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Islam, feminism, and fecklessness

Posted by Richard on May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day! If you are a mother, have a mother, or know a mother, if you care about mothers, if you're at all interested in or concerned about women's rights, please go read Christina Hoff Sommers' outstanding essay, "The Subjection of Islamic Women." Subtitled "And the fecklessness of American feminism," it's the cover story in the May 21 issue of The Weekly Standard. It's not a screed or diatribe, and it's not a catalog of atrocities and outrages. It does point its finger at the feckless, but more in sadness than in anger, and it gives credit where it's due. It's a thoughtful look at a shameful situation, but with a hopeful ending:

The subjection of women in Muslim societies–especially in Arab nations and in Iran–is today very much in the public eye. Accounts of lashings, stonings, and honor killings are regularly in the news, and searing memoirs by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi have become major best-sellers. One might expect that by now American feminist groups would be organizing protests against such glaring injustices, joining forces with the valiant Muslim women who are working to change their societies. This is not happening.

… During the 1980s, there were massive demonstrations on American campuses against racial apartheid in South Africa. There is no remotely comparable movement on today's campuses against the gender apartheid prevalent in large parts of the world.

… For a brief period before September 11, 2001, many women's groups protested the brutalities of the Taliban. But they have never organized a full-scale mobilization against gender oppression in the Muslim world. The condition of Muslim women may be the most pressing women's issue of our age, but for many contemporary American feminists it is not a high priority. Why not?

One reason is that many feminists are tied up in knots by multiculturalism and find it very hard to pass judgment on non-Western cultures. They are far more comfortable finding fault with American society for minor inequities (the exclusion of women from the Augusta National Golf Club, the "underrepresentation" of women on faculties of engineering) than criticizing heinous practices beyond our shores. The occasional feminist scholar who takes the women's movement to task for neglecting the plight of foreigners is ignored or ruled out of order

Sommers offers a number of examples and cites some women's rights champions critical of their peers to back up her thesis. What most bothers me is the pervasive attitude of moral equivalence. Feminist leaders speak of "Christian Wahhabism" and equate Focus on the Family with the Taliban. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World describes both the United States and Uganda as having extreme restrictions on women. In Uganda, a man can claim an unmarried woman by raping her. The U.S. got the same rank, according to author Joni Seager, because "state legislators enacted 301 anti-abortion measures between 1995 and 2001." Never mind that U.S. abortion laws are still among the most liberal in the world. 

Sommers takes on Nation columnist Katha Pollitt for her moral equivalence argument:

Soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Katha Pollitt wrote the introduction to a book called Nothing Sacred: Women Respond to Religious Fundamentalism and Terror. It aimed to show that reactionary religious movements everywhere are targeting women. Says Pollitt:

In Bangladesh, Muslim fanatics throw acid in the faces of unveiled women; in Nigeria, newly established shariah courts condemn women to death by stoning for having sex outside of wedlock. . . . In the United States, Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have forged a powerful right-wing political movement focused on banning abortion, stigmatizing homosexuality and limiting young people's access to accurate information about sex.

Pollitt casually places "limiting young people's access to accurate information about sex" and opposing abortion on the same plane as throwing acid in women's faces and stoning them to death. Her hostility to the United States renders her incapable of distinguishing between private American groups that stigmatize gays and foreign governments that hang them. She has embraced a feminist philosophy that collapses moral categories in ways that defy logic, common sense, and basic decency.

It's not just an essay about the depressing state of American feminism, though. In the final third, Sommers describes the growing Muslim feminist movement: 

The good news is that Muslim women are not waiting around for Western feminists to rescue them. "Feminists in the West may fiddle while Muslim women are burning," wrote Manhattan Institute scholar Kay Hymowitz in a prescient 2003 essay, "but in the Muslim world itself there is a burgeoning movement to address the miserable predicament of the second sex." The number of valiant and resourceful Muslim women who are devoting themselves to the cause of greater freedom grows each and every day.

The courage of Muslim women fighting for their rights is inspiring. As Sommers notes, early American feminists risked being shunned or ridiculed; Muslim feminists risk imprisonment, beatings and torture, even death. But their cause is important not just for women and not just for the Islamic world, as Sommers, quoting Canadian journalist and human rights activist Irshad Manji, observes:

In her 2004 feminist manifesto, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji writes, "We Muslims . . . are in crisis and we are dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it's now."

Manji is right: In particular, a feminist reformation could be as dangerous to the dreams of the jihadists as any military assault by the West. After all, the oppression of women is not an incidental feature of the societies that foster terrorism. It is a linchpin of the system of social control that the jihadists are fighting to impose worldwide. Women's equality is as incompatible with radical Islam's plan for domination and submission as it is with polygamy. Women freely moving about, expressing their opinions, and negotiating their relationships with men from a position of equal dignity rather than servitude are a moderating, civilizing force in any society. Female scholars voicing their opinions without inhibition would certainly puncture some cherished jihadist fantasies.

Go read the whole thing. I think it's a truly important essay, and I felt hopeful and uplifted at the end. 

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