Why Do The “Isms” That Affect Men Seem More Important?

“You’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there’s also a sexual revolution.”

That’s Bill Maher’s verdict on the push for Democracy in Egypt as he discussed the matter on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher.

Pro-feminist, Tavis Smiley, agreed that women need to be treated better. Yet he inserted a different spin: “When we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if we treat women better in our country, it demonizes Muslim men.”

The most well-meaning among us, men like Smiley, work hard to respect other cultures. Yet sometimes we need to discern whether powerful elements of a society are harming less powerful targets. And really, is pointing out a need for improvement “demonization”?

Mr. Smiley is a-okay in my book, and I appreciate his aim here. Yet there is plenty of room for change in cultures that (depending upon the country or province) stone women for being victims of rape, beat women for leaving home without a male relative, keep girls out of school, forbid women from driving, make divorce difficult for women but easy for men, remove battered women from shelters, and cut women’s genitals – leaving them in pain, crippled, or dead.

It’s a sad turn of events when early Islam did so much to improve women’s rights in the world. The Koran gave women the right to work, inherit and own property. Female infanticide and slavery were abolished. Women were given the right to consent to marry. Protections against abuse became instituted.

Today Islamic scholars like Dr. Jamal Badawi work to support women’s rights. Meanwhile, large majorities favor legal, political and professional freedoms for women in North Africa and many countries in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. In fact, the Islamic culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the most peace-loving, egalitarian places on the planet.

Islam isn’t the problem. Neither are Muslim men.

Still, problems abound. Yet Smiley seems more concerned with ethnocentrism than sexism, given his desire to cut off conversation. Why do the “isms” that affect men seem more important? And did women have equal power to create the cultures that oppress them?

When ethnocentrism and sexism are at odds, which worries should prevail? Cultural relativism – don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another – is a good guide most of the time. But what if someone is being harmed? When people are killed for reasons other than self-defense, when they are crippled physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, those circumstances must trump all others.

Must we worry more about offending those who create cultures that harm women than freeing women who are harmed by them?

Meanwhile, Islamic feminists complain that Western women can be too fearful of offending ethnic sensitivities to back their feminist sisters.

Now, is lecture the best way to handle this? Dialogue is better. Other cultures have perspectives that can benefit us, too. Perhaps we can learn from each other.

Love Tavis. But he insists we cannot criticize until we perfect ourselves. We’ll never be perfect. Still, we must fight oppression wherever it is found, here and there, to whatever degree we find it. Tolerating intolerance is not progressive.

Georgia Platts

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 25, 2011, in feminism, gender, psychology, race/ethnicity, sexism, violence against women, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree. Cultural relativism can go too far by siding with the oppressors and delegitimizing dissenters with perfectly valid points.

    • Yes, it’s so important to look at where harm is being caused — and who is more harmed — instead of automatically letting things go just because cruelties happen in a different culture.

  1. Pingback: Tampons, Eggs, Your Period, A Camera: Editors’ Picks, 2/20-2/26 : Ms Magazine Blog

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