Thursday, February 14, 2008

What Do Mexican Buses and the Veil Have in Common?

Here’s an interesting post from Alisa VR, this time about a group of Mexican women who, fed up with the groping and taunting they get everyday on the overcrowded public buses, complained to the authorities. Now they get to ride same-sex buses and are loving it.

Many months ago I blogged about the veil and why it’s not an oxymoron for progressive, liberal-minded women to support the wearing of it if the decision is a voluntary one, and that the veil stands as a symbol of liberation for some women, not oppression.

It’s a tough stand to defend to Westerners because of the particular way modernization unfolded over on this side of the world, unhampered by outside forces, unfettered by oppression, and fed by unparalleled economic super-growth that spanned several decades.

Even when times were tough, Americans and Western Europeans collectively decided to change some values, tilting them towards modernism, to preserve their economic gains. After WWII for example, suddenly, a woman didn’t have to be pregnant, barefoot, and doing the laundry by hand anymore. She could get herself a job and buy a washer and dryer set instead. She’s had to get a job during the war anyway, and society didn’t collapse, after all. Then, suddenly, it was seen as a good, privileged thing to have a proper education (even if the more privileged of the women who got it just ended up marrying well and staying at home anyway) and education for women entered the mainstream, trickling down from the wealthy classes to the middle class. And with economies in North America and Western Europe doing great, with cheap plentiful oil and an expanding middle class, there was plenty of room for women in the workforce. In fact, it became easy to see that how they were an asset to the economy as opposed to a mass of undesirables who took jobs away from white, able-bodied men.

So society’s values as a whole changed.

Now, imagine yourself in a society where there is no middle class to speak of, or if there is one, it’s extremely vulnerable to the slightest economic, military, or natural disaster. There isn’t enough money to provide clean water for everyone, much less education. Over the last hundred or so years, this society has managed to get its act together, had a revolution or two, where, for a brief moment it looked like everything would be okay and everyone, even women, would have the privilege of living with a modicum of human decency (no more middle-of-the-night raids, slave wages, widespread rape and prostitution, lack of sanitation, etc…).

Then, for whatever reason, the revolutions failed, or outside forces intervened to make sure everything would stay as it always was, which is to say that the same benefits would keep flowing to the same people, and the miserable would stay miserable.

Under such circumstances, people don’t really have the luxury of enlightenment. Of choosing their values. In some cases, like that of the Mexican women choosing segregation, the correlation is obvious. The environment is such that it makes men abusive, and segregation is one way to deal with it.

In other cases, like Muslim women clinging to the veil, it’s much more insidious. Tradition and religion have sort of codified male/female relationships insofar as women are expected to be modest because men “just can’t help themselves”.

Because no society lives in a vacuum anymore, people are exposed to alternative ways of living even if those alternatives run counter to their experiences (I’m sure they get Sex and the City in Saudi Arabia, at least by satellite…). So you will naturally get people who yearn for the individual freedoms of a modern society while their countries at large are still buckling under the weight of old oppressions.

Tunisia and Lebanon are usually held up as positive examples of countries where governments are abiding by Western standards of individual rights. The Sha’ria laws of Islam are not followed, women have the same rights as men, are not made to wear the veil (in fact in Tunisia, female civil servants are strictly forbidden from wearing it while on duty). But since they do nothing to alleviate the suffering of their poor (the majority of their population), don’t invest in hospitals and schools, this public image of forward-thinking is nothing but a shallow mask. Large chunks of their populations are reverting back to Islamic extremism (think Hezballah), for lack of any other source of hope.

In these circumstances, I’d have no trouble whatsoever believing a woman who tells me Islam respects her and gives her freedom. Just like I see why those Mexican women might be much happier riding on same-sex buses than being groped everyday on their way to work. I just wish we could stop obsessing over women’s rights in the Middle East to the blind exclusion of all those other things that created the perfect environment for abuse in the first place.

And on that note, happy Valentine’s Day.


Marilyn Brant said...

Hope you had a Happy Valentine's Day, too, Nadine. And thanks, as always, for such a thought-provoking post.

Bride-to-Be said...

hey lady!

i'm not shocked at all by what the mexican ladies did...i absolutely hated living in mexico for those reasons. the harrassment level was astonishing...

as fot sex and the city in saudi arabia...i can tell you there is no such thing in qatar. considering "friends" here is censored, i think samantha would be completely edited out.

congrats on finishing the manuscript. can't wait to read it!!

Nadine said...

What about sattellite? I'm sure it's illegal, but possible, no?

Bride-to-Be said...

actually, no one i met here except for expats have heard of it. it's weird. a worl without carrie...