The Subjection of Islamic Women and the fecklessness of American feminism
by Christina Hoff Sommers
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.
If you go to the websites of major women's groups, such as the National Organization for Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the National Council for Research on Women, or to women's centers at our major colleges and universities, you'll find them caught up with entirely other issues, seldom mentioning women in Islam. 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.
It is not that American feminists are indifferent to the predicament of Muslim women. Nor do they completely ignore it. 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?
The reasons are rooted in the worldview of the women who shape the concerns and activities of contemporary American feminism. That worldview is--by tendency and sometimes emphatically--antagonistic toward the United States, agnostic about marriage and family, hostile to traditional religion, and wary of femininity. The contrast with Islamic feminism could hardly be greater.
Writing in the New Republic in 1999, philosopher Martha Nussbaum noted with disapproval that "feminist theory pays relatively little attention to the struggles of women outside the United States." Too many fashionable gender theorists, she said, have lost their dedication to the public good. Their "hip quietism . . . collaborates with evil."
This was a frontal assault, and prominent academic feminists chastised Nussbaum in the letters column. Joan Scott of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton pointed out the dangers of Nussbaum's "good versus evil scheme." Wrote Scott, "When Robespierre or the Ayatollahs or Ken Starr seek to impose their vision of the 'good' on the rest of society, reigns of terror follow and democratic politics are undermined." Gayatri Spivak, a professor of comparative literature at Columbia, accused Nussbaum of "flag waving" and of being on a "civilizing mission." None of the letter writers addressed her core complaint: Too few feminist theorists are showing concern for the millions of women trapped in blatantly misogynist cultures outside the United States.
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.
Take psychology professor Phyllis Chesler. She has been a tireless and eloquent champion of the rights of women for more than four decades. Unlike her tongue-tied colleagues in the academy, she does not hesitate to speak out against Muslim mistreatment of women. In a recent book, The Death of Feminism, she attributes the feminist establishment's unwillingness to take on Islamic sexism to its support of "an isolationist and America-blaming position." She faults it for "embracing an anti-Americanism that is toxic, heartless, mindless and suicidal." The sisterhood has rewarded her with excommunication. A 2006 profile in the Village Voice reports that, among academic feminists, "Chesler arouses the vitriol reserved for traitors."
But Chesler is right. In the literature of women's studies, the United States is routinely portrayed as if it were just as oppressive as any country in the developing world. Here is a typical example of what one finds in popular women's studies textbooks (from Women: A Feminist Perspective, now in its fifth edition):
The word "terrorism" invokes images of furtive organizations. . . . But there is a different kind of terrorism, one that so pervades our culture that we have learned to live with it as though it were the natural order of things. Its target is females--of all ages, races, and classes. It is the common characteristic of rape, wife battery, incest, pornography, harassment. . . . I call it "sexual terrorism."
The primary focus is on the "terror" at home. Katha Pollitt, a columnist at the Nation, talks of "the common thread of misogyny" connecting Christian Evangelicals to the Taliban:
It is important to remember just how barbarous and cruel the Taliban were. Yet it is also important not to use their example to obscure or deny the common thread of misogyny that connects them with Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition. . . .
In a similar vein, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich characterizes Christian evangelical movements as "Christian Wahhabism," using the name of the sect that is the state religion of Saudi Arabia and the inspiration for Osama bin Laden. Eve Ensler, lionized author of The Vagina Monologues, makes the same point somewhat differently in her popular lecture "Afghanistan is Everywhere":
We all have different forms of enforced burqas. Every culture has it. Whether it's an idea or a fascist tyranny of what women are supposed to look like--so that women go to the extremes of liposuction, anorexia and bulimia to achieve it--or whether it's being covered in a burqa, we all have deep, profound, ongoing daily forms of oppression.
On most American campuses there are small coteries of self-described "vagina warriors" looking for ways to expose and make much of the ravages of patriarchy. Feminists like Pollitt, Ehrenreich, and Ensler can cite several decades of women's studies research supporting the charge that our culture is ruinous for women. Many scholars--including Camille Paglia, Daphne Patai, Noretta Koertge, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Christine Rosen, and myself--have questioned the quality of the findings and warned that the studies are twisted and unreliable. But academic feminists rarely engage with such criticism. They dismiss it as "backlash."
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.