Islamophobia 1

Via Arts and Letters Daily, I cam across a particular crass article by someone called Phylis Chesler
( on ‘The Failure of Feminism’. Its failure, apparently is that:

most Western academic and mainstream feminists have not focused on what I call gender apartheid in the Islamic world, or on its steady penetration of Europe. Such feminists have also failed to adequately wrestle with the complex realities of freedom, tyranny, patriotism and self-defense, and with the concept of a Just War.

Apparently most feminists don’t hate Islam enough. (I can think of some British ones who do, but that’s a different matter). Because Phyllis Chester really hates Islam. Indeed she states: ‘Women in the Islamic world are treated as subhuman’. Where do you start with such a statement? By pointing out that several Muslim countries (Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh that I know of), have had women heads of state? By mentioning that the two countries with the biggest problem of aborting female foetuses (surely the worst form of anti-female prejudice) are China and India (neither majority Muslim)? Or just by saying that it’s about as sensible to refer to *the* attitude of the ‘Islamic world’ to women as it would be to describe a ‘Christian world’ which lumped together, among others, the USA, Serbia and Kenya?

The author’s main complaint is that feminism has been invaded by cultural relativism and ‘European views of colonial-era racism’ (presumably as opposed to a fine-upstanding American belief that’s it’s OK to invade other countries as long as you’re ‘civilizing’ them). Feminists therefore no longer speak out about: ‘head scarves, face veils, the chador, arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancy, or female genital mutilation.’ Here, the spray-gun rhetoric obscures a valid point. There are practices common in some Muslim countries (not necessarily ‘Islamic’, since Islam as a religion does not endorse genital mutilation, for example) that are oppressive to women and should be opposed by all feminists. I would add the use of Sharia law to this list, which is institutionally biased against women. However, there are also practices, which, however distasteful to some strands of Western thought, are not necessarily seen by Muslim women themselves as oppressive. If women choose to wear the head scarf or to enter an arranged marriage (with the necessary safeguard that they’re not being coerced), then Westerners should not be telling them that they are wrong. Many religions (and other institutions) contain provisions which some non-religious feminists would see as oppressive to women: for example, the Catholic opposition to contraception, the widespread Christian condemnation of abortion, the Evangelical belief in ‘male headship’, the Orthodox Jewish belief that a menstruating woman is ritually impure. Yet the women within these traditions are in many cases content with their religion, or at least want to work within the tradition to change it, not simply reject it.

Phyllis Chester’s viewpoint poses a stark dichotomy: feminism and feminists either have to oppose and reject Islam totally or ‘fail’. Where does that leave all the feminist Muslims (and there are some in the most unlikely places, see,,1712461,00.html on the female Hamas MPs) who want to change aspects of their religion, but not all of it? Where does that leave Western feminists like myself who aren’t convinced that the pornification of Western culture is the perfect role model for other countries? Presumably, Chester feels ‘you’re either for us or against us’. Which brings me to another worrying point in her article. Her hatred of Islam is probably explained by her later mention that she suffered very bad personal experiences when married to an Afghani. She explains how she argued that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan should be overthrown ‘on behalf of women’ and how other feminists opposed her. She also comments that ‘America has not yet done all that is necessary to build up the country’ and that women are still oppressed there post-Taliban. Here again, I have some sympathy with her initial position: the Taliban was an unusually bad regime for women and that was one justification for its overthrow (which I supported). The problem is that seeing invasion as a tool for women’s rights shows horrendous naivety. Firstly, because it’s clear that George Bush was only interested in women’s rights as a propaganda tool. (I bet there will soon be a state of completely inaccurate articles about how badly Iran treats women). As soon as the Taliban were gone, the US government lost interest in women’s rights in Afghanistan. (It’s noticeable that Chester says nothing about Iraq, where women’s rights are now in a worse state than in the days of Saddam). Secondly, invading a country is not an effective way of changing women’s position anyhow, even ignoring the problems of misogyny in warfare. At best it’s a short-term fix. In most countries where women are oppressed, it’s because of a deep-seated culture that approves of this. The only real way to change the position of women is to change the culture, which takes time and a lot of effort. Simply imposing laws from the top down is not going to make a real difference if those laws don’t get enforced or accepted. Bombing countries into feminism is frankly not a good idea.

Finally, Chester complains that ‘Hollywood loudmouths’ haven’t spoken out enough about the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, whereas they have condemned Bush for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. (After all, which is worse, an individual killing of a Westerner, or an immoral war which kills tens of thousands of non-Westerners?) Again, I don’t know about in the US, but there have been lots of condemnations of the killing in the UK. It doesn’t excuse his killing, but van Gogh isn’t an ideal liberal poster-child. There’s a very interesting article by David Aaronovitch which discusses the film he made and points out how differently a similar film made about Jews rather than Muslims would have been seen (,,1352016,00.html).


4 thoughts on “Islamophobia 1

  1. Add Indonesia to the list of countries with a predominantly Muslim population – the largest in the world, in fact – that have had a female head of state: Megawati Sukarnoputri.


  2. The issue here seems to be how much one nation is allowed to interfere with another’s cultural practices. Once ‘colonial-era racism’ happily intervened so, for example, Hawaiian women were forced to cover their previously semi-naked bodies in long gowns (later adopted by them as the muumuu, a new form of distinctive dress). Nowadays ‘cultural relativism’ makes us think twice about this sort of thing.

    However, there may be some duty to interfere if there’s a gross violation of human rights – mutilation, infanticide and so on. There is no point in doing this in any way other than peaceably which means changing the culture; as you mention, this takes a lot of time and effort.


  3. The problem with even peaceable interventions is whether outsiders becoming involved in the struggle will just make the problem worse by turning into a point of national/local pride? To take a Western example, how should European feminists react to South Dakota’s new extremely repressive law on abortion? (Even if you’re generally pro-life, banning abortion in the case of rape and incest seems cruel). Should European feminists try and become involved in campaigns or will that simply raise too many hackles? Similarly, can even non-Dakotans play a major role in the campaign without being accused of trying to impose alien values?

    Nutshell, I think you’re right to argue for outside interventions in some cases, but the most effective form of intervention seems to be small-scale, with a relatively few outsiders going into a country/region longterm, in order to train and encourage the local activisits. That has had positive effects on some areas of women’s rights, but is a frustratingly slow process.


  4. Thinking about these issues I wonder how any sort of social change occurs at all – outside revolution or invasion.

    In the case of anti-abortion legislation in S.Dakota I suppose women could seek treatment in another state where it was legal, much as Americans have travelled over the border from California to Nevada to gamble. Whether this would upset or confirm the staus quo is hard to say.

    Your suggestion of – in this case outsiders- going into a country to train local activists puts me in mind of the communist and anarchist ‘cells’ which their supporters seemed to think aided change from inside a country. Again I’m not sure if they actually ‘worked’.


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