Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Prostitution Quagmire

I have thought about posting this and I have changed my mind several times. I am still not entirely sure it is a good idea, but I think, for the purposes of the debate, that it is important to highlight some of the problems with prostitution.

In my native country, Sweden, there seems to be a consensus that prostitution is inherently evil. It is a patriarchical expression of female oppression and cannot be anything else. In my most recent blogpost I touched upon victimisation and the dangers of it. The logic applies even here and that is what I am going to attempt to highlight.

Now, I am all for the freedom of choice. The liberal streak runs strong in me and I believe that anyone has a right to choose as long as it does not obviously harm someone else. This is where the conundrum with prostitution. Is it really inherently evil? Does it always harm the women or men selling their bodies for money?

I also want to point out that I am talking about women who enter the trade voluntarily so to speak, i.e. without any coercion or threat of violence or otherwise, so trafficking victims are not what I am writing about here. I am also not talking about women who are forced into slavelike positions through debt bondage. I am talking about the women who made a conscious choice to enter the trade, whether or not it was because of societal norms and/or pressures. I am also focusing this post on women, because this is the area of my knowledge and interest and while I am sure there are certain similarities between male and female sex workers, the societal views on the both genders differ greatly.

Some people argue that prostitution is indeed evil. It is a strong expression of men’s view on women as their commodity to use and trade as they wish. Women cannot make the choice to become sex workers, they are always forced into it by society, economic circumstances or force. Even if women openly state they are working in the sex trade voluntarily, it is only because society has forced the view upon them that women have to be at the disposition of males. Society requires them to serve men.

While there is some validity in that argument and I would not doubt that many women are forced into prostitution due to economic and social circumstances or, indeed, violence (in fact, I have read a lot of research that proves this), there is also a danger in it. By arguing that even women who voluntarily enter the trade cannot make that choice because there is this metaphysical veil of male oppression surrounding them, they are effectively denying any choice to any woman. Furthermore, by taking away the agency in this way, saying that men stand behind these women’s choices they are reinforcing the assumption that these women are not strong enough and thus need saving. They are essentially reinforcing the same gender stereotypes they are trying to battle.

I personally do not believe that I am one to say whether or not these women have made that choice or not. I am not them, I do not know of the potential circumstances that led them into the sex trade and I cannot answer for them the question of whether or not they are happy doing so. Only they themselves can answer that. This is where the quagmire comes in. Sociological and psychological research done on the topic can argue both ways, but essentially it is subjective, and dealing with something subjective, a researcher cannot always trust that she or he will get truthful answers from their research subjects. Point being, we cannot know the absoute truth as to what these women feel, all our assumptions are subjective based on our reality.

I do recognise that there are several problems with prostitution. Women and men all over the world are used and absued by people who buy sexual favours of them. Moreover, I have yet to hear a compelling argument that argues that female oppression is not reinforced by the current practices of prostitution. However, I also believe that it is a part of women’s liberation, not to mention sexual liberation, to make that choice to become a sex worker. If a woman feels content with her decision to become a sex worker it can be very empowering in the sense that she is able to break social norms and taboos and do what she chooses to do, just like the movement of women who burned their bras.

To answer the question I posed at the beginning of this entry: No, I do not believe that prostitution is inherently evil. On the contrary, as I just said, I believe that it can be empowering for women to take control over their lives and make a choice like that. Sadly, I also believe that in the current state of the world, this is not possible. The view on women needs to be improved before we can have a society that respects sex workers, that will not abuse legalisation of prostitution. Currently legalisation of prostitution generally means an increase in trafficking victims who are used and abused, sold, threatened and held in debt-bondage. There are men who seize the opportunity to reinforce their own views of women as near equals to cattle and society’s view on sex work is too riddled with old-fashioned morals that too oppress women in their own way. Until we can have a society where women are respected as decision-makers, as versatile individuals and as worthy of the same status and rights as men, this freedom is just harmful.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Dangers of Banning the Burqa/Niqab

Belgium recently banned burqas and niqabs, and France is considering passing a similar law. One of the arguments for these bans is that the muslim religious clothing which requires the women covering up is inherently oppressing and therefore a ban of it would be a step in right direction for gender equality and freedom of choice.

But would it, though?

The dangers with banning a certain type of clothing, or anything, is that it restricts the freedom of choice for people. Regardless of whether or not you want to wear a burqa or niqab, you are under law prohibitied from doing so. There is an exchange from potentially robbing these women from the choice of how to dress to absolutely robbing them of it.

I do not doubt that some cultures force women to cover up as a means of controlling their sexuality, or as it was said in one of the academic articles I read for my human rights course, for the sake of the men, the argument being that women who do not cover up will entice the men with their sexuality to the point that they cannot conrol themselves. Surely, there are men who force their wives to wear a burqa or a niqab in the same ways that there are Christian, or western men, who strongly dislike their wives speaking to other men, or showing off too much skin. But this ban is not about the men, it is about the women.

There is also a danger in portraying these women as victims. While they are to a certain extent victims of their culture and life in general, as are we all, by saying that they need rescue in the form of a state ban on a certain type of clothing we are taking away their agency, i.e. we are taking away the belief that these women somehow have the capability to choose. We are making them into the powerless, pitiful women that we are so desperately trying to disconnect them from. By trying to take away the gender stereotype we are effectively reinforcing it, just altering it slightly. We are saying that these women cannot handle themselves, they can never make a choice because their men are making it for them and therefore we have to take control over the situation and make the choice for them. Find something slightly contradictory in that?

As anyone who has read my blog before would know, I am all for women’s liberation, empowerment, freedom of choice, you name it. However, it is not only about the result, it is about the road to get there as well. We need to choose our methods carefully lest we shall alienate a large proportion of the people from the discourse, which will in all likelihood happen with this. How do the Belgian and French governments propose that we change the image of women in Islam if we end up banning their religious symbols that play a large importance for them? (I would say that the Belgian government should not say much as it officially dissolved this week.) I am not saying that it is right that women should have to cover up in order to “protect” themselves from men, or to protect the men from them, depending on how one chooses to see it. I am saying that this form of an external attempt to change a culture is more likely to be seen as insulting than helpful and that it will not further the advancement of women’s rights in the countries that need it so. It shouts of European arrogance.

Women’s liberation is a tough fight, one which will not come overnight. It is important to continuously repeat the message over and over again that women are not less worth than men, both through legislation and through social reform. The key to this is, though, that one cannot come without the other. If you pass a legislation that is not agreed with, society can turn against it. The right legislation has to come with the right reform in social thinking. Legislation without breaking of patriarchal norms amounts to nothing. It is hollow words and nothing more. And to try to change social norms and old patterns of thinking, we cannot arrogantly pass a piece of legislation like this sending out a message that we know better. If we truly want to change these women’s situation, it has to be through enabling discussion and change, not through bans.

Also, I do recognise there are other reasons for the ban, such as security and identification being two very important reasons, but this is about the feminist argument, and the other two are completely different discussions although nontheless important ones.