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?