Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A

Owning the Edges

September 30, 2010 By: Mel Category: Anarchism, Religion

A few weeks ago, I attended a Busboys and Poets A.C.T.O.R. on Islamaphobia.  Six local Muslim panelists talked about their personal experiences.  Inevitably, the subject of what to do in the face of extremism came up.

As an atheist who keeps a toe in the atheist blogosphere, I have read quite a few posts challenging believers on extremism.  Believers say that they should not be judged by the extremists within their religion.  Many atheist bloggers have made the case that believers shouldn’t be able to get off so easily, that they do need to be held to account for what is done in the name of their ideology.  At least they need to respond to it.

As an atheist, it is easy for me to agree with that.  I don’t have anything invested in religion.  I don’t get anything out of it.  I just don’t get it.  But as an anarchist, I somewhat understand the position that religious folks find themselves in.  I very often find myself explaining that anarchists are not just molotov cocktail throwing tweens.  I have to explain that people whom many would consider extremists are not the beginning and end of anarchism.  And I find myself and my fellow anarchists are often at a loss as to how to respond to actions we find counterproductive.

Now I am not trying to compare the situation for Muslims in this country (and around the world) with that of anarchists.  And I am certainly not trying to compare the people who flew into the twin towers with people who throw rocks through Starbucks windows.  The differences are profound and, I hope, obvious.  But Muslims and Anarchists do find ourselves in a few of the same conundrums.

Few people understand our beliefs or have any interest in learning about them.  The media rarely speaks about us except when something destructive happens.  We have very little voice to combat mainstream portrayals of us.  And we don’t often do a very good job of using what voice we do have.  Perhaps most importantly, the panelists indicated that Muslims have also been neglecting some badly needed internal discussions about divisions, rifts, conflicts, privileges, and prejudices.

For the most part, the panelists talked about being a good person, following their path, and demonstrating by their actions that Muslims are not all violent extremists.  I get that.  I often say that – as a middle aged, peaceful, dorky, woman – I just try to be an anarchist that defies stereotypes.  But that doesn’t seem a sufficient response to the edges, the radicals, the fringe, the people whose actions make you cringe because you know your whole group will be judged by them.

None of the panelists were explicit about distancing themselves from extremists, but that was essentially what was meant by presenting a different image.  Mazi Mutafa of Words Beats Life; however, did not distance himself completely.  He said essentially that, while he may not agree with certain tactics, he will not disown people within his community just because he disagreed.  People do things in desperation, he said.  They are still a part of my community.

He owned the edges. And perhaps all communities need to own the edges, whether it is Muslims owning extremists, a southern town owning the KKK, or anarchists owning BANA (a racist, anarchist group that I will not link to).

Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to delve into what that means in practice.  So perhaps we can have that discussion here.  Does a believer have a responsibility to own all the people who say they identify with their ideology?  What does that look like?  If not, how do you avoid it when people will just lump you together anyway?  Do we have a responsibility to discuss the divisions and rifts and factions?  Should those discussions be public?

Clothing Mandatory, From Burqas to Bandanas

July 23, 2009 By: Mel Category: Religion, Stratification

We have too many damn laws, rules, regulations and customs dictating what people can and cannot wear.

Schools require kids to wear uniforms. Work – from military personnel to the nearly identical suits most desk sitters wear – requires uniforms. Clubs have dress codes. Restaurants have dress codes. Cities and even countries have laws governing what their citizens can and cannot wear in public. Why?

Admittedly, it’s easier to pick out a cop if she is wearing a uniform. And you could probably make a case for health issues when it comes to wearing some kind of covering in a restaurant kitchen. But mostly, clothing rules are about social control. We want to be able to identify people. We want to know whether or not they subscribe to the dominant culture’s attitudes, prejudices, gender roles, and power structure.

Schools support school uniforms for the same reason the military requires them, because uniforms denote obedience and conformity. Clubs have dress codes to enforce dominance by class and race, from country clubs that require a suit and tie to dive bars like Kokoamos (sued for refusing entry to people with dreadlocks).

Cities also get in on the action. Riviera Beach, Florida is arresting people for baggy pants. Other cities have ordinances against your underwear showing. In New York, you can get arrested for covering your face during a protest. Why? Because minorities wear baggy pants. Because political dissidents cover their faces during protests.

Of course, the most stringent codes and social norms relate to gender. It starts with the first pink or blue onesie someone gives you at the baby shower. For the rest of your life, what you can wear safely in public is determined largely by whether or not you were born with a penis.

School uniforms are uniform only by gender. One school in South Carolina has said a girl will not be able to graduate if she wears pants to her graduation. Prom means wearing a dress for girls or a suit for boys. Transgressors will be denied.

And while most (if not all) laws against cross-dressing have been taken off the books, that doesn’t stop harassment. One man is suing the New Orleans police department for threatening to arrest him for wearing a kilt in public. (Note to self: Naked breasts strewn with plastic beads, no problem; wearing traditional and mildly gender-bending Scottish garb, not so much.)

Transgender people cross the gender line and face discrimination at every turn. Most workplaces in the U.S. can legally discriminate against transgendered people, as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act does not protect them. Far worse, at least one transgender person is murdered on average each month of the year. And the murders of transgender people all too often remain unsolved.

Most cisgender women have a little more leeway in the choice between pants and skirts. (Although, Conservative Christian group Focus on the Family just started allowing women to wear pants this year.) But women have to worry about “modesty.” Women must walk that fine line between whore and oppressed. Wear too little material on your body and people will say you are asking to be attacked. Wear too much clothing on your body, a burqa for instance, and people will say you are oppressed.

Islam isn’t the only religion to dictate dress. Orthodox Jewish women must cover their elbows, knees and head in the name of modesty. Sometimes they wear scarves. Other times they cover up their hair with wigs. Meanwhile, Hasidic Jewish men, in 90 degree Miami heat, dress in wool outfits meant for winter in the Polish ghetto.

Monks and nuns wear robes not very different from a burqa. Certainly, they are equally desexualizing. True, nuns no longer wear the restrictive habits of the middle ages, some even wear no habits at all. The Catholic Church; however, isn’t happy about that and is reportedly conducting an investigation into nuns’ lapses.

How are any of these regulations legitimate?

The idea that women must dress modestly holds women responsible for mens’ behavior, as though men are wild animals who can’t be expected to have self control. Assigning clothing by gender is only an attempt to clearly delineate who gets what privilege in society. Forcing minority groups to dress like the majority is just the majority exerting its dominance. And requiring protesters to be identifiable just makes it easier for authorities to find and intimidate them.

During the holocaust, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars and homosexuals forced to wear pink triangles. Slaves in the United States wore tags. Indigenous people in colonial Guatemala wore intricate patterns that told Spaniards what village they came from (clothing used in the civil war of the 80s to identify “subversives”). In Iran today, women are forced to wear headscarves, but Laila Al-Marayati and Semeen Issa, of the Muslim Women’s League, remind us that in 1979 veils were prohibited in Iran.

Whether the society is marking people for oppression or forcing them to conform, it all amounts to coercion. And coercion is wrong.

Dominant groups often make claims that their rules are for some higher purpose. French President Sarkozy says the burqa is a symbol of oppression and a barrier which makes women “prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity.” He claims that his burqa ban is about the rights of women, despite the fact that many women who wear the burqa say that it is a personal choice.

But does Sarkozy’s claim hold up to closer inspection?

Are not burqa wearing French women still French women with all the rights of French women. Isn’t it the job of the French government to make sure their citizens know their rights and are able to exercise those rights?

Sarkozy would be more believable if he started a campaign to advise all French women of their rights. According to Amnesty International, France falls far short when it comes to protecting the rights of domestic violence victims. If Sarkozy is so interested in protecting women, wouldn’t making sure French women know their rights (and fully funding programs for victims of domestic the violence) be a more appropriate priority?

The burqa ban is not about the rights of women, any more than forcing women to wear skirts at work is about the rights of women. It is about symbolism. The French government does not like the symbolism of a people setting themselves apart. Many feminists do not like the symbolism of the burqa. But if we are going to start banning symbolism, we can’t stop just there. How about banning $60,000 French couture dresses – symbol of the criminal disparities in wealth in this world.

There may be some cases where requirements about what people put on their bodies are necessary. But life and death cases are few and far between. Anyone trying to impose their will on others better have much better reasons than the ones they’ve come up with so far.