MARCH 14, 2002
"The Women" Are Everywhere
-- Amy Hollywood
In "Where are the Women?" (The Nation, 22 October 2001), Katha Pollitt called attention to the plight of Afghan women under the then ruling Taliban. After describing the harshest of the measures against women under the Taliban (legally women could not work, go to school, or leave their houses without a male escort and they were denied almost any form of health care), Pollitt compares "the Taliban's crazier requirements" for women to "the obsessive particularity of the Nazis' statutes against Jews" in the years preceding and during World War II. Pollitt goes on to decry the widespread "notion that the plight of Afghan women is a matter of culture and tradition, and not for Westerners to judge."
While the 'appeal-to-the-Nazis' is a much overused and sensationalistic rhetorical strategy, I can understand the sense of urgency that leads Pollitt to deploy it in this case. I share her concern for the plight of Afghan women and her continued worry about the fate of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban's fall (see "After the Taliban," 17 December 2001). (For a more historically informed and nuanced view of the situation in Afghanistan, however, see Charles Hirschkind's and Saba Mahmood's "Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency," forthcoming in Anthropology Quarterly.) What concerns me here -- and led to my first ever, albeit unpublished, letter to the editor -- is the way in which Pollitt goes on to conflate the Taliban with "religious fanaticism" and religious fanaticism with the teachings of every "major religion." According to Pollitt, "the connections between religious fanaticism and the suppression of women are plain to see (and not just applicable to Islam)." "Show me," she challenges, "a major religion in which the inferiority of women, and God's wish to place them and their dangerous polluting sexuality under male control, is not a central original theme."
For Pollitt, religion is a static site of beliefs and practices oppressive to women. She shows no recognition of or concern for the fact that religion might do other things crucial for some people's -- among them women's -- flourishing, nor does she acknowledge that religious traditions are complex, changing, and contested (both from within and without). Most crucially, Pollitt's ignorance of the complexity of religious traditions leads her to play directly into the hands of the Taliban and other modern religious movements that make misogyny central to their belief and practice. Feminist scholars of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, to name only the religions about which I have some knowledge, demonstrate the complexity of women's positions within these traditions. There is no single view about women or women's sexuality within the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Koran, or the sacred scriptures of India (and the Koran may well come off the best here, as Azizah al-Hibri argues in a recent exchange with Susan Moller Okin). To suggest that there are monolithic conceptions of women or women's sexuality at the core of these traditions implicitly legitimates narrow and distorting misogynist readings and misreadings of their central texts and practices.
Of course I don't deny the extraordinarily patriarchal cast of much religious history; yet the subordination of women occurs in different ways and to different degrees within these complex traditions and is often accompanied by substantial goods. We can only begin to contend with and critique the religious subordination of women when we understand the complexity of religious traditions, recognize the emancipatory and egalitarian countercurrents that often exist within them, and, finally, accept that religions may satisfy desires and aspirations unmet by Western secular political ideologies.
Pollitt consistently provides sophisticated and informed feminist analyses of contemporary politics. The same attention and care must be given to religion if Western feminists hope meaningfully to ally themselves with women internationally, for many women throughout the world (as in the West) are struggling to achieve equality and fulfillment within existing religious traditions. When Pollitt claims that these traditions are necessarily and irrevocably harmful to women, she renders her conception of feminism immediately unpalatable to a substantial number of women who otherwise share her concern for women's physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being. Religious women's values may not be -- in fact, at times probably won't be -- couched in the same terms or even be the same as Pollitt's (or, for that matter, my own), shaped as Pollitt and I both are by modern Western liberalism and socialism (themselves deeply indebted to the Christian tradition).
Yet it's a mistake for Western women to assume from the outset the superiority of purportedly secular Western values. Rather we have to search for points of agreement between ourselves and women from different traditions, argue for the validity of ourn particular views, and -- perhaps most importantly -- allow these views to be questioned and challenged by the deeply cherished values of women different from ourselves. Only then can a truly international women's movement flourish.
-- Amy Hollywood teaches in the Religion Department at Dartmouth College and is currently a Marty Fellow and visiting Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is the author of The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart (1995) and Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (2002).