OPINION: If Lower Hutt's Dowse Art Museum was a private institution, nobody could complain about it showing a work that only women were allowed to see.
However, the gallery is operated by Hutt City Council and paid for by ratepayers. As a publicly funded entity, it cannot justify staging exhibits from which half the public is excluded.
The Dowse's decision to ban men from seeing a video of Muslim women preparing for a relative's wedding without their veils raises complex questions of human rights and privacy. The video, Cinderazahd: For Your Eyes Only, will have its world premiere as part of a wider exhibition that opens on September 8. It was filmed by Qatari-American Sophia Al-Maria in an exclusively female zone of her grandmother's home in Doha. She has requested it not be shown to men in keeping with the women's belief that male strangers should not see their faces.
The Dowse has agreed to abide by that request and will screen the video in a curtained-off area, where only one woman at a time will be able to see it. The gallery says it has received considerable support for its decision but the Human Rights Commission is investigating complaints that the ban amounts to gender discrimination, including one from Lower Hutt resident Paul Young.
On the face of it, his complaint is an open-and-shut case - he is being prevented from viewing the film purely because he is a man. But as the commission notes, whether his complaint is sustained is not that straightforward.
He will first need to establish that he has suffered "more than trivial" detriment as a result of the difference in treatment and the commission will have to determine whether the discrimination was justified.
A key factor will be the terms and conditions under which Al-Maria provided the video for the exhibition.
Al-Maria has allowed it to be shown on the strict condition that only women and young children are permitted to see it. As the video was filmed in a private home and shows the subjects in circumstances in which they would never be seen in public, they had every right to place that condition on its use.
Whether the complaints of discrimination against the gallery are upheld remains to be seen but it is likely to be an academic exercise either way. Although the commission has promised to deal with the matter as soon as possible, the reality is that by the time it is fully resolved, the exhibition will probably have long left town.
The real issue is that the Dowse is a ratepayer-funded organisation. As such, it should not be using the public purse to stage exhibits from which some ratepayers are excluded. The sum involved in this case - $6000 for the complete exhibition of 17 artists - is small, but the principle is important.
Clearly, the conflict between Al-Maria offering a work that can be seen only by women and the gallery's duty to ensure equal access to all those who contribute towards funding it cannot be reconciled. That being the case, the Dowse should withdraw the video from the exhibition and Al-Maria should find a private gallery in which to show it.
- The Dominion Post