Jun 5, 2010

Le Deuxième Sexe... au Maroc

Traveling in a Muslim country like Morocco, one cannot help but to recall familiar portrayals of "the Muslim Woman" as essentially oppressed, downtrodden, browbeaten, and so forth. This very touchy and controversial subject is of increasing interest to me as I speak to Moroccan women & men, volunteers, Rotarians, and university students about their views on the "place of women" (actual and ideal) in Moroccan society. I have been thinking about this question through the lense of Simone de Beavoir's Le Deuxième Sexe, and I thought it would be worthwhile to record some of the basic positions and points of departure for understanding gender in Moroccan society.

First, it is helpful to note that there is no such thing as "the Muslim woman" writ large, since religious beliefs concerning women, cultural practices, and family economies/structures will vary enormously even within the same city or region. Moreover, there isn't a single, clear "Islamic position" on women as far as I can tell. Every Muslim has his/her own preferred source of information on this subject. Others might say that what is written in the Qur'an is the definitive "Islamic position" on the matter, but textual literalism in this case might preclude many rights that most moderate believers would take to be fundamental, such as the complete equality of the genders in matters religious, economic, and familial.

Another useful starting point in navigating this territory is to note that the popular Orientalist view of "the Muslim woman" needs to be tempered by reflections on this facile mode of historical reconstruction, which Edward Said has famously problematized. The interesting thing about Orientalist-style writings on the position of women in Muslim societies is that they describe Muslim "practices" as enigmatic, primitive, and so on, simultaneously eschewing discussion of any gender inequality that exists in the West. For example, a 2001 report on "honor" killings in Jordan accounting for 1/4 of all homicides of women in that country resulted in Western outrage. However, this sensation obscured the fact that 1/3 of the women killed in the US are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. The point here is definitely not to condone or "excuse" honor killings, but to make sure we understand that insidious gender norms persist even in our own progressive and secular society.

The Orientalist position also frequently exhibits a confusing stance on Muslim sexuality: in brief, that the Muslim world as a whole is at once deeply sexually repressed and appallingly licentious, open, and carnal. The binary opposition between sexual indulgence and sexual reticence is either evidence of cognitive dissonance on the part of Orientalists or an example of the paradoxes of conservative society. Another familiar and dangerous Orientalist trope is the beautiful, exoticized Oriental woman, who needs to be "rescued" from an ugly, depraved harem-lord. No doubt the function of this latter story is to make the Oriental woman more sexually available to westerners and to simultaneously demonize the Oriental man, indirectly justifying a forceful overthrow of his heavy-handed and unjust rule.

In sum, it is always a good idea to be aware of these Orientalist constructions and reconstructions. But how can cultural sensitivity be balanced with honest reflection on the situation of women in many Muslim countries, or in Morocco in particular? Any thinker sympathetic with local culture but also informed about feminist critiques and orientalist pitfalls will feel pulled in many different directions at once.

Perhaps people should be left alone, and their social structures viewed as inviolable? Yet, a shocking literacy gap exists between the genders, especially in rural Moroccan villages (22 points difference for adult literacy in the country as a whole). Surely education is consistent with any reasonable belief system? On the other hand, what if any attempt to "improve the situation of the Moroccan women" is really just a veiled missionary project that imposes western modes of behavior that don't really have anything to do with fundamental human rights. Take the veil, for example, which by itself is neither implicitly good or bad for the social equality of women. Some insist that (Sarkozy, etc) the veil effectively banishes the woman from the public sphere, making her a social non-entity that cannot engage on equal grounds with men, effectively abolishing any of her economic and individual rights. Others insist that the veil is a symbol in the fight against the sexual objectification of woman, and that, to the contrary, the veil is a affirmation of the positive role for women in public because it forces men to engage women as personalities and not as sexual objects or as bodies available for sexual pleasure.

My only decisive view on women in Morocco (and in Muslim societies as a whole) is that anyone who has a decisive view ("women are free to do what they want!" or "women are oppressed!") is either naive, poorly informed or overly simplistic in their outlook. This is not a clear-cut issue folks!

Evidently, I'm beginning to get lost in my own writing, so I will conclude with a thought-provoking passage from existentialist and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir about "patriarchal times" in the distant and not-so-distant past. Although the excerpt below focus on the "Arab people,"  de Beauvoir also discusses in the second division of her work the Neanderthal, Greek, Babylonian, ancient Egyptian, and 13th-18th century European views on the role of women in society. (Note to crazy opinionated people: I am not supporting or refuting anything she says on this blog, I'm just putting something up for discussion and thought!).

I'd welcome any comments below. Do you think de Beauvoir has a point, or is she simply another Orientalist hack when it comes to her research on the so called "Arab-world"? Does her portrayal of the lives of Arab women have any bearing to the lives of contemporary women in Morocco, or is it all romanticized nonsense? Or perhaps more nuance is required in understanding the import of this passage?

"When the family and the private patrimony remain beyond question the bases of society, then woman remains totally submerged. This occurs in the Moslem world. Its structure is feudal...There is no power to check that of the patriarchal chief. The religion created when the Arab people were warlike and triumphant professed for woman the utmost scorn. The Koran proclaims: "Men are superior to women on account of the qualities in which God has given them pre-eminence and also because they furnish dowry for women..." The Bedouin woman works hard, she plows and carries burdens: thus she sets up with her spouse a bond of reciprocal dependence; she walks abroad freely with uncovered face. The veiled and sequestered Moslem woman is still today in most social strata a kind of slave...

I recall seeing in a primitive village of Tunisia a subterranean cavern in which four women were squatting: the old one-eyed and toothless wife, her face horribly devastated, was cooking dough on a small brazier in the midst of an acrid smoke; the two wives somewhat younger but almost as disfigured, were lulling children in their arms...seated before a loom, a young idol [the fourth woman] magnificently decked out in silk, gold, and silver was knotting threads of wool. As I left this gloomy cave--kingdom of immanence, womb, and tomb--in the corridor leading upward toward the light of day I passed the male, dressed in white, well groomed, smiling, sunny. He was returning from the marketplace, where he had discussed world affairs with other men...[but] for the withered old women, for the young wife doomed to the same rapid decay, there was no universe other than the smokey cave, whence they emerged only at night, silent and veiled."

1 comment:

  1. I think its definitely a bit ridiculous to say that Moslem women are universally oppressed. The veil always seems to come up. To me it seems the only time it could be of harm is when the woman doesn't have a choice. In the States for example there are many Moslem women who wear the veil, and many who choose not to. However, as I understand it, there can be severe penalties in the pseudo-theocracies of the middle east, such as Iran. To what degree these things are sensationalized in our press I have no idea though.

    Religion is widely criticized by most feminist doctrines, and personally I think they often do so legitimately. However I still believe that its a woman's (or anyones) choice to engage in whatever belief system she/he chooses, and injustice occurs only when she isn't given a choice. Sarkozy's scheme of outlawing the veil is ignorant and contrary to religious freedom, which might be the real issue people have with the veil.

    It seems to me too that making the distinction between Moslem and Arab is important and often overlooked; saying Moslem women are oppressed is more similar to saying Christian women are oppressed, and i think discussion should focus more criticizing government for poor policy than on religion.

    Hope you're having a great time over there! Your pictures look freaking beautiful!!!