The Crime of Being Born Without a Penis


I never thought I would be writing a post on this but I guess there are a few things which I feel need to be said. A few things that I observed and that talking about them would do more good than harm for others than for myself. The last fortnight started with a tragedy and ended with all sorts of political and intellectual hilarity, as every week begins and ends in one way or the other in our world. Started of course with a plane crash in Rawalpindi/Islamabad due to alleged bad weather and an alleged lightning strike/downdraft. The plane crash killed around 127 people. The airline’s first flight in a little less than two decades, not exactly, and had earlier been banned for violating safety procedures. It seems no one will question the CAA too hard for clearing the 30 year old 737 to fly, though I had put the question to Honorable Interior Minister Senator Rehman Malik, which I expect no heed to be paid to. Another question to ask is this. Would the people and government had treated the airline in a similar manner had it been the national flag carrier. But let’s be honest with ourselves, friends, let’s be honest. Let us hope, and pray, if you believe in praying, that we don’t find ourselves in a plane that is about to crash. Because in any case, that is the end of that.

Later an article by an Egyptian American columnist Mona El Tahawy appeared in a magazine allegedly discussing Foreign Policy created a stir. The cover of the magazine, which I found pretty charming and a rather eye-catching form of graphic propaganda that some people saw as objectification of women, probably deliberately meant, was extremely useful in terms of journalism, or even propaganda for that matter, because it sent the right message straight away. Without a word being spoken. I wouldn’t be too proud of the issue but of the cover very much, had I been the editor. It was a great idea in itself, keeping the moral issues aside. You don’t have to agree with its morality to agree with its effectiveness by the way. I won’t go into the detail of that particular article because the internet has been exploding with it all over the place and you can go through it yourself. My comment is neither about women’s rights nor about feminism nor the opinion presented in the article itself, to which I mostly agree and which makes good sense factually given the history of discriminatory practices against women in the Middle East, but about the criticism of it and the response to that criticism, since I don’t consider myself qualified enough to talk about feminism and women’s rights, so letting the experts speak is the right thing to do in any case.

The moment I saw the article I knew that the twitter will turn into a battlefield and blogs populated with fresh rebuttals and counter-rebuttals, as it occurred, so let us stay out of the line of fire. I found the criticism more political and nationalistic in nature than dealing with feminism or women’s rights. I am not sure if all the people criticizing the criticism saw that, though I can safely assume that many did. As for the criticism, here is one argument for it and one against it. The criticism was primarily about wounded Arab nationalism and Islamic traditions than out of the genuine denial of women’s suppression, but one that was dripping with desperation. An insult was probably meant, it is safe to say, not necessarily by the article but by the issue, and was achieved it seemed. Now that is biased criticism in terms of the content of that article, but maybe not too much in terms of the context of the space in which it appeared. Some of the answer to that is already provided in that article actually.

Probably the critic had perceived the relevance of such article in a magazine that mostly talks about American wars overseas and the propaganda associated with it for a good deal of time, which is what US Foreign Policy has been mostly about for decades, to be inviting war in the Middle East for the cause of the liberation of women, since it exclusively talked about the Arab world. The most absurd thing you’ll ever hear though, even if that is the case. The Western powers, however, are not idiots and would be willing to do so anyway for several other reasons than that one, though would like you to believe otherwise. An argument against it obviously is that in the blind criticism of the article, her point of female suppression in the Middle East, which is a crude fact, had been conveniently subsided if not denied by many. This is where even the self-proclaimed constructive criticism starts losing its credibility and as one of my friends puts it, the gap between Western feminism and in his words so-called Islamic feminism shows broad daylight. But despite the criticism, I do think that Islamic feminism is a good idea on the face of it. Better than nothing.

I personally do not mean any disrespect to any particular culture or philosophy and do not feel the need to ever do so, but simply talking about things the way I perceive there are in this case. Those who do mean disrespect are noticed by their language anyway. However, it was entertaining to see the burka debate emerge all over again which involved one side challenging the patriarchal symbol of female suppression in the male dominated societies and the other side upholding the choice of the female individuals choosing to wear it. One sees burka as a symbol of oppression. Other sees it as a way of life. Both sides obviously thinking that the other is very wrong. I feel both are right in the sense that they have a point but both are wrong in the sense that they do not realize that they are actually on the same side of the struggle and probably even the same side of the argument. I do think that the struggle against the enforced burka can be carried out while accepting it as a piece of clothing. Maybe that is not possible but I can’t see why. However, the worst part is that both sides are not prepared to learn from the other.

There is a lot of cognitive dissonance involved in the burka issue because of the cultural shock factor. Everything you say about a burka is an insult to someone. Just like this post probably, which if it is, I hope at least offends both the parties equally, because doing that never is the aim. Supporting the burka is an insult to feminism and female emancipation and opposing it is an insult to some culture and women who support or wear it. Just like it is an insult to a woman to wrap a burka around her and an insult to another to stripping her of it. This cognitive dissonance is because of the merging of two distinct and apparently clashing cultural ideas, western feminism and Islamic culture. Yes, cultural shock is not always a cool thing. Not anymore, at least.

For some it is about which culture is superior, which I want to have nothing to do with because I find ideological warfare repulsive and disgusting. However, not every woman (speaking for women’s rights) living in an Islamic culture has accepted western feminism as it is, giving rise to what people refer to as Islamic feminism, while others have completely embraced it. Like it or not, this is a fact. Some of them may wear the hijab while others wouldn’t be found dead in it. This cognitive dissonance has given rise to the burka debate and a neutral observer has little choice but to respect the viewpoint of both the schools of thought. Then again, it depends on the neutral observer. Right now I cannot think of a way of describing it in a more scientific and objective manner.

But shouldn’t it purely be a woman’s debate? If that is not being sexist. I don’t know but men do comment on it. As for men commenting on it, the fact that men cannot understand enforced burka does not mean that they should abandon the principles of individual freedom, if they believe in them. For those who believe in telling people what to do are the cause of the entire problem anyway. The point is that you cannot tell people what to wear and what not to wear while still be concerned when fundamentalist Muslims criticize women for their clothing and tell them to dress in a certain way. This is why supporting democratic values and individual freedom mean opposing a burka ban in France as well as the absurd law-norm of enforced burka wearing in public places in Saudi Arabia. I presume many people would support the former while oppose the latter for some valid reasons. Not saying at all that this approach is not based on a principle and a philosophy, but not sure if it is as democratic as the one opposite to it and I personally do not respect it as much. Though I personally am not fond of the burka anyway.

Both the mentioned laws are wrong in my opinion, but to some both are right or one of them is. A ban on the internet is wrong, right? A ban on anything is wrong. That’s freedom. That is where you compromise the principles you claim to believe in to fit your ideological passions. But this is just a viewpoint and it can be wrong. Maybe the burka, which must also remind a lot of people of the Taliban, is banned because it harms women who want to wear it or harm other women and have far-reaching psychological and social consequences that I cannot even reach the understanding of in this lifetime. I am still learning about the science behind the burka, especially how it is made. Perhaps a burka ban would be more relevant in the context of a society like Saudi Arabia where women are forced and required to wear burka, unlike France where it is most probably banned for other reasons.

It would still violate individual freedom though. But since men cannot understand what it feels like to be inside a burka and the discrimination that it involves, though not all men are unfamiliar with sexual invasions contrary to popular opinion, it is fair to leave the choice to women, as in the case of childbirth and abortion, ideally that is. Maybe only women should be allowed to vote on such issues. This way it could offer a better picture to the solution of these issues. A recent example being all the female Republican senators voting for passing/renewing Domestic Violence Act in the United States but most of the male Republican senators voting against it. I don’t know.

But a few months later, there will be another article printed about it again and the debate will start all over again and will end in a stalemate, just like the debate about the existence of God.

A stalemate is a sign of an intelligent species. This much I can tell you.

So the point of writing all this was that we should try to learn from such a debate. But it really is true that men can have no idea what women go through with the societal norms that they have created and engage in misogynist behavior everyday, sometimes unknowingly, being raised up in patriarchal societies. Also true that Middle Eastern women and also women in Pakistan and India and maybe even Bangladesh are particularly oppressed by men. To the point of even hating them. A very good example being acid assaults in Pakistan. How heartlessly atrocious and subhuman low can you get. Nationalistic criticism of that viewpoint cannot change facts. This is something that a particular society should take the responsibility of changing itself by modifying some of its norms over time through education and awareness, easier said than done. Although all the advantage men have over women in such a society is that they are born with a penis and that women are not. So they can be thankful that nobody tells them to wear their underwear over their pants whenever they leave their homes.

In other words, women’s crime for being treated with discrimination is being born without a penis.

Isn’t that absurd?


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