Feminists and Islam: a reply to my critics

Neil Robertson has taken me to task at Liberal Conspiracy (despite having "a huge amount of respect" for my bloggish witterings - thanks, Neil) for my complaint the other day about the supposed reticence of western feminists when it comes to anything involving Islam. It's a charge not infrequently made, most recently by Clive James and Nick Cohen in a pair of articles for Standpoint which served as my jumping-off point. But, Robertson thinks, it has little or no foundation, being merely the result of "not paying enough attention to feminism".

Now that's true enough. I don't pay that much attention to feminism. I don't have a degree in the subject, indeed I've scarcely studied it at all, which according to some people means I'm in no position to comment on any feminist issues. But I'm not sure how relevant that is. We live in a media-saturated age, and it is up to feminists to put their case in the public sphere, to make their voices heard, to get across their arguments, to persuade those of us who haven't memorised Feminism 101 of the validity of their case.

When I say "feminists", I am of course fully aware that there are many different feminist voices saying different things. There is no one integrated and uncontested feminism, there's no single feminist movement. But there is what might be called a feminist mainstream, a largely middle-class, whitish, left-leaning, "progressive", Guardian-reading type of feminism. It's a cliché, and it's an over-simplification, but it does exist.

And, by and large, this feminist mainstream has been very successful in modern Britain - at least in publicising their cause, if not always in winning the political debate or getting the law changed. Although, often enough - and especially under New Labour - they have succeeded there too. So I believe that anyone with a passing acquaintance with the terms of trade in British politics and socio-political conversation must be aware of the kind of things into which feminists put most of their energy. These include:

- Representation. Getting more women in Parliament, more women in the boardroom, more female High Court judges, chief constables and so on.

- Pay and conditions. Ensuring parity between male and female workers, better arrangements for childcare, equal pension rights, etc

- Pornography and prostitution. While there are feminist voices who are not utterly opposed to sex work in its various forms, supporting a pro-sex stance that includes the right of women to make money from their bodies, the left-liberal feminist mainstream campaigns against the sex industry and has largely succeeded in setting the terms of the current debate.

- Rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment. This discourse tends to see men as inherently violent, and women as inherently victimised. Practical attempts to counteract this - eg by suggesting that women are more vulnerable if incoherently drunk - may be seen as "blaming the victim".

- Cultural and linguistic issues. As an example, see Hadley Freeman's objections to the titillating coverage of the case of Jaycee Lee Dugard in yesterday's Guardian, or Melissa McEwan's notorious piece from the other week.

I'm sure I've left things out, and that my analysis is crude. It's not intended to be anything but a crude impression of those issues that British left-leaning feminists have successfully brought to the public attention. Presumably, though, these are the issues they care most about.

Visitors to next month's Feminism in London 09 mini-conference, for example, will be able to partake in workshops on several topics, including "What's wrong with prostitution", organised by the Poppy Project and featuring two "survivors" of the sex industry; "Commanding the camera and setting the agenda"; a "hard-hitting feminist anti-pornography slide show" presented by Sandrine Leveque, and a session on "Poverty and Motherhood" featuring Bea Campbell. Also (and I suspect popular) will be "Power in Bed", a "fun facilitated discussion" about "how the social forces and power dynamics we challenge publicly also shape our most intimate interactions". In there somewhere is a workshop entitled "Racism and sexism: What are the issues for black and minority ethnic women?" which might conceivably have something to say about how cultural and religious pressures impact on the lives of Muslim women. But even this will "look at how sexism and racism multiply and compound each other" - seemingly ignoring the possibility that it is not so much racism as anti-racism (i.e. multiculturalism) that multiplies and compounds sexism in some communities. And it's noticeable that there's not one session addressing issues that face women in other parts of the world.

I don't claim that feminists are unaware of issues disproportionately affecting parts of the Muslim community, both in this country and worldwide: issues such as forced or forcefully-arranged marriage, under-age or inappropriately young marriage, sexual segregation, removal from education, genital mutilation (in extreme cases), "honour" crime, domestic servitude, sexist religious assumptions and cultural pressures of various kinds. It's just that they don't seem to be very high up the agenda.

I looked, for example, at the website of the Fawcett Society, perhaps Britain's leading feminist organisation. The only relevant item I could find was a report on a 2006 debate about veiling. Because of its visibility, and the challenge it poses to long-held assumptions about the link between sexual integration and female empowerment, the veil does get feminist juices flowing. Yet - unlike in France - there's no feminist consensus about it, with some even arguing that it is empowering for women (though I've yet to see any non-Muslim women adopt it). There's a timidity about the feminist position here that contrasts remarkably with the clear statements feminists make about subjects that more directly affect white middle-class women.

The topic of the Fawcett debate (which featured, among others Madeleine Bunting, Joan Smith and Respect's Salma Yacoob) was defined as "how do we ensure that the womens' rights agenda reflects the needs of Muslim women?" It's telling in itself that such a broad topic was entirely restricted to the one issue of the veil - but equally, notice how that formulation acknowledges the superiority of the religious claim. Why should the womens' agenda reflect the needs of Muslims, rather than Islam better reflect the needs of women? Why this automatic genuflection towards faith? Why are only Muslim voices respected when they state that a woman's place is in the home?

The debate itself, to judge from this report of it (pdf) was predictably depressing, concentrating for example on highly theoretical arguments about whether opposing the niqab, or endorsing it, better reflected the "autonomy of the body". It was even suggested that "pseudo-debates" about veiling were merely a mechanism to distract attention from British responsibility for the Iraq War!

Compared with the horrors of domestic violence, forced marriage and honour crimes, the veil might seem to be a minor issue. Yet it's the only one they're interested in talking about.

Neil Robertson claims that western feminists are, in fact, engaged in work with women in Muslim countries, and with Muslim women in the West:

For this characterisation to be true, we would have to ignore the western feminists who run Women for Women International, the Feminist Majority Foundation, or the Global Fund for Women, and ignore all the work they do in Muslim countries. Similarly, we would have to ignore the feminists who’ve campaigned to help the women of Afghanistan, support those protesting for democracy in Iran and end the practices of stoning & ‘honour’ killing.

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. Some, influenced by a pernicious relativism, appear to think that to acknowledge the vast gulf between the status of women in countries like Saudi Arabia and those in the West would somehow let Western society off the hook; that since Europe is not a feminist utopia, concentrating on conditions elsewhere is an "excuse for complacency" or a means of distracting attention from the real issues that Western women still face.

This article by Amanda Marcotte, which I only saw after I had written this, is a particularly egregious example of what I'm talking about here. She writes that it "offends feminists like me" to suggest that there might be some fundamental difference between pay differentials in Europe and America and "sex slavery, honour killings and the disappearance of girls in more patriarchal developing countries". Well, sorry to offend you Amanda, but there IS a difference - and it's not just a difference of degree.

Let's put things in perspective. The experience of Jaycee Lee Dugard, kidnapped at the age of eleven and forced into a "marriage" with a much older man, repeatedly raped, deprived of an education, forced to bear children without medical help and confined to a ramshackle tent for years on end, is normal life for millions of women in Afghanistan - except that if any of them manage to escape they face being hunted down and killed, or locked up as an "adulteress", or forced into a life of beggary and prostitution. And we - including most Western feminists - appear happy to let this sort of thing go on under the noses of British and American troops. During her recent stint in Number Ten, Britain's most powerful feminist Harriet Harman sought to highlight various womens' issues. Yet she had nothing to offer the women of Afghanistan, despite being part of a government that is now talking openly of negotiating with so-called "moderate" Taliban.

There is, of course, some propaganda value to be had from highlighting the horrendous situation of women and girls in Afghanistan. It helps win support for the war to claim to be building schools for girls, or to show pictures of women imprisoned in burqas as representing the sort of thing we are fighting against. Yet in reality, and even before we started talking to "moderate" Taliban, the position of women in Afghanistan has been deteriorating for years - and, if anything, it is worst in those parts of the country with the highest concentration of Western troops. Western advisers helped write the pre-eminence of Sharia into the Afghan constitution, despite the fact that within living memory Afghanistan was a secular state. A minor fuss was made earlier this year over legislation (approved by the western puppet Hamid Karzai) that institutionalised the longstanding second-class status of women in Shi'ite areas, but it was thought politic to allow a slightly modified version of the law to pass. Husbands will not, after all, be allowed to rape their wives, merely starve them into sexual submission. Result.

Here is an area on which British and American feminists could bring real pressure to bear. So what is Hillary Clinton doing? Betraying women in the greater cause of "stability". Like many people, I was affected by Johann Hari's powerful interview at the end of July with the genuinely heroic Afghan feminist Malalai Joya, now living in fear of her life, who had some devastating things to say about what has happened in her country. "The situation now is as catastrophic as it was under the Taliban for women," she said. "Your governments have replaced the fundamentalist rule of the Taliban with another fundamentalist regime of warlords." Women's rights were "sold out completely" as the US and its allies installed reactionary warlords indistinguishable, in their attitudes towards half the population, from the Taliban they replaced.

Arguably, things have got even worse for women in Iraq, where a direct result of Western intervention has been the coming to power of misogynistic religious fundamentalists in many parts of the country, a catastrophic decline in womens' professional and educational opportunities and - in the areas most strongly influenced by British forces - the disappearance of women from the street. One might expect that British feminists would be enraged by these developments. Unfortunately most of them are too busy campaigning against strip clubs.


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