Thursday, April 26, 2007

Between A Rock And A Hard Place

That's where I decided I was when thinking about how to write on Islam and women, as a Western feminist. In many ways the best solution would seem to be not to write anything at all. This is because of the rock: the Bush administration decision to adopt women's rights as one of the apparent causes for attacking Iraq and the eager manner in which American conservative bloggers have adopted the cause of feminism, but only in the Islamic world and not at home. And it is also because of the hard place: the arrogance and colonial overtones of Western feminists preaching about feminism to women in another culture of which they know very little.

That I am writing this post shows I'm not taking the obvious solution of silence, but I will get chewed up between the two stony surfaces. Sigh. Blogging is not fun some days, as I pointed out in my earlier post.

And why am I not just shutting up? If I write about, say, women being stoned in Iran am I not providing fuel for this administration to go and attack Iran? And who knows what decides the news in our press? Perhaps these issues are brought up now on purpose, to prepare us for another war marketing campaign? Perhaps the idea is to paint all Muslims with the misogyny brush? Wouldn't I be working for the wingnuts if I talk about problems that Islam has for women?

Add to this the rudeness of someone like me analyzing the lives of women far away from me, the lives of women with a totally different religion and perhaps a totally different idea of what feminism might be. And perhaps by writing about their lives I actually make those lives more difficult, by strengthening the image of feminism as yet another Western colonialism, yet another attack on their way of life and yet another criticism of their social arrangements. I might endanger the home-grown forms of feminism in the countries I criticize.

These are all important arguments, you know. I wrestled with them late into the night, even to the point where I felt quite breathless. The feeling only went away when I decided to write this post, so perhaps the real reason I can't be silent is so that I can breathe, not to be suffocated. A selfish reason, sure, but exploring why I felt like a weight on my chest let me come to some sort of conclusion. Here it is:

I can't call myself a feminist blogger and then avoid discussing certain issues in this world which scream to be discussed, just because someone else might use what I say in nefarious ways. I can make myself as clear as possible by stating that killing and slaughtering people is not going to advance the cause of gender-equality, that killing and slaughtering people is horrible and almost always wrong and that attacking Iran, say, would only make the lives of women there much worse than they are now, both directly and indirectly by causing fundamentalism to look like patriotism. And it is fundamentalism that hurts women. Thus, the fact that the wingnuts are right now toying with feminist causes (though only in far-away places) should not make me drop those causes. If I did, what kind of a feminist would I be?

So much for the rock. Now the hard place: My definition of feminism is about equal opportunities for both men and women and about equal valuation of traditionally female and male spheres of activity. This definition is not culture-dependent.

Now, there are feminist schools of thought which use different definitions and some of those definitions lead to the conclusion that people outside a culture cannot properly criticize its practices. But my understanding of feminism is not that one. I understand that culture and religion will affect how opportunities and spheres of activity are seen and they also affect the best ways of creating a feminist movement. Nobody outside can know the best ways of operating within another culture, and nobody outside should preach about such matters, or try to take the leadership in feminist movements elsewhere.

But this does not preclude the writing and criticizing of other cultures and their practices, from the point of view of the basic definition of feminism I use. It is important to do this without arrogance and to always remember that what we hear and see and read in the U.S. may not provide a neutral picture of the events in other countries. Anyone who writes has the duty to become as well-informed as possible, but even then a certain humility is becoming.

The feeling of weight on my chest had to do with the history of women's causes. There has always been something else more important: a revolution to be finished, a war to be won, better standards of living to be created, and women were told to wait until things had quieted down. Then their concerns would be addressed. This second-class status of feminism was what I couldn't bear, and the idea of feminism as perfectly relative, depending on each society and religion and culture pressed my breath out in a similar manner. It was like air itself had become a muddy soup of warnings and hedgings and qualifications, too thick to inhale.

So I chose to be between the rock and the hard place instead.