Friday, December 7, 2007

Why we stay mute on Islamic sex apartheid

By Pamela Bone

US Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton last week urged President George W. Bush to call on King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to drop all charges against a 19-year-old Saudi woman who had been gang-raped at knifepoint, then sentenced to 200 lashes after she ostensibly confessed to adultery.

"As president I will once again make human rights an American priority around the world," Clinton said. The US State Department had earlier described the sentence as astonishing, while declining to call for the flogging to be stopped. Saudi Arabia is, after all, an ally in the troublesome Middle East.

An international outcry has persuaded the Saudi Justice Ministry to review the sentence. It's rare for such cases to attract such attention, and the only reason this one did was the bravery of the young woman and her lawyer in going public about the case.

Good on Clinton. Good on the 35 German female lawyers who wrote an open letter to the Saudi king calling for the sentence to be dropped. Good on those participants at last week's Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, who put pressure on the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, until he announced a review of the case.

I would like to be able to say, good on the thousands of Western feminists who rallied across the world for the cause, except that they didn't. I would like to be able to say, good on Australia's own famous feminist, Germaine Greer, who spoke out passionately in defence of the young woman during a visit to Melbourne last week, except that she didn't.

I must be fair to Greer. The human rights of Saudi rape victims were not the subject of her Melbourne address last week. She was here to give the opening night lecture on a conference on Jane Austen and her topic was the relevance of Austen to the young women of today. I must also confess I was the spoiler of the evening, who during question time asked Greer if she saw any parallels between the concept of family honour in Austen's Pride and Prejudice and the concept of family honour in Middle Eastern societies today. I then asked why it was that Western feminists seemed so reluctant to speak out against things such as honour killings.

Greer: "It's very tricky. I am constantly being asked to go to Darfur to interview rape victims. I can talk to rape victims here. Why should I go to Darfur to talk to rapevictims?"

Questioner (me): "Because it's so much worse there."

Greer: "Who says it is?"

Questioner: "I do, because I've been there."

Greer: "Well, it is just very tricky to try to change another culture. We let down the victims of rape here. We haven't got it right in our own courts. What good would it do for me to go over there and try to tell them what to do? I am just part of decadent Western culture and they think we're all going to hell fast and maybe we are all going to hell fast.

"But we do care. We do oppose these things. We are all wearing white ribbons this week, aren't we? A lot of good that will do."

This to thunderous applause. She was speaking to an audience of English teachers, nearly all women.

I can hardly blame Greer for her impatience. Just because 40 years ago she wrote a book, does that mean she has to carry the flag for oppressed women for the rest of her life? Who could blame her if at this stage of her life she would prefer to discuss English literature? I certainly don't blame her for not wanting to go to Darfur.

Yet actor Mia Farrow, who is only a few years younger than Greer, has been to Darfur several times. She goes there because she knows that to listen to the stories of the victims of this ongoing genocide validates their suffering and because, unlike Greer, she is willing to use her celebrity status to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of other women and men.

Yes, some of the points Greer made are valid.

If, in writing The Female Eunuch all those years ago, Greer was setting out to change a culture, rather than just expressing her anger at it, it was her own culture she was trying to change. Yes, it is "very tricky' to try to change another culture. Does that mean we should not try to?

Behind Greer's enthusiastically received comments is the dreary cultural relativism that pervades the thinking of so many of those once described as on the Left. We are no better than they are. We should not impose our values on them. We can criticise only our own. The problem with this mindset is that, with all its faults, Western culture is clearly, objectively, better.

Unlike the women I met in the refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border, who cannot leave the camps to get firewood without the fear of being raped, I could, after the Austen conference, walk home in the twilight through safe streets.

No, we don't have it right here on rape yet by a long way, but we don't require four male witnesses to prove a rape, we don't sentence rape victims to a flogging, we don't put adulterers to death.

Muslim feminist groups such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws are raising their voices against the misogyny of sharia laws but, with some honourable exceptions, there is no rallying by Western liberals against the gender apartheid under which women in large parts of the Islamic world live, as there was against racial apartheid in South Africa.

Is it the fear that by speaking out they will become targets of Islamist threats too?

I don't believe so. More likely it is, as Andrew Anthony described it in his recent book The Fallout, the new phenomenon of "Islamophobiaphobia": the great fear of being seen to be critical of Islam, of being seen to be racist, as if race had anything to do with it.

At its kindest, it is a fear of kicking the underdog. But there is a terrible confusion about who the underdog is. The underdogs are not the oil-rich sheiks, imposing their cruel laws on women. They are not even the upper-class women of Saudi Arabia (why should we fight for the right to drive a car when we have chauffers to take us everywhere?) The true victims, even in the most victimised countries, are poor women.

Odd that so many old feminists think racism is worse than sexism.

Pamela Bone, a Melbourne writer, is author of Bad Hair Days (Melbourne University Press).

Source: The Australian
H/T: Gramfan

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