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 Reason.com’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 RealClearPolitics.com.)