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date: 30 oct 2007


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october 30, 2007


  western feminists: at the service of radical islam

muslim women activists in north america: speaking for ourselves

edited by katherine bullock. austin: university of texas press, 2005. 215 pp. $22.95, paper.

a history of women's seclusion in the middle east: the veil in the looking glass

by ann chamberlin

new york, london, oxford: haworth press, 2006. 298 pp. $39.95

reviewed by phyllis chesler

middle east quarterly

fall 2007


one might expect western feminists to take the lead in challenging islamic gender apartheid, but sadly, this is not the case. rather, they tend to be more concerned with israel's "occupation" of palestine or the u.s. "occupation" of afghanistan and iraq than with the islamist persecution of women. they consider it "racist" to condemn gender apartheid of the most savage sort, and "racism" trumps concerns about gender.

incredibly, those same western feminists who condemn as patriarchal western institutions of marriage, biological motherhood, heterosexuality, and religion now view islamic veiling, the hijab (head scarf), purdah (seclusion of women), arranged marriage, and polygamy as sacred religious rights. those same feminists who condemn christianity and judaism for more minor (but still serious) misogynist practices only whisper about major islamic misogyny?est it be viewed as politically incorrect criticism of a formerly colonized culture. like other academics, feminists will not characterize a culture as "barbaric" if it is an arab or muslim country?ot even if that culture or country is perpetrating genocidal violence against muslims and what i call gender-cleansing?s is the case in the sudan. western feminists and leftists do not feel it is their right to condemn muslim-on-muslim violence.

muslim women activists in north america and a history of women's seclusion in the middle east: the veil in the looking glass take such thought disorders to new orwellian heights. both books are published by university or academic presses; both have many footnotes, and the latter volume has a long, somewhat outdated bibliography. these academic trappings notwithstanding, neither volume is a scholarly work, but each is a work of propaganda, in the latter case, of a rather fevered imagination. both volumes illustrate the worrisome trend of prestigious presses publishing non-scholarly works disguised as works of scholarship. (other examples include the university of california press publishing norman finkelstein, oxford university press publishing tariq ramadan, and farrar, strauss, and giroux publishing john mearsheimer and stephen walt.)

when bullock mentions muhammad, she consistently follows his name with the phrase "peace be upon him" and refers to "muslim religious theology" as "the islamic sciences." she views muslim communities in north america as "under siege" and condemns imaginary, omnipresent "muslim bashing" and "hate crimes" against muslims. in her view, "covered" women are not oppressed because "many do positive volunteer activism." paradoxically, however, bullock herself notes that many such "covered" and "non-oppressed" muslim women in this volume themselves write about "negative pressures" from within the muslim community regarding a "woman's right to speak publicly, [and] be involved in community decision making." such women have only been able to resist community pressures with the "help of a father or husband."

bullock's authors also propound some chilling ideas. nimat hafez barazangi, born in syria and currently living in ithaca, new york, views herself as a "feminist activist." but i see her as an islamist exploring ways to use the american legal system to wrest some separate-but-equal gender justice for muslim women and girls (and only for them, not for other groups of girls and women). i do not oppose such efforts, but they are far short of what muslim women, even in ithaca, probably need. proudly, barazangi reports how she used title nine and the fourteenth amendment to persuade ithaca town officials to allow muslim girls to swim separately from boys. however, she was unable to persuade muslim families to allow their daughters and wives to swim at all.

gul joya jafri, a canadian muslim and self-described activist, worked with the afghan women's organization. she addressed the way in which the mainstream media portrays muslim women. her activism consisted of monitoring media outlets and fighting against "anti-islam" forces. joya jafri's activism does not find it incumbent to protest women's forced wearing of burqas or women's mistreatment by the taliban. instead, she laments that the media chooses to portray only these aspects and stories about afghanistan. it is "true," she says, "but it doesn't need to be reported in that way." as a high school student, joya jafri "dreamily quoted the u.n.'s universal declaration on human rights: ?veryone has a right to life, liberty and security of the person,'" but as an adult, she focuses on a fair portrayal of muslims in the media?resumably a portrayal that does not focus upon or condemn forced veiling, forced marriage, wife beating, female genital mutilation, and honor murders but that, instead, focuses on a muslim woman's right to practice islam in a highly visible and separatist way in the west. like bullock and barazangi, hers is a faith-based perspective?ne that does not focus on a muslim woman's right not to cover, become an "apostate," or to live in a way in which the separation of mosque and state is viewed as an advantage.

chamberlin's work amounts to a romantic hodgepodge moored in american feminism of the 1970s. in effect, she argues that western women who seek to integrate previously male-only space are far more "conservative" and "patriarchal" than are american lesbian separatists or veiled muslim women who live in purdah. she sees women-only religious rituals and women-only space as equivalent to anti-patriarchal protest or resistance movements. she views purdah as a "feminist defense against exploitation and as an empowering force." in truth, very wealthy women may have "ruled" other women in the harem or household?ut this is equivalent to a wife or mother-in-law ruling her female servants. some may have influenced their sons or husbands in ways that had far-reaching consequences; however, this paradigm describes only a handful of muslim women, not the masses at their mercy.

chamberlin's approach is seductive and dangerous. it caters to a woman's desire to feel morally separate and superior, valued, and safe. chamberlin claims that slave women in the pre-islamic and pagan middle east were forced to work naked and to be sexually available at any moment to all men. thus, "covered" and secluded women were safer than slave or "uncovered" women?ainly because they only had one male master, not many. the distinction is similar to that between housewives and prostitutes.

the conclusions chamberlin draws are zany. in her own words: "x million tons of toxic waste created per year or an astronomical national deficit are to the natural and economic resources of our children what the abstraction and exploitation of the individual?omen in particular?re to their emotional resources. when faced with exploitation similar to what american women?nd more gravely, their children?tand on the brink of today, women in the middle east millennia ago threw their veil over their faces, put up a wall of mystified honor, and said: ?o far you may exploit, but by god no further.'"

the islamization of america has begun. pro-islamist, anti-american, anti-israeli, and anti-jewish hate speech is protected on american campuses by concepts such as academic freedom and freedom of speech. false and often paranoid allegations of "islamophobia" are taken seriously by western intellectual elites who deny (or justify) the reality of the islamist war against infidels. doctrines of multicultural relativism and unspoken fears about "death by lawsuit" or physical acts of violence make it difficult for anyone to tell the truth about the islamist war against western values.

if western feminists are not alone in appeasing islamization, then, the postcolonial and postmodern feminist academy is very much part of the problem.

phyllis chesler is the author of fifteen books including women and madness (doubleday, 1972), and, most recently, the death of feminism: what's next in the struggle for women's freedom (palgrave macmillan, 2005). she is the co-founder of the association for women in psychology and the national women's health network.

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