Saturday, October 10, 2009

Women's bodies as sites of struggle

Tarek Fatah jumped the shark quite some time ago, but his increasing crankiness is still news. This time it's his enthusiastic support for a demand by the organization he used to lead, the tiny Muslim Canadian Congress, that the Canadian state outlaw the wearing of niqab. Actually, it goes further: the MCC wants Parliament to "ban the wearing of masks, burkas and niqabs in public."

So much for Hallowe'en.

But here, in any case, are his own arguments, and there are lessons to be learned therefrom:

Defenders of the burka contend that the wearing of a face-mask by Muslim women is protected by our Charter’s right to religious freedom. But such arguments are premised on the myth that a face-mask for women is a necessary part of religiously prescribed Islamic attire.

There are two difficulties here. The first is obvious: whether the practice is "cultural" or "religious" (and I have trouble separating the latter from the former), the Charter does come into play. Section 2 covers freedom of expression as well as religious belief; Section 7, security of the person. Robust arguments based on either or both sections could be advanced on behalf of a woman's choice of clothing, and furthermore it is impossible to believe that a government edict banning certain apparel could be saved by Section 1.

There is no requirement in Islam for Muslim women to cover their face. Rather, the practice reflects a mode of male control over women. Its association with Islam originates in Saudi Arabia, which seeks to export the practice of veiling — along with other elements of its extremist Wahhabist brand of Islam.

I might be tempted to agree with this observation, if not the conclusion that Fatah draws from it. But there is a difficulty, a classic one that can be found in the current debates over decriminalizing prostitution: do women have agency? Or are they merely soft wax upon which men impose their will?

A strong case can be made, for example, that the attire of many women in North America--miniskirts, high heels and so on--presupposes a male audience, real or hypothetical, and is imposed by the patriarchy. But try telling that to the women themselves!

The ever-earlier sexualization of girl-children, meanwhile, is raising alarm across the political spectrum. Is this imposed? It's hard to argue the contrary, even if the imposition is a complex one, involving peer pressure, advertising, the community, male-biased cultural values and so on. So when does imposition give way to free choice?

My mother’s generation threw off their burqas when Muslim countries gained their independence after the Second World War.

Again, a free choice from the sound of it.

Here in Canada, the debate about the niqab controversy surfaced recently in Toronto, when a judge ordered a Muslim woman to take off her niqab when she testified in a case of sexual assault. The woman invoked Islam as the reason why she wanted to give testimony while wearing a face-mask. She told the judge: “It’s a respect issue, one of modesty,” before adding that it was a matter of Islamic “honour.” (The judge denied her request.)

Elsewhere, a person wearing a burka and masquerading as a Muslim woman robbed a ScotiaBank branch in Mississauga and is still being hunted by police. Interestingly, none of the national newspapers covered the burka-bandit bank holdup, scared it seems that reporting the incident would attract accusations of racism and Islamophobia.

As is the case with all clothing, there are complex social interactions at play here: I have to remove my boots and hat when I go through airport security, for example, but this is hardly an argument for banning either. The bank-robbing example is already covered in the Criminal Code (Section 351[2]), and again is hardly an argument for abolition.

Some apologists of Islamism in academia and feminist groups bend the truth to make it sound as if their defence of the burka is a defence of tolerant Western values. What do these people have to say about laws against polygamy and slavery, both sanctioned in some parts of the Islamic world, but outlawed in Canada?

This is a strawwoman argument. There is no "defence of the burka" per se being advanced during the current debate (sparked by a recent ban on niqab at Cairo University), other than from the burka-wearers themselves. Rather, the question of choice is salient. I'll return to this point.

Other opponents of a ban on face-masks compare the burka to a bra. Wahida Valiante, chair of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said, “Women can take their bra off and we don’t have any laws against that. So in that context a woman can choose to cover their face in this country.” It was lost on Ms. Valiante that the burka conceals a person’s identity while a bra is female undergarment.

This is disingenuous. Once again, it's the matter of choice that is paramount, not how it is exercised.

The Canada I came to with my wife and daughters should not be a haven for a medieval, misogynist doctrine that traps women under the guise of liberalism and choice.

It is sad that while the rest of the world moves toward the goal of gender equality, right here in Europe and North America, under our very noses, Islamists are pushing back the clock, convincing educated Muslim women they are mere corrupting sexual objects and a source of sin.

There can be little doubt that some of that is in the mix. But what I find odd and offensive is that these "educated Muslim women" are so condescendingly described by Fatah. Poor brainwashed souls that they are, only the liberating force of government legislation can free them from their misconceptions.

Summing up Fatah's arguments, then, if some women in Canada want to walk around in niqab, they are in fact oppressed by a mediaeval, non-religious, misogynist custom, and must be rescued from themselves.

Hard-line feminists have said much the same thing in the past about miniskirts, heels and fishnets, although I don't recall their demanding government legislation to enforce an alternative norm. Once again, they had a point, but it wasn't the whole story. Social interaction, indeed the very construction of the "self," is complex, volatile, always in flux, with numerous contending forces at play.

When Gayatri Spivak concluded that the subaltern has no voice because even voice has been appropriated beforehand by the oppressor, and "liberation" merely reinscribes that voice in new ways, it is hard to see where this leads concretely but to a denial of agency on the part of the oppressed. However well-theorized, her position offers no way out.

It is more constructive, I think, while recognizing the persistent fallacy of an atomized human "individual," self-constructed, essentialized, pre-social, that we allow for the possibility of positive social change. If we create each other through social interaction, can we not also mutually create a society, if we choose, without subalterns and oppressors?

In any case, it may seem to bear out Spivak's hypothesis when we see, for example, strong feminists deliberately dressing in sexy outfits, but I see this as neither an incapacity to avoid replicating oppression, nor as an ideological contradiction. It's an exercise of will and power, whatever cultural vocabulary is involved.

To be sure we can argue about a patriarchal etiology of fashion, but that's really rather pointless and abstract. We know that such forms of expression sometimes appear to be imposed, sometimes are claimed by women as their own, and sometimes both at once. And we also know--or should know--that such apparel is never simply a matter of coercion, however we refine and redefine the latter concept.

I am wary of ideological prescriptions, because life cannot be reduced to a series of verbal commandments. But the irony of Fatah's approach is that it exactly mirrors, in fact reinscribes, the very form of prescription that he claims to oppose. On a woman's body, he simply proposes to replace one form of oppression with another, enforcing it, moreover, by state sanction.

Why not let the women decide for themselves, whatever we mean by that? (I once saw a young Muslim woman in a shopping mall, with a hijab and thigh-high boots--the body as a site of struggle indeed.) In the liberal society that Fatah pretends to support, this would go without saying.

But, without going into detail, this society, for women, is a minefield of coercive forces, as the continuing struggle over abortion indicates all too well. If the bodies of women are complex sites where various forces collide and contend, then women-as-subjects should be recognized as actively involved in this clash as well, and, if we mean what we say about gender equality, as privileged actors.

If women should not be reduced to sex objects, neither should they be reduced to political or social ones. But in taking the position he does, Fatah, with considerably less honesty than the anti-abortion (read: anti-feminist) movement, objectifies the women he claims he wants to liberate. By so doing offers them, not freedom, but the same old father-knows-best gender oppression--in fact, Wahhabism in reverse.


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