Women, feminism and the validity of feelings

I’ve been thinking about feelings lately and the ways in which the validity of certain feelings and the invalidity of others act as forms of self-censorship of self-punishment. It wasn’t until I came across Sara Ahmed’s work on phenomenology and feminism that I was finally able to articulate some of the feelings I had towards being a feminist and the ways in which that is seen and the ways in which I am seen because of identifying with feminism. Sara Ahmed’s notion of always being a killjoy has been particularly useful because for me it sums up the crux of the matter: feminists are seen as killjoys, and for that reason it is something that is frowned upon, dismissed, made fun of, or even attacked violently.

It should come across as no surprise that calling oneself a feminist is not exactly something that makes one popular or wins over lots of people. The word feminist itself has become so associated with negative imagery that even within certain “critical” circles it’s become difficult to identify as a feminist. This is even more pronounced somewhere like Egypt where the term feminist comes with imperialist connotations, which, fair enough, do exist. But my concern is more with people who dismiss the term because it is “too radical” or “too hateful.” Feminists hate men, live in women-only enclaves, and are always angry. The problem is when we try to counter this argument by saying that “not all feminists” do those things or are like that, because that of course is a trap in and of itself. Plenty of feminists do take very radical approaches to men, and most are probably angry (as am I). But not subscribing to radical feminism (I’m not a big fan either, for different reasons) is still not enough of a reason to denounce feminism as a whole.

What is even more astounding about the feminist-as-killjoy “accusation” is that it is feminists who have to defend themselves by showing that they’re *not* angry, sensitive, PMSing, and so on. The burden of proof (proving our civility and happiness and proving that we won’t be killjoys) lies with feminists and women, so that we can show that while we may have specific views on gender, no need to worry since we’ll be careful not to bother you with them. So here the focus is not on patriarchy or the many reasons why women may be angry. Instead attention is deflected away from that and put on the women themselves.

I’m sure we’ve all had these moments (everyday) where someone says something sexist or does something sexist, and you point it out. Sometimes you even point it out as a joke so you don’t kill the mood *too much.* But still…the mood gets killed, people roll their eyes, everyone is like “oh that again” and somehow the whole conversation has become about the person pointing out the problem rather than the problem itself.

This is what I find fascinating…how disrupting hegemonic performances is such a threat that any disruption must be pathologized and attacked. Any attempt to disrupt an act of patriarchal masculinity or patriarchal femininity is met with so much resistance that over time the only effect is to wear down the person doing the disrupting. And this brings me back to my initial point – that this all ends with self-censorship. Not at the shallow level of censoring oneself consciously: “Oh, don’t say that cause he’ll respond with this.” It operates at a much deeper level by creating questions in ourselves about our own positionalities and our own beliefs. Above all, it creates questions about the validity of the feelings we are having. The question of over-reaction, of sentimentality, of anger, of PMS – these have all become all-too-common discussions I’ve had with feminist friends.

And yet these questions bring us straight back to square one – patriarchy functions precisely by assigning emotionality to women and rationality to men. Whether women are too angry, too happy, too flirty, or too dramatic, there is always a state of feeling – women are always feeling something, and feeling too much of it. It seems to me that the damage this has done to feminism is quite notable, in the sense that this has been transplanted onto feminists as well, who happen to be mostly women: feminists also feel too much, and react too often, to situations that are in fact quite rational and do not need to be reacted to in an overly-emotional manner.

And yet all of this creates, within women, a constant state of agitation. On the one hand, you notice hegemonic masculinity everywhere, and you see the ways in which patriarchy is performed, even among men who may identify with feminism. And this by itself is disconcerting, and often painful. On the other hand, the price of disrupting patriarchy is so high that you constantly have to ask yourself questions about the validity of what you are feeling. And yet, you felt something. But…did you really need to feel that way? Isn’t it just another case of you over-reacting? Maybe it’s that time of the month? Maybe you just need to see patriarchy everywhere since you’re a feminist and that’s what feminists do? Maybe it wasn’t intentional? But. I still felt a certain way.

Agitation.

Women are always told to doubt their feelings and question the validity of what they are feeling. I will never forget a conversation I had about a month ago, with a woman who I had just met. I was telling her about a guy situation, and that I felt angry, but that I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t think I had the right to be angry about what had happened. All she said was: “Ok. But you are angry. So what if you should or shouldn’t be?” And I actually stopped and thought…what a revolutionary way of looking at feelings!

This is not to say we shouldn’t be self-reflexive about how we feel and what we feel. As human beings (as in…men and women) we all over-react at times, are sensitive about certain issues, and get emotional when we’re hungry. But to my knowledge, only one sex is socialized to always question how they feel. And all this does, in the end, is make the distance between what we feel and what we *should* feel huge, and this doesn’t seem like anything but a form of self-punishment.

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The Muslim Woman

Lila abu-Lughod is one of my favourite anthropologists and scholars of Islam. She wrote an amazing article called “The Muslim Woman.” Here are some excerpts:

An administration – George W. Bush’s – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s lives – as human beings.

Another interesting point she makes is that these women often represent their countries:

in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.

It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the- terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?

This is similar to the surprise of European liberals when they realized that there are some Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. This surprise was not enough though: they assumed that it was husbands/fathers/Arab/Muslim communities socializing these “wants” into Muslim women. After all, who would ever choose to wear a burqa?

If we think that American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion”.

This is a controversial point, since many in the west believe they live in some kind of “free” society in which no one is pressured to do anything. Unfortunately, we all live under global capitalism, and it is screwing us all. Very few women in the world are not pressured to be a certain way, whether it is to wear a burqa or to get surgery for the “perfect” vagina.

An Islamist to America: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women […] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it.”

The danger of pity, and the western need to save Muslim women:

If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one  implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?

Finally,

Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don’t see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.

We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place.

She proposes what western women (and men) can do:

It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane.

Amen!

The Man Box

I’ve been reading blogs for a while now, and there are a few posts that I remember really influencing me. One of these was by Jehanzeb from Muslim Reverie, called The Man Box (link here):

A recent online discussion sparked a heated debate over the idea of platonic friendships. A video was shared about Steve Harvey, author of “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man” (I don’t blame you if you want to headdesk after reading that title), who told CNN that women and men cannot be friends. His argument was that platonic friendships could not exist because men are always seeking an opportunity to make it more than just friendship. He backed up this claim by simply saying, “Because we’re guys.” In other words, all men are the same and biologically programmed to be attracted to every woman they meet.

I explained to my friends that my problem with Harvey’s comments is that they are sexist and homogenizing. In the heterosexual context, arguing that women and men cannot be friends reinforces a lot of rigid and sexist norms about gender. It perpetuates the popular stereotype that men are innately sexual predators who “cannot control” their “desires” or “urges,” while implying that women cannot be sexual and are “delusional” for believing that they can have male friends. I do not deny that there are challenges in platonic friendships, especially when one person is interested in something more than friendship, and I do not deny the possibility of physical and/or emotional attraction. Certainly, there are people who have struggled in maintaining friendships with the opposite sex, but it doesn’t mean that true platonic friendships cannot exist, or that women and men must be completely segregated. It doesn’t mean women and men are wired to exclusively view each other in a sexual and/or romantic context. A brilliant blogger at “Oh, You’re a FEMINIST?!” criticizes the way Good Morning America once cited a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that found opposite sex friendships have a 15% chance of ending in an affair.  The show emphasized on the 15%, but never asked about what happens 85% of the time.

In many ways, dichotomous conceptions of gender service patriarchy because they assign sexist gender patterns to both women and men. Consider, for instance, how sexually promiscuous men can justify their behavior by merely saying, “Hey, I can’t help myself. I’m a guy!” This “excuse” not only equates male sexuality with sexual promiscuity, but also standardizes such behavior to make it socially acceptable (as is evident in how men are judged in positive ways with words like “stud,” “pimp,” “player,” “Casanova,” and so on). Of course, if a woman behaved in the same or similar manner, she would be called a “slut,” “whore,” and other degrading insults. What is often overlooked is how dangerous this sexual double-standard is and how it’s another way to control women through shame, humiliation, and judgment.

On the same thread, a couple of people supported Harvey’s statements by bringing up John Gray’s “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” book. I mentioned a feminist critique of the book and explained how extremely problematic Gray’s presentation of the sexes is. Aside from the fact that Gray writes from “his own observations” and doesn’t include a single footnote in the book, he treats all men as alike, and all women as alike. He states that when men are troubled, they will “retreat” to “their cave” (which he defines as their television room, basement, workshop, etc.) because they need “alone time” to “sort things out.” Gray suggests that there is nothing a woman can do or change about her male partner’s refusal to speak or express himself. She is supposed to leave him alone because that’s how all men are: we’d rather just sit in front of the TV than seek help and communicate with our partner.  In actuality, credible research shows that men tend to resort to bullying and abusive behavior when they are troubled (source cited in Julia T. Wood’s critique, “A Critical Response to John Gray’s Mars and Venus Portrayals of Men and Women”).  It is true that women and men have differences, but to treat them as if they’re from different planets essentially creates an unnecessary barrier and completely shuts down room for healthy dialogue. After exposing Gray’s sexist and totalizing portrayals of gender, a male Muslim defender of the book called my analysis “militant” and “tainted by an aggressive feminist flare.” I took it as a compliment.

What I found discouraging was how antagonistic a couple of the Muslim men were towards feminism (and, for the record, I know plenty of non-Muslim men who would vilify feminism as well). Although there was a Muslim man who agreed with me on the thread, he was quickly pushed out of the conversation when the debate became about feminism.  I prefer bell hooks’definition of feminism, which she describes as a movement that seeks to eradicate sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. It is a movement that recognizes the interlocking nature of sexism, racism, classism, and other forms of oppression, and how these injustices must be confronted in order to radically restructure society and bring about revolutionary, transformative change. I argue that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a feminist because his elimination of female infanticide in 7th century Arabia, along with other revolutionary acts, sought to end sexist oppression, sexual violence, and male domination.

Despite sharing this definition of feminist philosophy and politics, I was told by one of the Muslim men that feminist classes are “full of rubbish” and “nonsense.” He also said, “You need to learn about manliness in Islam.” The other Muslim man said that women and men cannot be friends because a man is “weak” and can “succumb” to his “desires” at “any moment” and at “any time.” In other words, regardless of how deeply in Love a man is with his life companion, being alone with a female friend would cause him to cheat on his wife/partner. After all, men simply cannot control themselves!

From an Islamic perspective, I’m sure most Muslims have heard the Hadith that says the devil is the third person when a woman and man are alone together.  Aside from the fact that Hadiths are disputed (and that there are Muslims who will only follow the Qur’an), there is a Qur’anic verse that may shed some light on an individual’s responsibilities and personal relationship with the self:

When everything has been decided, Satan will say, ‘God gave you a true promise. I too made promises but they were false ones: I had no power over you except to call you, and you responded to my call, so do not blame me; blame yourselves.’ (Qur’an 14:22)

What stands out to me is how Satan says he has no power over a person and that he can only call the person.  The choice to respond to his call is yours alone.  So, if the argument is that women and men cannot be friends because men are “weak” and “succumb” to their desires, then why bother teaching self-discipline and self-control at all in Islam?  Why teach about mutual respect and that we are individually responsible for our sins?  Why treat men as exclusively sexual creatures who will want to sleep with every woman they meet?  Islamic teachings, particularly from the Sufi tradition, emphasize immensely on cleansing the self, building a personal relationship with the self, as well as with God, because there are conscious choices and decisions that we all make.  I want to clarify that I’m not saying every heterosexual person should have friends of the opposite sex, nor am I suggesting that I look down upon people who refuse to have such friendships.  I completely respect a person’s decision to abstain from opposite sex friendships (for whatever reason, spiritual or otherwise), but what I find problematic and offensive is how segregation of the sexes is often used to display one’s “religious superiority” over another person.  In other words, respectful dialogue is not encouraged when someone argues against platonic friendships while declaring that it is “un-Islamic,” “sinful,” and “against the Sunnah,” or way of the Prophet.

The comment about me needing to “learn about manliness in Islam” made me not only consider the way feminism is often stereotyped as being about “women dominating over men,” but also how strict and suppressive male social norms are.  In December, a couple of months after I wrote my post,“Eradicate Masculinity,” I saw an incredibly moving and inspiring TEDvideo featuring activist and lecturer Tony Porter, who encouraged men to break free of the “man box” (the video is posted below, so please check it out whenever you can!).

The “man box” is a social construction; it contains the ingredients that are required for a man to be considered a “real man.”  Similar to Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” Porter describes how men are constantly taught and socialized to be “tough,” “strong,” “dominating,” sexually promiscuous, etc.  Even in times of weakness and emotional distress, men will conceal their pain and sorrow by projecting a false image of themselves.  Porter tells a moving story about the loss of his teenage brother and how his father would not cry in front of him.  It was only until they were in the presence of women did his father eventually break into tears.  Later, Porter’s father apologized to him for crying, while commending Porter for not crying.  Why is it so shameful for men to express their emotions, their weaknesses, their doubts, their need for Love and compassion?  We think the “man box” actually protects us from looking “weak,” or “sissy” (which is really code for “being a girl”), but what it actually does is lock us up in a tight, suffocating prison that sucks the humanity out of us.

If the “man box” teaches us that being a man is about not being a girl, then, as Porter asks, what does that say about what we teach about girls?  Doesn’t that uphold the Mars and Venus mythology that women and men are like different species that cannot transcend socialized gender norms?  What does it say about male and female relationships, be they platonic, romantic, father-daughter, or mother-son relationships?  What does the “man box” tell us about masculinity and how it operates in terms of who gets to exert power, who gets to dominate, and who gets to control?

In heteronormative societies, to criticize masculinity is to challenge something that is celebrated in the mainstream. Deconstructing the way masculinity has been and continues to be defined is to criticize social norms that are glamorized and rewarded.  bell hooks contends that all men must “begin to criticize the sexist notions of masculinity… that equate manhood with ability to exert power over others, especially use of coercive force.”  She also adds that this violent and sexist construction of masculinity is celebrated in mainstream media:

Most men who are violent against women are not seeking help or change.  They do not feel that their acceptance and perpetration of violence against women is wrong.  How can it be wrong if society rewards them for it?  Television screens are literally flooded daily with tales of male violence, especially male violence against women.  It is glamorized, made entertaining and sexually titillating.  The more violent a male character is, whether he be hero or villain, the more attention he receives.  Often a male hero has to exert harsher violence to subdue a villain.  This violence is affirmed and rewarded.  The more violent the male hero is (usually in his quest to save or protect a woman/victim), the more he receives Love and affirmation from women.  His acts of violence in the interest of protection are seen as gestures of care, of his “Love” for women and his concern for humanity.

This image of the violent male hero/protector is  undoubtedly a dangerous standard that continues to perpetuate in most societies.  It not only normalizes male violence against both women and men, it also reemphasizes on the “innate differences” between women and men that completely close off dialogue and understanding.  The “man box” teaches us to suppress our emotions, and it can be challenging for many Muslim men because, for most of us, we feel pressure to establish careers for ourselves before we can even think about getting serious with a woman, falling in Love, and getting married.  We don’t feel worthy enough, and how can we when the “man box” tells us we need to prove our “manliness” by constantly displaying our “toughness” and “masculinity,” while hiding the things that make us human?

This isn’t to say men are exploited or oppressed by patriarchy, but rather that they do suffer from it.  To break free of the “man box” is to redefine ourselves, to liberate ourselves, to shake off the stereotypes that have been assigned to us from sexist and patriarchal ideals. My position is that male supremacy needs to be challenged, deconstructed, and eradicated to assist feminist movement in ending sexist oppression.  In order to do this, more men need to join feminist movement and challenge the way male supremacy operates in our lives.  I think one of the most common misconceptions about feminism is that it doesn’t help men, but it does and in a very meaningful way.  It liberates us from the restrictive “man box,” it teaches us to embrace our emotions and humanity; it tells us we can find Love, that we can receive and give it; it opens our hearts to understand that we are not confined to social constructions that say “boys will be boys”; it encourages us to see ourselves beyond the sexist notion that we are “only sex-minded” and that, yes, we can have meaningful friendships with women and men, whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual, etc.  Tony Porter closes his talk with these beautiful words:

I need you on board. I need you with me. I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men — that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.

“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” How beautiful would it be if we all recognized this interconnectedness?

I am on board, Tony.

The F word and ethnocentrism

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions.. for safety on the streets… for child care, for social welfare… for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?’”

— Dale Spender

Feminism has been (and is) one of the most important social movements in human history. The unequal status between men and women is almost universal, across time and space. Patriarchy has existed almost since the beginning of time, and has integrated itself into religions, cultures, peoples, and discourses ever since. Feminism arose as a response to patriarchy as late as the 1800s in Europe and the early 1900s in Egypt and the US. Feminism called for, above all, equality. The first wave of feminism in the US began in the 1960s and made great strides in bringing women more rights, especially in the workplace. This first wave of feminism came to characterize feminism in general. When many people speak of feminism, they are referring to this particular wave, and its particular discourses. This is why, I believe, so many women today refuse to be associated with feminism.

One aspect of first wave feminism is that it was very ethnocentric. It was by and for white, middle-class, western women, and therefore reflected their views and aspirations. Many first wave feminists looked down on women from the non-western world, and saw them as “helpless victims that needed to be saved from their own men who are even more brutal than ours.”

Second wave feminism challenged a lot of these ideas, and showed how ethnocentric and sometimes racist first wave feminism was. They showed that patriarchy was a system that oppressed all women differently, and that there wasn’t ONE solution. They also showed that western women were not necessarily more liberated than non-western women. Most importantly, they showed that there is no “feminism” but rather there are feminisms. Claiming that there is only one way to liberate women is also claiming a monopoly on truth; something many feminists have fought against, since that is exactly how patriarchy operated in oppressing women.

Some first wave feminists were also quite radical, and this has also come to define “feminism” in general. Bra-burning and man-hating are two stereotypes often given to feminists, even those who are not radical at all. I personally do not identify with radical feminism, simply because I believe men are also oppressed by patriarchy, and to turn them into the enemy ignores the fact that they too are victims of this system.

Many women I’ve spoken to say that they don’t feel represented by feminism. This is sadly an expected situation, considering the many feminists who have tried to portray feminism as being one, uniform idea. It is not. Feminism is something different to every woman.

Feminism for me is not about making sure that women do exactly what men do. It is not about making sure that there are as many female CEOs and army commanders as male ones. Rather it is about giving women the space to choose their own life path. If a woman wants to be a mother, that should be valued as equally as if she wants to be a CEO. If a woman wants to be a Muslim, that should be valued as equally as if she chooses to be an atheist. If a woman wants to wear a burqa, that should be valued as equally as if she wants to walk around in a bikini. I don’t buy the whole “oh but society oppresses women so they aren’t really making choices” argument when it comes to the burqa. Society oppresses ALL of us. When a woman chooses to wear a tight skirt to impress men, THAT is society oppressing her. So whoever wants to talk about societal pressure when it comes to Islamic dress, should also apply it to all types of dress.

I will end with an amazing quote from one of my favourite feminists:

‎”The feminists who are aware of the effects of patriarchy realize that we are all in the same boat from the dangers of patriarchy, and that the oppression of women is universal.”

– Nawal el-Saadawi