About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Where are the feminists, when you need them?

OK, this is going to be a potentially politically incorrect post, and as you know I'm really concerned about offending people. Just kidding. An article in today's New York Times has finally prompted me to write about Muslim women's attire, in particular the niqab, the full body and face-covering black veil (as opposed to the hijab, the head scarf, though similar considerations hold there too).

The article was about how an increasing number of Europeans – British in this specific case – but also French, German, and Italians – object to Muslim women's attire because they wear their religion on their sleeves, so to speak, which many westerners find “offensive.” Well, get over it. I find people in my neighborhood in Brooklyn who wear big and loud Christian crosses offensive too (not to mention in really bad taste), but one of the distinguishing features of liberal democracies is that there is no constitutional protection against offense, quite the contrary.

On the other hand, I am stunned by the almost absolute silence of feminists on this issue. One of the Muslim women interviewed for the Times piece said “a lot of people assumed I'm oppressed ... I don't care, I've got a brain.” Perhaps, sister, but you ain't using it right. It is not surprising that oppressed people may have a hard time even realizing that they are oppressed, so thoroughly brainwashed they have been since birth (just think of those women in some African countries who actually practice genital mutilation on their own daughters).

But for people outside the immediate cultural influence of conservative Islam, it is a no brainer that completely covering the body of a woman is a straightforward way to deny her personality and to limit her social interactions. In other words, she is being oppressed, whether she realizes it or not.

Which leads to the already stated question: where are our beloved feminists? They used to burn bras and bravely defy white males' expectations of what they should wear and look like, but they are hardly saying a peep about niqabs and hijabs. Indeed, if a feminist has spoken recently on this issue, it has been to defend the right to multiculturalism. But multiculturalism, like almost anything else, is a good thing only within certain limits. And those limits are set by the concept of universal human rights. “Universal” means that it applies to everyone, not just to western white women living in the blue states of America. What have you got to say for yourselves, sisters?


  1. Where are the feminists?! Are you high?

    Just go to google and search for "muslim" and "feminism."

    Pay attention to sites like feministing.com, feministe.us, pamshouseblend.com, abyss2hope.blogspot.com, pandagon.net.

    Way to pull a complaint out of your ass. Since when do major papers really pay adequate attention to feminists?

  2. "OK, this is going to be a potentially politically incorrect post, and as you know I'm really concerned about offending people. Just kidding."

    Phew, you got me worried there for a second. I thought you might be going soft there. :-)

    Anyway, I think this thing about wearing their religious symbols got a bit overblown lately. Yeah, I know there is the oppression problem (and the problem of the oppressed not even perceiving it), but where is the line separating justified action and paternalism? At which point can we say that it was "their choice" to use those things? Would they NOT use them, given a chance, in a free society, supposing they are not at risk of being killed at the privacy of their home? (as it happened in Britain a couple weeks ago, I think, to a girl who made the mistake of dating a guy from the wrong tribe or something like that)

    And after all, who is not oppressed to conform to stupid, arbitrary societal rules? You're supposed to dress, look and behave a certain way, and if you don't it does not matter how much (or little) you're worth, what you know or can do, how good or bad you are. And guess what, it's easier to just shut up and conform. Suck it up and go along and you will be left alone like the rest of the sheeple.

    Of course I'm not at all equating African genital mutilation and Islamic woman "slavery" to having to wear a stupid fragment of cloth around your neck to "look professional" or whatnot. But the principle is the same, even if the intensity is most definitely not.

    Anyway, I myself haven't much to complain about. Scientists have quite a bit of freedom of eccentricity. But then if you don't look the part of a proper scientist/ academic if you're not eccentric enough... :O)


  3. aerik,

    no, I didn't "pull a complaint out of my ass." If feminists discuss things on their own web sites and blogs, that's great. But there hasn't been any public (as in mainstream) discussion of that sort.

    And no, I'm sorry, but I don't buy the self-defeating complaint that feminists views are never allowed on the main media. For crying out loud, if atheists can be heard on CNN and the New York Times, surely one or two feminists with serious credentials can too. Try harder.

  4. So, Massimo, write something for the MYT or the WaPo. Get it published. Prove how easy it is.

  5. Massimo,
    Although I would have said it much differently, Aerik has a point. I don't think feminists have been completely silent on this issue. And he didn't say that feminists have been completely marginilized from mainstream discourse, he just suggested the that major media don't pay adequate attention to feminists.

    Would you actually say that mainstream media give adequate, fair, or equitable coverage and representation to atheists? Despite recent media attention, generally not.

    There are other issues that lurk here. Feminists may indeed have feelings of solidarity with muslim women, but think that the neccessary cultural changes must come from within their culture. That it must be ushered in by the efforts of Muslim women themselves. There is also the issue of western paternalism.

    Some educated Muslim women who live in the west have also made the point that the hijab protects their dignity from the leering eyes of men who may see them as only as sex objects. Perhaps western feminists can see the validity of this point?

    There may be more complexity to this issue than your post acknowledges. And I don't think it true that feminists have been silent on the issue.

  6. "They used to burn bras and bravely defy white males' expectations of what they should wear and look like, but they are hardly saying a peep about niqabs and hijabs."

    The logic here just does not run particularly deep.. Who was it that said: 'the enemy of my enemy is now my friend'?

    I feel that women should be able to be either conservative in their presentation or not so. But don't expect to "protected" if you shoot out the very underpinnings of the society that has given you the freedom to do so. Protection of any sort is best spent on vulnerable and humble people, not proud ones.

    And I don't believe any of that colonialist imperialist white male crap, M. I see men in every country of the world trying to dominate women...and other people groups

    AND, don't forget the 2.7 billion women in the world who are trying to dominate men.

    But that "white male" thing is a darn easy (over-simplification of the issue) target, tho, isn't it.

  7. The reason why the left wing feminists don't critize the treatment of women in Moslem countries is very simple. If they did so, it would be construed as support for the State of Israel. As is well known, in the fantasy land occupied by left wing feminists, Israel is the greatest evil in the world today, far worse then any mistreatment of women in the Moslem world.

  8. SLC, you are just plain silly. Nothing about this has anything to do with some alleged belief of feminists that Isreal is evil. It seems to be that the only fantasy world in play on this thread (and others) is your paranoid belief that everything has to do with hatred of Isreal!

  9. What would feminists say about a religion that required women to wear leather dog collars with chains attached?

  10. "But multiculturalism, like almost anything else, is a good thing only within certain limits. And those limits are set by the concept of universal human rights."

    I agree with too. Interesting, I think that limits set by human rights to multiculturalism should limit a liberal society at least in some fields of exterior-political economics of developed countries.

    Besides, talking about this post in specific, just take a look to the 6, 7 and 10 among other points of a astonishing list in the name of the courage.

  11. Suppose you travel to a foreign country. In your hotel room toilet you find a surveillance camera. You immediately complain to management, but it turns out that your standards of privacy are quite different, and for security reasons in that foreign country you cannot refuse to have surveillance cameras in your toilet. Now draw the parallel with the condition of traditional Muslim women in Western countries. Theirs may be an irrational need to cover their bodies. Is ours any more rational?

  12. I was in Hong Kong recently, and saw a Muslim man with his wife, who was obviously a blue eyed blonde haired woman of European descent walk past us on the sidewalk. She was wearing a headscarf and I shook my head at the sight of it. How can someone grow up in a free society and willingly adopt such a repressive dress code?

    Even worse, at the Bohol Beach Club in the Philippines, there was a Muslim family staying there and the Muslim woman there also weared a headscarf and baggy clothing. WTF is the point of going to a beach club if you are going to dress like that?

  13. We'll take care of this right after we're through with the regime change.


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