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.


Rage and Its Repercussions: “Happy” International Women’s Day

*Trigger warning: discussions of sexual violence, rape, harassment.*

On this 106th International Women’s Day, I find myself wondering: how much has really changed for women over the past hundred years or so? We are still harassed on the streets, at home, at work. We are still raped, even in our own beds and everywhere else imaginable. We are still beaten by our partners and watch as society formulates excuses and justifications for the men who do such things. We are fed obscene fantasies that glorify domestic violence and stalking.

We claim our rights within specific arenas, only to watch as each area so hard won shifts and recedes into irrelevance as rights of any kind are eliminated from it. It is becoming increasingly obvious that fighting for equality within a neoliberal context of unbridled capitalism and vicious austerity (read: a cover for increasing economic inequality) is pointless and futile. Feminism is not just about “women’s rights.” It is about dismantling the hierarchical systems that place more value on one person over another due to gender, race, class, ability, religion, sexuality, and so on. It is about recognizing the interconnectedness of our struggles. I am hesitant to make sweeping generalizations

Source: http://www.nwherald.com/2014/12/01/germany-hails-slain-turkish-german-student-tugce-albayrak-as-hero/at7520h/

Remembering Tuğçe Albayrak. Source: http://www.nwherald.com/2014/12/01/ germany-hails-slain-turkish-german-student- tugce-albayrak-as-hero/at7520h/

about women in differing cultures and regions of the world. However, in this increasingly globally connected time if I open the news to see that Tuğçe Albayrak can be beaten to death for trying to prevent a man from harassing two other women, do the rest of us feel free to move through the public sphere? If Anita Sarkeesian can receive death and rape threats for daring to criticize the misogyny of video games, are the rest of us free to speak out? If a man convicted of raping and killing a woman on a bus in India can boldly state in an interview that he believes women should shut up and not resist rape, do the rest of us feel safe using public transportation? How can we “celebrate women’s equality,” as news sources have framed various marches for International Women’s Day, if these earth-shattering events are still occurring every day?

I may not be walking around with a purple sash draped across my chest declaring “votes for women!” But I do move through the world with a button pinned to my jacket which reads: “this is what a feminist looks like.” And in the grand scheme of things, is there much of a difference? Because 96 years after women were granted the right to vote in Canada, I still feel the need to assert my belief I should have equal rights, regardless of my gender. I still walk out my front door everyday knowing that it is well within the realm of possibility that I will be disrespected on the basis of my gender: that I will be cat called on the street, groped on the subway, receive unwelcome and uninvited texts of a sexual nature from a male acquaintance, be sexually harassed by my boss, or simply be bombarded with objectifying images portraying women as sub-human objects, existing solely for men’s pleasure, or the incubating of babies. Indeed, all of these things have happened to me within recent memory. These everyday instances of misogyny and sexism accumulate, resonating against each other into a tidal wave of experience, in the process exposing the invisible thread of patriarchal violence that encircles us all.

Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/illus/illustration.html/ahd4/suffragist/suffra

“Votes for Women” Source: http://dictionary.reference.com/illus /illustration.html/ahd4/suffragist/ suffra

We may have the vote, but what use is it to us when those who are elected are uniformly in favour of a capitalist, racist, imperialist status quo? What is the point if women and people of colour and LGBTQ politicians are so harangued and harassed that they are forced to occupy the most conservative corner of their (already centrist, tepid) political party (perhaps we could think here of the optimism and failed promises of Obama’s presidency)? Does it matter that we can vote, when corporations and the wealthy are increasingly utilizing their financial advantage to influence the outcome of elections? The politicians who govern this country are so out of touch and so insulated by their own privilege and wealth, is it any wonder they have no idea how the vast majority of us feel? The fact that a petition exists to convince federal party leaders of the need for a debate on women’s issues illustrates this point perfectly. Women make up slightly more than half of the population of Canada. Why are the concerns of the majority relegated to a special debate? The issues we care about should be discussed in every debate, should in fact be the bedrock upon which our political parties’ platforms are built!

Instead, we learn not to smile in public, lest our joyful expression inadvertently fall on a man and be interpreted as an invitation. We learn not to wear our favourite skirt if we’re out by ourselves, lest we be mistakenly identified as unclaimed property. We learn that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of achievement than the boys, at work, at school, online. We attempt to starve, coerce, poke, prod, lace up, and slice our bodies into perfection, because we believe that if we should reach that non-existent Holy Grail, we will find satisfaction, happiness, fulfillment. And any time that we dare to speak up or voice our truths against these pressures, we are punished for daring to believe that we could or should be equally human (and equally imperfect)…

To be a woman in 2015 is to be awash in miraculous hopes and frustrated desires, a heady cocktail of progress, contradiction, and rage evoking injustices.

The Receding Frontiers of Life: The Christian Right and the ‘Minefield’ of the Hobby Lobby Ruling

Last week, upon exiting the subway at Queen’s Park station, I was accosted by a handful of self-righteous individuals waving posters displaying graphic images of bloody fetuses, and handing out pamphlets containing anti-abortion information. This week, my newsfeed was filled with pieces on the American Supreme Court’s decision regarding Hobby Lobby, an American business which has argued that including contraception (deemed by Hobby Lobby to be abortifacient) in women employees’ health care coverage is a violation of the corporation’s religious freedom. Needless to say, the issue of women’s access to reproductive health care is STILL a contentious one, on both sides of the border.

Dublin abortion protest

Protesters demand action after Savita Halappanavar died as a result of being denied an abortion in Ireland in 2012. Photo source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/19/london-expert-irish-abortion-inquiry

A trend running through many of the pieces commenting on this Supreme Court decision is that the case presented by Hobby Lobby shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the science behind contraception. Why anyone would be surprised by this, I’m not sure. Evangelical Americans in the Christian Right have already thoroughly demonstrated their refusal to accept basic scientific principals. In fact, they rejoice in this kind of obdurate refusal to recognize scientific consensus through their denial of climate change, building a “creationist” museum with the explicit goal of ‘debunking’ evolution, and now by insisting that some contraceptives actually cause abortion.  (Note that the prevention of implantation of a fertilized egg is not abortion, as has been claimed. The fact that Evangelicals are now drawing the boundary line of the beginning of “life” this far back, to a not even implanted fertilized egg is frighteningly extremist).

Besides this delight in flaunting an outright denial of scientific principals, the Hobby Lobby case may also reveal information about the Christian Right’s fundamental goals which are less easily spotted. For decades, anti-abortion activists of the Christian Right have defended their activism by stating that at the heart of their actions is a valuing of life, and the interests of women. But this justification begins to look patchy when applied to the full spectrum of activist causes endorsed by these groups. In my recent encounter described above, one of the activists involved responded to my insistence on respecting women’s rights by asking me about the rights of the (supposedly female) fetus’s rights, whose photo she brandished so disrespectfully.

This activist’s statement is interesting in that it reveals some underlying assumptions involved in the rhetoric being deployed here. Underpinning the question she leveled at me is the idea that a female fetus’s rights trump those of a fully adult woman’s rights to control of her body, reproduction, and health care choices. This focus on the female fetus rather than the adult woman serves to illustrate the Christian Right’s refusal to accept sexual, adult females as deserving of human rights, and thus as fully human. (The title of an excellent blog covering issues of gender and sexuality in Evangelicalism clearly points to this as well: Are Women Human?).

Amanda Marcotte also calls attention to this style of rhetoric, pointing out that

“…it’s becoming increasingly fashionable on the right to portray women as inherently asexual beings who are being tricked by all this contraception into thinking they have to have sex, which allows them to argue that depriving women of reproductive rights is doing women a favor, by giving them an excuse to get out of that icky sex.”

This view of women portrays them as asexual, in need of protection of their innocence, and ignorant of the consequences of their actions, not to mention in need of having others (the State, the Church, Evangelical “sidewalk counsellors”) inform them (and even force them into) the ‘correct’ course of action in regards to decisions about their health care. The direct result of this view of women is to infantilize them.

Whether this is an explicit strategy, merely a coincidental outcome, or a revealing slip which pulls back the veil on the misogyny at the root of this worldview remains to be seen. It must be noted, however, that to inscribe a view of women as infantilized conveniently sets the stage for the further erosion of women’s rights on the basis that such inherently infantile women are incapable of making decisions pertaining to their own bodies and health care.

Sex educator Laci Green's response to the Hobby Lobby ruling.  Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152362978804213&set=a.284745684212.144562.221909329212&type=1&theater

Sex educator Laci Green’s response to the Hobby Lobby ruling.
Photo source: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152362978804213&set=a.284745684212.144562.221909329212&type=1&theater

Such a bald attack on women’s rights may just be a step too far. Several weeks ago, after the news of Elliot Roger’s misogyny fuelled shooting spree broke, women took to the internet to fight back against the refrain of the media which dismissed any analyses of the incident as misogynist by invoking the phrase ‘not all men.’ Twitter exploded with feminist responses in the form of the hashtag #yesallwomen, recounting thousands of women’s experiences of being harassed by men who believed they had a right to do so on the basis of their gender. In the wake of such a strong wave of feminist activism, perhaps the lingering memory of the extreme misogyny of Elliot Rogers will serve to illuminate the more subtle, but equally deadly misogyny of the recent Supreme Court ruling.*

The evidence is certainly mounting against the Christian Right, as it becomes abundantly clear that the activists of this movement are willing to use legal challenges, street harassment, public shaming, and even murder (see the case of Dr. Tiller) to prevent women from enjoying the equal rights we so deserve. What we are witnessing is the active, willful, unabashed suppression of women’s rights and a total disregard for women’s health. Now, if ever there was one, is certainly the time for a resurgence of feminist activism. Luckily, we just might be seeing signs of such an awakening.



*Those of us in Canada would also do well to take note, as the activists I encountered in Toronto demonstrate. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an Evangelical belonging to the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, which maintains an anti-choice/anti-abortion stance (See http://www.cmalliance.org/about/beliefs/perspectives/abortion). Stephen Woodworth, Member of Parliament for Kitchener Centre riding, is openly anti-choice (see Motion 312: http://www.stephenwoodworth.ca/motion-312 ). These are merely two examples of many.

In the Crosshairs of Conversion: Encounters with an Evangelical Driscollite

R: If you and your husband were asleep and a robber broke into your house who would go downstairs with the baseball bat?

Me: ….

These are the types of ludicrous questions you must answer on a regular basis if you should have the misfortune of being accosted by one of those die-hard Evangelicals. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had quite a bit of exposure to Evangelicals and Evangelical doctrine in my life, but the most frustrating experience by far involved a friend of mine who was an avid fan of Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll. In fact, after several years of theological debate, the sexism, misogyny, and homophobia of R.’s doctrinal assertions became overwhelming and I decided to end our friendship.

The most frustrating aspect of trying to be friends with an Evangelical is the feeling of being constantly in the crosshairs of conversion; I was a lost soul in need of ‘saving.’ We had numerous lengthy, pushy conversations in which he insisted, eerily sure of himself, that his narrow interpretation of Christianity was the only valid one, all the while completely oblivious to his blind theological arrogance and the condescension inherent in his assumed position of superiority. Eventually I came to realize that his main interest in speaking with me was not to cultivate a friendship based on shared interests or goals. Rather, he saw me primarily as a potential ‘convert.’ I began to realize that he spoke constantly to me as a salesperson would while making their sales pitch. In the end I was left feeling like a cheap piece of soul-meat, whose only value was in adding a notch to R.’s ‘conversion belt.’

If I’m speaking in sexual metaphors, it is because Mark Driscoll and his followers are completely obsessed with sex and sexuality. It is at the core of his teachings, and the views on gender which have grown out of this obsession are precisely what make his ideas are so damaging and abhorrent. It is also why his ideas appeal so strongly to young, white men feeling insecure as a consequence of the rapidly shifting meanings attached to masculinity in our society. When I asked R. about his views on women, he was full of opinions. I cited a Bible verse famous within feminist circles as one of my main concerns with Evangelical views of women’s roles in society:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing (1 Timothy 2:11-15, NIV).

Contrary to my expectations, R. did not deny that women’s proper role was a submissive one. Rather, he embraced this idea with a certain unrepentant zeal. When prompted, he elaborated a whole philosophy revolving around this concept, revealing a central tenet of his Driscoll-infused faith. Since R. had recommended Mark Driscoll’s sermons and articles to me many times, I eventually caved to my curiosity and visited the website of Mars Hill Church where Driscoll preaches as head pastor. What I found there was mind boggling in its arrogant and blatant embrace of misogynistic theology.

Beyond the sleek design of the webpages, and the feel-good mumbo jumbo about “resurgence” and “leadership,” the most painfully apparent aspect of Driscoll’s teaching on gender is that women, as independent beings, cannot exist. Within the Mars Hill doctrine, women only “count” as they relate to men who hold some measure of authority over them (fathers, husbands, pastors, Jesus, God).

A particularly good example of this way of thinking discusses “options for godly single women.” Throughout Driscoll’s writing, being a single woman is assumed to be a horrible fate. He even goes so far as to say that if you are a single woman you will have feelings of “shame, isolation, and despair.” He compares singleness to “a club for Satan to beat you with over, and over, and over, and over…” In outlining his views on the “options” facing single women, Driscoll first assumes that you can only be a godly woman if you want a husband. He warns of the dire consequences of casually dating, “sleeping around” (translation: participating in any sexual activity that is not within the bounds of a heterosexual, legally and religiously sanctioned marriage) and moving in with a partner (all things that the vast majority of the population do and/or have no problem with). Driscoll screeches that in following this path of normalcy “you will eventually come to feel horrible for what you have done and miserable in the world you live.” (As you can see, encouraging healthy self-esteem in his congregation isn’t really Mark Driscoll’s ‘thing’ to put it nicely).

The solution according to Driscoll? Contradictorily, “worship a God who was single.” If you weren’t already terrified of Satan beating you with your singlehood, Driscoll completes his one-two punch by vaguely citing ‘some polls’ that suggest that “the odds are not in favour of godly single women.” Driscoll’s technique is to berate and beat the self-esteem out of his congregants himself, first by insisting that to be single is necessarily a state of despair and misery, then by swooping in with a dose of “only I can save you through my specific doctrine” propaganda.

Going further down the rabbit hole, I stumbled upon an article Driscoll had written on the topic of appropriate ways for the husband to “handle disagreements with his wife.” This gem of marital counselling discussed how a husband should “pray and discuss with your wife. Be patient. Wait for her to come around. Appeal to a higher authority (pastor/counselor). If the matter is pressing and/or a decision cannot be reached, the husband must decide. His wife should submit to the decision” (emphasis added). Notice here, the total absence of the word “compromise.” In Driscoll’s ideal marriage, there are no equal partners with valid concerns and needs, conducting themselves with mutual respect. The woman’s opinion simply doesn’t matter. Essentially, Driscoll’s technique boils down to waiting for the woman to “come around.” Besides the obviously insulting nature of this quote, it also demonstrates that in Mars Hill Church women are automatically wrong in every case, not to mention lacking the intelligence to contribute meaningfully to decision making processes, and having no important or valid needs themselves. If she does not “come around” Driscoll insists that the woman should be forced to comply with her husband’s will. If she resists, the husband has every right to bully her into submitting through capitalizing on his alliance with other powerful men. The woman is always wrong and the man is always right.

Far from being the “best kind of marriage,” Driscoll’s ideal of “Christian Complementarianism” in which wives submit to their husbands sounds more like glorified indentured servitude than anything resembling romantic love. In a hilariously entitled clip, “MARS HILL LOVES WOMEN” (excessive capitalization in original), Driscoll falls back on the old trope of insisting that women can only achieve through men (their husbands, male children or Jesus). She cannot achieve greatness, unless it is through her submission to God. This dynamic is taken as a template for marriage, implying that women can only be considered worthwhile humans in the act of submitting to God’s will through the proxy of her husband, and through her role as a mother. Driscoll’s angrily regressive views on gender roles shines through in a talk he gave with his wife in which they claim that being a stay at home father is “worse than being an unbeliever.” In case you had any doubts left as to the misogyny comprising the bedrock of Driscoll’s theology, there’s also some good old fat shaming thrown in.

After confronting R. with the material I found on the Mars Hill website he had enthusiastically recommended to me, I began to understand just how deep this worldview permeates. R. was evangelizing to me; he was fulfilling the central duty of an Evangelical’s life. For him and other Evangelicals, people are not potential friends, they are potential converts. As a result, non-Evangelical perspectives and opinions are not taken seriously, and are trampled in a rush of over-inflated confidence and intolerance.

Others have pointed out how powerful and dangerous a force Mark Driscoll is. His influence is spreading throughout Evangelical churches in North America. Many people have written publicly about their negative experiences within and while trying to leave Mars Hill Church. A substantial online community of people who have either chosen to leave Mars Hill or have been forced out are now sharing their stories of spiritual bullying, harassment, and campaigns of intimidation waged against them by church leadership. Many of them refer to Mars Hill as a cult.

In the end, I knew how to respond to R.’s alternating pandering and pushiness. And if any Evangelical attempts to draw me into their conversion snare again, I have an answer ready. I will insist that I am not chattel, to be passed from the ownership of one man (father) to another (husband) through the most archaic form of the institution of marriage. That I will not believe in a god that tells me to submit to a man because he is my superior by definition. I refuse to worship a being that silences me and tells me that I am an inferior creature by nature of my womanhood; I refuse to allow one person to usurp control of every aspect of my life, just because I am a woman.

And no woman should.