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Why have Western feminists been so muted in their criticisms of Iran?

Posted by Zand-Bon on Aug 14th, 2010 and filed under Feature Articles, Photos. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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By Toby Young


August 13, 2010

The fate of the 43-year-old Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning took a sinister turn yesterday when . Her lawyer fears she will now be executed imminently, probably hung by the neck until she is dead.

Many human rights groups have criticised the Iranian authorities for their brutal treatment of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, including Amnesty International and the International Committee Against Stoning. The mother of two has already received 99 lashes for committing adultery and according to her lawyer, who has fled the country after a warrant was issued for his arrest, she has been beaten and tortured in jail. Yet the response of feminists in the West has been strangely muted.

Hillary Clinton lost no opportunity to brandish her feminist credentials during her campaign to become the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee in 2008 and even went so far as to blame her failure to beat Barack Obama on the “glass ceiling”. Unfortunately, the concrete ceiling of Ashtiani’s jail cell hasn’t inspired any comparable rhetoric. All she has said is that she’s “troubled” by Ashtiani’s case.

At least Hillary Clinton was able to bring herself to mutter this mild rebuke. No other prominent feminist has spoken out about Ashtiani’s case, unless you include Yoko Ono who has signed the . We’ve heard nothing from Germaine Greer, nothing from Gloria Steinem, nothing from Jane Fonda, nothing from Naomi Wolf, nothing from Clare Short, nothing from Harriet Harmen.

We know why, of course. Almost no one on the left, with the honourable exception of Christopher Hitchens, dares to breath a word against any Islamic country for fear of being branded “Islamophobic”. Thus, a brutal dictatorship is able to torture and murder thousands of innocent women, safe in the knowledge that the self-styled keepers of the West’s conscience will remain silent.

The left has always had a blind spot when it comes to the abuse of human rights in the developing world and no one is more guilty of this myopia than the women’s movement. The political economist Amaryta Sen pointed out 20 years ago that in some parts of the world millions of women were unaccounted for, as David Aaronivitch reminded us in his Times column this week:

In China there were 107 men to every 100 women. In India it was 108 and in Pakistan 111. For whatever reason this meant that something like 100 million women were simply missing.

So what happened to these women? Aaronovitch’s column is so good it is worth quoting at length, particularly as it’s behind a paywall:

Probably they’d been killed at birth, died completely avoidably in childbirth or been denied the same rights as males to medical care. In their recent book on women in the developing world, Half the Sky, the American writers Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn write about how girls in India between the ages of one and five were 50 per cent more likely to die than their brothers. “More girls have been killed in the last fifty years precisely because they were girls,” they say, “than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”

In certain cultures and countries, women are more or less enslaved, traded by their fathers to their husbands and held in place through lack of education, enforced deference or threats of violence. Kristof estimates that there are annually some 6,000 “honour killings” (ie, murders of women wanting minimal rights) worldwide. As many as three million girls and women have been coerced — as opposed to recruited — into the Third World sex industry. Much of this enslaving of village and country girls has the effect of reducing social pressure in sexually conservative societies. In the worst sense of the word, it is hypocritical.

Weirdly, when Sen or Kristof and WuDunn or Time magazine point this out, the reaction of some in the West is to accuse them of a colonialist mentality. One woman Cambridge academic said last week — from the very belly of female free speech and free agency — that the “affluent West” had “little to offer Afghans other than bikini waxes and Oprah-imitators”. A British critic of Half the Sky demanded: “Why are we so wonderful? Our society is still just as sexist, albeit in more subtle ways, than the burka-enforcing Taleban. Working on a farm and producing your own food is a far more viable and healthy option that slaving in a sweat or sex shop.”

Could the West’s self-appointed defenders of women’s rights have done anything to prevent the wholesale slaughter of their sisters in the developing world if they’d taken up their cause? Could a feminist outcry today about the plight of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani do anything to prevent her death? We will never know, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that their continuing silence reveals the moral bankruptcy of their movement.

1 Response for “Why have Western feminists been so muted in their criticisms of Iran?”

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