Books: A Point of View: Feminism and Democracy |
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Feminism and Democracy : on the global responsibility of feminists in the West

(S05E09, broadcast 22nd and 24th May 2009)

"Still looking for the western feminists"
— feminists, speak up

In a week when the troubled parliament of Britain continued to swamp the front pages with tales of fiddle, fraud and the incredible disappearing Speaker, there wasn’t much room for news about the parliaments of other countries, but there was one story in the middle pages that might have been calculated to remind us of why democracy really matters. The parliament in Kuwait has just acquired its first four women MPs.

Kuwait is by no means a perfectly constituted democracy. As far as I can figure out, there is a ruling family whose Emir chooses the government and calls elections for parliament. But women have now been elected to the parliament, by popular vote. It should hardly need saying that this would have been unlikely to happen if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to continue to rule the country by terror, but let’s leave his awful memory aside for a moment, if we can, and dare to put forward a general reflection.

Democracy is the best chance for women. Or if that sounds too naive, too pro-Western perhaps, then let’s put it this way. The absence of democracy is seldom good news for women. Or, to get down to bedrock, if women can’t vote for women, then they haven’t got many weapons to fight with when they seek justice.

My own view, which I’m ready to hear contested, is that this is the main reason why some feminists in the West have been so slow to get behind those women in the world’s all too numerous tyrannies who have to risk their lives to say anything. It’s just too clear a proof that men have a natural advantage when it comes to the application of violence. When you say that women have little chance against men if it comes to a physical battle, you are conceding that there really might be an intractable difference between the genders after all.

Ideological feminists in the West were for a long time reluctant to concede this, because they preferred to believe that there was no real difference, and that all female handicaps were imposed by social stereotyping that could be reversed by argument. But this belief was really possible only in a society where the powers of argument had a preponderance over the powers of violence. And since many Western feminists are still convinced that the social stereotyping of the West is the product of fundamental flaws within liberal democracy itself, they have a tendency to believe that undemocratic societies are somehow valuable in the opposition they offer to the free countries which the feminists are so keen to characterize as not free enough.

I have to pick my words carefully here, because this is the touchiest theme I have ever tackled in these broadcasts, but I do think it’s high time to say that if feminist ideologists find liberal democracy unfriendly, they might consider that the absence of liberal democracy is a lot less friendly still. Helping to give me courage, here, finally, is that quite a lot of women are already saying it. But they tend not to be Western pundits. They tend to be women out there, in the thick of a real battle, not just an argument. Why their bravery doesn’t shame more of our feminist pundits I hesitate to say. It certainly shames me.

This importance of democracy, or at any rate of an amelioration of tyranny, should have become clear when, after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the first provisional government in Iraq included women members. But it didn’t become clear, because too many of our commentators wanted to call the provisional government a puppet government, under the control of the US. Even as it became steadily more clear that nothing in Iraq was under the control of the US, feminists in the West continued to do a stunning job of ignoring the risks that women in Iraqi public life were running. An Iraqi female MP could get murdered and it was held to be a natural result of US imperialism, almost as if she had been murdered by George W. Bush in person. But she hadn’t been. She had been murdered by local men who were making an example of her. They feared what she would bring: the spectre of women claiming an importance equal to that of men.

Last year the excellent Australian feminist journalist Pamela Bone finally died of cancer, but while she was still fighting it she published, in 2005, in response to what she regarded as the thunderous silence that had greeted the stand taken by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an article called ‘Where are the Western feminists?’. What Pamela Bone meant was, that she was amazed why so many of her colleagues couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, that democracy was the best hope for women.

Pamela Bone was well aware that there is a necessary quarrel about how democracy can be brought about in countries that don’t have it, and I hasten to concede that of the two possible main views about the invasion of Iraq, for example, my own view, in favour, soon became the minority view. But Pamela Bone couldn’t see how there could be any doubt that women in the countries without democracy were in a battle that they were bound to lose if the men could prevail by force. Men will always monopolize the means of violence if they can. Women can learn to shoot guns, but there are no all-female armies, and even the Amazons were probably a myth. Women, on the whole, would naturally like to do something else, whereas an army, for too many men, is a home away from home, and often their only home.

It’s the only home for the junta in Burma. The junta is in the news again this week because it found a pretext for locking Aung San Suu Kyi into prison, instead of just leaving her helpless under house arrest. The terms of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest were that she should receive no visitors, and some poor demented American Vietnam veteran made sure that the terms were violated by swimming to her front door. Like many a head-case he probably just wanted to discuss his theories about how aliens control everything, but the all-male military junta in Burma really does control everything and here was their chance to dump Aung San Suu Kyi into jail until the next election is over.

Aung San Suu Kyi not only has the stature, she has the right, to lead the government of her country. If the public got a chance to say so, she would do so, and bring immeasurable improvement not only to Burma but the whole area. I say all this because in some moment of optimism I allowed my name to get put on the masthead of the organization in this country that campaigns for her release, the Burma Campaign, but I have done nothing else for her before today, mainly because I don’t believe that my going to dinner with like-minded humanitarians is likely to help much. What she needs is an invading army, but even if there were one available, armed intervention, since the Iraq incursion, has been out of fashion: no doubt with good reason, but those appalled by the moral cost of toppling a tyrannical regime are still stuck with counting the moral cost incurred by leaving it alone. The regime in Burma will most likely go on being left alone. Aung San Suu Kyi’s slow martyrdom makes the cost obvious. The current best plan for getting her sprung is to bring persuasion to bear on India so that India will bring pressure to bear on the junta, and so on until she grows old and grey.

Being who she is, she grows old slowly, and at the age of sixty-three she looks like her own daughter, but time is still against her. If time is all you’ve got going for you, it isn’t much. What justice needs, when it is ranged against naked force, is a contrary force, and the fact that there isn’t one is enough to reduce the onlooker to despair.

Despair can coarsen one’s judgement. I knew enough about what Saddam Hussein and his talented son Uday were doing to women to want that regime toppled. The price of doing so might have seemed too high, but at least now, six years later, it is no longer official policy to rape a woman in front of her family. There may be unofficial forces still on the loose in Iraq who would like to do that, but the government no longer does it. Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan still seems worth it when you have read about what the Taliban want to do with any woman who seeks an education, but it’s easy to despair when you think of how hard it is to stop them.

Sometimes despair overwhelms us when we read of just a single so-called honour crime in which the men of a family have ruined the life of a daughter for what seems no reason at all, and the men walk free because that’s the culture, and the culture runs the government. I felt despair when Aung San Suu Kyi got taken off to jail, and for her I thought I had no despair left.

But heartbreak feels out of place when we see this news story about the four women MPs in Kuwait, and there’s a photo of one of them, rejoicing with her friends. I’m looking at the photo right now. Her name is Aseel al-Awadhi. She has a merry face and an exultantly elevated thumb. It will be a better world for all of us if women like her are free to do well, and if she could hear us it would be our simple duty to say good luck to you. And another duty, alas, to say: mind how you go.


Somebody who had listened to the first two paragraphs of my broadcast, but apparently not to the rest, wrote in to point out that Saddam Hussein had been ruler of Iraq, not Kuwait. But Saddam Hussein had indeed been ruler of Kuwait, until he was driven out. Though it seemed fair to assume that people should have known this, I made a mistake in not spelling it out, just in case they had never noticed, or, more likely, had noticed but forgotten. When it comes to politics, you should almost always spell things out, even at the risk of being tedious. Later on, in September of the same year, I wrote, for Standpoint magazine, a whole essay in celebration of Pamela Bone. In that essay (which can be found now on my website) I further deplored the silence of Western feminists on the subject of so-called honour crimes, and tried to analyse the insidious mechanism by which a nominally liberal ideology, namely feminism, can find itself allied with extremism. I thought it needed spelling out at the level of nuts and bolts, or let us say knives and guns.

There is a theoretical point to be made but you have to look at the practical points first. When a sufficient number of women all over the world get cut up or buried alive or have their faces burned off with acid, finally even the Western feminists notice. (Even then, the breakthrough series of articles in 2010, a long, multi-part report for the Independent about honour crimes all over the world, was signed by a man, Robert Fisk: not normally a reporter for whose political opinions I have any great regard, but he covered himself with glory on that occasion.) The practical point is that feminists, who are nowadays multiculturalists almost to a man, or woman, find it inconvenient to countenance the possibility that any other culture might have deplorable aspects when compared to the West. The practical point having been spelled out, one is ready to promulgate the theoretical point, which is that all ideologies are in alliance with extremism, because any ideology depends on a refusal to consider the dissenting voice. The so-called Green movement, for example, wishes, in almost all its manifestations, to reduce the population of what it calls the Planet. But mouthpieces for the Greens are slow to specify how this reduction is to be brought about. How else except through coercion?

Alert listeners and readers no doubt detected that I found the brave and beautiful Aung San Suu Kyi impossible not to love. Much good that did her. Our helplessness to aid her case was just one more demonstration of a political truth that will always need spelling out even more than all the others. The wiser course might often be to do nothing, but it will seldom be without moral cost.