The clash between secularists and cultural relativists is forcing feminists to take sides — at the risk of accusations of Islamophobia
Femen activists interrupt Salafist preachers at a trade show in Paris. Moments later they were assaulted by members of the audience (© Eric Hadj/Paris Match via Getty Images)
The feminist action group Femen made the headlines again last September. Two members, both topless, leapt on stage at a Muslim women’s fair in north-west Paris to protest against the presence of fundamentalist preachers who allegedly justify rape in marriage, and other human rights abuses against women in the name of Islam. The women bore messages written in black across their chests, with one translating as, “Nobody makes me submit.”
When the women — one of Algerian origin, the other Tunisian — stormed the stage, two imams were debating whether it was permitted for a man to beat his wife. There were shouts of “Dirty whores, kill them!” from the audience, and a group of men jumped onto the stage themselves and assaulted the protesters before the police intervened.
Unsurprisingly in today’s climate of cultural relativism on the Left and within liberal feminism, the women, despite being of Muslim origin, were labelled racist and Islamophobic for disrupting the event and for displaying their breasts in front of religious men.
This is not the first time that Femen members have been accused of Islamophobia and racism. Chitra Nagaranjan, a black British feminist, wrote in the Guardian in 2013: “Femen’s actions also come at a time of intensifying international backlash against women’s rights that is increasingly being framed, perpetuated and accepted by male elites as rooted in ‘the West’ and imposed on other countries in a form of cultural imperialism. Unfortunately, statements from white French women saying things like ‘better naked than the burqa’ feed this narrative and are more likely to damage rather than support the struggles of the women they call their sisters.”
Following last November’s jihadist attacks in Paris, I wanted to find out how the divided women’s movement was dealing with the aftermath of such an outrageous assault on France’s freedom. French feminists have long been divided over Islam. Some argue that it is possible to redefine and reinterpret the teachings of the Koran to better suit it to equality between the sexes. But secularists insist that Islam has the subjugation of women and girls at its heart. The polarisation of views was compounded by the law against the wearing of the veil (and other visible religious artefacts) that came into force in France in 2004, and remains today.
Islamic feminists, as defined by researcher Stephanie Latte Abdallah, “claim the right to an interpretation (of the Koran) that promotes gender equality, new roles in rituals and religious practices, changes in the areas of family law, criminal law, and legal and political practices”.
The Left has allowed its tendency to blame the West for everything to offer a justification for terrorism as resistance to colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. As a lifelong feminist, and firmly of the Left, I have long been bitterly disappointed with those who supposedly campaign for women’s rights yet capitulate to Islamofascist men. Such women, in the UK, France and other European countries, have given their support to Sharia courts, the wearing of the full-face veil, arranged marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM), and gender segregation in public places. Supporting traditional Islam flies in the face of feminism, and even of basic equality between men and women.
Ana Pak is an Iranian secular feminist who works with refugees arriving in France from Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. Pak grew up during Khomeini’s rule. “The word Islamophobic comes from 1979 when [Ayatollah] Khomeini came to power and women went to the streets and marched to be free of the veil,” she says. “Khomeini and the Islamists obliged them to wear the veil, and that’s when they started calling these women Islamophobic.”
Pak was forced to leave Iran for France, having been arrested several times for campaigning against theocracy in Iran. Having escaped prison, she expected to be able to continue her anti-Islam activism in the democratic, secular country of her exile. “I was shocked to find that the French Left was capitulating to the Islamists, and that I was soon labelled as Islamophobic for resisting its doctrine. I have never stopped working against or fighting Islamists, in Iran first of all, and then in France. In Iran I was involved with the Left, but the Left has lost its raison d’être. Now the Left use the same words that the Islamists have used in their own campaign.”
Pak was dismayed by the reaction of some French citizens to the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “Immediately following the attacks at Charlie Hebdo I went in the evening with some feminist friends to the Place de la République, where we assembled to support the people who were killed. Two of my friends had banners with typical feminist slogans, like ‘No to the veil’ and ‘No extremism’, but the French people that were already there asked them to remove them because they could cause offence.
“After the Hebdo killings, a common reaction was to blame the journalists who ‘dared’ to criticise Islam, saying they were guilty of blasphemy. Now Islamists are killing those who drink wine and who go to concerts. Tomorrow it will be people who march in the streets. Islamists are taking power in France, and what they want once they are in power is to achieve absolute submission.”
Those who use the history of French colonialism to justify the massacres are misguided, she says. “Islamists have taken power in Iran against Iranians, in Syria against the Christians, in France against those who go out and drink wine. So the people who blame colonialism are wrong.”
Clara Carbunar is part of the World March of Women (WMW) France. She works with young women in Europe, some of whom are Muslim, as well as with multi-ethnic communities in France. “I was really mad after the terrorist attacks in Paris last January. Who was targeted? Journalists and Jewish people,” says Carbunar. “The Left gathered around the demand to end Islamophobia, following the attacks. There was a national march, but what was organised was a protest against Islamophobia without mentioning anti-Semitism. The two questions that divide feminists are lesbian and gay rights on one hand, and anti-Semitism on the other.”
One of organisations she attacks is the Party of Indigenous People of the Republic (PIR). Established in 2010, PIR campaigns against “Eurocentrism, Islamophobia, anti-black racism and Zionism”. “PIR have influenced the Left on Islam,” says Carbunar. “They announced a march against racism, and this was not a feminist demand at first. It was women who led the march, but nothing in their demands was about sexism. It was only about Islamophobia and racism. They define racism as against black people, Muslims and Roma, forgetting the Jews, who have been targeted a lot in France these last years. Obviously this is a major point of debate.”
According to many feminists I spoke to, PIR, co-founded by Houria Bouteldja, is both anti-Semitic and anti-feminist, and yet presents itself as progressive and leftist. “Bouteldja wrote that homosexuality is not an issue for the suburbs. She thinks Muslim women should follow Muslim men,” says Carbunar. “Bouteldja’s response to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo was to blame the victims for their fate.”
Writing about that massacre, Bouteldja declared: “I hold a grudge against Charlie Hebdo for making all of us carry the heavy burden of its inconsistency. I blame them for having missed the essential part, probably the only thing that matters: we are human, not doormats. I blame them for having stripped satire of its meaning, for directing it against the oppressed (which is a form of sadism) instead of against power and the powerful (which is a form of resistance) . . . I blame them for not having listened to these damn ‘Islamo-leftists’. I resent them for if they had heard us, perhaps we could have saved them from themselves, and maybe they would still be with us.”
“Charlie Hebdo was rooted in anarchist, extreme leftist grounds,” says Carbunar. “That’s where it came from and it was who was reading it, basically. But the Left then abandoned them after the massacre.”
Clearly, the problems of French society are complex — but the jihadis are not complex at all: they simply wish to destroy Western civilisation. Why then do some feminists apparently cast aside their principles of social justice and equality and not recognise that the Islamists who carry out such attacks simply wish to finish what the Nazis began?
I asked Thierry Shaffausser, an activist firmly situated on the hard Left, a campaigner for workers’ rights who describes himself as a feminist, what he thought was behind the Paris massacres. “There are many political responsibilities, including our own foreign politics in the Middle East,” he said. “My main fear is that violence leads to more violence and that bombing Syria will leave the local population in extremist hands. All the terrorists were French. Our country has produced its own terrorists.”
Why is that?
“France is increasingly tense and harsh with its minorities. France rejects the concept of minorities and wants to impose the idea of universalism, which means erasing differences,” Shaffauser said. “At the same time, social inequalities increase, and the far Right is topping the polls. Daesh may provide an alternative political model for people who have been failed by the so called universalist republic.”
According to Shaffauser and others on the Left, the actions of the jihadists can be traced back to colonialism and secularism. “We have a law saying that schools must teach the positive effects of French colonialism. We have laws against wearing the veil. French Muslims are the second religion but they don’t have enough mosques in which to pray,” Shaffauser claimed.
Christine Delphy, a renowned feminist intellectual and co-founder of the journal Nouvelles Questions Feministes (New Feminist Issues) with Simone de Beauvoir in 1977, is a long-term member of the feminist organisation Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF). With such impeccable credentials one might assume that Delphy would be opposed to misogynistic practices such as the requirement for women to cover up in order to appear “modest” — but no. Delphy believes that feminists who consider the veil to be a symbol of women’s oppression are Islamophobic.
“White feminists should accept that [veil-wearing] women want to develop their own feminism based on their own situation,” she wrote in a Guardian article, “and that this feminism will take their Islamic culture into account.”
The stock leftist analysis is that France is a racist country and that the only critique of religious fundamentalism is coming from the racist Right. But there are feminists in France who will not follow the cultural relativist line and vigorously challenge it. One such is Malka Marcovich, a writer, historian and international consultant for women’s and human rights for the last 25 years. She is appalled by the attitude of many feminists in France, in particular those who believe that freedom of expression for religious fundamentalists is more important than it is for secularists and anti-Islamists.
“Christine Delphy is a minority in France,” she says. “The feminist majority have fought against cultural relativism. The struggle of many feminists is that we believe in secularism and universalism. It is the only system [under which] women can be free.”
Marcovich is concerned that those Muslim-born women who have rejected religion have been abandoned by the cultural relativists, and are not supported when they publicly criticise Islam. “They say we are racist, that we are colonisers,” she says. “The young women you see in the street wearing the hijab? Their mothers took it off. A lot of women from France have been saying for years that in certain neighbourhoods you can’t go out without wearing a veil, but nobody listened.”
She sees a danger in allowing the far Right to monopolise criticism of anything to do with Islam. “If you speak out, you are accused of being racist,” she says.
Amira (not her real name), an Algerian-born woman, has lived in the Parisian suburbs since 1974. Ten years ago she began teaching at a primary school in a predominantly Muslim area, and was warned on the first day not to say anything “negative” about Islam to the children.
“I think they were nervous of me because at the job interview they asked about my religion. I was very clear that I do not have one. But they pushed, and I said I had been born into a Muslim family but that I had rejected all of it.
“Many of the girls cover up [with a hijab] once they are in the school grounds, and the head teacher, who is a religious Muslim, asked if I would also wear a scarf to cover my hair. I politely refused, and from that day I knew my job was at risk.”
Despite the obvious opposition to Amira’s secularist beliefs, she bravely decided to complain to the head teacher about the fact that the hijab was not forbidden at the school, a contravention of French law.
“He started screaming at me, jabbing his finger in my face, and asking what kind of whore I was to go against my faith and support the racist French system.
“After the jihadist attacks many of the teachers blamed the French for the massacre. I was disgusted. I really worry about what they are telling the girls and boys at school. They said it was to do with the history of colonialism and imperialism, and not the fault of the actual murderers.
“When I heard about the Charlie Hebdo attack I was frightened to go into school. One of the teachers laughed when she saw me and said, ‘Are you pleased they got what they deserved?’ I felt sick.”
Linda Weil-Curiel is an expert on FGM and an outspoken critic of Islamism and the cultural relativism of the Left. She commented: “Everyone starts off by saying, ‘Let’s not get confused, what Islamic State is doing is not Islam, it’s barbarism. Islam is not that, it’s peace and love and everything.’ But it is not, of course. And nobody will acknowledge the truth.
“Because of the veil, the feminist movement became divided. Some said it’s their freedom if they want to wear the veil. After all they’re former colonies and the French cannot impose their views on all these populations. The new generation says it is freedom to wear the veil.
“The generation of Muslims who settled here in the Fifties and Sixties were assimilated, and the children were raised like any French child. Nobody asked for halal food or swimming pools where the girls were separated from men and boys. But after the Islamic revolution under Khomeini we have had a sort of Islamic revival among young people who were intoxicated by Islamism.
“As the suburbs became more turbulent, the elders were given power to bring social order. Then the imams began to have influence within neighbourhoods and on social issues.”
Annie Sugier, president of the Ligue du Droit International des Femmes (International League of Women’s Rights), disagrees on issues relating to Islam and the role of women within it, though LDIF aims to promote universal rights for women whatever their culture or religion.
“It is always violent people who create the agenda. It is happening now, it happened with Hitler and Stalin, with Napoleon, with all these people. The first wave of feminism was destroyed in the end by the fascists,” says Sugier. “Now the third wave will be destroyed by Islamists imposing their agenda.”
For Ana Pak, who escaped the Islamists ruling Iran, those who capitulate to these murderous fundamentalists cannot claim to be progressive. “Those who defend Islamism are not feminists at all,” she says, “because feminism means the emancipation of women from patriarchy, marriage, religion and any of the chains that keep us constrained.”
If French feminists could see Islamism as a reactionary, anti-feminist ideology rather than the cri de coeur of the oppressed they might be able to do more for the real victims — the women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who suffer under Islam or are killed by terrorists.
“Islamophobia was a word that was invented and used by Islamists to shut down debate, and prevent people from being liberated,” says Ana Pak. “It is used against Muslim women. How can this be sane?”
Meanwhile, feminists and others on the Left in France and elsewhere in Europe — the very people that should be ensuring Islamist fascists can never come to power — instead find ways to defend them.