The Trouble With (Western Feminism and) Islam

When it comes to addressing international feminist issues, I’ve often been criticized for arguing that progressive change must come from within oppressive societies themselves, and for saying that while it’s crucial to discuss the problems that women face world-wide, we must clean our own house before we go around lamenting the plight of “those poor Muslim women.” My point hasn’t been that we should ignore the influence of patriarchal religion, or the effects of poverty and lack of opportunity on gender equality, or the various problems that women face simply because they were born as women. But I think it’s a huge mistake to look at women “over there” and use them as an excuse for complacency here; I think it’s abhorrent when Western conservatives argue that Western feminists are selfish for demanding greater freedom, because “Look at how good you have it compared to women in Afghanistan.” Of course, these (mostly white, mostly male) conservatives are never told to examine how good they have it, but that’s another post. Even more offensive than being told to be happy with your second-class status because it’s not as bad as the worst is having the plight of Muslim women used as an excuse for this administration’s imperialist policies and violent excursions.

And so, after having been told by many an anti-feminist that I’m a bad representative for my movement because I supposedly demean international women’s issues by mentioning the U.S. (and naturally, these people are deeply invested in making sure that feminism has a good name), Laila Lalami’s article on Muslim women, feminism, and the United States struck a chord with me. She starts out criticizing far-right Muslim writers and leaders for insisting that women’s place is in the home, that the traditional family is the backbone of society and therefore women must submit to staying home and reproducing, and that women’s gifts are for child-rearing and home-making — sound familiar? Part of what’s so interesting about hearing the far right in this country champion the emancipation of Muslim women is that while they argue that women should have rights, they’re exactly in line with religious fundamentalists everywhere in limiting what those rights should be. And so they have to do this mad dance between attacking Islam because of its misogynist interpretations, and simultaneously interpreting their own religious texts in a way that oppresses women. And the cognitive dissonance doesn’t stop there:

Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about “our plight”–reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that “the fatal obstacle” to the country’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization” was Islam’s degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century, for now we have George W. Bush, leader of the free world, telling us, before invading Afghanistan in 2001, that he was doing it as much to free the country’s women as to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Five years later, the Taliban is making a serious comeback, and the country’s new Constitution prohibits any laws that are contrary to an austere interpretation of Sharia. Furthermore, among the twenty-odd reasons that were foisted on the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, of course, the subjugation of women; this, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi women were educated and active in nearly all sectors of a secular public life. Three years into the occupation, the only enlightened aspect of Saddam’s despotic rule has been dismantled: Facing threats from a resurgent fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shiite, many women have been forced to quit their jobs and to cover because not to do so puts them in harm’s way. Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone’s guess.


Well, it’s fairly obvious. Thailand, Botswana and Nepal are not countries which present economic and political opportunities for us the way that Iran, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan do.

The fact is that feminist groups have always pointed out inequalities that women face world-wide: In the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East, in Asia, in Africa. Just look at the website of any decent human rights group (Human Rights Watch, Amnesty, etc) and you’ll see that their work is wide-spread and comprehensive; no one gets off the hook. While they certainly target their efforts at the most egregious offenses, they don’t play this game of, “Well, women in Afghanistan have it worse than women in Iran, and so we just aren’t going to worry about the Iranians.”

Similarly, those who would attribute the state of women in the Middle East to Islam clearly don’t see the whole picture. Islam is a belief system like any other, and is interpreted and spun to have certain meanings given the context. The truth is that economics, socialization (including the twisting of religion to suit one’s own oppressive views) and politics play far more of a role in women’s disempowerment than religion itself.

Lalami looks at two well-received books to illustrate this point, one by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (The Caged Virgin)and the other by Irshad Manji (The Trouble with Islam).

The overarching argument in The Caged Virgin is that there is insufficient freedom for the individual in Islam. This, Hirsi Ali argues, is because one of the fundamental tenets of the religion is the submission of the individual to God, which creates a strict hierarchy of allegiances. At the top of this hierarchy is God, then His Prophet, then the umma, then the clan or tribe and finally the family. The individual, she insists, is simply not valued. Whatever one thinks of this hierarchy, however, it is hardly unique to Islam; one can make the same argument about other monotheistic religions. Furthermore, many Muslim countries are in fact secular or military dictatorships (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Egypt), while others are to one extent or another theocracies (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan). Religious hierarchy does not play the same societal role in Turkmenistan as in Saudi Arabia. On top of this, there are political, national and linguistic considerations to take into account, particularly when one is making claims about fifty-seven nations spread out across Asia and Africa. But Hirsi Ali addresses none of these. In her view, they simply do not matter. Rather, she sees Islam itself as the problem and its fundamental tenet of obstructing individual freedom as the very reason the Muslim world is “falling behind” the West.

Critics of Islam like Hirsi Ali are too often revisionist, and even ignorant, of what they’re speaking about. Now, there’s lots to be criticized in the actions of religious extremists of all stripes, including Muslims. But to indict the entire religion because of the actions of a few is as offensive as including me in the handful of radical Christians who bomb abortion clinics, or who seek to kill women by limiting the HPV vaccine. Unfortunately, people like Hirsi Ali are too eager to paint all Muslims with a broad brush, and insult all believers in Islam — and then she’s lauded by the Western press for her bravery:

Along the same lines, Hirsi Ali seems to believe that Muslims are deficient in critical thought: “Very few Muslims are actually capable of looking at their faith critically. Critical minds like those of Afshin Ellian in the Netherlands and Salman Rushdie in England are exceptions.” The work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, Fatima Mernissi, Leila Ahmed, Reza Aslan, Adonis, Amina Wadud, Nawal Saadawi, Mohja Kahf, Asra Nomani and the thousands of other scholars working in both Muslim countries and the West easily contradicts the notion. In any case, why the comparison with Rushdie? Have fatwas become the yardstick by which we measure criticism? If so, this suggests that the people who offend Islamists are the only ones worth listening to, which is ridiculous. The most shocking statement, however, comes from the essay “The Need for Self-Reflection Within Islam,” in which Hirsi Ali writes: “After the events of 9/11, people who deny this characterization of the stagnant state of Islam were challenged by critical outsiders to name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none.” That a person who has apparently never heard of the algebra of Al-Khawarizmi, the medical prowess of Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd, or the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Umm Kulthum is considered an authority on Islam is proof, if ever one was needed, of the utter lack of intelligent discourse about the civilization and the cultures broadly defined by that word.

And how does the American press reward such stunningly ignorant scholarship? Time magazine picked Hirsi Ali as one of 100 “most influential people” of 2005, people with “the clout and power to change our world.” At the other end of the spectrum, the answer is even more spectacularly stupid: Islamic radicals have called for Hirsi Ali’s death repeatedly since 2002. Whatever the merits of Hirsi Ali’s arguments, one thing is clear: By making threats against her person, right-wing Muslims appear to agree with Western conservatives that Islam as a whole (religion, region, culture) is weak, unable to defend itself by intellectual reasoning. It is also quite ironic that these radical Muslims are guilty of violating the first right their faith grants them: The right to choose their beliefs. “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” the Koran insists. And for good reason, too, because without the right to choose (new) beliefs, there would have been no Islam in the first place.

Hirsi Ali has done some very good work in her life. But her anti-Muslim vehemence has unfortunately tainted much of what she has written and said. And because she clearly looks down on Muslim women, she never bothers arguing that perhaps they are intelligent, competent and strong enough to speak up for themselves — that while women world-wide can all help each other and do share some common experiences, the women experiencing specific forms of oppression are the best ones to fight that oppression. That Muslim women don’t need Western feminists in shining armor to come save them.

The argument that pervades The Caged Virgin–that Muslim women need Western advocates–is premised on two assumptions. The first is that Muslim women somehow cannot speak up for themselves–what Edward Said once called “the silence of the native.” Hirsi Ali demonstrates this: “The [reason] I am determined to make my voice heard is that Muslim women are scarcely listened to, and they need a woman to speak out on their behalf.” If, as the title of this book suggests, the Muslim woman is a virgin in a cage, then by definition she must be freed from the outside. Someone must break the lock so that the poor woman can finally step out and speak for herself. But Muslim women are not, nor have they ever been, silent. For example, a significant portion of hadith, the Prophet’s sayings that form the basis of the Sunna, are attributed to his wife Aisha. Here is a sample hadith: “Narrated Aisha: The Prophet said, ‘All drinks that produce intoxication are haram.'” But how did Aisha narrate this saying? Was it by sitting at home, in a cage, or by actively engaging with her community and teaching the hadith to the congregation? This tradition of engagement has continued, and Muslim women have made their marks in all fields–whether religion or science or medicine or literature. Over the past century, they have organized in groups dedicated to fight for the advancement of their rights. Even under the inhumane Taliban regime, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan remained active, providing literacy courses and medical services to women and girls. That these women are thought to be invisible is a testament to the patriarchal systems–on either side–that want to protect them. But it cannot be a testament to their silence.

Yes. Muslim women are speaking. The problem is that few people in power are bothering to listen.

Unlike Hirsi Ali, however, Manji takes a much broader view about women in Islam. She places the question in the general context of civil rights in Islam. Here she focuses in particular on the status of minorities. Manji maintains that as a civilization Islam has never treated minorities with respect, only with contempt. She does mention that during the golden age of Islam, Jews and Christians held significant positions within the empire. But, she says, this cannot cover for the systematic treatment of them as “different.” In comparison, she argues, Israel has a far better record of treating its minorities. As evidence of this, she recounts a number of anecdotes from her visit to Israel. An Arab actress headlined a local production of My Fair Lady. Jews and Arabs alike take to the op-ed pages of newspapers like Ha’aretz to debate political issues. Religious literacy is part of military training for the armed forces. Street signs are labeled in Arabic, and Arabic is an official language of Israel. And she calls Israel’s systematic discrimination against its Arab citizens a form of “affirmative action” for Jews.

To show how disingenuous this line of argument is, let’s turn the situation around. Consider the case of the Jewish minority in Morocco. Jews have lived in the country for more than 2,000 years. Newspapers regularly carry news of the community’s cultural and religious events. Jews and Muslims venerate the same saints. Serge Berdugo, a Jew, served as minister of tourism in the 1990s and is now an ambassador at large. André Azoulay, the current adviser to the king, is Jewish. So is the country’s most popular comedian, Gad El Maleh, and one of its most celebrated novelists, Edmond Amran El Maleh. One could put together a virtually endless list of these facts, but none of them would detract from this other truth: Last year, a Pew Research Center poll showed that 88 percent of Moroccans have a negative view of Jews; as shameful as this figure is, any serious discussion of Morocco’s Jewish minority would have to include it. Meanwhile, in Israel, the Haifa-based Center Against Racism found that 68 percent of Jews polled revealed they were unwilling to live next to an Arab neighbor. Acknowledging anti-Semitism in some parts of the Arab world, therefore, should not require us to gloss over anti-Arab and anti-Muslim feelings in Israel. This reductionist way of thinking permeates The Trouble With Islam Today and gets tiresome very quickly. When Manji argues that Arabs and Muslims must learn to think differently about their present, she writes, “liberal Muslims have to get vocal about this fact: Washington is the unrealized hope, not the lead criminal.” For all her advocacy of new modes of thinking, she seems not to have entertained another possibility: Washington can be both.

There is certainly enough blame and wrong-doing to go around here — Islam doesn’t deserve to shoulder all of it. Social inequalities are complex, and derive from a series of places and an interaction of various forces. Pinning gender problems in the Middle East on Islam itself is as silly as pinning gender problems here on Christianity itself. Do religious extremists spin their religious texts to fit into their existing dogmas? Sure. Liberals have done it too, along with religious peaceniks, abolishionists, civil rights advocates, feminists, and many others. But as we see around the world, the same religious texts are interpreted and treated diferently in different contexts — economics, politics, culture and history have much more to do with how social heirarchies are created. Religion is simply a tool for the powerful to push their ideologies; it’s not a root cause of these issues.

The Caged Virgin and The Trouble With Islam Today are billed as profound meditations on faith and searing critiques of Islam’s treatment of women and minorities, but they are riddled with inaccuracies and generalizations. In their persistent conflating of religion, civilization, geographical region and very distinct cultures, these books are more likely to obfuscate than educate.

Yes. And Lalami is quick to emphasize that recognizing the fact that Islam is not the root of female oppression does not mean that we ignore that oppression.

None of this is to suggest that there are not serious issues facing Muslim women today. Still less does it mean that we should excuse violence and oppression, in some relativist fashion, because they happen to take place in the region broadly defined as “Islam.” Those who believe in gender equality have every reason to be concerned about radical Islamist parties that view women as mere vessels, defined by their reproductive powers. These right-wing Islamist parties resist changes in civil codes that grant women more rights or, worse, want to impose antiquated and dangerous forms of Sharia. It is therefore particularly troubling that they have made electoral gains in Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and elsewhere.

So now what? Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues. A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic. A third would be to acknowledge that women–and men–in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities. As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women’s rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women’s organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn’t this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?

Muslim women are used as pawns by Islamist movements that make the control of women’s lives a foundation of their retrograde agenda, and by Western governments that use them as an excuse for building empire. These women have become a politicized class, prevented by edicts and bombs from taking charge of their own destinies. The time has come for the pawns to be queened.

Emphasis mine. Go read the whole essay. It’s fantastic.


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22 comments for “The Trouble With (Western Feminism and) Islam

  1. laszlo
    June 7, 2006 at 8:50 am

    Sorry, couldn’t get past George Bush being called the ‘Leader of the free World.’ Do you really think so?

  2. June 7, 2006 at 9:32 am

    The most shocking statement, however, comes from the essay “The Need for Self-Reflection Within Islam,” in which Hirsi Ali writes: “After the events of 9/11, people who deny this characterization of the stagnant state of Islam were challenged by critical outsiders to name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none.” That a person who has apparently never heard of the algebra of Al-Khawarizmi, the medical prowess of Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd…

    I don’t think Hirsi Ali argues that Muslim culture has never been great in science and art, but rather that in recent decades it has become “stagnant.” If my understanding is correct, then Ali’s argument can’t be refuted by citing Al-Khawarizmi, Ibn-Sina and Ibn-Rushd, all of whom lived centuries ago.

    That nit-pick aside, however, I very much agree that the best thing Western feminists can do to help women in other cultures is to assist grass-roots feminists in the way they ask, on their own terms.

  3. johnieb
    June 7, 2006 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for finding this and linking it, Jill; it is good.

  4. June 7, 2006 at 11:00 am

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU I’m bringing this one home to my site.

  5. June 7, 2006 at 11:10 am

    This is something I really want to discuss; I’m not entirely on topic and don’t significantly disagree with Laila Lailani.

    What I want to talk about is what is the role of a white feminist activist working with other feminist groups. Jill, you say that white western feminists need to put their own house in order, but I don’t see why, living in a multicultural society, I need to ‘put my own house in order’ before I can help my friends with theirs. I’m webmaster for the International Campaign Against Honour Killings; I volunteered to do this; ICAHK was started in the UK by a Kurdish and Iranian WRO. Since the official launch, only four days ago, I have two volunteers from Syria and Palestine joining our happy crew with an aim to document these crimes and media coverage.

    OK, it is a backroom position, but when they asked me to make a website, I described what I saw as the best approach and they said yes. Sometimes they ask me to write on a topic in English, and they choose the subject but the words are necessarily my own. How subordinate do I need to be within the organisation to be sure its on their terms, not my own? Too much self-consciousness about the work will deform our working relationships just as much as if I sail in playing the White Feminists’ Burden. I don’t know if you maybe think my motivations are questionable, but seriously I volunteered because I know real life cases amongst friends of mine, because I see a useful role in bringing together activists from around the world, and because I thought I could help.

    By the way, I don’t intend to make any connections between HK and Islam by posting this here; I am well aware of how this issue is exploited by the LGF crowd, despite regular occurences in other religious groups in South Asia, amongst others.

  6. Magis
    June 7, 2006 at 11:18 am

    Democracy may have it’s problems (it elected a GWB) but, nonetheless, I think it is a necessary precursor for feminism, humanism, and equality in general. As long as the moslem states are theocratic patriarchies, there will be little progress.

  7. the15th
    June 7, 2006 at 11:57 am

    I very much agree that the best thing Western feminists can do to help women in other cultures is to assist grass-roots feminists in the way they ask, on their own terms.

    But it seems like whenever a woman from another culture uncompromisingly fights the treatment of women in that culture, she’s no longer seen as a “grass-roots feminist,” but suspected of being some kind of Western imperialist plant, Hirsi Ali being perhaps the best example of this. Saying “she never bothers arguing that perhaps [Muslim women] are intelligent, competent and strong enough to speak up for themselves” — Hirsi Ali may no longer be religious, but she’s from a Muslim culture and grew up a Muslim, and she’s speaking for herself.

  8. June 7, 2006 at 12:58 pm

    It’s fair to say that our media prefers simple arguments to nuanced discussion, so you could think that it’s just that ‘Islam baaaad’ is an easier message for us to understand than the multifacted interplay of culture, religion, tradition and so on and so forth: but there are plenty more outspoken women out there who don’t get the same coverage. Houzan Mahmoud, for example said “In the particular case of Islam, we are meant to live our lives according to a long dead “prophet” who has become a symbol of the oppression of women and a rigid patriarchy.” That’s the kind of thing AHA gets her reputation from. But Houzan opposed and continues to oppose Bush’s Iraq adventure, so no right-wing think tanks for her.

  9. June 7, 2006 at 11:23 pm

    Meh. Mainstream religion blows a big one.

  10. June 7, 2006 at 11:25 pm

    Oops, sorry, that was gendered language on my part, wasn’t it? Seriously though, I just with that everyone, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, whatever, would quit living in the bloody Dark Ages. Enough is enough. We have the goddamn Internet, but women are still routinely slaughtered due to tribal concepts of family “honour” in rural Pakistan. CAN’T THE WORLD JUST MOVE ON?!

  11. r4d20
    June 7, 2006 at 11:50 pm

    “arguing that progressive change must come from within oppressive societies themselves”

    I agree. Of course this does not rule out extending help to those inside those societies – even just rhetorical help. The problem is that sometimes it’s obvious that this “rhetorical help” is just an excuse to criticise islam, and these people do more harm than good. However, I disagree strongly with those who blanketly declare that ALL western commentary on “women in islam” objectively helps the “neo-imperialists”.

    Should a women with marital problems put her own house in order before helping the abused woman next door?

    Should Americans have refrained from speaking out for S. Africans, or Palestinians, until we “solved” the racial inequality here?

    It is a false idchotomy – there is NOTHING stopping us from addressing equality here AND doing what we can to help others.

    “Critics of Islam like Hirsi Ali are too often revisionist, and even ignorant, of what they’re speaking about”

    Is there anything in Islam that makes it especially incompatible with womens rights comapred to other religions? No.

    Is there, at the moment, a correlation between Islamic areas and very mysoginistic pre-Islamic cultural practices that continue to the present day? Hell, yes.

    The ill-treatment of women in those parts of the world pre-dated Islam and can be changed without changing Islam.

  12. Beet
    June 8, 2006 at 1:23 am

    I think reducing the problem to “Islam” and “a correlation between Islamic areas and very misogynistic pre-Islamic cultural practices” is precisely the type of “treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems” the author concludes by exhorting the progressive to avoid. In part, it’s unavoidable when we are speaking on the topic of “The Trouble With (Western Feminism and) Islam”.

    But the greatest differences are not to be found between Islamic and non-Islamic societies but between particular nations that face particular “economics, politics, culture and history.” In the Gulf region, for example, the status of women is among the most regressive in the world, certainly the most regressive for that level of nominal economic wealth. But just a few hundreds miles north in Lebanon or Syria conventions are completely different, and again in central and western Turkey they are completely different yet again. Egypt and Malaysia do not really compare with rural Pakistan and northern Nigeria.

    Nor do I think a one-size fits all prescription will fit. Single-issue advocacy is often the most practical and effective means of change, and I applaud it, but we must distinguish, for example, campaigning to end honor killings, from a generalized comprehensive attempt to reshape society. The latter would have to go beyond womens’ oppression to general social structures that cripple modern social development. For some countries, democracy may be the best answer, for others, economic development, or some combination.

  13. June 8, 2006 at 1:43 am

    Jill, you say that white western feminists need to put their own house in order, but I don’t see why, living in a multicultural society, I need to ‘put my own house in order’ before I can help my friends with theirs.

    I wasn’t saying that Western feminists shouldn’t be allies and helpers to women around the world. We’re in a privileged position; of course we should help other women where and when we can, and we don’t have to have our own houses perfectly in order to do so. I was just arguing that we shouldn’t be imposing our feminism on women in developing nations, as if they didn’t have voices of their own.

    Does that make sense? I realize the distinction is a bit narrow, but I do think that there is a lot of value in feminists of all backgrounds working together.

    However, I disagree strongly with those who blanketly declare that ALL western commentary on “women in islam” objectively helps the “neo-imperialists”.

    Did anyone say that?

    It is a false idchotomy – there is NOTHING stopping us from addressing equality here AND doing what we can to help others.

    Well, yeah. That was my point — that whenever feminists do address issues in the U.S., the response is “But look at how much worse it is there.” They create the dichotomy. I was never arguing that we shouldn’t do anything about the situation of women world-wide, I was just saying that we have to let women everywhere speak for themselves, even if their version of feminism doesn’t fit exactly into our mold.

  14. June 8, 2006 at 4:55 am

    Thanks for posting MoorishGirl’s great article. By the way, she has a blog that is terrific to read. Not so much feminism all the time as mostly litrature stuff with a middle eastern focus.

    I say things like what she was saying in her article to Western feminists all the time and I often get the straw man argument that was mentioned in the above post (the false dichotomy and the “blanketly declare” stuff) – no one says that, what we keep saying is that there are 3rd world feminists already working and they need to be listened to, not saved/rescued.

    Also the commenter who said that once 3rd world feminists start working they are seen as neo-imperial and mentions that idiot Hirsi Ali as an example – BAD example. She is not trying to fix her society. She moved to the west and is merely trying to demonize it for her own aggrandizement.

    It is true that patriarchs the world over try to paint their local feminists as having alien ideas or as not being true to their culture etc. – of course they will use whatever stupid argumetn they can – the point is that those feminists continue to do the best they can. And they need moral support from feminists in the west of course, but they definitely don’t need white knights.

  15. June 8, 2006 at 5:45 am

    Please note that I only said the first thing Jill is replying to. Jill, the distinction is delicate indeed; at what point does sharing and making suggestions become imposing my version of feminism? Am I going to be constantly self-monitoring? Do I need to limit my expressions to tactical suggestions and leave the strategy to the other women in the group, keeping some kind of absolute neutrality on any topic besides bandwidth and CSS? Can I give my opinion if it is asked for? If it isn’t? Am I going to become unbearably self-conscious?

    Well, no. I’ve decided that seeing as I am just about the only white woman in the group that I’m just going to be my own sweet self. There is nothing about my western brand feminism that trumps their own perceptions; they do have voices of their own, and if they disagree they’ll tell me. If there were more white people then yeah, its time to start looking at who’s talking and who’s listening. But we are friends, and work together as such.

    Beet, you want to make a distinction between single-issues and general reshaping of society, but I think this another delicate distinction that doesn’t stack up so much in practice. Say for example, Turkey works harder to turn public opinion on HK in the practising areas, and it becomes unnacceptable. The benefits would be more than lives saved I suggest, but a greater freedom of interaction between sexes, the possibility of casual MF friendships, and therefore, greater debate between men and women, and that is a good recipe for a societal change. UN stats say 5000 HK victims per year, but who can count the number of women, men, girls and boys who live lives circumscribed by fear? Getting the vote was a single issue in one sense, and a general reshaping of society in another. It’s not one or the other. The whole is made of the parts.

  16. June 8, 2006 at 8:13 am

    Galoise, although you’re addressing Jill not me, I have some thuoghts on what you are saying because I am sort of in your shoes. I am a white expat living in a 3rd world country. Of course if you are asked your opinion on a feminist issue give it. And of course you can differ or have values that are just different. That is fine. But also it is a sort of tricky privilege issue.

    Like male privilege and white privilege, there is this thing called first world privilege. It colors your relationships with grassroots organizations in third world countries. And you get into a lot of misunderstandings and you learn a lot about it as you experience these discussions. But the problem is when I try to explain these things to first world people who are, well, a bit oblivious, and they tend to think that their own good itnentions and the developed nature of their society gives them a sort of carte blanche in their dealings with 3rd world problems. Not you, Galoise Blonde, I certainly don’t know you and you probably are not like this at all, but it is a sort of privilege thing, and sometimes it gets a bit tricky trying to break through it or make people aware of it.

  17. June 8, 2006 at 10:01 am

    I understand you Anna, and I wasn’t feeling attacked at all; I welcome the chance to talk about the issue. Even when you are aware of the idea of privilege you can still make some stupid and embarassing assumptions that make you realise you take need to take more care about how you interact with people. And if you go sailing in with preconceptions coming from AHA and IM you aren’t doing anyone any favours.

  18. June 8, 2006 at 10:03 am

    need take take need; looks like i need to take my pills. Please apply the laws of logic and grammar on my behalf.

  19. June 8, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    You know, you also patronize victims of DV when you don’t trust their ability to handle the situation themselves. So stop doing this!

    Same logic.

  20. June 8, 2006 at 3:17 pm

    that idiot Hirsi Ali as an example – BAD example. She is not trying to fix her society. She moved to the west and is merely trying to demonize it for her own aggrandizement.

    If she lived in Somalia and said the things she says, she would be killed. She has a killing fatwa on her head.

    Think about that when you call her an “idiot”.

  21. r4d20
    June 8, 2006 at 8:05 pm

    “I think reducing the problem to “Islam” and “a correlation between Islamic areas and very misogynistic pre-Islamic cultural practices” is precisely the type of “treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems” the author concludes by exhorting the progressive to avoid. In part, it’s unavoidable when we are speaking on the topic of “The Trouble With (Western Feminism and) Islam”.”

    I dont see how

    Most of the world treated women pretty badly for most of the time. The exact nature varied, but in almost every society that passed Hunting-Gathering in favor of Agriculture or Herding, women had solidly second class status.

    Womens “liberation” – aka an incomplete but still massive improvement in the status of women relative to men – has occured only in a few areas. These areas happen to be “clustered” in Europe and East Asia, for reasons almost entirely economic and social and NOT AT ALL on account of any ethnic, religious, or inherent cultural superiorty.

    Women’s Equality is not a “western”, “christian”, or “european” thing and more than Writing. But, like writing, it does not appear in every culture at the same time. It is not “eurocentric” to point out that “modern” womens liberation (aka. equal voting, property, and legal rights) happened first in countries that are “European”/”Western” any more than it is Sumeriocentric to say that a complete writing system first occured in Sumeria (as far as wel can tell).

    No one would think saying such a thing “impugns” the Chinese or the MesoAmericans – both of whom later invented writing on their own – nor does it insult the cultures within the Sumerian sphere of influence who “copied” the idea after seeing how useful it was. Nor does it insult those who invented, thousands of years earlier, simple pictographics systems which, although useful and better than nothing, do not compose a COMPLETE writing system like the Sumerians were able to invent.

    Sadly, because of politics, a person has a hard time stating an obvious fact – that large areas of the “muslim world” still have significant cultural continuity over the last millenium and have NOT experienced whatever combination of social and economic forces will eventually produce womens liberation therein – without people jumping up to object to some illusory “bias” on the part of the speaker. Its not bias. It does NOT imply that we should “invade” them – Womens Lib is not helped by wars..EVER. It does NOT imply that we are “better” than them. It does NOT imply that they cannot do it on their own or that they “need us to help them” – although only an idiot would deny that cultures always advance faster when exposed to outside ideas than when left to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    There is a reason that the most advanced cultures always occue on the major trade-routes – because exposure to foreign ideas stimulates creativity and change. Of course, every culture has its conservatives, who are definitionaly opposed to change. Their anger is a sign that things are moving in the right direction, and the idea that we can best “help” women in other cultures by witholding all criticism, lest we antagonise the reactionaries, is a red-herring that will make things WORSE for the women in those cultures.

  22. June 11, 2006 at 12:10 am

    She was NOT living in Somalia. She’s from a rich Somalian family that was lviing in KENYA. She lied about EVERYTHING. Stop idolizing this woman.

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