Beyond the Male-Female Binary

A few days ago I found myself in a medical walk-in clinic, perusing the latest issue of a women’s fashion magazine while I waited to see the doctor.  (Thankfully, doctors’ waiting rooms are no longer the repositories of stale news magazines and nothing else.) Although I consider myself fairly up-to-date when it comes to fashion trends, I was taken aback by what I saw on the pages of the magazine.  I saw men–at least I assumed they were male models–dressed in ruffled bodices and high heels.  There were ‘man-spreading’ girls–I believe they were women–sporting suits and ties and clunky boots.  I literally could not tell who was male or who was female by the clothes they were wearing or by their body shapes or facial features or hairstyles or their postures.  And that was the point.  This issue of the magazine had nothing to do with the latest styles in women’s clothing; this was all about gender identity.

There is a movement afoot to do away with the male-female binary.  Until recently, biological sex and gender were regarded as the same thing and the terms were used interchangeably.  Before the time of ultrasounds, new parents waited to hear those all-important words from the doctor or midwife. who would say one of two things after examining the newborn’s genitalia, “it’s a boy” or “you have a girl.”  The child would then be raised as either a boy or girl and eventually become an adult man or woman.

Social activists and certain ‘experts’ now claim that biological sex and gender are not the same: sex refers solely to biological characteristics, e.g., genitalia and hormone levels, while gender has to do with an individual’s internal, personal sense of being male or female.  A problem arises when an individual’s perception of themselves as male or female does not line up with their actual ”plumbing’:  a condition formerly classed as the psychological disorder,  gender dysphoria.  Today we use the adjective ‘transgender’ to describe such individuals–represented by the T in LGBTQ.  From 0.25% to 1% of the population in Canada and the US is believed to be transgender.

Once gender was separated from biological sex and came to be based on personal feelings, new categories appeared.  Some individuals identify now as neither male nor female but as non-binary (NB), meaning that they locate themselves outside the male-female dichotomy.  Others describe themselves as ‘gender fluid’ meaning that they sometimes identify as male, on other occasions as female–their gender can vary at random, or alter with changing circumstances.  Some label themselves neutrois, meaning neither male nor female, but neutral.  There’s even an new adjective to describe those whose biological sex and sense of personal gender align (like the vast majority of the human race):  we are ‘cisgender’.

The idea that there are more than two genders is being promoted by no less an organization than the Associated Press (AP).  In their 2017 stylebook–the writing and editing resource for newsrooms–the AP directs news writers to avoid using  the words “both,” “either,” or “opposite” when talking about gender, to reject any reference that would imply there are only two genders.  That news writers are following this latest edict was confirmed for me recently when I heard a news presenter refer to “all genders.”

Astonishingly, assigning a gender at birth based on biology is now viewed by some as a violation of a child’s human rights.  A Canadian woman who identifies as non-binary and transgender wants to keep her newborn’s gender off the child’s birth certificate.  ‘They’ want to avoid placing “restrictions on the child that come with the boy box and the girl box.”

Are there really more than two genders, as the social activists claim?  Science says “no.” A female has 46 chromosomes, which includes two Xs.  A male has 46 chromosomes, including an X and Y.  It is this Y chromosome which is dominant and carries the signal for the embryo to grow testes.  Maleness or femaleness is embedded in the very DNA of individuals and remains unaltered by surgery or hormone therapy.  An individual may decide he or she is non-binary, but his or her DNA would say otherwise.  Interestingly–but not at all surprising to me–science supports the biblical and traditional view of gender.

We have barely begun to see the consequences of making gender a matter of personal feeling!  An male inmate in a Canadian prison who now identifies as female has won the right to be transferred to a women’s prison,  thanks to recent legislation passed by the Canadian government.  He/she is being allowed to do this, despite not having begun sex-change surgery.

Back to the gender-bending fashion magazine in the doctor’s waiting room:  It was obvious to me that the editor was ‘on board’ with the move to do away with this whole male-female notion.  In retrospect: I can’t remember whether I even liked any of the clothes I saw in the magazine.  But then, it wasn’t about clothing anyway.  This was essentially a propaganda piece.

 

 

 

 

Glamourizing Oppression

There was a Marks & Spencer (M&S) Store for a time in a city where I once lived.  I liked to wander the aisles of this British commercial icon; it was like taking a mini-trip ‘across the pond’.  There were tantalizing jams and marmalades, biscuits, candies, etc.:   products that one would normally encounter only in the UK.  Mostly I looked and salivated, though.  I think I purchased products from the frozen food case a couple of times.  Unlike the food offerings, the store’s limited selection of women’s clothing held little appeal for me, as it would have for most North American women, I believe.  I found their clothing rather matronly, even dowdy.  There must have been too many consumers like me, for the store closed its doors for good after what seemed to me like the briefest of forays into the local market.

M&S’s latest business venture is making news headlines these days.  For the first time, M&S will offer burkinis for sale in the UK, beginning with their flagship store at Marble Arch in London.  A burkini,  for those who don’t know, is a women’s bathing ‘costume’ which meets the Quranic requirements for Muslim women.  Resembling the wet suit worn by divers, the burkini covers the whole body except for the face, hands, and feet.  Up until now, M&S sold burkinis only at its stores in Dubai and Libya.  M&S will be selling two versions in its London store:  a blue item with a floral print across the front, and a black number with a paisley pattern.  “It’s  lightweight so you can swim in comfort,” promises the ad.

I wonder about that “swim in comfort” claim.  I have seen a woman wearing a burkini.  It was at a public pool during adult swim time.  As I watched her doing lengths, seemingly oblivious to the swimmers around her–young men with their bare chests and sleeve tattoos, female swimmers  wearing the latest swimwear–I couldn’t help thinking:  What must it feel like to do lengths in a soggy body-length suit?  Maybe it was tolerable while in the water, but one certainly wouldn’t want to sit around in it after coming out of the water.

Like M&S, a number of the world’s foremost fashion houses have recognized that there is money, big money, to be made in Islamic fashion for women.  A 2013 report revealed that Muslims spend $266bn on clothing and footwear–more than Japan and Italy combined.  The biggest buyers of haute couture fashion are not Westerners, but Arab women.  Determined to capture a corner of the lucrative Islamic fashion market, the Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana has launched, for the first time ever, a line of fourteen abayas ‘loose-fitting, full-length cloaks worn over clothes to conceal the woman’s shape’ with matching hijabs ‘head scarves’. Their new line of Islamic clothing, according to some, is so beautifully-made that even non-Muslim women would like to wear it.  Other fashion houses are getting into the act:  Chanel, H&M, Gucci, to name a few.

Thankfully, not everyone believes  that designing and selling clothing for Muslim women that meets Quranic standards is the right thing for Western businesses to do, and they are speaking out.  British journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, herself a Shia Muslim, protests, “These companies might not think they are encouraging fanaticism, but they are.  They’re complicit in a version of Islam that believes women must be subjugated in public.”

Pierre Berge, French businessman and co-founder of the fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, outraged by what fashion houses are doing, told a French radio station that “creators should have nothing to do with Islamic fashion…[that] designers who do are taking part in the enslavement of women…Designers are there to make women more beautiful, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women and make them live a hidden life.”

Another voice of protest is that of France’s Minister of Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol who argues that “What is at stake is social control over women’s bodies.  When brands invest in this Islamic garment market, they are shirking their responsibilities and are promoting women’s bodies being locked up.”

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(Courtesy Pixabay)

Glamourizing abayas and hijabs by trimming them with black lace, beads, and flowers does not alter the garments’  purpose, namely, to conceal the feminine form from public scrutiny.

Is being made to wear abayas and hijabs a form of oppression?  And do those who design and sell the garments contribute to that oppression?   I still vividly recall a scenario I witnessed while sitting on a park bench in Vienna.  Having spent several hours inside the cool of Vienna’s war museum and not realizing how hot the weather outside had turned during that time, I started out for the bus stop, managing only to make it as far as the first park bench before being forced to take a ‘breather’.  As I sat there, a young female jogged by at a brisk pace, arms and legs bare, pony tail flying!  Behind her, along the path plodded three young Muslim women–comparable in age, I would guess–wearing hijabs and abayas, only their hands and faces exposed.  Looking uncomfortably warm, they plunked themselves down on the park bench down from me.  Their actions and that of the jogger spoke volumes to me that day.

Violence against Women: A Terror Tactic

First thing in the morning now, after making a Keurig coffee, I turn on the TV with one thought in mind:  “Where have the jihadis struck this time?”  This morning it was Ouagadougou in Burkino Faso, West Africa.  Four terrorists (the number keeps changing), two of them women, slaughtered 23 innocent people in a 4-star hotel and nearby Cappuccino restaurant.  Ouagadougou, Jakarta, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Paris, San Bernardino–on and on the list of terrorist atrocities goes, and grows.  I have some sense of what it must have been like during World War II, with our parents and grandparents anxiously turning on their radios each morning to learn how the war was going.  But there all similarity ends.  The people of that day, along with their leaders, recognized what was at stake:  freedom as they knew it.  To those who didn’t understand the gravity of their situation, there was Winston Churchill to articulate it for them.  We are facing an equally formidable foe in the global jihadist movement but we, unfortunately, have no ‘Churchill’.

The terror tactics of the enemy are not dependent solely on AK 47s and bombs, however, as women throughout Europe’s cities discovered to their grief on New Year’s Eve.  Over 500 women in Cologne alone were victims that night of something called taharrush gamea, an Arabic phrase which means roughly ‘collective harassment’.  The tactic goes like this:  a large group of men forms a circle around a lone female.  Some of the men then move into the middle of the ring to grope or rape, sometimes rob, the lone female.  Those not directly involved in the assault watch from the perimeter, or help divert outsiders’ attention to what is taking place inside the circle.  The tactic is almost always carried out in a naturally-chaotic setting, like a large public gathering where no one in the crush of people notices what’s going on beside them.  Because of the density of the crowds, the perpetrators are difficult to identify, and hence, to prosecute.  Though never seen before in Europe, this practice is not a new tactic:  CBS reporter Lara Logan, for instance, was a victim of taharrush in Cairo’s Tahrir Sqquare in 2011.

Not all, but a good number of those men who terrorized women on New Year’s Eve have been identified as recent migrants.  Rather than behaving like newly-arrived asylum-seekers, eager to ingratiate themselves with their generous hosts, the young men who assaulted and robbed women on New Year’s Eve were acting more like a conquering army.  (Do they perhaps see themselves as such?)  Speaking of conquering armies, the behaviour of the Soviet Red Army in Germany at the close of World War II comes to mind.  I’ve read accounts of how German women, of all ages, plain or beautiful, and  desperate not to attract the attention of the Russian soldiers  now patrolling their streets, would make themselves as undesirable as possible:  they stopped bathing and washing their hair; they smeared themselves with dirt; they wore the ugliest clothes they could find–all to avoid hearing the bone-chilling  words, “Komme, Frau ‘come here, woman’.”

The terror attack in Ouagadougou has left 23 innocent people dead and 56 wounded, many with grievous, life-altering, wounds.  I wouldn’t want to minimize the dreadful injuries those victims have undoubtedly sustained.  Their lives will never again be the same.  But we mustn’t think that the women and girls who were sexually molested  or raped or robbed on New Year’s Eve will be left unscarred, either.  Will they ever be as confident again out-and-about on their own?  That may have been one of the goals of the men that night:  to intimidate the women; to make them think twice about going into the public square, uncovered and unaccompanied by a male relative (just like back home).  Cologne looked an awful lot like a city in the Muslim Middle East that night, and the jihadis didn’t even have to fire a shot.  Incredibly, the mayor of Cologne, a woman, called on the local women to change their behaviour, to keep the men at arm’s length, in order to avoid a repetition. Now how about the young men?

 

Female Enforcers in the Islamic State

The horror of what took place in Mosul just over a week ago has stayed with me. Fifteen women in the Iraqi city of Mosul were arrested for appearing in public without a niqaab , the Islamic black face veil. Their punishment was unspeakably barbaric: disfigurement by having acid poured over their faces. And it was other women–members of the al-Khansaa brigade–who poured the acid and restrained the victims. I don’t even want to contemplate what the fifteen women look like now, for I have seen pictures of victims after acid attacks, their once-attractive faces melted or deeply scarred, their lips and noses burned down to almost nothing, their eyes blinded. The disfigurement of the women was meant to serve as a warning to all the women of Mosul, officials of the so-called Islamic State (IS) said, “so that other women in the city will never consider removing or not wearing the niqaab.”

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The fifteen victims were arrested and punished by the al-Khansaa brigade, an all-female brigade set up by IS shortly after establishing its de facto capital at Raqqa in Syria. The al-Khansaa brigade is likely named after the 7th-century female Arab poet by that name, a friend of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, who wrote eulogies to male relatives who had died in combat. The women’s brigade was formed by IS initially to work at check-points. Male anti-IS fighters had been disguising themselves as females, donning abayas , long black cloaks, and niqaabs in order to pass through IS check-points undetected. The Muslim men manning the check-points were reluctant to search anyone who appeared to be a woman.

Later, the role of the brigade was expanded to that of enforcers of female morality, i.e., religious police. IS has decreed that in the ever-expanding territory under their control all women must be fully covered in public now, as well as chaperoned by a male relative. The al-Khansaa brigade has been tasked with seeing that women obey the laws. Brigade members patrol the streets, armed, scrutinizing women constantly, looking for face veils that are too thin, or not worn properly, or not worn at all. Those who break the laws are arrested and punished, often brutally, as in the case of the fifteen women.

Breastfeeding in public is also prohibited. The al-Khansaa brigade recently came across a woman breastfeeding her infant in the city’s bus station. As a punishment, the brigade attached a device called a ‘biter’–two iron jaws covered with spikes–onto the woman’s breast.

You have to wonder what sort of woman willingly pours acid on another woman’s face or clamps a torture device onto the breast of a nursing mother. It turns out: As many as 60 of these female enforcers are from Britain. In fact, it is reported that the British enforcers are the most zealous of all the women and have risen to positions of prominence within the brigade as a consequence. This is no raggle-taggle group of female misfits. To be part of the brigade, a woman must be single and between the ages of 18 – 25. Brigade members are paid for their work: They receive a monthly salary of 25,000 Syrian pounds from IS. The brigade even has its own facilities so that all intermingling between the sexes is avoided. The members of the brigade believe that they are doing Allah’s work; it is their job, they claim, “to raise awareness of our religion among women and to punish women who do not abide by the law.” What kind of god rejects a woman for failing to wear a niqaab , yet looks with favour on a woman who cruelly disfigures another woman?

And what sort of deity places more value on a piece of cloth than on a human life? This obsession with female dress is not unique to terrorist groups like IS. In March 2002 in the Wahhabi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a fire broke out at a girls’ school in Medina. Some of the panicked girls fled from the burning building in such haste that they left behind their hijabs, head scarves, and black cloaks behind. Men who tried to help the girls escape were prevented in doing so by the mutawaa’in, the Saudi religious police, who blocked the entrance to the school. Like the al-Khansaa brigade, the Saudi religious police patrol the kingdom’s streets enforcing dress codes and sex segregation, and ensuring that the five Islamic prayer times are observed. To refuse the order of the religious police leads to arrest, flogging, and jail time. Observers at the fire that day reported seeing the religious police beating girls back who were trying to escape simply because they were not properly covered up. Fifteen school girls died, and more than fifty were injured.

Shortly after I started writing this blog, news broke that a gunman in Copenhagen had opened fire at a seminar on freedom of speech organized by the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks. (Vilks caricatured Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in 2007, and since then has been targeted at least two times.) A Danish film-maker attending the seminar was fatally shot. The same gunman later shot and killed a Jewish security guard at a bat mitzvah celebration. Since the killings at the office of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and at the kosher deli in Paris in January, the issue of freedom of expression has been foremost in the minds of many people, who are now asking: Should there be controls on what a person says, or writes, or draws? It’s worth bearing in mind that many of those who would like to curtail freedom of expression would also be quite happy to tell women how they must dress.

The young people flocking to join IS have been labeled criminal thugs, economically disadvantaged misfits, ‘mis-understanders’ of Islam. None of these labels fits one of the key women in the al-Khansaa brigade: She grew up in Glasgow, Scotland; attended private schools; and later enrolled in university with the intention of becoming a doctor. She has abandoned all that, it would seem, for a ‘nobler cause’: to assist IS in building its shari’ah-ruled, Islamic utopia. Like all previous attempts in history to create a utopia, this one too will fail. The women of the al-Khansaa brigade–themselves victims of a vile ideology–will one day be viewed with the same revulsion as those German women who stood guard in the Nazi female prisons and death camps.