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Islamic Like Me: Is Western Culture More Sexually Oppressive Than The Burka?

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My series about my adventures in a Saudi burka generated a lot of fascinating comments by Huffposters. Yesterday I replied to those who asked, If a woman chooses to veil herself, shouldn't we respect that as her individual choice? Today I'll take on those who insist the West is more sexually oppressive towards women than those Islamic societies in which the burka is enforced. (Readers who are catching up can click here to see a video of my experience, which appears in Canada's National Post. Click here to read all four parts of my series.)

Is Western Culture More Sexually Oppressive Than The Burka?

Many feminist readers expressed solidarity with their burka-clad sisters: While not necessarily "agreeing" with laws that"force" women to swaddle themselves in black wool, they sympathized with a woman's desire to do so "by choice," given the oppression Western women are subject to walking around unswaddled:

"[S]uggesting that western women are in some way more liberated and free because of how they dress is a little off the mark," wrote screenname Hoopoe, speaking for the majority with this view. "Freeing women from what the author calls 'oppressive' attire in the west, and particularly the U.S., has imposed a whole new set of expectations upon women to conform to the standards of attractiveness designated by the culture. the word 'attractive' is important -- after all, who are women 'attracting' with their appearance if not men? have no illusions: our 'choices' are still largely dictated by the will of men.

"in the extreme, these standards lead to eating disorders, plastic surgery, a massive cosmetics industry, and a whole array of magazines to push the new 'must have' fashions of the season, etc..."

"it may make some people feel better to tell themselves they are more cultured, more free, and more respected because they can choose to wear a skimpy top to show off their new breast implants and the abs it took six months of torture in the gym to develop, but this is one woman who doesn't buy it. the way i see it, women get a pretty raw deal everywhere..."

And screenname pa104inf wrote: "America is rife with violence and suffering and the women here need to stand up and take responsibility for allowing themselves to be degraded, objectified and reduced to a sexual object."

My reply: Oh, to be objectified and reduced to a sexual object! Kidding. KIDDING. (That was my middle-aged ego speaking...)

Seriously, let me begin by saying that as a mother of three -- including a teenage girl -- I am constantly made aware of the pressures in the culture that encourage my daughters to look and behave like skanks. Further, there is no way of keeping away these pressures, short of blacking out the windows, disconnecting the television and computers -- as well as plugging up every other crevice into which they may seep. I think few Americans (outside of Maxim-reading teenage boys) would disagree that our pop culture could be toned down a bit without infringing on free speech. In this view, feminists and Evangelicals are not so far apart: feminists believe almighty men are to blame for objectifying women; Evangelicals, the godless. But both sides would like to see fewer tattooed cleavages of partying celebrities affronting them when they buy milk.

As a parent, I know I have to do my best to limit my daughters' (and son's) exposure to these pressures; I also have to take responsibility for the example I set them, and the rules that I make. But at some point -- as teenagers are constantly at pains to point out -- we have to acknowledge our children as individuals who will need to develop their own resistance to cultural infections. We can give them antibiotics -- but they are the ones who have to take them. That's how citizens of free and democratic societies are launched.

So as often as I sincerely wish to throw a blanket over my teenage daughter before she goes out, I know I can't do this (although I can cluck, like a churchwoman, "Aren't you going to be cold in that, dear?"). I'm sure Mr. Muhammed Parvez felt the same sort of frustration with his 16-year-old daughter, Aqsa, before he decided the solution was to strangle her to death. In the otherwise modern, democratic suburb of Toronto in which the Parvezes live, Aqsa, according to her girlfriends, "was having trouble at home because she did not conform to the family's religious beliefs and refused to wear a traditional Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

"'She wanted to go different ways than her family wanted to go, and she wanted to make her own path, but he (her father) wouldn't let her,' one of her classmates told the CBC.

"'She loved clothes' another of her friends, Dominiquia Holmes-Thompson, told the Toronto Star. 'She just wanted to show her beauty... She just wanted to dress like us, just like a normal person.'

"According to her friends, Aqsa had worn the hijab at school last year, but rebelled in recent months."

And the girl wasn't even being told to wear a burka! So why did Mr. Parvez believe murder was the appropriate punishment for teenage rebellion? Because according to the version of Islam to which Mr. Parvez subscribes, his daughter -- like his wife -- is his personal property. As such, he has the right to punish her how he pleases (or, as he might put it, how "Allah" thinks she should be punished). When such a daughter finally decides to "stand up and take responsibility for herself," she doesn't get grounded, she gets killed.

There are differences between "pressures" -- which individuals can choose to resist -- and "oppression" -- which individuals have no power to resist. Those who defend the burka place themselves intellectually on the side of those who would ban all books because some might contain dangerous ideas or smut; ban the Internet because it carries pornography as well as information; ban the sight of women because even the slightest show of flesh could tempt a man, and we can't rely on individuals to regulate themselves.

Let me ask those who defend the burka on the grounds it "liberates" women from sexual pressures: If it led to more respect for women, why do those who wear it live in societies where they are among the worst treated in the world? And why, for all our boob jobs and celebrity tattoos, do American women receive among the most male respect in the world?

Two last words from HuffPosters:

From screename Ceneric: "This is yet another not-so-complicated issue. The veil is used to maintain the woman as property. It's there so other guys cannot look at her. It's not voluntary, if they don't wear it, they will get raped or killed, etc. They should be outlawed. Sadaam was definitely right on this issue, he had the coverings burned in the street. He was trying to drag his society into the 20th century until we intervened." [Editor's note: Maybe more like the 18th century...]

From screenname Cavedog: "I think it's interesting to compare this the social oppression of women through advertising in the U.S. - but they're not really much alike in terms of consequences for disobeying the norm.

"In the U.S., nobody gets stoned or strangled for not wearing the most fashionable clothing, or for being heavier than average.... In western culture, there's pressure to conform but if you don't, the consequences are fairly small and you can always find people who sympathize with you. But (and let me be very careful about this) in *some* strains of Islamic culture, there's pressure to conform and a pretty dire consequence if you don't -- and your compatriots will suffer those same consequences, so they might not be there to sympathize."

Tomorrow: Just because veiling is culturally different from our customs, why should we feel threatened by it?

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