In Defense of FEMEN

Churidar, niqab: Sultana

I have only seen a niqabi once in my life. She was at the San Francisco airport and I remember being struck by that slash of black in a massive space. It was a cool outfit.

Michaela and I went to buy the niqab after I decided I was gonna wear for a week. She asked me why I was doing it. I said I was just curious as to what it’d be like and what the reactions would be. I wouldn’t change my lifestyle at all, I’d just wear it whenever I was outside. She was like, ok, just be careful. I said, careful of what?

She said, “Once I was wearing this low-cut v-neck at the grocery store and I had a purple scarf wrapped around my hair and this guy comes up to me and is like, ‘You know, that headscarf is a symbol of modesty, and you’re not dressed very modestly.’ He seemed pissed. People might give you shit for wearing a niqab and drinking and stuff.”

I told her I didn’t think that would happen but that I kind of hoped it would so I could write about it here. There’s a lot of talk about Islam and feminism and colonialism in general terms, but few concrete examples.

I was amused, and then not-so-amused at how much people seemed to be missing the point of FEMEN’s protest. The whole thing about the oppression of female bodies is that it’s subtle and requires us to willingly participate in it. Why are so many feminists (of every stripe) refusing to acknowledge this? The subjugation of women is global, and while the symptoms and methods of control may differ slightly by region, the roots of oppression are the same.

“Let Muslim feminists figure out their own shit, they don’t need your white, Western feminism.”

Ok, a lot of things are wrong with this, chief being the conflation of race and religion. Amina Tyler, a Muslim woman fighting for reform of Islam, is accused of being a token while simultaneously being “disowned” by Muslims.

from the Muslim Women against FEMEN Facebook group

Literal Arab members of FEMEN are being glossed over. Brown secular women are accused of being “white” in ideology. The very people who are arguing for the voices of non-white women are dismissing those voices when they don’t fit the Muslim hijabi model.

White people don’t own secularism. Westerners don’t own secularism.

Muslim feminists are working within an Islamic framework and secular feminists are not, because they believe either the ideology or the application of the ideology is misogynistic. Therefore, to many secular feminists, Muslim women are part of the problem.

Omg you guys I am so mean I can’t believe I said that! How can they be part of the problem when:

  1. They’re Muslim [and if you critique Islam you're an Islamophobe]
  2. They’re women [and therefore automatically feminists despite countless examples throughout history of women participating in their own oppression and enforcing the oppression of other women]
  3. They’re brown [so their opinion is automatically more valid because imperialism]
  4. They live far away [so they probably have some sort of mystical culture that we can’t understand]

All of these arguments are terrible. To be clear, it is not hijabis that are the problem, but women who don’t acknowledge how the concept of female modesty has fetishized and commodified the female body as an item of trade between families and how women have been, and continue to be, killed over it. The problem isn’t women who choose to be modest, but those who refuse to stand in solidarity with secular feminists who point out the misogyny behind the concept.

FEMEN is asking women to protest with their tops off in a gesture of solidarity. They are not asking people to abandon hijab for toplessness forever. Of course, we don’t have to take our tops off in order to stand in solidarity–we can simply recognize their efforts instead of undermining them.

Secular feminists participate in modesty too. We wear clothes that make us feel safe. We tug at our shorts self-consciously. As secular feminists, however, we understand that these are concessions we make for living in a patriarchal world. We (hopefully) understand that the way we dress has literally nothing to do with whether someone will sexualize us or not.

After Michaela and I bought the outfit from Sultana in Berkeley (the lady who works there is a sweetheart by the way) we went back to her place and I put it on. The churidar was a little too big so Michaela pinned it for me and we went out to downtown Oakland. The pins stabbed me the entire time and I kept tripping and looked like a huge idiot basically. We also didn’t realize it was Art Murmur and super crowded.

We got a couple of drinks and nobody bothered us. The lady behind the counter checked my ID but didn’t ask me to show my face. The bouncer at a bar did, though. Michaela kept saying “Argh I feel like I’m boring you because I can’t see a single expression on your face.” I assured her that she wasn’t boring me and tried to indicate interest with my whole body and especially my eye muscles but I don’t think it worked very well.

Afterward, we were walking around these cars and I wanted to take a picture in front of one because it reminded me of M.I.A.’s Bad Girls video. This guy was the car’s owner.

He said loudly to his friend, “I bet she’s real sexy even under all those layers.”

Michaela was mystified. “How did he know that? Is it because you’re small?”

Of course he has no idea what I look like. It doesn’t actually matter, because his saying that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with him asserting verbal power over my body. We have seen this time and time again in sexual assault studies—you cannot control whether someone will assault you or harass you by the clothes you choose to wear. Yesterday in Berkeley, a bunch of gutter punk kids said the same thing (“I bet you’re hot under all that”). Assholes don’t need your permission to be assholes.

There seems to be an idiotic dichotomy between “the freedom to be sexualized” (Western) and “the freedom from sexualization” (Muslim). FEMEN’s toplessness is sexualized by the media, not themselves—nothing about their comportment says “sex”. They look pretty pissed, actually.

She is sexy because sh'es a badass, not because she's topless

But yes, of course they are being sexualized, because female bodies are inherently sexualized in a patriarchal world. A hijab doesn’t free a body from sexualization—instead, it emphasizes its sexuality by aggressively signaling a deletion. It just moves the threshold of sexualization even farther away from nudity.

from Persepolis

Last time I went to India, I had to fight with my family for half an hour in order to wear a tank top and an above-the-knee skirt in the sweltering heat. Their argument was: “Yes, of course you have the right to wear whatever you want, but people here don’t dress like that so you’ll stand out and attract the wrong kind of attention.” This is capital C CULTURE you guys! Notice how that doesn’t prevent it from being shitty and anti-feminist!

I googled “why wear hijab” and the first page that came up was this one. Here is a quote:

Of course, it is the men who are to be blamed for harassing women, yet the woman who fails to realize that dressing in a way which is so strikingly appealing (particularly when working in a male-dominated environment) is only asking for trouble is part of the problem as well. Regardless of where the blame lies, there is only one way by which a woman can guard herself against such evils, and that is why Hijabi women conceal their beauty in public as much as possible.

This is a factually inaccurate statement! Concealing your beauty won’t, in fact, guard you against sexual assault. Such an assertion is victim-blaming, and part of rape culture! Is rape culture different in Asia? Why, no, it isn’t! Women get blamed for their own sexual assaults ALL THE TIME! So is this the kind of culture leftists are legitimizing by refusing to critique it?

(There are, of course, other reasons for wearing a hijab. But I have heard the modesty reasoning many, many times and it seems to be the main one. This makes sense, since it’s in the Quran.)

People have been rationalizing oppressive practices by using the catchphrases “my choice,” “my culture,” and most of all “my religion,” for a long time. There is nothing about the Islamic conceptualization of female bodies that doesn’t have a conservative Western correlate. The concept of modesty is by no means unique to Islam. The west has dress codes too, it also controls the venues for the display of nudity. In the west, female sexualized nudity is encouraged in order to sell products. However, non-sexualized, non-commodified nudity is not only discouraged, it is criminalized. A critique of this is inherent in FEMEN’s mode of protest. They are being civilly disobedient by taking their tops off. They are critiquing Western culture as well as non-Western culture because they understand that the modes of oppression are the same.

I did this experiment knowing that I would probably not be harassed. I am lucky, though. I live in San Francisco, where people largely leave each other alone as long as no one is getting hurt. This seems like a reasonable definition of a free society. Then I thought about whether I would be brave enough to go topless for a week. Hahaha. No, I would not be brave enough to do that, partly because it is illegal but mostly because I would be extremely worried about my bodily safety. If you agree that there is nothing immoral about a woman being topless, this should concern you. If you do think there is something immoral about a woman being topless, I encourage you to voice why in the comments.

Who is more likely to be arrested for their peaceful protest?

Critiquing the misogynistic aspects of Islam is neither imperialistic nor Islamophobic. It is not Islamophobic because a phobia is by nature irrational, and hopefully a critique is based in rational argument. It is not imperialistic because there is no military force backing the critique. In fact, Islam itself is an imperialistic force. Who has a bigger force of violence backing its cause, FEMEN or Salafis? In this Atlantic article, Amina Tyler voices her concerns for her safety after FEMEN’s actions. But who is she afraid of?

Bangladesh used to be a moderate Muslim country (well, sort of. Taslima Nasrin still had to flee for being a feminist speaking out against Islam). Saudi oil-funded madrassas have been spreading Wahhabism in the region, culminating in a recent march of hundreds of thousands of people demanding the death penalty for bloggers who speak out against Islam. Is this the kind of political climate in which “Let Muslim women figure out their own shit” is a workable idea?

It is true that FEMEN has used creepy racist rhetoric and imagery for shock value—that is not good and it should be criticized. It is also a problem that they seem to be largely comprised of hot chicks, although I haven’t seen any indication that they actively discourage non-hot-chicks from protesting–it may be that these are the kind of people comfortable with this kind of protest. It may also be because they’re based in the Ukraine and their physiology tends to align with our standard of beauty. However, it doesn’t negate their larger point.

Most people of any culture are not progressives. Why would Muslim women be any different? Of course Amina Tyler doesn’t represent the majority of Muslim women. That is precisely the problem.

Ok I'm trying it!! But what would happen if I asked you to try being topless?

As for the niqab, it’s not a terrible garment. It’s been fun scaring children and it’s interesting to wear something that makes me anonymous IRL. But I’m not even done with the full week yet and I’m horribly bored. I am clearly not cut out for asceticism. If any of you guys want to try wearing it, let me know and I’ll mail it to you.

Dirty Girls

Black velvet shirt, furry jacket, black shoes: thrifted; Gold slip: mom's; Velvet leggings: F21; Pink mesh shirt: UO

The running joke is that I’m a dirty feral lemur. I mean, it’s mostly a joke. Americans are unnecessarily clean. Showering every day for most people is more of a purity ritual than it is a sanitation thing. Purity rituals freak me out–they constitute some of the most fucked up aspects of major religions.

I was watching The Untouchables episode of Amir Khan’s show Satyamev Jayate last night. Here it is with subtitles.

The caste system is alive and kicking in India despite what some people will indignantly tell you (possibly pointing to K.R. Narayan’s election.) Dalits (the “Untouchables”) have traditionally been forced to hold waste disposal jobs that require them to come in contact with unsanitary conditions. So instead of trying to figure out how to make these jobs less unsanitary and dangerous, the powers that be instead focused on how to prevent contamination by enacting elaborate social purity laws. Dalits are not allowed to drink from the same drinking fountains, for fear that they will turn the water “salty,” and Brahmins take a bath if they come into contact with the shadow of a Dalit.

Several studies suggest that social conservatives have heightened fear and disgust responses. These responses developed as a way to keep us from getting killed by dangerous animals and micro-organisms. However, in the complex social structures that we now find ourselves in, these response can prove to be maladaptive.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that poorer countries tend to also have hotter climates. The discrepancy in GDP can be explained by several factors related to weather, as NPR looks at here. There also exists a correlation between social conservatism and poverty. The poorest states in the nation tend to also be the most conservative and the same is true globally. So what is it about heat, conservatism, and poverty that seem to play into each other? My hypothesis is that colder climates have an ecological advantage against the spread of disease since frost kills bacteria. Humid, muggy climates breed bacteria, and people living in close quarters needed to create safeguards against disease. Lacking physical infrastructure like functional sewage systems (colonialism playing no small role in this), conservative cultures instead enacted powerful social codes that kept “unclean” people away from the wealthy who could afford to segregate themselves.

Social conservatism is one of those feedback loops that keeps countries poor. India would be a far more successful country if it could only rid itself of the historic prejudices that keep huge swaths of the population from fulfilling their potential. Sanitation is already considered crucial for the health of a developing country, but to me it seems to serve a far greater social role.

Check out this video that this high schooler made in 1996 of these “dirty girls” that he went to school with. It’s not a particularly remarkable video, but it is interesting to see how teenagers try to explain why they’re threatened by people who look different.


Tear sheet

Women Laughing with Word Salad

Gray Tank: Charlotte Russe; Gingham Crop Top, Pleated Pants, and Oxfords: ASOS; Coat: F21

There are so many emails in my inbox with the subject line “poem” that I’ve sent myself in the middle of the night or early morning with a line or two that I mean to finish but don’t. Here is a small monster comprised of abandoned babies.

Poem criticizing other poem

Me existential malaise
Me, fetishy lool wtf
Please be quiet
Introduction- hi
me, submission
is it still you
me, the poem
collections of people
the one that is missing
being the most valuable
objectification not so bad
except that

A series of sets with one thing inside
A series of relationships of first kisses
A series of paintings ending in “1″
A series of of comic books with different heroes
A series of lines about non-series
A series of poems ending in ‘#1″
A series of octuplets who all look different

It is too early for a seduction
The heron’s knee bends backward
I have a constellation of pettinesses
That swell and shrink like rocks in the desert

Hijabi carrying
A pizza
I have
Phase Shifted
In anxiety
And interest
At the train
But staring
Behind me.

Man, Like, What Are You Even On, Man?

Sweater: F21; Column skirt: found it in my mom's closet

Is all work ekphrastic? This blog post is representing this outfit; is this outfit art? Your poem is representing your breakfast; is your breakfast art? How much representation is required before something IS ekphrastic? Will this blog post really represent this outfit?

Is art just an ekphrastic word for an action potential, or a stimulus that crosses a threshold of interest? Of the stream of information that you encounter every day, what makes you look at something and Instagram it? What would happen if you tried to override the psychological function that assigns things importance? Could you afford to do so, as a relatively well off young person living in an industrialized country? Would your Instagram images look something like http://www.randomselectioninrandomimage.com/? Wouldn’t they be even more beautiful considering that the starting images would be far more random? Do you think I’m stretching the meaning of the word beautiful? Well fuck you, you know? Anyway, how would doing that, both the overriding as well as the Instagramming, affect other parts of your life? Do you think you might go crazy? Isn’t low latent inhibition implicated in both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder?

Does reblogging simulate action potentials? Isn’t Tumblr just an endless stream of information from which you choose to react to specifics in order to create a nested ontology? Have you been to my spam Tumblr, http://whatisontology.tumblr.com/? Wouldn’t you say that Tumblr ontologies are more specific but less accurate? Did you know that seizures happen when excessive and hypersynchronous bursts of action potentials are discharged? If we think of Tumblr as a corpus, what do you think would happen if the Tumblr community emulated a seizure? Do you think I’m pushing it with this metaphor? Why are you so mean to me?

Is criticism ekphrastic? Isn’t what draws us to criticism its reliance on pre existing materials? Isn’t inspiration hard? Aren’t I writing this simply to avoid starting to write Brunch: The Movie/Epic because I have massive writer’s block? Isn’t it perhaps perverse of the critic to fetishize the outsider for the exact quality that the critic himself lacks: an undefined framework within which to create? Is it possible to not have a framework at all? Can you think about that for a second? Actually can I change the question to: is it possible to not have a conscious framework at all? And if so, does it make a difference?

And lastly, like, why does anything exist man, like really tho.