Phyllis Chesler, Feminist and Islamophobe?

Phyllis Chesler

I hate sentences that start with “most” and end with some ridiculous pronouncement about what “most” are doing.  Phyllis Chesler appears to be a prime offender, judging by her article on Muslim women and the veil. She writes: “Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families.” She also writes that “Most Muslim girls and women are impoverished and wear rags.”

These statements are typical of a person who cares more about justifying her own prejudice than in adding something constructive to the debate. Not only that, but they’re just plain ignorant. Chesler cites examples coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan as being typical of the entire Muslim world. She also equates Muslims with Arabs, when in fact this only applies to 20% of all Muslims.

I especially love this statement of Chesler’s: “It is well known that the Arabs and Muslims kept and still keep sex slaves–they are very involved in the global trafficking in girls and women and frequent prostitutes on every continent.” Where does she get her ideas??

But of course Chesler doesn’t care about being objective—or even factual; she has a career to think of. Dr. Chesler (she has a Ph.D in psychology) is primarily a writer and is the author of thirteen books and numerous articles. (Check out her web site for examples of her writing.) She is also a psychotherapist and an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). By her own account, she was “held captive” in Afghanistan when she went to visit her then-husband’s family, an experience that she says made her an ardent feminist. It also appears to have made her into a rabid Islamophobe.

In a 2003 review of one of her books, Publishers Weekly concluded that “Chesler’s tone and lack of intellectual rigor will not help her ideas to be heard by those who do not already agree with her.” (Source: Wikipedia.) From the samples of her writings, particularly those about Islam and anti-Semitism, I concur.

But what about Chesler’s feminism? Is she really a feminist or a neo-con masquerading as one?

From what I can gather, Chesler is the kind of feminist who blames the victim. One of her books, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, more or less says that women are just naturally competitive with other women, resulting in back-stabbing and general meanness. There is no recognition that women are socialized to be competitive by a patriarchal society that encourages them to stake their identities on the men they can “catch.”  (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book, just this USA Today interview with Chesler about it, so I realize I may be misrepresenting her views.)

Yes, I know I’m dangerously close to saying that there is only one way to be a feminist or that there is a set platform all feminists have to espouse (pro-abortion, anti-pornography, pro-gay rights, etc.). Although, like all people, I am more comfortable with people who have the same views I do, I recognize that we all have our own versions of feminism, just as we all have our own versions of religion. Dor instance, Sarah Palin calls herself a pro-life feminist. Some feminists are supportive of pornography and sex work. Many women who hold feminist views don’t identify with the feminist movement because they feel that it is too upper-class and white.

Me? I’m just a feminist who believes that feminism is—or should be—incompatible with any kind of racism, prejudice or hatred. For this reason alone, I find it hard to believe that Chesler is a true feminist.

The Nature of God

“A God who is beyond sex/gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women.” So wrote Asma Barlas in her article “Islam and Feminism.” Barlas states at the beginning of the article that she doesn’t like to call herself a feminist and yet she made an observation that could revolutionize religion by doing away with gender differences.

Some feminists, especially in the ’70s, were fond of speculating what religion would be like if God was actually a woman. I always thought that exercise was silly, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way. Now I know: it’s because God is neither male nor female.

It’s unfortunate that we use the masculine pronoun whenever we refer to God (I do) because that only perpetuates the idea that God is male in character. Some people may honestly believe that He is. Others may honestly believe that She is female. But if you think about it, it’s clear that God is infinitely bigger than any box we can put Him into. We can speculate all we want—He is neither male nor female. He is male and female. He is androgynous.  But it only makes sense that He is, as Barlas writes, beyond sex or gender. He simply is.

It seems to me that if we kept that observation uppermost in our minds we could eradicate much of the sexism that exists in most religions. Of course men like to think of God as a male because that makes it seem like God sides with men. Men also strenuously object to the idea that God could be a woman, because they’re afraid that women would then start to claim the upper hand (as men have). But what if  God sees us each as persons who only incidentally are male and female (because of the mechanics or reproduction)? What if He doesn’t favor men over women or the opposite? What would our church fathers (and I use that term to refer to all religions) do with that?

Continue reading The Nature of God