Why it's okay to critique other women's choices

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Recently, I was surprised to find a story I wrote four years ago – a piece discussing the history of the burqa and hijab as a function of male oppression – was having a sudden resurgence on social media.   

Arguing against a ban on the Muslim face veil, I wrote:

"By framing the issue of the burqa as nothing more than a "woman's choice" and denying the history of the burqa as a patriarchal tool, we are running the risk of alienating those Muslim women who seek to break free of the constraints of their culture, as well as abandoning those women who are physically forced to wear it."  

For this, I was praised for providing "brilliant," "instructive" and "sensible" commentary on the burqa debate.

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I am bemused by the article's resurgence not because I'd assume the topic had lost relevance; but because of the complete opposite reaction I received for another story I wrote about traditions and male ownership recently.

The new article also involved Arab women – specifically, a high profile one. And it was also intended to spark a discussion on the broader issues around the expectations and requirements patriarchy places on women.

But far from being embraced, this particular piece, which discussed Amal Alamuddin's name change following her marriage to George Clooney, was decried as "anti-feminist", "pseudo feminist" and "fake feminist."

There is a widespread sentiment that, because a woman had willingly adhered to a tradition steeped in male ownership, that any critique of it was a direct attack on that decision and akin to "tearing down the sisterhood."

Ironically, what seems to be lost on so many is that these columns are essentially arguing the same thing: that when it comes to cultural traditions, it is crucial we move the conversation away from individual choices and towards how it affects those without the luxury of making such choices.

In both instances, I argue that context is everything, that choices are not made in a vacuum, and if we don't examine them, then we run the risk of creating a world where "equality" is virtually indistinguishable from oppression.

So, why the vast difference in reactions?

One of the reasons, it seems, is that it's far easier (and more comfortable) for us to identify problems in areas where we have no personal stake.

Readers from 'liberal societies' are often quick to laud constructive criticism of patriarchal oppression in other cultures, which is why an article on the paradox of defending the burqa in a western context proved so popular.

However, those who can see oppresion so readily amongst communities of colour can be blind to it in their midst. Any criticism or even mere discussion of western cultural traditions like name-changing is therefore seen not for what it is – an examination of how society functions – but as an attack not only women's choice but on women themselves.

Unfortunately, this kind of defensiveness belies an awkward truth. As much as the west likes to see itself as governed by rational thought, we too remain very much embroiled in traditions that limit our choices and often steers us to old-fashioned outcomes. 

"Expectation. Coercion. Oppression." Those are things Muslim or Indian or African women have to contend with, not us. We don't capitulate; we make choices. We don't succumb, we decide.

In any case, whether or not some women choose to go along with once-mandatory practices, their willingness should not be used to shut down all discussions. 

As my friend and black feminist writer Celeste Liddle, writes:

"Choice is a privileged dialogue in feminism. Sure, (some women) may feel accomplished and wealthy enough to freely be able to choose to take (their) husband's surname, but there are millions of women in the world who are still the property of their fathers and husbands and are traded and treated as such.

Every time I see feminism reduced to "choice" I shudder because it is so blinkered. When it comes to it, I'd rather choose the liberation of millions than support the ability of one incredibly privileged individual to make her own decision."

There is nothing anti-feminist about critically examining the context of choices that all of us make.

Indeed, the choices we make in a privileged western context can and do have a flow-on effect on women who have far less control over their circumstances. As Tracey Spicernoted on Twitter, "It's all related. Anything that indicates women are of a lower 'status' is linked with poorer treatment."

The automatic presumption of free will when western women make traditional choices highlights our unwillingness to admit that we too are vulnerable to societal norms.

But tiptoeing around the relevance of social conventions including (but not limited to) issues such as taking our husband's name and the related expectation that children be given their father's name, will not make the underlying problem of women's lesser status go away.

Sure, we can frame this tradition of female deference to male authority as "free choice" but, to borrow Nicky's memorable line in Orange Is The New Black, "Another layer of icing on a s--t cake doesn't make it taste good."