Feminism and Islam - Phyllis Chesler — Brooklynian

Feminism and Islam - Phyllis Chesler

Have any of you heard of or read Phyllis Chesler? She's a prof at CUNY somewhere. Anyway, here's a fascinating article about her from The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/women/story/0,,1746156,00.html

The ideas interview: Phyllis Chesler

Feminism has failed Muslim women by colluding in their oppression, the US author tells John Sutherland

Tuesday April 4, 2006


In 1961, Phyllis Chesler agreed to marry her college sweetheart, a young, westernised Muslim man who had come to study in the US. At his request, they married and lived in his home country, Afghanistan. "When we arrived in the country they took my American passport away - very typical with foreign wives," she says. "Then I found myself clapped up in very posh purdah. Here I was in this gorgeous country, but I wasn't supposed to go out without the chauffeur and without servants in tow and other women of the family.


The ideas interview: Phyllis Chesler

Feminism has failed Muslim women by colluding in their oppression, the US author tells John Sutherland

Tuesday April 4, 2006
The Guardian

In 1961, Phyllis Chesler agreed to marry her college sweetheart, a young, westernised Muslim man who had come to study in the US. At his request, they married and lived in his home country, Afghanistan. "When we arrived in the country they took my American passport away - very typical with foreign wives," she says. "Then I found myself clapped up in very posh purdah. Here I was in this gorgeous country, but I wasn't supposed to go out without the chauffeur and without servants in tow and other women of the family.

"Of course, I made regular escapes and I saw how women were treated and I saw how the children of co-wives competed with each other for inheritance and attention. And I saw how women mistreated their female servants. I saw, at first hand, that polygamy was not a good thing. My father-in-law turned out to have three wives and 21 children. He was a very dapper fellow, also westernised on the surface like my husband - in America. But my husband became an easterner overnight in Afghanistan. I was really shocked." She returned to America in December 1961 and, she has written, "kissed the ground at New York City's Idlewild airport".

Chesler's experiences in Afghanistan have helped shape her thoughts about the failure of feminism to engage with what she sees as the oppression of women in Islamic countries. After "40 years on the front lines" of feminism - she is now emerita professor of psychology and women's studies at the City University of New York - her current project means that she gets a "chilly" reception from fellow feminists. It does not help, perhaps, that her latest book is called The Death of Feminism.

Isn't the title somewhat stark? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say there are trends in feminism that she, personally, finds disturbing?

"I am still a feminist," she insists. "The reason that I have announced the death of feminism, which I agree is stark, is that from my point of view, looking at mainstream feminism in the west - in the universities, in the media, among academics and the socalled intelligentsia - there is a moral failure, a moral bankruptcy, a refusal to take on, in particular, Muslim gender apartheid. So you have many contemporary feminists who say, 'We have to be multiculturally relativist. We cannot uphold a single, or absolute, standard of human rights. And, therefore, we can't condemn Islamic culture, because their countries have been previously colonised. By us.' I disagree."

But are the Islamic nations as culturally monolithic as Chesler suggests? Wasn't Saddam Hussein's Iraq, to take a particularly tendentious example, secular? And didn't it offer professional careers for women? "I don't think that makes any big difference. Saddam's regime gassed Kurds and perpetrated genocide. His men kidnapped women and prostitutes off the streets and subjected them to private rape sessions. So merely because his Iraq was religiously secular, and women had certain rights, doesn't mean that we as intelligent western publics should be condoning genocidal states."

Western feminism's failure to confront the problems raised by Islam, Chesler believes, is a result of the creation of a hierarchy of sins, "an intellectual culture in which racism trumps gender concerns". The example she cites as the embodiment of wrongheaded priorities is "gay and lesbian movement activists rooting for the Palestinians who, meanwhile, are very busy persecuting homosexuals, who in turn are fleeing to Israel for political asylum".

The result, she argues, is that "instead of telling the truth about Islam and demanding that the Muslim world observes certain standards, you have westerners beating their breasts and saying, 'We can't judge you, we can't expose you, we can't challenge you.' And here in the west you have a dangerous misuse of western concepts such as religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity so that one kind of hate speech is seen as something that must be rigorously protected. That means, principally, lies about America and lies about Jews."

Chesler's critics say the vehemence of her language points to Islamophobia. A piece she wrote last month for the controversial webzine Frontpage.com suggested that "a small but organised number of Muslim-Americans and Mulim immigrants ... are currently seeking to begin the Islamisation of America". It went on to compare the Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan to Hitler. The blog Islamophobia Watch suggested that this signalled "the point of total dementia".

Chesler will not accept the Islamophobe label. She claims it is a blanket term used to silence those who portray Islam accurately, and bemoans feminism's embrace of what she sees as misguided causes."Feminism began to fail when they began to say, 'We can't judge barbarism. We can't even call it barbarism, because the barbarians will be offended'," she says. Feminism has become just one part of a wider anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist movement, "so much so that many feminists are now much more concerned with the occupation of a country that doesn't exist - namely Palestine - than they are concerned with the occupation of women's bodies worldwide".

But, paradoxically, Chesler's criticisms of feminist preoccupation with a wider world do not prevent her arguing for a feminist foreign policy: it's just that she believes the foreign policy should concentrate on the issues she is passionate about.

"American feminism hasn't taken on these international issues because of its fear of being branded racist," she says. "But many Muslim feminists and dissidents are totally supportive of what I'm trying to do, because they say that here is finally a western feminist who will not abandon us on the basis of cultural relativity. The attention of the American feminist movement has been forced to focus for far too long on issues like abortion or gay and lesbian rights. I totally support this. But in so doing they have neglected other real issues, such as the needs of working people.

"This is simply not enough, given the moment in history in which we find ourselves. What feminism must do is spell out something that might be called a feminist foreign policy. So that, for example, if we make a trade or a peace treaty with a country, we ought to build into that treaty a commitment not - for example - to genitally mutilate girls who live in that country. This is not easy. But I would like feminists to think very globally and very strategically and very long-term. It's one thing to write an article now and again, but what are we, as feminists, actually going to do?"

· Phyllis Chesler's The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom, is published in the US by Palgrave Macmillan.

Comments

  • Thanks for that article. I am reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" right now and it makes a great companion article to that book.
  • ahh cool! I kinda want to read this woman's book ...

    and I totally forgot about this forum - I have a bad habit of posting everything to the PH board! whoops! :)
  • she lives in the 'hood, fwiw.
  • Anonymous wrote: she lives in the 'hood, fwiw.
    Wow I would love to know if she will have any speaking engagements around here.
  • Subject: Phyllis Chesler

    She no longer lives in Park Slope, but is still in the city. I know her personally and professionally (We both went to Park Slope Jewish Center and I'm a journalist often writing on Jewish topics) and she is a fascinating, unconventional woman and a brilliant writer. One of her earliest books "Women And Madness" was fantastic. She's been around since the 1970s as a founding mother of second-wave feminism and feminist and Jewish activist. She has a website and I'm sure her speaking gigs are posted on it.
  • Subject: Re: Phyllis Chesler

    Bricktop wrote: She no longer lives in Park Slope, but is still in the city. I know her personally and professionally (We both went to Park Slope Jewish Center and I'm a journalist often writing on Jewish topics) and she is a fascinating, unconventional woman and a brilliant writer. One of her earliest books "Women And Madness" was fantastic. She's been around since the 1970s as a founding mother of second-wave feminism and feminist and Jewish activist. She has a website and I'm sure her speaking gigs are posted on it.
    Thanks for that info. I already had the pleasure to meet Naomi Weisstein and will keep an ear out for when Phyllis speaks.
  • here comes a hell-storm. This is not meant at all to be invective, I'm just genuinely curious...

    my question is this:

    why is she focusing only on islam?

    there are plenty of other cultures which should be condemned by feminists and queer activists--china, for one, with the common abandonment of female children due to the 1-child policy; india, where young girls are sold into prostitution or aborted before birth; even some sects of orthodox or hassidic judaism, where women are not educated and are forced to remain in the home, subordinated to men.

    Maybe it was only the article, but I wonder whether there is a political motive to her focusing on Islam entirely when there are so many possible examples where feminists should be (and maybe are? and I'm not so knowledgeable about it?) speaking out.
  • it sounds (from the article only) like she has personal experience with islam that led her to study and write about feminism's interaction with islamic societies/cultures. most academics do give some kind of boundary to the topics they discuss, just so they have some hope of being able to have a deep and detailed understanding of their topic. i doubt that her decision to focus on islamic societies (which is already a lot to try to understand thoroughly) is meant to be taken as tacit approval for everyone else.
  • well, I think her focus on islam stems from at least three easily discernable things:
    1. her history. the fleeing from afghanistan as a young woman thing sounds like it probably shaped a lot of her thought processes later in life.
    2. again with her background - she's very pro-jewish and pro-israel. like, I think, a lot of folks that are vehemently pro-something, she is vehemently anti-said-thing's-biggest-threat. I'd guess most pro-jewish/pro-israel folks think that the biggest threat to that is islam/the arab world.
    3. think of the funding! being vocally anti-islam is probably a huge academic cash cow right now, given the political climate and the fall out from 9/11. it's gotta be really easy to get grants to do research on anything that will probably result in being a vaguely persuasive anti-islam argument.
  • Yeah but some of the stuff I read about the women going through in Iran and Irag (being jailed because a man found a strand of your hair "sexy") not being able to drive, or take college classes that do not have anything to do with religion, men being able to "temporarily marry" another woman when his wife does not please him. It really is scary to think that this is happening in this day and age. Granted most of the information and references I have to this are books that I have read. I never did go to college (or even traveled outside the US) but I find it facinating that these woman chose to live this way. I know there are bigger things in play and it is easier said than done.

    Muteflute you make a good point about other countries/religions. I remember one of my Orthodox neighbors in Boro Park telling me she couldn't help her son with his homework and I asked why and she said it was a part of the Torah that women are not allowed to read. I find this perplexing because I assumed their life revolved around the Torah and the teachings in it.
  • hey stacey,

    if you liked reading lolita (which is one of my favorites), you might have fun with marjane satrapi's persepolis books (in the us, they were published as two volumes; in other places, it's different)

    it's a graphic memoir (that term seems weird -- comic book, long, about her own childhood) about growing up in iran, half before the revolution and half after. (she was ten, i think, at the time of the revolution.) the secondd book is about bbeing sent to europe for high school to get away from the repressive climate, some interesting things about europe through the eyes of a outsider, and then coming back to iran. (she lives in france now)

    i found it an amazing look at the way people have been actually living in a big city (tehran) which was quite cosmopolitan and then got a repressive fundamentalist government. satrapi's family was very well educated and "avant-garde" is, i think the term she uses, and their thoughts and ideas did not go away just because the government changed. the books give an idea of how class/education plays into people's relationship to the regime (for instance, the way poor boys (very young) are recruited for the iran/iraq war by using religious promises while rich boys are not -- and, of course, how leaving the country is possible for her)

    also, they're very funny and lovely.

    i'll stop going on and on. but i LOVE these books and it sounds like you might be interested in them.
  • Thank you sweet tea I am going to stop by the library this weekend and check it out.

    I really do enjoy these books so please keep recommending them as you find them :)
  • stacey wrote: Yeah but some of the stuff I read about the women going through in Iran and Irag (being jailed because a man found a strand of your hair "sexy") not being able to drive, or take college classes that do not have anything to do with religion, men being able to "temporarily marry" another woman when his wife does not please him. It really is scary to think that this is happening in this day and age. Granted most of the information and references I have to this are books that I have read. I never did go to college (or even traveled outside the US) but I find it facinating that these woman chose to live this way. I know there are bigger things in play and it is easier said than done.

    Muteflute you make a good point about other countries/religions. I remember one of my Orthodox neighbors in Boro Park telling me she couldn't help her son with his homework and I asked why and she said it was a part of the Torah that women are not allowed to read. I find this perplexing because I assumed their life revolved around the Torah and the teachings in it.
    What everyone says makes a whole lot of sense. I'd really like to see a really vociferous, political feminism as a precursor to a kind of resurgent movement for making human rights universal and enforced throughout the world. Feminism has, perhaps, the best chance of renewing this debate and calling the world out on its disenfranchisement of women, partially because it represents the largest "cast-out" group....

    A really excellent history, if a little difficult to read, is "Only Paradoxes to Offer," by Joan Scott. It is a history of French feminism and argues that the power of feminism derived largely from its ability to call into question the paradox of society's vocal open-ness with its closure to women. Feminism also, she argues, derived strength from its constant need to address its own founding paradox: that in order to argue for women's enfranchisement and equality in society, to argue for true universalism, it had to argue that women, as such, existed as a separate entity.

    Pretty fascinating and theory-driven stuff, but I really like the idea of a group that is constantly exposing paradox and hypocrisy in society. Here's to it.
  • Phyllis Chesler clearly has an anti Islam/Muslim agenda, which coincides well with her pro Jewish/Israel agenda.

    She writes:
    At this moment in history, we cannot allow a large influx of Arab and Muslim immigrants who have no intention of assimilating into a western, modern, and democratic American way of life.
    Conversion to Islam, especially among African-American men in jail, is growing. Can we consider them truly "rehabilitated" if they hold such extremist views when they are released?
    We should not allow a falsely positive or superficial picture of Islam...nor should we teach a balanced view of Islam.

    Being that her hatered is targeted to Muslims, I would say she is clearly a bigot.
This discussion has been closed.