Tag Archives: Feminism

The Human Rights of Privileged Victims. A Marxist Satire on Shouting Matches

Religious divides have been the source of many a bloody conflict. Even today, across the world, atrocities are committed, among others, by Hindus over Christians, Buddhists over Muslims, Jews over Muslims, Hindus over Muslims, Muslims over Hindus, Muslims over Christians, Christians over Muslims, Sunni Muslims over Shia Muslims and, in a tiny corner of Europe, Protestant Christians over Catholic ones and vice versa.[1] Who benefits from all such division and tragedy? Who gains from the attendant ruthless violation of human rights, sometimes on an egregious scale?*

Assuming here, for sheer argument’s sake, that the traditional Marxist answer to that question is correct, then there is one ‘classic’ class cui bono accrue all such division and tragedy: the bourgeoisie. Who are they? This term is a bit passé today, I must admit. “The 1%”, “the corporate elite”, “the job creators”, or just “the rich” would be more popular expressions in contemporary parlance. Had he been more articulate, even the Dude would have used the old b-word, to Lenin‘s and many classicists‘ plausible surprise.

The concept is not passé, however. The idea that the ruling class preserves its power by keeping the ruled ones internally divided by means of, inter alia, ideological decoys and distracting identities, is as old as Philip II of Macedon (382–336 BC), who lived long before  Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Marxism, and is said by ancient tradition to have uttered the momentous phrase: “διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε” (“divide and rule”). Awareness of social hierarchy, the ensuing concentration of power and the political-cultural techniques for their preservation did not wait for Engels’ and Garibaldi’s century to emerge. Fooling and frying people at will, by pitting them against one another, have been practised for millennia.

In light of today’s levels of skewed market power, de facto regressive taxation, immense wealth disparity reminiscent of the Belle Époque, fantastic unearned incomes by way of financial rent, mass unemployment, workers’ precariousness, widespread de-unionisation, technological replacement of the workforce, growing underemployment of vainly trained young minds, discriminatory substantive inequality before the law, and the concomitant absence of large-scale socio-political dissent, there seems to be no reason to believe that such a well-tested means of social control should not be at work in contemporary societies.

Therein, the class of billionaires and their various corporate manifestations have been thriving unchecked, as proven repeatedly—and at the very least—by a plethora of unpunished financial and fiscal scandals of truly global proportions: Worldcom, Enron, Forex, Libor, Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, etc. Not to mention the credit lifelines and special bail-outs granted to gargantuan banks and their wealthy owners after the self-inflicted international collapse of 2008, while common people were crushed by austerity  packages across continents in order to pay for such generous rescue missions.[2] When money talks, human rights walk… off a cliff. What is more, the very same billionaires have often taken direct control of the political game qua party leaders, government officials, cabinet ministers and populist trailblazers. Not even Marx would have expected the super-rich to become so shameless in their command of political institutions.

At the same time, Marx’s ghost, the ghost of communism per his 1848 Manifesto, not to mention the now-mythical chimeras of internationalism and mass revolution, have all been eerily vacant from the world’s stage, despite Marx’s Capital being picked up from under a shuggly desk by a French data-cruncher and adapted for the 21st century, in which even the most polite and prudent British media acknowledge the resurgent affirmation of nothing less than fascism.

When religion cannot do good enough a job at keeping people internally divided, viable alternatives exist: race, nationality; region-, party-, or even football-based affiliation can be  as effective. The New York City draft riots of 1863, pitting poor Irish immigrants against poor blacks, while well-off Americans could avoid being sent to battle by paying a set fee, are just one historical example among many. (These days, that draft may lead people to the cinemas, rather than to the streets.)

Again and again, poor people that would be better off by joining numbers, forces, and concerted efforts against the tiny minority exploiting them, waste instead their best energies and, at times, their livelihood and life, by fighting among themselves—and against designated ‘others’. Frequently, trouble is taken by the truly troubled in order to suppress the much-maligned “troublemakers”, who are in fact the only ones trying to find a solution to their woes, e.g. ‘anachronistic’ trade unionists and ‘pie-in-the-sky’ left-wing intellectuals. Turkeys do love their Christmas holidays.

About twenty years before The Communist Manifesto, the liberal and Catholic novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873) described most vividly the long-lived logic and common practice of divide et impera—Caesar having learnt King Philip’s lesson—in a rustic allegory of his. The novelist depicts Renzo, the poor, rural, male protagonist of Manzoni’s most famous book, I promessi sposi, holding several bickering capons by their legs. That’s the beginning; let me explain.

Renzo is carrying these poor capons as his only means of payment to a well-off city lawyer, whom Renzo intends to hire in the attempt to redress the wrongs that he and his betrothed—the poor, rural, and female Lucia—have been suffering from a local nobleman that, to the young couple’s great misfortune, fancies Lucia well beyond the boundaries of common decency and aristocratic gentlemanship. Manzoni notes that, had the capons been a little more intelligent, they would have started picking the hand that kept them captive, therefore regaining their freedom. Instead, the capons fought among themselves and ended up being delivered with great ease to their recipient. The lawyer enjoyed a few good meals out of these silly animals, but also failed to help Renzo in his human, far-too-human plight.

Rather than Christmas turkeys, Renzo’s capons, or “i capponi di Renzo”, have become a proverbial admonition in Italian culture, though little followed its inherent wisdom may be in the country’s daily habits. Despite Manzoni’s hefty novel being a mandatory reading in the nation’s secondary schools, millions of Italians can still be kept internally divided in all sorts of ways, such as: Northerners versus Southerners, natives versus immigrants, Catholic versus secular, progressive versus conservative, private-sector versus public-sector, and old versus young.

As concerns most contemporary Western nations, gender is being used in the same manner, especially within middle-class environments—even inside academic circles. Men and women spend endless time and effort squabbling about the so-called “male privilege” and an alleged set of attendant disparities, rather than combining their efforts in order to pursue traditional left-wing aims: better wages for all, better working conditions for everyone, sensible monetary and fiscal policies by State authorities, true economic security and autonomy, a life-saving stop to the all-embracing profit-motive that is destroying the planet, and emancipatory self-ownership cum democratic self-stewardship. Such squabbles split regularly the front of the exploited many into two warring fronts: men versus women, women versus men or, in the shouting matches that frequently result thereof, “radicals” versus “right-thinking” persons, or “feminists” versus “male chauvinists” (aka “sexists”, “patriarchs”, “pigs”, etc.), depending on the side one is on.

Sophisticated intellects and fair-minded individuals might plausibly avoid being tossed into these camps or reduced to either of them, but only with great effort and with no hope of broader success. First of all, even well-paid academics can utter absurdities such as “fucking is entirely a male act designed to affirm the reality and power of the phallus, of masculinity”.[3] Secondly, whatever veritable genius the elect may occasionally possess, the same elect have very little effect on the daily shouting matches within public and private bodies. As Socrates, Hypatia and Thomas More knew dangerously well, unmerciful isolation is the price to be paid for uncommon ingenuity.

Shall we mention the now-ubiquitous mass media, where the most vocal and publicised shouting matches occur? There, “male privilege” or, for that matter, “patriarchy”, are not carefully dissected analytical tools, but massive clubs to swing around and smash men’s (and a few allegedly ‘brainwashed’ women’s) heads with, whichever diverse and sophisticated sets of beliefs may be held inside those heads. Having a prick makes you a dick, or vice versa. There is no escape. There is no alternative. It sounds like Maggie Thatcher, but it claims to be ‘progressive’.

Quick and effective communication cannot operate too many distinctions, not even basic ones such as the one separating individuals responsible for certain misdeeds and the gender to which they belong. “Men do this…”, “men are like that”, “men…”; and, if young, “boys”. Black Americans, Southern Italians, German Jews and Hungarian Roma know far too well how systemically hurtful all such fallacious yet very catchy sweeping generalisations can be. Women should do too, as a sad matter of historical fact such as reduction to one big ‘lump’. Even clever individuals may fall into such sweeping prejudices, which social opinion praises already. Everyday parlance welcomes cognitive dissonance.

Under this respect, the mass media’s behaviourally instigated emulation becomes far too easily the social norm, including the ever-present social media, unlike the academically elect’s painstaking theologies, theodicies and theogonies. Snapchat is much more impactful than Spinoza’s Ethics, not even when the latter is simplified. Go to any party meeting, political rally, activist gathering or well-meaning workshop on gender relations, if you don’t believe me. Or listen to the telly, to undergraduate students, to your neighbours and taxi drivers. Or go to the movies, read your old schoolmates’ Twitter pearls of wisdom or the most popular memes on Facebook, and explore the real world of apparent common sense.

Quite simply, oversimplification is overly simple for social-media algorithmic simpletons to sample… As a sage from Savona had once observed, flesh-and-blood people make excellent straw-men, sadly enough. Or straw-women, for that matter. The same people make good harlequins too. Splitting hairy dogma and deep-thinking are the job of few, fastidious, profound Biblicists. Apart from them, most people go by a handful of simple formulas. Dogma is handy. Life gives them little room for little else. Under such far-too-human conditions, erudite subtleties get drowned into the greater sea of common slogans and, eventually, disappear from view.

Out in the open, things are even more straightforward: erudite subtleties do not count. Rhetoric, instead, matters; and it matters more than anything, for rhetoric can truly make and re-make the laws, whether written or unwritten. That is why, inside and around political parties and governments, there are more PR professionals and spin doctors than there are disciplinary experts and concerned academics. The situation is analogous to the superficial but immensely powerful liberal vernacular pervading the economic and business understanding, and decision-making, of contemporary societies at all levels, from the small entrepreneur’s self-perception to the mantras of well-dressed European commissioners. (I use “liberal” in the European sense, not the American one.) Let me explain this one too.

Bookworms and Adam Smith (1723–1790) scholars know perfectly well how critical the founder of modern economics was of corporations, the greed of business-people, their nefarious influence over law-making, or their blindness to the need for banking regulation. Nevertheless, most self-declared liberals today are ready to utter Smith’s name like the revered and wondrous name of a prophet of old, without having read a single page penned by him, and they will defend today’s de facto corporate oligopolies in the name of unfettered “free trade”. All this, it should be noted, while believing with earnest sincerity in the providential blessings of the “invisible hand”. Armed with few, well-tested commonplaces, these unthinking liberals will launch into trite pro-market-versus-pro-State tirades, or right-versus-left political arguments. More often than not, given the acquired matter-of-fact character of the commonplaces at issue, they will win the day… Plus the scary night that follows . One well-written catechism by a committed preacher is more powerful than a million great articles by the most honest scholars. Rhetoric, like love, conquers all.

In the men-versus-women analogue, the chauvinist camp includes even some women that, apparently, don’t realise that they have been duped by patriarchy and are actually not free, though they do think that they are free and act without visible restraint, committing crimes against their gender such as wearing high heels, becoming Catholic nuns, showing a cleavage on a Facebook photograph, or buying copies of Fifty Shades of Grey. (All these  cases being peculiar anecdotes that I can recall from my years in Canada and Iceland.) Even a well-educated and ambitious woman becoming a judge on the US Supreme Court can be so duped, it would seem, were we to listen to certain shouts.

Be as it may that the little sisters consent, the big ones resent; hence the former ought to repent, and nobody is content. The overall meaning is simple. Some women are more equal than others, and the former can tell the latter what is actually good for them to think, do, and be—like older sisters to younger ones, or patriarchs of old. As to those articulate, unrepentant women that complain about this peculiar state of affairs, such as Ellen Willis (1941–2006),  Christina Sommers (b. 1950), Wendy McElroy (b. 1951), Janice Fiamengo (b. 1946) or Camille Paglia (b. 1947) in today’s academia, they risk ending up being reviled as “Nazi”, akin to Rush Limbaugh (b. 1951) and, inexorably, as “patriarchal”. Even Erin Pizzey (b. 1939) can find no refuge today, while Phyllis Chesler (b. 1940) is attacked cruelly by her elder sisters for admitting that women can be just as cruel as men, though in a voice of their own.

Ironically, in the midst of all this “you’re a Nazi” bantering, a duly reworded chapter from Hitler’s Mein Kampf got published in a proudly feminist, peer-reviewed, academic journal. A little later, the leading lesbian activist of the Gallic nation, Alice Coffin, happened to argue that male artists ought to be boycotted because, well… they are male. This is quite an eerie reminder of the hostile discrimination–albeit, luckily, not yet of the swift elimination–experienced by left-wing and Jewish artists, both male and female, in 1940s France. Just think about it. Why boycott anyone who happens to have a penis? Hasn’t discrimination because of crooked noses, skin pigmentation and red flags been enough of a cautionary lesson? Evidently not in today’s France. Alas, it ain’t Switzerland. All the while, Gallic women’s shadow projections are sold as shining progress. Maybe that’s why even noted psychotherapists have been worrying about the seething violence of some older sisters. And the fights go on…

The global lesson to be learnt from all this shouting aloud, and about, is fairly basic, and it is too far from new. Pluralism and free speech are liked by many self-styled “progressives” only insofar as, and for as long as, other people agree with them. (In line with the analogy regarding the economic sphere, try running a country without McDonald’s or no private ownership, and then check whether the ‘liberal’ countries of the world leave you alone or not.) Christianity may be a thing of the past. God Himself (Herself?) dead. Narrow-mindedness and intolerance, though, can still prosper unabated. Dogmas come veritably from all sides, in all colours, shapes, sizes, and flavours. Perhaps, it is a matter of old urges finding new channels and outer shapes to keep expressing themselves. Who knows? (Yet admitting ignorance is precisely one of the rarest attitudes to be found in these fights.)

Not that patriarchs, male prejudice and male privilege may have not existed at some point in history, or may not exist somewhere on Earth today. Saudi Arabia has remained to the very present a hellish place for women, and so do several other oil-rich countries in the Middle East that have glorious business relations with the ‘liberal’ West. (Again, when money talks, human rights walk off a cliff.) Across the globe, there are indeed some nations where women are regularly beaten, have little access to healthcare, are not allowed to pursue any education worthy of note, and cannot walk in the streets without male chaperones for fear of being assaulted. Nasty patriarchs and their stunted children are still around. There is no denying.

If I look at today’s developed world, however, I see no comparably glaring male privilege in, say, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, France, or Canada. (Please note that I do not include here my native country, Italy, where women are still being fired for such an outrageous misdemeanour as getting pregnant.) It is not a matter of there being no inequality at any level. Some inequality does exist but, if we look closely enough, it cuts both ways, not just one way. And the cuts can be sore ones. Let me be very clear on this point.

As it is deployed or implied in daily life, the much-shouted-at “male privilege” is a matter of there being—or not being—blanket better conditions for persons who were born male, similarly to the way in which a person would enjoy blanket better conditions by being born into an aristocratic family in 17th-century France, or in a 1% family today. Anyone who was born in the aristocracy back then, or who is born in plutocratic families today, enjoyed and enjoys better food, longer lives, legal and muscled protection from physical harm, access to enterprising credit, top-level education, conspicuous leisure, better healthcare, and a thousand more life-enabling resources that are regularly denied to others. The well-born person’s benefits, aka “advantages”, over the rest of society are notable and blatant. That’s privilege, in a nutshell. And that is what ordinary men and women take it to be, quite reasonably. Think, for example, of the (in)famous poisoner Marie-Madeleine Marguerite D’Aubray (1630–1676) in the ancien régime, or of the noted businesswoman Ivanka Trump (b. 1981) today. These are neither straw-men nor straw-women: they are, or were, real persons of real substance.

Logic can be of some help here. One of the standard forms of reasoning, identified since ancient times, is the so-called “modus tollens”, according to which if, from a certain condition A follows inescapably another condition B, and condition B is not the case, then it has to be concluded that A is not the case either. Formally, A -> B, –B, ergo –A. If I drink the hemlock like Socrates, then I feel ill and die shortly thereafter; I am alive and well; therefore, I have not drunk the hemlock. This much logic is not phallic. Contradicting it is, however, fallacious. If there is “male privilege”, then there must be conspicuous benefit or blatant advantage for men. If such a conspicuous benefit or blatant advantage does not occur, then “male privilege” doesn’t occur either, even if the phrase keeps being repeated ad nauseam.

In today’s advanced societies, if someone is born male, he is more likely to die younger, to suffer from mental illness leading to suicide, to die in combat, to die on the workplace, to be the victim of violent crime, to be the perpetrator of violent crime, to serve time in prison and, in prison, to suffer rape. (Go and check your national statistics.) Living nastier, brutish and shorter lives is no conspicuous benefit or blatant advantage, whatever creatively postmodern way or cunning ceteris-paribus conditions we may choose to look at it. There could be still some advantages at some level, but they would be neither notable nor blatant, and even less assuredly blanket, insofar as men’s longevity, physical integrity, mental health and law-abidingness signal losses compared to women’s.

Let me be redundant. There may well be benefits that originate from being born a man. They can be small things, such as the likelihood of being allowed to play contact sports when children or swear publicly with impunity. They can be bigger ones, such as increased chances of becoming a top businessperson or politician, smashing the c/g-lass ceiling, and belonging to the 1%—if that can be considered a good thing. (Though certainly a mainstream aspiration, I wonder what Marx would say about it.) Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013), Cristina Kirchner (b. 1953), Carly Fiorina (b. 1954), Theresa May (b. 1956), Christine Lagarde (b. 1956) and, for a while, Rita Crundwell (b. 1953), got up there, though being merely part of a growing minority.

Yet, even if we reached a 50/50 point of equilibrium in the upper echelons, there would be still male benefits as well as female benefits, for being born female would nonetheless increase one’s chances of wearing skirts as well as trousers, or of being addressed politely by strangers as a child—not to mention living the longer, healthier and more law-abiding lives that were just mentioned. Gender roles, as debatable and mutable as we may wish them to be in our societies, imply in concrete reality different gains, not just different losses, for both sexes. As the most important issues are rarely black-and-white matters, so is social advantage far more nuanced than the unrelenting yet simplistic male-versus-female opposition entails. When essential dimensions of human well-being are considered, such as physical, mental and moral integrity, Western women are on the winning side.

There is another way to look at this fact and appreciate its historical roots. We are no more patrician Rome or Puritanical Virginia, nor today’s Afghanistan, by any stretch whatsoever of the imagination. And that is fantastic! In many developed nations, the suffragettes, the witches-that-returned, and the brave activists that fought for women’s health and education in times of actual female segregation have finally won, big time. We should acknowledge and celebrate their achievements, for they occurred against all kinds of odds and enmities. However, their feisty descendants, as well-meaning as they may be today, repeat slogans and employ concepts that are factually anachronistic in wealthy Western nations like, say, Iceland, Holland, Canada or Norway. (How right was Veblen in claiming that today’s common sense is yesterday’s facts!) “Patriarchy”, as far as such blessed countries are concerned, belongs to history’s dustbin, like “Donatism” or the divine right of kings. There may be “vestigial patriarchal elements” that “are being weeded out”, as Laura Kipnis wrote not long ago, but “women have power aplenty”. The war was won!

Meanwhile, the Luddites, Owenites, Marxists, revisionists, Trotskyists and middle-way Swedish social-democrats have seen their battles end up in humiliating defeats, to the point that, in today’s North America, no politician dares to speak of the “working class” in public debates, lest they are accused of nothing less than frightening “socialism”. Only the “middle class” is allowed to exist, verbally, in the country that Donald Trump promised to make great again. In Europe, these dangerous two words are still audible, though a non-working class is actually the chief problem, because Europe’s working class has been emigrating to China since the 1980s, under the banner of “globalisation”. Even among self-declared “left-wing radicals”, when a picture or a video of a corporate board of directors is shown, the rallying cry is no longer “capitalists!”, “bourgeois!”, “fat cats!”,  but “men!”–or, in a seemingly more nuanced yet equally misfiring way, “white men!” That most “men” and “white men” still make up a good chunk of the “proletariat”  has evidently been forgotten. Conveniently, while rage is vented at every and any man or white man, the concentrated elite of actual exploiters still gets away scot free with their exploitation.

Classic concepts can become classified items. Despite its relevance vis-à-vis today’s gross inequality, the very Marxian notion of class has been largely silenced, while “gender” enjoys much more popularity and media attention. Race, nationality and religious creed were very popular too, in previous times. And it is not difficult to understand why, at least for Marx or for the Dude, who would ask, if he had ever read Seneca: cui prodest? Since the cruel, neglectful parents are away skiing on the Alps, or sipping Martinis in the Caribbean, then the understandably upset big sister can kick her younger brothers in the groin to vent her rage. I mean, her wee brothers have a Johnson, just like her dad, who keeps enjoying himself and forgetting about his children. That silly dangling bit of flesh must be really bad… Who do you think benefits from this sorry state of affairs: the brothers?

Though commonplace in shouting matches, most of the enduring Western talk of “male privilege” is, at heart, a remnant of a by-gone past and a misrepresentation of a much more toxic reality, where the one and only true callous and outrageous privilege is that of a few rich family networks directing everyone else’s life in order to maximise these networks’ take to a massive extent, irrespective of gender. If life is a valley of tears, then both men and women are crying aplenty. About the 99% of the entire society, we could say, while occupying Wall Street.

Who, for example, can lead his or her life without spending much, if not most of it, working for someone else, who has the power to hire, fire, disenfranchise and impoverish them?  (Back in the 19th century, Abraham Lincoln and Leo Tolstoy had no qualms in equating this condition with that of slavery itself). Who, whether a man or a woman, can afford to be indifferent to the boom-bust hot-money cycles that financial moguls and their clients, whether men or women, have been unleashing onto the world’s nations since the end of the Bretton-Woods system? Who, after the crash of 2008, can say in good conscience to have been left untouched and undamaged by the gigantic waves of transnational speculation engulfing the global economy? Who, in constitutionally free and independent countries, has not heard the governments justify their austere, belt-tightening policies by reference to genderless  cruel deities such as “the markets”, “the creditors”, “foreign direct investment”, or “international competition”?

The notion of “male privilege” flies in the face of much theoretical and experimental literature, in which the negative consequences for men of traditional gender roles have been identified, again and again. This is something that ordinary people have no great difficulty to grasp. Stunted emotional development, personal unhappiness, limited self-expression, lack of empathy, karoshi and additional “maladies of the soul”, as Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) would dub them, have been studied and catalogued in the accounts of what exactly standard assumptions and stereotypes about men do to men themselves, from their early childhood to their deathbed, or deathdesk, whether such assumptions and stereotypes are held by women or by other men.[4]

If you have read my satirical piece to this point, then you must have realised that I am a moaning man. Ipso facto, if not ipso dicto, I am not consistent with my gender stereotypes. Real men don’t whine. Only wimps do that. But I don’t care. Quite the opposite, I believe wholeheartedly that standard, if not even archetypal, masculinity can be toxic. Nevertheless, I cannot but reason as well that, if standard gender roles are toxic to men, if not to both sexes, then they cannot be advantageous, at the same time, to men at large. Either option has to be dropped. Self-poisoning precludes self-engrossing privilege, and vice versa.

Rhetorically, speaking of “male privilege” and, for that matter, calling the bourgeois a “patriarch”, obscure, culpably, the fundamental class element at play in our societies. This is the element that is etiologically crucial to understand the suffering pervading our societies. In parallel, the same linguistic-conceptual practices overemphasise the gender element, casting undue suspicion upon men qua men, and therefore splitting the oppressed camp into mutually opposed men and women. In keeping with the business analogue, usages of “patriarchy” as oppressive of both men and women are as rhetorically flawed as the orthodox economists’ insistence on using “goods”, “efficiency” and “optimality” as value-neutral terms. Long ago, Jeremy Bentham argued that both dyslogistic and eulogistic words are springs of action. Pick a different term, please, and reduce equivocation. Rhetoric. as I said, matters a lot in the real world.

Allow me to repeat one thing. Logically, to state the negative character of traditional gender roles for men themselves, and insist at the same time on the existence of “male privilege”, is a contradiction. Worse than fallacious reasoning, however, is the persistence of traditional male gender roles, which are enforced by women too, and the combination  of these roles with the growing hypocrisy and the double standards that the much-desired empowerment of women has made possible. As the ethicist John Kekes (b. 1936) has often remarked in his works, granting more freedom to more people—empowered women included—means granting more opportunity for the evils of cruelty or, as Luce Irigaray (b. 1930) would poetically word them, the evils of ‘‘possession”, “appropriation” and “domination’’.[5] Truly, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

It all starts from an early age, by the way, as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) had rightfully lamented long ago. This time, though, it works in reverse, at least as far as genders are concerned. The list is endless. Let me indulge in it a little. It is somewhat amusing—albeit maybe not for the young men who grow up under such confusing premises, or the older men who get trapped by their paradoxes, especially in the Nordic countries that I have come to know in the last twenty years. Hopefully, my long and strange list will get someone thinking about the sadly neglected male teardrops drenching life’s valley, where they join the well-researched female ones. So, here comes the list, then… Well, no, not right away. First, I must digress a little. (After all, I like very much Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.) Fun must be earned. There is still one serious issue that we have to consider. Specifically, what’s the cure to our boys’ alleged avoidance of crying? Crying?

Boys do cry; but more often than not they do it in hiding, behind doors. Doing so openly would cause them to be derided and dismissed by women—not just by men—as unmanly moaners, in yet another crippling instance of traditional gender roles and expectations, according to which boys don’t cry unless they are sissies. Virility does not parade vulnerability. And yet boys and men are people too. They can be vulnerable. They can be victims. Crying. More crying.

Think of the levels of pain involved: failing at school, unemployed, underemployed, prone to crime or substance abuse, and likely candidates to suicide, these male human beings are losers in the competitive game of society, which is then said to be skewed in their favour. Hence, they are losers twice, for they managed to lose despite being unfairly favoured ab initio. Moreover, these twice-losers may not show openly their pain, for “real men” having any chance of impressing any self-respecting female are expected to be stoical. If men cry, which they do, then they must do it privately, and quietly, so that the rest of society, women in primis, may pretend that men are actually not crying. I mean, really, it is enough for a man to get the flu and complain about it, for this man to be scorned mercilessly, especially by women. And so thrice it goes. Losers, losers, losers.

Again, some sophisticated intellects and fair-minded individuals might avoid being so callous to suffering men. Male tears may not be dismissed indifferently by all members of the ‘fair sex’ as insufferable, privileged people’s whining.  Perhaps, behind those tears and the label “man”, there are actual living persons who genuinely suffer. Thus, occasionally, some deeply intelligent women do realise it and show genuine compassion, including some highly perceptive female sexologists in France. Many other women, who claim to be committed feminists, have openly stated that they would be happy to sip on them instead. Screw the losers! Their suffering is immaterial. What matters is that they are ‘men’. As such, they cannot but be the enemy. Conflicts don’t call for compassion. They call for aggression.

Let us be honest with ourselves. Weakness is not a selling point for men. Compassion kills passion. Every day, around the world, pained men learn this painful truth by way of additional doses of pain. Even frankly smart gals prefer fairly stereotypical guys, if you are brave enough to read the Gul’s numbers on the subject, inter alia. Statistics possess a cold kind of cruelty. Yet, they do nothing but photographing that which is already well known. As amply shown by men’s lived experiences and by mainstream media, weak men make a poor catch and catch poorly themselves. They are not simply rejected, but resented, for such men cannot be ‘relied upon’, as the old gender stereotype prescribes. And that is something that women keep expecting and demanding of their male partners. The grip of the old gender stereotype, on men’s and women’s minds, is as powerful as the ideal ‘man’ that it continues to depict.

But let us look at a longer list; the one that I had promised. Digressions end, eventually. (Even Sterne’s own bizarre novel has an end.) Here it comes:

  • Girls with trousers are normal; boys wearing a skirt are laughed at, told better, or advised a sex change.
  • Tomboys are cool; effeminate boys the butt of the joke.
  • Boisterous girls are future adventurers in the making; boisterous boys an ill-educated nuisance.
  • A girl squad is worth celebrating in pop songs; a group of teenage boys can’t even be allowed into a shopping mall playing Muzak.
  • Man-eating dancing queens and pussycat dolls can tease at will, break hearts with spears, lose them in the game, and do it again; boys are expected to endure it all and be thankful, reminiscent of male mantises and male spiders.
  • Crass humour about women is sexist; crass humour about men is universal.
  • Young girls, often drunk, vomiting innuendos, or worse, at men in the middle of a busy street on a Saturday night, are having a bit of fun; boys doing the same are intolerable pigs.
  • The same goes for hiring male strippers on a hen night versus hiring female strippers on a stag night: stags are actually pigs, and pigs should not pursue such vile objectifications; hens are excused.
  • An intolerable pig is also a man sleeping around, while a woman doing the same is exploring her sexuality or asserting her independence. While the former is routinely attacked as an emblem of ‘patriarchy’, casting doubt on the latter is ‘slut-shaming’.
  • Women making a pass are seen as a glorious sign of liberation; men making a pass as a threatening step towards harassment.
  • Even alone, a man who masturbates is nothing but a variation on the loser theme: a wanker; a woman who masturbates, instead, is a proud feminist challenging “societal taboos“.
  • Not to mention a lonely man with a sex doll, who cannot but come across as a creepy pig that is better avoided; on the contrary, a lonely woman with a dildo is a liberated person who does not need men for her self-realisation.
  • Women who enjoy porn are emancipated, like the heroines of Sex and the City; men who do the same are, again, pigs.
  • Whatever and however heterosexual men look at people or things, the “male gaze” is always taken to be bad. No such negative assumption is made when talking about female looking or the “queer eye”.
  • Something similar applies to genitalia. Whereas “vagina” is to be celebrated, even by means of monologues, the “phallus” is always bad, especially when combined with language or logic.
  • Male masturbation is a standard comic feature in movies, a truly mechanical affair à la Bergson, or even an insult—neither “wanker” nor “tosser” is ever used qua term of endearment. Female masturbation, yet another token of emancipation.
  • A woman constantly putting her hands on a muscular man sitting beside her gets no rebuke. The touched man’s doing the same, as that muscular man has actually observed, would be called “groping”.
  • Women’s menopausal crises deserve warmth and compassion; men’s midlife crises are the fodder for TV comedies.
  • A wilful man taking the initiative stifles female self-expression and reinforces implicitly gender stereotypes; a man waiting to be asked is an ill-mannered arsehole.
  • With luck, the man who takes the initiative may occasionally be thanked as helpful; without luck, he is guilty of “mansplaining”, at the very least.
  • Women can talk freely for both sexes—or more, given the alleged fluidity and plurality of genders of the human race; men, on their part, can never understand what it is like to be a woman, for they are not women.
  • Women’s unwarranted claims are female intuitions, displays of emotional intelligence, oracular truths cast in a different voice, deep insights; men’s unwarranted claims are prejudices.
  • On the job, a man seeking sexual favours in exchange for professional advantages is deemed to be harassing another—’me-too’ thinks that. A woman offering sexual favours in exchange for professional advantages, though, is still deemed to be the victim of harassment, given the enduring “patriarchy” or the “rape culture” of our age, the inherent “vulnerability” of women, and the “predatory” nature of men.
  • An older woman parading a much younger lover is cheered on: “Go Cathrine!”, says the British historian Lucy Worsley (b. 1973) in her TV documentary, The Empire of the Tsars. No TV personality would dare to utter so publicly “Go Donald!” or “Go Silvio!” on the same grounds.
  • On a similar wavelength, young adult women are (rightfully) given the right to vote, join a trade union, launch a ‘disruptive’ start-up, buy an assault rifle (in parts of the US), decide whether to have an abortion, and found a political party. If they happen to have sex with an older and/or well-established man, however, then they become all of a sudden mentally immature persons who cannot make wise choices and can only be the passive victims of seedy sexual intents. Responsible agency has vanished. Young adult men who end up in bed with the emulators (emulatresses?) of Catherine the Great are hardly ever mentioned, and never discussed.
  • Oppression may be unseen, but eyes matter: men can create a “hostile environment” by merely looking at a woman. The older and more ungainly the man is, the easier this feat of perlocutionary gazing becomes.
  • Words matter too: “cunt” and “bitch” are condemned as sexist, while “dork” and “dickhead” are used with liberality and much gusto.
  • Women who work and see to domestic chores suffer from a double burden; men who do the same are emancipated, almost Swedish.
  • Whether in Sweden or elsewhere, many men may be constantly deferring to capable and/or domineering mothers, elder sisters, grandmothers, aunts, girlfriends, fiancées and wives. These men’s bosses may be women, and so may also be their local MPs, ministers of reference, PMs, presidents and mayors. And yet, almost magically,  these men are regularly said to be reaping the benefits of power-hungry “patriarchy”. Could it ever be the case that matriarchs project their appetite?
  • Men telling women what to do are said to enjoy the privilege of command; women telling men what to do are said to experience the “emotional stress” of organisation.
  • A woman slapping a man in public leads to amused or perplexed curiosity; a man slapping a woman in public leads to cops being called onto the scene.
  • A woman working as a childminder is the image of motherly love; a man doing the same is a potential paedophile whose identity and penal record must be triple-checked—these days, many men are quite simply terrified of talking to children.
  • Female bisexuality is experimental and accepted as part of growing up; male bisexuality is unsettling and rejected as screwing up: the sure path to a woman’s rejection. Only female sexuality is truly allowed to be fluid.
  • Genders are said to be many and pliable; yet “men” are spotted with uncanny ease and blamed for the root of all evils: patriarchy.
  • The mysteries and intricacies of the human psyche don’t exist. Forget about Seneca, Dante, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky and Jung. The myriad motives of romance and erotic life are nowhere to be seen. Our hearts are open books. And very short ones to boot. ‘Men’ are power-hungry, sex-crazed pigs. ‘Women’ aren’t. That’s all there is to be known. (Only liberal economists have been able to produce an even more inane philosophical anthropology: Homo oeconomicus. And perhaps, quite ironically, only the most adamant patriarchal Puritans or Wahabis have ever shown as remarkable a propensity to stern moralism, judgmental self-righteousness, Manichean inflexibility and unforgiving dogmatism.)
  • A penniless woman hooked on antidepressants calls rightly for universal pity; a penniless man hooked on alcohol calls sinisterly for the epithet of “loser”.
  • A woman who kills a baby is the embodied tragedy of depression; a man who does the same is a monster to be locked away forever, or fried to a crisp.
  • A woman who commits a crime deserves the attention of teams of psychologists and social workers; a man who is found guilty of the same crime can simply be locked away and forgotten—though his prison rapists may notice him.
  • Male-only priesthood in the Roman Church is condemned as sexist by unbelieving feminists, who celebrate the creed of Finland’s SuperShe island for excluding men.
  • Tearooms packed with women are an oasis of independence; bars packed with men  are a gateway to hell. (The Spirits of Prohibition keep nurturing women’s higher ground, even as they occupy traditional male grounds now.)
  • Women who are afraid of men have good reasons; men who are afraid of women have bad problems.
  • Women’s access to the cohort of corporate multi-millionaires is a profound matter of equality to be fought for by all; the plight of poor mine workers, lorry drivers and bin-men is something that is habitually forgotten by the most vocal female activists. Corporate-executive glass ceilings trump common drone-work cellars.

One does not need to be the much-reviled psychologist Jordan Peterson (b. 1962) to abhor these more-and-more commonplace forms of misandry. (Yes, this word can make sense.) It is enough to be an old-fashioned egalitarian, a compassionate human being, or merely a concerned parent of boys.

New ideas are often old ones resurfacing in new schools and  new guises. Evidently, men still await their emancipation from gender roles that, unlike women’s, have changed little, and are now being endorsed by empowered females that keep assuming that they are still the weaker sex. This mixture makes indeed for a toxic potion, which should be cast away. Whether then to err on the side of conservative prudence and uptight censorship, or on that of liberal freedom and loose pluralism, it is not something that I can settle here. The reader is free to err as s/he wills. Who is infallible, after all?

The inequality, however, is settled. Someone is certainly benefitting immensely from the status quo, but it is not men at large, whose human rights get merrily trampled on by the 1% while, at the same time, men keep being loathed in common discourse qua men for their supposed default privilege.



* I thank Dr Lydia Amir, founding member of the International Society for Humor Studies, Dr Natalie Ellen Evans of the University of Guelph, Canada, and Dr Ileana Szymanski, kindred philosopher and Ignatian soul, for their feedback on early drafts of this text. Sadly, Dr Szymanski (1975-2019) did not live to see this piece published. It is therefore to her memory that my satire is dedicated: to the memory of a dear friend, first of all, but also that of a deep-reaching and witty scholar, who was ever in love with Aristotle and her own teaching vocation.

[1] The present text is based on the last chapter of my book, Thinking and Talking (Gatineau: Northwest Passage Books, 2019, pp.281–90), and is part of a set of examples of “talking rhetoric” that are included therein, i.e., “shorter works of mine penned with the aim of edifying, engaging or entertaining the reader, to an extent that is uncommon and/or unneeded in regular academic writing” (x). The chief models for my satirical writings are Carlo Cipolla and, above all, Flavio Baroncelli, to whom a previous issue of Nordicum-Mediterraneum is dedicated. Readers looking for standard, stately academic prose, or little prone to tongue-in-cheek reflexive acrobatics, should simply steer clear of the present text, which is unworthy of them and their attention. Part of the rationale for its revision and re-issuing is the transformation of the NSU study circle for which it is intended, since this study circle is going to merge with another and launch a novel NSU study cycle about contemporary elites, or “the 1%”.

[2] The case of 21st-century Greece is particularly telling of these troubling trends and striking contradictions (cf. Yannis Varoufakis, Adults in the Room. My Battle with Europe‘s Deep Establishment, London: Bodley Head, 2017). Also, the readers of Nordicum-Mediterraneum are familiar with the case of Iceland’s 2008 crash, which has been covered in many contributions to the journal.

[3] Andrea Dworkin, “Feminism, Art, and My Mother Sylvia”, Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics, New York: Harper & Row, 1976, p.108. In his 1996 book, Il razzismo è una gaffe (Rome: Donzelli, p.37), Flavio Baroncelli offers a charitable interpretation of Dworkin’s denial of the possibility “for a man and a woman to just make love”. He does so by adding an important premise, which Dworkin had failed to state: there are lots of “young men”, both on- and off “campus”, who “act like bullies (that is, they try to come across as ‘normal’ in one another’s eyes) and express precisely that conception of the other half of the human race that Dworkin attributes to men in general.” At the same time, in a humorous “Dialogue between Andrea Dworkin and Nelson Mandela” (Mi manda Platone, Genoa: il melangolo, 2009, pp.136-37; the dialogue is said to replicate in fiction the real exchanges occurred between Baroncelli and Dworkin, who were both notably overweight and aging when they met in the US), the Italian humorist-philosopher depicts the titular characters coming to a secretive agreement on power and inequality. Specifically, in order to “combat their handicap” and keep “appealing to young women”, elderly heterosexual men like Mandela and obese middle-aged lesbians like Dworkin must go on relying upon “myths” such as “the wisdom and experience” of old age, or the outlandish radical theses of controversial academic “books showing that Plato… justified and strengthened male power” (ibid.). As the fictional Dworkin timidly admits in the  fictional dialogue: “I realise that in a truly egalitarian world, without differences in wealth, prestige, intellectual charm, in short, power, beautiful people would go with beautiful people… old people into the dung-heap… the fat ones…” (p.137).

[4] Julia Kristeva, Les nouvelles maladies de l’âme, Paris: Fayard, 1993. Cf. also my review of The Portable Kristeva in Symposium 5(1)/2001: 120–3.

[5] Luce Irigaray, Sharing the World, London: Continuum, 2000, 134–5. Cf. also my reviews of Irigaray’s Key Writings (The European Legacy 13(7)/2008: 879–81) and Sharing the World (The European Legacy 16(5)/2011: 668–9).

Is There a Secular Hierarchy in the Norwegian Public Sphere?

Muslim women should have the opportunity to define on their own premises what freedom is for them, even when the definition deviates from our own definition of freedom[1]

– Bushra Ishaq in Hvem snakker for oss? (Who speaks on our behalf?)



This statement by Bushra Ishaq, a long time Norwegian media debater, is an appeal to listen to Muslim women in defining secular and feminist values like freedom and equality. According to Ishaq Muslim women have alternative definitions of freedom that should be recognized. And she is not alone in claiming this. Like one young Muslim woman, Sheima Ali, said about the demand that Muslim girls must be liberated from religious suppression: [It makes her] “boil with frustration. What am I supposed to be liberated from? My freedom lies in practicing my religion the way I want” (Ali 2016). On the other hand, some researchers claim that many Muslims “rarely anchor their arguments in explicitly “religious” discourse and/or references” (Bangstad 2013, 361), and that Muslim women do not necessarily aim to define alternative, non-secular, notions of freedom (Døving 2012). On the contrary, they have embraced a secular definition of freedom and with it an understanding of the notion “secular” as non-religious.

These seemingly opposing views among Muslim women addresses at least two questions. What notions of freedom, equality and secularity do Muslims in Norway have? And what are the conditions under which different views on these topics could be expressed? In this article, I will try to discuss the latter. As I see it, the various views all relate to a shared problem of finding a place in a social and discursive hierarchy. Thus, my claim is that hierarchy is a notion that could be used to shed light on some of the paradoxes and tensions that emerge when themes such as freedom, feminism, secular society and hijab are discussed.

However, in introducing hierarchy as an analytical tool we are facing two obstacles: First, since hierarchy does not fit with the egalitarian values in modern society (egalitarianism equals non-hierarchical) hierarchies are concealed. Secondly, there seems to be a theoretical deficit in the understanding of hierarchy where “hierarchy” is used to explain for instance how certain Muslim voices are excluded from the public sphere (Bangstad 2013).  Hierarchy is in the latter understanding taken as an order that excludes differences. But following the French anthropologist Louis Dumont’s hierarchy is something that primarily includes differences into a larger order (Dumont 1971). In the article I will try to show how Dumont’s work is relevant for a better theoretical understanding of the notion itself as well as for analyzing concrete discussion in the public sphere.


“Secular extremism”, “secular feminism” or… “secular hierarchy”?

Key notions like “secular”, “feminism”, “freedom”, and “equality” are at the core of the debates on religion in the Norwegian context. However, what do they mean, and who can decide what they mean? Are all citizens “free” and “equal” to decide what “secular” and “feminism” means? Are religious and non-religious citizen equal in the interpretation of values like freedom and equality? Or, are these values embedded in a hierarchical frame of interpretation where non-religious citizens are at the top? These are central questions when religion, and in particular Islam, in the public sphere is discussed. However, they remain often unarticulated due to an insufficient theoretical frame. Furthermore, many of the participants in the Norwegian public debate on religion in the public sphere and secular society attest to the problem with the power to define these key notions.

One prominent Muslim voice in the Norwegian public debate is Mohammad Usman Rana who in 2008 wrote the article “The secular extremism” in Aftenposten. Here he expressed his view on secularism in opposition to what he sees as the Norwegian mainstream version of secularism. What is interesting to us here is both his own view of secularism and the mainstream one. He considers the former moderate, which lays emphasis on both democracy and pluralism, and the latter as “extreme”:

Modern Norwegian society is to an increasingly extent hallmarked by a secular bias. In order for pluralism to be maintained, the degradation of people of faith must cease […] The challenge for the new Norway is to find an identity of faith- should Norway be a moderate secular nation who attend to religious freedom, or should society be secularly extreme, where the state and the political correctness is dominating and defines what Norwegian citizens shall believe in? […] The counterpart is the secular model in France and the radical version of the French model in Turkey. Public expression of religion in these countries [France and Turkey] are attempted to be obliterated, so that secularism and atheism can achieve a particular position in society” […] In the public discourse in the modern Norway it is an accelerating tendency that religious people who wants to have God at the center of their life are marginalized and characterized as brainwashed and narrow sighted fundamentalists (Rana 2008)[3].

I do not think Rana’s use of the adjective “extreme” helps us to understand what secularity means. Having said that, I think his points really make sense within a hierarchical context. How so? His concern is that Norway will be a society where “secularism and atheism” will “achieve a particular position in society”. Rana here seems immediately to confuse a political principle of separating the public and the private (secularism) with a life stance (atheism). However, as I will try to show throughout the text, from a hierarchical perspective these two are linked and in fact underlines the ambiguous meaning of the term “secular”. As far as I see it what Ranas “confusion” reveals is that the notion “secular” implicitly entails that atheism is the “gold standard” for citizens in a secular society. In other words, secular society is not a neutral society were all citizens are equal but a society where the citizens are subordinated according to a set of values and statuses. Inspired by the works of Louis Dumont (1971) I will try to show there is an ideal of the secular citizen, which is the “gold standard” from which all other secularity can be measured, as being either religiously ignorant, atheists or anti-religious. This is in line with what researchers such as Marianne Gullestad has shown to be a discrepancy between formal equality and social or practical inequality (Gullestad 2002). Religious people are not formally subordinated, but practically subordinated in a “secular hierarchy”.

Another important Muslim voice is the already mentioned debater and researcher Bushra Isahaq. In her book Hvem snakker for oss? Muslimer i dagens Norge-hvem er de og hva mener de? (Who speaks on our behalf? Muslims in present day Norway-who are they and what do they think?) (Ishaq 2017) Ishaq discusses among other things Muslim relations to secular and democratic values and Muslim women’s understanding of their own equality. Reflecting upon the question whether Islam is to blame for suppressing women she argues from examples in both history and the present that Muslim women utilize theological arguments in promoting ideals of freedom (Ibid, 161). She seems to reproduce a view that “secular feminism”, with a certain interpretation of “freedom”, stands in opposition to alternative (plural, Muslim, religious?) feminism, with an alternative interpretation of “freedom”:

Secular feminism seems to consist in that western definitions of freedom is the only one valid. This exclusiveness to define gives western actors an alleged right to speak and act on the behalf of Muslim women- without listening to the wishes these women themselves express. Within such an understanding to find alternatives to western definitions to freedom is either wrong or a threat to western values (Ibid, 180).

Ishaq’s points, about the existence of strong female Muslim voices, can be found elsewhere. And I will return to other examples of Muslim women arguing in a similar way in the public debate in Norway later. For now, what is interesting as far as I am concerned is that in addressing the problem of definition Ishaq is confronted with a paradoxical link between equality and hierarchy becomes visible. On the one hand, all women are free and equal. But on the other hand, some women (secular feminists) are freer and more equal than others. A “Muslim feminist” is not the equal to “secular feminist”, but subordinate to the latter. In other words, to hold up freedom and equality as values implicates a hierarchization of how these values can be interpreted. And if this is true, then this is not equality at all, but hierarchy.

Ishaq seems to claim that the “alternative” notion of freedom can be drawn from Muslim traditions and sources. We can interpret this in at least two ways: either can “freedom” be both religious and secular (two paths to the same destination), or religion can be a source for the secular value “freedom” (secularity and religion can be understood as linked). Either way Muslim women use religious reasons in their perception of “freedom”. The question is then if such “alternative” notions of freedom could fit within the same discourse: If we want to take equality for all seriously, then Muslim women should have the opportunity to define on their own premises what freedom is for them, even when the definition deviates from our own definition of freedom and entails something we do not like (Ibid, 182).

This is extremely paradoxical: on the one hand she appeals to equality, and I would also add freedom. On the other hand, she challenges the premises for this equality (and freedom). And yet it is understandable and even inevitable if we take hierarchy into account: In order to establish oneself as a serious participant in the discourse on freedom one must express a subordinate stance in relation to the primary value, equality. By referring to “equality for all” as a norm Ishaq appeals to what Dumont calls a “paramount value”. She thus complies, as far as I see it, with what Louis Dumont in Essais sur l’individualisme calls modern ideology (Dumont 1983). This modern ideology is hallmarked by two important things: it is an individualist ideology constituted by equality and freedom as core values (Dumont names it “egalitarian individualism”), and secondly it is a concealed hierarchy. And since this hierarchy is not recognized by Ishaq the argument ends in paradoxes. What seems impossible in her proposal is to have a definition of freedom which “deviates from our own definition of freedom”. Following Dumont, the values “freedom” and “equality” cannot be given a plural meaning unless the alternative definitions are subordinated to the hegemonic interpretation. And this would in its turn mean that the plural definition of freedom is not equal. This is the invisible hierarchy that she tries to break with and which ends up reproducing the paradoxes in “egalitarian individualism”. As far as I see it, alternative definitions of freedom can only be possible within this hierarchical structure through subordinating the alternatives to the hegemonic one.

In claiming the equality to define freedom on Muslim women’s own premises she is perhaps not that far from the findings of researcher Cora Alexa Døving. Analyzing Norwegian debates on hijab in 2004 and 2009 Døving’s conclusion is that Muslim women uses secular arguments for hijab. So, contrary to Ishaq, she claims that her informants have a secular notion of equality and freedom and that they do not draw on Muslim sources like the Quran or Hadith. According to Døving Muslim women subscribe directly to a secular discourse. As far as she sees it “the hijab represents for them women’s liberation, independency, identity, freedom of expression and freedom of religion as well as a sign of religious belonging” (Døving 2012, 42) and that the hijab “directly connotes to secular, universal values” (Ibid, 43). Similar questions have been discussed in other studies as well (Barli 2009, Heggertveit 2017). The question is whether we should interpret such expressions as secular and feminist, as alternative secularity and feminist, or not secular and feminist at all.

So, does Døving’s findings contradict what Bushra Ishaq claims? Immediately they seem to draw completely opposite conclusions about what kind of traditions and values Muslim women appeal to. Alternatively, they perhaps refer to two opposite and competing discourses within the Muslim community. Another approach would be to say that both the Muslim women who draw on a Muslim interpretation of freedom and those who draw on secular values like human rights both are forced to relate to the same hierarchy of values. And in the Norwegian society there seems to be a non-religious interpretation of secularity freedom, and feminism that has a hold over all the other interpretations. The problem is that hierarchy in modern ideologies is concealed and is believed to be non-existing.

Even though this article discusses these questions in a Norwegian context, they are of course relevant outside Norway. One prominent scholar who has highlighted the problematic connection between secularism, liberalism and feminism facing Islam and the use of hijab on the international scene is anthropologist Saba Mahmood. In her work she has critically explored what she calls “normative secularity”, “secular liberalism” and “secular feminism”. As an anthropologist she sets out to investigate how “normative secularity” is less of a political doctrine and more a way of (trans)forming religious subjectivity that can suit western liberal political regimes. She writes in the article Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The politics of Islamic Reformation that: “One might go as far as to say that the political solution secularism offers consist not so much in “avoiding religious strife” but in making sure those religious life-forms that are deemed incompatible with a secular-political ethos are made provisional, if not extinct” (Mahmood 2006, 328). What Mahmood teach us is that being a citizen within western society depends on a certain kind of subjectivity which “is compatible with the rationality and exercise of liberal political rule” (Ibid, 344). This rationality, I would add, is governed through complying to a hierarchy of values. Integration into this (liberal) rationality depends on this.

In focusing on the production of subjectivity her approach seems more inspired by the likes of Foucault than Dumont. What relates Mahmood’s observations to the topic here is the close relation between liberal values and secularity in western societies. Mahmood has been criticized for being unclear on the nature of this connection since secularism does not necessarily depend on liberalism (Bangstad 2009, 80). However, in bringing in hierarchy as an analytical term I think it becomes clearer how they are linked.


Hierarchy and recognition of difference

In order to discuss the idea of a concealed hierarchy further I want to discuss some of the thoughts of the French anthropologist Louis Dumont. He has pointed out how “modern ideology” (Dumont 1983) – hallmarked by its rejection of hierarchies in favor of egalitarian individualism- has eclipsed our perception of social hierarchies in modern societies. The idea is that we do not perceive hierarchies because we ideologically got rid of them in the processes of modernization. But since we do not believe in them, it thus becomes difficult to both localize and understand them. According to Dumont, philosophers and sociologists alike are reluctantly uttering “hierarchy”:

Even sociologists and philosophers seem to speak of “hierarchy” reluctantly and with averted eyes, in the sense of residual or inevitable inequalities of aptitude and function, or of the chain of command which is presupposed by any artificial organization of multiple activities, briefly “power hierarchy”. However, that is not hierarchy proper, nor the deepest root of what is so called (Dumont 1998,19).

It seems to me that Dumont highlights two problems in one: firstly, we modern are blind to hierarchies because we think we have substituted hierarchy with equality. We believe only in the value of equality between human beings. But we also believe that we have in practice successfully substituted hierarchy with equality. Secondly, we confuse or equal hierarchy with a chain of commands. This stems from an inadequate understanding of what hierarchy is. Let us investigate the former problem before returning to the latter.

Whereas hierarchy seemingly belongs to the non-modern world of the past, modern secular society is based on the slogan from the French revolution of “freedom, equality and brotherhood”. But if hierarchies still exist, why do we fail to perceive them? A key for unlocking the question is Dumont’s analytical distinction between thinking and ideas on the one hand, and on acting and values on the other. In Homo hierarchicus Dumont praises Talcott Parsons for showing the link between action and values. Actions are directed towards certain ends which themselves are subject to evaluations. These evaluations have the consequence that they differentiate various “entities in a rank order” (Ibid) and integrate them within the same system of common values. According to Dumont Parsons teaches us that the human being does not only think, it acts. It has not only ideas but values. Hence: “To adopt a value is to introduce hierarchy, and a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people, is indispensable to social life” (Ibid, 20).

As far as I understand this Dumont’s point is that we remain blind to hierarchies because we do not see that social life regulated through action and values necessarily creates hierarchy. Our understanding and perception are mostly operating on the level of thinking and ideas, i.e. on an ideological level. But the organization of social life does not (always) correspond with the ideological scheme. Egalitarian societies are also hierarchical, but in a more implicit way than explicitly hierarchical societies.

Dumont highlights the distinction between thinking and acting, or between ideas and values. How does this distinction translate to the context of a Norwegian secular hierarchy and debates in the public sphere? After all, Dumont is talking about a distinction between thinking and acting. But are not the debates on topics such as secularity, freedom, and hijab on the level of thinking and ideas? How are social life, values and action relevant here? Even though Dumont’s distinction is analytically fruitful since it renders hierarchy visible, this does not mean that our thoughts and ideas are unmarked by social life and the values that creates hierarchies. Furthermore, the public sphere were values, thoughts and ideas are discussed could itself perhaps be regarded as influenced or even a part of social life. This takes us to a question I will discuss later of whether neutral institutions are possible.

The effect of Dumont’s anthropological research is to show that every society is upheld by a hierarchical order organized through certain and specific values. In western modern societies the central values are linked to the individual, its freedom and equality. In other words, even though modern ideology is based on equality, equality as the principal value of modern society creates the basis for a “new” hierarchy.

But before coming back to the value of equality, what exactly does Dumont mean by hierarchy? As we saw earlier, it is not to be confused with a chain of command. Dumont introduces in Homo hierarchicus his own understanding of hierarchy which is pivotal for our argument. Hierarchy is a relation that can be called “encompassment of the contrary”. Hierarchy is not a simple system of relations where a person, status, group, or gender is of less worth than another person, status, group, or gender. Hierarchy has to do with a whole (constituted by values) where all the parts have a place. Or, differently put, this whole can encompass and integrate parts into this whole or order. As the political scientist Dag Erik Berg writes, Dumont’s basic principle was that hierarchy is a universal phenomenon, but that modern ideology was also “systematically unconscious about hierarchy due to its adoption of equality as a paramount value” (Berg 2011, 34). This egalitarian principle was decisive for the “modern denial of hierarchy” (Ibid, 35).

The Norwegian sociologist Randi Gressgård has discussed similar issues- regarding Muslim utterances on homosexuality in the public sphere as well as discussing challenges with multicultural dialogue (Gressgård and Jacobsen 2008, Gressgård 2010)- in the light of Dumont’s thinking. Having already announced a discussion of Dumont’s interpretation of equality we can follow Gressgård’s Dumont-inspired reflection on this topic. Underpinning it all is a paradox: “I endeavor to show that the paradox of (in)equality- the fact that the ideal of equality leads to a subordination of those who are not identified with the whole- issues from a non-modern hierarchical structure” (Gressgård 2010, 40-42). This point seems in line with the discussion of arguments for hijab in the public sphere. But whereas Gressgård discusses the question by highlighting an ethnocentric fallacy where “others” become subordinated, what is at stake in the case where Muslims take part in the public debate and use secular arguments and appeal to secular values is what we could call “self-subordination”. By this, I mean that in taking part in the public debate we accept a subordination to the discourse and its values, which limits the degree to how much we can express deviating points of view. How to make of that? When “others” (religious muslims) argue on “our” (secular) premises we could read that as assimilation, we can read it as sensible, as ethnocentric or with suspicion.

Furthermore, if we take up the question of which kinds of voices we can recognize in the public sphere and which kinds of voices we can recognize as equal to our own (are muslim women arguing for hijab equally feminist to non-religious secular feminists?) we can read from Gressgård that: “recognition can only be hierarchical, because the act of recognizing means placing value on, or integrating into, a whole“ (Gressgård 2010, 50). Or as Dumont himself writes in the article On value: “If the advocates of difference claim for it both equality and recognition, they claim the impossible” (Dumont 2013, 312). We are here back to Dumonts “encompassment of the contrary”, which I think is central to our discussion of the public sphere and secular society. In order for an argument to be understood, recognized and separated from another argument it must be stripped of its singular and private character and placed within a whole which makes it accessible to everyone within.

A similar question is discussed in Vincent Descombes commentary to Louis Dumont (Descombes 2013, 232-233). He asks the question if it is possible to recognize the equality of another human being as yourself and at the same time recognize the other as other, i.e. different from me. His conclusion is that we must choose between either recognizing the other as equal to myself (egalitarian recognition) or recognizing the other as subordinate to myself (hierarchical recognition). The reason why it is impossible to combine equality and difference is that equality is the “paramount” value that institutes a hierarchy. Other values (for example the value of being different, or having alternative interpretations of equality and freedom) can be expressed, but only as subordinate to this paramount value. As far as I see it, Dumont and Descombes are both right. Furthermore, this choice between egalitarian recognition and hierarchical recognition seems to me to reflect the two possibilities for Muslim women in the Norwegian context. As a Muslim woman you can acquire recognition either as equal to secular/non-Muslim/non- religious women, or you can acquire recognition as different. In the first case you will be, at least to a certain degree, recognized as an equal citizen and contributor in the public sphere. In the second case, you will be allowed to express yourself and your difference, but you will not be recognized as an equal.


Neutrality, liberalism and secularity

The case of Norwegian Muslim views on secularity, freedom and feminism is, however, neither the only example where non-religious citizens are in a privileged position, nor am I the only one to highlight this. A similar case was presented by professor of law Joseph. H. H. Weilers in his intervention in the Lautsi v. Italy case regarding the removal of religious symbols from the public sphere. A chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that the displaying in Italian public schools of the crucifix was a violation of the European Convention of human rights (Weiler 2010b). Weiler argued before the Court that “neutrality” within the meaning of secularism puts non-religious citizens in a position of privilege and does not promote equality for all. In his intervention Weiler stressed what he saw as two conceptual errors expressed in the premises for the Grand Chambers decision of removing crucifixes from Italian classrooms. The second of these concerned what he saw as “the conflation, pragmatic and conceptual, between secularism, laïcité, and secularity” (Weiler 2010a, 4). The error consists, for Weiler, in conflating laïcité with neutrality: “When one prohibits all religious dress in school, rather than allowing all religious dress, is one not making some kind of statement on religious belief?” (Weiler 2010b).

Even though Weiler’s points are basically directed at legal issues, they show on a more general level that it is harder to deal with a plurality (of values) than we think. The reason for this seems to be precisely what Weiler highlights: the neutral ground supposed to support the discussion of values and opinions within plural society is not so neutral after all, but rather expresses a perspective assumed to be neutral. However, if we do not take hierarchy into account, I do not think the problems addressed by Weiler can be fully comprehended. Differently put, Weiler fails to see that neutrality has a “double nature”: “Neutrality” is both the whole frame supporting a plurality of views on religion and one specific view of religion at the same time. Weiler sees the latter but cannot see the former as long as he does not take hierarchy into account.

A similar observation is made by John Rawls in the expanded edition of Political liberalism (2005). The work as a whole aims to shed light on how «reasonable pluralism» can support a constitutional democratic society. In a free society, citizens will have disparate worldviews, and yet there can be only one law. More importantly for us is his distinction between «public reason» and «secular reason». Whereas the idea of «public reason» in Rawls previous monumental work A theory of justice (1971) was given by a so called comprehensive liberal doctrine, «public reason» in Political liberalism is a way of reasoning about political values shared by free and equal citizens (Rawls 2005, 490). Rawls modifies his own position substantially compared to A theory of justice. Firstly, he takes pluralism into account. Secondly, Rawls makes a distinction between «political liberalism» and «comprehensive liberalism». The difference being that «political liberalism» does not include an overal theory of value. This is what makes it possible to make yet another distinction between «public reason» on the one hand and «secular reason» and values on the other:

We must distinguish public reason from what is sometimes referred to as secular reason and secular values. These are not the same as public reason. For I define secular reason as reasoning in terms of comprehensive nonreligious doctrines. Such doctrines and values are much too broad to serve the purposes of public reason. Political values are not moral doctrines, however available or accessible these may be to our reason and common sense reflection. Moral doctrines are on a level with religion and first philosophy. By contrast, liberal political principles and values, although intrinsically moral values, are specified by liberal politcal conceptions of justice and fall under the category of the political (Ibid, 452).

Rawls inclusion of pluralism and his emphasis on «political liberalism»/ «public reason»- as opposed to moral doctrines and reasonable «comprehensible doctrines» establised by both secular and religious reason- takes him one step away from a (previously?) biased conception of both rationality and liberalism. For instance, in distancing himself from «Enlightenment liberalism»’s attack on orthodox Christianity he shows that he has another kind of liberalism in mind (Ibid, 486). Furthermore, in distinguishing between political and moral values he distances himself from a liberalism à la John Stuart Mill where the individual is at the center for liberal philosohy:

Whatever we may think of autonomy as a purely moral value [Mills individualism], it fails to satisfy, given reasonable pluralism, the constraint of reciprocity, as many citizens, for example, those holding certain religious doctrines, may reject it. Thus moral autonomy is not a political value, whereas political autonomy is (Ibid,456)

The «constraint of reciprocity» which also is linked to the «duty of civility» involves two element: On the one hand, the ability to explain to others how principles and policies one advocate on fundamentalt questions can be supported by the political values of public reason. Or as Leif Wenar puts it: «Citizens must reasonably believe that all citizens can reasonably accept the enforcement of a particular set of basic laws» (Wenar 2017). On the other hand, citizens must also show willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accomodations to other peoples views should be made (Rawls 2005, 217).

So, how does all this relate to the claim put forward in this article that all citizens are not equal in their equality? One answer would be that Rawls view of «secular reason» as connected to a doctrine and not as the gold standard of (political) reason is compatible with this claim. In stressing that those with a secular worldview do not have a priviledged access to public reason Rawls has, as I see it, (perhaps unintentionally) revealed an intrinsic hierarchy of reason (with non-religious doctrines and secular reason at the top in this hierarchy). The same counts for his view on more classical liberalism that lays emphasis for instance on individualism. Differently put, Rawls is critical to those who claim that liberalism and individualism are identical (one version of such a «comprehensive liberalism» would be Mill) since they cannot cope with pluralism. A liberalism coping with pluralism must be political, and not comprehensive.

Rawls claim that “secular reason” and “public reason” are not the same, and his distinction between “comprehensive” and “political” liberalism, seems to me not only to be reasonable. Even though hierarchy is probably not something Rawls himself would consider as part of his argument, it allows us to better understand why we confuse them and might give “secular reason” and “comprehensive” liberalism a privileged position.

Having said that, even though Rawls insist that his liberalism does not include an overall theory of value (Gaus et al. 2018) does not the idea of finding a common ground that gives no position a privileged position (given “reasonable pluralism” through the “constraint of reciprocity”) itself indicate “pluralism” and “reciprocity” as values? If so, then we have located the principles for a hierarchy. If pluralism is to be taken into account this plurality must be handled in such a way that it does not fragment society. After all, what is at stake is the value of a constitutional democracy and a political conception of justice. Now, Rawls would perhaps say that values like “freedom” and “equality” are ideas and values generated from the public political culture and not preconditions for the public political culture. But then what constituted the public political culture in the first place? Rawls has certainly addressed some interesting difficulties in liberal theory, but it seems to me very difficult to keep a political concept of liberalism completely separated from a comprehensive one and not including any kind of overall theory of value.


Dilemmas and paradoxes in the debates on hijab

At the end of the article, I want to look at some examples from Norwegian debates on hijab as well as the academic reflections on the debates from the last fifteen years. The questions I want to focus on are the same as we have already seen articulated by Muslim debaters and social scientists: What notions of secularity are at play? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse genuinely secular? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of feminism or undermining it? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of freedom or undermining it?  Are the the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of equality or undermining it?

A very interesting article written by the social scientist Tordis Borchgrevink discusses the hijab debates in the mid-2000s with the French ban of religious artefacts in schools from 2004 as context. Her concern is basically the normative question in the liberal dilemma of how liberal one should and could be before the foundation of liberalism itself is undermined. Applied to the hijab case the problem is how to interpret the persistent use of liberal rights like equality and freedom of expression to claim the right to practice a religious-cultural tradition which (according to some) at the same time expresses the undermining of the same rights. She writes that:

The legal predicament illustrates perfectly the inherent dilemma of liberalism: How is liberal society to deal with illiberal practices without undermining its own principles? When these two systems of law, religious and secular, appear mutually exclusive, and both intervention and nonintervention in people’s religious belief appear self-defeating in terms of western norms the situation seems paralyzing. But within the framework of the present discussion one is led to ask whether this rather massive claim to wear hijab in secular contexts contributes to a lessening or a reinforcement of the pressure on liberal norms (Borchgrevink 2007, 114).

Even though liberalism has not been the major focus in the article, the theme is linked to some of the aforementioned key notions. The “liberal dilemma” resembles the dilemma of how much equality it is possible to recognize in another person’s point of view, before the principle of equality itself is at jeopardy. From what we have seen in Dumont’s critical assessment of egalitarian individualism, I think that a part of the “solution” to the liberal dilemma would be to admit that liberalism is hierarchical. The dilemma is apparent as long as it is understood from an ideological perspective. From the ideological perspective liberal values like liberty and equality are non-hierarchical in themselves. But in Dumont’s take liberal values, like all other values, tend to create the basis for hierarchical orders. In other words, we must shift from an ideological perspective to that of values and social practice. We are in a different position to analyze hierarchy when hierarchy no longer means a mere chain of authority but a relational order or whole that integrates and relates different statues and positions within that whole.

When looking into the perspective of the Muslim debaters themselves we can observe that this question of feminism and liberty is a pressing one for Muslim women[4]. But, as Saba Mahmood points out, it is also an academic pitfall:

It is widely assumed that the veil is a symbol whose variable meanings inhere either in the woman’s intentions or in the context of its adornment. Whether it is those who hail it as a symbol of their religious or cultural identity or those who spurn it as a symbol of women’s oppression (as do many feminists)[…] Such is the fate that must befall the veil in a secular imaginary: it can only symbolize the world of authority and tradition that already stands in a false relation to history and requisite progress; its proper meaning is decided by a prior verdict, namely that this tradition (often glossed as literalist) must be destroyed in order for reason, culture, and the free spirit to grasp the true meaning of religion (Mahmood 2006, 343-344).

Something similar can be seen in the Norwegian context. If we have in mind Sheima Ali’s quote seen in the introduction, the question here is whether wearing the hijab is a sign of suppression or liberty – And accordingly if wearing hijab is compatible with feminism. As another young muslim woman states in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: “Feminism is about social, political and economic equality. That is why it does not matter what one wears, as long as we can be united on these values” (Lereng 2016).

Here enters another question of the relation between different feminist voices or different feminist groups in the public sphere. Going back to Tordis Borchgrevink, she asks if European Muslim women are defying the very laws restricting their rights, or if the head-scarf is advertising their obedience to their own subordination (Borchgrevink 2007). Her perspective on the paradox can be related to what another Muslim debater, Amina H. Bile, writes in Aftenposten. She claims that Muslim women in fact have been abandoned by western feminists. This highlights the paradox from another angle: “This is the paradox: we criticize countries which with their restriction and sanction limits women, and still we maintain our own regulations…We can discuss what feminism means on an individual level, but one thing I think we can all agree on is that the freedom to choose what one wants to wear or not” (Bile 2016).[5]

It is neither entirely clear whom the critique is directed at, nor if she draws on secular values or not. But, as Bangstad has pointed out there are strong indications of the existence of a hierarchy governed by among others the editors of the major newspapers who prefer liberal and/or non-religious Muslim voices (Bangstad 2013). What is interesting is that there seems to be some kind of internal hierarchy among feminists and an internal secular hierarchy that the Muslim women are battling with. And, when western feminist does not support Muslim women then this stands out as a paradox: the freedom we criticize other countries for violating, is violated by ourselves when it comes to Muslim women. But this is not a paradox if we understand freedom as a hierarchical value. If freedom is a hierarchical value, then freedom has a fixed meaning that is not negotiable. We are here back to the problem Ishaq is facing when she demands recognition for alternative definitions of freedom.

There seems to be a double paradox here: 1) Muslim women who use secular language of equality and liberty in order to express subordination. 2) Equality and liberty are (anti-hierarchical) values that creates a hierarchy among the citizens. It seems to me that the paradox is not just underlying the role and arguments of Muslim Women as Borchgrevink has in mind, it is a paradox underlying the secular order and in the values of the secular order itself. As far as I can see Borchgervink and Bile here are describing two sides of the same coin (or of the same paradox). However, we seem to lack a theoretical frame that can render this paradox visible without claiming to solve it. The problem is that we do not seem to understand that equality and liberty are practiced within a hierarchy of values. So secular western feminists do not understand (or admit) that their interpretation of freedom, equality and feminism is creating the “paramount value” (Dumont 1971). Therefore, any other version of secular non-religious feminism will always be an inferior feminism.

What Dumont does is to deconstruct the foundation of modern ideology which is the value of egalitarianism: Since values are the basis for the construction of hierarchical orders, egalitarianism becomes the paramount value in an egalitarianist hierarchy. Thus, the paradox is that equality is linked to its opposite, i.e. hierarchy. In other words, the value regulating the public sphere would in that case be equality. The dilemma from the perspective of the Muslim women arguing for hijab would then be to consider how much is lost in being encompassed by the values of the secular public sphere, and how much could be achieved by doing it. As far as I see it Dumont reveals a paradox that resembles that of the so-called liberal dilemma. As Borchgrevink writes: “The puzzle is this: The object of theologically founded discrimination, i.e. the victim herself, demands her unrestricted right to demonstrate religious obedience in precisely those institutions which represent the entrance ticket to social and economic participation” (Borchgrevink 2007, 115).

What the author here expresses is well put, but to me it appears less of a puzzle if we do not see it through the eyes of modern ideology. Ideologically, liberalisms’ recognition of the equality and thus uniqueness and difference of every human being is a recognition of equality, but not of difference. If this difference is to be recognized it must be placed in a hierarchy. When Borchrevink says that it is a puzzle that the “institutions”, which secure equality in social and economic participation, are also used to demand the “unrestricted right to demonstrate religious obedience”; She, as far as I see it, expresses unknowingly a hierarchical value. In this hierarchy the egalitarian “non-subordinate” woman and the Muslim “subordinate” woman are not equal in their equality. But since equality is not regarded as a hierarchical value, the subordinate and the non-subordinate woman are placed at the same level. Since hierarchy breaks with our ethical ideology and standard, we cannot admit that there are some who are more equal than others.

As far as I can see the academic research on arguments for hijab in the public sphere do not seem to be focusing on the process of how these voices are integrated and received in the public sphere. Whereas the voices of Muslim men in these questions can be more easily discared by egalitarianist feminism, it seems more difficult to exclude Muslim female voices who draw on secular values. On the other hand, non-religious feminism finds it difficult to accept this version of secular feminism.

Here we again touch upon the supposed confusion, discussed above in relation to Rana, between secularity as a (non-religious) world view and as a political principle. Are those feminists having a non-religious world-view purer in their secularism – and is it a purer secular feminism than those professing a religious world-view ?  The Muslim feminist voices and the secular feminist voices are different (religious vs. non-religious), but also unified (universal equality). From the perspective of the secular feminism the ”solution” is thus to not exclude these voices but englobe them into a hierachy. From the perpective of  Muslim feminism the solution is to be englobed.

I think, however, that Borchgrevink’s paradox could be given an interpretation, if not a solution, in the light of Dumonts notion of hierarchy. If hierarchy is established through what he calls paramount values, then any expression of deviant/ alternative values or points of view must be evaluated in relation to the paramount one(s). Briefly put, even though religious citizens and their opinions and values could be integrated into secular society and public discourse, secular citizens and non-religious values are “purer”. Or to draw on Dumont’s account for the relation between sexes: man has a “double nature”. On the one hand man represents a part of humanity which is different from but equal to women, who represents another part of humanity. But on the other hand, man also represents the whole humanity (mankind) (Dumont 1971). In a similar manner, I would claim that we could analyze the relation between secular and religious citizens on two levels: they are parts or members of the same society, but non-religious citizens also represent the secular society as a whole.



In this text I have tried to show how Norwegian Muslims taking part in the Norwegian discussion on topics like secularity, freedom, feminism and hijab reveal a concealed hierarchy. This hierarchy is revealed partly because there seems to be a tension between the various Muslim voices themselves. These tensions concern aims and approaches to obtain these aims. But they all concern a question of being recognized as equal and/or different. By taking Louis Dumont’s concept of hierarchy into account I think it is possible to discern both some obstacles and some strategies to cope with these obstacles when it comes to how Muslim views on secularity, freedom, feminism and hijab can be recognized. Following Dumont and his interpreters like Descombes and Gressgård it is not possible to recognize equality and difference at the same time.

On the level of Muslim debaters, I think that we have discerned two possible approaches to this question. On one hand we have those, represented by Ishaq, who want to be recognized for their different points of view on these notions and themes. On the other hand, we have those Muslims who claim they have embraced a traditionally “western” version of these themes and notions. It seems to me like these Muslim women want to be recognized as equals to the western, European, non-religious, feminist, Norwegian woman. The question is whether the latter Muslims can obtain this status, or whether they too will be subordinate to the non-religious feminist making the “feminist hierarchy” a hierarchy with different levels.

On a research level it seems difficult to grasp both that hierarchy is a reality in western modern societies and/or that hierarchy is something more than just a value scale. I do not necessarily disagree with what the researchers say. I have rather tried to say something that has not been sufficiently discussed by interpreting the researchers own analysis and conclusions in the light of Dumont’s thoughts on hierarchy.



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Berg D. E. (2011). Dalits and the constitutional state. PhD diss. University of Bergen.

Berger P. (1967). The secular canopy New York: Penguin.

Bile A. H. (2017). Vestlige feminister svikter muslimer, Aftenposten, November 24, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/sid/i/1w2zX/Vestlige-feminister-svikter-muslimer–Amina-H-Bile

Borchgrevink T. (2007).” Whither Hijab? Religious freedom and the liberal dilemma”. Res Cogitans, 2, no. 4: 110-129.

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Gressgård R. and Jacobsen C. M. (2008). “Krevende toleranse: Islam og homoseksualitet.” Tidsskrift  for kjønnsforskning, 2: 22-39.

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Heggertveit I. (2017). «Skamløse jenter»-Diskursanalyse av kvinneperspektivet i mediedebatten om muslimske kvinner. Master diss. Volda university college.

Ishaq B. (2017). Hvem snakker for oss? Muslimer i dagens Norge-hvem er de og hva mener de? Oslo: Cappelen Damm.

Lereng A. (2016). “Dra tilbake der dere kommer fra!” Aftenposten, November 24, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/sid/i/nrA8o/Dra-tilbake-dit-dere-kommer-fra-Tre-hijab-debattanter-svarer-pa-kommentarene-under-innleggene-sine

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Weiler J.H.H. (2010a). ORAL SUBMISSION BY PROFESSOR JHH WEILER ON BEHALF OF AREMENIA, BULGARIA, CYPRUS, GREECE, LITHUANIA, MALTA, THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION AND SAN MARINO – THIRD PARTY INTERVENING STATES IN THE LAUTSI CASE BEFORE THE GRAND CHAMBER OF THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://7676076fde29cb34e26d-759f611b127203e9f2a0021aa1b7da05.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/eclj/weiler_lautsi_third_parties_submission_by_jhh_weiler.pdf

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[1]  (Ishaq 2017, 182). All quotes from Ishaq’s book are translated by me.

[2] In addition to my colleagues at the department for religious studies at Volda University College, I would like to thank Alexandros Tsakos, Kjartan Leer-Salvesen, Erlend Walseth and Kishore Gajendra for helping me with developing the manuscript.

[3] Translated by me.

[4] I have drawn much on the master thesis of Ida Heggertveit regarding this material (Heggertveit 2017).

[5] Translated by me.

Arne Jönsson, Valborg Lindgärde, Elisabet Göransson (eds.), Wår Lärda Skalde-Fru Sophia Elisabeth Brenner och hennes tid (Ängelholm: Skåneförlaget, 2011)


The present volume, which stems from a Symposium held in Lund in August 2009 and entirely dedicated to “the first poetess” in Swedish literature, brings together some twenty scholars and experts in various fields of knowledge ranging from linguistics to numismatics. The common scope of their efforts is to shed light on the manifold aspects of Brenner’s literary work, life and times. Lovers of Burman, as well as readers who missed out on her acclaimed second novel, may thus turn to this monumental work to discover (or rediscover) Brenner, whose work (Poetiske Dikter, 1713) was published, widely read and appreciated during her lifetime both in Sweden and abroad, but neglected or scorned by the generations that followed the Baroque.  


Brenner’s biography is thus not at the heart of any of the 24 essays composing the volume. Rather, the general reader is informed about the art of a poetess well versed in religious poetry and in the popular genre of tillfällespoesi, written for family, relatives and close friends, members of the nobility and monarchy, academics and politicians, often on occasions such as weddings, child births and funerals. Brenner’s habit of commenting on women’s rights and values in her poetry led her to become known as “the first Swedish feminist”. Because of her language skills (Brenner was bilingual in German and Swedish in addition to mastering Latin, French, Italian and Dutch), her name appeared in several 17th-century European catalogues listing doctissime.


Through the division of the material and the shifting scholarly approaches, the average reader is led step by step into the vast, yet little known, world of Brenner. Apart from several interesting investigations that contextualize and relate the various poetic genres mastered by the poetess to the literary canon, Jon Helgason’s discussion of Brenner as a Swedish Sappho is worth highlighting. His essay seemingly enlightens the discussion of the varying uses of the mythic character of Sappho as an attempt to legitimate women writers. In the age of Brenner, Sappho had come to represent female authorship through the role model of the learned woman. In order to find an official place as a woman of letters, Brenner was therefore expected to adhere to a cultural construction that Helgason calls the 18th-century’s “short-lived negation of the witch”. Similarly, Brenner had to come to terms with a female ideal in which learning, sense and virtue had taken the place of vision, irrationality and instinct — a short digression before the sensibility of the late 18th century’s literary heroines would come to pull the rug from under her feet.


Paratextual aspects in the broader sense are the focus of Anna Perälä’s and Valborg Lindgärde’s essays. Indeed, Perälä writes a chapter on the history of the book as she sets out to discuss the relationship between word and image in the printed editions of Brenner’s work and the poetess’s own taste for graphical embroidery accompanying the poems. Lindgärde instead tackles Urban Hiärne’s promotional campaign for Poetiske Dikter. Several contributions are made regarding Brenner’s ability to write in numerous European languages. Verner Egeland, for example, comments on her few Petrarchan, though perfectly contemporary, compositions in Italian inspired by Marini and Tasso. As a conclusion, interart parallels are established between Brenner’s work and the visual arts, as well as with music.


The trilingual volume (Swedish, Danish, English) is wonderfully produced with a rich apparatus of illustrations accompanying the essays. Its organizing principle, which puts the poetess and the woman in the shadow of her work, her time, the cultural history and the literary tradition, offers a fresh approach to the writing from an earlier age. This treatment caters to both the difficulty and the reward involved in reading the book. The task of piecing together an all-round portrait of Sophia Elisabeth Brenner from the numerous and autonomous contributions is entirely left up to the reader.