More from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and some thoughts on equality

by Yule Heibel on December 10, 2004

On November 2/04, Theo van Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam by an Islamic fundamentalist. I wrote about it on November 3/04, in an entry titled Sex and shame and barter. A key emphasis of that post (as well as a subsequently more vehement one the next day, November 4/04) was that in reporting van Gogh’s murder, the press was leaving out Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s part, and that by doing so, the relevance of van Gogh’s murder for feminism was getting lost. From my perspective, this murder in particular shed light on how the oppression of women is a basic tenet of all religious fundamentalism, and that in an enlightened society based on the principle of equality, this oppression is unacceptable, despicable, and intolerable. Yes, intolerable, and my perspective is that any discussion of multicultural tolerance, which is a worthy ideal, needs to develop the kind of critical self-reflectivity that allows it to be critical of itself and others. Tolerance has to know what it will not tolerate, otherwise it’s a blind, reified thing, vs an agent working for freedom and human rights.

Looking through press reports and commentary, I found it interesting, saddening, and finally infuriating that van Gogh’s murder was cast as a question of Dutch multiculturalism’s “failure,” of dangerous Islamofascist extremism (us=West vs. them=Islam), or of proving the need to respect the Other’s religious and cultural traditions (i.e., if we just “make nice” and try to understand one another, everything will be alright). Hardly anywhere was it cast as a question of women’s oppression, a question of women’s equality, a question of its denial by a traditional contingent of religious practitioners whose radicalised arm was merely carrying out enshrined policy. Nor do I see much commentary casting this event as a crisis for those of us on the left, who want to eat our multicultural cake and have it, too.

From my perspective, I draw my line at equality and its negation. If a religion or a tradition or a culture denies equality, it loses my respect when it tries to instantiate its benighted practices in my world. I live in a world that supposedly enshrined Enlightenment principles as a cultural ideal and as a legislated reality, and I will not respect traditions that belittle, undermine, or deny equality, our basic human right. There are too many bastards in my world, too, who (despite whatever laws we have in place) daily wait to trump their supposed superiority over their “inferiors.” We have plenty of bastards to stare down right here, in this western world, and my tolerance doesn’t extend to accomodating those who, on the pretense of having a different religion or tradition, ask for “respect” for practices that deny half of humanity the benefit of equal rights. Patriarchs, I will respect your practices a bit more when I see you on the street, demonstrating for equal rights for women — and stepping out of the way when women take their rights. When that happens, we can have a conversation about where equality should take us, because it’s not the case that equality solves social issues. But without it, we’re nowhere. Tolerance for systematic inequality? No way.

On December 3/04, I came across an article in Die Zeit, “Wovor haben diese M


melanie December 11, 2004 at 5:42 am

Hardly anywhere was it cast as a question of women’s oppression
Apart from your blog, and various people who’ve referred to it, I’ve seen nothing about the feminist side of this issue. I too am appalled by the lack of attention to Hirsi Ali. The response of the ‘left’ reminds me only too much of the 1960s. I hope we get an equally strong feminist reaction!

Yule Heibel December 11, 2004 at 7:34 pm

Well said, Melanie. I wish I were saying my piece better, but it’s the old excuse in my case (“it’s just a blog,” I don’t really have time for much nuance, etc. etc.). I wish this were taken up by more women, Muslim & others. From what I understand, Hirsi Ali’s and vanGogh’s intention in making Submission 1 was to provoke discussion among Muslim women, but my guess is that “their” men are shutting them up. Meanwhile, the press’s spin — to turn this primarily into an issue of whether and how Muslims are tolerated and/or integrated in Western societies — has effectively quelled the intended debate.

I wish I could say it better. Perhaps I should go back and translate more or all of the Dutch interview. I intended to do more, as I said in the last entry before this, but didn’t actually translate more than I already had because of lack of time.

Additionally, I’d like to link this with Gwynne Dyer’s analyses, in his books War (the revised 2004 edition, published in Canada, but I don’t think yet published abroad; soon, I hope) and Future Tense (2004), a follow-up to his Ignorant Armies. I’m concerned that debates about the war and radical Islam stay clear of neo-conservative traps, but I’m appalled at how one-dimensional the left’s response has been, too. And I’m just sick of how the question of women’s equality is considered a side-show. Ack.

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