Thursday, June 14, 2018

Today's Anti-Feminism: Young Women's Leadership Summit And The Lack of Feminist Critique of Islam

1.  The conservative Young Women's Leadership Summit takes place between June 14th and 17th:

Turning Point USA, the student-aimed conservative organization that raises its money by stoking fear among rich conservative donors about the alleged liberalization of college campuses, will host its fourth annual Young Women’s Leadership Summit June 14 through 17. Slated to address the young women attending is a roster packed full of misogynists.
And, indeed, there's an anti-feminist for each of my ten fingers, as the linked story tells us.   Many are of the "biology-is-destiny-but-only-for-women-psst-your-eggs-are-getting-old" type, others like the variation of "boys-will-be-boys-and-will-harass-girls, " and yet others are of the "feminism-is-cancer" type.  It's wonderful to think how such speakers will motivate young conservative women toward leadership!

Maybe in the sense of the Aunties in Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale?

And the Republican Party wonders why they have trouble getting women to run for political office...

Even Jordan Peterson will be present!  Maybe he will introduce those young conservative women to this question of his:

“Is it possible that young women are so outraged because they are craving infant contact in a society that makes that very difficult?”

2.  Speaking of Jordan Peterson,  in 2017 he suggested a possible reason for the relative silence of feminists on the misogyny in Islam:

This, my friends, I've been told,  is one of the deepest thinkers on today's political right.

And deep, indeed, he must have dug to come up with such a theory.

Let's interrogate that question (without crucifying anyone):

First, who are the "feminists" Peterson thinks about when making that comment?  I doubt that he means feminists in Muslim or predominantly Muslim countries, but feminists in the West, and perhaps especially on this continent and the UK.  That means people who write in English, for English-speaking audiences.

Second, it's my general impression that most feminist writing is country-specific and about the events in the country where the writer lives.  American feminists writers, for instance, tend not to write about the status of women in China or Russia or Poland.  In fact, much writing of all types is insular.

Third, people who are not Muslims (or outside experts in the religion) tend not to have a good understanding of Islam.  Even those "outsiders" who have read the Quran on some level may have less understanding of the hadiths and the shariah, or their role in Islam.  That different schools of thought interpret all these differently complicates matters even more, and so does the fact that different cultural traditions about the role of women have affected the interpretation of Islam differently in, say, Afghanistan than in Indonesia.  Finally, using various types of Christianity as parallel models, to explain various types of Islam,  tends not to work very well.

All these are, I believe, among the non-specific reasons which make many Western non-Muslim feminists hesitant to criticize the misogyny that can be found in the tenets of Islam.  As an aside, I should notice that there aren't very many US feminists, either, who  would actively criticize the white evangelical Christian beliefs about women's inferior status.(1) 

Criticizing religions can also be scary, because it may be seen as a direct assault at someone's most sincerely held beliefs.


The above points are general explanations for the relative scarcity of feminist critique of Islam in the West.  The next three are more specific reasons. I have found them much more stressed among feminists than in other social justice movements (which partly explains their greater impact on feminist writings):


The first of these (and the fourth reason in the overall list) is the desire on the part of many Western feminists to avoid acting like  "white saviors" trying to rescue the poor oppressed women in cultures once torn apart by white colonialism and still exploited by Western commercial interests.(2) 

Such behavior assumes, some argue,  that Western feminists regard themselves more knowledgeable of feminism in general and of the previously colonized countries, in particular, than the women who actually live in those countries.  This criticism is the feminist equivalent of "the white man's burden."(3)

Fifth, and linked to the previous point, some feminists (as do some individuals in other justice movements) appear to have adopted a culture-specific approach to values, such as women's rights.  From this angle it's for other cultures to decide what women's rights might mean to them.  All we in a particular Western country can do is influence the debate about those values here.(4)

This approach becomes an extreme form of multiculturalism when it's applied to different cultures within one country.

Sixth, probably the most important practical reason for Western feminists to avoid strong criticisms of the misogyny in Islam is that such criticisms are delicious catnip for all the people on the political right who wish to engage in general anti-Muslim bigotry.

It can be difficult to write on what the Quran says about women's inferiority without aiding and abetting the bigots, though it becomes a lot easier when we check what the Bible says about women's inferiority.  All the three Abrahamic religions can be problematic for feminists, and the more literally they are interpreted, the more problematic they become.

That such criticisms are not aimed at the ordinary people in those three religions should be apparent.  Anti-Muslim bigotry is not the same thing as criticism of, say, Wahhabist beliefs about women's proper roles.

The former should be avoided, while the latter I see as one of the tasks in theoretical feminism, as part of the wider task of questioning why religions tell us that gender roles in use thousand(s of) years ago should still be interpreted as the only possible ones, as the ones based on a divine law.

It's worth remembering, in this context, that all liberal and progressive criticism of Islam may be a little muted in the Western media, largely because some on the political right will exploit any such criticism to tar all Muslims with the same brush. This tarring is like assuming that all Christians share the values of the Quiverfull-movement.

An interesting reversal also applies:  While the conservatives in the United States are much better known for their anti-feminism than for their feminism, suddenly many of them are full of righteous zeal for women's rights, but only for Muslim women.

This can cause bizarre political marriages where progressives and feminists support some individuals who are anything but progressive on women's rights,  and where sexists and anti-feminists support feminist activism, but of only one type.

My solution to most of those dilemmas has been to focus on the basic principles, to accept that an oppressed group can also oppress others, given the chance, but that this does not justify increasing the oppression aimed against that group, and to always keep in mind my own relative position in the world, to remember, as some define it, my privilege, and to keep interrogating my own motivations when I write about the treatment of women in other cultures (5).

(1)   There are exceptions to this rule, including Kathryn Joyce.

(2)   This criticism might more strictly be applied to only writers from countries which practiced colonialism in the past, but I have only seen it in the wider sense, as applying to all feminists, or at least to all white feminists, in the West, perhaps based on the argument that the benefits from colonialism were not limited to the actual colonial powers.  Or perhaps based on the perceived privilege of such writers.  Or, in a few cases, on genetic guilt.

(3)  Examples of this criticism can be found in this article and this.

(4)  A major problem with this criticism is that if values are culture-specific and if a culture is, say, very patriarchal, who decides what those values should be?

The ruling patriarchs, most likely.

It seems to me that a prerequisite for this view to hold water is that the cultures are in some sense based on one-vote-one-person.  Though I should notice that to me human rights are universal values.  Also, cultures increasingly interact, often in the same country, and some agreement on basic values is necessary for the wider society to function.

(5)  I have no idea if I have generally succeeded or not, though I probably have failed many times.  But I do try, because the alternative currently can look like silence, and that can result in the types of awful comments Jordan Peterson made.

Still, the proper goal is to direct people's attention to feminist writings from all over the world,  and to prioritize the takes of those who live in the countries and cultures they write about.