Gender Desegregation Wednesdays

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

Kat and I were working on an English translation of a section of the French website for the women’s rights organization, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives). We were struggling with the word mixité. We toyed with “the mixing of the sexes”. But, that sounded like one of those speed-dating events. We settled on “desegregation”. But, then we included the antecedent “gender”, to distinguish our meaning from the more common American connotation of racial desegregation. “Gender desegregation” does capture, in English, the intended meaning of the French word “mixité”. But, we were left somewhat dissatisfied. NPNS uses mixité as the last in a three-word chant representing the three ideological pillars of their movement. Laicité, Egalité, Mixité. Gender desegregation doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

As I plowed away, I came to an expression that made me roar aloud with laughter. Kat demanded to know the cause of my apparent mirth. As often occurs in such situations, a painfully literal translation had tickled my funny bone. It just sounded so weird and precious in English. I had translated “Mercredis de la Mixité” as “Gender Desegregation Wednesdays”. When I told Kat, she laughed too. Then, we both laughed. Then, we laughed so hard we cried. It was one of those irreplaceable and singular moments of cosmic comic connection, otherwise known as, “you had to be there”. It’s ok if you don’t get it.

But, then, after we had finally stopped laughing, we had a serious conversation about our reaction to my lacking translating skills. Obviously, it was the combination of the ostensibly esoteric with the ostensibly quotidian, like Theosophy Thursdays. But, why did “gender desegregation” sound so academic, so arcane, so removed from the populist vernacular that it incited uproarious laughter when “racial desegregation” or just “desegregation” does not?

Racial equality has been cemented as an indispensable ideological pillar of liberal, constitutional democracy while women continue to struggle for full recognition as human beings and as citizens. While religious justifications for racism are considered barbaric and archaic notions of yesteryear and beyond the pale for a modern, civilized society, religion remains the foremost obstacle thwarting women’s aspirations to humanity and citizenship.

The evolution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (popularly known as the LDS or Mormon Church) during recent decades illustrates this point perfectly. The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) Church broke away from the main sect of “Saints”, because they refused to give up polygamy (so-called celestial plural marriage) as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine, among other complaints.

Imagine, for a moment, an even more strident version of the FLDS Church. Let’s call them the Super Fundie Latter Day Saints (SFLDS) Church. Imagine this SFLDS Church breaking away from their Mormon brethren, because they refuse to give up racism as a central tenet of the Mormon doctrine.

If you question whether either or both polygamy and racism were, have been or are foundational tenets of the Mormon doctrine, I invite you to peruse the LDS Church’s own literature on their own website. It’s quite eye-opening. Copious documentation indicates that generations of Mormons were taught that dark skin is a curse from God, as well as evidence of a less than entirely virtuous pre-human existence, serving to justify everything from racial slavery and segregation and discrimination to Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws. Only public outcry and condemnation and boycott, rising dissent among the rank and file, and the risk of losing federal funding for BYU’s students provoked Jehovah into revealing a doctrinal change to the church leadership in 1978.

But, back to our imaginary Super Fundie LDS Church that is incensed with the original LDS Church for abandoning the foundational doctrinal tenet of racism. Imagine that this Super Fundie Mormon sect decides that the best way for it to propagate its originalist vision of Jehovah’s intentions for mankind is to adopt as many black babies as possible. The goal of the program is two-fold. It will give these decrepit black souls an opportunity to redeem themselves while in their human incarnations, hopefully with the added bonus of turning their putrid black skins white. And, the black babies will be brainwashed into submitting to their divinely ordained, sub-human status, thereby furthering God’s plan for differentiating amongst his creations, according to moral uprightness, by segregating them by race and geography.

Turns your stomach, doesn’t it? Strikes you as pretty much the most disgusting, despicable agenda ever, doesn’t it?

It was real. This actually happened, or something very similar. Except that black kids weren’t the targets. Native American kids were. And, it took place during the latter half of the immediately preceding century.

It was called the Indian Student Placement Program. Mormon families took in thousands of Native American kids and brainwashed them into believing that they were the cursed Lamanites, the black sheep descendants of ancient Middle Eastern Jews. The program’s creator and leader, Spencer W. Kimball, former President of the LDS Church, once bragged about the program participants’ complexions turning noticeably whiter, as evidence of their having left savagery behind for a Mormon life and salvation.

Do you know what is even more disgusting and despicable? This is still happening. Every day. All over the US. Right now. To women and girls.

All over the US, in religious communities and families, women and girls are being brainwashed into believing that they are sub-human, meant only to obey and serve the men in their lives, meant only to birth and raise more adherents. They are brainwashed into believing that they are the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities. They are brainwashed into believing that they will either submit to God’s divinely ordained plan and subject themselves to sub-human treatment, or face dire consequences in the here now, the hereafter, or both.

How do I know? Because, it happened to me. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. I was raised to believe that men dictate the lives of women, because women are inferior by design, by God’s design.

If it isn’t ok to adopt an African American or Native American baby and raise it to believe that it is sub-human on account of its race, why is it ok to take a girl baby and raise her to believe that she is sub-human on account of her gender? I don’t care if you birthed her yourself. Your children are not your property to abuse as you please. They are human beings with rights.

How do they get away with this? By claiming this blatant abuse as a religious liberty. We don’t let them get away with that anymore with respect to race, but we still let them get away with it with respect to gender. At least, according to Spencer Kimball, the dark-skinned kids can grow lighter as they grow more virtuous. But, what about the poor girls? No matter how much a little Mormon girl prays for her clitoris to grow into a penis, I’m guessing that wasn’t part of God’s plan. Instead of being so concerned with gay couples adopting and raising children, maybe we should be scrutinizing Christian Fundies who want to adopt girl children and raise them as sex slaves.

Where is the public outcry and condemnation and dissent and government response for gender segregation and slavery as exists for racial segregation and slavery?

Nothing exemplifies this cognitive dissonance as well as the global uproar over public burqa / niqab bans. In the U.S., it is far easier to craft a legal argument against the burqa / niqab as a simple safety measure and general prohibition against identity obscuring masks in the public space than it is to even begin to speak about addressing the ban as a women’s rights provision, as an affirmative action provision, as a gender equality provision, as a prohibition on gender segregation in the public space, or as a prohibition on gender slavery in the public space.

Why? Because everyone is ready to bend over backwards to defend the burqa / niqab as the free expression of religious liberty. Because religious liberty still trumps women’s human and civil rights in American jurisprudence. Because we still view women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities.

History repeats itself. Again and again and again. How quickly one forgets the Civil Rights Era. It boggles the mind how no one seems to realize that we already had this argument. But, it was about race. First, it was about slavery and then it was about segregation. And the opponents of progress and democracy made all of the same arguments. They denounced the Civil Rights Act as the federal government overstepping its constitutional bounds by regulating the behavior of private citizens in the public space. They said that the federal government was trampling on the First Amendment rights of US citizens. And, the proponents of progress and democracy made the same arguments. They said that separate never equals equal. They said that a liberal, constitutional democracy cannot sustain itself with a substantial portion of its citizenry disenfranchised and debased.

Recently, Rand Paul appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show. Rachel Maddow was shocked and aghast at Rand Paul’s seeming suggestion that the portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that touched upon the behavior of private citizens in the public space should never have been.

Rachel was eloquent when she replied, “The Civil Rights Act was the federal government stepping in to protect civil rights, because they weren’t otherwise being protected. It wasn’t a hypothetical. There were businesses that were saying black people can not be served here. And, the federal government stepped in and said no, you actually don’t have that choice to make. The federal government is coming in and saying you can’t make that choice as a business owner.”

You don’t get to make that choice, even if you are a member of the persecuted minority, and you want to segregate yourself from the persecuting majority. We are not going to allow racial segregation. We would no more allow a black owned restaurant to refuse to serve white patrons than we would a white owned restaurant to refuse to serve black patrons.

Why shouldn’t you be able to segregate yourself? Segregation is not a choice you get to make in the public space of a secular, democratic republic. Segregation is the antithesis of democracy. Segregation is the antithesis of human rights. Segregation is the antithesis of equality. Segregation is the antithesis of equal protection. Separate but equal does not exist. I thought we already arrived at that conclusion in the US with Brown v. Board of Education.

What about the freedom of association? This is not about forcing people to be friends or lovers or cohorts of whatever variety. The woman in the burqa in public is not the black woman with her black friends entering a white owned store. She is the white storeowner putting up a “no blacks allowed” sign in her store window. She is saying, “I demand the right to participate in society fully, but I also demand the right to discriminate regarding with whom I will interact, with whom I will engage in the public space. I demand the right to treat other human beings and other citizens in a discriminatory fashion. I demand the right not to acknowledge the humanity of the other citizens in the public space while I also demand that they acknowledge my humanity.”

This is unacceptable in a liberal, constitutional democracy. We must not tolerate gender segregation in our public space, even in the pursuit of religious liberty. It matters not if the “choice” to segregate oneself was coerced or no. It matters not if the woman wearing the burqa is a victim or no. We simply cannot tolerate gender segregation any more than we can tolerate racial segregation. Public segregation is not a choice you get to make.

This is not treating women like hapless and helpless victims, unable to choose their own style of dress. The anti-burqa ban argument is not only condescending to women, it is also contradictory. It is saying that women can and do and should be able to choose gender segregation and slavery of their own accord and volition, but that they may not be held accountable for the choices they make. Talk about having your cake and eating it too. If you can “choose” slavery, then you can be held accountable for choosing slavery.

Undoubtedly, the Civil Rights Act relied upon the Commerce Clause. While the Commerce Clause has been interpreted in an incredibly expansive manner, the Supreme Court has been narrowing the scope of this interpretation as of late. The questionable nature of applying the Commerce Clause to implement federal civil rights legislation could be avoided if we brought back the Privileges and Immunities Clause. But, regardless of the constitutional basis, our federal government acted to end racial segregation in the public sphere by regulating the conduct of private citizens in the public space. Is it really such a stretch to jump from racial segregation in public accommodations to gender segregation in the public space? I think you could make an even stronger argument that gender segregation in the public space impedes interstate commerce in the aggregate than you are able to make regarding racial segregation in public accommodations.

The fully integrated veil (the burqa or niqab) is more than segregation; it is effacement; it is dehumanization. It is slavery. This is not about morality. Morality has no place in the law. Desegregation, either racial or gender, is not the moral choice. It has nothing to do with morality. It has everything to do with democracy.

It is an issue of democratic representation and power distribution. It is the same issue that inspired the framers of the Constitution to separate powers within a tripartite federal government to create a system of checks and balances and to leave the balance of power in the hands of the states and the People. If any one class or group or entity has too much power, discrimination and oppression are quick to follow. This is why diversity is a compelling government interest. This is what makes affirmative action policies possible. Gender equality and desegregation should be every bit as compelling a government interest as diversity.

Per the current state of American jurisprudence, religious liberty trumps women’s rights. This is a violation of the Establishment Clause. This is a violation of international human rights law. This is a violation of the principle of secularism. This places our liberal constitutional democracy in jeopardy. This is why we need the Equal Rights Amendment. Racial equality has had its constitutional moment, and now we need to enshrine gender equality in our Constitution in the same way.

I am a human being, not a whore, even if Jehovah or Allah or Yahweh or Jesus or Krishna or Mohammed or Buddha or Confucius or Rael says otherwise.

Maybe one day Gender Desegregation Wednesdays won’t sound so absurd anymore.

We can dream.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.