By Phyllis Chesler and Marcia Pappas
The issue of Islamic/Islamist gender apartheid is one of epidemic and global proportions. Although it has reached American shores, the feminist establishment here remains tragically ambivalent about how to deal with forced veiling, arranged marriage, separatism, and honor-related violence, including honor killings. Many feminists fear that, were they to tie the subordination of women to a particular religion or culture, especially to Islam, that they would be perceived as “racists,” or “Islamophobes.” This fear trumps their sincere concern for womens’ rights and womens’ lives.
The issue, quite simply, is whether or not non-Muslim white folks can discuss Muslim-on-Muslim crime or black-on-black crime or whether only people who share the same faith and skin-color are allowed to raise this issue.
The issue is also whether American feminists really support an American foreign policy, which both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have indicated can or should be tied to womens’ rights. Feminists viewed President Bush’s post 9/11 invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq as morally outrageous and as far more hurtful to Afghan and Iraqi women than was their pre-existing subjugation. Some feminists believed that women had been better off, at least, in Iraq, before the American invasion. We may disagree with this analysis but, nevertheless, why would American feminists hesitate to condemn crimes against women which are being committed on American soil by immigrants, including Muslims, from Third World countries?
The authors have both been speaking out about honor killings in the West and have both described the recent Buffalo beheading of Aasiya Z. Hassan by her husband as an Islamist-style honor-related killing.
Marcia Pappas, the President of NOW-NYS, has been scolded by national NOW’s President and criticized by a coalition of domestic violence advocates for her views about this.
Dr. Phyllis Chesler, the author of thirteen books, including Women and Madness, has been writing about Islamic gender apartheid and its penetration of the West for many years. She, too, has been challenged, even condemned, for her views about honor killings in general and for her views about the shocking case of Aasiya Z. Hassan, in particular.
We decided to join forces and write a short piece. However, we discovered that brevity would not serve our goal. The problem is much bigger than honor-related violence, honor killings, or this one case in Buffalo. Indeed, the issue which we still face in 2009, is one that has plagued American feminist leaders for at least 171 years. The issue is that of racism and sexism and the diabolical way in which racism continues to trump sexism among feminists.
A little history lesson is in order.
For a long time, American women had been outspoken leaders in the fight to abolish slavery. However, between 1838-1840, their efforts were increasingly restricted to that of “silent” partners in Ladies Auxiliaries. In 1840, a World Anti-Slavery convention was held in London. American women, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, both ardent abolitionists, were not allowed to publicly speak out against slavery because they were women. Instead, they were condemned to sit behind a partition and remain silent. Cady Stanton returned home and composed a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled upon the Declaration of Independence. In 1848, three hundred American women and men, including former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, attended the Seneca Falls Womens’ Rights Convention; about a third voted for the Declaration which resolved that women should have the right to vote, control property, sign legal documents, serve on juries, and enjoy equal access to education and employment. This vote and this Convention began the long, slow march towards American female suffrage. See what former NOW-NYS President, Marilyn Fitterman, had to say about this very subject.
African-American men obtained the vote in 1865. It was fifty years before American women of any race, color, religion, or ethnicity did. These First Wave feminists and suffragists decided to put womens’ rights first. They refused to “sit silently at the back of the (abolitionist) bus,” and were sometimes willing to work with anyone, including those who were opposed to abolition, to further their cause. This meant that some of our suffragist foremothers were routinely called “racists.” They were also mocked as unnatural, selfish, and man-hating women.
On the other hand, those men and women who chose abolition over womens’ rights were rarely ever condemned as sexists, misogynists, or woman-haters.
Fast forward to the American 1960’s when many white women, (Jews, too), joined the bravest African-American men and women in a struggle for civil rights. This was a movement against southern and northern segregation, against Jim Crow and for the integration of public places, including lunch counters, buses, and schools. The African-American right to vote–free of intimidation or violence– was also at issue. Women of many races were also involved in the anti-Vietnam war and in various left-tilted black liberation movements which opposed racism, both here and abroad. But, once again, American women were expected to do the secretarial work, and provide food and sex for the “real” leaders who were always men. In the mid-to late 1960s, one of us left all that, driven out by Marxist, hippie, and black liberationist sexism. Betty Friedan published the Feminine Mystique in 1963 and NOW began organizing in 1966.
Second Wave feminism put women’s’ rights first and for about fifteen years, we achieved tremendous, dazzling progress. However, by the end of the 1970s, with the rise of the anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, and anti-Western academy, the ideas of academics like Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, took precedence over many feminist ideas. Suddenly, in terms of symbols, women were no longer seen as the most “wretched of the earth,” oppressed by both poverty and violence. Now, Arab men of color, Palestinians, Muslims, took stage center as the world’s most noble and oppressed victims.
Caucasian feminists and academics were expected to “atone” for their country’s history of slavery, racism, and imperialism by refusing to analyze or protest the fate of non-white women at the hands of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and leaders. To do so would be “racist.” Only women of color, (or academics who were women of color), could comment on the fates of women of color. Control of this academic “discourse” was viewed as too valuable a resource–one which should not be plundered by those whose ancestors had been racists, crusaders, colonialists, and imperialists.
In the 1970s, feminism had embraced a universalist philosophy which believed in one standard of human rights for all. By the 1980s, feminism began to devolve into a politically correct “culturally relativist” philosophy in which one standard applied to the West and another standard to the formerly colonized Third World. Because Third World countries suffered from many serious problems, they were seen as blameless innocents who did not deserve to be harshly judged.
Meanwhile, just as left-influenced Western, Caucasian feminists began to view themselves as suspect, and their culture as guilty, they simultaneously began to view Third World barbarians of color as misunderstood innocents. Feminists did not defend the values of the West to which most intellectuals, especially dissidents from Third World cultures, aspired. Just as dissidents abroad cited Enlightenment values against the Third World tyrants who impoverished, tortured, and silenced them at home, western academics, including feminists, refused to “judge” such tyrants and insisted on viewing them sympathetically.
When forced to, western feminists usually condemned the United States and Europe for having contributed to the rise of such tyrants. They absolutely could not imagine that Third World barbarism, including corruption, including misogyny, might also be indigenous. Nor could they see that they, too, were collaborating with evil tyrants.
Thus, despite great interest in connecting with western-style feminists in Third World countries, and despite genuine interest in the plight of women around the world, by the end of the 1980s, American feminists, especially if they were Caucasian, were highly reluctant to condemn barbarism against women of color, Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims by men of color, Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims, since such condemnations were, by definition, “racist,” or could potentially be used against men of color by white racists.
In 1848, American suffragists decided to focus on the rights of American women only. That struggle was hard enough; indeed, it is still ongoing. However, Second and Third Wave feminists in the latter part of the twentieth century, began to focus on the rights of women globally. To the detriment of feminist movements everywhere, American feminist activists and academics have now recanted, pulled back, apologized, because they have decided that, once again, racism trumps sexism as a feminist concern.
Just as men and women once stood together as abolitionists, we now call upon men and women of all races and religions, including secularists, to stand with us against the subordination of and violence towards women in the name of religion, beginning with Islam or Islamism.
This is the first of two articles. In our next piece, we will give specific examples of the ways in which mainstream feminists, including NOW, have been sacrificing women’s rights in order to be perceived as politically correct in terms of racism.
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a well known author, an Emerita Professor of Psychology, and the co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology, and the National Women’s Health Network. She may be reached through her website: www.phyllis-chesler.com
Marcia Pappas is a feminist/activist, holds a Bachelor of Science in Cultural Studies, and is currently the President of the National Organization for Women-New York State.