In their efforts to discredit advocates of women’s international human rights

More from Mayer’s long 2000 article on gender apartheid. The article is very apposite to what we’ve been talking about lately.

The discussion will point out how those seeking to defend what amounts to gender apartheid have tried to turn the discussion away from actual patterns of oppression of women, endeavoring to depoliticize this phenomenon by, among other things, minimizing the important role of the state. Instead of acknowledging that governments of modern states are controlled by men and that these men may have vested interests in retaining a status quo that favors them, they pretend that religion and culture are independent determinants of women’s status.

It’s just a coincidence that all these religions and cultures make women subordinate to men, and that governments are controlled mostly by men. The two have nothing to do with each other. Don’t look at that man behind the curtain.

As will be shown, a widespread predisposition to downgrade the significance of any gender discrimination that claims to be rooted in religion and culture is exploited by governments and allied apologists in their efforts to discredit advocates of women’s international human rights. The result is that defenses that would never excuse
racial apartheid wind up being greeted as plausible rationalizations for gender apartheid.

Even by progressives, feminists, leftists like Priyamvada Gopal and Laurie Penny. That’s strange, isn’t it. I always find it strange.

And then we get even closer to Gopal and Pennie and their colleagues.

This article also analyzes attempts that have been made by some U.S. academics to induce U.S. opinion to reject international human rights law as the criterion for judging the treatment of women in the Middle East. Religion and culture are depicted by such academics as if these set parameters regarding the treatment of women that are accepted by insiders to a given society, only being contested and criticized
by outsiders. Such depictions completely ignore the intense controversies about women’s rights that are going on within Middle Eastern societies. These academics work to discredit advocacy of women’s international human rights, deliberately associating challenges to gender discrimination with negatives like neocolonialism/imperialism and attacks on culture and religion.

Yes they do. They do it quite blatantly, by misrepresenting protests and the people behind them, by throwing epithets when this is pointed out instead of correcting the misrepresentations, and by persisting in their failure to correct the misrepresentations.

It’s a horrible spectacle.


  1. Tim Harris says

    Keep it up, Ophelia. In the 80s & 90s, one faced the same sort of thing in Japan, with what was called ‘nihon-jin-ron’, the ‘theory of the Japanese’, a thoroughly and cynically racist and chauvinistic outpouring which depended in part on taking certain questionable and often racist assertions about Japan made over a century or so by some Westerners and throwing them back in the face of the West: ‘we Japanese’ understand one another not through logic, like coldly rational Westerners, but through intuitive feeling, through ‘hara’ (guts); our arts are so extraordinarily sensitive that Westerners cannot possibly appreciate them; even though Westerners may parrot the Japanese language, they can never truly speak or understand it. These theorists also depended heavily on the dogma of ‘cultural relativism’ which, taken to an extreme (as it all too often is – the temptation to do so is great), essentially makes ‘cultures’ like black holes to one another – though the proponents of nihonjinron insisted that ‘the Japanese’ understood the West all too well: being logical, etc, the West was easy to understand. Essentially, ‘cultural relativism’ provided a cloak for the indulging of an extreme nationalism that even extended to literary scholarship – Konishi Jin’ichi’s history of Japanese literature, for example, which was acclaimed by useful idiots in the West like Earl Miner and panned by the British scholar and translator Dennis Keene as well as myself. When one took up cudgels against nihonjin-ron, it was remarkable how quickly charges of racism, cultural condescension, etc were made. Writers like Peter Dale, Ross Mouer, Yoshio Sugimoto (who was actually Japanese!), Karel van Wolferen, Alan Booth and, in a small way, myself had to face this. And it was interesting that these charges came as often from Westerners as from Japanese, if not more so. It was also interesting to me that most of the Western critics of nihonjin-ron were not from the US – I think this because of the closer acquaintance Europeans had with nationalist modes of thought and because of the paternalistic attitude taken towards postwar Japan by many Americans – it is something that to my mind vitiates Donald Richie’s writings on Japan, though his books on Ozu and Kurosawa are admirable. The bubble of nihonjin-ron burst more or less with the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy, though now we have the most chauvinistic government in years in power here, and one suspects the theorists could emerge again, given the right circumstances.
    That said, there are of course cultural differences, and one needs to be aware of them and to respect them when they are worthy of respect, and not to assume that Western values are necessarily ‘universal’ – it has been the abuse of ‘universals’ by power that has resulted in the mistrust of those who speak of universal values. Really, it’s a delicate balancing act – which is something that on the one hand a parochial insistence on the universality of Western values and the sort of thing indulged in by Penny and her ilk simply fail to recognise.

  2. says

    Well that’s a guest post right there – to informative to waste its sweetness on the desert air. Informative and interesting.

    You know what else is like that? Difference feminism. You gonna call us emotional and irrational? Ok we’ll turn that into “women’s ways of knowing.” Ugh.

    It’s also like Romanticicism – “we murder to dissect” and all that. It’s probably a tension in all cultures. But some versions are more full of bullshit than others.

  3. Tim Harris says

    I should also add that no culture is monolithic – not even tribal ones. Every culture is open in various ways, and open to influence from other cultures (though they are also closed in other ways, and blind to some aspects of other cultures).You mentioned the Amish the other day, Ophelia, and one can see very clearly there how the attempt to preserve a monolithic culture depends on power, whether it is in a small community like the Amish, a nation state like Nazi Germany or an empire like the Soviet Union. Sometimes, however, it may be important for a culture that it should as it were hunker down – which is why I think it is important that the island of Bali should retain its Hindu culture in the Muslim sea (an increasingly dangerous one) that is Indonesia. And speaking of Bali, it does seem to me that as a result of what really was and is ‘Orientalism’ (which did have a few benign aspects) and Clifford Geertz’s certainly fascinating accounts of Balinese culture, the politics, political differences and place of power in Balinese society are, outside the works of good historians, largely ignored, and Bali is still regarded (as Japan has often been) as a sort of aesthete’s paradise with a monolithic culture; and, certainly, the best of the Balinese arts are excellent and fascinating – it was to gain a first-hand acquaintance with these that I went there. Very few Westerners (including Westerners I met in Bali who had lived there for years) are aware that in the massacres in the 60s instigated throughout Indonesia by the Indonesian government with the connivance of the CIA, a huge number of Balinese were slaughtered by their fellow Balinese, as the green light given by the government allowed old scores deriving from Dutch and Japanese rule to be settled: I read somewhere that a larger percentage of Balinese were killed than the percentage of Cambodians killed under Pol Pot. They also remain largely unaware of the unjust nature of traditional Balinese society, unaware of the disgusting behaviour of both the Dutch and the Japanese there, and unaware, too, of the poverty in which many Balinese people still live: that is to say, they don’t want to attend to history. The problem with people like Pennie and Gopal is that in their well-meaning or consciously adopted naivetie they remain wholly oblivious of the differences and antagonisms that are present in all societies, and wholly oblivious of the place of power in any human society. It is a dangerously irresponsible attitude.

  4. Tim Harris says

    I should also add that one might well charge people like Gopal & Pennie with perpetuating the thoroughly ‘Orientalist’ and 19th-century stereotype that Westerners had history, which is to say ‘progress’, whereas ‘Asiatics’ had mere persistence…

  5. miraxpath says

    Wow, fantastic posts Tim Harris! I recognise so much of what you write about Japan and Bali being quite well acquainted with these two societies as an Asian who briefly studied in one and lives near the other.


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