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Patriarchy and Protection

November 21, 2009

“Police Warns Women” (Politiet advarer kvinner) was the headline in at least two news outlets in Norway this week, complete with a photo of a worried, but confident looking policeman:


The six rape attempts that led to this big story happened in Stavanger, the city on the west coast of Norway, where I was doing a home-stay this weekend. I was made really uncomfortable when my host father brought out the newspaper to show me at breakfast, and warn me about going out at night. The other guy who was doing the home-stay with me got no such warning.

I do worry about my safety. In fact, I worry about it a lot. I wouldn’t walk home from downtown alone, and I wouldn’t take a cab on my own, but I don’t need a man to tell me so. To me, this male need to protect women from other men is not two separate forms of misogyny, but rather stems from the same essential lack of respect for the autonomy of the female body.

This is only one example of how we’re disciplining the wrong side of the equation.

In Norway, one of the hot topics right now is the rights of immigrant, specifically muslim, women. Thinking back to biopower, it’s very interesting how highly politicized the bodies of muslim women are in Norway. Issues of arranged/forced marriage and female genital mutilation are making bodies of immigrant women highly visible. In contrast to the United States, where the adage “all women are white, all blacks are men” is often true of our political discourse, here in Norway, it seems whenever we discuss issues of non-ethnically Norwegians, it all comes back to muslim women, and their oppression. While yes, arranged marriage can be a situation that leads to domestic violence, and I believe FGM to be sexual violence, the construction of muslim men as aggressors and muslim women as victims only silences these women as well any discussion of oppression in traditional Norwegian culture. (see: Unni Wikan) Fatemeh Fakhraie, in The dos and don’ts of defending Muslim women sums it up:

Pity doesn’t help anyone. And pitying me is just another type of oppression—just another way to construct yourself as better than I.

A recent debate here involved whether women police officers could wear a hijab while on duty. While it was decided that they should be allowed to, the question of the hijab, particularly in relation to the french headscarf ban (French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools) passed in 2004, is a hot topic of discourse here in Norway, and now a discussion I have had several times. I should note that I’m a bit nervous to talk about the hijab, partly because of complaints about the western preoccupation with muslim women’s clothing and the fact that women have very different relationships with it.

I bring up the headscarf ban, and discussions about banning the burqa or chadri, because it relates to the phenomenon I discussed earlier. There are a lot of problems with it, as Wendi Muse describes at Racialicious,

While I understand and sympathize with the reasoning behind Sarkozy’s proposal, that being to ensure women’s equality, I completely disagree with the way he is going about attempting this grand charge. He is exhibiting behavior that is the perfect example of what the women of so many marginalized communities often complain: 1) he is attempting to fight their struggles for them and 2) he is galvanizing a small issue in a minority sect of a larger community. He is using an attempt to protect women’s rights as a means of limiting them.

The second point is what’s most relevant here. That “protecting” women by restricting their behavior is patriarchy. Even if the burqa, headscarf or chadri were wholly oppressive and not a more complicated issue, banning them is punishing the wrong side of the equation. These sorts of limitations on women’s bodies are not getting to the source of the injustice (patriarchy) but rather reinforcing it. It’s an incredible exercise of power when racism against men of color is used to reinscribe women of color into the patriarchal system.

In the face of six rape attempts in a small Norwegian city, why is the question, how should women change their behavior rather than how do we stop men from raping? To respond with a headline “Police warns women” and a photo of a male policemen, allows men to congratulate themselves on protecting their women rather than addressing the real problem: that the culture in their city makes sexual violence permissable. I do not need men to protect me, and if I do, I’ll ask and define it for myself. And in fact, I’d like to ask men now to protect me from sexual violence, by asking themselves what they can do to stop rape culture, not by regulating my body.

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