The comparison with the international anger directed at Apartheid is instructive. The oppression of blacks was once an affront to the conscience of the world. When we turn to the oppression of women, however, we find that the United Nations loses its conscience and encourages the ideologies of their oppressors. In 1990, Muslim foreign ministers challenged the first line of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights by replacing the ringing statement that "all human beings are born free in dignity and in rights" with the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights which announces that "all human beings are God's subjects". The UN's declaration says that everyone is entitled to its stipulated rights and freedoms "without distinction of any kind". The Cairo declaration says that rights can be restricted for a "Sharia prescribed reason". Nothing in it prevents forced marriages of pre-pubescent girls, or the death punishments for apostasy, homosexuality and the betrayal of a family's "honour".
Far from fighting off this direct assault on women's rights, the UN went along with it and entertained the idea that those who criticise Sharia are guilty of the crime of "defaming religion". In the West, the motion "Is feminism dead?" is a favourite at debating societies, but a glance around shows that it remains in rude health. I do not want to underestimate continuing sexism, the pay gap and the difficulties of working mothers, but wherever women enjoy freedom their cause is advancing. To encapsulate the advance in a sentence, it is now politically impossible for the leaders of parties of the Left or Right anywhere in the advanced world to exclude women from their cabinets.
Yet at the same time, the Archbishop of Canterbury can call for Sharia law to be imposed on British Muslim women, safe in the knowledge that his own women priests will nod their approval. Similarly, the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips can call for Sharia at the East London Mosque and women lawyers will not remind him that the mosque is a centre for Jamaat-i-Islami, which in India insists that husbands who throw out their wives have no duty to pay them maintenance.
The emancipation of women is necessary and essential for white-skinned women in London but not for brown-skinned women in Lahore. Or, to move from the global to the local, the emancipation of women is necessary and essential for white-skinned women in Hampstead and Highgate but not for brown-skinned women in Bethnal Green and Bow.
When pressed, the characteristic response to accusations of indifference is for hypocritical Westerners to protest that of course they do not support the imprisonment of rape victims. True, but they do not oppose it either. Their bad faith is evidenced by their palming of the moral-equivalence card from the bottom of the deck. I first saw it being waved in triumph in 1993 when Germaine Greer declared that attempts to outlaw female circumcision were "an attack on cultural identity". In her mind, there was no difference between religious traditionalists forcing an eight-year-old to submit to the removal of her clitoris and labia, and an American teenager voluntarily trying out body piercing. "If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?" asked the author of The Female Eunuch as she excused clitoral castration. At the time, I thought that Greer was a crass contrarian who would say anything to grab attention. I should have taken her more seriously. In the intervening years, her casuistry became the dominant mode of argument. Not everywhere: you can still find principled feminist comment from Katha Pollitt of the Nation or Joan Smith of the Independent on Sunday. Laurie Penny, one of the new generation of feminists, tells me to look to the internet where I will find campaigns to stop the Home Office deporting women asylum-seekers to misogynist tyrannies. Nevertheless and as before, even when I have made all the caveats, the stubborn fact remains that the treatment of Benson and Stangroom by the liberal mainstream was hardly an aberration.
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