The Feminist West

Acute schizophrenia, left and right


With Islamic fundamentalists making war on the West, the left's schizoid relationship to feminism and multiculturalism has come into full view. If one regards respect for women's rights as good, it's very difficult to maintain the notion that all cultures are morally equal, considering that the United States is at war with what may be, in the words of The Village Voice, "the most misogynistic regime in history." Compared to Afghanistan under the Taliban, where women are forbidden to work or learn and have been subjected to an especially draconian dress code, the Ayatollah's Iran is a feminist utopia. (Indeed, the Taliban's treatment of women has been so horrendous as to obscure its very real atrocities against large numbers of men.) Of course, the U.S. did not go to war in Afghanistan to liberate the women. Still, one might assume that there would be little if any doubt as to where feminist sympathies would lie.

In some cases, however, the assumption would be wrong. At a conference in Canada in October, in a speech denouncing the West and the U.S. as the world's greatest source of evil, Prof. Sunera Thobani of the University of British Columbia dismissed "this talk about saving Afghani women," adding, "Those of us who have been colonized know what this saving means." Indeed, she asserted, "There will be no emancipation for women anywhere…until the Western domination of this planet is ended."

The Tanzanian-born Thobani isn't a lone kook. She is a former head of Canada's National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and she delivered her rant at a large feminist conference that was mainstream enough to be attended by Canada's secretary of state for the status of women, Hedy Fry. Thobani received several standing ovations.

To be fair, Thobani's comments, which represent an almost perfect inversion of reality—feminism is a phenomenon of unquestionably Western origin, and gains in women's status in other parts of the world have been largely due to Western influence—are hardly typical of feminist attitudes. Women's groups in North America and Europe have done admirable work publicizing the oppression of women under the Taliban.

Still, even the more rational feminist left can't be entirely comfortable siding with the Western powers, particularly against enemies who are seen as the wretched of the earth. For that matter, it can't bring itself to admit that the West holds the moral high ground on anything, including women's issues. Few feminists would endorse the statement made by British parliamentarian and magazine editor Boris Johnson: "It is time for concerted cultural imperialism. They are wrong about women. We are right." Such bluntness still seems politically incorrect.

And so many feminists dance, none too gracefully, around the contradiction. In an article in the Voice discussing the dilemma of feminists torn between opposition to war and loathing of the Taliban, Sharon Lerner portrays the outcry at Thobani's speech as an example of an uppity woman being punished for dissent—but never mentions Thobani's bizarre views of women's rights. Lerner also sneers that with all this talk of the Muslim world's oppressed women, "many Americans are feeling somewhat smug about our heroic, enlightened men," yet "the power structure [in the U.S.] remains overwhelmingly male."

This is a familiar argument. In 1995, a number of people criticized the decision to hold the United Nations' Women's Conference in Beijing, given China's dismal record on women's and human rights. Time essayist Barbara Ehrenreich sarcastically asked whether the U.S. would have been a better selection, considering that "abortion rights are under violent assault," "affirmative action looks to be doomed," and few congressional seats are held by women. (Ehrenreich's response to September 11 was to lament in a Village Voice symposium, "What is so heartbreaking to me as a feminist is that the strongest response to corporate globalization and U.S. military domination is based on such a violent and misogynist ideology.")

Others fall back on clichés of female nonviolence. Deploring the dominance of "rich, white, able-bodied, and apparently straight men" in the national discourse, Patricia Ireland, the outgoing president of the National Organization for Women, says that women's voices are needed as an alternative to "guy talk." To her, "guy talk" means such comments as "Osama bin Laden, wanted dead or alive," or "speaking in black and white of good and evil." Never mind that polls show an overwhelming majority of women as well as men supporting the military action.

Of course, it is true that when it comes to women's issues, the sides in the current conflict cannot be divided neatly into good and bad guys. Feminists have a point when they note that our current allies include some countries whose restrictions on women's lives are only slightly less extreme than the Taliban's (Saudi Arabia, for one) and groups with a sorry record of abuses against women, such as Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. Nevertheless, one might at least expect them to agree with Boris Johnson that there's something to be said for Western cultural influence.

On the other side of the political spectrum, conservatives find themselves in the position of lauding feminism as a hallmark of Western superiority. It's a milder contradiction, since even hardcore cultural conservatives in America aren't advocating anything close to the Muslim version of traditional roles. But the tension occasionally shows, though not as starkly as in the Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson line that the September 11 attacks were a sign of God's anger at feminists, abortionists, and gays. Syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher has opined that the likely reason the hijackers could live in the U.S. and continue to hate us is the ugliness of "our sexual culture." However brutal Islamic family norms may be to women, wrote Gallagher, "the family system itself works."

A more prominent leitmotif in the conservative press is that the attack on America has ushered in a new era of manly men—the firemen and cops who emerged as the heroes of the World Trade Center, the three male passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who apparently foiled the hijackers' plan to use the plane as a missile. "I missed John Wayne. But now I think…he's back," gushed Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal.

After years of male-bashing, it is good to see some appreciation for male heroism, and even for the fact that traditional machismo always included more than brute force—that physical strength and courage could be deployed toward the "nurturing" goals of protection and rescue. At the same time, one gets the sense that Noonan and others would have been almost disappointed if the heroes of Flight 93 had included a woman. (A flight attendant reportedly told her husband on a cell phone that she and her co-workers were considering throwing boiling water at the hijackers.)

In any event, the cultural messages that emerge from the current crisis are likely to be much too complex to be marshaled into the cause of gender nostalgia. Yes, heroism is back in vogue. Yet the military action in Afghanistan is taking place at a time when there are more women in the military, and at the highest levels of government, than during any other previous American war, from Condoleeza Rice to the women flying combat missions over Afghanistan.

But perhaps there is another gender-related message to be gleaned from the attack on America. However much we would like to regard women's liberation as a natural right, it is the product and achievement of a complex, advanced civilization. Recent events remind us that this civilization is fragile, and that its enemies are hostile to freedom for anyone—but especially women. Feminists, perhaps more than anyone else, should realize that the West is worth defending.