Apropos of agency

Cross posted

anjum has been writing about agency with respect to Muslim women in particular, but also in respect of all women in minority ethnic groups: We’re quite capable of speaking for ourselves, imperial feminism, dodging bullets. Apropos of that, here is a challenge I’ve given my students, something which seems to have rattled some of them a little, especially those of them who felt that we (whoever “we” is) ought to be very worried about the various forms of veiling that many Muslim women wear, and should be doing something about it.

Turn it around, I say to them. Imagine what a newcomer to Australia or New Zealand, or indeed any other Western nation, might say about the practices we force on women here. Women have to get the hair waxed off their legs, they must wear make-up and straighten their hair, when they’re at work they have to wear shoes that make their feet ache and can result in long term damage to their legs and hips, and there are some foods they’re not supposed to eat, so that they can keep their weight down. Sure, they can “choose” not to do these things, but if they don’t, then they will be criticised, sometimes quite severely. There are no formal rules about these practices, but all the women understand that this is what they must do, and if they don’t, they will pay the price.

Then I say to them, how would you feel if the newcomer decides that she will do her best to rescue Western women, to work hard to liberate Western women from these practices, because it’s clear that they need rescuing.

I’ve had a few stunned silences in my tutorials when I’ve put it that way. And in other places. Including in myself.

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22 responses to “Apropos of agency

  1. “There are no formal rules about these practices, but all the women understand that this is what they must do, and if they don’t, they will pay the price.”

    There are significant differences between fashion and religious/cultural dogma.

    I’m not sure what the price I’m paying is because I’ve never waxed my legs (though do shave them in summer), straightened or permed my hair, worn shoes which cause damage or discomfort and rarely wear makeup.

    The weight thing is complex and applies to men (and worse, now, children) too.

    But even women who follow fashion slavishly don’t have to do it in a way which restricts what they do and where they do it eg in sport (swimming, tramping, running . . . ) as those who have to cover up for religious reasons do.

    What offends me most about the requirement for women to cover-up is the justification that it keeps them/us safe because men couldn’t control themselves if they/we didn’t.

  2. Sure – I can see some differences too. But what seems to get my students to really, really think is that second bit of the puzzle:

    Then I say to them, how would you feel if the newcomer decides that she will do her best to rescue Western women, to work hard to liberate Western women from these practices, because it’s clear that they need rescuing.

    It’s the questions of agency, and denying agency, that flummox them.

  3. Deborah – your students are going to miss you!!
    I’ll have to say that I disagee on a couple of points, although I can see your point about agency.
    Firstly (and this was alluded to by HomePaddock as well) – I can’t agree that women in our society HAVE to shave their legs, straighten their hair, wear pointy little shoes and so on, or risk social ostracism. It just doesn’t describe the world I live in. What are we afraid of if we don’t do these things? Being criticised? Are we not stronger than that?
    Two of my NZ women friends are extremely senior public servants. As in, they are CEOs of, respectively, a government department and a research institute. They are both what you might call uncompromising in their appearance – I doubt very much whether they shave their legs and wear makeup on a daily basis, although of course as a leader you have to look presentable and professional, as do men. They have their jobs because they are extremely competent, and are judged on their competence rather than on their looks. And this is exactly how it should be. I can’t speak for Australia, but in general, I do think there is a culture here of judging people on their competence rather than their appearance. Or maybe I am just lucky to move in enlightened circles – I’d be interested to hear what other NZ women think.
    And secondly – what HomePaddock said about differences between fashion and religious dogma. C’mon, social pressure to shave one’s legs is hardly Sharia Law. There is such a world of difference between the consequences of noncompliance as to make the comparison meaningless, IMHO.

  4. I think that young women feel pressures over their appearance that we can’t even imagine. Many of them claim to be spending way more money than we would ever have countenanced on waxing, tanning, shoes, clothes and hair. Not to mention the obsessions with what they eat. I’m of the school that Carol’s friends belong to – quiet confidence, neat and professional dressing, and to hell with the opinions of people who don’t like it. But it’s hard for me to judge just how they are feeling this pressure – it seems to be like oxygen to them; they have nothing to measure it by; they just have to conform.

    But yes, it’s not Sharia Law, but it might feel pretty important to them.

  5. The pressure on young women to exfoliate and dress “appropriately” in a mainstream feminine manner isn’t just a matter of “fashion”. To many women other than the extremely privileged ones described above, it’s a matter of conform or be sneered at and mocked by anyone from your work supervisor to casual passers by. Think of the recent example of the douchely dude who published a “kiss and tell” about Christine O’Donnell and mocked her for having pubic hair. The requirement for hairlessness in the US seems to have reached frightening proportions. Perhaps it’s not so bad in the UK but it’s certainly got a toehold here from what I see.

    You can’t claim equivalence in everything, and it’s true Australian women don’t get rocks thrown at them for dressing counter to the current prescription, but on the other hand you don’t hear of many ME women dying of starvation because they are suffering from such violent hatred of their own body; correct me if I’m wrong.

  6. According to this British Muslim writer, the body-image obsession among Muslim women is just as bad:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/yasmin-alibhai-brown/yasmin-alibhaibrown-the-beauty-secrets-of-asian-women-618081.html

    FWIW, I think we need to be very, very careful taking belief systems like Islam seriously on any other level than the foreign policy one (viz, invading other people’s countries where people believe different stuff is likely to be messy, expensive and not work).

    The basic intellectual content of the belief system itself is likely to be as vacuous as anything we once believed in the West. The fact that most of the adherents of this particular set of vacuous beliefs happen to be poor and/or live in developing countries does not relieve the beliefs themselves of their vacuity.

    The distinction may be a fine one, but it is important to keep it in mind.

  7. My friends may be ‘extremely privileged’, Helen, but they could also seen as being brave role models for showing that it is possible to thrive without conforming to standard notions of female appearance. Personally I’m more inclined to cheer than to sneer.

  8. I’m not disputing that Carol. What I’m saying is that your everyday woman-on-the-street from working stiffs to uni students to SAHMs are under enormous pressure to conform to the standard. The feminist blogs report real-life instances of this, daily, as does the MSM in a less aware fashion. And they will incur sneers if they push back against it. This is structural, and you can’t just say we can all easily escape it, especially if we’re women without the educational privilege to recognise and deconstruct the structural pressures.

  9. Yeah fair enough Helen – my reply was a bit harsher than I intended. It may not sound like it, but I am aware of the pitfalls of the reasoning that goes “it’s not a problem for me or my friends, therefore it’s not a problem”.

  10. There seems to be a bit of mixing up going on here about sharia law and the way women are treated in some other countries as distinct from attitudes to women who wear the veil in country. Whenever I hear arguments that the veil should be banned, I think of the Catholic nuns who taught me at school, who got around in full black robes and headdress. It was nuns who mostly liberated themselves from that oppressive uniform, just as it has to be Muslim women themselves who will decide to reject the veil – if that is what they decide to do. I think your focus on agency is spot on Deborah and I agree with Helen that young (and not so young) women today experience extreme pressure to denude themselves and wear some ridiculous clothing and footwear.
    Someone was telling me today (anecdotal, but probably true) that in the US it’s very difficult if not impossible to buy tampons without applicators and that in Japan tampons come with a plastic finger-wrap – all so that women don’t have to touch their own genitals. Western women aren’t as ‘free’ as they like to think they are.

  11. Thanks Carol and apologies if my reply was also harsher than intended :-)

  12. Well, thanks Helen (and others) for challenging my thinking. :-)
    Re Suze’s comment that we aren’t as free as we think we are, I’m just reading Jonathan Frantzen’s book ‘Freedom’ – ironic title, of course. I’m not very far into it, but it’s already very absorbing.

  13. The basic intellectual content of the belief system itself is likely to be as vacuous as anything we once believed in the West. The fact that most of the adherents of this particular set of vacuous beliefs happen to be poor and/or live in developing countries does not relieve the beliefs themselves of their vacuity.

    wow, i’m finding it very hard to respond to this in any way that isn’t extremely rude. yup, western beliefs are no longer vacuous, eastern beliefs totally are. the fact that i choose to wear a headscarf is totally because i am vacuous and stupid and afraid of men raping me.

    But even women who follow fashion slavishly don’t have to do it in a way which restricts what they do and where they do it eg in sport (swimming, tramping, running . . . ) as those who have to cover up for religious reasons do.

    and of course, the fact that i’ve been involved with muslims girls camps over the last two years that included horse-riding, waka-ama, absailing, rock climbing, flying fox, and that a friend of mine organised a caving expedition, and that every single woman & girl there wore a headscarf, that totally didn’t happen. all my memories are just imagination after all. and the muslim women’s conference i’m involved in organising in january which includes some of these activities, which women across the country are excited about & signing up for and will be doing in their full covering, must be all a figment of my imagination too.

    thank you, people, for reducing me and my friends & family to complete idiots, i really enjoyed it.

  14. Stargazer – your idea of freedom from restriction must be very different from mine if the sports can be done in full covering.

  15. Well, Muslim women are not homogenous, any more than Christian women. Some wear a hijab, some a niqab, some a burqa, some just a minimal headscarf, others wear no head covering at all.

  16. stargazer, if it’s any consolation, I’d say exactly the same thing about your belief set if those beliefs were Christian/Hindu/etc. I think it’s time we all got over automatic respect for religious belief, for the simple reason that the content is pretty intellectually abject.

  17. your idea of freedom from restriction must be very different from mine if the sports can be done in full covering.

    Or maybe Stargazer’s experience of this is very different to yours? I’ve never tried those sports in any sort of additional covering, apart from mandated safety gear for the few that I have tried, so I wouldn’t know. Stargazer obviously does.

  18. Mindy – different experiences lead often lead to different ideas.

    One of the things I’ve learned from my experiences is that different sometimes means right or wrong, better or worse and sometimes it’s just different.

  19. I found the high heels analogy enlightening to myself and a bunch of people I shared it with a while ago. I think it’s a pretty fair analogy when talking about what Muslims wear, especially in Australia. And it was precisely the issue of agency that made it a good analogy. Banning high heels would cause an outrage, because while many women no doubt do feel inexorably obliged to wear them and wish that were not the case, other women wear them because they love them, even feel empowered by them. Women, indeed all people, need an environment in which they can feel empowered, not other people to come along and remove the outward trappings of powerlessness.

  20. skepticlawyer, it’s no consolation that you show equal contempt for people of any religion, just as i find it unacceptable when people of religion show contempt for atheists. bigotry is bigotry, no matter how you dress it up. i’m not asking you to agree with my beliefs, i’m not asking you to refrain from critiquing them – eg i spoke more publicly about the “raw meat” comments of sheikh taj-al din al-hilaly than anyone here, including being published in a major aussie newspaper, in the nz herald & at public address. but i’m asking you to at least respect the fact that my level of intelligence may be equal or possibly even higher than yours (and if not mine, then another person of faith surely will reach that lofty height). describing our mindset as vacuous and assuming they’re all just stupid, well i’d have to say it reflects more on you than on them. i generally try to avoid getting snarky, but having read a couple of your comments here, i wonder that you don’t have a very sore neck from looking down your nose at all us supposed fools who choose to believe something you don’t.

    ele, obviously my view is different from yours because i have participated and witnessed these events first hand. it seems you haven’t, so appear to be speaking without experience or knowledge. to rectify that situation, how about you come to the conference in hamilton in january this year. there’s a public session on saturday 22 january: why not come, talk to some muslim women, and hear from them first hand about their activities – like the women’s netball tournaments that have been organised regularly in auckland over the last couple of decades, the next to be held on 27 november. if you’re interersted, email me at kiwistars at gmail dot com. i’m happy to arrange accommodation for you if required.

  21. stargazer – thanks for the invitation, I’m sorry I can’t take it up, both those dates are already booked.

  22. sorry that you can’t ele. i’d invite you to the ski trip in the pipeline for muslim girls next year, but we haven’t set a date for that yet.

    i just wanted to add that if anyone else is interested in attending the public session of the conference in january, please feel free to email me. i can’t promise accommodation to everyone, but lunch will be provided.