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.

    Dinner with Tina Fey

    Posted in Film and Television, Humor, Personal Essays by femspotter on November 8, 2008

    November 8, 2008

    Over the past couple of months – as I have let the frequency of my posting slide some owing to a hefty workload at my new job and a stressful PhD application process – I have spent my leisure time observing the antics of one delightful Tina Fey. A fan of 30 Rock and Mean Girls, I usually think of her as Liz Lemon, feminist television writer/producer extraordinaire, or the encouraging high school math teacher with a second job as a button-wearing bartender at the local mall; but in the last few weeks, I have gotten to know her as an Emmy winner, a Sarah Palin dead ringer, and as a pair of sexy legs sprawled out on the “Weekend Update” desk on the Saturday Night Live television set.

    Tina Fey CU

    Tina Fey WS

    Those are great legs! But what we all really love about Fey is her shtick: a wry and bold sense of humor that appeals to everybody: from 10-year-old boys who love fart jokes, to girly girls who laugh at pop culture satire. She is beloved for her brain in the way, historically, so few women have been – and that’s what makes her special.

    If I went to a party and we decided to play the game in which everybody announces the five people, living or dead, they’d invite to dinner, I would definitely choose Tina Fey as one of my guests. True, she’s alive and the possibility does exist that our paths might cross and I would get to ask her a thing or two about how she started her career as a writer and eventually became a renowned film and television personality. But I don’t want to risk it: so she’d be my living guest sitting next to other famous women who lived and achieved notoriety in an earlier time.

    During this game, somebody would of course say “Jesus.” “I would invite Jesus for sure,” he or she would announce. Then, the rest of us would sigh because our choices are less noble.

    “Hitler,” one would shout. I’d frown. “Abraham Lincoln!” Hmmm…okay. “Julius Caesar.” I like that last one to be sure.

    But alas, my choices would be: Lizzie Borden, Joan of Arc, Edith Wharton and Heloise, wife of Peter Abelard and brilliant scholar by her own merit. Having dispensed with the delicious appetizer (fried mozzarella or an insalata caprese – whatever has cheese), we’d get right down to business. “Ms. Borden, did you really kill your father and stepmother with a hatchet?” I ask.

    “And Joan, was it hot under that armor as you marched into battle, driving the English out of France?”

    “Ms. Wharton, do tell me whether or not you intended readers to derive a moral from the story of Ethan Frome?”

    “Heloise, was the sex with Abelard really that good?”

    Yes. Yes. No. Yes. But what I really want to talk about is Tina Fey and her rise to stardom: “How were you able to cultivate a successful Hollywood career and be mother to a beautiful female toddler at precisely the same time?”

    “What do you really think of Sarah Palin?”

    “Describe for me your take on feminism: are we beyond needing it or is there still a reason to stand up and fight for equal rights, equal pay and control over our own bodies? Do you think women are our own worst enemies?”

    “And do you really hate flip flops (because if I had my way, I’d wear flip flops all the time)?”

    When I think of Tina Fey carrying that cardboard tray of hot dogs in the series opener of 30 Rock, I can’t help but grin. I remind myself by a handwritten post-it stuck on my computer screen: “Don’t buy all the hot dogs,” it reads.

    See, Liz Lemon was standing in line to buy a hot dog from a street vendor one day when somebody cut in front of her and she got so mad that she bought the entire cart of hot dogs just to maintain the integrity of the principle of the thing. That’s something I want to do everyday – more or less – but I don’t because I have the post-it. “Don’t buy all the hot dogs”…even if you really, really, really want to.

    So, once I pay due attention to my favorite serial killer, warrior, author and romantic, I want nothing more than to split the warm, flour-less chocolate cake with the woman who has broken almost every barrier and every mold. (Perhaps I should have asked Hillary Clinton instead of Joan.) But no, I’m talking about Tina Fey and her wonderful, crooked grin that seems to say, “R*****, I know exactly who you are, because I’m just like you…and nobody understands you better than me.”

    Then, we have a good Scotch, a good cry and a good hug. And I thank her for giving little girls somebody warm, strong and funny to look up to. Because, when you think about it, there really is noone else who doesn’t make them feel fat or stupid if they let them. Tina Fey helps us feel comfortable in our own skin.

    Hillary Clinton supporters: stupid, or just plain emotional?

    Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Pop Culture by femspotter on September 4, 2008

    September 4, 2008

    The question has been asked on television news, commentary programs, talk radio and at the office water cooler. Does John McCain really think women in this country are stupid enough to vote for him just because his running mate is a woman?

    When I first heard the news that McCain’s choice was made and freshman Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin was on his ticket, I experienced a burst of excitement. Gloria Steinem had said that men of all races will make history before women, and in this case the history was to be made by Democratic nominee Barack Obama, a black man. He’ll be the first black man to become president. Sorry ladies, you’ll have to wait your turn.

    I’m not usually the kind of person who follows authority blindly, but it was the Gloria Steinem who had said it. Men will achieve historic milestones in each category before women. I felt a stab of injustice. I fumed and cried for the 80- and 90-year-old women out there who were hoping to see Hillary Clinton assume the presidency, meaning that herstory had been made when this country elected a woman to our highest executive office.

    Sarah Palin. Who is that? I didn’t know her from Eve, but suddenly her name sounded really powerful. Maybe she would prove Steinem wrong and pass an historical landmark before a black man had become either president or vice president. Sarah Palin. How bad could she be?

    Obama never told us why he didn’t consider Clinton as his running mate. I had thought her the most logical choice. She came in a close second in the primary. She’d been a gracious loser, throwing her support behind Obama. She has some diehard fans. Shouldn’t these qualities make her the runner up for the job, a heartbeat away from the big button? Hey! I demand to know why she wasn’t even considered!

    But it’s not my choice. It’s up to the man who won the primary race. And apparently he doesn’t care if roughly 20 percent of Clinton’s voters have pledged to give their votes to McCain.

    And now with this Palin upset… People are asking: Are liberal women stupid enough to vote for McCain/Palin just because Palin is a woman?

    It’s the wrong question. The correct question is: Are liberal women angry enough to vote Republican?

    I’m not stupid and neither are the ladies from the Rutgers University Women’s Studies department who were quoted in last weekend’s New York Times as saying they would write in Clinton’s name when the time comes. It’s not a rational, intellectual reaction that makes us think of betraying party loyalty, it’s an emotional one.

    Several weeks ago, I blogged about crying at work. I got a nasty response from somebody out there in the blogosphere telling me that I must be totally insane to cry over a hurtful, misdirected email – somebody emailed me something negative about me instead of sending it to the appropriate (?) person. I should have posted the comment under the essay…but I had an emotional reaction to it and, just like when I cried at work, I acted hastily. I deleted the comment.

    My emotions aren’t wrong or bad, but they often make life a bit difficult. Emotional people are the ones who give you the finger if you cut them off in traffic. Emotional people get scared at scary movies and huddle up to the person in the seat next to them. Emotional people take in stray animals. We donate blood. We’re always available to give you a hug. We’re not terrible people…we’re emotional.

    Once I saw a woman weeping on a bench in the New York City subway system. I recognized her as a fellow emoter immediately. I thought that perhaps she’d just lost her 12 year-old Labrador Retriever. Maybe, she’d dropped all of her money irrevocably onto the subway tracks. Could it be that her tears were the result of too small underwear wedging into her ass crack? There was just no way to tell.

    I wanted to go over to her and lay a hand on her shoulder. I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be okay. But because she was crying – for whatever reason – I couldn’t do it. Once emotional, always emotional. If she’s a crier, won’t she be a screamer too? This was New York City. If I offered her sympathy, would I be rewarded with a smack?

    Emotion can get a bit unruly, but it’s also fleeting. My knee-jerk reaction to Palin’s nomination was enthusiasm. But I’m all for abortion rights, gay marriage and green initiatives. Palin is completely against abortion under any circumstances. She’s absolutely certain that the only viable “marriage” equation consists of one man and one woman. And she thinks global warming is the process by which flight attendants heat meals on an airplane.

    I may have considered voting for McCain during the emotional haze that followed the Palin announcement. But when I do think about those issues, among others, I know that I will not vote Republican. That’s not to say that my Obama vote is etched in stone, however. Remember, I’m emotional. If Obama says or does anything disrespectful to Clinton or to female Democrats in the days just before the election, he’s risking another emotional outburst from us scorned women.

    We’re not stupid. We’re just emotional. And emotion isn’t bad or wrong, it’s just impulsive.

    The right thing would have been to offer assistance to the crying woman in the subway. I should have braved it. The wrong thing would have been to avoid even considering such a gesture.

    Smoke, mirrors…and texts

    Posted in Politics, Pop Culture by femspotter on August 29, 2008

    August 29, 2008

    Several weeks ago, my husband excitedly told me that he, J*** M*****, would be the first to know who the (then) presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama would choose as his running mate. J*** had signed up to receive a text message of the news on his cell phone. (The novelty of text messages still has not worn off in our house – I don’t send them myself and was alarmed at how out of touch I must be when my 59-year-old mother sent me one the other day.) Obama was going to make his choice known to the world…but first, he was going to text my husband.

    We stared at his phone. When it buzzed, would it tell us that Hillary Clinton was the chosen one, even though she hadn’t been vetted; even though Obama hadn’t mentioned her much in the past few weeks; and even though CNN – otherwise known as BNN (Barack News Network) – had indicated that she was NOT on his short list? Would the text reveal that Clinton would be rewarded for her 18 million primary votes and her unfailing public support of Obama since she conceded the race? We held out a glimmer of hope. After all, why would Obama need to vet Clinton? She was nearly in his place. What more could he possibly need to know about her, about her qualifications?

    I had voted for Clinton in the New Jersey primary. I thought her the superior candidate based on experience and her ability to explain things clearly. I did not dislike Obama, but had concerns about his many “present” votes in the Illinois State Senate, for instance. I worry about his lack of decisiveness. Recently, when BNN did back-to-back interviews with Obama and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain, the moderator asked both men the same questions and the result was that McCain spit out more answers than did Obama in the allotted time (same for both). Why? McCain uses words like “yes” and “no.” Obama is less direct. He dances around those words.

    Needless to say, when the text came at 3 a.m. on Aug. 23, we were very disappointed. It’s not that we don’t respect, or even admire, Senator Joe Biden. But like somebody said on Fox News: Is this Obama’s way of admitting he needs adult supervision in the White House?

    Here’s what I think: this is actually Obama’s way of avoiding the revelation that he needs the Clinton voters. I think that he might see that as stooping or pandering. And a man with his ego is never going to admit publically that he needs the help of a lowly woman…other than his wife. Right?

    Whoosh! I felt that slap in the face. All of the votes Clinton had received and all of her subsequent cheers and supportive declarations hadn’t ingratiated her in Obama’s good graces. And to add insult to injury, Obama sent his magical text at 3 a.m., the time when Clinton had said she’d be ready to pick up the phone and deal with the country’s needs and Obama would not. So there!

    The Obama-Biden ticket was designed to offset attacks from the McCain camp. What do you mean I’m not experienced enough? I’ve got a 36-year United States senator on my team…and he has white hair. What do you mean I don’t have enough foreign policy experience? My vice president is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

    McCain has made a similar move in selecting Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, but he’s also one-upped the distinguished gentleman from Illinois. Palin offsets McCain’s age and his less-than-conservative ideals by bringing youth, and consequently inexperience, to the ticket. She’s only 44, the youngest of the four candidates, and is in her first term as the head of her state. On the plus side for the “too moderate” McCain are her politics: she’s pro-gun, pro-life and anti-gay. And just like Biden, she has a son enlisted in our armed services. As the mother of five, including one child with Down syndrome, she’s probably capable of keeping McCain in line during the next several months.

    But Palin’s real gift is genetic: she’s got the same anatomy as one Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton…and in the wake of Clinton’s snub, Palin’s vagina is more valuable to McCain than any man’s set of balls would be. Let’s face it: you’ve got to be tough in politics, but you’ve also got to be smart and a bit of a show(wo)man. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

    The real question now is whether or not angry Clinton supporters, like me and my text-happy hubby, will take the bait. Will we fall hook, line and sinker for McCain’s choice of the former commercial fishing company owner?

    I’m at a crossroads.

    I was hoping that McCain would pick Mitt Romney, the conservative once caught in liberal’s clothing from Massachusetts. I can’t think of anyone I despise more…except maybe Maureen Dowd (but that’s a blog for another day). He’s pro-choice one day…pro-life the next. He’s credited with creating jobs at Bain, when really, he cut benefits and pay to existing workers in order to do so. And, though this is quite unfair to Romney, I associate him with those brutal weeks I spent during my undergraduate education at Boston University waiting to find out whether Al Gore had beaten George W. Bush in the 2000 Presidential election…even though Romney wasn’t yet the Governor. ARRRGGGHHH!

    If McCain had just picked Romney, I could have forgiven Obama…sort of.

    I don’t know what to do. As a Clinton supporter, I am really angry at Obama. But am I angry enough to vote against my side of the issues: pro-choice, pro-gay, anti-gun? Do I side with my party or with my sex? Which is worse: being spat upon or being manipulated? I suppose I could just not vote at all…but then I would be giving up the right to complain after the dust settles.

    For now, I’ll just sit by the phone and wait for a text message from my soul. Isn’t that how it works?

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