Another post, another disclaimer. I am an atheist and have been all my life. I come away from this week’s readings troubled with how I can explain my distrust of indoctrinating children into religion without being disrespectful of an adult’s choice in their personal faith. In many ways Gyasi’s “Inscape” spoke to me, trying to make sense of my own connection to the universe without the tether of faith. That faith and religion are two separate things is something we forget. I believe, if you’ll forgive me the use of that word, that when religion is done right it is a process of writing that “Future Testament,” the story of the role of god in your life. Too often that story is written for us, in books and sermons and that predetermination is where I have to leave religion behind. Yet, I also have to explain that my distrust stems from the fact that it adds one more layer of patriarchy into which women have to navigate. A patriarchal organization will, by its very nature, have to make women subordinate. The flowchart of oppression:
This layering effect renders the borders between these places nearly invisible. How does one speak against so terrible an edifice?
I’m glad I read Spivak first. She outlines this “wall” of separation between those who have no voice and those have the education and leisure time (not as vacation time, but the freedom from subsistence toil or constant exploitation to think abstractly)—direct beneficiaries of the legacy of imperialism—to supplement those without a voice. I liken her critique of Foucault and Deleuze as two men sitting by a window discussing the weather, never once acknowledging that they are inside. Derrida at least accuses them of ignoring the window, but he is inside as well. As is Spivak, as am I. We cannot speak for those out in the snow, yet only recently have we opened that window to listen.
But do they speak at all? Ahmed’s “Discourse of the Veil” highlights the danger of others speaking for us. By arguing over the forced veiling and unveiling of women in Egypt, the women never seem to be consulted as to their choice. It is a small example of how easy it is for an imperialistic power to subsume another—move one notion of patriarchy alongside another, swap out a few details, and instant colony. Sure there will be some rough patches, but once you “other” and therefore feminize the indigenous population, they will be too busy to regain their “masculinity” (read: power) that the continued subjugation of women (a quadruple oppression) will be merely a stepping stone on the way up.
Women’s bodies are the battlegrounds upon which men fight their wars.
And by saying “women” do I mean all women? Are veiled women silenced? Do they not have a choice in their veiling and unveiling? I cannot and will never try to speak for them. The veil is not representative of oppression if it is put on by choice. And as much as I want to, in some sense desperately need to define what choice actually is, I would fall short, for even though I am a woman, I am a small example of a large, disparate group of individuals who have to define themselves. The leisure and awareness to have that ability is probably the best definition I can offer for the word choice. In the absence of leisure and awareness, is there a choice?
And this is why I come back to religion, a convenient foundation upon which to build empires, colonies, and globally exploitative economies. The patriarchy is built in at the family level and arranging the patrons at the top does little to affect those at the bottom. White Western women are all too comfortable explaining another’s subjugation to them, never acknowledging that this act, in itself, is their own internalized sexism. We become easy foot soldiers in patriarchal oppression.
Just as the Orient was created to define the Occident, so to is the notion of “women” created to solidify the definition of “men.” We are back to Saussure’s definition by difference, we know what we are by what we are not. We are free women because we do not wear the veil. We are free women because we do wear the veil. The veil is a useful avatar for the fact that we, women, do not truly hold the power to fully define ourselves. We see our own freedom in the oppression of others, turning a blind eye to the economic engines that give us this view, but only seeing the visual signs of difference between East and West. The discourse between women—if we are to be grouped, so be it, we should speak internally then—must first be a discourse that recognizes our differences are vast and that each of our experiences are valid. We must recognize that improving the conditions of some women means listening to what they need, instead of insisting on some symbolic gesture of emancipation. We must deconstruct the patriarchies we are all born into before we insist that wearing the veil should be replaced with wearing makeup and heels. We must work first to improve the systems in which we already exist in order to give space—leisure time, as it were—for each woman to compose her own Future Testament and define herself as a human being.