Putting women first - Multiculturalism is no excuse for discrimination

Accommodements raisonnables

Tensions between multiculturalism and feminism have flared recently in the wake of competing demands between religious groups and the rights of women. There have been attempts to apply religious law in family arbitration, arguments over the place of the niqab in Western society, and the request by Hassidic Jews for a neighbouring YMCA to shield its windows. Such incidents are not about a clash of cultures, but rather a collision between religious values and 20th-century feminist gains.
While Islam and Judaism are at the centre of these examples, similar battles have occurred within Christianity in the near past, and continue to occur (witness the role of the Catholic Church in shaping the issues in Nicaragua's election). With a resurgence of religious expression in many Western countries, we are bound to witness more of such collisions. Each will be shaped by local, global and historical currents. The banning of visible religious symbols in France, for example, is the combined result of an orthodox secular foundation, a failure to implement inclusive immigration policies, and a reflection of historical tensions between Europe and Islam.
Canada has a relatively young multiculturalism policy, and an even younger Charter. Thus far, both have served to build a relatively inclusive society. We have not yet seen the appearance of dangerous fissures that have emerged in some European countries. Canadians are inclusive - up to a point. A poll published by the Trudeau Foundation shows that the majority of Canadians value immigrants (75 per cent believe Muslims make a valuable contribution to society), and reject the notion of race-based immigration or screening values at the port of entry.
Nonetheless, when it comes to multiculturalism versus equality rights, 81 per cent believe the latter should prevail.
One of the most thoughtful essays on this topic was written by University of Toronto professor Janice Stein. In the September issue of The Literary Review of Canada, she asked the question: When multiculturalism and equality rights clash, whose values prevail?
Professor Stein relates her own struggle to be recognized as an equal within her synagogue. Frustrated at the glacial pace of change, she refuses to be satisfied with the rabbinical advice to be patient, or the language of "separate, but inclusive." While she acknowledges the freedom to choose a more liberal congregation, she raises a fundamental question: How is it possible for religious institutions to receive tax exemptions, while they practise discrimination against women?
What makes Prof. Stein's approach so refreshing is her honesty in addressing the tensions within her own tradition first, and using that as a basis to consider broader implications. Contrast that with those commentators who rush to uphold the civilized nature of the West by condemning the barbarity of the rest. If an imam in Australia equates immodestly dressed women with meat, they heap scorn on Muslim culture in its entirety. If the South Asian community in B.C. has the courage to address spousal abuse in public, the finger-pointers waste no time in making generalizations about South Asian culture. Their hubris is only matched by a collective amnesia of struggles right here. Not long ago, Canadian judges asked about the connection between immodest clothing and rape. Spousal abuse remained a taboo topic up until a few decades ago.
Ignorant remarks about a woman's state of dress are abhorrent, whether uttered by an imam or a Canadian judge. They reflect an abuse of power, not the moral dereliction of an entire group.
The inspiring example of Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani woman who led the campaign against tribal abuse after being gang-raped by order of a tribal council, reminds us of the courage shown by American civil-rights icon Rosa Parks and Canada's "famous five" women activists. We can glean universal principles and lessons from each of these different struggles.
While the Trudeau Foundation poll is a heartening reminder of the fairness of Canadians, it also provides an opportunity for Muslims to reflect upon gender issues within their community. Of the 37 per cent of Canadians who have a negative view of Islam, 21 per cent cite the treatment of Muslim women as the basis for their views. While some Muslims may blame media coverage of these issues, the reality is that gender relations often fall far short of Koranic imperatives. Just recently, M. D. Khalid, a director of the Islamic Society of North America (Canada), told the Toronto Star: "I think if a woman is so pretty that she would attract attention to her, then she should cover her face," adding, "It's essentially trying to avoid any bad feelings from men."
Such a view is contrary to that of Prophet Mohammed. Shortly before his death, the Prophet travelled with a trusted companion named Al Fadl. During their trip, they passed a group of women. Al Fadl began to stare at the face of one who is described as "beautiful." The Prophet physically turned Al Fadl's face away. He stared again. The Prophet repeated his gesture. He did not order the woman to cover her face. He placed the onus on the man to refrain from gazing, in compliance with Koranic directives. How, then, can a Muslim leader (in Australia or Canada) usurp the Prophetic model that placed emphasis on personal responsibility? Muslim women and men have a duty to challenge such views head-on.
The struggle for equality is never-ending, and encompasses different approaches.
The poll results lead us to wonder: Is our Canadian tent big enough to accommodate a diversity of views? And whose definition of equality should prevail? There are no easy answers - only further opportunities to engage in rich debate about our defining values.

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