My secular world has been flipped upside down…

I am back after an education-induced hiatus. The winter semester is almost over. A few of my fall and winter classes have blown my mind, pieced it back together, and the neurons are slowly starting to re-attach in a very interesting way. Let me explain what has happened to me. I wish I could throw the moral of my story into the first paragraph, but the journey needs to be understood. I might have to break it down into a few posts, too. I’ll focus on my feminist realizations tonight.

It all started last fall when I started my Anth 310 course, which is Anthropology of Gender here at the University of Alberta. My prof in this class was also teaching me in my Cultural Anthro class, which for some reason I had not taken until my third year. This professor is a young PhD graduate from Yale, and studies Anthropology of Religion, specifically in Senegal amongst Sufi women. For those who don’t know, Sufi is a “sect” of Islam.

So, I have this really smart prof, these very interesting anthro courses, and my Gender course in specific started to make me question my very militant atheistic views. It is clear that a gender class would focus on the varying ways in which women impact and are impacted by sociocultural, economic, and globalist elements amongst other things. I’ve obviously always considered myself a “feminist”, but now I was really starting to understand what this meant on a grander scale, and it was changing my moral belief structure.

We read many articles by anthropologists who discuss feminist theory. I will leave specific ideas out for the sake of being able to avoid citing resources and allowing these authors to retain the integrity of their ideas. But I can discuss that I learned about how religion and feminism are inherently intertwined. I also learned how I can no longer gauge how “feminist” something is by what my standards are as a white, middle class woman from “the west”. I have learned that I have my own perception of what feminism is, and a veiled Muslim woman can also have her own legitimate perception. Many of these women practice and exercise feminist theory in response to the West’s angry fists claiming that these veiled women of the ‘east’ are oppressed women who “don’t know better” or are “trapped” under their veil, in whatever capacity they wear it.

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(So yes, this picture of Afghani women in the ’60’s vs. now pisses me off nowadays. Nothing is truly black and white, folks!) -courtesy of Pinterest

Basically, I consider feminism making the same amount of money as my partner, being educated, not being expected to give up my job to raise a family, not being expected to bear children, and to live in a world where duties and responsibilities are equally shared amongst people of all different gender identities. HOWEVER- That is not what feminism is in a nutshell. Feminism can be exemplified by a woman who controls the private sphere of her home, and has say in how her children are raised. It can be a woman who relishes the privacy that a burka brings her while she is walking down a busy street, and asserts her identity through her devotion to Islam as a pious person. It can be whatever makes a woman feel like she is a part of a world that has tools she can use to build her identity and channel power to assert this identity.

That being said, that’s not all true all the time. Sometimes a stay a home mom does feel oppressed. And a woman in a burka has not been protected from rape, or simply wishes to “cast away the veil” to show her face to the world. It is simply wrong to say that the circumstance of women is equal globally yet in different ways. It’s not- but it can’t be generalized the way we tend to like to generalize things. The thing is, is that there are higher priorities for a lot of these women who are suffering in countries where war is prevalent, for example. They are more worried about the safety of their families during bombings, and having enough rations and water to survive after the West has ravaged their country, than wearing a sometimes annoying veil (Lila Abu-Lughod 2002). Yes, okay. I have to cite now! That was the article that caused all of my previous ideas to liquefy and rearrange themselves. I tried to avoid it since this is recreational writing, but Lila Abu-Lughod’s works are so thought provoking, and her ideas are very much her own. And I digress.

What it boils down to, is that I did not want to be the kind of feminist that Laura Bush is, or Mavis Leno (Jay Leno’s wife) is. They both publicly proclaimed their privileged western hand of help towards these “oppressed, covered women”, as the leaders of the United States were bombing them. Hilariously (but totally not hilariously), the Al Qaeda was conceived through US funding during the Cold War. If you don’t believe me, I’m sure a google will yield many legitimate resources. So needless to say, I’m at a loss for words. My mind begins to unravel. I took a break because I really did need several months to digest these sorts of things. I still haven’t fully digested the sum of what I’ve learned, but I needed to start writing about it in a non-academic way! Hence why I’m here tonight.

So this is the tip of the iceberg of my journey these last few months. I’ve learned so much more about gender, identity, feminism, religion, globalism, NGO’s (and why they suck), cultural relativism, science and the scientific method. Interestingly, my prof who introduced me to these concepts is Muslim, although he was previously Mormon. He is well versed in the writings of Dawkins, Hitchens, Sagan, as well as feminist theorists such as Judith Butler, Saba Mahmood, Lila Abu-Lughod, and so on. My journey, academically speaking has lead towards me being accepted into the Anthropology Honours Degree program. I’ve had a bit of academic depression this semester, but I’m working hard in my own way. Next year is crunch time as it’s my fourth and final year of my undergraduate studies.

But more importantly, I want to discuss where this journey has lead me from a personal perspective. Yes, I am still an atheist. I still vehemently follow secular humanist principles. I would absolutely love for religion to cease existing and for people to focus on goodness in their lifetimes, now. I am still a “worshipper” of the four horsemen and Neil degrasse Tyson preaches my sermon during every episode of Cosmos. BUT- I have realized how important the humanities are to understanding why secular beliefs are important and why the scientific method is imperative to understanding how the earth and its earthlings should be treated. I have learned that religion, for (too) many, simply is their identity. You cannot spew a bunch of logic a la Dawkins (still love him- deeply) and expect people to listen. WE secularists will listen, but they will not. The humanities can understand how to bridge that gap.

Science is imperative to this world that we now live in, and manipulate. The people who fanatically speak about science and reason and oppose religion in the public sphere are completely necessary as long as religion runs this world- it’s only fair. However, these people still have identities that are built upon partially irrational bricks. My journey has taken me through that foundation and showed me what is missing from this secular community. We need to approach science, reason, evolutionary theory and the likes in the public sphere with a more holistic point of view.

That’s what my honours degree thesis will focus on! It hasn’t been fine tuned yet topic-wise, but I hope some of you will find it interesting!

My very brief, but important bibliography:

Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist, no. 3 (2002): 783. doi:10.2307/3567256.

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