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Page last updated at 17:44 GMT, Friday, 22 May 2009 18:44 UK

Still looking for the western feminists

High heel


Women who believe liberal values exploit their sexuality have something much greater to fear, says Clive James.

In a week when the troubled parliament of Britain continued to swamp the front pages with tales of fiddle, fraud and the incredible disappearing Speaker, there wasn't much room for news about the parliaments of other countries, but there was one story in the middle pages that might have been calculated to remind us of why democracy really matters. The parliament in Kuwait has just acquired its first four women MPs.

Clive James
The price might have seemed too high, but at least now it is no longer official policy to rape a woman in front of her family

Kuwait is by no means, a perfectly constituted democracy. As far as I can figure out, there is a ruling family whose Emir chooses the government and calls elections for parliament. But women have now been elected to the parliament, by popular vote. It should hardly need saying that this would have been unlikely to happen if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to continue to rule the country by terror, but let's leave his awful memory aside for a moment, if we can, and dare to put forward a general reflection.

Democracy is the best chance for women. Or if that sounds too naive, too pro-western perhaps, then let's put it this way. The absence of democracy is seldom good news for women. Or, to get down to bedrock, if women can't vote for women, then they haven't got many weapons to fight with when they seek justice.

My own view, which I'm ready to hear contested, is that this is the main reason why some feminists in the west have been so slow to get behind those women in the world's all too numerous tyrannies who have to risk their lives to say anything.

It's just too clear a proof that men have a natural advantage when it comes to the application of violence. When you say that women have little chance against men if it comes to a physical battle, you are conceding that there really might be an intractable difference between the genders after all.

Salwa al-Jassar
One of Kuwait's four elected female MPs - Salwa al-Jassar

Ideological feminists in the West were for a long time reluctant to concede this, because they preferred to believe that there was no real difference, and that all female handicaps were imposed by social stereotyping that could be reversed by argument. But this belief was really possible only in a society where the powers of argument had a preponderance over the powers of violence.

And since many western feminists are still convinced that the social stereotyping of the West is the product of fundamental flaws within liberal democracy itself, they have a tendency to believe that undemocratic societies are somehow valuable in the opposition they offer to the free countries which the feminists are so keen to characterise as not free enough.

I have to pick my words carefully here, because this is the touchiest theme I have ever tackled in these broadcasts, but I do think it's high time to say that if feminist ideologists find liberal democracy unfriendly, they might consider that the absence of liberal democracy is a lot less friendly still.

Helping to give me courage, here, finally, is that quite a lot of women are already saying it. But they tend not to be western pundits. They tend to be women out there, in the thick of a real battle not just an argument. Why their bravery doesn't shame more of our feminist pundits I hesitate to say. It certainly shames me.

This importance of democracy, or at any rate of an amelioration of tyranny, should have become clear when, after Saddam Hussein was deposed, the first provisional government in Iraq included women members. But it didn't become clear, because too many of our commentators wanted to call the provisional government a puppet government, under the control of the US.

Vote best hope

Even as it became steadily more clear that nothing in Iraq was under the control of the US, feminists in the West continued to do a stunning job of ignoring the risks that women in Iraqi public life were running. An Iraqi female MP could get murdered and it was held to be a natural result of US imperialism, almost as if she had been murdered by George W Bush in person.

But she hadn't been. She had been murdered by local men who were making an example of her. They feared what she would bring: the spectre of women claiming an importance equal to that of men.

Pamela Bone
The late Pamela Bone holds aloft a Women's Day special issue

Last year the excellent Australian feminist journalist Pamela Bone finally died of cancer, but while she was still fighting it she published, in 2005, in response to what she regarded as the thunderous silence that had greeted the stand taken by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an article called "Where are the western feminists?" What Pamela Bone meant was, that she was amazed why so many of her colleagues couldn't see, or didn't want to see, that democracy was the best hope for women.

Pamela Bone was well aware that there is a necessary quarrel about how democracy can be brought about in countries that don't have it, and I hasten to concede that of the two possible main views about the invasion of Iraq, for example, my own view, in favour, soon became the minority view. But Pamela Bone couldn't see how there could be any doubt that women in the countries without democracy were in a battle that they were bound to lose if the men could prevail by force.

Men will always monopolise the means of violence if they can. Women can learn to shoot guns, but there are no all-female armies, and even the Amazons were probably a myth. Women, on the whole, would naturally like to do something else, whereas an army, for too many men, is a home away from home, and often their only home.

It's the only home for the junta in Burma. The junta is in the news again this week because it found a pretext for locking Aung San Suu Kyi into prison, instead of just leaving her helpless under house arrest. The terms of Aung San Suu Kyi's house arrest were that she should receive no visitors, and some poor demented AmericanVietnam veteran made sure that the terms were violated by swimming to her front door.

Placard of Aung San Suu Kyi
Despair heaped on despair - activists ready to march for Aung San Suu Kyi

Like many a possible head-case he probably just wanted to discuss his theories about how aliens control everything, but the all-male military junta in Burma really does control everything and here was their chance to dump Aung San Suu Kyi into jail until the next election is over.

Aung San Suu Kyi not only has the stature, she has the right, to lead the government of her county. If the public got a chance to say so, she would do so, and bring immeasurable improvement not only to Burma but the whole area.

Slow martyrdom

I say all this because in some moment of optimism I allowed my name to get put on the masthead of the organisation in this country that campaigns for her release, the Burma Campaign, but I have done nothing else for her before today, mainly because I don't believe that my going to dinner with like-minded humanitarians is likely to help much.

What she needs is an invading army, but even if there were one available, armed intervention, since the Iraq incursion, has been out of fashion: no doubt with good reason, but those appalled by the moral cost of toppling a tyrannical regime are still stuck with counting the moral cost incurred by leaving it alone.

The regime in Burma will most likely go on being left alone. Aung San Suu Kyi's slow martyrdom makes the cost obvious. The current best plan for getting her sprung is to bring persuasion to bear on India so that India will bring pressure to bear on the junta, and so on until she grows old and grey.

Being who she is, she grows old slowly, and at the age of 63 she looks like her own daughter, but time is still against her. If time is all you've got going for you, it isn't much. What justice needs, when it is ranged against naked force, is a contrary force, and the fact that there isn't one is enough to reduce the onlooker to despair.

Aseel al Awadhi
'Merry face, exultantly elevated thumb' - Kuwaiti MP Aseel al Awadhi

Despair can coarsen one's judgment. I knew enough about what Saddam Hussein and his talented son Uday were doing to women to want that regime toppled. The price of doing so might have seemed too high, but at least now, six years later, it is no longer official policy to rape a woman in front of her family. There may be unofficial forces still on the loose in Iraq who would like to do that, but the government no longer does it.

Fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan still seems worth it when you have read about what the Taliban want to do with any woman who seeks an education, but it's easy to despair when you think of how hard it is to stop them.

Sometimes despair overwhelms us when we read of just a single so-called honour crime in which the men of a family have ruined the life of a daughter for what seems no reason at all, and the men walk free because that's the culture, and the culture runs the government. I felt despair when Aung San Suu Kyi got taken off to jail, and for her I thought I had no despair left.

But heartbreak feels out of place when we see this news story about the four women MPs in Kuwait, and there's a photo of one of them, rejoicing with her friends. I'm looking at the photo right now. Her name is Aseel al Awadhi. She has a merry face and an exultantly elevated thumb. It will be a better world for all of us if women like her are free to do well, and if she could hear us it would be our simple duty to say good luck to you. And another duty, alas, to say: mind how you go.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Well said, Mr James. I'm grateful for all that's been done by campaigning women to improve the lot of women in the West. But when I hear some of the horrendous stories of abuse and exploitation of women in other areas of the world (and as an interpreter in the UN I hear a lot of them) I feel helpless and ashamed too. Helpless because there seems so little we can do to support them and ashamed that some groups in our society often seem more concerned about changing mankind to humankind in the hymn books than trying to doing so.
Rosemary Hill, Geneva, Switzerland

This article misses a crucial point. Just because, for instance, women in the Middle East, living in autocracies, would prefer to live in a liberal democracy does not mean that Western feminists ought to or do, indeed, subscribe to the idea that said liberal democracy is the only possible alternative. This is a absurd argument that really just seeks to shame Western feminists for having the audacity to question the various forms of sexism, genderism and general forms of oppression that manifest themselves in our own cultures. I have heard no Western feminist say that they would prefer to live in Kuwait, for example, but this does not mean that we can still not imagine a still better alternative for ourselves at home.
JM, Vancouver, Canada

Clive James assertion that women are better off under the current Iraqi Government proves he lacks the required brain power to understand ANYTHING about feminism. Or the true horror of what the invasion of Iraq has been for Iraqi women.
Patrick Sieben, Fitchburg WI USA

Congratulations for your stand, Mr James. It baffles me constantly, when so many underprivileged groups are championed (probably quite rightly) that we nevertheless forget that half the world's population is female, but in many places they are denied the most basic human rights of education, self-determination and representation. It's something we should all be ashamed of.
P Bird, Manchester

What on earth has this man been reading? The only articles seriously focusing on the plight of women in non-democratic societies, advocating change for them, that I have read, were written by feminists, or to be found on feminist websites or women-centric news pages. Which feminists exactly is he accusing? Why is this article even featured? Or is this just a man getting attention and praise for what women have been saying for ages, as usual?
Sarah Sutcliffe, Egham, UK

You make a good argument. Maybe the unwillingness of Western "feminists" to acknowledge women in other parts of the world is a remnant the West's superiority complex. We don't want to accept that the best fighters for women don't come from the west - we're meant to save them, not the other way around.
Lucy Power, Auckland, New Zealand

The fact that this is still an issue is damning for all countries, be they "pro-liberal" or not. Women do not have an equal standing in any country. The fact that women are "better off" in so called "liberal democracies" doesn't mean that liberal democracies are the pinnacle of what is to be achieved. For example, in the UK, since the Equal Pay Act came into force, the narrowing of the gap between the genders in respect of pay has changed very little. This is not to say that "democracy" or equality shouldn't be strived for. It means we all still have an awful lot of work to do.
Jayna, Cornwall

Yes, Clive, thank you for your ever cogent arguments. There are quite a few of us western feminists, but we cannot all be famous. We can just keep plugging away at the importance of democracy, etc, as we do. The media don't go much on older ladies with strongly feminist/democratic principles in the west, do they!?
B Cumulus, berwick upon Tweed,

Clive, I think your interpretation of why more western women don't speak out about the awful treatment doled out to women in dictatorships is very charitable.My own interpretation is that western feminists are overly occupied with their own situation. Here in America we are concerned with abortion rights, the wage gap and domestic violence. Quite frankly, a lot of it is selfish - fighting for "our" rights. We may point to the treatment of women in third world countries to help us win our rights in the first world, but changing the third world isn't the project of feminism, any more than it's the project of the gay rights movement.
Lisa, San Diego, California

Democracy and genuine freedom of speech offer the best hope to all those disempowered by the political system. This is not to say that western democracy is perfect or noble, but it has allowed the position of women to dramatically improve. It seems to me that true sisterhood lies in supporting the courageous women who are willing to fight for power with nothing more than words and moral authority.
Lesley Dover, Louth, Lincolnshire

I applaud your brave decision to approach this subject unabashedly. It has been all too common for those who were once oppressed to continue on, forgetting that the world they live in has allowed them freedom. The world most Westerners live in is the democratic one, and we would do well not to forget its benefits. Here argument reigns supreme, where in most dictatorships the gun is what has the final say.
Abraham Arehart, sterling heights, usa

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