Feminist teach-in links “fundamentalism” in the Middle East to (natch) the U.S.

“Women Fight Fundamentalisms: Before and After September 11th” was the topic of a two-day “teach-in” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University. The teach-in built upon the national consensus forged on Sept. 11 against the extremist, militant interpretation of Islam wielded by the terrorist al-Qu’eda organization, Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban. That aberration of Islam is particularly vicious in its treatment of women. The topic of the teach-in was not, however, limited to the fight against that “fundamentalist” version of Islam by women. As the title clearly indicates, the topic was women fighting “fundamentalisms” (plural).

According to The Daily Tar Heel, the forum “explored the idea that war is a gendered institution and that long-standing stereotypes of fundamentalism affect current events.”

Opening remarks for the first night of the teach-in, held at the Haynes Art Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, were provided by Duke English professor Ranjana Khanna. According to the DTH, Khanna pronounced her dismay at “how American women can cam rightfully criticize fundamentalism in other cultures when they impose forms of oppression on themselves,” citing breast implants and high heels as examples. “Women in the United States are the biggest consumers and the most consumed,” Khanna said.

The next speaker was Mab Segrest, lesbian author and visiting professor of Women’s Studies at Duke. Segrest discussed “Women, the Rise of the Religious Right, and the New Global Order.” Segrest is a member of North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence, which seeks to counter white-supremacist and neo-Nazi activity in N.C. and whose web site is listed by Google under “U.S. Domestic Terrorism” (meaning NCARR offers information on that subject). The inclusion of “Religious” violence in the organization’s name is no mistake; in a Methodist Women’s magazine Response in 1999 Segrest remarked that “within Christianity, church fiat is the equivalent of [the] pistols” used by the murderers of Matthew Shepard.

Segrest is also on the Board of Directors of Political Research Associates, which states its mission as “monitor[ing] the organizations, individuals, and activities of the US political right” with the purpose of being an “early warning system” of “right-wing activities” and resisting the “right-wing programs.” In its “Fifteen Year Report,” the PRA answers the question “What does ‘right-wing’ mean?” thus: “In the U.S., there is an identifiable right-wing agenda. Its roots lie in the lynchings of Blacks in the South by the Ku Klux Klan, the ideological principles of the John Birch Society, and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950’s. Central to the agenda is white supremacism, preservation of individual wealth in a setting of free market capitalism, preservation of rigidly traditional religious and family structures, and defenses of U.S. military hegemony.”

Segrest praised the PRA, saying “In an era when the right has become so devious and far-flung, the scrupulous and courageous work of Political Research Associates is crucial to shaping progressive strategy.”

Segrest did not disappoint in her remarks. According to the DTH, Segrest discussed similarities between President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden.

The final speaker will be Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist who taught at Duke from 1993-96 after having been placed on the death list by Islamic extremists in Egypt. Saadawi spoke on “Religious Fundamentalism, Globalization, and Women” on the second day of the teach-in, held at Duke’s East Campus.

In a recent Al-Ahram Weekly Online issue, El Saadawi decries “the Zionist fundamentalist state of Israel, backed by the US [with] an arsenal of modern weapons provided by the US to attack unarmed civilian populations, destroy homes, occupy Palestinians’ land and kill women and children.” She also decries the “racism” of Western critics who link veiling to Islam, saying that veiling is a historical fact of both Judaism and Christianity. “Religious fundamentalism is the same, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic,” she writes.

In 1999 El Sadaawi returned to Duke to speak. She declared she was “very critical of the word ‘religion’,” in part because “Almost all wars were done in the name of religion” and also because women are oppressed by all religions. She also compared women’s wearing make-up to wearing a veil.

El Saadawi spoke of how to end the oppression of women though ending the division between cultures. “I think the battle of this century is not to celebrate our differences or maintain them but to overcome our differences,” she said.

Reaction to the speakers was mixed. Campus activist and UNC-CH sophomore Carrie Goodman, co-chair of UNC-CH’s Feminist Students United! (exclamation point in the title), was impressed. “Feminists from Western cultures sometimes see the practice of another culture as oppressive but fail to see the oppressive practices that seem commonplace in their own society,” she told the DTH.

“Before tonight, I had thought about how domestic terrorism is strikingly similar to what we’ve heard from Osama bin Laden,” UNC-CH sophomore Leah Hoyle told the DTH. “I guess I never really thought of extending that to our own president.”

UNC-CH sophomore Allison Robitaille, however, wasn’t gulled. “I found it very comical that [Segrest] was comparing our nation’s leader to our world’s leading terrorist,” she said.

Among the academic departments and officials sponsoring the teach-in were: at UNC-CH, the Dean of Arts and Sciences, the Women’s Studies Dept., Dept. of Sociology, Dept. of Political Science, and the University Center for International Studies; at Duke, the Vice-Provost of Interdisciplinary Studies, the Women’s Studies Dept., the Vice Provost for International Affairs, Dept. of Religion, Dept. of Asian & African Languages & Literature, and the Center for International Studies. Also sponsoring the teach-in are the North Carolina Center for South Asian Studies, Muslim Networks of Duke, Carolina Seminars for Comparative Islamic Studies of UNC-CH, Carolina Seminars on Bridging the Divide: Academics, Activists and Social Justice of UNC, Hiwar (Duke Students for Middle East Understanding) and the Progressive Students, Staff and Faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill.