When western liberals claim the moral high ground; or the difference a piece of material makes

by Anna Blanch on February 6, 2010

After a long day of research sometimes I feel so mentally exhausted I don’t really want to read anything. I just want to curl up with a glass of rioja and laugh with friends. The seriousness of the topics I am about to discuss serves only to highlight the irony of the grandstanding about the superiority of western values as against what can be generalised as Islamic. It struck me particularly while reading a copy of Metro, one of those free throw away newspapers like the Evening Standard. There were two very short stories side by side. They are so short I will reproduce them here.

Burqa triggers citizenship ban

France: A foreign national is to be denied citizenship for forcing his wife to wear a burqa-style veil. The unidentified man wants to settle in this country with his French wife but prime minister Francois Fillon said he would refuse the application. Ministers are considering a can on face covering Muslim veils.

Virginity auction ‘breaks no laws’
NEW ZEALAND: A New Zealand teenager who says she auctioned her virginity online for $32,000 to raise tuition money did not break any laws but it might be risky for her to follow through on the deal, police warned Wednesday.
The anonymous 19-year-old student offered her virginity to the highest bidder on the Web site http://ineed.co.nz/default.php under the name “Unigirl,” saying she would use the money to pay for her tuition. She said in a post that more than 30,000 people had viewed her ad and more than 1,200 had made bids before she accepted an offer of more than 45,000 New Zealand dollars, or the American equivalent of $32,000.
Unlike similar New Zealand Web sites, bidding and correspondence between buyers and sellers on the ineed site is private so it is not known what bids Unigirl’s offer received.
Web site owner Ross McKenzie said the site’s policy was that as long as an ad was legal and did not offend the general standards of society, “it was OK.” He confirmed Unigirl was a member on the site.
Prostitution is legal in New Zealand under laws considered more liberal than many countries. Prostitution among consenting adults is allowed in brothels and on the streets, and offering sexual services in print ads and online is also legal. National police spokesman Jon Neilson said no law appeared to have been breached. But “we would suggest it’s not a safe practice,” Neilson told The Associated Press. “There are definitely issues of personal safety” in using chat rooms, social dating networks and other Internet sites that can be used to arrange meetings between strangers.
Unigirl, in her initial post, described herself as attractive, fit and healthy. She did not post a photograph of herself, and bidders did not appear to have a way of confirming any of the details of her posts. Unigirl said she was desperate for money to pay university fees. “I am offering my virginity by tender to the highest bidder as long as all personal safety aspects are observed,” her ad said. “This is my decision made with full awareness of the circumstances and possible consequences.”
Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, a group that represents sex workers on health and rights issues, said the New Zealand teenager had entered into sex work by offering herself online. “The amount of money is absolutely huge — and that puts her under enormous pressure to perform all sorts of acts,” she said. But Healy said it was also possible that the successful bidder wanted to “save” the teenager and would not ask her to have sex. She said the teenager would still have the right to refuse to have sex with the bidder if she changed her mind, and that the bidder could claim his money back.

Firstly, the “general standards of society must be have change alot in the last 10 years, and secondly, does it strike anyone else as a little strange that the word “saved” in the final paragraph?

There are a few reasons why I find the pairing of these two stories to serve only to highlight the hypocrisy of implicitly claiming that western liberalism is inherently superior. Firstly, I want to share a little about another way to look and experience the veil. I’m not sure I need to present an alternative point of view to highlight just how abhorrent I find the idea of a young woman auctioning off her body. Except to say that it possibly more plainly than much else points to the self-awareness of the commodification of women even if this is nothing new.

During law school I had a friend named Miriam. Miriam was a beautiful and intelligent Muslim woman. Over the course of our law degrees a couple of things happened and Miriam changed. We all changed, but many of our class mates noticed the change in Miriam. You see, at the beginning of our degrees Miriam and I both dressed quite modestly, and by the end Miriam dressed in a black abaya and hijab. There were stages to this change in dress. A first it was a very colourful head scarf, and then a colourful abaya for a while, before beginning to wear brown, and then black. I asked Miriam what had precipitated this change. I was interested. She was my friend. She explained that she had begun to take her faith more seriously and she wanted her outward appearance to reflect her commitment.

While my faith does not demand, nor require such, at least in western terms, extreme aesthetic measures, I would suggest that Christians in the west should take modesty seriously. I believe in the freedom I have to dress as I choose. Yet, I respect the bravery Miriam showed post September 11, 2001, when I know she felt especially vulnerable.

There is also another misconception i’d like to address: while wearing a veil is a complex decision and its alterity in a contemporary western city still comes as a shock to many, it may or may not reflect religiosity. Some interesting research about this is currently being done by a friend of mine who is a sociologist of Religion (I will not give more details due to the sensitive nature of the research). Even if it does reflect adherence to Islam and may be used as a tool of oppression wherein even a woman’s appearance adheres to her father, brother, or husband’s desire. Is it not also true however that by telling a woman that they cannot wear a full face veil that they are also impinging on a woman’s right to dress as she chooses? is this not also a form of oppression? My bottom line is this, why are we so quick always to assume that Islamic dress is an external tool of oppression rather than an individual choice to express belief outwardly.

I should note that I also have issues with recent French decisions to ban the wearing of crosses in French schools…but that is a matter for a different post.

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