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Manhattan Institute

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Feminist Fog


Feminist Fog

February 9, 2003

AS news of the appalling miseries of women in the Islamic world has piled up, where are the feminists? Where's the outrage?

For a brief moment after 9/11, when pictures of those blue alien-creaturely shapes in Afghanistan filled the papers, it seemed as if feminists were going to have their moment. The Feminist Majority, to its credit, had been publicizing since the mid '90s how Afghan girls were barred from school, how women were stoned for adultery or beaten for showing an ankle or wearing high-heeled shoes, how they were prohibited from leaving the house unless accompanied by a male relative, how they were denied medical help because the only doctors around were male.

But the rest is feminist silence. You haven't heard a peep from feminists as it has grown clear that the Taliban were exceptional not in their extreme views about women but in their success at embodying those views in law and practice.

In the United Arab Emirates, husbands have the right to beat their wives to discipline them - "provided that the beating is not so severe as to damage her bones or deform her body," in the words of the Gulf News. In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, drive or show their faces or talk with male non-relatives in public.

You didn't hear much from feminists when in the northern Nigerian province of Katsina a Muslim court sentenced a woman to death by stoning for having a child outside of marriage. During her trial she had no lawyer, although the court did see fit to delay her execution until she weans her infant.

You didn't hear much from feminists as it emerged that honor killings by relatives, often either ignored or only lightly punished by authorities, are also commonplace in the Muslim world.According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, every day two women are slain by male relatives seeking to avenge the family honor.

WHY the sisterly silence? It is helpful to think of feminisms - plural rather than singular. Though not entirely discrete philosophies, each of three different feminisms has its own distinct reasons for causing activists to "lose their voice" in the face of women's oppression.

The first variety - radical feminism (or gender feminism, in Christina Hoff Sommers' term) - starts with the insight that men are, not to put too fine a point upon it, brutes. Radical feminists believe that maleness is a kind of original sin. Masculinity explains child abuse, marital strife, high defense spending, every war from Troy to Afghanistan, as well as Hitler, Franco and Pinochet.

Thus, the war in Afghanistan could not possibly liberate women from their oppressors: It would simply expose women to yet another set of oppressors, in gender feminists' view.

If guys are brutes, girls are their opposite: peace-loving, tolerant, conciliatory and reasonable - "Antiwar and Pro-Feminist," as the popular peace-rally sign goes. Real women, gender feminists believe, would never justify war.

Yet this idea of superior feminine virtue is becoming an increasingly tough sell for anyone actually keeping up with world events.

Mothers all over the Muslim world are naming their babies Osama or praising Allah for their sons' efforts to kill crusading infidels. Last February, 28-year-old Wafa Idris became the first female Palestinian suicide bomber to strike in Israel, killing an elderly man and wounding scores of women and children. And in April, Israeli soldiers discovered under the maternity clothes of 26-year-old Shifa Adnan Kodsi a bomb rather than a baby. Maternal thinking, indeed.

THE second variety of feminism, especially prevalent on college campuses, is multiculturalism and its twin, postcolonialism.

The postcolonial feminist has even more reason to shy away from the predicament of women under radical Islam than her maternally thinking sister. She believes that the Western world is so sullied by its legacy of imperialism that no Westerner, man or woman, can utter a word of judgment against former colonial peoples. Worse, she is not so sure that radical Islam isn't an authentic, indigenous - and therefore appropriate - expression of Arab and Middle Eastern identity.

It is not men who are the sinners; it is the West. It is not women who are victimized innocents; it is the people who suffered under Western colonialism, or the descendants of those people, to be more exact.

Caught between the rock of patriarchy and the hard place of imperialism, the postcolonial feminist scholar gingerly tiptoes her way around the subject of Islamic fundamentalism and does the only thing she can do: She focuses her ire on Western men.

SHE ties colonialist exploitation and domination to maleness; she might refer to Israel's "masculinist military culture" - Israel being white and Western - though she would never dream of pointing out the "masculinist military culture" of the jihadi.

American concern about Afghan women? Merely a "device for ranking the 'other' men as inferior or as 'uncivilized,' " according to Nira Yuval-Davis, professor of gender and ethnic studies at the University of Greenwich, England. An example of what renowned Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak called "white men saving brown women from brown men." Brown men, having been victimized by the West, can never be oppressors in their own right. If they give the appearance of treating women badly, the oppression they have suffered at the hands of Western colonial masters is to blame.

THE final category in the feminist taxonomy, which might be called the world-government utopian strain, is in many respects closest to classical liberal feminism. Dedicated to full female dignity and equality, it generally eschews both the biological determinism of the gender feminist and the cultural relativism of the multiculti postcolonialist.

Stanford political science professor Susan Moller Okin, an influential, subtle and intelligent spokeswoman for this approach, created a stir among feminists in 1997 when she forthrightly attacked multiculturalists for valuing "group rights for minority cultures" over the well-being of individual women. Okin admirably minced no words attacking arranged marriage, female circumcision and polygamy, which she believed women experienced as a "barely tolerable institution."

But though Okin is less shy than other feminists about discussing the plight of women under Islamic fundamentalism, the typical U.N. utopian has her own reasons for keeping quiet as that plight fills Western headlines. For one thing, the utopian is also a bean-counting absolutist, seeking a pure, numerical equality between men and women in all departments of life.

She greets Western, and particularly American, claims to have achieved freedom for women with skepticism. The motto of the 2002 International Women's Day - "Afghanistan Is Everywhere" - was in part a reproach to the West about its superior airs. Women in Afghanistan might have to wear burqas, but don't women in the West parade around in bikinis?

Cynical about free markets and globalization, the U.N. utopian is also unimpressed by the liberal democratic nation-state "as an emancipatory institution," in the dismissive words of J. Ann Tickner, director for international studies at the University of Southern California.In fact, like the (usually) unacknowledged socialist that she is, the U.N. utopian eagerly awaits the withering of the nation-state, a political arrangement that she sees as tied to imperialism, war and masculinity.

Having rejected the patriarchal liberal nation-state, with all the democratic machinery of self-government that goes along with it, the utopian concludes that there is only one way to achieve her goals: to impose them through international government.

UTOPIAN feminists fill the halls of the United Nations, where they examine everything through the lens of the "gender perspective" in study after unreadable study. (My personal favorites: "Gender Perspectives on Landmines" and "Gender Perspectives on Weapons of Mass Destruction," whose conclusion is that landmines and WMDs are bad for women.)

That this combination of sentimental victimhood, postcolonial relativism and utopian overreaching has caused feminism to suffer so profound a loss of moral and political imagination that it cannot speak against the brutalization of Islamic women is an incalculable loss to women and to men.

The great contribution of Western feminism was to expand the definition of human dignity and freedom. It insisted that all human beings were worthy of liberty. Why shouldn't feminists want to shout out their own profound discovery for the world to hear?

Perhaps, finally, because to do so would be to acknowledge the freedom they themselves enjoy, thanks to Western ideals and institutions. Not only would such an admission force them to give up their own simmering resentments; it would be bad for business.

The truth is that the free institutions - an independent judiciary, a free press, open elections - that protect the rights of women are the same ones that protect the rights of men. The separation of church and state that would allow women to escape the burqa would also free men from having their hands amputated for theft.

IN other words, to address the problems of Muslim women honestly, feminists would have to recognize that free men and women need the same things - and that those are things that they themselves already have. And recognizing that would mean an end to feminism as we know it.