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Did Women Create Burqa Culture?

In honor of implementation of the French “burqa ban,” and the brouhaha it is causing from Bill Maher to the New York Times, I repost the following:

The French “burqa ban” has got me thinking. Did women have equal power to create the burqa? And who benefits from this garment?

Some charge that rejecting the burqa comes from fear of the other, or ethnocentrism. I’m in sync with cultural relativism, so long as no one is being hurt. But buqas and “burqa cultures” don’t give women equal power. And women certainly did not have equal sway in creating the customs of these societies.

Think about the laws that exist in places where women are required to cover up in burqas, abayas, niqabs (facemasks) or various other veilings.

Is it likely that women decided that men could easily demand a divorce, but women could get one only with difficulty?

Is it likely that women created the notion that sharing a husband with other women might be fun?

Did women create the idea that an adulterous man be punished by burial up to his waist before being stoned, while a woman must be buried to her breasts – and one who escapes, escapes the stoning?

In these cultures, when a woman is raped it is her fault. She obviously let some hair fall from her covering, or she allowed an ankle to show. Everyone knows that no man could resist such things. Did women decide that women, and not men, are responsible for men’s sexuality?

Did women originate the notion that after rape, the victim must be killed to restore family honor?

Did women clamor for a burqa that limits their power and autonomy – keeping them from driving in Saudi Arabia and getting jobs that are far from home? Did women design this garment that prevents small pleasures like seeing clearly or feeling the sun and the wind?

And who benefits?

Men benefit from easily obtaining a divorce, but not allowing their wives the same privilege. Men benefit from the sexual variety of having many wives, while women are left to share one man. Men benefit by more easily escaping a stoning. And men can rape with impunity since women fear reporting sexual assault, lest their families kill them. Men gain power when women are incapable of getting jobs and income. How much easier is it to beat women for the infraction of straying outside the home, or letting a wrist show, when they are black or blue blobs, and not human beings?

It is common to make accusations of ethnocentrism when one culture rejects the practices of another. Often the fears are valid.

But if a powerful group creates a culture that benefits themselves to the detriment of others, the critique is not about ethnocentrism. It is about human rights.

Georgia Platts

Related Posts on BroadBlogs
Early Islam’s Feminist Air
Don’t Reject Your Culture, Even When It Mutilates You 
The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated

Why Do The “Isms” That Affect Men Seem More Important?

“You’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there’s also a sexual revolution.”

That’s Bill Maher’s verdict on the push for Democracy in Egypt as he discussed the matter on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher.

Pro-feminist, Tavis Smiley, agreed that women need to be treated better. Yet he inserted a different spin: “When we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if we treat women better in our country, it demonizes Muslim men.”

The most well-meaning among us, men like Smiley, work hard to respect other cultures. Yet sometimes we need to discern whether powerful elements of a society are harming less powerful targets. And really, is pointing out a need for improvement “demonization”?

Mr. Smiley is a-okay in my book, and I appreciate his aim here. Yet there is plenty of room for change in cultures that (depending upon the country or province) stone women for being victims of rape, beat women for leaving home without a male relative, keep girls out of school, forbid women from driving, make divorce difficult for women but easy for men, remove battered women from shelters, and cut women’s genitals – leaving them in pain, crippled, or dead.

It’s a sad turn of events when early Islam did so much to improve women’s rights in the world. The Koran gave women the right to work, inherit and own property. Female infanticide and slavery were abolished. Women were given the right to consent to marry. Protections against abuse became instituted.

Today Islamic scholars like Dr. Jamal Badawi work to support women’s rights. Meanwhile, large majorities favor legal, political and professional freedoms for women in North Africa and many countries in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. In fact, the Islamic culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the most peace-loving, egalitarian places on the planet.

Islam isn’t the problem. Neither are Muslim men.

Still, problems abound. Yet Smiley seems more concerned with ethnocentrism than sexism, given his desire to cut off conversation. Why do the “isms” that affect men seem more important? And did women have equal power to create the cultures that oppress them?

When ethnocentrism and sexism are at odds, which worries should prevail? Cultural relativism – don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another – is a good guide most of the time. But what if someone is being harmed? When people are killed for reasons other than self-defense, when they are crippled physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, those circumstances must trump all others.

Must we worry more about offending those who create cultures that harm women than freeing women who are harmed by them?

Meanwhile, Islamic feminists complain that Western women can be too fearful of offending ethnic sensitivities to back their feminist sisters.

Now, is lecture the best way to handle this? Dialogue is better. Other cultures have perspectives that can benefit us, too. Perhaps we can learn from each other.

Love Tavis. But he insists we cannot criticize until we perfect ourselves. We’ll never be perfect. Still, we must fight oppression wherever it is found, here and there, to whatever degree we find it. Tolerating intolerance is not progressive.

Georgia Platts

Popular Posts on BroadBlogs
Early Islam’s Feminist Air
Did Women Create Burqa Culture?
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Cultural Relativism: Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?

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