Monday, November 21, 2005

More wonders from Women's Studies

Still perusing the past week's archives of the Women's Studies List.

Janelle Hobson, assistant professor of Women's Studies at SUNY-Albany, posts this inquiry on "teaching [about] Afghan women":

In keeping with the listserv's guidelines about focusing our discussion to issues of teaching and research, I would like to tie this issue concerning "feminist rhetoric" and Westernized constructions of the Afghani woman (especially in her burqua) back to strategies for feminist teaching.

In the aftermath of September 11, I made the wise decision to clear my syllabus and place current events at the center of our studies in an undergraduate Feminist Theory class. Teaching in New York state and dealing with the presence of students directly impacted by the tragedy, I had to find a way to encourage students' development of feminist thinking and, at that point in time, help them create a more nuanced global consciousness.

No sooner did the War in Afghanistan start than images of burqua-covered Afghan women started dominating our TV screens. It was oh-so-easy for my students to fall into a "The West is Liberated" /"The East is Barbaric" and "Western Women are Liberated"/"Eastern (especially in their burquas) Women are Oppressed" view of the world. ...

So, I created a Media Watch assignment: I titled it "Where are the Women?" I asked students to pay attention to various media coverage of the 9-11 and War in Afghanistan events and the ways in which gender intersects with race, class, and nationality. As a result, students discovered the heightened objectification of women's subjugation in the Middle East but also right here in the U.S. They discovered the ways in which American women were silenced in similar ways that Afghani women were and that national/patriotic rhetoric advanced deeply entrenched, white compulsory heterosexuality which encouraged an uneven view of the world that literally told "bikini-clad beauty queens" (yes, I remember this one newspaper clipping from a student project) that baring their flesh for patriotism's sake was far more "liberating" than covering up in a burqua!

I am grateful that students, during a moment when they were encouraged by everyone to check their brains at the door, did the necessary work in recognizing parallel, cross-cultural objectification efforts occurring in war rhetoric rather than collapse into some sense of "we're more liberated," or "they're more oppressed."

Had I not assigned this particular project, I imagine I would've had a terrible time, descending into arguments over the "appropriateness" of antiracist, anti-imperialist feminist discourse in a time of war (and having spoken with different colleagues who did face these struggles in the post-9/11 aftermath, I have no doubt that I would have had a very different class).

The point in sharing this: we can have a fruitful conversation that recognizes transnational feminist struggles for a just world that does not descend into feelings of personal attacks. It seems to me that we are all being asked (as I had asked my students, or rather, had assigned them the task of doing) to think critically, from a non-ethnocentric feminist perspective, about how to effectively build coalition with Afghan feminists that does not subordinate them or unwittingly join forces with an imperialist agenda that does nothing to improve their lives.

No, of course we wouldn't want students thinking that American women are more liberated than Afghan women, or that Western involvement can improve the lives of Third World women, or that bikini-clad beauty contestants (whom no one forces to parade around in bikinis) are not quite as oppressed as women who are beaten if they let a bit of their feet or hair show from under the mandatory covering. Perish the thought. "Nuanced global consciousness" requires spouting nonsense about how women's "subjugation" in the United States is essentially no different than in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Predictably and depressingly, this nonsense gets a few sympathetic replies, followed by a bit of mild heresy from Hannah Miyamoto, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, who writes that the 1986 book The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner examines the history of "veiling" as "a symbol of male control over female sexuality":

In particular, she relies upon ancient Middle Assyrian law that not only required women and girls considered under the control of patriarchs to be veiled, but expressly required "harlots" and other sexually-available women to be unveiled, and providing dire punishments for either group of women.

I suspect that few non-experts in the Islamic world--particularly the proverbial "man on the Arab street"--knows that the modern practices that he considers a matter of devout faith are but an extension of practices that pre-date present Islamic practice by thousands of years, practices that now do not really achieve the original function of veiling/non-veiling laws in Assyria or elsewhere.

Here is another example of how western viewpoints are actually superior, in certain aspects, to indigenous viewpoints, principally due to the cultural distance of western scholars.

Needless to say, the heretic is promptly slapped down. Tamara Agha-Jaffar, Professor of English Kansas City Kansas Community College, writes:

I find your statements below to be culturally insensitive. First of all, while the majority of Arabs are Muslims, the majority of Muslims are not Arab. Furthermore, are you suggesting that this "man on the Arab street" is incapable of knowing that while the practice of veiling pre-dates Islam, it was also adopted by the wives of the Prophet and later Muslim women as a means of distinguishing them from non-Muslim women? If so, this "man on the Arab street" must indeed be in desperate need of Western enlightenment and its "superior" viewpoint.

In her next post, Miyamoto defends herself, explaining that veiling is about male control of women of female sexuality. Somewhat amusingly, however, she feels compelled to preface this with a discussion of an Ellen Goodman column which equates the American religious right's opposition to a new vaccine that prevents cervical cancer caused by a sexually transmitted virus to the Taliban's stoning of women who have extramarital sex. And she adds this qualifier:

I'm not picking on Islam; although it provides a very dramatic example, most world religions--especially Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant sects) and Judaism--expressly reinforce sexism. If you want proof, just try to argue that sexism is contrary to God and Jesus; when was the last female Pope? Right! Furthermore, due to monogamy and marriage, heterosexism is a key element in the maintenance of male control over female sexuality.

In other words: we can't criticize the Taliban without giving equal time to criticism of the all-male Catholic priesthood and of monogamy and marriage.

As a sane feminist friend of mine quipped upon reading this: "Groupthink is restored. All's right with the world."

Am I focusing too much on a marginal phenomenon? Unfortunately, I don't think so. The resistance to acknowledging that compared to the rest of the world, the West holds the moral high ground when it comes to women's rights is deeply entrenched in academic feminism -- which means that a lot of students get pushed in this direction, not just in women's studies but in English and other disciplines. As a result, some are alienated from feminism, and others are successfully brainwashed into knee-jerk anti-Westernism. What's more, as I have previously discussed, this attitude spills over into more mainstream feminism as well.

Update: Can't recall if I've shared this anecdote before, but I'll never forget a comment made by Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University and one of the leading lights of feminist jurisprudence, at a feminist conference I attended at Radcliffe College in 1992. I don't remember the exact context, but Rhode said (to appreciative laughter from the audience), "Only 8% of the world's population are white males. I find that to be a very encouraging fact." Because, of course, all those non-white males around the world are such great friends of feminism and women's rights, dont'cha know.


reader_iam said...

Good Lord! I'm in awe of your ability to continue wading!

Coincidently, I'm currently reading "Reading Lolita in Iran." I'm wonder what that author would have thought of this idiocy. Well, no, not really ...

reader_iam said...

Sorry. OBVIOUSLY, that should be Teheran. Darn, I really shouldn't do blogosphere things while doing other tasks ... in this case, actively cooking dinner ...

Cathy Young said...

That's a wonderful book! Something tells me it won't be frequently assigned in women's studies...

Anonymous said...

This phenomenon is hardly restricted to feminism. There's a definite strain of thought in cultural anthropology, at least, that in all ways, Western society is more violent, repressive, inegalitarian, sexist, racist, classist, etc. than any given indigenous culture, and if there should be one or two examples where an indigenous society is shown to be worse than Western society, it's entirely due to Western influence (i.e. they wouldn't have become so patriarchal, etc. if it weren't for pressure by advancing Western imperialist society.)

reader_iam said...

Cathy, yes, indeed. Talk about speaking volumes.

I'll concede the following is too broad-brush: But what IS it about Women's Studies that people seem more interested in listening to women's analysis and opinion of OTHER women's experiences more than listening to those OTHER women's own words? I just don't get that. Never have, never will.

So teeth-grittingly patronizing. And--dare I say it?--oppressive.

Anti Misandry said...

It's all very well blaming the 'patriarchy' for anything & everything, but feminism is built on double standards, half-truth's and sometimes blatant lies...and let us not forget, downright sexism.
Of course, when women are sexist (aka feminist) by blaming man-made constructs in one hand, and taking credit for anything remotely decent or including women as victims on the other hand, we do not call it sexism.
It reminds me of when a group of white people attack a single black person. It is then racist. But if a group of black people attack a single white person, we call it a political argument.


vbspurs said...

(Hi Reader_Iam! ;)

"Reading Lolita in Iran."

I took that out last year, from the public library -- but had to return it in a few days, since it was a high-volume request item.

I didn't finish reading it. If you could, please give your impressions on it. :)


vbspurs said...

The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

*sinking feeling in pit of stomach*

...anyway, I don't want to dilute your wonderfully sustained argument in your blogpost, Cathy, with some peptic complaint about Gerda Lerner's wafflings.

Let me say that you have this amazing ability to summarise, and reduce an argument's many sides, without taking away the substantive points.

This is a talent which I cannot tell you, how much I admire.

As a sane feminist friend of mine quipped upon reading this: "Groupthink is restored. All's right with the world."

Bless her heart. I'd love to have her as MY friend.


Cathy Young said...

Victoria: trust me, I am no Gerda Lerner fan, though I suspect that when it comes to veiling she probably has a good point.

And thank you for the kind words.

I'm sorry you weren't able to read Reading Lolita in Tehran -- I hope you can get your hands on it again!

Revenant said...

I have to wonder -- do these people realize how counterproductive their attitudes are, or do they just not care?

I was exposed to so much "men/whites/Americans/etc are evil" foolishness in college that it takes an act of will on my part to even bother listening to such arguments anymore. When you keep hearing the same thing over and over again, and nineteen times out of twenty it is either absurdly exagerrated or complete nonsense, after a while you stop listening. It is effective time-management. I know I'm not alone on that one either; most of the men and women I went to college, liberal and conservative alike, ended up with the same attitude. Blame white men for everything, collect your 'A', and check the "diversity studies" requirement off on your transcript.

Which is a damned shame, really. The emphasis on imagined wrongdoing makes it hard to focus on actual wrongdoing.

Anonymous said...

I am glad that your blog is not widely read. Your selective reading and sloppy summary are a real shame. Have you actually gotten a degree from an accredited university?

It doesn't take much intelligence to realize that a few comments posted on a listserv actually are not a representation of a field at all. The comments on that list are actually questions and answers posted to those questions. Do your homework!

And to post that Patai or Miyamoto are somehow slapped down or ignored is ridiculous. There is debate. Everyone is subjected to that.

Gerda Lerner's work on the veil is highly problematic and very out of date. Surely in school you learned to KEEP UP on research?

Seriously. Your writing represents the works kind of irresponsibility with regard to intellectual work.

Cathy Young said...

First of all, I hope Women's Studies has better defenders than people who post anonymous flames on a blog.

Second: I don't, of course, form my opinion of Women's Studies solely from the listserv. However, I'm sure the administrators of WMST-L -- the largest academic feminist e-list -- would be disappointed to learn that in your opinion, their list does not reflect the state of the field.

And the fact that, on this listserv, people who make bizarre claims such as "women in America are silenced in ways similar to women under the Taliban" find an invariably supportive atmosphere speaks volumes about the field.

Incidentally, anonymous, I really don't need Gerda Lerner to tell me that veiling is oppressive to women.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm Hannah Miyamoto
First, I would like to correct the statement in your blog that I am/was a graduate student at the "University of Minnesota." Actually, I was earning my M.S. in Women's Studies at "Minnesota State University, Mankato." I finished that in 2005, and now I'm a Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa.
Second, I'm rather proud to be named a "heretic." However, I don't think I deserve the honor in this case. Moreover, I simply am one that embraces paradoxes. Thus, my claim that non-Muslim Western scholars may understand Islamic practices "better" as well as differently, precisely because they aren't Muslims.
In the rush to emphasize "standpoint" in feminist studies, we tend to place greater value on the viewpoint that comes closest to the situation being studied. By corrolary, many people almost automatically reject anything from anyone whose standpoint is "outside" the situation.
Shirley Jackson's famous short story, "The Lottery," illustrates the problem with valuing standpoints over each other. The villagers certainly have the closest standpoint--they are throwing the stones, and they insist this tradition must be "continued." We, the readers, are horrified--justly--that any community would simply select someone and stone them to death. Hang tradition!
Once again, there are no easy answers in a discusion involving feminism. Quel surprise!
Incidentally, I have started my own blog, "Writer of Discontent.",com

I just posted an essay on why the Democrats should not be blamed for voting another $80 billion to continue the Iraq War. I'm building toward a comprehensive analysis of Left strategy and analysis. I'm not just a "heretic," but a "free radical" and card-carrying member of the "improper fraction!" Peace.

Hannah Miyamoto
Graduate Studies, Sociology
Univ. of Hawai'i at Miyamoto
Honolulu, Hawai'i

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