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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.

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10 Top Tips to End Rape! October 19, 2011

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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.

Karma and the Just World Fallacy May 23, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Philosophy, Religion, Society, Uncategorized.
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The concept of karma is almost universal, only differing in name across other belief systems and cultures outside of Buddhism.  Some label it as “you reap what you sow”, or “what goes around comes around”. It basically involves the belief that the world is just; that the universe (or god) is fair, and kind deeds and hard work are rewarded while evil doers are punished.

Now you may be wondering: what so bad about such a worldview? Sure, it may be naive, irrational or overly optimistic, but what harm could possibly come out of the idealistic notion that the universe is fair and just? If anything, wouldn’t this worldview motivate some to be good and kind?

Well, aside from the fact that there is nothing commendable about performing good deeds for the sole purpose of collecting “gold stars” to get into the universe’s (or god’s) good books, this “just world fallacy” also produces a troubling artefact when one is made to rationalize the gross injustices and tragedies that befall seemingly good people.

When one believes that the world punishes bad people and rewards good people, what happens when they observe someone falling victim to an act of evil or to unfortunate circumstances? Unable to solve the contradiction of tragedy befalling someone good and moral in a universe with a karmic self correcting mechanism, the “just world” believer would then come to the conclusion that the victim must have done something to deserve his fate. Believing that the world is fair and just leads one to the troubling outcome that is victim blaming.

The just world phenomenon and the victim blaming that comes along with it are far from uncommon. In a study conducted by Lerner (1966) in which subjects watched videotapes of a “participant” of an experiment being made to undergo painful electric shocks, the subjects devalued the victim and viewed her as deserving of her fate.

Belief in a just world was found to be strongly linked to religiosity and authoritarianism. (Rubin and Peplau, 1975). This hardly comes as a surprise, considering how the extreme religious right has been known to attribute hurricane Katrina to god’s punishment for New Orleans’ acceptance of homosexuality, and the 2004 tsunami to god’s revenge for the “wicked ways” of women. When “everything happens for a reason”, some people can’t help but weave god’s (or the universe’s) vengeance into the picture in order to rationalize an otherwise inexplicable force of nature. It is also hardly surprising when such rationalizations evolve into a sense of superiority and self righteousness: “I told you so. This is what happens when you don’t listen to (my) god.”

In a way, believing in a just world is also a form of self preservation and a source of comfort. It is so much easier to simply assume that only bad people fall victim to catastrophes or acts of evil, because by believing so, we are convincing ourselves that since we are good people, bad things won’t happen to us. Since I am not a slut, I will not get raped. Since I donate to charity, god/karma will ensure that I won’t get cancer. All these little lies we tell ourselves help us feel in control of our lives, instead of being subject to an unforgiving and unfeeling world where we are vulnerable to the evil acts of others, or to the indiscriminate acts of mother nature.

But when we start to blame the victim, we not only cause the victim to suffer unnecessary guilt and shame, we also stop being (rightfully) outraged by the real sources of injustice. We start to fixate on the untruth that rape victims somehow “ask for it”, instead of focusing on the fact that rape and violence is unacceptable and always the fault of the perpetrator, regardless of how the victim dresses or acts. We start to rationalize that the poor and disadvantaged deserve their fate as punishment for being stupid and lazy, instead of looking at the structural, institutional and social impediments to their upward mobility in society. We start to tell ourselves that only stupid, careless people who show off their wealth fall victim to theft, instead of focusing on the choice made by the thief himself or addressing the possible social and psychological reasons that may cause one to resort to such forms of crime. We focus on blaming HIV/AIDS on homosexuality and promiscuity instead of on finding the cure, or on preventive education, or on providing subsidised medication. We even rationalize that victims of domestic abuse must have done something to deserve it, or were at least stupid enough to remain in an abusive relationship, instead of spending that time and energy offering our empathy.

Ironically, staunchly believing that the universe is naturally just prevents us from addressing the real injustices of the world. As long as we assume there is a supreme being or magical force that will somehow ultimately mete out justice, we fail to take responsibility for ensuring that justice is served. The sooner we can accept the fact that bad things do happen to good people for no reason, and that nobody deserves to be raped, or assaulted, or murdered, or to live on the streets, the sooner we can replace disdain and self righteousness with respect and compassion.

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