Posts Tagged ‘feminism

A schism

with one comment

**This is a highly controversial topic and my opinions on it vacillate quite regularly; I am always open to learning more and hearing others’ opinions on this, for this post is actually a stance that I qualify and reconsider quite frequently. It is difficult to debate in one blog post all the multiple points there are to consider when it comes to these particular issues but this is my attempt at reconciling some differences and proposing a rational solution. See footnote for follow up.**

The Impossible Standard

As I became a feminist, I quickly learned cultural relativism is a dirty word. Cultural relativists believe morality is relative to the specific culture and society. In this opinion, morality becomes flexible and for many feminists, under this belief, ”women’s rights” become impossible to pin down– if one culture considers banning women in headscarves from university acceptable and another considers it egregious discrimination, then who is right? According to cultural relativists, both. The site cultural-relativism.com justifies, ”In a relativistic society, we have no right to judge or punish anyone. Right and wrong are now defined by socialization. Society changes and morality becomes a moving target.” Thus, universal standards of humanity and dignity evaporate… in fact, there is no universal standard.

Idealistically, I set out this summer to travel some and explore women’s rights in various countries by speaking to feminists in Iceland, the Netherlands, France, and Turkey.  I wanted to believe I could find a universal union among women fighting for rights. Equality would have a common face. Human rights would have one definition. Instead, I found a schism over two issues: quite predictably, prostitution and veils. All the women I spoke to, over forty altogether, were self-proclaimed feminists and staunch believers in their fights but their fights at times turned against one others’ and I found my own beliefs faltering when the issues became divisive.

Faith and Women

Last December powerful women united in Paris to declare the burqa–and by extension, the hijab and niqab–a gross violation of women’s liberties, representing subjugation and suppression of women.  This debate at Sciences Po university featured feminists from all over the world: Élisabeth Badinter (France), Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein (Sudan), Amal Basha (Yemen), Giulana Sgrena (Italy), Wassila Tamzali (Algeria), and Daniele Hoffman Rispal (France). I attended with interest and participated with gusto.

When one cried, ”They say we must hide our bodies because we tempt them. Well, I say, men, if you are tempted by our bodies, hide yourselves. We will not be ashamed anymore; women, hide no more.” I thought, Hurrah! Liberation!

The blame and shame is on women for tempting men? They must cover and hide? Well, is it not time all women throw down their veils and declare their liberty? No, I realized later; we are presumptuous to assume this will be the case. Even then, I mentioned to a friend tentatively, ”Banning the burqa will just mean that women who would otherwise get to leave their houses wearing it will be forced to stay at home.” They will be more suppressed by their relegation to an interpretation of religion, coupled with the restrictions of the law, to not even be allowed the basic liberty of going into the street.

While the French are guarding ideals of secularism with a burqa ban, they are in a way banning women from the streets. In an ideal world, they would rule that a woman should always be allowed to leave her house; they would condemn patriarchy and male-created rules for women. However, they do not have power over the private sphere and they do not want to condemn patriarchy because that means they would have to look at themselves critically as a patriarchy as well (News Flash: every country is ruled by patriarchy and subjugates women in its own way).  So they create a law that bans the burqa from the public sphere, thus forcing underground women who are ruled by the strict interpretation of the Quran.

The passage in question reads, ”Say to the believing women that they should guard their gaze and cover their private parts; that they should not display their ornaments except what [must ordinarily] appear thereof; that they should draw their head covering over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.” (Surah 24:31)

I also choose to qualify interpretations of this passage because there are many Muslim women who do not wear any head-coverings, remain devout, and sometimes fight against veils as a misinterpretation within Islam and a form of female suppression. I worked last year in France in an association founded by a Muslim woman who led the movement against the burqa in the nation–this association is still presided over by a Muslim woman, supported by French women of all beliefs and backgrounds, and continues to combat for freedom from all head-coverings.

However, my suspicions about the problematic of the ban were confirmed this summer when I traveled to Turkey to speak with women activists there. One claimed, ”I don’t like religion but for many women the headscarf is liberty. They get to go out and get an education if they are wearing it.” Another mentioned, ”Banning it is like patting them on the head and saying, ‘you poor suppressed woman; we know better than you.’ But the university is where they are going to get liberation and freedom.” Indeed, the ban on headscarves in schools is keeping women and girls out of the education system.

AKDER, a Turkish Women’s Rights Association, was founded in 1999 by the very students whose education rights were taken away by the ban on headscarves. This group also united with professional women whose careers similarly ended with the prohibition. The group’s goal is to fight ”for to end all sort of discrimination… [and] against every sort of interferences and obstruction in exercising women’s personal rights like right to education, work and making career.” In a recent document to the UN, they lamented, ”Women who wear headscarves are banned from some public buildings and offices– universities being the most prevalent of  such places.”

It is for this reason that I slowly admit that the French (and Turkish) ban on head-coverings are presumptuous. While based in the stoic intentions of laïcité and the liberation of women (honorable), it is too many steps ahead of the religion it targets. In my mind, Islam needs to ban the burqa as a statement for women; the religion needs to say that women’s bodies and sexuality will no longer be repressed and seen as shameful or tempting to men. Yet, that’s not happening tomorrow, so the first step (a few steps more realistically) is to allow women who abide by stricter interpretations of the Quran to enter the public sphere, dressed as they are, receive an education freely and allow them to choose their future, their empowerment, and their battle for themselves. (For example of this, see ‘‘Islam’s Soft Revolution”)

Despite the divide among Muslims on interpretation of the Quran and wearing the veil, the universal standard that I can find within this split is education. Like AKDER states, the ban takes away the opportunity for education from women who wear the headscarf; it keeps them from enjoying the liberation of the mind and the possibility of building careers. While I do not like the idea of a veil as a woman’s obligation to hide herself while men in the religion have no such obligation, the truth remains that allowing women an education is where we must begin. Education will unequivocally enable whereas a blanket ban will simply promote an ideal that may not be yet realistic in the battle for the empowerment of women.

I am reminded of the enabling value of education in a story about my grandfather, a blue-collar worker from a family of thirteen children who was kicked out of his home at twelve-years-old and never received a formal higher schooling. When he had three daughters of his own, he left Switzerland for America to give them the best schools and universities so they might graduate with strong heads and intellect and opportunities. My mother told me growing up my grandfather was a self-educated man and World War II taught him most of all the power of knowledge. He would always say after the horrors of war, ‘They can take away everything but your mind.’ That story reminds me to fight for my own education and strive to have the best mind. So when all else fails, I will have the one thing no one can take away from me.

All people and all women, especially, deserve to have something no one can take away from them– the sheer ability and internal light granted by education. If it means foregoing some secular ideal by allowing a young woman wearing a headscarf into her university, then so be it. If it means not making a broad law against a repressive practice in a religion, then so be it. If it means we’re stepping back to acknowledge total liberation may not be achieved yet, so be it. That is my first conclusion.

(and finally let us not forget as we discuss this problem that Islam is not the only religion with women’s rights issues– religions in general relegate women to second class, following suit with society. From personal experience, when I was a six-year-old Catholic, I asked my mother in church one day, ”Why can’t girls be priests?” and she led me straight up to our pastor and had me ask him the question. He stammered and replied vaguely, ”Well, it’s not because we don’t appreciate women….Mary was a woman….” and I was devastated. Although, I would have really enjoyed being Pope, they wouldn’t allow me this possibility because I was born with an ”unacceptable” set of genitals. I must also qualify that some religions are moving forward and allowing women to be pastors, but this is not the majority and progress still must be made. Women must continue to demand the same freedoms that men have, in every sphere, religious or other.)

The Sexy Woman

The first time I visited the Red Light district in Amersterdam on a winter day in November, at the end of the long row of windows, I was clearly on the side of anti-legalization feminists– this is exploitation, women at the will of men– I didn’t want to see it.

The second time, I returned to spend two weeks in Amsterdam, trying to learn more. I wrote about the brown cobblestone streets along canals. Women in black or pink thongs and bras. I walked through narrow back streets and my shoulders brushed the glass and curtains and bricks on either side. I passed through brothels, pink hallways, with door-less open rooms. I could smell baby powder, heavy perfume, women. If you didn’t look closely, it was glamorous: the drug-addicts and cigarette smoke in the smooth rooms with the stark bed.

Seven days later, I sat down with a former sex worker to speak about her opinions. Since 1994, she’s been running a center for sex workers, educating tourists about the industry and giving workshops and aid to sex workers, including teaching self-defense classes for window and street prostitutes.

She explained, ”When I was working as a sex worker myself before, I didn’t understand all these people coming to the red light district, staring at the girls like they see some special type of monkey in the zoo. I used to hate the groups of tourists in front of my window. Later, I realized that because people don’t know anything about it, they have such unrealistic ideas about it. That creates such stigma and because of that stigma, it’s hard for sex workers to stand up for their rights or to go somewhere for information or for help or even to feel good about themselves. So I thought, well, you have to start at the beginning and explain to people more about sex work to give them a more realistic view or to give them a better idea about it, so they look toward the girls with different eyes, instead of eyes on things or mistakes.”

She qualified, ”It’s not that they should suddenly find sex work a great thing. That’s not my purpose. I don’t want to make it sound as the most fantastic profession you can have, but I want them to be a bit more relaxed about it and I want them to believe the fact that there are many people that choose to do this and they feel comfortable with it. That’s the only thing: I want them to look toward the girls without pity in their eyes. Not look down on them and make her into a victim but give her or him the opportunity to feel good about herself and show respect. To give her the opportunity to stand tall instead of hanging her head ashamed.”

She sighed, ”At the same time as I’m talking about sex work as work, I always tell people to skip the word ‘normal’ because it isn’t normal. It’s a profession: you have to respect people, you have to organize it, you have to legalize it because that’s much safer. Sex workers must be able to stand up for their rights and find help, which is only possible if it’s legal. If it’s criminalized, people will run away from police and helping organizations; it will be underground. But at the same time, I do realize that it has everything to do with sex, with emotions, with difficult social issues… I don’t think sex work itself is something positive, but it’s a way of making money for so many people in the world and they deserve respect for that.”

As she related her work and struggles with me, the underlying compromising damage and sadness unraveled in her words.

”For me, for example, I see every man for the rest of my life as a potential customer. If you work in the window for a long time, you learn to do quick judging… like you have only a few seconds to see a guy, to get an opinion about somebody, like is he ok as a customer? am I willing to work with him? Is he friendly? Is he respectful? or is he an asshole? So that becomes part of your system. Even after work, a long, long time after it, you still look at people that way. Specifically men. You get a different view on people as a sex worker. I think sex workers are less naive in many ways. You become a little bit harder. If you have a lot of violent experiences, you become harder in a negative way.”

The difficult power dynamic between clients and customers exposed personal compromise and shame.

”What I really hate is that sometimes customers think because they pay, they are in charge. You don’t want to have a fight with a customer, he wants to take you from behind, you’d rather not do that because you have some pain in your belly already–because you had a busy day or you have your period or you just have some pain in your belly–but you know that he comes quicker if he takes you from behind. So, because of that, you say, ‘Yes,’ and then after that you maybe have regrets because now you have even more pain in your belly or you gave away something personal, something from yourself, something you’d rather not give. Emotionally, it’s dangerous to let somebody else make decisions about your body. It’s not a big thing but if it happens too many times a night, it becomes a big thing. If people constantly cross your boundaries, small ones, big ones, whatever, in the end, it does start to hurt you.”

She reassured that the situation of sex workers is better than that of sex workers in other parts of the world.

”I spoke to somebody a couple of weeks ago who did workshops in Vietnam with Vietnamese prostitutes, and she explained to me how things were over there, and that was unbelievable. Group rape among prostitutes is like a common thing over there; customers can choose to have sex with or without a condom– it’s not an option for sex workers to choose. They don’t get any extra money if the customers choose to have sex without a condom. Of course the payment is really low. So, the customer is in charge all the way. That’s not the case here but I wish that here sex workers looked on the details, the small things that look really small with no meaning but in the end, with all these almost invisible borders, if you cross them too many times, then in the end they seem to be more important than they thought they were.”

I ask her about choosing to be a prostitute. She says, ”I have a daughter myself and people always ask me, ‘how would you feel about your daughter being a prostitute?’ Then I start with saying, ‘I have too much respect for my daughter to talk about her this way,’ not regarding sex work but regarding her life, these very personal things. She can do with her life whatever she wants to as long as she’s happy. I will always support her but to be honest, no. I don’t hope that she will start to work as a sex worker because that’s a too difficult and heavy job. For your child, you want to protect her from difficult things, like sex work. Not only because of the work but mostly because of the way people will treat her.”

But in the end she says about her time as a prostitute, ”I had a lot of fun. I made really, really good money. I had a lot of fun with my colleagues. That’s something you hear a lot from sex workers if you ask them, ‘What’s a nice thing about your work?’ colleagues is always in the top three… besides money.”

Ah, the money. Everything she told me insisted prostitution is not glamorous; it is not beautiful or good but her staunch faith was in the idea that women should be able to do this profession without shame because they have the right to make a living.

I realized that despite the combat between feminists over legalization/criminalization of prostitution, neither side actually believes prostitution is good. Everyone is in fact fighting with the idea that prostitution is not a happy profession. But it is a reality. The problem is how to work with it in society and make things better for the most amount of people. One side believes in putting it in the open, legal, and protected, to help the women. The other side believes criminalizing of clients can win the ultimate goal of condemning men for buying sex and eradicating the demand for prostitutes.

What about the money? It’s really about the money. There has always been money in selling sex (see: porn, magazines, advertising). While, ideally, women would be able to make more money in other economic ventures, rising to positions of power, being CEO’s, directors and presidents as easily and in equal numbers as men, and ideally wages would be equal in the same industries for men and women, and ideally there would not be poverty and need to strip for extra cash,  we do not live in an ideal world. We are striving for it, but like in the burqa debate, we cannot create laws based on ideals that are too distant from reality. We need to meet the problem where it is.

Where is the problem in reality? Well, men buy women. Women are in a social position where selling their bodies earns them more money than could even imagine otherwise or at all. My idea is to combat prostitution not by criminalizing the industry (and by extension shaming the women who do it and treating them like poor, suppressed individuals who are submitting to men and patriarchy). Instead, we should begin with the first steps of opening economic and social opportunities for women worldwide beyond the sex industry, educate men toward respect and away from using women for sex. In my mind, criminalizing men is an external attribution, if we go back to Social psychology; this means no internal change happens and permanent social attitude does not budge, meaning the problem won’t end and people will continue to buy women, regardless if it is illegal. The external punishment of criminalizing clients does not give men the will to listen and change from within. Until buying sex is rendered unacceptable by men themselves and women have no economic need to sell themselves, it should be legal, to give her better health services and help (I will not talk about choice here because it’s not about choice; as my conversation with the sex worker revealed, she hardly has the freedom to use her body willfully, as clients demand compromise and her choice is regularly stripped from her). Yet, legalization is a way to protect her.

Some even argue, legalization makes trafficking easier to combat. With prostitution out in the open, police and women’s organizations work together to focus on uncovering trafficking networks and rescue victims (even collaborating with clients by giving them an anonymous number to call where they can report if a prostitute they visited seemed not to be doing it willingly). The free-will prostitutes operate openly and regulation is a way of saying,  let’s protect the workers and save the victims instead.

I don’t want to stop at accepting legalization as a ”cure,” though. The true social change will occur through education and awareness, by raising our sons differently, to not accept porn and viewing women as sex objects, by teaching our partners and friends the impact that individual actions have, and creating economic upward mobility for women in arenas outside of sexualization. We cannot legalize if we are not committed to the ultimate goal of ending prostitution. Legalization can be a statement for accepting prostitution and deeming it acceptable. This is where the Dutch model stops. They must continue further to proclaim it as a way of protecting sex workers but build parallel programs to create mobility for women in other areas, change social structures so women have the opportunity for economic success outside the sex industry and demand changes from men as well.

I know this is a dangerous position. Yet, I want to acknowledge that we are neither changing men with the Swedish-model nor the Dutch-model. Both claim to protect women somewhat but neither addresses why men buy women nor create programs to combat the social structure that reduces women (inside and outside the sex industry). Treating women like objects and treating them violently and disrespectfully pervades society on all levels, not just the sex industry, and that is the place to begin. At the same time, we cannot  ignore the implications of legalization. Legalization has the air of making it socially acceptable to buy women. Yet the idea is to protect women while also fighting toward the permanent eradication of it from society by educating men toward acting more like respectful human beings who give others dignity (rather than exploit them) and by creating programs for social and economic upward mobility of women so they might earn similarly gross amounts of money doing jobs in other spheres (especially those that are still dominated by men). So in the end, the ban on prostitution comes from the internal choice of men and women, an attribution that condemns the practice based in fundamental personal values rather than adherence to a law. Now, laws merely slap clients and say, “Bad boy. Don’t buy women.” We cannot just slap them away and expect them not to go back; rehab on male attitudes toward women might be a good proposal instead. We must change society through changing attitudes; this way, we effect permanent and personal change.

The Impossible Conclusion

Back to the cultural relativists, societies and individuals may have different opinions on what’s right and wrong, but there are universal standards. Humanity. Respect. At this point in our world, if a woman is wearing a headscarf or working a street corner, protecting her right to health, education, and a living is first and foremost. No matter the ideals and academic debates between feminists over these issues, we must begin at the small steps of allowing access to choices beyond what is available in the present world. It is not effective to condemn the world for the way it is, blame and rant and ban, but instead we must ask why it is that way and propose the modifications that will grant the first steps away from that. No immense prohibition on headscarves or prostitution will solve the problem, no matter the ideological statement it makes.

As the former sex worker expressed gently her hope for young girls, she said, ” They have to take good care of themselves. They have to find themselves important.” Let’s begin by finding all women important and giving them the opportunity to enjoy life (with dignity and respect), liberty (through true choices for herself and her body) and happiness (free from shame and hurt and exploitation). That includes not judging her if she is wearing a certain article of clothing or standing in a glass window in the red light district. All women deserve the chance to feel important and valued. Let’s make her matter by working on the structures throughout society that hurt all women. Let’s make her matter by teaching men how much she matters and what she deserves. That ought to be our universal goal.

Don’t capitulate

After my summer speaking to women’s rights activists, in an effort to consolidate my thoughts and formulate opinions based on personal growth and new experiences, I wrote a piece highlighting the importance of education. In a step back from my previous views, I came down on the reserved side about burqa bans and legalized prostitution, non-committal overall, but certain that education and programming would be the only way to raise women up to a level where they might be able to advocate for their own liberation and become united about what liberation means.

 

So, what is liberation? I was having trouble organizing my beliefs after speaking one-on-one with sex workers in the Netherlands who considered themselves advocates for a women’s right to sell herself while simultaneously lamenting the horrors they’d experienced at the hands of male clients. I struggled to justify a ban on the burqa, niquab and hijab after meeting feminists in Turkey who faced discrimination and limits on their educational and professional opportunities as a result of the ban, yet who were unwilling to stop wearing the veil.

 

I concluded: no sweeping prohibitions or criminalization but a “meet-them-where-they-are” system of educating men and women, slowly changing attitudes, granting total access to true knowledge about respect and freedom… liberating programmatically before legislatively.

 

After I wrote that piece, a friend of mine from Paris and passionate feminist wrote to me. “Don’t capitulate, Caroline,” she said. Had I? Had I sold out my ideals for realism? I felt that I had moved from challenging everyone to aspire for something out of reach to challenging people to aspire just for the next step. Then after taking that step, they might aspire for the next one. Step-by-step.

Footnote: Don’t capitulate

6 months after writing what you’ve just read:

I wrote this piece highlighting the importance of education. After my summer speaking to women’s rights activists, I was making an effort to consolidate my thoughts and formulate opinions based on personal growth and new experiences. In a step back from my previous views, I came down on the reserved side about burqa bans and legalized prostitution, non-committal overall, but certain that education and programming would be the only way to raise women up to a level where they might be able to advocate for their own liberation and become united about what liberation means.

So, what is liberation? I was having trouble organizing my beliefs after speaking one-on-one with sex workers in the Netherlands who considered themselves advocates for a women’s right to sell herself while simultaneously lamenting the horrors they’d experienced at the hands of male clients. I struggled to justify a ban on the burqa, niquab and hijab after meeting feminists in Turkey who faced discrimination and limits on their educational and professional opportunities as a result of the ban, yet who were unwilling to stop wearing the veil.

I concluded: no sweeping prohibitions or criminalization but a “meet-them-where-they-are” system of educating men and women, slowly changing attitudes, granting total access to true knowledge about respect and freedom… liberating programmatically before legislatively.

After I wrote that piece, a friend of mine from Paris and passionate feminist wrote to me. “Don’t capitulate, Caroline,” she said. Had I? Had I sold out my ideals for realism? I felt that I had moved from challenging everyone to aspire for something out of reach to challenging people to aspire just for the next step. Then after taking that step, they might aspire for the next one. Step-by-step. Yet, as a revision, I’d like to say, sometimes I still feel like the idealists I wrote off in this piece. I want to believe ideals are unifying and achievable rather than divisive and distant.  I wish that legislative changes based on goals we hope to bring to reality in society (aka banning strip clubs, burqas, and buying sex) can happen in conjunction with programmatic changes (like educating men and women) and suddenly! … populations will be in agreement that women deserve the utmost respect and equal opportunity right away, laws made in their best interest will not cause uproar, disagreement, and controversy, and we’ll live in an equal world without controversy. But, really? Are we there yet? You decide. Do we need to take a giant leap or small steps to get there? Share your thoughts– idealist, realist, optimist, pessimist or otherwise.

Advertisements

Written by carolinashley

August 7, 2010 at 2:51 pm