Monday, 4 May 2009

Breaking the Silence

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in The Independent:

Female oppression in Islamic countries is manifestly getting worse. Islam, as practiced by millions today, has lost its compassion and integrity and is entering one of the darkest of dark ages....

I have been reading Disfigured, the story of Rania Al-Baz, a Saudi TV anchor, the first woman to have such a job, who was so badly beaten up by her abusive husband that she had to have 13 operations to re-make her once gorgeous face. Domestic violence destroys females in all countries, but in Muslim states, it is validated by laws and values. As Al-Baz writes, "It is appalling to realise that a woman cannot walk down the street without men staring at her openly. For them she is nothing but a body without a mind, something that moves and does not think. Women are banned from studying law, from civil engineering and from the sacrosanct area of oil."

...Let's to Pakistan then shall we, the country that once elected a woman head of state. The divinely beautiful Swat Valley has, for reasons of political expediency, been handed over to the Taliban, and there they have blown up over a hundred schools for girls and regularly flog young females on the streets. The girls are shrouded and forbidden to scream because the female voice has the potential to arouse desire. Or pity perhaps.

I am aware that my words will help confirm the pernicious prejudices that fester in the minds of those who despise Islam. Yet to conceal or excuse the violations would be to condone and encourage them. There have been enlightened times when some Muslim civilisations honoured and cherished females. This is not one of them. Across the West – for a host of reasons – millions of Muslims are embracing backward practices. In the UK young girls – some so young that they are still in push chairs – are covered up in hijabs. Disgracefully, there are always vocal Muslim women who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals. Why are large numbers of Muslim men so terrorised by the female body and spirit? Why do Muslim women encourage this savage paranoia?

I have some questions, too. Why do we never hear such unambiguous language from the Muslim Council of Britain, Inayat Bunglawala, or even Ed Husain? Why do we never hear it from the imams invited to appear on Thought for the Day? Why do we never hear it from our own government, who (regrettably now joined by the Obama White House) continue to cosy up to the brutal, misogynistic rulers of Iran, whose recent hanging of 22 year old Delara Dirabi, despite international protests, Alibhai-Brown also mentions in her piece? Why do we never hear it from Rowan Williams, or (despite some remarks of his I had occasion to praise recently) from Tony Blair?

YAB again:

I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others. Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

She might have little choice, of course. She might be cowed by family expectations or oppressive community norms. The Islamists' Western fellow-travellers have no such excuse.

12 comments:

valdemar squelch said...

Why indeed? Two points spring to mind. Perhaps male politcal and religious leaders are, to some extent, actually in favour of keeping women 'in their place'. Oh, not actually unable to read, but firmly in second place. Mediocre men are in charge at the moment, after all, and they have far more reason to fear clever girls than confident, intelligent men.

Consider the rows over women priests, and the absurdity of all-woman shortlists in the Labour party (a step backwards, obviously, as a party that attracts and encourages competent women wouldn't need the modern version of the rotten borough).

Then there's the catastrophic failure of Western feminism to become relevant to women elsewhere. As a movement it was feisty enough when it faced men in debating societies and newspaper columns but it chickened out in the face of real violence. White Western women have shown virtually no solidarity with their oppressed sisters in Saudi, Iran etc. So why should the menfolk get worked up about it?

Ayrdale said...

Come on, human rights have had their day in the sun. Their day was in the 70's, when apartheid mobilised the left wing, and it was essential to be seen as "caring."

These days the left, and their allies in the MSM, have much bigger fish to fry. All bets are on global warming, and there's simply not enough compassion left over for human rights. And besides, horrors like George Bush are on the side of the oppressed women of Iraq so it's a no-go, couldn't care less zone. Ask the old lefties.

valdemar squelch said...

You're right Ayrdale - if we just talk about the West. Elsewhere (ie where most human beings live) other issues predominate. Let's hope genuine freedom becomes a cause in poorer nations. It might shame our own liberals into championing the rights of individuals rather than politically trendy groups.

Re: global warming, look at a few maps. The Islamic world is going to be the biggest loser should climate change kick in big time. Most Muslim nations already have water supply problems, and the most populous are vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surges.

It's not just geography, it's culture. Science can solve a lot of our problems, but science is moribund under Islam, and if there's a global crisis they won't be able to freeload on the brainpower of pther societies because it'll be every state for itself. On their own, they'll sink - often literally.

All of which is a bit OT. Sorry.

McDuff said...

She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others. Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere..

I'm always of two minds over this kind of thing.

On the one hand, yes, the burkha is a holdover of a horrible patriarchal system which treats women as contraband. No woman should feel she has to hide herself for fear of what men might do to her if she did not.

But on the other, that's not *all* it is. We can well imagine the alternatives of white western women visiting African or South American tribes where bare breasts are not perceived as being sexual or shameful, and of feeling the twin pulls of their own socialisation and the newfound peer pressure to let it all hang out. Would we be so judgemental of the white woman with her breasts covered? For that matter, are we as judgemental of the Orthodox Jewish woman who marries and covers her hair and her arms? Surely there is nothing less
arbitrary or essentially patriarchal about these cultural prohibitions of "nudity"?

And, of course, there is the other feminist side to the argument, which is that we westerners are not exactly the most progressive when it comes to female sexuality. Are high heels, push up bras and makeup designed to emphasise female sexual characteristics and put them on display for all to see necessarily better than the burkha designed to hide them away, or is it just the other side of a very similar coin?

The trouble is that over here, a burkha is a very different thing than it is in Saudi. It's true that the woman in question may be forced by her parents or her husband to cover up. It's also true that it may be her own choice. Part of the goal of feminism is, surely, to ensure that if women want to cover themselves in a burkha or cover their hair with a veil or dress in a burlap sack or wear fabulous jimmy choos and a divine black minidress or take it all off and have sex with someone on videotape or wear a comfortable business suit that doesn't enhance their sexuality at all that these things are all acceptable choices that a woman has every right to make about her own appearance.

The Burkha is a dangerously slippery platform to battle on in the west precisely because it's not compulsory and because we are so obsessed with a twisted notion of public female sexuality in this country. There are feminist muslims (yes, they exist) who have made arguments for it on these grounds. To say that women in this country should throw it all off because women in other countries don't have the right to is to somewhat miss the point, and risk alienating people who would see taking off the burkha the same way that other women would feel walking down the street topless.

Women already suffer immensely, as a class, from the burden of always having their personal actions drawn out to represent the whole sex. I am incredibly wary about adding yet more pressure to a woman by saying that she absolutely has to dress a certain way, no matter what her motivation, or people in other countries will die. I'm not convinced that's the best way to go about bringing freedom to women in Saudi Arabia or Britain.



Perhaps male politcal and religious leaders are, to some extent, actually in favour of keeping women 'in their place'..

That's an interesting point. Have you also considered that the Pope may be, to some extent, Catholic?

In all honesty, this is where I'd put the whole blame. Not on any woman wearing a burkha, whether through her own private choice or otherwise, but on the men who set up their patriarchal societies in the first place.

But then I think this is why I have a problem with laying the feet at "Islam" too. It's not Islam, or Christianity for that matter, that causes women to starve and diet and purge in order to try and achieve unobtainable levels of sexual allure at all times of the day over here. Don't blame Islam, which is just a cipher for the universal religious impulse without any real meaning worth a spit in the mud. Blame men and the playground societies they built so they could abuse women. Blame the patriarchal agreements that powerful people in the West and Middle East come to while they divide up the money.

I'm not saying that Islam as practiced by the Taliban is not a terrifying thing. I'm not saying that Islam, or Christianity, or the general religious impulse, is not a strong motivator behind a great many atrocities. What I am trying to say is that the problems that beset Islamic women are not exclusive to Islam. If the Taliban didn't have the Koran to hang as decoration on their Sadistic Power Fantasy Society they'd use something else. And, frankly, the reason it works so well (and the reason you can always find a western woman to tell the rest of those uppity bitches that their lives are meaningless without men and babies) is because even some of the women who suffer under them still find a degree of meaning and peace in the convoluted words of the prophet. Telling people in Islam to reject the teachings of the Taliban because Muhammed was a fucker is a mug's game. It's less distracting - and more accurate - to stick to the known facts. That the Taliban, each one personally, of his own volition, are the bastards here.


These days the left, and their allies in the MSM, have much bigger fish to fry. All bets are on global warming, and there's simply not enough compassion left over for human rights. And besides, horrors like George Bush are on the side of the oppressed women of Iraq so it's a no-go, couldn't care less zone..

The only people I can think of who have something even vaguely resembling this fantasy opinion set wouldn't be on "the left" at all, but are more likely to be wealthy libertarian Californian technocrats. Which, frankly, is a vanishingly small minority of the population in any event. I can't think of a single person on the left, or indeed on any twisted political cul-de-sac of opinion, who actually believes that because George W Bush said we should help women in Iraq (while, let us not forget, actually killing women in Iraq) that this means we should therefore ignore them. Only in the crazy fantasist worlds of the most extreme Bushites did people actually construct their worldviews around the notion that if W said it then they were against it. Most people, even on the hated "The Left", have a little more intellectual agency than that.

McDuff said...

Oh God, I should preview more. Apologies for any incoherence in that middle paragraph. Feel free to mentally insert the correct punctuation where needed.

The Heresiarch said...

And, of course, there is the other feminist side to the argument, which is that we westerners are not exactly the most progressive when it comes to female sexuality. Are high heels, push up bras and makeup designed to emphasise female sexual characteristics and put them on display for all to see necessarily better than the burkha designed to hide them away, or is it just the other side of a very similar coin?

That's complete cant, the kind of tired, complacent argument that YAB was tackling here. As Valdemar suggests, it's part of the "catastrophic failure" of western feminism to be relevant elsewhere, or even to have much sense of perspective. People who make those kind of arguments, especially those who call themselves feminists, are so far up their own arses they can't see properly. Coming out with postmodernist crap is an easy substitute for taking on real issues.

Of course high heels and burkhas aren't two sides of the same coin. No-one forces women to wear high heels. Certainly not men. They may be a feature of western consumerism, but what they actually embody is women's competition with other women, not their subservience to men.

Danny Boy, FCD said...

I am reminded of Ayaan Hirsi Ali's courageous book The Caged Virgin, where she exposed similar dehumanizing treatment of women in Islamic countries.

valdemar squelch said...

H, you hit the nail right on the head with the fact that women dress to compete with each other. Yes, they get male attention, but an attractive woman in jeans, trainers and a loose top wearing no make up whatever can still be just that - attractive. Consumerism and the 'war of all against all' it promotes is not the same as oppression by a patriarchal culture.

Oh, and as an extra gripe, can I just say (as someone forced to listen to a lot of radio lately) how thoroughly friggin' fed up I am with smug, self-satisfied Western media/academic/political women saying how 'brave and strong' women in the Third World are? It's the equivalent of beetroot faced colonels parked in their overstuffed chairs at the club toasting our brave boys in Flanders in 1916. In fact, it's worse, because those colonels had at least been in the fray at some point and probably didn't have access to up to date information. Today's Western femi-hacks have no such excuse. They have chosen to avert their gaze from poor, brown women being brutalised.

Oh, and the argument that it's 'part of their culture' also pisses me off. It's been part of Western culture for the last few thousand years for unpleasant men to get drunk, bash women and force them to have sex. Odd that this time-hallowed cultural tradition doesn't merit the same respect as, say, burying a woman up to her neck and stoning her to death.

McDuff said...

Coming out with postmodernist crap is an easy substitute for taking on real issues..

And it would have been, I guess, were it not for the fact that I were drawing a distinction between wearing clothes in England and wearing clothes in Iran or Pakistan.

Here's what point I wasn't making: that wearing a push up bra is the same as being whipped.

Here's what point I was making: that if you live in the West and you're from a culturally Islamic background, that it's not always immediately apparent how swapping said burkha for a push-up bra is going to make your life better rather than merely differently bad, and that this is one of the reasons that it's pretty unfair to tell you that your clothes and behaviour mean you're contributing to the whipping of women in Pakistan. In fact, that kind of thing is normally called "blaming the victim."

If women are forced to wear it that's a bad thing and I don't think you're ever likely to hear me deny that. But if they're exercising their free right of religious expression to wear what they like and behave as they choose then they are just like Orthodox Jewish women who cover their hair. I do not personally like it but it's neither my right or my place to try and guilt them out of it.

See the difference?

Of course high heels and burkhas aren't two sides of the same coin. No-one forces women to wear high heels. Certainly not men. They may be a feature of western consumerism, but what they actually embody is women's competition with other women, not their subservience to men..

Women's competition with other women for what? Women wear high heels so that they can compete with each other for the best cars or the best jobs or the best cookie recipes? Really? Because, see, if women are competing with each other for men then it sure looks like there might be an element of patriarchy in there somewhere, don't you think?

Look, high heels are not burkhas. But the urge to control female sexuality is not exclusive to radical Islam and it's the height of foolishness to suggest that we're immune to it. The reason we needed these flawed, leftist feminists over here in the first place is because we've got our own patriarchy to deal with and it's not exactly gone away yet. The authoritarian impulses come from exactly the same dark pits. The differences aren't even so much in form as they are in degree. You take away the decorations like whether the abusers in society choose to refer to the Bible or the Torah or the biological superiority of XY over XX - the post hoc stuff - and the fundamentals of their behaviours are startlingly similar across belief systems and cultures.

It's easy to blame feminists for "failing to engage" and, hells, some of them probably are up their own asses. But you know who's actually to blame when the Taliban kills women? The men in the Taliban who kill the women. And unless those leftist feminists are going to march en masse and take out the patriarchs stoning women in the football stadiums, I'd suggest that there's not a lot that "engagement" could do either way. Now, on the other hand, there have been quite a few - generally male - leaders over here who've done things like invade, depose governments, handpick people to take over and run the new government. And these leaders over here with actual power and influence have mentioned women in passing but have generally not seemed to really give them the kind of emphasis I'd expect to come from giving more than one metric dingo's kidney about them. Lip service is all well and good but these are politicians we're talking about, so I choose to judge their intentions from their actions. I'd suggest that it's not the fault of "leftist feminists" and their "failure to engage" that Karzai keeps passing more regressive laws to appease the men in his country who want to rape their wives - it's his fault, and the fault of the people who invaded using the plight of women as a shield to cover themselves and who really don't give enough of a shit about them to yank their tame politician back on his leash. From their point of view, he hasn't overstepped his bounds.

Funny how "taking personal responsibility" turns out to actually be a feminist issue after all. Blame the people responsible. How about that?


Consumerism and the 'war of all against all' it promotes is not the same as oppression by a patriarchal culture..

Here we disagree, because, um, yes it is.

Of course, you might not think that we have a patriarchal culture in the west. Never wonder if the constant reinforcement of stratified and stifling gender roles, and the normalisation of treating female sexuality as a packagable commodity, might possibly be related to a cultural bias towards treating female sexuality as something to be owned? A "gift" to be given on your wedding night, as the abstinence crew put it? If we have a) a patriarchal culture that is b) consumerist and materialist, what makes us think that the one will not bleed into the other?

The Heresiarch said...

You write too much to take it all on, McDuff.

On the subject of women competing with other women, no, they're not as you seem to think competing for the attention of men, they're competing for status. Men compete for status too, of course, it's just that having the best pair of heels is not normally the way that competition is expressed. There are, after all, differences between the sexes. Thank goodness. Now you can make an argument that in some deep-buried biological layer all this competition is to find a mate. But that's irrelevant to modern human societies: no, women spend money on shoes because they want shoes. Are the men in their lives particularly bothered about what shoes they're wearing? Not usually. But they're not buying them to impress the men, are they? They're buying them to impress other women. With men, it's more likely to be cars, but the same principle applies. This has nothing to do with "patriarchy". Nothing. After all, who controls the fashion industry, which "dictates" to women what they should look like and how should they dress? Women, almost entirely, and many of the men involved in it are gay.

McDuff said...

Now, just to make it clear: you're saying that high heels and push up bras and lipstick aren't anything to do with sex whatsoever? That they're not designed to enhance women's sexual characteristics and that, therefore, men are not interested in heels and bras? Because if they are designed to enhance sexual characteristics you'd think there might be some sexual motivation in there, somewhere, wouldn't you? Is your point that men don't look at women in tight dresses and heels any differently than women in flats and business suits, and this is the message that is constantly reiterated in every corner of the media? That's why people talked about Hillary Clinton's cleavage during the Democratic primaries, because men will still totally check out your rack and talk about it on the news if you're a successful woman even if you don't wear a push up bra? And that this blindness to heels and bras proves that there's no patriarchal cultural norm in this society? That's what you're saying?

Because, frankly, I'm struggling just a little to see that as an accurate reflection of reality. For example, as a pro-sex feminist I have no problem saying that I look fabulous in high heels. I get a significant amount more straight, male attention when I've got a lovely pair of heels showing off the curve of my calf muscles. And I'm a guy. I get more straight male attention from men when I'm dragged up even if I haven't shaved, albeit in these cases mostly only the ones who come up from behind or who are very drunk. Also, in their defense, I do have a lovely bottom.

I hope you can understand why it seems just a little odd to me, given this context, to assert that men don't care about high heels. I respectfully beg to differ.

Personally, I think if you're looking for sex in some "deep buried psychological layer" you must have had to ignore an awful lot of sex that you dug out of the mineshaft to get there. And while women may run "the fashion industry" it's generally men who, overwhelmingly, and until recently exclusively, run "the movie industry" and "the television industry" and "the newspaper industry" and "the government industry" all of which may - just throwing this out there, feel free to disagree - have some influence on our cultural discourse. Possibly not as much as Cosmopolitan and American Vogue, of course, but maybe a little bit that I don't feel can be totally discounted.

asquith said...

I enjoyed this by Ophelia Benson re: snug Western relativists asserting that others aren't worthy of the rights they take for granted.

http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/notesarchive.php?id=2732