A First Lady should respect the veil

Hillary Clinton take note: to Third World women, Western feminism carries the whiff of imperialism
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The Independent Online
Today is the last day of the informal wing of the Peking jamboree. No doubt thousands of delegates will be going home energised, with new tips, new resolutions, new friends. In the nature of these things there will be a strong sense of sisterhood and camaraderie, inadvertently helped by clumsy attempts to intimidate and disrupt. No doubt the Chinese authorities are breathing a sigh of relief and hoping that they can forget about this public relations disaster.

It will take some time for the significance of the conference to sink in. When it does, we may conclude that although many people have said that Peking was the wrong place to hold it - a country run by ancient men that treats its women with contempt - it was in other ways appropriate. After all, this year's conference has been a classic example of the bureaucratisation of feminism as a movement, and Peking is home of the true mandarins, one of the world's oldest and most confident bureaucracies.

Over the course of 20 years feminism, like the green movement, has been transformed from a militant opposition and institutionalised into the world of programmes and policies, government posts and draft communiques. 1995 may come to represent for feminism what the 1992 Rio summit represented for the greens. In a sense it is a sign of the movement's success and an indicator of progress. This is how ideas become concrete. At a certain point activists have to turn from poetry to prose, and have to get involved in the nitty-gritty of numbers, of delivering programmes, of making the dull machinery of administrations actually work.

But there is another side to this, and to the Peking conference, which is harder to handle. The ideas of feminism and the green movement flowered in the West. They are creatures of industrialised democracies with special ideas about rights and freedoms. And if in the past the West spread its influence around the world with gunboats and troops, today it does so with products and ideas.

However right the ideas, they inevitably carry a whiff of imperialism: of a West convinced that it knows best, telling the little people how to live their lives. Only this week we've heard that Western campaigns to stop female circumcision in places such as Eritrea, where the majority of women are circumcised, are resented by local women, many of them feminists, because they are seen as just another example of interference, a variation of Western cultural imperialism.

Elsewhere there are similar dangers. In Algeria, for example, where the soul of the country is being torn apart in a struggle between Islamists and those wanting a secular state, there is no one tradition of feminism. I was there a few years back and met dozens of women who were active in the Islamic women's movement who saw the hejab (veil) not as a symbol of oppression but rather as a source of personal liberation, a way of protecting themselves from the intrusive and dominating gaze of men. In their eyes, scantily clad Western feminists are less in control of their space and their own lives. And even for non-Islamic Algerian women (and indeed men), the hejab is an important symbol of Algeria's coming of age and its liberation from French imperialism - not least because it was the means by which women smuggled bombs and guns on to the streets of Algiers, crucial for victory in the war of independence.

It is perhaps not surprising that where East meets West and where Third World meets First there are clashes and differences of opinion. Despite globalisation and the UN these countries and their cultures are far apart. But to many people it is the capacity of the West to impose its views of what is and is not important that is most striking. Already there have been reports this week that some delegates from the Third World and Catholic women's groups were disgusted by the First World's obsession with abortion and the way this has come to dominate the debate at the conference.

None of this is to say that female circumcision is right, or that Islam has an exemplary record on women's rights, or that Catholicism will be women's salvation, or that we should retreat into cultural relativism. It is simply that Western-style feminism all too often imposes a universal vision and misreads different countries' cultures.

All of which begs the rather obvious question: do we actually need international conferences of women at all? It is obvious why the environment can only be tackled at a global level. Acid rain and emissions don't respect boundaries. But just how much do the world's women share in common? Some basic principles, for sure: being paid the same as a man for an hour's work; being unable to decide if and when you have a child; being free from violence. But beyond that, the divisions between women are far greater than those between women and men, and many of these divisions are growing. There is a vast gap between Hillary Clinton's class of high-powered corporate lawyers, able to command astronomical pay on the international market, and the farmers and assembly-line workers of China or India. Shared womanhood is only marginally more convincing than shared humanity as a starting point for a common political project.

Moreover the great majority of women's issues are best dealt with at a local level so that indigenous women can be the agents of their own liberation, partly so that local values and cultural mores can be taken into account, and most importantly because policies handed down from remote agencies on the other side of the globe without such local inputs are likely to fail. If the principle of subsidiarity counts for anything, it means taking decisions on reproductive freedoms, discrimination on pay, health or education, at the lowest possible level - usually that of the nation or community, or indeed even the individual. If there is a global role so far as women's rights are concerned, it is probably simply one of exchanging ideas and experience.

It is in this context that the tone of Mrs Clinton's speech this week and the style in which she did it was ill-judged. Berating the Chinese and others for not pursuing the Western way of life is classic macho diplomacy and stands in a long tradition of Western arrogance. Much of what she said was right. But her legitimacy and credibility would be greatly enhanced if there was just a touch of humility, a hint that America hasn't exactly solved all the problems of women's lives and that the land of the free can also tolerate cultural diversity. Moreover the credibility of Western feminism itself would surely be enhanced if its spokeswomen actually tried engaging with other cultures rather than just denouncing them through a megaphone.