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Sep 8, 2009

Clive James gets it wrong on feminists, Muslims, Australians, you name it

Clive James has joined the chorus of voices railing against both Islam and Western feminists, in an article that champions two Australian “dissidents” -- Pamela Bone and Helen Garner, writes Shakira Hussein.

Clive James has joined the chorus of voices railing against both Islam and Western feminists, in an article that champions two Australian “dissidents” — Pamela Bone and Helen Garner. In the case of the late Pamela Bone, my personal experience gives me a very different take to his. And in the case of Helen Garner, he seems to have been living in an entirely different universe.

In “A Veil of Silence Over Murder” published in this month’s issue of Standpoint magazine (UK) James opens by quoting the headline from an article by Pamela Bone: “Where are the Western feminists?”

Where are they?”, that is, where are they while Muslim women are being butchered by female genital mutilation, honour killings, and floggings.

According to James, Western feminists and other “multiculturalist ideologues” have remained silent in the face of this brutality because of a deep-seated belief that “the culture of the West is the only criminal”.

Out of all the liberal democracies, James contends, Australia is the one where this idea is “most firmly entrenched among the local intelligentsia”. For contesting this view, Pamela Bone went to her grave with accusations of “racist” ringing in her ears.

I am one of those who contested Bone’s opinions on the “Muslim women” issue, and I take issue with the implication that I was part of a mob that hounded her to her death. Bone interviewed me at length by phone, e-mail, and over a long session of coffee and pastries in Lygon Street.

Bone shrugged off any suggestion of awkwardness arising from my published criticism of her writing. For her, our areas of agreement were more important than our areas of disagreement. If I have any guilt about that encounter, it’s for suggesting that a woman who was only months away from dying of cancer might like to visit a really interesting gender-empowerment project in a village in rural Pakistan. But as James says, Bone was a fighter right to the end.

I’m also intrigued by James’ representation of another Australian “dissident” — Helen Garner. According to James, Garner:

…raised the possibility that the occasional woman might be evil enough to accuse a man falsely of rape — a conjecture on Garner’s part which drew the wrath of all those legions of Australian female pundits who seemed honestly to believe either (a) that if the occasional innocent man should get locked up it would be a small price to pay for the sure punishment of those men who were guilty, or (b) all men were guilty.

Like Helen Garner, if on a less celebrated scale, Pamela Bone was a fine enough writer to make the onlooker toy with the possibility that these matters vital to women were being debated among them.

As best I can work out, this is James’ description of the controversy that surrounded the publication of The First Stone. But if so, it’s a very strange recollection. The First Stone related the story of an incident at Melbourne University’s Ormond College, in which two young female college residents alleged that they had been s-xually harassed by the Master. When the college failed to resolve the issue to their satisfaction, they went to the police.

The events around The First Stone differ from James’ retelling in certain regards. First of all, The First Stone centred around s-xual harassment, not rape or alleged rape.

Secondly, Garner did not accuse the two women concerned of simply making it up. The area of dispute was not over the facts of the case, but over its interpretation. Garner said that the women’s behaviour was “destructive, pitiless, and priggish” — but she did not say that they were lying. Rather, she thought that they were making much too big a deal of it.

James is right in saying that the book generated an extremely negative reaction among feminists, but that’s the only thing he gets right. That’s assuming he is talking about The First Stone — reading his article, I wondered whether Helen Garner had generated another storm among Australian feminists over false rape allegations, and I had just slept through it. But if so, everyone else seems to have slept through it too. I did a round of phone-calls this morning, and none of my feminist colleagues remembers any such controversy.

Clive James’ article offends me on several different levels — as a feminist, as a Muslim, as a supporter of multiculturalism, as an Australian (given his description of our Stalinist public discourse). I wouldn’t describe myself as a member of the “intelligentsia”, but James probably would, if only because of my entirely suspect political opinions, so I’m offended on that level as well.

Go back to writing poetry Clive, at the very least it’ll give Guy Rundle another chance to poke fun at you.

(I left a comment on the Standpoint website requesting clarification from Clive James, but as yet have received no response.)

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2 thoughts on “Clive James gets it wrong on feminists, Muslims, Australians, you name it

  1. acannon

    Genital mutilation, flogging, honour killings are not just feminist issues – they’re human rights offences. As such, it is not only the responsibility of feminists to speak out on these issues. Organisations such as Amnesty do run relevant campaigns.

    James seems to be of the opinion that it is only womens’ job to speak up and act against these things: “I never wanted to publish this essay, or even to make much more than a start on writing it. I wanted women to do the job”. I think it’s even more critical that feminist MEN act on their beliefs, given that honour killings are largely carried out by men who are more likely to value the opinions of another man.

    I confess my eyes glazed over as I was attempting to read James’ article, so I’m not really doing his (or your) argument justice. But I do think there is some truth in the idea that many consider “the West …the only criminal”. I find people often use the excuse “oh, it’s cultural” when discussing practices in other cultures – i.e. what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’ depends on where you are from. Not so much for issues such as genital mutilation, but in general we’re hesitant to criticise someone else’s culture – maybe because as Westerners we have such a bad history of stomping in and crushing everyone elses’ ways of doing things.

    There are many religious/cultural practices that I view as unfeminist – in short, any that have different rules for men and women. For example, I don’t think Muslim women should have to wear a scarf or hijab. In the present political climate, however, I think many Muslim women would wear one simply as a symbol of pride for their culture, regardless of any religious requirements. So I don’t want to just lob in and start saying “this isn’t fair”. How do you start such dialogues without just getting everyone on the defensive?

  2. Irfan Yusuf

    So Clive James thinks only women should talk about violence against women? He obviously doesn’t understand why so many blokes wear White Ribbons in November each year.