Friday, June 02, 2006

Self-Pity or Other-Pity?

Brian Ulrich points to this trenchant review of currently popular books on women in Islam. It's good stuff, to some extent, but I think there's a bit of oversensitivity here:
Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about "our plight"--reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern.
That's absurd. Read anything about Mormonism in US history, read any American (liberal, which is most of us) Jewish take on women in old orthodox (or new ultra-orthodox) communities, or -- taking this out of the realm of religion entirely -- Western discussions of women in patriarchal Asian societies. The rhetoric is identical, really; it's often overdrawn, the air of superiority is annoying because it is sometimes quite hypocritical, and the imposition of solutions is often poorly considered. However, I will go out on a little limb and say that the condition of women under Western liberal democracies is better -- legally, socially, economically, educationally, politically, on average and relative to males -- than the condition of women under religious fundamentalism, under family-first legal and social systems, or under pre-liberal Western societies.

We have made some progress, and though it's uncomfortable to talk about "superior" or "inferior" societies, and a bit silly to talk about one aspect (especially one as important as law and practice with regard to women) without talking about the totality, but a little realism and focus is important sometimes.

Problem with blogging from bloggerly sources: I wrote this, tucked it away, and then found the full article via HU-Islam (a member of the Sunni-Shii harmony bloggers group SuShi). After a pretty strong (and sorta convincing) indictment of the books under consideration, Laila Lalami goes on to say
Where does this leave feminists of all stripes who genuinely care about the civil rights of their Muslim sisters? A good first step would be to stop treating Muslim women as a silent, helpless mass of undifferentiated beings who think alike and face identical problems, and instead to recognize that each country and each society has its own unique issues.
"Unique" does not per se mean "unable to be generalized" and is often a cover for nitpicking and precisely the kind of relativism Lalami rejects earlier in the essay
A second would be to question and critically assess the well-intentioned but factually inaccurate books that often serve as the very basis for discussion. We need more dialogue and less polemic.
Well, that's an easy one: make your interlocutors defensive by claiming that only you want dialogue while they are clearly unhinged. "Dialogue" does not mean "polite exchanges tending to moderate compromise" but civil discourse between strongly held positions about very important and difficult issues. "Polemic" isn't a bad word.
A third would be to acknowledge that women--and men--in Muslim societies face problems of underdevelopment (chief among them illiteracy and poverty) and that tackling them would go a long way toward reducing inequities.
What's odd about that is that the vast majority of the Western feminists Lalami is beating on suggest precisely those sorts of issues as first-priority policies. She's beating up on strawmen. And strawwomen
As the colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women's rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction that, as we have witnessed with Islamist parties, can be downright catastrophic. Rather, a bottom-up approach, where the many local, homegrown women's organizations are fully empowered stands a better chance in the long run. After all, isn't this how Western feminists made their own gains toward equality?
That's kind of ahistorical, which makes it my provenance. There have been many paths to empowerment, political and otherwise, in the West (there is a bit of occidentalism in Lalami's presentation, but we all need some categories to work with), some of which really were "top down," and most of which are dreadfully incomplete. "Bound to create a nationalist counterreaction" is the kind of "they're not as advanced as us, so all they can do is react emotionally" orientalism that Lalami is trying to reject.

So, the review is its own polemic, a worthwhile corrective but not an answer in itself, no matter how much it tries to present itself that way.

6 comments:

the nut said...

Just wanted to let you know officially that your post was included in the XVI Carnival of Feminists, lol.

And I spelled your name right and changed your pronoun. :)

karen said...

I like your term "family-first legal and social systems" and your idea that it is not the quality (culture, religion or country) that should be attended to but the quantity of oppression.

Lalami was correct to say top-down imperialist approaches are "bound to create a nationalist counterreactions" because that is what usually happens. It was foolish for Ali and Manji to appeal to right-wing America and to support the War. They appealed to the wrong people. I think Western feminists can help but it should have nothing to do with religion, nations or culture. Oppression should be rooted out wherever it exists.

Ahistoricality said...

Thanks for the comments (and the spelling!).

Karen: I'm very pleased that you noticed that phrase: I really had to sit for a while to come up with something that was short but not jargony..... However, that is what usually happens doesn't cut it for me. I've been trying to think about examples -- ones in which it's the changes to social law/practice rather than the imperialism itself which prompts the counter-reaction, and I really can't. And I can think of a few cases (Japan and Germany post WWII, for example) where forced changes were clearly advances and were (admittedly slowly) successfully integrated into "native" culture without any identifiable backlash. I can also think of cases -- India, for example, where women have very public professional and political roles -- where social transformation legislation survives the nationalistic counter-reaction.

karen said...

It's a wholly different matter if we're talking about "changes to social law/practice". She was talking about imperialist war and domination ("The colonial experience of the past century has proved, aligning with an agenda of war and domination will not result in the advancement of women's rights. On the contrary, such a top-down approach is bound to create a nationalist counterreaction") and indeed she is right. Anyway, good post.

Ahistoricality said...

It's a straw man, though: all she's really accomplished in saying is that it's not a good idea to invade and conquer and colonize a country just to reform its social practices. Except in our dark moments (there's an inner Stalin in most of us) that's not really on the table (try convincing the US government to invade on a matter of social policy!). If, however, we as a nation are in the nation-building business, then raising the status of women might as well be on the table, because if you take it off then the rest of the colonial experience might go better (but it probably won't) but then women's issues never get addressed.

karen said...

"It's a straw man, though: all she's really accomplished in saying is that it's not a good idea to invade and conquer and colonize a country just to reform its social practices. Except in our dark moments (there's an inner Stalin in most of us) that's not really on the table (try convincing the US government to invade on a matter of social policy!)"

That's exactly what the War in Iraq is purportedly about "bringing democracy" to supposedly "less enlightened" countries. That's exactly what all of colonialist history has been about, so citizens of colonizing countries were told.

"If, however, we as a nation are in the nation-building business, then raising the status of women might as well be on the table, because if you take it off then the rest of the colonial experience might go better (but it probably won't) but then women's issues never get addressed."

Colonial experience?! In the first place, colonization should not be happening and it's not up to nations to bring ideas or strategies into other countries to help women but international bodies like the UN, CEDAW, Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International.