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Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Feminism

Published on Feb 24, 2006 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Failure of Feminism


Is feminism really dead? Well, yes and no. 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 really 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 the first among freedom- and democracy-loving people — have instead become cowardly herd animals and grim totalitarian thinkers. This must be said, and my goal in saying it is a hopeful one. We live at 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.

For example, you can find feminists on every continent who have mounted brave and determined battles against rape, incest, domestic violence, economic and professional inequality, and local "cultural" practices such as Arab honor killings, dowry burnings, female genital mutilation, as well as against the global trafficking in women and children. I don't want to minimize or simplify what feminism has accomplished.

In some ways, feminism has also been inclusive. Feminists are Republicans and Democrats, right-wing conservatives and left-wing radicals; feminists are both religious and anti-religious, anti-abortion and pro-abortion, anti-pornography and pro-pornography, anti-gay-marriage and pro-gay-marriage. Feminists come in all ages and colors; belong to every caste, gender, class, and religion; and live everywhere.

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. Such feminists have also failed to adequately wrestle with the complex realities of freedom, tyranny, patriotism, and self-defense, and with the concept of a Just War.

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 as subhumans. Although some feminists have sounded the alarm about this, a much larger number have remained silent. Why is it that many have misguidedly romanticized 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 Hindusto the forces of reactionary Islamism.

Because feminist academics and journalists are now so heavily influenced by left ways of thinking, many now believe that speaking out against head scarves, face veils, the chador, arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies, or female genital mutilation is either "imperialist" or "crusade-ist." Postmodernist 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.

It is as a feminist — not as an anti-feminist — that I have felt the need to write a book to show that something has gone terribly wrong among our thinking classes. The multicultural feminist canon has not led to independent, tolerant, diverse, or objective ways of thinking. On the contrary. It has led to conformity, totalitarian thinking, and political passivity. Although feminists indulge in considerable nostalgia for the activist 60s and 70s, in some ways they are no different from the rest of the left-leaning academy, which also suffers from the disease of politically correct passivity.

Is women's studies to blame for all this? Well, yes and no. Had the academy been slightly more hospitable to original, radical, and activist feminist energies and had money been plentiful, there might have been no need to ghettoize the study of gender. But that was not the case. In addition, with some exceptions, the kind of feminist faculty members who could survive in academe were, like their male counterparts, far too dutiful.

Today feminists are seen as marginal also because of their obsessive focus on "personal" body rights and sexual issues. This is no crime, but it is simply not good enough. It may shock some to hear me say this, but we have other important things on our agenda.

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 woman's and humanity's global freedom. And women in America can no longer allow themselves to be rendered inactive, anti-activist, by outdated left and European views of colonial-era racism that are meant to trump and silence concerns about gender.

Of course, not all feminists are passive. Many have been helping the female victims of violence in a hands-on way. However, this work is not often taught in women's-studies programs, nor does such hands-on work take place on the campus. Many law schools have domestic-violence clinics; most graduate liberal-arts programs do not. Anti-feminist professors in medical and graduate school do not often teach the pioneering work of feminist mental-health professionals.

Some might say that 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 really make a difference. I want more of us to put our shoulder to freedom's wheel.

For example, I know that 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 did oppress women. But few of the televised feminist talking heads wanted to systematically sponsor Afghan women as immigrants or as political refugees. I know because I suggested, privately, that the anti-Taliban American feminists do so. Needless to say, these feminists did not want to launch a military invasion of Afghanistan on behalf of women either. I know. I raised this idea many times. All I got were pitying looks.

Some personal disclosures are now in order.

First, I am a feminist and an American patriot. Yes, one can be both. I am also an internationalist. There is no contradiction here. Finally, I am a religious Jew and am sympathetic to both religious and secular worldviews. Being religious does not compromise my feminism. On the contrary, it gives me the strength and a necessarily humbled perspective to continue the struggle for justice.

Second, Afghanistan matters to me; it has touched my life. Once long ago, in 1961, I was held captive there and kept in purdah for five months; some women were exceptionally kind to me. I will never forget them. I was the young bride of a Western-educated Afghan. My American passport was taken away, and I was thrown into (fairly posh) purdah in Kabul. The unexpected curtailment of my freedom was as awful as it was unexpected. I nearly died there — but I finally escaped.

I believe that my Western feminism was forged in that most beautiful and tragic of countries. And yes, I also understand that America has not yet done all that is necessary to build up the country, that ethnic warlords and drug lords continue to tyrannize civilians, that women are still imprisoned in chadaris and in brutal arranged marriages, with limited access to medical care, education, and employment.

Most academics and activists do not actually do anything; they read, they write, they deliver papers. They may not be able to free slaves or prisoners the way an entering army might, but they can think clearly, and in complex and courageous ways, and they can enunciate a vision of freedom and dignity for women and men. It is crucial, even heroic, that they do so.

Both women and religious minorities in non-Western and Muslim countries, and in an increasingly Islamized Europe, are endangered as never before. In 2004 the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh was butchered by a jihadist on the streets of Amsterdam for having made a film, Submission, which denounced the abuse of women under Koranic Islam. However, the eerie silence both from feminists and film makers about van Gogh's assassination is deafening and disheartening. The same Hollywood loudmouths so quick to condemn and shame President Bush for having invaded Afghanistan and Iraq have, as of this writing, remained silent about the chilling effect that such an assassination in broad daylight can have on academic and artistic freedom.

Perhaps some of the very academics and mainstream feminists whom I am criticizing — but also trying to influence — will devalue what I am saying. Perhaps they will say that I am no longer a feminist — that I have betrayed feminism, not they. It will not change the truth of what I am saying. My hope is that this will resonate with people of all ages; men and women who are quietly doing feminist work within their profession, and there are many; feminists of faith, and there are also many; both Republicans and Democrats; educators, both here and abroad; and especially with the so-called ordinary people whose lives and freedom are at stake.


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