Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Humanism and the Hijab

In response to The Apostate's mighty rant, a muse u offers her personal experiences regarding the hijab:
my assumptions and western conditioning were challenged when I lived in a moderate Muslim country for several months.

I had the opportunity to experience cover as a westerner passing for local on a temporary basis. ...

When I returned to the states, NYC first, I missed the cover. I missed the freedom of not being hit on constantly, not having to think about who i was turning on. ... Now, in my western way, I fend off such advances with 30lbs of fat added to my frame.

I’m not defending Veils or Hijab, nor am I pretending we are as free as many may think we are here. I simply felt the desire to share a glimpse of an experience I had that challenged my assumptions.
Very central to this experience is that it was fundamentally voluntary. Even though it was taken to conform to a culture, the commenter was visiting voluntarily and could (and did) leave whenever she pleased without harm or loss.

In most Islamic cultures, the hijab is coerced, not just by social pressure, but also by legal and extra-legal violence. Conformance to an act enforced by violence cannot be in any sense "liberating". At the very best, such conformance is a tolerable submission, the sacrifice of a smaller value for a larger. (For example, by conforming to violently enforced laws against stealing, I sacrifice the lesser value of being able to arbitrarily take property for the larger value of protecting my lawfully acquired property. It is still the case that not stealing cannot be actually "liberating"; it is still a sacrifice, albeit tolerable.)

There's no evidence, no good argument, that women in Islamic culture acquire any larger value by their act of submission in donning the hijab. Actual sexual exploitation is prevalent in Islamic culture; it merely takes different forms than in the West. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Theo Van Gogh's film Submission dramatizes the submission of women's sexuality in toto in Islamic culture. It is clear that the stated instrumental value of the hijab — to protect women from sexual exploitation — is a hypocritical lie. It actually facilitates male sexual exploitation; we must conclude it exists in Islamic culture entirely to disempower and subordinate women, not only sexually but socially and individually.

That the commenter personally found it liberating and instrumental in avoiding sexual exploitation is due to the entirely different semiotics of the act in Western culture.

There is a deep paradox in social constructs such as the hijab. On the one hand, it seems intuitive that ideally everyone should be permitted to fully express his or her sexuality*; ideally one should not have to take any individual measures at all, much less measures that undermine one's own sexuality, to fend off unwanted advances or otherwise avoid exploitation. These measures should, in the ideal case, be entirely the responsibility of the legal system, not the individual.

*subject, of course, to the more general ethical constraints of consent and reciprocity. All further ethical assertions include this proviso.

On the other hand, people have the feelings they have — good, bad and indifferent — about sexuality; these feelings are just as much facts about a person's nature as any of their other genetically, socially or idiosyncratically constructed feelings.

Furthermore, there are a lot of people who behave in oppressive and exploitative ways, and it would be nonsense to demand for any reason that someone not protect herself against such behavior in whatever way she sees fit.

No one can fault an individual for trying to adapt and behave so as to maximize her own happiness and minimize her suffering, no matter how she happen to be, no matter how she constructs happiness and suffering. On the other hand, any time an individual appears to diminish himself to negotiate society, any person with a broader vision of human happiness than the purely individual must be concerned.

So, on the one hand, I don't fault at all any individual woman who wears the hijab, nor do I fault any individual woman for putting on 30 lbs. of unwanted fat to avoid unwanted attention. On the other hand, I definitely fault the social and cultural constructs that push women into making these choices which, to my mind, make them choose between how to diminish themselves and take away the choices which would augment themselves.

... to segue to more abstract theoretics...

It is entirely possible to have an entirely different judgment of an act at the individual level and at the social and cultural level. I have to presume that every individual's choices are taken to maximize her own happiness and minimize her own suffering; I can judge an individual's actions only on the direct and foreseeable effect of those actions on other people. But on a social level, I have to judge socially constructed actions on their effects on an idealized individual, on my opinion about how a person should be.

Without this standard, I cannot judge at all; I cannot make any comparisons at all. I cannot judge Nazi Germany, I cannot judge Stalinist Russia, I cannot judge the dystopian society of 1984. I cannot even judge the elements in my own society that lead to the commenter's own suffering: I can no more condemn the men who make unwanted advances than I can condemn her response. Without appeal to the ideal individual, I cannot say anything but observe that each person "legitimately" tries to maximize his own happiness and minimize his own suffering. I cannot even apply the provisos of consent and reciprocity.

All ethical judgments must reference some conception of the ideal individual, and that idealization is a matter of individual opinion, not truth. There is no other basis on which one can judge. All other bases reduce to this opinion. There is only more or less honesty in admitting and being explicit about this basis.

The difference between modernism and "good" (or coherent) postmodernism is the postmodernist admission that the basis of ethical judgment is individual. Good postmodernism differs from bullshit postmodernism in that the good postmodernist has the "existential courage" to actually make judgments on the authority of her opinion; the bullshit postmodernist just wraps his judgments in a flavor of bullshit different from modernism.

Because I am a human being, I make and express judgments. Because I am myself, I make the particular judgments I make. Because I recognize that my judgment reduces to my opinion (my opinion, moreover, about something, the ideal individual, that does not actually exist) I express my judgments in words rather than going around hitting people on the head when they do not agree with me.

Because I do judge, I judge Islam to be odious, which seems to piss off a lot of people who call themselves liberal. I'm very explicit: my ideal individual has nothing to do with being white, or Christian (ha!), or doing any of the cultural things I enjoy as an American. My ideal individual is happy, avoids physical suffering, and, most importantly chooses as she herself pleases. Full stop. It is against that standard and only that standard that I judge.

On the other hand, because I know my opinion is in fact an opinion, I don't support making war or violently repressing a culture I consider odious, which seems to piss off a lot of people who call themselves conservative.

Happily, I'm used to pissing most everyone off and it doesn't bother me in the least.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I am behind the times; what a lot to catch up with.

    On hijab as a means of avoiding being hit on; maybe it's just because I am not young and beautiful, but both hijab and 30lbs of extra fat seem to me to be unnecessarily extreme methods of sending out a general "sorry, not interested" signal. Comfortable and practical clothes do not, on the whole, overlap that much with clothes that are seen as sexy. I have heard women argue that they ought to be able to present themselves attractively (make-up, not-so-comfortable and practical clothes) for themsleves, without risk of being hit on. But....I don't entirely understand why they would get pleasure out of being dressed to be sexually attractive but at the same time not want anyone to express the attraction. It seems to me perilously close to wanting to have your cake and eat it.


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