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August 08, 2004

Feminists Are Damned If They Do, Damned If They Don't - Part II

I had originally written this post on my old blog.

This is a continuation of my thoughts about the Nicholas Kristof's New York Times editorial that incorrectly claimed that feminists have not been concerned with third-world women's health issues, in particular obstetric fistula. Please see my previous post and my comments in the Alas, A Blog comments section.

It seems to me that it remains okay in today's American society to malign women. Someone who reads Kristof's editorial may not even think twice about what he said about feminism. His misrepresentation would be taken at face value. Everyone "knows" American feminists don't care about women outside the U. S. I don't think readers would be so quick to accept such a slur if the organization in question was the NAACP, B'ni Brith, or even a men's rights group. Regarding women's issues, why target feminism? Why not ask what groups like the Independent Women's Forum or the Women's Freedom Network have done to bring public attention to obstetric fistula? What about so-called right-to-life groups? Why not ask the anti-abortion crowd what is has done to help third-world women avoid this disorder in order to save their "unborn children?" Of course those groups are not given the same scrutiny. When it comes to blaming women's groups for not "doing the right thing," attack a feminist group.

In delving further into the common misconception that feminists have shown little interest in women living in third-world countries, I was aghast by the vitriolic attacks by some of those who have made those claims. I believe they have not so much misunderstood feminist action but have purposefully misrepresented it. It's bad enough that American feminists have not been given credit for the hard work they have done in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's bad enough that the Feminist Majority has not been given credit for the work it has done over the past few years to bring assistance to women suffering from obstetric fistula. It's worse that their work has been maligned when not ignored -- all in the name of bashing feminism.

Overall, as I had written in my previous blog entry, Nicholas Kristof's editorial was excellent. While I am grateful that publishing such a piece in the New York Times will undoubtedly bring obstetric fistula to the attention of a mass audience, I simply did not like the way he had misrepresented feminist work on that issue. Even so, his comments were mild compared to some of the other's I've seen.

In her editorial "Multiculturalism vs. Feminism" for Reason Magazine (Oct. 18, 2001), anti-feminist Cathy Young uses an oft-repeated slur when she pretends that American women have already achieved equality. She wrote: "...all too often, left-wing feminists evade the issue - for instance, downplaying the contrast between the status of women in the West and in much of the world by focusing on the inequalities Western women still face, as if there were any real equivalency here."

In bashing Barbara Ehrenreich, she ridicules the hard work feminism must continue to do today for American women by making an ill-conceived comparison between the glass ceiling and honor killings.

Young wrote: "During the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing, Time magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote that the United States shouldn't get too smug about its women's rights record, considering that American women are still far from achieving parity with men in business or politics. Of course, women who risk being murdered by their ''dishonored'' relatives for the crime of being raped could only wish they had something like the glass ceiling to worry about."

In both statements, she falsely claims that feminists have done little to help women living in third-world countries.

In "Arm the Afghan Women," [The Libertarian Enterprise, November 26, 2001], anti-feminist Wendy McElroy condemned feminism for allegedly reducing Afghan women to victim status. She claimed: "This is why feminists who champion Afghan women by dwelling exclusively upon their victimization and helplessness are doing them a disservice. It is the same feminist logic that cries out against rape while promoting gun control laws that would leave women defenseless. The opposite of victimization is empowerment."

What does she recommend to empower Afghan women? Allow them to buy guns.

"Give an Afghan woman the right to own a gun and you protect her long after the current tragedy has become old news," she wrote. "A gun in the hand of a mother who is protecting her child may be the most humanitarian relief of all."

Yeah, that would prove helpful.

The point is that feminist groups, in particular the Feminist Majority, have done a great deal to help women living in third world countries, especially those in Afghanistan. Robert Sheer noted that "... it's the Feminist Majority, more than any other organization in the U.S., that sounded the alarm that the Taliban's suppression of freedom, led by its harsh treatment of women, posed "a threat to humanity" that extended beyond the borders of Afghanistan and that 'the Taliban and [Osama] bin Laden are interdependent and inextricable.'"

The Feminist Majority's support of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has been ridiculed by pundits and anti-feminists alike.

With that in mind, take note of Article 12 of the CEDAW document [bold my emphasis]:

1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.

2. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph 1 of this article, States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.

Think of those provisions the next time an editorial claims that feminists are not concerned with women's "traditional child-bearing role" inside or outside the U. S. Also keep in mind that anti-feminists have frequently criticized feminist participation in CEDAW, deeming it unnecessary political posturing.

154 countries have ratified CEDAW. The U. S. is not one of them.

Cathy Young conceded in her Reason editorial "Multiculturalism vs. Feminism" that "...women's groups in North America and Europe have done some admirable work documenting and publicizing the horrific oppression of women under the Taliban," but her comment is lost amid her attacks against University of British Columbia women's studies professor, Sunera Thobani, whom she called a "kook." Thobani spoke about Western imperialism at a feminist conference; a speech for which she had received a standing ovation.

Terry O'Neil, in his editorial for "The Report" (Canada's Independent), referred to Thobani as a " first-class hater" whose "high-decibel speech at the beginning of one of those all-too-frequent feminist conferences about the alleged evils of the patriarchy; in this case, the patriarchal justice system." He described her speech as "vitriol."

Ross McLennan displayed palpable hostility in his piece for the Winnipeg Sun. He called Thobani the "former fuhrer" of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. He describing her as "[h]ysterical, spittle-spewing Sunera Thobani, the feminist equivalent to the Taliban, is busy making an asp of herself again." He described the feminist conference and standing ovation in this manner: "...lashed herself and an appreciative crowd of fellow Amazons into an orgasmic paroxysm of anti-American passion..."

He lashed out even more in ridiculing her claim that the conference was about "breaking the silence." With a great deal of venom, he wrote, "It turned out to be more like breaking wind, considering the thunderous explosion of noxious claptrap that burst from Thobani as Fry returned to sitting on her thumbs while Wonder Woman raked her claws across America's already bloodied visage."

What did Thobani say that inspired such maliciousness from Young, O'Neill, and McLennan?

Professor Sunera Thobani gave her speech at the Conference, "Women's Resistance: From Victimization to Criminalization," held in Ottawa, on October 1, 2001. Keep in mind that this was shortly after the American terrorist attack. Also keep in mind that this was two years before coalition forces invaded Iraq.

Thobani's speech resonates today, in light of the aftermath of the war in Iraq, the influence of the Project for the New American Century on American foreign policy, the imperialist activities of the Bush administration, and the questionable corporate conflicts-of interests in Iraq's "rebuilding." I hope those anti-feminists have eaten their words.

Here are excerpts from Thobani's speech:

There will be no emancipation for women anywhere on this planet until the Western domination of this planet is ended.

Love thy neighbour. Love thy neighbour, we need to heed those words. Especially as all of us are being herded into the possibility of a massive war at the behest of the United States. We need to hear those words even more clearly today. Today in the world the United States in the most dangerous and the most powerful global forces unleashing prolific levels of violence all over the world."

From Chile to El Salvador, to Nicaragua to Iraq, the path of U.S. foreign policy is soaked in blood. We have seen and all of us have seen, felt, the dramatic pain of watching those attacks and trying to grasp the facts of the numbers of peoples who died. We feel the pain of that every day we have been watching it on television.

But do we feel any pain for the victims of U.S. aggression? Two-hundred thousand people killed only in the initial war on Iraq. That bombing of Iraq has continued for 10 years now. Do we feel the pain of all the children in Iraq who are dying from the sanctions that were imposed by the United States? Do we feel that pain on an everyday level? Share it with our families and our communities and talk about it on every platform that is available to us? Do we feel the pain of Palestinians who now for 50 years have been living in refugee camps?

US foreign policy is soaked in blood. And other countries of the West including shamefully Canada, cannot line up fast enough behind it. All want to sign up now as Americans and I think it is the responsibility of the women's movement in this country to stop that, to fight against it.

These policies are hell-bent on the West maintaining its control over the world's resources. At whatever cost to the people.... Pursuing American corporate interest should not be Canada's national interest.

This new fight, this new war against terrorism, that is being launched, it's very old. And it is a very old fight of the West against the rest. Consider the language which is being used....

Calling the perpetrators evil doers, irrational, calling them the forces of darkness, uncivilized, intent on destroying civilization, intent on destroying democracy..... That hate freedom we are told. Every person of colour, and I would want to say also every Aboriginal person, will recognize that language. The language of us letting civilization representing the forces of darkness, this language is rooted in the colonial legacy. It was used to justify our colonization by Europe......

We were colonized in the name of the West bringing civilization, democracy, bringing freedom to us. All of us recognize who is being talked about when that language is being used. The terms crusade, infinite justice, cowboy imagery of dead or alive posters, we all know what they mean. The West, people in the West also recognize who this fight is against. Cries heard all over the Western world, we are all Americans now. People who are saying that recognize who this fight is against.

People who are attacking Muslims, any persons of colour who looks like they could be from the Middle East, without distinguishing, recognizing who this fight is against. These are not slips of the tongue that Bush quickly tries to reject. They reveal a thinking, a mindset. And it is horrific to think that the fate of the world hangs on the plans of people like that. On the plans of people like that. This will be a big mistake for us if we just accept that these are slips of mind, just slips of the tongue. They're not. They reveal the thinking, and the thinking is based on dominating the rest of the world in the name of bringing freedom and civilization to it.

Read the entire speech and let her comments sink in, especially in our current post-Iraq War world.

Posted on August 8, 2004 at 04:47 PM | Permalink


*clap clap clap*
I hate it when people say that American feminists are whiny because we treat "our" women this country better than other countries. One sexism feeds another. One of the reasons that the U.S. doesn't do enough to help women in third world countries is because our government thinks othose issues as *just* women's issues. If women's issues were more respected here, there would be more help for women in other places.

Posted by: Amanda at Aug 9, 2004 11:37:26 AM

You don't know me, but...WORD. I remember being infuriated by that Kristof article. Feminists were sounding the alarm about the Taliban long before it became popular to do so.

Posted by: Portia at Aug 9, 2004 11:50:38 PM