Tender

Tender

Monday, June 7, 2010

Hot Coals

So the controversy in France, and closer to home in Quebec, around the burqa. It keeps coming up for me, even when it's not in the news. And now, Ontario is deciding whether to allow a woman to wear the niqāb when testifying in court about her alleged childhood sexual abuse.

I feel a fundamental need to protect my sisters' right to wear what they choose. I also feel disrespect for their choice. I do not want to feel disrespect for the choice of another human being. I try to think my way out of it, and I often can, but only by putting aside my own values. That feels exploitative to me.

What values of mine can possibly be challenged by the choice of another person?

I hold as true that every human being is a conscious entity who deserves equal respect and the right to self-determination. For me to give a woman who chooses religious covering the respect she deserves, I find myself forced to support what I see as a visible symbol and direct continuation of a system of oppression.

My ethical dilemma today: in order not to oppress, must I tolerate oppression?

It is the worst kind of irony. It is walking on hot coals.

The dilemma becomes immediately entangled in the blatant but almost unspeakable likelihood that some portion of women wearing a burqa or niqab do not choose it, or choose it because they have been conditioned to require it to feel safe.

We may drive ourselves mad attempting to navigate the rapids where the Culture and Choice Rivers converge.  From the outside, cultures where women are required to cover themselves appear to me to celebrate maleness and isolate femaleness while exacting servitude from half the population. Systemically, cultures shape thinking to favour the existing system to promote stability.

Regardless, what is clear is that even a very strong spirit in primarily Muslim countries must overcome outright oppression, or its softer sister, discrimination (political, legal, social, religious), to claim her right to self-determination. I'm sure many fail to reach their potential.

My perspective is ego-centric. I value the right to self determination for all humans. I want to stand up against systems that hold the female in respect as an excellent servant rather than a peer. I want to stand up against systems that violate people's right to equal treatment and opportunity. As long as that remains fundamental in me, how can I respect systems of belief that oppose it?

How can I not respect people's right to those beliefs?

To me, the burqa and niqab represent the very height of oppression - you may not have a face. Only your eyes may speak for you. You may not share your smile. You may not connect your being in a meaningful way with people of your choosing.

At the same time, it also seems to say that males can only be held to the lowest possible standards of thought or behaviour. It lets them off the hook for overcoming primitive urges to become productive citizens side-by-side with the opposite sex. It represents another way that women must take responsibility for men so that they don't have to worry about taking responsibility for themselves. It has the side benefit of providing a constant reminder of subservient position, both to the women and those of us who see them.

People range in their capabilities, but by and large, in my workplaces we have developed strength when it comes to treating the opposite sex as fellow journey people, not just as possible mates. I acknowledge that some in every culture sit just above chimpanzees in their thought and biological disciplines. Yet I have known many men who are able to work with women as equals, not engaging their sexual drive when it's not appropriate to do so.

Shouldn't a society encourage men to develop those strengths, rather than setting up every system to protect them from their own and each others' weakness and inappropriate competition? Desensitizing men to women's bodies seems like a good idea, in the greater scheme of things, and shapeless covering only serves to make the sight of an ankle, breast or chin that much more of a shock to the biology. I don't see how it's helping anything.

By continuing to completely cover, I'm afraid women are letting men off the hook, and as a result, there is more violence. Again, a cursory internet search for data supports the theory that "feminizing" the perspectives of power structures leads to increased cooperation, more respect for the emotional aspects of human nature, and less aggression in various types of environments.

I don't claim anyone has figured out how to address the growing biological and intellectual disconnection in human evolution. I just think we need to expect each other to treat every person with the respect of equal consciousness and potential. I expect it from men, from women, from every person to every person. Systems that require women to submit to harsher and more difficult rules than men are oppressive.

If women support and encourage structures that accept male weakness while also leaving males in charge of decision making, I can't help seeing that as a negation of responsibility. To me, it's like not asking my child to clean up after himself because he makes a fuss, so it's easier to just clean up after him and let him dictate what we do when.  He'll never learn.

I have a hard time respecting that choice, even while I understand that those choosing likely have an entirely different set of reasons in mind.

Where does that leave France, Quebec and Ontario? Is western society ready to make a solid statement that they will not tolerate symbols that validate oppressive systems? Will they choose to prioritize the accused's right to face his accuser, or the alleged victim's right to religious freedom? Will they validate the idea that any symbol is okay, no matter how offensive to others, if it is religious in nature? What would I do faced with the power and responsibility of the decisions?

Hot coals. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.  (jump off!)

4 comments:

  1. This is quite a thought-provoking post. Thank you. I wasn't aware of the Canadian controversy, for one, but beyond that I have also struggled with a feminist analysis of this so-called choice.

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  2. I, too, struggle with this and haven't really been able to articulate my thoughts as well as you. I wonder, though, as you have touched on it. Perhaps some women do freely choose to where these religious items and it is less of forced issue. It is possible that for most it is conditioned, but for some it has come as a choice after thoughtful consideration. Who, really, is to know other than the dictates of an individual's conscience.

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  3. As a sociologist, I find these issues a daily struggle, and I have no good answers, except to say that - it's complicated. Yeah, not a big help there I know. I think that it might be two different issues altogether. On the one hand, making a religious woman, do what is completely forbidden by a religion she believes in (whether forced to believe or really believe), is a form of repression/oppression - actually the final humiliating act for her I would imagine. I also imagine these men know this, which is why they are making it an issue, to screw with her, one last time - to be indelicate about it. I don't know, but I can tell quite a bit about a person from their eyes - the windows to the soul and if they stare at me and accuse me of something, then I hear it and I see it pretty clearly, maybe we can get the men to see it as well. As for the religion - well I think that is another story altogether. I have heard, quite forcefully strict Muslim women, who live in the West, are articulate and intelligent - vehemently argue that they are not oppressed - as I have heard the opposite from similar women. I think that we can disagree with their religion, as we are free to do, but in the context of that courtroom, I do not see how we can let our opinions interfere with something that is not germane to the issue except a legal definition of "face your accuser" which more a matter of legal strategy than anything else - I think. But as I said, it's complicated, I don't pretend to know the "truth" just how I feel. Thanks for making me think about this, it is important.

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  4. Thank you for such thoughtful comments. I hesitated to even wade into these waters, so ill-qualified am I with my western bias and limited experience. You've waded with me and made me feel less alone. Like Caroline, I have spoken with and heard strong women in both schools of thought. In the specific case in Ontario this week, I think Caroline is probably right - it's just another way to mess with her and maybe create doubt.

    In a more general sense, I can't get past the systemic issues that lead to and are represented by facial coverings.

    Both answers feel wrong.

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