Sexism is a powerful system. Arguably, it exists in almost every culture on the planet, and facilitates discrimination, oppression, and violence against women all around the world. The “face” of sexism does change from culture to culture, however, and at times those changes prompt people to examine the differences in sexism across cultures. That is precisely what happened last Friday night on Real Time with Bill Maher.
On his show, Bill Maher commented on the tragedy of Lara Logan (the journalist who was raped while covering the Egyptian revolution). Mr. Maher used this as an opportunity to assert that men in Egypt and other Muslim countries were never going to have democracy if they didn’t also have a sexual revolution. Maher argued, in sum, that the way Arab (he switched between the terms Arab and Muslim) men treat women is worse than the way that American men treat women.
Mr. Maher’s thinking is both a predictable and a counter-productive way to analyze sexism. While his comparison is not ridiculous—there are clear differences between women’s lives in the U.S. and women’s lives in some Muslim or Arab countries—his argument is basically about which culture treats women LESS badly. Not exactly a great starting place for a conversation about improving the lives of women.
Tavis Smiley, one of the panelists on Real Time, attempted to challenge part of Mr. Maher’s assertion, reminding Maher that sexism and patriarchy are alive and well here in the states.
Smiley: I think that it might surprise us to go into our papers in this country every day and to see stories just like this about how women are mal treated in this country every single day.
Maher: That’s such bullshit.
Mr. Maher’s vehement disagreement was based on the notion that Smiley was using a false equivalency.
Maher: 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.
Smiley: And you think that’s okay?
Maher: I don’t but I don’t think it’s comparable to cutting their heads off, not letting them drive, not letting them work.
This, is the moment when Mr. Maher failed to support women. By asserting that women in the U.S. don’t have to deal with beheadings, he silenced and minimized the very real daily suffering of women in this country. He, in effect, disproves his own assertion that our culture is “better”. Yes, women can vote here, and that is a SIGNIFICANT difference, but apparently, famous men still feel comfortable joking about the real suffering women here DO experience. We DO live in a country where women are raped and then made to feel it was their fault. We DO live in a country where women are sexually assaulted while serving in our military, and then reprimanded for THEIR behavior when they come forward. We DO live in a country where men beat and murder their wives. Sexism is, point in fact, an issue of LIFE and DEATH in our country too.
Mr. Maher is correct in that there are places in this world where women are SO devalued, that throwing acid on their faces seems acceptable practice. Yet, the fact they are devalued worse should not ever be used to excuse or minimize the way WE devalue women here. To do so only fuels the system of sexism everywhere, which benefits women nowhere.