“I am not Haram!” or the Challenges Muslim Gays Confront

We also sent Lut : He said to his people : “Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” Qur’an 7:80-81

In the post-modern era, when the issue of homosexuality is less of a taboo than say 50-60 years ago, homosexual people are still facing persecution, judgements and condemnation around the world. The degree of the persecution varies for different regions, countries and religions. The one religion that has had the most rigid stance on homosexuality is Islam. Being a Muslim myself it is hard to admit the fact that the level of tolerance seems to be much lower in Muslim-majority countries. Whether or not Islam prohibits homosexuality and the position of the Qur’an is a complex matter which can be discussed in a lengthy research. What is worth mentioning is the fact that earlier Islamic societies were less strict on this matter. Many of the poems have been addressed to boys while in some medieval Sufi texts it is unclear whether the beloved being addressed is a teenage boy or God, providing a quasi-religious sanction for relationships between men and boys (The Economist).

Despite that, the sad reality prevails. Gays in the Muslim world are still being pushed underground with draconian laws that satisfy the government. In those countries where the laws are moderate the society as well as the government finds other ways of harassing and persecuting homosexuals. As the chart below indicates even in those countries where homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed the government is still rigid.Image

Being gay and Muslim is, thus, the biggest taboo of today’s Muslim world. Being gay in the open is a challenge that homosexuals can only confront on the internet. Most of these discussions are initiated and led by those homosexual Muslims that are outside of these countries. While some legal historians claim that as a religious and governmental leader the Prophet did not punish homosexuals and argue that the norms and regulations about gay sex was composed long after his death, the majority still embraces the idea that homosexuality is a shameful sin. As a result those who are pushed underground have no other option left than leading a double life which is challenging, unfair and is a violation of their human rights. Those who do come out of the closet, due to religious and political reasons, are confronted with hostility. Note that in some of these countries (Iran for example) transsexuals are allowed to change their sex so that they can enter the traditional, right heterosexual relationships. The state even offers financial support for the operation. So, for the Iranian government it is a rather simple choice: “either transform physically or pretend to be normal i.e. heterosexual”.

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One of the reasons why many issues exist today is because religion is not just a matter of personal belief and prayer. It goes further than that. It constitutes a public sphere that includes the entire nation itself. The western world trumpets its acceptance of homosexuality. However, what is important to remember is that the West arrived at its current stance through a gradual process. When the secularization of the Western civilization along with the emergence of the liberal attitude towards sex took place, it contributed to a more tolerant position on the subject. Ironically, some medieval Western writers condemned Islam’s tolerant and encouraging attitude towards sexual practices between people of the same sex (Sabine Smidtke). Unfortunately, the Muslim world has not developed the same vision so far.  In the post-Arab Spring period with the religious figures gaining political power homosexuals are persecuted as never before even in the most aspiring democratic countries (kind of!) like Kazakhstan.

The Central Asian blogosphere today was blown by news from the Kazakh Parliament taking an initiative to criminalize homosexuality. Homosexuality is seen as “amorality of the highest degree” and the officials are now calling homosexuals to be considered criminals against humanity. Almaty, the old capital of the country, has 20 gay clubs which the government sees as a disgrace. Meanwhile, these clubs are only places where homosexuals can be open about their sexual orientation. These places are highly protected by their members as they face constant harassment and threats. Two years ago my roommate and I (both heterosexual) went to an only gay club in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan called “The Spike”.  A very close friend of mine who happens to be Muslim is gay, a fact that he shares only with his closest friends. One has to have connections among the homosexuals to get into the club and he was ours. After the club the two of us sat into a taxi cab the driver of which verbally assaulted us thinking that we were lesbians. As we had been told later by our friend, that happens every time one catches a cab near the club. This is only a minor share of what Muslim gays have to deal with on the daily basis. The challenges the Muslim gays are confronted with seem to be increasing over time with little possibility for any kind of positive intervention from the governments. What is to become in another 20-30 years remains to be seen.

Sources:

Human Rights Campaign. “Stances of Faiths on LGBT Issues: Islam.” http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/stances-of-faiths-on-lgbt-issues-islam

Joanna Lillis. “Kazakhstan: Parliament Becomes Scene of Homophobic Rants.” Eurasian.net (May 28, 2013). http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67026

Schmidtke, Sabine. “Homoeroticism and Homosexuality in Islam: A Review Article.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 62 (1999): 260-266.

The Economist. “Straight but Narrow. Islam and Homosexuality.” February 4, 2012 (from print edition). http://www.economist.com/node/21546002

Gender Parity and Islamic Feminism …!!!

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In any academic discipline, terms fulfill two basic functions. The first function is to describe a phenomenon or a theoretical position whereas the second function is to analyze the described theoretical position. The vital discussion is to understand how people understand the term ‘feminism’ within the ambit of ‘Islam. The term “‘Islamic Feminism’ might sound like an oxymoron for some however for an increasing number of Muslim women; Islam provides a salient feature within which they struggle for gender parity” (Anna Mansson, 2007). In general, the term Islamic feminism deals with the role of women in Islam. Furthermore it is interesting to understand whether the term Islamic feminism is a contradiction in itself or not. The problem lies in the definition of this term and also in its usage. The terms “Islamic” and “Feminism” do not exist in a vacuum and therefore to my understanding cannot be divorced from the cultural and political baggage they carry.

Nevertheless it is essential to investigate the most significant issues in academic, social and cultural setting identified with Islam. This is the issue of inaccurate terminology which is regularly used to signify woman’s rights. The result is the repetitive abuse and confusion of the expressions “Islamic” and “Muslim”. This wrong utilization of the term “Islamic” has led to accelerated uses of terms such as Islamic activists, radical Islam and Islamic terrorist. These terms are utilized more than once without comprehension. The result for such abuse of terms is to utilize the expression “Islamic” for what identifies with religion inasmuch as “Muslims” for the disciples of Islam.

Islamic Feminism would absolutely seem, by all accounts, to be a disagreement in wording, as might Jewish Feminism and Christian Feminism for that matter. Moreover it is argued by many scholars that these terms are incompatible because Islam is a religion whereas Feminism may be looked upon as a secular theory or act. It is pertinent to note that “Islam is a way of life”. Hence there is a mixture of religion and secular life. The holy book guides the adherents of Islam by giving them a proper and an ethical path to live there lives.  On the other hand, a refinement ought to be made between the act of numerous Muslims, which is out rightly sexist and frequently educated by patriarchal tendencies and non-Islamic universal society

Notwithstanding, as I specified above, the everyday actuality for numerous Muslim women is exceptionally far to be sure from the perfect harmony set out in the Quran. A number of the explanations behind this are:

 1) The determination of patriarchal modes of social order (and tribal law in a few territories); its qualities being so disguised that a clear perspective comes to be challenging indeed, for women.

 2) The larger part of theologians and translators of the Quran have been men, and they have had a tendency to interpret in their favor, regularly being too literalist and disregarding the inconspicuous layers of importance inside the Quran and the Arabic dialect itself, Jalaluddin Rumi and Ibn ‘arabi being striking exemptions.

It is my conviction that Western women’s liberation could profit from a discourse with Islamic woman’s rights. What is particularly interesting is that the Quran explains the relation between male and female and their particular rights and obligations to one another. The Quran has very effectively explained that “All men and women are equal in the eyes of God”. This clearly indicates the theory of gender parity and that discrimination is a byproduct of man’s law and not Gods law. In the Qur’an there is no difference in the value given to the creation of woman and the creation of man. The Qur’an states “And of everything we have created pairs [zawjayn]” (51.49). Several other verses in the Qur’an also talk about the characteristic of pairs in creation, (53:45, 78:8,50:7, 22:5, 36:36).

 

In the creation of human beings, the male and the female make up the pair. Since everything created must be in pairs, the male and female must both be necessary, must exist by the definition of createdness. Neither one comes before the other. This means that in Allah’s creation of human beings, no priority or superiority is accorded to either man or woman. Sadly, media scope of Islam and Muslims is exceptionally inclined in favor of the negative, and any non-Muslim might get a totally erroneous picture of Islam. The Taliban, in my opinion, for instance has nothing to do with Islamic qualities and the dominant numbers of Muslims are stunned by their activities in appreciation to ladies. Along these lines, both non-Muslims and Muslims themselves have a great deal to study as far as sex relations and the Quranic teachings on such. I do accept that this is a general talk as just accurate balance between the genders can free our innovative and savvy potential to keep tabs on the bunch of issues that we need to be tending to in the contemporary world.

The Item Number and its Evolution: From Babuji to Munni

The song and dance sequence is and has been one of the most defining characteristics of Bollywood cinema. Best thought of as a medium within a medium “songs express hidden feelings and emotions which could not otherwise be expressed in words; Hindustani classical music and its varied musical traditions entered film narratives at the time when the film industry was developing in India; and songs were often the only space in the film’s text where sexual fantasies were most visibly displayed and where most eroticized communication took place” (Rao 10). The exclusive reservation for such a space within a movie was formalized early in Bollywood’s history. The item number, and its corresponding item girl were the primary avenues via which this display of sexuality and communication of the erotic was presented. The item number refers to a highly sexually charged song and dance sequence characterized usually by a beautiful provocative dancing woman, known as an item girl. Yet the item number and the item girl have evolved tremendously over the decades, adapting to the influence of the west and responding to changing gender norms. In what ways has this evolution been visible and how is this evolution reflective of the changing times?

Item songs appeared as early as the 1950’s with actresses such as Shakila, Vyjayanthimala, and Helen, leading the way with songs such like Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu from the movie Howrah Bridge and Babuji Dheere Chalna  (view below) from the film Aar Paar. These songs would typically be set in a nightclub or cabaret where the woman was the sole focus of attention, often surrounded by an all male crowd. Note that both Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu and Babuji Dheere Chalna adhere to these narratives and themes with both Helen and Shakila dancing in front of a mostly male audience, the former dancing in a cabaret, the latter in a smoky bar filled with male patrons. “Hindi films had historically had a version of the item number that would either be set as a cabaret in a nightclub, or feature a courtesan performing a mujra (dance) with qawwali, a specific kind of music attributed to the Muslim Sufi saints of India” (Rao 70). These basic settings and theatres stay the same through the next five decades, with modern item numbers adhering to the same formula. Different though is the form and suggestiveness by which the erotic is communicated, “whereas in older song-and-dance sequence the erotic had an element of coy and the tentative, today the erotic has in it elements of rank sexuality, brutish pride, and vulgarity” (Rao 71). In early times the clothing, the lyrics, and choreography all worked in tandem to convey this coy and tentative atmosphere. Note the relative modesty, tentative choreography, and ambiguous lyrics employed in Babuji Dheere Chalna. The lyrics sing “Sir walk carefully, be careful when you fall in love…”.

The 1980’s and 1990’s would banish this coy and tentative suggestiveness and shine light upon a new sexuality. Sexuality communicated with even more suggestiveness, even less clothing and lyrics that leave little to the imagination. Yet even then, this erotic sexuality was disguised and communicated in local terms. Instead of the miniskirt and halter-top one sees the erotic communicated though the sari and choli. Absent too are western beats but rather the sounds of the tabla, and the chorus of the qawwal singers. An embodiment of this new era was the item number Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai  (below) preformed by the iconic Madhuri Dixit. The title of the song itself What’s Behind Your Blouse is symbolic of this revamped communication of the erotic. More suggestive is the clothing and choreography, a marked departure from the bashful Babuji Dheere Chalna. In this song Madhuri, with the help of fellow dancers, dances for a primarily drunken male audience. Yet could not the item song be read differently? Rather than viewing the item girl as the object or item of male sexual attention could not the item girl be read as having an increased control over her male audience? A power that grips more tightly with every sway of the hip and wink of the eyes?

The late 1990’s and early 21st century has seen a similar progression albeit with interesting developments. Communication of the erotic is now more obvious with hit item songs being filled with raw sexuality and explicit provocativeness. Songs like Munni Badnam Hui featuring Malaika Arora Khan from the film Dabangg and Sheila Ki Jawani featuring Katrina Kaif from the film Tees Mar Khan (below) were self-proclaimed item numbers, having little to do with the film in which they were embedded. “Item numbers, songs and dances with no connection to the story are crammed in so that films themselves are perfunctory.” (Shedde 27). Both songs featured provocative dancing, lewd lyrics and, suggestive clothing and yet, having watched both, contributed absolutely nothing in terms of storyline, content or theme to their respective films. Yet the entertainment and popularity factor of these two songs exploded so much so that such songs breathe a life beyond the movies themselves. “Item songs” are now released prior to the film in order to spark excitement and hopefully generate more at the box office. The promo for the item song for Dabangg 2, Fevicol Se was released weeks before the movie garnering millions of hits on YouTube even before the movie was out in theatres. Actresses such as Malaika Arora Khan, Mallika Sherawat, Rakhi Sawant, Katrina Kaif, and Bipasha Basu have been able to carve out niches for themselves in the industry as item actresses, choosing alternate routes to fame.

The last few years have seen a curious development, the rise of the item male, and the male item number. Is this a response to the criticism that the industry objectifies women? Or is it a move congruent with arguments for gender equality? Should not female audiences also be provided with a channel in which to view a sexually charged male performance? Songs like Subha Hone Na De from the 2011 film Desi Boyz could certainly be considered a male item song. In the video posted below, popular Bollywood actors John Abraham and Akshay Kumar are the sole focus of a female crowd. Note the switch from the standard item song formula where the woman is the focus of male attention. As the song progresses both male actors strip, revealing their well toned bodies to the adoration of the all female crowd.  Focus is on the body as an object of sexual attraction. But gone too are the cultural veils of Bollywood cinema, with exception of the language, this video could have easily been interpreted as a western music video. Songs and item songs in particular have always been popular in Bollywood cinema. The item girl has a long tradition and she will continue to live on, adapting as the times and circumstances see fit. Joining her will be the newly minted item male, but how these figures will evolve and in what ways they will continue to communicate the erotic remain to be seen.

References:

Shedde, Meenakshi. “Bollywood Cinema: Making Elephants Fly” Cinetease 31 (2006): 24-29.

Rao, Shakuntala. “I Need an Indian Touch: Glolocalization and Bollywood Films” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 3 (2010): 1-19

Rao, Shakuntala. “The Globalization of Bollywood: An Ethnography of Non-Elite Audiences in India” The Communication Review 10 (2007) 57-76.

Beyond the veil: Negotiating the role of clothing in the lives of Muslim women

Several scholars including feminists, anthropologists and other social scientists have argued how veil can be seen as a mode of patriarchal dominance and a means towards women oppression. Other scholars have shown, mostly through fieldwork experiences, how women use the veil as a source of empowerment. In essence, the issue of the veil dominates the gender scholarship so much so that simple, practical forms of clothing associated, or rather socially imposed on women, are ignored. I am trying to investigate whether daily forms of clothing in certain Muslim societies oppress, empower or simply play a neutral role in the lives of Muslim women.

One of the contemporary themes I am interested in is how media portrays certain clothes as ‘acceptable’ and modest, while rejects others as ‘immodest’. For example, the Pakistani national media has a strict policy on how women should be dressed appropriately in order to maintain moral standards in the society. However, the question is, ‘How is a ‘moral dress code’ determined? During the 1980s, under the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq, the government passed a national bill to ensure all women on national television should be wearing a shalwar-kurta (portrayed as the national dress) and must necessarily have a dupatta (a shawl worn on the head to cover the hair; it is not a scarf). The feminist organizations in the country protested against such patriarchal policies aimed at gender inequality. A leading newspaper in Pakistan recounts historical events of women resistance against discriminatory policies especially during 1980s as,

“a protest against the systematic discrimination that the State committed against the women of Pakistan as General Zia tried to ‘Islamise’ the country through laws like the Hudood Ordinance, the Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence) and propagation of the chador and char-dewari concept”

(Written by Soonha Abro in Dawn Newspaper, Pakistan. 2nd April 2013)

 

Though such rulings have been changed in the recent times; the dressing of women is still regulated to make sure it falls under the socially ‘acceptable’ standards. What is interesting is how such national bills are seen to develop the positive role of women in the society and allow them to participate in national media, yet avoid the spread of immoral ideas in the society. But the question is, how does a regulated dress code imposed by one gender on the other bring gender equality? Doesn’t this further increase the segregation and gender gap in a society?

Another crucial issue that leads to gender inequality is how women’s dressing is used as a tool to prevent them from participating in daily life activities, including sports. Several countries are against the broadcasting of women sports events. These ideas are deeply ingrained in the society; even women in these societies strongly feel against the participation of women in certain sports where the sports’ dress is inappropriate. Fatima Fakier, writer in an international fashion magazine, interviews a women who asserts:

“Running and jumping in front of men jeopardizes a woman’s dignity and that such movements expose too much of a woman’s body”.

(Article written and interview conducted by Fatima Fakier, the founder of friniggi Sportswear, a company specializing in performance sportswear for Muslim women)

This shows how the dressing of women prevent them from participating in several national and international forums; reduced representation of women further leads to gender inequality. For example, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) issued a rule, effective from 1st June 2011, that women should wear skirts in order to ‘ensure attractive presentation of badminton’. One needs to critically analyze how such rules, unfortunately constituted on an international level, present women as objects to ensure effective presentation of a sport. However, the reaction against this rule from some countries was equally radical and unjust. Countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia rejected the rule as immoral and irreligious. Syed Naqi Mohsin, the Senior Vice President of Pakistan Badminton Federation, said:

“World Badminton should not make wearing of skirts by female players mandatory. Our religious beliefs and norms do not allow our female players to wear skirts.”

This approach too is fallacious as the state is using the tools of religious doctrines to regulate the lives of women. The women’s dressing is used to determine whether they will be able to participate in an event or not. Doesn’t this undermine the role of women in a society? Rather than seeking a society with equal opportunities, isn’t regulating the dressing of women a way towards gender inequality?

In conclusion, it is not only through veil, but multiple forms of regulated dress codes that women’s role in the society are undermined. It should not be the role of the state or the religious elite to impose certain dress code on women and deem the others as ‘immoral’. It should them be the choice of the women on what dresses make them comfortable to participate in national or international forums, including sports. This is summarized by Kulsoom Abdullah, an American weightlifter, who campaigned against the hijab ban, arguing that no one should be imposing a dress code on women:

‘I don’t think women should be forced to dress a certain way; I don’t want women to not have the chance to experience competition and the fun of sports.’

References:

http://www.aquila-style.com/aquilas-picks/muslim-women-in-sport/#611/1

http://dawn.com/2011/04/26/pakistan-female-players-will-not-wear-skirts-pbf/

http://dawn.com/2013/04/02/a-new-face-of-an-old-struggle/

Gender and State Narratives: Israel and Palestine

When viewing the adverts presented in class last week, my mind began to wander, albeit I hope in the right direction. What role do state and nationality play in the formulation of gender narratives? States create for themselves narratives that are inspired and constructed with reference to past events, historical figures, and collective experiences. The narrative of Canada for example, is built on the experiences of immigration and made with reference to thinkers such as Louis Hippolyte-LaFontaine and his contemporary Robert Baldwin. Likewise the construction of Indian and Pakistani narratives would be incomplete without reference to both the dark scar of partition, and to political figures such as Mohandas Gandhi or Muhammad Ali Jinnah. These state narratives undoubtedly shape perceptions of identity, and inextricably linked with notions of identity come questions of gender. One can easily posit the question, what does it mean to be a “Canadian” man? Or an “Indian” woman?

In looking at the case of masculinity in Israel and Palestine what can we understand about the impact of state narratives and the performance of gender? The narratives of Israel and Palestine have largely been constructed in opposition to each other, each with reference to prolonged experiences of violence. Events such as the first and second intifada as well as the nakba continue to percolate in the consciousness of both Israeli and Palestinians and constantly feed into the narrative of both communities. Sharoni remarks,

“The Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly its Israeli- Palestinian dimension has played a central role not only in the daily lives of people throughout the Middle East but also in the lives of Palestinians and Jews living outside the physical land of Israel and Palestine, many of whom see their existence as  inseparable from political developments in the region. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has served as both   the catalyst and the touchstone for the consolidation of particular notions of a national “imagined community” (Sharoni 118).

 

 

How are these particular notions of an imagined community internalized at the level of gender? Just as the newspaper advert viewed last week advocated a certain representation of a “Turkish woman” how do women of Turkey imagine themselves? What happens when citizens themselves cannot live up to this imagined standard? I would argue that in states characterized by conflict, violence and political strife the stakes are much higher, and repercussions more severe. Rhoda Kanaaneh in her study of Palestinian soldiers in the Israeli military examines a population, who would fall outside these categories, who in Palestine would not be considered Arab men, but rather traitors and who in Israel would not be seen as Israeli men but rather as potential threats to the security apparatus. What results from this study is the understanding that while nationality and state narratives are powerful forces, they must not be treated as free from contradiction and complexity.  One must be continuously, “questioning nationalism’s conception of itself, as is increasingly done, and undoing its image as “a unitary and internally unconflicted ideal that represents the authentic core of personhood in all circumstances superior to or even excluding all other identities, sentiments, interests, loyalties, and aspirations” (Kanaaneh 18).

Sa’ar and Yahia-Younis in their article entitled “Masculinity in Crisis: The Case of Palestinians in Israel” examine the avenues and mediums of expression that Palestinian men in Israel create to assert and preform their masculinity. Made explicit is the assumption that, “masculinity is embodied, which opens a space for performativity. People do not ‘have’ gender. Rather, masculinities and femininities are things that people ‘do’” (Sa’ar 307). Removed from traditional avenues of masculine expression in Palestine, such as joining the resistance movement and prohibited by social and economic discrimination from assuming the traditional role of the patriarchal breadwinner. Sa’ar argues that Palestinian men in Israel have turned to communal and domestic violence as a medium of expression.

“In the hyper-nationalistic Israeli-Palestinian scene, violence is a central mode of behavior…the Arabs inside are left with no defined role. Despite their Israeli citizenship they are not drafted into its armed forces. At the same time…they cannot join the organized Palestinian resistance either. They are at once potential traitors to their national group and a potential fifth column within their state…Israeli-Palestinian Arabs do not have legitimate, institutionalized channels for militaristic-violent masculine performances” (Sa’ar 318).

While there do exist non-violent avenues, or non-violent “scripts of hegemonic masculinity” these are not easily accessible, and even then, these few only available to a limited number. Sa’ar notes that men also make use of a rise in the expression of a devout “Islamic masculinity”. Achieving success in academia, and the sporting world are alternative mediums for this expression of masculinity; the latter being reserved for the elite few. The lack of space for the performance of masculinity cannot serve as an excuse for increased communal and domestic violence. One must also look to create other viable non-violent avenues of masculine expression. And why must masculine performativity entail violence? In communities whose collective imagination of themselves and of others has been formulated in an environment of hostility and aggression how does one make the move away from violence as the norm of a “masculine” response?

 

References:

Sharoni, Simona. “Gendered Identities in Conflict; The Israeli-Palestinian Case and Beyond.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 23 (1995):117-135.

Kanaaneh, Rhoda. “Embattled Identities: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military.” Journal of Palestinian Studies  32 (2003): 5-20.

Sa’ar, Amalia and Yahia-Younis. “Masculinity in Crisis: The Case of Palestinians in Israel.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 35 (2008): 305-323.

Drawing the line between ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ gender norms

 

Gender studies often emphasize how gender roles are culturally constructed. The fluidity of gender roles, in my opinion, has a dual implication for a student of social sciences. It allows for the acknowledgement of a diversity of gender roles across different cultures; however, its cultural dependence means that a particular ideal of gender cannot be categorized as better than the other. As students of social science, this may seem a comfortable idea to accept in theory. Nonetheless, it raises important questions of whether a gender ideal (formed within a particular cultural context) should be acceptable in any and all cases.

I bring up this question as I was perplexed at a recent news report from Saudi Arabia. A Salafist-Wahhibist cleric presented a fatwa (religious ruling) to prohibit women form the usage of air conditioning when they are alone in their homes. He ruled,

 “Turning on the cooler ventilator is prohibited for women in the absence of their husbands [because] the woman’s act is very dangerous, and may bring about immorality in the society. When she turns the cooler on, someone may notice her presence home, and this might bring about immorality.”

 This is just one of the instances of Islamic legal rulings aimed at prohibiting women from certain acts that might bring dishonor to the family. Honor is a key concept in various cultures, and in most cases it is associated with women. The women are expected to uphold the honor of the family such that any anti-social act on her part can bring shame to the entire family. Since the onus of guarding the family’s honor is on the women, the men are expected to make sure the women don’t fail in their job.

My experience from the Pakistani society also showed me how most men feel the need to ‘control’ the women in the house as they are the guardians of the family’s honor. Such ideas are internalized in the society through the educational system. In schools, the Islamic Studies curriculum over-emphasizes the following Quranic verse which outlines the significance of modesty for women:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty (24:31).

 Thus, women also internalize the idea that it is their moral responsibility to bring honor to their families. Any blunder on their part will only be their responsibility only (and not the men). It is ironic how the school curriculum doesn’t focus much the preceding Quranic verse which outlines the same rulings of modesty for men:

 Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (24:31)

 This makes one question, how far should a culture appropriate its gender rules? If we are to believe that gender roles are formed according to the needs of a culture, does it mean that it is fair in such societies for only the women to uphold the honor of their families by adhering to such social norms? Do the men have no part to play in maintaining the family’s honor? If so, where do you draw the line? Saudi Arabia and some areas in Pakistan strictly require women to observe veiling. There have been multiple researches on how veil is a sign of oppression, and equal number of researches on how veils provide a sense of security and empowerment to the women. But how do you justify the prohibiting of the usage of air conditioning and other such daily life chores which may seem perfectly reasonable to one’s ‘commonsense’. Another case in example is the prohibition of driving for women in Saudi Arabia as it may bring dishonor to the family. Should all these gender norms seem normal as they are socially constructed and therefore are best suited for their respective societies?

I think such a conclusion is fallacious as it excludes the notion of power in creating and modifying cultural norms. Most societies, including Saudi Arabia are patriarchal; thus, (using the words of Foucualt) the ‘status quo’ strives to maintain the social hierarchy of power. This is further understood from the fact that all of social rulings are created by men. Women play little or no role in forming social decisions; they are the ‘passive recipients’. The notion of honor associated with women and legal Islamic rulings given by clerics prohibiting women from certain social acts should be seen with the lens of how men strive to maintain the smooth functioning of a patriarchal society.

This brings me back to the question I started with. Should such gender ideals be accepted in social science, or can we objectively say that some gender roles are more ‘just’ than the others? I think, the answer to this question will vary in different cultures. A western feminist will simply reject the ruling of the Salafist-Wahhibist cleric, claiming it as a serious attempt to oppress women. On the other hand, a man from the society where such a legal ruling is imposed might believe that such a decision is crucial to the well-being of his family and the smooth functioning of his society.

The Meme World of Stereotypes and Sexuality

Media has played a huge role in the post-modern era. In particular, social media with websites such as Facebook and Twitter, have become the main sources of communication. My personal experience and interaction with these websites involves networking, communication, and entertainment. As part of entertainment, a new phenomenon has taken over Facebook: Memes.  

Merriam dictionary defines a meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” On Facebook, this takes place in the form of a picture, usually with some sort of caption(s). Up until I took this class, I used to blindly go through the memes and get a chuckle out of them. However, as I became more critical of my surroundings and attempted to notice varied representations of gender around me, memes opened a new window for me. These memes, I realized, serve as windows into the culture I am part of. These images represent what the wide community finds humorous or entertaining, to say the least.

A critical look at the memes makes it evident that they are filled with gender stereotypes. In certain ways, they reflect the view of males and females in the society. These views include: how men and women are supposed to act, how they really act, and at times how they are seen, and how they really are supposed to be seen. Reflecting on the definition, these memes are very influential. In essence, they take certain stereotypes and reinforce them or even create new stereotypes to promote varied representations of gender.

When I began a critical evaluation of these memes, a pattern with a recurrent theme became evident to me. Majority of the memes had to do with females. They idealize them, fantasize them, and degrade them, to cite just a few reactions.

I went through a series of memes and gathered memes that had to with females (which did not take long at all, as almost everyone had to do with them). I will briefly go through a few of them and demonstrate the images and stereotypes they create or reinforce to the wide audience on Facebook.

 Meme # 1

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The above meme represents or rather mocks gender roles and attempts to portray the roles of young men and women.

Meme # 2

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Here, the meme clearly degrades the female, and portrays her as a ‘toy’ – it denounces their intelligence as well as abuses their sexuality – as a simple guitar is enough to get a women naked.

Meme # 3

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A clear sexualization of female body is obvious here.        

Meme # 4 

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Once again, female stereotypes are reinforced .

Meme # 5

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Why is it always the mother doing the dishes? Once again, reinforcement of stereotypes.

Meme # 6 

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Clear sexualization of the female body is visible here – for entertainment purposes

Meme # 7

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Once again, female body is highly sexualized, not to mention degraded.

Meme # 8

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This meme is wrong at so many levels. First, the outfits define which holiday is better. Second, the outfits define that these females are “hookers”. Third, stereotypes are reinforced.

Meme # 9

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Stereotypes: arguments, women as sex objects.

Meme # 9

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The captions on the meme speak for themselves. They raise an interesting point, and I am not sure if its right question that is being raised or if there is rights answer to it. What is important here is that, this meme reveals that women are actually falling for the stereotypes by having pictures displayed on the left as their default pictures. A sense of competition, compulsion, and unsaid pressure may be some of the factors that are leading to such representations of females of themselves in the public eye.

Meme # 10

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This meme speaks volumes. It shows that some cleavage can attract a lot more attention. Not only does it subconsciously influence females to put up such pictures, but it also creates certain expectations amongst men.  Gender disparity is clearly visible here.

Meme # 11

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Either you see a man sitting on a chair reading a book, or you see a man sitting on a chair, with a female on the floor performing oral sex on him. This double play of image as well as the text and caption on the image attests to the idea of sex (man being the dominant one while the woman is on the floor) that is being promoted here.

Meme # 12 

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The stereotype that women are supposed to be “proper” is visible here.

Meme # 13

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Once again the response is highly stereotypical and mocks women.

Meme # 14

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Self-explanatory – highly stereotypical and not true at all. I know a lot of men who are scared or cockroaches and women who are not afraid of elephants.

Meme # 15

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This meme once again reinforces the stereotype of how women are supposed to act and the type of fashion that accompanies their behavior in the society.

These are the images that the youth in the society are growing up looking at. What are the memes doing? They are creating certain expectations and promoting stereotypes on how they are supposed to act in the society as well as on the Facebook world, which is a major part of “culture” today.

In your opinion, how effective are these memes? Do they have enough power to change ones views? What can we do to change the stereotypical and degrading portrayal of females and gender roles? 

Next time you look at such memes and get a chuckle out of it, know that you are promoting  gender stereotypes prevalent in the society around us.