Atheism’s Next Frontier is Intersectionality

The other day, I wrote a piece for The Friendly Atheist criticizing Richard Dawkins for his rhetorical choices in a tweet attempting to engage the subject of feminism in Islam.

The essay relied on academic and media coverage of Muslim feminist activism in addition to writings and social media posts of Muslim feminists, and argued that Dawkins’ approach to activism was problematic for a few reasons. You can read it here. The resulting uproar was fast and ugly, but in the midst of the mess, one thing was clear: the ideas involved deserve further discourse. As this is a personal response to the arguments in the mix, it is being published here instead of at The Friendly Atheist.

Let me start by saying this: I never said feminism could not be of benefit in the Muslim community. I never denied that women are often subjugated and abused under the justification of certain interpretations of Islam, particularly in Middle Eastern nations where religion is often wielded as a weapon against women. I never contended that we shouldn’t attempt to be allies to women in those positions. I don’t disagree with any of those sentiments. I disagree with the manner in which advocacy has been executed by Dawkins and others.

My argument, in a nutshell, is that we must be mindful of the ways in which we lend our support, and self-critical of our missteps along the way. Why? Why can’t it be enough to simply offer help? Because history shows us that failure to be measured in our attempts to help is often counterproductive.

Learning from Feminisms’ Failings

To lean on a Western example, one can look to the history of feminism in the United States as demonstration of the perils in advocates’ refusal to be self-critical. From the early stages of feminists’ efforts to gain equality for women, the movement stood primarily in the service of socioeconomically privileged white women.

Suffrage was pursued for white women. The pill’s initial medical trials were primarily conducted on women of color. The women’s liberation movement balked when black women even attempted to articulate the fact that, for most of them, the experience of being a woman in society was more arduous. At the time, the National Organization of Women referred to lesbians as the “lavender menace.” Even today, mainstream white feminism frequently continues to exclude voices of color, with calls for solidarity shouting out attempted discourse from women of color and trans women, in particular.

Acknowledging these shortcomings does not deny the positive impact that feminism has had in this country. Women gained the right to vote. They won the ability to pursue careers and established protection that allowed them to fight back against discrimination in the workplace. Access to contraception and abortion was secured. Good work continues today on other issues. I point out these failings because there’s an important lesson within. The rate of progress has been hampered by the unwillingness of a portion of the movement to interrogate their methods of advocacy. Just imagine how much more could have been accomplished by now had the movement not alienated potential allies with racism, heterosexism, and transphobia.

The only way we avoid repeating history is by learning from it. So when aspiring allies in any realm of the fight for social justice start down those same paths, it behooves us to call out the behavior and encouraage each other to not make the same mistakes as those who came before us. This form of intersectional self-criticism is of benefit to us all, and serves as a means of accelerating progress. Doing so is not easy. Being an ally takes work. It is not a title you claim; it is a position you earn. But if the result is faster, more complete progress, the effort is well worth it.

History and Dawkins

These painfully learned lessons are what motivated the initial article. The piece was about urging Dawkins, with all his influence, to apply historical and cultural consideration to the way he advocates for Muslim women fighting the good fight. It was about not making the same mistakes we’ve seen repeated over and over again throughout the course of world’s fight for progress. Let’s break that down further.

Islam’s feminist revolution is underway, and has been for some time now. It may not be as advanced or visible as Dawkins and the rest of us would like, but there are women within the faith working hard to attain political, social, and economic equality for Muslim women, particularly in nations where Islam and government are inextricably intertwined. To want to contribute to their noble pursuit is laudable, but in reflecting on history, it becomes clear that we should be measured in our approach to doing so. These struggles are taking place in a very different cultural context than Western feminisms’ wars. There are disagreements within these feminist communities as to how the movement should proceed. The conflict is complex, and demands a nuanced approach to allyship, particularly when coming from a place where one does not have first-hand life experience within the context in question.

This informs the criticism. When I point out that Dawkins is white and male, it is not to say that being white or male is inherently bad. When I criticize his activist efforts as a white male, it is not to say that white men should not participate in activism supporting people who are not white or male. It is to say that, as he has not lived as a woman, a Muslim, or a person of color — designations held common amongst a large portion of the most severely impacted by this issue — it is particularly important for him to be self-critical when engaging his influence, to consider history and culture in his attempts.

There is a heightened level of responsibility for Dawkins. His high profile and large audience grant him a great deal of influence. Influence is power. It is the ability to inform, motivate, and shape the behaviors of others. And with such power comes responsibility, even in the context of character limits.

The best way for us to help is not to blaze forward without recognizing the work that has been done. It is to start by seeking information and understanding, follow with acknowledging the victories attained, and continue with asking members of the community how support can be provided to existing efforts. Dawkins’ mistake was skipping the first two steps.

As atheists, not members of the community in question, we must not stumble by assuming the role of sparking others’ revolutions, particularly when they already exist. We should strive instead to be those who support them. Though the impact may not be readily clear today, history shows us that any other road is an unnecessarily slow one. This was the crux of the original piece.

Lessons for the Atheist Community

What followed the publication of this criticism further proves the need for that intersectional self-criticism within atheism. Though the essay was a criticism of rhetoric, the backlash largely ignored this and was stunning in its lack of engagement with the substance.

Many of the rejoinders came from people who seemed not to have read the post. There were calls to prove Islamic feminism existed (something demonstrated with outside literature — check those links, folks). There were incredulous, exasperated demands about how he possibly could have engaged fruitfully in light of my criticism (I point you to the last paragraph of the piece). There were claims that I was ignoring the plight of Muslim women in danger (read paragraph four). There were angry accusations of cultural relativism (ignoring that I cited, linked to, and reflected the opinions of many — not all, but many — Muslim feminists).

The list goes on. So many of the laments were directly addressed in the piece, but that didn’t stop the rageful comments pretending they were not.

A great deal of the reactions didn’t even pretend to respond to the piece. Instead, they resorted to personal attacks. I have since been called a sexist, a bigot, a racist, heartless, malicious, retarded, vile, evil — all for having the gall to criticize the rhetoric of a prominent atheist, for believing we were capable of more.

To be sure, not all the reactions can be characterized as such. Some raised valid questions, which is why this response was written. But the reactions that were defensive at best and derogatory at their ugliest were overwhelming. If this is how the community responds to calls for growth, we’re in trouble. If the community does not condemn such reactions vocally and publicly, it’s not just Dawkins failing to learn from the history of intersectional struggle; it’s the atheist movement as a whole.

We can do better. We should do better. We must do better. And that, from the beginning, has been the entire point.

************

Side note: I’ll say here what I said at the original post. I will engage *substantive debate* in the comments section on this post. If your comments are addressed in the piece and you ignore that, or if your comment does nothing to further the conversation at hand, your comment will hit the trash bin. Fair warning.

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22 comments

  1. In your original post you said:

    “For starters, Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women — and overwhelmingly, women of color — around the world “need” to do, with little to no context for what their lives are like.”

    It doesn’t matter what color his skin is. He still has an opinion. It also doesn’t matter how much money he has or doesn’t have. His point will either be valid or not, regardless of how much money he has or what color his skin is.

    “He’s relying primarily on mainstream media accounts of what it’s like to be a woman living in Middle Eastern countries where Islam is prevalent.”

    Who’s to say he hasn’t visited those countries? It’s not out of the question. He’s also endorsed Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, and she’s hardly mainstream media.

    “But beyond the arrogance of assuming all women experience Muslim life the same way is the ignorance of assuming that Muslim feminism doesn’t already exist.”

    a) he didn’t say that feminism doesn’t exist in that tweet. He merely asked how he could help and said that the religion needs a feminist revolution. Of course there are feminists all over the world.

    He also didn’t assume what all Muslim women experience Islam like. That’s you saying he did.

    “In other words, Dawkins is way late to the party. The Muslim feminist revolution is well underway, and even a cursory amount of research (Richard? Meet Google.) would have demonstrated as much.”

    So what? Better late than never.

    “When you offer someone “help” and they decline, it’s hardly productive to berate them for turning you down.”

    Feminism declined him? Or just a few feminists?

    If your main goal is to up awareness, I would think ostracizing someone of Dawkins’ visibility is a fairly big mistake. Especially when you’re basing it on a 15 word tweet that didn’t say most of the things you accused him of saying.

    You also say:

    “But this week, with a series of tweets, that’s exactly what Dawkins did.”

    Yet, I only saw one tweet in your article.

    “If Dawkins wants to help, here are some practical suggestions. He should educate himself on the rich history of Musawah.”

    How do you know he hasn’t?

    “He should donate some of his wealth to the efforts of existing Muslim feminist organizations. ”

    Now who’s telling people what they ought to do? And how do you know he isn’t donating to that cause?

    “He should use his wide network to signal-boost Muslim feminists advocating on Twitter. But most importantly, he should start by listening to the people he aims to assist.”

    He did use it to draw attention to the well-documented way that women are treated in Islam.

    I’m sorry you got called some awful things in your original post. I don’t agree with that and no one deserves that, but I think you’re pretty far off base when it comes to this article. I think there are probably a lot of things we can criticize Dawkins about, but this isn’t one of them.

    Thanks for the read.

    1. 1. As I mention above, skin color is not an inherent disqualifier for participating in social justice movements. My argument is that race plays a significant role in the way life is experienced. The experiences of a white woman are, broadly speaking, very different from the experiences of women of color. The experiences of white men of advantaged socioeconomic status particularly differs from the experiences of women of color, especially when a Western v. Middle Eastern comparison is made. My argument is not that being white and male means you shouldn’t engage the debate, but that those who choose to do so should consider perspectives other than their own when they engage it.

      2. Visit to a country is not the same as establishing a thorough understanding of the history of the feminist movement within Islam. I appreciate his endorsement of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s work, but this is a single voice. There is a cacophony of voices in the Muslim feminisms movement, and a broader understanding leads to more effective advocacy.

      3. He didn’t just offer help. He proclaimed that Islam needed a feminist revolution without acknowledging that there is one underway, and that there are decades of work on this front (if not centuries). This was a rhetorical error that alienates him from a movement already underway. The edit here is easy: “There are feminists working hard to dismantle patriarchal structures in Islam. How can we best support those efforts?”

      4. The goal is not to ostracize. It is to spur discourse and encourage growth.The better we get as activists, the better our odds at accelerated success.

      5. The reason I bring up diversity of experience in the Muslim community is because these broad strokes without caveat exclude those voices that have had very different interactions with the faith. As an atheist, I’m not a fan of any organized religion in general. As a person, I respect the right of anyone to hold personal beliefs, as long as they are not forced onto others. I may disagree with their beliefs, and engage them on that subject, but derision is not a tactic I choose to utilize in such exchanges.

      6. Better late than never is right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be considerate of the means used to assume a position of advocacy, given lessons from history.

      7. Prominent feminist Muslim voices — the ones of greatest significance in this context — responded as such. Not “just a few”.

      8. Feel free to peruse his replies at your leisure. This isn’t just one tweet. This instance, combined with his history on the subject matter, is unsettling at best.

      9. It’s possible that he’s read and donated. If that’s the case, his comments are an even greater failure. He should know better with any cursory education on intersectionality here.

      10. He highlighted poor treatment; he ignored existing movements in his original tweet and subsequent engagement.

      Thank you for your civil engagement on the subject. I look forward to further discourse.

      5.

      1. “My argument is not that being white and male means you shouldn’t engage the debate, but that those who choose to do so should consider perspectives other than their own when they engage it.”

        Agreed. By asking if he could help, he seems to have done that.

        “There is a cacophony of voices in the Muslim feminisms movement, and a broader understanding leads to more effective advocacy.”

        But you have yet to demonstrate that he lacks this understanding.

        “He didn’t just offer help. He proclaimed that Islam needed a feminist revolution without acknowledging that there is one underway”

        He doesn’t need to acknowledge everyone who is already fighting for women’s rights to support the feminist movement. If I were to tweet about gay rights, I don’t have to be gay to realize that it’s probably hard to live in certain parts of the world, where they are beaten and targeted for abuse, and just because I don’t explicitly say in every tweet (or in any tweet) that there is already an LGBT movement doesn’t mean I neither understand the movement or that I don’t support it.

        I honestly think you’re reading far too much into the 15 word.

        “This was a rhetorical error that alienates him from a movement already underway.”

        I don’t see how it alienates anything. If I were in a movement and someone as visible as Dawkins tweeted about it and asked if he could help, I’d be thanking him. I’d be glad he chose to raise awareness of the issue.

        “There are feminists working hard to dismantle patriarchal structures in Islam. How can we best support those efforts?”

        I’ll grant you this might have been a more effective tweet but that doesn’t mean his original tweet was wrong or somehow alienates feminists.

        “The goal is not to ostracize. It is to spur discourse and encourage growth.”

        Yes, and you can encourage growth by getting people as visible as Dawkins to tweet about it. Again, I’d thank him. Attacking him will likely get you nowehere in terms of support.

        “Prominent feminist Muslim voices — the ones of greatest significance in this context — responded as such. Not “just a few”.”

        I didn’t see them and you didn’t demonstrate that in your articles. Anyone can make assertions.

        “Feel free to peruse his replies at your leisure. This isn’t just one tweet. This instance, combined with his history on the subject matter, is unsettling at best.”

        I did. However, you wrote the articles and made the charge. Therefore, it is up to you to demonstrate the evidence. Same with his history. If you make assertions and charge someone with something, you need to back your statements up if you want to be taken seriously.

        When I looked back at his tweets, I saw much more support than I did opposition.

        “Thank you for your civil engagement on the subject. I look forward to further discourse.”

        And thank you as well. It was a thought provoking article.

      2. As I say in the post above, “The best way for us to help is not to blaze forward without recognizing the work that has been done. It is to start by seeking information and understanding, follow with acknowledging the victories attained, and continue with asking members of the community how support can be provided to existing efforts. Dawkins’ mistake was skipping the first two steps.”

        You question how we can know Dawkins did not have this understanding when he sent out the tweet. The reason this is a fair assumption is exactly because he did not start with recognition. In all of the reporting done on activities in Islam, the work of Muslim feminist activists is often swept under the rug. It makes it difficult to gain traction when your work goes unacknowledged — it’s a function of garnering influence and gaining resources. These feminists, as members of the Muslim community, are in the best position to make the most difference. If he was genuine in his desire to support feminism in Islam, he’d have recognized these tireless advocates first, even if in passing. And if he didn’t know about it, he was in no position to galvanize a movement. To insert oneself — especially as a person of strong influence, which Dawkins undeniably is — into a cultural debate of which you have little knowledge is irresponsible. Learn first. Then speak.

        Am I saying that one tweet is going to destroy all of Muslim feminism? No. What I am saying is that history has taught us that failure to be self-critical of our advocacy efforts ends poorly. Those efforts don’t seem damaging in a vacuum. When they add up to a trend, that’s when you see real damage, and it’s often not fully visible until you’re viewing it in retrospect. But Dawkins’ statement IS part of a trend in which Muslim feminism is ignored or chided for not being more like Western feminism. From FEMEN’s topless protests to the fact that Western feminist campaigns for Muslim women (see: Campaign for Afghan Women and Girls – well-intentioned, but an extension of U.S. military occupation) while flat out ignoring actual organized efforts from within Muslim communities (kinda like this: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/181602#.Vbd9YPlViko), Western advocates a poor track record on truly encouraging feminism in Islam.

        Not all forms of help are equal, and if there’s a better way of engaging, we should. That’s the point of this whole argument.

        No offense, but I’m not going to do all of your research for you. Articles with responses to his tweet from the Muslim feminist community are readily available, and past content on Dawkins’ tawdry history with feminism are plentiful. I’ll give him props for moving in the right direction, but progress doesn’t mean you get a pass on calls for you to keep progressing. If our answer to such calls is that we’re “good enough”… well, that doesn’t speak very highly of us, does it? And if history is any indication, where we’re at could not even be called as much.

      3. Congrats.. You have become the Ted Cruz/Rick Santorum of the New Atheists movement. And equally as respected as they are.

      4. I’ve been deleting ad homs to keep the conversation productive, but I couuldn’t resist letting this one through. Thanks for starting my day off with a belly laugh.

      5. I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree. Your main concern seems to be that Dawkins could have tried to help better than he tried to help. Sorry, I don’t find that very convincing.

        “No offense, but I’m not going to do all of your research for you. ”

        I didn’t ask you too. If YOU write an article and YOU assert someone did something, then it’s on YOU to provide the evidence for your claims. Telling your readers to go look it up themselves doesn’t cut it.

      6. And on your final point, we’ll agree to disagree as well. An argument was presented, but this does not render me responsible for the entirety of your education on the surrounding issues.

    2. I’ll admit up-front that I stopped reading your comment right at the beginning. It doesn’t matter if he’s a rich white male? That “thought,” in-and-of-itself, exemplifies a blindness as bereft of any light as a black hole. It shows a dizzying, frightening ignorance. You’ve completely thrown observation out the window. Therefore, I could no more relate to you than I could a crazed, religious fundamentalists–at least about feminism. And feminism is a big, BIG deal.

  2. As an Atheist Arab living in the Middle East, posts like yours greatly depress me as well as all liberals, free thinkers and atheists in the Middle East who would love to have someone speak for them like Richard Dawkins. Especially women who are constantly under severe Islamic patriarchal oppression.

    We are at the moment through Islamic hell, while you do mention that your media is trying to paint the middle east in horror stories, and that these stories are just “Part of the picture” that is true, but not the way that you think. What you see in your media is only very few atrocities that people commit in the name of Islam, It is even much worse outside the western media, your media focuses too much on how Westerners are affected by them. You probably have not heard of ISIS before they beheaded a western journalist, that is because your media didn’t start to care until westerners got affected. You also probably wouldn’t be talking about Tunisia very much if the dead people were not Westerners.

    Islamic sectarian wars have been happening since 1400 years ago, between the Shiites and the Sunnis. and Muslims are not going to stop doing it any time soon. In Iraq alone more than 30 people die every single day from this religious war. This isn’t “Western Imperialism” or anything that your Muslim friends tell you about, this is Islamic Imperialism, in other words Persian Imperialism vs Arab Imperialism, Arabs the Sunnis, Persians the Shiites. And the whole Middle East is the playground for their sick games.

    What your country does is supply this war with weapons, supply and demand. the Sunni Allies demand weapons and you supply them, simple as that. Sunnis hate you but they hate Shiites more than you. And you hate Shiites and Russians hate you and the Sunnis so they supply the Shiites with weapons, no the cold war never ended because people like yourself keep denying that there are actual problems in the “Muslim world” and that there is actual problems with Muslims themselves.

    You did mention that there are feminist movements in the “Muslim World” and that it was here for centuries, funny. because you have heard it and I never did. See how much it is negligible? Dawkins is right, there needs to be a feminist revolution. We’re actually becoming more and more anti-women by the day, we’re going backwards not forward in this issue. Yes. we do need a feminist revolution, and yes we do need more Dawkins than we do people who see issue in race, sex and social stature. People who are very short sighted by their anti-White male hatred that they do not allow the world to live and let live. Just because you and your Muslim friends are living a free, privileged, civilized and war free life does not mean that most women live the same way as you are. because most Muslim women and especially those living in the middle east don’t even have the luxury to use the internet without their husband’s permission. Most Western Muslims are going to simply deny this because they do not want their countries to turn on them (hence why they use Islamophobia as an excuse), but the real world; the real “Muslim World” it is simply not the case, and we need more people like Dawkins and Hirsi Ali than people like you and Reza Aslan

    1. This was originally not posted because it does not respond to the substance of the argument, but given the continued expressed desire to see a response, I’ll indulge in this instance.

      I am not contesting anything you say in the first four paragraphs of your comments. It’s accurate. Religion fuels war. Religion is used to persecute. Religion can be a very ugly thing indeed. Not once have I contended otherwise. As I say explicitly in the post:

      Let me start by saying this: I never said feminism could not be of benefit in the Muslim community. I never denied that women are often subjugated and abused under the justification of certain interpretations of Islam, particularly in Middle Eastern nations where religion is often wielded as a weapon against women. I never contended that we shouldn’t attempt to be allies to women in those positions. I don’t disagree with any of those sentiments. I disagree with the manner in which advocacy has been executed by Dawkins and others.

      In other words, we agree on the need. Where we disagree is execution. Your response to this was that the impact of Islamic feminism has been negligible. This ignores the history of Islamic feminism entirely.

      It ignores the leadership of women such as Khayzuran , who governed the Muslim Empire under three Abbasid caliphs in the eighth century; Malika Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya and Malika Arwa bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya , who both held power in Yemen in the eleventh century; Sitt al-Mulk , a Fatimid queen of Egypt in the eleventh century; the Berber queen Zaynab al-Nafzawiyah (r. 1061 – 1107 ); two thirteenth-century Mamluk queens, Shajar al-Durr in Cairo and Radiyyah in Delhi; six Mongol queens, including Kutlugh Khatun (thirteenth century) and her daughter Padishah Khatun of the Kutlugh-Khanid dynasty; the fifteenth-century Andalusian queen Aishah al-Hurra , known by the Spaniards as Sultana Madre de Boabdil ; Sayyida al-Hurra , governor of Tetouán in Morocco (r. 1510 – 1542 ) and others. These were women of power who fought for personhood protections, education, spiritual equality, and more. (SOURCE: Oxford Islamic Studies). It ignores the fact that Fatima al-Fihri’s founded the storied University of Al Karaouine. It ignores the military successes of Nusaybah Bint k’ab Al Maziniyyah, Aisha, Kahula and Wafeira.

      It ignores the martyrdom of 19th century Iranian poet Táhirih, who gave her life fighting for the rights of women. It ignores the substantial work of Aisha Abd al-Rahman, who — despite not identifying as a feminist — toiled tirelessly to lift up women of Islam. It ignores the advocacy of Fadela Amara. Hedi Mhenni, Sihem Habchi and others on the veil. It ignores the Nobel Peace Prize won by Shirin Ebadi in 2003 for her work on women’s rights in Iran. It ignores the life of Pakistani political activist Zaib-un-Nissa Hamidullah, who focused on bringing feminism to the Middle East and broke down barriers as the first woman to speak at al-Azhar University in Cairo. It ignores the organizing efforts of Jamila Raja and Alia Eshaq in Yemen among the nation’s female voters. It ignores the brave voice of Mukhtār Mā’ī, who, after being gang raped, refused the custom of suicide and fought until her attackers were jailed.

      I could go on. I encourage you to research and read further. If you have not heard of any feminist activity, I respectfully submit that you have not been paying attention.

      As I said at the start, there is a LOT of work to be done in terms of securing equality for women within the context of Islam. We agree here. My argument, however, is that these goals are best and most quickly achieved by recognizing and supporting existing efforts. Muslim feminists are the best hope for progress in climates that are often hostile to the perception of Western influence. Western individuals cannot and should not serve as the mouthpiece of the efforts. They should instead support those within the culture who are already fighting the good fight.

      This isn’t something that’s being pulled out of my privileged mind. The need for careful engagement by advocates is documented throughout history. No one is saying Dawkins shouldn’t open his mouth. The request is that he consider history and culture before doing so.

      You’re entitled to disagree with me. If you do, I urge you to present studies or warranted argumentation as to why intersectional failures did not slow down the pace of progress for feminists. I urge you to provide impacted explanation as to why the brave feminists fighting today should not be recognized for their work and as leadership figures in the movement. But if you can’t engage with the substance of the arguments in question, this conversation is likely better suited for a different location. As of right now, your argument seems to be that because you were ignorant of the contributions of Muslim feminists over history and their ongoing efforts, no one should ever question the rhetorical choices of Dawkins… which makes about zero sense.

  3. Lauren,

    I will start by apologizing for the names you have been called since issuing your original post. I think it’s uncalled for. Even if I disagree with you (which I do, more later) that doesn’t mean you should be disrespected just for expressing an opinion. We live in a society were people are free to express themselves but as you so eloquently stated in both your previous and current article above…delivery of those statements is almost as important as the words themselves.

    That being said, I believe you owe Dr. Dawkins an apology.

    You listed in your original posting that he’s not allowed to comment on the issue cause of something he has no control over, that being his ethnicity. What would you call it if someone else was telling an African American that they couldn’t comment on an issue because they were black? Be honest with us here; what would you call that?

    Just because Dr. Dawkins does not have any experience as a woman of colour or being a woman in Islam doesn’t not mean he’s not allowed to express an opinion about it. I don’t have any experience being a child soldier in the Congo, does that mean I’m not allowed to express an opinion about the situation down there? That’s like telling someone they are not allowed to speak about the violation of human rights because they do not live in the country the violations are occurring. That kind of logic is as absurd as it is unproductive.

    I honestly believe that one reason the response to your post has been so harsh is because they are reacting to the unpleasant manner you expressed yourself in the original piece. Your words came across as angry, even hostile towards Dr. Dawkins for simply stating the obvious. Here’s my question: is anger really the tone one should take with someone for simply being late to the party? You came across as infuriated and that’s likely what angered a lot of people who responded to it. I think your point could have come across better if you tried to inject a little humor in there rather than try to scold Dawkins like an angry mother. Yes, there should be a feminist revolution… thanks for the news flash Richard (duh). There were better ways to deal with someone stating the obvious but while Richard seems slow to get to the point, shouldn’t the part that matters be that he does get the point and agrees with you?

    You’re having a hissy fit over how someone offered to help you. Read that sentence again and let it really sink in. If Richard Dawkins insulted me while making an effort to offer me help, I’d let the insult pass. I really would. He could call me everything under the sun, publicly and I would completely let it slide. The reason why is obvious: I care more about my causes than I do myself. I’d shake the man’s hand, thank him for his help and to use a baseball metaphor take one for the team.

    By reacting to Dr. Dawkins the way you have seemed largely insensitive, rude and completely out of line. Even if everything you stated here is true (which is possible) the message was lost because you delivered it with self righteousness and a pretty shitty attitude. And you’re honestly surprised a lot of the responses are negative. Really?

    Even if Dr. Dawkins’ comments are as rude as you claim them to be (debateable), that does not excuse nor give you a license to be just as rude if not more to him. If you care half as much about your cause as I think you do based on your writings, you’d apologize and not let this rift interfere with the issues we should be focusing on instead.

    Cheers,

    PJ

    1. You listed in your original posting that he’s not allowed to comment on the issue cause of something he has no control over, that being his ethnicity.

      At no point in the original piece do I say he is not allowed to comment. He is free to comment however he chooses. Some choices, however, are better than others. My argument is that his race is part of his lived experience, and is very different from someone of another race, another gender, and another culture. The contention is that, in positions of leadership, one must consider the broader implications of their rhetoric, as their words carry more meaning. Dawkins, in his choice to insist a movement must start that’s already in existence, did not consider the implication that the need to launch a movement is a slight to those already doing good work. So in the end, I’m not saying he can’t comment. I’m saying he should comment more responsibily.

      You came across as infuriated and that’s likely what angered a lot of people who responded to it.

      Distaste for tone of criticism is not a rejoinder to the crux of the argument. This said, this is about more than being late to the party. His derisive responses to those correcting him indicate that he doesn’t care about his rhetorical choices. That’s what frustrated me. People make mistakes. Owning up to them is smart. Doubling down on them is not.

      f Richard Dawkins insulted me while making an effort to offer me help, I’d let the insult pass. I really would.

      Read the post above. The same attitudes hamstrung the feminist movement in the U.S. for years. Failure to be self-critical in advocacy slows the pace of progress.

      And you’re honestly surprised a lot of the responses are negative. Really?

      Not surprised. Disappointed that the substance of the argument was not engaged. If you can point to a specific passage where I was rude (and I can think of one line… but it was an exercise of that humor you said was lacking), I’m willing to entertain your argument. But to be critical of someone is not inherently rude. If that criticism makes one feel bad, it’s still not inherently rude.

      More to the point, much of your laments fall into the category of something called tone policing. This is a practice whereby members of a dominant social sect chastise members of a minority group for the emotion in their reactions. What tone policing forgets is that advocates for gender, racial, and socioeconomic equality have tried being “polite” for years… and we’re still fighting the same battles today. It’s condescending to assume that in the hundreds of years these battles have taken place over, we’ve yet to try being civil to get a point across. We have. Folks just didn’t listen, which is why we raise our voices now.

      1. Here is a direct quote from your original piece:

        “What on earth could possibly be wrong with such a comment? Let’s count.

        For starters, Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women — and overwhelmingly, women of color — around the world “need” to do, with little to no context for what their lives are like.”

        You think he’s dictating to women of colour (I disagree) but you state the reason it’s wrong for him to do it was because he’s a white wealthy western male. You’re basically saying he shouldn’t make this tweet because can’t understand what it’s like to be the person he’s allegedly dictating to. You said that, so stop trying to change the meaning of it and just admit it was not appropriate and apologize for it.

        Also what makes you think he’s making this comment without context? Is this an assumption or do you have actual evidence to back that up? Putting words into someone’s mouth is worse than policing someone’s tone. If you have any evidence to back up that comment, I’d sure like to see it.

        Being frustrated is not an excuse to be rude. What I find interesting is your lack of regret for your attitude and the gall to suggest that it’s everyone else’s fault but your own. You chose to call out the entire atheist community rather than consider the possibility that you might have been insensitive. If anyone is doubling down around here, it’s you.

        PJ

      2. And from the post you’re actually commenting on, which was written to serve as clarification and expansion upon the original piece:

        When I point out that Dawkins is white and male, it is not to say that being white or male is inherently bad. When I criticize his activist efforts as a white male, it is not to say that white men should not participate in activism supporting people who are not white or male. It is to say that, as he has not lived as a woman, a Muslim, or a person of color — designations held common amongst a large portion of the most severely impacted by this issue — it is particularly important for him to be self-critical when engaging his influence, to consider history and culture in his attempts.

        The context element is answered by the rest of the piece above. In a world in which tweets are frequently viewed and interpreted in a vacuum, there was a more productive way for him to urge activism. That’s been the point from the start.

        Re: Rude, see the prior comment about tone policing. Also, point to an instance of rudeness. I am not attacking Dawkins personally; I am criticizing his rhetoric. If we cannot engage in debate over tactics used in advocacy, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of those who came before us. Again. Read the piece you’re commenting on.

        You’re right that I’m doubling down. I’ve yet to hear a response that directly engages the argument. The bulk of the reaction has been tone policing or has ignored the substance altogether.

  4. I hate defending Dawkins because I do not care for his rhetoric on almost any issue (except science). However, with respect, your original post did not strike me as urging Dawkins (or anyone else) to do anything positive. It came off as an angry denunciation of an admittedly paltry 15-word attempt at engagement, and gave the impression that anything he says on the subject is inherently wrong unless he’s taken the time to thoroughly investigate the issue.

    In response to your post, I read his Twitter feed (something I am loathe to do, partly because it’s such a poor medium and partly because I’m just not interested in what Dawkins says anymore). I don’t see him shrugging anyone off. He responded negatively to those who argued that Islam does not need a revolution (because it already protects women, yeesh), but also retweeted those pointing to current efforts (specifically one asking for him to sign a petition and another regarding Kurdish female soldiers), so I’m not sure what you mean when you say feminists turned him down. Is it possible you saw what you expected to see based on his past behavior (i.e., confirmation bias)?

    Bottom line: Your original post had the quality of a rant. It’s entirely possible that Dawkins should keep his mouth shut on the issue until he’s educated himself (this sounds good to me), but in fairness he at least seems to make an effort. And asking “what can we do to help” is a vast improvement over his previous rhetoric. Most of his white male peers in the West, atheist and otherwise, fail to care enough to bother engaging at all.

    Full disclosure: I am a white male over 40 who has only just started learning in the last few years (since 2011) about privilege and related intersectional issues.

    1. There are several things to take into consideration here.

      1) In this instance, that was not his behavior. His retweets were from those who supported him; nothing of what you reference in your comment. What is more telling is what he did not retweet – such as calls to engage the substance of the argument. Examples:

      Instead of engaging in the substance of the argument, he resorted to ad hom characterizations of intent. It didn’t matter that this was not a criticism of him as a person, but his rhetoric. He chose to instead attack me as a person.

      2) I’m not saying his tweet wasn’t an improvement over some of his past behavior. It certainly is. But that doesn’t mean that it is free from criticism. Marginally better is still not fantastic, which is what the substance of argument is about.

      3) Tone policing. Again. See my other comment.

      This said, I appreciate the fact that you are making an effort to educate yourself on intersectional issues. I will be the first to admit that I have a long way to go personally. The point of intersectionality is to be critical of our rhetoric and behaviors as we attempt to advocate, and I’m glad you’re walking that path. Thanks for commenting.

  5. Speaking as an Ex-Muslim who has grown up within the confines of Shia Islam, and has witnessed the religion being practiced in places as diverse as India, Saudi Arabia (where females are not allowed to drive any sort of vehicle), Canada, and the United States, I think you fail to realize the position that has been carved out for practicing Muslim women around the world. From a young age girls are taught that they are secondary to boys. In the vast majority of prayer halls, all females must pray behind men and are often separated with makeshift walls. In fact, this same rule is applied the moment you step into most mosques, which is usually made to have certain areas dedicated entirely to women so that they eat and mingle separately. This is in stark contrast to other places of worship like churches, where women sit side by side along with members of the opposite gender.

    I cannot even begin to express how many restrictions are placed on girls growing up in Muslim families as opposed to boys. I’ve seen this first hand as a male with many female Muslim cousins. Outside of going to school, visiting family, and going to the Mosque, they are hardly allowed to step foot outside on their own, even to visit close friends. Once they reach adulthood, they are encouraged to get married (oftentimes to someone that has been chosen by their parents), settle down, and raise a family. Education is not made to be viewed as a priority for many of these young women.

    This is not to say that this is the case for all female Muslims, and I’m very happy to see that there are groups of female Muslims fighting for the rights that are owed to them. However, you must realize that discrimination towards women is deeply engrained and interconnected with the teachings of Islam. Sadly, the Quran itself contains many verses which make this quite clear. Until the mindset of those people who believe the Quran to be the perfect, unalterable word of Allah can be changed, I don’t see these movements making a significant impact.

    1. Thank you for your comment. You are absolutely correct about the misogyny within Islam, and you do a good job of articulating the scope, which is why the comment was posted. But as I said in the post:

      I never said feminism could not be of benefit in the Muslim community. I never denied that women are often subjugated and abused under the justification of certain interpretations of Islam, particularly in Middle Eastern nations where religion is often wielded as a weapon against women. I never contended that we shouldn’t attempt to be allies to women in those positions. I don’t disagree with any of those sentiments. I disagree with the manner in which advocacy has been executed by Dawkins and others.

      It’s also worth noting, without dismissing or downplaying instances where this is not the case, that the dogma of a religion is not always practiced. I’m a former Christian, raised in both a Catholic and an Evangelical church. I know the dogma well. I know the Bible well. It says some pretty messed up stuff about women. But not every member of the faith practices in the ways dictated by the Bible. Similarly, efforts are underway to modernize Islam, with specific fights over prayer, social standing, economic liberty, and more. Musawah is a great starting point for greater context.

      We should absolutely encourage efforts to secure a better future for women within Islam. But history teaches us that not all forms of help are equal. We should strive to help in the most productive ways possible, which is the point of the criticism.

      1. No.. Your only point was to criticize Richard Dawkins for being a rich white male. The vast majority of everyone who read your article took it the same way I did. It isn’t everyone else seeing you as a “I hate all rich white men and they better not try to encourage feminism in deeply Islamic countries.”

      2. From the post you didn’t read:

        When I point out that Dawkins is white and male, it is not to say that being white or male is inherently bad. When I criticize his activist efforts as a white male, it is not to say that white men should not participate in activism supporting people who are not white or male. It is to say that, as he has not lived as a woman, a Muslim, or a person of color — designations held common amongst a large portion of the most severely impacted by this issue — it is particularly important for him to be self-critical when engaging his influence, to consider history and culture in his attempts.

  6. Lauren, I just want to encourage you, as a white male. You are right on target. I don’t envy you this engagement with the long string of white males accusing you, essentially, of sexism and censorship, but your patient articulation of the real issues at stake here is admirable.

    It takes a certain kind of blindness not to be able to see the certain kind of blindness that led Dawkins to assume, just as a matter of course, that Islamic feminists would actually find his help useful. I understand that some former-Muslims are of the opinion he would be helpful. But did Dawkins ever stop to consider that a properly Islamic feminist revolution might be hindered, rather than helped, by the vocal support of the man who argues that raising children as Muslim is child abuse, and who compared religion to smallpox, but “harder to eradicate”?

    If he’s genuinely interested in helping women in Islam to continue the struggle to achieve equality on their own terms, within the discursive domain of their own traditions, perhaps he might consider whether his public support of these women might not actually function to discredit them in the eyes of the very ones they’re having to persuade? Or perhaps he should have calculated the consequences of his rhetoric prior to employing it in the first place, and made the determination a long time ago whether advocating for the eradication of religion, or helping the vulnerable in religious societies to achieve their self-determination, was the more pressing moral pursuit.

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