Richard Dawkins, one of the prominent figures in what we call the atheist movement in the USA, might be coming to speak at Stanford in the fall. I’ve been pondering what I think about him, and whether to object to supporting him in this way. I decided not to object; he’s not a good leader for me, but even Jen McCreight, who recently called for new attitudes in atheism, says she likes Dawkins despite his flaws. I’ve also decided not to try interrogating him about feminism, unless he says something provocative, because it’s not a useful battle to pick. But while many people have heard that Dawkins is no feminist, not many atheists I’ve talked to understand the problem with his ‘Dear Muslima’ letter and the attitudes that a lot of people share with it.
Dawkins got a lot of attention in 2011 when he wrote this letter as a sarcastic reply to the so-called Elevatorgate controversy. In that video Rebecca Watson briefly advised men not to proposition women when alone in an elevator, especially at night, even politely. It sparked a ton of discussion of feminism; Watson has said she’s exhausted from having to explain over and over again, for an entire year, why this was, and other feminist basics.
The “Dear Muslima” trope is the idea that “Muslim women”, usually meaning women in parts of the Middle East, are so much worse off than “Western women”, usually meaning those of us fortunate to live in countries like the USA and UK (perhaps even those who are also Muslim?), that we have problems too small to be worth addressing. This trope is a silencing tactic, commonly used by anti-feminists, against feminists in the “Western” world. The usual feminist response given, which came up in Dawkins’ case, is to explain that misogyny is far from obsolete in the USA, and that it’s ridiculous to expect women here to shut up because other women have it worse. Greta Christina wrote about how people often attempt to divert attention from misogyny near them by comparing it to ‘worse’ events elsewhere. But I rarely see responses that address the biggest problem with the “Dear Muslima” trope. I have not found such an article in the case of Dawkins’ letter, so if you know of one, please comment and share it.
The idea that “Muslim women” are more oppressed than “Western women”, is one I hear a lot. Coming from non-Muslims this may be a dislike of Islam, because there’s a commonly held idea that the Qur’an is “worse” than the Bible. Coming from most Americans, it may also be racism and/or xenophobia. (There is an interesting discussion of attitudes towards Muslim women, on both fronts, here.) Western feminism is dominated by white people in the US and the UK, and there are many who campaign against the oppression of women of color under Islamic theocracy. But what we hear from many feminists who are Muslims, or who are related to a lot of Muslims, or who live in a country where most people are Muslims, or who aren’t white, is that there are a lot of white Western feminists who are going about this wrong. That too many white feminists conflate all signs of Islam with the worst oppression of women in the Middle East, based on an archetypical “Muslim woman” who is brown-skinned and lives in Afghanistan. That because of our ignorance, too many white feminists never think about the actual personalities and goals of “Muslim women”. That when we say ‘to wear the hijab for “modesty” is to yield to the sexist idea that it is women’s responsibility to protect themselves from men’s desires’, we’re often ignoring the parallels within the USA. That when we talk about how restrictive the burqa is to a woman’s movements, we’re ignoring the hobbling effect of high heels worn by many Western women. That this kind of high-handed ignorance happens when white women look at women of color everywhere. And so on. There’s an entire satirical Tumblr about how brown women have more agency than white feminists seem to think.
Of course, there is obvious brutal oppression of women in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan, in many places. And much of that oppression is wrapped in a packaged of fundamentalist Islam. But Western feminists by and large not equipped to deal with this. We can see the problems, but we may come up with terrible solutions, while better ones are being proposed! Perhaps it is we who ignore a woman’s voice just because she is wearing a hijab (be it a headscarf, a niqab or a burka).
I’ve had a few conversations about the hijab and feminism with Muslim women: my roommate from Pakistan, my classmates in Arabic class when we learned about Huda Sha’rawi, the friendly woman who owned a small cafe and helped me wind a hijab so I could show respect when visiting a mosque, and other sporadic opportunities. Each of these has been in large part a lesson for me in the cultural frameworks that the speakers think within, and how that affects choices in how to do hijab, or other issues such as arranged marriages. The hijab is not free from criticism; it does represent pressure unfairly placed on women. But I found that I had a lot of culture to learn if I wanted to talk about hijab. Especially if I wanted to push for changes in the underlying attitudes rather than their superficial symbols, in a way that would actually be useful to Muslim women living their very different life experiences all over the globe. Muslim women are more likely to understand that that diversity exists, and to put in the effort to learn more before picking this battle. I support anyone who fights misogyny within Islam and does it conscientiously, but it is not a fight I’m in right now.
I am, on the other hand, already capable of getting through to people raised in a culture like mine, about the pros and cons of high heels. I am capable of distinguishing between cultural pressure and individual choice. Between the times when a person wears heels because they feel beautiful or are experimenting with gender, and the times when they’re afraid of being judged too ugly or unfeminine. I understand the femmephobia our culture has, and the reasons it’s socially unacceptable for a man to wear heels. I may not be able to change my all-round sexist culture, but I understand the methods and consequences of trying to. This is not the case when it comes to the hijab and the misogyny associated with it.
So no, white Western non-Muslim feminists, we should not prioritize liberating Muslim women abroad as our biggest feminist crusade. We can’t “liberate” women from their cultures entirely just because we think ours is better. But we can lend power to feminists who want to change their own cultures. Huda Sha’rawi set a precedent for not veiling women’s faces in Egypt, and we have real live feminists like Maryam Namazie and Taslima Nasreen speaking out against the misogynist ways Islam is used, Manal Sharif who dared to drive in Saudi Arabia, and others.
To American feminists in particular: if we allow our feminism to mix with xenophobia, not only are we doing the feminism wrong, but we’re also increasing the xenophobia that allows our country to fight unjust wars. If we care about liberating Muslim women in the Middle East, we should care about them as Muslim people in the Middle East. The USA could even learn a thing or two, from the dangers of fundamentalist Islam taking over leaders of another country, about the dangers of letting fundamentalist Christianity have any influence in ours.
So, to return at last to Richard Dawkins. This controversy was a year ago. I think it was two years ago when I went to a talk of his. I wasn’t that impressed with the evolutionary biology that he presented, and not impressed at all with the inexpert views he had on how public education ought to work. Given my own experiences, it was clear to me that he had only a small part of the picture of public education, didn’t realize this, and was quite happy to lecture to people who would treat him as an expert. But I was far more annoyed when he made an appallingly nonsensical comment about the evolutionary-psychology reasons for why women (apparently) dress frivolously and men don’t. He clearly doesn’t know much about feminism, so there was no reason a (male) audience member should have asked him about women’s issues–and yet people listened to his answer, even though you could immediately hear many women’s voices muttering angrily after his comment. We really, really don’t need more men proposing biological justifications for women’s inequality. Instead we could use more skeptics looking at the pseudo-scientific theories of gender, like Dr. Tavris in this very entertaining video.
Dawkins may have learned something in the last year or two. I can’t say I want him out of the atheist movement; nobody is perfect, and it won’t do much for social justice to ostracize one person as a scapegoat. This is why I’m not objecting to him speaking on campus, if Stanford wants to fund him. But I do wish, fervently, that people would spend more time paying attention to Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, Ian Cromwell, Jen McCreight, Natalie Reed, and other advocates of using skepticism for social justice and actually being good without God, than they do to anti-feminists. If Dawkins were to learn from criticism the way Cromwell does, then he’d be valuable as a leader. But I’m not holding my breath for him to check his privilege, because there are much clearer thinkers to pay attention to.