Relatively benign

Gita Sahgal alerted me to this long article by Ann Elizabeth Mayer on “A Benign Aparheid: How Gender Apartheid Has Been Rationalized” [pdf].

An examination of the situation of women in some Middle Eastern countries reveals patterns of systematic, egregious gender discrimination. However, to date international law has failed to classify such treatment as a kind of apartheid, and the international community has failed to impose sanctions to deter such treatment of women. This article explores why gender apartheid, despite its direct analogies to racial apartheid, has largely been seen as a relatively benign phenomenon. Both countries defending their discriminatory treatment of women and Western apologists for such treatment depoliticize laws and policies discriminating against women. Cultural relativist proclivities mean that the reality of male domination and women’s oppression is obscured and that people can be persuaded that women’s status is merely an expression of cultural and religious traditions that outsiders are bound to respect. At the same time, certain U.S. academics are working to discredit critics of gender apartheid by attacking women’s international human rights, ascribing advocacy of the latter to a destructive totalitarian ideology that is inimical to freedom of religion and religious values. A critical appraisal of the attempts to rationalize gender apartheid reveals flawed logic and serious misrepresentations of the politics of gender in Middle Eastern countries.

That’s dated 2000. The situation hasn’t improved much since then, I think, though it may be a little more on the radar. But there were people who were outraged by LSESUASH’s use of a photo from an anti-apartheid demo for the protest against gender segregation – as if it’s just obvious that gender segregation is comparatively trivial.

Here’s a passage that I wish Priyamvada Gopal and Laurie Penny would read carefully and take to heart. (They won’t, but I wish they would.)

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. Specters of a feminist totalitarianism that aims to bring about genocide have even been invoked. By such tactics, apologists for systematic gender discrimination have tried to make patterns of pervasive gender discrimination and segregation seem relatively innocuous, presenting these patterns as a kind of benign apartheid.

Why would they want to do that, do you suppose? I don’t understand it at all, myself.


  1. says

    The odd thing is that in both her segregation article, and the article you linked to elsewhere, Speaking with Difficulty: Feminism and Antiracism in Britain after 9/11, Priyamvada Gopal seems to agree with some of what’s said in that last extract above. The specific trouble seems to be that she thinks Nick Cohen’s got cooties. Or that any kind of contact with anyone that ever approved of any Western military action is fatal. It’s a kind of insulated horror that appears in her writing, and everything else in her reasoning has to work around that horror.

  2. Francisco Bacopa says

    I still say if they want gender segregation they should keep it members only in their mosques or in private venues that they have paid for. And even then I support people who disrupt what they do by sitting quietly in mixed groups.

    But if they want to speak outside turf they have either rented or own, do not comply with their request for gender segregation. They have no right to request gender segregation.

    And why the fuck is Saudi Arabia still allowed to participate in the Olympics? I remember when South Africa was excluded from the Olympics and I agree with the reasons they were excluded. I think Saudi Arabia is even more oppressive. Let’s kick them out of the Olympics.

  3. Shatterface says

    Specters of a feminist totalitarianism that aims to bring about genocide have even been invoked

    Basically, there are left-wing commentators resorting to ‘feminazi’ smears while trying to avoid using that exact term.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Why would they want to do that, do you suppose?

    There was a time (now, it seems, ebbing fast) when one could build a reputation within academia by challenging white privilege, neocolonialism, and even some aspects of Capitalism Itself. But very very few ever ascended the career ladder by tilting at the Mighty Male, and I can think of zero who did so by questioning Religion (even Dawkins did not formally slap the church’s face with a glove until near the end of a tenured career).

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