‘I am Woman, hear me detonate’

By skepticlawyer

That’s not my line, it’s Tim Blair’s. Apparently female members of Al Qaeda have been barred from blowing themselves up, and they ain’t happy. I have to admit I rolled laughing when I first saw it (the ‘oh shit, I have now seen everything’ school of laughter). Now I’m just pissed off. What sort of utterly nihilistic, life-denying piece of shit for an ideology takes women to this place?

Thing is, I can kinda sorta vaguely understand illiberal ideologies that reckon women should be barefoot and pregnant. I think they suck, but I know where they’re coming from in the ideological family tree. This ‘feminist explosivism’ is a whole other kettle of fish, though. There’s probably a DPhil in it somewhere – some sort of psychological enquiry into the discourse of self-destruction, or how Life is So Shit in the Middle East for Women they may as well Blow Themselves Up. Feh.

Funny thing is, I’d been meaning to write a feminist-themed post today anyway – on a much more conventional feminist issue, smart women who pretend they’re thick – and then I started tooling around a few of the blogs until Tim’s piece stopped me in my tracks. I think the two issues are sort of related, though. I’ll try to explain.

One of my mum’s favourite lines (when confronted with egregious stupidity) was ‘people are proud of being stupid’. I always used to disagree with her, but there are times now when I wish I could call the hereafter collect and say, ‘guess what mum, you were right, I was wrong, lots of people really do get a kick out of being stupid’.

Mum used to kick my bum whenever I did the ‘play dumb’ routine that’s often expected of women. ‘You’ve got a brain,’ she would say. ‘Now use it, and don’t be afraid of it’. It sounds easy, but it’s hard to do consistently, particularly if you’re in a determinedly anti-intellectual environment (like a working-class Australian suburb). One of my friends here in Oxford is a brilliant scientist and scholar (and a pretty damn useful rower, too) who has the whole ‘play dumb’ routine down pat. This even goes so far as a pretense that all she reads are blogs like The Superficial and Go Fug Yourself. Thing is, this is Oxford, and we all know her act is crap. She knows her act is crap. If there is one place on earth where people of all races and genders wear their intelligence with pride, Oxford is it. However, like me, she’s from a working-class Australian background, where being a clever chick is often actively discouraged (unless you happened to have a mother like mine).

So it was amusing – a few weeks back – to overhear an English bloke (another student) she’s taken a bit of a shine to say ‘please, xxxxxx, stop pretending to be vapid. It may be sexy in Australia, but it isn’t sexy here. Feel free to pepper your conversation with abstruse mathematical concepts.’ It was a Minties moment, but in the best possible way. First she went completely bug-eyed, then bolted for the loo. Since then, the faux-stupidity has pretty much disappeared. Last week she taught me about Reynolds numbers. It was utterly fascinating.

The Al Qaeda types have a vested interest in making women think they’re stupid. This doesn’t mean uneducated – women in Saudi Arabia go to university in vast numbers, and it seems there are plenty of educated women who are sympathetic to at least some of Al Qaeda’s views. It also means more than just ‘barefoot and pregnant’ in the conventional patriarchal sense. It means taking a determined and perverse pride in stupidity. A pride in not thinking, and not wanting to think. A pride in crushing one’s individuality into such a small space that death is a form of liberation.

That taking pride in stupidity exists – albeit in attenuated forms – in the West, where women have had full civil rights for a century is bad enough. That it seems to be the cornerstone of what is probably the worst form of irredentism to emerge since the Second World War is something else entirely.

For Al Qaeda, it is not simply life that is denied to women, but mind. Women’s minds.

30 Comments

  1. Posted June 15, 2008 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Feel free to pepper your conversation with abstruse mathematical concepts

    What a line. Probably wouldn’t work on Big Brother. 🙂

    Great post Skeptic. The herd instinct is to stupidity and when added to physical power is possibly the mostly obtuse and inane thing I’ve seen. It becomes compulsory along with ugly manners, grating speech and for some reason squawking like animals seems to’ve become popular recently.

  2. Apple77
    Posted June 15, 2008 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I don’t consider myself stupid, but I do read Go Fug Yourself for a bit of light entertainment.

  3. conrad
    Posted June 15, 2008 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I think agree with your article, but I’d probably agree if you substituted ‘man’ for woman throughout also (is men blowing themselves up any better than females doing it — especially when considering the victims?).

    Even in terms of the Western stuff, it seems to me that women have pretty much won the thou-art-not-stupid battle even if it isn’t yet completely obvious. Now its socially ok and even expected in some places for men to be dumb (but then, I guess it always was in many social groups in Australia — I just think its getting worse. Perhaps you notice females being dumb because you are female, but you could go to the rugby and observe bloke culture and see much the same underlying factors that unify some social groups).

    In case you don’t believe the previous observation then have a look educational achievement figures (at all levels) and how they’ve changed over the last few decades (or just wander around Oxford and have a look at what gender most of the students are in most courses). You’re just going to have wait 20 years or so for this to propagate through and show up in obvious ways in society (some for the better and some for the worse — ill-educated males tend to cause many social problems).

  4. Posted June 15, 2008 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    is men blowing themselves up any better than females doing it

    Yes it is. I actually wish there more men around here blowing themselves up. In the desert of course. 🙂

  5. Posted June 15, 2008 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    As I see it Helen, the attraction of ideologies like that espoused by the Jihadists is all based on privileging the next life over this one, and women are just as vulnerable as men to such arguments.
    But there is something to be said to sometimes hiding your light under a bushel, especially when dealing with strangers, it may well give you a big advantage in the long run. But dropping the pretense like your friend has when in shall we say “smarter company” is also rather wise.
    It is not only the mega stars who have to manage their public image, it is everyone who is out there in the world.

  6. Posted June 15, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Conrad: Both Oxford and Cambridge are still male-dominated, albeit only by a few percent, and male students still outperform women, sometimes to a considerable degree.

    People used to think it was sexism – ‘men don’t make passes at girls with first classes’, but then the university anonymized all examination papers (and this system is bullet-proof – I have never seen an institution so careful at ensuring that academics can’t work out whose paper they’re marking). And the boys still came out on top (although not by as much).

    There are two reasons for this (both backed by copious research):

    1. While men & women have the same average IQ, men have a larger standard deviation than women, which means both more geniuses and more idiots. Oxbridge takes only students at the upper extremes of brilliance, so there is a slight bias towards the fellahs.

    2. Men generally do better on open public examinations under time pressure than women, and Oxbridge still assesses using exams. There are almost no assignments.

    Iain: I take your point, but the whole ‘hiding your light under a bushel’ that is characteristic of Australian culture, especially when it comes to intellectual achievement, is very, very irritating. I suspect (as Conrad says) a weaker form of it emerges among men, too. I don’t think it’s healthy.

    Agree with you on Jihadism – all about the afterlife, which is a powerful incentive for not having functioning hospitals or indoor plumbing in this life…

  7. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 15, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Biology: you gotta keep the breeders alive so you can keep breeding so you can keep blowing things up. I even heard one Palestinian representative make a statement very close to that. Tragic.

  8. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 3:31 am | Permalink

    But the feeling that “men don’t make passes at girls with first classes” is exactly WHY so many women are willing to dumb themselves down. The number of marriages which break up because as a whole most men really hate being outperformed by their partners (in this case, measured financially rather than as exam results) suggests they may have a point. I’ve personally speculated that one of the reasons women have traditionally underperformed at Oxbridge is that their mental energy gets divided between personal academic performance and ‘mating and dating’ in a way that fellas that age, tend not to be.

  9. conrad
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Oxford and Cambridge are not the entire education system. Here’s my bet: the overall figures will show a female bias in a decade even at those places.

    “While men & women have the same average IQ, men have a larger standard deviation than women”

    First up, when thinking about performance, this argument really only applies to a very small percentage of people, not the undergraduate masses, including the undoubtedly brighter than average students that go to Oxford and Cambridge. The main place it doesn’t is at the left end of the distribution, which isn’t very relevant for this argument.

    Second, the other thing you want to think about is what the difference in the right tail is caused by even for the minority in this category. I don’t have any answer to that, but if you are interested whether this has any real biological basis, then Elizabeth Spelke had it out with Steve Pinker on essentially this issue (i.e., why Harvard faculty is dominated by men). It’s well worth a look if you are interested (or listen if the sound is still there).

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/debate05/debate05_index.html

  10. Posted June 16, 2008 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Conrad – in all the studies showing women earning less than men or women in less high profile positions, I’d really like to see the effect of children controlled for.

    I wouldn’t mind betting that childless women and men (with or without children) would come out almost level pegging, both in terms of income and (at Harvard University) tenure-track promotions.

    Legal Eagle’s writing on this very blog gives some indication of just what an event bearing children actually is – you could have the most supportive husband/partner in the world and still finish up behind the eight-ball.

    I’m sure there’s been a study out there somewhere, but if so, I’ve never found it. I know one of the partners at the law firm I used to work at (large and top-tier) maintained that women in the firm were actually slightly ahead of men on the earnings and promotions scale – until they had children.

    To me, that seems far more pertinent than any other biological difference in working out why fewer women climb the corporate ladder/get tenure/etc.

    The Oxbridge undergraduates I’ve encountered have all been on the extreme end of bright, I must say, with all the quirks that go with it (imagine an entire college full of people with Asperger’s, or dyslexic geniuses who can’t tie their shoelaces). It’s even more pronounced at the graduate level… One day I’ll muster up the courage to describe last year’s Clarendon Fund drinks reception. I thought I ‘didn’t play well with others’ – I finished up looking like a social butterfly by the end of the night!

  11. Posted June 16, 2008 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the terrorists are ensuring that they cannot be accused of taking advantage of the “temporary insanity” that some sufferers of extreme PMS…

    Then again, it could be emulating the practice of “freedom-loving democracies” to avoid putting females in front-line combat situations, only support roles.

  12. Posted June 16, 2008 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    First up, when thinking about performance, this argument really only applies to a very small percentage of people, not the undergraduate masses, including the undoubtedly brighter than average students that go to Oxford and Cambridge. The main place it doesn’t is at the left end of the distribution, which isn’t very relevant for this argument.

    An augment to that argument is, and where I got this from is lost in time at the minute, but that women are generally smarter then men. As SL says men feature more at the extreme ends – more geniuses, more morons (lots more morons). But in the central bit of the bell curve women tend to be a bit ahead. Considering the fragility of the male ego one might see the reasonable proposition that in general the female side of any couple will be the smarter one might explain the ‘play dumb’ routine.

    At the upper levels of intelligence however playing dumb isn’t ‘sexy’. I do wonder whether women play ‘not as smart’ however. My experience tells me that a lot of clever dudes have egos just as brittle, more so even. Altho’ I also have to say that most of the clever chicks I’ve known aren’t drawn to guys that aren’t smarter than them.

    The discussion also reminds me of a not strictly relavent quote: The reason there is no female Mozart is the same reason there’s no female Jack-the-Ripper.

    Lovely lovely Ludwig Van…. (I knew such lovely pictures)

  13. conrad
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    “I wouldn’t mind betting that childless women and men (with or without children) would come out almost level pegging”

    I’d bet you’re wrong on this one — and the data you are talking about must exist for almost every country. A quick flick around through the web finds me this paper on relatively non-sexist Finland (Germany would be good too since 25% of females won’t have children there):

    http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp0738.pdf

    Table 9 shows the data for childless women (which is of course confounded in itself if you happen to think childless women differ to non-childless ones on things not specifically to do with having children.) still come out worse than men, although given that 60% of university graduates are now women (at least in Aus), I’m sure these sorts of things will get compensated for in the long term.

    As for Oxbridge graduates — what I’ve found is that at the graduate level, there is in fact not a huge difference between the capability of students across decent universities, since good marks select well for some things (e.g., ability to work hard, nice writing style), but not necessarily how good you are going to be at research (very hard to select for). There’s also a huge difference between the capability of people with PhDs and the main difference I think is in the training that the top universities offer, rather than the fact the top universities necessarily pick the smartest people to begin with. A good example of this is Terrence Tao — that guy did his degree and a Masters at Flinders University before moving to greater things. In terms of blogosphere people who are obviously pretty bright whether you happen to agree with them or not, I think John Quiggin did his PhD at an equally average university.

  14. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    The weight of evidence indicates that testosterone plays a role in visual spatial skills. Ovaries produces about 10% of the T levels in men.

    There are clear differences in the neurobiology of male and females.

    SL is right in the sense that except at the extremes the differences are negligible. Nonetheless, there is a biological underpinning to this.

    However her contention that child rearing may be a much more important variable is probably correct, excluding the extremes of course. The simple fact of having to divide mental resources will impact on cognition, it has long been known that exceptional individuals typically work very hard and having children mitigates against that; or at least it should. Children are much more important than finding that extra 5%.

    The work of Liam Hudson found that for Nobel Prize winning scientists the probability of winning was the same for iqs 130 – 180. Other factors come into play. I doubt he is entirely correct.

    It has been suggested that men are more inclined to pathology because of the XY, no backup gene if one is faulty. Males have ADHD at much rates, and the same is true for schizophrenia. This differential might be partially explained by the fact that estrogen confers neuroprotection, at least in some contexts.

    Observing that homosexuals seem to do rather well in their fields, some months ago I decided to check the data. Sure enough, they seemed to score better than heterosexuals. Lesbians also score better. There are also noticeable and undeniable differences in brain structure and activity. I would love to set these results against levels of sex hormones and look for concordance but that is beyond me.

    Fro most of my adult life I have argued that we need more women in positions of influence. Sadly, while this happened, it appears that many of these women have to adopted a rather masculine attitude. Not what I was hoping. I do believe that women have an intrinsic ability to maintain a more balanced attitude towards life. At the most gross levels of comparison, it has been suggested that women demonstrate greater levels of cortical activation across many regions than men.

    Recent research indicates that it is possible to increase intelligence, you just have to know what you are doing. It is possible but difficult, requires some careful planning.

    All this revolves around what we mean by “intelligence”. That in itself probably carries a cultural bias.

  15. Posted June 16, 2008 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Conrad, I just started to read that Finnish study, and the core finding is as follows:

    The most important single factor contributing to the gender wage gap is the family type. Women seem to suffer
    considerable larger wage losses due to marriage and children than men.

    Mind you, telling women that if they want something approaching wage and promotion parity they’re better off not getting married and not having children is going to be slightly awkward…

    Interestingly, I didn’t realise that marriage (even without children) has a negative impact, at least in Finland.

  16. Posted June 16, 2008 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Fro most of my adult life I have argued that we need more women in positions of influence. Sadly, while this happened, it appears that many of these women have to adopted a rather masculine attitude. Not what I was hoping. I do believe that women have an intrinsic ability to maintain a more balanced attitude towards life. At the most gross levels of comparison, it has been suggested that women demonstrate greater levels of cortical activation across many regions than men.

    There is this disillusion with women in politics based on the idea that somehow women will be more ethical than men. This is unfair to a certain extent as a woman in politics has to deal with the same issues as men and be as ruthless – war for example is sometimes thrust upon you.

    There is also the fact that culture changes quite slowly on the grander scales. Women have only really been a larger force in poitics for a few generations. The ‘feminizing’ of politics however that plays out would I’d wager take a while longer.

  17. TerjeP
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    I object to the notion that dumbing down is something Australian culture requires uniquely from sheilas. The fellas are expected to dumb as well. More so in my experience. And whilst it has a downside the trait is not entirely without charm.

  18. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Wear your intellect on your sleeve? I used to try and hide my smarts but it seems that eventually people do find out. Damn.

  19. DeusExMacintosh
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    Enjoy lashings of the old ‘ultraviolent’, do you Adrien? 😉

    Maybe the terrorists are ensuring that they cannot be accused of taking advantage of the “temporary insanity” that some sufferers of extreme PMS…

    I lost hope for the future of muslim men about five years ago while watching a fly-on-the-wall doco filmed in one of the big mosques in Northern England. The very mainstream, respected, english-speaking imam (who bred ornamental chickens as a hobby) explained that the reason women judges can’t sit on a sharia court bench is that their monthly cycle of hormones make their judgement unreliable.

    Honestly, you work for so many years to become a respected leader of your community and then do something that completely undermines your credibility. I mean, really … ornamental chickens!!!

  20. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 16, 2008 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    It can be very difficult to make some women realise how smart they are. Some years ago an old friend of mine contacted me just after she had gone through a rather horrendous period in her life. I pushed shit up hill for two years trying to make her realise that if she went to Uni she would do just fine. She did much better than that, GPA of 6.5, single mother with one beautiful daughter, while re-establishing her career and moving to a new town. Even surprised me, particularly as she is a real party animal.

    How did I know? Years prior to that I lent her some rather difficult texts. She ploughed through these so easily and I could tell by her conversation that she really knew the material.

    Now with a man, if you say, Hey, you’re smart – the likely reply is, “Course I am you moron and much smarter than you.”

  21. conrad
    Posted June 17, 2008 at 6:21 am | Permalink

    “I didn’t realise that marriage (even without children) has a negative impact”

    If you get away from money, its even worse for women — most studies suggest that, overall, in the long run, marriage is a slight positive for males and a slight negative for women (no more 20 beers on Saturday night).

  22. su
    Posted June 17, 2008 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Undergrad years are one thing, I think the stresses of PhD’s kind of select against women a bit. I’m not speaking from experience as I’ve been tooling around at Grad Dip level but I really noticed how much easier it was for my sister’s male friends doing a PhD. My sister had to scrape by on a pittance and had no one taking up the slack on the home front, organising food, paying bills and so forth, while male peers either had partners or mothers kind of taking care of the basic living stuff. It is having to divide your attention that is the real killer. My concentration skills have declined over a decade+ of child rearing. I have a feeling that I will not be able to get them back until the blighters leave home.

  23. John Hasenkam
    Posted June 17, 2008 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Yes LE, men can achieve better focus and this may relate to my earlier comment re the relevant spread of cortical activation between men and women.

    Try concentration meditation, it has even been found to help ADHD. It takes some months of practice but it can remarkably improve concentration.

  24. Posted June 17, 2008 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    LE said: “my husband shares home duties with me as much as he can”.

    A recent Harvard Bus School newsletter says
    (http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5935.html)
    “The traditional division of labor between the sexes—women managing the private realm and men the public—continues to have an indirect influence on job negotiation outcomes through links between private realm and public realm negotiations. Women’s negotiations at work are often constrained by agreements in negotiations at home.”

    A Euro group-“blog” (mainly of economics professors) has long pointed to general perceptions of domestic labor balance affecting compensation in the workplace (as I’ve discussed here, and here )

    So… women might negotiate better job compensation by dropping big hints about how useful their partner is about the home.

    But single parenthood, by the same token, decreases compensation for the same work.

  25. Posted June 17, 2008 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    DEM –

    The very mainstream, respected, english-speaking imam (who bred ornamental chickens as a hobby) explained that the reason women judges can’t sit on a sharia court bench is that their monthly cycle of hormones make their judgement unreliable.

    Well he’s advanced y’see. That’s the late 19th century at least he’s gotten thru the Enlightenment. Actually the trouble with the Muslim world is it hasn’t. It’s still in that phase whereby knowledge is canonical not inquisitive.

    In contrast to the premenstrual judge I’m thinking of the Naval officer in Cairo whose car was blocked by my mother. My mother was going down a narrow one way street the right way. This dude in full regalia (the shittier the country the gaudier the military) came down the other way in his chauffeur’d limousine. My mother wouldn’t’t budge. So this guy goes ballistic, throws a tantrum and gets out the car waving his shoe in the air and jumping up and down! Seriously. He went purple.

    Men raised by mothers who’re theologically obliged to treat them like their Lords and Masters are always so in control of their emotions.

    My mum won of course. ‘Strine shielas. Tops.

    I do like a bit of the old ultra-vi DEM. Onscreen of course. And luvely luvely Ludwig Van as well.

  26. John Greenfield
    Posted June 17, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Adrien

    I love your quote from Camille Paglia. But my all-time favourite is

    If civilisation had been left in the hands of women, we’d all still be living in grass huts!.

    Biaaaaiitch! 🙂

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