“A court in country X sentenced a black man who had been severely beaten by white men to six months in jail and 200 lashes.”
How would you react if you read that in a newspaper? Shock, horror, anger at the regime in country X, no doubt. And once you learned that punishing blacks for associating with whites is routine in country X, you might even get angrier. You might call for sanctions, you might insist that country X not participate in the Olympics. You might demand that country X be treated like apartheid-era South Africa.
In fact the sentence is real — almost. When originally published on the CBS News Web site last month, the story concerned a woman, not a black man, and country X was Saudi Arabia.
Here is the real quote:
“A Saudi court sentenced a woman who had been gang raped to six months in jail and 200 lashes.”
True, this extraordinary case, in which a rape victim was condemned for associating with a man not her relative, did create a small international echo. Hillary Clinton led a chorus of Democrats condemning the ruling, and a few editorials condemned it, too. It wasn’t much, but it mattered: Thanks to international pressure, the Saudi king has pardoned the woman. And now? In Saudi Arabia women still can’t vote, can’t drive, can’t leave the house without a male relative. No campaign of the kind once directed at South Africa has ever been mounted in their defense.
The comparison of Saudi and South African apartheid, and the different Western attitudes to both, has been made before. Recently the journalist Mona Eltahawy argued that while oil is a factor, the real reason Saudi teams aren’t kicked out of the Olympics is that the “Saudis have succeeded in pulling a fast one on the world by claiming their religion is the reason they treat women so badly.” Islam, she points out, does take other forms in Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and elsewhere. But Saudi propaganda, plus our own timidity about foreign customs, has blinded us to the fact that the systematic, wholesale Saudi oppression of women isn’t dictated by religion at all but rather by the culture of the Saudi ruling class.
I think there is another explanation, too. As a nation, we are partial to issues that seem familiar, and the story of apartheid South Africa had echoes in our own civil rights movement. It wasn’t that big a leap for Jesse Jackson to support the anti-apartheid movement when it was at its peak in the 1980s, but it wasn’t that hard for college students then, either: We had been taught about institutionalized racism in school.
By contrast, the women of contemporary Saudi Arabia need a much more fundamental revolution than the one that took place among American women in the 1960s, and it’s one we have trouble understanding. Unlike American blacks, American women have not had to grapple with issues as basic as the right to study or vote for a long time. Instead, we have (fortunately) fought for less fundamental rights in recent decades, and our women’s groups have of late (unfortunately) had the luxury of focusing on the marginal. The National Council of Women’s Organizations’ most famous recent campaign was against the Augusta National Golf Club. The Web site of the National Organization for Women (I hate to pick on that group, but it’s so easy) has space for issues of “non-sexist car insurance” and “network neutrality,” but not the Saudi rape victim or the girl murdered last week in Canada for refusing to wear a hijab.
The reigning feminist ideology doesn’t help: The philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers has written, among other things, that some American feminists, self-focused and reluctant to criticize non-Western cultures, have convinced themselves that “sexual terror” in America (a phrase from a real women’s studies textbook) is more dangerous than actual terrorism. But the deeper problem is the gradual marginalization of “women’s issues” in domestic politics, which has made them subordinate to security issues, or racial issues, in foreign policy as well.
American delegates to international and U.N. women’s organizations are mostly identified with arguments about reproductive rights (for or against, depending on the administration), not arguments about the fundamental rights of women in Saudi Arabia or the Muslim world.
Until this changes, it will be hard to mount a campaign, in the manner of the anti-apartheid movement, to enforce sanctions or codes of conduct for people doing business there. What we need as a model, in other words, is not the 1960s feminism we all remember but a globalized version of the 19th-century feminism we’ve nearly forgotten. Candidates for the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, anyone?