Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Apropos of agency

Cross posted

anjum has been writing about agency with respect to Muslim women in particular, but also in respect of all women in minority ethnic groups: We're quite capable of speaking for ourselves, imperial feminism, dodging bullets. Apropos of that, here is a challenge I've given my students, something which seems to have rattled some of them a little, especially those of them who felt that we (whoever "we" is) ought to be very worried about the various forms of veiling that many Muslim women wear, and should be doing something about it.

Turn it around, I say to them. Imagine what a newcomer to Australia or New Zealand, or indeed any other Western nation, might say about the practices we force on women here. Women have to get the hair waxed off their legs, they must wear make-up and straighten their hair, when they're at work they have to wear shoes that make their feet ache and can result in long term damage to their legs and hips, and there are some foods they're not supposed to eat, so that they can keep their weight down. Sure, they can "choose" not to do these things, but if they don't, then they will be criticised, sometimes quite severely. There are no formal rules about these practices, but all the women understand that this is what they must do, and if they don't, they will pay the price.

Then I say to them, how would you feel if the newcomer decides that she will do her best to rescue Western women, to work hard to liberate Western women from these practices, because it's clear that they need rescuing.

I've had a few stunned silences in my tutorials when I've put it that way. And in other places. Including in myself.

10 comments:

stargazer said...

wow, deborah, you are one helluva brilliant teacher. i'm actually feeling jealous of your students at this moment, that they get to have someone like you to shake up their view of the world :)

Deborah said...

Thank you, anjum. My students shake me up too... it's very much a mutual process. I run very interactive tutorials and lectures, which can be draining, because I have to work very hard to keep the conversation purposeful, but the students can and do say the most insightful things.

Hugh said...

Well... I've heard a hell of a lot about how all that waxing, makeup, high heels etc is really bad and should be stopped.

And I would regard expecting a women who had come to New Zealand, particularly from a decolonised state, to remain silent in the face of things she found objectionable, as unreasonable.

ideologicallyimpure said...

@Hugh I don't think this is about expecting a woman to conform with a new culture's standards. This is about asking people to think just how offended they would feel if, say, incredibly vocal groups from China or Saudi Arabia who coincidentally got huge publicity via international media based in their country (and I'm struggling to think of a non-Western equivalent to BBC or Fox), started campaigning against Western standards and declaring that Western women Need To Be Saved From Their Oppressors.

And of course one must also imagine that the people screaming about said oppression didn't seem to really care about it until they needed a reason to stir up anti-Western feeling ...

Psycho Milt said...

Sure, they can "choose" not to do these things, but if they don't, then they will be criticised, sometimes quite severely.

I would have seen a lot fewer veiled women in Kuwait if that was the worst they could expect for choosing not to. Would be nice if it was all they could expect for it, but it's not.

Hugh said...

That would indeed be a different situation, impure, but Deborah specifically mentioned "imagine a newcomer..." so I thought of immigration, not the scenario you've described.

Such a situation would indeed be different, but it's also hard to imagine. The closest to a major international news organisation based outside the West is Al-Jazeera, but its audience within the West is so relentlessly liberal-progressive that it would be unlikely to get any purchase with such a story.

Deborah said...

Hugh, it's a thought experiment. I'm not trying to say that this is a real world situation.

Imagine X. X is a newcomer. X comes into a society, society B. X criticises what she finds in B, and sets about trying to change it, all without even consulting the people of B, or even recognising that people in B might be trying to work on it themselves.

How might the people of B feel about that? Do you think that they might feel stampeded, perhaps deprived of agency, treated as though they are children who are incapable of speaking on their own behalf. Perhaps they might even feel angry, because X has failed to even try to understand why they might behave in particular ways, and simply rushed in and imposed X's own views.

Hugh said...

The thing is Deborah, not all Xs and Bs are equal. If X is from the third world and B is New Zealand, then X lacks the privilege necessary to stampede or deprive of agency anybody in society B, and any claims by members of B that X is stampeding them need to be read in that context.

Deborah said...

How about just focusing on the example given, instead of adducing extra details, Hugh. You've kind of missed the point of this one.

Isa Ritchie said...

Having tutored for Women and Gender Studies this semester I can totally relate to this post. I guess it's a kind of naive ethnocentrism that takes for granted the hegemonic constraints of "our" society and others different cultures - shocked and horrified by female genital mutilation but oblivious to cosmetic surgery. Nice post.