Feminism and Islam

Today’s Guardian has an article about Phyllis Chesler, an American feminist writer who believes that by turning a blind eye to what goes on in Islam, the feminist movement is betraying Muslim women.

Western feminism’s failure to confront the problems raised by Islam, Chesler believes, is a result of the creation of a hierarchy of sins, “an intellectual culture in which racism trumps gender concerns”. The example she cites as the embodiment of wrongheaded priorities is “gay and lesbian movement activists rooting for the Palestinians who, meanwhile, are very busy persecuting homosexuals, who in turn are fleeing to Israel for political asylum”.

The result, she argues, is that “instead of telling the truth about Islam and demanding that the Muslim world observes certain standards, you have westerners beating their breasts and saying, ‘We can’t judge you, we can’t expose you, we can’t challenge you.’ And here in the west you have a dangerous misuse of western concepts such as religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity so that one kind of hate speech is seen as something that must be rigorously protected.

This is a subject that is interests me more and more. It’s clear that women in Islam are treated as second class citizens, but you never hear many people talking about it as apparently religious freedom includes the freedom to oppress half of your population. Why is religious freedom more important than the rights of women? As Chesler says:

Feminism began to fail when they began to say, ‘We can’t judge barbarism. We can’t even call it barbarism, because the barbarians will be offended’

Of course, it’s not just Islam that thinks this way. Even the more fundamentalist Christian sects will tell you that the emancipation of women was a bad move and that they’d like to reverse it.

I can’t speak for other countries but in the UK we have laws against sexual discrimination. Why aren’t they used to prevent people from discriminating against women on religious grounds? What would happen if a Muslim woman tried to use sexual discrimination legislation against a mosque that stopped her praying with men?

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