On a basic, rational level, I understand how inherently misogynistic it is to expect a woman to constantly be ripping the natural hair that grows on her body, but I can’t bring myself to let it grow. Every other week, I find myself caving to this patriarchal norm, and visit my electrolysis. Amber*, certified in hair removal, uses her magical wand to apply an electric current into my hair follicles. I subject myself to pain because her end goal, my end goal, is to kill the chin hair’s root, so it never grows back. Amber helps me to feel normal, more in control of my appearance, and in reality assists me in conforming to the notion of what femininity entails. I don’t deny it. I am a slave to the culture of gender identity, and since childhood I have bought into the notion that ‘normal’ women are to be hairless. Nevertheless, though many women, such as myself do recognize that the pressure to remove facial hair is an unfair social norm, we strictly follow it. We realize that those little whiskers that grow represent the most basic rules of the patriarchy – to ignore them is to jeopardize your reputation, your femininity, even your dignity.
When I speak of patriarchy, I am referring to the fact that we live in a world in which the majority population ascribes to gender norms and for better or worse, the gender realities of those norms are that men and their masculine traits are positioned as supreme, and female traits (if we are speaking in binary gender terms -- male versus female) are subservient to men.
Hair removal, of course, is only one social norm women prescribe to that ensures a continued separation of the genders. Religion is another such institution in which we witness patriarchal characteristics deeming men supreme. Before digging into this idea further, I first want to set the record straight that by no means am I suggesting that prescribing to a set of beliefs and having faith automatically makes religion in itself patriarchal, and thus biased against women. And though, I, myself, do not conform to a particular set of beliefs, I do understand faith in a higher being can be a source of comfort for many people.
For instance, this past week, my electrolysis, Amber, let it be known to me that for the past thirty years, she has been saving money to visit Lourdes, France, so that she pay homages to the Blessed Virgin Mary statue, drink from the spring containing Lourdes water, and bring some of it back for her son, who in her words, ‘needs to get the devil out of him’. There are many people who have claimed to have been cured by drinking or bathing in the Lourdes water, and Amber hopes the water will be an antidote to her son’s troubles.
In brief, Amber’s son has struggled with substance abuse, homelessness, and undiagnosed bipolar disorder, yet she still believes her son to be a kind-hearted man, who no matter what situation he is in, always stops to hand a dollar to a homeless person in need. Amber has faith in her religions and trusts that if the Blessed Virgin Mary deems her son worthy, he might be healed by the Lourdes water. At the end of my electrolysis session, Amber showed me her printouts of the faith-based travel sites that hosted trips to Lourdes. She was determined to make her trip a reality.
Religion is a personal and institutional reality in many people’s lives so it is no surprise that religious teaching and affiliation also provides a source of comfort, and for this reason, I hope Amber’s trip to Lourdes becomes a reality, as she is a mother who is using her faith to help her son.
However, what I do find problematic, is when ‘faith’ and/or ‘religion’ is used to promote the idea that certain people or groups should be given a position of power over others. In these situations, when ‘power’ comes into play, the patriarchal realities of religion can be used to justify harming oneself or others in the name of ‘faith’, and often it is in this context in which many women (men too) experience victimization.
Currently, I advocate to end Female Genital Cutting (FGC) amongst South Asian communities, and in particular, amongst the Dawoodi Bohra community, a community I was born into, and as such am also a woman who has undergone FGC. As I and other women come to the forefront to challenge this age old tradition, our patriarchal religious leaders and their wives have prominently defended the practice and staked claim that cutting the genitals of a girl child must be done because of their faith. Often, these religious leaders cite specific religious texts used by the Dawoodi Bohra community to claim the necessity of the act, and always when this claim is made, I wonder how harming a child can be considered an acceptable form of ‘faith’ simply because the text is centuries old.
I’m reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac/Ishmael (depending on Jewish/Christian/Islamic interpretation) in which God tested Abraham’s faith by commanding that he sacrifice his son. At the last moment, God interrupted him, and in place of his son on the chopping block, Abraham saw a ram and sacrificed it instead. As a child, I was in awe of the faith such a man could have in God, but as an adult, I’m skeptical. Whether you look at the Torah, Bible, or Quran, it is the same, a man was asked to put his child in danger, and this man complied. Today, such a man would be charged with child abuse, and this man would most likely be criminalized or institutionalized for claiming God told them to do it. So why again then is the story of Abraham celebrated and venerated? Is it really because the story took place thousands of years ago? Or is the truth hidden in the fact that this tale has been passed down generation after generation via a male religious patronage?
When I reflect on the faith that Amber possessed in needing to visit Lourdes for her son versus the faith Abraham had in sacrificing his son, I realize that these two instances of faith are glaringly different from one another. Amber is seeking to save her child, and in no way is she putting her son in further danger by visiting the Blessed Virgin Mary in Lourdes France. Abraham’s version of faith, however, involves putting his son in harm’s way. Shouldn’t we questions this act, and not simply accept it because it is written in all three books belonging to the Abrahamic faiths?
Other instances of violence being perpetuated via religious doctrine, texts or mythology, can be found, and have time and again been used to support ‘harming oneself or another’ in the name of religion. And just like the patriarchal social pressure associated with women having to remove their facial hair, the rules of patriarchy here too, can cause women and men to ignore the harm caused, in favour of pursuing their faith, and adhering to their community’s social norms.
Honour violence is one extreme example of a social norm deemed appropriate in some cultures (and some might argue is supported by religious texts). Honour violence relies on the supposition that to be considered ‘honourable’ gender must conform to certain religious norms dictating gender roles - mainly chastity, virginity, etc, - traits associated with females. If a woman does not uphold these norms, then the only way to correct the situation is to inflict harm onto her. There are 5,000 honour killings reported every year around the world, but experts estimate that the actual number is much higher. Throughout the world, we hear cases of women being shot, stoned, burned, buried alive, strangled, smothered, and stabbed in the name of religion and to restore honour. In a patriarchal religiously dominated world, men suspected of being homosexual or refusing an arranged marriage, can also be subject to honour violence. Honour violence has been reported in Canada, Great Britain, United States, Sweden, Germany, France, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Egypt, India, Gaza, West Bank, Italy, Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco, Sweden, Turkey, Uganda, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran.
Other modern day examples of faith becoming tragic includes the 1997 Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, in which 39 members of the religious millernarian cult, under the leadership of Marshall Applewhite, committed suicide because they had faith that by doing so, they could join an extraterrestrial spacecraft following the Comet Hale-Bopp. Today, the cult’s suicide is deemed a horror, their leader, a mentally unstable man, and those who followed Applewhite into death, tragic victims. Yet, this cult took its roots from Applewhite’s Presbyterian upbringing - his father was a minister - and grafted belief in extraterrestrials onto Christian theology. Applewhite told his acolytes that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, that God was an alien, and that they were living in the end times. They read the Bible, especially, Revelation Chapter 11 in the New Testament.
Reflecting on these examples, from the removal of female body hair, to honour violence, to the story of Abraham and his son, and ending with the Heaven’s Gate example, in all situations, I see a connection to the dictates of social norms, a need to follow them, and a desire to belong. And, I am left to wonder if it is this need to feel accepted, that causes us to be blind (or just to ignore) the pain/harm that at times ‘faith’ demands of its followers. I ask this question and the others throughout this article because in trying to comprehend why I myself cling to the notion of femininity in being free from chin hair, I recognized that there is a notion of acceptance that has been handed down through the patriarchal religious traditions as well, and that this acceptance has led to the victimization of many who have ‘faith’ or who cling to their ‘faith’ even if they don’t believe in it because by following the rules, they will belong.
So perhaps the key is to not want to belong. Perhaps if we can reexamine social norms through the lens of patriarchy, if we learn to become the outcasts, if we can learn to grow some chin hair, we’ll finally be able to have the type of faith that Amber has. A protective, nurturing, faith that seeks to heal, and never to cause harm.
* Amber - name changed for confidentiality