Monday, January 31, 2011

Feminists in Burqas: a Response to Clarissa

Clarissa has a post up about a Gender Studies series of lectures on "Liberating Potential of the Burqa." Clarissa laments the fact that this is not a sign of the feminist movement gaining a sense of humor, but is meant in full earnestness as a study of how the burqa might be used to "liberate women from being constantly victimized by the desire implicit in a male gaze." As to this notion of the male gaze, Clarissa notes:

I never got this whole drama about people being demeaned or "objectified" (what a silly word!) by another person's gaze. If somebody looks at you and finds you attractive, it isn't something they can control. Whether they act on their desire for you can be controlled, of course. But the feeling of desire cannot. Only a very puritanical world-view believes that desire is inherently evil and has to be feared. As for objectification, other people are always objects of our actions. That's implicit in the rules of grammar. "I see you, I like you, I help you, I respect you, I support you" - in all of these sentences "I" is the only subject, while "you" is always an object. Other people are always objects of our feelings, actions, thoughts, etc. Being an object of somebody else's actions can be both good and bad, depending on the content of the action.

Every day, as I walk around, people see me and form attitudes towards me on the basis of what they see. Even if these attitudes are negative, why should I care? Why should I hide myself behind a bulky piece of covering? Why should I grant others such a huge power over my life? Instead of spending our lives fearing the judgment we believe is present in the gaze of other people, shouldn't we concentrate on our own desires, thoughts, and experiences? Who cares what some unknown man who sees me on the bus thinks of me? If he thinks I'm attractive, that's his right. If he sits there thinking, "Oh, Jeez, what an ugly woman," that's his right too.

I suspect that I differ from Clarissa in that I have no deep seated objection to the burqa, seeing it as something, in of itself, neutral in terms of women's empowerment. A burqa could mean a mean trying to gain control over a woman by making her ashamed of her body and to feel guilty for "leading men astray." A burqa could equally be a woman's way of empowering herself and engaging in a critic of a male dominated culture which objectifies women. The fact that historically the burqa has tended to more often serve the former function does not mean it cannot be made to serve the latter. I would even argue that our best hope in defeating the patriarchal implications of the burqa is not by head on eliminating the burqa, but in embracing the burqa while subverting it.

Ultimately my willingness to not oppose the burqa is rooted in my willingness to only recognize the validity of physical harm. Like Clarissa, I see nothing intrinsicly wrong with the male gaze, but again only because it does not cause physical harm. A man might have all the patriarchal intentions in the world, but that has no effect on the person being observed, who is free to interpret the gaze and feel about as desired. Since the observed person is as such free it carries the full responsibility for how it reacts to being observed, an objectively neutral action.

If there is one thing that Clarissa and I agree on here, it is, I believe, a concern that the self proclaimed liberal activism of those in Gender Studies departments might become an exercise in going far enough to the left and ending up on the right. Who is going to inherit the benefits of feminist attempts to liberate women from patriarchy? The historical law of unintended consequences leads to wonder if it might not be patriarchal men armed with new academic jargon to back their biblical truths. As long as individuals can be subjected to the non physical concerns of others there can be no secure rights for women or any men.     

1 comment:

Clarissa said...

"the self proclaimed liberal activism of those in Gender Studies departments might become an exercise in going far enough to the left and ending up on the right"

-That's exactly what it's like nowadays in Theoretical Feminism. People proclaim completely in earnest that "the female nature is more animalistic" which is why "women are not interested in logical reasoning." When I first heard it, I thought it was some kind of parody.

I wish you'd left a link to this post on my blog, so that people could see different sides of the discussion.