Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jim Crow is a Transvestite

A New Guinea cargo cult was the only religion not to object to
Lady GaGa's meat dress.
On January 14, 2014, the Quebec government began public hearings into its proposed "Charter of Values" law which will ban the wearing of religious symbols by public-sector workers. The stated goal of the law is to ensure that the public service reflects the secular nature of Quebec's society and government. Under the proposed law, clothing such as veils, turbans, and kippas would be banned, as would the wearing of crucifixes. And now here's what the law is really about:

The Parti Quebecois is the ruling party in Quebec, and with this law they are speaking to their base. As a party existentially committed to the independence of Quebec and the supremacy of the French language in public life, they have a vested, but unspoken, interest in discouraging a multicultural society. The PQ's hardcore supporters would prefer to see a Quebec composed exclusively of pure laine citizens. Pure laine is a Quebecois term that refers to people who trace their ancestry back to New France. The bigotry that lurks behind this term popped into the open during the Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995, when PQ leader Jacques Parizeau blamed the referendum loss on "the ethnic vote." He also said that "we" (meaning the pure laine) had voted in favour in the referendum. It's clear that what the PQ is up to with the charter of values is an attempt to discourage immigrants from settling in Quebec and encourage the ones already living there to move elsewhere. From a PQ point of view that should help diminish the dreaded "ethnic vote" in any future referendum.

But there's an aspect to this story that's more interesting than the PQ's unsubtle politicking. The Charter of Values may list all kinds of religious apparel and ornamentation as verboten, but it's clear that the most obvious target are women who wear hijabs, chadors or veils. Yes, at heart this piece of legislation is one more symptom of Islamophobia, one aimed primarily at Muslim women. And it's yet one more example in the long, long history of women being told what to wear or not wear. A lot of the debate around the charter has focused on what this all means for Muslim women. In general terms, proponents of the charter have taken the line that banning religious apparel strikes a blow for equality of the sexes--why, they ask, should some women be forced to wear what's essentially a uniform? Opponents say that wearing a hijab or the like is a matter of choice and a proud symbol of a person's faith.

Both sides are ducking some more important issues raised by this wardrobe controversy. To begin with, the Koran's only directive when it comes to clothing is that women should dress modestly. Does that mean yes to a Chanel suit but no to Daisy Duke shorts? Who knows? But to categorize a particular piece of clothing as "religious" is futile if not absurd. And it's disingenuous, if not ridiculous, for people to claim that the wearing of such clothes is a matter of free choice. Anyone who lives or works in a Muslim area (as I do) can tell you that girls as young as five or six are being covered up from head to toe. They clearly have no choice in this matter. But a bigger question is, why is it that the discussion about faith-based fashion choices for women always seems to be limited to Muslim women? Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Jehovah's Witnesses, and conservative Hindus all place restrictions on what women can wear. For a taste of just how bizarre and abusive a religion can get towards women and their appearance, check out this article from Haaretz about a Hasidic woman's difficult decision to defy her sect by not shaving her head.

What women wear or don't wear as part of their faith is only the tip of the iceberg. If clothing is a designation of a woman's religion, it's also, in the case of the sects and religions listed above, an indicator of women who are denied a wide range of other freedoms. When you see a young woman dressed solely to please her faith you're also seeing a woman who is unlikely to do any of the following: live on her own; choose her own boyfriend or husband; go on vacation by herself or with girlfriends; go clubbing; start her own business; have a glass of wine; run for public office; go swimming or sunbathe; have a wild weekend in Las Vegas; go to a movie theatre; or even take up a career or pursue higher education. Some religions and sects might be more liberal, some even more severe, but it always comes back to the fact that faith-based apparel is a visual statement that an aggressively patriarchal and misogynistic religion is denying a woman a range of life choices taken for granted by the vast majority of women in Canada.

There's never a shortage of horror stories in the Western press about the suffering of women in places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or India. The commonly-used term "gender apartheid" hardly seems adequate to describe excesses such as honour killings, dowry burnings, female circumcision, and executions for adultery; it would be better to describe this situation as gender slavery, because if you define slavery as one person having absolute power over another, then slavery is the only way to describe a situation where women's lives are completely controlled by men and their religions. There's no one in the West who thinks this is a healthy or just state of affairs, and organizations including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the World Health Organization have spoken out against the mistreatment of women in the countries where these abuses occur.

Human rights laws in Canada ensure that the worst excesses of gender slavery can't take place here, at least without severe legal repercussions. But here's the odd and unpleasant thing about our relationship with gender slavery; we won't tolerate the most gaudy examples of slavery, and we decry these practices in other countries, but we're quite tolerant of social customs and traditions that I'd call the equivalent of the Jim Crow laws of the post-Civil War South. The so-called Jim Crow laws replaced the Black Codes in the American South which had defined and regulated slavery. Jim Crow laws instituted segregation and created a new, less blatant, kind of slavery. It took nearly a hundred years for the US to rid itself of these laws and the racist customs and traditions that came with them. The social traditions and religious edicts that currently restrict some Canadian women from exercising their free will, of which clothing is the most visible symbol, are our modern-day Jim Crow laws, and they're just as iniquitous and cruel as the originals.

And this brings us back to the Charter of Values. It's a foolish, wrong-headed, politically-motivated attack on Quebec's minorities that one would hope never becomes law, and yet...There should be some effort made by governments to curb the tyrannical aspects of religion. All levels of government in Canada are happy to fund a constant stream of public service ads on the evils of bullying, drunk driving, child abuse, cyberbullying, elder abuse, and a variety of other social ills. So why not an ad campaign that lets the more extreme elements in the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities know that women are not to be bullied, coerced or shamed in the name of religion or tradition? Such a campaign should also let women in these communities know that their basic rights and freedoms cannot be denied for religious reasons. Unfortunately, there's a very good reason a campaign like this will never exist: Canadian political parties actively seek the support of ethnic voters, something that stands in stark contrast to Europe, where the political zeitgeist these days seems to include a lot of immigrant-bashing. The federal Liberals have a long history of being the party of immigrants, and in the last decade the Conservatives have worked hard to build support in different ethnic communities. Conservative PM Stephen Harper has been a very vocal supporter of Israel in an effort to curry favour with Jewish voters, and his recent refusal to attend the Commonwealth conference in Sri Lanka, which he said was a protest against human rights abuses in that country, was actually an attempt to pull votes in Toronto's Tamil community. Canadian politicians outside of Quebec will never do anything that might antagonize ethnic voters.

The battle over what women should and shouldn't wear will undoubtedly continue on many fronts and for many reasons. It would be nice if here in Canada we could remove religion from the fashion equation and in doing so offer up more freedom to girls and women who currently wear clothing that often represents the uniform of oppression.


Unknown said...

Great piece... not exactly in your usual wheel-house! One missing element was the gross hypocrisy of opinion columnists in English Canada when all this came out - suddenly waxing indignant over all that 'racism' ... in Quebec.

Misogyny - the pathological need to control women's sexuality - is the one consistent feature of all the major religions...Check out F. Engels:

"The overthrow of mother-right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex".

Cary Watson said...

Thanks, Lumpy.