I received an email from The Phyllis Chesler Organization, perhaps because they got my name from another listserv I'm on or a professional organization that I belong to. I admit to being shocked, though perhaps not surprised, by the email, which linked to this blog post: "Is the Arab Middle East Really Ready for a True Revolution?"
I think we can all see where this is going just from the title, hmm? But let's talk about it, anyway.
Is the Arab Middle East really ready for a true revolution? A genuine uprising in the Muslim world which does not focus on the issue of women’s rights is not much of an uprising and does not bode well for a true democracy, one defined by the rule of law, a constitutional system of checks and balances, a separation of mosque and state, freedom of religion, a free press, universal education, individual human rights and freedom.
I thought this was particularly interesting given the ENORMOUS involvement of women in the recent Egyptian revolution. This is the first problem with Western feminism: it consistently tries to define for everyone, everywhere, what "women's rights" are. Silly me - I thought that not having a dictator for a leader would be one of those rights of women - along with participating in a "true democracy" by forcing the bum out. And if we look a little deeper, we remember that Egypt is a country whose highly-educated, professional, working women led the struggle for an Islamic, patriarchal society, one in which they are better protected from gropings on the street and public transportation, and one in which they have access to health care, day care, etc., unlike the society they lived in previously that evidenced a separation of mosque and state. (I'll stop here because my knowledge of Egypt is minimal. This paragraph comes from my notes from a recent lecture on Islamist Feminism in Egypt by a well-regarded scholar on this very issue (whose information I will trust over Chesler's).)
Further, I found myself bristling at Chesler's implication that the Middle Eastern revolutions that have been happening recently are somehow fake and not revolutions at all. While I do understand her point in suggesting that women's liberation would be another, necessary, kind of revolution, it is unfortunate that she uses such dismissive language to talk about something that has been so important to men and women all over the world.
Miraculously, amazingly, a Saudi woman or a number of Saudi women have just launched a new and fabulous Facebook page. They call it Saudi Women Revolution. It features a white smurf-like figure joyfully throwing off her chains and has links to the Saudi women’s drive-in and to campaigns against child brides.
They are talking about arranging meetings in Jeddah and Riyadh.
Given what they know can happen to them: divorce, loss of custody, being honor murdered by their families, jail, torture (flogging), and murder (beheading, stoning), I must congratulate them for their awe-inspiring bravery. Alas, we do not have such brave women here.
I think it is great, as well, that Saudi women are launching a Facebook Revolution (though by no stretch of the imagination is the figure on the page a "smurf-like figure"). However, the above excerpt, taken as a whole, seems somewhat patronizing to me. I'm not sure why, exactly, but it has something to do with the last sentence - the notion that Saudi women are terrifically different from women in the West, that they are braver, better, stronger. (Where have we heard that before? Isn't what people say about those whose lives they could never imagine living? It's what White women have said to Black women, what Western feminists say to feminists of the Global South (not sure that makes geographical sense - I might not be using that correctly), what able-bodied people say to people with disabilities. It's not a good thing to say.)
It's also not true that there are no women "here" who are as brave, but perhaps that's an argument to get into at another time. I will simply say that such a statement smacks of romanticization.
Chesler goes on to detail heroic acts by Saudi women in the face of repression, punishment, and murder. She's right to note these acts. However, I wish that she would refrain from using language such as Saudi (and Iranian) feminists stir my imagination. They live as if they know that heroism is their only alternative. The first sentence presents Saudi and Iranian feminists (do they all call themselves "feminists", incidently? It is not appropriate to apply this label to other people who do not claim it themselves) as if they are important because of the impact they have on Chesler. And the second sentence is more of what I've said above - taking what is a life that has to be lived a particular way and making it into an extraordinary life because it seems so impossible to the viewer. The viewer's own beliefs and what they understand to be "reality" and "normalcy" figure heavily in this telling, so that the focus is less on the women and what they are doing and more on what Chesler thinks about them.
And at bottom, what bothers me about this piece is really the way that this story is about Chesler telling it. There are other ways to write about these women. Nowhere in the article does Chesler link to any organizations (other than the Facebook page)...or reference Middle Eastern writers...or place this movement into a larger context of women's reform movements in Middle Eastern countries. Chesler does a good job of sketching for us the dangers of challenging authority, and she gives us a sense of some of the challenges that have come before. Had she done more of this, had she talked more about the ways in which women covertly or overtly challenge authority, this piece would not feel that it is more about Chesler's feelings about these revolutionary women than it is about their accomplishments.
There is some of the same on the Saudi Women Revolution Facebook page. One presumably Western woman writes, "The world will know that all women will be free. America is next. We are behind you, my sisters." America is NEXT? Really? Does anyone else wonder what Saudi women might think about this comment posted on their Facebook page, apparently equating the struggles that American and Saudi women face? Another (Canadian) woman writes: "...I need to be able to read this! Please translate." Perhaps I am making assumptions, but why does she "need" to read what Saudi women are writing to each other? And why do they need to take time out of their revolution to translate?
I am skeptical of Western feminist discussions of Saudi and other Middle Eastern women's revolutions. It wasn't that long ago, remember, that Western feminists were leading the charge to bomb the shit out of Afghanistan, while Afghan women begged us not to. Western feminists - not all of them, but enough - continue to see Islam as always an oppressive force in women's lives rather than understanding the role of culture rather than religion in dictating women's repression or freedom. Now, I don't doubt Chesler's sincerity - or, for that matter, the sincerity of the other women posting on Facebook. However, being true allies means treating each other with respect and allowing each other to define our own issues. It means continuing to respect each other when we disagree. It means not singling out only those women who appear to fit the definition of Western feminism as the true revolutionaries.
I thought that perhaps I was being too hard on Chesler. But then, I went to her site and read this. So, Chesler believes that women have not been as involved in the revolution in Egypt as they might have been - which is simply untrue, though the West did not run these stories and picture. She believes that their wearing of hijab is, in itself, oppressive and that it is the decision of the men in their families, though this is historically not the case in Egypt. And she reads photos of women in hijab in very powerful poses as, instead, women being oppressed and weak and in danger. This is more than Western feminist ignorance - it is Western feminist Islamophobic ignorance, and an almost willful misreading.
I foolishly did not realize that Chesler was part of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Horowitz's gang of thugs does not represent mainstream (or radical) feminism - in fact, it tends to see feminism of any kind as part of a left-wing indoctrination conspiracy aimed at brainwashing college students. For the last few years, though, it has seemed to focus its efforts on fanning the flames of Islamophobia, as is quite evident from the other items on the site (and from the comments on those "articles"). Even so, I would not be surprised to find other feminists making the same claims that Chesler makes. Stay tuned.