gender


One of my loooong replies to a discussion on Feministing. It was a discussion I started on a skit on SNL that made fun of Tiger Woods’s saga, but also wound up making fun of violence against men – not funny. Just thought I’d share my thoughts:

from reading the various insights and experiences shared so far, it seems like domestic violence against men brings up some important issues:

1) statistics are confusing because there are many important things they might not explain. many men might report experiencing some sort of violence from their wives, but often it is minor and doesn’t fit the cycle of abuse (which is not to say that it’s not important). i remember that in college a survey reported that ~30% of male students experienced “sexual harassment” from women, while the vast majority of female college students did too. but the study also showed that the quality of harassment was different. for example, many male students thought of sexual comments of notes as harassment, but were not intimidated or even bothered by it. on the other hand, harassment experienced by many female students were more predatory, and had a bigger affect on them. so i suspect it’s the same case with domestic violence, where men as a group have the power of the system, and it victimizes women as a group.

2) there’s a notion that because men are generally physically stronger than women, that violence can’t happen to them. that highlights the important point that domestic violence isn’t about strength, it’s more about the intention behind it. just like men are expected to defend themselves, so can women defend themselves, although the attacker’s physical strength can be overpowering. the common theme between male and female DV victims is that they felt they deserved punishment, or that they should do better to avoid beatings, or they can’t leave their partner, etc. and again, because we live in a patriarchal society, women are victimized more.

“Both genders need to be taught the signs of an abuser NOT just to avoid them but to be able to recognize those signs in themselves.” – Phenicks

that is so true! all of us have a tendency to take advantage of, use, abuse, or just not care about those who’re less powerful than us. women often direct their violence and abuse (even sexual abuse) towards children. i’ve experienced this growing up in bangladesh where many people consider it okay to beat children to “discipline” them, just like many consider it okay to beat women. there are news stories of women torturing and even killing their domestic servants, especially if they’re child servants. within the family, parents often beat their children inhumanely in the name of discipline.

this is also why many feminists are environmental activists and animal rights activists, because both men and women justify superiority over animals. not many justify torture of animals, but still many women don’t recognize the abusive premise of animal industries.

the reason feminists mainly focus on violence and rape against women is that in a patriarchal society, violence is considered natural for men, and often justified against women. thus, it’s a woman’s fault for making her husband angry, or it’s a woman’s fault for arousing a man who raped her. non-feminists don’t realize that rape happens because men feel justified to use women’s bodies, or use rape to “discipline” or “teach a lesson,” or simply, just use it for their own pleasure.

i think when we see abuse from women against men or other women, it seems either horrifying or funny because it’s so “unnatural” for women. for feminists, this is an opportunity to point out that abuse and violence result from a sense of entitlement, not because it’s a male characteristic. and it’s because of patriarchy that more men feel entitled about women than vice versa.

DV shelters and sexual support organizations often perpetuate this stereotype about men while trying to help victims. but that doesn’t help change society, and also ignores abuse in non-heterosexual settings. as feminists, we should raise awareness about it, amongst ourselves and others at such opportunities.

I got to the party fashionably late. Sita Sings the Blues is a retelling of the Ramayana through Nina Paley’s eyes. It’s recent, but been around for some time. Thanks to Paley and sponsors for making the animated film available to many. It is cute and witty, and the animation – beautiful. I caught some minor flaws, like ignoring the fact that Kaikeyi was a warrior queen who saved Dasaratha’s life, and missing certain details like Surpanakha enticing Laxmana or Ravana dressing up as a sage to fool Sita, but that’s cool. You can read some other discussions on it here and here.

As usual, conservative folks got their panties in a bunch over the supposed irreverence of the film. I take hurt sentiments seriously, and many feminists have protested misogynistic literature themselves, but I don’t agree with the premise of the conservatives when they criticize literary works. You can get a glimpse of their attitudes (read the comments) over another retelling of the Ramayana here.

Sita Sings the Blues is hardly irreverent, especially considering that the Ramayana is an epic with many versions. How absurd would it be if the Greeks got crazy over retellings of the Iliad and Odyssey. Conservative Hindus have this absurd attitude where they despise Muslims for their frenzy and fatwas against Salman Rushdie or Theo van Gogh, then they themselves set a similar example whenever an Indian epic is retold. And God forbid the retelling be from a feminist point of view, then suddenly it hurts the sentiments of the Hindus, never mind that the Indian epics are literature already retold thousands of times, and they aren’t even central tenets of Hindu spirituality!! Hindu epics and even stories of deities are acted out in Hindi drama serials all the time, yet they don’t cause a fiasco because they repeat the same patriarchal bullshit of mainstream versions of the stories.

One of the complaints against this animation is the clothing of Sita, although it’s not unusual for Hindu deities and epic characters to be scantily clad, since clothing of the ancient times were different. It’s only in modern conservative depictions that women wear long sleeve blouses and covering saris; there’s more evidence for a freer clothing style back in the day, rather than what we wear today. Anyone who gets offended by Nina Paley’s or any other feminist’s retelling of Ramayana needs to think whether the Ashvamedha Yagna that Dasaratha performs in Valmiki’s Ramayana is offensive or not. Surely, you don’t think that forcing Kausalya to have sex with a horse and Dasaratha offering his other wives to Brahmins for sex is less offensive than Sita showing some cleavage???

The whole fiasco over sentiments is based on the faulty premise of equating literature with “absolute truth.” We forget that these epics are filled with myths and imaginations that reflect the creativity, or perhaps ulterior motives, of its authors. The better approach is to acknowledge that these epics are after all just text, with readers creating the meaning behind them. To use a Hindu cliche, you have to recognize and extract the spirit of the text as a lotus is “pure” even among the murky water it grows in.

That being said, I now feel inspired to create my own meaning of the Ramayana, though I suspect many other women have found this meaning before me. Whenever I think of controversial literature, I think about my Feminist Theory class in college where we discussed Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn. Too bad the script has not become a movie yet, but the premise of the script is to use the original text by Mark Twain, only to give it a whole new meaning by telling it from Jim’s point of view. Here, Jim is not the helpless superstitious slave as Tom Swayer sees him, but he’s a very intelligent person who’s acting comical to survive amongst hostile white people. It also reminds me of Shehrazade of Arabian Nights, who tells stories to delay, and eventually prevent what would have been her inevitable death. These characters could have been quite strong only if you think of them that way.

That would be a refreshing way to view Sita, Rama or Ravana, without changing the story or the text of the Ramayana. Whereas conservative misogynists have used Sita’s character to teach women to be oppressed, feminists can easily point out that Sita gains nothing from her unconditional love, thus rejecting the need for it altogether. Rama gains nothing either. It’s fascinating to think about how a supposed villain like Ravana was actually honorable towards Sita while supposedly honorable Rama did not fulfill his duties as Sita’s husband. I think, ultimately the Ramayana teaches the fallacy of good vs. evil in the material world and questions what we think of as truth and reality. I think Sita provides the most compelling proof for Hindu women that marriage, husband, children, and unconditional love of the material world does not hold the key to happiness. You can remain as “pure” and virginal as you want to, it ain’t gonna satisfy your man if his priorities are elsewhere. The earlier you realize it, the less suffering you’ll go through. I think Jessica Valenti would find Ramayana to be a big Purity Myth! Above all, epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata are full of contradictions, because as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar points out, truth is contradictory. If Self-realization and God-realization were so easy, we would’ve all been happy.

Here’s a final bone for you to chew on: Ramayana is actually one of three encounters between Vishnu and his two guards in heaven, Jay and Vijay. Jay and Vijay had angered Vishnu so he gave them a choice of being born seven times as Vishnu’s friend, or being born three times, with short lives, as Vishnu’s enemies, as a lesson for their sins. In one of those three lives, Jay and Vijay were Ravana and Kumbhakarna. So there you go, all this hoop-la about a story that was a mere play between Vishnu and his guards. Indeed, the world is a theater!

 

One the things feminists have to deal with a lot is the issue of “choice.” We are told all the time, everywhere, that somehow we restrict women who “choose” to be housewives, sex workers, or women who “choose” plastic surgery to enhance their looks or women who “choose” not to breastfeed their infants. Many times we know when someone is making a “choice” that is not really a “choice,” but we don’t have the words to explain logically why we’re right.

While working on my senior thesis on American women’s choices about childbirth, I came accross this little gem by Barbara Katz Rothman that put into words what I had known all along:  “There will never be ‘free’ choice, unstructured reproductive choice. But the structure in which choices are made should, and I believe ultimately can, be made fair, ethical and moral.” It’s so true! Every choice that we make in life is constructed, whether it’s constructed by our skills and interests, resources, social expectations, or a desire to defy social expectations, or usually a combination of all these factors. And all these factors provide the structure in which our choices are made. Hence, it’s really important to examine these structures in which the choices are made to decide whether it is a “free” choice or not. “Free” is a misnomer because really what we’re implying is “happy” or “satisfactory.” But anyways, if a structure is oppressive, then a happy choice really can’t be made in it. That’s why some privileged women might experiment with sex work and find it empowering, but it’s not really empowering for poor, abused women who were unaware of other options in life, or never had any. That’s not to say that all these women need rescuing or can’t be empowered by the money they make from sex work, and it’s also not to say that the misogyny in the sex industry doesn’t exist in others, but what I’m saying is choice is really context dependent.

This is also apparent in the area of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Are women really “choosing” a C-section because it’s healthy and cool? Or are they choosing it because they’re not fully informed about the risks to both themselves and their babies from a C-section, and that labor pains need not be excruciating, and vaginal tears are unlikely if their births are attended by a good midwife and supportive system? Are they aware of the better systems other countries use? With the issue of breastfeeding, did the women just wake up one day and decide they didn’t want to breastfeed? Or did they find it annoying because our employment structure doesn’t allow enough flexibility, and our doctors aren’t encouraging enough of an option that is clearly superior to the best formula out there? Worse yet, are the women “choosing” not to breastfeed because they hold on to the notion that it’s poor and uncultured to breastfeed, or that breastfeeding will make their breasts sag which will make their “boys will be boys” husbands unattracted to them?

The “choice” to be a housewife is only a “free choice” for those women who are privileged enough to not worry about earning money or housework (done by a maid). Even then, I guess their choices are constructed by the misfortune of not having and interest or skill they could explore rather than just spend money. Being a housewife is not a “free choice” for a woman who decides that childcare is actually more expensive than what her job can afford. Getting plastic surgery is not a “free choice” when a woman is getting it to conform to society’s standard of beauty. How many white women in America choose to be paler? How many choose to be a size 10 if they can be a size 6? I’m fine with women conforming to certain expectations of society, because I do to, but don’t tell me you’ve made a “free choice” to get Botox in a culture that doesn’t like wrinkles!! Recently I heard friends discussing about how a certain woman’s choice to get breast implants was “awesome” because “she did it for herself.” Some people think that a woman is doing something for herself as long as a man is not directly involved, but I don’t think that’s correct. Where did that woman get the idea that getting breast implants was cool? Where did she get the desire to get the implants in the first place? And why didn’t she have the desire to get flat breasts, or artificial wrinkles, or extra fat injected in her tummy? It’s because the society she lives in considers fake breasts to be beautiful, and even though she didn’t get implants to please any particular man, she got implants because she felt better about herself as she fit society’s beauty standards.

In Bangladesh, many women don’t shave their legs because most women don’t show them. In America, many women shave their legs because they have to appear smooth when appearing in public. That choice is cultural. Most women may not mind it, but it is still not a “free” choice. I myself shave my legs and tweeze my eyebrows, but I wouldn’t have done it id hairy legs and bushy eyebrows were in vogue. Would women have gotten breast implants if the beauty standard was to have flat breasts? I don’t think so. The only kinds of choice that might be considered “free” are the ones a person makes for themselves despite unpopularity and resistance from society.

And finally, this concept of choice is important to be a global feminist. Some ignorant Americans tend to question whether third world women have “choice.” The implication is that third world societies are less equal than Western societies. While that might be true, it’s true because third world countries have been exploited and depleted by the West so now we have to deal with another set of problems. Both men and women have fewer choices in the third world, it’s not just that third world men are more sexist. It annoys me to no end when some American women think their choices to put of make up everyday, wear uncomfortable shoes, or get plastic surgery somehow make them “freer” than third world women. Yeah right, they’re freer now to put more toxins in their body like Botox and now Latisse (for “inadequate” eyelashes). Some ignorant women take it a step further and assume that because America is a land of opportunity, it’s a woman’s choice to do porn. Somehow getting a few bucks for having your head forced down a toilet is a “free” choice.

Hardly any choices we make in our lives is a “free” choice by itself. But it can be a happy choice when made in a free structure that doesn’t have preset standards for what is beautiful or what is acceptable. I realize that is utopia, but until we get such flexible standards, please don’t tell me that you made a “free” choice to use Latisse.

I’m on a science-y roll with all the exams I’m taking. My previous post on female reproduction reminded me of another persistent problem I have with sexism in math and science – specifically the hypothesis that women might have something “innate” about them that makes them less apt in math and science careers.

I grew in a middle class but highly educated household in Bangladesh. I seemed to be a smart kid (!) and everyone encouraged me to aspire to intellectual career options. I had never heard that girls may have anything “innate” about them that makes them less mathematical. In all my grades, the top scorers across all subjects were girls, and often the same ones. Doing well in the math and sciences is something I associated with studying hard in general, not an “innate” interest. Now of course some people might have more trouble than others in certain disciplines, but not so much that a creative teacher couldn’t explain concepts to them. And of course there are people in Bangladesh who believe girls’ brains are not made for the sciences or that girls are dumb in general. But among educated people the understanding was more that both girls and boys who seem smart should be encouraged towards math and sciences since that’s where the money is. And even though patriarchal families prefer women not be careerists, they recognize that it’s a cultural requirement, not lack of intelligence.

It’s only in America, in college as I picked up on some evolutionary psychology that I heard some scientists really thought women were worse at math than men, and many women internalized it. To me the comment is not so much a scientific hypothesis as it is a patriarchal hypothesis. Let’s see where this hypothesis stems from – women are underrepresented in the sciences, and hence, along with some social factors, there could be a biological difference between men and women. Well which fields are women not underrepresented in? Nurses, secretaries and sex work. I’m not sure women are the majority among celebrity chefs and restaurant chefs, even though cooking is a traditional job for women. And if indeed women are more “verbal,” “emotional” or “literary,” then why is the literature we study, at least in English, dominated by men? So think about it, when you’re saying women are worse than men in the sciences, you’re really saying women are worse than men in everything. Or as a feminist sees it, women were kept out of the public sphere for a long time and have only made gains in some areas that society thinks is more womanly, like nursing, secretarial work, modeling, some interior decoration, etc. Some other areas have been harder to break into because not all women are willing to deal with the added misogyny of a male dominated workplace.

Another point to note – representation in math and science careers does not require an interest in math and science. Interest makes it much fun, of course, but the interest of money can also make good engineers or doctors. I don’t think the majority of men in math and science based professions are geniuses. I think they’re mediocre, and yet have made a decision to pursue a job that they understand well enough to make money. Yet, when women are mediocre in the math and sciences, they’re made to feel that it’s because they’re women, and not because they’re like the mediocre men. If a man isn’t a great computer programmer, it’s because he’s not the best in his field, if a woman is a mediocre programmer, it’s because of her womanly brain. And it is attitudes like this that keep women out of male dominated fields, unless they’re in the minority of men and women who have a burning desire for one career.

Even if a person doesn’t have an “innate” interest in something, practice makes perfect. How did I get into medicine? Around  6th grade when I realized my face and fat disqualified me from being a Bollywood actress, I decided to focus more on academics. That and my parents being South Asian acted like the world would freeze if I made a 95 on a math exam (as opposed to 100). Now I’m not condoning strict parenting, I’m just saying that our brains and bodies are shaped by the way we use them. The more we use our brains, the better our memories are. The more we use a certain part of the brain, the more active it gets. So in cultures where girls are not actively encouraged to break stereotypes, it’s plausible that their brains are being shaped by stereotypes. And as adults, when brains or bodies are not as plastic, it’s harder and harder to change. Judith Butler has written quite a lot about this plasticity and culture. She’s pointed out how social discussions seem to come to a halt when “biology” is mentioned because there’s a sense in Western science that biology is destiny. But biology itself is constructed, as is every level of an experiment of biology, from how we define the variables, to how we ask the question, to how we interpret the answers.

So am I saying that there’s absolutely no possibility of a link between genetic and phenotypical femaleness and less interest in math? No, but I don’t even see any basis of making such a connection. And in a patriarchal society where girls already have an uphill battle in being involved in the public sphere, it’s detrimental to perpetuate stereotypes by calling them “innate.” It’s probably worse to say “a woman can’t do this” than saying “a woman shouldn’t do this.” That’s Sexism OS XII. – vidyarthi

Sobia on Muslimah Media Watch covered the topic very well. Here’s her article.

Sigh. I thought Barbie set up white blonde plastic surguried beauty ideals, well now Desi girls have something more to be insecure about. The whole problem over the doll creators confusing Desis, Muslims, Arabs and God knows what not has been covered by Sobia. I just wanted to add my frustrations about perpetuating a light-skinned beauty ideal among ethnicities where the majority are dark skinned. Perhaps Unilever, maker of Fair and Lovely fairness cream gets a share of the sales from these dolls. – vidyarthi