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Just when you thought things couldn’t get more messed up November 19, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion.
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Just when you thought that forcing women to shroud their bodies and hair in loose black cloth wasn’t bad enough, a moral committee in Saudi Arabia has threatened to force women to cover up their “sexy eyes”. Yet again, extreme conservatives have demonstrated the extent of their ridiculousness – to go so far as to blame “sexy eyes” for tempting men.

So what has this got to do with us normal people? After all, I’m pretty sure that even the most socially conservative person that you or I know would not agree with the committee’s threats. Before we all pat ourselves on the backs for being more progressive than the Saudi moral committee, let’s take a look at our own society, or even at Western society. Are we really that much better than them?

There are two main themes that we all still have in common. The first is blame. In Saudi Arabia and in Singapore alike, it is still not uncommon for women to be blamed for the actions and choices of men. While in a conservative Middle Eastern society, rape may be blamed on a woman’s sexy eyes or tempting ankles, our “traditional Asian”, Western influenced society is equally guilty of blaming rape on a woman’s attire or behavior. In both situations, instead of focusing on the actions and choices of the perpetrator, people choose to hold the victim accountable. Maybe it is simply easier to blame the sexiness of eyes and ankles and cleavage and thighs, than to face the fact that *gasp* men have control over where they stick their genitalia?

The second theme is control. Over and beyond supposed rape prevention, dictating how a woman should and should not dress means assuming that you have the right to control her actions. Control is by no means limited to punishment by stoning (or whatever medieval means we imagine “backward” countries to utilize). Threats of hell, stigmatization, and shame are used to punish women who show more skin that what is deemed acceptable. (Funnily enough, in modern society, we not only punish women for dressing too sexy, we also disregard women who are not sexy enough.) Of course, men are not immune to such judgment either, but I would contend that there is a far higher social price to pay for being a slut than a stud, and there is a far stronger social pressure on women to dress sexy-but-not-too-sexy.

“Decency” is a poor excuse. Decency according to whose standards: the religious police?  The government? Religious leaders? Who gave them the authority to decide what should be considered decent, and who are they to decide that women’s bodies should be subject to stricter scrutiny than men’s? Such control is manifested most obviously in conservative Islamic societies whose laws demand that women (against all respect for reason, safety, or culture) cover their entire bodies. But it also manifests in Western society when we have absurd policies about public breastfeeding, or when everybody freaks out when a nipple appears on national television. It’s almost as if a woman’s body is always defined as sexual, never mind the fact that we use our bodies to dance, swim, run, and nurse infants, the sole purpose of exposing our skin is for the viewing pleasure of men, right?!? Pair that view together with a sexually repressive society and you get a ridiculous obsession with policing and judging women’s attire.

Ultimately, it’s a no brainer that women in Western society and Singapore’s society enjoy more freedoms than our Saudi counterparts. But the next time you see a rape victim being accused of “asking for it” because of her sexy dress, don’t forget that the very same argument can be made for a fully niqab-ed women with sexy eyes. Perhaps the extreme victim blaming and control over women that we hear about in Saudi Arabia will force us to see the absurdity of our own society’s attempts to blame and control women.


Things that cause rape June 11, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Rants, Society.
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I could write a whole post on rape statistics. I could mention how provocative clothing plays no role in a rapist choosing his target (Want to know what is the major factor? Appearing vulnerable – even if that means dressing like a conservative, docile, demure lady like your mother taught you.) I could also mention the fact that even the most non-provocative people in the world fall victim to rape – infants, the elderly, and even Muslim women covered head to toe.

But all that wouldn’t matter anyway. Because rape isn’t a natural disaster like an earthquake, and rape isn’t a disease like lung cancer. Rape is not a phenomenon that simply happens to you. What is the point of looking at the “odds of getting raped”  (and then blaming a victim for not being careful enough) when rape is only caused by one thing?  It is solely a result of one person’s conscious choice: the rapist’s.



The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism April 14, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Yesterday, I alluded to arguments made on the basis of cultural relativism: the idea that culture is sacred and that criticisms of cultural practices coming from outsiders are not valid as those judgments are unfairly made based on an outsiders’ skewed perspectives. From a cultural relativist’s point of view, we cannot describe the burka as oppressive or sexist, because we are using our own biased standards of sexism to judge the practice of another culture. Whilst there is some value to cultural relativism – the notion that no culture is really superior or inferior to others comes to mind – it is also extremely problematic because from this viewpoint, religions and cultures can never be blamed for any of their practices, no matter how racist, misogynistic or homophobic; they are simply immune.

Why should they be granted such immunity? Because these practices have been conserved for decades or centuries? Well, forced marriages, bride snatching, honor killings, female genital mutilation and the practice of sati have been around for centuries too, and I have yet to come across any civilized person who would dare to suggest that these practices should be preserved for cultural value.

The key flaw in the cultural relativist’s argument is the assumption that the preservation of a culture’s status quo is desirable in itself. Perhaps based on the argument that since the practice has been around for so long, or is practiced by so many people, there must be some inherent value in it. But the problem is that no culture is perfect. In fact, all cultures are extremely imperfect, and all societies can be changed for the better.

Take for example the issue of slavery. Today, most societies recognize slavery as a crime against humanity; an atrocious practice that dehumanizes people, where people are not recognized as individuals but as property; denied of choice and freedom simply because they were born into an unfortunate circumstance with an unfortunate skin tone. Back in the 1800s, slavery was the norm and it never even crossed anyone’s mind to consider the personhood of the slave. In fact, slavery was in a way “functional” for society. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if no one questioned the status quo, on the basis that “slavery has been working fine for the past century, why change it?”

Given this (literally) conservative mindset, it is thus no wonder that some women are themselves proponents of the burka, or even practices like female genital mutilation and forced marriages. That is the desired outcome of indoctrination: to be brought up to believe only one version of the truth and to never question the status quo, to assume that your culture as it is right now is perfect.

I would ask a cultural relativist: do you not think we are not more morally enlightened today compared to the past? Is it not possible for one culture to be more morally enlightened than another, given that some cultures have unquestioningly stuck to the practices of the past whilst others have critically examined them and made room for individual rights and freedoms? Then why oppose cultural change, if it can be for the better?

The enemy isn’t Islam, neither is it westernization. The enemy is and always has been social inequality. Throughout the centuries, one thing that almost all cultures have in common is the desire for social progress, defined by the breaking down of barriers to equality. From the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, to the civil rights movement, to the ending of apartheid, to the feminist movement – it is clear that there is a human desire to be respected as an individual and not to be denied choices and opportunities based on one’s class, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In this way, addressing the burka problem, even if you may not agree with the means of implementation, is a necessary and welcome form of social progress.

It is time that we stop hiding behind cultural relativism and political correctness and start recognizing what the burka and the culture behind it means: a tool to limit the self actualization of women and a climate of threats and punishment if a woman decides not to comply with prescribed gender roles.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression? April 13, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Many have argued that the burka ban reflects an intolerance of Islam and is a form of restricting religious freedom. But these claims make the presumption that religions should be exempt from scrutiny when it comes to compliance with basic human rights, or even social integration policies. The truth is that the French constitution protects the individual’s rights to religious freedom, but also the sanctity of secular, liberal values. In other words, the law seeks to protect an individual’s right to practice his religion, as long as those practices do not conflict with the liberal values of equality.

Firstly, what we all must realize is that there is a limit to religious tolerance. This is true for France, the USA, Singapore or any other country in the world that claims to support freedom of religion. One cannot hide under the shield of “religious freedom” to defend practices that cause harm to an individual or to society. In countries like Singapore and the UK, it is illegal to cause religious offence or incite violence, even if such actions are condoned or even encouraged by a particular religion. So it should come as no surprise that a believer’s right to wear the burka must be balanced with the offense that it causes to a society that believes in equality between the sexes. France has simply decided that French secular values trumps this right. (On a related note, why don’t I have the right to walk around naked in Singapore? Because the government has decided that my right to wear nothing is trumped by society being offended by public nakedness due to its conservative sensibilities. Fair enough.)

Secondly, wearing the burka is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one. There are millions of Muslim women all over the world that do not wear the burka. Even in France, there are only about 2,000 Muslim women that do wear it. A ban on the burka does not compromise one’s ability to practice Islam in a peaceful and moderate manner; but it only affects those who interpret Islam in a radical way that involves the indoctrination of girls in an environment that is anti-choice and devoid of personal freedom.

Cultural freedoms have limits too: the cultural practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings are outlawed in the civilized countries that recognize an individual’s basic rights to safety and to choice over the supposed value of preserving cultural norms. It is fallacious to suggest that all culture is sacred simply because many people have been practicing it for a long time. Such an argument can be used to defend all sorts of atrocities that are otherwise traditional and cultural: bride snatching, slavery, the list goes on.

Ultimately, whilst there must be tolerance and respect for different religious and cultural practices, a line must be drawn somewhere. France has decided to draw the line at inculcating young boys and girls with misogynistic notions of a woman’s worth being related to how she dresses. And frankly, I see little problem with them choosing to draw the line there – I too would like to live in a society where girls and women are not continuously faced with threats of shame and dishonor, and boys and men are not taught to use excuses like a woman’s dressing to defend rape and disrespect. Cultural and religious tolerance does not automatically mean tolerance of oppressive cultural and religious practices.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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The burka is more than a piece of clothing. As much as libertarians prefer to over-simplify the issue into “the government trying to control the attire of its citizens”, it isn’t as simplistic as that. The burka is a symbol of female oppression. The mere fact that the women of some religious sects are compelled to don it is telling enough: Why do women have to wear it and not men too? Why are they compelled to, and not given a choice? What kind of selective “truths” are they brought up to believe – that all men are potential rapists or that an uncovered woman deserves to be raped? Who enforces this rule to wear a burka – mullahs, religious police, the men who own her? What happens if she chooses not to wear it – killed, stoned, loss of her father’s “honor”? What kind of cultures force their women to wear burkas – those that impose a multitude of other rules to control the behavior of women, or those that let women have individual freedoms? Like it or not, the burka is so inextricably linked to all these connotations of sexism, misogyny and oppression that one can’t put it on without suggesting that one is either a victim of, or a proponent of these illiberal values.

Why do symbols matter? Ideally they shouldn’t, but in reality they do. Symbolism is the reason why there is a difference between burning a Koran and burning a dictionary, between stepping onto a national flag and a piece of cloth. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably be arrested if you walk down the streets of Israel in your Hitler halloween costume complete with swastika and fake moustache. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably get lynched if you walked the streets of New York wearing a KKK hood. People attach meanings to books, flags and articles of clothing. The burka symbolizes female oppression because of the reasoning behind it, the lies used to compel women to “choose” it, the threats and punishments used to enforce it, and the meanings of female ownership and honor that come with it.

The burka ban is full of symbolism too: it symbolizes that the French have zero tolerance for female oppression. I highly doubt that the small fine is going to convince conservative radical believers to change their mind about the burka, and arguably, there are many other better ways to encourage women to escape from this form of oppression such as providing an avenue for asylum and education. Instead, the value of the burka ban is in its message: that oppression and its symbols have no place in secular France, and if that one were to be insistent on keeping women enrobed in a shroud of subjugation, one is welcome to do so elsewhere.

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

Reclaiming the word “slut” April 6, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International.
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If you are a woman, chances are, some culture somewhere will define you as a slut. Maybe you’ve had sex before marriage. Maybe you’ve had more than one boyfriend. Maybe you’ve held hands with an unrelated man. Maybe you have male friends. Maybe you go out in public exposing your bare arms. Even as I sit here in front of my computer in a t-shirt and skinny jeans, some cultures will define that as slutty attire – attire that suggests that I am asking to be disrespected by men, attire that means I deserve to get sexually harassed.

And that, I feel, is the crux of the matter: what society deems as appropriate attire and appropriate behaviour for women is purely subjective, and more often than not, defined by men. If a woman doesn’t comply with these arbitrary standards, she is defined as a slut – someone less than human, someone deserving to be victimised, and someone less deserving of empathy. The concept of a slut is socially constructed, designed to punish women who choose to express varying degrees of their individuality and sexuality, and to excuse perpetrators who might commit acts of assault and harassment against them.

Women in Toronto have grown sick of this form of oppression. In response to a police officer who claimed that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, these women decided to reclaim the word “slut” by organizing a Slutwalk. 3,000 women of all ages – wearing anything they wanted to wear – marched down the streets of Toronto with pride and defiance, to reinforce the point that what a woman wears is not an invitation to be harassed and that they had enough of victim blaming/shaming. Most importantly, they wanted society to change from a culture that tells women not to get raped to a culture that demands that men do not rape.

Even now, I can anticipate the response from anti-feminist male chauvinist pigs (or anti-feminist females, who, though a rarer breed, tend to be more scathing and self righteous than their male counterparts). “If you don’t want to get groped, then why tempt us (men) to grope you?” To that, I have a few responses.

i) You are not an animal. You are a human being in control of your actions. Your hormones may tell you to touch or hump an attractive female walking by, but you have the ability and the responsibility to restrain yourself and respect the woman’s sovereignty over her own body. How she is dressed is no excuse for uncivilized behaviour, nor does it rationalize disrespecting her personhood.

ii) More often than not, it is the observer that is doing the sexualizing, not the “slut”. If you claim that a woman is dressed like a sex object, chances are, it is because you have defined her as one first. Let’s put it this way, if you saw a topless woman in Singapore, you would sexualize her, but you wouldn’t sexualize the topless tribal women on the National Geographic Channel, and you most probably wouldn’t sexualize a topless obese/ugly woman. Why? Because the role of a “sex object” has been projected onto her by the observer, and is not an inherent property of a woman’s attire.

iii) Believe it or not, most women do not make their clothing choices based on whether they will be able to tempt men. Looking nice makes us feel good about ourselves, and most of us enjoy it when others – both male and female – recognize that we look nice. The world doesn’t revolve around men and sex; it is not our intention to tempt you or invite you, and even if you make the mistake of interpreting it as such, please be a man and respect it when we say no. (And yes, I acknowledge that some women dress in certain ways solely to get male attention. But it’s just that – attention. Attention is not consent to groping or sex.)

iv) Rape has more to do with how the perpetrator views women than about sex. If it were simply an issue of sexual attraction, a man would take “no” for an answer. But to ignore a victim’s sovereignty over her own body suggests that the perpetrator has issues of power and control and is probably unable to respect women as equal human beings with a right to choose their attire and a right to not be touched without consent. What a woman wears is merely a convenient excuse to disguise the desire to dehumanize and possess a victim and to violate her bodily integrity against her will.

Back to the topic at hand: should we reclaim the word “slut”? It depends on how you define the word. If “slut” simply means a woman who dresses scantily, then I say by all means reclaim it. We all should have the right to dress however we want without having to be a victim of assault or harassment. But sometimes the word is more loaded than that – it has been used to justify rape, harassment and general assholery against women by making assumptions about their worth as human beings. We may hate it or embrace it, as long as we never let it be used as an excuse for the dehumanization and violation of women.

Homophobes can’t handle being “the woman” July 16, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Rants, Society.
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After a few exchanges I’ve had with homophobes, I’ve found that they share one thing in common: they have an immense fear of being approached by an interested gay man, and believe that this fear is enough to justify discrimination against gays and the criminalization of homosexuality.


What I find so perplexing is how traumatized these men are by the mere thought of receiving unwanted male attention. You see, as a woman, receiving unwanted male attention is an annoyance so mundane that I wouldn’t even waste my breath complaining about it. Being approached by a man that you’re not interested in is a banal experience shared by almost every woman, and I have yet to meet any one who felt so offended by it to even suggest that legislation or violence against these men should be necessary. Regardless of how we feel about it – insulted, annoyed, flattered or even disgusted, we embrace the fact that these men have every right to approach us with interest, just as we have every right to politely decline.


Unfortunately, homophobic men do not seem to share this view. It is all too common for them to justify violence and discrimination against gays based on the fear of receiving unwanted male attention. From a feminist perspective, the reactions of these homophobes are quite troubling. Their reactions are not just reflections of homophobia, it also says a lot about how uncomfortable they are about straying from strictly enforced traditional gender roles. In it is the inherent implication that there is something undesirable about being pursued “like a woman”.


Traditional gender roles usually prescribe the active role of the pursuer to the man, and the passive, receiver role to the woman. In this way, being the recipient of male attention implies femininity. In the mind of a misogynistic male (and probably in a misogynistic patriarchal society), femininity is equated with weakness, and is thus undesirable. In other words, the fear that homophobes have against unwanted male attention is a socially conditioned fear that they have of being associated with submissiveness, vulnerability, weakness and other undesirable feminine traits.


By introducing a gay man into the equation, the misogynistic male is suddenly stripped of his sexually dominant role; that is, he is now the object of pursuit, just like a woman. It is this perceived threat to masculinity that causes the homophobe to be so offended by unwanted male attention, and fuels his attempt to reinstate his “manliness” through homophobic insults or physical attacks. Add to that the fact that men are much more socially stigmatized for gender role reversals than women are, and we can (sort of) understand why some men are so violently opposed to appearing feminine.


It is because of this that I am particularly wary of homophobic men. How a man views homosexuals reveals exactly what he feels about women and gender roles in sexual interactions. At the very least, a homophobe who is “traumatized” by unwanted male attention simply lacks the empathy and understanding that it is precisely the same unwanted sexual attention that we women receive and accept as an everyday occurrence. But perhaps most worrying is the intrinsic allusion that connotations of femininity are undesirable becaue they suggest inferiority. As such, homophobes and homophobia speak volumes about the individual’s (and society’s) acceptance of patriarchy and the perpetuated recognition of women being lower on the totem pole of social hierarchy.

The moralistic notion of chastity till marriage July 8, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion, Society.
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It makes a lot of sense to discourage teenagers from having sex. After all, they have neither the financial capability nor the emotional maturity to deal with unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases. But moralistic conservatives do not see this issue with such practical sensibilities. (If they did, they’d be all for comprehensive sex education programs – which not only keep teenagers from having sex, it also helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and STDs in those who do.) Instead, conservatives tend to attach the notion of morality to premarital sex, self righteously assuming that they are in a position to judge the sexual practices of others. The emphasis on virginity and “saving yourself” till marriage as a virtue in itself is disturbing and distasteful in both the misogynistic expectations it places on women and the nasty historical origins of the practice.


A man who requires his wife to be a virgin

 A man who requires his bride to be a virgin is at the very best an insecure man who cannot handle comparison, or at the very worst a controlling possessive misogynist who felt the need to control his wife’s body and sexuality even before they met. Marriage is a pact for the future, not for the past. The need for loyalty and commitment within the present relationship does not necessitate the ridiculous assumption that you should have a say in the past choices of your significant other. That is simply a sign of possessiveness, insecurity, and a chauvinistic desire for the territorial ownership of women and their bodies.

 We only have to look to glaring examples of such men: those who explicitly seek mail order brides who can “prove” their virginities. Notions of “purity” and “innocence” are simply euphemisms for the obvious reality that these women are valued for their subservient, demure nature and sexual inexperience. With society’s obsession with virginity (especially equating virgin girls as desirable and non virgin girls as whores) we are creating misogynistic expectations for women and perpetuating the notion that marriage is an unequal relationship between a dominant male and a submissive virgin bride.

 That is not to say that men are immune to society’s virginity obsession. In Singapore at least, there is an almost equal societal expectation for both men and women to remain virgins till they get married. But this does nothing to ameliorate the problematic issues that will arise out of glorifying virginity and demonizing fornicators: the notion of marriage as the “ownership” of your spouse, the possessive control of your spouse’s past, and worst of all, the flawed belief that your status of virginity says anything about who you are. Whether conservatives like it or not, the truth is that having sex before marriage doesn’t make you morally repugnant, and being a virgin all your life doesn’t make you a saint. Character judgments based on virginity are simplistic, inaccurate, and frankly, rather lazy.


The nasty historical origins of “chastity till marriage”

 Way back before the advent of reliable birth control or paternity tests, requiring your future bride to be a virgin was a means to ensure that you do not end up handing over your land or property to someone else’s child. Before marriage, girls and their sexuality were in effect the property of their fathers, and upon marriage, this ownership would then be transferred to their husbands. We see evidence of such beliefs in the bible:


 22:13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her,

 22:14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:

 22:15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate:

 22:16 And the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her;

 22:17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.

 22:18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him;

 22:19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.

 22:20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:

 22:21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

 Translation: If a man hates his wife, he can claim that she wasn’t a virgin when she was married. If her father can’t produce “the tokens of her virginity”, the woman will be stoned to death at the door of her father’s house by the men in her city. Thus it is clear that in such a culture, women were seen as property, and their virginity was supposed to be guaranteed to their husbands by their fathers.



22:28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;

 22:29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

 Translation: if a man rapes an unbetrothed virgin, he must pay her father 50 shekels of silver and then marry her. From here we see that rape is not a crime against the woman, it is a crime against her father, because he is the one who owns her and her virginity.

 Though the examples I mentioned were from the bible, this misogynistic notion of women as property is by no means limited to religion. Confucian and African cultures also have practices involving virginity testing and proof of “deflowering” on the wedding night, where if it were discovered that the bride were not a virgin, her family would face considerable shame and the marriage could even be annulled. Under Anglo-Saxon law, rape law was a form of property law, whereby the rapist was punished by having to make compensation to the victim’s husband or her father, depending on who exercised ownership over her. In effect, rape was treated as an act of trespass on a woman’s body, which was male property.

 Today, such reasoning is not only archaic, it is simply sexist and offensive. Yet we still see similar cases made for the promotion of chastity until marriage, where the woman’s body and virginity is “reserved” for her future husband and rightful owner.

 But as long as we respect that women are people too, with the freedom to make their own choices, we cannot dictate one way or another whether and when a woman should have sex. A woman’s sexuality is of no one’s business but her own. To take it a step further, a person’s sexuality is of no one’s business but their own, and society’s obsession with chastity till marriage is simply a self righteous intrusion onto an individual’s personal choices.

Marital rape and the presumption of consent July 2, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Singapore.
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Maybe I have been too engrossed in the Aware saga, but I realize that many of my posts have been about homosexual issues, even though I am not homosexual myself. Today, after stumbling upon NoToRape.com (a campaign started by Jolene of Glass Castle) I decided to address a topic that hits much closer to home, but receives a lot less airtime: marital rape.


In Singapore, it is legal to rape your wife. That special contract that we call marriage not only has economic and cultural significance, it also grants men immunity from being charged for the rape of their wives. In giving them this immunity, the inherent message is that men are entitled to have sex with their wives, regardless of the latter’s consent.


Now, any decent, civilized person would be appalled at that archaic notion. It reeks way too much of the obsolete (and misogynic) idea that marriage is the transfer of ownership of a woman and her body from her father to her husband, thereby entitling her husband to sex as and when he pleases. Many Western countries have now recognized that marital rape is contrary to human rights and have criminalized the practice. Even England, from which Singapore’s marital rape exemption originated, abolished the exemption in 1991. But yet again, the Singapore government holds its conservative position and is against the repeal of this archaic law which protects husbands from being charged for rape, on the basis of “family values”.


How does permitting marital rape preserve “family values”? Well, their argument goes something like this: marital rape is a private affair and should be sorted out amicably by the couple involved (Funny how that logic doesn’t apply to homosexual sex) and the law should not interfere so as not to disrupt the traditional family unit which is the building block of society.


But what exactly are we preserving here? The notion that women are property, for their husbands to do whatever they see fit with them? The conservation of marriages involving abusive husbands? The perpetuation of misogynic messages and abusive behavior to be passed on to these couples’ children? Only with our conservative government’s logic would a woman staying with an abusive husband be viewed as a positive thing. It seems that the government sees the absence of reported marital rape as a good thing in itself, conveniently forgetting that simply not recognizing an act as criminal does not make it any less harmful, or cause it to occur any less frequently.


At the heart of the marital rape exemption is the issue of presumed consent. The marital rape exemption is usually justified by the assumption that marriage implies consent to sexual intercourse. On the surface, this seems quite reasonable. After all, we do not expect our husbands or wives (or even boyfriends or girlfriends), with whom we are in a long term sexual relationship, to ask for permission at the initiation of every instance of sexual intercourse. In fact, I do not think it is uncommon for such presumed “green lights” for assumed consent to exist within individual long term sexual relationships, where prior informal arrangements are made such that consent to sex can be assumed.


But such presumed “green lights” to sex are not concrete. There always exists a partner’s right to give a “red light” at any time he or she wishes. Regardless of whether consent was presumed, as long as you refuse someone’s request to stop doing something to them, you are committing an offence against his or her personal sovereignty. By retaining the marital rape exemption, we are effectively saying that marriage switches on a permanent “green light” to sex, and women are left without any option to retract this “green light” and say “No”. This notion is exemplified by the statement made by England’s former Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale:

the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

Marriage was and is treated as a kind of “automatic” consent to sexual intercourse which cannot be revoked. Women were and are mere sex objects for their husbands, with no power or right to refuse sex.


By keeping the marital rape exemption, we are allowing men, especially abusive men, to make the claim of prior consent (by marriage) and basically protecting those who carry out the intentional rape of their wives. In my opinion, regardless of all potential problems (difficulty to prosecute, potential for false accusations, compromising of “family values” – all of which apply to many other crimes as well, I might add), it is not justifiable for the law to give immunity to someone who commits abusive acts. Dropping the presumption of consent would reduce the possibility that such abuse would continue with impunity.


No matter how offensive or inoffensive we find the notion of marriage implying presumed consent, this is ultimately an issue of choice. The marital rape exemption denies a woman the option of saying “No” to her husband. And in doing so, it legitimizes an abuser’s actions to violate his wife’s personal sovereignty over her own body. It is simply preposterous that this form of violation can be passed off as a “private issue” in the name of Family Values.


If you believe that the marital rape exemption should be repealed, and that marital rape should be a crime, I urge you to sign the petition here.

French secularism and the burka June 24, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Religion.
Tags: , , , ,

 France is considering a ban on the burka, on the basis that the garment is a symbol of female submissiveness and male dominance, and is thus contrary to the French republican principles of women’s rights. To be honest, I am completely torn as to which side I would take regarding this issue. On the one hand, as a liberal, I am opposed to the idea of the government having a say in the personal choices of its people. But on the other hand, as a woman and as a feminist, I am totally and completely offended by the burka and the rationale behind its use. In this post I will attempt to explain my views, and perhaps come to a rational and consistent position.


Why I am against the ban

As I mentioned earlier, (and perhaps way too many times in this blog), I am a liberal when it comes to the limits of government control. This means that I believe that the government has no right to interfere in the personal choices and actions of its people, as long as those choices and actions cause no harm to others. In the case of the burka, I find it alarming that the government would deny women the right to choose how they wish to dress. To me this is no less atrocious and authoritarian than the governments of those Muslim countries which impose the burka or the veil on its female citizens. I don’t think it is wise for a civilized Western country sink to that level.


Why I am against the burka

Firstly, the notion of “the freedom to choose the burka” is problematic because how much of these women’s decisions are actually made freely without coercion? Is the choice to cover oneself up really free if that choice is being made by someone who has undergone a lifetime of indoctrination with the message that this is the only proper way for a woman to dress? If a man tells his wife, “you’re free to decide whether or not you want to wear the burka, but only immodest women and bad wives choose to expose themselves.” then that is no longer considered a choice; it’s considered social pressure and coercion.


Of course the argument could then be turned around to the western women. Isn’t our society pressuring us to wear makeup and short skirts too? While that may be true, the key difference lies in the degree of coercion. If I choose to go out without makeup, I am merely considered an anomaly amongst women. But if a woman pressured to don the burka chooses not to, she may be shunned by her family and community, often without sufficient education or resources to fall back on. In this way, it is no longer considered a free choice when the “choice” is between the burka and a woman’s means to existence.


Secondly, the reasons behind the burka are flawed and incredibly insulting. The main premise behind the burka is this: women should cover themselves up in order to protect themselves from unwanted advances and sexual assault from men. This premise is insulting to both men to women: it assumes that men are sexually aroused at the mere sight of female flesh, it assumes that men cannot control their sexual urges, and it assumes that female sexuality is a negative thing.


Take for example, the outrageous and offensive comments made by a Muslim cleric in Australia a couple of years ago, blaming women for getting gang raped because of how they dressed:

“The uncovered meat is the problem.”

The sheik then said: “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”

He said women were “weapons” used by “Satan” to control men.

Such is the rationale and mindset behind the coercing of women to cover themselves up, and the punishing and ostracizing of those who choose not to. It involves the abhorrent notion that women and their bodies are mere sex objects and should be covered up to prevent men (weaker beings with no self control or dignity) from temptation.


But as an educated woman, I know that it is not my obligation to dress in order to prevent men from being tempted. Educated, self-respecting men should know that it is their own responsibility to control their urges and actions. Men are not children, or worse, animals, who have no control over their desires and who require women to remove temptation away from them. Assuming that they are is insulting and simply untrue. Furthermore, the burka is also a symbol of the belief that female sexuality is a threat to men, or even society. At best, such a belief is simply unfounded paranoia. At worst, it is a manifestation of male dominance and the need to control women by limiting their freedoms, their intellect, their voice, and their sexuality.


Thirdly, the burka is alienating and dehumanizing. As a garment, it does an effective job of making its wearers both literally and figuratively invisible and indistinguishable to others. Unlike the hijab, which is commonly worn by Muslim women in Singapore and allows us to see their faces and facial expressions, the burka covers the woman’s entire face, only allowing a mesh screen for her to see through. This alienates the woman by preventing her from effectively communicating and engaging with the outside world. It also dehumanizes her because the rest of us can’t help but see her as a mound of cloth, rather than as an actual thinking, feeling human being.


Fourthly, arguing that the burka should be respected because it is justified as a religious practice is not good enough. I am against the burka for the same reason why I am against female genital mutilation, female illiteracy, the practice of sati, honor killings and other misogynistic practices which are often justified using religion. In this way I somewhat agree with the French government’s reasons for bringing up the issue:


“If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles, naturally parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions,” he said.


Religious justification is simply not enough. There should definitely be a limit to religious freedom, and that line should be drawn when religious practices encroach onto human rights, no matter how deeply entrenched such practices are in the religious community. In the case of France, where laïcité is a core principle in their constitution (because of historical problems the State had with the Catholic Church, outward displays of religion in France are now taboo), it is understandable why the French would want to ban something that threatens their hard fought secular values.


Fifth, the burka is not “freeing”. It is sometimes argued that women who expose flesh are not taken seriously by men because they are only valued for their looks, while a burka frees a woman by allowing her to be judged for who she is rather than what she looks like. Other than the fact that this is simply false (People will now judge the woman based on her overt and extreme expression of religion more than her intellect or her personality), the burka is in fact highly impractical and restricts many practical freedoms. For example, a burka clad woman would not (and should not) be allowed into a bank for security reasons, and would be ineligible for many jobs as face-to-face interactions are a prerequisite for engaging interpersonal interactions, professional or otherwise.


A conclusion?


Are the atrocities that are represented and perpetuated by the burka worth compromising my liberal values of non interference in personal choices? For now I don’t think I can resolve my own internal conflict. But ultimately, a burka ban would only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the true evils of misogyny, female oppression and victim-blaming.


Instead, I believe that education is key. Secular, unbiased education (as opposed to religious indoctrination) for women and girls opens up options and opportunities so that these marginalized women have the ability to make informed choices for themselves, so that they can truly be emancipated from such social and religious coercion.

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