Saturday, December 26, 2015

Listening to Others

NOTE: my apologies for any errors in my discussion of garments worn by Muslim women. I welcome any corrections.

As the end of the year approaches, it is natural to reflect on the past year. One significant change for me has been expanding my very limited view of the human experience by listening to stories from people who are not like me, whose cultures and experiences are ones that I will never have and therefore will never fully understand. By listening, I discover that to really appreciate what it is to be human I must try to understand what being human is for others.

I am a white woman who was raised in the United States. I have an adult son who is also white. Growing up, my family fluctuated between lower and middle class; my dad’s involvement in academia opened doors for us. I am cis-gender (as opposed to trans-gender), meaning that I have identified as female since birth and still do. I identify as a lesbian or queer, depending on the given day: however being both single and “passing,” I get to choose when and if I share my sexual orientation with others, a luxury not available to many in the LGBTQ+ community. My family moved around growing up, but overall I was raised with the typical American Exceptionalist propaganda that whitewashes U.S. and world history. I have been poor, but have always had family who could take me in if necessary. I have a college degree, and people with credentials to give me a recommendation.

I see and interpret everything through the lens of my experiences. My family was liberal, and I was raised with a typical white liberal feminist value system. I am grateful for this, and it certainly created a foundation for my more recent entry into social justice, but liberalism and feminism driven by white United Statesians has traditionally and consistently been less than inclusive, and has been just as guilty of a limited view of the human experience as have I.

So I’m learning. I share what I have learned, and I encourage others to join me in my ongoing effort to listen to other voices, those we haven’t been listening to.

In college my archeology professor was discussing women in Middle Eastern countries who wear concealing garments such as the Burka, and why she objected to them. She described the Burka as hot to wear, and something that made the women under them non-entities. I recall bristling, not because my professor objected to these garments – I did as well – but because she was being so logical about it. I was offended by these garments on a visceral level; surely it was unnecessary for her to justify and rationalize her dislike of these oppressive garments.

I’ve thought of that experience many times over the years, and whether it is important to be able to articulate why we object to something, if we feel that objection strongly. But I remained unchanged in my dislike of the Burka, Niqab, and other Islamic head garments, and my belief that these garments oppress women.

Skip ahead more than two decades to recent years, when two very different observations – young women redefining feminism as an intersectional, beautiful and powerful thing; and expressions of raw torment and anger in the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore – pushed me to seek out experiences and words beyond those of well-intentioned white liberals.

Why did the veil re-emerge among university-educated and professional women? Is it really a symbol of female oppression? Does it signify rejection of the west? Why can it inspire such fear and revulsion?”

Every “Aha” moment led to three new questions. Every smashed assumption led to the surfacing of ever deeper assumptions. My searching led me further and further into the stories and experiences of “others.”

The learning curve was steep, but eventually it came back to Muslim women wearing coverings.

Different types of coverings for Muslim women

Today the hijab, the least concealing of these garments, is creating a maelstrom of viscerally-motivated backlash. In France there is a ban against wearing any headscarf within public schools (this includes students, preventing those who wear hijab from attending), and for those who work in public service (France also has a ban against wearing face coverings like the burqa anywhere in public). In the U.S. women wearing headscarves are being verbally and physically attacked.

Set aside arguments about religious liberties, fears of terrorism, and oppression of women. Seriously, take all those arguments running around in your head and set them to the side for a moment.

Whose opinions matter in this? Yours? Mine? Do either of us really have any personal experience that we can bring to this debate? The answer is No. Muslim women who choose whether or not to wear head coverings are the only people whose experiences matter in this discussion.

Some Muslim women believe the hijab to be oppressive. But some Muslim women believe the hijab to be a feminist statement. Let me say that again: wearing the hijab can be a statement of feminism.

Is it possible to be a Muslim Feminist? How do these beliefs fit together?” 
In either case, the women who believe the hijab is oppressive and those who believe it is feminist are not looking to white, non-Muslim westerners to tell them what is and is not oppressive; what feminism does and does not look like; and what they must or must not do to combat patriarchy.

When we declare that women in Islamic countries must be freed from their hijabs and other coverings, we are not supporting them. When we wear a headscarf to show solidarity with Muslim women, we are not supporting them. Why? Because you and I do not get to decide how to show support for Muslim women; only they do. Not convinced?

How do you feel when your parents tell you what you need to do with your life? What? They don’t know what’s best for you?

Oh, you’re part of the small percentage who actually do appreciate and follow your parents’ advice. Well then, what if a stranger told you what you need to do with your life? A stranger who not only knows nothing about you or your situation, but has never been in your situation?

Right. Strangers have no business telling you what to do with your life, because they haven’t a clue about your life.

For the purpose of this post, let’s assume none of us want to ban the hijab because we are Islamophobic. Let’s assume we really do have good intentions: good, white, liberal, western intentions.

Western Imperialism is the problem here: our belief that we know what’s best for other cultures. I grew up on that shit. And it is only in the past couple years that I have learned how extraordinarily narrow my view of the world has been, how insidious the Western Imperialist propaganda. It distorts everything I see. I am very much still learning, and the only thing that helps is listening to people tell their stories.

That may sound simple, but it bears repeating:


Listen to listen, not to respond or debate. If you find yourself resisting, objecting, questioning, notice that in yourself and then push those thoughts aside and once again listen. You may never quite understand; after all, how can we understand an experience born of an existence in a culture not our own? (And that culture could be that of a Muslim in Pakistan, or a Black Christian in the U.S.)

Assume they are right. Because they are. They are sharing their own experience, and that can’t be wrong.

You will become immersed in a complex debate that is far more interesting and informative than anything your white western ill-informed opinions would imagine. I don’t mean this as an insult, but as an invitation. Set aside what you believe to be true, and listen to the experiences of those who have lived it.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Clinic Escort

Content Warning: abortion, mention of anti-choice violence.

It was a blustery morning, a small group of us standing in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic as usual. We were still reeling from the recent home sniper shooting of Dr. Short from Canada just days earlier (Dr. Short did not die, but the injuries he sustained ended his surgical career). The days following the attempted assassination, my volunteers showed up full of unfocused anger and fear. Several had to stop volunteering because their significant others demanded it. For every volunteer I lost, two new ones appeared to take their place, infuriated that people murdered doctors and terrorized women, yet had the gall to call themselves “pro-LIFE.”

But some of the volunteers we lost had been clinic escorts for years, had been indoctrinated into clinic defense during the era of Operation Rescue storming clinics and shutting them down with brute force: beefy white men letting us know that their Might was Right. The loss of some of our most dedicated volunteers impacted all of us.

We had heated debates about raising funds for bullet proof vests, and I explained repeatedly the company line about not going that route, because we didn’t want to be the ones to escalate. I didn’t agree with that logic, but I also knew that there were no funds, that it would be cost prohibitive to purchase enough vests to cover the bodies of volunteers at our seven clinics, and most importantly that the decision had already been made by those further up the chain.

And so half a dozen of us were there on this blustery morning, a morning like any other except that recent events made emotions raw and I’d been doing double duty as therapist for angry and frightened volunteers and their significant others for days.

One of the clinic’s regular protesters, one of our most vociferous and ruthless protesters, drove up to the curb and parked in her usual spot on the street in front of the clinic. The protesters already there, mostly older folks who tended to pray quietly, gathered around her car. As Jenny got out from behind the driver’s seat, a man got out from the passenger’s side.

Jenny’s body language conveyed pride and self-satisfaction at this guest she brought with her. The other protesters seemed giddy to be in this man’s company.

And he was… perhaps in his 50s or 60s, a stout, white man. He was wearing a long trench coat. I didn’t care for that trench coat. So much could be hidden there. Who was this man that they were all fawning over? He looked boldly towards us. They were too far away to catch what they were saying. But even from that distance it was apparent that he sized us up. The protesters around him, encouraged, stole looks in our direction.

We’d developed unwritten, unspoken rules of conduct over the years. For the most part, protesters and clinic defenders did not talk to each other. In fact it was a rule for volunteering, to not engage with the protesters. Since our primary focus was to do everything in our power to create a safe and calm experience for people entering the clinic, shouting matches or debates of any kind were not tolerated.

Some of the protesters would lecture us now and then. Ask how we could live with ourselves, sleep at night, with blood on our hands. Ask us how many babies we’d helped kill. Preach to us about God’s judgment. Pray for us.

When clients drove up, clinic defenders would try to create a physical buffer between them and the protesters, who would start yelling about murder and thrusting graphic pictures at them, trying to physically stall their entry into the clinic. If necessary we would loudly tell the protesters to “stop pushing.”

But other than those exchanges, there was very little interaction, not even much eye contact. It was an odd dance that we danced.

Mr. Trench coat fished inside his coat. We all were already on high alert, and I felt a burst of adrenaline surge through my body.

He pulled out a camera and started taking pictures, then started walking brazenly towards us and the clinic building. This was all very much outside of our rules of conduct and it was highly unnerving.

As a group, we clustered on the sidewalk and parking spaces to stop his progress. Jenny, clearly emboldened and energized, walked in step with him. The other protesters came a few steps behind, timidly. He stopped a couple feet in front of us and again sized us up. In addition to me, one of the volunteers was a young woman. He looked the two of us over. My skin crawled. And then with a hint of an accent (German?) he asked me if I knew who Margaret Sanger was. I was so taken off guard, I nodded Yes. He started talking about Sanger and the Nazis. This didn’t make any sense at all (Hitler was notoriously anti-choice), and my brain scrambled to make sense of his words and the appearance of this esteemed stranger.

He looked at the other woman and asked her if she’d ever had an abortion. I stiffened. She looked him in the eye but didn’t answer. He then turned to me and asked the same thing. I focused on steadying my breathing, and paying attention to his body movements. He talked a bit about abortions, graphically, but my brain started tuning out his words and focusing on his behavior. I felt blood pumping to my arms and legs, every part of my body on high alert. He took some pictures of us, particularly we women. We were in a public space, he had the right; and at that moment one of my volunteers was recording all of this on our video camera.

Abruptly the man in the trench coat stepped off the sidewalk and started walking towards the clinic entrance. I touched the arms of the two people on either side of me, and silently as a group we all walked calmly but quickly and positioned ourselves in front of the clinic door. We stood shoulder to shoulder.

So coolly and deliberately, he took pictures of us in front of the door. The glass was tinted, so between that and our bodies he couldn’t see anyone inside.

Having realized we would not answer his questions, he started talking with Jenny. Asking her about the protesting activities and of course about what she knew of abortions at this clinic.

And we stood, bolstering one another. My mind recognized that if he intended violence, he most likely would have done so by now. But my body remained on high alert, and I could feel the same from the volunteers on either side of me.

After a final assessing look, Mr. Trench coat and Jenny walked back to her car. The older protesters shook his hand with obvious adoration. Jenny puffed up again at having delivered an obviously important person to town. They got into her car and drove off, and the remaining protesters resumed their typical quiet prayers with seeming relief.

I exchanged glances with the volunteers to either side, and let out a long breath. “Good job, everyone. I'll go start a fresh pot of coffee,” I told them, and went into the clinic to give a report to the clinic manager.

Epilog: With the help of some pro-choice friends, we were able to identify our visitor as Father Paul Max, referred to as a “Pro-Life Pioneer.”