Monday, August 5, 2013

Wherein the Matron Treads Dangerous Waters

A couple of years ago, Minnesota Public Radio started -- no, woke up -- the Matron with the "radio journal" of a young Somali man.   Here since a small child, the young man lamented the state of his male elders:   "They sit in coffee shops and gossip all day. They waste their time talking about politics and dreams that evade.  They do nothing while my mothers and sisters and aunties cook, clean, raise the children, and make all the strong decisions.  These women do nothing but work.  For the men in my community, it is quite the opposite.  What kind of role models are these men -- for me?"

It just so happened, yours truly had been spending an inordinate amount of time at a coffee shop central to the Somali community.  The Twin Cities has the largest Somali population outside of that country; most are Muslims.   Because a coffee shop near one of Scarlett's many shows was easy --and the wifi and coffee were strong -- the Matron pretty much took up residence, all but cooking and bathing there.  She certainly slept from time to time.  

She was almost always the only woman.

At first, she didn't really notice.    A frequent ladies room flyer, she delighted in that spot's eternal vacancy:  "what a great place!  The bathroom is always empty!"     The men's room?  Sometimes there was an actual wait!   Sloooooowly she took note.   Part of the coffee shop's appeal was its singular atmosphere:  entirely pleasant, like an African Cheers fueled by caffeine instead of booze.  So nicer.  Everybody knew everybody's name.   There was plenty of hugging and back-slapping, spirited phone calls in the lilt of mystery languages.  There were hours of gesturing, vibrant outdoor conversations over cigarettes and steaming mugs.

And everyone enjoying this good company?  Male.

This didn't really bother the Matron -- even as she fully understood the gender disparities (and yes, she chose that word) that meant the men had the freedom (or leisure?  she wasn't sure) to converse in public all evening while women were nowhere to be seen.  

But that young man's lament for those 'wasted' lives forever changed the Matron's perspective.  From then on, for every man sipping espresso and reading the paper, she imagined the wife, mother, or daughter at home (or all three and their sisters).   Toiling.   She also imagined their young sons, bearing witness.  Yet she also knew that she had just the most marginal grasp on the obstacles the fathers and husbands faced.  Forget  meaningful, interesting work that defines a life or profession.   She's talking obstacles to simple employment.

Tonight, the Matron revisited that environment in a different, nearby cafe -- again, waiting for Scarlett, this time while the daughter indulged her need to be in the audience.    Once again, the Matron was the only woman in the teem and flow of life.   Indeed, she and her trusty laptop landed the very last, most awkwardly positioned table available, which she gratefully snatched up.   Once again, she fully appreciated how little she knew about the lives of these men, how hard the road they traveled.

But something else has transpired since that first coffee shop two years ago and the radio journal.    Before teaching a Gender and Women's Studies class called "Women and Global Issues," the Matron did what any scholar worth her salt would do.  She studied.  Now, academic are supposed to be neutral, objective, reasoned.  But she made a strategic decision to study in order to embrace Islam as a feminist.   Because an unfortunate n internal radar --fueled by very little other than a low grade fog of female suspicion -- had already unfortunately positioned the Matron oh-so-slightly of the opinion that Islam was bad for women.   She took it upon herself to change her mind so that she could demonstrate to her students that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam had comparable restrictions when it came to women:  no better, no worse.

At this point, it may strike the average reader of this blog -- who is trying to get through one damn post in a single glass of wine, thank you -- that a book or documentary might be the only legitimate way to tackle this topic.   Reader?  That would be true.

So she won't even pretend there's anything adequate, thorough or balanced about what's ahead, but cut to her personal chase.

After four months of reading books by and about Islamic feminists, the Matron had a much more acute awareness of her own physical oppression, vulnerability, and objectification as a woman within her own religious and cultural spheres.    She returned anew to Judeo-Christian injustices inflicted upon women and began to think that any woman who had more than three children for religious reasons (no matter what religion) might be good with God but was in serious secular trouble.    Even Buddhism, where her own religious salve resides, took on a more ominous light with its long, male-centered history and wars about which she had previously been unaware.   She left her study with a bitter taste for fundamentalism in all its forms.

After four months of reading books by and about Islamic feminists explaining, delineating, and defending Islam, the Matron also realized that her low grade fog of female suspicion was . . . actually a well-honed survival instinct.   She could not come away in feminism's defense of contemporary Islam  as it is experienced by most practicing women throughout the world, no matter how very, very hard she tried.   Please reread that line:   "as it is experienced by most practicing women throughout the world."   She understands there women are wearing hijabs in operating rooms, board rooms, universities, and political chambers.   You can wear a burqa at Harvard (and yes, she knows she can't wear one in France).  

But her attempt to retrain herself as the feminist cheerleader for Islam?  Total backfire.   Instead, her intellectual foray led her to the conclusion that gender equity relied upon the freedom enjoyed by the physical body. Can life for men and women be equitable (not equal, but equitable) if the rules regarding the body are much more numerous, comprehensive, restrictive, and consequential for one gender than they are for another?  

For this feminist, the answer is no.    The question can be posed to all religions:   what are the rules regarding the body?  Where it can go?  What it can learn? How much autonomy it has?  Can the body just get up and go?  Run?  Fight?   Love?   Choose its sexual partners and number of children?   Remain without scars and mutilation (yes, male and female circumcision in all cultures came under her scrutiny)?   No religion gets a free pass or gold star:  none.  

No matter how she aimed these questions and where, Islam came up far, far short.  She'll say it:  shorter than Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism (her main concerns).   The rules regarding the body are much more numerous, comprehensive, restrictive, and consequential for women than they are for men.  This, for the Matron, was --and remains -- the deal-breaker. Yes, she understood that feminist Muslims found liberation and power within these rules regarding the body; she understood the reverence and devotion to Allah symbolized (embodied) when the body was disciplined, just so in this way and that.  She got it.  But didn't buy it.   No matter how hard she tried.   Because at the end of the day --or backed into a corner -- how free are you if you cannot be the primary agent of your own body and physical space?

So tonight, in her position among the men, she was far less sanguine.  Instead, she noted physical constraints and conditions  long, fluid, and flexible enough to accommodate the man who lifted his bare face to that all too fleeting Minnesota summer sun.

She made a point of doing the same and wondered where that young journalist was now.   Had he graduated from college and found that meaningful life for which he longed?  Was he paving a different path for the next generation of men, the ones who would also have mothers, sisters, and wives?  Of course, she knows nothing about this young man's whereabouts or fate.  But she is very glad that he's out there and hopes he has a lot of like-minded friends.  Both men and women.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Mary.


Suburban Correspondent said...

This is a little confusing, Matron, because the reader (that would be, uh, ME) has little idea to what religious beliefs/practices you are actually referring. There is such a wide spectrum of practice within any one religion. You mentioned fundamentalism - does that mean you refer only to the fundamentalist strains of all these religions?

And, in reference to "any woman who had more than three children for religious reasons (no matter what religion) might be good with God but was in serious secular trouble," I would say that particular disadvantage is more biologically and economically driven than religiously so. Whether I am Catholic or Mormon or humanist, having several children places me at an economic/physical disadvantage, even here in our secular society.

In short, you're pinpointing religion as the culprit for these women's oppression, where I feel that at least some of the blame (if not most) lies at the feet of our economic policies and cultural assumptions. And let's not forget the biological imperatives that also put women at a disadvantage - the physical vulnerability of childbearing and breastfeeding, to name just two.

Gail said...

Isn't it interesting how we go about our daily lives seeing, but not really observing, until something slaps us up-side the head (such as the young Somali journalist). I liked this post although I didn't agree with all the points. What I am taking away from it is "Look deeper, be observant, think about what it all means."

It's a bit early for my glass of wine, but I did manage a cup of coffee, albeit cold by now. :-)

Minnesota Matron said...

Well, Suburban -- you caught me. I was quite vague in the particulars of which religions. Mostly, I'm talking about the restrictions of Islam, but Christianity and Judaism also have restrictions/rules for the female body (and used to have more). I think most of Christianity and Judaism's mainstream 'rules' for the body are pretty benign. I'm not sure what those rules are for fundamentalist or highly conservative practitioners, but imagine that these are more restrictive and would -- for me -- therefore be more problematic. But you're wrong to say that I'm pinpointing religion as 'the' culprit for female oppression. No, no, no. I'm just making an observation about religion here and not claiming religion to be more or less at fault in gender inequity than other social systems, including the ones that you name: cultural assumptions that have nothing to do with religion and, perhaps most of all, economics. If I were to broaden my analysis beyond religion, I would have to find economics as the most pressing, urgent contributor to gender inequity today. Gong back to that physical control analysis, if you can't feed and clothe yourself (and your children), find a home, support yourself-and that includes during those points you mention, childbearing and breastfeeding -- then we cannot be free. For many women, hard cold cash and its steady supply would save and/or change their lives, no matter what religion dictated. This extends to women who can't get water in developing countries (water is a huge problem that affects women and children first) to middle-class women in developed countries like the U.S. who can't get a divorce because they don't have the economic means to support themselves or their children. So if I had to 'pinpoint' the biggest problem, it would be economics.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that despite your prejudice going in, you came out sensing the great difference. I suppose one can debate the intersections of culture and religion, but at the end of the day, from everything I've read and seen, Islam does not hold women in the same esteem as men. I was really curious about the conclusion YOU would draw, though.
Also, a lovely intersection between the man on the radio, the coffee shop and your research.

Minnesota Matron said...

Sue - Your comments appeared in my gmail but not here: thank you! I know you weren't giving your life story but it sounded like an interesting one : -). But I also appreciate the nod to genuine curiosity. That's always a good thing!

Robin said...

As I understand it, the Quran itself, as compared to the Bible, places relatively few restrictions on female dress/behaviour. (The Bible just looooooooves to tell the ladies what we can and can't do. Talking in church? Teaching the scriptures? Not allowed. Thanks a bunch, St Paul, you dick.) A lot of the restrictions that have come to be part of Islam - including veiling - were culturally present in the Middle East before Islam, and were gradually incorporated as religious practices.

I also always note, when this discussion arises, that the largest Muslim nation in the world (Indonesia) has elected a female head of state - again, this could show that a lot of the anti-female elements that are considered 'Muslim' are in fact geographically and culturally specific.

That said, I'm not an apologist for the enormous amount of oppression of women that is done in the name of Islam. All the crap that goes down in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan? Women being prevented from driving, showing their faces, going to school? That sh*t needs to stop. Islam, as much as something so wide-ranging and disparate can be summed up in a single word, has a long, long way to go in its treatment of women.

Interesting post! :)

Minnesota Matron said...

Robin -
Your very good observations touch on the complexities that my post notes it must avoid (that book-length manuscript would be needed). But you're right about the cultural intersections with religion. One of the most striking is that people tend to assume that female circumcision-genital mutilation is an Islamic tradition: it's not. Female genital mutilation rises out of specific cultural traditions that are more about geography and tribe (culture0 than religion, yet the practice -- in much of the non-Muslim imagination -- is linked to Islam. But Islam is also part of the motivation for those geographic/cultural/tribal hot spots where female genital mutilation is widespread. But 'part.' And the practice certainly is not inherently Islamic. Anyway, just an example that comes to mind, reinforcing your point about culture.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

I've not made a study of it, but I found Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali to make a compelling argument for Islam being very anti-woman.

Minnesota Matron said...

Jenn -- I read that book. Hirsi Ali makes a resounding case against Islam. But then I also read a book (can't remember the title now) about Hirsi Ali and her Islamic counterpart (a woman now serving time in federal prison for terrorism) that really made me leery of Hirsi Ali as well. She's not very forthcoming about her life - there's lots of disparity between what she claims and others remember.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

Coming by this post rather tardily, but I am struck by the same "bitter taste for fundamentalism in all its forms" whether Baptist or Islamic (just to name two of many, many forms that fundamentalism can take).

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

PS: Your writing was worth the sip of rather cold coffee I just took!