It Strikes Me There’s Never a Feminist Around When You Really Need One
John Sturtridge


April 2, 2004

“Feminists – to your scattered enclaves, go!”

Someone must have said that recently, and it seems feminists have heeded the call. Surely the gods haven’t reached down and gathered them all into some Herlandian heaven. Surely not. More likely they are safely tenured in university enclaves, in Women’s Studies programs, or in English departments where women’s studies courses masquerade as literature courses.

It’s not that women who believe in some form of feminist philosophy aren’t around, but when was the last time your heard from them?

They have been reduced to annual and ultimately hollow gestures like “Take Back the Night” marches where men generally are not welcome, and celebrations (if that’s the word) of the Montreal massacre where men – all men – become the enemy. The media pay lip service, life goes one, no one cares.

Feminists have become ghosts in their own time, the deserved butt of a twist on the old pop culture slap in the face – there’s never a feminist around when you really need one.

Well we need them now, and not just because I miss them. I do miss them, those loud, demanding, politically adept second wave feminists, and not because I am feeling particularly nostalgic. I miss them because we need them, and we need them because a 1400 year-old malignant presence is stirring in the peaceable kingdom, a presence called Shari’a.

Following a campaign that has been in the works for years, some Canadian Muslims are poised to gain a toe-hold in the Canadian legal system, to establish the legal authority to apply Shari’a – Islamic law – to civil disputes in Canada.

This scares me. It should scare you. I thought it would scare the Canadian feminist movement, too, but I was wrong. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, and I was still thinking of feminists as those of the so-called second wave, only to discover that in Canada the second wave has faded into memory.

Before they fell off the cultural radar in Canada, second wave feminists fought and lost a civil war, one in which white, middle class feminists and their demands for equality in education and work and treatment before the law were unceremoniously thrown aside in favour of third wave feminists focused on personal sexual power and identity politics – the politics of race and culture.

The victors were loud for a while; they seemed vigourous, intense and unwavering, but they weren’t, at least not in the public arena. In the detritus to be swept away after their victory is included NAC – the National Action Committee on the Status of Women – which has essentially died.

Once a powerful political lobby, an umbrella group representing local, regional and provincial groups at the federal level, NAC is at last report close to bankrupt.

Judy Rebick, one time head of NAC and one of those cast aside second wave feminists, now safe in her own university enclave, surfaced briefly recently, on CBC Radio to talk for a few minutes about the end of NAC. The interviewer was polite. Rebick was polite. It was all very polite. Still, Rebick at least surfaced. Where, I wondered, are her successors, successors like Sunera Thobani?

I tried to find Thobani, a former president of NAC and one of those identity politics focused, third wave feminists who tossed Rebick and her ilk aside. I didn’t anticipate difficulty because Thobani didn’t used to be shy.

In the wake of 9-11 and America’s Afghanistan response, Thobani made a fiery speech denouncing Bush and company and suggesting that women had all the freedom and power they needed. They were women, after all.

(Veiled, yes. Stripped of access to education, yes. Buried to their waists and stoned to death, yes. But they are women; they have power; hear them roar. Hear Helen Reddy weep.)

For a while it seemed Thobani would make a career out of that speech. Attacks on her were vitriolic to say the least, and many of the attacks were personal, not arguing her points, just denigrating her. This allowed her to cast herself as a victim, if not a martyr.

But Thobani is gone now, or at least has retreated deeply into her own ivory enclave. Thobani is a UBC professor, but she’s really hard to find. She is not simply unlisted in the e-mail addresses, she is so deeply buried she is one mouse click away from invisibility.

Still, others do have their e-mail addresses listed, others like Rebick and Irshad Manji. Manji is a feminist, lesbian, Canadian Muslim journalist, an intoxicating mix, and one that suggests someone who would have an opinion on Shari’a in Canada. Manji recently published a book called The Trouble With Islam. Clearly she’s not shy discussing Islam.

Yet Manji hasn’t answered a request for comment on the implementation of Shari’a in civil law. Nor has Rebick. In fact, of nearly a dozen requests for comments sent out, most of them to professors in women’s studies or related programs, only one prompted a response.

The response: “Thank you for your email. I'm afraid I cannot help you with your research as I'm not familiar with your topic of interest. I wish you success in your
search.”

I won’t say her name. She was, after all, polite in her response and polite enough to respond. And it’s not that I don’t believe her – I do. She says she isn’t familiar with this topic, and that is what’s worrisome. In her own words she describes her field of interest this way: “I am interested in studying the process of adjustment when people make a transition from one culture to another. I study cultural identity, social support, coping strategy, and personality factors in examining intercultural contact.”

Yet this educated, Iranian born (remember that) woman, a PhD, a student of “transition from one culture to another,” doesn’t know anything about the initiative to implement Shari’a in Canada.

If individuals are unaware or invisible, institutional feminism is in perhaps even worse shape. NAC is gone. The Ontario Women’s Justice Network (OWJN) is similarly disabled. The OWJN’s web site contains this note dated from September 2003 (the capital letters are theirs: “No new material will be posted to this site for the rest of 2003. We do not have adequate funding and are no longer able to keep the site current. WE ARE ALSO UNABLE TO RESPOND TO EMAIL AND TELEPHONE INQUIRIES.”

An enquiry to a friend (a feminist, also unaware of the Shari’a initiative) about LEAF, the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, an organization in which she is active, was similarly fruitless. LEAF, it seems, doesn’t make comments on things like this, or maybe on anything. The group’s primary job, according to its web site, is to act as intervenor in “selected cases that it thinks will have a significant impact on the equality rights of all women.”

That’s fair, too. No one group can be involved in everything; no single person can have a grasp of everything. Still, you might think that surely someone, somewhere, has both heard of the initiative to establish Shari’a in Canadian law and is willing to comment on it. You would be right.

The International Campaign for the Defense of Women’s Rights in Iran has heard of it, and they don’t like it. In fact their web site is obsessed with it at the moment, and the principals in the organization were quick to respond to enquiries.

It doesn’t surprise me that those familiar with the malignant aspects of Shari’a, those who have lived in or have ties to lands where Shari’a is practiced, are vehement in their denunciation of the practice.

What does surprise me, even scares me, is the stunning silence of Canadian feminists.