The Mystery of Misogyny

A feminist could take dim comfort from the fact that the Taliban’s egregious misogyny only became newsworthy after the war against them began last fall. It certainly wasn’t high on Washington’s agenda a few months earlier, in May, when President Bush congratulated the ruling Taliban for banning opium production and handed them a check for $43 million–never mind that their regime accorded women a status somewhat below that of livestock.

In the weeks after September 11, however, you could find escaped Afghan women on Oprah and longtime anti-Taliban activist Mavis Leno doing the cable talk shows. CNN broadcast the documentary Beneath the Veil, and even Bush mentioned the Taliban’s hostility to women–although their hospitality to Osama bin Laden was still seen as the far greater crime. Women’s rights may play no part in U.S. foreign policy, but we should perhaps be grateful that they have at least been important enough to deploy in the media mobilization for war.

On the analytical front, though, the neglect of Taliban misogyny–and beyond that, Islamic fundamentalist misogyny in general–remains almost total. If the extreme segregation and oppression of women does not stem from the Koran, as nonfundamentalist Muslims insist, then why should it have emerged when it did, toward the end of the 20th century? Liberal and left-wing commentators have done a thorough job of explaining why the fundamentalists hate America, but no one has bothered to figure out why they hate women.

And hate is the operative verb here. Fundamentalists may claim that the sequestration and covering of women serves to “protect” the weaker, more rape-prone sex. But the protection argument hardly applies to the fundamentalist groups in Pakistan and Kashmir that specialize in throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. There’s a difference between “protection” and a protection racket.

The mystery of fundamentalist misogyny deepens when you consider that the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist Third World movements of 40 or 50 years ago were, for the most part, at least officially committed to women’s rights. Women participated in Mao’s Long March; they fought in the Algerian revolution and in the guerrilla armies of Mozambique, Angola, and El Salvador. The ideologies of these movements were inclusive of women and open, theoretically anyway, to the idea of equality. Osama bin Laden hardly rates as a suitable heir to the Third World liberation movements of the mid-20th century, but he did purport to speak for the downtrodden and against Western capitalism and militarism. Except that his movement offered the most downtrodden sex nothing but the veil and a life lived largely indoors.

Of those commentators who do bother with the subject, most explain the misogyny as part of the fundamentalists’ wholesale rejection of “modernity” or “the West.” Hollywood culture is filled with images of strong or at least sexually assertive women, hence–the reasoning goes–the Islamic fundamentalist impulse is to respond by reducing women to chattel. The only trouble with this explanation is that the fundamentalists have been otherwise notably selective in their rejection of the “modern.” The terrorists of September 11 studied aviation and communicated with each other by e-mail. The Taliban long favored Stingers and automatic weapons over scimitars. If you’re going to accept Western technology, why throw out something else that has contributed to Western economic success–the participation of women in public life?

Perhaps–to venture a speculation–the answer lies in the ways that globalization has posed a particular threat to men. Western industry has displaced traditional crafts–female as well as male–and large-scale, multinational-controlled agriculture has downgraded the independent farmer to the status of hired hand. From West Africa to Southeast Asia, these trends have resulted in massive male displacement and, frequently, unemployment. At the same time, globalization has offered new opportunities for Third World women–in export-oriented manufacturing, where women are favored for their presumed “nimble fingers,” and, more recently, as migrant domestics working in wealthy countries.

These are not, of course, opportunities for brilliant careers, but for extremely low-paid work under frequently abusive conditions. Still, the demand for female labor on the “global assembly line” and in the homes of the affluent has been enough to generate a kind of global gender revolution. While males have lost their traditional status as farmers and breadwinners, women have been entering the market economy and gaining the marginal independence conferred even by a paltry wage.

Add to the economic dislocations engendered by globalization the onslaught of Western cultural imagery, and you have the makings of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called a “global masculinity crisis.” The man who can no longer make a living, who has to depend on his wife’s earnings, can watch Hollywood sexpots on pirated videos and begin to think the world has been turned upside down. This is Stiffed–Susan Faludi’s 1999 book on the decline of traditional manhood in America–gone global.

Or maybe the global assembly line has played only a minor role in generating Islamic fundamentalist misogyny. After all, the Taliban’s home country, Afghanistan, has not been a popular site for multinational manufacturing plants. There, we might look for an explanation involving the exigencies–and mythologies–of war. Afghans have fought each other and the Soviets for much of the past 20 years, and, as Klaus Theweleit wrote in his brilliant 1987 book, Male Fantasies, long-term warriors have a tendency to see women as a corrupting and debilitating force. Hence, perhaps, the all-male madrassas in Pakistan, the schools where boys as young as 6 are trained for jihad, far from the potentially softening influence of mothers and sisters. Or recall terrorist Mohamed Atta’s specification, in his will, that no woman approach his grave.

Then again, it could be a mistake to take Islamic fundamentalism out of the context of other fundamentalisms–Christian and Orthodox Jewish. All three aspire to restore women to the status they occupied–or are believed to have occupied–in certain ancient nomadic Middle Eastern tribes.

Religious fundamentalism in general has been explained as a backlash against the modern, capitalist world, and fundamentalism everywhere is no friend to the female sex. To comprehend the full nature of the threats we face since September 11, we need to figure out why.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive and the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001). From The Progressive (Dec. 2001). Subscriptions: $32/yr. (12 issues) from Box 421, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

Discuss women and fundamentalism in the Society forum at Café Utne:

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.