Silence of the Fems

Last week, CIF "Belief" was asking one of its typically loaded questions: "Can Western feminism save Muslim women?" The answer was fairly obvious, I thought: No. Western feminism is too bogged down in its own limitless self-regard, arguing ad nauseam about the evils of sexually stereotyping adverts, or why female bankers don't get quite such enormous bonuses as their male equivalents, to care about anyone else. Least of all the millions of subjected women living in conditions they cannot begin to understand, although Jaycee Lee Dugard could probably give them a few pointers.

But that wasn't really the question - rather, we were asked to consider whether western feminists had any business interfering in someone else's culture:

When community customs come up against individual human rights, which will prevail? Can liberals grant women the right to choose to be oppressed? Or can there be some compromise worked out, which would modify both modern and traditional ideas of what it is to be human, and so what rights we all deserve?

Shocking stuff - at least if you take a step back and consider what is being said here. Not only is it apparently being suggested that women have the "right" to "choose" to be oppressed - an absurd, illogical proposition, given that being oppressed is the direct opposite of having a choice - but that somehow we ought to "modify" - i.e. discard - our hard-won concept of individual rights in favour of a "compromise" with the very values that once condemned half the human race to a position of subordination and, in many cases, virtual slavery.

Still, that's the Guardian for you. Feminism is best expressed by Melissa McEwan's solipsistic whining about how she feels undermined by male friends daring to argue with her. When questions of culture and religion are brought into the mix, the politically correct liberal wants to put her head in the sand.

Geraldine Brooks was the worst:

By Allah, we're an arrogant lot. By "we", I mean modern western feminists, a group among which I am generally proud to be included. Except when we're full of ourselves.

I'm not going to demur. But why are you western feminists arrogant, Geraldine? Because you take it upon yourself to stand up for the rights of women of non-western background (including the many who live among us)? Or is it because you don't?

Western feminism is not the only ideology exquisitely sensible of gender injustice. Nor are western feminists the only ones willing or able to speak up about it. Muslim women have been doing this themselves for decades, loudly and often effectively.

It's true, they have. Unfortunately, when they attempt to interest western feminists in their struggles, western feminists don't seem to want to know.

Brooks claims that "western feminist finger-wagging or attempts by pro-western governments to alter Islamic laws by fiat have been spectacularly counterproductive". But while she points to examples of the latter - such as Sadat's "mild reform of marriage and custody laws" in Egypt, later reversed under Islamist pressure - she offers no evidence of feminist finger-wagging, counterproductive or otherwise. Perhaps because there has been none; or not enough to make a difference. Such finger-wagging as there is tends to take the form of self-proclaimed progressives telling oppressed women that they're on their own.

Nick Cohen provides some examples of this phenomenon in a highly worthwhile article for Standpoint:

When Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, her account of escape from forced marriage and genital mutilation to Europe, her defence of the liberal values they once believed in appalled "liberal" Europeans. Although Ali needed bodyguards to protect her from Islamist assassins, Timothy Garton Ash sneered that she was an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" while Ian Buruma denounced her as an absolutist. Maryam Namazie, a Marxist Iranian exile who set up the "One Law for all Campaign" to oppose the Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice, tells me that she experiences every variety of Western duplicity. When she argues in favour of the demonstrators in Tehran, the hard Left tell her she is serving the interests of US imperialism — "It's now reactionary to have a revolution," she sighs. When she last appeared on the BBC, to argue that the burka was a straightjacket designed to mark off a woman as a man's private property, the presenter told her she was an "extremist".

...Azar Nafisi gave the best reason to dismiss such indifference to the power of real tyrants. The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran fled from the Ayatollahs' Iran to Boston, Massachusetts, not far from the site of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. Instead of finding a strong movement dedicated to freeing women, she found a racist discourse on American campuses which insisted that culture and religion demanded female subordination. "I very much resent it in the West when people — maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view — keep telling me, ‘It's their culture.' It's like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. First, there are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible, and we should fight against it. Second, women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia don't like to be stoned to death."

Another man, Clive James, expresses a similar frustration in an eminently recommendable (if long) piece in the same magazine:

My own impression, drawn over the course of these past ten years or so, is that the amount of protest about honour crimes from Western female thinkers has diminished as the news about honour crimes has proliferated, and has steadily shrunk towards nothing even as news about honour crimes among immigrant populations in the Western countries has become more conspicuous. In Britain especially, the worse it gets, the fewer objections we hear from writers in the serious newspapers....

A serious British journalist, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who promotes the difficult double programme of wanting Islam respected and honour crimes condemned, would not have to be quite so brave if she had more back-up. But the feminists do not want to know, or, if they know, prefer to do nothing. This was certainly a conclusion I didn't want to draw, because I never wanted to publish this essay, or even to make much more than a start on writing it. I wanted women to do the job. After 70 years of hard training, I had finally accepted that it was not a woman's job to wash my socks, but I still thought that if there were thousands of madmen all over the world ready to murder or mutilate their own daughters for imaginary crimes, then it was a woman's job to object in the first instance, always provided that she was free to do so. On the whole, however, it hasn't happened.

Both point to western women who have spoken out against the oppression of other women. Cohen mentions Ophelia Benson, whose book Does God Hate Women? was panned by liberal critics and compared unfavourably with the vapid outpourings of Karen Armstrong. Indeed, the Sunday Times tried to stir up an Islamophobia row over the book (as the Mail was later to do with Sebastian Faulks's comments about the Koran) in the hope that some beards would start calling for her death. They didn't. James salutes the late Pamela Bone, whose 2005 article "Where Are The Western Feminists?" remains unanswered. But such writers don't partake of the mainstream consensus reflected in the Guardian's choice of priorities, any more than does Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose unforgivable crime is to be black, a woman, an immigrant AND a believer in the liberal principles of the Enlightenment.

These days, Hirsi Ali is bankrolled by US Neoconservatives. Most on the left, no doubt, see this as confirmation of their suspicions about her. But the true explanation for her switch in allegiance should be clear. Thinkers on the right, on the whole, aren't burdened by hatred for their own culture and its historic values. Many "liberals" are astonished and repelled by the idea that an outsider like her might see the blessings of liberal society the more keenly because she has known the opposite. But as Clive James writes, "Western liberal democracy, or a reasonable imitation of Western liberal democracy when it comes to the rule of law, is still the only kind of society we know about where women are not at the mercy of systematic injustice". The trouble is, you have first to believe in liberal democracy to see that.


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