Islamic treatment of women: why are we not more upset?

27 August, 2009

Anybody who grew up witnessing the years of struggle against apartheid in South Africa, as I did, would surely have been impressed by the cumulative effect of international sanctions against the former regime there.  Institutionalised discrimination against people on grounds of skin colour was ultimately defeated and South Africa became a respectable member of the world community.

For many years now, a related question has been preying on my mind.  Why is there no equivalent international agitation against regimes that have institutionalised discrimination against people on grounds of their genderWhy are there no street marches in Western cities by women’s groups (or indeed by any groups) protesting against the dreadful treatment of women in Islamic countries?  Why is there no boycott of products produced by such countries?  Why are our trade unions silent?   Why are feminists (with one or two partial exceptions, such as the Feminist Majority Foundation) keeping their heads down?

Are women no less deserving of protection from institutional discrimination than black or coloured people?  Is it acceptable to us that women be deprived of equal rights to education, healthcare, equality under the law, self-expression and free movement?  What do we say about female genital mutilation?

Either we have collectively decided that women in Islamic countries are less deserving of protection from institutional discrimination than black or coloured people were in South Africa or, more likely, we have decided for all practical purposes to do nothing about it.

 Possible reasons for this (pretty contemptible) attitude include:

  • the discrimination is in conformity with alleged principles of the Islamic faith, and religion generally tends to get a free pass as regards ridiculous and iniquitous rules (closer to home, we seem to accept the blatant discrimination against women in the Catholic Church)
  •  there are too many Islamic countries out there to make sanctions or coercion feasible
  • anyway some of them have lots of oil which we can’t afford to do without
  • feminists and left-wingers tend to be fixated with multiculturalism and avoid passing  judgment on non-Western cultures
  • there is some thing about gender discrimination, as opposed to discrimination on grounds of  race, that makes it more acceptable

This last point is a difficult one, and I don’t think many people would agree that they see things that way (consciously at any rate).  However I suspect that some people see the differences between men and women as being more substantial than the differences between people of different races or colours, and so by implication different treatment of the sexes might be easier to ignore than racial discrimination.

Here in Ireland, the newspapers and letter columns are full of arguments about glass ceilings, gender quotas for political representatives or university entrants or boards of directors, and even whether golf clubs can organise themselves on a single-gender basis.  That’s all very fine, but why are these the issues that command the column inches, when a far greater and more disgraceful oppression is widespread across the world?

Additional reading: The Subjection of Islamic Women and the fecklessness of American feminism by Christina Hoff Sommers (The Weekly Standard 21/05/07, Volume 012, Issue 34).

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