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Did Women Create Burqa Culture?

In honor of implementation of the French “burqa ban,” and the brouhaha it is causing from Bill Maher to the New York Times, I repost the following:

The French “burqa ban” has got me thinking. Did women have equal power to create the burqa? And who benefits from this garment?

Some charge that rejecting the burqa comes from fear of the other, or ethnocentrism. I’m in sync with cultural relativism, so long as no one is being hurt. But buqas and “burqa cultures” don’t give women equal power. And women certainly did not have equal sway in creating the customs of these societies.

Think about the laws that exist in places where women are required to cover up in burqas, abayas, niqabs (facemasks) or various other veilings.

Is it likely that women decided that men could easily demand a divorce, but women could get one only with difficulty?

Is it likely that women created the notion that sharing a husband with other women might be fun?

Did women create the idea that an adulterous man be punished by burial up to his waist before being stoned, while a woman must be buried to her breasts – and one who escapes, escapes the stoning?

In these cultures, when a woman is raped it is her fault. She obviously let some hair fall from her covering, or she allowed an ankle to show. Everyone knows that no man could resist such things. Did women decide that women, and not men, are responsible for men’s sexuality?

Did women originate the notion that after rape, the victim must be killed to restore family honor?

Did women clamor for a burqa that limits their power and autonomy – keeping them from driving in Saudi Arabia and getting jobs that are far from home? Did women design this garment that prevents small pleasures like seeing clearly or feeling the sun and the wind?

And who benefits?

Men benefit from easily obtaining a divorce, but not allowing their wives the same privilege. Men benefit from the sexual variety of having many wives, while women are left to share one man. Men benefit by more easily escaping a stoning. And men can rape with impunity since women fear reporting sexual assault, lest their families kill them. Men gain power when women are incapable of getting jobs and income. How much easier is it to beat women for the infraction of straying outside the home, or letting a wrist show, when they are black or blue blobs, and not human beings?

It is common to make accusations of ethnocentrism when one culture rejects the practices of another. Often the fears are valid.

But if a powerful group creates a culture that benefits themselves to the detriment of others, the critique is not about ethnocentrism. It is about human rights.

Georgia Platts

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Don’t Reject Your Culture, Even When It Mutilates You 
The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated

Inflaming Feminazis: BEING Powerful? Or just FEELING Powerful?

As Women’s History month winds down I’d like to ponder the difference between being powerful and merely feeling powerful. Too often people chase the feeling and give up the real thing.

I sensed the phenomenon in a highly publicized event last year.

Last October a Yale fraternity chanted “No means yes, yes means anal” in front of the campus Women’s Center. One man concluded it was all meant to stir up feminazis. “The sole purpose of that building,” he opined, “is to give hatemongering academic feminists a base to spread their propaganda and recruit new members… They most likely (chanted there) because feminazis always go out of their way to harm men. Just about every policy implemented by academic feminazis is meant to incite misandry and marginalize men.”

Interesting tactic. “Who looks worse?” I asked.

“The guys will come across as arseholes, but they don’t care. All they care about is stirring up the feminazis.”

The commenter has a blog which seems to have the same goal. I just don’t know whether any feminazis go to his site so that he can stir them up.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that his theory could be true. Do you think the Yale frat staged a blow to feminism? Or to sexism, instead?

While some seek to feel strong by chanting rape fantasies, real rapists and wife batterers are involved in the same loop. They want to feel powerful, so they beat down a woman or invade her body. Or both. They feel dominant in the moment. But their potency is actually pretty limited. And the acts are only destructive, not constructive.

Any time gang members beat or kill someone they probably feel formidable. But in the long run, how mighty are they sitting in jail, or dead?

A few early feminists made the error of feeling powerful over the real thing when they spewed man-hating rhetoric. In the moment they likely felt pretty tough. But the strategy did not create real muscle and feminists at large gave it up. For the effect was to repel potential female and male allies, alike.

Now we are left with the brand “feminazis.”

To all of the above I ask, why don’t you do something with your efforts and your lives that are both powerful and constructive, instead of beating others down in a basically weak attempt to feel better about yourselves?

And next time you seek power, consider whether you are being powerful only in your own head.

Georgia Platts

March is Women’s History Month

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Learning to See Ourselves as Inferior

“I asked my teachers not to tell anyone that I was doing well in school because I was afraid I’d get beaten up.”

This quote comes from a young black man, freshly admitted to Brown University, who was telling a reporter about his struggle to get good grades at a high school where academic attempts were punished for “acting white.”      

Why would doing well in school take on a sense of “whiteness”? Or merit punishment?

It all goes back to something called “internalization,” which happens when society ends up embedded in our own minds.

When children are born they don’t know much of anything, and are faced with a seemingly chaotic world that lacks meaning. But we need to cope. So the mind unconsciously categorizes what it observes. And the vast majority of the following appear white: Presidents of the United States, Congress, scientists, doctors, CEOs, major historical figures, teachers, professors. On the other hand, majorities, or large numbers, of the following seem to be black: basketball players, football players, baseball players, rappers and entertainers. In movies, TV shows, music videos, and in the news criminals, gang members and the poor are often black.

Unconsciously fitting a complex world into simple categories, stereotypes arise. We all do it. After a while – somehow in the back of our minds – smart successful people too often come to be associated with whiteness, while sports stars, rappers, criminals and the poor can come to be connected to blackness. And early in life the mind doesn’t discern the history of discrimination that lies beneath the patterns.

We grow up hearing we shouldn’t stereotype, shouldn’t be racist, but the messages can linger unless we become conscious of them and work hard to rid them. We find evidence of this in psychological tests like Harvard’s Implicit Bias test, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. When people take this test, most learn that they’re more racist than they had thought. So much so that about half of the black test-takers also have a preference for whites.  

So consider young African Americans in school, having internalized these stereotypes. Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond, a black sociologist and a black physician, wrote a piece called “Rumors of Inferiority” for The New Republic a few years back. The stereotype gnaws at the minds of young black kids, they said. And people tend to live up to – or down to – expectations.  

Howard and Hammond suggest that the children unconsciously fear competing academically for fear of failing, and proving the stereotype. They refuse to play on a field where they think they can’t win, rejecting the value of academics outright. And, they punish anyone who doesn’t go along. Instead, valor in areas like sports is praised. Unfortunately, academic achievement is a much surer route to success.

Interestingly, the threat of “acting white” arises primarily in integrated schools. Perhaps when children are competing in all-black communities they don’t fear doing worse than whites and proving the rumor of inferiority true. They may also have more black role models and a greater focus on the achievements of African-Americans, boosting the children’s faith in themselves.

The only way to overcome the loss of faith that accompanies the stereotype is to become aware of its existence and critique it. When prejudice plays on the unconscious mind, it doesn’t occur to us to rethink. But when we understand the history of discrimination that led to privilege for some and underprivilage for others, and when we see what many Black people have accomplished despite the obstacles, we understand that the stereotypes are not true. And faith can be restored.

Georgia Platts

February is Black History Month

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Spoon Fed Barbie

Surface appearances can be deceiving, says artist, Yvonne Escalante.

Commenting on the pieces shown here, she reflects, 

Spoon Fed
Spoon Fed
“From the day we are born, our behavior and tastes are controlled by the social status quo. Little girls are fed an idealized image. Barbie has been deconstructed and reassembled for even easier consumption.”
Baby's Rattle

Baby's Rattle

Sucker
Sucker

As a first generation American,  Escalante’s father had stressed American identity over cultural ties. Today, her work explores the conflict she feels, caught in the kaleidoscope of identity, gender roles, and societal norms.

Her work can be viewed this month at an exhibit titled, “CONTROL” at New York’s Ceres Gallery.

Here’s what these pieces say to me.

Like most little girls, I grew up spoon fed on Barbie. But not just Barbie. She was an emblem of all that mass media, friends and schoolmates, told me to be. A good shopper. Paired with Ken. Skinny and curvy all at once. The emblem of perfect womanhood, where body defines us.

Oddly, all this spoon feeding can lead to a dearth of feeding of any sort. I’ve gone through phases of not eating like I should, hoping to look like what turn out to be phony photoshopped images that don’t even resemble the starving models who posed for the pics.

What did I know?

Of course, skinny isn’t enough. We must be buxom, too. Which leads to unnecessary, and sometimes life-threatening, surgeries in pursuit of Barbie breasts. At least that’s what happens when boobs define us, creating our worth. For too many women and men, surface is all.

When women are told they must acquire surreal measurements, and when obtaining them is the source of self-worth, the pursuit takes unending time and energy.

Obsessed with diet and exercise, women can become distracted from the rest of life; so much so that (as Naomi Wolf can tell you) advances of the women’s movement can quickly wane. Frantic pursuit of the perfect body removes agitation for power of greater substance.

Hence, the pacifier. Here, called “Sucker.”

Any wonder the exhibit’s theme is “CONTROL”?

This piece can be viewed at “CONTROL,” an exhibition of  California women artists presented by The Women’s Caucus for Art at New York’s  Ceres Gallery, February 1 – February 26th, 2011.

For more on Yvonne Escalante’s work go to ARTslant.

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The Constricting Bodice: Empowerment and Imprisonment? (CONTROL series)
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Steal $11, Get Life Sentence

Jamie and Gladys Scott had been serving double consecutive life sentences for helping others to steal $11. Until December 30, that is, when Mississippi’s governor granted a pardon. Happy holidays!

The case is hard to believe:

Amidst ambiguous evidence, the two sisters were accused of luring two men to a spot in rural Mississippi so that three of their teenaged acquaintances could rob them.

The teens who actually committed the hold up pled guilty and implicated the sisters to get lighter sentences. Each of these young men served two years in prison and were released.

Meanwhile the sisters sat behind bars for 16 years, one gravely ill with kidney failure, hoping for a pardon. Bob Herbert of the New York Times said, “Keeping the two of them locked up any longer is unconscionable, grotesquely inhumane.”

Even their prosecutor, Ken Turner (now retired), felt a reprieve was “appropriate.”   

Governor Haley Barbour finally granted a pardon, not because of a gross miscarriage of justice, but based on Jamie’s life-threatening kidney condition, and with a contingency: Gladys must donate a kidney to her sister. An unreasonable sentence isn’t sufficient reason to pardon?

Governor Barbour didn’t have much trouble granting pardons, without restraint, to others who had done far worse. A sampling:

  • Bobby Hays Clark had shot and killed a former girlfriend and badly beaten her boyfriend.
  • Michael David Graham had stalked his ex-wife for years before shooting her to death as she waited for a traffic light in downtown Pascagoula.
  • Paul Joseph Warnock had shot his girlfriend in the back of the head while she slept.
  • Clarence Jones had murdered his former girlfriend, stabbing her 22 times. This was his second suspended life sentence, courtesy of a previous governor, Ronnie Musgrove.

How are these four different from Jamie and Gladys Scott? All were men who killed girlfriends. Maybe Barbour could identify with their plight. Women can be such trouble!

On the other hand, all of these men had also worked in a prison program that had them doing odd jobs around the governor’s mansion. Maybe Barbour is just friendly. It helps to know people in high places.

Or, perhaps Barbour simply didn’t know about the Scott sisters’ plight until the case got widespread media attention. Still, his reasoning behind the pardon is baffling.

Life can be especially hard if you’re poor, black, and female. It all makes me wonder, what kind of justice is this?

Georgia Platts

Why Are We More Offended By Racism Than Sexism?

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.

Georgia  Platts

See related post: Eminem Makes Sexism Seem Sexy – And That’s A Problem

What Might a Burqa Wearer and an Anorexic Have in Common?

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? 

Georgia Platts

*Abra Fortune Chernik. “The Body Politic.” Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation, edited by Barbara Findland. 1995

I Want to Wear a Burqa

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.

Comments, anyone?

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