The Fight of the Century: Chesler vs. Wolf

This was originally published at my personal site.

Phyllis Chesler and Naomi Wolf have gotten themselves into a battle royale over…the veil.

And everyone seems to be concerned what two privileged non-Muslim white ladies think about this subject. Funny, considering Chesler picks fights all the time, and no one seemed to be interested in an actual debate she had with Dorchen Leidholdt a few months ago about Islam and women that was actually informed and somewhat rational (on Dorchen’s end, anyway).

What’s most interesting about this “debate” is that neither women have qualifications that make their opinions hold weight. Phyllis “Feminist Hawk” Chelser is a notorious Islamophobe, and Naomi’s experience with the veil came from putting on Pakistani clothing (“shalwar kameez”) in Morocco. Uh-huh.

Furthermore, neither of them seem particularly interested in what actual Muslim women who wear any type of hijab think. Natalia Antonova put it best:

The publicity must be pretty good for both Wolf and Chesler right about now … but if I was a Muslim woman watching all of this, I’d probably feel as though I was in a room full of people who were telling me to be quiet when the adults are talking.

I’d say that’s about right.

  • Broomstick

    I agree… who cares what 2 white, privileged, Western, non-Muslim women have to say about this touchy issue.

    Leave it for us Muslims to debate, please.

  • Zahra

    Oh please. Phyllis Chesler and Naomi Wolf? Could we pick any two figures more deserving of the Embarrassment to Feminism Award? And that’s even before this latest debacle.

    Chesler is a conservative far out of step with a movement that in the US has very deep liberal roots. She spends more time castigating other feminists for not agreeing with her (see above) than actually advocating for women. And Naomi Wolf….sigh. She occasionally makes some good points, but undercuts herself at every opportunity with self-referential points. This whole “I put on the salwar kameez and felt this so now I understand what Every Muslim Woman feels!” is so typical of her work.

    Pardon me while I go bang my head against a wall.

    Thank you nonetheless for posting this, and making the point that should be obvious about who gets to have this conversation. And I appreciated the Broadsheet and (especially) the Jezebel article; the way they critiqued Chesler & Wolf respectively was more interesting than what the principals had to say.

  • Nissa

    Oh God! I don’t much about Naomi Wolf aside from a flick through of the beauty myth but Chesler?!! Please! The nerve of a woman so rabidly a Zionist to debate the veil and women in Islam when she advocates for an Occupation that murders and oppresses Muslim women in Palestine is beyond me.
    She also thought India was an Arab land (Norman Finklestein destroyed her book).

    Its typical for Muslim women’s voices to be ignored. Everyone wants us to be invisible….

  • Whitey McWhiterson

    i am not concerned with someone^s opinion who is not informed on a subject and it has nothing to do with their ethnicity or religous bias. Dont get caught up in the same trap as the people you are trying to refute.

  • SakuraPassion

    It’s times like this when I’m embarrassed to call myself a feminist. And Phyllis Chelser to me is nothing more than a faux feminist. I agree with Zahra, Naomi Wolf makes a lot of good points, her book The Beauty Myth was good. But at times, I can’t stand to listen to her. And when did the salwar kameez become Islamic clothing? Maybe I’m missing something here. O_O Sheesh!!

  • Emily

    I keep feeling like I should have something to say about this…but I’m done. Just, just done trying to say anything rational about non-Muslimahs going all hand-wringy about OH NOES TEH VEIL! I just can’t muster any outrage anymore. Aren’t they done yet?

    Look, I figured out like years ago that maybe, just maybe, as a non-Muslim woman, I should be quiet and let Muslimahs figure out what they thought about the veil. And I imagined myself spending my teaching years explaining this to undergraduates with sheltered minds. But I don’t have any energy to explain this to grownup women. They just need to get over it.

  • saliha

    I had the same reaction Fatemeh. This is why its so important for Muslim women to be heard in the mainstream press in addition to generating our own media.

  • Robin Abrahams

    Speaking as a white, Western, Jewish woman … this is messed UP.

    I wonder how often Ms. Chesler and Ms. Wolf have written and spoken in justified anger when the media privileges male voices in debates about abortion. If they’re like most feminists, probably quite often.

    I wonder how often Ms. Chesler and Ms. Wolf look in the mirror.

  • Fern Sidman

    I read Phyllis Chesler’s blog on Pajamas Media on a regular basis and feel that she does indeed advocate for the rights of Muslim women who are often neglected by mainstream feminists. Dr. Chesler personally experienced oppression at the hands of Muslim men while living in Afghanistan in the early 60s with her purportedly “westernized” Muslim husband. She became deeply sensitized to the horrific plight of Muslim women and remains grateful to them for caring for her while she attempted to get out with her life.

    In the name of “multicultural relativism”, mainstream feminists have beceome paralyzed by abject silence over the horrifying and burgeoning phenomenon of honor murders of Muslim women at the hands of their menfolk. It is Dr. Chesler who has prodigiously raised her lone voice to spotlight this issue and has written most extensively about Islamic gender apartheid and religious apartheid as well. She has just returned from a week long conference in Italy on on violence against women.

    She says on her blog:

    “I presented my preliminary findings about honor killings in 28 countries and on five continents. Religious Muslim feminists (modern, professional, accomplished woman, not fundamentalists, not jihadists, some in hijab, some bare headed), confirmed that my work was “true” and “very important” and begged me to explain to them why so many western and academic feminists were so willing to betray women in developing, Muslim countries and Muslim immigrant communities by insisting on multi-cultural “relativism.”

    I certainly call this advocating for the rights of Muslim women.

  • Nissa

    I emphatically say NO, Chesler does NOT advocate for the rights of Muslim women. She advocates for the denial of the rights of Muslims and conflates everything Muslims do to Islam to demonise us. She is disingenuous, intellectually dishonest and a hypocrite who denies Muslim women their voice on matters that affect them….those religious Muslim feminists would steer clear of her if they knew what her real motives were.
    She mocks and dismisses the suffering of the Palestinians – ignoring the fact that the occupation and constant militarism had led to a revival of tribal law and confound domestic violence for women…the very honour killings she pretends to care about have increased because of that…Her idea of a gender apartheid is just ridiculous in light of her ignoring actual apartheid in Israel.
    She recyles a load of anti-Muslim nonsense about how moderate Muslims do not stand up to extremism- then denigrating the ones that do as being liars etc. and she writes for the MEQ (of Daniel Pipes fame) and is ‘friends’ with robert spencer putting her in the company of people who advocate Muslims are practically subhuman through their rhetoric and minimalise Muslim suffering, including that in Bosnia and Gujarat….where Muslim women were primarily the victims.

    she has advocated military actions against Muslim nations, ignoring the fact this would harm Muslim women on a much larger scale than honour killings, whilst present in many societies, are still not as common as made out. she constantly paints all Muslim men as controlling and violent, perhaps she should concern herself with the domestic abuse and partner killings in the US- feminists have argued society doesn’t take them seriously too….or massive femicide and rape in south America, whish the US should bear some blame due to interference and economic exploitation….or what about the DRC where American foreign interests led to the power wrangle that kicked it all off?!

    oh and Pajamas media are e right wing media company whose reporting is blatantly biased but they are also very anti-choice and pro-life, the war in iraq, positive attitudes towards anti terror law that discriminates against muslims etc.
    I am sorry for going on but there is no way a woman like that, with such little integrity and blatant bias should pretend to care about Muslim women when she would see them blown up and burnt with phosphourous and then blame them or their men (also getting blown up). Its blood-boiling that she gets any attention, she has no objectivity and she thought Aung sang Sui Kyi was a Muslim reformer…seriously, how can you take that seriously?

  • Dom Browne

    I have no agenda against the veil- it’s up to the individual how they choose to dress- but I do have a problem with the attitude that Muslim issues should only be commented on by Muslims, or any group issue commented on by just that group. We live in one world with one history. Just as you don’t have to be Roman to write about ancient Rome you don’t have to be an Afgan to analyse Afgan society. If we took this attitude to it’s logical conclusion there would be no activism, no human solidairity, and causes such as civil rights, anti-apartheid and abolitionism would have been held back or might not have succeeded at all. If a person feels an injustice is being done anywhere in the world they may be right or they may be wrong but their ‘qualification’ to speak about the issue depends on their knowledge and understanding of the situation not on their skin colour or confession.

  • lark

    The question is, do definitions of human rights cross cultural borders? And if they do, what are the consequences?

    Obviously in many countries women are forced to veil, whether by custom or religious law. And what ‘forced’ means here, is that there are legal punishments for not veiling.

    ‘Force’ is the only reason why is is an issue of human rights. I think the focus should be on the legal system and its control of how women dress. I don’t think it is useful to confuse forced veiling with freely chosen modest dress.

    I think it is legitimate to criticize governments for violations of human rights. But you need to be clear, that the issue is force, punishment, and the legal system, and not freely chosen modest dress.

    It can get sticky when young women are forced by family pressure in the west to veil. This is not legal force, but cultural force. I think there should be very clear and available resources and sanctions in that case, against the family and community, to support freedom of choice for the young (or married) woman.