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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Unhidden

I was walking back home from the post office on a very bright early spring day. I was thirteen years old. I wore my favourite red wool sweater. I'd had it since my tenth birthday and now the sleeves were a little too short for my arms, the armpits a bit too tight. The sun beat down on my back, and a brisk wind flapped playfully against my face.

I turned the corner onto a side street and almost collided with a group of gypsies. The women wore long pleated satin skirts, pink and orange and lime-green; the men were dressed in black suits and black hats, with long black mustaches on their pale, almost translucent faces. The men laughed and pressed up against the wall of a house. I passed by them breathlessly, looking straight ahead. At the last moment one of the men grabbed my breast. It happened in an instant. The next the gypsies had turned the corner and I was by myself again. I heard a faint echo of whistles, then just the hum of the traffic.

I told myself, with shame and disgust, that I should have worn something else. That red sweater was too tight; a strip of skin showed between the waist of my pants and the hem of the sweater. It was my fault that that gypsy had touched me. I should have worn something black and baggy; I should have crossed to the other side of the street; I should have pressed my arms over my chest. It was my fault.

But it wasn't.

I started thinking and was compelled to write, for the first time, about this because of some intriguing and eye-opening comments on my blog on full purdah. The complete covering of a woman's body and face can be a protection against sexual violation, of the visual kind at the very least; and at the most it signifies that the body behind the veil is untouchable, sacred, of uttermost value, so that it has to be protected, hidden from roving, ravenous eyes. This is one solution to the problem of the devouring male gaze. It's a tempting one because it's so uncompromising; it makes very trenchant judgments about what the male and the female body are.

I respect the choice to wear full purdah. I understand that for some women (not all -- it's important to keep this in mind) it's a conscious choice, and that to them full purdah is much more than what it first appeared to me, a symbol of oppression and of the male ownership of the female body.

But I want to suggest that another solution exists to the problem of women's sexual violation by the male gaze. It is possible for us, both men and women, to change our understanding of the female body as something that is violated and the male body as something that violates. (To some extent, this view is warranted by biology, by the differences between male and female sexuality). In this view the female body has to be hidden in order to be protected. But I cannot accept hiding as the only option. I cannot accept it because hiding suggests that it's the female body that's responsible for the violation, that it's the female body that invites it, that it's the female body that bears the responsibility -- the guilt and the shame -- for the violation.

And it isn't.

It's absolutely essential to understand clearly who the victim is and who the perpetrator. As long as there's confusion about this, hiding the female body will be necessary to protect it. We have to learn to see the female body as having intrinsic value, not simply as a territory that is there to be conquered, that invites conquering by its very nature. I think this is important. I understand also that it is ideal, and that the world we live in is a messy, confusing, complicated place, not very kind to ideals.

2 Comments:

Blogger madness rivera said...

Hmm, I would think that a full veil most certainly does not protect a woman from sexual violation. I would assume it omits The Gaze, as you call it, and certain cultural harrassment, but sexual violation is a violation of power not because women drive a perpetrator sexually crazy; that we tempt them sexually to violate us. I believe in a woman's choice to veil herself or to wear miniskirts and spiked heels. I think the shroud we need to don is that of empowerment.

In my late teens I worked for lobbyists that filled loopholes in laws that allowed rape victims to be revictimized within the judicial system. I learned that a woman was less likely to be victimized if she looked men directly in the eyes, less likely if she walked with confidence. I learned that 75% of rapist did not ejaculate meaning their penis was used as a weapon almost exclusively, not as a sexual organ.

As a nervous 13 year old, you were an easy target for that man to wield his power over you, physically and psychologically. That was wrong to do. I'm sorry that happened to you, C. And I'm sorry you blamed yourself.

To suggest the veil may be a good way to escape these gazes and possibly sexual violation I believe is out of frustration. Women that choose to wear the veil because of her cultural and religious beliefs I think is a beautiful thing and should remain as such.

Hopefully we can build instead our sense of empowement to such strengths and resiliency that we can deflect The Gaze and a lot of other negativity shot our way.

January 03, 2006  
Blogger Green Whale said...

I didn't think at all about the fact that sexual assault isn't about sex but power. That's a very good point. It surprised me a little but it makes perfect sense that confident women who walk with self-assurance and look men straight in the eye are less likely to be abused, physically and otherwise.

It's hard for me to separate the cultural and religious meanings of full purdah from its political and sexual ones. That's a limitation I'm trying to overcome. I was very religious in my early twenties, wore the traditional head covering to church (I'm Christian Orthodox) even though it wasn't mandatory. I'm not religious any more because I couldn't reconcile the cultural and religious with the sexual and political. To me they felt like the same thing. My mind tends toward the black and white sort of judgment and it's a struggle for me to reach the golden mean, the middle of the road.

January 04, 2006  

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