Christina Hoff Sommers: The problem with American feminists
Preoccupied with their own imagined oppression, they are of little help to the women of the world who most need it
The subjection of women in Muslim societies – especially in Arab nations and in Iran – is today very much in the public eye. Accounts of lashings, stonings and honor killings are regularly in the news, and searing memoirs by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi have become major best-sellers. One might expect that by now American feminist groups would be organizing protests against such glaring injustices, joining forces with the valiant Muslim women who are working to change their societies. This is not happening.
If you go to the Web sites of major women’s groups – such as the National Organization for Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women and the National Council for Research on Women – or to women’s centers at our major colleges and universities, you’ll find them caught up with entirely other issues, seldom mentioning women in Islam.
It is not that American feminists are indifferent to the predicament of Muslim women. Nor do they completely ignore it. For a brief period before 9/11, many women’s groups protested the brutalities of the Taliban. But they have never organized a full-scale mobilization against gender oppression in the Muslim world. The condition of Muslim women may be the most pressing women’s issue of our age, but for many contemporary American feminists it is not a high priority. Why not?
The reasons are rooted in the worldview of the women who shape the concerns and activities of contemporary American feminism. That worldview is antagonistic toward the United States, agnostic about marriage and family, hostile to traditional religion and wary of femininity. The contrast with Islamic feminism could hardly be greater.
One reason is that many feminists are tied up in knots by multiculturalism and find it very hard to pass judgment on non-Western cultures. They are far more comfortable finding fault with American society for minor inequities (the exclusion of women from the Augusta National Golf Club, the « underrepresentation » of women on faculties of engineering) than criticizing heinous practices beyond our shores. The occasional feminist scholar who takes the women’s movement to task for neglecting the plight of foreigners is ignored or ruled out of order.
Take psychology professor Phyllis Chesler. She has been a tireless and eloquent champion of the rights of women for more than four decades. In a recent book, The Death of Feminism, she faults the feminist establishment for « embracing an anti-Americanism that is toxic, heartless, mindless and suicidal. » The sisterhood has rewarded her with excommunication.
But Ms. Chesler is right. In the literature of women’s studies, the United States is routinely portrayed as if it were just as oppressive as any country in the developing world. Here is a typical example of what one finds in popular women’s studies textbooks (from Women: A Feminist Perspective, now in its fifth edition):
The word « terrorism » invokes images of furtive organizations. … But there is a different kind of terrorism, one that so pervades our culture that we have learned to live with it as though it were the natural order of things. Its target is females – of all ages, races, and classes. It is the common characteristic of rape, wife battery, incest, pornography, harassment. … I call it « sexual terrorism. »
The primary focus is on the « terror » at home. Katha Pollitt, a columnist at The Nation, talks of « the common thread of misogyny » connecting Christian Evangelicals to the Taliban. And on most American campuses there are small coteries of self-described « vagina warriors » looking for ways to expose and make much of the ravages of patriarchy.
Soon after 9/11, Ms. Pollitt wrote the introduction to a book called Nothing Sacred: Women Respond to Religious Fundamentalism and Terror . It aimed to show that reactionary religious movements everywhere are targeting women. Says Ms. Pollitt:
In Bangladesh, Muslim fanatics throw acid in the faces of unveiled women; in Nigeria, newly established sharia courts condemn women to death by stoning for having sex outside of wedlock. … In the United States, Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have forged a powerful right-wing political movement focused on banning abortion, stigmatizing homosexuality and limiting young people’s access to accurate information about sex.
Ms. Pollitt casually places « limiting young people’s access to accurate information about sex » and opposing abortion on the same plane as throwing acid in women’s faces and stoning them to death. Her hostility to the United States renders her incapable of distinguishing between private American groups that stigmatize gays and foreign governments that hang them. She has embraced a feminist philosophy that collapses moral categories in ways that defy logic, common sense, and basic decency.
Eve Ensler, lionized author of The Vagina Monologues, takes this line of reasoning to equally ludicrous lengths. In 2003, she gave a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University in which, like Ms. Pollitt, she claimed that women are oppressed and subordinate across the globe: « I think the conditions are exactly the same, » she said.
Though Ms. Ensler’s perspective is warped, her courage and desire to help are commendable. She went to Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban and smuggled out now-famous footage of a terrified woman in a burqa being executed by a man with an AK-47. But her « feminist theory » obliterates distinctions between what goes on in Afghanistan and what goes on in Beverly Hills:
I went from Beverly Hills where women were getting vaginal laser rejuvenation surgery – paying $4,000 to get their labias trimmed to make them symmetrical because they didn’t like the imbalance. And I flew to Kenya where [women were working to stop] the practice of female genital mutilation. And I said to myself, « What is wrong with this picture? »
A better question is: What is wrong with Eve Ensler? These two surgical phenomena are completely different in both scale and purpose. The number of American women who undergo « vaginal labial rejuvenation » is minuscule, and they are seeking relief from physical irregularities that cause them embarrassment or inhibit their sexual enjoyment. By contrast, more than 100 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. The practitioners, in countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, believe that removing sensitive parts of the anatomy is the best way to control young women’s sexual urges and assure chastity.
On February 20, 2007, a Pakistani women’s rights activist and provincial minister for social welfare, Zilla Huma Usman, was shot to death by a Muslim fanatic for not wearing a veil. And he had a second reason for killing her: She had encouraged girls in her community to take part in outdoor sports.
The plight of women like Ms. Usman does not figure in the National Organization for Women’s « Six Priority Items, » although global feminism is one of the 19 subjects it designates as « Other Important Issues. » NOW hardly mentions Muslim women, except in the context of the demand that the U.S. military withdraw from Iraq. So what sort of issue does the flagship feminist organization consider important?
NOW has just launched a 2007 « Love Your Body » calendar as part of its ongoing initiative of the same name. The body calendar warns of an increase in eating disorders and includes a photograph celebrating the shape of pears. There is also an image of the Statue of Liberty with the caption, « Give me your curves, your wrinkles, your natural beauty yearning to breathe free. »
To breathe free, college women are encouraged to organize « Love Your Body » evenings. NOW suggests they host « Indulgence » parties: « Invite friends over and encourage them to wear whatever makes them feel good – sweat suits, flip flops, pajamas – and serve delicious, decadent foods or silly snacks without the guilt. Urge everyone to come prepared to talk about their feelings and experiences. »
This is pathetic. To be sure, serious eating disorders afflict a small percentage of women. But much larger numbers suffer because poor eating habits and inactivity render them overweight, even obese. NOW should not be encouraging college girls to indulge themselves in ways detrimental to their well-being. Nor should it be using the language of human rights in discussing the weight problems of American women.
The inability to make simple distinctions shows up everywhere in contemporary feminist thinking. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World, edited by geographer Joni Seager, is a staple in women’s studies classes in universities. Ms. Seager, formerly a professor of women’s studies and chair of geography at the University of Vermont, is now dean of environmental studies at York University in Toronto. Her atlas, a series of color-coded maps and charts, documents the status of women, highlighting the countries where women are most at risk for poverty, illiteracy, and oppression.
One map shows how women are kept « in their place » by restrictions on their mobility, dress and behavior. Somehow the United States comes out looking as bad in this respect as Uganda: Both countries are shaded dark yellow, to signify extremely high levels of restriction. Ms. Seager explains that in parts of Uganda, a man can claim an unmarried woman for his wife by raping her. The United States gets the same rating because, Ms. Seager says, « state legislators enacted 301 anti-abortion measures between 1995 and 2001. »
Hard-line feminists such as Ms. Seager, Ms. Pollitt, Ms. Ensler and the NOW activists represent the views of only a tiny fraction of American women. Even among women who identify themselves as feminists (about 25 percent), they are at the radical extreme. But in the academy and in most of the major women’s organizations, the extreme is the mean. The hard-liners set the tone and shape the discussion. It is a sad state of affairs.
The good news is that Muslim women are not waiting around for Western feminists to rescue them. The number of valiant and resourceful Muslim women who are devoting themselves to the cause of greater freedom grows every day.
They have a heritage to build on. There have been organized women’s movements in countries such as Iran, Lebanon, and Egypt for more than a century. And many women in Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia already enjoy almost Western levels of freedom. But as radical Islam tightens its grip in places like Iran and rural Pakistan, even some devoutly religious women are quietly organizing to resist. Mehrangiz Kar, an Iranian human rights lawyer and a researcher at Harvard Law School, predicts that « a feminist explosion is well on its way. »
The feminism that is quietly surging in the Muslim world is quite different from its contemporary counterpart in the United States. Islamic feminism is faith-based, family-centered and well-disposed towards men. This is feminism in its classic and most effective form, as students of women’s emancipation know. American women won the vote in the early 20th century through the combined forces of progressivism and conservatism. Radical thinkers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Victoria Woodhull and Alice Paul played an indispensable role, but it was traditionalists like Frances Willard (president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and Carrie Chapman Catt (founder of the League of Women Voters) who brought the cause of women’s suffrage into the mainstream.
The women who constitute the American feminist establishment today, however, are destined to play little role in the battle for Muslim women’s rights. Preoccupied with their own imagined oppression, they can be of little help to others – especially family-centered Islamic feminists. The Katha Pollitts and Eve Enslers, the vagina warriors and university gender theorists – these are women who cannot distinguish between free and unfree societies, between the Taliban and the Promise Keepers, between being forced to wear a veil and being socially pressured to be slender and fit. Their moral obtuseness leads many of them to regard helping Muslim women as « colonialist » or as part of a « hegemonic » « civilizing mission. » It disqualifies them as participants in this moral fight.
In reality, of course, it is the Islamic feminists themselves who are on a civilizing mission – one that is vital to their own welfare and to the welfare of an anxious world. A reviewer of Canadian human rights activist Irshad Manji’s manifesto celebrating Islamic feminism aptly remarked, « This could be Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare. » Ipso facto, it should be our fondest dream. And if, along the way, Islamic feminism were to have a wholesome influence on American feminism, so much the better.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of « The War Against Boys » and co-author of « One Nation Under Therapy. » Her e-mail address is sommers22@ aol.com. A longer version of this essay originally appeared in The Weekly Standard.