Fri, Apr 07, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Western feminism is dead, and Islam played a role

By John Sutherland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In 1961, Phyllis Chesler agreed to marry her college sweetheart, a young, Westernized Muslim man who had come to study in the US. At his request, they married and lived in his home country, Afghanistan.

"When we arrived in the country they took my American passport away -- very typical with foreign wives," she says. "Then I found myself clapped up in very posh purdah. Here I was in this gorgeous country, but I wasn't supposed to go out without the chauffeur and without servants in tow and other women of the family."

"Of course, I made regular escapes and I saw how women were treated and I saw how the children of co-wives competed with each other for inheritance and attention. And I saw how women mistreated their female servants. I saw, at first hand, that polygamy was not a good thing. My father-in-law turned out to have three wives and 21 children. He was a very dapper fellow, also Westernized on the surface like my husband -- in America. But my husband became an easterner overnight in Afghanistan. I was really shocked," she says.

She returned to the US in December 1961 and, she has written, "kissed the ground at New York City's Idlewild airport."

Chesler's experiences in Afghanistan have helped shape her thoughts about the failure of feminism to engage with what she sees as the oppression of women in Islamic countries. After "40 years on the front lines" of feminism -- she is now emerita professor of psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York -- her current project means that she gets a "chilly" reception from fellow feminists. It does not help, perhaps, that her latest book is called The Death of Feminism.

Isn't the title somewhat stark? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say there are trends in feminism that she, personally, finds disturbing?

"I am still a feminist," she insists. "The reason that I have announced the death of feminism, which I agree is stark, is that from my point of view, looking at mainstream feminism in the West -- in the universities, in the media, among academics and the so-called intelligentsia -- there is a moral failure, a moral bankruptcy, a refusal to take on, in particular, Muslim gender apartheid. So you have many contemporary feminists who say, `We have to be multiculturally relativist. We cannot uphold a single, or absolute, standard of human rights. And, therefore, we can't condemn Islamic culture, because their countries have been previously colonized. By us.' I disagree."

MONOLITHIC?

But are the Islamic nations as culturally monolithic as Chesler suggests? Wasn't Saddam Hussein's Iraq, to take a particularly tendentious example, secular? And didn't it offer professional careers for women?

"I don't think that makes any big difference. Saddam's regime gassed Kurds and perpetrated genocide. His men kidnapped women and prostitutes off the streets and subjected them to private rape sessions. So merely because his Iraq was religiously secular, and women had certain rights, doesn't mean that we as intelligent Western publics should be condoning genocidal states," she says.

Western feminism's failure to confront the problems raised by Islam, Chesler believes, is a result of the creation of a hierarchy of sins, "an intellectual culture in which racism trumps gender concerns."

The example she cites as the embodiment of wrongheaded priorities is "gay and lesbian movement activists rooting for the Palestinians who, meanwhile, are very busy persecuting homosexuals, who in turn are fleeing to Israel for political asylum."

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