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Feminists reaching for a clue

December 2, 2001


All of the west's flabby intellectual elites have had problems with Sept. 11, but it's the professional feminists who are really feeling the squeeze (if they'll pardon the expression). They started confidently enough. In the stirring clarion call of Professor Sunera Thobani of the University of British Columbia, at a feminist conference two weeks after the attacks, "There will be no emancipation for women anywhere on this planet until the western domination of this planet is ended."

Meanwhile, the Worldwide Sisterhood Against Terrorism And War, which includes Susan Sarandon, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker and about 75 other sisters and is "worldwide" mainly in the sense the World Series is, organized a petition called "Not In Our Name." "We will not support the bombing," declared the Worldwide Sisterhood. When the Afghan sisters began emerging from their hoods and it looked as if American bombing had liberated more women than every women's studies department put together, the feminists nimbly discovered a whole new set of grievances. Of all the various factions negotiating a broad-based government, only the original patriarch--the old king--has plans to include any broads. Washington, said Gloria Steinem, was colluding in "gender apartheid."

Well, yes, it's regrettable that there appear to be no Pashtun Janet Renos on the horizon in Kabul, and that the Jalalabad Playhouse has yet to book "The Vagina Monologues." But on the other hand, Afghan females will now be able to go to school, get jobs, receive proper medical treatment, walk unaccompanied in public, show their faces and dress as they wish.

It was this last point that the more inventive ladies seized on. As the Boston Globe put it, "The war on terrorism has certainly raised our awareness of the ways in which women's bodies are controlled by a repressive regime in a faraway land, but what about the constraints on women's bodies here at home?" This was in a column titled "The Burqa And The Bikini" by Jacquelyn Jackson, a "women's health advocate," and Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a historian at Cornell University and author of The Body Project: An Intimate History Of American Girls. "Taliban rule has dictated that women be fully covered whenever they enter the public realm, while a recent U.S. television commercial for Temptation Island 2 features near naked women," they point out. "American girls and women have been stripped bare by a sexually expressive culture whose beauty dictates have exerted a major toll on their physical and emotional health."

Got that? Afghan men make their women cover up, western men make their women strip off.

But according to the Montreal Gazette, quite the opposite is true: Afghan men make their women cover up--and so do we! "The burqa has many forms," writes Linda Gilman Novak. "North American females are urged to wear burqas of a different sort. Their appearance is subtle and sophisticated and not as easy to identify." I'll say.

But Ms. Gilman Novak does her best. She has noticed that various advertisements for Say What? Sweaters, Cover Girl mascara, Bonnebell makeup and Esprit clothing show models with turtlenecks pulled up to cover their mouths and copy lines like, "I let my eyes do the talking."

"This is the sporty, outerwear version of the burqa," writes Ms. Gilman Novak. "Young girls learn from these images what society expects of them when they mature, and the message that rings loud and clear is that to speak out is not 'ladylike.' Girls grow up conditioned to be silent. Advertising tyrannizes women in our culture. It is the Taliban of North American society."

To be honest, the only reason I stumbled across the column was because of the come-hither eyes of the Esprit model, staring out from the center of the comment page. I saw in those eyes not oppression but a playful, confident, modern western woman.

Who's right? The Boston Globe gals or the Montreal Gazette's? Are we western Talibans making women strip off or cover up? Well, the answer is: Both. Neither. Who cares?

The point the misses have missed is that the burqa was not what they call a "cultural confine," but the law: If you went for a stroll in Kabul wearing a turtleneck, you'd be arrested. And even "cultural confines" are mostly confined to non-western cultures--for example, to those Muslim societies where it's the "cultural tradition" for men whose sisters get raped to kill them. In 2001, North American women face no "cultural confines." If relentless messages about "body image" are tyrannizing American women into bulimia, how come we're the heaviest society in human history? Go to a suburban multiplex any night of the week and you can watch Julia Roberts or Gwyneth Paltrow surrounded by an audience whose distaff side weighs an average 220 pounds and is happily chowing down on supersized extra-buttery popcorn. Whatever oppressive messages about "body image" are being transmitted, these gals are cheerfully ignoring. As for "gender oppression," it's perfectly obvious that men's views on the matter are utterly irrelevant. If you stroll around downtown Washington, you can't help noticing that, in contrast to the heels and cleavage of Paris and Rome and almost every other western capital, there's nothing but a vast tide of women in sneakers and comfortable, shapeless clothing.

This is their right as free citizens. But when feminists yak on about "cultural confines," they're denying the very essence of liberty--that each of us is free to choose and therefore responsible for his or her actions. To equate the turtleneck with the Taliban requires a failure of the imagination bordering on the psychotic: Imagine never being allowed to feel sunlight on your face--by law.

Most women understand this. The traditional "gender gap" in wars--women are usually 10 to 15 percent behind men in their approval of military action--has statistically all but vanished: 86 percent of American men back the Afghan campaign, 79 percent of women. So the more interesting question is why there's such a huge gap between the overwhelming majority of women and the feminists who claim to represent them.

Pace Professor Thobani, the west does not dominate the world because it "exploits" people, but because it emancipates them--it untaps its greatest resource, its citizens, and invites them to exploit their own potential. Some will rise to high office (Condi Rice), some will make a nice living cranking out ridiculous theses for a lucrative niche market (Joan Jacobs Brumberg). But if you want one phrase that encapsulates the difference between the society we live in and the ones our enemies wish to impose, it's this: the treatment of women. The gal in the street gets it. A pity the stars of the sisterhood don't.

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