A well-known feminist novelist, Fay Weldon, admitted in a recent Sunday Times article that British feminists have failed “the Muslim sisters.” For fear of being labeled racist, the feminists had kept silent about the obvious “sexism” of immigrant communities—Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim.

According to Weldon, things were going more or less swimmingly for Muslim women until the Satanic Verses affair, for they were gradually integrating into the modern world of wage labor and sexual freedom. Unfortunately, Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie reversed the trend: “Within weeks outrage had united the faithful in Britain. . . . Muslim youth was back in the fold. The girls covered up again. . . . Muslim ranks closed.”

As social history, I think this is very doubtful. It is simply not plausible that women of Sunni origin who were liberating themselves from the veil and from male opposition should voluntarily return to subordination on the condemnation to death of a westernized Muslim writer by a Shiite cleric.

However, the silliest paragraph in the article was this one: “The situation of a Muslim woman in Britain today is not so different from that of an English woman in the 1950s, in the era of ‘no wife of mine works,’ when virginity was at a premium, when to be a ‘spinster’ over the age of 25 was a humiliation, to be barren was a ‘tragedy,’ when contraception was largely unavailable; when a woman was defined as a person who had babies and to whom many professions were closed.”

It is difficult to say what is worse in this passage, the self-pity (“I too was a victim, and know what it is like to be oppressed”) or the complete lack of imagination as to what it is like to be locked in a house all day for years on end and not permitted to leave except under the closest supervision, or to be taken to Pakistan at the age of 15 to be forcibly married to a first cousin you have never seen before and who is deeply repellent to you, knowing that a refusal might well lead to beatings and even to death.

The inability of western intellectuals to distinguish between the major suffering of others and their own minor irritations and frustrations goes back a long way: Virginia Woolf is a prime example, as are the many who could not see the difference between the House Un-American Activities Committee and the NKVD. It is as if the suffering of a prominent western intellectual counts many times as much as the suffering of anonymous exotics who will never so much as write a newspaper column.

Quite apart from the sheer egotism of this inability to distinguish between different scales of suffering, it is dangerous, for it implies—and will be understood by our enemies to mean—that we have nothing much in our tradition to defend. If there is no real difference between the oppressive practices of Muslims, including forced marriage on pain of death, and the treatment of women in the west only 50 years ago—and if any difference between the lot of western and Muslim women of today is ascribable solely to the recent efforts of a handful of feminists—then there cannot be much to choose between western and Islamic culture.

Moral equivalence, it seems, springs eternal.


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