Clive James on feminism and democracy

BBC NEWS Magazine: Clive James on feminism and democracy

Clive James is arguing that the reason feminists are not loud on the issue of promoting democracy abroad when the alternatives are far worse for women is because this reminds them that there is an intractable difference between the genders after all:

Democracy is the best chance for women. Or if that sounds too naive, too pro-western perhaps, then let’s put it this way. The absence of democracy is seldom good news for women. Or, to get down to bedrock, if women can’t vote for women, then they haven’t got many weapons to fight with when they seek justice.

My own view, which I’m ready to hear contested, is that this is the main reason why some feminists in the west have been so slow to get behind those women in the world’s all too numerous tyrannies who have to risk their lives to say anything.

It’s just too clear a proof that men have a natural advantage when it comes to the application of violence. When you say that women have little chance against men if it comes to a physical battle, you are conceding that there really might be an intractable difference between the genders after all.

The argument is pretty complicated, but it relies on a simplistic understanding of what feminism is, to begin with. Anyone who has even skimmed the subject, as I have by doing a half-year course on the subject at college, will know that there are many different types of feminist who do not agree with each other on a lot of things, and certainly many do believe that there are substantial differences between the sexes which are not based on social conditioning. He is using the example of one particular type of liberal feminism, but you actually do not have to study feminism at college to know that it is not the same as feminism as a whole. Surely a guy as learned as he is, with rooms and rooms full of books, would know that?

Clive James is confusing “promoting democracy” with supporting the invasion of Iraq, or perhaps using it as code for supporting the invasion. Come to think of it, I do recall that there was a lot of rhetoric about women’s rights and liberation being used to justify the Iraq war, and that most of it was coming from men. Perhaps they found the idea of the military, which in the USA is notorious for the high incidence of rape against its own servicewomen, going to liberate another country’s women rather ironic. However, the fact that Saddam’s officials used rape as a weapon against political enemies doesn’t mean most women suffered it; however, since “liberation”, women have been threatened by terrorists on the streets of various Iraqi cities without hijab or for going to college.

Another possible motive is that Saddam Hussain was a secularist, and most feminists support secularism to a greater or lesser extent. Neither GW Bush nor any of the politicians who are in power in Iraq now are secularists. In fact, no genuine democracy in a Muslim country will produce a secular state, even if a party which is not explicitly religious might gain power (as in Indonesia), any more than democracy in a western country where religion is strong will do; Ireland, for example, was always a democracy, even through its Church-dominated period from independence to the 1970s. Many feminists, as I have discussed here in the past, support interventions to make sure that non-religious women can progress on their terms, including measures which punish religious women and girls (whom they often despise, even if they do not say so). Many of these women opposed the invasion of Iraq, probably because they knew it would not lead to an outcome favourable to them.

In fact, historically, feminists have been active in promoting democracy in those parts of the West that until recently did not enjoy it, such as South America, where the brutal military dictatorships (supported by the USA) which ruled in the 1970s and 1980s also used rape and sexual abuse as forms of torture. The big difference with Iraq was not only that the culture of the Middle East is vastly more different from their own than South America’s is but that rhetoric of liberation was being used to support a war which was really not motivated by any concern for women, or concern for any Iraqis at all in fact, but was nothing more than a delayed reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Virtually any regime, actually, is preferable to Saddam Hussain; the problem was how and why the war was fought. Some progressives were fooled; it seems that most feminists were not.

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