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Why extremists always focus on women

Hillary Clinton's mystery points us to the need to fearlessly uproot the golden mean of domination from our cultures and religions, beliefs and practices, families, communities, and institutions

As the Muslim Brotherhood prepares to take elected office in Egypt, and in the aftermath of the chief rabbis’ emergency meeting to address the threat open-minded, egalitarian Judaism poses to Israel, American Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s mystery about extremists achieves renewed poignancy.

Clinton puts her finger on an aching absurdity of our historic moment – our societies are waging a war against the very people who have the capability to solve the most urgent challenges facing humanity: peace; sustainable, humane economies; global health; and the wellbeing of our planet. Among the arsenal of Clinton’s “smart power” policy is advocacy for women’s full economic, social, and political participation around the world. At a summit in New York, Clinton explained that without women’s full involvement in society, breaking through indifference and resistance, “there can never be the progress that is so necessary.” According to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, New York Times writers and co-authors of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:”

There’s a growing recognition, among everyone from the World Bank to the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE, that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

However, the participation and partnership of women Clinton seeks, and the mission “to ensure that people everywhere, women and men alike, finally have the opportunity to live up to their own God-given potential,” are thwarted by “extremists.” Extremists baffle Hillary Clinton:

Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress, they want to control how we act, they even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies.

Aristotle offers the following insight about extremes: They are excess or deficiency of the very same quality which in proper portion is virtue. Recklessness, for example, is an excess of courage, and cowardice is a deficit of it. Aristotle indicates that extremists exaggerate familiar and desirable traits. He advocates the golden mean – a wholesome balance — as a foundation of good character and civil society. In Aristotle’s view, relations between master and slave, between Greek and barbarian, and between man and woman, partake of the same natural and necessary order (“Politics,” I, iii-vii, “Nicomachean Ethics,” VII). Slavery, sexism, and racism fit Aristotle’s schema of virtue. Dominance over those who are born to serve ought to be exercised in the appropriate measure — according to the golden mean.

On the grounds of the equality of all people, humanity gradually evolves to reject the dominations of slavery, racism, and sexism — so we profess. When sexism recently exceeded a certain threshold beyond the domination that Americans widely ignore and tolerate, some label it extreme. The designation “extremists” implies a center, even virtuous mean; it distances us from attitudes and behavior we reject, and absolves us of our responsibility for sustaining domination. Rarely do we implicate ourselves. Extremists did not invent the domination of women. Extremists do what we do, only more so.

To varying degrees, most societies objectify, devalue, and degrade women; and control, limit, and undermine women’s roles, earnings, and options in subtle and overt ways. Some societies unabashedly declare domination of women a religious or cultural tenet. The West ensconces sexism in purportedly open, free civil society. Infringement of integrity and latent threats ensure that women succumb to male domination. Michel Foucault reveals the dominating power of the gaze:

There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he (sic) is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself (sic). (Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, 155.)

Girls and women internalize obsessive surveillance and regulation. Women are segregated and do not count as members of the Orthodox synagogue public. Women sit in fewer than 20% of the Knesset seats; on some streets, signs order women to conceal their bodies; on other streets, images glorify impossibly skinny women’s bodies, often stripped and degraded; pornographic flyers peddle girls and women for sex; and many printed materials exclude women completely. Many Israeli buses seat women at the back; public events disallow women from participating and sounding our voices. At this year’s Israeli Presidential Conference, only 10% of the speakers “Facing Tomorrow” were women. Responding to exclusion, silencing, innuendo, ambient threats, violations of dignity, girls and women self-impose restrictive behaviors to protect our vulnerability – many limiting their own nourishment, movement, participation, drive, roles, and success.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Jerusalem in 2010 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to Jerusalem in 2010 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Hillary states that no matter what nationality or religion, extremists always focus on women. Indeed, country and religion are the matter. While religions and national cultures are precious to diverse humanity, many continue to endorse vestigial beliefs about gender and practices that undergird domination and inveigh against the equality of people. Gender roles are too often held to be as sacred as religious canon, essential, immutable, and protected fundaments of society, beyond ethics. Whereas Aristotle believes that sexism is both natural and acceptable, the current global consensus professes that sexism is cultural, and that we ought to eliminate it because it is wrong.

During the twentieth century, a new ethical vision about the culture of domination engulfed humanity. In terms of race, the clarity of conviction in the abolition of slavery and desegregation dispelled the awkwardness of intervening in ingrained tradition with laws, education, and policies. Private white-only tennis clubs were integrated or closed. The validity of ethics is not subject to consent or desire. Even if a black wo/man wants to remain or become a slave, abolition is binding – because the relationship of domination is wrong. So is sexism – even if people choose it “freely.” Clinton quotes Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about her trip to Egypt and Tunisia — “the daughters of the Middle East ‘should be able to aspire and achieve based on the talent God gave them and not be held back by any laws made by men.’” In spite of waves of feminism, gender-based oppression persists to handicap humanity in the twenty-first century. Today’s “smart power” policy should head us toward zero tolerance for sexism. There are no shortcuts to unapologetic, proactive, systematic, and robust strategies to achieve the gender equality humankind desperately needs.

This analysis suggests that extremist ideas are rooted in our own lives – in the attitudes and practices we endorse and to which we acquiesce daily. Hillary’s mystery points us to the need to fearlessly uproot the golden mean of domination from our cultures and religions, beliefs and practices – from our hearts and minds; our own families, communities, and institutions, private, public, and corporate; and from the media. Clinton speaks of women leading our communities and nations in struggles to make peace, counter extremism, broaden prosperity, and advance democracy. We – men and women — have the solution to Hillary’s mystery: our unrelenting resolve to ensure and welcome the full security, participation, and leadership of girls and women in all realms of human society.

About the Author
The late Bonna Devora Haberman is author of 'Israeli Feminism Liberating Judaism: Blood and Ink' and 'ReReading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter,' National Jewish Book Award finalist. Dr. Haberman taught at Harvard, Brandeis and Hebrew universities. In Jerusalem, she initiated Women of the Wall, a 25 year strong movement for women's full participation and leadership of public religious practice. -- Dr. Haberman died on June 16, 2015.