Friday, April 12, 2013

Lots More Naked Ladies

The Atlantic has posted many pictures of Femen-associated protesters in Europe, walking the streets topless in solidarity with Aminah Tyler.  Big, glamorous pictures.

The comments posted below the pictures are also worth a quick read.  One reader, man, points out rather angrily that many women feel liberated by Islam, rather than oppressed.  This is absolutely true, and the reasons are pretty well known.  Modest dress, for example, makes objectification more difficult.  But the follow-up comments poke holes in his argument, pointing out that nobody objects to a woman wearing a veil if she chooses.  The problem is that some women are not given any choice in this or in many more serious matters.

For non-Muslims trying to understand this particular argument, it may be helpful to consider analogies to the Hebrew scriptures.  Much of what we find there, when read against the prevailing legal codes of the ancient Near East, marks a significant advance for the dignity and autonomy of women.  For example, Moses permits the daughters of Zelophehad to inherit and own property, a subject that remained iffy in Western law right into the modern era.  Even the less obviously appealing purity legislation, such as the command to leave the camp when you are menstruating, may be subjected to this sort of re-interpretation.  (For that matter, so may the Christian practice of "churching" women after childbirth.  Some people regard it as an unpleasant suggestion that parturition has somehow defiled a new mother; others see it as a loving ritual of welcome back into the community after a life-changing personal transition.)

Among the problems, of course, is that we no longer live in the ancient Near East, nor in medieval Europe nor 17th-century Persia.  Times have changed.  It is no longer particularly radical to "allow" women to own property.  In matters of dress, there is a new understanding that not judging women (or harassing them) because of their appearance is a man's responsibility, no matter what they may or may not be wearing.  And so forth, through a long list of questions, as small as the right to wear a scarf and as large as the right to leave the house without being raped.

Traditional religions are wise and right and often justified when they excavate the "liberationist" elements of their teaching.  The mistake is to insist upon the letter at the expense of the spirit.  Ultimately, the decision to bare one's breast or cover one's head must rest with the owner of the breast and head.  Society may have a legitimate interest in the matter -- no public nudity, San Franciscans! -- but it does not have the final say.

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