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Feminism’s Blind Spot By: Sarah Baxter
The Sunday Times | Tuesday, August 15, 2006


When Ann Pettitt, the mother of two young children, and her friends set off in August 25 years ago on a 120-mile trek from Cardiff to the little known American air base at Greenham Common in Berkshire, they gave themselves the ambitious name of “Women for Life on Earth”. Their numbers were tiny but the stakes, they felt, were dauntingly high.

The cold war world was bristling with Soviet and American nuclear weapons, posing the threat of mutual assured destruction (MAD). In a dramatic escalation of the arms race between the superpowers, shiny new cruise missiles were due to be delivered to Greenham, placing Britain’s green and pleasant land in the bull’s eye for targeting by the Soviet Union.

The modest peace march was largely ignored by the media, so on arrival at the base the women decided to borrow the eye-catching tactics of the suffragette movement. They chained themselves to the gates of Greenham and dared the police to remove them. Sympathisers began to turn up bearing makeshift tents, clothing and pots and pans. Many came and went but others stayed. Thus was the women’s peace camp born a quarter of a century ago this month and a new chapter in the history of feminism opened.

“I was motivated by fear and terror,” Pettitt recalled last week. “I was the mother of a two-year-old and a four-year-old and weapons of mass destruction were the ultimate denial of the fact that I’d created life. There was such brinkmanship, I really thought that nuclear weapons might be used.”

Mercifully, they weren’t. President Ronald Reagan once blurted out in front of a live microphone that the bombing of Russia was going to begin in 15 minutes, but it was nothing more than a tasteless joke. In hindsight Reagan’s hardline negotiating stance helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the end of the 1980s the Berlin Wall was down and the velvet revolutions in eastern Europe were under way.

The peace movement lost a foe in Reagan but has gone on to find new friends in today’s Stop the War movement. Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched last weekend alongside banners proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now” and Muslim extremists chanting “Oh Jew, the army of Muhammad will return.”

For Linda Grant, the novelist, who says that “feminism” is the one “ism” she has not given up on, it was a shocking sight: “What you’re seeing is an alliance of what used to be the far left with various Muslim groups and that poses real problems. Saturday’s march was not a peace march in the way that the Ban the Bomb marches were. Seeing young and old white women holding Hezbollah placards showed that it’s a very different anti-war movement to Greenham. Part of it feels the wrong side is winning.”

As a supporter of the peace movement in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose views on women make western patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic. Nor would I have predicted that today’s feminists would be so indulgent towards Iran, a theocratic nation where it is an act of resistance to show an inch or two of female hair beneath the veil and whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is not joking about his murderous intentions towards Israel and the Jews.

On the defining issue of our times, the rise of Islamic extremism, what is left of the sisterhood has almost nothing to say. Instead of “I am woman, hear me roar”, there is a loud silence, punctuated only by remonstrations against Tony Blair and George Bush — “the world’s number one terrorist” as the marchers would have it.

Women are perfectly entitled to oppose the war in Iraq or to feel that Israel is brutally overreacting to Hezbollah’s provocation. But where is the parallel, equally vital debate about how to combat Islamic fundamentalism? And why don’t more peace-loving feminists regard it as a threat? Kira Cochrane, 29, is the new editor of The Guardian women’s page, the bible of the Greenham years, where so many women writers made their names by staking out positions on the peace movement. She has noticed that today’s feminists are inclined to keep quiet about the march of radical Islam. “There’s a great fear of tackling the subject because of cultural relativism. People are scared of being called racist,” Cochrane observes.

Whatever the merits of unilateral nuclear disarmament, women were a lot braver a quarter of a century ago. Pettitt remembers how “we tried to crash the top table at Greenham. You had to be rude to interrupt because you’re never going to be invited to speak”.

I had just left university in the early 1980s when I got swept up in the peace movement. My Saturday afternoons were often spent marching from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square and on the day when cruise missiles arrived in Britain, I rushed to a protest outside the Houses of Parliament, was arrested by the police, dragged into a black maria van and shoved overnight into a south London police cell. It was nothing compared to what the women of Greenham Common endured, but I felt like a heroine when the next day my male boss at Penguin Books, where I worked as a junior copywriter, paid my fine.

I was a bit sniffy about the all-women’s peace camp because I was partial to men and disliked much of the mumbo-jumbo surrounding it. In her forthcoming memoir, Walking to Greenham (published by Honno), Pettitt writes about the “delightful irony” of liberated women using “emblems of conformist democracy” such as knitting needles and wool to protest against war, but I used to see the ghastly spider webs and children’s mittens tied to the razor wire on the perimeter fence and shudder.

Nevertheless, I attended several “embrace the base” demonstrations in support of the women who had put the issue of nuclear disarmament so defiantly on the map. I went on to get a job at Virago, the feminist publisher, and marvelled at the way the “peace wimmin” had energised the brand new field of women’s studies, sparking lively debates on the virtues and vices of separatism from men and the extent to which nuclear weapons were “boys’ toys” (a tricky one in the age of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister).

Later, as a journalist, I broke into the base with a group of Greenham women, stood somewhat pointlessly on top of the silos where the cruise missiles were stored and went on to become friends with one of the peace campers, who had been abused as a child and had found comfort in the new “family” she had made living in the rough and ready “benders” constructed of branches and plastic sheeting.

It is now largely forgotten that Greenham inspired many women to free themselves from the narrow world in which they had been brought up to live instead in ways which we take for granted today.

Looking back I think I was wrong about Reagan and too sympathetic towards the Soviet Union. There were plenty of fellow travellers in the peace movement who were cheering on the Soviet Union under their breath. I can remember making a lot of silly excuses about it myself. But the fear of mutual assured destruction was genuine enough. As long as it worked, MAD was a plausible strategy. Were it to fail, the results would be catastrophic. As President Dwight Eisenhower said after the testing of the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s: “Atomic war will destroy civilisation.” If war came, “you might as well go out and shoot everyone you see and then shoot yourself”.

The situation today is very different. Writing in The Wall Street Journal last week, Bernard Lewis, the noted scholar of Islam, pointed out that Iran’s messianic rulers are not constrained by such fears. According to their theology, the day of judgment will be glorious. “At the end of time there will be general destruction anyway,” Lewis writes. “What matters will be the final destination of the dead — hell for the infidels and heaven for the believers. For people with this mindset, Mad is not a constraint, it is an inducement.”

Hassan Nasrallah, the Shi’ite cleric who leads Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, regularly issues bloodcurdling threats against the Jews. “If they (the Jews all gather in Israel,” he has said, “it will save us the trouble of going after them on a worldwide basis.”

For some on the left such words are merely understandable hyperbole, provoked by decades of Israeli ill-treatment of the Palestinians, but I prefer to take Islamic fundamentalists at their word when they spout insults about Jews being the descendants of “pigs and apes” and launch their chillingly apocalyptic tirades.

Why? Because they not only talk centuries-old nonsense about the place of women in society, but they also purposely oppress the female sex whenever they are given the chance. As regards their treatment of women, there is no discernible difference between their acts and their words.

In my own life I have been lucky enough not to experience a great deal of sexism. The 1980s and 1990s were decades of progress for western career women and working mothers. But I felt how it was to be invisible when I interviewed Hamas militants and clerics many years ago in Gaza. They were very courteous and helpful and I tried to be respectful by covering my hair with a black scarf. But they never looked me in the eye or addressed me directly. I would ask the questions; they would answer the male photographer who accompanied me.

Phyllis Chesler, 65, the writer and a founder feminist in the 1960s, has experienced some of the more disturbing aspects of Muslim patriarchy at first hand.

In the summer of 1961 Chesler married Ali, her western-educated college sweetheart, and went to live with him in Afghanistan. Nothing had prepared her for the restrictions and humiliations which Muslim women endured there, nor the gradual personality change that her husband underwent. The worst of it, she discovered, was “nothing unique happened to me”. It was the way of the world.

“The Afghanistan I knew was a prison, a police state, a feudal monarchy, a theocracy rank with fear and paranoia,” Chesler recalls in The Death of Feminism, published last year. “Afghanistan had never been colonised. My Afghan relatives were very proud of this fact. ‘Not even the British could occupy us’, they told me, not once but many times.

“I was ultimately forced to conclude that Afghan barbarism, tyranny and misogyny were entirely of their own making and not attributable to colonialism or imperialism. It is what they themselves would say.”

Six months later, travelling on false papers obtained by a sympathetic German-born friend, Chesler secretly fled the country. The ardent feminism that she embraced on her return to America was forged in Afghanistan, she told me last week. She has not recanted her support for women’s rights, she insists, but she has seen the views of others morph in alarming new directions.

“The compassion for people of colour has been translated into feminists standing with terrorists who are terrorising their own women,” she says. In the week when a massive bomb plot against civilians was uncovered in Britain, Chesler’s critique of women’s complacency in her book is prophetic. “The Islamists who are beheading Jews and American civilians, stoning Muslim women to death, jailing Muslim dissidents and bombing civilians on every continent are now moving among us both in the East and in the West,” she writes.

“I fear that the ‘peace and love’ crowd in the West refuses to understand how Islamism endangers our values and our lives, beginning with our commitment to women’s rights and human rights.” Women’s studies programmes should have been the first to sound the alarm, she points out: “They did not.”

Chesler has fallen out with many old friends in the women’s movement. They have in effect excommunicated her for writing in right-wing publications in America, but she has found it impossible to get published on the left. There are whispers that she has become paranoid, mad, bonkers, a charge frequently levelled against the handful of women writers who are brave enough to tackle the same theme.

In Britain there is the polemicist Julie Burchill, who has written incisively about the desire of terrorists to commit acts “not so that innocents may have the right to live freely on the West Bank, but so that they might have the right to throw acid in the face of innocent, unveiled women”. Well, the outrageous Julie has always been bonkers, hasn’t she.

Then there is “mad” Melanie Phillips, the Cassandra of our age, banging on that “if we wish to learn what was going on in Europe in 1938, just look around”. Of course she would say that, wouldn’t she. She’s Jewish, and anyway didn’t you know that she is crazy enough to believe in two-parent families? In America the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin died last year virtually unmourned by women on the left in part, as her friend Christopher Hitchens remembered, because “she wasn’t neutral against a jihadist threat that wanted, and wants, to enslave and torture females.

“That she could be denounced as a ‘conservative’,” he concluded, “says much about the left to which she used to belong.”

In Italy Oriana Fallaci, the 77-year-old journalist famous for interviewing Ayatollah Khomeini, recently went on trial accused of defaming Muslims. It is true that many of her comments about Islam — “a pool that never purifies” — are undeniably offensive, but no more so than comments routinely made by Muslim extremists about “the Jews”. In her cancer-stricken twilight years, the once glamorous Fallaci has been written off as a deranged old bat.

Fallaci has grown accustomed in recent years to living with death threats, as have the formidable Muslim women critics of Islamic extremism such as Irshad Manji, the Canadian feminist, Taslima Nasreen, the exiled Bangladeshi writer (and critic of the Iraq war), and Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose film Submission resulted in the murder by Islamic militants of Theo van Gogh, the gay Dutch film director.

Hirsi, after enjoying a brief succès d’estime, has been virtually hounded out of the liberal Netherlands and is due to arrive in America next month, where she has been offered a perch at the American Enterprise Institute, the neoconservative think tank. It is too easy to say she has sold out to the right. Where, one might ask, are her friends on the left? Something has gone badly wrong with a politically correct feminism that prefers to take aim at the United States, a haven of free speech and relative sexual equality, than to tackle the threat posed to women by Islamic fundamentalism. Just as the existence of Thatcher, the Iron Lady, at the helm of British government in the 1980s failed to impress the women’s peace movement, so the presence of Condoleezza Rice, a black woman who grew up in segregated Alabama, as US secretary of state has not dimmed the cries against American “racism”.

For this the 1980s peace movement must take some of the blame with its overbearing emphasis on the evil Reagan empire and soft-pedalling of the Soviet Union. But I am surprised, all the same, by the persistence of the ideological blind spot that has led women who are so quick to condemn the failings of the West to make transparent excuses for the behaviour of some of the world’s most anti-feminist regimes.

Recently Kate Hudson, chairwoman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, wrote a breathtaking apologia for the Iranian nuclear energy programme, which took at face value Ahmadinejad’s claims to be developing it for “strictly peaceful” purposes. (Since when, by the way, has CND regarded Britain’s nuclear power plants so benignly?) Never mind the preposterous dancing with enriched uranium around the doves of peace nor the missiles marked “Tel Aviv” paraded in the streets.

It is fair to say that Pettitt, the original Greenham woman, has wrestled with some of these problems. She is passionately against America’s “wars of revenge” for September 11, but makes it clear in her memoir that she is no pacifist: “I didn’t regard myself as being in a peace movement, I was in a movement against nuclear weapons. There are enormously hard decisions for which there are sometimes only military solutions.”

Pettitt’s mother, Solange, was a teenager in northern France when it was occupied by the Nazis and her family sheltered a British soldier for six months.

Pettitt’s father was a communist in the 1930s who was unsettled by Stalin’s pact with Hitler. At home after the war, Pettitt remembers hearing the stories of friends of her parents who had escaped the Holocaust.

“I can understand where Israel is coming from,” she says. “I’m not a fan of Hezbollah. It worries me a lot.” But like so many Stop the War protesters, she says that Bush and Blair have opened a “Pandora’s box”, as if the birth of Islamic extremism began only with the invasion of Iraq.

It is certainly plausible, as Pettitt claims, that Bush’s actions have “accelerated the radicalisation of the Islamic world tremendously”, although this popular view conveniently downplays the growing Islamic fundamentalist movement before the September 11 attacks and the huge psychological boost that it received from Al-Qaeda’s strike on America.

Let us assume that what Pettitt says is true. I can remember when the women’s movement was told that its persistent demands for equality were leading to a “backlash”. Susan Faludi wrote a feminist bestseller of that name, based on the premise that men were fighting back tooth and nail in the gender wars.

I have just got the book down from my shelves. It says on the back cover: “The backlash against women is real. This is the book we need to understand it, to struggle through the battle fatigue and to keep going.” There was no question of slinking away out of fear that men were being emboldened to find new ways of oppressing women.

The Middle East is engaged in a titanic struggle between modernity and theocracy. Whatever one’s views about the Iraq war or the conflict in Lebanon, it deserves more than slogans about “We are all Hezbollah now” and fury against Bush and Blair.

I don’t agree with Chesler that we are witnessing the death of feminism, but for now it is MIA: missing in action.

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