Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Some Choices Are More Equal Than Others

While I was looking for some discourse about black women's hair the other day, I found this item at Angry Black Woman.  And this comment:
I don’t think that removing the hijab so that people won’t harass you makes you ‘free’. This documentary seems a bit misguided or problematic. Muslim women should be able to wear what they want, hijab or no hijab, but the hijab is not a sign of oppression, PEOPLE are the oppressors. Instead of fixing racism (which it won’t) by removing your Muslim head cover, maybe we should fight a xenophobic nation.
This set my brain to teeming.  I agree that "removing the hijab so that people wont harass you" doesn't equal freedom, and I don't believe that women who wear the hijab should be harassed in countries where Islam isn't the dominant religion.  But the commenter gets sloppy in her third sentence: "The hijab is not a sign of oppression, PEOPLE are the oppressors."  There's a crucial difference between "a sign of oppression" and the identity of the oppressors.  To give an extreme example, there's no contradiction in saying that the pink triangle is a sign of oppression, and that it was imposed by Nazi oppressors.  Of course, now the pink triangle is too often a fashion statement, and the hijab is an ambiguous sign.

But then, women who don't wear the hijab shouldn't be harassed either, whether they're living in a non-Muslim country or a predominantly Muslim one.  And there's the rub, because they too often are.  (There are also "signs of oppression" for men in some Muslim countries: under the Taliban men in Afghanistan were "harassed" for not wearing a beard, for example.  In the sixties, American men who wore their hair too long were subject to attack and forcible haircuts by police in many areas.  Similar abuse occurred in other parts of the Free World.)  Does wearing a headscarf so that people won't harass  you make you 'free'?  Apologists for Islamism have said so.

A couple of days after I saw the comment I quoted, I read about American women travelling to Muslim countries being advised to be more "modest" in dress and demeanor, both as a good-will gesture and to avoid harassment.  (It was probably in Gay Travels in the Muslim World, come to think of it, referring to female Peace Corps volunteers.)  That's fair enough, I suppose, but shouldn't it work both ways?  Shouldn't Muslim women who live in America modify their dress and demeanor to be less "modest," so as not to give offense?  True, the US is supposed to be a pluralist society, but we do have our own quaint customs and gender expectations.  Why shouldn't visitors or immigrants (or American converts to Islam) show courtesy to us and our folkways?  This seems to me very similar to what some Americans have said in my presence (and many more seem to assume): that foreigners coming to America should learn English, because we speak English here; but foreigners in their own countries should learn English to talk to us when we travel there, because English is the dominant world language, especially for business.  The double bind is the same.

Thinking about this sent me back to a review, by the American feminist Christine Stansell, of a book about the resurgence of the veil among Muslim women.  She wrote:
Around the world past and present, women cover their heads before God and man. That is, they veil. A dispassionate list of veils would include nuns' cowls, saris, lace mantillas for Mass, peasant babushkas, brides' veils, church ladies' Sunday hats, the wigs and headscarves of Orthodox Jews, and the headscarf my mother (middle class, Midwestern, Protestant) threw on in the 1950s when she ran across the street to the corner store. All these forms of veiling refer, religiously or secularly, to the old idea that women have something that should be hidden. Call it modesty, or propriety; but at heart it is about the sexual shame that women incur if they reveal themselves in public. In this regard, culture and tradition may be more decisive than religious belief: my mother wore a scarf because "ladies" didn't go bareheaded in public, not because the Apostle Paul told women in the early Church to cover.

But despite all that these many veils share, there is only one kind of veil that is widely seen as a barbaric imposition, and that is the Muslim veil.
Fair enough -- to the point where Stansell deploys the blind passive, "is widely seen as a barbaric imposition."  Widely seen by whom?  A good many feminist writers have mocked the hypocrisy of European and American imperialists who saw "barbarism" only in the way brown-skinned women were treated by their men.  "Western" feminists generally criticized the sexism of their own society first.  They've been attacked by conservatives, as expedient, for either ignoring the oppression of women in other countries, or for trying to make those women over in their own lesbian, baby-killing, sluttish image.  Similarly, "Third World" feminists have routinely been attacked by their countrymen for supposedly borrowing the values of the decadent, man-hating, immodest harridans of the West.  And then there have been incidents like this, in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox men attacked and harassed women who didn't fit their standards of modesty.  (And then, when they drew criticism, whined that their [Jewish] critics were Nazi oppressors.)  If it will make Stansell feel any better, I'll be happy to say that spitting on an eight-year-old girl and calling her a whore, no matter how she's dressed, is barbaric.  So is the misogyny of American men.  (The question I raised about Muslim women also applies to the ultra-Orthodox: If majority values rule, shouldn't ultra-Orthodox women be required to "dress like prostitutes"?)

On the other hand, "barbaric" is a red herring.  Originally it simply meant "foreign," with the added assumption that foreigners are less civilized than one's own country.  I just did a quick search of this blog, and it doesn't appear I've ever used "barbaric" as an epithet; it turns up only where I'm quoting someone else or referring to ethnocentric attitudes about foreigners.  I don't need that word or that concept to oppose unjust social structures and practices.

Stansell also wrote in that review that "American feminists have no problem seeing fundamentalist Christianity as a broad-based movement that harbors lethal views at the edges, but they will bend over backwards to avoid criticisms of radical Islam, even at its most hateful and murderous."  I think this is, at best, an oversimplification of American feminists' views of fundamentalist Christianity, and of their views of fundamentalist Islam.  As I indicated before, American feminists were working with their counterparts in Islamic countries before the September 11 attacks, but they were widely accused of ethnocentrism by conservative men until George W. Bush declared a fatwa against the Taliban, and poor oppressed Muslim women became worthy victims again.  This standard is still being waved under the Obama regime, defending our ongoing war in Afghanistan as a defense of women against the brutal Taliban; that our allies the Northern Alliance are also radical Islamists who commit violence against women is less likely to be admitted.

In 2009, Katha Pollitt wrote of President Obama's speech in Cairo:
You would think the biggest issue for Muslim women is that someone is preventing them from wearing a headscarf: "The US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab and to punish those who would deny it," he said. "I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal." Fair enough, but that woman is choosing. What about Saudi or Iranian women, who are forced by law to cover? Obama noted that countries where women are well educated tend to be more prosperous and promised American aid for women's literacy and microloans. These are both good things, especially in desperately poor and underdeveloped countries like Afghanistan; but face it, to become full participants in modern societies women need more than a grade school education and a sewing machine. They need their rights.
What I'm trying to do here is not to declare one side or another the bad guys, but to stress the complications and contradictions of these issues.  Following Noam Chomsky and Martin Luther King Jr., I hold that the faults and crimes of my own country should get my first attention; but that doesn't mean I shouldn't also notice the faults and crimes of other countries too.  And what if the crimes of other cultures come here?  When the Tonton Macoute visited American shores and assaulted Haitian refugees, should I have withheld judgment on the ground that it's their culture and I can't judge because American crimes are as bad or worse?  I don't equate the hijab with death squads, but I don't think I'm obliged to respect Islam any more than I respect Christianity or Judaism.

As for moves to ban the headscarf in various places, I have mixed feelings about them.  On the one hand, they are a restriction on religious freedom, and I object to that on principle.  But then I read about a television debate where a French Muslim teenager said she supported the headscarf ban, because without it her family would force her to wear one. Of course apologists for the headscarf might argue that she doesn't want to wear it because she's been influenced by her peers, and that might be true, but it's irrelevant. (Such an apologist should tread carefully though, because the usual next step is to vilify the peers and the host culture for immodest and decadent values.) When she grows up, she might decide she likes her parents' values after all and put on a scarf. Till then, however, it should be her choice.

Which is why it's a mistake to invoke individual choice in controversies like these.  It isn't always the women themselves who want to wear a scarf, but their families and their communities who want to make them do it. This is ironic for families that have come to the West to escape certain values in their home countries that they consider oppressive, but more important is that individual choice isn't really the issue: it's the right of certain members of a group -- usually but not always older males -- to make choices for the others.  The recent ruckus over a Federal requirement that employers include contraception in their health care coverage is an example of this: the objections overwhelmingly came not from lay Christians but from senior clergy, who demanded the authority to deny access to contraception to Catholic and non-Catholic employees alike.  Another example would be the exemptions from educational requirements that Amish communities in the US enjoy: it's not a protection of the rights of the kids, but of their parents and their religious superiors.  Such community leaders may pay lip service to the American value of individual choice, but they're really hiding behind it.  Individual choice, for women or men, is the last thing they want.

There is no need for a pluralistic society to respect the wish of religious or ethnic leaders to impose their will on those they want to control,  no contradiction of the general commitment to diversity.  The limits on parental rights are controversial, but they aren't written in stone either.  Parents don't have unlimited power over their children, nor should they.  And it's disingenuous to present the controversy over the hijab as a dispute over individual rights and choices, either in the West or in Muslim societies.