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Just when you thought things couldn’t get more messed up November 19, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion.
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Just when you thought that forcing women to shroud their bodies and hair in loose black cloth wasn’t bad enough, a moral committee in Saudi Arabia has threatened to force women to cover up their “sexy eyes”. Yet again, extreme conservatives have demonstrated the extent of their ridiculousness – to go so far as to blame “sexy eyes” for tempting men.

So what has this got to do with us normal people? After all, I’m pretty sure that even the most socially conservative person that you or I know would not agree with the committee’s threats. Before we all pat ourselves on the backs for being more progressive than the Saudi moral committee, let’s take a look at our own society, or even at Western society. Are we really that much better than them?

There are two main themes that we all still have in common. The first is blame. In Saudi Arabia and in Singapore alike, it is still not uncommon for women to be blamed for the actions and choices of men. While in a conservative Middle Eastern society, rape may be blamed on a woman’s sexy eyes or tempting ankles, our “traditional Asian”, Western influenced society is equally guilty of blaming rape on a woman’s attire or behavior. In both situations, instead of focusing on the actions and choices of the perpetrator, people choose to hold the victim accountable. Maybe it is simply easier to blame the sexiness of eyes and ankles and cleavage and thighs, than to face the fact that *gasp* men have control over where they stick their genitalia?

The second theme is control. Over and beyond supposed rape prevention, dictating how a woman should and should not dress means assuming that you have the right to control her actions. Control is by no means limited to punishment by stoning (or whatever medieval means we imagine “backward” countries to utilize). Threats of hell, stigmatization, and shame are used to punish women who show more skin that what is deemed acceptable. (Funnily enough, in modern society, we not only punish women for dressing too sexy, we also disregard women who are not sexy enough.) Of course, men are not immune to such judgment either, but I would contend that there is a far higher social price to pay for being a slut than a stud, and there is a far stronger social pressure on women to dress sexy-but-not-too-sexy.

“Decency” is a poor excuse. Decency according to whose standards: the religious police?  The government? Religious leaders? Who gave them the authority to decide what should be considered decent, and who are they to decide that women’s bodies should be subject to stricter scrutiny than men’s? Such control is manifested most obviously in conservative Islamic societies whose laws demand that women (against all respect for reason, safety, or culture) cover their entire bodies. But it also manifests in Western society when we have absurd policies about public breastfeeding, or when everybody freaks out when a nipple appears on national television. It’s almost as if a woman’s body is always defined as sexual, never mind the fact that we use our bodies to dance, swim, run, and nurse infants, the sole purpose of exposing our skin is for the viewing pleasure of men, right?!? Pair that view together with a sexually repressive society and you get a ridiculous obsession with policing and judging women’s attire.

Ultimately, it’s a no brainer that women in Western society and Singapore’s society enjoy more freedoms than our Saudi counterparts. But the next time you see a rape victim being accused of “asking for it” because of her sexy dress, don’t forget that the very same argument can be made for a fully niqab-ed women with sexy eyes. Perhaps the extreme victim blaming and control over women that we hear about in Saudi Arabia will force us to see the absurdity of our own society’s attempts to blame and control women.

Reclaiming the word “slut” April 6, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International.
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If you are a woman, chances are, some culture somewhere will define you as a slut. Maybe you’ve had sex before marriage. Maybe you’ve had more than one boyfriend. Maybe you’ve held hands with an unrelated man. Maybe you have male friends. Maybe you go out in public exposing your bare arms. Even as I sit here in front of my computer in a t-shirt and skinny jeans, some cultures will define that as slutty attire – attire that suggests that I am asking to be disrespected by men, attire that means I deserve to get sexually harassed.

And that, I feel, is the crux of the matter: what society deems as appropriate attire and appropriate behaviour for women is purely subjective, and more often than not, defined by men. If a woman doesn’t comply with these arbitrary standards, she is defined as a slut – someone less than human, someone deserving to be victimised, and someone less deserving of empathy. The concept of a slut is socially constructed, designed to punish women who choose to express varying degrees of their individuality and sexuality, and to excuse perpetrators who might commit acts of assault and harassment against them.

Women in Toronto have grown sick of this form of oppression. In response to a police officer who claimed that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”, these women decided to reclaim the word “slut” by organizing a Slutwalk. 3,000 women of all ages – wearing anything they wanted to wear – marched down the streets of Toronto with pride and defiance, to reinforce the point that what a woman wears is not an invitation to be harassed and that they had enough of victim blaming/shaming. Most importantly, they wanted society to change from a culture that tells women not to get raped to a culture that demands that men do not rape.

Even now, I can anticipate the response from anti-feminist male chauvinist pigs (or anti-feminist females, who, though a rarer breed, tend to be more scathing and self righteous than their male counterparts). “If you don’t want to get groped, then why tempt us (men) to grope you?” To that, I have a few responses.

i) You are not an animal. You are a human being in control of your actions. Your hormones may tell you to touch or hump an attractive female walking by, but you have the ability and the responsibility to restrain yourself and respect the woman’s sovereignty over her own body. How she is dressed is no excuse for uncivilized behaviour, nor does it rationalize disrespecting her personhood.

ii) More often than not, it is the observer that is doing the sexualizing, not the “slut”. If you claim that a woman is dressed like a sex object, chances are, it is because you have defined her as one first. Let’s put it this way, if you saw a topless woman in Singapore, you would sexualize her, but you wouldn’t sexualize the topless tribal women on the National Geographic Channel, and you most probably wouldn’t sexualize a topless obese/ugly woman. Why? Because the role of a “sex object” has been projected onto her by the observer, and is not an inherent property of a woman’s attire.

iii) Believe it or not, most women do not make their clothing choices based on whether they will be able to tempt men. Looking nice makes us feel good about ourselves, and most of us enjoy it when others – both male and female – recognize that we look nice. The world doesn’t revolve around men and sex; it is not our intention to tempt you or invite you, and even if you make the mistake of interpreting it as such, please be a man and respect it when we say no. (And yes, I acknowledge that some women dress in certain ways solely to get male attention. But it’s just that – attention. Attention is not consent to groping or sex.)

iv) Rape has more to do with how the perpetrator views women than about sex. If it were simply an issue of sexual attraction, a man would take “no” for an answer. But to ignore a victim’s sovereignty over her own body suggests that the perpetrator has issues of power and control and is probably unable to respect women as equal human beings with a right to choose their attire and a right to not be touched without consent. What a woman wears is merely a convenient excuse to disguise the desire to dehumanize and possess a victim and to violate her bodily integrity against her will.

Back to the topic at hand: should we reclaim the word “slut”? It depends on how you define the word. If “slut” simply means a woman who dresses scantily, then I say by all means reclaim it. We all should have the right to dress however we want without having to be a victim of assault or harassment. But sometimes the word is more loaded than that – it has been used to justify rape, harassment and general assholery against women by making assumptions about their worth as human beings. We may hate it or embrace it, as long as we never let it be used as an excuse for the dehumanization and violation of women.

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