Dispatches From the Moderate Left

Monday, September 05, 2005

Feminists and Choice

Questions of choice have long split sections of the feminist movement. Radical feminists fight against liberal and post-modern feminists as to whether or not pornography and prostitution should be choices available to women who engage in them of their own free will or whether they are inherently exploitative and damage all women by reinforcing patriarchy (I'm simplifying here, obviously). The same sorts of fights emerge in the career mum vs stay at home mum debates - are stay at home mums betraying the ideals early feminists fought for and providing bad examples for their children or are they exercising a valid personal and lifestyle choice? Radical feminists would obviously question whether the latter is a choice at all, looking at the broader forces which pressure women into child rearing roles.

Anyway, debates last week centered around the wearing of the Hijab, the catalyst for this being calls from various Liberal back-bencher's to ban them in public schools. At least one feminist agreed with the idea of a ban, saying that the wearing of the head covering by young children especially didn't represent a valid exercise of choice by an individual women but was a reflection of patriarchy forced upon them under strong cultural pressure. She noted that only 72 Muslim students in France had defied the ban which she thought indicated that they weren't personally attached to wearing it and welcomed the chance to be 'free'. She also argued that the strongest voices in the Muslim community were men and that the 'true' desires of Islamic women weren't able to be openly expressed. Essentially this is a radical feminist analysis – the headscarf has a fixed meaning, patriarchal authority, and a ban would disrupt this power.

Other's disagreed from a liberal perspective, seeing it as a harmless and deeply personal expression of religious and cultural identity – a sentiment echoed by an Islamic girl in the Politicl Interest Society at uni. A more post-modern analysis looked at the differing semiotics/signals of the head wear – it's meaning isn't fixed and is dependent on the person and circumstances. That analysis also put the discussion in the broader cultural perspective of a very real fascination with women's clothing. Post-modernists might also have noted that people calling for the ban were universally from the dominant (white) culture and a ban might be reinforcing this power even if it did subvert some segment of patriarchal power.

Personally I come down on the liberal side of things, specifically with Pamela Bone's article (linked earlier). She argued that the Hijab was harmless but the Burqua was out of bounds, at least for public figures such as teachers. She argued, and I agree, that a Burqua is incompatible with liberal notions of gender equality and its symbolism is so powerful that it is an affront to liberal values. Obviously a complete ban is impractical, but people can legitimately be excluded from wearing it in certain public situations.

I say I come on the liberal side of things because I know where a post-modern analysis can lead and it isn't pretty. One of my law classes (HPL II) was basically a philosophy class and it was taught by a philosophy Phd student. It emerged over the course of the semester (in one of my many arguments with her) that she was writing her thesis on how Victoria's proposed ban on performing and sending abroad children to have 'female genital mutilation' (circumcision) performed was both racist and sexist. Her position was confronting and in the end quite disturbing (and I don't really want to go into the details, but I have to in order to convey why her argument was so disturbing).

Her basic argument was that choice itself was a western cultural construction. She had found a Somali women who had the procedure done in her adult life and who wrote about the experience. My lecturer thought it highly revealing that this woman never spoke about her actions as being the result of a conscious choice – it was just something she did. Thus she thought that preventing cultural practices like this on young children was imposing western values on other peoples because arguments against the procedure rely on preserving children's choice.

Her argument that the ban was sexist was even more bizzare. She argued that male constructions of rationality and logic placed these characteristics in the penis and clitoris, respectively (I warned you). Thus women who had it removed (like the Somali women arguing against the ban) were treated as irrational due to the sexist and 'hegemonic' idea that reason rested in the genitals.

This lecturer was a committed post-modernist (to take another example, she thought 'germ theory' was an illegitimate construction created by western scientists using the hegemonic power of the 'scientific method' - I'm not making this up) and I think arguments like this – that no cultural practice can ever be condemned and that there is no external truth – is the inevitable end of pomo thinking. Give me liberal notions of human rights, the inherent dignity of human life, the idea that individual choice is real and should not be taken away by others without good reason and the fact that just because someone says they support something doesn't mean it's right any day.


  • I don't even know why the question of a ban on headscarf has to come up. They say it creates a division amongst students at school. It becomes a symbolic cultural barrier and will cause separation and disunity. Okay, so banning headscarfs will create this free and united school atmosphere?

    When was the last time these politicians went to a normal state school? Kids sit separately from each other based on their 'groups', would it really make a difference if these girls who are supposedly forced by their parents (more in particular - since we are being sexist - their father) didn't have to wear a scarf? They will all of a sudden start hanging around the ‘cool’ kids and take up smoking? No.

    How can we impose our views onto someone? How can we say that we don't like what you wear, because it goes against our idea of unity and a free world...? A free world? How can these two things even co-exist? How can you force someone to not wear something in order to enforce their freedom to do anything?

    If it was for a security reason, like a motorcycle helmet in a bank, that’s fine. I can appreciate the idea there, but this is ridiculous, racist and anti-Muslim garbage, that is all that it is.

    By Anonymous Apollyon, at 11:15 AM  

  • if you don't mind me asking, which HPL tutor did you have Jeremy? she sounds pretty beyond it for the law faculty (an Arts tute would be another matter)

    Because PM approaches are epistemological they critique the very concept of 'science' (remember that the scientific method is a product of the Enlightenment, and PM by definition addreses the alleged failure of the enlightenment project). Thus they undermine not only the social sociences but even the physical ones. I think the following pretty much represents the PM lunatic fringe (full article here )-

    'Feminist Luce Irigaray has argued that the relativity equation, E=mc2, is a "sexed equation" that "privileges the speed of light over other speeds which are vitally necessary to us, and which therefore belong to the `masculine physics' that `privileges' rigid over fluid entities . . ."'

    Recall that Einstein and colleagues were hounded out of 1930's Germany for their 'Jewish physics'...

    By Blogger John Lee, at 11:12 AM  

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