Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I feel as though in America, sometimes we are just preaching to the choir when it comes to gender issues. Ok, so there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of stereotyping based on gender in the work place, sexual harassment in the work place and in school, respect for reproduction rights and choices, representations of females in print advertising, pay scale equality in the workplace, etc., etc. The list could go on and on, and it's things that I see every day and comment to my friends about weekly. I'm sure I'm leaving several things out here, and I apologize for all those things I am not recognizing. My aim here is not to be shortsighted.

In Morocco, considered one of the most liberal and progressive of the Muslim countries save only Dubai, women are still forbidden, legally forbidden, from dancing in public. After the age of ten, most young women cover their heads with scarves. Not only does one's head have to be covered, but if one decides to wear jeans and a blouse, for example, the blouse must cover ones behind. And their entire bodies must be covered when they enter the mosque and when they pray, a reason why most women just resort to hooded jalabas. Polygamy is legal if the first wife approves. Women stay at home with the family until they are married, and if they choose to engage in premarital sex good luck with marriage ever happening. If one is not a virgin when married, one is worth nothing. This is an abstinence-only culture, and we all know how well that works.

I cannot imagine living under such OPPRESSION as a woman who has been able to wear what she wants, say what she thinks and learn what she chooses for her entire life. I've received several glares for having my head uncovered, so much so that if I lived here for long enough I probably would not go out after dark in such a state. I was speaking with a middle school English Lit teacher from my father's school who is from America about this topic, seeing as she has lived here for several years. The idea that she is a single woman who moved away from her family to pursue something of her choice is a shock to most she encounters who have been raised in this Muslim culture.

Segue into an example of just how deeply ingrained is this female oppression: My father and stepmother have a woman living with them in their home who cooks and cleans for them and takes care of my stepmother's mother. She keeps her head covered whenever my father is home. She cannot even walk around the house where she lives without her head covered. My stepmother was walking down the stairs to go into the kitchen, which is on the floor where this woman's room is located. My stepmother heard swift footsteps and saw a streak run in front of her as the woman ran into her room. My stepmother said, "Z---, is everything ok?"

She replied, "Oh, I thought you were Monsieur Tom! I didn't have my scarf on because I was just getting a snack to bring into my room."

My father would have seen her "naked" and she would have been mortified. I suppose this is an issue of her idea of decency, but this is a religious-based concept of decency. Because it is for religious reasons, and I believe everyone has the right to basic religious freedom of expression, I would not dream of infringing on their belief system. But I do think that there is something inherently wrong with a system of faith that suppresses one gender under another. It could be argued that every religion is prone to this, and there are just some that are more sexist and discriminatory against women than others. These women are kept covered for several reasons, the mix of which is almost too complicated for me to get into. (NOTE: I recently learned that some women keep their head covered as a feminist stance, reclaiming their powers over who has access to their bodies.)

Does this mean that gender studies is only an issue for the Western world? Who really has access to, for example, Judith Butler in Muslim culture? And even if they did, would the state really allow it to be translated into Arabic?

If anyone has any information on gender studies not of the Western world (I'm excluding the states and the UK on purpose) please let me know where I can read this material. When I ask the hypothetical question of where gender studies is an issue, of course I know that it is relevant everywhere.


. said...

Hey KJ,

I applaud your efforts in trying to understand the suppression of women in Islamic culture but I think you misunderstand a few basic issues here.

"Here in Morocco, considered one of the most liberal and progressive of the Muslim countries save only Dubai"

I disagree that Dubai is in anyway the most progressive Islamic nation. Perhaps you mean most progressive Arab nation.Even that is debatable, there is no free speech, no representation in government, no political parties. If your only criteria is that women don't have to cover there, I suggest that is a tad myopic.

"After the age of ten, most young women cover their heads with scarves" until "If one is not a virgin when married, one is worth nothing"

I can cite several examples of Muslim countries where these restrictions don't apply. I respectfully urge you to reserve judgment on the Islamic world and the strength of its progressive elements until you have seen more of it.

"And in a society where eating with your left hand is considered unclean, even if you are a child, I don't see fundamental elements like this changing any time soon"

That is a cultural bias on your part. You seem to imply that the belief that the left hand is unclean is from some form of superstition, and that muslim culture is intrinsically irrational.

The bias has hygiene considerations, muslims "wash up" after answering the call of nature using the left hand.

This is a telling example of how cultural values simply do not translate well, not becuase non-western culturals are irrational, but becuase westerners impose their own precepts on them. There is a history of looking down on left handed people in the middle ages of Europe as satanic, which is certifiably irrational. To a western mind since this muslim practice resembles discarded western superstition, it must the same.

I am concentrating on this example because it sets up a large issue; what is considered clean and unclean is a cultural construct and one culture will never successful understand a second from within the reference of its own value systems.

There is a feminist movement within the Islamic world, asserting women's rights. Use google scholar to get some articles on it.

But I do urge you to shed your own cultural biases before trying to understand another culture. To many (but not all) Muslim feminists the headscarf is not a symbol of repression. It is a tool by which women can be looked at as more than sex objects. Muslim feminist still struggle against patriarchy. The vernacular of their struggle is adopted from existing philosophical values, just as the vernacular of western feminism as adopted from the philosophy of liberalism. While you assert womens rights in the lexicon of liberalism with words like choice and individual, Islamic feminists will articulate it with words like "divine mandate" and use the narrative of several strong women in Islamic history.

As a Marxist from a muslim cultural background, I have a disagreement with muslim feminists.

I believe they, like their western counterparts, miss the boat when it comes to complete human emancipation.

Both borrow only from existing philosophies which only serve to oppress. Western Feminists with liberalism (with a fetish for the individual over social egality for all) and Muslim feminists with Islam ("God said women are not less then men" constructs "god" as a subject and women and men as predicates, while the opposite is true).

Both do not understand that women should work for human emancipation, where all humans are socially, economically and politicall equal regardles of gender.

This over emphasis of the suffering of women is understandable, but I believe that patriarchy also alienates men from their own true nature.

Katharine J. Relth said...

I thank you so much for shedding light onto some of these topics. I wrote this entry in order to get responses like this, and I completely understand that I have cultural biases going into this discussion, as everyone will.

It is possible that I meant that Dubai is one of the more progressive Arab nations, but I was simply relaying something that my father's housekeeper was discussing with me. In terms of freedom of expression, she mentioned that gender equality and religious freedom (at least freedom of practice, maybe not the right to prophesizing) is much more open for discussion in Dubai.

Your comment on my judgments of the Islamic world is here only related to what I have seen in Morocco and what, again, people I have spoken with have told me. This includes locals, natives, and American ex-pats who have been here for several years. I realize my knowledge is limited, and again, I am relaying information that they have told me about this country, and in particular this area of the country. I am not trying to make generalizations about Islamic culture.

I suppose that the comment on the left and right hand rule here does imply irrationality, but this is not how I meant it. Again, a local explained to me this difference (left for "bathroom hygiene", the right for putting things in ones mouth) and it seems interesting to me not because it seems superstitious, but merely because it seems to be a tradition that is so engrained, much like the religiously-engrained concept of covering ones head. I am aware that I as an American have certain hygiene habits that are different from other cultures, and I didn't mean to offend by seemly implying that this was a totally backwards way of doing things. Actually, the local to whom I was speaking mentioned that there are just as many right handed people out here as there are anywhere else in the world, and even those who are left handed learn to eat with their right. I don't think this has any sorts of evil implications at all, and I definitely believe it's interesting that in a culture that reads right to left there are just as many right handed individuals as there are in cultures that read left to right.

I hope that you realize that I agree with you when it comes to feminism, especially in the West (the area where, I admit, I am far more well-versed). I hesitate to call myself a feminist, and instead try to insist that I am a humanist who is looking and hoping for equality among genders. This is why I mention that "gender studies" and not "feminist studies" should have more of a presence in these societies, and I would love to learn more about it. My father's art class is working on creating PSAs, and one of the students wants to talk about women's rights. Maybe I should speak to her tomorrow about some of the names of organizations or writers who are active in this arena.

I had not thought of what else a headscarf could mean, and it makes sense that Muslim feminists see it as a way of separating their personalities and selves from being perceived as sexual objects. Again, like I asked at the end of my blog post, do you have any progressive or newer Muslim gender studies articles/essays you might shoot my way?

Also, your comment on patriarchy is very interesting. But how does one change this when they have the model of a king who practices polygamy? Or a rule that women cannot dance in public, or even in the presence of men in the privacy of their homes? I don't think that men or women are exempt from blame, not should they take any, for this way of life, because in some ways it is so deeply set into their upbringing and passed down generation to generation that it seems difficult to surpass and overcome, doesn't it? I just wouldn't know where to begin attempting to create equality. Then again, I don't think anyone has an answer, at least not yet.

. said...

Oh whlile having lunch I realized I never explained what I mean by men suffering under pataraichy.

That woman that works in your fathers house, has that job because she is a woman. A man, not matter how qualified, would never get that same job. The superior economic status of your fathers family dictates that your mother be allowed to be out of islamic dress whenever she pleases at her home. Hence a man would never be hired. A woman is hired, not becuase women are considered inferior, but becuase the lower socio-economic classes suffer under this system.

I will also urge you not to understand the Islamic world as homogeneous. Aside from a common religion there are very little simalarites between Morrocans and Indonesians for example.

. said...

Oh I didnt't read your reply. Don't worry KJ, you didn't offend me. I am extremely critical of Islam culture remember?

Glad to note that you and I agree on feminism and human rights.

"But how does one change this when they have the model of a king who practices polygamy"

Thats EXACTLY the right question.

First by removing their King and declare that all people are equal. Monarchy is a premodern system, and some parts of the Islamic world are simply pre-modern, regardless of economic progress. This includes Dubai.

Speaking of Dubai, when Arabs tell you "Dubai is the most progressive Islamic place", they are doing so from their own very Arab bias.

My experience with Arabs has been mixed, but in general they look down on non-arab muslims.

The non-arab muslim world is more progressive, you will find more democracies there. Pakistan recently returned to democracy, and has had a woman prime minster twice. Of course, Pakistan is losing ground to the Taliban in some aspects. Thats another story.

deepthiw said...

This was such an interesting post to read, thanks for sharing. I am on the same page with Poster 1 about the food/hand/cleanliness issue—in Sri Lanka we also eat with our right hand which is in line with the social expectation of maintaining physical cleanness. Although this example may e be misapplied, the point you make about the slowness to change found within the culture is a good one.

My upbringing was in California in a Buddhist family, so I am coming from a similar perspective to yours about the gender politics in the Islamic world—i.e., I don’t considered myself schooled in the cultural intricacies specific to the Islamic religion. But as someone with a cultural background that includes a more traditional country as well as a progressive Western one, I would say that I see parallels between gender politics in Sri Lanka and many Islamic and Arabic countries. Although Poster 1 sees all strains of feminism as privileging women’s suffering in many non-Western countries, I would say it is well-warranted to focus on improving women’s positions in society for the moment, both from readings and from personal experience. This is not to say men should be blamed for the inequalities, only that women and men should to encouraged to improve the standing of women in many societies and to give them more of a voice in every society.

Poster 1 writes: “To many (but not all) Muslim feminists the headscarf is not a symbol of repression. It is a tool by which women can be looked at as more than sex objects.” I have heard this argument before, and find it less than convincing. The implication is that men are unable to look past superficial appearances to hear what a woman has to say. That men are so sex-crazed that they cannot consider a woman as anything BUT a sex object unless measures are taken. Men are treated as poorly in this line of reasoning as women are in the repressive one. Either way, shame is a very strong element propelling women to cover up, as is the desire to avoid harassment by men (although this article shows that in Egypt, covering up isn’t helpful and can even be detrimental). So should we instead focus on the root cause, which in my view is the socialization of men to see women as nothing more than sex objects?

And Katharine, one of my cousins is a women’s studies scholar in Sri Lanka, you can see her works listed here.

. said...


"I have heard this argument before, and find it less than convincing. The implication is that men are unable to look past superficial appearances to hear what a woman has to say"

Oh I completely agree its an unconvincing argument. My point was simply to point out that every local feminism will drawn on existing social, cultural and philosophical paradigms to articulate the subjective female experience.

Princess Leah said...

What an absolutely absorbing comment thread! Kudos to everyone who has posted with engaging questions & reasoned dialog.

The argument that men have to be protected from their own base natures has always seemed to sell men short.

The image of the female covered head is one that recurs in many cultures, and I don't think that it is necessarily repressive. In Orthodox Jewish tradition, a married woman always wears a wig when in the presence of anyone other than her husband. The beauty of her natural hair is for his enjoyment alone, and an uncovered head is a signifier of marital intimacy. Several religious traditions require women to cover their head prior to participating in services--the women who attended the Roman Catholic church of my childhood would never, ever go to Mass without wearing at least a hat. If not a hat then at least a scarf or a small lace square pinned to the hair. And in both of these cultures (Orthodox Judaism and Italian Catholic tradition), the women may exhibit the facade of subservience when in fact the family structure is strongly matriarchal.

Katharine J. Relth said...

Princess Leah,

I still think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the fact that the beauty of a woman's hair is considered a thing of enjoyment for the husband alone in Orthodox Jewish tradition, but I suppose the same can be said for other more private areas of the body that I don't think I have to explicitly mention here. And the fact that women cover their head when they speak to god or when they pray: is this out of respect for God, or is it in line with hiding the fact that she is a sexual object from her creator? Doesn't this somehow allow her husbands even more rights and liberties than her creator? And if so, doesn't a society in which wives are more open with their husbands than they are with their god feed in to a patriarchal society? This is giving their husbands an awful lot of power...


Thanks for the links!

Katharine J. Relth said...


That article really made me think. This excerpt, for example:

"This verbal incitement is based on the extremely sordid and impudent allegation that our women are not modestly dressed. This was, and still is, a flagrant lie, used to justify violence against women in the name of religion."

Violence in the name of religion. Such an oxymoron, yet something that happens so frequently. I don't think I have to mention current examples...

"Some said they harassed a woman simply because they were bored. One who abused a woman wearing the niqab said she must be beautiful, or hiding something."

This is such a poignant illustration. Harassing someone just because they are bored?! That's like a man teasing a pet with a toy they can't reach just because the man knows he can. This is not an example of men respecting women, and this article does a great job of illustrating examples of women who wear a headscarf being subjected to almost as much harassment as they would if they had their hair exposed.

. said...

"doesn't a society in which wives are more open with their husbands than they are with their god feed in to a patriarchal society? This is giving their husbands an awful lot of power"

Thats an good observation KJ.

The issue here is not religion though. Who cares if women have to cover in front of God? God isn't even real.

The issue is that women are barred from public life and relegated to a private existence.

This is why I feel Princess Leah's observation about the family being matriarchal is not enough. It is not enough that a woman is the Queen of the private domain, she is invisible in public sphere.

This isn't an issue of just Islam, its an issue that most cultures (including until WWII, the west) face. Even today in the west women are not equal to men in the public sphere.

No woman has led the United States yet. Even in Pakistan where there has been a major female prime minister twice, and a female presidential candidate in the 1950s, the common woman is still not equal to men in the public domain.

What does this mean for men like me?
It means living in a society that is imbalanced between the masculine and feminine.

Princess Leah said...

I never meant to imply that a culture in which Mom rules the roost but is invisible in the public sphere is a good situation. In fact, I think that it creates a fundamental imbalance that ultimately leads to societal change. I was attempting to make the point that, looking from the outside into a cultural norm, things are usually more complex than they appear.

A writer who has explored this is Anita Diamant, who wrote a novel called The Red Tent. She turns everything about the ancient judaic custom of female separation during menses on its head. Rather than being a form of banishment due to shame, Diamant posits a culture where all women of reproductive age gather once a month in the red tent to rest and bond. For that time they are free of their regular duties out of respect for the power that their cycle represents. Individual and group survival required hard work from all members of the tribe from a very young age, so the luxury of time apart and unfettered would have been a time to be savored.

Of course, the novel also makes it clear that females are chattel of fathers first and husbands later in life. Almost every culture has some norms regarding female (but not male) virginity, and most all of these can be traced to property rights. In the days before DNA testing, how could a man be certain that his own biological offspring were the ones who would be given his estate? He could only ensure this by marrying a virgin and then making sure that no other man had a go with her.

One measure of an evolved society is how far away it has moved from the idea of human beings as property.

T Relth said...

Thanks, "Ain't" for an enlightening string..all sprung from a very deep well.