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American feminists found themselves in strange company this week. In days of campus activity labeled “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” (IFAW), conservative writer David Horowitz and his fellow travelers issued a call for an end to the oppression of women in Muslim nations.
It may be ludicrous to hear about women’s oppression from IFAW spokesperson Ann Coulter–who has called for an end to women’s suffrage here in the US. But beyond pointing out the obvious hypocrisy, progressives need to respond to Horowitz’s message about the oppression of women living under political Islam. Otherwise, we leave him with a powerful rhetorical weapon because Islamists do call for the subjugation of women. All religious fundamentalists do. Just ask IFAW spokesman Rick Santorum, the born-again ex-Senator and anti-abortion fanatic who thinks that women in the US should be kept out of the workforce.
“Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” could be laughed off, except that it echoes the rhetoric of official US policy. Since the US bombing of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush Administration has resurrected the hackneyed colonial notion that its military intervention is intended to save Muslim women from their oppressive societies. As Laura Bush said shortly after 9-11, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
Few Middle Eastern women believe this. In Iraq, for instance, women know that their work for equal rights has been undermined by US intervention. In general, the US has preferred to support authoritarian leaders who systematically violate women’s rights. It’s easier to get a tiny elite or a single strongman to implement US policy than it is to ensure that real democracy swings in favor of US interests.
After all, if it were up to the majority of Iraqis, how many would have endorsed the country’s new USbrokered oil law, which puts Iraq’s most valuable resource at the disposal of Exxon-Mobil? How many would have opted for sprawling, permanent US military bases in their country (whose sole purpose is to enable more US military intervention in the region)? As in Iraq, the US usually ends up undermining women’s rights in the Middle East, because women’s rights are an integral part of democratic rights, and democratic rights threaten US control of the region.
Right-wing “intellectuals” like Horowitz have honed the idea of a “clash of civilizations” dividing the United States from the Middle East. But the real clash is not between “Western” democracies and “Eastern” theocracies; it is between those who uphold the full range of human rights-including women’s rights-and those who pursue economic and political power for a privileged few at the expense of the world’s majority.
In fact, there is nothing inherently “Western” about women’s rights. Women in the Middle East have a century-long history of political struggle, popular organizing, jurisprudence, and scholarship aimed at securing rights within their societies. As for the “clash of civilizations,” no one is predestined to be on one side or the other by virtue of her culture, religion, or nationality. We choose our position based on our principles and our actions. Those of us who choose to stand in defense of women’s rights should listen to and support women in Muslim societies who are struggling both for women’s rights within their country and for their country’s right to freedom from US domination.
YIFAT SUSSKIND is communications director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization. She is the author of a book on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and a report on US culpability for violence against women in Iraq, both forthcoming.