Standpoint runs front page Islam bash
Standpoint magazine, a right-leaning commentary magazine published by the Social Affairs Unit, has ran with a front-page feature on how the western left supposedly turns a blind eye to misogyny and honour killing among Muslims, both in the west and elsewhere. The two main authors are Clive James and the familiar Nick Cohen, who attacks “literary London” for finding fault with Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s book, Does God Hate Women?, which I reviewed here.
There are two serious problems with Clive James’s article, in which he accuses western feminists of failing to tackle misogyny among Muslims. First, there is the illustration, a black veiled silhouette into which the shape of a knife is thrust at the point where the woman’s eyes would normally show, with blood dripping across the knife shape. Then there is the general use of the veil as an analogy, which often reflects an intense personal religious commitment rather than coercion, let alone the presence or threat of violence. Muslims have been trying to educate the public on this matter for years, but this kind of journalism is based on wilful disregard for all those efforts. Clive James, and the magazine, are simply trading on popular prejudice.
A major problem with both articles is the persistent appeal to tainted and unrepresentative sources such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Clive James cites Pamela Bone, who wrote a piece called The Silence of the Feminists (not, as he claimed, Where are the Western Feminists?) in The Age in 2005. Bone accused feminists of being silent about a range of abuses of women in various third-world countries, including honour killing, sex-selective abortions, FGM and stoning for adultery. Like both James and Cohen, she attacked Germaine Greer for supposedly defending FGM, and having read that passage of The Whole Woman, she actually doesn’t; she actually wrote that some of the ceremonies in which it took place were rather beautiful, apart from the actual operation.
Clive James claimed that Greer had the position that “a woman in Somalia, we were told, at least knows that she is a woman”, as if women in countries where FGM doesn’t go on — western or otherwise — don’t. Given her other controversial positions on gender, which I mentioned in my earlier post on Caster Semenya, I would have thought that her real position was that a woman’s womanhood was in her chromosomes and nothing can take that away from her. I heard her interviewed on the subject alongside Julie Burchill on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and she defended her position calmly and cogently against Burchill’s hysterical outbursts. Greer compared FGM to western plastic surgery, to which Burchill replied that there was no way a “nose bob” could be compared to a clitorectomy (sic). Burchill insisted that if that part of your body had been removed, you weren’t really a woman anymore but “only half a woman”. Greer responded, “well I don’t think a clitoris is half a woman” and Burchill responded, “well I don’t know about you”. How insulting!
Bone also cites Homa Arjomand, and does so as if she was an oppressed Muslim woman sincerely seeking to liberate others, rather than a Worker-Communist Party activist seeking to damage Islam. All the questions about the veracity of Ayaan Hirsi’s story are similarly brushed under the carpet by both her and Clive James as well. Neither of them, nor Nick Cohen, considers how representative they are of women from their background, even if it is acknowledged, even by Muslims, that there are problems. Bone thought that one “religious figure”, who she does not name, and a midwife, equally anonymous and without geography, who said that an uncircumcised female was likely to become a prostitute were more reliable indictators of the stance of Islam with regard to FGM than any western Muslim voice that said that FGM, particularly the type associated with east Africa, was un-Islamic, or the plain fact that FGM simply doesn’t happen in most Muslim countries. It happens in Africa (to Muslims and others), Yemen and, to a lesser extent, Indonesia, and almost nowhere else.
What of the central claim that feminists are silent on honour killings or other oppressions of women in the Muslim community? Well, feminist writers in both the Guardian and the Independent — Joan Smith, Polly Toynbee, Deborah Orr — have railed against Muslim customs that they find oppressive to women, including the hijab in Toynbee’s case and the niqaab in Orr’s, but how much that helps Asian women (as they usually are) at risk from honour killings is debatable. Many Muslim women are content with their culture, but face discrimination for racial or religious reasons. For those who aren’t, surely those who want to rescue them should set up some sort of foundation to do this, and back it with money, rather than trying to curb “symbolic” religious customs which they do not like the look of. This would be far more useful than simply shouting about it, as if there are not those quietly working to help these women already. It often requires sensitive and quiet intervention, so those in authority need to be educated as to how to deal with a potential honour killing or forced marriage, and loud public campaigns on the issue run the risk of degenerating into racism and alienating the community it is supposedly meant to help. It should not be forgotten that many of the oppressors of women in some of these societies, including the perpetrators or accomplices in honour killings, are in fact other women, much as is the case elsewhere.
Clive James may have a point when he says that western liberals forget the superiorities of western culture, particularly the rule of law and its benefits to women (you can read his earlier thoughts on this in this article on the BBC’s website from May this year; this is my response). However, how much can the west do to spread these values in countries where many people simply do not share them? Of course, democracy has been largely entrenched in parts of the west where it was a long time coming — Japan, South America, southern and eastern Europe — but these are culturally more similar to western Europe and North America, in which democracy as we know it developed very gradually and did not take the form we know today until well into the last century (in some parts of western Europe, women still did not have the vote until the 1970s), than anywhere in the Middle East is. We have seen two invasions of Muslim countries this decade, admittedly not done for the primary purpose of advancing democracy or liberating women, even if those were advanced as justifications, and both countries have been plunged into chaos. Many of the people of the former colonial countries, Muslim or not, will tell you that westerners do not behave towards them as they behave towards each other, but are often imperious and heartless; we might also consider that western democracy is based on a compromise in which the majority accepts the rule of the biggest single minority, as in the UK (and sometimes not even that), or the people accept a coalition in which small parties hold the balance of power, as in some countries in mainland Europe and Israel. Where parties are based on ethnicity or religion, the population cannot be expected to accept this. It could, in fact, cause a civil war.
Moving on to Nick Cohen’s article, he alleges that Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom experienced “the fullest stomach-load of bile literary London has brought up this year” in response to Does God Hate Women?, with the Independent and Guardian denouncing it as “inflammatory”, “profoundly intellectually dishonest”, “hysterical” and “bizarre” among other things. He neglects to mention that the New Statesman published a gushing review by Johann Hari, which reproduces roughly the same extract that Cohen does.
Perhaps “literary London” disliked the book and Cohen loved it because they saw all the flaws in it that I did: it’s poorly argued, it relies heavily on emotive anecdotes, it cites figures of “authority” who are no such thing, it neglects to consider any probable causes for the misery the authors found other than the presence of religion, it made false moral equivalences, among many other problems as I wrote in my review of it. “Literary London” is hardly a hotbed of support for radical or even traditional Islam or any other fundamentalist form of religion, and it is only to be expected that a polemic will provoke strong agreement and strong disagreement. He trots out a few of their emotive examples himself, such as that Sharia law requires a woman to provide four male witnesses to prove rape, which is not true, before producing one of his own, namely that in Iran, “religious law declares it illegal to execute a virgin”, so the Basiji militiamen, according to an interview with an anonymous Basiji in an Israeli newspaper, organise “marriages” for young women they want to execute, rape them and then execute them afterwards.
Except, of course, that it is not illegal to execute a virgin in Islam if he or she has committed a capital offence. It just so happens that zina, or fornication, is not a capital offence for a virgin as adultery is for a married (or formerly married) person. Perhaps this is a Shi’ite peculiarity, but it is certainly not the case in any Sunni form of Shari’ah. However, it is also easy to overplay the religious aspect of the Iranian state’s behaviour following the rigged elections this year. It is a police state reacting against a group of its citizens who thought they were living in a democracy and protested when the rulers decided otherwise. The use of torture and rape by such governments is not restricted to “Islamic” régimes although, as a Muslim, it is all the more shocking to see it perpetrated against Muslims (men and women, if the reports are to be believed) in the name of Islam. When that is taken out of the equation, Zimbabwe is not too far-fetched a comparison.
Cohen puts the reluctance to take an interventionist approach down to selfishness, a selfishness he says feminism helped to bring about:
There are dozens of arguments against the bad idea of cultural relativism, but “women in Iran and in Saudi don’t like being stoned to death” can serve for them all. And yet the bad idea persists, undented and dominant, because of a deep selfishness in advanced societies. It comes in three forms, moral, economic and physical. People on the receiving end of repression notice the air of moral superiority as soon as Western liberals refuse them their support out of “respect” for the culture which intimidates them. Liberal relativists are in this respect the true successors of their imperialist ancestors. Where once Westerners denied rights to lesser breeds without the law who were racially unsuited to enjoy liberty, now they deny them to diverse breeds without the culture who are unsuited by accidents of history and geography to exercise the freedoms white Westerners take for granted or handle the complex arguments white Westerners take in their stride.
The economic grounds for selfishness are rarely discussed because, paradoxically, feminism helped create them. Women’s liberation liberated the upper-middle class above all others. Instead of managing on one generous income, an already prosperous family could claim two, if it could find servants to look after its children and its homes. Someone had to clean and nurture, and even if the man was prepared to do his full share of housework — which, frankly, most men were not — there still would not be enough hours in the day to combine home with demanding and rewarding careers for husband and wife. As the perceptive American writer Caitlin Flanagan noted in her essay How Serfdom Saved the Woman’s Movement, the forward march of women through the institutions would have halted had not globalisation, war, poverty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall provided an army of poor migrants willing to take on menial housework and childcare. “The new immigrants were met at the docks not by a highly organised and politically powerful group of American women intent on bettering the lot of their sex,” she wrote, “but, rather, by an equally large army of educated professional-class women with booming careers who needed their children looked after and their houses cleaned. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women’s employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated.”
So it becomes another case of climbing the ladder and then kicking it away, much as western powers used protectionism during the Industrial Revolution but now preach against it to third world leaders. However, while this may apply to an awful lot of upper-middle-class women in the west who employ foreign women to mind their children while they work, how much this has rubbed off on intellectuals is not explored, and it is something of a leap from finding it acceptable to employ foreign women this way to being indifferent to the sufferings of a different group of women who might not be white, and might not be foreign, at the hands of each other and their menfolk. After all, what percentage of foreign home helpers are Muslims? What percentage of eastern European immigrants are not white, for that matter? (The answer is certainly not most, and they are mainly Roma, or Gypsies.)
Cohen concludes that much of the reluctance to criticise other cultures stems from “physical fear”, including the fear of being called racist and of provoking a violent backlash. However, ample column inches have been devoted to criticising these aspects of the cultures of some of our immigrant populations and nobody has been murdered for it yet. There have, in fact, been about four campaigns, two of them involving Muslims (against The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons), one involving Sikhs in the UK (Behzti) and one involving Hindus, and the Muslim campaigns in the UK (as opposed to those directed from Tehran and the anti-cartoon protests in the Middle East) did not result in anybody being harmed or killed. The Sikh and Hindu campaigns actually succeeded in getting a play and an art exhibition, respectively, censored; the same cannot be said for the Muslim campagins. So, clearly not everybody is afraid of being called a racist, even when they write broad-brush stereotypes about Muslim culture or use ‘symbols’ of Islam, such as images of women in hijab or niqab, to represent violence by Muslims. And people may fear not being accused of racism but rather attracting the support of racists, particularly if they are genuinely concerned about the plight of some Muslim women rather than just expressing a bigoted, reflexive “look at how these immigrants behave” kind of attitude.
Moving back to Clive James, he opines that “the New Testament had one salient virtue: the merciful teachings of Jesus Christ”:
In Italy, perpetrators of crimes of passion were still being given a free pass well into my own day, but finally even the Catholic Church felt obliged to remind the legal system that the Son of God might have taken a dim view. It would be a blessing for Islam if its book featured a leading character imbued with the belief that when a woman is taken in adultery the best idea is not to throw stones at her unless you are certain of being without sin yourself. Jesus never said that if four of you catch her in the act, you can stone her to death.
This ignores the fact that the law on adultery in Islam applies to men as well as women. This particular passage involved a confrontation between Jesus (peace be upon him) and a group of Pharisees who were trying to trap him. It is also possible that Jesus (peace be upon him) did not regard them as reliable witnesses. It does not represent an abrogation of the Law, but appears to have been a mercy to that one woman. The law of four witnesses, who must witness penetration, not just see a man on top of a woman, ensures that very few people will be successfully prosecuted for adultery, as nobody can be sure that the other three witnesses will stick to his story (there was an incident of one of four witnesses recanting during the time of the Sahaba). It is a deterrent, and unless the rule that pregnancy counts as proof unless the woman can prove otherwise (which is a minority view), the only people likely to get caught are the brazen and the careless.
Moreover, the “merciful teachings” in the Bible often lead to a cloying, sentimental piety. This is particularly true with the emphasis on forgiveness. Mother Theresa notoriously told the victims of the Bhopal disaster, “forgive”, as if seeking justice or recompense for terrible and lasting injuries should not be on anyone’s mind. The story of Maria Goretti, an Italian peasant girl who was canonised as a saint in the 1950s after dying from wounds inflicted by a man who wanted to rape her when she was 11 years old, is another. What is significant is that she forgave her attacker after surgery to save her life failed, and eventually the attacker, after serving several years in prison, joined a monastic order. What was going through Goretti’s mind in her final hours I wouldn’t know, but no doubt her mind was as weak as her body after losing so much blood; perhaps she forgave her attacker on suggestion because she didn’t have the energy to hate him, or perhaps a priest was on hand to remind her to forgive, or perhaps she remembered her lessons and all those “Our Fathers”. Whichever way, the Catholic church made a “saint”, and thus an example to everyone, out of what an 11-year-old girl said when she was physically weak and emotionally fragile. (The Wikipedia entry for Goretti, clearly written by a Catholic if not by a devotee, claimed that Goretti resisted being raped “because of love of Jesus and her loyalty to the Ten Commandments”, rather than because she just didn’t want to be raped, as is usual.)
James wants to see a reform of the Shari’ah, but one wonders why that aspect of the Shari’ah captures the emotions of liberals so strongly when it appears designed to be enforced as little as possible. They harp on the execution of women, when it applies to men equally. It has nothing to do with honour killing, which happens on the basis of considerably less evidence, often just rumours, and is entirely against Islam. Honour killing is simply murder, and no “reform of the Shari’ah” among the Arab intelligentsia is necessary, nor will it have any effect. It can be fought within the bounds of the Shari’ah as it is.
He also alleges that feminists refused to criticise other cultures as they were “getting frustrated as the pace slowed down in the home stretch to utopia”. While I don’t doubt that life is very fine for many middle-class woman in the west, it certainly is not utopia for many others. A study published this week by the NSPCC (press release here) and Bristol University has recently shown that a quarter of girls aged 13 to 17 in the UK had experienced violence from boyfriends, a third had undergone some form of sexual abuse from them and one in sixteen of those who had experienced an intimate relationship (which is around 90%) had been raped. This is, of course, considerably higher than the honour killing rate among Pakistanis and is doubtless of great concern to those feminists who concern themselves with male violence against women, of which awareness has been raised considerably since the 1980s with much public sympathy in the UK since a spate of murder cases in the early 1990s involving women who killed violent husbands. This situation may have got worse in the last ten years or so while FGM has receded. Clearly, feminists find worse things to complain about in our own culture than the fact that women still receive less pay than men at work.
I should say a few words about the leader column, “Manchester Square”, written by the magazine’s editor, Daniel Johnson. He opines that:
Those who criticise the treatment of Muslim women are accused of Islamophobia — which means an irrational fear of Islam. The real Islamophobes, however, are those who, for reasons of cowardice, turn a blind eye to the violence that shames Islam. It is no service to Islam to ignore half of all Muslims: the 700 million women whose voices are hardly ever heard.
Really? I hear the voices (or rather, read the words) of Muslim women every time I go on the internet. If he doesn’t hear it, it’s because he is not listening. What patronising nonsense!
What do Muslim women want? It is not for a non-Muslim man to say. But I can confidently say what most of them do not want. They do not want to be confined, segregated, silenced or made invisible in the name of modesty. They do not want to be deprived of equal legal rights, or custody of their children, as they are under Sharia. They do not want to be denied an equal education, to live under the tutelage of fathers, brothers or husbands, or to be excluded from participation in public life or worship in the mosque. They do not want polygamy or forced marriage — both illegal but rarely punished in Britain. Above all, they do not want violence: honour killings, rape, beatings, floggings, mutilations and executions. All of these things are done by men to numberless women in the name of Islam.
While I can certainly agree with regard to rape and other forms of violence, when it comes to being “made invisible in the name of modesty”, some women do voluntarily wear niqab (which is what I suspect this means) and do prefer to be separated from men at public Muslim gatherings, as is normal in many communities. This does not mean they cannot interact with men when it is necessary, but what is commonly called ‘free mixing’ is frowned upon and most religious Muslim women, as well as men, accept this. As for polygamy, while I accept that it isn’t popular and never has been, some women do accept it, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes not.
As for polygamy: by treating multiple wives as legitimate in the welfare system, the government has in effect decriminalised it. Yet monogamy is fundamental to Western civilisation; without it, not only the status of women but the foundations of a free society would collapse. Polygamy means retribalisation.
This is utterly ridiculous. Monogamy has been the rule in the west for probably the whole of the Christian period and before, and during most of that time, the West has not been a “free society” but a controlled and priest-ridden one ruled by kings and popes. Western society has never been “tribal” in the same way as traditional Arab society has been, in the sense of people belonging to tribes of people descended from one common ancestor. A few husbands taking a second wife will not cause the breakdown of civilisation, and there are places where it could be socially beneficial if the wives are willing to share. Examples are where the wife cannot adequately raise her children because her career (and her husband’s) gets in the way or because she is too severely disabled (I am talking about a real incident here, where the wife suffered a stroke which left her totally paralysed; the husband took a girlfriend but refused to divorce his wife).
To conclude, Cohen is attacking feminists and the media for simply not agreeing with him, not sharing his points of reference and for pointing out flaws which are also present in his own analysis. Clive James is attacking feminists for idealising other cultures, which (sometimes) brutalise women, because they are frustrated at a few flaws in their own society failing to be ironed out. However, the evidence of that doesn’t stack up, because even though some feminists fell into that trap in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the editors of Everywoman and Spare Rib in the UK, their magazines saw their circulation plummet as they alienated their core (white) female audience and they shut up shop many years ago. Meanwhile, they find a home in a magazine which joins the aggressive, imperialist “left” with an equally aggressive, imperialist right in which the editor is not afraid to throw out sweeping generalisations and make it sound like the life of Muslim women is dominated by honour killings and FGM. It is notable that no voice of any actual Muslim, male or female, comes through in either piece, and for that matter, other women are misrepresented and maligned. This is a pretty good case of two white men with a privileged attitude proclaiming that they know what is best for non-white and particularly Muslim women, without letting the facts, or the word of anyone close to them who does not sing from the same hymn sheet as them, get in the way of their benevolent, imperlialist fantasies.
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