Jun. 28th, 2009

sunflowerp: (Kinky)
There's been some discussion lately up here in the Great White North - or at any rate in the pages of the less-awful of my local print newspapers, The Calgary Herald - about the possibility of banning burqas. One Herald columnist, Licia Corbella, wrote that No sane, free person would choose to wear a burka. I can't say I'm impressed with that title (which is also the concluding line); it's either an example of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy, or an indirect reference to the Marxist-associated concept of false consciousness (or both; they're not wholly mutually exclusive), and whiffs of mental-health ablism.

Of course, this is op-ed rhetoric, not Socratic debate; its purpose is to draw attention - to that end, logical fallacies and oppressive *isms are considered a feature, not a bug. So I'll leave aside the business-as-usual, and get to the meat of the piece.

There's a great deal stated or suggested in there that I'm very much onside with. Most particularly, that the burqa is both a tool of oppression, and a very powerful symbol of oppression. But I'm very bothered by the underlying implication that legislative prohibition of the tool/symbol is a solution. Eliminate the tool, the means of oppression, and those who wish to oppress will find other means; eliminate the symbol, and other symbols will arise to take its place, or the oppression will be made less visible. If the goal is to eliminate the oppression, then - sooner or later - the oppression itself is what must be addressed.

Over at Tiger Beatdown a couple of weeks ago, Sady posted a great piece, Dear Andrea Dworkin. (Bear with me here; this isn't a non sequiteur or a topic change.) The comment thread, though long, is also very much worth a read. Naturally, since Sady is talking about what she doesn't like, and what she disagrees with (as well as what she does like and/or agree with) in Dworkin's writing, defenders of Dworkin have emerged to speak their minds; along with the predictable Militant Radfems (the ones who frequently lead me to scratch my head and ponder, "and that's radical how?") there are what appear to be some honest-to-Shulamith radical feminists. And there is engagement. More-or-less civil engagement - there's some heat, but quite a bit of light. If you yearn (as I do) to see feminists of different stripes actually discussing their disagreements, with arguments of substance rather than virulent invective, it's not perfect, but it's about as good as it gets (IME).

If you're so inclined, you can go check it out right now - this post will still be here when you get back. But you can easily save it for later (or choose to skip it; I think it's worth reading, but that's an opinion, not an injunction); I'm not directly addressing anything in it here.

As I was reading the interwoven discussions, it dawned on me that much of the substance of Dworkin and of Dworkin-related discourse is (see, I told you it was relevant) the ways in which expressions of sexuality can be tools and symbols of patriarchal oppression. (And of other manifestations of kyriarchy as well, but getting into that would make a much longer post.) Sometimes this gets parsed in terms of particular acts and objects - most famously, fellatio and pornography (with a side order of BDSM - mention of which gives me a chance to use an icon I haven't yet had opportunity to, ahem, show off).

There are those - not always the same "those", though I expect there's a good bit of overlap - who argue that fellatio is always an unfeminist, or even outright anti-feminist, act; that the very concept of pornography is a tool of oppression; that BDSM necessarily and by its nature reifies the power imbalances of patriarchy. It's rare to see them argued without a significant component of either personal squick or false assumptions on the part of the arguer, but it can be done.

Not in a way that's convincing to me, though. Such arguments, constructed from accurate information about the practices and without universalizing one's personal reactions, are legitimate and useful for examining the ways in which these things, through being used to oppress, have become imbued with oppression, and how we can go about disentangling them. They are neither legitimate nor useful when used simply to make prohibitive declarations about others' actions.

Prohibiting fellatio or porn or BDSM - or even all three - won't overthrow the patriarchy; all it does is take those forms of sexual expression off the table. Those choices won't be available, but the patriarchal oppression will still be there, finding new ways to oppress.

If, once we eliminate patriarchal oppression, there are no women who wish to engage in those practices (doesn't strike me as probable, but I could be wrong), it'll be unnecessary to prohibit them; if there are still women who wish to engage in those practices, it'll be an act of full agency.

It seems more probable to me that, with full agency and without the pressures of oppression, there will be no woman who chooses to meet the requirements of hijab by wearing a burqa. But if there are, that choice must be available to her, or all our fine words about choice and agency are merely disguises for a different form of oppression, a different manifestation of kyriarchy.

The tools and symbols are - at most - symptoms, not causes, I would far rather support women's full, free agency by ensuring that no woman ever has to give a blow job, or wear a burqa, or any of thousands of other things, except by her own, uncoerced and unpressured, choice. Removing choices from the table - that's what oppressors do.

November 2009

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