I attended the infamous “#Feminist” speaking event at the Sydney Town Hall. It was a discussion between Roxane Gay, a Haitian-born intersectional feminist, and Christina Hoff Sommers, a self-described “equity feminist.” I went with the intention of confronting my growing disillusionment with the morally proscriptive nature of intersectional feminism and the broader leftist movement. I harboured hopes that the divisive behaviour I was seeing on social media was disproportionately represented by radicals and that the event would bring some sense to the madness. Instead, I left feeling completely alienated from a movement that once brought me so much hope.
It was my second crisis of faith in three years, the first being my renunciation of Islam at the age of 21. Free from the shackles of fundamentalism, I embraced the left-wing movement with open arms. Until only recently, I saw it as a celebration of everything I’d been denied as a devout Muslim. As a woman who’d been forced into the hijab at puberty, trapped within the Islamic guardianship system and restricted by groupthink, I loved the emphasis on individuality, choice and autonomy that I found in progressive politics. My exposure to abuses of power allowed me to relate to identity politics and victimhood narratives.
This began to change about six months ago when I became involved with the ex-Muslim movement. As I became acquainted with the activism of role models such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Yasmine Mohamed, Armin Navabi and Ali Rizvi, I began to recognise the cognitive dissonance afflicting the left, leaving them with a severe blind spot. A bizarre alliance with Islam, a set of very conservative ideas, has earned them the label of “regressive left’’ instead. Their misguided campaign against “Islamophobia” has failed to separate the ideology from the people, conflating prejudice against Muslims with valid opposition to the doctrine. The stigma has hindered constructive discourse and established a concerning trend whereby issues typically challenged by the left, such as homophobia and gender inequality are disregarded where prevalent in Muslim majority countries or even Muslim communities within the west.
Like me, many ex-Muslims have felt it to be their responsibility to fill this void in leftist activism. Yet we are often met with reflexive accusations of bigotry or intolerance. Despite lived experiences and intimate understanding of the doctrine driving our stances, we are denied a platform to voice them. This censorship of confronting ideas stems from the left’s fixation on distinguishing themselves from the right. A severe overcorrection has ironically pushed them into an illiberal territory. Affiliates of the left must conform to prescribed beliefs and behaviours to prove their loyalty. Those that pass the test are rewarded with the illustrious “woke” status. Failure to do so carries the risk of misalignment with “the enemy” and exile as a result.
The “factual feminist” Christina Hoff Sommers has thrown out the rulebook and defined her own moral boundaries. Like ex-Muslims, her liberal values are overridden by the defiance of select leftist orthodoxies. This also makes her a prime candidate for rejection based on guilt by association. This was demonstrated at the feminist event when Roxane Gay expressed an aversion to sharing a platform with her. When questioned about this, Gay explained that she considered Sommers to be “white supremacy-adjacent” for appearing alongside Milo Yiannopoulos and failing to adequately disavow his problematic views.
Prior to the event, the Southern Poverty Law Centre had also informed Gay of Sommers’ alleged association with “male supremacy” based on an “overlap” between some of her arguments and those found in men’s rights activism. Gay admitted that inadequate vetting was to blame for her “regrettable” involvement with the event. She vowed to be more thorough in the future to avoid such oversights.
Taking their cues from her, Gay’s supporters in the audience didn’t hold back in expressing their disapproval. They started out by giggling at Sommers’ first few points. Then it turned into full blown laughter. Then boos. Then heckles. Then stamping their feet to drown her voice out. She was forced to stop multiple times. Desh Amila, the moderator and organiser of the event, tried to intervene to salvage the conversation.
Desh made a point of explaining why he’d been forced to host the event himself as a last resort. Despite his best efforts, he was unable to secure any self-proclaimed feminists to take on this role. His invitations were either declined or ignored. Given the opportunity to participate in a reconciliation of conflicting ideas, mainstream Australian feminists opted not to have the conversation at all. It was mortifying to realise that free speech among these feminists only applies to a narrow range of content.
“If your feminism isn’t intersectional, then it isn’t feminism” conveys the prevailing dogma of the mainstream movement. In this regard, Gay ticked another box for the audience and consolidated her position as the “real” feminist of the pair. Yet on the controversial topic of Islamic misogyny it was Sommers—often dismissed as a feminist fraud—who rose to the occasion with the application of a universal feminism. Gay’s commitment to intersectionality significantly compromised her engagement with the topic.
This was highlighted when Desh asked the speakers about our responsibility to address international misogyny, such as that seen in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. He added some depth to the question with a clip of Indonesian “Sharia police” pulling over adolescent girls on their way to school for perceived immodesty. They pointed to tight jeans and hijabs that didn’t cover enough and gave them more suitable clothing to wear instead. One of these men used Sharia to justify sexualising them at that age, explaining that a woman is required to observe modesty from the age of 9. An older woman reiterated the misogynistic mentality behind the hijab—that it fulfils a woman’s obligation to ward off male temptation and lust.
Quoted in Jesse Signal’s recently published piece in New York Magazine, Gay said:
I also think it would be really presumptuous of me as a feminist to know what’s best for Saudi Arabian women, who have been very effective at organizing—we saw this especially in recent years as they fought for the right to drive.…I don’t know that they need external intervention. What they need is our support materially, probably financially, and certainly in terms of highlighting voices in those communities who are leading these movements to create change. So I think support can come in a lot of different ways, but I don’t think it needs to come in an interventionist way, because I don’t think we know better than what those communities need for themselves.
I found this response severely lacking and outlined my concerns on Twitter shortly after the event. With politically charged references to an interventionist mindset, she avoids engaging in a measured and necessary discussion about oppressive Islamic norms. In deflecting to the West’s supposed imperialist tendencies, she chooses to focus on us rather than them—the women in desperate need of vocal support. Reading between the lines, I perceived there to be a cautionary message to feminists to stand back and wait for Muslim women, as representatives of their culture, to speak up and lead the charge against their oppressors. She uses a sugar-coated portrayal of Saudi activism to make her case, failing to mention the well-documented imprisonment, sexual assault and torture faced by the Saudi feminists involved in the “Women to Drive” movement. Implying that they are capable of managing their own advocacy when reality tells a very different story is negligent at best.
We need to acknowledge the socio-political factors that make dissent near-impossible in Islamic societies to understand why unapologetic and swift condemnations are needed from Western feminists. Taking Gay’s words at face value, Jesse Singal described my criticism as an “inflammatory claim” that “just isn’t true.” This is understandable when one overlooks the context of the “stay in your lane” sentiment subtly woven into her response. A political climate that stigmatises any criticism of Islam, however valid, pushes this topic outside the scope of mainstream feminism as it is. We can’t afford to remain silent when a prominent role model distances herself from the most important feminist crisis of our time.
During the event, Sommers echoed my concerns about intersectionality, likening it to a conspiracy theory of victimization. She outlined the rapid trajectory from its inception to incorporation into mainstream feminism, emphasising its fallibility like any other theory. As such, she was able to respond to Desh without hesitation, confirming our obligation to help women battle international misogyny. She cited Saudi Arabian Rahaf Mohammed’s escape from an oppressive society and abusive family to Canada in January as an example of the outcome when the world unites to support the cause.
Sommers expanded on this with the timely example of renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh’s case. In representing women prosecuted for protesting forced veiling, she is seen as legitimising opposition to the Iranian regime. She is now facing 38 years in prison and 148 lashes, proving just how defenseless activists are in a system based on subjugation and control. Exposed to such women through the U.N., Sommers described them as the most courageous feminists in the world. By highlighting the voices of resistance already out there, Sommers’ reveals the logical fallacy in Gay’s argument: a hands-off approach to Islamic misogyny has never been about letting minorities speak for themselves. It has always been about the willingness to listen.
The progress of Muslim reformers, dissidents and apostates is hindered by leftists that use cultural relativism as a basis for their activism. Within this framework, Western progress and improving standards of equality, justice and freedom is naively attributed to white privilege rather than a long and bloody struggle towards enlightenment values. To take responsibility for their imperialist past and its impact on other cultures, leftists operate under a perceived obligation to remain impartial to practices they wouldn’t accept for themselves. These double standards undermine the principle of international human rights and has been termed as “the bigotry of low expectations.” Refusing to acknowledge social justice issues where prevalent among Muslims allows the disparities in quality of life to continue while they pat themselves on the back for being “culturally sensitive.”
Misguided celebrations such as “World Hijab Day”—and the recent New Zealand iteration, “Headscarves for Harmony,” which is designed to honour the victims of the Christchurch mass shootings—exemplify the misguided direction of western feminist activism. Rather than showing solidarity with Muslim women by challenging purity culture, moral policing and forced modesty, clueless intersectional feminists are actively normalising their oppression.
— Cleve Brown (@WorldwideCleve) March 22, 2019
More welcome was the counter movement, “No Hijab Day,” which raised awareness about the coercion imposed on Muslim women to wear the hijab. In Iran, the trend has taken form under the banner of “White Wednesdays” and “My Stealthy Freedom,” and has been spearheaded by New York-based Iranian activist Masih Alinejad. She sums up her frustration with western feminists beautifully: “Iranian women, they fight against the compulsory hijab and they are alone, they are on their own…the female politicians who visit Iran, the tourists, the athletes, the actresses, all of them—when they go to my beautiful country, they say, ‘This is a cultural issue. We wear it out of respect to the culture of Iran.’ Let me be clear with you, calling a discriminatory law part of our culture—this is an insult to a nation.”
In amongst the confusion, “#Feminist” has brought about pockets of clarity. Perhaps the most confronting realisation of all is that good intentions, of which the left has no shortage of, aren’t always enough. Intersectionality, with the best of intentions, has woven a tangled web of obsessive white guilt and fetishized victimhood. Without even realising it, western feminists and regressive leftists perpetuate inequality for their own gratification. Open dialogue and scrutiny of ideas has been essential to our progress as a society thus far and must continue to be prioritised in the future. Every one of us has a role to play in the protection of free speech. Every one of us has a powerful voice. Let’s make them count.