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Misgoyny in the West versus the Middle East

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This piece was published in The Age last Thursday (May 3) and was a response to this essay by the incomparable Mona Eltahawy, who, unsurprisingly, has copped a huge amount of flak for her trouble. But back to me, it never ceases to amaze me how angry people get when I dare compare the treatment of women in the West to those in the Arab world. To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that we have it just as bad. In fact I clearer state within the article that we do not. But, our own marginalisation and the oppression of Arab/Muslim women stem from the same place: the fear of female sexuality.

My only regret in this op-ed is that I fell into the trap of using the word ‘hate’ without clarifying what that word means to me. I think misogyny, and any sort of what we call ‘hate’, is really a manifestation of fear and a desire to control. Women’s sexuality is feared, both here and in the Middle East, and there exists in both realms, a desire to control it (often at all costs).

Anyway, here it is.

Misogyny has reduced women to headscarves and hymens.

‘WOMEN have very little idea of how much men hate them,” wrote Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch. So outraged were men that wives reportedly took to concealing their copies by wrapping them in plain brown paper.

More than 40 years later, Egyptian-American commentator Mona Eltahawy has caused a storm with her Foreign Policy essay, Why Do They Hate Us? ”They” being Arab men and ”Us” Arab women. Forget America’s so-called inequality, Eltahawy implores, ”The real war on women is in the Middle East.”

Women, she writes, have not benefited from the Arab Spring because they remain oppressed by the men in their lives who consider all is ”well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home”. ”Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.”

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Not surprisingly, Eltahawy has also sparked outrage. What is surprising is that so many of her detractors are Arab women. Gigi Ibrahim, a blogger and activist who came to prominence in the Egyptian revolution, called the essay ”disgraceful”. Samia Errazzouki, a Moroccan-American writer retorted, ”Dear Mona Eltahawy, You Do Not Represent ‘Us’.”

The consensus is that Eltahawy uses simplistic, Orientalist arguments to ”otherise” Arabs and drive a wedge between Arab men and women. ”Women in the Middle East are not oppressed by men out of male dominance,” writes Ibrahim. ”They are oppressed by regimes (who happened to be men in power).”

This is a facile argument. Men do not just ”happen” to find themselves in power. Men are in power because the patriarchal system that dominates the world favours men by systematically demeaning and marginalising women based on sex and sexuality.

Astonishingly, Eltahawy’s critics have managed to miss her central thesis: men hate women out of a deep fear of female sexuality, which has reduced women to ”their headscarves and hymens”, and it is up to women to wrestle control of their sexuality back from men.

Eltahawy made two vital errors leaving her open to those claims of Orientalism. The first was her decision to ”put aside what the United States does or doesn’t do to women”. The second was her failure to explore how women themselves also perpetuate patriarchy. Consequently, she divorces the struggle of Arab women from millions of others around the world, thus making misogyny appear a peculiarly Arab problem. In doing so, she unwittingly adds fuel to the myth that Arab men are more monster than human.

As an Australian woman of Arab Muslim background, I have often been struck not by how different but by how similarly women are treated in the West and in Arab/Islamic cultures. In both societies women’s sexuality is treated with suspicion and distrust.

Muslim women are required to dress ”modestly” to ward off attention from men. With the onus on women to alleviate male desire, victims of sexual assault are likely to find themselves blamed for their attack.

So too in the West. How many rape victims have had their sexual history and choice of clothing called into question? How many times have we wondered if ”she asked for it”?

They may not be required to cover their hair or faces, but Western women are derided for being sexually active in a way men never will be, as Sandra Fluke, the US college student who testified before Congress about the necessity of including birth control in health insurance, can attest. Fluke was called a prostitute and a slut by shock jock Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh is not known for his reasoned commentary but, sadly, women also joined in the attacks. Political pundit Michelle Malkin called Fluke ”a poster girl for the rabid Planned Parenthood lobby”, while Everybody Loves Raymond actress Patricia Heaton tweeted: ”you’ve given yer folks great gift for Mother’s/Father’s Day! Got up in front of whole world & said I’m having tons of sex – pay 4 it!”

The Fluke saga demonstrates how patriarchy isn’t just men oppressing women. It’s a system so entrenched in our collective psyche that it demands and acquires unconscious participation of both men and women in order to perpetuate itself.

Moroccan teenager Amina Filali swallowed rat poison after being forced, by the courts and her mother, to marry her rapist. Shortly after her death her mother pleaded, ”I had to marry her to him, because I couldn’t allow my daughter to have no future and stay unmarried.”

This mother is not a monster. She has simply internalised misogyny to where she honestly believed her daughter, no longer a virgin and thus doomed to a life of spinsterhood, would be better off married to her rapist.

Yes, the magnitude of Arab women’s suffering is greater because of the lack of laws protecting them. But, while their oppression is different in degree, it is the same in kind. It all comes down to sex. How can women ever hope to attain equality when an act as natural, and vital, as sex is regarded an acceptable means to devalue them?

Both Greer and Eltahawy are correct. But I would change ”men” to ”patriarchy”. Patriarchy hates women.

That some of Eltahawy’s fiercest critics are female only serves to show that many women continue to have very little idea of just how much.

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Written by Ruby

May 7, 2012 at 12:45 am

Feminism and animal rights: not antithetical

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I’ve just started as an associate editor on alternative, progressive website, The Scavenger. Since my profile there links back to this blog, I guess I’d bet start using this a little more. Let’s start with my first piece for them, ‘Feminism must stop ignoring animals.’ Which is pretty much what the title says it is about:

 

2011 will go down as the year when animal advocacy, long considered a fringe issue, blasted into the Australian mainstream.

Such was the impact of A Bloody Business, the explosive Four Corners investigation into the live cattle export trade to Indonesia that the team picked up the Gold Walkely, a prestigious journalistic award .

Lyn White, of Animals Australia, who provided the ABC with the raw footage of the abuses in the Indonesian abattoirs, was a state finalist in the Australian of the Year awards. She was also crowned Crikey’s Person of the Year and ABC News Radio’s Newsmaker of the Year.

Already 2012 is shaping up to be an even bigger one for the animal rights movement.

Voiceless, the animal protection institute, and vocal critic of intensive, ‘factory’ farming methods, recently announced a literary prize for writers willing to ‘give voice to the most vulnerable amongst us’.

In a move which signifies just how far into the mainstream animal welfare concerns are edging, the prize is being sponsored and spruiked in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Never has the plight of animals occupied such a prominent place in the public consciousness.

However, whilst some improvements are slowly being made in their welfare, their status as commodities means animals remain vulnerable to shocking abuse.

At one point or another, many of Western society’s most marginalised groups have suffered the indignity of being regarded as property. It is to the credit of feminists and slavery abolitionists that, in a legal sense at least, this is no longer the case.

The slow road to abolition and women’s enfranchisement demonstrates how society rarely progresses on its own and often needs to be pushed. Animals cannot resist their conditions so any change to their circumstances is dependant on human intervention.

The link between feminism and animal rights

Animal rights activism is often dismissed with the admonishment that we need to ‘sort out’ human problems first. However, as both a feminist and animal rights advocate, I do not see these issues as distinct.

First, let’s be clear about what animal ‘rights’ actually means. Animals don’t have the same interests as humans so they don’t require the same rights.

What animals, as sentient beings, require and deserve, is the right not to be the property of another, but to live, as Jeffrey Masson, author of The Pig Who Sang To The Moon, a key book on animal emotions, writes, “the way in which evolution intended them to live”.

This is where feminism comes in. It is not a coincidence that women dominate the animal rights movement. As the victims of long-term historical oppression, women can readily empathise with the plight of animals because they recognise oppression when it occurs. However, mainstream feminism is yet to acknowledge how animal and women’s oppression are linked.

The goal of feminism is to dismantle the hierarchical system that values certain groups over others: men over women, whites over blacks, straights over gays and so on. This false hierarchy permits the exploitation of those at the bottom by the powerful at the top.

How does this relate to animals?

In order to eliminate exploitation, feminism must seek to protect those most at risk. It is not an exaggeration to say that our society is built on the exploitation of animals.

They are the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the medicine we take, the products we use, the entertainment we watch, the sports we bet on.

Furthermore, feminism and animal advocacy make natural allies given that it is the abuse of the reproductive capacity of female animals that perpetuates animal exploitation.

Egg-laying hens are crammed into battery cages for up to two years until they are ‘spent’ and slaughtered.

Sows, whose entire lives are spent in a continual cycle of pregnancy and birth, are confined in gestational stalls barely bigger than their own bodies.

Dairy cows are artificially inseminated every year of their lives until their milk dries up. The apparatus in which cows are restrained during insemination is known in the industry, particularly in the US, as a ‘rape rack.’

Unnaturally forced into the reproductive role, these female animals are then denied the opportunity to nurture their young. Their milk, eggs and offspring are subsumed into the industry cycle, marketed and sold for human consumption, much as women’s bodies are marketed and sold for male consumption.

Discrimination versus dehumanisation

When animal advocates make these comparisons they are often accused of dehumanising historically marginalised groups. However, as Marjorie Spiegel wrote in The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery, such comparisons are not intended to equate humans and animals so much as highlight the ways in which discrimination against one group opens the door to the discrimination of others.

Those who benefit from animal exploitation also take offence because it highlights their dubious practices.

The treatment to which we subject billions of animals would be considered a holocaust if applied to humans. Yet, it is normalised because animals are considered so ‘other’ that their suffering is tolerated.

Simply speaking, it is in their interests to expound on the so-called differences between human and non-human animals because it is these very differences that justify animal abuse and exploitation.

It is important to note here that the reasons cited for denying rights to animals are the same that were used to do the same to women and black slaves. Deemed soulless, women and blacks were said to lack sufficient intellect to deserve autonomy.

Baby animals continue to be taken away from their mothers with the same assurances given when black women suffered the same abuse. They don’t love them like us. They won’t remember them like us. They are not us.

‘They are not us’ is, of course, the claim on which all discrimination is based. Animals differ to us, but if we accept difference as permission to exploit them, then we undermine one of feminism’s essential tenets.

Fighting women’s oppression whilst simultaneously perpetuating animal oppression is a contradictory and self-defeating stance feminism must reconsider.

Second wave feminism was rightly criticised for being centred on the struggles and interests of white, middle class women. The third wave responded by recognising how different forms of oppression intersect (although second wave eco-feminists such as Carol Adams and Josephine Donovan were making these connections in the ’70s and ’80s) and broadened its scope to encompass class, race and sexuality in its vision.

The fourth wave of feminism must include the intersection of animal and human oppression. If feminists are serious about fighting discrimination in all its forms then they must consider animal rights as equally worthwhile as human rights.

To do less is to keep the door to ‘otherisation’ wide open and give tacit support to the concept that some groups are entitled to the ownership and control of others.

 

Written by Ruby

February 25, 2012 at 5:28 am

In America, as gay rights expand, women’s rights shrink.

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The United States is no stranger to unintentional irony. The Star Spangled Banner, with its proud ‘land of the free’ proclamations, was adopted as national anthem in 1931, even as segregation and lynchings abounded, and Jim Crow was the law of the land.

Last Monday, Americans celebrated Independence Day, secure in the knowledge of their place as the world’s greatest bastion of freedom and democracy. But the familiar Fourth of July spectacle once again masks a barely concealed hypocrisy, evident in the way the rights of two groups, long the victims of discrimination, are currently faring in America’s legal system.

For the gay community, the long march towards equality continues. The latest, and many say most important, victory came three weeks ago, when New York legalised same sex marriage. As civil rights attorney Evan Wolfson told CBS News, “Now that we’ve made it here, we’ll make it everywhere”.

For millions of American women, however, there is not much to celebrate as their right to bodily autonomy comes under greater threat than ever.

Anti-abortion activists have for some time realised their likelihood of overturning Roe v Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision which legalised abortion in 1973, was slim.  In recent years, they have, instead, set about undermining the ruling in such a way as it make it all but meaningless in practical terms.

This tactic is working. In 2010, the New York Times reported that by June of that year, at least eleven states had passed laws regulating and restricting abortion. These include forcing women to undergo and view an ultrasound before an abortion can proceed, the intention being that once a woman ‘knows’ what she is aborting she will naturally change her mind. This leads one to wonder just what the law-makers believe these women think they are pregnant with.

Other measures include the current push to defund Planned Parenthood, the national women’s health clinic. Despite a Senate vote in April blocking its federal defunding, some states including, Indiana and Tennessee, are passing bills to strip the organisation of funds on a state level. According to Planned Parenthood’s own records abortion only makes up 3% of its total services. Others include routine pap smears, STI checks and birth control advice. This targeting of Planned Parenthood is less an attack on abortion, and more a full-scale assault on American women’s health and reproductive rights.

Last year, Mississippi passed a law barring insurance companies from covering abortions, whilst Oklahoma now requires doctors to answer 38 questions about each abortion they perform, including the reasons for the abortion, a seemingly clear violation of the right to bodily autonomy and privacy.

Some states, including Kansas, have just one abortion clinic servicing the entire state. With a mandatory 24-hour waiting period, it makes for a time consuming and expensive trip, which many simply cannot afford. This, presumably, is entirely the point. Roe v Wade is fast becoming an empty statute granting ‘rights’ that women have no means to exercise.

It doesn’t end there. A recent article in The Guardian revealed some American women who miscarry are being charged with murder. One of them was 15 years old at the time and faces life in prison if convicted.

All these factors combine to make America, in the words of feminist blogger Melissa McEwan, “a scary place to be a woman.”

What is ironic, however, is that the push of the anti-abortion movement to grant ‘personhood’ at the moment of conception (a battle they appear to be slowly winning), ignores the fact that, historically, abortion in the early stages of pregnancy was never seriously challenged. The absence of any serious taboo is evident given the late 19th century’s plethora of newspaper advertisements appealing to women to act before the ‘quickening’, it being generally accepted that the ‘soul’ entered the body at around eight weeks into the pregnancy.

Abortion’s status as a religious and moral issue, and the general distaste with which it is viewed, was not created until abortion was legalised. Far from progressing in a straight line, the rights of American women are in danger of regressing to pre-19th century standards.

All of which goes to show, that despite our tendency to believe that each generation lives better than the last, society rarely progress in a straight line on any issue. Whilst the hard-earned victories of the gay community deserve to be celebrated, it is ironic that they come even as the hard-earned victories of feminists are being obliterated.

Written by Ruby

July 15, 2011 at 8:33 am

My first appearance on television…

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Well, after lots of thinking, and second-guessing it appears I shall be making  my television debut tonight on Insight, the forum program on SBS hosted by Jenny Brockie.

The producers read my article in the Herald about the burqa and why I think a ban will not resolve the issue and think I may have something to add. Now I am not entirely sure I will be heard above the din but one of my points was that this is an issue which needs to be discussed amongst the Muslim community so I am pleased that SBS is on board with that.

The audience will be mainly Muslim and the guests include Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan, writer/comedian Tanveer Ahmed, a young woman who wears a burqa out of ‘choice’ and Cory Bernardi (0f course!).

Let’s hope I don’t get tongue tied! Though I imagine my role is going to be very minor since I am neither for a ban nor against it. Ah, moderacy, you are so inconsequential!

Ruby

Written by Ruby

September 21, 2010 at 2:39 am

Posted in Islam, Television

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