Do Western feminists condone sexism and misogyny in other countries because of cultural relativism? If so, who are they and what are they actually saying?
This article came out following the brutal gang rape of the student [name redacted] on a bus in Delhi, and repeats a popular truism which I’ve been meaning to write about for some time; namely, that Western feminists privilege antiracism (or anti imperialism, or intersectionality) so highly that we are willing to condone atrocities committed on women in other countries if they’re performed in the name of religion or culture. “It’s Their Culture” is supposedly our cry.
This argument, beloved of the late Pamela Bone, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and even the awe-inspiring Mona Eltahawy, as well as (and this is where my spidey-senses are alerted) conservatives, antifeminists and members of the Old Left – the Venn diagram of these may overlap somewhat) is now taken up by Swati Parashar of the University of Wollongong. Because she didn’t see any articles, blog posts or petitions by “Western” femininsts following the gang rape, she saw it as yet another example of our failure to condemn because of our tacit approval of oppression of women “over there”.
Those who are quick to condemn governments which kill women and children in drone attacks in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or who are quick to point out that Western policies have endangered lives of civilians in many parts of the world, find no words to speak out against the violence women in the Global South face repeatedly and every day.
Violence against women that is routinely normalised in certain cultures, in certain societies, in certain countries, and violence that cannot be traced to Western militarism or Western foreign policy does not find easy critics. That would not be politically correct nor would it reflect commitment to anti-racism, perhaps.
To describe my own experience, I was on hiatus from serious blogging because of work and family demands in December, but I noticed that following the atrocity there was an upsurge of awareness and calls for action in India. As a “Western feminist”, rather than jumping in to offer my very important opinion, I felt much more inclined to shut up and listen to the excellent discourse taking place in India, and read about what they were saying. I didn’t imagine there would be any value in me repeating the fact that raping someone with an iron bar was bad, or that there would be anyone attempting to argue that it was condoned by anybody. To paraphrase Chris Clarke, the idea that “…one is obliged to point out that it is a bad thing, and that bad things are bad, and that failure to point this out every single time is an offense punishable by witch hunt, firing, ostracism and the like? Fuck that noise.”
I also thought that us Westies had had quite a productive year in 2012 advancing the discussion of rape culture, with special reference to centring men who rape in popular discussion instead of centring it on women and girls and how it is their responsibility to stop rape. I noticed that that idea was also central in the responses to the Delhi rape from Indian writers and demonstrators. We were, it seemed, on the same page. And that was a good thing.
When it came to Australian utterances, I would have paid the most attention to Indian-Australian women – women with experience in the milieu and some knowledge of the politics on the ground. I would have thought Ms Parashar would have been the perfect candidate to write that fiery article and start that petition. Instead, she chose to write a Culture-warsy meta-article on the inferiority of Australian feminism. Good-oh. But I don’t think she did Jyoti Singh Pandey any favours by doing so, any more than the rest of us who did comment on Facebook, Twitter and other outlets.
So that was where I was coming from, but that isn’t what this post is about. I have definite differences with feminists like Parashar and Hirsi Ali, but that’s not what it’s about either. As we’ve pointed out so often, feminism isn’t a hivemind. I am coming out to repudiate the description of Western feminists en masse as condoning FGM, honour killing and other atrocities because of some idea of “cultural significance” or whatever.
The feminists I know and read don’t seem to think this way. And in my (self-taught) feminist reading, I haven’t found any. Who are they? Are we at fault for not calling them out?
My Google-fu hasn’t proved very useful on this occasion. (There are the signatories to the reply to Adele Wilde-Blavatsky, which I could google with various keywords, but holy FSM that’s going to take an eternity). So I am calling on you, fellow Hoydens, visiting professors and casual readers, to lend me the benefit of your knowledge and join with me in identifying and discussing these feminists. I’m an autodidact feminist, but many of you who are reading this have studied gender and feminism at tertiary level. Who are these Western feminists who believe FGM and forced marriage and honour killing (and gang rape like the example Parashar is writing about) are OK when perpetrated in other countries? Can you provide a link to relevant articles, interviews or blogs which these people have written? Have at it in the commments.
I’m also asking that discussion is respectful – no calling out or piling on. Just links and brief descriptions of content would be great.