Islam, misogyny and the limits of feminism

September 5, 2009 at 5:54 pm | Posted in Feminisms, International | 9 Comments

Should anyone wonder why Heresy Corner is held in such high regard, this response to my recent post on Islam & western feminism should prove instructive. When something is this well written & persuasively argued , you wonder whether it’s even possible to make a critique, even if you do have disagreements.

Expanding on what I thought were misguided generalisations about feminism’s ‘betrayal’ of Muslim women, The Heresiarch accepts that there are plenty of feminist writers & organisations who do take an interest in the misogyny practiced in the name of Islam. Nonetheless, Heresiarch contends, there remains a feminist mainstream; a “largely middle-class, whitish, left-leaning, “progressive”, Guardian-reading type of feminism” which can be accused of barely paying lip service to what happens beyond their borders.

Instead, these ‘mainstream’ feminists obsess over provincial issues – female representation in positions of power, equality in the workplace, pornography, prostitution & sexual harassment – which appear minor when compared to acts like genital mutilation, forced marriage, honour killings & banning women from working or learning. After quoting my (by no means comprehensive) compilation of blogs & organisations who do show vigilance, Heresiarch responds. “It’s not that feminists never talk about these issues. It’s just that I seriously wonder why they ever talk about anything else.”

My first problem is this: if we are to accept that the relatively minor challenges at home bring the injustices abroad into sharp relief, and conclude from this that feminist activism on domestic issues is at best frivolous, and at worst ‘limitless self-regard’, then the same charge could be made of most of us. What on earth are we doing whinging about incandescent light bulbs when there are villages in Africa without electricity or sanitation? Why do we indulge in panics about our social services when around 1 in 4 Zimbabwean children is an orphan? Sure, the expenses scandal might be an affront to our democracy, but why not take a trip to Burma and see if we prefer how they do things over there?

We may be considerably more healthy, better educated, more materially well-off and more free than billions of people across the planet, but that does not stop us from being restless; demanding that we improve further; imagining a better future for our country. Whilst our problems may be minor in a global context, and though we might sometimes overstate their importance, to campaign on domestic issues need not signal apathy for problems elsewhere, regardless of the movement or ideology you subscribe to.

But aside from feeling a sense that Heresiarch’s response expects more of feminists than would be expected of other political movements, I think his snipes at relativism & his expectations of what western feminists could achieve for Muslims are misjudged.

In June 2007, the Carnegie Endowment published a report which noted the growth of some kind of feminist movement in countries like Egypt & Lebanon. Sure enough, the report was ignored by all & sundry – no feminists publicised their cause and no neo-cons clucked about ‘freedom on the march’. Why was this encouraging development not heavily publicised? Because the trend being observed was happening within Islamist organisations, and the women the authors interviewed were members of Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood.

The report found that these groups began appealing to women purely as a means of expanding their political power. However, as time went on they became dissatisfied with being relegated to ‘women’s branches’, and started agitating for greater representation, the right to work and the right to study. Whilst western feminists have always been able to frame these issues in secular rhetoric, for the ‘Islamist feminists’, their arguments have remained rooted in their faith:

Rather they believe that the cause of women’s rights needs to be pursued by reviving Islamic thought and promoting a new interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. They dismiss the idea that by advocating such interpretation they are rejecting an established body of Islamic law and thought, claiming instead that they are building on the contributions of previous generations using the same tools of interpretation.

Indeed, many of the women campaigning for equality do not consider themselves ‘feminist’ at all, and regard western feminism with a great deal of scepticism, charging that it is excessively individualistic, anti-family, and obsessed with the ‘irrelevant’ issue of gay rights:

By contrast, Islamic activists are concerned with the entire community, which they want to be just and egalitarian within an Islamic framework, recognizing not only the intrinsic equality between men and women but also the different roles they play.

Obviously, there is much about Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood which we find repulsive, regardless of whether we identify as secularists, feminists or none of the above. It is also true that this incipient ‘feminism’ is starting from a very low base, and that there are far more appealing groups who advocate secularisation as a means of achieving equality. Some, such as Wafa Sultan, even argue that it is Islam itself, and not just the interpretation of it, which is fundamental to sustaining women’s inequality. But whilst Sultan may be feted in the west, she is widely-rejected by Muslim scholars who view her as implacably opposed to their faith.

But given how badly secular voices are marginalised in this area, what seems apparent is that if there is to be a move towards better rights for Muslim women, it will have to demonstrate how those rights can be compatible with Islam. To that end, the Carnegie report speculates that ‘Islamist feminism’ actually stands a greater chance of achieving its goals than some secular, western-influenced version:

It is premature at this point to conclude that a full-fledged Islamist paradigm for addressing women’s issues and concerns has emerged, but there is certainly an attempt to develop one. And if such a paradigm were to become widely accepted, it could be enormously influential in the Arab world and more broadly in the Muslim world, much more so than the efforts to promote women’s rights by Western and Western supported feminist organizations.

For me, these developments demonstrate that rather than simply peddling cultural relativism, the consensus among feminists that change should come from within Muslim societies actually seems like pragmatic politics. If feminists embraced the ‘Islamist feminism’ that women are trying to spread through groups like Hizbollah & the Muslim Brotherhood, feminism’s critics wouldn’t be asking ‘where are the western feminists?’ but rather ‘why do feminists hate the west?’ Equally, if they stood squarely behind the kind of secular feminism which more closely resembles their own, they would only succeed in further toxifying an ideology which is already looked-upon with great suspicion.

Heresiarch’s contention that feminists could bring great pressure to bear on their governments to demand the end to misogynistic practices also strikes me as a little optimistic. At present, the ability of western (particularly British & American) governments to use their power to influence foreign governments is more restricted than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In nine months alone, the Obama administration has pondered a deal with the murderous regime in Uzbekistan, has broken a promise to officially recognise the Armenian genocide, and made a speech in Cairo with barely a mention of women’s rights. Each of these decisions were morally questionable, yet all could be rationalised as acting in the self-interest of the United States.

These are not good times to be an internationalist. With staggering deficits, two wars & a massively depleted political capital, human rights advocates, secularists & feminists all face quite insurmountable hurdles towards getting our governments to intervene in cases of rank injustice. As dreadful as it might be, I suspect that even if feminists did all band together to demand that their government get tough on the abysmal Karzai government, the Obama administration wouldn’t possess either the will or the means to follow that through.

Ultimately, I suspect the differences between myself and Heresiarch are relatively minor. Whilst we might differ on matters of strategy or whether feminists should be doing more, we can both agree that secular governance is just objectively better than any superstition-fuelled alternative, and that secularism is the surest way of abandoning centuries of misogyny. Lastly, we both know who the real culprits are for allowing this misogyny to continue, and that certainly it isn’t other women.


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  3. Yes, the Heresiarch always delivers the goods, as I have long said. I am a bit disconcerted that he (she?) slagged off Amanda- going to have to think long & hard as to whether this is right or not. I mean, we all enjoy hating right-whingers but I suppose Pandagon has got its limits really.

    I am still with Obama. About his Cairo speech. It was slagged off at Heresy Corner & elsewhere, but I think the more rationalist & sceptical commentators, precisely because they are so clever, overlooked “the power of bollocks”, ie. that his audience wanted to hear exactly the right sort of platitudes & he gave them what they wanted & needed, not what we western commentators thought we could dissect & find what we liked in it. (Not an especially well articulated thought this- but I am sure you see what I am getting at).

    I, further, agree with Sunny Hundal’s recent statements on Afghanistan, a mission which I have always supported. I have yet to get off the fence on Iraq. But I am starting to think now that it was a distraction from the work of destroying the Taliban & hence stabilising the region & damping down threats to us.

    The mindless sabre-rattling of right-whingers over Iran, when there was little Obama could have done & the kind of tuff-guy action they wanted would probably have done more harm than good, really turned me away from that sort of thing, as much as I am not a pacifist & don’t shy away from fighting when the alternative is worse (ie. Afghanistan) I have become a supporter of a humbler foreign policy.

    In this day & age it is starting to be the left who are the foreign policy realists. Conservatives will rue the day they let any supporter of an imperialist foreign policy into their “big tent”, just as they are doubtless starting to regret palling around with neoliberals.

    I wonder if we will hold out against the Republican challenge in 2010. Worth thinking about.

    • To be honest, I didn’t think the Marcotte thing was all that controversial, but I guess recent events have already demonstrated that I’m rather more sympathetic to feminism than others are inclined to be…

      I’m still broadly supportive of Obama’s foreign policy, and even accept the logic behind some decisions I’ve criticised. For example, if you take a look back not just at the lives lost during the Armenian genocide, but the long history of Turkey’s attempts to bully America into not recognising it as a historical fact, then Obama’s broken promise seems egregious. However, if you recognise that the Bush presidency drained America’s political capital, that making amends is going to require assistance from both allies & foes, and that Turkey is vital to the US’ strategic interests, then you have to accept that it was probably the right move.

      Similarly, the Cairo speech was written to advance certain long-term foreign policy objectives, and I think it did that reasonably successfully. Women’s rights wasn’t among those goals because – sadly – banging on about women’s rights isn’t going to achieve much, and will only serve to piss off a bunch of people he still needs on-side.

      The Afghanistan thing is slightly different. I mostly agree with Sunny on the rationale for us being there, but am very concerned about our ability to achieve something which could be called a ‘victory’. Many of the folks I read on this issue (Spencer Ackerman @Firedoglake, Josh Foust @ Registan, Michael Cohen @ Democracy Arsenal) have posted a lot of stuff doubting the efficacy of the mission & the direction McChrystal’s taking the Af-Pak strategy. None of these folks are simpering doves; I think they all want the mission to be a success, but are worried that it’s either not achievable under any circumstances, or that the Americans are just mishandling the strategy.

      Was interested to read that you thought the foreign policy realists were now more likely to be on the left. Suppose it depends what you mean by ‘left,’ I guess. Sure, most of the folks I read tend to be on the Democratic left (save for a few exceptions, like Larison), but I still feel there’s too much dogmatism around, particularly on the hard left. For example, a foreign policy realist would agree with someone from the hard left that Israel should talk to Hizbollah & abandon its settlements programme, but they put their arguments across so differently that you have to listen very carefully to recognise that they do agree.

      Another example: I was recently taken to task for a thing I wrote re: Israel/Hamas, and I said something about last year’s war being a strategic mistake for the Israelis. Not long after, someone came at me saying something like “no, the principled argument is that Israel’s actions were immoral”. Whilst that’s not something I’d disagree with, how is banging on about ‘immoral’ Israel going to persuade anyone who wasn’t already convinced in the first place? It’s not, so you write about it as a policy mistake, and chances are you can have a more effective debate with the other side than comparing Gaza to Auschwitz or whatever.

  4. Excellent post.

    I am now living in my second Muslim country. I have been trying to figure out what the truth is when it comes to Islam. One issue which I see as a problem is looking at Islam as one complete entity. It isn’t. It’s very subjective and interpretations range from very liberal ideas to the extremes that we in the West see so much of.

    Many Muslim women that I have met believe strongly in the interpretations that exist within their group…be it a tribe, family, region, what have you. They don’t see honour killings, forced marriages, etc to be an issue. That is part of their culture, part of their lives and part of their belief system. Sometimes, these acts aren’t even in compliance with Islam, but more in compliance with tribal or family traditions.

    Within poorer, less educated groups, there tends to be a strong leaning towards highly conservative thinking. Why, I don’t know. But, there are women who have these same beliefs.

    Say a Western feminist were to come along and tell a Muslim woman that they are being mistreated. If that woman doesn’t feel that she is mistreated, that she is living the life she is supposed to live and believes in it…is she really being mistreated? Does the Westerner have a right to tell someone how they should feel?

    On the other hand, there are definitely woman who do feel oppressed, abused, mistreated, who are speaking up. And, of course, sadly, there are many woman who are stuck, feeling mistreated and abused who don’t have a voice and are under the radar.

    So, is part of the reason that some feminists in the west don’t seem to be speaking out for women who are stuck in an unfortunate situation, subjected to an a ultra conservative representation of Islam, partly out of the type of confusion that I feel when I look at what happens in the Muslim world? Would someone with good intentions accidentally offend?

    Anyway, those are some of my thoughts. In someways they don’t fit in exactly with what you wrote. But, maybe there is an idea or two that does.

  5. I thought the Heresy Corner piece had two flaws which rendered it pointless. First, treating feminism as a homogeneous movement. Second, assuming that such a (fictional) movement is capable of influencing domestic politics in Islamic nations if only the ladies would focus on the right things. As both these assumptions are fatuous, the criticisms of feminism following from them are fatuous too. So I’m impressed that you were able to come up with such a cogent reply to an argument that seemed to proceed from the essentialist assumption that women are women, with no cultural analysis required.

  6. Islam is misogynistic, period!!! So is Christianity and Judaism. The difference is that most christian/Jewish cultures are now politically and legally secular, which has created the conditions necessary for misogyny to be challenged to a much greater extent.

    Islamic countries are largely theocracies that foster, encourage and legitimize the oppression of women and girls. Expecting a framework for women’s equality to emerge within an Islamic paradigm is like expecting racial equality to emerge from white supremacist ideology.

    The largest deterrent to Western feminists challenging Islamic misogyny has been the false accusations of racism, religious intolerance and cultural elitism. Political correctness in this regard has been used against western feminists like a club, and most men in the west will not stand with them on this in any significant way. In short religion trumps gender equality, and for a country like the USA that historically and given more deference to both racial equality and religious freedom within our legal system, than it has to gender equality, it is no surprise that Islamic misogyny is not at the top of the wests priority list.

    I can only hope that western governments as well as others through-out the world begin to understand that Islamic misogyny is the incubator that in large part breeds Islamic fascism and extremism.

  7. I’d like to point out that since Hillary Clinton has been at the state department, we have seen her repeatedly challenge Islamic misogyny more than any other State Department in history. France has also taken a stand against Islamic misogyny and continues to be out-spoken about rejecting it within its borders. But in both cases, they are accused of racism and religious intolerance. I’m glad neither Clinton, nor the french government are backing down.

  8. In the case of France, and other countries considering such laws, telling women they can’t wear something they want to wear is just as bad as telling a woman she must wear something she doesn’t. So, the French model is just as fascist as any.

    I feel that you have made a strong, sweeping statement that isn’t exactly fair. There are many interpretations of the role of both men and women in Islam…some being very liberal, others being not as liberal. There are women who are true victims, while there are others that are not. It is unfair to victimize women who don’t feel that they are being victimized.

    People forget that it wasn’t that long ago that woman were not considered equals in the western world. It took a long time for that to change, and there is still progress to be made. Will things change within muslim communities with more conservative views? As time passes, I have full confidence that there will be change. We are seeing it constantly, but not enough people are willing to acknowledge this. Or, they are just not paying enough attention.

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