Friday, September 14, 2007

Pornified or Free?

My roommate and I were watching a rerun of Fahrenheit 9/11 on the CBC and we got to talking about it, and somehow the chatter degenerated (or elevated? I guess it depends on how you see it...) to the Islamic Fundamentalist movement (Islamism for short, as so far, only a small minority of Muslims adhere to the fundamentalist version, but that minority has certainly grown from irrelevance to a stand-up-and-look-at-me force over my lifetime) and women's role in it. Don't ask.

My roommate is a Christian (Catholic) Palestinian, I am a Muslim (Sunni) Palestinian. Our parents are at the exact same place on the traditionalism vs. leniency axis, which is to say they're liberal by Middle Eastern standards and fairly conservative by Western ones.

Things got thorny when we hit the subject of the veil. My roommate, Arab and traditional though her upbringing was, could not understand how I could defend the wearing of the veil.

"I look at it, and the women who are wearing it with their five kids all under the age of six, and I wonder: how are these women free, how are they not subservient?"

It's not the first time I've had to defend the veil to liberal-minded people (I don't even try with conservative Westerners). It was a common theme at my high school, every once in a while some girl insisting on wearing the veil would make it into the papers, and there would be a debate in class. You can just imagine the debate in my college feminism class (all women) where the (really, really nice) teacher just looked at me with total disbelief when I said I supported the wearing of the veil. I'm used to that look now. What was nice about that particular class was that I wasn't the only Muslim girl in attendance - the other one stared back just as defiantly into the teacher's eyes and defended the veil too. And no, she wasn't veiled herself.

So what gives? I don't actually address this issue much (or as much as I should, maybe) because to me, it's self-evident: I defend a woman's right to wear the veil so I can protect my own right not to.

It's that simple. Something about doing unto others, blah blah blah. When I lived in Saudi Arabia and debates raged the other way (about the importance of protecting our values by not 'Westernizing' ourselves too much, wearing the veil in defence of women's rights, and against the 'pornification' of women, basic modesty, etc...), I, naturally, argued that it's not society's place to dictate how a woman interprets modesty. It's an individual choice. This stand was as popular in Jeddah as the-veil-is-not-a-symbol-of-female-oppression is in Montreal : )

But the veil is a symbol of female oppression! You say. Consider this story.

The idea of elementary-aged schoolgirls willingly blowing their classmates in bathroom stalls and having the whole thing camera-phone-taped for the entire Youtube viewing world to enjoy, is something that, honestly, makes me want to opt out of parenthood altogether. Call me close-minded.

I know this is extreme.(Then again, maybe not....) Whatever it is, it's not the 'feminism' I identified with and clung to as a kid, and hoped would lead women everywhere to self-awareness and power that had been denied us from the dawn of time.

But then, I grew up.

Here's a scenario for you: You meet a guy, let's pretend he's a waiter at the restaurant you and your girlfriends are having dinner at. You make eye contact, he's cute, you think he thinks you're cute, you flirt, and end up with his phone number. You text. He texts. A casual let's-just-hang-out-with-friends date-like rendez-vous is set. You go, you flirt some more, not really thinking ahead of the margarita in front of you. He drives you home, there's that moment of is-he-going-to-kiss-me tension, but you know (c'mon - just admit it) he will. He does. It's good - really good - but you're pretty sure you don't want to come off as easy. But hey - you're single and it's been a while. But still. You invite him up and say IT'S ONLY FOR A DRINK AND YOU'RE ACTUALLY REALLY REALLY SERIOUS. He shoots you that sly grin that just makes him annoyingly sexier, and you proceed upstairs, stopping for some heavy-duty make-out sessions along the way. You fumble with the lock, you are now inside.

You offer to make that drink, but it turns out Casanova was betting that given the right finessing, you'd be putty in his hands. He kisses you, you back off, but hey - it's good and he's nice and you definitely want to see him again, and did I mention it's been a while?

And so it goes. Maybe you have sex, maybe you don't, but it certainly wasn't what you had in mind but you "adjust" your behaviour to a blend of how far you're willing to go versus what you have to do for him to possibly call the next day.

Some women might cry bloody murder at this scenario, blaming the girl for not being forceful enough or clear enough in pushing the guy away, and that it's her fault if she went further than she wanted. Others would say no means no. I think the truth is these situations are so grey that no one really knows what goes on except the two people involved. And these situations happen because women are often complicit in their own objectification: the line between I'm-wearing-this-hoochie-mama-top-because-I'm-an-empowered-woman-in-control-of-her-own-sexuality and I-just-want-boys-to-like-me-and-this-is-the-only-way-I-know-how is so muddled that it's virtually impossible to get a good grasp of the issue.

I invite you to consider that we do have a problem with female objectification in the West, one that can't be placed solely on the shoulders of men, and that we have collectively decided that no matter the cost to our self-esteem, we are not willing to sacrifice, whether freedoms or pleasure, to try and correct this. Maybe it's okay to fall prey to our own weaknesses every once in a while if it means that we can do anything we want, and don't have to depend on anyone, especially not a man, for it.

Now let me invite you to consider another way of seeing things: that the objectification of women is a serious problem in a society where its men have not been properly 'conditioned' to see women as equals. Some men accept that they are not animals and do not behave as such, but other men think that a woman who puts herself on display is in effect, offering herself up, not so differently than our cute waiter scenario, albeit in a much more generalized context.

So the women in this society willingly choose to take the veil 1)as an external sign of their devotion to their faith, 2) because they feel more empowered by their self-inflicted de-sexualization, or 3) in a war/aggression situation where their values are under assault, people will exhibit extreme patriotism to protect their way of life. Wearing the veil becomes like flying the American flag on your lawn, a middle finger to the enemy.

It's a point of view that you can agree or disagree with - I happen to think we should work on "conditioning" men into better behavior - but I can objectively look at my own weaknesses and think: how can I be so smug, so self-assured that my way is the right way, when my version of feminism has somehow produced blow-job giving girls on school buses?

The perverse, radical consequences of regimes like Afghanistan's under the Taliban, or Saudi Arabia's under the Wahhabis for women are just that: extreme distortions of what happens when a group of people gives up some of its rights. In some places, without proper controls or with a citizenry too dehumanized by war or too lulled by riches to pay attention, this is what happens.

In other words, it's not the veil's fault. Please, cut it some slack, and stop inflating its importance as a symbol of oppression, and consider some genuine causes of oppression: poverty, war, theft of natural resources, bad leadership, short-sighted consumerism.

Bright, empowered Muslim women who wear the veil as a badge of honour will shut down if they see even a hint of pity in your eyes with regards to their decision to wear the veil. It's like telling them: you are a poor, stupid, backward girl with no backbone or ability to think for herself. Now let me tell how great America is....

Just like I imagine you would shut down if you thought Muslim women were forming their opinions of Western society based on a few blow jobs on a school bus.


Kiki said...

This was a fantastic post.
I'm not Muslim, but I find myself defending women's right to choose for themselves. I'll be the first to admit that I don't understand the individual choices of women who wear the veil, but I don't have to. I don't understand the need to wear a gold cross on a chain either. And I don't have to.
Your post reminded me of an interview with Randa Abdel-Fattah in the Australian Cosmo when her first book had just come out. She was talking about the hijab as a fashion accessory, not a symbol of oppression.

It's a bizarre world we live in where extremely modest women are demonified just as much as extremely sexualised women.
Whenever women's morals differ from each other, we feel the need to judge and condemn.

Shirine Dajani said...

I loved reading this post. It's a shame how we can be so quick to judge others, and not even understand the hypocrisy of our own accusations. The feminist movement has certainly been put on the backburner for the last few decades, and it seems we're going back straight where we started, in the West at least. You bring up a very important issue that all women who believe to be modern and independent should think about.