Feminists fall silent
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 15 September 2007)

On the question of honour killing, defined as the murder of women to protect men's pride, the news from Jordan has recently grown slightly worse. Although it's among the most civilized and modern of Arab countries, Jordan hasn't come close to eliminating this repellent crime, a bizarre remnant of the region's tribal past. It was only five years ago that the penal code made honour killing clearly illegal. Till then it was rarely punished.

In August, five Jordanian men were charged with the premeditated murder of a 22-year-old woman whose crime was to have a love affair with the man she later married. When the pre-marital affair came to light, her father, three uncles and a fifth male relative made the solemn collective decision that family honour demanded her death. One uncle has confessed to shooting her five times in the head; the four other men are charged as co-conspirators.

On Tuesday the magazine Mideast Youth described the protocol now followed by Jordanian authorities when a woman believes her male relatives are about to kill her. The police move swiftly, taking her into protective custody. Unfortunately, the only place they can protect her is jail. She's sent there until the issue is resolved, but it may never be resolved and she may remain imprisoned for years. So the suspected planners of a killing remain free while their potential victim sits in jail until (unlikely possibility) a male family member comes forth to guarantee her safety.

Surely honour killing is the ultimate male oppression, being uniquely permanent and committed by close relatives in the name of an abstraction. It's among many anti-woman atrocities in the Arab world that should enrage feminists of the West and rouse them to urgent action -- mass rallies, pickets, boycotts, furious public debates and anything else they would do for, say, California grape pickers who have no right to health care. But no action of this kind ever materializes, which amounts to a grave abdication of responsibility. Feminism, after all, embodies the principle that women deserve the same rights and dignity as men. In the original discussions nobody said "except for Muslims."

A major reason for this failure is that feminism has generally made common cause with the left, and the left has in most cases decided it favours the Arabic cause. The Arabs have virtue on their side because they are not Americans.

Phyllis Chesler, an American therapist and psychologist who often writes on women's issues, argues that attitudes grounded in thoughtless cultural "sensitivity" inhibit what should be the natural response of women. The result is that "instead of telling the truth about Islam and demanding that the Muslim world observe 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.'" This reaches the level of absurdity when gay and lesbian activists support Palestinians "who, meanwhile, are very busy persecuting homosexuals, who in turn are fleeing to Israel for political asylum." The gay community in Tel Aviv contains a remarkable number of refugees from Palestinian homophobia.

Chesler became a feminist after her marriage to a fellow student who was an Afghan. She went to Afghanistan with him and discovered she was expected to be a typical Afghan wife, the prisoner of her husband and his family. Even the U.S. embassy assumed she had given up all her rights when she married. After great effort she escaped, and divorced.

She might well notice the silence of Canadian women on the war against the Taliban. Surely they should be the most passionate supporters of that struggle, but most of them are AWOL, even more indifferent than men like Jack Layton. "Stifle yourself, Edith," Archie Bunker, the chauvinist husband on All in the Family, used to tell his wife. No need to give that advice to women when this issue arises. They stifle themselves.

For feminism, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Throughout the West the success of women in the professions, business and the media has exceeded the dreams of those who launched a new wave of feminism at the end of the 1960s. Everywhere in the West, legislatures have passed laws to protect women's rights.

Today Islamic oppression should be the first item on the agenda of every women's organization in the country. Women should remember that their triumphs resulted from vigorous campaigning in the 20th century. But on the great feminist issue of the 21st century, feminism stands mute.

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