March is Women's History Month, and Laura and George W. Bush celebrated International Women's Day with a White House reception for women of Third World countries.
"Our history was altered because strong women stood up and led," the president told his gathering. "These women broke down barriers to equality."
He's right. The suffragettes and the second wave of feminists pushed hard for the vote, for breaking down doors to enable women to exploit opportunities that had long been denied to them.
But the feminist movement, if not authentic feminism, has become soft, selfish, insular, marginalized and irrelevant. Phyllis Chesler, who fought in the hard battles of the decades just past, is one of the few feminists with the courage to challenge her soft sisters for having "failed their own ideals and their mandate to think both clearly and morally."
The plight of Islamic women abused in the name of Allah in the Middle East and in Europe requires aggressive rebuke from women in the free world, but feminists in the West, and particularly in the United States, are struck dumb in an academic ghetto, stuck with a parochial approach to women's studies and obsessed with their personal "body rights" and their sexuality.
"The multicultural feminist canon has not led to independent, tolerant, diverse, or objective ways of thinking," she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. "On the contrary, it has led to conformity, totalitarian thinking, and political passivity. Although feminists indulge in considerable nostalgia for the activist 60s and 70s, in some ways they are no different from the rest of the left-leaning academy, which also suffers from the disease of politically correct passivity."
American women are the most pampered women in the world. It's no surprise that the phrase "You've come a long way, baby" was easily co-opted to sell them cigarettes. Enlightened self-interest is neither misdemeanor nor felony, but it has blinded the feminists to the larger picture.
Islam, whether isolated in enclaves in European cities or dominant in the Islamic nations of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, is exploited to oppress women. But feminists with the big microphones keep the silence of church mice. "Because feminist academics and journalists are now so heavily influenced by left ways of thinking," writes Chesler, "many now believe that speaking out against head scarves, face veils, the chador, arranged marriages, polygamy, forced pregnancies or female genital mutilation is either 'imperialist' or 'crusade-ist.'"
Confronting brutal reality requires courage. Muslim women enjoying an innocent secular life in Berlin were murdered by Muslim men "defending" Islamist patriarchy. Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, was killed by an Islamist terrorist in Amsterdam for exposing the abuse of Islamic women in a documentary about how women are beaten, raped and forced into marriage in the name of Allah. The taboo against women driving automobiles in Saudi Arabia is mild by comparison, but the taboo stems from the same Islamic patriarchal root.
Speaking up and speaking out is dangerous. But there are brave women who do. Wafa Sultan is one of them. She is a secular Arab-American psychologist in Los Angeles. She shuns the phrase "a clash of civilizations," preferring "a clash of opposites." But whatever it's called, she sees it as a horror. "It's a clash between a mentality that belongs to the Middle Ages and another mentality that belongs to the 21st century," she said in a debate on al Jazeera TV (transcript available at www.memri.org). "It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings."
These sentiments are echoed by Italian feminist Oriana Fallaci, who asks in her book "The Rage and the Pride" why so many women in Islam "cannot go to school, cannot go to the doctor, have no rights whatsoever, who count less than a camel."
It's ironic that the American feminists who bash President Bush for liberating Afghanistan and Iraq, and who jeered and waved banners outside the White House on International Women's Day, can't see how women in Afghanistan and Iraq are being liberated from the patriarchal structures feminists say they despise. "As women become a part of the democratic process," the president told his guests at the White House reception, "they help spread freedom and justice and most importantly of all, hope for the future." He promised to continue working with other countries to end human trafficking of women and young girls and to seek women's rights and democracy in North Korea, Iran and Burma.
These are not, strictly speaking, feminist issues so much as human ones. But isn't that what feminism is supposed to be about?