Barred Vision: The problem for western feminists is that, in spite of their cultural and political self-denying ordinances against criticising the treatment of women in other, non-western, societies, the only garden of equality currently showing unequivocal signs of flourishing, is their own. Across vast regions of the planet, not only are women’s rights not flourishing, they are being diminished.
ONE OF THE MOST PERPLEXING political phenomena of the twenty-first century is feminism’s silence in the face of Islamist oppression. For nearly a quarter-of-a-century, as the evidence of weaponised misogyny across the Islamic world has mounted, the absence of globalised feminist resistance has become increasingly difficult to ignore. The contrast between global feminism’s muted response to the oppression of women in the Islamic world, and its ongoing campaign against the sexist excesses of western males, is stark. Why one, and not the other?
To gain some appreciation of the discrepancy’s magnitude, it is instructive to compare the world’s reaction to the imposition of apartheid on South African blacks and the imposition of Islamic fundamentalism on Afghan women.
As news of deliberate and vicious gender discrimination filtered out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, western women and men recoiled in shocked disbelief. Girls were being sent home from school. Women professionals: doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers and nurses were being dismissed from their jobs and ordered back behind the doors of enforced domesticity. Any woman found walking the streets unchaperoned, or wearing Western dress, ran the risk of being whipped (or worse) by the Taliban’s religious police. Women found guilty of adultery were being publicly executed in soccer stadiums.
Like something out of The Handmaid's Tale. Women faced public execution under the rule of the Taliban.
There was, of course, some feminist criticism of the Taliban regime, but it was sparse and uncoordinated. Those who waited for the leaders of second-wave feminism to place themselves in the vanguard of an international movement modeled on the global campaign against Apartheid, waited in vain.
When US forces and their Afghan allies finally overthrew the Taliban regime in the aftermath of 9/11, most of the women who openly and unashamedly celebrated its demise – and the liberation of their sisters – came from the Right.
Undoubtedly, left-wing western feminists were also thrilled to see the back of the hateful Taliban government and its religious police, but they were hesitant to say so too loudly for fear of giving the impression that they in any way supported the military adventurism of President George W. Bush. The presence of US forces in Afghanistan, regardless of its collateral benefits, was proof that western imperialism was alive and well. In the Left’s hierarchy of oppression, white people lording it over brown people was considered a more egregious sin than brown men lording it over brown women.
Correcting the violent sexism of brown men was not the responsibility of privileged white women. The only people who could, legitimately, liberate the women of the Third World, were Third World women. If white women were looking for sexist male dragons to slay, then they need look no further than their own workplaces – and homes.
Western Feminism checks its privilege.
Furthermore, the whole notion of there being a universal definition of right and wrong, by which the many and diverse peoples of the world could be judged, had itself fallen under left-wing suspicion.
Westerners might be entitled to judge other westerners by how closely they adhered to the moral precepts of their common culture. Much less certain, however, was their entitlement to judge the behaviour of people from other, non-western, cultures.
Among western leftists, morality had become culture-specific. If imperialism’s victims asked for support, then they would be given it, unquestioningly. If not, then they would tend to their own political gardens exclusively.
The problem for western feminists is that, in spite of these cultural and political self-denying ordinances, the only garden currently showing unequivocal signs of flourishing, is their own. Across vast regions of the planet, not only are women’s rights not flourishing, they are being diminished.
In the patriarchal cultures the western left consistently refuses to condemn, the misogynists look on with a combination of scorn and fear as powerful western men are forced to account for their past and present abuse of women. “There but for the grace of God, and our own unyielding adherence to His laws”, they mutter, “goes our own religious and political power.”
Just because western leftists turn a blind eye to the depredations of their brothers in the Islamic world does not mean that Muslim fundamentalists are similarly blind to the consequences of treating women as equal human-beings.
Prior to the American Civil War, the southern states argued for continued tolerance of their “peculiar institution”. Northern abolitionists rejected utterly the slave-owners’ self-serving cultural relativism.
Western feminists owe their Islamic sisters nothing less.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 January 2018.