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Posted in: Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, Islam, Muslim Women

Published on Oct 09, 2007 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for Pajamas Media

Towards a Universal Doctrine of Human Rights


For years, feminists–myself included–focused on women as victims. We argued, correctly, that women were not only being discriminated against economically but were the objects of horrific psychological, sexual, and physical violence.

In North America and Europe, women are still being raped, incested, battered, trafficked, tortured, and murdered. However, after forty five years of feminist activism, such acts are increasingly viewed as crimes, and are increasingly reported and sometimes punished. Rape as a weapon of war, (think Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan, Congo) is now seen as a crime against humanity.

Understandably, but also regrettably, many feminists got used to viewing women as victims-only, never as perpetrators or collaborators. When, early on, some daughters described serious abuse at the hands of their biological, adoptive, or foster mothers, few feminists took them seriously. Similarly, when lesbians initially described being battered by their female partners, few feminists took up their cause. We did not (want to) believe that woman's inhumanity to woman was widespread or AS widespread as either man's inhumanity to woman or man's inhumanity to man.

I was among a handful of feminists who took the allegations of female abuse at female hands seriously. In 2002, after more than twenty years of on-again/off-again research and writing (and after dragging my feet about publishing), I finally published my book Woman's Inhumanity to Woman. I surveyed thousands of years of human history around the world. I also looked at female-female primate behaviors.

Unsurprisingly, females may be hard-wired to compete against and destroy other females (but not males, who are physically bigger and who are also viewed as a woman's potential protectors). Girls and women are also be socialized to keep each other in line and to enforce conformity by using techniques such as shunning and slandering, and as important, by rewarding female compliance with maternal and sisterly "grooming." (Yes, like primates).

While some American feminist leaders blessed me for writing this book, many greeted my book "nervously." Many believed–and still believe–that women must prove that we are morally superior to men in order to justify our desire for equal rights. But this should not be the case.

Like men, women are as close to the apes as to the angels. We have also internalized sexist and other non-virtuous values and often minimize or justify our own oppression. Like men, women join and support fascist, totalitarian, and misogynistic regimes; women also collaborate with evil and profit from that collaboration. My point: Women are human beings and whether we are perfect or a lot less than perfect, we are worthy of equal rights for that reason alone.

By the way, the belief that only our victimization will save us is one of the reasons that American feminists often fail to distinguish between our improved and vastly superior status in imperfect America and the status of women in the Third World. There are some other reasons too.

Although Woman's Inhumanity to Woman received a front page review in the Washington Post's Book Review by Deborah Tannen and I was interviewed and reviewed in at least twenty five countries on six continents, the publisher discontinued it earlier this year. There are many used copies online which you may still purchase–and yes, I am considering self-publishing it. And why? Because the perspective this book provides is the only way in which we may understand certain global realities.

For example: The spate of "bride burnings" in India (which has now reached epidemic proportions) is not only about economic misery. It is also a story about mothers-in-law who join in the ongoing beating of daughters-in-law and who douse them with kerosene in order that their sons may command a second, larger dowry. In some instances, sisters-in-law also join in the battering which invariably precedes the actual murders. Although this crime is barely and rarely prosecuted, New Delhi, India actually boasts a "mother-in-law" wing in the Tihar Jail.

In Asia, many wives have been known to throw acid in the eyes and faces–not of their cheating husbands, but into those of their husband's mistresses. (It is not mere jealousy but rather the desire to exclude a rival's access to a husband's paycheck). In Muslim and Arab countries, envious female gossip about a girl or woman (she is having an affair, she is too independent) plays a role in that woman's honor-murder. In a jihadic era, many Muslim women extol the virtues of radical Islam and Islamic custom that includes practices that are extremely harmful to the health such as face and body "covering," female genital mutilation, arranged child marriage, polygamy, and purdah (sequestration).

Often, it is one's own grandmother who either insists on her granddaughters' genital mutilation or who carries the butchery out secretly, without her daughter's knowledge. Both Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Egyptian-born Nawal el-Sadawii have described childhood experiences like this. American feminist Alice Walker, and separately, Austrian-born Fran Hoskin, devoted years of their lives (from the late 1970s through the 1990s) to documenting the savage and heartbreaking practice of female genital mutilation.

Recently, several young girls died in Egypt from this barbaric surgery which is often carried out without an anesthetic and without sterile instruments. (I am not implying that such mutilation would be acceptable if it were performed more humanely and safely in a hospital, although some Third World feminists sometimes say so). In Egypt, the government has finally threatened to end the practice. Its local adherents have, in response, threatened to bring the government down.

Today, many western feminists and progressives are multi-cultural relativists, not universalists. This means that they are more concerned with being (falsely) condemned as "racists" or "colonialists" than they are concerned with opposing gross violations of women's bodies and minds. Thus, while western feminists are not "happy" about the extraordinary violence against women in the Third World (please note that the violence is not only Islamist violence), they usually hesitate to condemn it, even in principle, if the perpetrators are peoples of color who have formerly been colonized.

Some western feminists have justified face- and body-covering as forms of "feminist liberation" and as no worse than the bikini. Some have viewed purdah and polygamy as enviable forms of "feminist sisterhood." (Read my book The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom). Recently, Roger Sandall has quoted the British feminist anthropologist, Melissa Llewellyn-Davis, who delicately described the gruesome genital mutilation as equivalent to our own "white wedding."

I don't know what they're drinking or inhaling but this cruel and usual foolishness has got to stop. I once lived in Kabul, Afghanistan and was expected to remain indoors–but enough about me. Even if we can't "do anything" in the short run to end this misery, we can at least "name" it properly and dedicate ourselves to the proposition that all women (even those who are African, Asian, and Muslim) are created equal.


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