By NICK VAN der GRAAF
“…for all the moaning about Islam, the West’s cultural practices vis-à-vis women leave a lot to be desired.”
Over the last few years I have watched as the Spectre of Islamic Doom has been steadily broadcast across Western society. The result has been less than helpful, to say the least. In Europe the effects are even worse than in North America: laws have been passed either by legislative bodies or by referendum restricting what citizens can wear or even build, lest it be too ‘Islamic’ in appearance.
Whipped up by media using fear to sell more newspaper or TV advertising and accuracy be damned, the majority of the populace has approved of these measures. Sadly, they fail to see that due to the universal nature of the law, they are subject to them as well, and that ominous legal precedents have been established.
In North America it seems there is a similar popular reaction to this patently false fear-mongering, but the Constitutions of both Canada and the United States thankfully prohibit – or will eventually strike down – arbitrary laws that dictate what an individual is allowed to wear.
One of the key messages of this anti-Islam onslaught has been how terribly oppressed women are by Islam. And one only has to look at the record of say, the government of Saudi Arabia, or the ghastly former Taliban regime in Afghanistan to recoil in horror.
And you’d think that would be enough for me too. I was raised by an ardently feminist mother and all I can say is that a lot of it rubbed off on me. For more than 20 years now I’ve been a pro-choice activist, and I hope most of my women friends can say I’ve treated them with the normal respect any human being deserves.
“…if I walk into my local Blockbuster right now, I can rent any one of over 200 movies which feature young women being raped, stabbed, shot, beheaded, torn in two, crushed, chopped up, eaten, burnt alive and eviscerated. For entertainment purposes.”
But this message about Islam oppressing women just doesn’t cut it for me. While I concede that Islam treats women like second-class citizens, so do nearly all religions. The other Abramic faiths certainly hold this in common with their younger cousin. And in many of the regions where Islam is now dominant, before it came along things were generally much worse for women; Islam was a definite step up, and it at least recognized women as full human beings precious to Allah, and deserving respect.
Of course there is more to any society than just its religion. Cultural practices and mores can persist from very ancient times, alongside and even in opposition to widely-practiced faiths (for example, female genital mutilation, which many imams oppose). I suspect the position of women in Afghanistan would not be much different if that country had remained Buddhist or become Christian along the way.
And here’s the thing; for all the moaning about Islam, the West’s cultural practices vis-à-vis women leave a lot to be desired. In France they pass coercive laws to ban the hijab, a headscarf worn in observance of the Koran’s instructions for the faithful – both men and women – to dress modestly. Yet the message to women in the West to be sexy and flirtatious is non-stop. In France, where the State threatens to forcibly strip women of their hijabs, the President’s wife is a former model, with plenty of nude pictures of her available for all to enjoy. Here in North America we see girls asking daddy for a boob-job for their 16th birthday. In the West there is freedom for all to make some degree of sexual display. But who could deny the great cultural pressure to do so as well?
Are those kinds of cultural demands any better than an obligation to cover up? And not only are women expected to be on constant display, Western society demands they play another role as well – victim. This is what I mean; if I walk into my local Blockbuster right now, I can rent any one of over 200 movies which feature young women (correction: sexy young women) being raped, stabbed, shot, beheaded, torn in two, crushed, chopped up, eaten, burnt alive and eviscerated. For entertainment purposes.
The horror movie industry, which is considered perfectly mainstream, makes fat profits feeding us images of women being murdered – again and again and again. No one is forced to see a film like that – people voluntarily hand over their money so they can have those images imprinted into their minds forever.
To me that speaks to something so profoundly misogynistic it’s hard to find the words for it. That the victims in these films are being punished for their overt sexuality (which the audience is both savouring and conflating) only reinforces the stark hate behind these images.
The easy commodification and consumption of images of torture, rape and murder seems a far worse thing than a woman wearing a hijab in public. Yes, it’s quite possible she doesn’t want to but her family is making her wear it. But it is equally possible she wears it because she is proud of her faith. Or feels naked without it. Or she wants to de-emphasize sexual attributes so men will just deal with her as a person with a brain who deserves respect.
In fact I’m not a huge fan of organized religion. I don’t have much of a spiritual sense, and if religious prophets have spoken words I heartily endorse, time and again organized religion twisted and betrayed those words. But there is no doubt in my mind that we are experiencing an alarming upsurge in public Islamophobia. Several times I’ve even been forwarded fearful e-mails claiming all Muslims are planning to kill us infidels. I can only roll my eyes at that.
That’s because I live in a thoroughly Muslim area and most of my neighbours are Pakistani or Afghan. There’s a big beautiful mosque two minutes from my door. It is clear to me, in my daily contacts with Muslims, that they are as kind, as grumpy, as open and as blinkered as anyone else walking this Earth. The constant demonization and discrimination is unacceptable. Especially not from a self-righteous society that claims to value equal rights but gets off on watching women being turned into hamburger.
Nick Van der Graaf is a writer living in Toronto, Canada. This article appeared on his blog, neodemokratia, on February 15, 2011.