Wednesday, January 3

Cross-post from an writer

I oughtta post this here for now, but I'll probably hide it behind a "read more" or delete it altogether in a while. I think it'd be more useful being cited on the big blogs, since that's where feminist theory gets read about and talked about. I'll e-mail it to them later today or tomorrow, I hope.

I'd like to share this with all the women over on the Sparkle*Matrix who remember extremely oppressing experiences and let you know that it made me think of you. You've gone through far more oppression than I have on account of the "gender" social category you're perceived as belonging to, and you might have gone through far more oppression than I have on account of other social categories you're perceived as belonging to than I have. Nevertheless, when I read your blogs and comments, I notice the "agent" in you, too. And I hope that when you read this article, you'll be reminded of the fact that you've been agents all your lives, even sometimes during the same situations in which you were being oppressed--or within hours before or after them. I hope this gives you hope that, through activist efforts, your lives' balances will shift towards experiences of less and less oppression and more and more agency. I have that hope, and I hope this article makes you look forward to it, too.

I'd like to pass on the same message to taught_to_despise at The Tree Remembers. This post you wrote is the kind of speech that every good person in the world who thinks he/she hasn't had intimate dealings with abuse but suddenly finds himself/herself thrown into the position of counselor/comforter/tattletale for a son's or daughter's best friend needs to have running around in the back of his or her head. This is the kind of speech that every good person in the world who isn't sure how to look for dangerous implications in what another person says (for example, let's say your stepmother were an innocent dupe--not saying that she is, but this is just an example--she would be the kind of person I'm thinking of, the kind of person hearing only your father's side of the story) should have haunting him/her. Hearing both sides of the story juxtaposed is one of the most effective ways we can catch bad people even when we only hear their sides of the story. So bless you, taught_to_despise, and don't you ever forget what action you're taking to make the world a better place. Don't you ever forget that what sometimes just feels like "whining to vent about oppression" to you might really be agency happening right in the midst of oppression. You are a person who's making an impression on me and on people like G. Willow Wilson as a complex individual who could use a bit of oppression taken out of her present and future life but who, nevertheless, has been, is, and will always be throwing part of the oppression off your own shoulders through actions you yourself decide to take.

The Post-Post-Feminist's Eteraz

By G. Willow Wilson

I want to begin with a story.

In the months leading up to the Egyptian presidential elections in 2005, I spent some time reporting on state media coverage of the increasingly frequent demonstrations and clashes between rival parties that accompanied the campaign season. Local state-controlled television channels were providing only cursory and contradictory information about these events, such that it was often impossible to know for certain what the aim and constituency of a demonstration was unless you had been standing in the thick of it yourself. This is exactly what I did on several occasions.

One incident, a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that attracted hundreds of black-clad riot police, was difficult to pin down even then. State media outlets were claiming that it was organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, and refused to cover the event on the grounds that the Ikhwan were an illegal party. The protest itself was so chaotic that it was difficult to make heads or tails of its ideological thrust.

I left and took the metro home, overheated and frustrated. In the women’s car, I ran into my cousin-in-law. We were surprised to see one another downtown at that time of day; we both lived on the southern outskirts of the city, I worked from home, and she was still a university student. She asked me what had brought me to Tahrir on such a hot afternoon. I hesitated before answering. She knew what I did for a living, but I had always thought it best to be discreet about the details of my work around our family. The prevalent opinion in the social strata we both inhabited was that a woman did not, strictly speaking, have the right to put herself in potential social, political or physical danger.

“Covering the protest,” I said finally, deciding the truth was simplest, “What about you?”

She looked me right in the eye. “Participating in the protest,” she said. And that is how I discovered my soft-spoken muhajeba cousin-in-law was an Al Ghad party member.

I am reminded of this incident whenever I read about the Plight of Muslim Women. I am rarely comfortable with the way in which the very serious issues facing modern Muslim women are rhetorically addressed, both within and without the community. Reformists have yet to paint a picture of the Plighted Muslima that describes my cousin, acknowledges her complexity, her agency, the breadth and depth she brings to the word ‘femininity’.

I will not argue the Stockholm Syndrome-esque position of some traditionalist Muslim women, and say she is in no way oppressed: she will have a curfew all her life, there are ideas that she will not be permitted to impart to her children, and her husband will have an absolute social right to veto clothing or friends or habits of hers that he finds unacceptable. There is no way to soften or rationalize this reality, nor should it be softened or rationalized.

What I will argue, however, is that ‘oppressed’ is not a sufficient description of the person she is, or of the life she is building for herself. Whether she had to lie to attend the protest, or reasoned or coaxed her way into permission, or simply held her chin up and left the house, she was an actor in her destiny that day. She is proof that a clever woman, a capable, kind, brave woman, is never ‘simply’ a victim, no matter how dire the circumstance in which she lives. My cousin isn’t alone, either. I have yet to meet an ordinary woman. I am beginning to think there are no ordinary women; only extraordinary women in excruciatingly ordinary circumstances.

Today, it is finally acceptable to suggest that the bra-burning era of western feminism—which, along with economic experiments like socialism and communism, made a significant impact on the Nasserite Middle East during the Sixties and Seventies—inappropriately and ironically devalued femininity. The idea that women may have different needs than men, but possess an equal right to have those needs met, proved too complex for public consumption, and a wretched but expedient proposition took its place: women are exactly the same as men, and are thus entitled to the same things.

I vividly remember how this proposition manifested itself: when I was an adolescent in public school in the US, having your period was not considered a sufficient excuse to sit out of gym class. This would be admitting that girls were ‘weaker’ than boys. Encumbered with medicine balls and batons, girls would double over in pain, weeping, and be ignored; however, as soon as one had a sports injury, she could sit out for days on end, the lauded product of the new girls’ sports programs. It should come as no surprise to the belligerent architects of this experiment that the young women of my generation are ready for any amount of patriarchy if it means they can menstruate in peace. They have run screaming back into the institutions their mothers abandoned, and having suffered month after month in feminist gym class myself, I hardly blame them.

Yet the backlash against western feminism has been as unnatural, as insufficient, and as short-sighted as the movement it rebels against.

In the West and among Muslim women (and yes, among western Muslim women) it has become fashionable to objectify oneself, without even waiting for a man to demand it. We have willingly hinged our identities on pieces of clothing: the micro-skirt and the jilbab, the stiletto and the hijab, and we pantingly scream ‘we are not ourselves without these!’ as soon as someone raises an eyebrow. As if this should be a source of pride. As if it is a good thing to be so much a shrine to oneself that a change of clothes would destroy one’s identity. (Full disclosure: I wear a headscarf [with western clothing], but I take it off when I’m in small-town America and I think it will scare people. I love my scarf, but I can’t honestly say I feel less Muslim without it. Nor do I think I should.)

Women themselves have participated in the return of the ideal of the oversexed housewife, the black-shrouded virgin, the psychological emptiness that is womanhood when woman’s sole purpose is to serve man. In the rush to re-assert the public primacy of the male gaze, whether through a western standard of total feminine obedience or an Islamic one, women have put man before God, or, if you prefer, before truth. We are all, post-feminist Muslim and Christian and eastern and western and secular and faithful, guilty of a little blasphemy.

We struggle, always, with an image: what is woman? What should she look like? Say? How should she act? We struggle with an image because we have decided we are not equipped to struggle with something as dynamic as a personality. I am not, my cousin is not, the women I admire are not, symbols to be analyzed incoherently. Yet this is what the dialogue surrounding the Plight of the Muslim Woman has done: reduced us to our obstacles, our clothing and our genitalia. I am still waiting to meet the reformist who can look my cousin in the eye and say ‘You are no type, you fit into no bell-curve, and you move between oppression and independence with a dynamism no theory of mine can explain or resolve.’ To acknowledge, in other words, that her identity is not a static set of symbols (Muslim, woman, Egyptian) but an interplay of experiences, powered by something that exists in spite of gender or religion: that she is a person. Before she is anything else, she is a person.

This is something the women’s movement, particularly as it pertains to Muslim women, must address: when one speaks of women one speaks of several billion individual histories. Let us create no more mass narratives and no more simplistic fixes: women are not men with wombs, nor are they wombs without minds, and we should no longer act surprised when treating them as such, en masse, fails to adequately address their problems. Perhaps it is time for the women’s movement to enter the greater conversations: to write not ‘women’s literature’, but literature; to address not ‘women’s issues’, but issues of universal human importance. Dealing with women in isolation has only taken us so far. Today, I believe it is much more vital to address in their entirety the systems that produce both underprivileged women and men who are petty tyrants: poverty, lack of education, political and religious repression. I am of the opinion that the Grameen Bank does more for women than the Vagina Monologues. (I saw the latter when it debuted in Cairo and found it absurdly and laughably out-of-context. Let’s get these women running water, basic healthcare and literacy classes before we tell them that they will only achieve personhood when they can go on display before an audience of men and scream at full volume about their labia.)

Men cannot go forward without women, women cannot go forward without men; to treat the ills of one without treating the ills of the other is to ignore the disease in favor of its symptoms. If we truly want to pull down the obstacles faced by women—Muslim and otherwise—we must tackle the obstacles faced by humankind. Anything less will only be another temporary solution; a memetic, theory-driven bandaid made of stiletto heels, headscarves and manifestos for a wound made of war, disease and ignorance. We as women must come into our powers as individuals and work for something better.

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