MMW Roundtable: Jonah Goldberg’s Feminist Concerns

A few weeks ago, Jonah Goldberg wrote an op-ed claiming that feminism’s work in the West is “mostly done” and that’s it’s time to take feminism “overseas” to Muslim women.

We disagree.

Diana: Where do you begin in tearing apart Jonah Goldberg’s “Talking feminism overseas?” I can almost see Gayatri Spivak shaking her head as she waves her finger back and forth, saying as she has before, “white men saving brown women from brown men.”  So much for novelty in the discourse surrounding “third world women.” Can someone please throw something new at us?!

Azra: I’ll admit, after reading Jonah Goldberg’s article, I had to read it again (unfortunately), as I considered the chance that it was an excellent piece of farce. If only that were the case…

Sara: Oh, please, Jonah. Feminism is hardly a completed project in the United States. Who hasn’t ratified CEDAW yet? Measuring access to rights by national boundaries is problematic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the oasis of equality that Goldberg mentions is a myth, and really only applies to certain groups. The rights of women change according to socioeconomic factors and race.  Drawing empowerment or access to rights through national boundaries or groups pushes injustice into invisibility. Saying that the “work is done” is a flat-out insult to the work of modern American feminists.

Azra: Is feminism over in the United States? I think there are other women who have more eloquently addressed this assertion before. But I will say a few things: 2/7 LA Times Oped columnists are women. In 2011, 16.4% of US Congress members are women—irrespective of their political leanings. As for health outcomes, women are more susceptible to experiencing mental health conditions than men and are more likely to die of heart disease than men in the United States. The situation is even direr if you are a woman who also belongs to an oft-marginalized group—be it based on religion, sexual orientation, or race.

Fatemeh: And we haven’t even talked about the rates of violence against women in the U.S. Does he honestly think that feminism in the U.S. is just about getting a college degree and making as much money as a man? What about the endemic rates of domestic violence, rape, and harassment?!

Azra: Neglecting to look at how women in the United States are disadvantaged due to societal expectations seems to have become increasingly en vogue over the past few years.  As Americans look abroad to countries undergoing massive political change and conflict, some have condescendingly appointed themselves cultural experts of international gender relations—with a particular interest in Muslim women’s lives. It’s an excellent way to overlook social inequalities American women face here at home and instead look at an “other “ (and hence worse) social inequality faced by Muslim women.

Sara: I do not deny the lack of protection that many Muslim women abroad have, and how religion and culture are used to abuse the rights of women. The fight for equality is not the fight for an “enlightened outsider,” but rather based on giving the right tools to those who want to fight injustice in their communities. At the end of the day, what is most important is to protect the rights of individuals. What really matters is not what faith women practice, or outsourcing Western feminists to save “poor Muslim women,” but actually giving women the tools to fight for their own rights, as defined by themselves.

Diana: Goldberg’s narrow construction of Muslim women as segregated and subjugated through a few cited cases undermines the work that Muslim women overseas are doing for themselves. The reality he overlooks is that women’s equality is already a battle being fought in foreign lands by those women. This fight is so specific to these women that only they have the power to authoritatively negotiate matters of agency from within the framework of existing cultural, social and religious norms, which bear some value to these women, despite the constant scorn heaped on them.

Azra: I’m not sure why Mr. Goldberg doesn’t just come out and say that he means exporting his version of feminism to Muslim women abroad. Because in almost every paragraph following his declaration for exportation, I read some reference to how Muslim women needed to be saved from the specter of sex-crazed, violent Muslim men.

Fatemeh: As if all Muslim women “over there” are cowering in the shadows and waiting for someone to come save them. Ugh.

Diana: Goldberg, don’t tire us with clichéd rhetoric, stop recycling Laura Bush’s campaigns, and please stop stealing the oomph from “behind the veil.”

Azra: God forbid these women—no, ANY woman—be subject to Mr. Goldberg’s definition of feminism.

  • Humayra’

    So, what else is new? He’s a conservative. It’s the usual bait-and-switch game: Divert attention from American issues such as racism, access to safe abortion, poverty, health care, equal marriage legislation–aka all the stuff conservatives don’t like–by waving burqa woman in the face of anyone who works for change. Meanwhile, here in Canada, aboriginal women continue to go missing, to be found dead later, or never to be found, at rates far above the white population. But this is nothing to worry about, apparently, because women are equal here now and it’s veiled women somewhere on the other side of the world who feminists should be concentrating on….

  • Dina

    “It’s an excellent way to overlook social inequalities American women face here at home and instead look at an “other “ (and hence worse) social inequality faced by Muslim women.”

    i can absolutely see the point in the often cited critique “white man saves brown woman from brown man”. however, with the above statement let me just say a few things:
    how many women in the US would agree to laws and doctrines awarding women half of the heritage men receive by law, treating 2 women as equally credible witnesses as one man and blood money being half the amount for women as for men (making women worth half a man in both cases)? how many muslim women, in the west and east, agree to these deeply discriminating laws and the demeaning argumentation used by muslim scholars of all colours and sects especially on the sense of the law of having two women’s testimony equal one man’s?
    the US is the only Western country not to have ratified cedaw. look at the discriminating sharia reservations most muslim countries have made – they nullify cedaw.
    violence – yes, it happens in the west to worrying degrees. how many western women would agree a scantily clad woman invites rape, how many muslim men and women would say this? what is the definition of scantily clad? I am pretty certain the average american will have quite a different view of this than the average muslim, making more and more women walking and breathing rape victim potentials for muslim men and women.

    the list can be continued – while i do not think that feminism is done anywhere in the west, where i agree with you, i must say i do not agree with your general denial (which I take from the article/discussion) that muslims, muslim societies and muslim scholars/doctrines share the problems you adress with the US/West, carry the problems further for women (speaking of mental capabilities of women, dress required of women, sexual violence publically excused and justified, marital violence publically debated (as a marital right of the husband, however “light” this is wrong)), and therefore pose much more challenges than western societies in the years 2011. and we have not even come to the point of sexual self-determination!

  • http://islamonlinelearning.blogspot.com Maryam

    How do we know Western Feminism will fit with cultures around the world? Couldn’t come say that feminism hasn’t succeeded when some women cringe at mentions of feminism and don’t even consider themselves feminists?

    I have a blog that looks at issues of Islam in the West and have a post on multiculturalism you can view it here: http://islamonlinelearning.blogspot.com/2011/04/islam-in-west-part-3-multiculturalism.html

  • tiger0range

    @Dina All those concerns are valid and worthy of discussion.

    The fact that feminism isn’t a limited exportable commodity is not changed, however.

    There are still challenges to feminism in the west and these should be the domain of the feminist movements here. The problems in these countries should be the domain of feminist movements in these countries. Generalities always fall victim to context. The context is always defined by the person directly involved.

    It is fine to discuss and contrast, but it’s counterproductive to marshal the political efforts of feminists in the west to “the service” of other countries when they would have greater effect by example when used here.

    You are perfectly welcome to point out the faults of how women are treated by certain countries. It adds to the discussion and dialogue always pushes introspection.

  • Samira

    “how many western women would agree a scantily clad woman invites rape, how many muslim men and women would say this? what is the definition of scantily clad? I am pretty certain the average american will have quite a different view of this than the average muslim, making more and more women walking and breathing rape victim potentials for muslim men and women.”

    @Dina you make some valid points (although by not citing specific country’s your comments about law seem shallow at best). Your reply then collapses into stereotypes that seem to suggest that Muslims are more prone to embrace and propogate rape culture. The evidence that rape HAPPENS EVERYWHERE seems to counter your assertions.

    I am confused as to how varying definitions of scantily clad contribute to rape. One can define modesty differently and still reject a victim-blaming sentiment about rape. I still hear jokes and insinuations about rape’s relationship to clothing by non-Muslim Americans quite frequently. Young college students who I work with daily express these victim-blaming sentiments quite often-usually implying that rape is a proper punishment, a what-goes around comes around consequence, of mis-behaving women. So are you implying that those Yale University frats who chanted “No means Yes and Yes Means Anal” are not as bad as Muslims who victim-blame just because they at least dig tank-tops?

    That’s rubbish.

  • Seffi

    “violence – yes, it happens in the west to worrying degrees. how many western women would agree a scantily clad woman invites rape, how many muslim men and women would say this? what is the definition of scantily clad? I am pretty certain the average american will have quite a different view of this than the average muslim, making more and more women walking and breathing rape victim potentials for muslim men and women.”

    Maybe you don’t mean to make it sound like all Muslim men and women are potential rapists just waiting to pounce on poor unsuspecting women in sleeveless shirts…but that is what comes across.

    fact: I am ‘Western’ and Muslim. And the average Muslim is also an average American. Maybe if they have these negative attitudes it has to do with hip-hop or Baywatch as opposed to Islam?!

    Muslim countries don’t pose a challenge to Western feminists, activists and women in those countries are the ones facing those challenges. It is the job of Western allies to be allies and not try to export their views over or their stereotypes and condescension.

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