Are Feminist Groups Blowing Off Muslim Women?

Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys , is weighing in on how American feminists are responding to the needs of Muslim women.

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.

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.

These groups are indeed focused on other issues including the repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Georgia’s “Race and Sex Selection” Bill, the so-called “Global Gag Rule” on women’s health care information, and Supreme Court nominee information. Maybe I’m crazy, but those kind of pale in comparison to other issues — notably, the so-called “Global Gag Rule” regarding family planning in other countries seems both timely and universally relevant.

Instead of recognizing that feminist groups she referenced are working hard, though, Sommers makes some inflammatory accusations:

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.

Uh … it seems to me that this is marginalizing some great works.

Yeah, American Muslim women have some horrible challenges at the moment—but is there a reason that they should receive more attention than domestic violence, the horrors of immigration for women, or sexism in the workplace? I don’t mean to make light of their situation, by any means, but they do make up a fraction of the female population. Does the horrific nature of what they experience mean that it should take precedence over other pressing issues? I’m not so sure.

There are a number of feminists within the Islamic female population that are making their voices heard.

Islamic feminists believe that women’s rights are compatible with Islam rightly understood. One of their central projects is progressive religious reform. Through careful translation and interpretation of the Koran and other sacred texts, scholars challenge interpretations that have been used to justify sexist customs. They point out that forced veiling, arranged marriages, and genital cutting are rooted in tribal paganism and are nowhere enjoined by the Koran. Where the Koran explicitly permits a practice such as the physical chastisement of wives by husbands, the feminist exegesis try to show that, like slavery, the practice is anachronistic and incompatible with the true spirit of the faith.

Good! Great! Islamic feminists, I am in your corner. I am supporting you the same way I support the abolishing of genital mutilation. It’s horrible. It’s disgusting! I will sign petitions and donate money I don’t have and write editorials about how awful it is. However, this is not the only issue facing women’s rights groups.

And call me cynical, but might Ms. Sommers’ political agenda (she writes for The Weekly Standard) play a role here?

The feminism that is quietly surging in the Muslim world is quite different from its contemporary counterpart in the United States. Islamic feminism is faith-based, family-centered, and well-disposed towards men. This is feminism in its classic and most effective form, as students of women’s emancipation know. American women won the vote in the early 20th century through the combined forces of progressivism and conservatism. Radical thinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull, and Alice Paul played an indispensable role, but it was traditionalists like Frances Willard (president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and Carrie Chapman Catt (founder of the League of Women Voters) who brought the cause of women’s suffrage into the mainstream.

I don’t know, I think Sommers is kind of using the cause of Islamic women to bash feminism. Am I way off base here?



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21 thoughts on “Are Feminist Groups Blowing Off Muslim Women?

  1. I feel like this is kind of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

    I would love to see Muslim women attain all the rights and freedoms that the rest of us enjoy. However, it seems like a lot of the time the Muslim women are like “we don’t need your help. We don’t want to change things.”

    At the same time, I feel that it is completely wrong to chalk it up to “cultural differences.” Everyone is so uptight over being politically correct that it can be difficult to get anywhere when it comes to human rights abuses.

    It’s a difficult situation all around.

  2. Well I definitely got a feminist’s hate men vibe from

    “The feminism that is quietly surging in the Muslim world is quite different from its contemporary counterpart in the United States. Islamic feminism is faith-based, family-centered, and well-disposed towards men”

    which as always annoys the crap out of me as I love men I’m simply not willing to be their doormat (for those that would like to make me such a thing) now about helping Islamic women, yes of course I would like to help although I have no money, but instead of bitching that we aren’t helping enough why were there no suggestions of HOW we could help because honestly many people need a push or at least a destination you cannot just expect a mob to rise up and fight for you with no guidance or plan to bring them together.

  3. The last time I heard someone making a serious and widespread advance for women’s freedoms in another country, they were accused of just seeking oil.

    The fact is that as long as another country’s government is determined to oppress its people, they are going to remain oppressed until the government changes. And typically, it is not taken well when outsiders forcibly change the government.

    Demonstrations and ‘awareness’ events are stupid and not helpful. And no, putting a green background on your website is not going to intimidate the Iranian government into changing their policies.

    Why are North American women not speaking out more about oppression of muslim women? Because even if we do think it’s unacceptable, and even if we are perfectly willing to state that culturally-mandated inequalities are not excused just be being called differences, there’s really very little we can do.

    So yes, we focus on issues at home, in our democratic countries, on which we have power to make meaningful change.

    • This. I don’t like “awareness” events because they don’t do anything. When we try to raise awareness, often there is little to no actual result.

    • Yeah,democracy is the beginning to real change. Thats why we wanted to establish one in Iraq,its not so easy though. I’m not afraid to tell you what the pie is made of,I’m not politically correct. Radical Islam is bullshit!

  4. That “Islamic feminism is faith-based, family-centered, and well-disposed towards men” comment was really just an excuse to say that American feminists are godless feminazi heathens I think. And while agree that a lot of times Islamic women’s rights are kind of ignored by feminists, there really is very very little that can plausibly be done.

  5. It’s definitely a touchy situation. American feminists -vs- the maniacal, Islamo-fasicsts ruling Iran with an iron fist. I
    Honestly, I fail to see how this is only a feminist issue, as opposed to say a basic human rights issue, especially since the author mentions Iran.
    Here’s the thing, I don’t think we’ve left the women of Islam who want and deserve equality without, at the very least, our loud and boisterous support. Which is what we can do since we can;t really export much otherwise to Iran.
    And I have to disagree with some previous posters regarding “awareness events”. It is precisely these awareness raising events that get issues like these out to people who otherwise would be in the dark. You can’t affect change if you have no idea of what’s going on in the world around you.

    • If you meant to make change, rather than just to influence it, it’s ‘effect change’.
      True. But doing real things that have a measurable impact would also certainly make others aware of what’s going on.
      An event that is *just* to raise awareness does no good at all.

      Live Aid, back in 1985, was an event designed to make real change – to raise money to help the victims of the famine. It raised more than two hundred million dollars. It also would certainly have raised awareness for anyone who didn’t know about it.

      ‘Live Earth’ in 2007, meant to ‘raise awarenes!’ of climate change, accomplished nothing at all. It awarified a few people (you know, the five who hadn’t already heard about climate change), and also managed to cause a carbon footprint estimated about 3,000 times that of the average Briton. Most people just enjoyed the concerts, and left their trash all over the place. Three years later, there is no visible impact made, except the continuing legacy of failure that is flying around artists on private jets to ‘raise awareness about climate change’.

      This is an example of why ‘awareness’ is bullshit. Do something concrete. Make a real difference. THAT will make people aware far more than stupid events that accomplish nothing.

        • Al Gore pisses me off so much. He can start telling me to reduce my footprint when he gives up his jet and starts taking trains to anywhere contiguous, and economy class flights when he must travel overseas.
          But hypocrisy is a slightly different issue.

        • Big Al just got a new 9 million dollar mansion in California,make sure you sort your garbage before you ride your bike to work this morning.

  6. although the issue is far more complex, i think american feminists or people in general do not support muslim women as much as they supported the end of racial apartheid in south africa because in the racial apartheid scenario everybody in the minority (black men and women) wanted it abolished, they all fought hand in hand, same ideals, same goal. in the case of muslim women what they want and what they strive for is pretty divided, some want freedom, some say they already have it. so you try to help but if you receive judgment and just straight up bitchiness from the people you are trying to help you don’t have the same drive for the cause. and i am not saying ALL muslim women are like that, but there are some that are.

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  8. The situation is much different than the apartheid. The apartheid was political and about civil rights. The treatment of women in Islamic cultures also has to do with politics and civil rights, but it also has to do with religion. That’s where things get messy. There is literally a part of the Quran that says that men were made by Allah to be better than women and that women must be obedient. Women must also lower their gaze in modesty and cover themselves when in public. Feminism and the equal treatment of women doesn’t really fit in right there. I really don’t think there is anything that can be done by non-islamic women for that. Islamic women have to decide whether or not to view the Quran literally, or disregard these passages in order to fit the modern world.

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  14. Perhaps American feminists tend to focus on issues in their own country where they live and where they are allowed to vote. Also not all American feminists are imperialists who believe they need to bear the white womans burden. Not a woman or a feminist just saying. And taking what corporate western media and governments have to say about Iran at face value is foolish. But you say you saw an Iranian on TV who said so and you saw Perseopolis or whatever. There were people that left the Soviet Union that said bad things about it as well, considering how much they were paid to say those things it doesn’t come as a suprise. Last but not least women dealing with oppressive lives and those famously brutish Muslim men aren’t sitting around hoping someone drops a bomb on their house. That hardly makes things better

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