While we must acknowledge the catastrophic events of genocide, we cannot afford to be blinded by these ravages of humanity, either.
1. fem•i•na•zi noun \‘fe-mə-,nät-sē\ (US, pejorative, derogatory) A radical or militant feminist, perceived to be intolerant of opposing views.
The American radio talk show host and political commentator Rush Limbaugh popularized the term ‘feminazi’ when he used it to describe a wide array of American feminists. The term is used pejoratively by some U.S. conservatives to criticize feminists that they perceive as extreme. It is unfortunately not uncommon to draw comparisons between feminism and totalitarian ideologies. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan famously referred to suburban homes as 'the comfortable concentration camp', and in the US abortion debate the analogy between unborn fetuses and mass murder is easily made.
The memory of the atrocities of World War II have indeed shaped our moral framework, and comparisons with current affairs and references to this black chapter should be made with the utmost care and restraint. At least, that is what you would think. In At The Heart of Freedom, Drucilla Cornell, professor of Political Science and Women's Studies, addresses this issue in a powerful way: ‘That feminism frightens some people, challenging many established religions, traditional kinships, and cultural norms, is only too evident. That these challenges produce anxiety is hardly surprising. But the root charge against feminism - that we are totalitarians, hence “feminazis” - is deeply disturbing ethically. There are no feminist death squads, let alone concentration camps, so that the effect of the term is to trivialize the human devastation Nazism left in its wake. Yet despite the glaring inappropriateness of the comparison, the term continues to have a certain credibility in our public culture, the charge implying that if they could, feminists would forcibly impose their own vision of a sexually egalitarian society, stomping on people’s basic freedoms and intimate associations.’
Interestingly, my first article in a Dutch newspaper immediately elicited an association with totalitarianism. I had written that the burqa is a horrible piece of clothing, specially designed to manifest the inferiority of women, and that it is something we should not allow. Two days later the well-known Dutch author Arnon Grunberg responded on the front page, with an article entitled ‘police state’. He asked whether ‘we really want to live in a state that enforces the egalitarian idea’, and that ‘the previous century showed that both the right and the left loved the police state, which had always been legitimized by beautiful ideals’. My first character assassination had taken place! Quite an awkward moment, indeed.
This doubtful response is lamentably run-of-the-mill in this debate. The New Yorker published a book review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad: From Islam to America’, in which the reviewer Pankaj Mishra ‘subtly’ remarks that in her accounts of the problems of ghettoized life in Whitechapel, she “(…) seems unaware of the similarly contemptuous accounts of Jewish refugees who made the East End of London their home after fleeing the pogroms.” The message to the reader: Jews have been mass murdered in death camps, therefore, Hirsi Ali’s book is one step further in the direction of genocide, and the book reviewer is a hero, as he warns us against it.
In the case of women’s rights, both parties appeal to tolerance and individual liberty. Some feminists make a much-needed call for more tolerance by religionists for the women in their community, so that they - like the rest of us - can enjoy their individual liberties. On the other side of the debate are the bien-pensants, such as Mishra and Grunberg - whose books suck by the way* - who under the guise of tolerance and individual liberties prevent government intervention, because it will ultimately and inevitably lead to totalitarian rule. However, the use of inappropriate, unjustified, or hyperbolic comparisons with Nazism and Stalinism has the unfortunate consequence that no one bothers to delve into the misogynous practices women of minority cultures are faced with.
While we must acknowledge the catastrophic events of genocide, we cannot afford to be blinded by these ravages of humanity, either. There are women in our societies who suffer deeply under grave circumstances, and addressing such issues should be taken seriously. To the Grunbergs of this world, tolerance and freedom implies ignoring the fact that even in Western-Europe, women are faced with harmful ‘modesty’ demands (the burqa and genital mutilation), honor killings, forced marriage, marital captivity, and so forth, the list is long. The silence about these cultural and religious practices urgently needs to be broken, and this is unlikely to happen if participants of the debate are bombarded with Nazi-associations. Guess who the victims are?
* Trying my very best to return the favor of character assassination. No, just kidding. Tirza and Skin and Hair were page-turners. I am just glad that, finally, Mr. Grunberg and I are acquainted with each other’s work.