This made for a disheartening sight.
Suppose you discovered a self-declared “climate scientist” was due to get an award from a known and well-funded climate-change-denying organization, and during their acceptance speech they deployed a few denialist tactics to undercut climate science. You wouldn’t hesitate to call them a climate denialist, would you?
The Independent Women’s Forum was founded in 1992, after the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, with the specific goal of opposing feminist reforms. They shouldn’t be confused with the older and much-less problematic International Women’s Forum, though I suspect their name was chosen so that they would be. In 2014, they handed Ayaan Hirsi-Ali an award for her services, and she responded in kind by mentioning some anti-feminist talking points in her acceptance speech.
She spoke of growing up in Somalia, where women aren’t allowed to leave the house without asking permission from a male guardian and need to be accompanied by a male guardian. […]
“Feminists in this country and in the West fought against that and won the battle,” she added. […]
“What we are now doing with the victory, and I agree with you if you condemn that and I condemn whole-heartedly the trivial bullshit it is to go after a man who makes a scientific breakthrough and all that we as women — organized women — do is to fret about his shirt?” Hirsi Ali said, referring to the controversy generated by the shirt featuring cartoons of scantily-clad women worn by the scientist who helped land a robot on a comet. “We must reclaim and retake feminism from our fellow idiotic women.”
How bad can it get? Let’s count the ways.
First, she sets up a strawperson, by arguing that the only valid form of sexism is literal subjugation of women, which is patently false. In more ways than one, actually, as women are still routinely subjugated in the West, sometimes in the name of religion.
Second, she sets up a strawperson; few feminists weighed in on Matt Taylor, in reality a lot of his most vocal critics were science journalists and scientists who thought his sent a poor message to the public. Even then, they usually put more blame on people other than Taylor, as his shirt must have been approved by multiple people before reaching the airwaves. That didn’t stop some from blaming only feminists, and repeatedly dredging the example up long after Taylor apologized and everyone else forgot about it.
Third, Hirshi-Ali deploys the “fallacy of relative privation,” or “Why are you focused on X when Y is so much worse?” Taken to its logical conclusion, we should give up every waking moment of our lives to finding a way to reverse entropy. This fallacy also ignores our ability to fix Y; is it reasonable for me to spend years learning Arabic and studying the local culture, then jump thousands of kilometres across the globe, in order to solve other people’s problems? Or would it be more effective for me to solve a local problem that directly effects me, where I need zero study time? Hirsi-Ali is promoting a feminism that’s doomed to fail.
Fourth, she’s assuming Western feminists have to come in and fix Muslim women, which by implication means they’re incapable of fixing themselves, and fifth she’s assuming Western feminists haven’t tried.
This is the first collection of Arab women’s feminist writings including poems, tales, excerpts from novels, short stories, essays, journalistic articles, and speeches, as well as interviews. The voices are those of Arab women who both did and did not call themselves feminists. Their discourses address universal issues such as education and work, rights concerning marriage, and suffrage, at the same time they confront more Arab gender-related problems. They come from countries that experienced European colonial rule and/or Western imperialist hegemony. Because of that, their feminist voices often ran the risk of being discredited as anti-nationalist or anti-religious.
“Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (review).” Journal of Women’s History 3, no. 1 (1991): 137-139. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0111
Colonialism also brought a lot of Western ideas with it, which seeped into the intellectual class of each country it touched. Few people seem to know why Islamists fought against the Shah in Iran: it’s because Iran had banned the veil and encouraged women’s education, in an attempt to modernize their country. Iran and other countries have universities and places of higher learning, in most cases dating from the before the 1970’s, which expose an elite few to Western ideas. This means that the works of feminists (and their critics) have been floating around these countries for decades.
I was born and grew up in the Middle East, and have lived in the United States for a number of decades. These experiences embody the personal reasons for this paper. There are professional reasons as well. I have been interested in cross-cultural research issues throughout my professional career. Early in my career, I conducted research in Lebanon as part of a larger cross-cultural study of childrearing practices (Prothro & Diab, 1974). Later, I returned to explore the impact of culture upon interpersonal communication and helping behavior in a study of Lebanese and U.S. college students (Kikoski, 1980).
I returned again to Lebanon for my present research on feminist ethnography that seeks to understand the lifeworld of contemporary young women. I was myself an undergraduate in Lebanon, once the same age as the university women with whom I am conducting this research.
Kikoski, Catherine K. “Feminism in the Middle East: Reflections on ethnographic research in Lebanon.” Journal of Feminist Family Therapy 11.4 (2000): 131-146.
This isn’t a one-way street, either.
The study of women in the Middle East, now well into its second decade, has produced an impressive corpus of papers and periodical articles. For purely practical reasons, this review focuses on writings in English, in a selective rather than all-inclusive manner. The analysis of women in the Middle East has not always been undertaken with reference to Islam, but a significant body of works, influenced partly by the Islamic resurgence, coincident with the rise of the study of women as a separate field, does have reference to Islam.
Badran, Margot. “Islam, patriarchy, and feminism in the Middle East.” Trends in History 4.1 (1986): 49-71.
So why haven’t feminists in North America leapt to the defense of Muslim women? Because they’ve already studied the problem, and concluded the risks far outweigh the benefits. It’s far too easy to act patriarchal and stereotype a culture you’ve had little contact with, turning them against your ideals.
Instead, those lines of communication led to a better solution, a distinctive “Islamic Feminism” where local activists use their knowledge of the culture to push for incremental change.
Negative news about women’s daily lives in Iran continues unabated. Seemingly trivial matters, such as the shape and color of a woman’s scarf or the thickness of her stockings, continue to be contested daily, largely among men. Women are far from legal equals of men. Despite many years of hardwork by a remarkably active group of women, inside and outside the Majlis (the Iranian parliament), many discriminatory laws passed within the first few months and years of the new regime remain on the books and in full force. Secular feminists, if not repressed or exiled by the government, often feel silenced by the dominant cultural climate.
Yet the past decade has also witnessed an incredible flourishing of women’s intellectual and cultural productions in Iran. Almost two decades after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, against the deepest fears of many of the secular feminist activists of that revolution, not only have women not disappeared from public life, but they have an unmistakably active presence in practically every field of artistic creation, professional achievement, educational and industrial institutions, and even in sports activities. It would be tempting for a secular feminist to claim that Iranian women have achieved all this despite the Islamic Republic, against the Islamic Republic, and even against Islam as the dominant discourse in the country.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh. “Feminism in an Islamic Republic.” Islam, Gender and Social Change. Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito, eds (1998): 59-84.
Iran isn’t an outlier, either; Huda Sha’raoui founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, tried and failed to form an alliance with a Western feminist group, traveled to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan to form alliances with the feminist groups there, then gave the opening speech at the Arab Feminist Conference of 1944. Pakistan’s Women’s Action Forum has been doing feminist activism since 1981. Even Hirsi-Ali’s native Somalia has active feminist groups. While we in Canada and the US may sneer at “Islamic Feminism” as a fundamental contradiction, it’s had real success in liberalizing the extremists and may prove a gateway drug to further reforms.
Through her fieldwork among Islamists in Turkey, sociologist and feminist Nilufer Gole discovered a nascent feminism being articulated by some women inside the Islamist movement. Sociologist Barbara Pusch also found that Turkish women were taking feminist lessons from within Islamist women’s nongovernmental organizations. The oppressiveness of Islamism is leading these women not to abandon Islam but to question issues of gender within Islam and possibly abandon Islamism.
Badran, Margot. “Understanding Islam, Islamism, and Islamic Feminism.” journal of Women’s History 13.1 (2001): 47-52.
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali is so far from reality, she isn’t even wrong. You’d expect this level of bullshit from reality-challenged Religious Right nutters, so it should be no surprise to find she’s contributing to their YouTube channels. “Prager University” is the brainchild of Dennis Prager, a longtime religious talk show host. From the “About Us” page:
The greatest threat to America is that most Americans don’t know what makes America great. PragerU’s mission is to explain and spread what we call “Americanism” through the power of the Internet. Our five-minute videos are conservative sound bites that clarify profoundly significant and uniquely American concepts for more than 100 million people each year. […]
We take the best ideas from the best minds and distill them down to five focused minutes. We then add graphics and animation to create the most persuasive, entertaining, and educational case possible for the values that have made America and the West the source of so much liberty and wealth. These values are Judeo-Christian at their core and include the concepts of freedom of speech, a free press, free markets and a strong military to protect and project those values.
The video posted just before Hirsi-Ali’s was “The Benefits of Belief,” and some scrolling reveals titles like “Fossil Fuels: The Greenest Energy,” “Be a Man: Get Married,” and “Israel: The World’s Most Moral Army.” Her contribution fits right in:
The Judeo-Christian culture —and perhaps a more apt word is civilization—has produced over time the law codes, language and material prosperity that have greatly elevated women’s status. But this progress is not shared everywhere.
There are still hundreds of millions of people that live in a culture—the Islamic, for instance—that takes female inferiority for granted. Until recently, these cultures—the Western and the Islamic—were, for the most part, separated. But that is changing. Dramatically so. Large numbers of immigrant men from the Middle East, South Asia and various parts of Africa have brought a different set of values to the West, specifically Europe.
Claiming all Muslims have no exposure to feminist ideas? Check. Crediting Christianity with feminism, but in a weaselly way that prevents a simple counter-argument? Check. Scaremongering via Muslim immigrants? Check. Even casting some shade at Islam via the phrase “civilization,” under the assumption that it’s never been civilized enough to advance human knowledge? Check. This is straight-up Religious Right propaganda.
So why, then, are two lifelong atheists promoting videos from the Religious Right? Why is an educated feminist unable to spot a paid anti-feminist? It can’t be out of ignorance; “that bit of stupidity” was the time I tried to present some of the above evidence and argument to those two. Looks like that landed on deaf ears.
I think this has ties to a greater trend within the atheist/skeptic movement. Michael Hughes hits on it here, when discussing someone else who’s ignoring the evidence in favor of their own opinion.
And to be dead honest, when I see the growing popularity of the racists like The Amazing Atheist in atheism — when he can make racist statements all day and no one says a peep, but the moment I protest I’m supposedly breaking the cardinal rule of saying something outside the bounds of atheism — I’m beginning to think atheism is an excuse to feel superior, for many people.
We have a term for people who feel superior to others of a different race: racist.
Except that we’re talking about people of white European descent who think that all Muslims are brown or black, seemingly oblivious to the existence of literal Caucasian Muslims. Nor do they seem to realize that a quarter of all Christians on the planet reside in Africa, where they outnumber Muslims.
No, but you can use hate of an idea as a proxy for hate of a person, just like you can use hating on Islam or “protecting white culture” as a proxy (or when done deliberately, “dog whistle“) for racism.
If you listen to modern day KKK members, the focus of the KKK is not so much on how bad black people are, so much as it is on being proud of white culture and keeping it distinct from black people. They are very sensitive to accusations that they are racist, and insist on a carefully cultivated image of being distinct from black people.
For example, David Duke (former leader of the KKK), when asked about his supposed endorsement of Donald Trump, supported Trump’s stance on immigration — it went with the whole theme of keeping black people out. But he would not say that he was racist, later claimed he did not endorse Donald Trump, carefully tried to avoid any insinuation that he was a racist.
It’s the flip side of religious people taking criticism of their religion personally. There’s even some data to back this up.
Higher levels of [rape myth acceptance] were strongly associated with higher levels of other oppressive beliefs, such as ageism (ES=1.01 …) classism (ES=0.90 …), racism (ES=0.88 …), and religious intolerance (ES=0.82 …).
Suarez, E., and T. M. Gadalla. “Stop Blaming the Victim: A Meta-Analysis on Rape Myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): pg. 2020. doi:10.1177/0886260509354503.
Bigotry is intersectional; hating on one one thing makes it more likely you’ll hate on another. If rape myth acceptance is correlated with both racism and religious intolerance, then religious intolerance is correlated with racism. Human beings are bad at logical thinking, and may not realize that by endorsing idea A they’re also endorsing idea B. This makes bigotry a sort of intellectual cancer, capable of morphing itself and incubating in “safe” forms of discrimination, none of which requires a conscious motive to drive it.
Bashing on Islam is an especially good incubator. Most vocal North American atheists haven’t interacted with Muslims often, so they don’t really know the religion. This is a one-two punch, as it makes it easy to cast sweeping generalizations that no-one in the room can challenge.
At the same time that Islamists vie for control of women’s bodies, neo-Orientalists bleat their compassion for the “poor” Muslimwoman. Muslim women today are caught between these two camps, each insisting on their foundational singularity. Iranian cultural theorist Minoo Moallem argues that the more evident the diversity among Muslim societies, the more Western societies project Islam and Muslim women as foundational and fundamentalist entities. In other words, the Muslimwoman erases for non-Muslims the diversity among Muslim women and, indeed, among all Muslims. This erasure of diversity is mirrored within Muslim societies under threat where the Muslimwoman becomes a lightning rod for danger. Under Western eyes, an essential (usually negative) Islam is encoded by the oppressed Muslimwoman; in Muslim societies under threat from non-Muslims, the Muslimwoman becomes the emblem of an equally essential (but this time positive) Islam.
Cooke, Miriam. “Deploying the muslimwoman.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24.1 (2008): 91-99.
All we hear about Muslims tends to be what the news considers “news;” terrorist actions stay in the headlines for days, but feminist activism only makes it if there’s a link to terrorism. This leads to a skewed view of Muslims that feeds into this stereotyping.
The result is a sort of hate-fetish, where some atheists obsess over a caricature of Islam. They share stories and memes of violence and mayhem, and by gravely shaking their heads at how backwards these foreigners are they unconsciously gloat over their relative superiority. Drooling over these makes as much sense as asking me to fix social issues in Egypt; do these atheists think that Muslims will see their witty retort and change their minds? No, their target audience is their white European peers.
This fetish also leads to the adulation of identity. MRAs, for instance, love women who parrot back their own talking points. The reasoning is likely one of
1. If sexism is women being discriminated against by men, women cannot be sexist.
2. A woman says X.
3. Therefore, X cannot be a sexist statement.
A. As the primary target of sexism, women are experts on it.
B. A woman says X is not sexist.
C. Ergo, X is not sexist.
In both cases, a person’s identity is given more weight than their evidence or argument. This acts as a shield to challenge or self-reflection, which in turn helps sustain bigotry.
I know, I know. “Cool story bro, but you’re talking about subtle subconscious biases here. Evidence is tough to come by, and without that you can’t convince me.” But this just brings us full circle: how else can we explain two lifelong atheists promoting Religious Right propaganda? How else can an educated feminist not see an anti-feminist right in front of them? The “ignorance” card was pulled off the table by yours truly, remember, which doesn’t leave any alternatives to this subconscious bias.
Ayaan Hirsi-Ali must be telling these two what they want to hear. It doesn’t matter that her credibility has been called into question multiple times, all that matters is that she’s a female ex-Muslim. When Hirsi-Ali says feminists are ignoring Muslims, the “expertise” granted by her identity combines with their pre-existing beliefs to further cement those beliefs. And for the same reason your skepticism about the rubber-sheet analogy isn’t triggered if yet another physicist invoked it, even though some thought would reveal deep flaws in it, these two’s guard was down enough to let the obvious red flags sail on by.
It’s a good example of how educated, progressive people can gently slide towards bigotry; why you shouldn’t assume you’re free of bias; why you should be concerned about bigotry in all its forms; and also, why you should do a quick Google Scholar search before spouting off about the Social Sciences or feminism.