Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

Consider the following story: the refusal of a Christian school to¬†train a Muslim teaching student. Rachida Dahlal, of Victoria University, was knocked back on her application to undergo work experience at Heathdale Christian College on the grounds of her faith. The university’s acting vice-chancellor pointed out that Mrs Dahlal, a devout Muslim who wears the hijab, had already been ‘counselled’ about Heathdale’s policy of ‘taking those whose values aligned to its own’, while school principal Reynald Tibben rather contradictingly stated that the school’s position was not that they had ‘anything against her or her beliefs’, but rather that their education policy was ‘nominal, it’s actually what parents want for their kids’, and that¬† hiring a Muslim teacher¬†would have been both ‘inappropriate’ and ‘confusing’ for students.

For those who might question¬†Mrs Dahlal’s¬†choice of Heathdale to begin with,¬†her decision was based on the proximity of the school¬†to her home, and its position as one of few institutions offering both French and mathematics, her specialty subjects. Given also that it was her choice, and made in full knowledge of the school’s denomination, Principal Tibben’s guff about her likely discomfort during morning prayers seems frankly condescending. Would he have been so concerned about hiring an¬†atheist? Would a Jewish¬†applicant have been equally off-limits? In Mr Tibben’s eyes, would¬†the presence of such people¬†have proven¬†similarly ‘confusing’ to students? Or is it just the fact that Mrs Dahlal’s faith is visible through her hijab, and not merely an internal ideology? More and more, it seems, society is struggling with the notion of discrimination; but what this case exemplifies – and yet what few people are willing to acknowledge – is that any set of beliefs associated with a specific ideal is, by definition, discriminatory.

This is not something we can legislate away. The vast majority of human interactions are predicated on conflict: disagreements over a favourite film, the appropriate price of food, who has the greatest claim to which resources, which is the best way to discipline children, how the universe began. At the far end of the scale are grandoise religious and philosophical abstractions, while at the other are trivial matters, debates that no sane person would try to legalise. But the middle regions are often indistinct, a blend of all such concerns, and it is here we live our lives. Politically, socially, sexually and legally, we have moved forwards in recent decades, making headway against racism, sexism, homophibia, explotation of children and religio-cultural discrimination; and yet despite its presence at the forefront of many such debates Рif not all of them Рthe discrimination inherent in religious systems has remained the elephant in the room.

Put simply: if a person believes that their own religion¬†is unshakeably correct to the exclusion of all other systems, and then refuses to hire a worker on the grounds that they are living outside of God’s rule and will set a bad example to other employees, passing a law to prevent them from doing so becomes tantamount to declaring that the logic which underpins their faith is wrong. The same thing lies at the heart of all the legislative drama over gay marriage: how do you allow someone freedom of religion while simultaneously declaring that certain of their religious or ideological¬†tenets¬†constitute a violation of human rights? There’s not an easy answer. But to anyone who believes in the separation of church and state, different religious beliefs¬†should be¬†equally accommodated – or refused – under the law, be they derived from shari’a, the Talmud or the Bible. Defending¬†the values of one faith on the basis of its historical relationship to the nation is neither objective nor helpful: instead, it only serves to embed a lopsided definition of discrimination and entitlement¬†in our cultural identity.

Which brings us back to Heathdale Christian College, and the reason why, in our secular state, Reynald Tibben should be found to have acted wrongly: because although¬†a fair¬†state¬†must allow the existence of both¬†secular and¬†denominational schools, it should have no vested interest in preventing overlap between the two. Just as state schools hire teachers of all faiths, so too should their denominational equivalents. The difference between such institutions should be purely a matter of extra religious instruction, not the individual disposition of¬†their teachers. Because if things¬†are otherwise – if we state that a school has the right to hire or fire teachers on the basis of their personal¬†values¬†– then we may as well say that other Christian principals are equally¬†within¬†their grounds to fire teachers for apostasy, for expressing agnosticism or for religious conversion. The fact that Mrs Duhlal practises Islam does not affect her ability to¬†speak French or teach mathematics, just as the Christianity of her students should not affect their ability to learn. As the saying goes, it’s impossible to please everyone.¬†At the most basic level, discrimination simply means choice: to differentiate between one thing and another. We load the word with negative connotations, conflating it with prejudice¬†in all instances, but saying that our society disciminates against racism is just as valid a useage as complementing someone on their discriminating taste. Because discrimination, be it deemed neutural, positive or negative, figures equally in choice, legislation and religion alike. And the sooner we start to confront that fact, the better for all of us.

Somewhere in my workplace lurks a young woman, who, whenever I glimpse her at functions or in the lift, I cannot help but think of as the Dollybird. Note that I’ve never spoken to her, although we have occasionally swapped awkward smiles. My only knowledge concerns her wardrobe. Which is pink. Very, garishly, pink,¬†complete with¬†extraordinarily high heels, an abundance of¬†gold ornaments, heavy make-up and violently peroxided hair. It’s a Barbie look, and while it’s so far distant from my own tastes as to occupy a different fashionverse, she’s not unattractive. But something about her always strikes me as slightly off, as though, despite the pride she clearly takes in her appearance, the clothes still sit uneasily on her.

Last week, I realised why; or rather, I pinpointed what, subconsciously, she’d been reminding me of. Namely: this cover of a book by Muslim author Randa Abdel-Fattah, called Ten Things I Hate About Me. It’s not a¬†novel I’ve read, but as someone who routinely peruses the young adult section of the bookshop, it’s¬†one I’ve picked up now and again, familiarising myself with the blurb. The reverse images of the same girl – one comfortably Lebanese, one striving for blonde – had stuck in my mind, and now, looking at my anonymous Dollybird, I realised with a jolt that this described her, too. Beneath her make-up, I finally saw the real structure of her face, her dark eyes, the minute natural¬†blackness at the roots of her nearly-white hair. What I’d taken before to be a purposefully dark tan, part of the sundrenched¬†Malibu look, I realised now was her natural skin colour, something every other aspect of her wardrobe suggested she was trying to downplay. Underneath all that Anglo Barbie pink-and-gold was a Middle-Eastern girl. And, like¬†Abdel-Fattah’s heroine,¬†she was hiding.

All this flooded to the forefront of my mind as I read Porochista Khakpour’s Op-Ed piece in today’s New York Times, provocatively entitled Islamic Revolution Barbie. As a little girl growing up in Tehran, Khakpour recalls her childhood love-affair with Barbie, a doll introduced to her by her similarly-infatuated mother, until the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s forced their family to flee, and her collection was lost. She subsequently rebuilt it in their new home, but talked about her growing unease with the dolls the older she grew, calling them by Iranian names and colouring their hair black. And yet, she says, despite the creation of Islamic equivalents to Barbie and Ken back in Iran, called Sara and Dara, the more-expensive black-market Barbie still prevails. Even though Mattel’s American sales have been steadily falling, girls like Khakpour have been buying.

If Khakpour had any bigger thoughts on the implications of a blonde Western doll selling so successfully at Muslim bazaars, she kept them to herself, focussing instead on her own personal relationship with Barbie in honour of¬†the product’s¬†50th birthday. But reading her article, I thought how very human it was, that an icon so many Western feminists have come to revile for her unrealistic representation of female beauty can be, in other countries, a symbol of female emancipation. After all, Barbie ran for president before Hilary Clinton and reached the moon before Neil Armstrong, among her host of occupations; she’s remained unmarried for half a century and even broken up with her long-term beau¬†for a younger man. And even when she was with Ken, you could hardly argue that he wore the pants: it was always all about Barbie.¬†

But¬†generations of young western girls have had fifty years to get this message; fifty years during which it’s become increasingly part of their lives, and less a dream inspired by a childhood toy. Now, the need¬†for a career-oriented doll is less powerful than the¬†desire¬†for girls’ rolemodels to present a¬†realistic standard of beauty. If the injection¬†of feminist principles into society could be said to come with a booster shot, then innoculation to the Beauty Myth is still some years away. But elsewhere, that first jab is still fresh, and the¬†message of Barbie, while pertinent in one sense, has been rightly complicated by image problems that her original audience is just now beginning to appreciate. Because idealised though Barbie’s physique may be, she was never representative of a different culture, and despite the racial diversity of nations like America, she still looked like a large enough portion of the population that her beauty, although unrealistic, was never foreign.

And out of this confusion come girls like Abdel-Fattah’s Jamie/Jamilah, like my unknown office Dollybird. I’m not saying all would-be Barbie lookalikes are automatically prey to this scenario: as I’ve said before, some girls just want to be princesses, and aesthetics are different for everyone. But¬†for many¬†girls, the pressure to hide themselves, to become the Blonde Ideal in order to be seen as beautiful, is intense. Which is where I find the advent of Bratz dolls both proactive and, like Barbie, ultimately socially anachronistic: because although these girls are multi-ethnic and their bodies more cartoonish than that of their blonde progenitor, the emphasis on physical beauty remains. Consider the Devil’s advocate response: why make an ugly doll? But if we automatically define ugliness as anything less than what Bratz and Barbie currently epitomise, then we’ve already put our finger on the problem.

Ultimately, if we must have a concept of beauty, it should be personal, not externally idealised. And dolls, rather than icons of beauty or fashion, should just be things that little girls play with.

There is a saying: those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

In light of human nature, I feel moved to posit a companion phrase: that those who know history are still capable of repeating it, particularly if they thought it was a good idea the first time round.

With that in mind, here are three recent, related, news articles:

1. The tradition of Albanian sworn virgins;

2. The rise of hymenoplasty among young French women; and

3. The advent of American purity balls.

As far as the history of womens’ rights is concerned, I’m a remarkably privileged person. I wasn’t raised to believe that sex before marriage was bad (or, conversely, threatened with shame, penalty, violence or social exile should I indulge in it). Although I’m happily married now, I had a choice about how to live my life, with whom and under what circumstances. I was taught that women and men are equal.¬†I live in an era of contraception and¬†sexual freedom, and believe these are both good things.¬†And because of my friends and family; because of my¬†Australian citizenship, race, socio-economic status and – yes – atheism, I’ve never had to fight for this to be the case. ¬†

In a nutshell: I take these freedoms for granted. To a certain extent, I can’t help it – because I’ve never had to seriously defend them. Oh, there were times early on at primary school when boys would tease or exclude me from games because I was a girl, and therefore The Enemy, but the fact that I was persistent, assertive and more than a little tomboyish meant that, nine times out of ten, I¬†won them over. As a teenager, I butted heads with blokes about the social role of women, and as a university student, I went online and debated feminism (of a sort) with Christian Evangelists, but these were all theoretical debates, and¬†society¬† – I knew – was On My Side. Day-to-day, I’ve never been kept back, excluded, ridiculed, restricted or punished for being female: my gender has never earned me a separate set of social rules or expectations. Unlike my mother, I’ve never had a bank laugh at me for trying to take¬†out a loan as an umarried woman. I know these are recent developments, and I’m grateful for them. Should the need arise, I’d be ready to come to their defence. I also know women in most of the rest of the world aren’t half so lucky.

But what I struggle with – what I really struggle with – is the idea¬†that glass ceilings, sexism and¬†patriarchy still exist, not overseas, but in my society. The idea that western democracies can still have double standards where women are concerned feels…wrong. Logically, I know it’s true. And despite a wealth of inner scepticism, it’s not that I’m sceptical when I hear of it – not in the least. It’s just so far¬†removed from my own experience that it’s like finding a sweatshop under the local council.

Take the idea of purity balls, for instance. The article mentions talk of making a similar thing for boys, but only as an afterthought.¬†The problem isn’t with encouraging teen abstience: it’s in the execution and the mindset. Because only girls are targeted. There is no balancing idea that mothers keep the virtue of their sons: rather, it harks back to the day when men passed their daughters on to other men, and the women went quietly. One father, at least, drew a line at the idea of Indian-style arranged marriages, just wanting the parents to be involved, but presumably this can happen without attending a¬†purity ball. As a system, it seems more likely to encourage parental veto of potential suitors than not – mostly because these dads use the word¬†suitors to begin with, a term which¬†connotes the necessity of permission. And where permission can be granted as a matter of course – by gum, it can be withheld. ¬†

‘Purity’ isn’t a helpful word, either, because more than promoting abstience until¬†such-and-such a¬†time, it actively¬†suggests dirtiness, or wrongness, in the alternative. This, I suspect, is the¬†core of why abstinence-only sex education programs¬†fail: they consider virginity more important than waiting until you’re ready. This isn’t a semantic distinction. As a religious concept, virginity means considerably more than¬†not having had sex. It implies¬†waiting, not until you’re ready, but until marriage, committing to this ideal rather than simply being sensible about the circumstances of your first time. Because, sooner or later, there will be a first time. Exalting virginity rather than talking about¬†being comfortable¬†– which, of necessity, means talking about actual sex – isn’t a great approach. And purity balls, as an extension of the concept, are hardly a step up.

They’re¬†a step down, in fact, because they’re only aimed at girls. Unplanned pregnancies aren’t fun, especially for teenagers, but the idea that female virtue needs to be guarded that much more closely because women give birth overlooks the whole notion of male involvement as anything other than guardians.¬†It says¬†that because¬†boys can’t¬†get pregnant by slipping in the abstience stakes, there’s less (or no) need to worry; the fact that¬†they can still impregnant girls is, apparently, the girl’s problem. Jumping to another glaring anachronism, the whole ‘purity ball’ concept hinges on daddy giving his daughter to a strapping lad, as opposed – say – to someone else’s daughter. That, methinks, is a whole ‘nother issue for the type of folk likely to attend purity balls, but damned if it doesn’t rate a mention. ¬†

Hymenoplasty – surgery to reconstruct the appearance of virginity – is another concern. In France, young Muslim women in particular have been paying to have it done before their weddings, which raises an interesting question of sexual progression vs. traditionalism. Clearly, their husbands-to-be place a value on virginity, as one notorious court-case has made clear; but the women themselves, comfortable with sex outside of marriage, need only the semblance.¬†Need, not want: this is a key point. They feel they’ll be punished for having had sex, and¬†sadly, in some instances, they will be.¬†

The last sworn virgins in Albania¬†are now old women; they’ve lived their whole lives as men, on the condition that they never have sex. In some instances, it was all they could do in a patriarchal society where their family had lost the male head of the household; others, doubtless, chose as much from sexual orientation as a desire¬†for social standing.¬†Oddly, the basis for this system was the¬†appropriate weregild – blood-price – paid¬†for the deaths of different people. Women were¬†worth less¬†than men; but virgins were worth the same. Logically, then, a virgin was as good as a man, and for as long as she stayed a virgin, a woman could live as a man.¬†As ever, there’s no¬†extra worth for a virgin male, because¬†regardless of where on the globe you are – France, America, the Middle East, Albania –¬†virginity is only praised in women. Sometimes, we pretend otherwise. But not often.

And in this spirit, we have father-daughter purity balls.

In this spirit, we have hymenoplasty before traditional weddings.

In this spirit, we have women only equal to men through celibacy – and even then, they cannot live in equality as women, but must take on the role of men.

Because in this spirit, women are not equal.

Writing on his blog about Dua Khalil, a 17-year-old girl beaten to death in an honour killing while a mob looked on, Joss Whedon had the following to say:

“How did more than half the people in the world come out incorrectly? I have spent a good part of my life trying to do that math, and I‚Äôm no closer to a viable equation. And I have yet to find a culture that doesn‚Äôt buy into it. Women‚Äôs inferiority ‚Äď in fact, their malevolence — is as ingrained in American popular culture as it is anywhere they‚Äôre sporting burkhas. I find it in movies, I hear it in the jokes of colleagues, I see it plastered on billboards, and not just the ones for horror movies. Women are weak. Women are manipulative. Women are somehow morally unfinished.

“…I can‚Äôt contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we‚Äôre shaping…I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.”¬†

Because no matter how civilised or enlightened we think ourselves, if we want our daughters to be pure and virginal above all else, and if we punish them for straying, then this is where we are headed. 

And history, as Shirley Bassey sang, keeps on repeating.