Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Woe is the Muslim Woman

A few weeks ago riding the elevator, I overheard the following conversation at work. A man and a woman were discussing his recent trip to Nigeria. After the usual it-was-beautiful-yet-humid weather-chatter, and of course the inevitable air flight mentions (by the way, a sidenote: both of these topics are invariably boring to all people the world over, and yet a travel story is never complete without them. Odd, no?). Perhaps predictably, the conversation detoured to the sad women in Nigeria. It seems no Western traveler's story is complete without one of these either.

"All covered up," he said, voice low and sad. "I couldn't take it. The veils are just...so..backwards. I just don't understand how it still goes on. "

Disgusted, I stepped off the elevator snippily without the obligatory head nod that one usually terminates longish elevator rides with fellow co-workers. Unfortunately, nobody noticed or cared. But I walked off with that buzzing irritation you get when you haven't said what you wanted to say because well...you weren't part of the conversation.

"That's right, buddy, you don't understand!," I sang in my head righteously.

A few days later when I retold this story to someone, they gave me that blank stare I get when I mention that I love Firefly. "umm..what was the problem again? Isn't that kinda sad?"

The whole incident unpleasantly reminded me of one of my first classes in graduate school, when my self-proclaimed feminist professor peered at us and asked quite seriously, "Why do you suppose gender inequality still exists in developing countries, while we have achieved so much over here?"

These are the moments that make it especially delicious to read the brilliantly written piece by Laila Lalami, that appeared in The Nation where she writes about what she refers to as "the burden of pity". Do read it. It's filled with the kind of smart and sharp writing that says exactly what I am trying to say...only better:)

Here's an excerpt: Go here for the original.

Meanwhile, the abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about "our plight"--reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern. The veil, illiteracy, domestic violence, gender apartheid and genital mutilation have become so many hot-button issues that symbolize our status as second-class citizens in our societies. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women's liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West's help in freeing themselves from their societies' retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed...more


Anonymous brandon said...

Hmmmm.....I did actually read the article from the Nation, but will not comment on that since I have not read either book she reviews and I have many comments/thoughts on that article! I think its all well and good that individual women decide how to live their lives. And a certain situation (ie wearing the "veil") and can be either oppressive or liberating for an individual woman. However, there are much larger cultural forces that do shape her choice. For example, I grew up in a very fundamentalist Christian family. In our church, women did not have a voice, could not preach, serve Communion, teach Sunday School, they had to have their heads covered, could not wear make-up, cut their hair, and had to dress modestly. My mother and sisters are still adherents and do not see this as oppressive, and would say they are doing it for God. On other other hand, many of my friends have left the church, and have a very different view. Both could be correct, but if we look at it in a larger context doing something for a religious reason can hardly be considered free choice.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Sony Pony said...

hey brandon,
I could not agree more, absolutely larger cultural context matters in the kinds of choices we as women make. But that is exactly what Lalami is saying as well. She is (very nicely, I think)illustrating the many ways in which both Islamic fundamentalist thought and Western liberalism/feminism do very similar things when it comes to Muslim women--which is take away their voice, their choice. Never stopping to ponder that, in fact, Muslim women might have some ideas of their own about what gender equality and/or freedom might mean. Instead of pounding it into some western ideal of gender equality is supposed to be.

you know growing up in India, I never equated the few muslim women I saw who wore the burqah (not all did), with sadness or pity or even anything closely resembling it. It's only here that I learned that it was suppposed to be something that you feel sorry for.

And I would disagree with your last statement. I would argue that is exactly what freedom is...doing anything for the sake of religion doesn't our choices less free. Why would it?

11:34 AM  

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