Women should be cooking, making babies and keeping silent.
For centuries, this was the accepted belief in the West about the societal role of women. This viewpoint, while misogynistic and ignorant, was firmly grounded in the Christian theology of the time. Christianity was (and sometimes still is) deeply patriarchal. Many Christian sects only ordain male pastors, are deeply opposed to female reproductive rights and more generally view woman as subservient to males. The Christian bible even says in Ephesians 5:22/23 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” Many feminists therefore believed due to the innate patriarchal nature of Christianity, the yoke of religion needed to be tossed in order to achieve equal standing among men.
While the West has attempted, and is still struggling, to replace religion with secular humanism, the Muslim world is just beginning to come to terms with some of the deeply patriarchal tendencies that deeply penetrate traditional Muslim societies. It seems that feminists in the West, having already fought against misogynistic religion, would be well placed to help the young feminist movement evolving in the Muslim world.
I was thus shocked by the e-mail I received from the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies here at the University of Wisconsin, explaining why they decided not to co-sponsor the Ayaan Hirsi Ali lecture. Professor Aili Tripp explained that they would not support Hirsi Ali’s talk because “It is not useful to make wholesale attacks on any religion.”
Where would Western feminism be if no woman, or man for that matter, spoke up for women’s rights for fear of offending traditional Christian viewpoints? Many of the lectures given by the department’s own professors could be viewed by Christian fundamentalists as a wholesale attack on Christianity, but this has not stopped the department from pursuing equal rights for all women.
The reason that the department has not bowed to pressure from Christian groups to stop lecturing about feminism and gender equality is because it is grounded in the progressive value system of secular humanism. It has showed strength and resilience in not giving in to puritanical religious pressures. Why then is a department grounded in secular humanist thought suddenly so petrified of offending religion in the name of equal rights?
Hirsi Ali grew up in a traditional Muslim society, where she saw firsthand the oppression women faced in the name of the Qu’ran. Hirsi Ali moved to the Netherlands and later renounced Islam, becoming an atheist. After her forced move to the West, she became an active feminist and supporter of individual rights.
As a feminist, Hirsi Ali is greatly disturbed by what she sees as religious misogyny in the Muslim world. She also takes issue with the limited freedoms afforded to the individual in some theocratic Islamic states. This viewpoint does not make her any more intolerant than a Western atheist or humanist.
So why is Hirsi Ali being maligned by the UW’s Women and Gender Studies Department? It is due to a perversion of multiculturalism.
Feminism is a movement dedicated to establishing equal rights for women. Many feminists naturally feel obligated to help suffering women around the world. A multicultural feminist, however, could only address the gender inequalities in the society in which they participate in, because judging other cultures based on the freedoms firmly entrenched in the Western tradition is tantamount to cultural imperialism.
This is the most outrageous position for any sane lover of freedom to hold. While I respect the department’s commitment toward tolerance, they should not allow themselves to tolerate the intolerant. The department should understand protecting freedom of speech often means upsetting some individuals. Has the department not seen the popular T-shirt “Well-behaved women rarely make history?” There is no reason why the department could not have issued a statement saying that they are proud to host Hirsi Ali and her quest for Women’s Rights, while also making it clear that while many of the offenses Hirsi Ali talks about take place in Muslim countries, clearly not all Muslims are fanatics or chauvinists. By not supporting the lecture, the department showed cowardice, keeping their mouths shut and staying in the metaphoric kitchen.
Max Manasevit ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in philosophy.