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When Ayaan Hirsi Ali published Infidel, her account of escape from forced marriage and genital mutilation to Europe, her defence of the liberal values they once believed in appalled "liberal" Europeans. Although Ali needed bodyguards to protect her from Islamist assassins, Timothy Garton Ash sneered that she was an "Enlightenment fundamentalist" while Ian Buruma denounced her as an absolutist. Maryam Namazie, a Marxist Iranian exile who set up the "One Law for all Campaign" to oppose the Archbishop and the Lord Chief Justice, tells me that she experiences every variety of Western duplicity. When she argues in favour of the demonstrators in Tehran, the hard Left tell her she is serving the interests of US imperialism — "It's now reactionary to have a revolution," she sighs. When she last appeared on the BBC, to argue that the burka was a straightjacket designed to mark off a woman as a man's private property, the presenter told her she was an "extremist". With dreary inevitability, Does God Hate Women's critics say that Benson and Stangroom's atheist liberalism is as fundamentalist as the religion of the hardliners they condemn.

Leave aside, however, that the critics do not even-handedly condemn misogynists, homophobes and inquisitors but dedicate all their polemical energy to denouncing those who do. Consider instead whether their equivalence holds good. If you abandon atheism, no atheist police force imitates the religious police in Saudi Arabia and arrests you. If you decide you no longer believe in the equality of the sexes and say that God has made men dominant, no one arraigns you before an equality court. If you stop believing in free speech and start arguing for censorship, no "enlightenment fundamentalist" judge punishes your apostasy with a death sentence. Last month Newsnight discussed the 20th anniversary of the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, and Germaine Greer — yes, still at it — opined that Rushdie should have removed the "offensive" passages from The Satanic Verses. Writers had such extraordinary power, she said with wide eyes and in a breathless tone, they could "get away with murder". No one in the studio thought to tell her that the man who had got away with ordering the murder of Rushdie, his translators and publishers, was Khomeini, who died in his bed.

Azar Nafisi gave the best reason to dismiss such indifference to the power of real tyrants. The author of Reading Lolita in Tehran fled from the Ayatollahs' Iran to Boston, Massachusetts, not far from the site of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century. Instead of finding a strong movement dedicated to freeing women, she found a racist discourse on American campuses which insisted that culture and religion demanded female subordination. "I very much resent it in the West when people — maybe with all the good intentions or from a progressive point of view — keep telling me, ‘It's their culture.'  It's like saying, the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches. First, there are aspects of culture which are really reprehensible, and we should fight against it. Second, women in Iran and in Saudi Arabia don't like to be stoned to death."

There are dozens of arguments against the bad idea of cultural relativism, but "women in Iran and in Saudi don't like being stoned to death" can serve for them all. And yet the bad idea persists, undented and dominant, because of a deep selfishness in advanced societies. It comes in three forms, moral, economic and physical.  People on the receiving end of repression notice the air of moral superiority as soon as Western liberals refuse them their support out of "respect" for the culture which intimidates them. Liberal relativists are in this respect the true successors of their imperialist ancestors. Where once Westerners denied rights to lesser breeds without the law who were racially unsuited to enjoy liberty, now they deny them to diverse breeds without the culture who are unsuited by accidents of history and geography to exercise the freedoms white Westerners take for granted or handle the complex arguments white Westerners take in their stride. 

The economic grounds for selfishness are rarely discussed because, paradoxically, feminism helped create them. Women's liberation liberated the upper-middle class above all others. Instead of managing on one generous income, an already prosperous family could claim two, if it could find servants to look after its children and its homes. Someone had to clean and nurture, and even if the man was prepared to do his full share of housework — which, frankly, most men were not — there still would not be enough hours in the day to combine home with demanding and rewarding careers for husband and wife. As the perceptive American writer Caitlin Flanagan noted in her essay How Serfdom Saved the Woman's Movement, the forward march of women through the institutions would have halted had not globalisation, war, poverty, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall provided an army of poor migrants willing to take on menial housework and childcare.  "The new immigrants were met at the docks not by a highly organised and politically powerful group of American women intent on bettering the lot of their sex," she wrote, "but, rather, by an equally large army of educated professional-class women with booming careers who needed their children looked after and their houses cleaned. Any supposed equivocations about the moral justness of white women's employing dark-skinned women to do their shit work simply evaporated."

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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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