Modern Feminists Are Unworthy Heirs of Suffragettes

Today's feminist movement seems bizarrely out of touch with the original, universal standards of their forbears. In sidelining Muslim women's basic rights, today's feminists ignore the suffragette legacy and the necessity for urgent reform of international human rights violations.
01/06/2016 05:25 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2017
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11:  Actors (L-R) Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai take part in
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 11: Actors (L-R) Anne-Marie Duff, Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai take part in filming of the movie Suffragette at Parliament on April 11, 2014 in London, England. This is the first time filming for a movie has been allowed in The Houses of Parliament. Suffragette is due for release in 2015. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The acclaimed film Suffragette is a timely reminder of courageous reformers who placed reform before personal safety and revolutionized the world for women.

But today, the feminist movement seems bizarrely out of touch with the original, universal standards of their forbears. In sidelining Muslim women's basic rights, today's feminists ignore the suffragette legacy and the necessity for urgent reform of international human rights violations.

How would Emmeline Pankhurst and her colleagues respond if they found modern feminists unresponsive to reports of young girls from ethnic and religious minorities kidnapped, raped, sold into sexual slavery or forced to marry Islamic State fighters? They might be astonished to learn that Muslim dissidents Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Taslima Nasreen, who promote secular humanism, gender equalit, and freedom to criticize religion, live in constant danger due to death threats.

They might be troubled by the perils for women activists in Afghanistan, where public servant Safia Amajan, politician Sitara Achakzai, police officer Malalai Kakar and Indian author Sushmita Banerjee were gunned down by the Taliban.

They might wonder why feminists have overlooked the imprisonment of Iranian activists opposed to discriminatory legislation, and disregarded Syrian women currently "butchered by the regime and stoned to death by ISIS."

On further enquiry, the suffragettes would be surprised to discover that Western feminists rarely challenge sexist laws in the Muslim world. These include polygyny and unilateral divorce. In court, a woman's testimony is worth half that of a man's, and women are entitled to less inheritance and reduced awards in cases of compensation for injury. Domestic violence is rarely punished, and forced or early marriage is acceptable. Victims of rape can be accused and punished for illicit sex. In some conservative Muslim majority countries, stoning is a punishment for adultery and women are unable to leave the house without their husband's permission.

Suffragettes would question why millions of Muslim women were still second-class citizens when the free world and the UN pride themselves on countless NGOs dedicated to advancing women's rights.

Saudi Arabian feminist Wajeha Al-Huwaider has campaigned for women to drive a car, and launched YouTube videos against child marriage and male domination. In a push against guardian laws, her slogan read, "Treat us like adult citizens or we'll leave the country." When Huwaider and her colleague Fawzia Al-Oyouni tried to assist a woman whose husband had locked her and the children in the house without food, they were charged with the crime of takhbib (inciting a wife to disobey her husband), and sentenced to 10 months in prison.

Reformers such as Huwaider and Oyouni are fearless campaigners, but there seems to be a deep disjunction between their objectives and those of contemporary feminists.

A sequel to Suffragette might feature a conversation between activists of the first wave, who campaigned for the right to vote, those in the second liberation wave of the '60s, and the third wave of contemporary feminists, focused on sexual identity, culture and ethnicity.

The latter would surely face condemnation for discounting injustices they deem intolerable in their own societies. Modern feminists have neglected to empower the new Muslim suffragettes -- their natural partners.

Collaboration of the feminist movement with the far Left has entrenched notions of hostility to Western values, fostered a romantic lure of revolutionary movements, and found common cause with the anti-Western ideology of radical Islam. The alliance between feminists and the far Left has been reinforced by the philosophy of cultural relativism that has curbed criticism of different cultures.

Instead of joining the new suffragettes, third wave feminists have chosen to pursue a fashionable counterculture and diet of Marxist leftovers. Worse, they have turned against the original principles of freedom and equality and joined with the enemies of their Muslim sisters.

Some avenues for freedom have opened up for women in Afghanistan with constitutional guarantees of political representation, and in Saudi Arabia, where women have been put on the advisory Shura Council and allowed to stand in municipal elections.

Despite much unfinished work to combat sexism in the West, reform of Muslim women's rights is a pressing imperative and meaningful investment in global female solidarity.

Perhaps the feminist movement could regain its momentum and high moral ground if activists write their own sequel to Suffragettes by uniting in a "democratic international of women" against institutionalized discrimination and "the horror of God's State," as entreated by Algerian Khalida Messaoudi. Otherwise, feminists risk being unworthy heirs of the suffragette movement.

A version of this post was originally featured in The Australian.