Feminist Scholar Can’t Condemn Stoning of Muslim Women
(That Would Be Intolerant)

In his impressive recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the formerly banned Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan’s first appearance in the United States, Peter Schmidt includes one tidbit that I found particularly interesting.

After noting that Ramadan faced a surprising number of critical questions from a Cooper Union audience thought to be overwhelmingly friendly, Schmidt added that Ramadan also

received support for his positions where it was not entirely expected. Such was the case, for example, when the discussion turned to the longstanding controversy over Mr. Ramadan’s refusal to call for an outright ban on the stoning of Muslim women for adultery, and insistence that there should instead by a moratorium on stoning, in general, while Muslims jurists discuss whether it should continue. A fellow panelist, Joan Wallach Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, in New Jersey, who identified herself as a feminist, said, “I actually think that his solution to the problem is not a bad one,” because an end to stoning cannot be imposed on the Muslim world by the West.

Professor Scott is considerably more than just “a feminist,” as she coyly described herself. In fact, she personifies the preconceptions and biases of academic women’s studies and is one of the nation’s leading feminist theorists and historians. Just ask her. Her posted biography claims that she

is known internationally for writings that theorize gender as an analytic category. She is a leading figure in the emerging field of critical history. Her ground-breaking work has challenged the foundations of conventional historical practice, including the nature of historical evidence and historical experience and the role of narrative in the writing of history, and has contributed to a transformation of the field of intellectual history.

Professor Scott is arguably the contemporary academic feminist — post-Marxist, postmodern, post-postmodern, poststructuralist, all of which comes together in harsh criticism of American society and values. Sometimes these faddish positions are hard for the uninitiated to follow, as when she and co-author Judith Butler explained in an all too typical passage that poststructuralism “is not, strictly speaking, a position, but rather a critical interrogation of the exclusionary operations by which ‘positions’ (including feminist positions) are established.”

Got that? If not, don’t worry; you’re not alone. Actually, that poststructuralist snippet is a model of clarity compared to many of her attempts to “theorize” this or that. (It should not be surprising that Professor Scott’s co-author here, Judith Butler, a Berkeley professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, won Philosophy and Literature’s highly competitive award for having written the worst sentence of 1998 by a recognized scholar.)

Despite language that is frequently inaccessible to those of us who are both pre-poststructuralists and pre-postmodernists, Professor Scott does manage to convey her unqualified appreciation of difference, especially cultural difference. I am tempted to say that she exhibits a high degree of toleration for cultures that engage in practices most Americans find abhorrent (such as stoning), but that would be wrong. She doesn’t “tolerate” them; she embraces their “difference.”

“I have not used the word toleration to talk about how we should deal with those radically different from ourselves,” she explains in the Introduction to her recent book, The Politics of the Veil, a polemic against western anti-Muslim prejudice,

because, following political theorist Wendy Brown, I think toleration implies distaste (her word is aversion) for those who are tolerated. I want to insist instead that we need to acknowledge difference in ways that call into question the certainty and superiority of our own views….

Professor Scott, that is, makes it abundantly clear, despite her often opaque language, that she refuses to judge other cultures by the standards of our own. Also from that Introduction:

Simple oppositions not only blind us to the realities of the lives and beliefs of others but create alternative realities that affect our own self-understanding. A worldview organized in terms of good versus evil, civilized versus backward, morally upright versus ideologically compromised, us versus them, is one we inhabit at our risk. It leaves no room for self-criticism, no way to think about change, no way to open ourselves to others. By refusing to accept and respect the difference of these others we turn them into enemies, producing that which we most feared about them in the first place.

Since she regards good and evil as such problematical concepts, it is no surprise that Professor Scott refused to condemn stoning of adulterers (and, evenhandedly, even adulteresses) as “evil” or “backward” and that she thinks “an end to stoning cannot be imposed on the Muslim world by the West.”

I was not in the audience for Mr. Ramadan’s appearance at the Cooper Union, but as I read Peter Schmidt’s report the controversy there, as elsewhere, was not over whether “the West” should somehow impose a ban on stoning adulterous women but rather over whether Mr. Ramadan himself should support such a ban — that is, over “Mr. Ramadan’s refusal to call for an outright ban” — which is hardly the same thing.

New Yorker staff writer George Packer, who was not only in attendance at Cooper Union but actually on the panel, was also seemingly unimpressed with Professor Scott’s response to the stoning issue. “Scott,” he wrote on a New Yorker blog the day after the event,

was asked by the moderator, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, about the treatment of Muslim women and Ramadan’s views on the subject, including his call for a “moratorium” in Muslim countries on the Islamic criminal code, including stoning of adulteresses. Her answer came in two parts: first, she said, the whole question is just a distraction from the plight of unemployed Muslims in Europe. Second, who are we to criticize? Let them work things out according to their religion.

It’s hard to know how to respond to, or even characterize, Scott’s remark that stoning adulteresses is no more than a diversion from Muslim unemployment in Europe and “they” should be left alone to work it out for themselves. The only thing that comes to mind is trying to imagine the response if the NAACP had opposed anti-lynching legislation on the grounds that it was “just a distraction” from black unemployment in the North.

Packer, it should be noted, can’t be dismissed as a nativistic knuckle-dragging Neanderthal, or even a conservative (apologies to liberal readers who will think I repeat myself). As related by John Rosenthal in The Weekly Standard, “The New Yorker’s George Packer whined that the Bush administration’s refusal to grant Ramadan a visa ‘made us look illiberal,’ and both he and [Moderator Jacob] Weisberg made a point of personally welcoming Ramadan to the United States.” Packer did, however, ask Ramadan a hard question about “the relationship between Ramadan’s grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem and a Nazi ally who made a series of genocidal broadcasts on an Arabic radio program transmitted from wartime Berlin, urging Arabs to rise up and kill Jews.” According to Packer, he never got a straight answer.

He hedged, he spoke about context, he suggested that the quotes were mistranslated, that they didn’t actually exist. But he refused to acknowledge that his grandfather and the Muslim Brotherhood in its origins were characterized by anti-Semitic or totalitarian views. It seemed clear that there was a limit to what he would allow himself to say or think, and that I had found it.

If Professor Scott was more troubled by Ramadan’s Nazi evasions than by his failure to call for an outright ban on stoning, there’s no evidence of it in the reports of the evening I’ve read.

Of course there is nothing unusual about American leftists coming up with convoluted excuses for turning a sympathetic eye on the transgressions of foreign progressives, but those of us who’ve had the pleasure of reading widely in the Scott corpus have seen another contradiction between postmodern (or post-postmodern), poststructuralist principles (!) and Professor Scott’s practice. She seems perfectly willing to leave the question of stoning women who commit adultery to the tender mercies of Muslim clerics and judges — “refusing to accept and respect the[se] differences,” after all, would require morally pretentious Western judgmentalism and unnecessarily risk “turn[ing] [Muslims] into enemies” — but she has displayed no similar reluctance to condemn American “patriarchy” and its defenders, even fellow feminists.

I am referring to her leading role in the pack of women’s historians who reacted with shock, horror, and anger when one of their own, my ex-wife Rosalind Rosenberg, testified on behalf of Sears in what I described here on Minding the Campus last week as the EEOC’s “spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to hold Sears, Roebuck responsible for the ‘underrepresentation’ of women in such jobs as installing home heating and cooling systems.” (As I mentioned in that piece, I’ve discussed the Sears case in greater detail here, which includes the disclaimer that I worked, “practicing history”, for the law firm that represented Sears.)

The vitriol of the organized feminist denunciation of Rosalind’s perceived apostasy (how could a feminist argue that a corporation, any corporation, is not guilty of sex discrimination?) could almost be described as verbal stoning. It was noted by Rice historian Thomas Haskell and University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson in their painstakingly thorough discussion of the “unusually bitter academic controversy” occasioned by the Sears case, “Academic Freedom and Expert Witnessing: Historians and the Sears Case,” 66 Texas Law Review 1629 (1988).

The vehemence of the criticism directed against Rosenberg raises troubling questions about academic freedom in terms of the consequences of political dissent within the scholarly community. The gauntlet that she has run since the trial goes beyond the ordinary scope of political disagreements in the academic world. It seems plainly designed to insure that no other historian, especially one without tenure, ever will dare to express similar views in court or in any other forum. Articles in such publications as The Nation, Radical History Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Ms. have quoted Rosenberg’s critics as calling her “immoral” and “unprofessional.” Her critics claim that she has “betrayed” feminism and launched “an attack on working women and sexual equality, an attack on the whole concept of affirmative action.” They have called her decision to testify “stupid” and have attributed it to “class bias.” They have accused her of “red-baiting.” They have written even worse things in letters that have been widely circulated within the community of professional historians.

Because of the furor over her testimony, a leading historian strongly encouraged Rosenberg to withdraw from a panel discussion about historians as expert witnesses. In addition, a committee of women historians passed a resolution declaring that “as feminist scholars we have a responsibility not to allow our scholarship to be used against the interests of women struggling for equity in our society.”

I do not intend to re-litigate Sears, but I encourage those interested in the details (and they are fascinating) to take a look at my pieces linked above and especially at the definitive study by Levinson and Haskell. I do believe, however, that the stark contrast between Professor Scott’s sympathetic acceptance of Mr. Ramadan’s reluctance to call for a ban on stoning and her condemnation of what she termed Sears’s and Rosenberg’s “arguments against equality” is striking. (Scott, “Equality and Difference: The Sears Case,” in GENDER AND THE POLITICS OF HISTORY (Columbia, 1988), p. 168)

Students of postmodernism, structuralism, post-structuralism, post-postmodernism, etc., would be interested in the lengths, or depths, to which Scott went to criticize Sears’s “gendered” work force, such as this example from her “Equality and Difference” article:

… what is required … is an analysis [rejection] of fixed gender categories as normative statements that organize cultural understandings of sexual difference … this means we must open to scrutiny the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ as they are used to define one another in particular contexts — workplaces, for example….

If in our histories we relativize the categories man and woman, of course, it means we must also recognize the contingent and specific nature of our political claims. Political strategies then will rest on analyses of the utility of certain arguments in certain discursive contexts….

Of course. But when Professor Scott leaves the level of “discursive contexts” she has real problems with, for lack of a higher brow term, facts. I will give just one example.

Regarding EEOC expert historian Alice Kessler-Harris’s remarkable testimony that responsibilities for family and children placed no greater burden on women than men workers, that women’s own choices and interests have nothing to do with the jobs they take or even with what majors they choose in college, that “[f]ailure to find women in so-called non-traditional jobs can thus only be interpreted as a consequence” of employer discrimination” (emphasis added; if you think I exaggerate, see the cites in the articles referred to above), Professor Scott wrote that

[e]ach of [Kessler-Harris’s] carefully nuanced explanations of women’s work history was forced into a reductive assertion by the Sears lawyers insistence that she answer questions only by saying yes or no.” [Scott, “Deconstructing Equality-versus-Difference: or the Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism,” 14 FEMINIST STUDIES 33, 41 (1988)]

Perhaps post-postmodern, poststructuralist scholars can’t be expected to examine actual documentary evidence, but whatever the reason Professor Scott’s statement is simply, flatly false. Kessler-Harris’s absurdly extreme assertions appeared in written testimony that she prepared herself and submitted before trial, not in response to questions from evil Sears lawyers — testimony, by the way, that had been published two years before Scott’s article. (11 SIGNS 751, 757 (1986))

In fact, in another article also published two years before Scott’s, Kessler-Harris herself, to her credit, acknowledged that

[t]o refute Rosenberg’s argument I found myself constructing a rebuttal in which subtlety and nuance were omitted, and in which evidence was marshaled to make a point while complexities and exceptions vanished from sight. [Alice Kessler-Harris, “Equal Opportunity Employment Commission v. Sears, Roebuck and Company: A Personal Account,” 35 Radical Hist. Rev. 57, 74 (1986), quoted here and in Levinson/Haskell, p. 1635]

Scott found nuance where none existed, where even the author herself admitted it did not exist. But finding non-existent nuance in mis-identified testimony and even proposing to “relativize the categories man and woman” is small potatoes compared with “relativizing” the evil of stoning because of a “discursive context” in which there is no “utility” in criticizing the “difference” of a comrade in the struggle to reject and resist the influence of American values.

John S. Rosenberg

John S. Rosenberg

John Rosenberg blogs at Discriminations.

2 thoughts on “Feminist Scholar Can’t Condemn Stoning of Muslim Women
(That Would Be Intolerant)

  1. When Scott cites Wendy Brown by saying “I want to insist instead that we need to acknowledge difference in ways that call into question the certainty and superiority of our own views,” one should ask what the reference for “our own” is. That is, the “we” implied obviously doesn’t include Brown or Scott, because it is clear that they do not actually identify themselves with this “we.” It is only adventitiously used as a kind of sign of false humility, and in fact represents their true sense of superiority to the “we” that “our own views” really applies to. I can’t count the times I’ve seen this strategy used, beginning with Walt Kelly’s “I have met the enemy and he is us.” But of course in saying this one is actually refusing identification with “us” altogether. It is a sign of a superior judgment that paradoxically identifies itself with non-judgment.

  2. Is the Haskell-Levinson article available on the web? Would love to read it, but haven’t been able to locate it.

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