The WTC Attack, Sep 11 2001

Commentary and Analysis

Barbara Ehrenreich: why do fundamentalists want to suppress women's rights?

The fundamental mystery of repressing women
Friday 23 November 2001
reprinted in The Age, originally from New York Times

Feminists can take some dim comfort from the fact that the Taliban's egregious misogyny has finally been noticed. For years, the oppression of Afghan women was a topic for exotic Internet list serves and the occasional forlorn Internet petition. As recently as May, for example, President George W. Bush congratulated the ruling Taliban for banning opium production and handed them a cheque for $43 million - never mind that their regime accorded women a status below that of livestock.

In the weeks after September 11, however, you could find escaped Afghan women on Oprah and longtime anti-Taliban activist Mavis Leno doing the cable talk shows. CNN has shown the documentary Behind the Veil, and even Bush has seen fit to mention the Taliban's hostility toward women - although the regime's hospitality to Osama bin Laden is still seen as a far greater crime.

Women's rights might play no part in United States foreign policy, but we should perhaps be grateful that they have at least been important enough to deploy in the media mobilisation for war.

On the analytical front, though, the neglect of Taliban misogyny - and beyond that, Islamic fundamentalist misogyny, in general - remains almost total.

If the extreme segregation and oppression of women do not stem from the Koran, as non-fundamentalist Muslims insist, if it is in fact something new, then why did it emerge when it did at the end of the 20th century? Liberal and left-wing commentators have done a thorough job of explaining why the fundamentalists hate America, but no one has bothered to figure out why they hate women.

And "hate" is the operative verb here. Fundamentalists might claim that the sequestration and covering of women serves to "protect" the weaker, more rape-prone sex. Or that they "protect" men from having unclean thoughts. But the protection argument hardly applies to the fundamentalist groups in Pakistan and Kashmir that specialise in throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. There's a difference between protection and a protection racket.

The mystery of fundamentalist misogyny deepens when you consider that the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist Third World movements of 40 or 50 years ago were, for the most part, at least officially committed to women's rights.

Women participated in Mao's Long March; they fought in the Algerian revolution and in the guerrilla armies of Mozambique, Angola and El Salvador. The ideologies of these movements - nationalist or socialist - were inclusive of women and open, theoretically anyway, to the idea of equality.

Bin Laden is, of course, hardly a suitable heir to the Third World liberation movements of the mid-20th century, but he does purport to speak for the downtrodden and against Western capitalism and militarism. Except that his movement has nothing to offer the most downtrodden sex but the veil and a life lived largely indoors.

Of those commentators who do bother with the subject, most explain the misogyny as part of the fundamentalists' wholesale rejection of "modernity" or "the West". Hollywood culture is filled with images of strong or at least sexually assertive women, hence, the reasoning goes, the Islamic fundamentalist impulse to respond by reducing women to chattels.

The only trouble with this explanation is that the fundamentalists have been otherwise notably selective in their rejection of the "modern". The 19 terrorists of September 11 studied aviation and communicated with each other by e-mail. Bin Laden and the Taliban favor Kalashnikovs and Stingers over scimitars. If you're going to accept Western technology, why throw out something else that has contributed to Western economic success - the participation of women in public life?

I don't know, but I'm willing to start the dialogue by risking a speculation: maybe part of the answer lies in the ways that globalisation has posed a particular threat to men.

Western industry has displaced traditional crafts - female as well as male - and large-scale, multinational-controlled agriculture has downgraded the independent farmer to the status of hired hand. From West Africa to South-East Asia, these trends have resulted in massive male displacement and, frequently, unemployment.

At the same time, globalisation has offered new opportunities for Third World women - in export-oriented manufacturing, where women are favored for their presumed "nimble fingers", and, more recently, as migrant domestics working in wealthy countries.

These are not, of course, opportunities for brilliant careers, but for extremely low-paid work under frequently abusive conditions. Still, the demand for female labor on the "global assembly line" and in the homes of the affluent hasbeen enough to generate a kindof global gender revolution. While males have lost their traditional status as farmers and breadwinners, women have been entering the market economy and gaining the marginal independence conferred even by a paltry wage.

In Sri Lanka, according to anthropologist Michele Ruth Gamburd, where many women find work in factories or as migrant domestics, the decline of the male breadwinning role has led to male demoralisation, marked by idleness, drinking and gambling.

Add to the economic dislocations engendered by globalisation the onslaught of Western cultural imagery, and you have the makings of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called a "global masculinity crisis". The man who can no longer make a living, who might depend on his wife's earnings, can watch Hollywood sexpots on pirated videos and begin to think the world has been turned upside down. This is Stiffed - Susan Faludi's 1999 book on the decline of traditional manhood in America - gone global.

Or maybe the global assembly line has played only a minor role in generating Islamic fundamentalist misogyny.

After all, the Taliban's home country has not been a popular site for multinational manufacturing plants. There, we might look for an explanation involving the exigencies - and mythologies - of war.

Afghans have fought each other and the Soviets for much of the past 20 years, and, as Klaus Theweleit wrote in his brilliant late-1980s book Male Fantasies, long-term warriors have a tendency to see women as a corrupting and debilitating force.

Hence, perhaps, the all-male "madrassas" in Pakistan, where boys as young as six are trained for "jihad", far from the potentially softening influence of mothers and sisters. Or recall terrorist Mohamed Atta's specification, in his will, that no woman handle his corpse or approach his grave.

Then again, it could be a mistake to take Islamic fundamentalism out of the context of other fundamentalisms - Christian and Orthodox Jewish. All three aspire to restore women to the status they occupied - or are believed to have occupied - in certain ancient nomadic Middle Eastern tribes. Religious fundamentalism in general has been explained as a backlash against the modern capitalist world, and fundamentalism everywhere is no friend to the female sex.

To comprehend the full nature of the threats we face since September 11, we need to figure out why. Assuming women matter, that is.

Barbara Ehrenreich is an American author, essayist and social critic. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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