Desperately Seeking Liberalism

June 15, 2009 at 7:10 pm (Feminism, Human rights, Islam, Max Dunbar, religion)

bensonMy editor at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson, recently released Does God Hate Women;  co-authored with fellow philosopher Jeremy Stangroom, the book is an exploration of the misogyny inherent in religious scripture and practice.

Last week Ophelia went on Radio 3 to debate the book with Humera Khan who, according to her website, is ‘one of the most important Muslim voices speaking and writing in Britain today’ and ‘a pioneer in the struggle to have faith-based identities – especially that of Muslims – recognised’. Ophelia was also up against Madeleine Bunting, a writer who, at least on a political blog, needs no introduction.

The debate begins around 23:30 minutes in and is well worth listening to – and be quick, because it’s only up for another couple of days. What’s great is that Rana Mitter, the moderator, seems really clued up and asks hard questions with a Paxmanesque zeal.



Isn’t there a fundamental point that there’s a patriarchal centre of religion that doesn’t really change?


There’s clearly evidence of patriarchy across all religions, and that’s because men have always tried to control female sexuality. But to get from that to the conclusion that ‘God hates women’ I find that absurd, you might as well ask, ‘Do men hate women’ and clearly there are a lot of nasty misogynist men out there but there are nice men as well.


The title, of course, is metaphoric, and it wasn’t meant to be taken literally.


I disagree with Madeleine, personally I can only talk with any confidence on Islam as a religion, is that the root of it I don’t believe there is patriarchy, I believe that in a sense patriarchy or matriarchy can evolve according to circumstances and people put values and meaning and can perpetuate oppressive systems, it doesn’t mean to say that I think there aren’t oppressive systems and there is a lot of oppression in the Muslim world.


That’s a very interesting abstract point, Humera, but isn’t the reality of the history of let’s say Islam, in practice there has always been patriarchy, where is the Islamic matriarchy?


Well, if you go to Indonesia, you find some tribes in Indonesia and other countries, you do find some matriarchies, and also if you look in Britain, in some Muslim communities, they are quite driven by women, you do find that the men have very little role in the family. We have a lot of work to do in questioning the way the texts have been interpreted and sometimes women have been excluded from the public space and you could argue that women have been hurt by misinterpretation of religion.


Ophelia, isn’t there something in that argument that religion provides a public space that women can occupy?


I suppose there is, but that space comes at a terribly high price, what Humera says is true enough, but what she’s saying when you read between the lines is that this is an extremely minority phenomenon and that the overall picture still is one of patriarchy and of basic misogyny and of people resisting change.

Later, we return to this theme:


I find it hard with these kinds of discussions because people like Ophelia always come from a Eurocentric tradition –


But Islam is universal, like all religions, isn’t it?


When we’re trying to unpick what’s happening in society today, you know the violence, the negative – I mean, not all patriarchy is bad.


What is the plus side of patriarchy?


Well, I’ve had this discussion with many people, who say that patriarchy actually can work where there’s justice, where people are negotiating –


Give us an example of a situation where that would be the case.


Well, we have to define patriarchy first, I mean, not the general term –


Briefly, I fear –


(starts talking very fast)

That men have a role where that role is outside the home and they negotiate it, but they have equal role in making decisions and democratic decision making, for the well being of the family and the well being of the community and they share certain values, and that’s what I’d say, in the same sense you have matriarchal societies that do that, I’m not advocating any of them, all I’m saying is that there’s possibilities that people can negotiate them.


So Ophelia, could there be a good patriarchy, is that something that could come into your model?


No, it isn’t, patriarchy I think by definition really does refer to a form of inequality and I just don’t think there is a plus side to inequality.

There’s one particularly good point made by Mitter to Khan:


Aren’t these sorts of arguments that yourself and Madeleine Bunting use just an attempt by religious people to find a liberal narrative that isn’t really there?

Got it in one.


  1. Rosie said,

    Thanks for transcribing that, Max. I listened and thought Mitter was pretty good at trying to keep the two of them on track. There wasn’t enough of Ophelia, and after all, she wrote the book!

    As for Bunting, her head is full of mush.

  2. Ophelia Benson said,

    I love the ‘starts talking very fast’ – didn’t she just. We’re almost out of time: do explain how we can have patriarchy as justice. Zoom!

  3. maxdunbar said,

    Another humiliation for the pro-faith left.

  4. Vengeance and Fashion said,

    Mushy headed Bunting might be, but even the most clear headed pro-faith type is going to end up making ridiculous convoluted arguments when they try and defend religion as somehow progressive.

  5. charliethechulo said,

    Maddie attempted to hit back on the Graun’s “Comment Is Free”

    Someone who is obviously very familiar with Maddie’s MO commented as follows:

    16 Jun 09, 8:27pm (about 4 hours ago)
    (Quoting Maddie):”I knew all this so perhaps it was daft to agree to a debate with Ophelia Benson, one of the authors of the book, ‘Does God Hate Women?'” (from Maddie’s article -CC)

    The commenter then addresses Maddie:

    “Yep…you should have known better especially after Dawkins made you look such a monkey. Fact is, Maddie: even if you had a case, you’re just not quick, smart or eloquent enough to come out looking anything other than a middle class dilettante playing at ‘spirituality’.

    “You take a beating and then come on here to indulge your privileged position to try and get even. Get over it girl, you must have taken another pounding. Not that I heard it but I notice you didn’t bother to provide a link. Let me guess…she kept throwing facts, logic and cogent argument at you and didn’t show sufficient humility when you hit back with “Yes, but faith isn’t about ….blah, blah, blah”.

    Pretty much nailed her, I’d say.

  6. skidmarx said,

    Not as much as He hates gays:

  7. voltairespriest said,

    Bunting is a preposterous figure of course, and it doesn’t sound like Khan’s much better.

  8. maxdunbar said,

    Khan was way funnier than Bunting in the debate.

  9. Red Maria said,

    I confidently anticipate that Ms Benson’s magnum opus will prove to be yet another humiliation for infantile secularists.

    In terms of both content and style her writing really is derivative ephemeral shit.

    No wonder Verso gave it a miss.

  10. Rosie said,

    Well, Red Maria, I think you would make a better fist of taking issue with Ophelia Benson’s book than Bunting would, as I think you know more about religion and are cleverer than Bunting (which isn’t much of a compliment really) – so why not do a review of it?

    As for Verso’s reasons for giving the book a miss, it was because it was going to be critical about Islam. Read about it here:-

  11. Red Maria said,

    That’s an offer which is impossible to refuse.

  12. Does God Hate Women? « Max Dunbar said,

    […] may not surprise you to know that the usual cliches of ’shrill’ and ’strident’ thrown about by religious apologists bear no relation to the actual […]

  13. Does God Hate Women? « Shiraz Socialist said,

    […] may not surprise you to know that the usual cliches of ’shrill’ and ’strident’ thrown about by religious apologists bear no relation to the actual […]

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