Harper, We Have A Problem: Women-Only Gym Hours, Niqabs, and Canadian Islamophobia

When Soumia Allalou recently put forward a request to institute women-only hours at McGill University’s gym, she set off a maelstrom of controversy both on campus and off. Opinion pieces articulating outrage along with a petition opposing the idea quickly circulated. The University administration’s response was to unilaterally cut off discussions, stating that “it’s always been clear, McGill is secular and co-ed, and this is what we promote.” This is an interesting version of McGill’s history, given that McGill operated as a male-only institution for the first 63 years of its existence. In fact, up until the 1970s, all female undergraduate students were categorized separately as students of Royal Victoria College. It is also intriguingly amnesic in light of the Christian imagery found throughout campus, such as the stained glass windows portraying Saint Michael in the War Memorial Hall and of Saint George elsewhere.

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student. Source: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/women-only-gym-hours-nixed-by-mcgill-university-1.3002816

Soumia Allalou, McGill Student.
Source: http://www.cbc.ca

Speaking from personal experience as a woman who has worked out in a gym, I agree with Ms. Allalou’s perfectly reasonable statement that “there are many reasons women would want to work out only with other women. They might feel more comfortable. They might have had bad experiences in the past…” Given the University administration’s citation of secularism, one wonders what the response would be if a non-Muslim woman had put forward the request…

As one online comment on the McGill Daily states,

“This is only about accommodating a growing religious group that hold an ideology that is demanding more and more changes to our secular society. The fact that feminists are endorsing this kind of thing shows that we need to educate ourselves more on these customs and take a look at the middle east where they are the norm – because that is where we are headed.”

This comment is both disturbing and representative of the response to Allalou’s request. Firstly, note the framing of Muslims as a group who are demanding changes in the context of a zero-sum game in which accommodating the needs of a minority is seen to equal rescinding the rights of the majority. This kind of thinking sets up an “us vs. them” mentality in which it becomes increasingly difficult to think collaboratively or collectively. Secondly, this comment reveals the now familiar assumption that Islam is somehow particularly demeaning to women (never mind the fact that clear incidents of misogyny can be found in nearly all major world religions). This comment also troublingly demonstrates an unquestioning adoption of a belief that has been at the centre of several major imperialist interventions throughout history, including the more recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Such Western invasions have often actually resulted in devastating set backs for the status of women, despite the rhetoric citing ‘the plight of women’ as justification for military intervention.

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod's latest book on the topic.  Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s latest book on the topic. Source: http://anthropology.columbia.edu/

The idea that Muslim women are particularly oppressed and need to be ‘saved’ by ‘our superior secular society’ is a trope that is stealthily seeping into many of the discourses around immigration, Islam, and navigating cultural difference in Canada. (On a side note – why is it that the very people who are making these kinds of statements are often in the very next breath claiming that we live in a ‘Judeo-Christian’ society? You really can’t have both!). Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod offers some extremely relevant perspective on this topic in a piece entitled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” (2002).

In it she provides us with a timely reminder of the ways in which the issue of the burqa and women’s rights were boldly mobilized in order to justify the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Abu-Lughod tells us that

“it is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan woman as someone in need of saving. When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged.” (Abu-Lughod 2002:788-789).

The slide from demonizing women who wear niqab to making blanket statements about the supposed inferiority of Islam is chillingly smooth, and often used for nefarious purposes.

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.  Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

Muslim women practice many different types of veiling.
Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-09-23/why-do-muslim-women-wear-a-burka-niqab-or-hijab/5761510

The incident at McGill is but one example in a recent spate of Islamophobia that has occupied the nation’s headlines over the past few weeks. The arguably racist attitude expressed in these discourses is unfortunately not confined to Internet comment sections. Our Prime Minister, the political leader of this country, is also guilty of stoking the flames of Islamophobia in similarly unabashed fashion. Whether for tactical political purposes meant to distract the public from a less than stellar economic record, or out of plain old racism, Mr. Harper’s statement that the niqab is “rooted in a culture that is anti-women” (and as such should not be worn during the Canadian citizenship ceremony) is undeniably Islamophobic. As other commentators have pointed out, the real anti-woman sentiment here is to be found in the idea that the State has the right to tell women how to dress. Another Conservative Member of Parliament, Larry Miller, echoed this Islamophobia when he told women who wish to wear the niqab to “stay the hell where you came from.”

Importantly, all of this is taking place in the context of a noticeable ratcheting up of anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Conservative party has expressly utilized the threat of Islamic terrorism to gain support for their controversial Bill C-51, against which there has been widespread protest. During the hearings for this Bill, Conservative MP Diane Ablonczy’s questioning of the head of a group that represents Canadian Muslims was labelled downright “McCarthy-esque.” In fact, this group, the National Council of Canadian Muslims, has launched a defamation lawsuit against the Prime Minister’s office for slanderous statements linking the group to Hamas.

If all of this wasn’t troubling enough news from our political leaders, a recent EKOS poll found that “not only is opposition to immigration in general scaling heights not seen in twenty years but the number of Canadians saying we admit too many visible minorities has just cracked the 40-point ceiling for the first time ever.” The author rightly points out that “opposition to immigration can be driven by factors other than racial discrimination, such as economic anxiety. But it’s hard to see how those saying too many immigrants are visible-minority can be motivated by anything but racial or cultural bias… these numbers should alarm anyone who believes in an open and tolerant society.”

The denial of a university student’s request for women-only hours at the campus gym may seem a small and trivial issue. However, it is in such seemingly mundane examples that we can begin to see the shift in attitude towards a totalitarian rejection of those we perceive to be ‘the other.’ If history has any relevance for the unfolding of the future, it is that the stakes for such a rejection are unbelievably high. These kinds of divisive tactics have no place in our collective future. We must reject Islamophobia, and smash the walls Prime Minister Harper is attempting to build between us. We are enriched through our differences. We are stronger, better and more prosperous together.

Sex, Drugs & Leprechauns

I was shopping in Kensington Market last week, when I wandered by a store displaying manikins wearing St. Patrick’s day gear. This included lots of green fabric, t shirts with slogans like “sex, drugs and leprechauns” and oddly, plastic “Grinch” face masks.  I rolled my eyes, and walked on, but something bothered me about those manikins and the feeling has clung to me like static ever since. After consideration, I have put together four reasons you should stop celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day (North American style anyway)…

1)      What’s Saint Patrick’s Day without drinking?

Part of this celebration of all things related to alcohol consumption is a romanticization of drunkenness. The effects of alcoholism are serious, so why are we promoting a clearly unhealthy relationship to alcohol? Celebrating extreme drunkenness in this way is not only disrespectful to those who are affected by alcoholism, it also promotes a culture of irresponsibility and recklessness. In 2012, students celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in London, Ontario caused $100,000 worth of damage when their riotous, alcohol fueled party turned into a riot.

Compounding this romanticization of drunkenness is the way it plays on negative stereotypes of Irish people. Since when is it appropriate for us to hold a holiday which revolves around celebrating negative stereotypes of one particular ethnicity? I realize that many different ethnicities put up with this kind of treatment on a daily basis. That isn’t right. But just because it’s only for one day doesn’t make propagating tired, old stereotypes about the Irish as drunkards appropriate either.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, displays in shop windows boldly stated “Help wanted – No Irish need apply.” Eugenicists debated which position the Irish occupied in the racial hierarchy in relation to “Whites” and “Blacks.” Even into the 1900s, prominent authors discussed the “Neanderthal characteristics of the native Irish – the great upper lip, the bridgeless nose, beetling brow with low growing hair, and wild and savage aspect.”

Political cartoon from 1871, depicting the Irish as drunkards. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Irish_sentiment

Political cartoon from 1871, depicting the Irish as drunkards. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Irish_sentiment

Furthermore, “political cartoons during the 19th century questioned how and if the Irish were fit for American democracy by depicting them as apes, and comparing them with similarly caricatured and stereotyped images of African-Americans. The question of “how” and “if” the Irish were suitable for American democracy also emphasized their Catholic religion, and cast doubt on if “papists” were capable of being proper and loyal citizens.” Suddenly, those Grinch masks don’t seem so innocent…

2) Celebrating the Christianisation of Ireland and the loss of autochthonous belief systems

The legend goes that Saint Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. But many hold that the archaeological record contains no evidence of snakes having ever been native to Ireland. In fact, some archeologists and historians claim that the snakes of the legend actually represent the banishment of the Druids, for whom the snake was a powerful symbol of rebirth, ancient wisdom, and the old spiritual practices. Christianity, although it has played such a deeply intertwined role in modern Irish history, was not native to its soil. The shamrock grew there before it ever took on the symbolism of the Holy Trinity. Linking Saint Patrick’s Day to Irish identity results in a homogenizing and flattening of Irish history as always having been Christian, resulting in an oddly ahistorical portrayal.

Saint Patrick, banishing the snakes from Ireland. Source: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090727/da_silva-a.shtml

Saint Patrick, banishing the snakes from Ireland. Source: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090727/da_silva-a.shtml

3) “The Wearing of the Green”

The colours of the modern Republic of Ireland flag are green, orange, and white. Each colour correlates to a specific idea: green for the Catholic Irish, orange for the Protestant Irish, and white for hard won peace. An older tradition involved wearing orange if you were of Protestant descent and green if you were of Catholic descent. If you wore green, you made sure to pinch anyone who wore orange on the day, and vice versa. In North America, the colour green has now become synonymous with the celebrations. I’m quite confident that if I went out and polled a random selection of drunken revelers decked out in plastic shamrock bikini tops, ridiculous felt top hats festooned in shamrocks, and mardi gras style green beaded necklaces, most would not have a clue what the colour orange symbolizes on the flag. Not wishing to delve into partisan politics at this time, I will only say this: if you’re going to celebrate someone else’s holiday, the least you could do is educate yourself on the (long, complicated, bloody) history involved.

4) LGBTQ Exclusion.

As if all of this weren’t enough, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston is being boycotted because of the parade organizers’ treatment of LGBTQ community members. Guiness, Heineken, Westin, Gillette, and the Boston Beer Company (the makers of Samuel Adams Lager) have pulled their sponsorship from the Parade, after parade organizers decided to ban LGBTQ members from marching with “any and all signage about sexual orientation.” If Saint Patrick’s Day in North America is a celebration of Irish heritage, then why are LGBTQ members of the diaspora not welcome?

Celebrating my Irish heritage is something that I should be able to do in a way that honours my ancestors, does not romanticize a serious illness, and that draws on a remembrance of the full, rich history of Ireland, rather than a stale, inaccurate, homogenized, sugar coated, ahistorical, “Plastic Paddy” version. Furthermore, why are we participating in a capitalistic, consumer driven binge on consumption when we could be using our time to learn so much from the history of the Irish? With so many struggles and so much political upheaval going on around the world today, why not look at the Irish case to further our political knowledge, deepen our understanding of history, and maybe even find a little revolutionary inspiration?

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh.

White Christmas, White Santa? The Racial Politics of Christmas

“Santa just is white…”

– Megyn Kelly, Fox news anchor, 11 December 2013.

Controversy arose this holiday season when Fox News host Megyn Kelly declared that Santa Claus was white. Kelly voiced this opinion while discussing a Slate piece entitled “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore” with a panel of guests.  She continued, stating that “just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.”

The incident raises several questions: Why must Santa Claus be white, and why is it so important? In what context is Kelly making these assertions? And why should we care?

The figure of Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different characters and traditions, emerging to become the recognizable figure we know today only fairly recently. Although the origins of Santa Claus are mostly European, the tradition has grown in such a way that people of many different ethnic backgrounds now celebrate this tradition. And yet, according to Kelly, it is imperative that we continue to conceptualize Santa as a man of European descent.

Unfortunately, racial elements of the Santa Claus mythology are also present in areas further afield. In Holland, Sinterklaas is celebrated, wearing a costume reminiscent of the Catholic clergy, and he is accompanied by a figure known as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), wearing blackface, gold earrings, prominent red lipstick and an “afro-style” wig.

Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet.  Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet

Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zwarte_Piet

According to this tradition, Sinterklaas and his servant (or slave according to some accounts) Swarte Piet, reside in Spain throughout the year. Swarte Piet wears the costume of a Moorish character similar to those worn in Spain during annual re-enactments of the “Reconquista.” (The Reconquista is the period of time stretching from the 700s to the year 1492, when the last Moorish kingdom, Grenada, fell to Christian conquerors. During this period of time, Spain was ruled by Muslims who called the place Al-Andalus.¹ This historical event is re-enacted each year to celebrate the re-Christianization of Spain).

Originally Sinterklaas’ servant was portrayed as a dark devil. This figure was reincarnated in the 19th century as a character resembling a Moor (Moorish clothing, “darker” skin, etc.). Through this transformation we can see the literal demonization of Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin (the people who came from the Middle East to Spain also included many people of Jewish faith).

Although Megyn Kelly’s pronouncements have been viewed as controversial, in reality, the news anchor is merely continuing a tradition of using Christmas practices and traditions in order to demonize “the Other” as conceived of as essentially different from Christian Europeans.

Kelly also went on to claim that another prominent Christmas figure was white, saying “You know, I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. He was a historical figure; that’s a verifiable fact.” The ridiculousness of portrayals of Jesus as a fair, blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon should be fairly obvious considering that the generally agreed upon “ethnic” identity of the figure of Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew.

Furthermore, all of these designations are fairly slippery conceptually due to the fact that “race” is actually a cultural construction, with no biological or scientific basis. Unfortunately responses to Kelly’s assertion of Jesus’ white ethnicity did not include a deconstruction of the concept of race. This approach would be much more useful than reinforcing the concept of racial difference through responding to Kelly by insisting that Jesus was “Middle Eastern.” In fact, the designation of “Middle Eastern” as a distinct racial category has only recently come into existence, along with the concept of a “Judeo-Christian” heritage, defined in contradistinction to Middle Eastern/Arab/Muslim identity.² As Ivan Kalmar, a professor at the University of Toronto, has pointed out, historically Jewish and Muslim figures were portrayed in similar ways in the West, as a common enemy of Christian Europeans.

Returning to the character of Zwarte Piet, there is yet another slippage occurring here: the conflation of “Middle Eastern Moor” with African slave. In other words, the boogie man of Europe in the Middle Ages was reincarnated with the face of an African slave just as the trans-Atlantic slave trade was drawing to a close in the 19th century. Was this a newer collective enemy reimagined in the clothes of the old?

Over the past few years there have been protests in Holland over the continuation of the Swarte Piet tradition, with many Dutch people of African origin regarding the character as a racist representation, which should be modified or scrapped entirely.

Although many international commentators have criticized the Zwarte Piet character, a 2013 survey found that 92% of the Dutch public do not regard Zwarte Piet as racist and do not associate the figure with slavery. The same survey found that 91% of those surveyed oppose changes to the appearance of Zwarte Piet.

Rather than perpetuate and celebrate racial stereotypes, reinforcing the historical and political forces which have shaped those stereotypes, the stir over Megyn Kelly’s ‘controversy’ is the perfect opportunity to teach children about the culturally constructed nature of race and to challenge these tired, old assumptions. This incident should show us that it’s time to critically examine our holiday practices, fully understanding the development and evolution of these traditions, and discarding the aspects of them which we now find disrespectful. In other words, it’s time to excavate and reveal the racial underpinnings of Christmas.

¹ For more information on Al-Andalus, see these two excellent documentaries:

When the Moors Ruled in Europe (2005)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM8HnvuKbAo

An Islamic History of Europe (2009)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfhZR15QRKA

² It must also be pointed out that none of these three terms are actually synonymous. People of many ethnic backgrounds practice Islam. There are also many different ethnic and linguistic groups within the Middle East, such as Arab, Persian, Kurd, etc. Furthermore, the term Middle East is a concept which has been constructed through the drawing of boundaries by colonial and imperial forces historically.