Late last year the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly discussed what he considers an obvious “fact”: that men and women are not equal. He argued that Islam has made it clear that a woman’s primary role is motherhood, which is not equal to a man’s role.
This was widely reported in the media, but did not provoke the kind of indignation one would expect. There were no long commentaries decrying this speech, or tirades against the patriarchal culture of Muslim-majority countries. There was just dispassionate reporting and a few angry tweets. The leader of Turkey thinks men and women aren’t equal. Where is the outrage?
Unfortunately, this lack of reaction is the norm, not the exception. No American bands cancelled concert dates after an Imam in southern France preached that women are fundamentally selfish. Nor have there been calls to divest ourselves from Saudi Arabia over the recent sentencing of a woman to 70 lashes over “insulting” her husband on WhatsApp. There is a disturbing resistance on the Left to criticizing Islamic societies for their treatment of women. In fact, it’s barely up for discussion. This stubborn denial of women’s rights in Islamic societies reveals a cognitive dissonance on the left, where two of their most closely held beliefs come into conflict: feminism and multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism Means Suspending All Criticism
The multicultural project, which came out of our universities in the 1950s and ’60s, seeks a world where there is no right or wrong, only different. Believing that all religions and cultures are absolutely equal means reserving judgment. No society is better or worse than the next. Out of fear of seeming critical of other cultures, or worse, seeming to echo the rhetoric of colonialism, the Left falls over itself to avoid even a trace of criticism.
Nowhere is this truer than with Islam. This is why the Fort Hood massacre was labeled workplace violence and almost no one in the media mentioned that Major Nidal Hasan had been radicalized and was committing Jihad against America for its wars in the Middle East.
The dedication to the multicultural project clashes most regrettably with feminism. The Left, which everywhere sees gender inequality and a war on women in the West, has a blind spot when it comes to Islam. Whether it’s about pay inequality, nursing in public, or the latest FX series, “Fargo,” there is always somewhere an outcry of sexism in America. Gender inequality, while certainly still existent in America, has become an obsession. Take the Hobby Lobby decision last year, which exempts some businesses from having to provide certain kinds of contraceptives. It provoked accusations that the ruling was going to send us back to the biblical times of stoning and genital mutilation. But what about Islamic societies, where stoning and genital mutilation still occasionally happens today?
But Islam Deserves Some Criticism
Given the dedication, sometimes to the point of absurdity, to defending equality, particularly among academics and social activists on the Left, it’s shocking that these are the very people who reject the proposition that there may be a chronic problem with women’s rights in Muslim society, where there are frequent reports of forced marriage, honor killings, and cases of stoning and burning women alive, not to mention daily sexual harassment on the streets. To deny that there is a problem is a slap in the face to the women who are victims of this type of violence. Worse yet is when western states ignore these problems at home, as happened with the Rotherham gang rapes.
In addition to the outright violent acts committed against women in the name of Islam, there are the more subtle and insidious institutional inequalities in Islamic societies. Most Islamic countries base their family law on an interpretation of Sharia, the Islamic moral and religious code. Morocco, arguably one of the most westernized Islamic countries, only recently reformed theirs, changing the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, outlawing most cases of polygamy, giving women the right to ask for a divorce, outlawing repudiation, giving women more inheritance rights, and ending the need for permission from the wali (either the father or brother of a woman) to marry or obtain a passport.
In many countries, Sharia is used to justify the forced marriage of rape victims to their attackers. This was the case in Morocco until last year, when the law was repealed after a 16-year-old rape victim killed herself with rat poison to escape her abusive attacker-turned-husband. Although the law has since changed, a significant and important step, culture is slower to adapt. Just last November, a rape victim who was made to marry her rapist tried to file for divorce. In response, her husband disfigured her with 50 slashes of a razor blade to ensure that no other man would take her once they were separated.
Yet to say there may be a problem with women’s rights in these countries violates the dogma of multiculturalism. So the West remains silent.
Middle Eastern Versions of ‘Feminism’
Those who deny inequalities between men and women in Islamic countries, including some Middle Eastern feminists, claim that it is merely a different kind of society where the conception of equality is different. Men and women are equal, but women just can’t drive in Saudi Arabia. They argue that “western feminism” doesn’t apply to Middle Eastern culture, and we shouldn’t force it there. To them, women’s rights are not a universal truth.
In Islamic society, the home sphere is the territory of women while the public sphere is the territory of men. A common defense of the treatment of women in the Middle East is that women are not less than men, they just operate in different spheres. It’s ironic that the societal restriction of Muslim women to the home is acceptable to liberals, and yet, in the 1950s and ’60s this was the very problem against which the feminist movement in America fought. Even if the law didn’t keep women in the kitchen, Donna Reed-style, it was a cultural problem that we had to grow out of. If only liberals fought for the same liberation for women in all countries.
But they have more important things to do like unveiling the ugly truth about the underlying sexism in the marketing of Luna bars to American women.
Women’s Affairs in the West and Middle East Are Not the Same
It’s difficult not to reflect on the relative radio silence on these issues in the West while at home we scour American campuses for signs of a rape culture in the “patriarchal” fraternity system. Of course rape happens on U.S. campuses, and of course it is terrible and needs to be legally pursued. But compare the outrage on Twitter and in the media at merely questioning the fuzzy facts behind an allegation of rape, to the utter lack of reaction about the fact that women who are raped in Islamic societies are often seen as bringing shame to their families, are considered un-marriageable, and are sometimes even killed by their family to restore honor.
Few are willing to ask what it is about Islamic culture that consistently produces these inequalities for and abuses of women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was made the pariah of commencement ceremonies because of her advocacy for women in the Middle East, and just last week the Muslim Students Association at Duke University tried to shut down a talk on women in Islam. Mona Eltahawy found herself in a firestorm after publishing an article in Foreign Policy titled “Why Do They Hate Us?” She was accused of perpetuating stereotypes that are hurtful to women.
I am not arguing that all women in Muslim societies are oppressed. Many have found support in their family for enjoying a free life and lifestyle. Nor am I saying that there are not still inequalities in the West. I am rather pointing out that there is a gap in the conversation on women’s rights, a fact that ought to spark a discussion on why this is the case. Unfortunately, this article, rather than helping create that spark, will most likely bring accusations of orientalism and cultural colonialism.
Either Women’s Rights Matter, Or They Don’t
What we believe about women’s rights should either apply everywhere or it should apply nowhere. It’s either true that men and women deserve equal treatment or it isn’t. If it’s not a Truth, with a capital “T,” then we act falsely when we decry the injustices of gender inequality in America. We are hypocrites. Discrimination and harassment toward women, just like racism, should be met with intolerance regardless of culture, religion, or colonial history. There should be no such thing as “western” feminism when it comes to women’s rights. There is only feminism.
Every society and culture deserves scrutiny, from within and without. This is the foundation of a healthy and fertile civilization. If we don’t debate and criticize others and ourselves, in a respectful manner, we will never be able to refine and improve. When debates about certain countries and societies are off limits, we rob everyone of the opportunity for self-reflection and to experience change and reform.
Two strongly held progressive ideals, multiculturalism and feminism, are in conflict when the topic of women’s rights in Islamic societies comes up. The Left cannot reconcile its need to accept all cultures as equal with its “fierce” defense of gender equality. They have to choose one over the other. Sadly, they have chosen the appearance of pious multiculturalism over the rights, health, and freedom of many Muslim women. Multiculturalism, it seems, trumps women’s rights.