Safety & exclusion at the Dowse

The Dowse Art Museum here in controversial Lower Hutt is hosting an exhibition with a video component that only women will be allowed to view. The video shows Muslim women getting ready for a wedding. Limiting views to women is a condition of display, in accordance with the wishes of the subjects.

This has got people talking, unsurprisingly, but most of what is being said is dumb.*

As far as I can tell, sitting under this issue are two contrary positions, and I don’t think they’re self-evident. Here’s my take on them:

“A public gallery must not share an artwork if some people will be excluded from seeing it.”
“A public gallery can share an artwork even if some people must be excluded from seeing it in order for the subjects to feel safe.”

Now, the way I’ve written that second position is important. I think most people who align with the first position think they’re arguing against something different, namely this: “A public gallery can share an artwork even if some people must be excluded from seeing it because another culture says so.”

This is a spectacularly unhelpful framing, for all sorts of reasons, but mostly because it treats culture difference as the final word. Their culture is just different to ours, and in this case, it’s offensively different! But culture isn’t the end of the story, it’s just the beginning. Look under the hood, and you find that cultural differences are almost always just different expressions of values that are shared across cultures. Here, it’s about safety, and about how people in different cultures feel safe. In the culture shown in this video display, safety is heavily gendered in a way it isn’t here.

If you accept my framing that talks about safety, then you have a discussion on your hands, a proper ethical conundrum. Does safety justify exclusion? Can exclusion ever be justified? It would be nice to have that discussion. I see no signs of it so far, though.

My personal view right now? I have to say it doesn’t bother me. Here’s why:

I want New Zealand to be a multicultural society, and that means one that accepts cultural practice that is not consonant with our own expectations. If we want to welcome people from other cultures, then we have to give them space on our turf to do things their way. It’s that simple.

(What’s not simple is figuring out exactly how far that goes. FGM is not to be blithely welcomed in my multicultural NZ, for example. Where to draw a line has to be carefully, probably painfully, argued out over generations; but the starting point and the principle is nonetheless clear.)

So I’m totally cool with an art gallery following an other-culture’s ideas, including a public-funded gallery as a small part of its ongoing work. Violating my cultural norms for a short time seems like a small price to pay to give space for, and access to, another culture.

And yes, the norm here is involves gendered discrimination. The idea of gender equality is awesome when it’s used to attack the concentration of social power in men. But that just doesn’t apply here; this is about protecting the social power of women. I think I support this inequality for the exact same reasons I support equality in the vast majority of contexts.

Also: there’s an idea that allowing this exclusion weakens the general principle of equality in our society. I don’t buy it. Maybe someone could convince me, but I just don’t see how you can get there from here.

Also 2: yes, there might be legal issues – if this is non-compliant with Human Rights legislation, then it’s gotta go, because that’s the law. But it’ll seem to me like an exercise of law that isn’t warranted, a false positive on the spirit of the legislation.

That’s where I’m sitting right now. Totally open to being pushed or pulled around on this, should a sober exploration of this ethical situation ever eventuate. Ha ha.

* Really dumb. There’s a lot of talk about political correctness, obscenity, Sharia law, thin edges of wedges, and numerous tangential comments on Maoris and playdough. The complainant getting media is a perfect example of this type, and I think it’s obvious his opposition is bound up with some unpleasant stereotypes and fears.

6 thoughts on “Safety & exclusion at the Dowse”

  1. Intelligent comments, I would add the following thought:

    * Should a public gallery allow viewing conditions that are contrary to NZ human rights legislation?

    I say yes, in certain situations, such as where the artist’s conditions are regarding the safety of the oppressed and/or giving voice to the oppressed.

    In situations where the artist’s conditions are promoting their own cultural ethics which are contrary to NZ’s human rights legislation, I say no. For instance if the conditions denied right of entry because the artist’s culture does not respect the right of certain genders/races/religions to view the exhibition, I would consider it inappropriate for a public gallery to allow such exclusionary conditions.

    *Does allowing a public gallery to impose viewing conditions that are contrary to NZ human rights legislation amount to condoning said cultural ethics? (this goes to what you said about the idea that allowing this exclusion weakens the general principle of equality in our society)

    I don’t think so. I believe that allowances can be made in order to give voice to oppressed people, on their own terms, with a view to promoting eventual equal rights. Cultural differences are complex and require understanding from all sides. It may not be ideal that the artist’s subjects are not comfortable with the exhibition being viewed by men at this stage but it is a step towards them embracing their voice, and hopefully if it is well received then that will give them the confidence to continue expressing themselves.

  2. “…here in controversial Lower Hutt” is not a sentence I imagined myself reading when I got up this morning.

    The human rights issue has already been well covered, but to mind mind there are also issues of privacy at work here. Yes, putting art on display places it in the public sphere. But in a work such as this, one which portrays very intimate and private moments in the lives of the subject, surely they have a right to place some sort of privacy restrictions on who can and cannot view their preparations for the wedding. Tere a distinct blurring of the public and the private here.

    Using a personal, and ludicrously anecdotal and non-meaningful, comparison: sometimes I restrict who can view certain photos on my Flickr account. Whatever way you cut it, Flickr is a public art gallery. I restrict certain images because of privacy, etc. Some may want to see it, but they don’t have the inalienable right to see an image. Both the subject and the artist should most certainly have a voice, and a powerful one at that, in drawing lines around their bodies and their work.

    Actually, I think the final paragraph from Linda, above, encapsulates things better than I can. And who has the right to take agency away from these women by demanding that their wishes be ignored? There’s a tendency, it seems, to deny Muslim women any agency and see them as wholly under the influence of a dominating, patriarchal structure. However, I certainly wouldn’t like to take my comments in that area any further, because I simply do not know enough about gender interactions in the various forms of Islam to speak with any kind of…well, anything really.

    BTW, Morgue, I’m reading a really interesting book at the moment called Islam Through Western Eyes by Jonathan Lyons. Worth checking out.


  3. In New Zealand:

    In the name of art, you can get away with pretty much anything.
    In the name of culture, you can get away with pretty much anything.

    By pretty much anything, I mean anything that doesn’t bypass the bottom line principles of the primary culture of the country.

    In New Zealand, it is possible to get with ‘women only’ events etc because to society that is ok. Had it been ‘men only’ whether cultural or not, I don’t believe that would have been accepted.

    Controversy courts publicity and the Dowse needs publicity.

  4. I’ve been thinking about this one a bit and still haven’t come to any firm conclusions.

    As a fan of civil liberties I think it’s easy for me to quote the NZ Bill of Rights Act: “Everyone has the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act ”

    Of course, the very next clause is “Measures taken in good faith for the purpose of assisting or advancing persons or groups of persons disadvantaged because of discrimination that is unlawful by virtue of Part 2 of the Human Rights Act 1993 do not constitute discrimination.”

    And then there’s the good old limits clause in the NZ BORA: “the rights and freedoms contained in this Bill of Rights may be subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

    So I don’t think that really helps us come to any conclusions.

    I also like making comparisons:

    1. What if the women in this video felt unsafe with the idea that Jews might see it?

    2. How do they feel about transvestites or trans-sexuals viewing the video?

    3. How does this compare to Te Papa limiting access to certain pieces to pregnant and menstruating women?

    But while I think the’re interesting comparisons (you can dismiss them as reductio ad absurdum or strawmen or privileged white male bullshit if you’re so inclined) again I don’t think they’re that useful.

    So I’m still wondering. 🙂

  5. Thank you for comments everybody. No mental space to do proper-type replies right now. All these points are good ‘uns though, and I really appreciate Thomas who’s actually done what I couldn’t be bothered to do and looked at the HRA and BORA!

  6. If the women in the video only allowed themselves to be filmed under the understanding that men would not be allowed to see it, doesn’t that place them in a similar situation to someone using a women-only changing room?

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