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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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tennesseejones
August 30th, 2009
5:08 PM
you're a magnificent writer (here as in so much of your work) mr cohen, and i am grateful we have you.

resisitor
August 30th, 2009
3:08 PM
Of course the invasion of Iraq (which Cohen supported) did so much for women's rights. Women who opposed the war such as Cindy Sheehan and the Dixie Chicks came in for the full blast of misogyny from Cohen's hero Christopher Hitchens. Indeed Hitchens called them "f***ing fat slags". Finally, does Cohen consider the possibility that the Benson and Stangroom book got universally bad reviews because it is very bad book? Instead he peddles a bizarre conspiracy theory involving the literary editors of the broadsheet press. (Cohen's latest pot-boiler got a similar panning, so I detect a personal motive at work here.)

Ross Burns
August 29th, 2009
1:08 PM
This is serious stuff; and nowhere in this essay is there anything but someone throwing his intelligence in with the need for women to have better lives all over the world.

mikespeir
August 28th, 2009
8:08 PM
These people are cowards. The reason they won't speak in favor of the oppressed is because then they might have actually do something about the oppression. And, gee, what do you suppose we'd have to do to gain Islamic women the rights they deserve?

Rebecca
August 28th, 2009
6:08 PM
It seems to me that what you are describing is that men - a large number of them worldwide - hate women. Men 'invented' and 'police' god, ie religion, the religion itself is usually capable of being flexible. It's the way it is used for power, politics and control of women that is unacceptable. Any religion. So, guys, what are you going to do about it?

Tina Trent
August 27th, 2009
7:08 PM
It sounds that what the world needs now, primarily, is for "former Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips" to stop calling for "Sharia at the East London Mosque." Next, all the male lawyers can take equal responsibility with the female ones for calling for equality, and the columnists who imagine all of feminist liberation in terms of the tiny fraction of white females (ie. families) who have domestic help can actually check real demographics and also check with their non-feminist peers to survey the prevalence and race and income of their help before making presumptions about cause and effect. I know exactly no women with domestic help, and I know many, many, many people who otherwise fit the description. Caitlin Flanagan needs to put down her little mirror before taking up her little pen, and Germaine Greer has cabbage for brains: they represent precious little beyond their own neuroses and small portions of very select zip codes (well, Greer is on her own). On the other hand, you hit the hammer on the head in your last few paragraphs about the real reason why feminists remain silent but go no further to hypothesizing whether others remain silent for the same reason, which in that case would be a worse reason because they're relying on misdirection and scapegoating. You propose a radical feminist movement that can rise above accusations of racism? This article is an object lesson in the thin chances of that.

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