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Gender, Race, and Religious Freedom

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December 28, 2007

Gender, Race, and Religious Freedom

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission's Hijacking of 'Gender Equality'

by Anna Carastathis

Immigrant rights activists and community members demonstrate during a Montreal stop of the Bouchard-Taylor commission in late November. Photo: CMAQ

Last November, the West Coast LEAF (Legal Education and Action Fund) issued a report based on its Women's Equality and Religious Freedom Project (WERF). Some of the overarching questions that the Project explored were “What is the nature of religious discrimination experienced by women of faith? What are the ways in which women balance and navigate the experiences of discrimination and interlocking systems of oppression in their daily lives?” The report also addresses specific areas such as same-sex marriage; polygamy; use of religious arbitration in family law; and immigration law. The full report can be found here.

The Taylor-Bouchard Commission on "reasonable accommodation" in Québec has prompted a great deal of commentary on the relationship between gender equality and freedom of religion. For instance, the Conseil du statut de la femme du Québec (CSF) has recommended that the Québec Charter of Rights and Freedoms be amended so that gender equality is given relative priority over the right to religious expression.

In light of these developments, the Dominion interviewed Harsha Walia, who authored the report based on Advisory Committee discussions, to get an anti-racist and feminist perspective.

The Dominion: Why is religious freedom a feminist issue?

Harsha Walia: This is an important issue because the “religious freedom debate” actually has less to do with religion or secularism than it does with race. Particularly in the post 911 climate, religion is a highly politicized, racialized, and publicly constructed identity. For example, invoking a Muslim identity is not about defining the beliefs of a person of Muslim faith; rather, it is a euphemism for Arabs, Middle Easterners, and South Asians (who may not actually be Muslim). In the context of the “War on Terror” this racialized imagery is very important, as there is a need to have an identifiable ‘enemy’ who is supposedly threatening Western values. The use of such language and imagery is rooted in a colonial legacy; therefore fighting patriarchy is intrinsically linked to fighting colonization and racism.

This is also an issue for feminists because feminism is currently being, as it historically has been, co-opted by imperial and colonizing forces. Historian Leila Ahmed has written, “Whether in the hands of patriarchal men or feminists, the ideas of western feminism essentially functioned to morally justify the attack on native societies and to support the notion of the comprehensive superiority of Europe.” An increasing number of feminists have expressed concerns regarding various state interventions on behalf of the “disempowered foreign woman”. For example, feminists have questioned the use of “protecting women” as a rationale for the occupation of Afghanistan. Similarly, the discourse surrounding human trafficking taps into notions of victimized Third World women and justifies restrictive border controls.

Dominion: What do you think about the discourse of "reasonable accommodation" that has come to dominate public discussions in Québec?

HW: It is astounding how many people who identify themselves as pro-feminist are expressing the need to ‘save women from the hijab’ and how there needs to be ‘limits to multiculturalism.’

First, it is hypocritical to talk about Canada’s “over-tolerance” of multiculturalism when the very nature of the debate positions racialized immigrant communities as not ‘belonging’ to Canadian society; as
Outsiders” who need to be accommodated. It reveals the shallow self-congratulatory nature of Canadian multiculturalism under which rests a fundamentally white national consciousness. Second, such a debate aims to portray a sense of victimization where Canadian culture is being violated by “Outsiders.” This process of demonization, ‘othering’ and racism that targets particular communities for greater scrutiny has very real consequences in the present day context, being used to sell illegal wars and occupations across the globe, and restricting the rights and civil liberties of migrants within these borders.

It is also problematic to talk about secularism in a seemingly neutral way as it ignores the foundations of Christianity within the Canadian state and the violent role that Christianity has played in colonizing and assimilating indigenous peoples for example. It is also ironic that many of those rejecting the “authority” of religion so readily accept the authoritative ideologies of capitalism, consumerism, and liberal secularism, which are far more normalized in Western societies.

The most damaging consequence of this debate is that it removes the capacity for women’s agency by reinforcing the idea that being a ‘Muslim feminist’ for example is impossible; forcing women to accept narrower definitions of self, despite occupying multiple locations across citizenship, religion, class, sexuality, and race. Furthermore, discussions of gender inequality ‘within’ certain religions or cultures renders invisible the universal systems of patriarchy that all women contend with, while homogenizing and fossilizing religions in definitive ways.

Dominion: In the report, I found your critique of the distinction between polygamy and polyamory compelling. Can you elaborate?

HW: One of the major problems with the distinction between polygamy and polyamory is that it relies on and perpetuates racist assumptions. While polyamory is used to define a relationship based on mutual negotiation between “independent people,” polygamy refers to a “cultural practice.” Such a dichotomy reinforces assumptions that women in racialized cultures are being more exploited and less independent than “autonomous women” from dominant white cultures.

This is not to suggest that polygamy cannot be critiqued; it is to highlight this double standard and how such differentiations are based on the premise that racialized cultures are inherently more hostile to women. The reality is that the practice of both polygamy and heterosexual polyamory exist within a global context of systemic discrimination against women and girls. The current-day reality is that 99% of polygamous marriages are characterized by men having multiple wives. But it is dangerous to suggest that the roots of polygamy lie in ‘religious culture’ because cultures and religions do not offer homogenous narratives. Various conservative ideologies are on the rise across the globe because that is the socio-political context within which we are operating. Religion can be used to justify polygamy, but if we recognize that the current practice of polygamy is not about a particular religion or culture (which reinforces racism) -- it is, rather, a manifestation of a universal system of patriarchy -- then we can more readily reject those “freedom of religion” arguments that are used to prevent discussion about the effects on women in an anti-racist manner.

Dominion: How should feminists be addressing the issue of religious freedom as it intersects with the marginalization of racialized, immigrant, and indigenous women?

HW: We must contend with the reality that culturally-imperialist feminisms are being forced upon women across the world and the narrative of women’s rights serves as a crucial tool in the pro-war and anti-immigrant propaganda machine. Such a theft of feminist principles is advancing everything but genuine equality for women. Instead, we must choose a path that is feminist as well as anti-racist, anti-militarist, pro-immigration, queer- and trans-positive, and class-conscious. This includes questioning and challenging the legitimacy given to state-based responses such as prisons as a solution to violence, border controls as a solution to trafficking, child apprehension as a solution to women and child poverty, and militarization as a solution to third world women’s liberation.

It is important to avoid falling into the racist traps that infantilize racialized women, while at the same time maintaining a basic commitment to gender and sexual equality that cannot be breached by religious or cultural justifications. We must avoid a culturally imperialist feminism that seeks to impose Western notions of gender equality and ‘sameness’ onto other women. This does not imply that we become culturally relativist and begin to support any unjust practice. Cultural diversity or freedom of religion should not serve as a shield to scrutinize against gender-oppressive practices.

Walking this line requires us to pay attention to specific contexts, to listen to those women whose rights we purport to stand for, and to understand that we occupy different relationships of power and privilege. All oppressed women equally deplore sexism and misogyny, but women’s liberation movements must be culturally sensitive and relevant so as to oppose patriarchal elements without attacking or destroying non-white cultures, religions, or identities. Women of colour and indigenous women have consistently pointed out that reducing their oppression to their ‘culture’ represents deeply colonial attitudes. The greater oppression that some women face is directly linked to policies of the state, histories of colonization, the nature of capitalism, and the powerful rise of global conservative ideologies. Most importantly, we must walk alongside those women who are on the front lines of their own struggles and who are agents of their own transformation. They do not need pity or charity, but solidarity and our respect for their leadership and agency.

All opinions expressed are of Harsha Walia alone and do not imply endorsement by West Coast LEAF or other participants in the Project.

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Comments

Distinctions between polygamy and polyamory

"The reality is that the practice of both polygamy and heterosexual polyamory exist within a global context of systemic discrimination against women and girls."

Quite true from the most macro of perspectives. However, the single greatest cultural distinction between religious polygamy and polyamory, heterosexual or otherwise, is that while religious polygamy is highly patriarchal, polyamory as practiced by the self-identified polyamory community places great focus and high value on egalitarianism.

Anyone who does otherwise will not find much support from self-identified polyamorists. One of the most significant issues polyamory activists grapple with is sufficiently reconciling our very different value system as compared to that of patriarchal polygamists with our mutual interests in order to gain community support for a political alliance between the two. Patriarchal polygamy is so offensive to polyamorists, the majority of whom support feminist values, that I very much doubt that such an alliance can ever exist. And I'd be willing to bet that religious polygamists take as dim a view of our values as we do of theirs. Many polyamorists are bisexual, for example, and the polyamory community warmly welcomes GLBTs.

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If you're uncomfortable about blacks, you're a racist; uncomfortable about Jews, you are an anti-semite; but today, if you're uncomfortable about sex, you're a civic leader. --- Dr. Marty Klein

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Blogging on polyamory relationship skills, the polyamory community/movement, polyamory activism, and, even occasionally, on my own lovely poly life, at
http://practicalpolyamory.blogspot.com

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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