Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Things that really matter

Around about a year ago, I drew fire from some feminist websites for complaining that high-profile feminist individuals and groups seemed to get far more excited by strip clubs or airbrushing in adverts than by the gross abuses of female human rights in places such as Afghanistan. I had written,


Western feminism is too bogged down in its own limitless self-regard... to care about anyone else. Least of all the millions of subjected women living in conditions they cannot begin to understand...


In a follow up, I modified the position slightly:

I wouldn't deny that for some feminists the suffering of the women of Afghanistan is an important issue. It's not that feminists never talk about these issues. It's just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.


I was roundly accused of not understanding feminism, ignoring the work of those feminists who did manage to look beyond their own immediate narcissism and, not least, of engaging in classic "whataboutery". I Blame the Patriarchy thought I was "One of those asshole dudes who believes that his important dudeliness qualifies him to lecture the feminists on the nature of feminism." Honestly, I was thrilled.

Now here's Bidisha, a woman blessed with a mystical ability to sniff out covert misogyny in the way some people once claimed to be able to detect witches, writing in the Guardian just the other day about the "pyramid of sexist language":

At the base of the Pyramid is Just Plain Sexist. This is your daily, standard, bread-and-butter misogyny. It includes commenting on a woman's appearance, calling her a girl, a babe, a sweetie or lightly saying she's bossy or flighty. The point of the pyramid, so to speak, is not to have every word filed in its rightful place. We are not 1950s librarians. All the terms are terms of hatred, originally invented (sometimes centuries ago) by men, now used by both sexes.


Bidisha even thinks it's evidence of misogyny if any man dares to say anything complimentary about her:

Even seemingly nice words are often used against us, delivered with sizzling spite and patent enjoyment of the victim's discomfort. The hisses of "That's good, keep doing that" and "That's nice" whenever I go jogging. The homeless guy who said to a friend, "Got a light? No? Well, you're looking quite smoking to me, babe." One afternoon at a road crossing in Covent Garden a man turned around and began harassing the woman next to me: "Hello! How are you, darling? You are so pretty. You look like a supermodel. Where are you going?" She didn't reply, he didn't stop. All these arseholes would say they were "only" complimenting their victims.


Yes, some men are arseholes. So are some women. But if that is misogyny, what is this?

In August of 2008, five women were buried alive for "honour crimes" in Baluchistan by armed tribesmen; three of them – Hameeda, Raheema and Fauzia – were teenagers who, after being beaten and shot, were thrown still alive into a ditch where they were covered with stones and earth. When the two older women, aged 45 and 38, protested, they suffered the same fate. The three younger women had tried to choose their own husbands. In the Pakistani parliament, the MP Israrullah Zehri referred to the murders as part of a "centuries-old tradition" which he would "continue to defend".

That paragraph comes from a gut-wrenching, almost unreadable report by Robert Fisk in today's Independent about the worldwide epidemic of "honour killing". That euphemism, of course, does little justice to the cold-blooded murder, usually of women by their own fathers, brothers, husbands or in-laws, for "crimes" such as falling in love, not being "appropriately" dressed, engaging in conversation with an unrelated male, running away from an abusive marriage, or even for being the victim of rape. Murders sanctioned, even mandated, by custom and religion, murders whose perpetrators have positions of respect in their communities, who think of themselves as men of honour, and who in many countries are treated leniently by the police and the courts - if, indeed, they are even arrested.

Fisk produces a horrific litany of such cases, which may run into the thousands every year. For example:

Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, 13, who in Somalia in 2008, in front of a thousand people, was dragged to a hole in the ground – all the while screaming, "I'm not going – don't kill me" – then buried up to her neck and stoned by 50 men for adultery? After 10 minutes, she was dug up, found to be still alive and put back in the hole for further stoning. Her crime? She had been raped by three men and, fatally, her family decided to report the facts to the Al-Shabab militia that runs Kismayo. Or the Al-Shabab Islamic "judge" in the same country who announced the 2009 stoning to death of a woman – the second of its kind the same year – for having an affair? Her boyfriend received a mere 100 lashes.

Or the young woman found in a drainage ditch near Daharki in Pakistan, "honour" killed by her family as she gave birth to her second child, her nose, ears and lips chopped off before being axed to death, her first infant lying dead among her clothes, her newborn's torso still in her womb, its head already emerging from her body? She was badly decomposed; the local police were asked to bury her. Women carried the three to a grave, but a Muslim cleric refused to say prayers for her because it was "irreligious" to participate in the namaz-e-janaza prayers for "a cursed woman and her illegitimate children".


Read it all, if your stomach is strong enough.

This is the sort of thing that happens in a society that truly hates women - or, to be more accurate, does not regard women as in a proper sense human beings at all, but rather a type ofproperty, important for transmitting. The culture celebrated by James Fergusson, author of a sympathetic book about the Taliban, who wrote recently that

The strict sexual propriety the Taliban insist upon is rooted in ancient Pashtun tribal custom, the over-riding purpose of which is to protect the integrity of the tribe, and nothing threatens the gene pool like extramarital relations. "The Pashtun must breed well if he is to breed fighters," wrote the poet Ghani Khan in 1947. "The potential mother of the man of tomorrow is the greatest treasure of the tribe and is guarded jealously... death to those who dare to risk the health of the tribe. It is treachery and sabotage which you also punish with death." The system, as Ghani Khan acknowledges, is "hard and brutal", but it works.


"It works", perhaps, in a social Darwinian sense where all that matters is "the integrity" of the tribe's gene-pool, even if the resultant society is psychotic.

Of course, "honour killing" happens in Britain and other western countries too - it almost happened a few weeks ago to an actress from the Harry Potter films. But when it does, it is in not an expression of British culture. "Honour killing" does not exist on the same misogynist continuum as sexually presumptuous language. It is not the flip-side of an "objectification" that rewards young women who where tight-fitting t-shirts or sleep with footballers. If anything, it has more in common with the finger-wagging feminism that wants women to be "equal" but not free, and that increasingly lines up alongside religious fanatics and cultural paleo-conservatives to denounce the depravity of modern life.

In a way, it's tragic that someone with Bidisha's prominence and media platform as a representative of modern feminism should waste so much of her time and energy on navel gazing, when so many women in the world are genuinely oppressed. My point is slightly different. Bidisha's main complaint seems to be that women are marginalised and denigrated in a thousand small ways. But is not her relentess, mind-numbing focus on trivialities a symptom of that very relegation of women's issues to the margins of public debate? Is Bidisha herself a misogynist?