Black and Muslim Women Are Invisible to the Feminist Movement

Linda Sarsour (center) at the “Day Without a Woman” march in New York City. (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)
It is unwilling to confront the misogynist actions of black and Muslim men.

Much has already been written about the shameful glorifying of Linda Sarsour by New York senator Kristen Gillibrand, who praised her on the pages of Time magazine, and the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health, which has invited her to speak at its commencement ceremony. Feminists ignore Sarsour’s defense of sharia law, her applauding Saudi Arabia for its attitude toward women, and her promotion of violence against those who’ve spoken out against Islamists’ mistreatment of women. This exposes once more the unwillingness of the broader feminist movement to find common ground with the vast majority of women.

From its beginnings in the 1970s, the feminist movement has been dominated by professional women. As a result, it has focused on sexual liberation and glass ceilings while the majority of black and white women alike reject abortion on demand and favor traditional marriage. This schism continues today: The Women’s March on Washington excluded feminists who support abortion restrictions, and subsequently, the Democratic leadership announced it would support only pro-choice candidates.

In the movement’s early years, feminist activism on violence against women was roadblocked by black activists who feared it would be used as an attack on black men. As a result, there was a virtual silence on the disproportionately high rates of domestic violence experienced by black women. (For example, a Chicago study in 2000 found that 55 percent of black teen mothers had experienced domestic violence in the last twelve months.) Only in the 1990s did feminists make a serious push to defend domestic-violence victims through federal law, securing the 1994 Violence against Women Act, as well as a provision in the 1996 welfare-reform bill that allowed states to waive the law’s requirements for victims and provide them additional services. (Indeed, one consequence of welfare reform was a substantial decline in domestic violence resulting from this initiative and the movement of single mothers into paid employment.)

By and large, feminists were also unwilling to confront the misogynist lyrics of rap music, because again it would place the spotlight on black men. Thus they were silent about a culture in which young black women were often victimized by black men. The liberal sociologist Frank Furstenberg lamented the norms that put enormous pressure on very young black men to be sexually active, which in turn “has implications for females who are exposed in their early teens to sexually experienced and, some have argued, sexually demanding partners.” Data verify the much younger age at which black girls become sexually active, the ten times higher rate of sexual transmitted diseases they experience, and their much higher rates of teen pregnancies and abortions relative to white girls. Despite substantial declines in teen pregnancy, in 2010, among black teenagers in New York 15 to 19 years old, more than one in nine became pregnant, 60 percent of whom chose to have an abortion.

Now that Muslims are in the victimization category, feminists have been essentially silent about the mistreatment of Muslim women.

And when it came to rape, the feminist movement became energized only on college campuses. The much higher rape rates for the general public were ignored because, once again, they would highlight negative aspects of the behavior of black men. For example, the New York Civil Liberties Union found that in 2006, black Americans constituted 15.9 percent of the New York population but 37.2 percent of Level 3 sex offenders.

Just as the feminist movement put the experience of black women in the background out of a desire not to criticize black men, now that Muslims are in the victimization category, feminists have been essentially silent about the mistreatment of Muslim women: genital mutilation, honor killings, forced marriages. Critics such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali are demonized, while apologists such as Sarsour are elevated. Just as troubling, to placate pro-Palestinian activists such as Sarsour, Jewish feminists can participate in many progressive activities only if they condemn Zionist policies.

This exclusion is most remarkable given the experience of Arab women who are citizens of Israel. Everyone is aware of Israel’s outstanding record on gay rights. Less well-known are its policies toward Arab women. Thanks to aggressive affirmative action, the labor-force participation rate of Arab women 25 to 34 years old increased from 29 percent to 42 percent between 2006 and 2015. These employment gains included a dramatic increase in the number of Arab women teaching in Jewish schools, volunteering for national service, and involved in entrepreneurial and high-tech endeavors. At the elite Technion Institute, Arab women constitute almost 10 percent of the student body, their share of Israel’s population. And Arab women are gaining senior Israel government positions. This may help explain why Israeli Arabs are responsible for virtually none of the violent attacks in Israel and (unlike their peers in East Jerusalem and the West Bank) did not participate in a one-day shutdown of businesses in support of the current hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.

There are some feminist organizations that have steadfastly focused on the economic concerns of women, most prominently the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Unfortunately, the broader movement has imposed ideological conditions that exclude many feminists. Sadly, the feminist movement continues to ignore the interests of the majority of black and Muslim women as a result of its unwillingness to confront the misogynist actions of Muslim and black men; and it seems that the Democratic leadership has capitulated to the demands of its most illiberal members. For true progressives, this should be as debilitating as Trump’s victory.

— Robert Cherry is the Stern Professor of Economics at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

Editor’s note: This piece has been amended since its original posting.


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