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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Feminism

Published on Nov 01, 2005 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Playboy

Gender Apartheid


In the fall of 2004 I found myself in conversation with a woman who in no way wished to offend or argue with me. Indeed, she assumed we stood on common ground (she was a feminist professor) and thus became agitated by my silence as she recited the usual litany: President Bush, not Bin Laden, is a terrorist; the war in Iraq is worse than the Vietnam war; America's reputation is ruined; we need to work in concert with the United Nations. I said nothing. Finally she blurted out, "But after what we did in Guatemala and all our other dirty doings in South America, you can't say we didn't deserve having it thrown back at us on 9/11. You do understand that America deserves being hated everywhere, don't you?"

I don't. So I responded, "What justice means to those both living and dead inGuatemala and elsewhere is no doubt a burning issue. But you can't possibly believe that Al Qaeda's terrorism is a form of retributive justice, can you?"

Ah, but she can and does. I tell this story to illustrate an important point.

She is not a bad woman; she is being a "good feminist." It gives me no pleasure, but someone must finally tell the truth about how feminists have failed their own ideals and their mandate to think both clearly and morally. Only an insider can do this, someone who cares deeply about feminist values and goals. I have been on the front lines for nearly 40 years, and I feel called upon to explain how many feminists--who should be first among freedom- and democracy-loving people--have become cowardly herd animals. This must be said, Gender apartheid: the author of Women and Madness says feminism has been and my goal in saying it is a hopeful one. We live in a time when women can and must make a difference in the world.

From the start feminism has been unfairly, even viciously attacked. I do not want to do that without cause here. The truth is that in less than 40 years a visionary feminism has managed to challenge, if not transform, world consciousness. Nevertheless, feminists are often perceived as marginal and irrelevant, and in some important ways the perception is accurate. Today the cause of justice for women around the world is as urgent as it has ever been.

The plight of both women and men in the Islamic world (and increasingly in Europe) requires a sober analysis of reality and a heroic response. World events have made feminism more important, yet at the same time feminism has lost much of its power. To my horror most Western academic and mainstream feminists have not focused on what I call gender apartheid in the Islamic world or on its steady penetration of Europe.

Islamic terrorists have declared jihad against the "infidel West" and against all of us who yearn for freedom. Women in the Islamic world are treated like subhumans. Although some feminists have sounded the alarm about this, a much larger number have remained silent. Why have many of them misguidedly romanticized Islamikaze terrorists as freedom fighters and condemned both America and Israel as the real terrorists or as the root cause of terrorism?

In the name of multicultural correctness (all cultures are equal; formerly colonized cultures are more equal), the feminist academy and media appear to have all but abandoned vulnerable people--Muslims as well as Christians, Jews and Hindus--to the forces of Islamism.

A knee-jerk hatred for President Bush has all but blinded many feminists and progressives to the greater danger of Wahhabism, Salafist Islamism and terrorism. Because feminist academics and journalists are now so heavily influenced by leftist ways of thinking, many now believe that speaking out against head scarves, veils, chadors, arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies or female genital mutilations either imperialist or Crusade-ist.

Post-modernist ways of thinking have also led feminists to believe that confronting narratives on the academic page is as important and world-shattering as confronting jihadists in the flesh and rescuing living beings from captivity.

I am disheartened by what has happened to feminism and by what I see as the new powerlessness of women. I did not foresee the extent to which feminists who, philosophically, are universalists and therefore interventionists would paradoxically become both multiculturalists and isolationists. Such cultural relativism is perhaps the greatest failing of the feminist establishment. Despite our opponents' fears that feminism would radicalize campuses and the world, most feminists refuse to take risky, real-world positions. In doing so, they have lost their individualism, radicalism and, in a sense, some of their own freedom.

In an age when being entertained is confused with learning how to think and when books are not necessarily or primarily valued, feminist students and their teachers have increasingly become spectators at confessional theatrical events such as campus productions of The Vagina Monologues. I question whether what one learns as a function of public group catharsis is the same as what one learns from reading in solitude, listening to an expert lecture and then participating in a focused and informed discussion or debate about the material. I question the highly theatrical and emotional nature of how information is being imparted.

I view this teaching technique as not only lazy but also proto-fascist.

Some may say I am being unnecessarily harsh on women who have indeed been sounding the alarm about the global rise in fundamentalist misogyny. Perhaps I am. But I think we can make a real difference. I want more of us to put our shoulder to freedom's wheel.

Many feminists enjoyed talking about the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban, and why not? This tragedy proved that Feminism 101 was right all along, that men really do oppress women. But safely railing against oppressors is one thing; actually going up against them personally, physically, risking anything, is something else. After all, many feminists were pacifists or "ladies." An increasing number, however, were leftists. As such they would happily and repeatedly talk about going up against America as an oppressor, but they would not even whisper words that opposed any (brown-skinned, formerly colonized) third world Muslim tyrant--not even when he was systematically slaughtering equally brown-skinned and formerly colonized women, children, men and Muslim feminists both male and female.

So what am I saying? I am saying that women can no longer afford to navel-gaze--not if they want to play vital roles on the world-historical stage, not if they want to continue to struggle for women's and humanity's global freedom. And women in America can no longer allow themselves to be rendered inactive or anti-activist by outdated leftist and European views of colonial-era racism that are meant to trump and silence concerns about gender. This is precisely what Edward Said's book Orientalism accomplished. Published in 1978, it replaced academic views of woman as worthy victim with the brown-skinned Arab man as the worthiest victim of them all. Said stole our feminist thunder at its academic height. Ultimately even feminists came to believe that the "occupation of Palestine" was more important than the occupation of women's bodies worldwide.

Educated feminist Americans may not want to believe that Islamic jihad is here and that the survival of Western civilization is at stake. But how can educated feminist Americans not recognize the exceptionally bloody jihad that Islam has long declared against women, not only in Muslim countries but also in Europe and North America? How can feminists remain so morally and intellectually passive?

The way I see it, everything is at stake. This is not the time fornihilistic rhetoric or tedious party lines. I do not want to offend my good feminist friends; on the contrary, I would like to bring women and men together--from the right and the left--to make a real difference. This is a time when we, the good people, have to think clearly, creatively, boldly and morally. I especially want women and intellectuals, both feminist and non-feminist, to acknowledge that Islamic terrorism is evil and has no justification. I would like us to Support Muslim and Arab dissidents in their fight against Islamic gender apartheid and against tyranny. To fail this opportunity betrays all that we believe in, both as good and as relatively free people.


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