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Op-Ed: Prof. Phyllis Chesler-The Palestinianization of Feminism

This weekend's feminist conference at Quebec Univ. is for sanctions against--Israel, of course..
By Phyllis Chesler
First Publish: 10/22/2010, 12:43 AM / Last Update: 10/22/2010, 12:35 AM

It’s now official: Apartheid is a feminist issue.  For years, I have been challenging feminists to take up this cause. Had I finally found oil, discovered gold?

I received an invitation via email, both in English and in French, which began:

Calling all feminists…We are inviting you to participate in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) 2010 Conference…from October 22 to 24, 2010, artists, academics, activists…and concerned individuals will converge upon Montreal for this historic conference, which aims to consolidate and push forward the global movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israeli apartheid…”The Conference workshop ‘Israeli Apartheid as a Feminist Issue’…[will] explore ways in which feminist organizations in Quebec, Canada and beyond can contribute to the BDS movement.

Ah, for a minute there I thought the conference would actually address real apartheid, namely that which is practiced by Islam in terms of both gender and religious apartheid; and indeed, in Gaza and on the West Bank, where honor-related violence, including honor killings, normalized domestic violence, forced veiling, polygamy, arranged child marriage and Arab female illiteracy, is rife and rampant.

No such luck.

This conference, ostensibly featuring “feminists and queer artists,” will gather at University of Quebec in Montreal to compare the 1960 South African massacre in Sharpeville in which police opened fire on a crowd of black protesters killing 69 and injuring 180 with—you guessed it—Gaza and Palestine.

Didn’t Israel leave Gaza? Did I only dream that this happened?

No matter. The purpose of this conference has little to do with feminism. It is focused entirely on business as usual, namely boycott, divest, delegitimize Israel—the only democracy in the Middle East and the only country that does not persecute and torture “queers.” The conference seems carefully and specifically organized with trade union and worker support for BDS, and academic, cultural, community sector, queer sector, government, and consumer boycott support.

There is only one allegedly “feminist” panel which features two “feminist” speakers. It is titled: “Israeli Apartheid as a Feminist Issue” and urges feminists to understand that, just as feminists once played an important role in “the movement against racism and inequality” in South Africa, “your participation and contribution to the BDS movement is extremely important in advancing feminist struggle and supporting the efforts of Palestinian women to fight for freedom and self-determination.”

I dunno. The women who supported the Algerian “anti-colonialist resistance” struggle for independence from France did not ultimately stop a mudslide of native Algerian Islamic misogyny which silenced, persecuted, and murdered them; yes, even the women who carried bombs and weapons under their Islamic clothing ended up having to wear that same clothing after “liberation.” Iranian and Egyptian women similarly joined forces with their “brothers” to drive the Western colonizers out—and they, too, together with their Iranian brothers, have been tortured and murdered by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Who are the feminist speakers at this conference? Dr. Faiha Abdelhadi is described as a “feminist scholar and activist at Birzeit University in Palestine.” I believe she subordinates her feminism entirely to the Palestinian struggle. On International Women’s Day Abdelhadi wrote a piece titled: “On the Eighth of March: Let’s Raise the Banner of National Unity and Democratic Freedoms.” She writes: 

The month of March reminds us that national unity, democracy, and freedom are pure feminist expressions, and that the same expressions do not allow for division, fission, fragmentation and exclusion.

The relationship between nationalism and feminism is a complex one, as is the relationship between western colonialism and the rights of colonized women. Looking over Abdelhadi’s biography, she may indeed be as much of a feminist as PLO spokeswoman and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council Hanan Ashrawi is. Abdelhadi is certainly no Asmaa Al-Ghoul or even Bassem Eid, and does not seem to be writing about Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence. Nor is she the kind of feminist that Nonie Darwish is—and Darwish was born in Gaza, raised in Cairo, a woman who is a brave feminist dissident and one who now lives in the United States. I doubt that Abdelhadi is a feminist as so many Iranian women are who are fighting their own leaders for democracy and freedom.

My guess? She is a Stalinized, Palestinianized, postcolonialized, and postmodernized kind of feminist, the kind of feminist who has ghettoized herself and is concerned with the history and status of Palestinian women only. Who else would be allowed to teach at Birzeit University? Who else would agree to attend such a conference?

Well, CODEPINK is attending—they are infested with well known Israel haters and their feminism is non-existent. Then there is Lorraine Guay, who represents the Federation of Quebec Women. She is speaking together with Abdelhadi. Guay has written papers (in French) with titles such as “Israel is not defending itself…it is exterminating.”

Trying to lure feminists may or may not succeed, but the feminist component of this conference is a rather lightweight one.

Omar Barghouti is their main featured speaker. He’s the man who, in 2004, launched the “Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.” Funny, he himself was studying for a Masters degree at Tel Aviv University (!); some students asked that he be expelled, but the administration refused to do so. And now, he is studying for a Ph.D in philosophy and ethics in Tel Aviv. Coincidentally, Barghouti also received a B.A. and an M.A. from Columbia University in electrical engineering.

I guess we must thank our lucky stars that he is not building bombs.

Barghouti has accused Palestinians who engage with Israelis in intellectual debates and artistic partnerships of being “guilty of moral blindness and political shortsightedness” and “clinically delusional or dangerously deceptive.” He has also written that it is “acceptable to compare Israel’s apartheid system to its South African predecessor. As a consequence, proposing practical measures to punish Israeli institutions for their role in the racist and colonial policies of their state will no longer be considered beyond the pale.”

When asked to address the apparent contradiction of wanting to boycott the very university where he, himself, is a student, Barghouti said: “My studies at Tel Aviv University are a personal matter and I have no interest in commenting.”

Prof. Chesler  is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at City University of New York. She is the best selling author of "Women and Madness" (1972), "The New Anti-Semitism" (2003) and "The Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s Freedom" (2005)and appears often in international media interviews. She lives in New York City.(reprinted with author's permission from http://www.newsrealblog.com/2010/10/20/the-palestinianization-of-feminism-in-montreal/)