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Women’s Bodies as Symbols for Society’s Moral Order

December 8, 2009

Last week’s ban against minarets in Switzerland has reignited conversations about xenophobia in Europe. Nazife Şişman points out that while the law was about architecture, this cross-cultural debate, like many others, was actually about women’s bodies:

France is debating all of its problems in the age of globalization through the headscarf. How the tradition of secularism, democratic citizenship and republican egalitarianism will continue and how the pressure of multiculturalism from French-born third-generation immigrants will be resisted are debated on the basis of the headscarf. Thus the symbolic target of racism and xenophobia becomes the women’s covering. In other words, a wide range of political and social issues are addressed over the Muslim “culture” regarding women…

The covering of Muslim women has come to be included in the war of symbols as a symbol that defines the culture and difference. Bhikhu Parekh, who has produced stimulating works on multiculturalism, provides a list of the most common practices that cause inter-cultural conflict. Six of the 12 issues on the list concern Muslims. All six of these issues except for the issue of the method used to slaughter animals are related to the status of women such as covering, polygamy, arranged marriages, the practice of withdrawing girls from coed sports activities and swimming classes and the lower social status of women.

How should we assess this finding? This finding, as well as other similar ones, present cultural conflicts as being focused on women. That is because when societies and cultures begin to communicate and compare themselves, the position of women and sex occupy a critical place in efforts to understand each other. In other words, “Women and their bodies are the symbolic-cultural site upon which human societies inscript their moral order,” says political scientist and philosopher Seyla Benhabib. Due to this symbolic importance, differences between cultures are mainly presented through women.

Fascinating and troubling how quickly and easily women’s bodies become purely symbols, rather than parts of human beings.

One Comment leave one →
  1. ninjanurse permalink
    December 9, 2009 7:57 pm

    The supermarket tabloids love to show models and actresses in bikinis and rate them. I think it’s a losing game to compete in that contest.

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