Thursday, March 09, 2006

Emancipation: The Next Frontier

I didn't realise yesterday was International Women's Day until I saw it on the news last night. The big story for Canada seems to be the daycare issue, as if the only way women can finish being emancipated in Canada is for their children to be cared for by strangers. We have a bigger problem than that: we are importing sexist attitudes into our country and allowing them to flourish under the rubric of multiculuralism and the idea that one cannot touch cultural attitudes if they're other than our own.

Aside from the fact that I object to the idea that equality means women becoming male in the way they work and live, I believe we are facing an insidious regression in women's rights, or at the very least creating a two-tier society for women. Tier 1 comprises women who have grown up here or have immigrated here from similar societies who embrace all the rights that women have fought for. Tier 2 comprises women who come from highly patriarchal societies and at the extreme end are easily identifiable by the fact that one can't see them under layers of black (nor can they see us, as I discovered when one bumped into me). Feminists have been rather quiet about these women. I wonder if that's partly racism? You can't see them and so they are nonentities and therefore lack value as human beings. I remember Sally Armstrong as being the lone voice speaking out for Afghan women brutally subjugated under the Taliban. And now these same women are here, living here as they did there with the added handicap of not speaking the language, never mind probably being illiterate to boot. And make no mistake the men are equally contemptuous of Canadian women; they may not treat a woman customer badly, but the way they look at women says it all. And as they gain footholds here, so will their attitudes.

What other reason would feminists ignore these women? Over a 100 years ago suffragettes did not just fight the established male hierarchy for voting power, they also fought their sister women. Many objected to being given the vote as they felt comfortable with their husbands voting for them. They did not need to express their own voice. Their husband's voice was their voice. Change is hard. Taking responsiblity for one's own body and mind is hard. Coming out into the open and being exposed is hard. Feminists who know their history ought to know that women veiled are not going to find it easy to unveil and come out where all can see them, judge them, and there is nothing but their own wits to protect them, especially when they're used to men treating them as objects with no value and therefore are at the mercy of the male whim. The veil offers some protection to that. Standing up for oneself is not an easy thing, even if one is an educated, fully emancipated woman. Imagine how difficult it is for a woman who has minimal education, does not speak the language, has been taught that women's bodies are inherently sinful and must be covered, has been taught that this is a religious tenet not a cultural one, that patriarchal interpretation of religion trumps rights, and/or assumes that she has as few rights here as there, especially if the men say so, changes in arbitration law notwithstanding?

Canadian women need the courage to stand up and say that this is wrong, that cultural norms do not make it right, and that protecting this kind of status quo for certain women under the guise of religious tradition is a bunch of crap. If they can advocate for same-sex marriage against the Christian church, why then do they find it so hard to advocate for their orthodox religious sisters, whether Muslim, Orthodox Jews, Orthodox Christians, or the ones out in BC in polygamous marriages? It would certainly be a harder fight because for all women's gains in North America in the last 100 years, they are still not, in practice, the equal of men in the workplace and at home.

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