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.