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Sunday, May 24, 2009

Still looking for the western feminists

Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Friday, 22 May 2009 18:44 UK

High heel

Women who believe liberal values exploit their sexuality have something much

greater to fear- the jackboot of dictatorship, says Clive James.

In a week when the troubled parliament of Britain continued to swamp the front pages with tales of fiddle,

fraud and the incredible disappearing Speaker,

there wasn't much room for news about the parliaments of other countries,

but there was one story in the middle pages that might have been calculated to remind us of

why democracy really matters.

The parliament in Kuwait has just acquired its first four women MPs.

The price might
have seemed
too high,
but at least now
it is no longer
official policy
to rape a woman
in front
of her family

Kuwait is by no means, a perfectly constituted democracy. As far as I can figure out, there is a ruling family whose Emir chooses the government and calls elections for parliament. But women have now been elected to the parliament, by popular vote. It should hardly need saying that this would have been unlikely to happen if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to continue to rule the country by terror, but let's leave his awful memory aside for a moment if we can, and dare to put forward a general reflection.

Clive JamesDemocracy is the best chance for women. Or if that sounds too naive, too pro-western perhaps, then let's put it this way. The absence of democracy is seldom good news for women.

Or, to get down to bedrock, if women can't vote for women, then they haven't got many

weapons to fight with, when they seek justice.

My own view which I'm ready to hear contested, is that this is the main reason why some

feminists in the west have been so slow to get behind those women in the world's

all too numerous tyrannies, who have to risk their lives to say anything.

It's just too clear a proof that men have a natural advantage when it comes to

the application of violence.

When you say that women have little chance against men if it comes to a physical battle,

you are conceding that there really might be an intractable difference between

the genders after all.

Salwa al-Jassar
One of Kuwait's four elected female
MPs - Salwa al-Jassar

Ideological feminists in the West were for a long time reluctant to concede this, because they preferred to believe that there was no real difference, and that all female handicaps were imposed by social stereotyping that could be reversed by argument. But this belief was really possible only in a society where the powers of argument had a preponderance over the powers of violence.

And since many western feminists are still convinced that the social stereotyping of the West is the product of fundamental flaws within liberal democracy itself, they have a tendency to believe

that undemocratic societies are somehow valuable in the opposition they offer to the free

countries, which the feminists are so keen to characterise as not free enough.

I have to pick my words carefully here, because this is the touchiest theme I have ever

tackled in these broadcasts_ but I do think it's high time to say that

if feminist ideologists find liberal democracy unfriendly,

they might consider that the absence of liberal democracy is a lot less friendly still.

Helping to give me courage, here, finally, is that quite a lot of women are already saying it.

But they tend not to be western pundits. They tend to be women out there, in the thick of

a real battle not just an argument. Why their bravery doesn't shame more of our feminist

pundits I hesitate to say. It certainly shames me.

This importance of democracy, or at any rate of an amelioration of tyranny,

should have become clear when, after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the first provisional

government in Iraq included women members.

But it didn't become clear, because too many of our commentators wanted to call the

provisional government a puppet government, under the control of the US.

Vote best hope

Even as it became steadily more clear that nothing in Iraq was under the control of the US,

feminists in the West continued to do a stunning job of ignoring the risks that women in

Iraqi public life were running.

An Iraqi female MP could get murdered and it was held to be a natural result of US

imperialism, almost as if she had been murdered by George W Bush in person.

But she hadn't been. She had been murdered by local men who were making

an example of her.

They feared what she would bring: the spectre of women claiming an importance

equal to that of men.

Pamela Bone
The late Pamela Bone holds aloft
a Women's Day special issue

Last year the excellent Australian feminist journalist Pamela Bone finally died of

cancer, but while she was still fighting it she published, in 2005, in response to

what she regarded as the thunderous silence that had greeted the stand taken by

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an article called "Where are the western feminists?" What Pamela

Bone meant was, that she was amazed why so many of her colleagues couldn't see,

or didn't want to see, that democracy was the best hope for women.

Pamela Bone was well aware that there is a necessary quarrel about how democracy

can be brought about in countries that don't have it, and I hasten to concede that of

the two possible main views about the invasion of Iraq, for example, my own view,

in favour, soon became the minority view. But Pamela Bone couldn't see how there

could be any doubt that women in the countries without democracy were in a battle

that they were bound to lose if the men could prevail by force.

Men will always monopolise the means of violence if they can. Women can learn to

shoot guns, but there are no all-female armies, and even the Amazons were

probably a myth.

Women, on the whole, would naturally like to do something else, whereas an army,

for too many men, is a home away from home, and often their only home.

It's the only home for the junta in Burma. The junta is in the news again this week

because it found a pretext for locking Aung San Suu Kyi into prison, instead of just

leaving her helpless under house arrest.

The terms of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest were that she should receive no

visitors, and some poor demented American.

Slow martyrdom

Vietnam veteran made sure that the terms were violated by swimming to her

front door.

Placard of Aung San Suu Kyi
Despair heaped on despair -
activists ready to march for
Aung San Suu Kyi

Like many a head-case he probably just wanted to discuss his theories about

how aliens control everything, but the all-male military junta in Burma really

does control everything and here was their chance to dump Aung San Suu Kyi

into jail until the next election is over.

Aung San Suu Kyi not only has the stature, she has the right, to lead the

government of her county. If the public got a chance to say so, she would do

so, and bring immeasurable improvement not only to Burma but the whole area.

I say all this because in some moment of optimism I allowed my name to get

put on the masthead of the organisation in this country that campaigns for her

release, the Burma Campaign, but I have done nothing else for her before today,

mainly because I don't believe that my going to dinner with like-minded

humanitarians is likely to help much.

What she needs is an invading army, but even if there were one available,

armed intervention, since the Iraq incursion, has been out of fashion:

no doubt with good reason, but those appalled by the moral cost of toppling

a tyrannical regime are still stuck with counting the moral cost incurred by

leaving it alone.

The regime in Burma will most likely go on being left alone. Aung San Suu

Kyi's slow martyrdom makes the cost obvious. The current best plan for getting

her sprung is to bring persuasion to bear on India so that

India will bring pressure to bear on the junta, and so on until she grows old and grey.

A better world

Being who she is, she grows old slowly, and at the age of 63 she looks like her own daughter,

but time is still against her. If time is all you've got going for you, it isn't much.

What justice needs, when it is ranged against naked force, is a contrary force,

and the fact that there isn't one is enough to reduce the onlooker to despair.

Aseel al Awadhi
'Merry face, exultantly elevated
- Kuwaiti MP Aseel al Awadhi

Despair can coarsen one's judgment. I knew enough about what Saddam Hussein and his talented son Uday were doing to women to want that regime toppled. The price of doing so might have seemed too high, but at least now, six years later, it is no longer official policy to rape a woman in front of her family. There may be unofficial forces still on the loose in Iraq who would like to do that, but the government no longer does it.

Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan still seems worth it when you have read about what the Taliban want to do with any woman who seeks an education, but it's easy to despair when you think of how hard it is to stop them.

Sometimes despair overwhelms us when we read of just a single so-called honour crime

in which the men of a family have ruined the life of a daughter for what seems no reason

at all, and the men walk free because that's the culture, and the culture runs

the government. I felt despair when Aung San Suu Kyi got taken off to jail, and for her I

thought I had no despair left.

But heartbreak feels out of place when we see this news story about the four women MPs

in Kuwait, and there's a photo of one of them, rejoicing with her friends.

I'm looking at the photo right now.

Her name is Aseel al Awadhi. She has a merry face and an exultantly elevated thumb.

It will be a better world for all of us if women like her are free to do well,

and if she could hear us it would be our simple duty to say good luck to you.

And another duty, alas, to say: mind how you go.

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