Canadian Feminism: La Castrata Revisited

I begin writing this some five days after the 100th effortlessly forgettable and rather bloodless International Women’s Day. I recall an old classmate of mine several years ago, stapled mute in the middle of a lecture, whispering ever so begrudgingly under her breath on the subject: “Every day should be women’s day.”

The sentiment wasn’t lost on me. There is a more than a whiff of the palliative about International Women’s Day, reflected in the limp tone of a conversation on CBC Radio 1’s The Current on the day in question, between columnist Erin Cardone, law counselor Suromitra Sanatani, and the 89-year-old physicist Ursula Franklin. Both Ms. Cardone and to a lesser extent, Ms. Sanatani did lots of hemming and hawing over the discrepancies in wages and employment while at the same time shrugging it off with an air of “everything’s pretty much fine.” This is not impressive. Ms. Franklin tried to inject some of the old vinegar of the radical feminists of yesteryear, but to put it mildly, the old slogans were a tad dusty.

Indeed, it is a common problem with, or perhaps even of radical feminist literature that it has a tendency to slouch towards the vague, the platitudinous, or even the outright fantastic. The most pernicious example of this is Andrea Dworkin, who occupies the position of being both feminism’s most obnoxious advocate and its worst writer on a sentence-by-sentence basis. It was, then, something of a relief when I rediscovered Germaine Greer and The Female Eunuch.

Books ought to be examined on at least two levels: the quality of the prose, and the insight of the ideas. Few authors fail as miserably in both categories as Dworkin, and equally few rise to them like Germaine Greer. I can’t help but feel affection for anyone who writes their master’s thesis on Byron, and while at Cambridge for her Ph.D. was a member of Footlights, the same drama club that fostered Stephen Fry and the Pythons. I must admit with a blush also being a little grateful for her posing naked on the cover of a 1972 issue of Playboy. But in truth, the real pleasure of Ms. Greer is her effectual (if not quite affecting) prose, her irony, and her scholarship. Many of these qualities are regrettably absent from feminist literature.

The Female Eunuch markets itself as a call-to-arms, but although Ms. Greer herself has called it “un-academic,” in my Harper Perennial edition I count no fewer than 24 pages of notes and citations. In reality, it is a very carefully constructed argument, and while it certainly cannot be accused of being a-polemic, the case it puts forth is more researched than we have come to expect from radical feminist work. The scope of the book being as broad as it is, any summary attempted by me would be unjust; however if I were compelled to distill the book into what I perceive as being its most salient points they would be as follows:

1) That marriage and the nuclear family as it exists today are products of a consumerist society and fundamentally force women into a submissive role

2) That women’s sexuality has been repressed, to the extent that it is seen as something merely reactive to the sexuality of men, not as an active force in itself

3) That change to the status of women can only come through conscious revolution

Another reader may choose other arguments as being more important; they may be correct. At any rate, it is not necessary for my purposes here. I would invite anyone unfamiliar with the book to read it and draw their own conclusions.

If in the past few paragraphs the reader has detected the odour of hagiography, it is only because I am, at this juncture, forced to say some rather churlish things about the 1999 sequel to The Female Eunuch, The Whole Woman. This is not to say that The Female Eunuch is without its blunders. I can’t, for instance, be the only reader to have laughed out loud when Ms. Greer writes: “Dildos are not used by butch lesbians.” But The Whole Woman elaborates the theme of pointlessness and vacuity prevalent in such statements into whole chapters; some, such as the chapter in which she decries transsexualism as being somehow inimical to feminism, border on the paranoid. Her nostalgia for Soviet Communism is equally bizarre. She writes: “The implosion of the Soviet regimes and the ensuing collapse of state capitalism caused great suffering to women.” As much suffering as, say, the mass starvation inflicted by the Soviets on the Ukraine? As much suffering as the 50 000 or so girls and women who were systematically raped by Soviet forces during the Siege of Budapest? One can understand if Ms. Greer believes that a truly feminist world is a socialist world, but it would be preferable if that socialism resembled George Orwell’s rather than George Galloway’s.

Indeed, after surveying the pages of The Whole Woman I had a goodly long list of bones fit for picking. There is, however a phenomenon indigenous to both books that I find particularly unsettling. I noticed it first after I had finished The Female Eunuch: not a line, not so much as a sentence of the book is devoted to an examination of the relationship between religion and misogyny. This seems strange, given that there are very few religions on earth that have anything but contempt for female sexuality (for instance, there are dozens of “virgin birth” stories among the world’s religions, from Osiris to Quetzalcoatl; evidently one’s godliness is directly proportionate to the frigidity of one’s mother), and all three monotheisms at least implicitly and often explicitly hate women. Had Ms. Greer left all alone, one could simply write it off as something she didn’t address. Regrettably, she felt compelled for one reason or another to write The Whole Woman, and there she doesn’t just stop short of indicting the most wicked and vicious elements of religion, but she in fact defends them.

In the chapter titled “Mutilation,” Ms. Greer compares female genital mutilation (what many have come to euphemistically refer to as female circumcision) to cosmetic surgery performed on the labia and concludes that they are morally equivalent. As repulsive as the idea that a woman might feel the need to have surgery performed on her genitals to make her more attractive to men might be, to say that this, an elective procedure, can be compared to a nine-year-old girl who is forcibly strapped down and without anesthetic and in septic conditions has her labia and clitoris removed with a piece of glass or a sharp stone is a fantastic insult to those who have endured the latter treatment. Ditto comparing it to genital piercings. For years, various UN organizations have been trying to outlaw FGM; Ms. Greer correctly notes that no such effort has been made against male genital mutilation. This is unforgivable - but also a non sequitur. What Ms. Greer is implying is that female genital mutilation is okay, at least if it’s okay for boys to have their genitals mutilated. For those of us staunchly against the mutilation of anyone’s genitals, regardless of gender, this kind of reasoning is maddening.

She continues: “...there are influential feminists who are fighting to eliminate FGM in their own countries and their struggle must be supported but not to the point of refusing to consider the different priorities and cultural norms by which other women live.” (Italics mine.)

First, I will say that I reject the notion that these kinds of cultural practices are distinguishable from religion. In Somalia, the victims of FGM are overwhelmingly Muslim, and even if the practice predates Islam, Islam’s cult of virginity has made it eager to assimilate FGM into itself. It would be unthinkable for many Somalian Muslims to consider an uncircumcised girl truly Muslim. In non-Muslim cultures where FGM is practiced, such as the Afar or Ameru tribes in Kenya, the circumcision of girls is part of an ancient initiation into womanhood, strictly ritualized and steeped in superstition, and both male and female circumcision has long been a crucial part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and even some of the shadier recesses of the Coptic Church. To differentiate these rituals from religious sentiment is strictly semantic, a linguistic sleight-of-hand at which apologists for the practice have long rehearsed to the point of prestidigitation.

It is never made clear what exactly Ms. Greer means by the above excerpt, but how can one interpret this as anything other than leniency? Indeed, there is a very bizarre double-standard at play here - the overwhelming message of The Female Eunuch was that if the status-quo is fundamentally oppressive to women, which it undoubtedly is, than the status-quo must be dismantled. Why then, in The Whole Woman, does she refuse to admit that the status-quo of non-Western cultures should be dismantled? Why is it that FGM is something “women do to women” (not true), whereas heels and cosmetics is something imposed on women by men? Why the unwillingness to apply the same criteria for women’s liberation that she so decisively us to puncture Western society to non-Western societies?

Why is it that the female eunuch is only unacceptable when it is metaphorical, but the real castrata is abandoned as a product of “culture?”

Ms. Greer’s insistence on comparing FGM to genital piercings and self-harm practices such as cutting is indicative of her complete misunderstanding (or ignorance) of the phenomenon. No woman chooses to have her labia and clitoris removed and her bloodied, wounded genitals sewn up to a tiny hole; this is forcibly imposed on them by a religio-cultural system of values that emphatically and ruthlessly hates women.

I wish it could be said that Ms. Greer’s reluctance to criticize non-Western cultural attitudes towards women is atypical. Regrettably, there is a very weird and nauseating support for practices that are objectively anti-woman. I opposed Quebec’s Bill 94 for the obvious reason: it was poorly worded and hastily put together. But I was shocked that nearly every major Canadian feminist organization opposed it because it violated freedom of religion. (Tellingly, the Muslim Canadian Congress did not.) Never mind that the niqab is the physical manifestation of women’s submission to men in Islam. Enough about freedom of religion - what about freedom from religion?

In a Montreal Gazette article last March, Shelina Merani (whom it should be noted doesn’t wear the niqab) claimed that the Bill was discriminatory and contributed to ghettoization. A woman incapable of showing her face except to her husband and father is by definition ghettoized already. Ms. Merani is, incidentally, a spokeswoman for Muslim Presence, an organization that includes as one of its members a certain Prof. Tariq Ramadan, the man who’s most sweeping condemnation of Islam’s hatred of women amounted to calling for a “moratorium” on the stoning to death of adulterous women in Muslim countries. A detail.

On in May of 2010, Prof. Dana Olwan of Queen’s University wrote a passionate if somewhat unlettered indictment of Bill 94 in which she argues: “In the case of the niqab, the narrative that is told over and over again is that a liberated woman would not freely choose to cover her face.” This is repugnant to logic. Religion is, by definition, not a choice; the devoutly religious believe they are compelled to behave in a certain way under threat of eternal torture. Islam, like all religions, is nothing more than a system of beliefs. You either think such a system of beliefs is compatible with feminism, or you do not. I submit that any belief system that compels women to cover their face except to their male relatives and husbands is antithetical to women’s liberation. You either think the state should be made to accommodate and by so doing encourage such a belief system or you do not. The idea makes my toes curl.

Moreover, Prof. Olwan and her cognates seem to misunderstand entirely what a “ban” on the niqab really means. It does not mean that Muslim women will be prohibited from wearing the veil in public, or on the street; it merely restricts face-covering in circumstances in which the secular or the alternately religious would be compelled to reveal their face: court, photo identification, et cetera. To allow Muslim women to subvert these rules is a direct violation of the separation religion and state, one of the most precious ideals of enlightened civilization. Prof. Olwan’s fatuous comparison to the RCMP allowing Sikh men to eschew the traditional Mountie headgear in favor of the turban misses the point entirely: it does not inconvenience the state or the RCMP to allow for this accommodation. The issue between Baltej Singh Dhillon and the traditional Mountie Stetson was of the value of “Canadian” icons. Not resources or “accommodation” in any meaningful sense. The same cannot be said for accommodations regarding the niqab.

Germaine Greer believes, as I do, that feminist politics are necessarily revolutionary politics. If revolution does not mean the dismantling of the oldest and most draconian status-quo of them all - religious status-quo - then it is impotent. In other words, feminism must be intrinsically anti-theistic. Far too little has been written on the relationship between feminism and atheism and/or secularism. Before women can liberate themselves from the strictures of earthly men, they must first liberate themselves from the most oppressive and totalitarian and misogynistic male in history: god.

If the feminist response to the plight of women living under religious fascism is disheartening, the recent wave of populist pseudo-feminist posturing spearheaded by Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick is perhaps even more diminishing to the spirit. It was Ms. Mallick that, in response to some rather tactless comments made by police Const. Michael Sanguinetti to a class at Osgoode Hall Law School (it would be nice if every beat cop would read the collected works of Betty Friedan; I don’t hold it against them that they don’t), initiated one of the most boring and ridiculous non-events in recent memory: SlutWalk. This was, as far as I can discern, a demonstration of nothing except Ms. Mallick’s questionable taste in shoes.

Does anyone seriously think that any man - short of the sexually stunted celibacy fanatic (almost certainly religious) - will feel even remotely chastised as a result of this onanistic parade? It is genuinely impressive that the initiative was able to gather the momentum it did – I wonder if maybe all the energy put into SlutWalk might perhaps have been better spent raising funds for a woman’s shelter, or starting a female advocacy group to effect political change, or donating monies to educate the illiterate girls of either this country or another; perhaps they could have solicited donations to the December 6th Fund, or Amnesty International’s recent campaign against stoning - anything instead of a having a party, which was what they did. Meanwhile Ms. Mallick, who insists on identifying her self as someone who “fights” for women’s rights, has devoted not a single word to the Supreme Court trials currently being fought by Terri-Jean Bedford in Ontario and Sheryl Kiselbach in B.C. for the rights of female sex workers.

The reluctance of contemporary feminists to do anything actually useful reminds me of one Orwell’s most insightful passages, from The Road to Wigan Pier: “Every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed.”

In a world where every day the forces of faith daily obtrude themselves into our lives, where we are told that the 2.5 million Afghani girls who are currently getting an education - in a country in which prior to the invasion they were treated as literally less than chattel – are having democracy “imposed” on them, I would like to address those of us left who still have the sand to think of feminism as something revolutionary. In Canada and in many other countries, feminism is on a steep decline. Leave the Heather Mallicks and Shelina Meranis and Dana Olwans of this world to oscillate in the mode of the impotent; it is time to do something more.


There are 1 comments on this post

Mr. Offord,

Thank you for your article on Canadian Feminism. I agree entirely with it. But I am compelled to give Mr. Tariq Ramadan the opportunity to explain the reasons for his "moratorium" on the stoning of adulterers as prescribed by the Koran.

In a debate with President Sarkozy of France in 1993, Ramadan explained his viewpoint thus:

“Personally,” he said, “I’m against capital punishment, not only in Muslim countries, but also in the U.S. But when you want to be heard in Muslim countries, when you are addressing religious issues, you can’t just say it has to stop. I think it has to stop. But you have to discuss it within the religious context. There are texts involved. I am not just talking to Muslims in Europe, but addressing the implementation of huddud everywhere, in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Middle East. And I’m speaking from the inside to Muslims. Speaking as an outsider would be counterproductive. But now I can say that Sarkozy helped me enormously, because the controversy helped me to spread my ideas.”

Thank you.
Andrew Chermak
Toledo, OH

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