Practicing Feminism While White
by Phyllis Chesler
The year 2021 is already a bad year for feminist truth-tellers.
In March, three brave Indigenous Australian women flew to the capital in Canberra to draw attention to the sex assaults and murders by Indigenous men targeting Indigenous women. They were rebuffed and insulted by the Australian media who, in their view, were more receptive to white women exposing the misogynist crimes of white men than they were to Indigenous women exposing even more grievous crimes against Indigenous women.
However, radical feminists have always challenged the misogyny of both men and their female collaborators regardless of ethnicity or race. Australian academic, author, and publisher, Renate Klein, shared the backstory with me:
“In 1989, Women’s Studies International Forum published an article co-authored by Diane Bell and Naparulla Nelson called ‘Rape is Everyone’s Business.’ The article had come about because Naparulla Nelson, a senior Traditional Elder, implored her decades-long friend and colleague Diane to write about the brutal rapes by Aboriginal men of women and often teenage girls because no one else would. The co-authored article caused a storm of outrage against Diane who was accused of appropriating Naparulla Nelson’s voice and vilifying black men.”
According to Klein, someone faked Indigenous women’s names on a letter which stated that the “writers stood by their black brothers and that demonizing them was part of colonialism and racism.” To this day, Bell continues to be vilified.
We saw a glimpse of this mentality in February, when the New York Times reviewed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s latest book. Reviewer Jill Filipovic condemned Hirsi Ali for “generalizing,” “bigotry,” and “fear mongering.” She compared Hirsi Ali’s examples of Muslim male crimes against women, mainly in Europe, to dangerously racist American fears about “men of color threatening virtuous white women.” Filipovic accused Hirsi Ali of wrongfully viewing Arab and African Muslim men in the West as “sexually aggressive and uncontrolled, and white women (as) their desired victims.”
I do not know of normalized incidents of African American non-Muslim men, a thousand strong or more, mobbing and sexually assaulting women in America as was done in CairoHassi Massoud, Algeria; or, for that matter in Cologne, and Malmo. Both Cairo and Hassi Messoud were Muslim men attacking Muslim women. Only in Europe was it a Muslim-on-Caucasian sexual violence.
Filipovic views Hirsi Ali’s attempts to apply a universal standard of human rights globally, and her desire to have misogynist crimes in the West prosecuted under Western law, as jeopardizing the future of Muslim male immigrants in the West. But as Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani wrote in a 2017 Times oped:
“When it comes to the pay gap, abortion access and workplace discrimination, progressives have much to say. But we’re still waiting for a march against honor killings, child marriages, polygamy, sex slavery or female genital mutilation… If one finds white male sexism intolerable, then one should by definition find all male sexism just as intolerable. Excusing men of color, Muslims, immigrants or men living in non-Western societies for bad behavior toward women is an expression of the bigotry of low expectations.”
For 20 years, Western academics, journalists, and politicians, influenced by Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” post-colonialism, critical race theory, and de-constructionism, have refused to document violence against women if the perpetrators are men of color.
To them, the fact that female victims (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs), are also “of color” is less important than the color of their perpetrators. Further, when the perpetrators are Arabs and/or Muslims whose countries have formerly been colonized by white Westerners – the need to protect even their most barbaric, indigenous customs, including honor killing, public stoning, polygamy, purdah, FGM, etc., reaches unparalleled heights.
In 1975, radical feminists Diana E.H. Russell and Nicole Van Den Ven organized a Crimes Against Women Tribunal, which dared to address just such customs. More than 2,000 women from 40 countries attended, addressing issues including forced motherhood, forced sterilization, sexual violence, female genital mutilation, intimate family violence, and the double oppression of third-world women, including Aboriginal women.
In 1979, Fran Hosken published a pioneering book about female genital mutilation. All three authors were Caucasian and took heat for exposing such practices or for “practicing feminism while white.”
I have also been documenting such atrocities for a long time, beginning with customs such as polygamy, segregation of women in the home, and veiling in the late 1960s, and the gang-rapes of Bengali women by Pakistani soldiers in the early 1970s. However, I focused more intensely on such misogynist barbarism from 2004 on.
I have therefore been dis-invited, defamed, and often disappeared from left-liberal feminist history.
I experienced my first near-riot 18 years ago when I was asked where I stood on the “question of the women of Palestine.”
The question ultimately was about the smear linking Israel to apartheid. “Contrary to myth and propaganda,” I said, “Israel is not an apartheid state. The largest practitioner of apartheid in the world is Islam which practices both gender and religious apartheid.”
The crowd became wild. They equated Palestinian men with African-American men, police brutality, and American racism.
In 2007, in an article titled “White wars: Western feminisms and the ‘War on Terror,'” Canadian academic Sunera Thobani condemned three “racially superior” white feminist scholars in the pages of a feminist academic journal for our collaboration with the “imperial imaginary” and with “colonialism.” She mocked our alleged “racial paranoia.” In her view, we experienced our “imperial aggression as a form of victimization,” which then allowed us to justify our own aggression as “self-defense.” I responded in 2007 in the pages of the same journal.
“Ethnic Arab Muslims are genocidally slaughtering black African Muslims, Christians, and animists in Darfur,” I noted. “Muslims are blowing each other up when they pray in mosques all across the Middle and Far East; Muslim men are shooting down and beheading their own intellectuals and dissidents in unimaginable numbers…”
Of course, the three white feminists whom Thobani called out were all Jews; I was among them.
Yvonne Ridley is the British woman who, in 2001, was kidnapped by the Taliban, then freed, who subsequently converted to Islam and became a passionate defender of “Palestine.” In 2006, I debated her on Al-Hurrah. She could not stop yelling at me as she described the horrors of Palestinian blood flowing in the streets – all at the hands of white Zionists. She absolutely refused to acknowledge the corruption, use of torture, terrorism, and increasing violence against Palestinian women by the Palestinian leadership and in Palestinian families.
In 2004, Mohammed Bouyeri assassinated Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh after Van Gogh produced “Submission,” a short film criticizing Islam’s treatment of women. Somali-born Hirsi Ali wrote the script, and Bouyeri threatened to kill her, too, in a letter he stuck into Van Gogh’s chest. Sometime thereafter, she fled Holland. In 2007, Hirsi Ali published the autobiography Infidel. She exposed the brutal realities of life for many African Muslim women. No Women’s Studies program in America offered her a position—only conservative think tanks did so.
In 2012, American feminists launched a crusade against Hirsi Ali, referring to her as a “racist” and an “Islamophobe” because she dared to leave Islam and expose misogyny among Muslims. Like other Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents, both religious and anti-religious(Seyran Ates, Farzana Hassan, Samia Labidi, Elham Manea, Soraya Mire, Yasmine Mohammed, Asra Nomani, Raheel Raza), Hirsi Ali has also challenged the Western feminist embrace of the Islamic veil as “liberating” or as a form of resistance to racism.
Where is this intellectual insanity coming from? What can possibly account for this desertion of feminist principles?
Here’s a partial answer.
Raised in Egypt, Christian Arab, Edward Said’s false ideas about Western “Orientalism,” and their rapid adoption by “progressive academics” who were already true believers in French deconstructionism, Marxism, and critical race theory are all to blame. Said’s work not only radically halted the world’s understanding of women’s global oppression; he had us believe that brown men of Arab descent whose countries were once occupied by the Ottoman Empire and by Europe are the most oppressed of victims.
This complex and pernicious narrative quickly wreaked havoc with our common sense understanding of reality and led to cultic beliefs in sacralized fantasies.
Henceforth, all men of color were primarily seen as victims, even when they were raping, kidnapping, torturing, honor killing, or blowing up people of all colors. And radical feminists of all colors, but especially white feminists, were condemned as missionaries, trying to save “brown women from brown men.”
Anti–colonial work has silenced many feminists whose mission it is – or once was – to expose violence against women and sex-based oppression.
First published in IPT.