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Iraq war may kill feminism as we know it

By Wendy McElroy
web posted March 24, 2003

Social transformation at home always accompanies war abroad, and its effects are felt for decades after the military conflict is over. The death of feminism as we know it may be a domestic consequence of war with Iraq.

Historically, war has exerted a defining influence on American feminism. World War II ushered women out of the kitchen and into Rosie-the-Riveter jobs. Feminism in the '60s grew out of the anti-Vietnam War movement, to which current feminism owes much of its leftist bias. During the Civil War, feminists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony consciously subordinated "the woman question" in order to support the Union cause. When the 15th Amendment to the Constitution -- a postwar measure -- enfranchised black men, feminism reacted by becoming a one-issue movement: The cry was "votes for women!"

The war with Iraq and its aftermath will have an equally dramatic impact. One reason: Western feminism will be forced to confront its Eastern counterpart, which is, in significant ways, a mirror opposite: Islamic feminism. The encounter is likely to change the definition of feminism itself.

What is Islamic feminism? The superficial answer: It is the sum total of the feminist organizations that have sprung up in almost every Muslim nation, from Uzbekistan to Egypt, from Iraq to Palestine. Muslim women are networking, protesting and petitioning for relief from real injustice, such as the legal denial of education.

The ideology of Islamic feminism is more difficult to capture because the goals and beliefs of the women involved vary widely. The realities of a feminist like Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Muslim Pakistan, cannot be compared to those of a displaced Palestinian mother living in a refugee camp. Nevertheless, generalizations can be made.

Consider only two:

1) Most Islamic feminists base their demand for equality upon the teachings of Islam. They do not separate themselves or their identity as women from the larger context of religion. To them, the current inequality results from a misinterpretation of the Koran.

By contrast, Western feminists reject a religious basis for equality and argue from an entirely secular perspective. Indeed, they are hostile to religion, and especially to Christianity, which is viewed as an institution that oppresses women. The rejection of religion has deep roots within American feminism, dating back to Stanton's "The Woman's Bible." In the introduction, Stanton writes, "all the religions on the face of the earth degrade her [woman], and so long as woman accepts the position that they assign her, her emancipation is impossible."

This sentiment alone places Western feminism on a collision course with its Muslim counterpart.

2) Islamic feminism tends to be pro-family and not inherently anti-male. In her book In Search of Islamic Feminism, researcher Elizabeth Fernea reports that many Muslim women call themselves "feminists" but want to distance themselves from Western feminism because of its perceived antagonism toward men and the family. Haifa Abdul Rahman, deputy secretary of the General Federation of Iraqi Women, observed: "We see feminism in America as dividing men from women -- separating women from the family. This is not good for anyone."

Western feminism rests on the concept of patriarchy -- the class system of male domination and female oppression. The traditional family and family roles are considered to be basic building blocks of patriarchy. This leaves little room for liberated women to embrace men or the family structure.

Western feminists seem to have three options with regard to their Islamic "sisters": 1) open up the definition of feminism and accept them within it; 2) ignore them; and, 3) misrepresent Muslim women in such a manner as to make them politically acceptable.

The first option is unlikely. American feminism has fought with clawed nails to avoid expanding its definition. It has ignored women who are stay-at-home moms, pro-life, home-schoolers, or who disagree with them on virtually anything. It has discounted the majority of American women. Why would it treat foreigners with more respect?

The second option of simply ignoring Islamic feminism is more in character. American feminism is practiced at turning a blind eye, for example, to the current oppression of Iraqi women about whom they are virtually mute. And, yet, the incredible surge of Islamic feminism cannot be ignored. Indeed, it may be the most significant development in feminism within the last decade.

The third option of misrepresenting Islamic feminism is already underway. If you doubt this, ask yourself: Do you believe "Islamic feminism" is a contradiction in terms ... and is your belief based on equating the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban with the treatment of all women under Islam? If so, you have accepted the prevailing Western feminist view of Islamic feminism.

Ask yourself another question: Do you believe that "Christian feminism" is a contradiction in terms, that a Christian cannot be a strong, liberated, self-respecting woman? If you do not believe this of Christian women, why do you believe of Muslims? Again, perhaps you have accepted the prevailing view.

Western feminists cannot resolve their ideology with that of Islam. War and its aftermath will bring the two movements into intimate contact and conflict. The result is likely to be a recasting of the definition of feminism itself.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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