Friday, May 2, 2008

Women as victims!

Women as victims!

“I was victimized, yes, but I am not a victim.” This is how Jincy Willet angrily defined her experience with her rapist to a friend who had wanted her to be a bitter “Martyr” symbolizing all of womenfolk. As Jincy Willet had to face the horrible experience of rape, most of the people she met expected her to act as a victim; however, she acknowledged being victimized but did not want to be a symbol for all victims. She, it seems, recognized it as the very hurtful, and personal, experience that should not be diluted into a generalization. She, and she alone, was raped. Other women need not expand the circle of victims, and in so doing trivialize her own experience.

Rape is one of the lowest and ugliest crimes that any man could commit. For a man to use his, generally, stronger physique to force himself on a woman is so repulsive an act that virtually all of the world’s laws prescribe stringent penalties for rape. In my country, Jordan, for example rape of a minor is punishable by death and rape of an adult carries a fifteen years jail sentence. All of humanity’s different cultures so strongly disapprove of the act of rape that such stringent penalties for the crime exist in virtually all countries of the world.

While denouncing rape, as an act of aggression against women, is uniformly accepted by all different cultures, other forms of “aggression against women” do not wield the same consensus. This is mainly because people cannot agree on what constitutes “aggression against women”. For example, many Arab, Indian or Chinese women in the west would always face the western presumption that they are “victims” in their own cultures, or at best the fortunate few that are not victims. An Arab American friend of mine always complained of having to face that very presumption (of her being a victim) from her western acquaintances and even friends. Similarly, Arab, Indian or Chinese men also tend to be viewed as victimizers of women, simply because of their ethnicity. I, for one, certainly feel such thoughts during my interactions with many western men or women.

The lack of appreciation of cultural differences is, I believe, the major reason behind wrongly accusing whole cultures of being utterly oppressive of women. This is not to say that instances of women’s oppression are not glaringly present in all corners of the world. Yet this in itself is the point; women’s oppression is found in all corners of the world, not just certain parts of it. Forcing teenage girls into marriages in the illiterate social strata of the Arab World and the Mafia-led white slave trade between Eastern Europe and Western Europe are both forms of women’s oppression. The first is “Arab-inflicted” and the later is “western-inflicted”.

Being an Arab Christian man who grew up in predominately Arab Moslem countries, Jordan and Egypt, I have always seen how certain “Islamic” ways (such as covering one’s hair) are wrongly construed by Westerners as a form of oppressing women. Being Christian, none of the women in my family cover their hair. Actually, my mother and sisters are avid opponents of the headscarf. Nonetheless, my mother and older sister have very close Moslem friends that cover their hair and abide by the “Islamic” dress code. These Moslem friends have all chosen to cover their hair by their free will. Of course their choice to cover their hair was definitely influenced by the cultural context of a predominately Moslem country where many women do cover their hair. We simply cannot tell how much of their choice was free will or and how much of it was “cultural coercion” , if we can use such a term. The fact remains that these educated professional women (more than 55% of Jordan’s university students are women) chose to cover their hair. A choice that is certainly influenced by the cultural context where covering the hair, while not the absolute norm, is common. Is these women’s choice then a form of their oppression? Is a Western woman by wearing a suit to work oppressed simply because she is not wearing a tank top to work? Is a topless Swede more liberated than an American woman who chooses not to be topless on a Mediterranean beach? Is a woman’s liberation, or lack thereof, solely defined by what she covers, or uncovers, of her body? Western feminists denounce porno and the fashion industry for exploiting women’s bodies. They also seem to denounce any cultural where women cover more of their bodies than women in the west. These feminists are ethnocentric. Their idea is that women’s liberation is to be measured by their own, culturally specific, yardsticks. By not allowing for cultural context they miss the point; that a woman can chose a non-western mode of dress and still be liberated and in control of her life.

No comments: