There Was Nothing Wrong with Richard Dawkins’ Tweet That “Islam Needs a Feminist Revolution”

[Excerpts from my post at The Friendly Atheist]

By Bo Gardiner

I’ve disagreed with Richard Dawkins before on his insensitivity to women, feminism, and majority privilege. Some of it he’s apologized for, so I’d like to think we’re starting to be heard. I know all too well from environmental campaigns the importance of acknowledging our successes.

And thus, I part with my fellow Friendly Atheist contributor Lauren Nelson in her recent post, which struck out scathingly at Dawkins for the following single tweet:

There is nothing wrong with those words.  The question deserves answers, not attacks.

Lauren wrote:

It’s not unusual for renowned atheist Richard Dawkins to rub people of faith the wrong way. It’s not unheard of for him to get on the bad side of feminists. But it’s not every day that he pisses off the intersection of the two groups. But this week, with a series of tweets, that’s exactly what Dawkins did.

He started the hullabaloo off with this humdinger:  “Islam needs a feminist revolution. It will be hard. What can we do to help?”

When I first saw her headline — “Richard Dawkins Fails Spectacularly on Feminism and Islam” — I sighed and thought “Oh dear, what has he said now?” But when I arrived at his tweet, I kept scanning, looking for the bad part. I couldn’t believe it when I realized that was it. The entire article was a critique on those 15 words, and, in my opinion, it didn’t advance feminist goals, progressive goals, or Humanist goals.

Let’s work through her tally of problems with it.

For starters, Dawkins is a wealthy white Western male dictating what just under a billion women — and overwhelmingly, women of color — around the world “need” to do…

But Dawkins’ message was to the religion of Islam, not to women. That’s nearly all that needs to be said right there, but let’s continue:

He’s relying primarily on mainstream media accounts of what it’s like to be a woman living in Middle Eastern countries where Islam is prevalent.

How does she happen to know what information Dawkins uses to form his opinions?  We shouldn’t be in the business here of trying to read minds. That’s a basic courtesy we want for ourselves and should extend to others. If anything, Lauren’s assumption is contradicted by the fact that Dawkins begged his followers to read feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book, Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now — hardly a “mainstream media account” — calling it “the most important book I’ve read for years” and describing Hirsi Ali as a “hero of rationalism & feminism.”

Before I go any further, let me say as a feminist that I’m not particularly concerned about defending Dawkins, whose record on feminism is such a mixed bag.  What concerns me is the chilling message this article sends to our potential allies — that they risk their very reputation at our hands by merely asking if they can help.  Not just allies in feminism, but in atheism, Humanism, and progressivism in general.

Let’s return to Lauren’s next point:

… what Dawkins, and many critics of Islam’s relationship with women, forget is that this is only part of the picture. There are many more lived female experiences within this far-from-homogeneous culture of faith, and not all of them are ugly or oppressed. Much like most practicing Western Christian women are not sold to future husbands by their fathers for a couple of goats, many Muslim women embrace a very different interpretation of Islam than what we see in the headlines or read verbatim in the Qur’an.

… the arrogance of assuming all women experience Muslim life the same way…

Where in that 15-word tweet is any of this?  And is her point that because not all Muslim women are oppressed, atheists are to turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of the many who are?

Next on her list:

… the ignorance of assuming that Muslim feminism doesn’t already exist.

Where is this assumption expressed in Dawkins’ tweet? It’s extremely improbable that Dawkins has not learned, at least from reading Hirsi Ali’s book, about the existence of Muslim feminism. How in the world does expressing the desire to see feminism succeed as a genuine Islamic revolution deny the existence of Muslim feminism?

The next problem Lauren has with those few words is:

… the implication being that these poor non-Western women of color could not possibly have figured this out before now and without his help.

Hate to be repetitious, but where is this in the tweet?  For heaven’s sake (pun not intended), all the man did was ask how he could help. Isn’t that exactly what we feminists have long told men we want them to do? Not tell us what we need to do, but instead ask us how they can help? There is no mansplaining here. Dawkins asked a genuine question that deserves genuine responses.

Lauren goes on:

But Dawkins’ biggest offense rests elsewhere: ego.

After sending out his initial tweet, he was hit with an onslaught of messages from Twitter users calling him out on the first two problems with his message.

Instead of hearing their words and correcting course, he defensively doubled down, rattling off passages from religious texts and referencing practices associated with fundamentalism. He pretended not to hear those informing him of the existing feminist movement.

When you offer someone “help” and they decline, it’s hardly productive to berate them for turning you down.

Actually, he was responding to only a handful of critical tweets, amidst mostly supportive ones. How does it make sense that to satisfy three or four Twitter users he doesn’t know – people who made it clear they oppose any atheist criticism of Islam – Dawkins should have instantly withdrawn any longstanding solidarity with women he knows and respects who are concerned about Islam’s oppression of women? Why is Lauren so quick to trivialize these women’s concerns? The post breezily dismisses the well-documented oppression of women under Islam.

Very importantly, Islamic laws and teachings about women don’t just impact Muslim women, but all women living in Islamic cultures, including atheist women forced to feign religion out of fear for their safety. Nor is Islam confined to Islamic nations. British women in Muslim communities in Dawkins’ own country no doubt have a wide range of views about all this. I doubt Lauren polled all these populations to determine how represented they feel by these few people on Twitter who say Islam does not oppress women. So how exactly did she determine these few to be representative of all women impacted by Islamic teachings and in a position to decline Dawkins’ offer of support on behalf of them all?

When Lauren says “the time is ripe for would-be atheist leaders to step out of the shadows and up to the challenges that face the country as a whole today,” it seems she has two caveats: 1) As long as they criticize Christianity and not Islam, and 2) As long as they call for racial equality, not gender equality.

Or are we to assume that we atheists must also refrain from discussing inequality of women in Christianity as well because we’re not Christian either?

If so, what criticisms might Lauren have of my own recent post on race and Christianity? After the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, you’ll recall that Christian leaders widely claimed their liberty had been stolen just as slaves’ liberty was once stolen. I wrote:

This racially offensive trope being pushed by the Chief Justice, prominent religious leaders, and candidates with their expensive pollsters, is clearly set to become a significant theme with America’s white conservative Christians. They should be ashamed…

Would Lauren tell me, who isn’t Christian, black, or LGBT, that I shouldn’t call on the Christian community to do better with minority relations when I know perfectly well that it includes those oppressed groups? Shouldn’t they fight their own battles?

Since no single atheist can ever be a part of every minority community represented by a given religion, this rule can be used to silence any atheist for speaking about the need for social progress within any religion. Really, it could be used to silence any progressive from speaking for social progress nearly anywhere. Should the West not have partnered in divestment from apartheid South Africa? Or is racial apartheid a cause worthy of Western support, while gender apartheid is not?

When I read Lauren’s earlier admonishment that “it is possible to express oneself as an atheist without alienating a larger audience,” I had to laugh wryly. It’s apparent from looking around the net that a sizable freethinking audience has just been alienated by her essay. In reading their reactions, what I’m seeing is not a defense of “our hero Dawkins,” but a kind of giving up on wanting to help so as not to risk getting blasted for imperfect phraseology. And that’s most unfortunate.

I can’t speak for all women. No one can. But I speak for myself when I say I don’t want to see us condemn anyone for asking how they can help promote feminism.

I submit that articles such as these from my fellows on the left do far more to discourage would-be atheist leaders from stepping out of the shadows than anything from the Religious Right.

[See the full post at The Friendly Atheist]

I can’t speak for all women. No one can. But I speak for myself when I say I don’t want to see us condemn anyone for asking how they can help promote feminism.

I submit that articles such as these from my fellows on the left do far more to discourage would-be atheist leaders from stepping out of the shadows than anything from the Religious Right.


One thought on “There Was Nothing Wrong with Richard Dawkins’ Tweet That “Islam Needs a Feminist Revolution”

  1. It’s funny. Christianity is fair game for all criticism and it’s totally okay to suggest that Christian women are brainwashed by the patriarchy to partake in that religion, but heaven FORBID you suggest that Islam might be oppressive to women as well. No, let’s totally disregard women in predominantly Islamic societies who have their rights severely curtailed as the result of a patriarchal religion being the dominant way of life, instead let’s ONLY give credence to the opinions of women privileged enough to even have the choice to practice their religion as they see fit.

    Sorry but if you claim to be sincere about promoting gender equality for all women, you need to come to terms with the fact that this “cultural relativism” bullshit can only go so far. If misogyny is a predominant aspect of a religion, then it needs to be called out. That Islam is a religion that faces a great deal of discrimination in most of the Western world shouldn’t shield it from legitimate critiques. That’s not helpful to the scores of women who are oppressed by it and are powerless to do anything about it. White feminism has rightly come under fire for ignoring WOC and they have a very, very long way to go in terms of rectifying that problem but how is shutting them out and telling them to mind their own business when they’re merely ASKING how they can help doing any good? Then when they do just that, you’re gonna complain how they’ve done nothing to help Muslim women.

    The Islamic community is rife with issues. Not just with misogyny, but with racism too (among other things). Yes, despite the fact that there are millions of Black Muslims, racism against Black people is pretty rampant in the Arab community. And don’t even get me started on homophobia. Yet it’s all swept under the rug because the status that Arab Muslims have acquired as a marginalized minority group has essentially shielded them from any criticism that might be deemed politically incorrect and thus their own prejudices go unchecked. It’s problematic as hell, and if we don’t take our goggles off and stop worrying about stepping on over-sensitive toes, we’re gonna learn the very hard way that we should’ve nipped things in the bud at a certain point.


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