Elevatorgate was an infamous incident in the atheist community where Rebecca Watson was accosted by a man in an elevator at four o’clock in the morning. They were both attending an atheist conference. The backlash inflicted on her for daring to speak up about it was legendary and, if anything, proved that men are assholes no matter the community and that their sense of entitlement will manifest itself even in such ridiculous circumstances.
I am not particularly interested in talking about that backlash, because so much has been written about it that there’s nothing I could say that hasn’t already been said a thousand times. But there is one part of it that I find particularly interesting.
Richard Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” response to Elevatorgate was despicable. But I think it exposes something interesting about the anti-feminists. Here is the text of his response:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and…yawn…don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so…And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
Despite his ongoing sexism, he has at least apologized for this diatribe after being suitably chastised. He recognizes now that treating every situation like an Oppression Olympics is a crummy thing to do. Fair enough…
I write this entry not to blame Dawkins (who is still an asshole either way), but to point out the false dilemma contained in this line of reasoning, because it is one used by many anti-feminists. Here is another example from tumblr, the favourite refuge of bigots everywhere:
The woman on the left had acid thrown on her with no consequences for her husband that did it, while girls can’t wear that shirt in school which problem should be solved first?
This makes obvious one problem, which is this notion that we have to pick between Western issues and non-Western issues, one or the other. Anti-feminists even try to argue that we must pick between Western issues, that, say, rape must take precedence over pornography. But social issues are not like a queue at the grocery store: they don’t need to be lined up and addressed one at a time. Nothing stops us from talking about, and agitating about, more than one issue at a time.
But the problem I wanted to talk about is that this reasoning is really a double bind: they demand that feminists choose between arguing that Elevatorgate is as bad as female genital mutilation or speak over the Arab and African feminists who are fighting the issue in their homelands.
Of course we don’t think about that because of the inherently racist and colonialist attitude that Westerners know what’s best for the world and that non-Western positions are not relevant to the conversation.
A real feminist response, I think, would be to state that there’s no reason for Western feminists to speak over their non-Western counterparts, that Western feminists should be concerned with the issues facing Western women today, and that male entitlement (as exemplified by the backlash after Elevatorgate) is a cause of these issues. While it is true that women’s rights are, on the whole, more advanced in the West than most other places, that’s no reason to stop advocating for women’s rights.
You know how 1st world feminists get told that they don’t need feminism? They’re told that they should be glad they’re not “really oppressed” like the women in 3rd world countries. That things could always be worse.
You know what my mother tells me? She says I don’t need feminism because I should be glad I’m born in an urban city of Pakistan. She says, at least I wasn’t born in a rural area where girls are married off to men twice their age. That things could always be worse.
And our house maid, Shabana, who was married to her uncle at 15 and, at 18, has 2 children, she doesn’t even know what feminism is. She was told by her father that she should be glad her husband doesn’t beat her and hasn’t thrown tehzaab (acid) at her. That things could always be worse.
Am I the only one seeing a very disturbing pattern here?
Now, I do want to specify some things here, because I can imagine people reading this thinking that I’m supporting cultural relativism. This is absolutely not the case. I think female genital mutilation is a horrible crime, as should everyone. Cultural relativism is a bankrupt ideology which essentially reduces morality to whoever has the power to define what culture includes and does not include. You will note that the unwilling victims of cultural practices, mostly women, are somehow never included in this notion of “culture”: neither are the local feminists who fight against these practices. “Culture” is generally meant to only include what the elite believes is legitimate.
It also does not mean that Western feminists should not talk about these practices when they are performed in Western countries. Western feminists are well within their rights to act in self-defense against woman-hating practices performed locally, even if they originate in a non-Western culture.
For example, many people believe that Westerners have no right to take a stand against FGM performed in the West, women wearing hijab or burqa in Western countries, or other forms of woman-hatred because they originated from non-Western cultures. But for a Western feminist to fight against such practices performed in Western countries is self-defense against misogyny. To claim that misogynistic actions performed against some women do not affect the status of other women in that same society simply because they come from different cultures is silly and probably racist.