Are feminists letting down Muslim women?

September 1, 2009 at 1:13 pm | Posted in Misc. | 4 Comments

For some reason, these past few weeks have seen a great deal of attention paid to the relationship between Islam and western feminism. The latest issue of Standpoint features lengthy essays by Clive James & Nick Cohen who both argue that feminists have let down their Muslim sisters by failing to protest with sufficient vigour at the atrocities carried-out in the name of Islam. Meanwhile, The Guardian’s CiF ran a series which asked “can western feminism save Muslim women?” To this, The Heresiarch acidly replies:

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.

Now, I have a huge amount of respect for Heresiarch (as well some for Clive James, and a little for Cohen), but this kind of statement reminds me of the folks who run around lazily claiming that hip hop’s only about violence and misogyny. Sure, there’s plenty of hip hop which is violent & misogynistic, but if you think that’s all there is, then you’re clearly not listening to enough of it. Equally, if you’re comfortable dismissing western feminism for being “bogged down in its own limitless self-regard” or, as Cohen does, for ‘turning a blind eye to misogyny’, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re just not paying enough attention to feminism.

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.

Once we’re done ignoring the western feminists in aid organisations, NGOs and pressure groups, we’d then have to ignore the scholars who’ve written books about these issues, the activists who’ve actually visited Muslim countries and the innumerable bloggers who regularly post in opposition to oppression, or in support of the brave women who fight against it.

And once we’ve ignored all these different writers, bloggers & organisations who do exactly what Clive James & Nick Cohen claim feminists aren’t doing, then we finally get to the main (and oft-repeated) charge against feminism: that it has failed to show sufficient support for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch writer who endured some of the most unimaginable cruelty in Somalia and then faced a fatwa for daring to write about it.

Now, it’s true that Hirsi Ali has been met with some mixed reactions, and her that writings have encountered varying amounts of support & opprobrium. Some have felt uneasy with her comparison of Islam to fascism; others felt that her dogmatism would alienate Muslim women from the feminist movement. Additionally, many of the people who embraced Hirsi Ali during her meteoric rise were the same people who spent every other op-ed concocting new moral justifications for the war in Iraq, whilst slavisly supporting a Republican Party which stood squarely opposed to women’s reproductive freedom, either in America or abroad.

But feminists were able to discuss women’s oppression in Islamic states quite independently of what they thought about Ms Hirsi Ali; there’s been plenty of debate (if one can be bothered to look) amongst feminist writers about how to approach the issue, and because feminists aren’t one monolythic block, the responses happen to vary. Some warn against cultural imperialism, others against cultural relativism, but they have at least been talking about it, trying to understand others’ points of view, and sharing stories with each other of both the cruel injustices and the small victories won. In any case, what does seem clear is that the development of feminism in Islamic countries is going to look very different from how it developed in the west.

Of course, in both Clive James & Nick Cohen’s pieces you’ll find a few deferential hat-tips to women who’re on the ‘right side’ of the issue; James doffs his hat to Pamela Boone & Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, whilst Cohen mentions Katha Pollitt, Joan Smith & Laurie Penny. But by holding aloft a few token feminists, they imply that these are the exceptions; marginalised outliers in a field full of women who’re oblivious to the suffering of Muslims. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The voices are many, widespread and longstanding, and just because neither Clive nor Nick has noticed doesn’t make it untrue.



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  1. You’re quite right- it all depends what you mean by “feminists”! It’s not hard to see why I was holding hy heads in my hands at the Comment is Futile articles or all that from the pro-faith “left” which is ably chronicled by Shiraz Socialist (which I’m glad to see you like a glance at!)

    I suppose no one really notices the good guys, & that’s the problem. I made some vague attempt to state this in a comment on the Heresy Corner article.

    Don’t know if you saw Johann Hari linking to this Malalai Joya- a woman who leaves us all marvelling.

    But as in Iran, what we can actually do is limited & we must avoid hindering rather than helping with ham-fisted interventions. In all it’s a right frustrating state of affairs.

    • Yeah, most days it takes me about 5 minutes to read CiF in its entirety – once I’ve seen the 25 word summaries, I’m normally pretty certain about what they’re going to say. I’ve said this before when this blog was just a wee sap: instead of getting this revolving door of no-mark commentators to dump their not-very-important opinions once a month, why not copy The Atlantic’s model, and commit to 5 or 6 interesting voices who can blog on a range of subjects, but show a curiosity & openness to other points of view. Right now, we just have “and here’s another chance to discover how indisputably correct I am about everything”, and it’s just a bit flat.

      I did read the Hari piece on Malalai Joya, and there was a similar thing he did somewhere in Africa (I think South Africa, but don’t quote me on it). I actually think the way Hari has moved on from his earlier interventionist escapades is quite dazzling. It always seemed that his desire for intervention was driven by a fierce desire to improve human rights in that region. But instead of retreating into ankle-biting bitterness & attacks on the left that some of his peers took when Afghanistan/Iraq turned sour, he managed to change his whole outlook and report on people on the ground in these countries who were trying to win change. Doing that can be inspiring (for the stories you can tell) and depressing (because you always feel compelled to help more than you actually can), but is probably the most sensible approach we can take right now regarding foreign policy/human rights. As you say, it’s incredibly frustrating, but it just seems that’s all there is at the moment.

  2. Don’t forget Islamic feminists who are risking life and limb to bring to light the abuses of Islam and who are calling for reform.

    • Don’t forget Islamic feminists who are risking life and limb to bring to light the abuses of Islam and who are calling for reform

      You’re quite right. These people are true heroes.

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