12.19.2007

muslim women: pitting one stereotype against another

When I studied literature in university (which we called college), a familiar perspective on female characters was known as "the virgin/whore dichotomy". Women were either chaste caretakers and helpmeets in need of protection from the evils of the world, or wicked, monstrous sluts who connived and seduced helpless men in order to achieve their dastardly goals.

In Victorian literature, this was a familiar lens through which to see women. And despite passage of some 150 years, today's media sometimes hasn't progressed much further.

Of course, it's not only women who are portrayed in this black or white, on or off, good or bad, perspective. This is the laziest and easiest way to view any person or event, and it's the way most of us are taught history: good and evil.

But it seems to me women are subjected to this duality more than men, perhaps because so often we are not fully recognized as people. Full people, full humans, with the sweeping range of possibilities, nuance and complexity that applies. For so many people - sadly, people of both genders - women are objects on which to project their narrow views of what women can be.

In this essay in The Guardian, Soumaya Ghannoushi argues that Muslim women are particularly subject to this polarized view. Her conclusion makes sense to me, given how the Western world has demonized Islamic culture. (Cross-reference my recent post about a child-abuse death in my town.)

Ghannoushi's language and her references might be a bit difficult - at least for non-academics like myself - but her conclusion is interesting and important.
It seems that Muslim women - particularly those living in western capitals - are destined to remain besieged by two debilitating discourses, which though different in appearance, are one in essence.

The first of these is conservative and exclusionist, sentencing Muslim women to a life of childbearing and rearing, lived out in the narrow confines of their homes at the mercy of fathers, brothers, and husbands. Revolving around notions of sexual purity and family honour, it appeals to religion for justification and legitimisation.

The other is a "liberation" discourse that vows to break Muslim woman's bondage and free her of the oppressive yoke of an aggressive, patriarchical, and backward society. She is a mass of powerlessness and enslavement; the embodiment of seclusion, silence, and invisibility. Her only hope of deliverance from the cave of veiling and isolation lies in the benevolent intervention of this force of emancipation. It will save her from her hellishly miserable and bleak existence, to the promised heaven of enlightenment and progress.

It is a game of binaries that pits one stereotype against another: the wretched caged female Muslim victim and her ruthless jailer society against an idealised "west" that is the epitome of enlightenment, rationalism, and freedom. Those escapees who leave the herd are held up as living testimonies to the arduousness of transition from the twilights of tribe, religion and tradition, to the dawn of reason, individualism, and liberation.

There is no denying the manifold injustices that cripple the lives of many Muslim women and stunt their potential. But these appear in this condescending liberation narrative as representative of the condition of the millions of Muslim women around the world and exclusive to them. There are no colours, tones, or shades here. There are no living real women, urban or rural, educated or illiterate, affluent or poor, Turkish, Malaysian, or Egyptian - differences so crucial in defining women's life chances and shaping their situations.

All we know about this ghostly creature is her Muslim identity, as though she was entirely shaped and affected by religion and theology irrespective of social background, economic circumstances, political reality, or regional and local cultural traditions. Important as it is, legal and theological reform will on its own do little to improve the lot of impoverished, uneducated, or insecure women in Somalia, Iraq, or rural Bangladesh.

. . . .

No wonder then that the "Muslim woman" liberation warriors, the likes of Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, and Pascal Bruckner, were the same people who cheered American / British troops as they blasted their way through Kabul and Baghdad, and who will no doubt cheer and dance once more should Iran or Syria be bombed next. Soldiers shoot with their guns; they with their pens. They are hegemony's apologists. Without them the emperor stands naked. [Complete essay here.]

1 comment:

Scott M. said...

Little Mosque on the Prairie is very progressive in this regard - both their female and male characters are as nuanced as you can get in a sitcom.

Hopefully more progressive (and hopefully entertaining) TV will continue to be made and slowly change the dominant culture.