Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Liberating Potential of the Burqa, or the Future of Gender Studies

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 When that activity was first suggested, I tried to point out that it sounded a little outdated.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.


David said...

"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."

I normally hate to blindly quote something and say "this is great", but this is really great. Too many times people take reasonable assumptions and then run those reasonable premises past the line of complete insanity. Gender studies is unfortunately, no exception to this rule. I think part of this results from a lack of introspection, and a lack of reception to foreign ideas. Which, in this case, seems to have lead to some rather strange notions about the Burqa.

KT said...

This is a great post!

Rimi said...

Clarissa, despite what I'm about to tell you, I oppose the censorship on gaze completely. That's bordering on near-fascist thought-control, and living as I do in an armed Communist state, I'd prefer to have as little of that as possible.

But you *have* been a very lucky woman if the 'gaze' you've encountered has merely shown appreciative desire. The one we encounter post-puberty, and pretty much till we're old and shrivelled, is one where a man catches our eye, then slowly lowers it to our breasts, licks his lips, and starts rubbing his crotch. It's not exactly flattering or charming.

This usually precludes groping, usually by someone else while our attention is diverted by the first. In the meanwhile, someone else might ask us how much we charge for our time. Not because he'll take us up on the offer if we quote an amount, but because it's fun to humiliate a woman by loudly asking how much she charges for sex. But this is beside the point. You were talking merely about the gaze.

All of this, by the way, happens in public buses and on crowded public streets in broad daylight, usually during rush hour.

I'm yet to see women resort to the burqua or niqab to battle this -- I think they'd think it insane -- but I do notice that increasingly, when the resort to the usual verbal confrontations, the men stand their ground and mock them instead of scuttling off like they used to. And the other men surrounding us, sometimes our colleagues or even friends, have begun to advise us to not create a scene, instead of standing by our side in our fight, as they used to. It's an increasingly worrying world that we live in. And some acknowledgement sometimes would be... marginally mollifying.

Tom Carter said...

At the risk of having some kind of label attached to me, I have to say that I have never understood why universities have such things as gender studies departments in the first place. Can a student get a degree in gender studies? If so, what career path would that lead to, other than teaching gender studies? Sounds like a self-licking ice cream cone.

I wonder if discussing "the liberating potential of the burqa" will include the fact that women in many parts of the world are beaten (or worse) if they don't wear a burqa?

Lindsay said...

@Tom Carter,

Yes, you can get a degree in Women's Studies or Gender Studies. Those programs are usually interdisciplinary, so your degree in Gender Studies will also involve lots of classes in something else, like history, literature, psychology, sociology, etc.

That still leaves you with a bunch of academic-skewing careers, like being a historian, literary critic or social scientist who is also steeped in feminist lore, but it's a much broader slice of academia than just other Women's/Gender Studies departments.

You could also go to work for whatever woman-oriented nonprofit you have the right skills for --- like, say, a Women's Studies/Psychology grad working at a women's shelter, or a Women's Studies/Economics grad going to work for a nonprofit that helps poor women start businesses, for instance.

(That's my impression as a person without a Women's Studies degree, anyway.)

Clarissa said...

Tom: people ask me the same questions (what career can you have) about a degree in Spanish Lit. I guess it can be asked of any degree in the Humanities.

Oh, I just saw Lindsay's answer and I agree with everything she says.

If Nick who's in Gender Studies is reading this, maybe he can enlighten us, too.

Clarissa said...

Rimi: oh, in my country people unfortunately don't stop at staring. There is a lot of unwelcome groping, poking, etc. Taking public transportation during peak hours was a heroic feat. So I definitely hear you.

Anonymous said...

There are times where I wish I could just throw on a burka on and go out, observing the world behind a cloak of annimonity.

Patrick said...

Clarissa said "Tom: people ask me the same questions (what career can you have) about a degree in Spanish Lit. I guess it can be asked of any degree in the Humanities."

Whatever happened to the notion that a university education was about developing the mind and learning broad concepts? How did we end up with the mentality that a University education was job training? It's a sad world we live in now, where someone with a History degree isn't considered for roles outside the education field. We lose out in business where we only select managers from the ranks of 'business schools'. I've never known anyone who supports incest, yet that's all we do in the industrialized world. (Professionally)

eric said...

As a former cultural studies grad student myself, who had many colleagues in Women's/LGBT studies, it's just a lame attempt to be 'radical', which is getting harder and harder to do now that postmodern 'theory' is passe. They would be better off focusing on things that matter, like the House GOP's planns to 'redefine' rape or incest so as to cut abortion funding.

Now THAT's a feminist issue!

Rimi said...

Eric, to go off on a tangent, I notice there is storm in a tiny teacup about translating the "original Hebrew". Far be it from me to dispute raging activists on any side of the border, but weren't the original texts (as far as we can trace them) written in Koine Greek? Is this idea about the Bible being "originally" in Hebrew a pan-American belief? Or is "Hebrew Bible" a politically correct and factually inaccurate way of referring to the Jewish version of the texts (seeing as the definite Hebrew text makes a first appearance only during the Middle Ages)?

My tone appears snarky, I know. It frequently does. But these are genuine questions.

Clarissa said...

"Whatever happened to the notion that a university education was about developing the mind and learning broad concepts? How did we end up with the mentality that a University education was job training?"

-Do we have two people named Patrick leaving comments here? Because this does not sound like the Patrick I'm used to seeing here. Sorry, I'm just trying not to lose track. GREAT COMMENT!

Clarissa said...

The Old Testament was written in Hebrew with a couple of chapters in Aramaic.

The New Testament was, indeed, written in Greek.


Pagan Topologist said...

No, the New Testament was mostly written in Aramaic, at least in part. Erasmus trasnslated it into Greek, if I recall correctly.

Clarissa said...

But the Old Testament is in Hebrew, isn't it?

I confess that I often get confused on this subject.

Clarissa said...

Look what I found:

"Almost the entire Old Testament was written in Hebrew during the thousand years of its composition. But a few chapters in the prophecies of Ezra and Daniel and one verse in Jeremiah were written in a language called Aramaic. This language became very popular in the ancient world and actually displaced many other languages. Aramaic even became the common language spoken in Israel in Jesus' time, and it was likely the language He spoke day by day. Some Aramaic words were even used by the Gospel writers in the New Testament.

The New Testament, however, was written in Greek. This seems strange, since you might think it would be either Hebrew or Aramaic. However, Greek was the language of scholarship during the years of the composition of the New Testament from 50 to 100 AD."

Rimi said...

Oh yes, i know it was *composed* in Hebrew, but the texts we can trace back, i.e. the earliest texts of the OT we have copies of, are in Greek, aren't they? They were translated from Hebrew around the 4th century, if I remember right, and these were the copies that remained with us. The Middle Ages saw a translation from this preserved Greek version to Hebrew again, which is what was passed down -- with modifications here and there -- to us.

Speaking of Aramaic -- the language Jesus is widely believed to have spoken in -- did you know some Syrian Christian churchs in South India still sing a hymn of thanksgiving in Aramaic? Lines from it were incorporated into this song (though linguists say the singers have mispronounced some words):

That's a fan video with random images, but isn't it cool to realise people are STILL singing in Aramaic somewhere in this world? :-)

Clarissa said...

That's so cool, Rimi. Thank you for the video and the information.

What I like about the readers of my blog is that there's no telling where a discussion with them can take us. I couldn't have imagined while I was writing this post that we'll end up talking about Aramaic. :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

Aramaic exists today. I have met at least one native speaker, around 1990, who was studying English at my university's English Langauge Institute. He was from somewhere in Iraq, if I recall correctly. I cannot remember his name.

Canukistani said...

“The language that Jesus spoke has been preserved for thousands of years in the mountains of Syria. The streets and shops of a tiny village called Malula (population: 5,000) are some of the last places on earth where you can still hear Aramaic being spoken.
Aramaic, a 3,000-year-old language closely related to Hebrew, was once the main commercial and diplomatic language of the ancient near east. Hebrew had been the dominant language in the ancient Iron Age kingdoms of Israel and Judah, but by the time the exiles returned to Judah from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C., the Jewish people were speaking Aramaic.
As Aramaic became the popular language, few could understand Hebrew anymore. Although Hebrew was the original language of the Scriptures, it was gradually relegated primarily to religious settings. Hellenistic influence also brought Greek into use throughout the region in the fourth and third centuries B.C.”

Biblical Archaeological Review

A note on translations: translations did not take place in some rarefied academic setting but within the cultural context of the period. The translation of the King James Version was premised on the edict that it “conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the Episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs about an ordained clergy." Today Fundamentalists argue that it is the only validate translation since every dispute during its writing was taken directly to God by means of prayer.

P.S. One can fun with burqua issues:

Burqua woman :

Izgad said...


The oldest Hebrew copies that we have of the Old Testament are in the Dead Sea scroll collection. They go back to about the second century BCE. Hebrew was never forgotten by the Jews and they preserved the Bible in Hebrew all the way through.

Erasmus most certainly did not translate the Bible into Greek. Living in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Erasmus produced a scholarly edition of the New Testament in Greek, a language virtually unknown in the West during the Middle Ages. This was controversial because Erasmus used the Greek original to criticize the standard Latin translation of Jerome, which was considered authoritative by the Catholic Church.

I have responded to this post with one of my own.

Clarissa said...

It's great to have clarifications from a specialist Thank you, Izgad!

Nick G said...

Hey Clarissa, Nick here. Didn't think you would mention lil old me. I have to say the issues people have with seemingly innocuous "compliments" is that generally men do not have to deal with that. And it's kind of impossible to tell who is acting out a weird version of complimentary or who is not so benign. She may take it too far but the girl that wrote that Schrodinger's Rapist article explains it.