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."
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."
The result, she argues, is that "instead of telling the truth about Islam and demanding that the Muslim world observes certain standards, you have Westerners beating their breasts and saying: `We can't judge you, we can't expose you, we can't challenge you.' And here in the West you have a dangerous misuse of Western concepts such as religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity so that one kind of hate speech is seen as something that must be rigorously protected."
"That means, principally, lies about America and lies about Jews," she adds.
Chesler's critics say the vehemence of her language points to Islamophobia. A piece she wrote last month for the controversial Web magazine Frontpage.com suggested that "a small but organized number of Muslim-Americans and Muslim immigrants ... are currently seeking to begin the Islamization of America."
It went on to compare the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan to Hitler. The blog Islamophobia Watch suggested that this signaled "the point of total dementia."
Chesler will not accept the Islamophobe label. She says it is a blanket term that silences those who portray Islam accurately, and bemoans feminism's embrace of what she sees as misguided causes.
"Feminism began to fail when they began to say, `We can't judge barbarism. We can't even call it barbarism, because the barbarians will be offended,'" she says.
JUST ONE PART
Feminism has become just one part of a wider anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist movement, "so much so that many feminists are now much more concerned with the occupation of a country that doesn't exist -- namely Palestine -- than they are concerned with the occupation of women's bodies worldwide."
But, paradoxically, Chesler's criticisms of feminist preoccupation with a wider world do not prevent her arguing for a feminist foreign policy; it's just that she believes the foreign policy should concentrate on the issues she is passionate about.
"American feminism hasn't taken on these international issues because of its fear of being branded racist," she says. "But many Muslim feminists and dissidents are totally supportive of what I'm trying to do, because they say that here is finally a Western feminist who will not abandon us on the basis of cultural relativity."
"The attention of the American feminist movement has been forced to focus for far too long on issues like abortion or gay and lesbian rights. I totally support this. But in so doing they have neglected other real issues, such as the needs of working people," she says.
"This is simply not enough, given the moment in history in which we find ourselves. What feminism must do is spell out something that might be called a feminist foreign policy. So that, for example, if we make a trade or a peace treaty with a country, we ought to build into that treaty a commitment not -- for example -- to genitally mutilate girls who live in that country," she says. "This is not easy. But I would like feminists to think very globally and very strategically and very long-term. It's one thing to write an article now and again, but what are we, as feminists, actually going to do?"
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