The Fem Spot

Self-righteous indignation

Posted in Feminist Theory, News by femspotter on November 27, 2011

November 27, 2011

We’re all guilty of it: self-righteous indignation (SRI) is the little voice inside your head whispering (or shouting), “I’m right and you’re wrong!” when we observe the actions of others. Most often, you hear this voice when you’re driving, notes one self-identified “licensed therapist”:

The term ‘self-righteous’ is defined by yourdictionary.com as ‘filled with or showing a conviction of being morally superior, or more righteous than others; smugly virtuous.’

Beautiful. That’s exactly it. Not virtuous, but smugly virtuous. It is about feeling superior to someone else. Most of us are most easily tempted into self-righteous indignation when driving. The driver ahead of us is driving too slow, too fast, cuts us off or makes some other terribly heinous error. And we are filled with outrage. We lay on the horn and yell and make sure everyone around knows that driver is not driving ‘correctly’ (or at least how we define correct driving). The nerve of that guy! What a loser.

As a mother, I deal with a constant flood of SRI. First, as a pregnant woman, I was subject to unsolicited advice about my diet, my sleep patterns, my maternity clothes, my exercise habits, etc. Apparently, everybody is an authority on pregnancy…even most men! I didn’t know much, so I listened.

Now, as mother to a 16 month-old, I feel I may know even less, because there’s a whole new strain of SRI coming my way: advice about her diet, her sleep patterns, the outfits I put her in, how much activity she gets, and more! Apparently, everybody is an authority on motherhood too…and the worst offenders are other mothers. 

Why? Because we can’t avoid that voice in our heads yelling that we know what’s best. And, because we’re mothers and thus very important people (certainly this is true in our own lives!), we feel we are obligated to make sure that other mothers know what’s what. That means openly criticizing everything other mothers do: from what they wear on/feed/do to their own bodies to what they put on/feed/do to their kids. I’ve even heard mothers criticize other mothers for totally unrelated things, such as only checking email once per week or volunteering for charitable causes in their spare time. “How come she can’t make time to check email on weekdays?!” “How come she has enough time to raise money for cancer research?!”

What it really comes down to is this: we all make choices. Some of those choices line up with those made by our friends and some just don’t. And it’s really hard to hear opposition to your choices if you’ve spent a lot of time weighing your options in order to make an educated decision.

Case in point 

A recent public service announcement issued by the City of Milwaukee Health Department (CMHD) claiming that co-sleeping with your baby is just as dangerous as positioning your baby next to a sharp knife has some parents outraged:

Downloaded from http://city.milwaukee.gov/SafeSleep

Downloaded from http://city.milwaukee.gov/SafeSleep

The CMHD justifies this ad reporting an alarming statistic: “Between 2006 and 2009 there were 89 infant deaths related to SIDS, SUDI, or accidental suffocation.  Of these, 46 (51.7%) infants were sleeping in an adult bed at the time of their death.  The overall rate of such deaths has remained high in the last decade, prompting public health officials to launch a provocative city-wide safe sleep campaign to prevent them.”

Sounds like their hearts are in the right place. Who wouldn’t want to prevent 46 infant deaths?! But to a parent who has put a lot of time, energy and thought into his or her choice to co-sleep, this ad comes across as flip, dismissive, insincere and of course – because it is – self-righteous. The CMHD is saying, “We know what’s best for you and your baby,” or, in other words, “You are doing it all wrong!” For a parent who has made a loving decision to create a family bed, receiving a message like this is like getting a slap in the face…or a knife in the back.

SRI: a good thing?

When you visit the CMDH Web site and read its rationale, you might reconsider co-sleeping based on statistical evidence that suggests it’s dangerous. Perhaps, if you’re a heavy person and a heavy sleeper, co-sleeping is not the best choice for you and your baby. Maybe the Department’s information will help you create a safe compromise: in-room crib sleeping, using a co-sleeper pulled up to your bed, opting for an in-bed nest with firm boundaries to keep you from rolling on top of your baby, etc. In this case, the information is a good thing: it has alerted you to the potential hazards of sleeping with your baby.

But if you have a principled stance in favor of co-sleeping in place – because you want to be able to breastfeed in the night or because you believe in continuum parenting, etc., then the information may be something you already knew and had considered…and the posters of babies sleeping next to knives might come across as snide. Snide is NOT a good thing.

While the posters, like much unsolicited advice, are meant to be helpful – and it’s up to all of us to accept this advice graciously because we too are just as likely to dish it, when messages are snide – or read as snide, they are hurtful. It’s not surprising that some parents were offended by the arguably glib suggestion that co-sleeping is akin to the Psycho shower scene, because it’s a deliberate exaggeration to make a point. And it worked! It got our attention…but that doesn’t mean that feelings did not get hurt in the process.

Is SRI a Feminist issue?

Yes. Feminism is, for all intents and purposes, a form of self-righteous indignation. It’s basically one set of people saying to another set of people, “We’re right about women and you’re wrong.” And, even when Feminists are not talking about how wrongfully men treat women, they’re telling other Feminists how to behave. It’s incredibly self-righteous for radical Feminists to refer to liberal feminists as “fun fems,” for instance, suggesting that the libs are trying to win favor with men by engaging in sex with them. Feminism is full of infighting, even though, supposedly, we’re all trying to eradicate the misconceptions that women are by default shrewish, ignorant, weak, etc. The best thing we can do for our cause is to conduct ourselves with grace, listen to and contemplate the opinions of other Feminists (even if they have a snide tone), and respond politely with, at the very least, egalitarian respect.

Consider this advice from the good “therapist”:

If you are guilty of this pattern (of SRI), how do you stop it?

1.  Instead of deciding what people should be doing, look at what they are doing and then decide how to react to it. 

2.  If you find yourself condemning people, examine your motives. Is the issue itself really that important? Is it really worth your time and energy? Is this really a battle you want to take on? Or are you doing it for some other reason? 

3.  Feel your feelings.  How do you feel when you are complaining about or reporting this behavior? Superior? Powerful?  Is that the true motivation for it, rather than righting a wrong?

4.  Examine the effects. What effects is this behavior having on your life? Has it damaged your career? Cost you friends?  Caused conflict within your family?

5.  Repeat after me: “I cannot change other people’s behavior, only my own.” You have no power over other people. Whatever they are doing is what they are going to do. The only person you can change is yourself. And most of us have more than enough work to do developing ourselves without taking on other people’s issues.

Self-righteous indignation is a heady, powerful emotion that can be quite (exhilarating). But it comes at a high cost.  If you can only bring yourself up by putting other people down perhaps you need to look at that. Perhaps your time and energy would be better spent developing your own character rather than shooting down other people’s. 

After all, my SRI isn’t any better than your SRI!

Advertisements

Why blame the victim?

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays by femspotter on May 21, 2011

May 21, 2011

Ahh…Saturday! No work. No church. It’s a day reserved for thinking about ourselves, our daughter and our dogs. Just because the world is ending today, doesn’t mean we have to pout. (There really is a need for a sarcasm font.)

I had an epiphany about blaming rape victims for their rapes today…at the dog park of all places. Let’s see…

We decided to take our dogs to the nice dog park in the nice town, and then swing by the nice grocery store on our way home. It should have been a pleasant family outing. And it was…until a 50-lb dog attacked and bit our 14-lb Tootie.

Our Charlotte (60-lb pit bull mix) and Tootie (Boston terrier) love the park. They’re leash-less there, and they frolic. They bark at but don’t aggress other dogs, except for the occasional stare-down between Charlotte and an alpha female. We don’t tolerate that at all and remove Charlotte immediately from quarrelsome groups. Tootie has never had a problem getting along with other dogs of any size.

Sometimes, dog parks are divided: a pen for “small” dogs apart from the larger area for “big” dogs. But – as Tootie and Charlotte are generally inseparable elsewhere – at the park, they want to play together. Tootie doesn’t know what to make of small dogs and doesn’t play with them. In fact, I’ve never thought of her as a “small” dog…like chihauhaus or Yorkshire terriers or toy poodles. She cavorts with Charlotte and her equals regularly. In fact, Boston terriers can often be found with big dogs because they have “big dog” attitude.

I observed a woman with an aggressive 100-lb dog telling other dog owners to “watch out” for her dog as he has a tendency “to harm other dogs when he plays.” WTF? Why bring him here? I thought as I eyed Charlotte to make sure she kept a wide berth. And there was also an anxious man with a leashed “boxer” (red flag there: leashed dog in a fenced in area – why?) bragging about how his dog was a rescued animal and how he’d spent thousands of dollars on vet bills to get the dog in tip-top shape. Periodically, he would turn to the dog and say, “Oh no, you can’t come off the leash yet. You’re too excited.”

When he did finally release his dog, it made a beeline for Tootie, 30 yards away. As she always does, she turned and faced the dog and told it what to do with that aggressive stance…but she was soon overpowered and it grabbed her by the throat and swung her around as if she were a squirrel or a rabbit. She screamed. I screamed. Ellie, my 9 month-old, screamed. I will never forget the sound of Tootie scared and screaming. As tough as she is, there was no way she could have saved herself.

My husband restrained Charlotte in anticipation of her intent to rescue her best friend, and several dogs ran into the fray responding to the frightened cry of a lesser creature, as instinct would dictate. After seconds that seemed like minutes, the attack dog’s owner nervously commanded his dog to cease. He reached for his dog as J*** reached for the Toot and the squabble was over just as abruptly as it had begun. When I lifted Tootie, she was shaken and nursing a large gash above her left shoulder.

What do you do in this situation: a dog bites yours at the park? Do you call police? Animal control? Do you just swear at the other dog’s owner until you’re blue in the face? When you’re shaken and angry, door number three seems like the best option. So, I shouted, “Why the fuck is your dog in here?! Get that dog out of here! Your dog just bit my dog! Why did you bring that animal to a public dog park?!”

The man didn’t look at me. He didn’t speak. He leashed his dog again and wandered back to his former perch, a bench under a shady oak.

Meanwhile, a crowd of people with rubber necks had gathered beside me. Several people asked me kindly about Tootie’s condition. But the woman with the aggressive-as-advertised dog muzzled her dog and then shamed me for bringing my “small” dog into the big dog side of the park because “there are several herding dogs present who will attack small animals.” “She told me that her dog is mean to other dogs,” a girl with three pit bulls reassured me. “I don’t know who brings a mean dog to the park!”

But meanie’s owner wasn’t the only one shaking her head at me. What a sight I must have been: furious, crying, holding my daughter in one arm and my Boston terrier, bleeding, in another; with a swarm of finger-waggers circling me. “We all knew this would happen.” “There’s a small dog side for a reason.” “You really brought this on yourself.”

My mind raced and my eyes found their way to a 20-lb French bulldog on our side of the fence. Is there really a difference between that dog and my dog, who usually plays with big dogs too?  

Meanie and its owner left. She was probably afraid that we were going to call the proper authority and, knowing that she was in violation of the signs that read “No Aggressive Dogs Allowed,” removed herself from controversy before it could stretch to include her. And with no understanding of what else to do, J*** and I took Tootie to the animal hospital…but not before the attacker’s owner snuck through the fence beside me and threw a snotty “sorry” over his shoulder at me. There was no way to punish him for his failure to restrain his dog and no way to force him to pay our impending $165 vet bill. There wasn’t even any way to learn who he is or where he lives. He vanished, leaving the victim to be responsible for the violence.

Okay, we’re talking dog violence here, not human violence. I understand the difference. For one thing, Tootie will bear a physical scar forever; but she forgot about the attack moments after it occurred. She’s not emotionally scarred the way a human would be after, say, a tiger attack. There were things I could have – should have – done differently today. I should not have brought my “small” dog into the big dog park, even though we’d never had a problem with a vicious dog before. There are signs posted. I put Tootie in the position of being the woman with the shortest skirt at a frat party, didn’t I? For whether men rape instinctively (as dogs attack) or after mental calculation; they often make the argument that the rape is justifiable because the victim “showed too much skin” or “flirted with me at the bar” or “dressed older than her age,” etc. “She was asking for it!” And that’s just what they told me at the park!

I’ve often written that I plan to encourage my daughter to make the safest choices she can in life; but this is problematic when it comes to rape because there really is no way to prevent rape if you’re a victim of it. Night joggers, for instance, should wear reflectors. A car driver who can’t see a jogger in the dark can cause an accident by striking the jogger. The key word there is: A.C.C.I.D.E.N.T.  That accident could have been prevented by reflectors, perhaps. But it’s not really an accident if the driver of the car is drunk, is it? Even if you didn’t have complete control of your faculties when you decided to drive, you did when you decided to drink. You therefore inflicted violence on another person by extension of your choice, and the fault of the tragedy is yours, whether the jogger was doing the “safe thing” and wearing reflectors or not.

Rape works like that. Whether a rape victim wore a short skirt or ski pants, she becomes a victim when a perpetrator makes a choice to rape her, to perform sexual violence upon her. And whether or not I put Tootie in a dog park or walk her up the block wearing a leash, a violent dog owned by a negligent, ignorant or irresponsible owner might be at liberty to attack her when its owner makes a negligent, ignorant or irresponsible choice. A victim never has a choice about becoming a victim, even if they’re doing “safe” things. Anyone can become a victim of violence at any time. (This stance doesn’t mean I’m going to abandon my intent to advise Ellie to reduce her risk.)

Why do we blame victims for crimes done to them, without their consent and often without their knowledge? I think there are two reasons. For one thing, we like to bend the rules out of our inherent sense of entitlement, believing that we’re special and therefore above them. So, if we own moderately aggressive dogs, or suspect that our un-vetted dog might be vicious…we might visit the dog park a little here or there, increasing the length of our stays or the frequency of our visits over time as we observe no consequences for our breach of edict. But when something goes wrong – as it did today – and somebody gets hurt, we don’t want to believe that we could have been to blame, so we instead blame the victim; even though the perp could have been a perp under any other different set of circumstances. Isn’t it easier to blame someone else than to examine our own culpability?

For another thing, if it’s possible to identify with the victim, we don’t want to believe that such violence could ever happen to us…so we convince ourselves that our own risk reduction will keep us safe from harm. It’s more comfortable to believe that Tootie would have been safe if she had been in the “safe” park for small dogs, than it is to believe that she could just as easily have been bitten by a vicious dog on that side of the fence too. And fences can be breached just like rules, no?

The United States collective stance on war embodies these two human tendencies. We glorify the violence of soldiers because we’re convinced of our own entitlement to enforcing global democracy, or freedom from terror, etc. But what we’re really fighting for is a need for crude oil masquerading as a “global concern.” And when we think of the the victims of the wars we wage, including the innocent who cannot defend themselves from our weapons of destruction, we sleep better knowing that they were “asking for it” by virtue of their geography. “It could never happen to us,” we say. “We’re the good guys.”  

At the end of the day, it’s a violent perpetrator who is unsafe; not a dark alley or a bar or a dog park. Those are spaces. We choose how to fill them.

While some of the dog park visitors might be sitting around their Chippendale-inspired dining tables tonight, congratulating themselves on being “above” dog park violence, I’m trying to learn a lesson from this very unpleasant situation. Lesson learned (and compounded by our veterinarian): dog parks are risky environments because dog “play” is often unpredictable. But the biggest lesson to be learned on this and every other day is the lesson we all hate the most, because, let’s face it: it applies to all of us. Life’s not fair. Today, it wasn’t fair to Tootie and me and Ellie and Charlotte and J***, who just wanted to have a pleasant afternoon at the park. And it certainly wasn’t fair (according to the National Organization for Women) to the 600 or so women who were raped, today – or any given day – in the U.S.

Can you fit 600 women wearing short skirts into the small dog side of the park?

The ugly truth about Mary

Posted in Feminist Theory by femspotter on December 29, 2010

December 29, 2010

Last week, my 5 month-old daughter made her theatrical debut as Baby Jesus in our church Christmas pageant. It was a precious happening because all of the other children, ages 3 and up, became serious and silent when they realized a real baby, and not a doll, was at the center of all the commotion. And Ellie – method actress that she is – slept soundly throughout the entire production.

I was Mary. As I sat there before the congregation in an itchy blue shawl with bobby pins pinching my scalp, I listened to the story of Jesus’ birth…or as I’ve learned to think of it: “Mary’s delivery.”

From the Bible’s Gospel according to Luke:

…God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’

‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For no word from God will ever fail.’

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.

(Oh my! “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”?! Is that an archaic description of rape or what?! All that and she doesn’t even get to choose his name?!) This cannot possibly be accurate. (Smirk.) For starters, if we believe that Mary was indeed a virgin and then mysteriously conceived a child without having sex, it would take a lot more than a seven-sentence conversation to quell any doubts and fears she’d have about her immaculate conception. Luke doesn’t go on to tell us how Mary probably ran straight away to talk to her sisters, female cousins and friends, mother figures and others about her predicament. True to form, she would have analyzed the situation to death and tried to figure out what God Most High was thinking! Every woman would have nodded and smiled reassuringly, but inside thought to herself, “Yeah right…an angel told her that?! What a hussy!” And once the news leaked to Joseph, he and his posse of male relatives and friends would have accosted Mary until she named the father of her unborn as one other than the Lord so they could beat him to a pulp. This quiet acceptance is so…so…final century B.C.!

Additionally, I take issue with the whole virgin-conceives-the-living-god narrative, not unique to Christianity. The idea that sex – for women, at least – is dirty and cannot possibly result in a pure birth forms just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the gritty details we live in denial about – such as where and how the Holy baby comes out of the so-called virgin’s body – form the bulk. It’s easy to shrug off the biological impossibility of this conception. It’s much more difficult to accept our imperfections and our feeble humanity in the face of such grace. Not only is the baby superhuman, Mary must have been superhuman too. (Oh right – she was “highly favored.”) 

More from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them  in the inn.

What kind of a birth story is that?! There’s more language in there about a census than there is about Mary’s experience. And what the fuck do Caesar Augustus, Quirin’i-us and David have to do with it?! The words “according to” in gospel according to… are really telling. History has been written primarily by men. And in Mary’s day, this experience of pregnancy and childbirth would have been witnessed by women and its story passed from mother to daughter in an oral tradition. Were there a Gospel according to Oprah, for instance, we might know more truths about the birth of Jesus.

As it is, when I was a child, I listened to this distorted nativity story with no incredulity whatsoever. Joseph brought Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey. He knocked on the door of the inn and was told that there was no room for them inside. So, they went to the stable where she (painlessly) gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Yeah…you try riding on a donkey when you’re nine months pregnant! And there really were no inns; just homes and travellers relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. A stable? Fine; but note that Joseph would have had little to no knowledge of the female body. That means Mary was on her own. She had no midwife and no sisters to prop her up so that gravity could help her baby travel down and out. How did Joseph know to cut the umbilical cord? Was he put off by all of the blood and shit that comes with baby? And when Jesus had trouble latching to Mary’s breast, who helped her feed him?

Marc Chagall - La MarieeBecause history has traditionally ignored such details, we’ve lost much: the practice of midwifery has dwindled and even disappeared from certain parts of the world, and the knowledge that women are strong enough to give birth naturally has practically evaporated. And we take the authors’ word for it – or rather their lack of words – that Mary’s delivery was uneventful. There’s nothing about the actual birth of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew: instead, Matthew chooses to focus on how Joseph was able to forgive Mary for whoring about and conceiving a baby behind his back. John and Mark don’t mention the Nativity at all.

So that’s it! That’s all Mary gets. There’s no reverence for the anguish she must have felt – as every woman feels – in the uncertain moments before giving birth to her first baby. When I had my moment of “great doubt,” I was 9 centimeters dilated and just about to begin pushing. It was then that I asked for pain medication and was encouraged to continue without by my doula. Mary had the relief of no such science, and the assistance of no such saint.

This is the part where all the MRAs chime in: “But Joseph’s experience really was harrowing!” they whine. Sure it was. It must have been very difficult to accept your betrothed’s impossible explanation for how she became pregnant without you. But what would have been really harrowing was if Joseph had knocked down the door to the “inn” and demanded that somebody give his wife a bed…and some rags and water and loving care. That’s right: a hero Joseph would have shouted, “Let us the fuck in!” And when those three idiot “wise” men showed up, he would have told them what they could really do with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Seriously, I can just picture the look on exhausted Mary’s face as she endures what must have been the original, extraneous baby shower; but instead of sea of pink or blue crap, she found herself with useless luxury goods. “Uh, thanks for the gum resin…really. But did you bring me anything useful, like burp cloths or a bottle warmer?”)

As a Christian, I try to find meaning in biblical stories rather than focusing on the details. But when it comes to Mary, there are no details; so what can I learn from her story about mothering? According to these accounts of her, she meant nothing more to Christianity than her anatomy, which was the vessel in which Jesus came to Earth. I wish the authors had seen it fit to value and relay her experience so that we might learn how strong, rather than subordinate, women can be.

The Nativity should not be a catalyst for women-man hatred. Ahead of his time, and perhaps even ahead of ours, German theologian Meister Eckhart (circa 1300) wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

I agree. Fuck anatomy! We could all use a little of Mary’s grace!

What to wear

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Sexuality by femspotter on July 2, 2010

July 2, 2010

The other day, I was perusing the bargains in baby clothes at the Disney Store outlet – of course, I stick to Bambi and Dumbo and Pooh because I think surrounding my daughter with only princesses sends quite the wrong message about what to value in women (wealth and beauty rather than strength and intelligence – that’s the short of it) – when I came face to face with a woman shrouded entirely in black. Only her forehead and eyes were visible. There she stood, a statue wrapped in ominous cloth, amid pink and purple frills: princesses and their gender-based wiles that seemed to say, “Look at me; look at how pretty I am,” making feminists like me ask the knee-jerk question, “Who are you really?”

hijab - the headscarf worn by Muslim women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the eyes

How much can you tell about somebody from their clothes? I’ll admit, I stole sideways glances at the woman and wondered if she were an oppressed person. I pondered, “Does she wear the hijab because she’s forced to do so; is she afraid of western men and their assumed inherent violence; or is this a religious choice?” Her garments looked uncomfortable to me, though I’ve never worn such things off stage. Perhaps cloaking herself in blackness makes her feel safe or strong or hidden, allowing her to observe without herself being observed by others. Perhaps she hides a secret physical ugliness. Whatever the case, unlike her adjacent counterparts, she seemed to be saying, “Don’t look at me; don’t look at how pretty I am.” She, owing to her precise geography, was one of the most incongruous sights I have ever beheld.

I didn’t draw any resolute conclusions about this woman in black; I had no basis for judgment. I had no knowledge of her beyond what I could tell by her appearance. But I thought about the baby in my belly and how one day she would certainly want to know what makes a woman dress this way and how I would want to be able to give honest, unprejudiced answers to questions like these. It’s important for mothers to educate their children, isn’t it: to be enlightened and to enlighten?

The New York Times ran an enlightening piece about Muslim American women and their attire on June 13. Perfect! I needed to learn. I had been preparing the basic egalitarian answer of “Every woman should be able to choose what she wants to wear and wear it without condemnation,” but really that’s a useless statement after the age of 5 and I had come up with several holes. For instance, once Ellie gets to school age, she’ll wear a uniform like every other kid in the county. I’m behind this measure because – even though jewelry and shoes will tell tales – uniforms neutralize socioeconomic backgrounds when kids are prone to making assumptions based upon appearances. All the children, wealthy or poor, will be the same in one sense: public school learners.

But Ellie will ask me, “If every woman should get to wear what she wants, why do I have to wear a uniform to school?” (Incidentally, I know she’ll ask this question because she’ll be my daughter and I would ask this question; and so would her father. I have never been able to stop viewing the world in terms of fairness: it’s not fair that we get this and they get that, that the world is so unbalanced a place that many are starving and unhappy while others are engorged with comforts. And I realized the other day that I am entirely devoid of the ability to kiss ass: a survival and advancement instinct that many possess. I can’t do it, for that is the definition of unfairness to me: that somebody should deserve more praise for less work than another because of status. And I like this about myself. It’s my best quality. And I sleep well at night without inherent duplicity.)

The Times article presents two Muslim American women from Tennessee and their experiences wearing Islamic attire in the United States.  Apparently, they’ve been shouted out of stores for being “terrorists,” kicked off planes by nervous flight attendants, and continually subjected to public scrutiny because of their clothes: “a loose outer garment called a jilbab; a khimar, a head covering that drapes to the fingertips; and a niqab, a scarf that covers most of the face.”

Women can’t win, it seems. If we wear too much clothing, as with the Islamic tradition, we’re cultish or dangerous because we may be hiding too much. If we show off our flesh – in outfits with bare midriffs, short skirts, revealing tops or even nothing at all, we may be hiding too little. A woman who shows too much cleavage is a slut or a whore, right? Isn’t she asking to get raped? And a woman in a hijab or other religious covering is asking to be harassed for displaying her personal views and traditions, isn’t she?

We’re doing so little to correct these ideas. We have that idiot Sarah Palin making Facebook statements such as, “We have a President, perhaps for the very first time since the founding of our republic, who doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.” It’s this kind of U.S.-centrism that allows people to go into stores like Wal-Mart and scream bloody terrorism at perfectly harmless men, women and children. It is misplaced faith in conservative capitalism to think that there is any way to calculate what may indeed be “the greatest earthly force for good.” Even good forces like love and compassion have yan to their yin.

Then there’s the awful world of Hollywood cinema, which churns out utter garbage like Sex and the City 2. What can be said about this train wreck other than, “I’m sorry it was ever made.” If it’s not making fun of homosexuals and their assumed signature indulgences, it’s pretending to tout women’s liberation through the argument that scantily- and ridiculously-clad American women visiting the Middle East are some how better off than heavily shrouded women who freakishly sneak French fries under their veils. It turns Muslim women and their lives into punchlines; and like Sarah Palin’s blathering, it’s dangerous propaganda for ignorance.

So what have I learned? The better answer for Ellie’s inevitable question of why that woman in the Disney Store was covered in black is, “Every woman has her own reasons.” The Times subject began wearing Islamic attire out of spite, because she was angry that American Muslim women who had once chosen the niqab out of piety were now going without owing to their fear of harassment. Her choice then evolved into something philosophical, for this is not a thoughtless person.  “HEBAH AHMED (her first name is pronounced HIB-ah) was born in Chattanooga, raised in Nashville and Houston, and speaks with a slight drawl. She played basketball for her Catholic high school, earned a master’s in mechanical engineering and once worked in the Gulf of Mexico oilfields.” She’s accomplished and liberated from the constraints of the feminine ideal, and chooses to wear Islamic dress “because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle…I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face.”

It just goes to show you that you can never tell all about people by their clothes.

According to Islam for Today, a Web site dedicated to educating westerners, wearing the hijab may be a liberating act for some Muslim American and Canadian women:

Sumayya Syed, 16, says that what parents or men want have nothing to do with it. In fact, she astounds people who ask by saying that every woman should have this form of liberation. Syed maintains that when a woman is covered, men cannot judge her by her appearance but are forced to evaluate her by her personality, character, and morals. ‘I tell them that the hijab is not a responsibility, it’s a right given to me by my Creator who knows us best. It’s a benefit to me, so why not? It’s something every woman should strive to get and should want.’

…Some people may think that the more a woman covers, the less freedom she has. But, according to Muslim tradition, it is actually the opposite. The less she wears, the more she is degraded and the more she is put in the line of fire of male criticism.

All of this is not to say that Islamic dress doesn’t spell O-P-P-R-E-S-S-I-O-N for some women. According to the National Organization for Women (NOW), the piety and integrity that many women believe Islamic dress grants them as outlined in the Koran can be twisted into something that’s brutally enforced rather than respectfully encouraged. Ergo, the burqa, worn in Taliban territory, means  incarceration rather than liberation.

Before the Taliban’s takeover, Afghan women were:

  • 70% of school teachers
  • 50% of civilians in the government workforce
  • 60% of teachers at Kabul University
  • 50% of students at Kabul University
  • 40% of doctors in Kabul
  • But when the Taliban took over the capital city of Kabul in September 1996, it issued an edict that stripped women and girls of their rights, holding the Afghan people hostage under a brutal system of gender apartheid. The edict forbade women and girls from working or going to school. It effectively placed all women under house arrest, prohibiting them from leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. Women who had lost all of their male relatives in the war were literally trapped in their homes.

    Women were prohibited from being seen or heard. The windows of their homes were painted, and they could not appear in public unless wearing the full-body covering, the burqa. Women were beaten for showing a bit of ankle or wearing noisy shoes. They could not speak in public or to men who were not relatives. They were beaten, even killed, for minor violations of these rules.

    Women accused of prostitution or infidelity were hung in public squares or stoned to death, and persons accused of homosexuality were put in a pit near a wall, which was then toppled, burying them alive. Ironically, brothels proliferated under Taliban rule, employing educated women who had no other way to survive. The Taliban alternated between frequenting and raiding the brothels.

    For women living under the rule of the Taliban, dress is just a symbol of their socially recognized inferiority: a tool used to segregate them and justify doing them harm. It’s important to tell Ellie these things when she is old enough to understand that this and any kind of hatred is wrong. And as for the Muslim women we encounter in our locale, it’s important to accept that their clothing choices may be their own for many different reasons; and, even though they are not being forced to wear the hijab by our U.S. government, a male relative should not be allowed to violently enforce such a dress code either. We believe that women should call the shots in our own lives without harm from men. (“Say that with me, Ellie: women should call the shots in our own lives without harm from men. Shout it.”)

    Oh, back to that pesky uniform question: “Ellie, there are many children who don’t have nice homes to live in and pretty clothes to wear to school. And some people aren’t always kind to people who don’t have lots of money to spend on those things. Wouldn’t you feel very sad if you went to school one day and saw your friends picking on another friend who didn’t wear expensive clothes? You would feel very sad, and probably angry too. I know you would. It’s not fair to judge people by what they wear, or by what they have. It’s our differences that color this planet and make it a wonderful place to live. You kids will wear the uniform so that everybody can see and appreciate the wonderful differences in your characters and your personalities, rather than the differences in your clothes. Express your individuality through words and deeds. And later in life, when you’ve all learned that clothes are just for the eyes, you can wear what you like.”

    Phew! I mean, she’s not even born yet…so I have time to perfect that speech.

    %d bloggers like this: