In The Room The Women Come And Go

(Cross posted to The Spittoon)

Via Sunny Hundal at Pickled Politics, I’ve come across an excellent piece by Gita Sahgal, recently fired by Amnesty for speaking out against its gushing promotion of Taliban enthusiast Moazzam Begg and his fundamentalist CagePrisoners phony human rights group. (Here is the whole sorry tale.)

Sunny doesn’t care for the article – which is not surprising, for smart women dissidents get a hard time from the left these days. Western feminism consists of complaining about Sex and the City 2 rather than international solidarity with women in appalling circumstances.

Yet Sahgal makes a couple of important points. The first is about priorities. The issue of possible hijab bans has been raised yet again. There are good arguments for and against the ban. As Ophelia says, it’s progress that Sarkozy has called the burqa what it is – an instrument of oppression – but we should hesitate to draft laws that specifically target immigrants and ethnic minorities. People should be able to dress how they choose.

And yet, when you consider the forms of active misogyny at home and abroad, from the pay gap to the use of rape as a weapon of war, should the ‘right’ to wear suffocating garments of dubious Quranic legitimacy be so high on the list of priorities? Apparently it should. The New Statesman recently dedicated an entire issue to the veil. The conversation centres mainly on Western countries where the penalties for breaking workplace dress codes are relatively mild. From Sahgal’s article:

Shadi Sadr, the courageous Iranian lawyer who has been sentenced in absentia to lashings and imprisonment, has pointed out that while Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have rushed to condemn the niqab ban in Europe, not a word has been heard against increasing dress code restrictions imposed by the State in Iran and accompanied by draconian punishments.

I can find no mention of this in Mehdi Hasan’s article or anywhere else in the special issue. Even the generally thought-provoking and original writer Laurie Penny has, on this occasion, retreated into conformity. Why defend the rights of French women but not Iranian women? What does this say about our priorities?

The Catholic Church abuse scandal was greeted with a similar indifference. That there exists a systemic culture of child rape in the organisation is beyond dispute. Yet as Sahgal points out, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch did not go after the Church for its violations of the rights of the child as codified in international law.

The last mention of the Catholic Church from Amnesty that I can find is in its statement on Sahgal’s dismissal, where Widney Brown, the Senior Director of Law and Policy, asks the following rhetorical question:

For example, should we not work against the death penalty with an influential actor like the Catholic Church because we disagree with their stand on women’s reproductive rights and homosexuality? There are valid arguments for and against. We chose to work with the Catholic Church against the death penalty.

… as if the fight against capital punishment can’t be won without CAFOD’s postcard campaigns. Brown is prepared to overlook the Church’s opposition to female autonomy and gay rights. Will he overlook papal complicity in the torture of children? From Sahgal’s article:

Amnesty should have spoken out against the complicity, cover up and abuse of children by those exercising religious authority. In the event, they stayed shamefully silent. As one voice, the leaders stood with the Catholic establishment and ignored Catholic victims.

The quixotic task of bringing the criminals to justice had to be taken up by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens because professional human rights activists have no interest in the case.

It is simplistic to assume that this section of the left hates everything Western and supports everything anti-Western. The reality is that Hasan, Brown, Eagleton, Armstrong, Byrnes and their whole shambolic crew of ubiquitous intellectual mediocrities will campaign against secular laws made by elected governments while defending the horrific crimes of faith-based regimes and movements. It’s barely worth saying that this pro-faith view of the world is incompatible with a campaign for universal human rights. Religion prioritises the needs of an imaginary god over the love and support of human beings.

We are fortunate that there is no monopoly on compassion. To finish with Sahgal: ‘If human rights organizations can no longer tell their own stories, others will do it for them.’


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