‘Gender Segregation’

I was going to say more about Juan Cole anyway, because a further point had occurred to me – a further bit of peculiar, evasive rhetoric. So it’s all the more motivating that commenters think I’ve misread him. I don’t think I have – not in the Vincent post. Cole may well be a great source of information in general, but I think this particular post is baaaad.

A little repetition here.

Clueless Americans don’t understand the principle of gender segregation for the most part, and if they do understand it they are horrified by it. But in large swathes of the world, it just is not considered right for a male to be in the company of an unrelated female. It isn’t just a matter of sleeping around, as my wingnut correspondents assume. It is being alone in the company of an unrelated man or woman, and having that be known publicly. Male honor is invested in the protection of the virginity of female relatives…Clueless Americans don’t understand gender segregation, and they don’t understand clan honor as practiced in most Arab societies. We American men aren’t dishonored in particular if our sisters sleep around, though I suppose in high school it can’t be pleasant for a guy to have everyone taunt him that his sister is a slut. But in Arab culture, a brother can’t show his face in public if his sister is known to be a slut.

There is one hell of a lot of bad faith in that passage. Notice the phrase ‘gender segregation,’ for instance. What does that sound like? Oh…maybe a school with separate classes for boys and girls, something like that. At any rate a system that is neutral between the two genders: both are segregated, both are separated, both get on with their lives. But of course that’s not the arrangement he is describing with that anodyne phrase. No. The system in question is one in which women are imprisoned; confined to home, required to ask permission from a male relative in order to leave the house, required to wear a tent when they do go out, while men are not confined to home, not required to ask anyone’s permission to go out, allowed to dress in clothes that don’t impede their movement or suffocate them. In which men are allowed to live generally free lives, to work, to go where they like – except for private houses where women are confined – and women emphatically and comprehensively are not. ‘Gender segregation’ doesn’t really characterize such a system accurately – the phrase gives a misleading impression.

Then notice the unmarked shift he makes. He starts out pretending to be gender-neutral, then suddenly in the fifth sentence, things change. ‘Male honor is invested in the protection of the virginity of female relatives…’ Ah. So it’s not symmetrical after all. It’s not about both genders. Female honor is not invested in the protection of the virginity of male relatives. No, it’s just male honor, and female virginity. But that’s not ‘gender segregation’ then, is it – it’s female segregation. So why did Cole euphemize it? Because…he wants ‘clueless Americans’ to accept it as routine and normal and not a problem? I don’t know. But the point is, euphemize it he did. He also completely failed to mention the fact that plenty of women in those ‘large parts of the world’ that have ‘gender segregation’ hate it and want to be free of it. It’s not just ‘clueless Americans’ who find the segregation and subordination of women repulsive.

And then notice one more shift. ‘But in Arab culture, a brother can’t show his face in public if his sister is known to be a slut.’ He doesn’t use scare quotes on the word, or say ‘thought to be a slut,’ or dissociate himself from the nasty idea in any way. And more than that – all he’s been talking about in this passage is unrelated people of opposite sexes being in each other’s company. So he is apparently accepting the idea that a woman who has been in the company of an unrelated man is a slut. And then (he managed to pack a hell of a lot of nasty stuff in that one brief passage) he appears to endorse the idea that a woman who ‘sleeps around’ (meaning not defined) is a ‘slut’ – while a man is not. Men are people who are shamed if their sisters ‘sleep around’ and are ‘sluts’ while women are people who shame men if they ‘sleep around’ and are ‘sluts.’ Period. It’s all a tad asymmetrical – and just a tiny bit misogynist. Frankly.

The whole system of clans, clan honor, and the investment of male honor in the protection of the chastity of females may be horrific. But it is the norm in much of the world (it operates to some extent in parts of Africa, in South Asia and in Central Asia, as well). Not understanding and respecting it can get you killed when you are out there.

A couple of readers said he was just describing, just giving a warning. That passage looks more like a somewhat neutral warning (although the ‘may be’ is odd, given how often the women end up dead, and how stunted and deprived their lives are in the process of all this aggressive ‘protection’), but given what he said in the first quoted passage and much of the rest of the post, I don’t buy it. I don’t think that is all he was doing. If it is all he was doing, then he did a damn bad job of it.

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