May 172011
 

Bountiful BC is a community of about 1000 people near Creston BC, home to a Mormon splinter group that practices polygyny, one man with multiple wives. The shortage of women has driven the age of marriage and child birth down to the early teens, and there’s been reports of young women being moved across the border to similar communities in the US. There are also problems stemming from a lack of places for younger men in this community.

The BC Attorney General hasn’t been able to prosecute the community’s leaders, because of claims of religious freedom and the difficulty of getting people in a tight-knit community to come forward and testify. The AG has turned to an old, rarely used law, Section 293 of the Criminal Code, which criminalizes any form of polygamy or any kind of conjugal union with more than one person. It hasn’t been used in decades, when it was used against First Nations.

Right now, the BC Supreme Court is conducing a reference to determine the constitutionality of S.293. Critics say that the law is overly broad and vague, and intrudes on people’s personal lives, and could apply to people who practise polyamory or even live together as roommates. Supporters say the law can be “read down” to apply only to cases where exploitation is clear.

Apart from the many kinky people who are also poly, this case is relevant to kinky people in general.

Canada, for the most part, has followed the principle of “The state has no business in people’s bedrooms,” to paraphrase Pierre Trudeau. The state intervenes when people say they are being harmed, not on the basis of “offense to morality” or the like. This has lead to Canada’s generally progressive stance on sexual issues, including a tolerance of BDSM.

S.293, however, operates on a different, older principle. If upheld, it sets the precedent that the state can intervene without any person claiming personal harm, so long as somebody, somewhere objects. That means that somebody can take offense at a play party or even a private play session and demand the state do something.

I’m not claiming any kind of moral or legal equivalency between polyamorist kinksters and Mormon polygynists, but kinky people should be aware of this situation. I’ve heard claims that the BC AG dropped the ball on prosecuting for bigamy, abuse of minors or other, better established laws, and has resorted to this old, draconian measure out of desperation.

I got interested in this case because I was working on stories about it, but it also cross-pollinated with this article by Huma Dar, “Of Niqabs, Monsters, and Decolonial Feminisms“, regarding France’s ban on the niqab, burqa and other veiling garments.

Now that the law is in force, a woman who chooses to defy the ban will be fined 150 euros or a course of citizenship lessons or both. A man who coerces a woman into wearing a niqab will be fined 30,000 euros, serve a one-year prison term, and possibly twice as much if the veiled person is a minor. Two days prior to the law coming into force, the French police detained fifty-nine people — including nineteen veiled women — for attempting to hold a protest at Place de la Nation in eastern Paris against the niqab ban, at that point still pending. Two others were detained while traveling to Paris from Britain and Belgium, allegedly to join the protest. On April 11, 2011, the first official day of the French ban, one woman in niqab was fined while shopping in the evening, and earlier, two more — including Kenza Drider, the organizer of the April 9 protest – were fined and detained as they actively organized and participated in a demonstration outside Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. (So much for the patronizingly assumed “lack of agency” of women in niqab.)

[…]

In fact when I was a graduate student in Computer Science at UC Berkeley, I remember a chain of conversations at the weekly lunches organized by Women in Computer Science & Electrical Engineering (WICSE), where women graduate students discussed the Do’s and Dont’s of appropriate attire for women computer scientists and academics. A conversation that sounded rather archaic and amusing to my ears at that point, included advice about unofficial, unwritten prohibition of any “dangly” jewelry, plunging necklines, sleeveless blouses, or otherwise revealing clothing that could potentially, and unfortunately did, act as distractions or “noise” for our overwhelmingly male colleagues and professors — as evidenced by the abundant anecdotes we shared. We finally arrived at the conclusion that our breasts, faces, ankles, toes, et cetera, in fact our presence was “noise” – “an error or undesired random disturbance of a useful information signal” in electronics – in our male-dominated field of study, and there was very little we could do except attempt to fit in (i.e., become undifferentiated, unnoticeable men-like creatures).

I recount this here only to challenge the facile assumption that opposed to the norms of clothing and modesty followed by some Muslim women (or men for that matter) to varying degrees, there exists in the imagined “West” (and Berkeley arguably being the West of the West), a land whose norms are “universal,” a land of universally available free sartorial choices, where anything and everything may be worn — well, everything except that terrible, terrible burqa or niqab.

[…]

The obsessive interest in mainstream global media around the hijab, purdah, niqab, and burqa barely manages to veil the racialized fantasies of “thriving” or “repressed” Muslim sexuality: flip sides of the same coin (see my earlier article here). The ascription of hyper-sexuality to Muslim men and woman is often loudly disavowed by protestations at the repression of the same. This preoccupation with the Muslim jouissance whether truly fantasized or actually present, unwittingly reveals the circulation of neo-colonial desire and fantasy, perceived lack and excess, at the contemporary moment, and through history. The obsession, in fact, gives a glimpse of the psyche and politics of neo-imperialism and its entanglement within the system of wars, global capital, and consumerism.

Someone once said, “What is socially marginal becomes symbolically central.” As there are at most a thousand poeple in Bountiful, there are only an estimated 2000 or so niqab-wearing women in all of France, and as little as a few hundred by some estimates. These cases have attracted media attention all out of proportion to the number of people directly involved, perhaps because they involve the intimate personal, bodily experience of women, and their policing by wider society. This is a point that reveals the problems of liberalism, that it can become coercive against both the people it is supposedly saving and other people caught in the crossfire.

This reminds me a lot of Hannah Cullwick and her rejection of the role of bourgeois wife in favor of remaining Arthur Munby’s drudge and slave. At first glance, this makes no sense, but delving into the situation reveals that the higher status Munby offered her came with the catches of loss of financial autonomy and personal freedom.

Perhaps our knee jerk dismay at the practises of polygyny or veiling, which leaps immediately into “woman as victim needing to be rescued”, is akin to our superficial understanding of Hannah Cullwick’s chosen role in life? Perhaps, like Arthur Munby, we are mistakenly offering what seems like a great deal, but which the recipient sees as having too high a price, and we are baffled and even angered when our largess is refused.

Finally, just to add a strand of WTF to this whole tangled situation, check out Epharaim’s Household, an erotica novella ebook, set in a vaguely Amish/Mormon community that practices polygyny and corporal punishment.

In an undisclosed location in the rural West, an obscure polygamous religious sect known as the Brethren provides a psychologist with a glimpse into a world where “sister” wives live under the rule of patriarchal husbands who believe that women – like children -are not exempt from corporal punishment.

In surprisingly open first – person accounts, three of these wives and their husband (with names changed to protect their identities; describe their feelings, justification for and experiences living under such a system. Be cautioned that these stories include realistic depictions of corporal punishment and frank discussions on the polygamous lifestyle by a community that rejects not just modern conveniences but political correctness as well.

(Note the pseudo-journalistic format.) The book’s author is at pains to argue that Epharaim practises corporal punishment with self-imposed physical and social limits, fitting the story within the “domestic discipline” genre of BDSM erotica.

He told me he knowed Papa beat me and that was one of the reasons Heavenly Father had told him to take me away – to save me from what Papa was doin’. He said as my husband he was given the authority to punish me if I did wrong, just as he had punished Sariah earlier for her sin of pride and jealousy. But he said he never had nor would beat one of his wives. He said he corrected his wives by striking their bottoms or legs and would never hit one of his wives in the face or anywhere else on their bodies. And he said he’d never do it out of anger, but only for our own good. Then he asked me if I understood. I said yes but I told him I was still scared that I’d be punished for not pleasing him. And he said being innocent is not a sin but a virtue and he was pleased that I didn’t know how to please him and not to worry because he would teach me what I needed to know.

Once again, one person’s dystopia is another’s sexual fantasy.

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