In a comment on my post yesterday on New York Times letter-writers who castigated Bush envoy Karen Hughes for having the gall to tell Muslim women they should have equal rights, Ampersand (who blogs at Alas, a Blog) writes:
Do you have any logical argument which suggests that those two letter writers are any more representative of the left than the two letter writers you agreed [with]? I think you’d easily recognize this mode of broad-brushing criticism (“one or two letter-writers said something dumb – therefore it’s a trend that indicates that the whole movement should be disparaged”) is illogical were it applied to your own beliefs.
As I pointed out in response, there’s no evidence that one of the letter-writers who supported Hughes belongs to “the left”; but let’s not quibble. Was I painting with a broad brush when I wrote that the erstwhile liberal belief in universal human rights has been “apparently, discarded by much of the left in favor of cheap knee-jerk anti-Americanism”?
I’ll be the first to admit that “much” is a rather nebulous term. There are certainly left-of-center feminists — Martha Nussbaum, Katha Pollitt — who have strongly denounced patriarchy-condoning cultural relativism. But there is indeed a strong strain in leftist discourse that regards liberal feminist condemnation of Third World patriarches as deeply suspect and tainted with Western cultural imperialism. Here is one essay making such an argument. In a critique of liberal feminist Susan Moeller Okin, the author charges:
Okin assumes that generally “Third World” men systematically abuse “Third World” women and this adds support to the stereotype that “brown” men abuse “brown” women more than white men. …. She also does not take into consideration the possible effects of her position which can be understood as equal to a colonizing gaze which treats “Third World” people as more barbaric than their Western ‘counterparts’ because the people of the “Third World” are less developed and uncivilized.
This argument is not unique or eccentric; it is shared by prominent feminist scholars such as Hamilton College women’s studies professor Chandra Mohanty, co-editor of the 1991 anthology Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism and a popular figure in academic feminist circles. (A summary of Mohanty’s argument can be found here.)
There are many other instances of such attitudes. In October 2001, Sunera Thobani, a professor at the University of British Columbia and former head of Canada’s National Action Committee on the Status of Women, delivered a vehemently anti-American speech at the Women’s Resistance Conference in Ottawa, Canada (funded by the Canadian government to the tune of over $100,000 and mainstream enough to be attended by Canada’s secretary of state for the status of women, Hedy Fry). In her diatribe against the U.S. war in Afghanistan and U.S. foreign policy in general, Thobani dismissed “all this talk about saving Afghani women” (“Those of us who have been colonized know what this saving means”) and asserted that “there will be no emancipation for women anywhere on this planet until the Western domination of this planet is ended.”
While Thobani was criticized by some feminist commentators, she received a standing ovation at the conference. The Vancouver Sun reported that female students interviewed in the women’s lounge at the University of British Columbia were also overwhelmingly supportive of Thobani; one woman, a social work student, told the paper that “the same thing is being said on campuses and in coffee houses everywhere.” According to the article, while “a few conceded women have little freedom in Muslim countries like Afghanistan,” generally “the women at UBC appeared more critical of the U.S. than of Muslim regimes.” (Yvonne Zacharias, “Student Support Thobani’s Comments,” Vancouver Sun, October 3, 2001.)
Across the border, Village Voice writer Sharon Lerner came to Thobani’s defense, describing describing the backlash against her comments as evidence that “these days, it’s hard for anyone to stray from the political mainstream, and harder still for women.” Lerner’s article, “What Women Want: Feminists Agonize Over the War in Afghanistan,” was itself a testament to feminist ambivalence about appearing to endorse American power and American values while denouncing the brutal oppression of Afghan women by the Taliban. Lerner sympathetically quoted a Muslim feminist and peace activist, Hibaaq Osman, who bristled at the suggestion that Western men are any more enlightened about gender roles than men in Muslim cultures.
(This also brings to mind a comment I heard at a 1992 academic feminist conference at Radcliffe College. One one the panelists, Stanford Law School professor Deborah Rhode, pointed out that white men constitute only 8% of world’s population and added, to great mirth and delight from the audience, “That’s a very encouraging fact.” Because, of course, all those non-white men around the world are so much friendlier to women’s rights.)
More recently, when a proposed beauty pageant in Nigeria led to murderous riots by Muslim fundamentalists and death threats against a female journalist who irreverently commented that Muhammad might have approved of the contest, some Western feminists denounced the pageant. Jill Nelson, a former Washington Post writer and an outspoken feminist, wrote at MSNBC.com (which, unfortunately, keeps no permanent archives), “I don’t believe that Muslim or Christian men are really concerned about the rights of women. As far as I’m concerned it’s equally disrespectful and abusive to have women prancing around a stage in bathing suits for cash or walking the streets shrouded in burkas in order to survive.” (She conveniently forgot to mention that no woman has been forced to participate in a beauty pageant in the West.)
So what’s the bottom line here? I think a significant portion of the left leans toward some form of moral equivalency or cultural relativism when it comes to gender issues in the West and in non-Western countries. Even feminists who are sharply critical of women’s oppression in Third World countries often feel the need to throw in annoying disclaimers about how we really aren’t much better: you know, they have bans on women driving, the burka, forced sterilization and dowry killings, we have assaults on affirmative action and not enough women in Congress. Which is more or less what Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in a 1995 column on the U.N. conference on women in Beijing.
Shortly after September 11 and just before the strike against the Taliban, British Tory Boris Johnson, M.P and editor of Spectator magazine, wrote, “It is time for concerted cultural imperialism. They are wrong about women. We are right.” How many people on the left would be willing to speak the truth quite so bluntly?