Sunday, 2 May 2010

only human

i've been wanting to respond to a couple of comments about burqas that have been made in the last few days, but i needed to let my thoughts settle in my head a little. the particular comments i'm thinking of (and i'm sorry to single you two out, it's just that you started my current train of thought) are:

For me supporting Boobquake is part of the same thinking as supporting Muslim women who want to wear their traditional head coverings. People need to have the freedom to dress in whichever manner is right for them without fear of other people's reaction.

and this:

Anjum, what is your position on the wearing of the burqa ? I'm at a loss to understand it any terms other than that it is archly patriarchical.

and i think i'll start with the second one first. the fact is that i don't actually support the burqa. i'd be happy to challenge anyone to find me actually supporting the burqa itself in any of my public comments. i have supported the women wearing them, mostly by default. i just became the go-to person for a little while on matters pertaining to muslim women, and often felt uncomfortable with being put in a position of supporting something i didn't personally believe in.

on the other hand, i had something that many people in this country didn't have, and that is the chance to interact with burqa-wearing women, and to debate with them about the rights and wrongs of wearing one. you might want to think of these women as brainwashed, but i found many of them to well-educated, articulate, some of them born and brought up in the west (and usually deciding to take on the burqa as an adult), and pretty passionate about their beliefs. i've had some pretty in-depth debates, and have yet to convince a burqa-wearing woman that she shouldn't wear one. maybe that just means i'm a poor debater...

but getting back to what they said on the subject, i've heard one woman make a pretty feminist argument about wearing a burqa. her point was that it was her body and no male had any inherent right to view any part of her that she didn't wish to reveal. to her, it was a matter of empowerment that she was getting to decide what to reveal and what to conceal.

i can see her point of view. i can appreciate that, as an individual, she feels empowered and that she sees it as a feminist decision. but i can't agree with her. as an individual, it may well be that way. but at a societal level, it creates too many restrictions on women's full participation in society - in the ability to access many kinds of employment, to partake in politics and leadership, and so on. i accept that a society could theoretically be structured where a woman wearing a burqa could do all those things, but i haven't seen one, at least in our modern world. i've seen burqa-wearing women engaging in a variety of tasks, from driving to being a school principal, but on the whole i don't think it's possible to be a fully engaged member of society while wearing one.

which leads me to conclude that it isn't a feminist choice to wear a burqa, even though the individual woman wearing it may feel that way about it. the societal negatives outweigh the individual empowerment.

so why do i so often defend burqa-wearing women? the main reason is that i don't think forcing women out of the burqa is going to achieve anything positive for them, and it certainly won't change what they believe or how they view the world. if they are oppressed, it won't stop the oppression. the other reason is that i don't believe they deserve the sometimes pretty harsh harassment they received for dressing the way they do. i pretty much covered this ground a couple of days ago.

i have no problem with people criticising the burqa, as long as they actually know what they're talking about. so for example, all of the people who use the "but criminals could be under that burqa and could get away" obviously haven't got a clue. even for the burqa wearers, when it is a matter of public security, they can lift their covering and show their faces for identification purposes. it's really not an issue. nor do i accept the "they're all oppressed" argument, because clearly some of them are not, and have come to this decision through their own reasoning.

which then leads me to the first comment i quoted at the beginning. when it comes to the whole "boobquake" thing, i feel pretty much the same. i can understand why individual women would see this event as empowering and i don't believe they deserve criticism, or "slut-shaming" if you will, for simply taking part in something they believe in. but i disagree that the event as a whole is a feminist event, given the societal context it's happening in. a society where increasingly, the prevalent view we get of women is as dehumanised, sexualised beings rather than whole humans with their own sexuality.

again, i think the ground has pretty much been covered, and i don't need to go into the detailed arguments. but i do feel that we need to have the space to talk about our misgivings about events or the way female sexuality is presented, without it being seen as an attack on the women who want to present themselves that way.

i guess that's what i was trying to do with the post on the v8 coverage in the waikato times. i had no beef with the girls who chose to be grid girls or hood st hotties or whatever else was happening. my problem twofold: the coverage of women in relation to the v8s which gave them such limited roles, and the very narrow definition of what constituted "hot" in terms of the photographs presented. i assumed that it would be understood that i wasn't attacking the girls themselves so didn't articulate it clearly in the post. possibly a mistake on my part.

with boobquake, i know that a lot of people see it differently to me. that's fine, and if they believe it's a feminist event, that's fine. but i don't have to agree with that, and to disagree doesn't mean that i think the person making the argument is a bad feminist. it just means i disagree with their point of view on the issue.

and, yes, i tend to disagree pretty forcefully. i guess that's as a result of some pretty agressive and sometimes nasty comments that come through whenever a post goes up that discusses issues around female sexuality. and i don't react well to people accusing me of saying things i didn't say or didn't mean. but i do try my best to avoid making personal attacks. it's not up to me to judge who is a good feminist any more than it is up to me to judge who is a good muslim or a good whatever.

that i may fall short of the mark on occasion is to be expected. i'm only human after all. but i intend to continue to put my own arguments forward or to say why i disagree with someone else's point of view, even when i know my own position is going to be pretty unpopular. that's nothing new for me, i'm pretty used to being a misfit or the odd one out in a variety of situations.


hungrymama said...

Hey - I'm happy to be quoted and prompted into examining my thinking :-)

I certainly agree that nor every mode of behaviour is a good fit with my personal brand of feminism and there is definitely a bit of discomfort when women who have the choice choose things that have been used to subjugate women who didn't have any choice in the matter.

The thing is, though, we can't fight for women to be able to choose their own destiny and then tell them that they may only choose those paths which we approve. Nor is it OK to label someone "not feminist" because they practice their feminism differently from how I do.

I think I find the burqa issue harder to deal with that the Boobquake one because I tend to choose the more revealing clothes when I'm feeling confident in my own skin (baggy clothes are for shyly hiding behind) so the connection between cleavage and pride is a natural one for me. (For the record I do not have a fashionable thin figure so wearing fitted clothing and enjoying the shape I'm in happens in defiance of societal expectations).

Carol said...

I kind of dropped out of the boobquake discussion midweek when my life got very busy.

hungrymama, my view has been less about being critical of how other women dress individually, and more about an appropriate feminist strategy, given the way the mainstream media responds to women, feminism & Muslim/Arabic women. Not agreeing with a feminist strategy rather than saying someone is "not feminist" because I disagree.

Following my earlier participation in the discussion, further investigation confirmed one of the niggles at the back of my mind about the way the Iranian cleric's views on immodest dress & earthquakes got picked up by the Western press.

Our MSM tends to select pretty negative stories about Muslim/Arabic people generally, as well as underlining how they see western women as being more liberated.

The original story was a fairly marginal one for Iranian consumption that was a comment about Iranian women modifying their clothes in very subtle ways that are considered immodest in Iran. It got picked up and mainstreamed by the Western press. The immodest dress referred to didn't even get close to exposing or highlighting any boobage. Also it was a comment about how Iranian women dress, not how Western women dress. For the cleric (mostly no-one remembers his name because he's a relatively minor figure who has little significance in the West), the issue was about earthquakes in Iran. He certainly has no power to influence how women in the West dress.

I discovered this by checking back through stories via google news, Also martindufresne (April 27), provides background to the rise of the story, in the comments section below this post:

So the boobquake response was a Western-centred one to an Iranian women's issue. I don't see how it will help the women in Iran.

I did chuckle at the absurdity when I first heard the story in the media, and moved on - much as I do with similarly tenuous logic from Christian relgious leaders, often about homosexuality, or sex outside marriage. Not being religious, I tend not to respond as usually I don't see such comments having much significance in my life.

In retrospect, it does look like the boobquake response was an immediate jokey response that gained a life off it's own and went viral.

However in the earlier boobquake discussion, I had in mind that, in the 80s and 90s there was something gained by feminism embracing a more positive and less restrictive and puritanical approach to women's sexuality and self-presentation. Ivery much agree with women taking control of their own self-presentation in whatever way suits them.

But, this still has ramifications beyond individual choices, especially when it's elevated to a campaign. And I do think that much of the mainstream media has become pretty adept at commodifying and containing their sexualised representation of feminism.

Ultimately, I think a better strategy is to focus on the diversity of ways that women present themselves, rather than make a campaign out of one style.

BTW, hungrymama, I was watching a bit of the new channel on Freeview today - C42. There is a dirth of the scantily clad women seen so often on other music channels. And I liked seeing the Gossip video, in which the singer displayed some cleavage, but not in the way usually seen in music vids - and she is a little larger than the standard scantily clad music vid woman. Context, and how it's done is also important.

The Analyst said...

Hi stargazer,

I read this blog often, but don't comment as much. I've also often wondered what was your own opinion about burqa. I liked your honesty in this post.

You might also like this ted video where Kavita Ramdas talk about radical women, embracing tradition.

stargazer said...

thanx for the comments everyone. i've been out of town all weekend so not able to respond up til now.

hungrymama, i was trying to make a distinction between seeing a thing (event, piece of clothing etc) not feminist, and calling a person "not feminist". i certainly try to avoid doing the latter to the best of my ability. i think we need to have discussions around impacts of the way women's sexuality is continually presented to us, what impact that has, whether or not we should try to change it, and if so, how.

carol, thank you for taking the time to outline your views. last week, i followed through links from other blogs, and came across this:

And say, how's about we do a QueerIslamicane to this Clay Yarborough dude here in Florida? Since he thinks gay people and Muslims bring hurricanes because they're not his breed of folks, I say it might be worth testing the hypothesis. Everybody dress modestly--women in headscarves, men in turbans--and parade past his office in same-sex couples, holding hands. See if the weather starts getting rough. Too silly? Well, now you know why I didn't do Boobquake. Like I said...we can do better.

which maybe captures some of what you've said?

analyst, i'll try to get to your link this evening. thanx for putting it up.

stargazer said...

analyst, i've listened to the talk and it brought tears to my eyes. what an inspirational woman! thank you again for sharing.

in response, i'll put up this link to an interview on radio nz this afternoon (afternoons, 15.10) with isobel coleman, who has written a book about how muslim women in the middle east are using religion to fight for their rights.