Photo by Anthony Kelly via a Creative Commons license

One day on a bus a woman got into a mild disagreement with a man who demanded she give back what he insisted was “his” seat. After a little resistance she gave up and moved to a seat a few rows behind me on the right. The man, who was sitting two rows in front of me began in a steady, quiet tone to insult the woman, making jibes about her weight, telling her she needed to go to the gym, that she was ugly.
She didn’t respond and nor did the man sitting in the row in front who kept his eyes glued on his book. After a while I leaned out slightly and said quietly “You’re out of order”. The statement had a surprising impact: the man immediately turned to face ahead like a child chastised in class.
The glares the man gave me for the rest of the journey were threatening enough to make me relieved when he got off the bus. And if I was expecting to be bathed in the warming glow of sisterhood I was disappointed: the woman didn’t speak or even look at me when she walked past. Sticking your neck out on someone else’s behalf can feel awkward and uncomfortable. But I do have a firm conviction that we shouldn’t avoid navigating that kind of awkwardness.
I write about this because I’ve been thinking about Clive James’ essay on honour crime and his attack on feminist thinkers for failing to speak out which I’ve already blogged about here:

After 70 years of hard training, I had finally accepted that it was not a woman’s job to wash my socks, but I still thought that if there were thousands of madmen all over the world ready to murder or mutilate their own daughters for imaginary crimes, then it was a woman’s job to object in the first instance, always provided that she was free to do so. On the whole, however, it hasn’t happened.

He quotes Australian journalist Pamela Bone who criticised Western feminists for failing to protest

“against female genital mutilation; or against honour killings, stonings, child marriages, forced seclusion or any of the other persecutions to which women are still subjected. The fire of Western feminism has quietly died away, first as a victim of its success, lately as a victim of cultural relativism, of anti-Americanism and reluctance to be seen to be condemning the enemies of the enemy.

Concerns about cultural imperialism have rightly shaped the debate about how Western feminists should engage with third world feminism on issues pertinent to women globally, as Naomi Wolf’s answer to that exact question by a Guardian reader illustrates.
But has the judgement that to want to help is somehow a demonstration of superiority on behalf of an individual or culture made Western feminists less inclined to engage with these issues? Do we have to be “sorted” before we consider helping others as Germaine Greer appeared to suggest in an exchange with Pamela Bone in 2007?

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