There were some long involved threads on ozblogs last week about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Kim at LP, and those of us who agreed with her, got piled upon (twice) for disagreeing with some of Hirsi Ali’s suggestions about how to best end the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. The offended were a whole bunch of WOT-hawks who seem to think that Hirsi Ali’s many undeniable strengths and talents mean that somehow her opinions, agenda and tactics are above criticism. Their argument seemed to be that because Hirsi Ali has suffered sexist oppression justified by reference to Islam and she speaks of how such oppression needs to end through curtailing the power of Islam, that therefore her calls to eradicate Islam are the only plans for ending sexist oppression that should be listened to.
I’m not going to flinch away from mentioning female genital mutilation (FGM) here, because that seemed to be a core of the outrage: how could we criticise a women who wanted to end the genital cutting and mutilation of little girls? Of course, we never criticised Hirsi Ali wanting to end FGM: who doesn’t want to see the end of harmful physical mutilations?
We merely argued that her particular emphases and tactics seemed counterproductive rather than genuinely helpful to the goal of eradicating such harmful practices as infibulation (and never even got a chance to mention that by far the bulk of genital cutting is simple ritual labial marking which leaves minimal scarring on a par with piercing an ear).
So, not waving away FGM, but now it’s back to the larger picture of women’s oppression by traditionalist male hierarchies. We can all agree that sexist oppression justified by religious teachings needs to end. Where many people have a problem with Hirsi Ali’s speeches on this is that she singles Islam out as somehow uniquely prone to being distorted by male hierarchies seeking to rationalise and justify the systemic oppression of women.
Islam is not the only religion which is distorted and misused to rationalise and justify the oppression of women, and any moderately well educated person knows this, so this trope that Islam is uniquely oppressive makes the majority of Muslims who resent their faith being hijacked by extremists defensive, instead of seeing Hirsi Ali and other anti-oppression activists as genuine allies. The traditionalists can, in the long run, only effectively be countered by other Muslims who are more modernist and secularist: why should speeches which drive them away from alliances with us not be criticised?
The European Enlightenment that Hirsi Ali so fondly praises came about from within Christianity by secularists and freethinkers: it wasn’t imposed by the warriors of another religious culture entirely. The Roman Catholic monopoly was broken by Martin Luther, not by Saladin. The Puritan hegemony under Cromwell in England was dismantled from within, not without. Compare with the religions that conquerors have tried to stamp out: would Christianity today even still exist without the persecutions of Roman emperors? Will demonising Islam the way that the Romans attempted to demonise Christianity strengthen or weaken Islam, what do you think?
Will intervening to attempt to change Islam to fit into what the West wants Islam to be strengthen or weaken the traditionalist jihadist Muslims? For instance, the WOT-hawks argue (now) that we needed to intervene/stay the course in Islamic countries to improve life for women. But can they point to any actual success in improving life for women in Iraq?
Johanna-Hypatia Cybeleia has a great post on how intervention in Iraq has made life much much worse for women in Iraq, and how the rhetoric on saving women from oppression (that quick bait and switch of goal once the phantom WOMD disapparated) simply doesn’t match up with the realities, especially when CoW troops fail to support Iraqi women’s activists against the persecution of Taliban-clone extremists.
Iraq used to be one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world for women’s equality. But now?
Her post has many more examples of how life in Iraq now has rolled back nearly all the gains in equality achieved through the offices of Saddam Hussein. Now, saying that Iraq was better than other Arab countries for women’s rights is not saying that Saddam Hussein was a good guy. It’s saying that he was a complex guy, not just a cartoon bad guy, that among many bad and atrocious acts he committed he also did a few good things, and that improving the status of women under his regime was one of those good things.
All those good things that he did have been obliterated because eradicating all signs of his legacy – every single relict – was considered an appropriate response to the bad things that Saddam Hussein did. Yes, he did do bad things and commit atrocities that should never be forgotten. However, is destroying useful social institutions and regulations just because you don’t like the man who made them possible a rational response from a force who claimed to want to improve the lives of all Iraqis?
Was invading Iraq worthwhile for other reasons? I’m far from convinced, but I acknowledge that it is possible for that argument to be made. But don’t pretend that invading Iraq was about improving women’s rights, opportunities and safety, and don’t pretend that there has been any improvement in women’s rights, opportunities and safety under the CoW. Because that would be an outright lie.