The Fem Spot

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.

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    Fire Pelosi?

    Posted in Politics by femspotter on March 22, 2010

    March 22, 2010

    Fire Pelosi?

    I guess this means the 17 Republican women in the House of Representatives can kiss their hopes of being appointed Speaker “good-bye.” It seems to me that the democratic process took place in Washington yesterday and the Republicans want to be big babies about it…big, misogynist babies. They might want to rethink their “No More Madam Speaker” slogan before the 17 catch on that they’re not wanted in Washington by insecure male Republicans.

    Whatever happened to “asshole?”

    Posted in Film and Television, Humor, Pop Culture, queer theory by femspotter on February 27, 2010

    February 27, 2010

    I love “The Daily Show!” (I love it apart from its inability to be embedded in my blog.) Thanks to Faemom, I was on the lookout for the following clip on February 3, 2010. Click below:

    “Male Inequality”

    Every time I view this clip, I laugh out loud. If you watched it and you didn’t laugh, you might need professional psychiatric intervention. Seriously. Don’t operate any heavy machinery. You should probably stay away from sharp objects too.

    To recap: “Men today are probably where women were in the late 50’s; we’re about a half century behind women in terms of being understood, in terms of having options,” declares author and sociologist Warren Farrell. Right. “He’s right,” Samantha Bee says. Oh? “Men run just 4…hundred and 85 of our Fortune 500 companies and only three branches of government.” I see, Samantha. Poor men. What am I thinking being a feminist?

    According to Farrell, men have been shut out of pharmaceutical sales positions because they aren’t sexually attractive to the mostly heterosexual male population of doctors that form the pharmaceutical consumer base. By his logic, pharmaceutical sales is a more desirable job prospect than medicine and women dominate the former because they are physically attractive to the latter. So doctors are misunderstood and have few options while women must rely on their attractiveness to men to get ahead? And that’s progress for women because…we now can get ahead in our careers by being sex objects? Similarly, men are disadvantaged from an early age as football players because cheerleaders – long the rulers of the high school sports universe – don’t respect and compliment fallen football heroes. Yeah…those dominant cheerleaders and sexy pharmaceutical saleswomen are really a problem for men!

    Enter the Better Men Organization: nothing wrong with this organization in principle – in fact, I think it’s a very good idea, but their complaint in this segment is that men today really aren’t getting what they need, which is social acceptance to gather. Right. It’s not socially acceptable for men to gather at bars, strip clubs or sports arenas. And men are never known to gather acceptably in the woods where they would certainly be restricted from complaining about their wives.

    Let’s face it: the fact that any men in America are complaining about their overall subordination to powerful women is laughable. Sure, some men are oppressed in violent relationships or at jobs overseen by power-tripping female supervisors. And many men suffer in unhappiness or die violent, painful deaths. But after thousands of years of world domination, men as a collective have NOTHING to complain about. Even if women as a class were to take over ruling the world, it would simply be a taste of men’s own medicine spooned back to them.

    Bravo, Samantha Bee! In light of the fact that so few women are working as writers and performers on late night comedy shows – and even if that weren’t the case, you are a beacon of humor and wisdom for feminists. While I don’t agree that sensitivity and soft-spoken qualities in men should be labeled with a designation that’s “puss-related” – simply because the reverse can also be inflicted on women with a condemnation when we aren’t sensitive and soft-spoken, I champion your ability to poke fun at these shortsighted, complaining men.

    Well, except for that last statement you made: “Attention middle-aged vagina men: sack the fuck up! Seriously. You’re turning me into a lesbian.” While there’s nothing anti-feminist about Bee’s preference for traditionally masculine men, there is something irksome in her use of the term “vagina men.” Why? Because it is negatively wielded and implies that only those with vaginas (i.e. women) can be socially acceptable as sensitive and emotionally expressive; thus compounding one lament of the Better Men Organization. And furthermore, because this use of the word vagina, something uniquely female, is derogatory, it is thus derogatory to women even though not intended to insult anybody but the men in the talking stick circle.

    Now, as I said before, I love “The Daily Show” and I really appreciate Samantha Bee’s refreshing perspective. But this use of female-identified words as derogatory designations for men has got to stop. Terms like “vagina men,” “douche,” “douchebag,” and “pussy,” or “pusswad” as Bee uses in the segment, are all related to female anatomy and imply, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that female anatomy is inferior to male anatomy and thus that females are inferior to males. Why don’t we keep sex-defining anatomy out of it? Instead of “douchebag,” why not use insults like “loser,” “idiot” or “jerk?” Instead of calling the Better Men Organization “vagina men,” couldn’t Bee have called them “weaklings,” “freaks” or “wimps?” That is what she meant, is it not?

    We’ve grown accustom to using these genitalia-related words and have forgotten that they discriminate. Even calling somebody a “dick” implies aggression typically associated with men. Can you or would you call a woman a “dick?” Usually, the term for an aggressive female is “bitch,” which is also derogatory because it historically refers to female dogs. This verbiage keeps us entrenched in our gender binary: women are passive and subordinate, and men are active and dominant forces in the world. At least “asshole” refers to something everybody has. Ergo, use it freely.

    Urban Dictionary provides modern connotations for many of these slang terms we use – submitted by the users of them, many of them rooted in misogyny:

    • Vagina: female opening to the uterus and an insult as in “Man’gina,” which is an outwardly masculine, heterosexual male who fusses or whines about typically female things like hair care products or cramps
    • Douche: product used to sanitize an unpleasant, dirty vagina and a word to describe an individual who has shown (himself) to be very brainless in one way or another, thus comparing (him) to the cleansing product for vaginas
    • Douchebag: an item consisting of a rubber bag, tube and nozzle, used to clean a woman’s vagina and an individual who has an over-inflated sense of self worth, compounded by a low level of intelligence
    • Pussy: a nice name for a cat, slang for women’s genitals and cowardly
    • Pusswad: guy who is a vagina or pussy

    I cringe every time I hear one of these terms being used because I know that they are based on the gender binary that I’d like to see dissolved. But it really irks me when I hear or read feminists using these terms. How can we? Don’t we at large know that they are based in the assumption that we and our woman parts are inferior to men and their man parts? You don’t hear people calling another a “bidet,” an “aftershave” or a “nose hair trimmer,” which are items typically used by men and might be wielded to refer to a traditionally masculine female in a tone rooted in misandry. So why do we feminists and others continue to use terminology that is rooted in misogyny: terminology that implies that our woman parts and thus ourselves are “whin(y),” “fuss(y),” “unpleasant,” “dirty,” “brainless,” “cowardly,” passive, subordinate and weak? Stop it, I say. Stop it right now.

    I believe that our collective decision to do away with such terminology is one step toward doing away with gender and equalizing the sexes. The result: women can run more than 15 Fortune 500 companies and at least one branch of government without fear of being called “bitches.” And men can sit in circles and communicate their feelings to one another without fear of being labeled “vagina men,” or even “wimps.”

    Don’t worry. There will still be plenty of ridiculous ignorance in the world for Samantha Bee to wittily poke fun at.

    Dear Hillary…

    Posted in Feminist Theory, media, News, Politics, Sexuality by femspotter on October 28, 2009

    October 28, 2009

    Dear Hillary,

    On Saturday night in suburban San Francisco, California,  a 15-year-old girl was reportedly gang raped by as many as 10 male teenage attackers while another 10 stood by and watched, maybe even cheered. She was left unconscious beneath a bench on Richmond High School property after more than two hours of this ordeal.

    I read about this incident on CNN.com on Tuesday morning and couldn’t believe it had happened. I found it reminiscent of the gang rape of a mentally challenged teenage girl in Glen Ridge, New Jersey in 1989, which I’d read a book about. Well, thought I, after stomping my fists and wailing at the top of my lungs; at least these types of incidents are few and far between.

    But later I remembered that in 2008, in the neighboring town of Montclair, N.J., three teenage boys sexually assaulted a female teenage special education student. As in the Glen Ridge incident, the young men used a broomstick to penetrate the girl. Well, thought I, after scratching my head and whimpering; at least that’s only two recent incidents in the United States. I don’t, after all, reside in Afghanistan, for instance, where 90 percent of married women are abused by their husbands. The U.S. is a safe haven for women and girls.

    On Tuesday, I waited for other news outlets to pick up the story of the San Francisco teen. I periodically googled “San Francisco gang rape.” Surprisingly, I found very little about the Saturday night incident, and instead stumbled across a December, 2008 gang rape of a lesbian female by four men, two teens and two adults, also near San Francisco. The four had spotted the woman’s car, which displayed a rainbow bumper sticker, shouted hateful epithets at her, struck her with a blunt object, raped her, drove her to an abandoned building, raped her again, and left her naked just outside the building before driving off in her car. Well, thought I, after gasping and digging my fingernails into my thighs; at least gang rape is just a San Francisco and northern N.J. thing.

    But then I remembered the similar hate crime of Brandon Teena (nee Teena Brandon) in 1993 in Humboldt, Nebraska. Two men raped and murdered Teena, and also murdered two bystanders, because they hated – and likely feared – Teena’s choice to live his life as a male, though born a female. Perhaps you’ve seen the film adaptation of this incident starring Hilary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry? Well, thought I, after reliving the horror of the film and emotional ruin it left me in; at least it’s only gangs and pairs that hate women enough to murder them indiscreetly.

    Oh, wait: George Sodini indiscreetly shot at women in a Pennsylvania gym in August, killing three women and then himself and wounding nine others because, as his personal blog so clearly stipulated, he was tired of 19 years of rejection by women and sexually frustrated. “Thanks for nada, bitches!” he wrote in June. And previously, in 2006, lone gunman Charles C. Roberts IV shot 10 girls, killing five and himself, at an Amish schoolhouse in Pa. leaving behind a hint or two about his unfortunate longing to molest little girls. Perhaps, he shot them out of rage and bewilderment that they existed to tempt him. Well, thought I, after digging to find all the facts of these two incidents and finding myself thoroughly disgusted and alarmed; maybe there’s something in the water…in Pa., Neb., N.J. and Calif.

    Why do some men hate women, in the U.S. and abroad? Why do they want to beat us into submission? Why do they want to kill us in heinous ways? Why don’t they want us to be happy with powerful, singular identities and exciting, fulfilling sex lives? Why won’t they let us take control of our reproductive rights without a fight? Why won’t they let us be mothers and lovers at the same time, sinners and saints simultaneously?

    There exists a pervasive hatred and fear of women in our American culture. Whether movies, television, art and literature reflect or cause this fear escapes my understanding. But it all culminates at a rigid point: collectively, we believe women are one thing or the other, limited by our sex to be either good or bad. The “good” women are loving mothers, faithful wives, compliant sexual partners and obliging victims. The “bad” women reject their obligations to the “good” tasks, opting for personal pleasure. In other words, “good” women sacrifice themselves for this goodness, while “bad” women sacrifice nothing. As an unnamed Hollywood executive said of Ms. Swank, “Her look and demeanor are not soft, so it’s hard to see her as vulnerable or as a love object.” (Entertainment Weekly, 10-30-09)

    Ergo, this Hilary like another Hillary we know, does not fall cleanly into either the “good” or “bad” categories, and is therefore a “difficulty.”

    I am reminded of a magnificent argument a certain Secretary of State and former First Lady made to a N.J. Representative in April, 2009 in support of reproductive health and the reproductive health education of women globally and at home, which went largely unnoticed by the media. I am a feminist blogger and I hadn’t heard about it until another blogger called it to the attention of the feminist blogging community. Madame Secretary said:

    Congressman, I deeply respect your passionate concern and views which you have championed and advocated for over the course of your public career. We, obviously, have a profound disagreement. When I think about the suffering that I have seen of women around the world; I’ve been in hospitals in Brazil where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. I’ve been in African countries where 12 and 13-year-old girls are bearing children. I have been in Asian countries where the denial of family planning consigns women to lives of oppression and hardship…It is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so anywhere in the world, and so are we (the Obama Administration). We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health and reproductive health includes access to abortion, that I believe should be safe, legal and rare. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to bring down the rate of abortions and it has been my experience that good family planning and good medical care brings down the rate of abortion. Keeping women and men in ignorance and denied the access to services actually increases the rate of abortion…I’m sad to report that after an administration of eight years that undid so much of the good work (of the Clinton Administration), the rate of teenage pregnancy is going up (in the U.S.)…We are now an administration that will protect the rights of women including their rights to reproductive health care.

    This statement eloquently confirms the Obama Administration’s commitment to the inalienable human right to life that pregnant women were born with; and that right to survive includes access to legal, safe abortions. The statement also makes clear that Pro-Choice supporters are not crazed baby killers: we are, instead, female protectors fighting for the safety and wellness of women, worldwide. We don’t cheer for abortion but instead believe it to be a necessary component to female reproductive health.

    I fear, however, the administration now championed by the Secretary – i.e. that of President Barack Obama – does not share her passion. I fear that President Obama may be… distracted from the goals so clearly described in Madame Secretary’s speech. In July, the President hosted a “Beer Summit” at the White House in honor of a truce struck between affluent Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and a Cambridge, Mass. police officer who had – under national scrutiny – engaged in a “disorderly” scene, which resulted in… no damage to either party.  Earlier this month, Obama traveled to Denmark in a failed attempt to woo the International Olympic Committee into naming Chicago, Illinois, his home town, as the site for the 2016 Olympic Games.  And later this month, Obama hosted an all men’s basketball game at the White House. While he didn’t specifically restrict women players, he didn’t make a point of including them either; just as he doesn’t make a point of following women’s basketball. Personally, I don’t care what the President does during his free time; but on work time he should be cognizant of women’s equality.

    The fact that the President is publicly, and “as the President,” interested in “man” activities like drinking beer, shooting hoops, welcoming a “big rambunctious dog” rather than a “girlie dog” into the White House and spectating the Olympics; combined with the fact that his wife seems more than happy to play the part of First Lady “Fashionista,” means that the U.S. is continuing to tolerate and even support traditional gender roles.

    Traditionally, a woman might be expected to make way for her husband’s comments on major issues rather than issuing her own. It is possible that the reason a Secretary of State and former First Lady bristled when asked to speak for her husband at a question and answer forum in August in Kinshasa, Congo was because of the invocation of said tradition. News anchors rolled their eyes at the scene, but the offense was legitimate. This is 2009, not 1909. Women can and do vote, own property, hold public office, etc. And when a woman does hold an important position, her opinions on subjects relating to her office’s authority are of greater importance than any adjacent man’s: husband’s, President’s and former President’s alike.

    I value your opinion, Hillary. I want to know why this misunderstanding of who we women are and what we can do exists in the U.S., masquerading as hatred and violence; and I want to know what we – what I – can do about it.

    With deep admiration,

    femspotter

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