My sister-in-law said it best last night, when she said, “It seems like the world is conspiring to make me a feminist.” Yes, yes, and yes. I always used to avoid race and gender studies, believing that they weren’t ultimately very helpful: that looking backward didn’t help us move forward, and that focusing on one race or gender to the exclusion of another didn’t do much to advance equality or mutual understanding. But I didn’t realize I believed a lie about what those studies were all about. And the more I see of the world, the more I can’t help but take umbrage at how ridiculously backward so much of it is. Once you start seeing bits of it, you start opening your eyes to entire swaths of it.
For example, Oprah just conducted a “Marriage Around the World” show highlighting cultural differences between married women in various countries. But as this article illustrates, she appeared to have a preconceived notion that Western women are inherently more liberated than others, presuming the hijab (or head scarf) equates with repression. Contrast that with the Rick Steves’ interview with Justine Shapiro, filmmaker and producer of A Summer in Tehran, where she discusses the time she spent with a variety of Iranian families. She observes that in Persian culture contains many veils (both literal and figurative). They make a sharp delineation between the public and private spheres of their lives, with the public sphere characterized by formality, politeness, and guardedness while the private sphere is far more familiar and comfortable. In the privacy of their own homes, they wear tank tops and Persian women exude sensuality. There is freedom and sensuality within the home, but the minute they step out the door, on goes the hijab, their choice of clothing and sensuous figures tucked discreetly beneath.
What these women see when they look at Western women are nearly nude figures objectified like toys draped over cars. They look and see a world where women are not treated with respect, and are not honored (which, frankly, with today’s hookup culture, you kinda gotta see they have a point). We say we are free, but we measure our freedom in how much of our flesh we can show off to tantalize men (and maybe even incite the envy of our fellow women). No one can tell us what clothes we can wear, but it’s not as if our society doesn’t have rules we abide by, even when it is not healthy – or even when it hurts. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a bikini wax. Or if your feet have hurt from stilettos. Or if you’ve ever gone hungry to lose a pound or two, had your eyebrows plucked, undergone cosmetic surgery or dermatological procedures, or gotten a tattoo or piercing in the name of beauty. This is not news. We all know this. And yet we still do it to ourselves and call ourselves free. With a “no pain, no gain” kind of chagrin, we accept that sometimes we have to suffer to be beautiful.
Compared to all that, donning a simple piece of cloth doesn’t sound like such a hardship. This is not to say there aren’t real inequalities in women’s rights with assets after divorce, or in persecuting rapists, or in receiving equal pay for equal work (ahem). The point is: let’s not be so quick to point fingers because you never know what the world looks like on the other side of the veil.