Tag Archives: feminism

Two links about religion

If you’re coming here for the nature stuff or the poetry, well, I’ll get back to that next week. I wanted to keep on the religion/secularism thing for one more post and throw up a couple links about religion and material culture – punningly literal material culture. I’m talking about clothes, son. I’m teaching a class on doing research in religion and secularism studies this semester, so it’s even more on my mind than usual.

First, this blog post by the Pew Research Center about a University of Michigan study about religion and secularism in primarily Middle-Eastern Muslim-majority countries drew a lot of attention, as it focused on social attitudes toward appropriate women’s dress as an index of secularism, Westernization, and Muslim identity. In particular, the infographic at the top of the post went massively viral.

FT_styleofdress13141

It shows stylized portraits of six Muslim women from the head up in attire perceived as increasingly less restrictive, starting with the burqa and then moving toward an ultimately uncovered head and Western attire, and then gives the percentage of respondents from each country that selected that attire as the most appropriate dress for women in public. Some of the attention the graphic drew was satirical, some of it disapproving, but mostly it would seem the attention was due to the fascination with how Muslim women dress. (Hey, I retweeted it too.) Hence the disapproval, that Pew was playing into the Western obsession with Muslim women’s hair-covering, not to mention that the graphic abstracted women in the countries covered to a handful of caricatures.

I get the discomfort with the reduction of women’s presence to a sliding scale of clothing marked as increasingly foreign and weird, and I get the annoyance at how fascinated people seem to be with this aspect of culture in Islamic societies. But 1) I think a graphic like this helps give people a slightly better picture of the complexity of cultural expressions of and responses to female modesty in the Islamic world, and, 2) as the authors of the study point out, issues of women’s dress have been central to internal debates about the status of women and secularization for over a century. I think, too, though, that the study could have used some more sophisticated thinking about dress and religious identity that would have helped them move beyond the rather simple and Eurocentric contention that the question of dress unproblematically “also revolves around the question of individual choice, gender equality and a woman’s control over her own body and sexuality,” but it’s certainly true that those questions come up.

The benefit of a more nuanced approach can I think be seen in the interesting and unsurprising gender breakdown of responses in regards to dress. Men and women in each country were largely in agreement about appropriate attire, but differed considerably “on the issue of a woman’s right to dress as she wishes. Women are more strongly in favor of this statement than men across the seven countries. People with a university education are also more supportive of women’s choice (except in Saudi Arabia).” That the Christian populations favor less restrictive clothing is also not surprising, and of course reflects economic and cultural situations and not exclusively religious. What does it mean, I would want the study to explore, that women can insist on having more control and more choice over their clothing, positions that could certainly be seen as reflecting secular values, but that their choices would still mesh with those seen as being more religious, or more traditional?

Second, what I would want it to be would to be more like this fascinating discussion of women’s clothing and religion by Laura Leibman over at Religion in American History that looks at nineteenth-century attitudes toward Judaism, the fraught intersection between whiteness and blackness at the time, and women’s clothing and fashion. I’ll let it stand on its own, and you should go read it in full. A couple things that struck me, though, in the context of the previous debate are the extent to which loose and disheveled clothing were used in art to indicate the non-white status of Jews, and the extent to which clothing that could be seen as stiffer and more restrictive could indicate the relatively freer and less black status of the wearer. That’s the entry into Leibman’s reading of the wedding portrait of a freed mixed-race daughter of a Jewish plantation owner and a slave that closes the post, which then goes on to highlight a number of representations of class and gender freedoms and restrictions in the subject’s tightly corseted attire that cannot be reduced, as she says, to “an assimilationist vs. devout model.”

Leave a comment

Filed under secularism/religion, Uncategorized

#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen

You spend time on Twitter? I confess that I’ve had an account for years but only started using it heavily in the past few months (@el_donaldo if you like). Didn’t really get it at first. Now I’m fascinated.

This blew up as a trend yesterday: #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. I’m not entirely clear what started it – apparently something to do with Hugo Schwyzer, a porn and gender studies professor who has written for Jezebel and other popular outfits that I’ve never heard of. (And I read Jezebel.) Some sort of public confession and meltdown, a history of dismissal of feminists from non-European backgrounds, and maybe some more stuff I’m missing, but whatever sent the tag out there tapped into something pretty massive. There is apparently a great deal of resentment among many people working on women’s issues about a bias within feminist discourse to see white, Eurocentric, bourgeois women’s issues as definitive for the movement, and furthermore a bias toward working with those issues as if they were exclusively gender issues divorced from any context of race, class, history, and geopolitics. Watching the hashtag grow was very exciting and illuminating.

This article from Al Jazeera English describes the groundswell of protest and some of its content pretty well. What I was struck with, and this ties into a lot of my previous posts about Islam and the West, was that a critique of a feminism that imagines itself to be above or beyond issues of race and ethnicity is also a critique of a specifically Western secularism. I don’t think that the hashtag covers feminist voices that are explicitly anti-secular, though it is entirely possible that those voices are out there; I do think that the blowback against an ideologically deracinated feminism is also a critique against a secularism that does not recognize its own religious stakes.

solidarityisforwhitewomenOne of the repeated objections revealed by the hashtag is anger generated by the opposition of Western feminists to the headscarf. That headscarf, or hijab, or whichever manifestation we’re discussing, is seen by many in the West as oppressive, and many women in countries where female modesty is strictly enforced also agree, and yet many feminists from Islamic cultures view these obligations much more complexly. I don’t think the objection from Muslim feminists to be anti-secular, though, whatever it may be, as the headscarf also has its secular competent as I discussed in the last post: modesty may obscure, but it also permits. The problem I believe is that a Euro-centric feminism looks at the headscarf and sees misplaced and oppressive religiosity where religion and secularity are actually both present and deeply entwined. And that perspective also views itself as fully appropriately secular, not recognizing that it is as well deeply entwined with assumptions about the appropriateness of religious practice and the public sphere.

Anyway, last post on secularism for a while, as I’m back to writing about nature and writing about writing about nature.

Leave a comment

Filed under secularism/religion