Those darn Muslims are at it again!

http://news.ninemsn.com.au/world/8526909/athlete-refuses-to-shake-kate-middletons-hand

I love articles like this for several reasons: the blatant sensationalism, the subtle enactment of prejudice, and the extraordinary ethnocentrism.

The article states that paralympic athlete Mehrdad Karam Zadeh refused to shake Kate Middleton’s hand, snubbing her and failing to take her up on her offer of a handshake. What a rude bastard, right?! I mean, just to show what a misogynistic pig he is, he gladly shook the hand of a man but Mr I’mtoogoodforwomen (I am amazing at making up names) still rudely rebuked the lovely Kate Middleton.

Why did he so savagely refuse this most basic offering of friendship and congratulations? Because Iranian cultural conventions ‘ban’ men and women from physical contact like the big ole Muslims that they are.

Except that’s not what happened, not even a little bit. Mehrad Karam Zadeh didn’t ‘refuse’ the handshake, because Kate Middleton never offered him one, as she was fully aware of Mehrad’s culturally and religiously informed personal decision not to do so.

The article, of course, frames this as a disrespect towards women generally and Kate Middleton particularly – completely ignoring the fact that in Iranian culture and Muslim culture, not going around touching people you’re not related to is actually a sign of respect – not disrespect. The inability of Erin Tennant (the author) to conceive of this non-event in any other way reveals a deep ethnocentrism whereby everyone in the world must conform to ‘our’ social conventions.

This is epitomised in the rather perfunctory and unemotive description of Mehrad ‘clutching his hand to his chest and bowing his head’. In comparison with the article’s otherwise effusive style the inherent loveliness of this gesture (which once again is holding your hand to your heart and bowing to another person)seems somewhat missed. I mean really, does that sound like a snub to you??

Further respect to the Princess can also be shown in the fact that she was informed earlier of all of this, so that she wouldn’t offer her hand and then be left hanging and feeling really embarrassed and awkward.

The use of the word ‘ban’ here is also particularly evocative. Since when can a cultural convention ban anything? There are so many other ways to phrase that sentence, but of course the use of the word ‘ban’ fits so easily into wider public discourse in which Muslims and Muslim countries are so often depicted as severe, inflexible and y’know…all ‘fatwa-y’.

Mehrad’s actions are further reinforced as aberrant, abnormal and wrong when Tennant makes sure to highlight that both of the other medallists shook Kate Middleton’s hand – so basically, they did the ‘right’ thing while Mehrad did the ‘wrong’ thing.

There’s also a rather subtle reinforcement of anti-Muslim prejudice in the way that the ‘no touching’ practice is framed, not just in this article but in others. There is a suggestion that the practice of not touching non-relatives of the opposite gender is a directive passed down by men, and that it operates as an affront to women. This quite successfully sidesteps the agency and the voice of Muslim women. There is an underlying assumption that if it wasn’t for the ‘bad Muslim men’ then Muslim women would jump at the chance to go around touching a whole bunch of men, throwing off the ‘shackles’ of religious and cultural practice for the ‘better’ Western way. This is so insulting to Islam as a whole but it also shows how Islam is perceived as an innately masculine religion. By conceiving of Islam in this way men are continually contributed agency while women are disempowered and silenced – perpetually positioned as victims of Muslim men.

This is further evident in the different meaning attributed to practices of non-touching, according to the gender of the party engaging in the practice. If a man doesn’t shake the hand of a woman it is spoken about as above – as a snub, a refusal and as evidence of an underlying misogyny. If a woman doesn’t shake the hand of a man it is suggested that she is being held back by Muslim convention and that if she did shake his hand (cause we all know she wants to) then she’d get in trouble with her probably abusive male relatives.

Is it really so hard to step outside of our own cultural traditions and practices, and our own mindset, to be able to appreciate that there are different cultural and religious practices, that these practices have their own intrinsic value and that the people practising them aren’t mired in ignorance and oppression? Are we really so blind to that to the point that someone holding their hand to their heart and bowing is taken as an affront rather than a show of respect?? I really hope not. I really hope that of the people who make it past the headline and then make it past the article and actually watch the video are able to draw their own conclusions rather than being drawn into this sensationalistic insanity where everything is a controversy and there are no shades of grey.

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One Comment on “Those darn Muslims are at it again!”

  1. Andrew says:

    Sadly I think so many of us are that blind.


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