I'm currently rewatching the Harry Potter movies, and because yesterday's discussion was still on my mind, I realized that Hermione Granger and S.P.E.W. are a great illustrative example of SIFWW! (Or I guess, solidarity is for magical beings...?) I'm not too mad about it because Hermione is amazing and I love her, and also she is fictional, but there are some really good parallels for how
poorly we treat minority women and cultures in trying to "save them".
In the novels, after seeing some of the abusive treatment of house elves in the magical world, specifically Winky, house elf to Barty Crouch, Hermione starts the Society For The Protection of Elvish Welfare,
aimed at helping house elves gain a living wage, among other things. If you've read the books then you know that house elves are essentially magical slaves who do housework, cleaning and cooking. Scratch that. They are
slaves. They just don't seem to mind that much.
Now, slavery is widely considered to be a bad thing without exception (because DUH) so I can't really be that mad that it never even occurs to Hermione that freedom might not be something that house elves want. But for house elves their "culture" for want of a better word, is that they remain tied to a specific family for their entire lives. The responsibility for that family passes down from elf to elf, and it's something they take great pride in. To be set free means not only disgracing themselves, but all of their elvish ancestors who came before them.
When Hermione sees Winky defending Barty Crouch even though he has made her confront her fear of heights at the Quidditch World Cup, all Hermione takes from the situation is that "Winky has been brainwashed" to defend him. And her limited experience with Dobby, who was ecstatic to have been set free, fuels her conviction that elves should all be freed, even though Dobby is the exception and not the rule, due to the fact that his former masters, the Malfoys, treated him like shit.
I think that's a pretty solid parallel for the way that western women assume that all veiled Muslim women are "being oppressed by the man!" or that they only adhere to their religion because they "don't know any better
" even though for many Muslim women, veiling is a choice
. Muslim women are not a monolith, and their choices do not exist in a vacuum.
The fact is that Hermione never once considers what house elves actually want.
Other than Dobby, she has limited contact with house elves, and has no real understanding of why they are generally satisfied with their lives they way they are, and their place in the magical hierarchy. For example, while Dobby thrives in freedom, Winky falls into a tailspin, getting drunk on butterbeer in the Hogwarts kitchens.
Ron, the only one of the main trio who grew up in the wizarding world, continues to tell Hermione that the elves are happy the way they are, and that SPEW will only antagonize them, but Hermione dismisses him as a bigot who is simply satisfied with a status quo that benefits him. Though that is probably partly right, it doesn't change the fact that Ron is more likely to understand the working relationship between wizard kind and elves, and has a more informed perspective.
Ron's objections prove to be right however, when after discovering that Hermione has taken to hiding hand-made items of clothing in the Gryffindor common room to trick the Hogwarts house elves into being set free, they boycott Gryffindor entirely and refuse to clean it anymore, leaving the task to Dobby alone.
The only upshot of her campaign was that she alienated and infuriated the elves themselves. While she was busy knitting clothes to give them in order to set them free, the majority of house-elves are accustomed to their work, and seem to enjoy it. They regarded Hermione's actions as insults to their race. Thus, they refused to clean the Gryffindor common room any more, meaning that Dobby was the only one prepared to carry out this task. Already being free himself, he took all the clothes himself, wore most of them (making a tower of hats on top of his head), and passed some of the others on to Winky in the false hopes of cheering her up. Hermione was not informed of this development, as no one had the heart to tell her. [Harry Potter Wikia]
Hermione takes it upon herself to "free" the house elves without considering whether or not it was in their best interest, or something that they even wanted. The house elves reaction is similar to the push back that Muslim women give when told by western women that "they need to be saved from oppression
". It's insulting to imply that they do not have the capacity
to identify or deal with the problems of their culture on their own terms. Barging in and "fixing things" without any input from the culture you are affecting is harmful, unproductive, and ultimately alienating to that culture.
As we learn later in the novels, most house house elves just want to be treated with dignity. Kreacher, beholden to the noble house of Black, betrays Sirius in book five, because Sirius had always treated him abusively. That action led almost directly to Sirius' death. By book 7, after Harry inherit's Kreacher's services, he has learned to treat Kreacher with the dignity that he deserves as a magical being, and their relationship improves dramatically almost overnight.
The problem isn't that Hermione wants to help. She has an amazing heart, and she is only trying to correct what she sees as a terrible injustice. But being Muggle born, there is an enormous cultural chasm that she hadn't yet figured out how to navigate. By trying to apply Muggle values of right and wrong to a magical perspective, she misses the nuances that makes certain values different or irrelevant in a magical context. Never once does she extend her knowledge of house elf's desires beyond the elves she interacts with directly, and she makes the fatal mistake of extrapolating their individual desires as the desires of the entire group. (Sound familiar
So what can we learn from Hermione's mistake? Listen first
. As an outsider, there is simply no way to fully understand
the cultural practices of another group. And while certain things are
objectively bad, dealing with those particular issues may not actually be at the top of that group's priority list.
Let's be better allies to house elves and minority cultures. Listen first. Act second. And don't presume that as an outsider, you can ever know what is best for the people of a different culture.