending, every war from Troy to Afghanistan, as well as Hitler, Franco, and Pinochet. As Gloria Steinem informed the audience at a Florida fundraiser last March: “The cult of masculinity is the basis for every violent, fascist regime.”

Gender feminists are little interested in fine distinctions between radical Muslim men who slam commercial airliners into office buildings and soldiers who want to stop radical Muslim men from slamming commercial airliners into office buildings. They are both examples of generic male violence—and specifically, male violence against women. “Terrorism is on a continuum that starts with violence within the family, battery against women, violence against women in the society, all the way up to organized militaries that are supported by taxpayer money,” according to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, who teaches “The Sexuality of Terrorism” at California State University in Hayward. Violence is so intertwined with male sexuality that, she tells us, military pilots watch porn movies before they go out on sorties. The war in Afghanistan could not possibly offer a chance to liberate women from their oppressors, since it would simply expose women to yet another set of oppressors, in the gender feminists’ view. As Sharon Lerner asserted bizarrely in the Village Voice, feminists’ “discomfort” with the Afghanistan bombing was “deepened by the knowledge that more women than men die as a result of most wars.”

If guys are brutes, girls are their opposite: peace-loving, tolerant, conciliatory, and reasonable—“Antiwar and Pro-Feminist,” as the popular peace-rally sign goes. Feminists long ago banished tough-as-nails women like Margaret Thatcher and Jeanne Kirkpatrick (and these days, one would guess, even the fetching Condoleezza Rice) to the ranks of the imperfectly female. Real women, they believe, would never justify war. “Most women, Western and Muslim, are opposed to war regardless of its reasons and objectives,” wrote the Jordanian feminist Fadia Faqir on OpenDemocracy.net. “They are concerned with emancipation, freedom (personal and civic), human rights, power sharing, integrity, dignity, equality, autonomy, power-sharing [sic], liberation, and pluralism.”

Sara Ruddick, author of Maternal Thinking, is perhaps one of the most influential spokeswomen for the position that women are instinctually peaceful. According to Ruddick (who clearly didn’t have Joan Crawford in mind), that’s because a good deal of mothering is naturally governed by the Gandhian principles of nonviolence such as “renunciation,” “resistance to injustice,” and “reconciliation.” The novelist Barbara Kingsolver was one of the first to demonstrate the subtleties of such universal maternal thinking after the United States invaded Afghanistan. “I feel like I’m standing on a playground where the little boys are all screaming ‘He started it!’ and throwing rocks,” she wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “I keep looking for somebody’s mother to come on the scene saying, ‘Boys! Boys!’ ”

Gender feminism’s tendency to reduce foreign affairs to a Lifetime Channel movie may make it seem too silly to bear mentioning, but its kitschy naiveté hasn’t stopped it from being widespread among elites. You see it in widely read writers like Kingsolver, Maureen Dowd, and Alice Walker. It turns up in our most elite institutions. Swanee Hunt, head of the Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government wrote, with Cristina Posa in Foreign Policy: “The key reason behind women’s marginalization may be that everyone recognizes just how good women are at forging peace.” Even female elected officials are on board. “The women of all these countries should go on strike, they should all sit down and refuse to do anything until their men agree to talk peace,” urged Ohio representative Marcy Kaptur to the Arab News last spring, echoing an idea that Aristophanes, a dead white male, proposed as a joke 2,400 years ago. And President Clinton is an advocate of maternal thinking, too. “If we’d had women at Camp David,” he said in July 2000, “we’d have an agreement.”

Major foundations too seem to take gender feminism seriously enough to promote it as an answer to world problems. Last December, the Ford Foundation and the Soros Open Society Foundation helped fund the Afghan Women’s Summit in Brussels to develop ideas for a new government in Afghanistan. As Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler described it on her website, the summit was made up of “meetings and meals, canvassing, workshops, tears, and dancing.” “Defense was mentioned nowhere in the document,” Ensler wrote proudly of the summit’s concluding proclamation—despite the continuing threat in Afghanistan of warlords, bandits, and lingering al-Qaida operatives. “[B]uilding weapons or instruments of retaliation was not called for in any category,” Ensler cooed. “Instead [the women] wanted education, health care, and the protection of refugees, culture, and human rights.”

Too busy celebrating their own virtue and contemplating their own victimhood, gender feminists cannot address the suffering of their Muslim sisters realistically, as light years worse than their own petulant grievances. They are too intent on hating war to ask if unleashing its horrors might be worth it to overturn a brutal tyranny that, among its manifold inhumanities, treats women like animals. After all, hating war and machismo is evidence of the moral superiority that comes with being born female...

Now it’s clearer than ever that the dream of worldwide sisterhood is no more realistic than worldwide brotherhood; culture trumps gender any day. Mothers all over the Muslim world are naming their babies Usama or praising Allah for their sons’ efforts to kill crusading infidels. Last February, 28-year-old Wafa Idris became the first female Palestinian suicide bomber to strike in Israel, killing an elderly man and wounding scores of women and children...

The second variety of feminism, seemingly more sophisticated and especially prevalent on college campuses, is multiculturalism and its twin, postcolonialism. The postcolonial feminist has even more reason to shy away from the predicament of women under radical Islam than her maternally thinking sister. She believes that the Western world is so sullied by its legacy of imperialism that no Westerner, man or woman, can utter a word of judgment against former colonial peoples. Worse, she is not so sure that radical Islam isn’t an authentic, indigenous—and therefore appropriate—expression of Arab and Middle Eastern identity.

The postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, one of the intellectual godfathers of multiculturalism and postcolonialism, first set the tone in 1978 when an Italian newspaper sent him to Teheran to cover the Iranian revolution. As his biographer James Miller tells it, Foucault looked in the face of Islamic fundamentalism and saw . . . an awe-inspiring revolt against “global hegemony.” He was mesmerized by this new form of “political spirituality” that, in a phrase whose dark prescience he could not have grasped, portended the “transfiguration of the world.” Even after the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and reintroduced polygamy and divorce on the husband’s demand with automatic custody to fathers, reduced the official female age of marriage from 18 to 13, fired all female judges, and ordered compulsory veiling, whose transgression was to be punished by public flogging, Foucault saw no reason to temper his enthusiasm. What was a small matter like women’s basic rights, when a struggle against “the planetary system” was at hand?

Postcolonialists, then, have their own binary system, somewhat at odds with gender feminism—not to mention with women’s rights. It is not men who are the sinners; it is the West. It is not women who are victimized innocents; it is the people who suffered under Western colonialism, or the descendants of those people, to be more exact. Caught between the rock of patriarchy and the hard place of imperialism, the postcolonial feminist scholar gingerly tiptoes her way around the subject of Islamic fundamentalism and does the only thing she can do: she focuses her ire on Western men...

Believing that Western feminism has promoted hostility between the sexes, confused sex roles, and the sexual objectification of women, a number of writers have proposed an Islamic-style feminism that would stress “gender complementarity” rather than equality and that would pay full respect to housewifery and motherhood while also giving women access to education and jobs...

To this end, the postcolonialist eagerly dips into the inkwell of gender feminism. She ties colonialist exploitation and domination to maleness; she might refer to Israel’s “masculinist military culture”—Israel being white and Western—though she would never dream of pointing out the “masculinist military culture” of the jihadi. And she expends a good deal of energy condemning Western men for wanting to improve the lives of Eastern women. At the turn of the twentieth century Lord Cromer, the British vice consul of Egypt and a pet target of postcolonial feminists, argued that the “degradation” of women under Islam had a harmful effect on society. Rubbish, according to the postcolonialist feminist. His words are simply part of “the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam,” as Harvard professor Leila Ahmed puts it in Women and Gender in Islam. The same goes for American concern about Afghan women; it is merely a “device for ranking the ‘other’ men as inferior or as ‘uncivilized,’ ” according to Nira Yuval-Davis, professor of gender and ethnic studies at the University of Greenwich, England. These are all examples of what renowned Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak called “white men saving brown women from brown men.”

Spivak’s phrase, a great favorite on campus, points to the postcolonial notion that brown men, having been victimized by the West, can never be oppressors in their own right. If they give the appearance of treating women badly, the oppression they have suffered at the hands of Western colonial masters is to blame. In fact, the worse they treat women, the more they are expressing their own justifiable outrage. “When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women,” Miriam Cooke, a Duke professor and head of the Association for Middle East Women’s Studies, told me. And today, Cooke asserts, brown men are subjected to a new form of imperialism. “Now there is a return of colonialism that we saw in the nineteenth century in the context of globalization,” she says. “What is driving Islamist men is globalization.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate the through-the-looking-glass quality of postcolonialist theory when it comes to the subject of women. Female suicide bombers are a good thing, because they are strong women demonstrating “agency” against colonial powers. Polygamy too must be shown due consideration. “Polygamy can be liberating and empowering,” Cooke answered sunnily when I asked her about it. “Our norm is the Western, heterosexual, single couple. If we can imagine different forms that would allow us to be something other than a heterosexual couple, we might imagine polygamy working,” she explained murkily. Some women, she continued, are relieved when their husbands take a new wife: they won’t have to service him so often. Or they might find they now have the freedom to take a lover. But, I ask, wouldn’t that be dangerous in places where adulteresses can be stoned to death? At any rate, how common is that? “I don’t know,” Cooke answers, “I’m interested in discourse.” The irony couldn’t be darker: the very people protesting the imperialist exploitation of the “Other” endorse that Other’s repressive customs as a means of promoting their own uniquely Western agenda—subverting the heterosexual patriarchy.

[Ed: I fully endorse female suicide bombers for overturning sexist stereotypes about women (aka 'Subverting the heterosexual patriarchy')]

The final category in the feminist taxonomy, which might be called the world-government utopian strain, is in many respects closest to classical liberal feminism...

The utopian is also a bean-counting absolutist, seeking a pure, numerical equality between men and women in all departments of life. She greets Western, and particularly American, claims to have achieved freedom for women with skepticism. The motto of the 2002 International Women’s Day—“Afghanistan Is Everywhere”—was in part a reproach to the West about its superior airs. Women in Afghanistan might have to wear burqas, but don’t women in the West parade around in bikinis? “It’s equally disrespectful and abusive to have women prancing around a stage in bathing suits for cash or walking the streets shrouded in burqas in order to survive,” columnist Jill Nelson wrote on the MSNBC website about the murderously fanatical riots that attended the Miss World pageant in Nigeria.

As Nelson’s statement hints, the utopian is less interested in freeing women to make their own choices than in engineering and imposing her own elite vision of a perfect society. Indeed, she is under no illusions that, left to their own democratic devices, women would freely choose the utopia she has in mind. She would not be surprised by recent Pakistani elections, where a number of the women who won parliamentary seats were Islamist. But it doesn’t really matter what women want. The universalist has a comprehensive vision of “women’s human rights,” meaning not simply women’s civil and political rights but “economic rights” and “socioeconomic justice.” Cynical about free markets and globalization, the U.N. utopian is also unimpressed by the liberal democratic nation-state “as an emancipatory institution,” in the dismissive words of J. Ann Tickner, director for international studies at the University of Southern California. Such nation-states are “unresponsive to the needs of [their] most vulnerable members” and seeped in “nationalist ideologies” as well as in patriarchal assumptions about autonomy. In fact, like the (usually) unacknowledged socialist that she is, the U.N. utopian eagerly awaits the withering of the nation-state, a political arrangement that she sees as tied to imperialism, war, and masculinity. During war, in particular, nations “depend on ideas about masculinized dignity and feminized sacrifice to sustain the sense of autonomous nationhood,” writes Cynthia Enloe, professor of government at Clark University.

Having rejected the patriarchal liberal nation-state, with all the democratic machinery of self-government that goes along with it, the utopian concludes that there is only one way to achieve her goals: to impose them through international government. Utopian feminists fill the halls of the United Nations, where they examine everything through the lens of the “gender perspective” in study after unreadable study. (My personal favorites: “Gender Perspectives on Landmines” and “Gender Perspectives on Weapons of Mass Destruction,” whose conclusion is that landmines and WMDs are bad for women.)

The 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), perhaps the first and most important document of feminist utopianism, gives the best sense of the sweeping nature of the movement’s ambitions. CEDAW demands many measures that anyone committed to democratic liberal values would applaud, including women’s right to vote and protection against honor killings and forced marriage. Would that the document stopped there. Instead it sets out to impose a utopian order that would erase all distinctions between men and women, a kind of revolution of the sexes from above, requiring nations to “take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women” and to eliminate “stereotyped roles” to accomplish this legislative abolition of biology. The document calls for paid maternity leave, nonsexist school curricula, and government-supported child care. The treaty’s 23-member enforcement committee hectors nations that do not adequately grasp that, as Enloe puts it, “the personal is international.” The committee has cited Belarus for celebrating Mother’s Day, China for failing to legalize prostitution, and Libya for not interpreting the Qur’an in accordance with “committee guidelines.”

Confusing “women’s participation” with self-determination, and numerical equivalence with equality, CEDAW utopians try to orchestrate their perfect society through quotas and affirmative-action plans. Their bean-counting mentality cares about whether women participate equally, without asking what it is that they are participating in or whether their participation is anything more than ceremonial. Thus at the recent Women’s Summit in Jordan, Rima Khalaf suggested that governments be required to use quotas in elections “to leapfrog women to power.” Khalaf, like so many illiberal feminist utopians, has no hesitation in forcing society to be free. As is often the case when elites decide they have discovered the route to human perfection, the utopian urge is not simply antidemocratic but verges on the totalitarian.

That this combination of sentimental victimhood, postcolonial relativism, and utopian overreaching has caused feminism to suffer so profound a loss of moral and political imagination that it cannot speak against the brutalization of Islamic women is an incalculable loss to women and to men... At its best, feminism has stood for a rich idea of personal choice in shaping a meaningful life, one that respects not only the woman who wants to crash through glass ceilings but also the one who wants to stay home with her children and bake cookies or to wear a veil and fast on Ramadan. Why shouldn’t feminists want to shout out their own profound discovery for the world to hear?

Perhaps, finally, because to do so would be to acknowledge the freedom they themselves enjoy, thanks to Western ideals and institutions. Not only would such an admission force them to give up their own simmering resentments; it would be bad for business.

The truth is that the free institutions—an independent judiciary, a free press, open elections—that protect the rights of women are the same ones that protect the rights of men. The separation of church and state that would allow women to escape the burqa would also free men from having their hands amputated for theft. The education system that would teach girls to read would also empower millions of illiterate boys. The capitalist economies that bring clean water, cheap clothes, and washing machines that change the lives of women are the same ones that lead to healthier, freer men. In other words, to address the problems of Muslim women honestly, feminists would have to recognize that free men and women need the same things—and that those are things that they themselves already have. And recognizing that would mean an end to feminism as we know it.

There are signs that, outside the academy, middlebrow literary circles, and the United Nations, feminism has indeed met its Waterloo. Most Americans seem to realize that September 11 turned self-indulgent sentimental illusions, including those about the sexes, into an unaffordable luxury. Consider, for instance, women’s attitudes toward war, a topic on which politicians have learned to take for granted a gender gap. But according to the Pew Research Center, in January 2002, 57 percent of women versus 46 percent of men cited national security as the country’s top priority. There has been a “seismic gender shift on matters of war,” according to pollster Kellyanne Conway. In 1991, 45 percent of U.S. women supported the use of ground troops in the Gulf War, a substantially smaller number than the 67 percent of men. But as of November, a CNN survey found women were more likely than men to support the use of ground troops against Iraq, 58 percent to 56 percent. The numbers for younger women were especially dramatic. Sixty-five percent of women between 18 and 49 support ground troops, as opposed to 48 percent of women 50 and over. Women are also changing their attitudes toward military spending: before September 11, only 24 percent of women supported increased funds; after the attacks, that number climbed to 47 percent. An evolutionary psychologist might speculate that, if females tend to be less aggressively territorial than males, there’s little to compare to the ferocity of the lioness when she believes her young are threatened...

As we sink more deeply into what is likely to be a protracted struggle with radical Islam, American feminists have a moral responsibility to give up their resentments and speak up for women who actually need their support. Feminists have the moral authority to say that their call for the rights of women is a universal demand—that the rights of women are the Rights of Man."


While the writer doesn't mention some feminist protests, by and large she is right that they prefer to focus on trivial issues in developing countries rather than real problems in developed ones (especially the academics). Indeed this is one criticism that Third World Feminists level against the rest - of ignoring Third World Women.


Related (from 10 years prior to the previous article):

Reactionary Feminism

"Too many of the world's women remain oppressed--except in the places where feminists are doing the most complaining... How did one of the most privileged sets of people in the history of the world, in terms of wealth, education, and political power, come to be represented by its self-appointed spokespersons and their media minions as a passel of cringing victims in need of special protection by an all-wise government?...

Gender feminism, as Sommers points out, is now an industry, with generous research funding, grant money, and careers available to those who propose to root out ever more arcane instances of oppression. There is only one pool of approved "experts" in the field, since any questioning of the approved orthodoxy is labeled sexism, "backlash," or delusion. It isn't strange that the "experts" should seek to protect their turf...

Most people shun the ideology of oppression, viewing it as a philosophy for losers. A frequently heard criticism of party-line feminism from its inception was that it failed to address mainstream women's needs, patronizing those who made child-rearing a career and ignoring, if not denigrating, those who chose traditionally female professions such as nursing, school teaching, and secretarial work. As for those who went so far as to trade on their femininity, such as cocktail waitresses, exotic dancers, and prostitutes: Off to the reeducation camp! But unfortunately we can't all be aircraft mechanics.

Sommers's subtitle embodies a neat argument. Misandry invariably leads to misogyny, since women who fail to adhere to the party line must be collaborationists. In the fashionable Foucaultian model, they have internalized the oppressor. So women who belong to Weight Watchers or the Catholic church or the Republican Party or any other identified institution of male oppression do not know their own minds: They have been colonized by the patriarchy and must be helped, by their self-identified liberators, to exorcise the demons within.

For all their progressivist cant, gynocentric feminists are profoundly "regressive" (Cynthia Ozick's word). Like some 19th-century romantics, they embrace a vision of womanhood as the embodiment of finer sensibilities, closer to the state of angels than to men. Sexuality itself is a male-constructed force utilized to terrorize women...

One is hard-pressed to think of many historical examples of successful, liberal-based revolutionary movements that, once taken over by radicals, have been recaptured by the tolerant. The latter generally lack the rage, the "fighting madness" (as Eleanor Smeal, the former president of NOW, puts it), that infuses ideological warriors"
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