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.

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