Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Exporting Feminism to Muslims?

A few lines from Jonah Goldberg’s latest opinion piece in the LA Times:

  • Feminism as a “movement” in America is largely played out. The work here is mostly done.
  • Even the fight for “pay equity” is an argument about statistics, lagging cultural indicators and the actual choices liberated women make
  • Countless Islamist countries practice gender apartheid and countenance wife-beating, honor killings and female genital mutilation.
  • And she [Veena Malik] offers a reminder for us all that the real war for women’s equality is now a battle to be fought in foreign lands.

So many possible responses to Goldberg, and so many reasons to be angry.  First, his implication that feminism is no longer needed here when the GOP is in the midst of redefining rape to suit their anti-choice agenda, when 87% of American counties lack an abortion provider, when women still earn 77 cents on the dollar (no, Jonah, motherhood is not justification), when the percentage of women in our legislative bodies lingers under 20%, and 6 out of 50 states have a female governor.  Women of color in the United States fare worse: Black women make 68 cents to the dollar, Latinas only 58 cents.  Women of color constitute only 4.7% of the 7,382 state legislators.

This country has also never elected a female president, while Pakistan, Senegal, Turkey, Kosovo, Indonesia, and Bangladesh–all majority-Muslim countries–have elected female heads of state.

As Rachel Newcomb so adeptly put it in a response to Goldberg’s piece for the Orlando Sentinel, “We can all agree with Goldberg that the Egyptian army’s use of virginity tests to humiliate female prisoners is despicable, though we might point out that the Egyptian army remains strong in part due to America’s generous $1.3 billion yearly military-aid package.”  We can and should certainly, and without conflict, speak out against injustice wherever it happens, be it executions of Iranian dissident women or acid attacks in Pakistan.

But Goldberg’s premise, that we must export American-style feminism, falls short, and unsurprisingly; Goldberg sets forth plenty of examples, but doesn’t offer genuinely viable solutions.  Does he mean military intervention, perhaps?  That’s surely worked well: As Newcomb reminds us, “The situation of Afghan women has been cited as a reason to intervene militarily, yet although elite women are now represented in parliament and girls’ education is no longer forbidden, the situation has not improved for most poor Afghan women. Suicide rates have increased; education rates for girls are appallingly low; and forced child marriage, rape and violence still take place with impunity.”  On the other hand, one of the worst offenders of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia, remains an ally.

Furthermore, the entire premise is problematic. Goldberg doesn’t state directly what kind of feminism he’d hope we export, but I can wager a guess: He no doubt expects a carbon copy of American feminism, but instead of burning bras, Muslim women throw off their hijabs, and trade them for platinum extensions.

What Goldberg ignores is the fact that Muslim feminism exists, and more importantly, that Muslim feminists are the most likely to bring actual change to their peers.  Muslim feminists come in all forms: Some are fighting to take off hijab while others are fighting to be allowed to keep it on.  Some are fighting to lead prayers, others are fighting for issues of personal law.  Still others root their work in a more secular brand of feminism.

That said, like Newcomb, I do believe that there is room for building bridges in the feminist space. There are myriad NGOs and collectives building those bridges.  There are also government projects, like TechWomen (which pairs emerging female leaders from certain Arab countries with mentors in Silicon Valley) that are doing valuable work.

But what I also firmly believe is that building effective bridges requires a lot of listening.  Feminism can be shared, but it cannot be imposed, and anyone wishing for a better world for women everywhere would to well to open their ears.

 

4 Comments

  1. I strongly believe we have a lot to learn from some middle eastern countries when it comes to electing women.

  2. There are far less number of crimes in Middle-Eastern countries than in Western nations. Life is full of mess and chaos here. The recent recession is a prime example with Gulf countries being least affected.

  3. Strong post Jillian. I’m half arab and I’ve seen first hand the atrocities that have befallen women in these countries and it’s just plain f’ed up.

    It’s going to take time Jillian. Things are much better than they were 10,20,30 or even 50 years ago if you ask me. That even goes for the arab countries (although most Americans don’t realize it because in comparison women in America get treated way better).

    I just think the US especially needs to be a better example for the world being the superpower that it is.

  4. Your last sentence says 2 things that people could do in so many situations that would lead to a positive outcome. Listening and not imposing our will. Those ideas really bring your thoughts on how many women still face difficult cultural circumstances to a hopeful conclusion.

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