Barack and the women

As I said in my previous post, I had a largely positive reaction to Obama’s Cairo speech.  However, I agree with David Frum’s criticsm of Obama’s comments about women’s rights — which should have been a key part of an “outreach to Muslims” speech.  In contrast to Obama’s strong affirmation of the principles of democracy, his discussion of women’s issues and Islam was too general, too weak, and afflicted with excessive even-handedness.  (Contrary to what many readers on’s Hit & Run blog believe, I am not really a champion of indiscriminate moral equivalence.)

Here is the passage in its entirety:

The sixth issue that I want to address is women’s rights.

I know there is debate about this issue. I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.

Now let me be clear: issues of women’s equality are by no means simply an issue for Islam. In Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia, we have seen Muslim-majority countries elect a woman to lead. Meanwhile, the struggle for women’s equality continues in many aspects of American life, and in countries around the world.

Our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons, and our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity – men and women – to reach their full potential. I do not believe that women must make the same choices as men in order to be equal, and I respect those women who choose to live their lives in traditional roles. But it should be their choice. That is why the United States will partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls, and to help young women pursue employment through micro-financing that helps people live their dreams.

Frum takes issue, in particular, with Obama’s remarks about the head-covering issue: he points out that not only “some in the West,” but many women in the Muslim world regard the hijab as a symbol of female submission (not to God but to man), and that many women who “choose” to cover themselves (sometimes not only their hair but their face) do so because of coercion and intimidation either by family members or by radical Islamic militias.  I do believe Obama was right to affirm a woman’s right to choose hijab; quite a few Muslim feminists regard it as a legitimate and positive form of religious expression, no different from the Jewish yarmulke, and quite a few moderately traditional Muslims are alienated by the categorical rejection of the hijab as oppressive.  However,  it would have been fitting to balance his statement with an assertion of a woman’s right to choose not to cover their hair — a right that, in some countries, they are denied not only by informal pressure and harassment, but by law and official policy.

As for the rest of this passage, it was nice of Obama to assert the importance of educational opportunities for girls and women, but that’s about as uncontroversial as it gets: who, except for the Taliban, disagrees?  In all too many Muslim countries, the main problems facing women are far more severe: forced marriage, vastly unequal treatment when it comes to divorce and child custody, and socially sanctioned violence.  How can one talk about women’s rights in the Muslim world and not mention honor killings?  Or the horrific recent public flogging by a Taliban militia in Pakistan of a 17-year-old girl whose apparent offense was to have stepped outside her house without a male relative escorting her?  Or cases in which Islamic courts have sentenced rape victims to death for fornication or adultery when the rape could not be proved under a stringent standard requiring two male witnesses?  (While we’re at it, how about the fact that in Islamic courts, the word of a female witness is officially given half the weight of a man’s?)  What about female genital mutilation?  Against the backdrop of these genuine horrors, literacy programs and micro-financing for young women’s employment look like a rather feeble response.   How about first ensuring that the girl who participates in a literacy program doesn’t get brutalized for showing a strand of hair in public?

In this context, Obama’s comment that “the struggle for women’s equality” is also a problem in America is also, to say the least, unhelpful.  Yes, there are still gender disparities in the U.S., though many of them are due to, as Obama put it, women not making the same choices as men.  But to mention what sexism still remains in American society in the same breath as the violent misogyny and patriarchal oppression still pervasive in much of the Muslim world today is a truly misguided attempts at even-handedness.  It’s a bit like saying that of course it’s a bad thing that of course it’s a bad thing that Joe locks his wife in the closet, beats her senseless, forbids her to talk to any other man and monitors every penny she spends, but hey, Bill spends only half the time his wife does on housework and child care and treats his own career as more important than his wife’s, so if he voices disapproval of Joe he’d better mention his own failings too.

Yes, of course it’s not only in Muslim countries that women face severe oppression.  (The issue of women being elected to lead in deeply patriarchal cultures is a separate, and fascinating, one, but I don’t think it’s a good measure of the overall status of women in society.)  And I know there is a vigorous debate about whether Islam is inherently more female-unfriendly than other major religions and whether an Islamic feminsm is possible.  Nonetheless, the fact remains that in recent decades we have seen a rollback of women’s rights in many societies — sometimes a drastic rollback — due to the influence of Islamic extremism.  Obama’s failure to mention this fact was extremely disappointing.  Talk about a missed opportunity.  In my previous post, I said that Obama’s comments on women’s rights deserved no more than a B-.  Analyzing them now, I’m lowering the grade to a gentleman’s C.

(Cross-posted to


Filed under Barack Obama, feminism, gender issues, Islam, Muslims, women

15 responses to “Barack and the women

  1. Ali Hussein Rosenberg

    In many Muslim places a woman couldn’t get out of the gates of her house with her head uncovered. And if she did manage to sneak out, she’d get attacked or arrested on the streets. Remember that around this time of year, especially, the temp. may be up over 105F. Choice, indeed!

  2. M.

    The text of the speech has an important change
    from the actual address.

    The president actually said:

    “I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons”

    That struck my ear immediately. That might have been an bold statement coming
    from Teddy Roosevelt but not Barak Obama.

    At what point did he become convinced that women could contribute equally? What convinced him?

    Would he preface his commitment to the equality of any other group with the phrase “I am convinced”? If he did, would it have gone so unnoticed, as this did?

    This man at his core believes that women are equal to men? I’m not convinced.


  3. yamantaka

    Cathy, I’m glad you could offer some commentary on Obama’s speech.

    One thing I wanted to ask your opinion about is gender feminism in the English-speaking world and its seemingly blasé level of concern about women’s rights in the Islamic world.

    My impression is that most gender feminists are extremely touchy about any– ANY– criticism about how they choose to handle this issue.

    For instance, in 2008, David Horowitz (someone I don’t care for, but never mind that) sponsored Islamofascism Awareness Week in which the seeming lack of feminist concern was lambasted. In response, Katha Pollitt and about 700 feminists circulated a letter attacking not injustices in the Islamic world, but Horowitz and other right-wingers for daring to criticize them for it.

    But if you look at the feminist blogs, they assail stuff like commercials and magazine ads every other day. And yet, when there was an honor killing in upstate New York a few months back, they reacted with mealy-mouthed little mumbles. Sorry, but I think the critics actually have a point.

    And as you have noted yourself, Cathy- whenever discussing women in Islam, they’re very careful to hedge their language, throwing-in little disclaimers about how things are pretty bad in the western world, too. I didn’t see this kind of careful hedging when it came to the Duke Rape hoax.

    So rather than simply indulging in unsupported assertions about their concern for Islamic women, don’t you think this concern would manifest itself in, say, gender feminists doing something tangible?

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    M. — interesting point. Actually, I think it may be not so much that Obama came rather late by his conviction that women and men have equal potential, but that he was bending over backwards to be accommodating to an audience where not everyone shares that conviction, and therefore stating it as an opinion, not a fact.

    yamantaka, good to see you on my blog. 🙂 Good rhetoric question!

  5. With regard to your recent piece on, I would like to focus on this excerpt:

    “But to mention what sexism remains in American society in the same breath as the brutal misogyny still pervasive in many parts of the Islamic world is absurd. If Joe locks his wife in the closet, beats her senseless, forbids her to talk to other men and monitors every penny she spends, Bill should be able to express disapproval of his actions without castigating himself for failing to do exactly half of the housework and child care.”

    I’m having some difficulty understanding this statement. First, it seems to be implying that there is not much sexism and misogyny that remains in the United States, an implication that I find to be unsupportable (one needs only to look at the rates of sexual assault in the U.S. to find ample evidence which counters this assumption). Second, there is the implication that a husband who doesn’t share the responsibilities of housework with his wife is somehow exempt from any criticism regarding his own behaviors and beliefs. I believe the author has set up a bit of a false dichotomy here.

    Men should criticize misogyny and sexism both abroad and at home; they should offer criticism towards the behaviors of other men as well as themselves. It is not an either-or situation.

  6. First of all, the idea that sexual assault is a measurement of sexism is extremely simplistic and reflects radical feminist ideology more than reality. In cross-national crime studies, the rates of sexual assault correlate with the rates of violent crime in general, not with the level of gender equality. I don’t doubt that some rapists are motivated by hatred of women, but the majority are violent people in general (with most of their violence directed at other men). And let’s not forget that male-on-male and female-on-female sexual assaults are hardly unheard of.

    As for my point in the piece: I certainly wasn’t saying that a man who doesn’t do his fair share of housework and child care should not be self-critical about it. My point was that such faults should not even be mentioned in the same breath as the violent abuse or virtual enslavement of a woman.

    As for sexism in our society, I think it consists primarily of biases, widely held by many women and men alike, about the different aptitudes and characteristics of the sexes. Some of those biases favor men, others favor women.

  7. Thank you for your response.

    It is interesting that you chose to take a swipe at “radical feminist ideology” given that your piece relies on many of the arguments that radical feminists have been making for many years.

    You stated the following:

    “I don’t doubt that some rapists are motivated by hatred of women, but the majority are violent people [sic] in general (with most of their violence directed at other men). And let’s not forget that male-on-male and female-on-female sexual assaults are hardly unheard of.”

    When examining men’s violence in general, the majority of such violence is indeed male-on-male. When examining sexual assault, however, a much different picture emerges. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2005, 92% of rape victims who reported their crime to police were female, and 95% of rape offenders were male.*

    Given this data, it is difficult to find support for your arguments.

    I find it disappointing that your piece offers a forceful critique of misogynistic practices among men in the Muslim world while at the same time giving a free pass for men back home.


  8. And these statistics have nothing to do with the biological fact that the vast majority of males are sexually oriented toward women?

    Which does not, by the way, mean that rape is motivated by sexual desire. It means that when a man is aggressive and violent, the aggression and violence that are taken out on other men in non-sexual ways are sometimes taken out on women with sex used as a weapon.

    As for “free pass”, I think the idea of holding “men” collectively responsible for rape is as despicable as holding women collectively responsible for child abuse, of which they are the most frequent perpetrators. Rape is a crime, and should be treated as such. I agree that in the past, both the law and social customs in the West, including the US, often dealt with rape in ways that contained elements of outright misogyny. Fortunately, the feminist movement has largely succeeded in changing that. Unfortunately, the pendulum now sometimes swings to the other extreme (see the Duke “rape” case).

    None of this has anything to do with societies in which honor killings, wife-beating, and the enslavement of women are not even tacitly condone or excused (as rape and domestic violence often were in the pre-feminist West), but actively encouraged.

  9. Thanks again for your response.

    However, I find your comments quite disappointing — and, frankly, quite perplexing.

    I did not state that men should be collectively held responsible for rape, so that is a straw man/red herring argument. That being said, I do believe that any society that tolerates large-scale violence against women is most certainly a patriarchal one. Whether it be a Muslim country that tolerates men perpetrating honor killings or a Western country that tolerates men perpetrating rape and domestic violence (of which many cases do indeed lead to death), they both share the same characteristics — tolerance of men’s violence against women.

    Certainly different societies fall on different points in the continuum with regard to their laws and enforcement as well as many other factors, such as education, support for female victims, and government policy. Obviously Pakistan and Saudi Arabia fall on different points on the spectrum when compared to America, and America falls on a different point than many Nordic countries. That certainly does not mean that the latter societies are free from patriarchal influences, however.

    But when you have a society where crimes where the vast majority of rapes are committed by men against women; a society where women still make less than men for doing the same work; a society where there are still large majorities of men in leadership positions in companies and legislative bodies; a society where women are routinely beaten and killed by their boyfriends and husbands; where the men in its armed forces routinely harass and rape female soldiers with impunity; it is hard not to define such a society as patriarchal.

    I frankly find it disturbing that a writer would offer such a strong critique of the violence against women in Muslim societies while refusing to acknowledge the violence against women in one’s own country. I hope that you will take the time to reflect on this when writing your next piece.

    Thank you for engaging in this dialogue.

  10. Chad S.


    I believe that Obama’s statement that he is “convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons” is not a reflection of his concealed and reformed disbelief, but is instead an acknowledgment that his audience (the Muslim world) is not convinced in the same way that he is.

    There are a few things I disagree with Obama about, but this choice of words is not one of them. Transforming the hearts of Muslim men who are invested in, and who benefit from, the sexism of their societies cannot begin with a purely moral argument. Such men often believe that their views on gender and the proper place of women in society are informed directly by God, and as such, any contrary arguments are definitively immoral.

    Instead, such men must also be approached with a rational argument. Are women inherently less capable then men? Are women less able to contribute to society then men? If not, then do women deserve less protection, or less freedom than men? These were the same kind of arguments that first wave feminists made in the United States and United Kingdom, at the same time they were making more moral arguments. As they were in the West, I think both kinds of arguments will ultimately be needed in the Muslim world.

  11. aych

    “…a society where women still make less than men for doing the same work…”


    Am I ever sick of the willful ignorance behind that statement.

  12. Steve: I already replied to you regarding the fact that the vast majority of rapes are committed by men against women. (Incidentally, some believe that if you factor in prison rape, close to half of all rapes committed annually in the US may be male-on-male. And male rape in prison is generally treated as a joke in a way that no one, these days, would dare treat sexual violence against women.)

    As for women being “routinely” killed by their husbands and boyfriends, we must have different definitions of “routine.” (Would you say that children in America are “routinely” killed by their mothers?

    Women are not paid less than men for “the same work.” As for there being more women than men in leadership positions, it’s a fact noted by a number of feminist authors that many women “opt out” of leadership positions to either spend several years at home raising children, or work in lower-level but family-friendly jobs. There is a lot of debate about the reasons for this, but I don’t think “patriarchal society” is an adequate description. Our current gender arrangements disadvantage women in some ways but also give them some significant advantages. It’s overwhelmingly men, for instance, who work in the dirty and dangerous jobs. (Of the 6,000 or so American workers killed on the job every year, about 90% are men.) Women also have far more freedom, socially and culturally, to work in satisfying and creative but lower-paying jobs.

    I know a couple in which the husband, a very talented musician, had to give up all hope of a career in the field in which he had spent 7 years getting an education after his girlfriend became pregnant and told him that the only way she was keeping the baby was if he could get a job that would support the family (she was a graphic designer working for an advertising agency but did not like her work and wanted to stay home with the child for the first several years). They later had two more children. Currently, the husband is working for a large corporation in a high-paying but stultifying job, while the wife is making a minimal amount of money as a free-lance graphic designer (and enjoying both her work and her role as a parent). I’m sure that on some scales of measurement, this family would count toward statistics on female disadvantage (since she makes far less money). But which one of them is really better off?

  13. Cathy, thanks again for your response.

    You raised a couple of interesting issues here, so let me try to attempt to examine them each on their own.

    First, the subject of work. Women are indeed paid less for doing the same job. Just ask Lily Ledbetter.

    An interesting article on this topic is a New York Times piece from December 2006 []. Some excerpts from the piece:

    Whatever role their own preferences may play in the pay gap, many women say they continue to battle subtle forms of lingering prejudice. Indeed, the pay gap between men and women who have similar qualifications and work in the same occupation — which economists say is one of the purest measures of gender equality — has barely budged since 1990.

    Today, the discrimination often comes from bosses who believe they treat everyone equally, women say, but it can still create a glass ceiling that keeps them from reaching the best jobs at a company.

    “I don’t think anyone would ever say I couldn’t do the job as well as a man,” said Christine Kwapnoski, a 42-year-old bakery manager at a Sam’s Club in Northern California who will make $63,000 this year, including overtime. Still, Ms. Kwapnoski said she was paid significantly less than men in similar jobs, and she has joined a class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores, which owns Sam’s Club.

    The lawsuit is part of a spurt of cases in recent years contending gender discrimination at large companies, including Boeing, Costco, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley. Last month, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case against Goodyear Tire and Rubber.

    At Sam’s Club, Ms. Kwapnoski said that when she was a dock supervisor, she discovered that a man she supervised was making as much as she was. She was later promoted with no raise, even though men who received such a promotion did get more money, she said.

    “Basically, I was told it was none of my business, that there was nothing I could do about it,” she said.


    Ms. Blau and her husband, Lawrence M. Kahn, another Cornell economist, have done some of the most detailed studies of gender and pay, comparing men and women who have the same occupation, education, experience, race and labor-union status. At the end of the late 1970s, women earned about 82 percent as much each hour as men with a similar profile. A decade later, the number had shot up to 91 percent, offering reason to wonder if women would reach parity.

    But by the late ’90s, the number remained at 91 percent. Ms. Blau and Mr. Kahn have not yet examined the current decade in detail, but she said other data suggested that there had been little movement.

    During the 1990s boom, college-educated men received larger raises than women on average. Women have done slightly better than the men in the last few years, but not enough to make up for the late ’90s, the Economic Policy Institute analysis found.

    There is no proof that discrimination is the cause of the remaining pay gap, Ms. Blau said. It is possible that the average man, brought up to view himself the main breadwinner, is more committed to his job than the average woman.

    But researchers note that government efforts to reduce sex discrimination have ebbed over the period that the pay gap has stagnated. In the 1960s and ’70s, laws like Title VII and Title IX prohibited discrimination at work and in school and may have helped close the pay gap in subsequent years. There have been no similar pushes in the last couple of decades.


    But the gap is now widest among highly paid workers. A woman making more than 95 percent of all other women earned the equivalent of $36 an hour last year, or about $90,000 a year for working 50 hours a week. A man making more than 95 percent of all other men, putting in the same hours, would have earned $115,000 — a difference of 28 percent.

    At the very top of the income ladder, the gap is probably even larger. The official statistics do not capture the nation’s highest earners, and in many fields where pay has soared — Wall Street, hedge funds, technology — the top jobs are overwhelmingly held by men.

    This data seems to offer support to the argument that women get paid less for doing the same work.

    And of course, this is only looking at paid work, not at unpaid work such as childcare, cleaning, cooking, and all the other unpaid hours most women are expected to put it in.

    And expectations are really at the heart of this issue regarding the choices women and men make regarding their careers. Women usually have to choices between family and career, while men generally do not. And can we say that cultural expectations of women and men do not play a part in the decisions they make with regard to career? In the story of the couple you described, can we really say that the expectations for the wife were not different than for the husband? We could even look at it in reverse — what if the husband wanted to quit and take a part-time job to spend more time with his family? The story you described seems to provide a good example of how gender expectations affects the “choice” of careers women and men make.

    Back now to your arguments regarding rape. Let me try to sum them up below:

    1) The overwhelming number of rape victims are women, and the overwhelming number of perpetrators are men.
    2) Most men identify as heterosexual.
    3) Therefore, the cause of (1) is (2).

    To begin with, you made the argument that rape is not caused by sexual desire. If that is true, then obviously the perpetrator’s sexual orientation is irrelevant.

    But it is really a simple case of the conclusion not being supported by the premises. Would the sexual orientation of the men committing honor killings also be the reason why the perpetrators were overwhelming male and the victims female? Obviously sexual orientation is not the only factor or even the most important factor in explaining why men are raping women.

    This argument would also assume that most male-on-male prison rape is perpetrated by men who identify as gay, which I would be rather skeptical of.

    Allow me to quote from a paper I recently wrote on rape in the U.S.:

    In the United States, one of every six women – a total of nearly 18 million – is a victim of rape, yet less than one in five file police reports (Tiaden & Thoennes, 2006). This underreporting skews the data and results in a false perception among the general public regarding the magnitude of the problem (Dussich et al, 1996). When a rape is reported to police, the chance that an arrest will be made is just over half. Even if an arrest is made, only four out five suspects are prosecuted. Of those prosecuted, less than three of five receive felony convictions, of which only 69% are imprisoned. Therefore, of all the attacks reported to the police, less than one of five rapists spend time behind bars. Taking unreported rapes into account, an astonishing 15 of 16 rapists will not spend a day in jail for their crime (Reynolds, 1999).

    The figures on intimate partner violence in both countries are startling. Nearly 25% of American women have been raped or assaulted by a current or former partner – about 1.5 million women every year (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). From 1993 to 1999, intimate partners were responsible for killing nearly a third of all female murder victims between the ages of 20-24 (Rennison, 2001). Most intimate partner violence is not reported to police; approximately one-fifth of all rapes, one-fourth of all physical assaults, and one-half of all stalkings committed against women by intimate partners filed reports. Most victims who did not report their crimes believed the police were unwilling or unable to take any action on their behalf (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). The situation for women in Japan is similar, where only about a third of women who suffered from sexual and/or domestic violence by an intimate partner told no one of the violence. Much of this is due to the fact that police often refuse to intervene when called, particularly in cases of “family disputes” (Chan-Tiberghien, 2004; World Health Organization, 2005). In both countries, victims of date and marital rape are likely to be blamed and to have their ordeal minimized (Yamawaki & Tschanz, 2005). When such minimization occurs, the victims are often not offered the support or assistance they need (Campbell et al, 2001).

    Misogyny is certainly not unique to the Muslim world. We need to confront violence against women — as well as the patriarchal systems that support it — both at home and abroad.

    Thank you for reading.

  14. Steve: you raise a lot of different issues here which I currently don’t have the time to deal with. I am certainly not denying that sex discrimination happens. But there are a lot of very complex factors that go into pay differentials, including, apparently, the fact that women aren’t as likely to ask for raises.

    I am also not denying that cultural expectations have a lot to do with personal choices. However, I believe that at this point in time in our society (and other advanced industrial democracies) these cultural expectations disadvantage (and advantage) women and men just about equally, in different ways. I’m all in favor of more flexible gender roles. However, I believe that (1) these differences probably are at least partly innate, though with a great deal of individual variation between women and men, and (2) even if biology is not implicated, attempts to aggressively eradicate longstanding and deep-seated cultural patterns are likely to be quite coercive and will thus do more harm to the well-being of individuals (women, men, and children) than the cultural prejudices themselves.

    As for rape: I’m sorry, but I think it’s absurd to claim that rape has nothing whatsoever to do with sex. (Actually, as I recall — and I read research on rape pretty extensively when writing my book Ceasefire — a large proportion of rapists are believed to be, at least in part, sexually motivated.) If a gang of violent thugs attacks a couple walking in the park, beats the man within an inch of his life, and rapes the woman, do you really think that the reason they rape only the woman and not the man has something to do with sexism or misogyny? As for prison rape, many people’s sexuality is obviously somewhat flexible. Many men who are not gay also engage in consensual sexual activity with other men when in prison.

    I’ve worked with rape research, so I know firsthand that it’s a tremendously complicated subject. IMO, there are very real difficulties involved in prosecuting rapes involving minimal force (i.e. no physical evidence of violence) and people who know each other. Incidentally, sexual assault between intimates is no less common in gay and lesbian relationship than in heterosexual ones (which again undercuts the argument that it is somehow related to misogyny — unless one buys the rather tortured logic that same-sex relationships in our society replicate a patriarchal model and the violence is due to that).

    Human beings are flawed. Some of them are also mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. (There is evidence that a very high percentage of people who are violent in intimate relationships have Borderline Personality Disorder.) This obviously does not excuse violence, but it also suggests that violence in intimate relationships may have very little to do with gender inequality. (Obviously, I am not talking about societies in which violence toward women is socially approved and almost universal.) Incidentally, as I recall, nearly 40% of people in the Tjaden/Thoennes study who reported abuse by a partner in the past 12 months were male.

  15. Pingback: Alas, a blog » Blog Archive » Link Farm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s