August 29, 2008
Two very interesting articles in The Guardian’s Comment is Free over the last couple of day. The first Translating Feminism into Islam by Faisal al Yafai discusses attempts by feminists, both Muslim and secular, to phrase women’s rights as something required by the Qur’an. al Yafai thinks this is doomed to failure, essentially because when it comes to religion, those with the most guns win, and feminists are seriously outgunned. The Taliban can always say “oh yeah, well we disagree with your view that the Qur’an encourages the education of girls” and then kill their opponents. Instead, al Yafai argues that feminism should focus on changes in the law rather than changes in religion.
I think al Yafai has a definite point, particularly in terms of tactics. Of course, as he says “more religion” is not the answer, at least not in the long-term. And I don’t believe that all religions are inherently and irrevocably oppressive. First of all, religion is a personal thing. Having lots of imams or vicars or priests or rabbis come out and say that women should have the right to education would obviously help some women, namely those whose families and societies are devoutly religious and likely to follow the advice of religious leaders. But there will be people who prefer their own personal interpetation denying education to women, even where the slavishly follow religious leaders’ dictates in other matters. We’re all hypocrites when it comes to organised religion. Secondly, religous fundamentalism is characterised by refusal to listen to others and mysoginy. So the Taliban is unlikely to suddenly decide that they were wrong all along and open a women’s university.
Clearly, in terms of helpling large numbers of women, then, it makes more sense to focus on changes in the law, which women can use against religious fundamentalists. However, phrasing feminism in religious terms can help build popular support for changes to the law (though this support may be fickle) and, more importantly, can help women in their personal relationships with their fathers, brothers, husbands, etc. If you can show your father that the Qur’an/Bible/Torah approves of women’s education, it may be the argument you need to convince him to allow you to go to university. It can also allow women of faith to reconcile their personal feelings of outrage and anger with their commitment to their religion.
The second article Religion, Pornography & the Turkish State is by Rahila Gupta and Turkish government’s decision to back off on anti-pornography legislation in order to prove it’s commitment to secularism. She argues that governments (including the Turkish government) are often not the best institution to be charged with creating a safe space for women’s sexuality. She then discusses the ban on extreme pornography in the UK and points out that it remains to be seen what “extreme” means, but doesn’t come down either way on whether she thinks the law is a good idea.
Generally, I think the law is a bad idea, precisely because of the fuzziness around legal definitions of obscene and extreme. Similar laws in Canada were used to target lesbian erotica at the Litte Sister’s Bookstore in Vancouver. Plus, I think Gupta makes an excellent point when she argues that the state should not be the institution relied upon to protect women. In the UK the state happily locks women in detention centres, maintains the prison-industrial complex, and can’t manage to find the political will to do much other than handwringing about rape. Do you really think the state will protect you? When combined with the tenuous at best state of civil liberties in the UK, I’m not really in the mood to agree to any more restrictions on free speech.
I think the situation in Turkey is fascinating though, as you have a genuinely democratically elected government, that doesn’t actually seem terribly keen on chaining women to their stoves (though they have had their sexist moments), constantly having to defend itself against a secularist military elite that is mainly using secularism as justification for any future coups it may or may not stage. And much of the Western press seems to be quite happy to go along with this, whipping up hysteria about Muslims! In! Goverment! Thankfully, Gupta’s article is balanced and reasonable.
From today’s Guardian: Police should be harassing badly behaved youths by openly filming them and hounding them at home to make their lives as uncomfortable as possible, the home secretary will say today.
Smith will apparently say: ” I want police and local agencies to focus on them by giving them a taste of their own medicine.”
Now, on one level, this solution is certainly satisfying. A friend of mine is currently dealing with a gang of local teenagers shouting homophobic epithets at him and throwing things at his dogs – all of whom were rescued from abusive homes and are easily upset by such behaviour as a result.
But, then after about 5 seconds, I do what any sensible adult does: realise that two wrongs do not make a right. And that emotionally disturbed teenagers should not be the role model for people running the country.
All this approach proves is that bullying is a good idea – providing you are the biggest kid (or government minister) on the block. While teenagers may be temporarily bullied into better behaviour, will they really decide to turn their lives around and become well-adjusted, friendly, adults? Or will they just wait until they are a bit older, and then take out their emotional issues on people who can’t fight back.
There’s also some very unpleasant class and race implications to all this. Do you think rich young men trashing hotel rooms out of boredom are going to be affected by this? Me neither. I bet all of the “thugs” the police decide to “harass” are on council estates.
In addition, the decision to allow cops to harass thugs comes at a time when there’s been a marked upswing in policing of Muslim communities – Gareth Peirce in the London Review of Books discusses the civil liberty violations one can now be subject to for being Muslim. Plus, lawmakers are now discussing the need to resume intense policing of Black communities – for their own good, of course. Smith relaxed the laws on stop and search this year, and David Cameron has promised “to increase police powers by empowering sergeants to authorise stop and search of any pedestrian and vehicle in a specified area for up to six hours, if they reasonably believe a serious crime has occurred or is about to occur.”
There’s a serious problem with some – some – young people in the UK today. When teenagers are getting drunk every day and beating people to death – to me, that suggests despair and nihilism. No one is born bad, and if drugs and violence become a way of life for people as young as 13, I think it’s fair to say there are underlying psychological, emotional and social issues.
Rather than having police harassing thugs – and thereby proving that bullying is a completely valid tactic for dealing with something unpleasant – maybe we should be offering these kids an intensive course of therapy. It will be a lot more successful and less expensive in the long run.