Tuesday 6 November 2007

Islam, feminism and false logic on the left.

Came across this little gem via feministe: feminists are letting the terrorists win.

In precis, conservative students across the USA have been picketing Women's Studies departments which do not offer a model on Women and Islam, specifically denouncing Islamic cultural practices, as part of 'Islamo-fascism Awareness Week' (if you nearly spat your tea across the keyboard at that one, you're not alone). The reasoning being that, if you're not denouncing the treatment of women in Islamic cultures, you're not denouncing 'Islamo-fascism', which you should be doing as a good little American citizen. The really funny thing about this one being, of course, that the issues of Women in Islam, and the situation of women in the Arab world, have absolutely bugger all to do with US/British military action in the gulf.

Generally I find myself on board with the fine people at feministe on most things gender-political. This blogger, however, seems to have fallen for some very simple false logic. To whit: the Republican argument that, if one supports military action in the Gulf, one must actively denounce the mistreatment of women in the Arab world, does not mean that those who oppose military action can't actively involve themselves in Islamic Feminism. That's just as nonsensical as arguing that all feminists are proto-terrorists. The original article says, in fact, that protestors have specifically been targeting those Women's Studies faculties which do not have any provision for Islamic Women's Studies whatsoever. Now, I'm no Redneck Republican, but I'd be on the front-line of any protest to raise the academic accessibility of such studies. One in every three women in the world is a Muslim. Two percent of the population of the US and three percent of the population of the UK are followers of Islam. Islamic issues, for better or worse, are of deeply topical political and cultural significance. As such, for an academic department to ignore them, much less one which purports to deal centrally with issues of equality, is not only racist, but phenomenally short-sighted. The fundamental point that both this blogger and the whole damn Republican Right (tm.) seem to have missed is that awareness of and concern for women's rights in Middle Eastern totalitarian states has little or nothing to do with one's support, or lack of support, for military action. Sloppy thinking there. Very poor show.

Alright, now let's get one thing straight: the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were nothing to do with women's rights. Had the combined Pentagon and Westminster hawks been at all interested in fighting for the safety and self-determination of women worldwide, they would have made constitutional protection of Afghani women's rights a priority whilst they were masterminding the new constitution. They would not - just for instance- be wining, dining and declaring 'shared values' with the leader of a country boasting arguably the most shocking human rights abuses against women on the globe. The pro-war lobby does not care about Arab women, other than as a convenient lever to prod wavering centrist liberals into acquiescence.

All the more surprising, then, that the blogger at feministe seems to interpret the protest action as demanding that feminists either 'condemn their [Islamic women's] religion and...launch deadly attacks on their countries' or shut up and get back to figuring out what Mary Wollestonecraft ate for breakfast. Even more deeply reductionist is the assumption that Islam is 'not our culture, so it's not our business, so it's not our place to get involved.' Hello? I'm sorry, since when did 3% of the population constitute 'not our culture'? And since when did 'not getting involved' imply 'not speaking about Islamic issues, not speaking about Islamic women, not getting angry and organised about the phenomenal cruelties and injustices that are carried out overseas in the name of religion'?

Yes, political involvement with cultural and religious cultures and sub-cultures that we don't understand is foolish. Which is exactly why we should be educating ourselves about them. Which is exactly why we need more courses on Women and Islam. Lack of understanding is a piss-awful excuse for inertia on the political left. At some point, someone's going to use the word 'multiculturalism', and then I'm going to have to go away for a little bit and break things.* When are we going to get it through our thick collective heads that Islam, Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic totalitarian states are not the same beast?

Crucially, Islamic women are not homogenous. Yes, as some clever linkage in the feministe post demonstrates, there are lots of vocal, independent, successful Muslim women. I went to college with some of them; I've been on the panels of feminist conferences with others; throughout my life, there are likely to be Muslim women writing my textbooks and signing my paychecks. However, the fact remains that Islam is non-monolithic: Islamic women's issues in the Western world are not of a kind with Islamic women's issues in many extremist Middle Eastern states. Although it is, thankfully, getting easier for Muslim women in the UK and elsewhere to be self-determining, it is no less the case that many Muslim women, especially those in Arab states, do not have voices, are unable to stand up adequately for their own rights, and need the support of other men and women, both Muslim and non-Muslim. We need to be talking about the role of women in Islam, and we need to be analysing the situation of women in Islamic states, and - just as importantly - we need to be aware of the difference.

Discussion of this sort is crucial, both within and outside academic environments. Only by talk and debate will the general public come to the realisation that Islam is neither an evil, nor even a specifically sexist religion: rather, that there are some who use Islam as an excuse for misogyny and cruelty, that there are some heinously woman-hating, homophobic, savage totalitarian regimes masquerading as Islamic states, and that these are subtly separate issues from the theosophical paradigms of Islam itself.

Self-education is one of the most important ways in which the left can regain the courage of its convictions. Flatly denouncing someone's religion is unacceptable, especially when used as an excuse to, say, commit atrocities abroad. But questioning how that religion is used - indeed, questioning how all major world religions are used - as a destructive tool in the hands of oppressive personalities and regimes is vital to liberalism, to feminism, and to humanism.

*'Multiculturalism' = quite possibly the most disgusting and misleading word in the English political lexicon: admirable in concept, it's been used as shorthand for tolerating cultural segregation and ghettoisation, and for conveniently sweeping messy issues like arranged marriage under the carpet, shorthand for 'it's not our problem because they're not really British/American/people with rights and feelings'. 'Multiculturalism' as it's understood today, particularly in the UK, has nothing to do with real respect for other cultures.

1 comment:

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