Burka-clad women walk in the old city of Kabul (AFP/Getty)
A while ago, a BBC producer phoned to tell me I had written a "controversial" book. I knew that already, and gathered from the teeth-sucking sound coming down the line that she did not approve.
"So," she continued, "we've lined up four guests to argue against you."
I told her to go away — maybe I used a stronger term — and then thought about her predicament. As a biased broadcaster, she wanted to hear my book denounced, but she could not risk organising a one-on-one debate. Maybe I would have come out on top. More probably, some listeners would have agreed with me, others with my opponent, as is the normal way of things. By arranging her show to make it four against one, however, she could maintain the illusion of impartiality while creating the impression in listeners' mind that the consensus was overwhelmingly against arguments she found uncomfortable. In the interests of "balance" and of letting "everyone have their say", she would fill 80 per cent of the airtime with advocates of her own political position. I have watched out for rigged debates ever since. They are the surest signal the BBC dares send that an idea does not deserve a hearing in polite society.
Ophelia Benson did not quite get the four-on-one treatment when she appeared on Radio 3's cultural talk show Nightwaves to discuss a "controversial" book she has co-authored with Jeremy Stangroom. They gave her a mere two opponents, and the presenter tried to be fair. Still, when one adversary stopped disparaging her, the other started, as the BBC flashed warning signs to listeners to ignore her.
If they missed the point, the press banged it home. The Independent denounced Benson and Stangroom "as inflammatory in the extreme"; authors who produce "torrents of invective" and "show no desire to go beyond name-calling and distortion." The Guardian accused them of "crudeness and lack of insight". It was "staggered anyone wanted to publish" them, and concluded that only a base desire to make money could explain the release of a "profoundly intellectually dishonest", "hysterical" and "bizarre" work. My own newspaper, the Observer, was slightly more temperate, but not so the casual reader would notice. Benson and Stangroom were not original thinkers but had "trawled through newspaper articles". They "splutter with righteous anger", their style "clunky", "hammering" and "repetitive", their arguments "flimsy" and "deadening".
Readers who imagine that Benson and Stangroom were on the receiving end of the fullest stomach-load of bile literary London has brought up this year because they were making the case for white supremacy or the return of the death penalty do not understand the dark turn Western thought took between the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Benson and Stangroom's book is Does God Hate Women?, which the predecessors of today's critics would have hailed as a feminist classic.
"So does God hate women?" it asks.
Well, what can one say. Religious authorities and conservative clerics worship a wretchedly cruel unjust vindictive executioner of a God. They worship a God of 10-year-old boys, a God of playground bullies, a God of rapists, of gangs, of pimps. They worship — despite rhetoric about justice and compassion — a God who sides with the strong against the weak, a God who cheers for privilege and punishes egalitarianism. They worship a God who is a male and who gangs up with other males against women. They worship a thug. They worship a God who thinks little girls should be married to grown men. They worship a God who looks on in approval when a grown man rapes a child because he is "married" to her. They worship a God who thinks a woman should receive 80 lashes with a whip because her hair wasn't completely covered. They worship a God who is pleased when three brothers hack their sisters to death with axes because one of them married without their father's permission.
If this sounds harsh, consider that Sharia adultery laws state that a raped woman must face the next-to-impossible task of providing four male witnesses to substantiate her allegation or be convicted of adultery. When rapists leave Pakistani women pregnant, the court takes the bulge in their bellies as evidence against them. In Nigeria, Sharia courts not only punish raped women for adultery, but order an extra punishment of a whipping for making false accusations against "innocent" men. In Israel, ultra-Orthodox gangs in Jerusalem beat up women seen in the company of married men. In the United States, the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints give teenagers to old men in arranged marriages and tell them they must completely submit to their wishes. In Saudi Arabia, women live in a theocratic state that stops them walking unaccompanied in the street, driving a car and speaking to men outside the family. After unwisely taking a sprig of the bin Laden family to be her husband, Carmen Dufour described the consequences.
At first, I wasn't even aware of what seemed so strange about this country, but then it hit me: half the population of Saudi Arabia is kept behind walls, all the time. It was hard to fathom, a city with almost no women. I felt like a ghost. Women didn't exist in this world of men.
To move from ghosts to corpses, if the Taliban retake power in Afghanistan, they will once again ban women from public spaces, thus depriving them of employment, and thus closing the health and education services. Any teacher who presumes to teach them to read and write will be executed. Meanwhile the Islamic Republic of Iran has almost certainly renewed its terror tactic of raping women prisoners before killing them. Because religious law declares it illegal to execute a virgin, the guards arrange a "wedding" ceremony and rape the prisoner once it is over.
"I regret that, even though the marriages were legal," a Basiji militiaman said as he recalled how he became a state-endorsed rapist as a young man. "I could tell that the girls were more afraid of their ‘wedding' night than of the execution that awaited them in the morning. And they would always fight back, so we would have to put sleeping pills in their food. By morning, the girls would have an empty expression; it seemed as if they were ready or wanted to die."
The militiaman was speaking anonymously to an Israeli newspaper, so you might contest the authenticity of the interview, were it not that the use of rape as a weapon of repression is hardly a secret. Refugees who fled Iran as the ayatollahs installed their theocracy, have described the "weddings" in painful detail. When a physician examined the body of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian photojournalist the mullahs arrested and murdered, he found unmistakable evidence that they had not stopped at torturing her. Not a true secret, then, rather a secret in plain view, which observers look through rather than see.
Instead, they prefer to concentrate on the works of Karen Armstrong, a former nun, who has been beatified by the intelligentsia rather than the Vatican. Nothing infuriates Benson and Stangroom's critics so much as their demolition of Armstrong's startling claim that the "emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet's heart" by showing that the surviving accounts of his life tell of Muhammad consummating a marriage to a nine-year-old girl, and taking a slave girl as a concubine. (The arguments about Armstrong's evasions would be of historical interest only if in both Yemen and Iran, Islamists had not been inspired by his example and reduced the age of consent for girls to nine on taking power.) The response of the Sunday Times to Does God Hate Women? was truly sinister. "An academic book about religious attitudes to women is to be published this week," the paper reported, "despite concerns it could cause a backlash among Muslims because it criticises the prophet Muhammad for taking a nine-year-old girl as his third wife. Such assertions could invoke the ire of some Muslims."
No irate Muslim had contacted the reporter to warn of a "backlash". She had not seen threats against Benson and Stangroom in online chatrooms. The Sunday Times invented a scandal where none existed and was unconcerned that it might provoke attacks on the authors. In a dismal sign of our nervous times, their panicked publisher responded by calling in an "ecumenical adviser", to assess whether the book's launch should go ahead.
There is a danger of generalising from the particular fury the media have directed at Benson and Stangroom. So I should say that I do not need to be told that religion comes in many forms, not all of them onerous. I accept unreservedly that religion can be, as Marx said, "the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions". Clearly, many liberal-minded people would not have joined the critics in shouting down Benson and Stangroom; they would have whole-heartedly agreed that the repression of women must be opposed in all circumstances. Excellent journalists at the BBC, Independent, Guardian, Observer and Sunday Times produce powerful reports about female genital mutilation and "honour killings" based on the work of NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or the Centre for Social Cohesion. Police officers and social workers work hard to combat abuse, while development agencies insist that the surest way to reduce poverty is to educate women.
But look on the bright side for too long, and you will be blinded by the sun. For all the qualifications, the stubborn fact remains that mainstream opinion does not consider the oppression of women a pressing concern when it is done in the name of culture or religion, particularly in the name of once-subordinate cultures and religions. The misogyny they generate does not move hearts or stir passions. Governments that stifle half their populations do not face boycotts or demonstrations outside their embassies, motions of condemnation at international conferences or opprobrium in everyday political discourse.
The comparison with the international anger directed at Apartheid is instructive. The oppression of blacks was once an affront to the conscience of the world. When we turn to the oppression of women, however, we find that the United Nations loses its conscience and encourages the ideologies of their oppressors. In 1990, Muslim foreign ministers challenged the first line of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights by replacing the ringing statement that "all human beings are born free in dignity and in rights" with the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights which announces that "all human beings are God's subjects". The UN's declaration says that everyone is entitled to its stipulated rights and freedoms "without distinction of any kind". The Cairo declaration says that rights can be restricted for a "Sharia prescribed reason". Nothing in it prevents forced marriages of pre-pubescent girls, or the death punishments for apostasy, homosexuality and the betrayal of a family's "honour".
Far from fighting off this direct assault on women's rights, the UN went along with it and entertained the idea that those who criticise Sharia are guilty of the crime of "defaming religion". In the West, the motion "Is feminism dead?" is a favourite at debating societies, but a glance around shows that it remains in rude health. I do not want to underestimate continuing sexism, the pay gap and the difficulties of working mothers, but wherever women enjoy freedom their cause is advancing. To encapsulate the advance in a sentence, it is now politically impossible for the leaders of parties of the Left or Right anywhere in the advanced world to exclude women from their cabinets.
Yet at the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury can call for Sharia law to be imposed on British Muslim women, safe in the knowledge that his own women priests will nod their approval. Similarly, the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips can call for Sharia at the East London Mosque and women lawyers will not remind him that the mosque is a centre for Jamaat-i-Islami, which in India insists that husbands who throw out their wives have no duty to pay them maintenance.
The emancipation of women is necessary and essential for white-skinned women in London but not for brown-skinned women in Lahore. Or, to move from the global to the local, the emancipation of women is necessary and essential for white-skinned women in Hampstead and Highgate but not for brown-skinned women in Bethnal Green and Bow.
When pressed, the characteristic response to accusations of indifference is for hypocritical Westerners to protest that of course they do not support the imprisonment of rape victims. True, but they do not oppose it either. Their bad faith is evidenced by their palming of the moral-equivalence card from the bottom of the deck. I first saw it being waved in triumph in 1993 when Germaine Greer declared that attempts to outlaw female circumcision were "an attack on cultural identity". In her mind, there was no difference between religious traditionalists forcing an eight-year-old to submit to the removal of her clitoris and labia, and an American teenager voluntarily trying out body piercing. "If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?" asked the author of The Female Eunuch as she excused clitoral castration. At the time, I thought that Greer was a crass contrarian who would say anything to grab attention. I should have taken her more seriously. In the intervening years, her casuistry became the dominant mode of argument. Not everywhere: you can still find principled feminist comment from Katha Pollitt of the Nation or Joan Smith of the Independent on Sunday. Laurie Penny, one of the new generation of feminists, tells me to look to the internet where I will find campaigns to stop the Home Office deporting women asylum-seekers to misogynist tyrannies. Nevertheless and as before, even when I have made all the caveats, the stubborn fact remains that the treatment of Benson and Stangroom by the liberal mainstream was hardly an aberration.
When Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, her account of escape from forced marriage and genital mutilation to Europe, her defence of the liberal values they once believed in appalled "liberal" Europeans. Although Ali needed bodyguards to protect her from Islamist assassins, Timothy Garton Ash sneered that she was an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" while Ian Buruma denounced her as an absolutist. Maryam Namazie, a Marxist Iranian exile who set up the "One Law for all Campaign" to oppose the Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice, tells me that she experiences every variety of Western duplicity. When she argues in favour of the demonstrators in Tehran, the hard Left tell her she is serving the interests of US imperialism — "It's now reactionary to have a revolution," she sighs. When she last appeared on the BBC, to argue that the burka was a straightjacket designed to mark off a woman as a man's private property, the presenter told her she was an "extremist". With dreary inevitability, Does God Hate Women's critics say that Benson and Stangroom's atheist liberalism is as fundamentalist as the religion of the hardliners they condemn.
Leave aside, however, that the critics do not even-handedly condemn misogynists, homophobes and inquisitors but dedicate all their polemical energy to denouncing those who do. Consider instead whether their equivalence holds good. If you abandon atheism, no atheist police force imitates the religious police in Saudi Arabia and arrests you. If you decide you no longer believe in the equality of the sexes and say that God has made men dominant, no one arraigns you before an equality court. If you stop believing in free speech and start arguing for censorship, no "enlightenment fundamentalist" judge punishes your apostasy with a death sentence. Last month Newsnight discussed the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, and Germaine Greer — yes, still at it — opined that Rushdie should have removed the "offensive" passages from The Satanic Verses. Writers had such extraordinary power, she said with wide eyes and in a breathless tone, they could "get away with murder". No one in the studio thought to tell her that the man who had got away with ordering the murder of Rushdie, his translators and publishers, was Khomeini, who died in his bed.
Azar Nafisi gave the best reason to dismiss such indifference to the power of real tyrants. The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran fled from the Ayatollahs' Iran to Boston, Massachusetts, not far from the site of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. Instead of finding a strong movement dedicated to freeing women, she found a racist discourse on American campuses which insisted that culture and religion demanded female subordination. "I very much resent it in the West when people — maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view — keep telling me, ‘It's their culture.' It's like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. First, there are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible, and we should fight against it. Second, women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia don't like to be stoned to death."
There are dozens of arguments against the bad idea of cultural relativism, but "women in Iran and in Saudi don't like being stoned to death" can serve for them all. And yet the bad idea persists, undented and dominant, because of a deep selfishness in advanced societies. It comes in three forms, moral, economic and physical. People on the receiving end of repression notice the air of moral superiority as soon as Western liberals refuse them their support out of "respect" for the culture which intimidates them. Liberal relativists are in this respect the true successors of their imperialist ancestors. Where once Westerners denied rights to lesser breeds without the law who were racially unsuited to enjoy liberty, now they deny them to diverse breeds without the culture who are unsuited by accidents of history and geography to exercise the freedoms white Westerners take for granted or handle the complex arguments white Westerners take in their stride.
The economic grounds for selfishness are rarely discussed because, paradoxically, feminism helped create them. Women's liberation liberated the upper-middle class above all others. Instead of managing on one generous income, an already prosperous family could claim two, if it could find servants to look after its children and its homes. Someone had to clean and nurture, and even if the man was prepared to do his full share of housework — which, frankly, most men were not — there still would not be enough hours in the day to combine home with demanding and rewarding careers for husband and wife. As the perceptive American writer Caitlin Flanagan noted in her essay How Serfdom Saved the Woman's Movement, the forward march of women through the institutions would have halted had not globalisation, war, poverty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall provided an army of poor migrants willing to take on menial housework and childcare. "The new immigrants were met at the docks not by a highly organised and politically powerful group of American women intent on bettering the lot of their sex," she wrote, "but, rather, by an equally large army of educated professional-class women with booming careers who needed their children looked after and their houses cleaned. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated."
It is deplorable but unsurprising that the past 20 years have seen a cooling of a belief in the need for universal emancipation. Most women at the top of society are dependent on cheap and usually foreign labour. So, too, are their partners, who enjoy the benefits of a dual income. In these circumstances, going along with the belief that culture condemns certain women to servitude is a domestic convenience, the more so when speaking out against it is dangerous.
For at the root of the weird twists in liberal opinion I have been arguing against lies physical fear: the fear of provoking accusation of racial or religious prejudice; the fear of provoking trouble; the fear of provoking violent retribution. Generally, people do not own up to cowardice. They prefer to dress up it up in fine clothes and call it "respect for difference" or "a celebration of diversity".
Julie Bindel, a veteran of radical feminist campaigns, remembers when such circumlocutions were unthinkable. She told me about a vigorous movement to force the police to investigate child abuse allegations in an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in London. Her sisters said that it would be racist for the police to leave it to the community to administer its own justice, as they had done in the past. They had to show that the same rules applied to everyone.
"Now they say it is racist to intervene. They're so frightened of being called an Islamophobe, they will defend the right of men to force women to be shackled. They smugly declare that ‘we haven't got the right to impose our values on another culture' and think themselves liberal when they do it."
I accept that this may seem an odd thing to wish for, but what the world needs now is an uncompromisingly militant feminist movement.
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