Sunday, 30 June 2013

Rant about Scarves and Shoes

I have always been uncomfortable with my relationship with shoes.  More particularly shoes with high heels.  Most of you know that while I do not spend ridiculous amounts of money on them, I am unreservedly a fan of a nice pair of heels.  More than that, those that have come across me in a work setting know that my professional persona is clad almost exclusively in trouser suits coupled with a fairly high pair.  All day, every day.

I know all the feminist arguments against heels.  They’re uncomfortable.  They’re not healthy for feet or for posture.  They make it harder to run away from an attacker, thereby weakening women’s independence and agency.

But they look so much nicer than flat shoes!  And they permit me to look down at most men, at least physically if not figuratively, in a profession where the vast majority of the movers and shakers are still men.*  There is also something to be said about the power portrayed by high heels.  Stilettos are not a self-evident part of the dominatrix wardrobe for nothing...

OK, you weren’t entirely convinced.  Neither am I.  But I will still continue wearing my heels.

The topic of today’s rant is actually Muslims.  What is the connection between Muslims and high heels, you ask.  Here’s what: The headscarf of an intelligent feminist Muslim woman is like my pair of heels.  A personal choice that may not seem to coincide perfectly with our feminist ideals, but will not make us any less feminist in the grand scheme of things.  I can’t really dismiss the feminist arguments against high heels, but I will continue to wear them nonetheless.  Similarly, I can probably win the argument against a Muslim woman about the cultural significance of the scarf as a tool of women’s oppression, but it is unlikely to make her take it off.

And that is just fine.

I have for a long time felt annoyed at the “scarf debate”, both in France and here in Switzerland, because it has taken an extremely patronising attitude towards the women who are most concerned by it, assuming that the choice to wear a scarf CAN’T be theirs, they must have been forced by a man to do it.  I have an idea: If you want to know why Muslim women are wearing scarves, ask them, dammit, don’t assume you know better than they do! 

I was thus really pleased to read the comparison between headscarves and high heels in an interview with Isla Lehtinen, a Finnish Muslim feminist.  I liked it immediately.  It may not make men understand why a Muslim may want to wear a scarf, but it might resonate with women.  The majority of us feminists are not scarf-wearing Muslims, but many of us wear heels at least sometimes. The desire to wear less-than-perfectly-feminist shoes will hopefully make us more understanding and tolerant towards the less-than-perfectly-feminist clothing choices of others without questioning the agency and free will of the persons themselves. 

 * Even though my employer is much better than most in that regard.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Rant about Shopping for Sex

Last week I wrote that the public debate about issues that concern women’s physical agency such as abortion, rape, sexual assault and domestic violence could benefit from women actually speaking out more about their personal experiences – to remove the shame and permit us to understand the issues better.
There is an additional issue that belongs in the same category, but where I would actually like to encourage MEN to come forward and tell their stories.
This issue is prostitution.
I know some feminists are vehemently against prostitution, but I am first and foremost a liberal, so I think everyone has in principle the right to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others.  That means that if somebody wants to sell her (or his) body for sexual services, then that is a choice for her, not me, to make. 
Prostitutes and their clients suffer from the same kind of stigma as women that have had abortions or been sexually assaulted.  Also, just like rape and abortion, prostitution is incredibly common – it is all around us.  While I may not know many prostitutes, I’m sure I know some of their clients.  I just don’t know they are clients of prostitutes, because it is not something they will admit to.  But why not?  There must be dozens, if not hundreds, of reasons to buy sex and most of them are probably not condemnable.  Why would a single man, or someone in an open relationship, not be allowed to buy sex if he wants to?  Even more understandably for some people, for example those suffering from certain types of physical disabilities or developmental or psychological problems, buying sex might be the only way to get any (for more details, see here for a dispassionate account or here for a more scandalised take on the issue).
So come on gentlemen: admit boldly if you’ve used the services of a prostitute and please explain why.  I won’t judge.  I would just like to understand.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Rant about Silence

When discussing policies and changes to the legal framework relating to difficult issues, a proper understanding of the issues at stake is usually key.  Yet this is often not the case when it comes to issues that have a fundamental impact on the rights of women, especially physical integrity.  I am of course talking about rape, domestic violence, abortion and the like.  Everyone thinks that these things are happening somewhere far away, to some other people, but they are so prevalent that they are by necessity happening right here to people around us.  You may not know about a person’s rape, assault or abortion, but let me assure you that you know people who have been raped or assaulted, or who have had an abortion.

How can we commonly know whether and in what circumstances abortion legislation can be tightened, if we do not understand the reasons for deciding to have an abortion or the impact that decision has on a woman?  How can we know what is the right way to reduce rape if we have no idea of the circumstances in which rape is likely to occur?

These are the main reasons why I think it is so important to break the silence about these issues.  We have recently had some good role models:  The journalist Lucy Cavendish is an example of someone who has spoken openly and unapologetically in Britain about her two abortions.  I also salute the four women who recently told their abortion stories to Helsingin Sanomat with their own names and pictures, helping us all to understand how multifaceted the issue really is, and giving a glimpse into the myriad of reasons why a woman may decide to abort, and how it may make her feel.

There are some indications of similar opening up in relation to rape – at least in the United States if not here.  Hollywood actress and political hopeful Ashley Judd has talked in public about being a rape victim.  A brave woman called Tucker Reed went even further:  Not only did she reveal the story of how she got raped by her boyfriend, but actually publicly named the rapist as well.  I would recommend Reed’s story to anyone, it might help you understand how “mundane” rape can really be, and why a woman might not even always first realise, let alone accept, that she has been raped.

There is a continuum from harassment to sexual assault to rape, which is why the Everyday Sexism Project that Ioana linked in a comment to an earlier rant is so important in more ways than one.  I do believe there could well be a bit of a “broken windows” phenomenon going on here.  It is not called rape “culture” for no reason –not because everyone rapes but because the culture that condones harassment and takes women’s bodies to be public property is likely to increase rape and its tolerance.

Assault, rape and abortion can be tragedies and deeply personal experiences, which is why nobody should be forced to talk about them.  However, to the extent that someone WANTS to talk about them, whether to get sympathy from their loved ones, contribute to public debate or help others in similar situations, it is very important that they not be shamed into silence.

It is of course easy to encourage others to talk about their experiences, but shut up about one’s own.  So here is my story:

I was living in Paris at the time, walking home late at night from a night club.  At some point a man started chatting to me and I did not wish to appear rude, so initially responded.  He wanted to continue the conversation and began making propositions.  I declined, first politely, then more insistently.  He followed me.  He trailed me all the way to my building, and when I firmly told him to piss off, he made a lunge for the door and forced his way in before I could pull it properly shut.  He attacked me in the atrium.  We struggled for a while, but once he realised he was not getting anywhere, or it was going to be a lot of hassle and I could well wake up the neighbours with my yelling, he gave up his original idea, snatched my bag and was back out the door before I could properly realise what had even happened.  Although I got away physically mostly intact, with only some minor bruises and scratches, I was surprised at the intensity of the anxiety attacks I was subject to later, and how long after the original event those kept coming back following some trigger events.

Many of you have heard the story of this attack ... But probably the version that has focused on the robbery, and omitted the fact that it was actually first and foremost an attempted rape.  I now find it hard to explain why I almost automatically erased that part of the story.  I no longer feel any need or desire to do that.

Yes, I was walking home alone in a big city late at night.  Yes, I answered when a stranger spoke to me.  Yes, I continued straight home although he was following me.  No, I am not to blame for being sexually assaulted and I will be damned if I let that asshole, or anyone like him, make me change my behaviour.