More absurdity this week: FIFA, the international governing body of football, banned the Iranian women’s soccer team from an Olympic qualifying event because the players wear hijab — Islamic headscarves. The official reason: safety. Wearing a hijab while playing “could cause choking injuries.”
Yeah, sure. As one commenter noted, Google “hijab soccer choking deaths” and the search engine doesn’t exactly hum.
These aren’t just any hijabs, mind you. They have to be the coolest ones ever. They’re like speed-skaters’ hoods, and the players look like white-clad ninjas. I’ll bet they can move like ninjas too. Clearly FIFA has no sense of style.
Correction: FIFA has no sense, period.
The decision to ban the Iranian team was made by FIFA head Sepp Blatter, who’s apparently one of those Berlusconi-type men who’ll tell you how much he loves women, by which he means how much he loves looking at female flesh. No, I’m not making assumptions. The arrant hypocrisy of this ban is clear when you consider the fact that Blatter proposed in 2004 that women players wear plunging neckines and hot pants on the pitch to boost soccer’s popularity. Tighter shorts, he said, would create “a more female esthetic.”
I guess it was kind of amazing he didn’t propose wet tee-shirts.
And if you believe that Blatter is for a moment concerned about women being injured, his response to requests by human rights organizations to take a stand against the sex trafficking that accompanies the arrival of the World Cup was this: “Prostitution and trafficking of women does not fall within the sphere of responsibility of an international sports federation but in that of the authorities and the lawmakers of any given country.”
No, Blatter’s all about the sport. He’s presumably salivating for more on-field celebrations like Brandi Chastain‘s famous shirtless moment when the U.S. won the 1999 Women’s World Cup. And drooling over women’s sportswear catalogs instead of Victoria’s Secret ones. In which case he’s pathetically misreading that Chastain photo. This was the victory of hard work and muscle over frills and pretty posturing. Serena Williams revolutionized women’s tennis in much the same way, making it a power game (in dress as well as style of play — the black catsuit she wore a couple of years back was dynamite).
What Blatter’s really doing is trying to piggyback on the burqa ban in France and the minaret ban in his native Switzerland. But the good news is that it’s backfiring on him. Badly. Already the focus of multiple accusations of corruption in his 12-year tenure as FIFA president, he probably saw this as an easy way to try to redeem himself by jumping on the anti-Muslim bandwagon. Instead, the storm of criticism might be an indication that Europeans are beginning to realize just how badly they’ve been manipulated by misogynistic xenophobes on such issues as burqa bans.
One further note on that shirtless photo: Chastain herself was amazed when it ran worldwide . “I wasn’t trying to make a statement; I was just carried away, and doing what male players do in the same situation,” she told me when I met her not long after. “I was really surprised there was so much fuss about it. I mean, there’s a much better photo of the victory moment, but nobody ran that one.” Here it is, on the right — the photo they didn’t run, baggy shirt, baggy pants, and all. Which I guess just means the world is full of Blatters.
(Thank to Sarah Hashim for alerting me to this story. I know I was born in England, but soccer’s not my thing. Tennis, though…)
Item: former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s legal team is about to spend at least half a million dollars trying to discredit the immigrant chambermaid who accused him of rape and sexual assault. Presumably, they’ll try to use her sexual history against her. After all, she’s a widow with a 15-year-old child. That is, she’s no virgin.
Item: the so-called virginity tests forced on women protestors in Cairo by the military. In fact these were officially sanctioned rape, even if no penetration was involved. They were a deliberately chosen means of intimidating, humiliating, and attempting to control women. To say that virginity has nothing to do with political activism is to belabor the point. It’s not as though those who “passed” the publicly administered “test” were released with the military blessing to go demonstrate in freedom. It was yet another means of repression.
For those who might think this is a peculiarly Islamic thing, consider that Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, with whom he lived monogamously for 19 years, was twice widowed by the time they married. And that of the nine women he married after her death, only one was a virgin at marriage (the others were all divorced or widowed). Since virginity was clearly a non-issue to Muhammad himself, any religious argument for it is hard to make.
As for those virgins in paradise, well, see my TEDx talk for that.
The same applies in Christianity. Yes, of course I know about the Virgin Mary — I wrote a book about her. But as I pointed out there, to reduce the concept of virginity to the existence of a biologically useless membrane called the hymen is worse than absurdly literal. It totally misses out on the grand metaphor of virginity, which existed around the world at the time. As with a virgin forest, it stood for incredible fecundity, for a surfeit of growth and reproduction, untamed and unfettered. That is, virginity was the miracle of fertility, and in that respect, the Virgin Mary is the last in a long and once-powerful line of mother goddesses.
So let’s not blame religion. That’s just the excuse. Nor such a thing as a “Middle East mentality.” Because…
Item: as late as the 1970s, British officials were administering virginity tests too. And again, the purpose was to intimidate women — to deter them from entering the country as immigrant brides (if they weren’t virgins, it seemed, they had to be lying about their reasons for entering the U.K.). And while we’re talking about Brits, by the way, how weird is it that at that same time, the early 1970s, Richard Branson chose the name Virgin for his enterprises? Flying the friendly skies?
Perhaps all this means that in forty years’ time, the confusion of virginity with virtue will be as outmoded in Egypt as it now is (Branson excepted) in England. But then of course it’s not about virtue, and never was. It’s about the peculiar desire of some men (thank God not all) to control women — their sexuality, their behavior, their freedom of choice. That is, it’s about not about women as people, but as possessions.
Item: A commenter on this blog, fulminating against Islam with such blatant racism that I had to bar him as spam, summed up his argument this way: “We know how to treat our women.” That “we” evidently referred only to men, specifically to non-Muslim western men who think of women as possessions — “ours” — and as such, to be (mis)treated as “we” see fit. He was, he made clear, a fundamentalist Christian.
So tell me, what year are we living in? Scratch the years I gave at the top. If you go see Werner Herzog’s new movie, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (about the prehistoric paintings on the walls of that cave), you might discover that even Neanderthals had more respect for women than this. And they lived 35,000 years ago.
You might think it absurd that a woman driving a car is news. But then this is the absurdity known as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, now frantically trying to censor video clips of Manal al-Sharif driving. An apparently government-supported online drive is under way to beat women caught driving, and al-Sharif (this is her, to the right) is being held in detention for “inciting public opinion” and “disturbing public order.”
That is, for driving while female. DWF. A crime.
And then consider the far greater absurdity of the continued existence of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which refuses to extend the most basic civil rights (even the vote) to half its population, and whose wealth and power is entirely fueled by the Western thirst for oil. An intensely repressive Middle East regime, that is, funded directly by Western money.
But that’s only the surface. This Western oil money is still funding the worldwide Saudi export of the most conservative and repressive form of Islam. If there is one single country that has enabled violent Islamism, it’s not the perceived enemies of the United States like Libya, Afghanistan, or Iran, but our “good friends” the Saudis — our oil dealers.
The Saudis thought they had escaped “the Arab spring.” They sent their military into Bahrain to help squelch protests there. They encouraged the violent suppression of protests in Yemen. They thought they had things under control.
But another kind of Arab spring may now be in the making. An Arab summer, perhaps. Six months ago, a single Tunisian street vendor couldn’t take it any more and sparked a revolution by setting himself on fire. Now a tech-savvy Saudi woman refuses to take it any more and threatens to spark another revolution by simply taking the wheel.
This is how it starts — with individual acts of defiance, with a refusal to knuckle under, with an insistence on basic dignity. And with the support of a vast and unsquelchable online community.
The links are above. Go to it, everyone.
Here it is: my TEDx talk — an agnostic Jew exploring the Quran — given at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall on 10/10/10.
I think I’m saying some important things here that need to be much more widely known, especially at this point in time. So if you like this talk, as the live audience clearly did — there was much more laughter than I’d expected, which is why I only just made the TEDx nine-minute limit, and the standing ovation kind of took me by (grateful) surprise — please don’t hesitate to forward it to all who you think will be, might be, or simply should be interested.
Use the buttons below to email or to post to Facebook, or just copy and paste this page’s url or the YouTube one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7yaDlZfqrc
And yes indeed, I would love to hear your comments, whichever way they trend!
January 4, 2011: Many thanks to translator Amineh Ayyad for her work on the Arabic subtitles of this talk. The video is now also up on TED.com, where translations into more languages will soon be available. For a transcript in English, click here.
Oh the hidden wisdom! At first I thought The Vatican’s equating women priests with pedophile priests beneath contempt and literally too absurd for words. But I’ve since been analyzing it logically — doubtless under the influence of a day spent reading Plato’s ‘Republic’ in the sun — and have come to see the true sophistication of it. This is really the Vatican way of saying that maybe women priests wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.
The logic that has eluded pundits so far:
It all comes down to how you define ‘grave.’ Pedophilia is not grave enough to call in the cops, for instance, nor grave enough to impose any serious penalties (or in most cases any penalties at all). In fact, as sin goes, the Vatican places it on the same level of gravity as ordaining women as priests. The ineluctable conclusion: if pedophile priests are not that awful in the eyes of the Church, then women priests would not be so awful either. Just as pedophilia has found acceptability within the Vatican, so too, despite all appearances to the contrary, has the idea of women priests.
The Vatican has defended this admirably progressive position with its usual finesse, pointing out that not all grave sins are the same (an impeccably logical stand, or the plural noun would not be required), and that some grave sins might be a tad graver than others. The precise size of that tad is yet to be determined, the science of tadology being so advanced as to require an inordinate number of advanced theological degrees and ordinate centuries of study.
While I’m in the frame of mind for Vatican logic (thanks again, my sunny friend Plato), it must also be said that the Church’s opposition to the idea of priests marrying has, as it were, its virtues. While would-be reformers maintain that celibacy is a major part of the pedophile-priest problem, as though marriage, in an oddly Victorian way, would provide a “natural outlet” for “urges,” the Church, in its wisdom, perceives the truth: Marriage not only provides a mask for pedophiles, but also creates the temptation — witness the dismaying numbers of non-priests who abuse their own children and step-children. Such grave sins (presumably, since family members are concerned, on the tad graver side of gravity) could clearly not be tolerated by any self-respecting church, and the Vatican has thus no option but to rise to the defense of the hypothetical abused children of hypothetically married priests by standing firm on celibacy.
And you doubted the blessings of the Ratzinger papacy — oh ye of little faith.
Alaska flight 8 from Seattle is in a holding pattern over Newark. I’m in the dreaded middle seat, and about to engage in a minor act of theology.
The girl by the window — seventeen or so, dressed Seattle grunge in striped leggings, unhemmed denim skirt, and peasant blouse — sits with her legs drawn up under her like a child. And like a child, she’s getting bored. The article she’s been reading on and off the whole flight is practically in my lap, begging for comment. It’s in Hebrew, and it’s about the festival of Purim.
But instead of asking the question she expects — “What language is that?” — I ask why she’s reading about Purim since it’s still months away.
“You read Hebrew?” she says. I nod. She examines my face for traces of Semitism. “Are you Jewish?” I nod again. Reassured, she brightens up: “Do you light Shabbos candles?”
I groan, realizing too late that what I’d taken for Seattle teenage grunge is in fact Lubavitch teenage grunge. The followers of the Lubavitche rabbi, one of the largest Hassidic sects, are ardent proselytizers of “lost Jews,” and her question is the standard Lubavitch test of lostness (for women, that is — for men it’s “Do you lay tefiillin?”).
“No, I don’t light candles, but let’s not do the Lubavitch thing,” I say. No use, of course — she’s doing it already.
“Oh but you should try. You’d love it. It’s such a beautiful thing to do,” with the kind of enthusiasm most girls her age save for recommending a heavenly new networking site.
I put up a hand to ward off her insistence. “I didn’t say I didn’t know how; I said that I don’t.”
“But why would you not? It’s such a privilege — a very special woman’s privilege… ”
I don’t want to be privileged, I say. Equal rights means equal obligations. It’s a matter of both respect and self-respect. “I cannot tell you, for instance, how deeply insulting it was to not even be counted as part of the minyan at my own mother’s funeral.”
I know this is unfair on multiple counts. Using my dead mother, for a start, is a cheap demagogic ploy. Even as I do it, I’m somewhat ashamed of myself, but that unyielding badgering has set me off.
Her reaction takes me by surprise, though. As her face registers deep shock, it occurs to me that this teenager has probably never imagined that her own mother might die.
“But that’s terrible,” she says. “That’s… awful. ” She sits up straight as the next word comes to her: “That’s… wrong!” And she clearly means it.
“Yes, it is,” I reply, “but that’s orthodox Jewish law.”
She squirms in her seat, frowning as she seeks a way out. And then: “Maybe when the Messiah comes, he’ll guide us to a better way.”
“Maybe, but I think you should bear one more thing in mind.”
“When the messiah comes, he may be a she…”
Her eyes open wide. Her jaw goes slack. She blinks, shakes her head, and suddenly finds that the aerial view of northern New Jersey demands her full attention.
Have I blown her mind? For a few moments, maybe. Maybe even until we land and her parents meet her at the gate and take her back into the safety of the fold. But that sweet, deeply felt honesty of “That’s wrong!” will stay with me — and maybe it will stay with her too.
Sex and religion are at it again. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing to ban women from wearing the full Islamic veil because it “hurts the dignity of women and is unacceptable in French society.”
But this is no more about women’s dignity than the invasion of Iraq was about liberating Iraqi women (though the Bush administration didn’t hesitate to use that as one of their many false rationales for war).
Sarkozy’s logic is so badly skewed that it looks like yet another fit of Islamophobia, cynically using women’s rights as the excuse.
Any woman who’s ever tried on a vintage hat with a veil falling from the brim knows the sexy feeling that comes from being half hidden. But that’s a far lipstick-feminist cry from the full ultra-orthodox Islamic veil — the niqab, which leaves only the eyes uncovered, or the burqa, which has a mesh screen over the eye slit. These literally make women invisible. Or in France, it seems, all too visible.
Yet why exactly is such veiling so abhorrent it requires a law to ban it?
Veiling has been used throughout the centuries as a means of keeping women second-class citizens, and not solely in Islam. It was only narrowly avoided in Christianity — Saint Paul wanted it adopted for all early Christian women. And women hiding their hair with variants on headscarves is a sign of piety in orthodox Judaism and Christianity (think nuns) as well as in Islam.
Yet the Bible doesn’t call for veiling. And neither does the Quran. What it actually says, in Sura 24, verses 30-31, is as follows: “Tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts… And tell believing women to lower their glances and guard their private parts… and let their headscarves fall to cover their necklines.” Basically, if you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it.
It takes centuries of ultra-conservative clerics to turn a call for bisexual modesty into a sexist straitjacket.
But does that mean a western government should punish women for refusing to conform to social norms? How is that different from punishing women for refusing to wear the veil in authoritarian Islamic regimes like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan under the Taliban?
Does this mean France might consider banning other items of women’s clothing? Ban women from wearing pants, for instance? Where exactly do “dignity” and “acceptability” start and end, and in whose eyes? If a woman chooses to cover her face, that’s her decision to make, just as it is if she chooses to bare her midriff. Either way, government intrusion is objectionable.
Ah, but there’s also a security reason for the proposed new ban, adds Sarkozy’s spokesman. We need to be able to see people’s faces at airport security checkpoints. But then why not simply require that people uncover their faces for security screening? Why go full tilt at the full veil?
By adopting such legislation, France will only move itself toward a mirror image of Saudi Arabia. Bare midriffs banned here, full veils banned there. And women, once again, just pawns in the game.