Feminists, you are opposing misogyny all wrong according to Nick Cohen and Clive James in the latest issue of Standpoint. Screw the demos: you want to spend a bit more time criticising each other for not being sufficiently anti-Islam. Obviously, shouting “WHERE ARE THE WESTERN FEMINISTS?” is unlikely to have any direct positive effect on the lives of women suffering horrible privations and attacks – but then, Cohen and James don’t seem to self-identify as “Western feminists”, so apparently they don’t feel any personal impulse to help women living in repressive theocracies.
As both articles come with representations of burqa-ed women to illustrate the essays’ headline concepts of “blindness” and “silence”, it seems that neither James nor Cohen object to piling negative connotations onto the women apparently being betrayed by their Western sisters. I’m not massively keen on the burqa, but a picture of a black-clad head with a bloodied knife for an eyeslit is maybe overstating things to the point of being a little bit inflammatory.
And while James and Cohen eagerly enumerate all the forms of harm to which women are subjected in the strange collation of states they decide to look at (Iran, Somalia and Afghanistan are all lumped together, despite being very different countries with peculiar circumstances contributing to cultural misogyny) the two men are less good at naming the strategies that Western feminists should be following. “What is to be done about this worldwide victimisation of women? What else but to condemn it?” asks and answers James, for whom condemnation is apparently as useful an approach as offering education, medical assistance or asylum.
James seems to think that casual references to women’s attractiveness is consistent with feminist polemic – check out the beauty race he sets up between Aung Sann Suu Kyi and Neda Agha-Soltan (neither of whom seem very relevant to his argument, since both women have been victimised for specifically political reasons not directly related to gender). And Cohen’s awkward demands for an “uncompromisingly militant feminist movement” are just slightly undermined by his tendency elsewhere to dismiss women as irrational. It’s unsurprising that neither seems to experience any sympathy with either the oppressed women of the world or a feminist movement.
But then, as Standpoint’s mission statement is to “celebrate our civilization, its arts and its values”, the professed interest of these features in women’s rights is strictly cosmetic, intended purely as an illuminating contrast to the beauties of liberal democracy. And that’s why the only action they advocate is the strictly cosmetic one of condemning what they don’t like. Obviously, condemnation is a pretty weak force when it comes to changing the material conditions of women’s lives – but it’s awfully powerfully when you want to stroke your sense of culture into a spurt of self-congratulation.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009