Last week, Canadian Governor-General* Michaëlle Jean caused a huge storm in the media by eating a piece of seal heart while on a visit to an Inuit community in Nunavut, northern Canada. In the context of increasing international (and domestic) outrage against the seal hunt in Canada, Jean had this to say about her act (all quotes from this article):
“These are ancient practices that are part of a way of life,” Jean said, framing her gutsy gesture as an act of solidarity with the Inuit. “If you can’t understand that, you’re completely missing the reality of life here.”
(For those of you wondering what on earth this has to do with Muslim women, don’t worry, I’ll get to it.)
Enter PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.) Let me be clear that I am a strong advocate that animals should be treated ethically, and that I don’t oppose the objectives of an organisation like PETA. Their methods, on the other hand, are horribly problematic, and PETA has come under criticism time and time again for campaigns involving offensive representations of slavery, the Holocaust, the KKK, non-status immigrants, and women (several times over.) (Warning that some of the linked articles contain partial nudity and/or images of torture of humans and animals.)
PETA’s response to Jean eating the seal meat was predictable:
“It amazes us that a Canadian official would indulge such blood lust. It sounds like she’s trying to give Canadians an even more Neanderthal image around the world than they already have,” said Dan Mathews, vice-president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
After essentially labelling traditional Inuit hunting practices as “blood lust” and Neanderthalic, the PETA spokesperson claimed that the indigenous people’s hunt was not the main target of their anti-seal-hunting campaign. However, as the article then tells us,
That doesn’t mean animal-rights activists approve of Inuit seal-hunting traditions. PETA yesterday likened Jean’s sampling of seal heart to “taking part in the beating of women in the Middle East because it is part of local practice.” (emphasis mine)
Yeah. So what we can learn from PETA is that:
1. The Middle East is the only place where beating of women happens.
2. Beating of women is an integral part of Middle Eastern cultural practices. (You know, they’ve probably got it on all their travel brochures. “Come visit the Middle East, and celebrate our cultural pride by taking part in the time-honoured tradition of woman-beating!”)
Do I even have to go into all the ways that that’s wrong and offensive? It’s as if people have these images of oppressed Middle Eastern women (usually interchangeable with Muslim women, of course) just waiting around in their heads so that they can be expressed in metaphors that are completely out of context. Sigh…
*The Governor-General is the representative of the Queen of England – Canada’s official Head of State – in Canada. Although this places her in an officially powerful position, the reality of a constitutional monarchy means that she is basically just a figurehead. I’ll save you all my rant about why it’s problematic that Canada celebrates having women of colour GGs while having pathetically low representation of them in parliament.