Culture

Antony Loewenstein’s Attack On ‘Feminism Lite’ Lets Down The Women Who Need Him The Most

Loewenstein focuses on one strand of feminism, through the prism of Western media. That’s like looking through a telescope at night and wondering why you can’t see the sun.

Earlier this week, Antony Loewenstein wrote a piece in The Guardian on feminism, and it made me uncomfortable. Not – as he would like to think – because he is a man. Rather, I took issue with the nature of his critique, which was willfully blinkered and excluded many women from the conversation.

As a young Muslim woman, I’ve consistently relied on Loewenstein as an active, leftist campaigner for Palestinian rights and the BDS movement. I admire him as somebody who has never hesitated to speak truth to power. Reading My Israel Question during the July attacks on Gaza felt particularly apropos, and I was struck by the prescience of his arguments against Israel.  You could say I was signed up to the Antony Loewenstein Fan Club, and was ready to print the t-shirts.

Prior to reading his piece, I would have welcomed his perspective on feminism, imagining it to be as fresh and interesting as his political writing. Instead it was deflating from start to finish. The piece — ‘‘Feminism lite’ is letting down the women who need it the most‘ — simultaneously considers the Very Important place of men in feminism, bemoans the general idea that men can’t be involved in that Secret Girls’ Club, and then skewers women for not focusing on “the issues which need our help most urgently.” Helpfully, he rattles off an agenda of these issues, but fails to mention if biscuits and tea will be provided after we have all completed the important work of saving feminism, the Loewenstein way. I felt so conflicted while reading this because I respect him so much.

Swift rebuttals from the likes of Amy Gray and Jenna Price have dismantled many of the arguments, such as his snipe that Western liberal feminists clog up the media drain with stories about banal, fluffy topics — which is demonstrably not the case. The women who have responded to Loewenstein have, to my knowledge, done so in a manner which is professional and considered. Unlike the pile-ons Loewenstein has received in the past for speaking out against Israel and Zionism, the arguments raised against his latest piece were not personal low-blows. But that didn’t stop him retweeting others who suggested he was the target of “ad hominem attacks.”

Having spent too many hours entangled with belligerent commenters on my own articles, I haven’t read those from people who attacked his. There may very well be ad hominem attacks, strawmans, invocations of Godwin’s law, and dragons beneath the line. As Ben Pobjie tweeted, “If you really want to be cool you don’t even read it, you’re just disgusted a man wrote it.” But it is disingenuous to neutralise the criticism by dismissing it as ad hominem or, as Loewenstein called it on Twitter, “a rabid response”.

The real problem with Loewenstein’s piece, and all that it entailed, was that it was too narrow-minded. Instead of acknowledging the privilege inherent in being a male writer with a platform at a major publication, Loewenstein uses that as a double-edge sword, anticipating the negative response and congratulating himself on daring to be a man publishing his opinion on the Internet. “Ultimately I realise I’ve been too cautious for too long, not daring to add my voice to the debate.”

Stimulated by his decision to open the can of worms, he hemmed and hawed over the lid, spending more time anticipating attacks and unbridled anger than considering the viability of his arguments. He writes: “We rarely hear from those women in the west, and if we do they are buried under the din of articles about face-lifts and marrying George Clooney (a great recipe for click-baiting).”

Yesterday I harnessed the scholarly power of the Internet and typed “women” into Google News search. I also found a din, but not his kind. These were pieces, written and published by women, about topics as varied as India’s menstruation taboo, women and their fear of reporting rape, single mothers and street crime, a female CEO discussing “women’s only” groups, black mothers speaking out about their sons, a consideration of Iceland as a feminist nation, and the feminist future of Ferguson. This may be Google tailoring results to my browser history, but these pieces aren’t hard to find. These were serious stories written by Western women, all accessed via a few seconds of effort.

If Antony Loewenstein wants to critique feminism in a nuanced way, and not be shouted down, he should research comprehensively, and engage with women. Western liberal feminism deserves criticism, whether it’s bell hooks taking Betty Friedan to task, or the many women writers who published work yesterday. It would be worthwhile to consider how commercial media fails to elevate the minority perspective, too.

Instead, Loewenstein focuses on one strand of feminism, through the prism of Western media. That’s a bit like looking through a telescope at night and wondering why you can’t see the sun. He does not speak for me, or for many Western women when he ignores the minorities who are working to gain more visibility and representation.

Supporters make the point that he’s ‘trying to start debate,’ which is a nice gig if you can get it. But a debate typically has more than one side. A man stirring the feminism pot to generate “debate” is not really necessary, much in the way that playing devil’s advocate is an excuse to be contrary. It’s as pat as the endless campaigns to raise awareness of cancer.

Antony could lend his arguments some much-needed heft by actually talking to some real Western women writers. Ask Ruby Hamad. Ask Amy Gray. Ask Clementine Ford. Ask Van Badham. He could even move past the well-known columnists and seek out some of the lesser-known women writers on the fringes. Women of colour, LGBT+ women, Indigenous women – there are so many who campaign for greater visibility, and would appreciate a robust discussion. A writer of his stature with a loyal audience could shine a much-needed light on their efforts, and it would also lend more credence to his critiques of Western liberal feminism.

‘Feminism-lite’ does exist, in the sense that Western liberal feminism is watered down in the mainstream media. This is a failure not of feminism itself, but of the media which prefers to focus on easy, lazy click-bait — and there are so many women writers who are trying to reverse the trend, without expecting back-slaps and hand-shakes. Loewenstein does himself a disservice by not acknowledging them — but to do so, he would have had to engage in the research and critical thinking which perhaps would have invalidated his argument.

Aicha Marhfour is a freelance journalist in Melbourne. She tweets from @aichamarhfour

Feature image by SuperStock, from Getty