A Feminist Critique Double-Standard?

August 5, 2008

I recently finished reading Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and found her story to be very compelling and well-written.  She makes a feminist critique of Islamic culture based on her own experiences growing-up in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.  While one could wonder whether the horrible treatment of women that she describes is really inherent in Islam or just in the way Islam is practiced in certain places, she makes a powerful case that anyone interested in progress for women should consider.  Certainly anyone who would read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, or Naomi Wolf, should add Ayaan Hirsi Ali to their reading list.

But then I wondered — given how often these American feminist authors are on high school recommended reading lists, how many of those lists also include Ayaan Hirsi Ali?

I did a quick Google search for the terms “Infidel,” “high school,” “reading list,” and “Ayaan Hirsi Ali.”  There were 158 entries after duplicates were removed.  Combing through those entries I found four high schools that had Infidel on a recommended reading list. 

I did a similar search, substituting “The Color Purple” as the book and “Alice Walker” as the author.  That yielded 575 entries (without duplicates).  After reviewing the first 158 of those entries I found 49 high school recommended reading lists containing The Color Purple in addition to statewide lists for New York and Florida.  There are also many Google entries describing efforts to ban The Color Purple or remove it from recommended reading lists, but it is clear that those efforts have largely failed.  The Color Purple is widely suggested for high school students to read by school officials.

Why is Ayaan Hirsi Ali largely absent from high school reading lists while Alice Walker is so common?  Perhaps the difference is explained by the literary quality.  Walker is read for her literary skill in addition to the themes she addresses, but I somehow doubt that literary quality fully accounts for the difference.  And I should emphasize that Infidel is very well-written.  Her detached, almost clinical tone, helps the reader grasp the horrors she describes.  And Ali writes without anger and with a fair level of sympathy, even for those who treated her very poorly.

Instead, I suspect that at least some of the difference is attributable to the fact that Walker’s feminist critique hits closer to home, while Ali describes issues that are more remote.  In part, this is reasonable because we legitimately have a stronger interest in things that are closer to us.  But in part this seems unreasonable.  If we feature only criticisms of Western treatment of women and neglect accounts of even more horrifying treatment elsewhere, we deprive students of a sense of perspective and proportion.  Students might fail to appreciate the accomplishments and progress of Western civilization because of the inability to compare it to the accomplishments and progress made in other civilizations.

Infidel contains many controversial and disturbing issues.  But so does The Color Purple.  It would be nice if we are willing to address those controversial and disturbing issues even when they don’t occur in our backyard.

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