Stand for the right of the worker, not that of the capitalist

At Fitnah, Maryam talks to Marieme Helie Lucas about gender segregation:

Maryam Namazie: Universities UK’s guidance first said (though it has now been withdrawn as a result of pressure) if women are not made to sit at the back of the room but are segregated alongside men, since none are disadvantaged, then there is no discrimination. Your views?

Marieme Helie Lucas: Whether at the back or on the side, the old argument is always that this is done to protect women – for their own good, of course, and by doing so to restrict their freedom of movement. By the same logic, some twenty years ago, Bangladesh suddenly restricted women from leaving the country as there was a lot of trafficking of women in the region. What appeared to be their solution was NOT to arrest pimps-protectors, but to prevent women from travelling without a wali (a male guardian from their family). Please note that Bangladesh does not even abide by the Maliki School, in which the institution of wali is legal.

What is discriminatory is to assign a place to somebody, whatever that place may be. It says: keep to your place; to women’s place!

In other words it enforces the gender binary…and in a world where that has always meant men dominant and women subordinate, men great and women not up to much, it’s pretty much impossible to enforce the gender binary without enforcing male dominance and female subordination.

Maryam Namazie: Separating men and women isn’t necessarily discriminatory and can reflect personal preferences, such as women-only gyms on women-only refuges.

Uh oh. That could get her in trouble.

The head of Universities UK which issued the guidance endorsing segregation of the sexes says: “It is possible for women to choose to be educated in an all-women environment. It’s not something which is so alien to our culture that it has to be regarded like race segregation, which is totally different and it’s unlawful and there’s no doubt about that whatsoever.” Are racial and gender segregation incomparable? Why is it that everyone can see the distinction between a black university and racial apartheid but when it comes to gender, it’s not as obvious?

Marieme Helie Lucas: This is a very crucial question that I have debated a lot, including more than twenty years ago with feminist friends in the USA. While sex segregation was rapidly expanding in Algeria under the heavy weight of the first fundamentalist preachers and religious groups, I was trying to warn them about the potential backlash of their gender segregation policy in the name of feminism.

Many of our feminist weapons have been turned against us along the years… and I have come to this very sad conclusion that we were not smart enough to think, as thinkers and philosophers should, about all the facets of the concepts we were grappling with. Just think of our feminist praise for diversity, whilst all along we knew that difference was used to legitimise the racist South African apartheid regime, or the segregationist states of the USA. This concept is now used to legitimise the imposition of differences on women that make them unequal in the name of religion, ethnicity or culture.

It’s a very difficult question. I’m not sure there is a problem-free answer – I think there are problems either way.

On the other hand it’s not terribly difficult to argue that the motivations of Islamists are different from the motivations of feminists.

Then they talk about cultural relativism, and Helie Lucas says:

There is a relativist culture of non commitment and neutrality that has been expanding – certainly in the West, under the influence of liberalism, of human rights organisations and of political correctness and the fear of appearing racist. Accordingly, everything is equal; everything has to be respected on par – the right of the capitalist and the right of the worker, the right of the one who holds the gun and the right of the one who runs for his life away from the gun… It is high time to admit that there are conflicting rights, antagonistic rights.

It seems to me that progressive people have forgotten the virtues of being partisan. I want to stand for the right of the worker, not that of the capitalist, for the right of the man who runs for his life, not for the right of the man who holds the gun, and for the right of women to live their lives without interference from extreme-Right religious people.

Maryam talks about the trick of portraying oppressive practices like gender segregation as a matter of “rights” and Helie Lucas tells a couple of stories along the same lines:

At the beginning of the 70’s in Algiers I had two similar experiences:

I was in a queue waiting to vote when the man before me handed eleven (11, you read well) ID cards for all the women in his family whom he was voting for to the voting booth authority. I objected that this was illegal; the staff at the voting booth, the very person who was supposed to guarantee the respect of law accused me of being against the right of women to vote. These women, he said, could not get out of the house, hence their only way of voting was by giving their IDs to the male in the family. And who was I, a woman, objecting to women’s rights as citizens; how dared I?

Also in the early seventies, when for the first time a non-indigenous form of veiling appeared in the streets of Algiers, in fact an early Iranian style of chador that women in Turkey still wear, a sort of long rain coat on trousers, with a tight head scarf, it was labelled ‘the students’ dress’. Most female students in Algiers, especially during the first decade after independence, usually wore western clothes and did not cover their heads. It was clearly an offensive from Muslim fundamentalist groups; they were doing a lot of social work and, together with other goods, would distribute to poor families the so-called students’ dress, in fact the early model of  what was to become ‘the Islamic dress’. Orhan Pamuk described the same thing in Turkey, saying that it was virtually impossible to refuse this ‘gift’ while accepting all the others indispensable ones.

When I raised the issue of veiling young women, I was told that I was preventing women access to universities; that I was denying women the right to study! Without this outfit, fundamentalists said, fathers would not allow girls to go to university (a blatant lie, as Algerian fathers after independence were most willing to send all their children to university, boys and girls alike; schooling was entirely free and lunch was provided), hence I was depriving girls of their right to education by questioning their alien outfit…

We get that here too – all the religious fundamentalists insisting on their “rights” and their “freedom” to harm other people because Mr God said they could.

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