Friday, June 3, 2011

Restricting Women’s Movement: the Saudi Ban on Women Driving

With the recent media mention of the Saudi women’s campaign to overturn the ban on women driving, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about how this issue relates to more general restrictions of women’s movement. I want to focus specifically on Muslim women because that has been my personal experience, and so I look at restrictive laws in Muslim-majority countries, as well as general trends within the Muslim diaspora (specifically in the United States). Just as a disclaimer, I am using the category “Muslim” with hesitation because 1) I realize that Islam itself is not necessarily to blame for these restrictions; 2) even in Muslim-majority countries, there are certainly non-Muslims that have similar experiences, and 3) these experiences may be common in other cultures/religions as well. Nevertheless, I still feel that it is a relevant category to use with regards to what I’ll be discussing.

As the article I linked to above mentions, the ban on women driving “is this general rule that women can have no choice when it comes to what they do and where they go.” It seems like a bit of a contradiction, since Saudi women are allowed to work and receive an education, and while the right to an education and a career are surely positive signs of Saudi women’s status, the driving ban is nevertheless extremely insulting and severely limits women’s rights.

The requirement that women must have someone else drive them places can also be compared to situations in other countries where women’s movement is restricted, impeding their ability to go where they please, when they wish to. For example, Yemeni law prohibits wives from leaving the home without their husbands’ consent, in Syria husbands can prohibit their wives from leaving the country by filing a request with the Ministry of Interior, and in Qatar women need male permission to obtain a driver’s license.[1] Though it’s probably not fair to give the most extreme example; just to show the range of these restrictions, women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001) were not permitted to go to school, work, or even leave the house without a male relative. Even when they did leave the house, they were required to be covered head-to-toe in a burqa, which essentially secluded them from society even when they were in public.

There are also examples (which may arguably be less extreme, depending on the situation), of Muslim women’s restrictions in the US, which is significant in that there are not necessarily legal restrictions, but cultural norms that are adhered to. I certainly can’t generalize for all Muslim families living in the US, but from my own personal experience and my friends’ experiences, I can say that many of us have faced earlier curfews (as opposed to our brother’s and male cousins), and were more questioned about where we were going and who we would be with. Furthermore, there was often a threat of more restrictions if we didn’t “behave” (which usually meant having a boyfriend) we would have to stay home for college, or quit our jobs.

While all cases are various degrees of restricting women’s movement, they still have in common the same underlying principle: women have less freedom to move about, while men are able to move about as they please. These are classic examples of patriarchy (here I’m going with the definition of men controlling the family): men are the ones who can grant women in the family permission to leave the house, or obtain a driver’s license, or leave the country. Men don’t need permission to do these things. And (at least in the US, because I’ve seen it myself), there’s this unwritten expectation that boys can break their parents’ rules and they won’t tell on each other, but they will more than likely tell on girls—even if it is just a male friend’s sister.

The big question is: why? Why is women’s movement so restricted in so many different circumstances? My best guess is that it’s the fear of what women will do when they have freedom, that they might somehow “shame” the family (this could easily turn into a discussion about “honor” killings). From what I have seen and heard, this often (but certainly not always) boils down to having a boyfriend, or seeing some man that a woman is not married to. But, I’m sure there are other arguments and am open to hearing ideas.

What bothers me most about all these restrictions is that adult women are being treated like children…why do adult women need permission from anybody in their family to do anything?? Granted, with some of the examples I mentioned I was referring to minors, but with these cases it is still unfair that boys of the same age don’t have the same rules.

While I focus primarily on Muslim families and Muslim-majority countries, I want to be clear that I do not at all think that Islam is the root of the problem here—I believe that Islam in its true form is favorable to women’s rights and has too often been misused to justify denying women their rights. At the same time, I don’t support the idea that we have to be so careful in the way that we talk about Muslim women that we turn a blind eye to problems that really do exist. As I mentioned earlier, I hesitate to use the category “Muslim” for various reasons, but at the same time it can’t be ignored that in Muslim-majority countries and in Muslim families, women’s rights are limited. I think this really just goes to show that there is still much work to be done regarding Muslim women’s rights, and that this can be achieved from within an Islamic framework.

[1] I pulled these facts from Joni Seager’s “The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World,” which is really useful is highlighting women’s status concerning different issues all around the world. Some of these facts may be a bit outdated (some from 2000), but for the most part they are still pretty relevant.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Eating Disorders-How to Intervene

Given that last week was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I thought it would be appropriate to write about it for my monthly post (which I am just barely getting in time!)

When I originally thought about writing this, I realized that everything I had to say has already been said--that eating disorders (EDs) are often more psychological than people realize, and can often be more about control than maintaining a certain body image--so instead I thought I'd write a little bit about how to intervene (and how not to) when someone you know has an eating disorder.

As the article linked above mentions, it's important to realize that EDs can come in a variety of forms, and may not necessarily be classified as anorexia or bulimia. It could even be as simple as dieting, which is at times hard to distinguish from a healthy concern for getting proper nutrition.

Whatever the case may be, there are a couple general things to keep in mind when trying to help somebody-however good the intentions may be.

First of all, don't make the person feel like there is something wrong with them-EDs are way more common than people realize, and they can be caused by a number of factors.

Get to the root of the problem. Like I mentioned before, EDs can be triggered for a number of reasons, and in order to get out of it, you have to get to the core of what's wrong. This of course could take awhile, but you could try talking to the person and figure out how they are doing overall-are they going through a particularly rough time? It may be directly related to body image, or it may be about gaining control after something traumatic happens. Whatever the problem is, talking through it may be really helpful.

Don't be forceful. Although it may seem easy to just force someone to have food, or a certain type of food to get them to gain weight, this will probably just cause a backlash and make things worse.

If the problem is Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), it may be helpful to get someone to see what they actually look like. It's really useful to be able to compare to someone else-numbers (ie measurements, clothing sizes) would help!

Lastly, make sure the person knows that they are not alone-let them know how common it is. This is probably best to do after the problem has been acknowledged, and the person is willing to get help.

I don't mean for this to be a comprehensive list of all things you could do to help someone with an ED. Each situation is different, and the severity can really vary. This could go on for years, or or it could be short-lived, or it could reoccur throughout someone's life. The important thing to remember is to work with the person, and figure out exactly what it is they need.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Burqa Ban in the US?: Tensions Among Feminists

As I have previously written about, the burqa (and the hijab) are controversial in that it is not agreed upon among Muslims as to what specifically is mandated by Islam to satisfy the 'modesty' requirements. This is especially controversial among feminists, as it represents the ongoing and seemingly endless debate about whether it is more feminist to allow a freedom of choice in wearing the burqa (or hijab, for the purposes of this argument here), or to declare it misogynist and a symbol of women's oppression.

Phyllis Chesler's article in Middle East Quarterly in Fall 2010 titled "Ban the Burqa? The Argument in Favor" is one example of a feminist (or as I would put it "feminist") argument that supports banning the burqa in the US. She believes it is a misogynist tool to control women's bodies, that is not necessarily required by Islam, but instead is a minority view that is unjustly being forced on all Muslims. Furthermore, she explains that arguments against the burqa ban--that the state should not be controlling women's bodies--does not hold true, as the state does control women's bodies in banning nudity.

There are a couple of points that I do actually agree with: 1) that what counts as "modesty" is debatable and it is not clear if the burqa (or even just the hijab) are required by Islam; and 2) that the burqa requirement is (at times!) a minority view that is unjustly pushed on others (ie in countries that mandate it). BUT there are many problems with her arguments themselves and the evidence she cites in support of this that I find problematic. Lastly, I disagree with her general argument that the burqa (and hijab) are necessarily oppressive, and instead support the idea that to deny choice--any choice--to women is what is actually oppressive.

First of all, Chesler introduces her article by stating that she will explain why she supports banning the burqa in the US, only to follow this introduction with a detailed history of Muslim-majority countries that have banned the burqa or the hijab. By collapsing examples of banning the burqa and the hijab into a single argument, she weakens her argument in that she shows a lack of understanding of the complexity of veiling itself, which takes away her legitimacy in discussing Islamic requirements for (general) veiling.

Chesler gives these historical examples in attempt to show how it must be obvious that the Islamic requirements for the burqa are questionable if so many times Muslim rulers themselves have tried to ban it. But what she doesn't do is explain what the results of those bans have been. Have they been met with resistance? If so, does this not indicate that some women may actually want to wear the burqa? Chesler would likely argue that if this were the case, it would probably be because male family members are pushing their female relatives to wear it, or because they have internalized the oppression. Of course this may be the case, we see example of this in headlines all the time. I'm not denying that the burqa is never forced, I just think that it is not always the case. To assume so would be to assume that women cannot think for themselves and are incapable of escaping religious--or "religious"--beliefs that have been pushed on them.

She goes on to give several specific examples of when the burqa has been forced on women, and the severe consequences if they disobey. She does this to further argue her point that there is just no way that women are able to freely choose to wear the burqa, simply because there have been so many cases when it has been forced. Big problem with this argument here! Just because it has been forced--either by the state or by family members--does not mean it always is! What about women who have not lived in a country that requires the burqa and have not grown up with family members pushing it, and have made a fully-informed (aware of all arguments for and against the burqa) decision to wear it for herself--because they themselves see value in some way or another in wearing it?!

Whose job is it to argue that women have internalized patriarchy?? What is patriarchy and what is oppression? Who gets to decide that? It is not necessarily the same for everybody. Just because you yourself may not agree with a decision, does not mean your views need to be pushed on other that not oppressive? This is an endless debate, but even if we as feminists do not agree with other women's decisions, does not mean we get to dictate how women live their own lives. There could be many reasons women choose to wear the burqa, and it is not up to anyone else to judge why that is.

Lastly, Chesler gives examples of women who wear or have worn the burqa who explain how uncomfortable it is, how oppressive it feels, and who flee a country just to escape it. First of all, these are all obviously examples of when the burqa has clearly been forced...where are the testimonies of women who have worn the burqa on their own, free from the state's or their family's requirements? Also, an example she argues is that "many Saudi and Afghan women toss their coverings the moment they leave the country or enter their own courtyards" (Chesler 2010). Where does this evidence come from? A book written by Edward Hunter in 1959!! I mean, really? That is a little bit outdated, is it not??

Chesler argues for a burqa ban in the US, but this is all based on assumptions that the burqa is always forced, and cherry-picks negative examples to show how it has been forced, and assumes that this is always the case. Like I said, it is sometimes hard for feminists to agree with all decisions other feminists may make, but the most important thing is that we are given a choice in the matter. Forcing our own views on other feminists is also oppressive, which is what feminism is supposed to get away from in the first place.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Overcoming Prejudices Against Muslims?

Washington Post opinion writer Kathleen Parker, really gets on my nerves. The first time she did, she accused Obama of not being 'manly' enough.

This time, she's arguing that we are overreacting to prejudices against Muslims, rather than trying to talk through it and overcome our prejudices. She's speaking specifically regarding comments made by (former) NPR analyst Juan Williams about how he gets nervous sitting next to presumed Muslims on airplanes, and about Bill O'Reilly's recent comments on The View that "Muslims killed us on 9/11."

I do agree with her in the sense that yes, we should be able to talk about our prejudices. I really do think that's the only way we can get over them. Most of the time we don't even recognize the prejudices we have, or why it is we have them. These are things that need to be addressed.

But were these overreactions? No. What Kathleen Parker doesn't understand is the effect that these comments and beliefs have on the people they are directed towards. It's as simple as trying to step in someone else's shoes for the day. How would you feel if someone you were sitting next to on an airplane didn't feel comfortable next to you because you "looked" like a potential terrorist? And this may not necessarily even be what you are wearing, but it could be the color of your skin, or what your name is. So no, it's not an overreaction, because it is placing the blame on people who aren't responsible for your prejudices.

Also, the language that she uses throughout her piece shows her lack of understanding of Islam and the difference between culture and religion. She otherizes Muslims by using phrases like "Muslim attire," and using the word "Allah" rather than God.

First of all, what is "Muslim attire?" Is it shalwar kameez, as common in Pakistan? Is it the thobe seen in Saudi Arabia? Is it all clothing that we seen worn in Muslim-majority countries? What about the religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries that wear the same clothes as Muslims in their country? Is it still considered "Muslim attire" then? What about Muslims in the West that wear western clothing? And of course, the hijab. That is likely a giveaway, isn't it? But what about in countries wear the hijab is mandatory (ex: Iran), and is not necessarily a sign of piety, or of adhering to Islam at all? Clothing in these examples is more about culture, not religion. The point is, she (although she is explaining Williams' comments, she still uses this in her own words) is making assumptions about how to identify a Muslim based on clothing, when they may not necessarily be an indicator.

Next, she uses "Allah" instead of God. Most people (including Parker, apparently) don't realize that "Allah" is merely the Arabic word for God. Arab Christians (gasps! yes, they exist), pray to Allah as well. According to Islam, God is the same in all three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), but this idea has not been so readily accepted by Christians. So, when we hear Christians (or even non-Christians, but perhaps just Westerners in general) continually referring to "Allah," when referring to the "Muslim God," it only reflects either a lack of understanding of both the word itself and the concept of God in Abrahamic traditions, or an unwillingness to accept the similarities between Islam and Christianity. (I am only referring to Christianity because this is where it has been the biggest issue, at least to my knowledge).

The point is, Parker's choice of language reflects an 'us vs. them' attitude and demonstrates either her lack of understanding of Islam, or her unwillingness to dismantle the religious hierarchy that she is perpetuating.

So yes, I agree that we do need to engage in dialogue if we ever want to overcome our prejudices. But at the same time, that doesn't mean we can dismiss these incidents as "overreactions." Doing so only permits the idea that it is ok that these prejudices exist, and as long as we keep doing that, it will be difficult to overcome them.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Gender and Politics

A recent Washington Post article details several incidents lately in which congressional and gubernatorial candidates have accused their opponents of not being ‘manly’ enough.

Then-Republican senatorial primary candidate Christine O’Donnell told her opponent Representative Mike Castle that “this is not a bake-off - get your man-pants on.” Similarly, Jane Norton, Republican senatorial primary candidate, accused her opponent of “not being man enough” to do his own bidding. This has also been true among men, such as when Carl Paladino accused his opponent of not having “cojones” to face him in a debate.

All these comments demonstrate not only how there is a certain ideal of masculinity that men need to live up to, but also it is necessary to have in politics. By accusing other men of not being “manly” enough, it is a direct attempt in emasculating a man. This way, politicians are reinforcing the idea of the necessity of a specific form of masculinity—strength and bravery—and subsequently discouraging voters from supporting them by shaming them for “failing” to live up to this ideal.

Masculinity is something that is constantly changing and taking new forms. Where it was once only acceptable for men to be the main breadwinner and let women maintain the household and the family, there is now increasing support for men to take more responsibilities within the family, that this is the new masculine ideal.

With this in mind, we can see how masculinity is shaped and reshaped in order to put pressure on men. Whereas there are more varied forms of acceptable femininity (although women also face criticism for stepping outside of typical gender roles, outside of the home), this is not as true for men. If a man is unable to prove himself as “manly,” he will be ridiculed as weak and feminine.

As the public sphere is generally a man’s world, especially in politics, anyone that is not masculine enough—strong, unemotional, rational, and brave—will not be accepted. This is seen with the above accusations, in attempt to get rid of anybody that does not fit.

As we can see, women perpetuate cycle. Women in politics often have more to prove than men do, since they are stepping out of the private sphere and into the public sphere, where they have not always belonged and so still struggle to fit in to. By accusing men of not being “manly” enough, women are able to not only show that they can play the same games in a man’s world, but also they also reinforce the idea that there is one certain masculinity that men must live up to, or else they will not be suited for the world of politics.

This just goes to show how deeply embedded gender is in our society, and until we are able to live in a gender-free world, it will continue to be the case that one’s assumed capability for being in public office is not based on actual credentials or leadership skills, but rather on meaningless gender stereotypes that maintain the superiority of masculine over feminine. While gender neutrality is ideal, it is nevertheless difficult to resist, and when we do resist, we are punished. Men are punished for not being “manly” enough, and women for not being “feminine” enough. Gender resistance may vary in how they affect political candidates, but if nothing else it is used as a weapon in attacking one’s character and potential as a politician.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

New form of dating violence: text messaging

Wrote this a few months ago and it's shorter than it would be ordinarily, since I was going to send it into a blog but never did...

A recent Washington Post article ( describes how text messaging is being used as a form of harassment among dating couples. Jealous partners will text their significant others at all times of day and night to find out what they are doing, who they are with, or simply to demand attention. They do so repeatedly; in one case in the article, a woman would receive up to 30 messages at a time from her boyfriend. Similar stories have surfaced, and have resulted in death.

As the article suggests, because texts are easier to hide, it makes it more difficult to know about the problem and help the victim. This is only more reason to find programs that prevent these situations in the first place. There are two basic approaches to reaching young people directly: addressing the potential perpetrator, or addressing the potential victim.

While the mainstream media tends to blame the victim in gender-based violence—i.e. a woman walking alone at night is at fault for taking such a “risk”—feminists fight to ensure that perpetrators receive the blame they deserve. Going along with this, it is important to understand how victims (most often women) end up in abusive relationships to begin with. Although a relationship may not be physically abusive, constant harassment and threats is also a form of abuse.

Women and girls grow up surrounded by a society that essentially persuades them to seek male approval. In other words, we are taught that we are only beautiful if we are able to get a boyfriend. This is at least partially to blame for how women and girls get into abusive relationships—because they want to fit in, no matter the cost. To make matters worse, it is even more difficult to leave an abusive relationship.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Coming Soon!

Blog is soon to be resurrected!