To the Editor
The Boston Occupier
In her column titled “Standing Together, Challenging Imperialism In Western Feminism” (February 2013), Emily Hopkins interprets a 2001 speech by Laura Bush as promoting an “imperialistic approach” to improving the condition of women in the Muslim world. This approach, according to Ms. Hopkins, who cites as evidence the former first lady’s mention of “civilized people” (meaning Westerners), is one in which our sisters in Afghanistan are portrayed as “Others” – that is to say, not like us. Not civilized.
While I find this to be a dubious reading of the former first lady’s remarks – I suspect the point was to portray the women of Afghanistan as victims of an uncivilized political order (and what else can one call a group of thugs whose idea of social reform is the conversion of soccer stadiums into venues for the public executions and punitive amputations?) – I was, nevertheless, heartened by Ms. Hopkins’s destruction of this false distinction between Western feminists and the women of certain Muslim countries who risk life and limb in their daily struggle for liberation.
So I was disappointed to find Ms. Hopkins contradicting herself in the paragraphs that followed, in which she explained that her lack of adequate skin pigmentation renders her somehow ineligible to advocate on behalf of women “of color” in Afghanistan, lest she load up yet another form of oppression – racism – on their already full plate of indignities. “As a white woman, I will never experience racial discrimination,” Ms. Hopkins informs us, apparently unaware of (or simply never intending to visit) countries in which white people are the minority. But not to worry: “And having acknowledged that this is something that I will never understand, I am now to engage in a conversation with those women of color, gaining insight from them…in a way that is meaningful and productive for all women.” Put another way, rather than fill her column with a righteous call for freedom and dignity for the women of Afghanistan, Ms. Hopkins has instead announced a doomed listening tour aimed at attaining some kind of cultural understanding she admits from the outset she has no hope of ever attaining.
This craven forfeiture of her own voice effectively reconstructs the very barrier she had so rightly demolished in the beginning of her column. In extricating herself from the cause of her sisters overseas, and by privileging cultural and religious peculiarities over a notion of universal feminism she unfavorably describes as “liberal,” Ms. Hopkins unwittingly joins the fundamentalists in erecting an artificial and pernicious barrier separating the women of the world – a divide and conquer tactic currently employed by every al Qaeda offshoot and Taliban wannabe from Nigeria to Egypt to Afghanistan.
In the Muslim world, the groups complaining the loudest about the supposed intrusion of values claimed to be “Western” or “un-Islamic” – or, indeed, those of an “Other” – are the ones seeking to impose the unquestionably uncivilized practices accurately enumerated by Ms. Hopkins, such as female genital mutilation and the relegation of women to slave status, not those who are risking their lives to abolish them. Consider the recent reported massacre of 20 coeds in northern Nigeria for the crime of wearing miniskirts by Boko Haram, the Islamist organization whose name translates to “Western education is forbidden.”
Western feminists, such as Ms. Hopkins, have a decision to make. They can demand that their sisters overseas be granted the same rights they themselves can afford to take for granted, such as the basic freedom to dress themselves, or they can bite their tongues for fear of being called a racist. I sincerely hope they have the courage to choose the former.