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The Sisters They Ignore


The Sisters They Ignore

March 8, 2005

EVERY year on March 8, feminists across the world celebrate International Women's Day. As it happens, the holiday was first proclaimed in the early 20th century by the Socialist International – making it the perfect symbol of a movement that, it has become increasingly clear in the past four years of the war on terror, is more dedicated to leftist, utopian politics than to women's rights.

For many years before September 11, 2001 – and much to their credit – Western feminists tried to rouse a sleeping world to the plight of women in increasingly radical Islamic countries. In the US, it was the Feminist Majority that pressured president Bill Clinton to impose sanctions against the woman-hating Taliban regime; it was feminists who first publicised the horror of genital mutilation in Muslim Africa.

But in the months after the attacks on New York and Washington, as Westerners gradually woke to the strange vocabulary that went with jihadism – burkas, veils, honour killings, stonings, forced marriages – feminists went uncharacteristically mum.

Here was the perfect opportunity to convince a stubborn public that remained ambivalent about feminism – in the US, only about one-third of young women accepted the label for themselves even as they opened their own businesses and maintained their own cheque accounts – yet in the communiques from feminist offices the phrase "Islamic extremists" was barely uttered.

Why the relative silence on a subject that would seem to epitomise feminist concerns? Because in the eyes of the sisterhood, worse than stoning women for adultery or forbidding girls to go to school are the policies of white men such as George W. Bush. It was only a mark against those men if they committed themselves to spreading democracy.

As the political origins of today's holiday suggest, feminism has long been entwined with anti-Western, anti-nationalist and especially anti-American feeling. Radical feminists, especially those who congregate in the universities, view everyone in the Islamic world as victims of Western imperialism, exempt from all judgment. Criticism – even of, say, forcing a 13-year-old girl into marriage with her 40-year-old cousin, as is acceptable under strict Islamic law – smacks of "orientalism"; that is, the imposition of a Western value system on Eastern behaviour.

In any event, if Muslim men could be said to oppress their women, it is the fault of Western imperialists or, more specifically, Western men. "When men are traumatised [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatise their own women," says Miriam Cooke, a professor at Duke University in North Carolina. From this vantage point, feminists must condemn not just war in Iraq and Afghanistan but any instances of what Columbia University professor Gayatri Spivak calls "white men saving brown women from brown men".

This deep mistrust of the Western world, along with a lingering dream of international sisterhood, makes feminists deaf to the appeal of liberal democracy. Instead of studying the historical record and admitting that democratic systems have the best chance of securing respect and dignity for women, they pin their hopes on UN-commanded quotas and international treaties that require only pen and ink from signatories.

In 2002, the theme of International Women's Day was "Afghanistan is Everywhere", a not-so-subtle nudge against those Westerners who might dare to imagine that their own record on women's rights is superior to that of the Taliban. Only last week, actor Meryl Streep, speaking as a board member of Equality Now, listed the ways countries still discriminate against women. "A woman cannot vote in Kuwait. She cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. She is barred from working on military submarines in Britain. In Pakistan, if a woman is raped, she must have four Muslim, adult male witnesses to secure justice, failing which she may herself be considered guilty of fornication." In the real world, there might be a distinction between the most basic human rights and military deployment regulations. But not in the bizarro world of contemporary feminism.

This is too bad because there are feminist heroines who deserve recognition today. Consider Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch MP whose life has been threatened by Islamic radicals, though this has gone relatively unheralded by feminist groups. Born in Somalia and raised in Saudi Arabia, Ali suffered through just about every indignity extremist Muslims had devised for women: she underwent genital mutilation, she was forced to wear a veil and to stay indoors, and she was coerced into marriage with a cousin.

After she sought refuge in the Netherlands, she worked her way through university and eventually joined the Labour Party, where she catalogued cases of incest and sexual abuse suffered by Muslim immigrant women in the Netherlands. Eventually she became an MP.

Sounds like a feminist fairytale, I know, but Ali has a mark against her. Her story is a vivid example of how democracy frees women – as well as men. And that's just not the kind of story today's feminists want to tell.