Phyllis Chesler, noted feminist, told a Senate hearing hosted by the American Committee for Democracy in the Middle East that lasting democracy could never come to the region without the support and participation of Arab women.
Chesler's testimony on "Gender Apartheid in Iran and the Muslim World" was broadcast across the Arab world in a Web cast and translated into Arabic, Kurdish, and Farsi.
She spoke of the urgent need to stand up for the rights of women living under oppressive Islamist regimes, stressing that that the pursuit of equal rights and treatment for women in oppressive regimes will boost the Bush administration's strategy to promote democracy in the Middle East.
"Democracy, modernity and freedom will never happen without (the support of) women," Chesler told United Press International in an interview. "We need to have a universal standard for human rights. We can and we must if we believe in the importance of our ideals."
Chesler urged the senators present to tie human rights abuses to American foreign policy, to create foreign policy designed to protect the status of women: no trade without the protection of women's rights, and of human rights.
"If we do not oppose and defeat Islamic gender apartheid, democracy and freedom cannot flourish in the Arab and Islamic world," she said. "If we do not join forces with Muslim dissident and feminist groups; and, above all, if we do not have one universal standard of human rights for all -- then we will fail our own Judeo-Christian and secular Western ideals."
Chesler's stance on women's rights in oppressive Muslim regimes was forged from personal experience. In 1961 she married her college boyfriend, an Afghan Muslim. The two traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, en route to Paris. But on arrival in Kabul Chesler's passport was confiscated, and she found herself living in a form of purdah.
Not as extreme as the purdah in which many Muslim women spend their entire lives, Chesler's life in Afghanistan was nonetheless one in which her freedom of movement was inhibited, and privacy and independence were non-existent. Eventually, she was placed under house arrest after numerous entreaties to the U.S. Embassy failed to help. As the wife of a citizen of Afghanistan, Chesler was no longer afforded the freedoms and protection granted to an American citizen. She was returned to her family compound by U.S. Marines.
"What I experienced in Afghanistan taught me the necessity of applying a single standard of human rights, not one tailored to each culture," Chesler told the Senate.
Eventually returned to the United States following a near-fatal brush with hepatitis, Chesler began to campaign for the international rights of women, a fight that last week led her to the Senate.
As detailed in her book "The Death of Feminism: What's Next in the Struggle for Women's Freedom," Chesler's long campaign for the emancipation of women living under oppressive Islamist regimes has seen her at odds with a significant proportion of the Western feminist movement. The attitude of political-correctness that surfaced in the 1980s has morphed into a form of moral and cultural relativism that Chesler decries as dangerous to the rights of oppressed people around the world.
This notion formed a cornerstone of her speech to the Committee: "Dare to argue for military as well as humanitarian and educational intervention -- and you will be slandered as a 'racist' -- even when you are arguing for the lives and dignity of brown- and black- and olive-skinned people," she said.
"In the name of anti-racism and political correctness, the Western academy and media appear to have all but abandoned vulnerable people -- Muslims as well as Christians, Jews, and Hindus -- to the forces of Islamism. Such cultural relativism is, today, perhaps the greatest failing of the western academic and media establishments," she said.
"If we, as Americans, want to continue the struggle for women's and humanity's global freedom, we can no longer allow ourselves to remain inactive, anti-activist, cowed by outdated left and European views of colonial-era racism that are meant to trump and silence concerns about gender."
Chesler's views on the negative impact of moral and cultural relativism are shared by Ramesh Sepehrrad, president of the National Committee of Women for Democratic Iran, who was interviewed alongside Chesler.
"That the subhuman status of women is evil is not a racist statement," Sepehrrad said.
Sepehrrad spoke of her dismay that Iranian women had been abandoned by the feminist wing. Despite living in a country that still practices stoning, and where -- according to an unnamed dissident cited by Chessler -- "being born female is both a capital crime and a death sentence," in Tehran this summer women took to the streets, chanting "misogyny is the root of tyranny."
These actions went unacknowledged by feminists in the West, Sepehrrad said sadly.
Gender apartheid can be ended, Sepehrrad argued. In Iran there must be external "support (for) the indigenous voice for regime change. But the silence from the West is deafening."