Questions we don’t want to answer

If you’re a woman (especially between 20 and 35), chances are people have asked you these questions.

Let’s go beyond trying to analyze why and how can people let themselves be so inconsiderate, insensitive and downright mean to ask questions they would not want to answer themselves. They probably can’t help it. The interesting thing is: how to respond appropriately? Is there a funny, witty and smart way of a comeback? According to Amanda Marcotte, the author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments, there is. If someone asks “are you planning on having a baby anytime soon?”, you just need to say: “I can’t.” And how is this not a (bit cruel) lie? “Here me out.” begins Amanda. “You really can’t have a baby anytime soon. After all, you’re not pregnant, are you? So having a baby is, at bare minimum, nine and a half months away, and that’s if you just so happen to run right home to find an erection-spotting man who doesn’t mind skipping the condom and you’re currently ovulating. So you quite literally can’t have a baby anytime soon, depending on your definition of “soon.” Not a lie at all.

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FGM

I can’t remember anymore when it was when I first heard about FGM or female genital mutilation. It must have been rather late, in my early 20s, at university (on my side of the world this was one of the miseries that women did not have to endure). What I clearly remember, however, is what shaped my thinking about it. After reading The Color Purple I became fascinated with Alice Walker. So I started reading her books one by one, and I soon got to Possessing the Secret of Joy. I was amazed, shocked and appalled by Tashi’s story, who undergoes this dreadful ritual as an adult and then tries to get on with her life in America. Walker broke taboos and at the same time raised awareness of this practice in the Western world when she wrote the book in 1992.

A few years ago I moved to a part of Europe where the number of immigrants is quite high from Northern Africa, and from French-speaking countries of Africa. I also work in an environment where most of my coworkers have lived  in developing countries for decades and worked on missions trying to “make the world a better place.” Many of them are doctors and many volunteer for various NGOs in their free time, so I have become much more closely exposed to this issue. One of them very actively took part in the European Campaign of Amnesty International to End FGM (as the immigrants from these countries bring their culture with them, there are about 180,000 girls at risk in Europe of undergoing FGM. Worldwide, 3 million girls undergo FGM every year.) Recently I took a class on Gender, Diversity and Politics at a Brussels university and some people argued there that if we want to fully respect and protect multiculturalism, then we should not intervene and advocate for the end of FGM. We should let people do things according to rules of their own culture. I disagree in this case, strongly. I tend to agree more with Alice Walker (and my colleagues): “Torture is not culture.”

This was only an intro to a video I stumbled upon on TED recently. It is a must see. The speaker, Kakenya Ntaiya made a deal with her father: She would undergo the traditional Maasai rite of passage of female circumcision if he would let her go to high school. Now she is changing the destiny of girls in her village by having built a school for them.

Kate’s breasts, Pussy Riot, virginity tests and our attitude on women’s bodies – by Naomi Wolf

Over the past weeks there have been many ‘noteworthy’ events from the feminist point of view, but I just found them too mainstream to cover. You could read about them everywhere and anywhere, all media were full of them. (I just said to a friend recently, who is running an interior design blog that it would feel like as if she wrote about IKEA pieces.) So I did not write about Pussy Riot, I refrained from commenting on Kate Middleton’s breasts being exposed. However, I stumbled upon a great article by feminist writer Naomi Wolf, who makes a connection between these two and some other incidents, arguing that our society is still not ready to accept women trying to take ownership for their own bodies. Naomi Wolf is an acknowledged author, former political consultant and a very important figure of third wave feminism. In her first book, The Beauty Myth (published in 1991) she discussed how beauty is a socially constructed normative value in our society (and what’s more, patriarchy determines its content). She just published her 8th book recently, entitled Vagina: A New Biography which, interestingly, received mixed reviews, even from fellow feminists.

But going back to the article on Pussy Riot and the other recent affairs, I found her article very interesting. It was published on CNN, and here is an ironic ‘teaser’ excerpt:

“In a hypersexualized culture, in which porn is available 24-7, it is not female nudity — or discussion about vaginas or breasts or “pussy riots” — that is scandalous. Indeed, the female body has never been so commodified before, and female sexuality has never been so readily consumable in sanitized, corporatized formats such as pornography.

Rather, what is still scandalous to our culture is when women take ownership of their own bodies. Staging a strip performance is not disruptive to social order in Moscow, but three punk poets using their sexuality to make a satirical comment about Russian leader Vladimir Putin is destabilizing and must be punished.”

Living Dolls by Natasha Walter

I tend to read more from US writers, but I got interested in this book by a British feminist writer (and human rights activist) while surfing on Amazon. I bought it and I was proved right — this is an amazing book. It discusses certain phenomena in our hypersexual culture that affect women (and society) in a very bad way and reinforce old male/female stereotypes. It makes the reader think twice about things that we have already become accustomed to, things that we do not seem to question anymore: glamour modeling recently becoming a “dream job” for girls in today’s Western world, the Playboy bunny printed on pencils that are sold to young girls, the wide-spread belief that “girls like pink and boys like blue”, but even the (seemingly) more serious notions such as “women use the left side of their brain and men use the right side, hence the differences in language skills, spatial orientation, etc.” This latter, along with biological determinism (that is thought to account for differences in sexes as opposed to socialisation) is something that most people nowadays consider to be a fact. But Walter challenges this; and she does not just refute them with any argument, but she uses scientific studies and research to prove her point. And she does. (She even rips apart the famous “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus opus. Just watch.)

Let me quote something from the book, because whatever I write here will not stand as strong.

“The preference for research on the brain that seems to back up traditional sex differences over research that does not is not only seen in the media; some scientists have suggested that it occurs earlier on in the research food-chain, in the very decisions about which studies actually get published. Some have pointed out that, while  vast number of studies of brain activation are currently being carried out, those that show sex differences are much more likely to be published than those which fail to prove sex differences. This is a file-drawer problem; that the studies we have on record are a small proportion of the studies carried out, most of which show no publicity-friendly gender differences and are therefore languishing in academics’ file drawers.”