Is Sexism Worse For Muslim Women Than Western Women? A Bill Maher and Tavis Smiley Debate

I was watching a video the other day and it inspired me to write this post. The 9 minute clip shows television show host Bill Maher and Tavis Smiley debating the topic of Muslim men and their treatment of women. The discussion then morphed into a “who’s sexism is the worse?” kind of debate, Muslim women being on one side and western women on the other.

Although Maher’s Islamophobia is apparent to any observant listener, his erroneous conception of the women in the Muslim world seems to be a common trend in liberal circles. Orientalist approaches to Muslim women have been most obvious from sexual liberation movement Femen. But what singles Maher out to me? His ability to create levels of sexism.

Bill Maher begins:

MAHER: I think it’s fair to say Muslim men have a bad attitude about women in general, and I would just like to say to them that you’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there is also a sexual revolution that goes with it.

SMILEY: If our democracy, Bill, if our readiness for democracy in this country is based upon, determined by, demonstrated by our respect for women, then we ain’t ready for democracy.

MAHER: That is a false equivalence.

SMILEY: No, no, no, no, no.

MAHER: Are you serious? You think this country, the men in this country have an attitude that even comes close to..

SMILEY: I’m suggesting to you if you think that the way we treat women in this country, with patriarchy still alive and well, sexism still alive and well, is determinative or demonstrative of how well our democracy runs, I think you don’t understand how maltreated women are still in this society. That’s all I’m saying.

MAHER: 19 of 22 Arab countries, women cannot vote. In Egypt, women if you want to divorce your husband you have to go to court. If a man wants to divorce his wife if he just has to say that, what they call the triple telac or something.

SMILEY: I don’t disagree with the fact that they got a long way to go. What I’m trying to suggest to you is that when we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if somehow we treat women better in this country, it demonises Muslims.

MAHER: It’s such bullshit. I mean, in this country, we treat women badly because they don’t get equal pay, or someone calls you sugar tits, or something like that. I don’t think it’s comparable to cutting their heads off, not letting them drive, not letting them work.

SMILEY: I would rather have us stop acting like that we know the answers to everything, that we’re always right, that our way is always better, that we don’t make mistakes.

MAHER: We don’t know the answers to everything, but I do know we treat women better.

Better?! Is the treatment of women some kind of playground game where one child shouts “My treatment of women is better than yours!”. This is a false analysis by Maher who fails to understand that sexism does not have levels of “better” or “worse”.

Sexism is sexism. All types of sexism are bad. Not being able to vote is sexism. Not being able to divorce your husband is sexism. But do you know what else is sexism? Not receiving equal pay and being called “sugar tits”. Implying that one type of maltreatment is more “enhanced” than the other negates the fact that all types of maltreatment are degrading.

Maher trivialises the sexism women experience in the western world while simultaneously condescending Muslim women.

Under Maher’s assumption, American male’s treatment of women does not even “come close” to Muslim male’s treatment of women. This is an orientalist approach to the Muslim world, of which Maher has not entirely ventured, yet he paints all Muslim men as homogenous.

Are there men who commit horrific acts against women in the name of Islam? Yes. Does this mean that all Muslim men behave in the same way? Absolutely not. Maher superfluously demonises an entire group of people.

Smiley provides accuracy and insight throughout the debate. In particular, his illustration of the neglect of sexism in the U.S. and the discriminate focus of it in the Muslim world is welcomed. “I think you don’t understand how maltreated women are still in this [U.S.] society”. Smiley astutely reminds Maher that those who have not perfected a model of their own are not in a position to promote the same model abroad.

Women in the western world continue to earn less money than their male counterparts. The media sexualises, objectifies and trivialises women on a daily basis. Sexual harassment is rife in US military. Maher inadvertently implies that these women’s experiences are less pressing and legitimate because they are not experiencing a sexism similar to that of Muslim women. Does sexism need to reach extremes for it to gain momentum in the U.S.? All types of sexism warrant our attention and vigilance.

Women are restricted and oppressed in every part of the world. It is not necessary to sense to single out Muslim women in order to render sexism an immediate issue. It already requires urgency and attention. Not just in the Muslim world, but everywhere.

Maher’s all encompassing stereotype of Muslims does not allow for discussion, nuance or accuracy. Perhaps the most practical place to start is domestically. As Smiley states: “if our readiness for democracy in this country is based upon, determined by, demonstrated by our respect for women, then we ain’t ready for democracy”. 

Democracy is measured by the levels of equity in the social, political and economic positions of men and women. As long as the U.S. continues to display signs of disparity between its treatment of men and women, it cannot act as an emblem of democracy to the rest of the world and this is what Smiley is emphasising.

This is not to say that the situation in the Muslim world is one that we should ignore. Women continue to experience maltreatment in the most the fundamental of ways. Saudi Arabia have banned women from driving cars. Afghanistan passed a law in 2009 that legalised rape within marriages allowed Afghan husbands to starve their wives if they refuse to obey their sexual demands.

The picture is far from perfect.

However, as I have outlined all forms of sexism are degrading. We should abandon orientalist approaches to the Muslim world and stop promoting sexism as a Muslim issue. The maltreatment of women acts as a global plague. As Smiley outlines: “I’d rather we [the Western world] stop acting like that we know the answers to everything”.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Bill Maher’s orientalist approach to any topic under the sun is infuriating.

  2. RJE says:

    Interesting category division between “Muslim women” and “Western women”. Are they truly mutually exclusive?

  3. talktogk says:

    Reblogged this on GabriellaO'King and commented:
    favourite piece.

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