March 2009

Sobia on Muslimah Media Watch has a very detailed analysis of the article in question as well as the research article which was cited. I’m continuing the critique in my own words. Basically an author recently wrote an article about how the hijab protects women, using Dr. Susan Fiske’s study as support. Dr. Fiske’s study found that sexist men were more likely to dehumanize bikini clad (i.e. scantily clad, sexualized) women. This study has important implications for American society where women’s bodies and women’s sexuality are used to market EVERYTHING. In a culture where many men and women have sexist ideas, even if not always overt, such constant objectification perpetuates the dehumanization of women even more. On one hand women are taught to aspire to such appearances, on the other hand, men are taught to disrespect women who appear as such. The study finds though that men who are not sexists for the most part are less likely to dehumanize the bikini clad women in the pictures.

That’s exactly why using this research in defense of the hijab is not appropriate. Women who dress conservatively are objectified less by sexist men. True. But why should any woman be objectified? Why should women have change their clothing to avoid sexism when the problem lies with the men’s sexism in the first place? Telling women to cover up more is not the solution to this problem. It’ll only create a new equilibrium of modesty where women wearing jeans and shirts or fitting clothing will be considered immodest and less human – which is the situation in socially conservative societies. This is exactly what has been happening recently in Bangalore. So we can encourage women to cover all their skin and hair, and then make-up will be considered immodest. This just perpetuates the “men will be men” attitude and blaming women. But “men will be men” is not true. Egalitarian men don’t dehumanize any woman, bikini clad or burqa clad.

The solution lies in not in covering up women, but in making sexism unacceptable. Oppressing certain groups of people harms all people. Objectifying women perpetuates such sexism. They set the standards for attractiveness that women have to aspire to, while making attractive women commodities.

Disclaimer: It should be apparent from my writing but I’ll make it clear anyways – this isn’t a judgement of women who dress modestly or wear hijab. Such choices are complex, and are no more constructed than choices to dress provocatively. – vidyarthi


a post in another feminist blog on women and engineering prompted me to write this reply, and i wanted to add it to my blog as well. i’ve written about sexism in math and science before, but i want to write again, articulating some points differently. this is a passionate issue to me because i know what a difference cultural factors like positive reinforcement, and available opportunities make for women’s careers. some people, including women, have told me there’s nothing wrong with saying perhaps there’s something “innate” about women’s brains that makes them less apt for science. i don’t see scientific basis for that at all.

1) women are underrepresented in almost all good jobs in the public sphere because of historical oppression. women weren’t considered good writers or painters and they’re even underrepresented in professional cooking! i remember someone posted a letter from Disney to his grandmother on Feministing that told her that Disney doesn’t accept female cartoonists – they’re only for secretarial jobs. the lack of women in science has to do with women being confined to the private sphere in all areas of life (except for sex work and cleaning). interestingly, sexists who think women being underrepresented in the sciences is/could be a result of innate differences don’t think that women are over-represented in prostitution because women are innately sex-crazy. they think men are sex-crazy. there was a time when women were considered deficient in typing – oh wait, why then are women secretaries?

2) some studies argue that women are less “spatially” oriented and therefore deficient in math. firstly, even studies done on children have to take into account how culture shapes the brain, let alone studies on adults, whose mental abilities are shaped by they way they have used their brains throughout life. secondly, so what it women are less “spatial?” only some areas of science require spatial understanding and it’s something you can learn. i’ve always gotten A’s in geometry and physics and i can’t play spatial sports to save my life!

3) standards for achievement have been set by men. the scientific process has been defined by men. have you ever heard people complaining about doing poorly in standardized tests even though they do well in class? have you heard of people complaining that they get confused by the way standardized tests frames questions? i have. and it’s because such tests follow a certain system, and to do well you have to understand and work the system, regardless of your level of intelligence/knowledge. similarly, ¬†even if women’s brains were innately different from men’s, women are only challenged in a scientific culture defined by men. which means there’s an even bigger need for women to change the systems for themselves. the fault is not in women’s brains, the fault is in the system.

with all these cultural factors at every step of the analysis, is it anything but sexist to keep on saying perhaps there’s something innately deficient about women’s brains? – vidyarthi

Desi feminists are busy with an onslaught of exams so we’ll be back soon with more opinions.

The US is boycotting a UN conference on racism that’s supposed to be held in Geneva in April. The reasons given are: “text drawn up for the event criticises Israel and restricts freedom of speech.” The first reason is just blatant racist/imperialistic policies by the US regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict that’s not surprising. I mean US senators thought the murder of over 1000 Palestinian civilians was a justified response to Hamas. Why shouldn’t the rest of the world criticize that? This is not about criticizing Judaism but criticizing Zionism, or the policies of the Israeli government. How is the Israeli government any different from Muslim terrorists, whom the US condemns, in their beliefs and actions? The second reason, “restricts freedom of speech” sounds concerning until you read that “US officials say they are also concerned that some sections of the draft – which call for restrictions on the defamation of religions – could threaten free speech.” So the “free speech” the US is concerned about is the defamation of religions. Apparently criticism of Zionism, which I think is separate from Judaism, does not fall under free speech. Which religion was the US looking to defame? I think it’s totally understandable that rules be drawn about defamation, to allow focus about the actual policies of some governments. The US seems to have it all backwards. As Eric Holder said, Americans are cowards when it comes to discussing race. Here’s hoping that Obama rethink boycotting this conference before April.