Monthly Archives: July 2010
Don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another. That’s cultural relativism in a nut shell.
When I ask my students what they think of this, they nod in agreement.
Then I tell a story that I first heard from Nick Kristof in the New York Times. In Pakistan a young man was accused of having an affair with a high-status woman. To punish him, the tribal council chose to gang rape his older sister. They kidnapped her, took turns raping her, then forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers. Her next duty was clear. Sexually impure, she was expected to commit suicide.
Next, I note that at one time slavery was Southern culture. What right did Northerners have to tell Southerners what to do? States rights, and all that.
Must we be Nazis before we can criticize them?
In each of these instances one group benefitted by hurting a less powerful group. The Pakistani men danced for joy as they gang raped the girl. After these rapes the men aren’t punished, the girls are. Plantation owners exploited slaves, who worked for free. Meanwhile, Nazis acquired the assets of the Jews.
Were women and men, black and white, Jew and Nazi equally powerful in creating these cultures?
Cultural relativism provides a useful perspective, unless someone is being exploited and hurt. I’m not a moral relativist.
Studies show that even very young children have a rudimentary sense of justice. It is based on whether one person is hurting another. Researchers showed babies a figure struggling to climb. One figure tried to help it and another tried to hinder it. Babies as young as six months old preferred the helper over the hinderer. Eight-month-olds preferred those who punished a hinderer over those who were nice to it.
When I voice my problems with certain matters, like honor killings, in which girls are killed by their families to remove the stain of sexual impurity that stems from being with a male without chaperone, having sex outside of marriage, or being raped, I’m sometimes told: You can’t judge one culture by another. You’re imposing Western values. You’ve simply internalized your own culture.
Yet these women are harmed in the worst way by the murders. And did women have equal voice in creating a culture that punishes them more than men?
Meanwhile, Islamic feminists voice frustration with Western fears of offending. So men warn women that they are rejecting their culture (one that weakens them) and everyone backs down.
I’m in sync with cultural relativism, unless someone is being hurt.
As a culture we are more offended by racism than sexism – which is not to say that we’re more sexist than racist.
But sexist jokes are more easily traded. Nearly anyone at a U.S. University knows the punch line to, “What’s the difference between a slut and a bitch?” (I’ll answer that in a later blog post.) I attended a university in which jokes about women students prevailed. Typical “coed joke”: “What’s the difference between a coed and the trash? The trash gets taken out once a week.”
When Don Imus called Rutger’s women’s basketball team “nappy headed hos,” we were offended by the racism. But the sexism was mostly overlooked.
In fact, sitcoms rarely have mixed-race casts, possibly because they fear a racist joke cropping up, or a comment coming across as such. Meanwhile, I’ve watched a couple of seemingly feminist shows that used the word “bitch” (and not in a good way) in nearly every episode: Ugly Betty and Life Unexpected. Some TV shows’ raison d’etre seems to be spewing sexism. Family Guy and The Man Show come to mind.
Gangsta’ rap is full of sexism, but few complain. If a genre of music talked about people of color the way that women are labeled in rap we would be outraged.
During the last presidential election mainstream media took way more shots at Hillary than Barack, as with Tucker Carlson’s well known crack, “When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.”
There’s a reason for the difference in offense.
Basically, women put up with sexism more than ethnic groups put up with racism. But why?
First, ethnic groups are aware of times and places when whites haven’t ruled, from present-day Japan to pre-imperial Africa. People of color know that things can be, and have been, different. U.S. racism is glaring by comparison.
On the other hand, most women are unaware of cultures that have existed with gender equality. Knowing nothing else, the inequity they face can seem natural and normal to them.
Many women attend churches that teach that men should be in charge. These women don’t want to go against God. I’m not aware of any ethnic minority churches that preach God wants whites to rule.
Men are women’s lovers, husbands, sons, fathers, and brothers. They love them and want to keep relationship with them. They don’t want to offend them.
Meanwhile, our culture does much to make sexism seem sexy, from Eminem, Rihanna, and Megan Fox sexing up domestic violence to a Rolling Stones billboard depicting a woman sprawled on the floor, mouthing, “I’m black and blue and loving it,” to Justin Timberlake slapping Janet Jackson around and ripping her blouse in a so-called “wardrobe malfunction.” Yeah, right.
All of this leaves ethnic minorities unified in their offense against inequality, while attitudes among women are more mixed. I’ve heard women say that they don’t want to be equal to men, but I’ve never heard an ethnic minority say they don’t want to be equal to whites.
So racism is more difficult to spew, as it meets greater indignation.
As women become more aware of sexism, and come to understand that their silence sounds like acceptance, things will more quickly change.
See related post: Eminem Makes Sexism Seem Sexy – And That’s A Problem
What might a burqa wearer and an anorexic have in common? Usually, not much. They can be at opposite poles. A student from Iran once told me that the loose clothing (not burqas) Iranian women wear can lead to weight gain. “You just don’t have to worry about your weight,” she said, “because you’re so covered up.”
But the two can overlap in surprising ways.
Some burqa wearers and some anorexics are responding to the same thing: difficult aspects of a culture that judges women by their appearance, and that sexually objectifies them.
But they are responding in very different ways.
Some anorexics conform to the cultural notion that beauty equals thinness, and embrace the view to extreme. Others are hoping to rid themselves of the curves that make them into sex objects, often because sexual abuse began when the curves appeared.
The burqa wearer may also have a strong reaction to beauty judgments and objectification, but she simply covers what could be judged or ogled. One woman who commented on a post on burqas told me, “I am a typical American woman who lives in Texas. I own a burqa. I have worn it out numerous times, mostly as a way to see how it feels to be out and about and not be seen as a face or body. Because I live in a culture that values youth and beauty and where people don’t hesitate to judge you by your appearance I have often wished that there was a neutralizing agent, like a burqa, that could help dissipate those judgments.”
At the same time, the burqa wearer and the anorexic are both disappearing. The burqa lets the wearer escape into a mesh of unshaped fabric.
And consider these words from a recovered anorexic:*
When I graduated from college crowned with academic honors, professors praised my potential. I wanted only to vanish.
It took me three months of hospitalization and two years of outpatient psychotherapy for me… (to accept) my right and my obligation to take up room with my figure, voice, and spirit.
A few days ago I watched the movie Penelope. Penelope, played by Christina Ricci, is cursed with a snout instead of a nose. Her parents hide her at home. She finally escapes but uses a scarf to cover her snout. The spell is broken when she finally comes to love herself as she is.
We live in an imperfect world. People objectify and make judgments.
But how would we learn and grow and gain inner strength, character and compassion if there were no need to strive to improve the world or to grow in self-acceptance?
*Abra Fortune Chernik. “The Body Politic.” Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbara Findland. 1995
Here is a thought provoking comment from a reader in response to my post: The Burqa: Limiting Women’s Power and Autonomy
I am a typical American woman. I was born and raised LDS in the Intermountain West and now live in Texas. I own a burqa. I have worn it out numerous times, mostly as a way to see how it feels to be out and about and not be seen as a face or body. I felt so self conscious that I dont think I was able to fully appreciate the experience. Because I live in a culture that values youth and beauty and where people don’t hesitate to judge you by your appearance I have often wished that there was a neutralizing agent, like a burqa, that could help dissipate those judgments. Kind of like what a school uniform is to clothing in a school, of course the burqa being an extreme form of that.
Supreme Court nominations bring worries about bias, “left” and “right.” But only women and people of color are thought to have gender or ethnic biases. When white men are nominated the issue never arises. The upcoming vote on Elena Kagan and the nomination of an Asian woman, Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye, to the California Supreme court have got me thinking about this.
What is the record of a white man who was not thought to be biased and a Latina woman who was: John Roberts and Sonia Sotomayor?
Discussing the issue, one of my women’s studies students politely raised his hand to say, “Well, Sotomayor did say that a wise Latina would make better decisions than white men.”
Her actual quote is as follows:
“I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”
So I asked, “Do you think biased judgments would more likely come from someone who is aware or unaware of her bias? If a person is unaware, she won’t be able to take it into account or assess it. But if a person is aware of a bias, she has the possibility of checking her thinking.
The student nodded his agreement.
So what is the record of Sonia Sotomayor? Prior to joining the Supreme Court studies found her to be moderate in her political leanings with 38% of her opinions liberal and 49% conservative. Clearly her experience as a Latina woman did not show a clear bias. Still, after a year on the Supreme Court she has voted with the liberal wing about 90% of the time.
But John Roberts, a white male who has lived with great privilege, and who was never questioned on the matter, has fared no better. John Roberts has shown a clear partiality for the privileged side of society. Court watcher, Jeffrey Toobin, has noted that, “In every major case since he became the nation’s seventeenth Chief Justice, Roberts has sided with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislative, and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff… Roberts has served the interests, and reflected the values, of the contemporary Republican Party.”
Yes, there is bias on the court. I find I can generally predict with great accuracy how the Court will rule, and who will vote with each side. Even when it turns out 7-2 I can figure out which two.
At the very least we need a diversity of experience and opinion on the court – and hopefully dialogue, with people sharing their differing ways of seeing – since it is likely impossible for anyone to be unbiased. This can happen. Sandra Day O’Connor talked of how much she learned from hearing Thurgood Marshall’s perspective.
Today we can only hope.
Guys aren’t threatened by other guys’ successes with women. When a guy “scores,” men celebrate all around. But women are different. Slut-shaming was not the sole factor in 15-year old Phoebe Prince’s suicide, but it seems to have played a part.
According to Jezebel, Phoebe had been depressed before the bullying began. She missed her absent father, had been self-mutilating, and had attempted suicide after a broken relationship.
But slut-shaming played a role, too. Many girls at South Hadley High began calling Phoebe a slut, a whore, and a cunt because she sought attention from older guys at the school and had been close to, or involved with, some young men who the girls at South Hadley were also interested in.
Why are women threatened by women who are attractive to men, yet men celebrate men who are attractive to women?
While men can actively pursue women, women must take a more indirect course of action. Might the more passive power of feminine beauty cause women to feel less powerful, less secure, and more threatened?
More likely, women and men simply know how they’re supposed to think in this culture. And what they’re supposed to think is that men who get women are studs, but women who do the same are sluts.
The word slut then becomes a handy weapon. It’s pretty sad to use a weapon that has been used to control women, and that could be easily turned on themselves.
While women punish each other for success with the opposite sex, what’s with the high-fives among men?
Women never worry about proving that they are truly women. But men must constantly prove their manhood. Perhaps by flattering the success of high-status men a guy creates a sense of brotherhood with them. They become one of the guys. And in this brotherhood their manhood is assured.
Whatever the reason for the difference between men and women, it is pretty sad that slut-shaming can kindle suicide.
Apparently, Mel Gibson isn’t the only one who feels that his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva “f—ing deserved it” when he hit her. Here’s one guys remark on the matter, posted to the MTV website: “Damn, it is going to be a pleasure to finally see oksana in prison. The ***** is a natural for it! If she pays attention, the inmates there will give her, her final training in how to be an effective porn star. Ah just luvly, the world is unfolding as it should, obviously!”
Written for shock value? Wouldn’t surprise me. But the comment reminded me that now and again a student of mine will defend a batterer when we discuss domestic violence in the Psychology of Women course that I teach.
When the subject of Chris Brown was brought up one day, a student I’ll call Ed opined, “Well, Rihanna deserved it.”
I asked what made him think so.
“He told her to get in the car like four times, but she wouldn’t do it.”
To which I responded, “Four times? Oh, now I totally get it.”
“Well, maybe it was five or six times.”
Tapping my forehead with the palm of my hand, I exclaimed, “So Chris Brown beat Rihanna until she was bloody because she wouldn’t get in the car. Oh, now it all makes sense to me. Thanks for explaining!” Sarcasm in the classroom may not be a recommended method, but he did get the point – after a while.
Continuing I asked whether he would beat his dog or his child bloody if either of them refused to get in a car after being asked five times. No?
Turning to the broader context I added, “From what I understand Rihanna had discovered that a young woman had offered herself up for a booty call via text message, so she was pretty upset. Do you think someone would be more upset that their companion wouldn’t get in a car – after being asked five times – or if they learned their lover planned a sexual tryst with someone else later that evening?”
”And, why should Rihanna get in the car just because Chris told her to?”
While most of my students got the point, Ed didn’t until I asked, “What if the situation had been reversed? What if Chris Brown had discovered that Rihanna was expecting loving from someone else that night? How do you think he’d react?”
Another student gave a quick glance before shouting out, “Probably the same way – by beating her.”
Was Ed speaking in jest, like the MTV commenter cited above? Sadly, my sense is that even in this day in age, some young people still feel it makes sense for men to “discipline” women, and that women sometimes deserve to be hit.
As European countries step up to ban the burqa, many protesters don’t understand that the burqa is neither a religious requirement nor a simple cultural costume. The burqa is about limiting women’s autonomy and power.
The Koran only asks women to be modest and to veil their breasts (24:30 31).
If the burqa is not a religious requirement, how did it arise? Let’s take a look at how covering affects women in the countries in which it is law, which points to its intent.
In Saudi Arabia women cannot drive because they cannot get a driver’s license (no face picture for identity purposes).
Meanwhile, Sheikh Abdul Mohsin al-Abaican recently declared that women should give breast milk to their male drivers so that they can symbolically become their sons. Not sure that this means breastfeeding, which would neither enhance modesty nor separate the sexes. But it would keep non-lactating women from driving. (Or could they feed their drivers formula?) Women who cannot afford drivers are pretty much doomed to stay close to home.
Reflecting their lack of power, Saudi women make up only 5% of the workforce. Maybe it’s hard to get to work when you can’t drive? This low number reflects a social norm that women’s place is in the home, leaving the larger society largely safe from their influence.
In Afghanistan, women political candidates cannot speak or give speeches face-to-face in mixed company. If there is enough money for campaign posters, a burqa amidst men’s faces would certainly stand out, I suppose. But it would look very odd. Meanwhile, the bulk of Taliban-style culture is designed to limit women’s power, whether keeping them from venturing outside the house or keeping them from education and work.
The Burqa is not a fashion statement. It is not a religious requirement. It is not really about morality. Why should free societies support the lack of freedom and power that the burqa was intended to create?