Q&A: Ophelia Benson

From the July  21, 2009 New Statesman

The co-author of the new book Does God Hate Women? discusses patriarchy, the burka and capitalism

Q&A with Ophelia Benson by George Eaton

What inspired you to write your new book Does God Hate Women?

My co-author, Jeremy Stangroom! It was his idea. More broadly though, I’ve been following women’s rights issues at Butterflies and Wheels for about six years, and I’ve published many articles by women who are right at the coal face on issues of religion (Maryam Namazie, Azar Majedi, Homa Arjomand, and Gina Khan to name a few). It interests both of us strongly, and once Jeremy thought of it it seemed inevitable.

Do you believe that religion represents the primary threat to women’s rights today? Many socialist feminists would argue that capitalism remains the greater foe.

I think religion represents the primary threat at least in some places – in places where religion is strong and has not been liberalised. Religious beliefs about female subordination are more all-pervading and intimate than capitalism is. Unfettered capitalism is of course a giant threat to workers’ rights, and women are workers – so the picture is complex. But capitalism doesn’t shape people’s lives from birth in quite the searching way that religion can.

Religion also gets a particular kind of respect that even capitalism can’t match. Saying ‘God says women are complementary rather than equal’ has a kind of force that saying ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation’ did not, even before the recent unhappy events. Capitalism lacks the God or Jesus or Prophet Mohammed or Blessed Virgin that believers love, so that particular emotional charge is missing. The acolytes of Ayn Rand might be an exception to that – but that’s a subject for Alan Greenspan, not for me.

What was your reaction to President Sarkozy’s support for legislation banning the burka? And how do you respond to Muslim women who argue they have reappropriated the garment as a feminist symbol?

Very, very ambivalent. All over the place. I hate the idea of making special new laws on dress, and all the more so when the laws can’t help targeting immigrants or any other vulnerable minority. I also realise that Sarkozy’s motives may be very suspect, or at least a mixture of suspect and defensible. And yet, I could not help (and that’s what it was like, I had a lot of inner resistance) being pleased that he said “The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.” I would much rather hear it from someone else, but I certainly do want to hear it, because it’s true. That doesn’t mean I flat-out approve of the idea of a ban – but I don’t flat-out oppose it either. I’m torn. I’m glad it’s not up to me to decide.

One reason I don’t flat-out oppose it is because community pressure can force other women and girls to wear the hijab or the burqa, and from that point of view a ban is like any other law that creates a level playing field. If no one can wear the burqa on the street, then no one will be forced to wear it on the street. This is hard on women and girls who want to wear it but good for women and girls who don’t want to. If I have to choose which should be helped, I choose the latter.

I respond with great weariness to Muslim women who claim they have reappropriated the garment. Given the reality of what happens to women who try not to wear it in Afghanistan, I think it’s simply grotesque to think it can be any kind of feminist symbol. I get the point about freedom from the male gaze, and believe me, I wish women around here would stop reappropriating stiletto heels and plunging necklines as ‘feminist symbols,’ but a stifling face-covering tent is not a feminist symbol. …

Read the rest here.

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