Monday, March 29, 2010

This is a job for Jean!

Taken in Iran last June:

Look at those poor, veiled Muslim women! If only they had a Jean Charest around to help them, give them some courage, teach them some good Canadian feminist ideals, then they might at long last learn to confront their male oppressors. But alas, without help from the West, what hope is there that they might actually stand up for themselves?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Quebec's Bill 94

Disturbing news:
Following a controversial incident involving spousal abuse, the Liberal government in Quebec has introduced a bill that would prevent women with visible bruises (or other signs of physical trauma associated with spousal abuse) from working at publicly funded institutions. The bill would also remove their right to access services at those institutions, including schools, universities, and medical facilities.

Although the bill has come under fire from some quarters, proponents of the bill argue that bruises on battered women signal a rejection of common Quebecois values which is disturbing and disruptive to normal citizens. According to Premier Jean Charest, it is a "common sense" measure which should be considered elsewhere in Canada. Christine Pelchat of the Conseil du statut de la femme hailed it as "a bill to protect equality between women and men".

According to a poll by Angus-Reid, the bill has overwhelming popular support: 95% within Quebec, and 80% nationwide.
OK, truth be told, that isn't a real news story. But replace my references to battered women and the signs of their abuse with references to Muslim women who wear the niqab, and you basically have the story of Quebec's Bill 94, and the rationale that has been presented in support of it.

The bill. The polls.

A modicum of thoughtful analysis.

Commentary: Quebec's witch hunt against niqabi minority; Quebec unveils its own 'fragility'; Winterize that niqab -- just live and let live.

Some scattered thoughts, I am too angry to arrange them properly.

1. Maybe I should have known better. But I feel blind-sided. I confess that my attention is not chiefly on the women which this will directly affect. (In my defense, there are so few of them, and I don't know them.) I am more preoccupied by an intense feeling of disgust and shame at my country. That it should be infected by this Islamophobia. I of course know that there is racism and xenophobia everywhere, and throughout Canada. But this particular phenomenon I had thought more specific to the Old World, where people still cling to certain strong ideas of nationalism which we in the pluralistic New World have been forced to expel from the mainstream. That this small-minded, racist paranoia, so pathetic, so weak, turns out to have such a hold in Canada, makes me feel fucking sick.

This is not a figure of speech. Sick, in the gut.

We are a small, infantile people.

2. Across the political spectrum, westerners pass judgment on the Muslim veil based on any number of considerations. But rarely is any real knowledge of the particular women in question ever involved.

Have you had tea or broken bread with a woman who wears the veil, gotten a sense of what role it plays in her life? (If you are also a woman, and you meet with her in private, she may take off the veil. Perhaps that will make you less uncomfortable. She may even be wearing make-up underneath.) Has all your knowledge of it been derived from uninformed prejudice, or (in cases that are far better than average) some website on Islamic jurisprudence—written by some man who knows nothing more about any of these individual women than you do?

3. There is an deep strain of paternalism and sexism running throughout all of this—and all in the name of women's rights!

Jean Charest is here to protect you from the patriarchy, Muslim ladies—just do as he says. (It has been a joke between myself and Dawn that my role is to protect her from the patriarchy. It's supposed to be a joke.)

You poor, oppressed ladies: at long last, we are here to save you from the violence and oppression of Muslim men... just don't make us hold you down and rip the veil off of your fucking heads.

4. The veil can mean vastly different things to different women. I guarantee you, there are veiled women with a strength beyond anything your average pampered Canadian bourgeois could muster—and sometimes the veil will be part of an identity from which she draws some measure of that strength.

5. Azar Nafisi writes that her grandmother chose to take up the veil under the rule of the Shah in Iran—as a sign of protest against this Western-backed tyrant, who issued a ban against the veil. Perhaps there are Muslim (or even non-Muslim!) women considering something similar in Quebec today. Godspeed!

6. I am generally for liberal currents in Islam. Many argue that Islam, properly understood, does not require women to wear the veil. I approve, for whatever my opinion is worth. So that is one thing. But to jump from this to being offended at women who wear the veil? What sense does that make?

7. In some cases, no doubt, there is a man enforcing the veil with violence and coercion. How often does that happen? Among Canadian immigrants? Is anyone even interested in finding out? And when it does happen—someone please explain—how exactly does criticism come to rest upon the garment?

8. If someone professed to be concerned about battered women, and then proposed, as a solution, something along the lines of my parody above, would you not be a tad suspicious that perhaps they aren't quite letting you in on their real motives?

9. Are Christian monks a problem? What if they wear robes? What if their robes have hoods? What if it's a new-ager in a robe with a hood, claiming to be a druid?

Christian and Jewish women who refuse to go out in public without their heads covered—why does no one ever talk about them?

10. I'm not sure I've ever felt this awful about my country. I have certainly not felt this way about anything in America. It would not have hit me so terribly if this news had come out of anywhere in America. I have often felt outrage at politics where I currently live, in Chicago, in Illinois, in America. But never have I felt like this. Please understand that (like MLK's disappointment with America) this reaction is borne out of great love for my country and a foolish expectation that we can and should be better than this. Someday, insha'Allah.

(Thanks to Dawn for helping to craft the "bill".)