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The Women Feminists Forgot


The Women Feminists Forgot

March 7, 2003

Tomorrow feminists celebrate International Women's Day. But don't expect to see any banners proclaiming the rights and dignity of women in the fundamentalist Muslim world even though many females there are not allowed to drive, vote or venture out of the house alone. Nor will there be any mention of women who are expected to cheerfully endure, in the discreet words of the Arab News, "a light beating" from disapproving husbands.

As the feminists of the Western world take to the streets, there will be no speeches denouncing Saddam Hussein who, in an attempt to garner support from Islamists, accuses female dissidents of adultery and has them stoned to death. And don't wait for any proclamations condemning the widespread and state-ignored practice of honor killings, the murder of young women who have ostensibly violated family honor, because they have held hands with or kissed a boy or, worse yet, because they have been raped. Feminists had an extraordinary opportunity after Sept. 11, when pictures of other-worldly creatures in blue burqas shocked even beer-chugging Super Bowl fans into becoming women's rights advocates. But instead of seizing the moment to revive an anemic movement by raising their voices against genuine female oppression, they have given the ultimate illustration of their preference for partisan politics and smug resentments over principles.

Take the pervasive example of "gender feminism," whose adherents include everyone from "Vagina Monologues" author Eve Ensler to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Gender feminists divide the world into men who cause all things evil -- wars, child abuse, the dearth of day-care openings -- and women, who are the source of all good -- reason, tolerance, "maternal thinking," health care and peace on earth.

Gender feminists are not interested in drawing attention to the plight of Muslim women because it would threaten their preoccupation with pointing out male wickedness closer to home. (Not to mention revealing their own complaints as astonishingly trivial.) They oppose military action in Iraq, just as they did in Afghanistan, because they view all war as an expression of male violence, specifically male violence against women.

There is no need, in their minds, to distinguish between Osama, Saddam, and Bush: They're all suffering from testosterone poisoning. Nor do they need to argue that a tyrant like Saddam Hussein can be contained or deterred; the point they are set on making is that male- driven war is the horrid opposite of female nurturing, one captured perfectly by the theme of this year's IWD -- "Women Say No to War: Invest in Caring, Not Killing."

Postcolonial, or multicultural, feminists who tend to congregate in the universities have a different reason than gender feminists for not wanting to speak up about the oppression of women in the Muslim world. For them, the guilty legacy of imperialism has made any judgment of formerly colonized peoples an immoral expression of "orientalism" and a corrupt attempt to brand "the other." If Muslim men could be said to oppress their women, it is in any case the fault of Western imperialists, or more specifically, Western men. "When men are traumatized [by colonial rule], they tend to traumatize their own women," says Miriam Cooke, a Duke professor and head of the Association for Middle East Women's Studies. The postcolonial feminist condemns not just war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but any instances of what Columbia professor Gayatri Spivak calls "white men saving brown women from brown men."

Finally, there are those we might call United Nations feminists whose avoidance of the Muslim woman problem arises from their own specific political agenda. True, more than some of their waffling sisters, U.N. feminists are forthrightly dedicated to ensuring that women are treated as full participants in society and not as property. But convinced that international treaties and quotas are the only true path to female equality, they are deeply suspicious of the nation-state, including liberal democracies.

Some of the more extreme U.N. types speak of nationhood itself as a "masculine construct." More committed to absolute, officially imposed equality than to freedom, they view Western women in bikinis as the moral equivalent of Afghan women in burqas. Last year the theme of IWD was "Afghanistan Is Everywhere," a not-so-subtle elbowing of Western countries that might imagine that their own record on women's rights is superior to the Taliban.

Not only are feminists averting their eyes from the truth that only Western-style democracies have made the feminist principle of the full rights and dignity of women a reality, more perversely, they are lending support to the oppression and tyranny they profess to hate. In the name of respecting "the other," postcolonial feminists have been known to defend forced marriage, polygamy, and even female circumcision, while the bureaucratic U.N. feminists have touted the Iraqi regime for its support of women in the workplace. Most ironic are the gender feminists who call on us to "invest in caring," but who prefer not to notice the consequences of their position: not caring about the millions of people -- female and male -- who suffer under the rule of tyrants.