Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Muslim Women in France

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You see tons of Muslim women in Paris near the Institut du Monde Arabe on the fancy Left Bank. They're mostly young and scholarly, and charge down the sidewalks with colored headscarves, or black hijabs and abayas floating behind them like capes.

They remind me of young queers taking to the street in their uniforms of leather bracelets and Doc Martens with pink and black triangles on everything, part fashion choice, part remembrance, hopefully even, a symbol of resistance. Because sometimes, if you're lucky, you can take the sign and means of oppression, and transform it into a declaration of war.

Not always though. It's enough to imagine what those pink and black triangles would mean on New York queers if dykes and fags across the river in New Jersey were actually obligated to wear them, embodying discrimination. Then, would the Nazi's pink or black triangle on your Manhattan leather jacket be an act of solidarity, or stupid ignorance? Are we even allowed ignorance any more in our tweet and blog world?

The double-edged nature of symbols arises every time some American jumps into the debate about "the right" of Muslim women to wear a headscarf or body-covering abaya, usually reducing the complicated social debate, especially in France, to a matter of religious freedom. Women should do what they want. Anybody considering restrictions must be a euro-centric Islamophobe.

Besides the problem that such critics erase Muslims that are opponents of "covering," the truth is religion is the least of the matter. In Paris, anyway. On the one hand, you do have those mostly young Muslim women of the scholarly Left Bank wearing headscarves, abayas, and sometimes even the burkha, partly in religious devotion, but often it seems like a flag of cultural difference that they wave at the charging French bull in a big fuck you.

And if they were the only Muslim women in France, maybe I'd say fashion, religion, who cares? It's not worth wasting our breath.

Unfortunately, cross the real and metaphorical river Seine and those little fabric squares covering hair, or bodies, even faces, have little to do with god, or even culture, but misogyny in its purest form. A whole range of women are actively coerced by brothers, boyfriends, fathers, even sons into "covering" in public, and they enforce their will with threats, beatings, rape, and the occasional old favorite of acid sprayed in any naked female face.

Pressure to comply seems worst in the banlieus, in the suburbs, where segregation and poverty are at their most intense, and angry young men are looking for ways to assert themselves. But you see it often enough in the poorer neighborhoods inside the city--the women creeping down the sidewalks behind the men that effectively own them. Tiny girls already in scarves, veiled seething teenagers, and their future selves -- not stylish liberated women at the fancy Left Bank Institut du Monde Arabe, but sacks of exhausted flesh broken with childbearing and hard work. There's nothing sanctifying or empowering at all about the ugly black dirty drapes that hide older Muslim women as they stagger down the street.

When I see them I want to ban all the abaya, hijabs, and headscarves I see. And give a good hard kick in the balls to the young men and boys with their degenerate fathers sauntering several yards in front of the women they despise as trash. I also want to yank aside those Left Bank Muslim girls and remind them that the symbols they're obviously playing with haven't been fully transformed. Black covering robes and scarves may work as a nose-thumbing gesture to the predominantly Christian West. But as a tool against the mostly masculine forces that have imposed them, they're not doing anything subversive at all.

The logical conclusion of "covering" women is a mere 3485.1 miles east in Afghanistan where that piece of compromised shit Hamid Karzai is throwing females to the Taliban wolves in hopes of improving his election chances there. The Shiite Personal Status Law he allowed to pass into effectiveness in July allows husbands to starve their wives if they fail to obey sexual demands, requires women to get male permission to leave the house, tolerates rape if the rapist coughs up dough for the girl or marries her. It strips women of rights to their own children, granting sole guardianship to their fathers and grandfathers.

While this law theoretically only enslaves Afghanistan's three million Shiite women, a huge amount of Afghan women of all origins have protested because it is expected to have an impact on all future legislation regarding family and women's rights.

Given that reality, one thing at least is clear. That it's not more freedom of religion most Muslim women need, but freedom from the monsters that use it to keep them safely hidden and in chains.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Rethinking Outrage

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Terrible, the queer kids shot in Tel Aviv, terrible the lesbians raped and slaughtered in South Africa. Then there are the bashings and murders in the States. Terrible. We need more laws, more resolutions, more vigils and marches, more politicians on our side, more media, more verbage to step over on the way to work in the morning before the super sweeps it off the curb.

More and more I wonder where it gets us, that horror at sudden, deadly explosions of hate. The deaths we respond to are particularly dramatic, but unfortunately not rare. We remember the death of Mathew Shepard crucified to a fence post in Wyoming, not all the other queers dropped in back alleys with a blow to the head.

If we really paid attention, we'd be horrified every day. We'd be on the street ranting in sackcloth and ashes at the suffering so many of us are exposed to. Maybe we'd even go beyond the anger to action.

These days, I watch our queer community's brief moments of outrage with increasing fatigue and grief. Activists haven't found a way to harness that energy, and it usually doesn't achieve much. Folks get out on the street for one march, send an email to support a draft of one law that certainly won't put an end to deadly outbursts of antigay hate. For that, we need sustained and radical work to address two separate problems-- violence and homophobia -- which have taproots sunk so deep in our cultures it will take more than a bulldozer of a movement to rip them out.

And there's no signs we want to. How many queers argue open-mindedly for the right of women to wear burkhas, rally around the little crosses, and stars, support religion under the guise of religious and cultural freedom? We are complicit in giving preachers the keys to the state houses and schools, as if the arguments against queers weren't almost always moral ones, casting us as too unclean to be equal as humans or citizens. As if these moral arguments didn't sentence our bullied queer children to years of hell. As if they weren't in part responsible for the deaths of two young queers in Tel Aviv.

Only a revolution will save us. A real one. Things turned on their heads and kept there. We haven't seen many real revolutions. Usually there's some roulette motion where you end up like Cuba back at square one, or zero, because the human capacity for transcendence lasts, if you're lucky, about as long as a post-six-pack piss.

We can only hope for floods and earthquakes. Great event changers. Conversions. I suppose you could wish for a sudden explosion of Buddhists and Quakers who are at least nonviolent, though Jesus himself warned new wine bursts old wine skins. Better to try something altogether different. Maybe introduce valium into the tap water of our cities, half of which ends up packaged in bottles. Or instead of urging our citizens to eat more fruits and vegetables, ply them with more sugar and starches, reducing them into semi-permanent insulin shock, too weak to lift a violent hand.

Failing a revolution, we can only go at things piecemeal as usual. A law here, a community center there. Education is useful in moderation to spur activism. Learn too much about the world you can be crushed under the weight of all its bigots and idiots. What are the odds we can reach them all?

Ten to one you say, offering the magic percentage of queers in the world.

It's a point worth thinking about. Maybe we've been going at this social change stuff all wrong, trying to change things in a global way, when we should be thinking local. Like insurgents, perhaps we should act in small cells. Have an expansive vision, but stick to our limited territory of families, neighbors, friends. Like Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons we could go door to door. "Have you ever met a queer? No? Then today's your lucky day. Look. No tail, or just a small one. No horns. Any questions? Have a copy of our sacred texts. A few poems by Audre Lorde. James Baldwin."

We should do what is possible. Think of it. Our agents are already in place in every family and town. The problem is, they are sleeping and the haters are awake. They are awake and looking for a target. We tell them with nods and winks and sermons who they can safely pick. We put the guns or machetes in their hands.

Our periodic and verbose catharses of outrage, do little more than reveal us to be a Queer Nation of Rip Van Winkles that wake long enough to express dismay at the world, then fall back asleep. By our silence, we recruit for the wrong side.