When I saw that the Department of Gender Studies was planning to conduct a series of lectures titled "The Liberating Potential of the Burqa," at first I thought that I had finally encountered a Gender Studies program that had a sense of humor. Such departments have a tendency to possess a humorless, intense earnestness that scares away students and professors alike. They are also known for conducting really outlandish activities that do not help them to be taken seriously on campus.
An example of such an activity is a party to celebrate menstruation, where everybody who is menstruating comes wearing a tiara, and everybody else celebrates them. The point of the party is to demonstrate that menstruation is perfectly normal and not to be ashamed of. When that activity was first suggested, I tried to point out that it sounded a little outdated. With the commercials extolling the great absorbency of tampons airing every fifteen minutes on every channel, are there really any people in the civilized world who don't know that menstruation is normal? In response, I was told that there is nothing wrong with celebrating normal physiological processes. As soon as I heard that, I proposed we organize a defecation party. Nobody would argue that defecation is perfectly normal, right? It would be a truly feminist activity since people of both genders could participate in it equally. And everybody who has a successful bowel movement during the party will get a tiara to celebrate the occasion. For some reason, nobody appreciated the suggestion, and I was not invited to any further meetings.
Of course, after this experience I was pleasantly surprised to see the announcement for the "The Liberating Potential of the Burqa" lecture series. "Finally, somebody at Gender Studies has a sense of humor", I thought. Then I read further and realized that my joy was premature. As usual, this activity was being done completely in earnest. The point of the series is to demonstrate that burqas "liberate women from being constantly victimized by the desire implicit in a male gaze." Truly, when American puritanism and the third-wave (or "choice") feminism come together, the result is sad. And a little insane.
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.
Very often as I walk around campus a male student comes up to me to say,
"You are very pretty (beautiful, attractive, have great hair, beautiful eyes, etc.)"
"Thank you," I always say nicely, as it's very obvious to me that this is a comment that has no intention of being threatening or offensive.
"So what's your name?" the student usually asks after that.
"I'm Professor Clarissa," I say. After that, the student and I both giggle and go on our separate ways.
It is my firm belief that unless Gender Studies programs realize that such exchanges happen among human beings, that they are normal, non-threatening, non-offensive and should not be policed, Gender Studies have no future. They will continue being marginalized on campuses because people don't welcome being told that every single little thing they feel or think turns them either into a victim or into an abuser.