Sunday, April 5, 2015

On Vogue's #MyChoice Video


Maryam Sakeenah

The debate around Vogue’s controversial ‘My Choice’ video goes deeper than those on either side of it would think. While I do not make much of critique from those who take anything feministic with a pinch of salt, I understand that for many who sympathise with the feminist cause like myself, the message of the video is disturbing for other reasons. The problem with some of the most controversial statements in the video is not that they are offensive to conventional patriarchal attitudes, but the problem is with regard to a deeper question of personal faith and values.

The question really is of individual choices and individual freedoms to make those choices. The idea of choice in the video is overweeningly individualistic- a choice of one’s own that refuses to take into consideration any factor outside of the self and its interest; a self-centred choice; a selfish choice. This message is disconcerting for reasons beyond the gender debate which the video is about.

In confining choice to the self and its narrow interests, it refuses to consider that choices are made in a broader milieu, and that our choices are inadvertently and inextricably interconnected to a host of other factors and elements outside of the self. This perspective on human choice clashes head-on with the faith-inspired sensibility.

In the Islamic understanding, a requisite to accepting faith is a voluntary stepping back from the self’s desires, obsessions ad impulses for a deeper personal liberation. Faith is an act of submission to another higher, more perfect, sublime being beyond the self. It sets one free from the crippling bondage to the base, carnal and selfish; the material and the merely temporal. This liberation, for the believer, lifts the spirit onto a higher plane of consciousness where one becomes capable of acting impersonally, and altruistic choices become gratifying and heartening; one becomes capable of living larger than life. This is why throughout human existence, some of the most extraordinary acts of selflessness and heroism have been inspired by some form of faith. At this level of consciousness, one becomes mindful of one’s relationship with one’s context, those we share the planet and our lives with, the realm of existence and the Giver of all life.

In Islam this individual consciousness attainable through faith has a communal dimension. It is the most basic element of a social order that aims at justice, equity and the sanctity of individual rights and freedoms intrinsic to all creation. To achieve this is the collective goal of the community and requires regulation of personal conduct and laying down of rights, duties and responsibilities towards oneself, the community and the Creator for a larger purpose that brings the greater good for all and in turn impacts individual well being. In this scheme of things, the exclusive pursuit of absolute and unrestrained individual liberty above all simply does not fit in.

This is why the message that the choice of sexual orientation and sexual behaviour within, outside, prior to or without marriage is offensive to the sensibility that is rooted in the ethic of faith-based submission. It refuses to consider that human choices operate in a context that is not isolated from other lives and that we are part of ordered communities based on and seeking to achieve universally accepted moral ideals- justice, public welfare, equity, rights and liberties, peace, prosperity, harmony. The message of complete and uncompromising personal autonomy in disregard to all other factors and considerations is actually a call to irresponsible action, moral chaos and anarchy.

On the other hand is the issue of the video’s message attempting to pit women against men- a crass and peevish brand of feminism which again flies in the face of the beautiful balance and the Islamic concept of the genders being complementary rather than competing. According to the Quran, Allah has created everything in pairs. Muslim blogger on women’s issues- Sameen Sadaf explains, ‘Pairs symbolize sharing, unity, togetherness, complementarity and completion. The nature of this universe thrives on the complementarity of pairs. It celebrates the interdependent nature of both genders that beautify each other and by working together can they complete the task assigned to them by their Creator. Men and women together weave the intricate web of society in which women are the binding force who strengthen the exquisite fabric of human relationships.’

For all that women suffer, the panacea is not asserting a mutinous, defiant individualism, but in living to the full our multifarious roles as women within our respective contexts in pursuit of common goals for the greater good and as active agents to promote values that subvert oppressive patriarchal structures and attitudes that keep the suffering of women going. The commercial media industry is one such oppressive structure that objectifies the woman’s body for commercial ends. It is ironical that the video has been sponsored by and features prominent members and components of the commercial media.

If the message of the video was against the unfair judgement on women, it has been recklessly presented with a dangerous ambiguity that makes it easy for the core message to be eclipsed. Perhaps this too was for creating a sensationalism stoking controversy that could sell- yet another mark of the commercial media that produced it.

The debate around the video borders on deeper fundamental questions on our choices and liberties and our deepest convictions. The makers and promoters of this sensationalist piece of work should stop pretending that it is a voice or choice of all or even most women, or that it ought to be. To take that message or reject it is also a matter of choice that comes out of deeply embedded personal convictions.