Saturday, October 11, 2008

Naomi Wolf Puts a Bag on Her Head and Calls It Freedom

Joseph Orosco at Engage: Conversations in Philosophy, has a recent post regarding women choosing to wear bags over their heads and claiming it as a feminist act. In many ways, his post reflects what I've felt about this claim but have been unable to come up with nice words to describe my feelings. I tend to be more likely to laugh uproariously at such transparent ridiculousity. At any rate, go there, read his post. It also has a wonderful comparison between wearing the chador and learning pole dancing as feminist acts. READ IT, I say!

Joe links to a Naomi Wolf commentary which is much in need of discussion. Wolf (who, as the author of the classic The Beauty Myth, should know better! Come on, Naomi!) writes:
...many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualizing Western gaze.
This, according to Wolf, is GOOD.

Compare this to the message of The Beauty Myth: many Western women do not feel at all subjugated by the beauty requirements of cosmetic surgery and health-threatening diets. On the contrary, they feel liberated from what they experienced as the judgemental, insulting, basely de-sexualizing Western gaze. This, according to Wolf, is BAD.

A warning about Morocco from a poster at Lonely Planet says:
Word of warning for any females travelling alone or as a female-only group: the men of Marrakesh tend to voice their appreciation of the fairer sex. And when I say voice, I mean pester really; snake-like hissing, whispering Bonsoir in your ear, or general ogling (despite being covered up) - you have be [sic] warned...
(emphasis mine)Perhaps Morocco is alone in being a place where women get pestered even when covered up. I somehow doubt it.

Still, is unwanted attention “Western?” And if it happens even if a woman is covered, as in Morocco, are women “liberated” from it by covering? I think RELIEF is a better word to use in such situations than LIBERATE, and that perhaps covering oneself with a bag provides some small relief from constant harassment. Sometimes.

Having just finished reading The Beauty Myth, I would say that Wolf is slipping. In a chapter about cosmetic surgery (under the heading “Violence”), she writes that western women are forced have surgery in order to comply with the social requirement to remain beautiful (according to today’s pornalicious super-model standards). In "Hunger", she writes of how we are forced to diet ourselves sick for the same reason.

Perhaps it gives western women some relief when they surgically alter their faces and bodies, wear those fashionably sultry eye-shadows and the fashionable body-baring clothes, and shave their legs, since it prevents men from looking at them with that "look at the old hairy-legged lesbian hag in the baggy sweats" sneer-with-raised-eyebrow.

In her book, this is BAD. Women should be able to age naturally, to know themselves to be beautiful and be recognized as beautiful as individuals, rather than try to force ourselves into the beauty-myth template.

It is likely that the bagged women Ms Wolf has spoken to also feel relief that they are not harassed in the streets (sometimes) when they bag themselves. One woman Wolf spoke to said, “When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected.” Is this respect? It sounds more like approval to me. Respect and approval are very different things.

In her commentary, this is GOOD. Women should be able to choose to hide themselves as a statement about the “Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality [which] are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband.” Because men deciding women must wear bags except with their husbands isn’t repressive or anything, I guess. And attitudes towards women in Islam are not rooted in the belief that women are chattel or anything, I guess.[/sarcasm]

Is this any different from a surgically de-aged, dieted into frailness, dressed to fit the most recent arbitrary fashion requirements Western woman feeling as though she is respected, when most likely, she is only approved (USDA choice!) because she has squeezed herself into that template? Why is one considered a symbol of freedom and the other a symbol of patriarchy?

The last paragraph of Wolf’s commentary clears up the question of her agenda. She writes:
…when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top – in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue – it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

Apparently her goal is to say that Muslim women who choose to bag themselves, and this is the MAJORITY of women in Egypt and Morocco, somehow have freedom that is greater than or equal to the freedom of Western women, who choose to wear miniskirts and halter tops or to disguise aging, all the while being disrespected as mothers, workers, and spiritual beings. I don’t see it. I don’t get it.

Is she saying Muslim women who wear bags are free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue? This after she has written, “At home, in the context of marital intimacy, Victoria’s Secret, elegant fashion, and skin care lotions abounded.” And then added a paean to the sensual dance brides are taught “as part of what makes her a wonderful wife.”

If the women Wolf spoke to feel disrespected, saying, “When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to – and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time.” What exactly are their choices? Put up with it or put a bag over your head? And I guess their husbands NEVER objectify them or make them feel too old, too fat, or not hot enough. I'd like to see that data.

If I feel disrespected for being a mother, for growing older without altering the evidence of my aging, for not wearing the latest haute couture from YSL or pornified fashion from JC Penney, for not trying to fit into some artificial mold, I talk about it. I find different people to hang around with. I work to change opinions. I exhibit my respectability. I teach my children about commercialism, ageism, sexism, and patriarchy. I don’t put a bag over my head and call it freedom.

There is more to discuss in Wolf’s commentary, specifically her belief that sexuality in the more modest culture of Islam is much healthier than here in the West. But that’s a different post. I’ll leave it with this for now: Again, we have an example of religious and political patriarchy protecting (or trying to protect) its child-like men from their baser instincts by keeping women under wraps. And it doesn’t even work.

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