this week is islam awareness week. it's a week where the muslim community in nz makes an effort to open it's doors and invite the community to get to know us. not that the doors are closed at any other time of the year, but sometimes people need an invitation before they'll come in. it's an attempt to break down barriers, to provide a positive response to prejudice & discrimination, to stop being "other" and show that we are part of an increasingly diverse community.
the dominion post decided to lead in to islam awareness week with an article about a museum in lower hutt holding an exhibition, a small part of which is not accessible to men. i'm not saying this isn't a newsworthy item - of course it's something people would want to know about and be able to discuss. but i really debate that it was so newsworthy that it merited most of the front page, with a large picture of a woman in a burqa. i've written about the use of such pictures before, but funnily enough, this would be one of the few stories where such a picture might actually be appropriate.
the decision to place the story in this way and with such prominence was clearly deliberately, with the decision-makers perfectly aware of the consequences. they want those consequences: the outrage, the furious letters to the editor (yup, they published one stating that Muhammad was a rapist), the howls of complaint from some white men about discrimination. of course they wanted all that - it's what sells papers and makes money.
what do they care how it affects a minority community that already gets plenty of vilification in this country. not their business if the lives of muslim women are made more difficult, if prejudice is more entrenched, if they knowingly inflame the bigots. in covering this issue the way they did and subsequently choosing to publish the letters in the way they have, they are clearly giving a nice, big "f**k you" to the well-being of muslim women in this country. and don't tell me publishing letters is a freedom of speech issue, because it really isn't. the paper does not publish every letter it receives verbatim. there are plenty it chooses not to publish, plenty it chooses to abridge. letters to the editor are a censored medium, published at the whim of the editorial team, and when they decide to put your name under the "points noted" bit without publishing your letter, they don't even bother to give an explanation as to why they've made that decision.
no, this was a deliberate decision to provoke, at the expense of a minority community, as our media so loves to do. because it works. hence michael laws, leighton smith, paul holmes and so many more. these people would not get column space for some pretty awful views otherwise.
on the other hand, i find that rosemary mcleod has actually had some sensible things to say on the subject, particularly this [emphasis added]:
I'm not sure what the exact purpose of the video is, but I suspect
the reaction is exactly what the maker expected. It creates in our
non-Muslim men a deep curiosity over something they normally take for
granted, a curiosity unwelcome to women who regard the male gaze as such
a problem that they hide all of themselves, apart from their eyes, when
they're in public.
That turns men who insist on viewing them into voyeurs, who seek to
over-ride their wishes, which are in effect a demand for privacy.... Mr Young believes there is a 'human right' involved in his being able to
peek at women who don't want him to. That's an attitude a rather long
stretch, but a relevant one, from that of Julian Assange. It's about
consent. The Wiki Leaks hero-to-some seems to think that a woman
consents to everything he feels like doing to her if she has once
succumbed to his manifold charms. He is wrong.
that's what it's about for me: the entrenched sense of entitement to women's bodies, including their faces, the view that women's bodies are somehow public property which leads to this notion that women choosing to deny access to men is somehow an infringement of human rights. it also has it's roots in a colonialist view of eastern women. when europeans came to the east, they came with this romaticised notion of exotic eastern women, and their sense of entitlement of these women. the fact that european men were denied access by a cultural practice of segregation and seclusion lead to a similar sense of outrage from early travellers to the east, and a similar condemnation. all couched in the rhetoric of emancipation and empowerment, which of course only belonged to european women. their eastern sisters apparently needed to be freed from their bonds, but for what exactly was never made clear. it's not like women's education improved with the arrival of colonisers, nor their participation in public life.
much of the outrage over this is couched in the language of culture and cultural supremacy. this exclusion/seclusion is apparently not part of nz culture - it's how they do things "over there", definitely not what we do here. which nicely disappears all kiwi muslims who very much belong here, and very much have equal right to determine how culture over here develops. and if some of these women choose seclusion, well allowing them to make that choice is exactly how we do things over here. and if women here allowed to make that choice, then why can't qatari women?
here's another excellent post on the issue, one that deals really well with the issue of privilege. and also this:
If we really cared about the rights of Islamic women, rather than
just using them as a political football when it is expedient, we would
listen to them, and respect their choices. Respecting someones rights
means respecting their autonomy and treating them as they wish to be
treated. Going against the express wishes of the artist and the women
who consented to be in her video is not helping islamic women, it is
saying that their voices don’t matter and their decisions are not to be
This really isn’t about men being able to view the exhibit, at it’s
core this issue is about people setting boundaries about what they feel
is appropriate behaviour in New Zealand. Apparently many people feel
that islamic women setting boundaries for safe space for themselves, in
accordance with their wishes and their religion is inappropriate in New
Zealand. In New Zealand we value diversity but only if it is palatable,
and fits in with “New Zealand values” whatever that might mean. People
seem to be more willing for the Dowse gallery to give up the exhibition
than actually respect the artists wishes.
the thing is that i see coverage like this, i see the way the debate is couched and often find myself in despair. how does one even begin to counter it? well, i was reminded by the secretary of the waikato interfaith council that we counter it by organising things like islam awareness week, but engaging directly with the community and creating spaces where we can foster and model harmony rather than division. the council has been hugely supportive of islam awareness week, both in participation and organisation, and it has made a huge difference to our community here in the waikato.
so check out the islam awareness week website for events, and if you're in the waikato, please do come to the mosque open day in the morning or the interfaith tree planting in the afternoon. we would love to see you there.