Monday 30 June 2014

On the evolution of misogyny...


When we see Muslim women clothed from head to toe, we assume that this has something to do with the religion itself rather than a particularly misogynistic interpretation of the religion that reflects more on male attitudes to women than it does on man's relationship with god. Indeed, when we see devout Muslim women who aren't shrouded from head to toe, we can see that there is more to this than simply the strictures of a given faith.

Here is a quotation attributed to a 17th century English sailor:

"The men that are married are given much to jealousy, and will not permit any stranger to come where their wives are, much less to see them, but will keep them out of sight as much as they possibly can...all their women, both married and unmarried, go with a black veil over their heads and reaching down to their legs, all being covered except their eyes."

The sailor wasn't visiting a Muslim country but the very Roman Catholic country of Portugal and the covering of women was cultural rather than religious - the practice was common across all faiths, indeed the quotation was put in the context of how Jewish migrants from Lisbon to Amsterdam were seen by the more 'enlightened' Dutch.

My point in making this observation is to make clear that it is perfectly possible to oppose the practice of requiring women to be fully covered without being 'Islamaphobic' since this practice was widespread in Catholic Europe almost into living memory. Indeed, I remember elderly Spanish and Italian women attending my church wearing a mantissa, the last vestiges of the shrouding of women in Roman Catholicism.

But the separation of women from public life (in the broadest sense of the word) is more than just the requirement that they are covered in public. The book the above quotation is taken from - a life of Spinoza - goes on to describe the attitude of Portuguese Jews and Catholics to the education of women:

"Dom Francisco of Lisbon held that for women 'the best book is the cushion and the embroidering-frame', and Rabbi Eliezer warned that 'who teaches the Torah teaches her nonsense', implying that she could make nothing of its wisdom."

This is the problem that is, I fear, covered up by our debating the veil - it is often a reflection of misogyny rather than a reflection of belief. Nor is this to suggest that our western world is free from people who believe women to be essentially inferior - you only need hear the typical middle-aged petrolhead talking about women drivers to know this - but to observe that misogyny evolves. This evolution has taken us from a world where men considered literacy to be an affront to female modesty to one where a school headteacher responds to female dress (or, it seems, 'undress') in this manner:

More than 250 girls were taken out of lessons at a secondary school because their skirts were too short and the headmaster wants to prepare them for the “world of work”.

Teachers at Ryde Academy on the Isle of Wight either sent home the girls, aged between 11 and 18, or took them out of their classrooms to be placed in an isolated hall. 

Two important facts here demand our attention - firstly that girls are being prepared for 'the world of work' rather than a role as wife and mother. And secondly that we are still uncomfortable as a society with women exposing too much leg. I would add, in this school's defence, that they sent home boys for wearing the wrong shoes (and I hope required them to button their shirt and tie their tie correctly).

In concluding we need to return to Spinoza who was a philosopher obsessed with the idea of reason. Yet, Spinoza's view of women was still partly trapped in the culture he was born into - as, Margaret Gullan-Whur, this biographer observes:

"...we find, starting around 1661-2 and hardening over the course of his lifetime, negative pronouncements on their wimpering, partiality, foolish pity, superstition, inconstancy, deceptiveness, weakness and mental inferiority."

At times the response to perceived misogyny seems excessive, as if the accuser is seeking out something sexist in everything, but we should not consider that this means misogyny isn't real and that people are not right to challenge what they see as reflecting misogyny. But I think we need to make a distinction between the bloke at the bar who says women shouldn't be allowed to drive and people with religious or secular authority who would deny women a place at the table, a public voice and, worst of all, an education. I'm not sure seekers after misogyny always do make this distinction which, I fear, does little for women denied a school, a voice or a choice.


1 comment:

Christie Malry said...

"And secondly that we are still uncomfortable as a society with women exposing too much leg."

Try showing up for work as a man in any sort of professional or semi-professional job showing even the smallest bit of leg. You'd be sent home and you'd be lucky to avoid summary dismissal.