Why are Feminists not Standing up for Israel?
T.S. Eliot was wrong. March, not April, is the cruelest month. Certainly it is at New York University. In the early days of the month a conference took place there on “Circuits of Influence: United State, Israel, and Palestine.” The conference was organized by Lisa Duggan, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, whose academic fields at NYU are listed as lesbian and gay studies, and the history of gender and sexuality.
Professor Duggan is a gender scholar rather than a political scientist renowned for expertise in Middle East history and politics. She is presently president-elect of the American Studies Association (ASA) that on December 4, 2013 disgraced itself and the academic world by its ignorance, its bias, and its bigotry in calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The resolution of the ASA, by 66 per cent of voters, endorsed the Palestinian call for a boycott because of alleged denial of Palestinian basic rights by Israel. The resolution said nothing about the denial of women’s basic rights by Palestinians and other Arabs.
Professor Duggan’s invitation to the conference was ironic. It was sent only to selected recipients, and said, “Please do not post or circulate the flyer (about the conference). We are trying to avoid press, protestors, and publication.” It was ironic appropriate because the conference avoided confrontation by inviting only those who were not known for their pro-Israeli views.
The NYU meeting was not exactly secret, but it was a closed-door conference. To no great surprise, it coincided with the celebration of Israel Apartheid Week. It may perhaps have been described as a meeting discussing the Protocols of the Learned Leaders of the boycotters or the New York friends of the ASA.
It is not clear, though one can guess the reasons, why leaders of an association created to deal with American studies, and especially if they are most interested in women’s issues, make declarations on Middle Eastern affairs or why they are primarily or solely concerned with the State of Israel. One would have thought that Professor Duggan and other members of the ASA might be more properly concerned with the problems that women encounter in Arab Middle East societies, including that of Palestinian.
The nature of those problems is detailed in reports of NGO Monitor and various think tanks. Women in all the Middle East countries, except Israel, have few rights, and do not enjoy equality with men. The gender gap in those countries is among the highest in the world. Women are discriminated against in almost all relationships and activities, in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. They are restricted in movement, expression, and work opportunities. Women suffer from being forced into child marriage, female genital mutilation, and “honor” crimes, which may be punished by death.
Professor Duggan and her ASA colleagues must know that there has been no significant improvement in women’s lives in spite of the “Arab spring.” In most Arab countries women are marginalized; in Islamic societies they are repressed. She should know that the lack of freedom for women in all Middle East countries, except Israel, is a major problem in the world today. Have she and her colleagues in the ASA, reported on this? Are they so concerned with their ideological attack on Israel that they have no time or thought for the political and social freedom of women? Even though they are supposedly interested in American studies, why do the members of ASA not state clearly and unequivocally that women in the Arab world including the Palestinians should enjoy the same rights and opportunities as women in Israel?
Let’s deliver a clear message from the 1993 UN Vienna Declaration to Duggan and the ignorant and biased boycotters of Israel. The Declaration called for the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life, at all levels, and eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex.
It may well be, as the UN Arab Human Development report of 2005 said, that it is beyond the power and resources of women’s movements to affect the condition of women in the Middle East. But perhaps Duggan, with the support of other women in the ASA, might have organized a conference on the subject. She might have addressed the problem of why the 2011 departure of dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya has not led to fundamental reforms for women.
The UN Arab Human Development Reports (AHDR), written by Arab scholars about conditions in the 22 member states of the Arab League, have recognized the major problem: the oppression of women. Women suffer from inequality with men and are vulnerable to discrimination in law and in practice. The prevailing masculine culture and values view women as dependents of men. Those AHDR reports clearly state the need for change: Arab societies must provide for the complete empowerment of Arab women. Specifically, they should deal with illiteracy (more than half of Arab women are illiterate), the low rate of education of women, maternal mortality, and the low participation of women in politics.
The statistics in the Global Gender Gap Index, compiled by the World Economic Forum, which measures gender-based disparities, confirms the AHDR conclusions. Of the 136 countries analyzed in terms of the access of women to education, political participation, economic opportunity, and health, the Arab countries come last. Political empowerment of women in Saudi Arabia and Qatar is listed as zero. Gender-based discrimination exists in personal status laws which require permission of a male relative for marriage, favor husbands in divorce cases, give fathers the rights in child guardianship, restrict freedom of movement, make it difficult for women to get a passport, and deprive women of their proper inheritance. In the law courts the testimony of women is regarded as of less value than that of men in a number of countries. Dress codes for women are enforced by the religious police force.
Beyond all this legal and social inequality there is the matter of domestic violence against women. Rape is usually not seen as a criminal offense. Honor killings exist in many of the Arab societies, including that of the Palestinian Authority. It is legal for women to be beheaded, burnt alive, stoned, and tortured for “immoral” behavior such as adultery or having sexual relations with a non-Muslim man. They are also forbidden to marry non-Muslims. On the other hand, polygamy is legal in a number of Arab countries.
Given her scholarship on the history of sexuality, Professor Duggan must surely be familiar with the sad condition of women in all Middle East countries except Israel, where women have full social and political rights. Can we expect her as the leader of ASA, to organize a conference on that sad condition and to call for equality and justice for women in the Arab countries? If not, she may be judged guilty of indifference to the problems of women.
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, ad the Middle East.