Why leotards in gymnastics may be a more complicated issue than you think

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farah_ann_abdul_hadi_balance_beam_artistic_gymnastics_sea_games_singapore_20150607_620_417_100Okay okay I apologise for the campy title of this post. But in a way, it’s not that far from what the post is about. Leotards in gymnastics ARE complicated. And most people aren’t really aware of some of the ways in which it IS a problematic issue. I’m writing this post because as a feminist, it’s interesting for me the way the debate over the Malaysian gymnast’s leotard at the 2015 SEA Games has taken shape. Just as a recap, Malaysian national gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was criticised by some of her compatriots when photographs of her competing at the games appeared online. The negative comments concerned the way in which the leotard she was wearing outlines the shape of her genitalia. Apparently, according to Islam, this is not allowed. In the latest update, the president of the Malaysian Gymnastics Federation has said that they are planning to propose to the International Gymnastics Federation that Muslim gymnasts be allowed to wear “ethical attire” during tournaments. Here is a list of links where you can read more about the issue:

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/rafidah-to-farah-anns-critics-were-you-watching-gymnastics-or-the-gymnast [also the source of the photo above]

http://news.asiaone.com/news/sports/farah-ann-wore-right-attire-and-did-nation-proud

http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/malaysia/article/gymnastics-body-to-propose-ethical-attire-for-muslims

Quite a few of the responses that I have read online (unfortunately not public posts, but personal status updates on Facebook. And even if some tweets are public, I’d rather not highlight specific people on my blog without getting their prior approval) espouse a liberal stand that derides the religious fundamentalism at the root of the criticism. While asserting that such a stand is definitely one that resonates with me, I’d like to supplement that with another perspective to this debate that I think we need to consider when demanding that everyone should be more accepting of “global standards” of attire in sports. And I make this argument not in spite of being a feminist, but because of it.

I think that this furore opens the way to thinking about other forms of oppression that the leotard signifies. It is not only religion that seeks to control women’s bodies. How DID the leotard become the “global standard”? There’s a larger context in which the leotard has a regulatory signification. In a paper entitled “Acrobats, contortionists, and cute children: The promise and perversions of US women’s gymnastics”, Ann Chisholm (2002:415) [1] argues that the gymnasts

“maintain a precarious balance not only between the superhuman and the merely human but also between the superhuman and the infrahuman (freakish). In turn, they represent ideal citizenship and extraordinary femininity, and they enact the promise of modern individualised heroism and empowered femininity,  while embodying the risk of the uncivilised other (of difference) in our midst.”

The body of the female gymnast thus carries many meanings, and based on this sort an analysis, we can assume that the way in which it is dressed is far from an incidental issue, or even one that is merely about what is convenient/efficient/attractive. Taking this further into the area of how women’s bodies are disciplined in gymnastics, Natalie Barker-Ruchti and Richard Tinning (2010:246) [2] suggest that

“the degree of discipline and submissiveness required by gymnasts is key in preventing these athletes from reflecting upon themselves as individuals, their conduct, as well as their sport, and thus using their experiences as a space to invent themselves. While the gymnasts’ physical strength and kinesthetic prowess challenged traditional ideas of womanhood, they did not consciously question traditional gender stereotypes or their sport. Rather, the challenging of traditional gender ideals was a side-effect, one that the gymnasts were subtly taught to hide through regulations such as clothing prescriptions for competitions and prescribed aesthetic sequences in their routines. The clothing partially hid the gymnasts’ muscular torsos and arms and emphasized their feminine body-line.”

How empowering IS the leotard then, for women gymnasts? And what are the implications for women in sports of this being the “global standard” of attire? Before even suggesting a way of answering those questions, we need to delve even further into what the leotard signifies about how femininity is constructed in gymnastics. Barker-Ruchti (2009:45) [3] describes how

“Until the late 1960s, women’s artistic gymnastics consisted of mature women performing gentle ballet-type exercises that were emotionally expressive and graceful. During the 1970s, however, the gymnasts’ performances and bodies changed dramatically. Young and sexually undeveloped gymnasts began to execute acrobatic- and risk-driven routines that consisted of complex air-bound combinations of gymnastics elements. The trend to acrobatics emerged in the former Soviet Union. Within this specific political context, a highly competitive, ambitious and ingenious sporting atmosphere fostered the development of the acrobatic trend in the Eastern Bloc countries and later in the West.”

This analysis leads me to think that the leotard in its current form is not just about sexualization of women in sports. In a much more complex way, it is also, simultaneously, about the infantilisation of women in gymnastics. To my mind, that is not much better than the way in which religion objectifies women and portrays them as nothing more than shameful walking vaginas.

In short, the “global standard” that we see as unproblematic is just as creepy as the awful comments young Farah received.

Endnotes

[1] Chisholm, A. (2002). Acrobats, contortionists, and cute children: The promise and perversity of US women’s gymnastics. Signs, 415-450.

[2] Barker-Ruchti, N., & Tinning, R. (2010). Foucault in leotards: Corporeal discipline in women’s artistic gymnastics. Sociology of Sport Journal, 27(3), 229-250.

[3] Barker-Ruchti, N. (2009). Ballerinas and pixies: A genealogy of the changing female gymnastics body. The International Journal of the History of Sport,26(1), 45-62.

Interactivity and the appreciation/appropriation of artistic endeavour

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I derive a certain pleasure from viewing lists of photographs such as this, where people pose with statues in creative ways. This photo – from the link – is my favourite, because the caption reads “All the single statues”, indicating that the people in the photo have posed in such a way that they bring out the resemblance between the statue’s posture and Beyoncé’s iconic choreography for her music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)“. And I think Beyoncé is Queen of the World.

all the single ladies statuesingle ladies

The phenomenon of posing with statues makes me think that interactivity is not just a technological feature but a mode of engagement and a cultural logic. When art loses its culture of reverence it can be engaged with in new ways that may or may not lead to new cultural forms. Most of these photos are from reddit/imgur, so while I can’t say that no one ever interacted with a statue in this way before the emergence of this aspect of digital culture, I think that the logic of performing, photographing and sharing has shaped how we interact with art. The impression of movement the statues convey also reach out and prompt playful engagement – paradoxically the movement of the statues elicits the freezing of the humans. I’m sure someone more well versed with the subject of art will be able to contribute more.

When I was in Hong Kong I viewed the wax statues at the Madam Tussaud’s there – posed with them for photographs also along with a whole lot of other people.

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Everyone’s photos must have looked really interesting, because we all know how to pose now and look as though we are having a wonderful time for the split second needed to take the photo. But there, in the display area, it felt as though everyone was just mechanically moving from figure to figure. Move, pose, snap. Move, pose, snap. Lather, rinse, repeat. The wonder of the waxworks was not felt. Expressions of “oh how lifelike it all is” were missing. I felt the loss because when I was a child I had experienced the wax figures with my family. We had all remarked on how lifelike they were. But now perhaps everyone is used to simulations of much more variety and much higher quality. And now perhaps the point is not to look at the statue, but to draw it into a photo. Which can then be posted online. Perhaps the point is to erase the artist, to eradicate the wonder that her work is meant to evoke, and by becoming part of the art, by manufacturing a photo opportunity that the Internet will appreciate, to be seen as an artist of sorts. Consuming is not enough anymore. We must BE consumed.

I don’t think my point is that we are all going to a digital hell in a mechanical hand basket. This sort of activity has a memetic quality, after all, and I am of the opinion that memes have political potential. I am also of the opinion that exploring the political potential of memes is valuable – even if no immediate structural change takes place, more people being able to express themselves is a cultural phenomenon that can support the efforts of focused political action in numerous ways. I just think that acknowledging that interactivity is a mode of engagement and a (new?) cultural logic in our engagements with public spaces might help us to think about how we can unlock the political and pedagogical potential of these engagements (I’m thinking, for example, of Banksy‘s work).

PS: I wrote this post just so I could be on the same page as Beyoncé.

So long, uterus, and thanks for all the feels

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My love-hate relationship with my uterus started when I was 11. When that first bleeding came I was thrilled, because it meant I was a big girl, like my two elder sisters whom I idolised. But it also meant a sort of negative attention that felt like an albatross around my neck. The household I grew up in was one that was in flux between a traditional order and a more modern one. My paternal grandmother ruled with what she thought was an iron fist, my mother resisted quite creatively and courageously when she could and my father tried to walk the thin line between the two, discovering as always that when you try to make everyone happy you usually manage to piss everyone off instead. What this has to do with my menarche is that it meant my sitting isolated from the family for 3 days. A menstruating woman is an unclean woman in Hindu practice, and so you weren’t allowed contact with anyone, couldn’t touch any of the common household utensils, couldn’t sit on any fabric-covered furniture, couldn’t enter the prayer room, and had to maintain this state of isolation until the fourth day when suddenly you were miraculously clean. Thankfully I didn’t have to do this for very long. My eldest sister had always fought my grandmother over this oppressive practice, but had succumbed to keep the peace as long as it was just her, my second sister and my mother who had to undergo the isolation. When I was 11, my eldest sister was 20. It was an age at which I remember her as being at her most powerful. She is powerful now, too, but in a more peaceful way. At that time, she looked to me like an avenging goddess, whom no one could dare to suppress. To her, I was a baby sister, to be bossed around, yes, but also fiercely protected. And she rose up in flames of righteous anger when she came home that day and saw me sitting in a corner. She told me to get up, told my grandmother in no uncertain terms that this practice was stopping now, and quelled my parents with a single glance. At least this is how I remember it. My grandmother sulked for a while, but no one ever had to be singled out like this again in my house just because they were menstruating.

Yesterday this now peacefully powerful eldest sister sat next to my hospital bed and massaged my head gently but firmly as I drifted in and out of a drug-induced sleep. I had gone through five years of turmoil with my uterus: heavy bleeding, pain, migraine. And every treatment for the bleeding was – according to my gynae – “medically successful”, because it did slow the bleeding. But the side effects seriously affected the quality of my life. My legs would balloon up, I had bouts of depression and near-suicidal thoughts, more migraine, rapid weight gain and more. It didn’t help that I’ve been grappling with graduate studies over the last few years. Every visit to the gynae cost money, as did the pills I popped and the IUD I had inserted. Finally, with the support of my gynae and my husband, I came to the decision to have the uterus removed, and the deed was done yesterday.

It wasn’t an easy decision. Not because I had any romantic illusions about the sanctity of my uterus in defining my femininity or my humanity. Nor even because I thought its work was not yet done – if I have not had all the children I wanted to have I have at least had two very loved and very special boys who I (probably somewhat hubristically) see as my greatest achievements. The difficulty of the decision was mainly because of intense fear of the unknown. I read compulsively, asked questions equally compulsively, checked and double-checked with my gynae. Talked to the women in my life who had gone through the surgery, mainly to find out what I could about their decision-making process. Looked up online forums for the same reason. So many women with so many stories. So overwhelming! The large majority of the stories were told through what I will call the lens of expert-established need. These of course carried themes of intense suffering, and quite often great distress at the news that the uterus would have to be removed. But they also embedded themes of validation and justification. They may have had their uterus removed, but it wasn’t just because they were suffering. It was because the doctor said flat-out that it needed to go. Of these stories, among the most heartrending (though each was sad in its own way) were those of young women who had not even had the chance to decide if they wanted to bear children yet. That choice was taken out of their hands. But there were other stories that were told through what I call the lens of self-determination. There were fewer of these, possibly because (from what I read of these stories) there was simply less uncertainty and angst. These were women who had discussed their cases with their doctors, and arrived at a decision to undergo the hysterectomy – not because there were no other options, but because they had, for various reasons, deemed that this was the best. There were of course themes of suffering. I even came across stories of trans people undergoing the surgery, and that opened up a whole new world of suffering to my knowledge-seeking eyes. There were also themes of validation and justification, but these were of course very differently expressed.

What took me so long to make the decision was not knowing on which side my story lay. I didn’t have the anguish of a hysterectomy thrust upon me. My gynae in fact suggested trying the IUD again (the mirena – in case anyone wants to look it up). And I was the only one who seemed so bothered by the side effects of all the hormone-based treatments. My surgeon even suggested that I put my feet up if they were swollen, and that if I was depressed I could see a psychiatrist. Or that if I was gaining weight rapidly I could try eating less and exercising more. In fact it amazed me how insular the perspective was. At the same time, I can’t pretend that I don’t know this about medical science – that there are things it can do at any point in time, and things it can’t do. But these sorts of conversations made me even more determined to find out as much as I could, to advocate for myself, and to make a decision that I could live with. I was assertive in seeking the information, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat for myself, and anyone I love. I don’t believe there is any such thing as being too assertive when you are asking questions about major surgery, and any doctor who gets put off by my questions or my “tone” is not performing my surgery. Thankfully, my doctors rose to the occasion!

I read papers in medical journals about how difficult it was to ascertain things like amount of bleeding – most gynaes will ask you how many pads you went through. But the fact is that you don’t always change the pad only when it is full. Also, clots are a game-changer, and completely skew your estimates of blood volume. Even pain differs from one woman to another, and the decision about how quality of life is being affected cannot be standardised. One paper came to the conclusion that in treating menorrhagia, the best rule of thumb for when to perform a hysterectomy was when the patient actually asked for it herself. In fact this was also a good indicator that the surgery would successfully end all the symptoms and side effects, thereby increasing quality of life (apologies for not linking to the paper. I will try to find it later). No matter how much I craved the external validation of an expert-established need, it looked like I was going to have to take this into my own hands.

And so I decided to go ahead with it. The night before I was admitted, the family had dinner out and shared a bottle of wine. My son raised his glass and told his brother: “We’re saying goodbye to our first home.” It made me laugh. But later on in the night, I started to cry and couldn’t stop crying. I cried almost the whole of the next night as well, in the hospital bed, before the surgery the next morning. As reflexive as I try to be, there was a deeper level of emotion that I simply hadn’t reckoned with. Again, it wasn’t because I was attached to my uterus (although I did wake up with a start at one point from a dream in which my sons were standing next to a few more children – all the children I might have been able to bear). I was really terrified about the surgery. As I was being wheeled off, my husband got my son to take a photo of me. In the photo, I am laughing as though I haven’t a care in the world. I know that I was quaking beneath the smile.

surgery

The whole time I kept asking myself – am I making the right decision? Just before I went under the general anaesthesia, I held my surgeon’s hand and said “I trust you”. And the next thing I knew I was waking up in recovery with a pain in my abdomen. Somewhere was the thought that since I had had the surgery done vaginally there was no incision on my abdomen. Where then was the pain coming from? According to the surgeon, my uterus had turned out to be much larger than he’d expected, which probably explained the intense pain I had experienced with each heavy bleed, and indicated a form of endometriosis. But he will know more after looking at the full report and will go through it with me when I go for my follow-up appointment. I am looking forward to asking more questions and finding out more about what was going on with my body. Like any research project, the real fun is in grappling with the data. And as a friend of mine pointed out, while we think medical science is modern, that diagnoses are sometimes made after the surgery makes it post-modern as well!

So long, uterus. I learned so much about myself from grappling with your first awakening, feeling you grow my babies, enjoying your orgasmic contractions, and making a conscious choice about removing you from my body. It’s been quite a journey. Thanks for all the feels!

The world needs more of you

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“Don’t worry about your body.

It isn’t as small as it once was.

But honestly, the world needs more of you.”

That’s why I am very drawn towards this ‘Health at every size‘ movement. It seems to me to be intensely political – a necessary and compelling response to the violence that is inflicted on our minds and our bodies via media messages, public health campaigns, the food industries, and the whole armies of individuals who take it upon themselves to judge anyone who does not conform to societal norms.

Don’t regret not being smaller. There is no need to feel ashamed. Fill the room. CLAIM your space.

 

 

Political penguins, public resources and choosing a side

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nlbGenerally I tend to stay on the sidelines and watch as events unfold. It’s often hard to know which side to take when there is both too little information and too much information available. What I mean by that is that we have very little access to the sorts of details that would enable us to take a critical and rational view of most policies. It took Roy Ngerng’s blog posts and the citizens’ outcry over the Prime Minister’s response to him to get the government to explain to us just what the CPF issue is all about. At the same time, thanks to the Internet, we have sometimes too forceful a flow of opinions and facts – like quenching your thirst at a fire hydrant. This is not in itself a problem. Part of the value of media literacy is the ability to make sense of this voluminous mass of information, and once you read enough and think enough and discuss enough, you start to develop a sense of what your position is and how you want to proceed. My point is that these manufactured gaps and inevitable uncertainties make it difficult sometimes to immediately decide which side you want to stand on when a line is drawn in the sand.

But this isn’t one of those times. I am really horrified at what the NLB has done. Many people have rushed in and written lovely pieces that echo my sentiments. Carol Soon at the Institute of Policy Studies asserts that libraries should promote learning, not police values. Lim Lee Ching, Editor of the Singapore Review of Books, is justifiably ominous when she warns: “The reality is, this is no longer merely about book banning; it has crossed the threshold to take on the spectacle of a pyre…from which no hope may rise.” Howard Lee in The Online Citizen deconstructs the NLB’s actions and the support they got from the Minister for Communication and Information, concluding quite accurately that “We saw no due process in evaluating the books. We saw that NLB would rather destroy books than allow others to benefit from them. We also saw how NLB is more than a mere reflection of what society finds acceptable, but an active player in defining “community norms”, by excluding certain views from public debate.”

I was very heartened to read that writers like Ovidia Yu have taken a stand against the NLB’s actions by refusing to work with them on their literary events. It seems to have come down to this: that the time has come to take a stand. And not just on books, but on LGBT rights as well. I watch with amused disdain as so-called conservatives in America take ridiculously regressive positions on education, women’s health, gay rights, and other issues. I will not stand by idly and watch as those regressive positions enter the democratic space of my country via religious groups whose agendas are dangerous and whose followers wield pitchforks against books. You mess with good people who have done less harm to the world than many who follow your religion – you mess with me. You exclude them from public spaces by agitating against their right to congregate – you mess with me. You manipulate public resources so that they feel shame and are rendered invisible – you mess with me. And by all that is just and right in this world, you mess with books and libraries and I will GIVE you something to pray about.

But in between that regressive fundamentalist position and the liberal response that I identify with are many who are sincerely trying to make sense of the situation. I think these people honestly have no idea how they woke up one morning and found themselves on the wrong side of history. So while there are some who have no trouble joining odiously discriminatory Facebook groups and trolling online debates, there are many more who are struggling to find a way to not be the bad guys even as they stay true to their faith. I get that. But I think the struggle does not need to be so hard. Here, all jumbled up together, are my responses to the typical points* that get raised in debates (forgive me, dear reader, for making you infer the points from my responses):

The books identified for withdrawal and destruction are not primarily about homosexuality (no sexual acts are depicted or referred to), although they do make oblique reference to diversity in family structures, along with many other unrelated points. I think it’s important to take a step back and ask who is afraid, why they are afraid, and whether they actually have any cause for fear. The children may pick up the books? My question then would be – so what? So many people say “I am not a homophobe, but…” and then go on to talk about homosexuality as an ideology that is insidiously spread among the unsuspecting. That DOES point to a homophobic position. Children don’t magically become mature. The people howling for book burning are all adults – no visible maturity there. The development of maturity comes through contact with knowledge via various mediators (technologies like books and computers, but also agents like parents and teachers), and it starts pretty early. The NLB definitely has its reasons. It is precisely those reasons that make the act of destruction even more ominous. I would not call their view of child development merely conservative, if this view leads to the belief that books should be destroyed on the basis of complaints from those who have no idea how to keep religion out of public spaces. I would call that view medieval. What actually does conservative mean? In nature and culture, Singapore is a diverse place. One of the good things about a democracy is that it has space for everyone. We always have to guard against allowing one group to close off that space to another.

I think that it is counterproductive to stretch the imagined consequences of recognising LGBT rights to the extreme of enabling socially destructive anarchy. One thing has nothing to do with the other. It might just as well be argued that if we allow religious groups to influence government policy we will end up with a fascist state! There was a time when people thought that allowing women to vote would lead to anarchy. And totalitarian states where no-one can do as s/he wishes have proven to be very destructive. Maintaining a democracy is a delicate balancing act, but one which rests on certain basic principles of equality, justice and secularism.

Is it okay for a child to grow up without either parent? Firstly, it depends on what you mean by okay, and secondly, plenty of children DO for various reasons. That is why we need a public space where diversity is the norm, and not a source of shame. If the family is a happy, loving one, I cannot see how it matters who it contains. Public resources cannot be manipulated by interest groups to exclude people from democratic spaces before the question of rights and resources has been thoroughly and rigorously debated.

The concept of freedom is a very complex one, and it operates at different levels. It is always a valid word, and it always carries with it the implication of ‘unfreedom’ as well. Just as a very simple example, religious freedom in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to mix religion with politics. The freedom to attend an event like Pink Dot in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to read certain books in your national library that are relevant to you, to marry the person you really love, and to bring up children in a loving and stable environment that some people don’t approve of. People do keep trying to redefine their freedoms and ‘unfreedoms’, but those negotiations are precisely what keep a democracy alive, as long as information is allowed to circulate freely.

I just needed to get this off my chest. I don’t know how activists sustain their energy for so long. I am already dispirited after reading a few comments by the illiterati. But now is not the time to lose heart.

Niemoller quote

 

* I am grateful to a young Facebook friend who articulated some of these points on my timeline in a balanced and reasonable way, thus allowing me the opportunity to address them in a more detailed and pointed manner than I might otherwise have been able to. 

In defense of women-only spaces

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I am going to admit from the outset that I haven’t figured out quite how to articulate this yet. It’s an emerging idea. I make no claims that it is completely new in the world of feminist thought, but it is new for me. As I deepen my reading and come across works which are relevant, I will provide the details in this post. If you read this post and something comes to mind, I’d be glad to hear it. 

I write as a woman born into a Hindu family in Singapore in 1970. My parents came from Andhra Pradesh in India in 1960 and settled here in Singapore. I’ve written a few posts that deal with my struggle to understand the paradoxical and contradictory nature of the various aspects of my identity. No statement is the final one, as my struggle is still very much work in progress. This little introduction is necessary for any reader who does not know me, because without it, my attempted defense of women-only spaces will make little sense. Here are two prior posts that mark moments of reflection along my journey:

1. Feminine empowerment coded in ritual: August 22nd 2010

2. I am the invisible goddess: June 13th 2012

I have no strong objection to rituals in general, nor do i embrace them on principle. However rituals which celebrate the embodied feminine seem to resonate more strongly with me than those that worship the divine feminine (even though the former are no less implicated in patriarchal structures). 

Recently I attended one such ceremony which, loosely translated, is a baby shower, except that that term doesn’t fully capture the amount of attention devoted to the mother-to-be by her mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts and other female relatives and friends. They put flowers in her hair and bangles on her wrists, while surrounding her with love and music and good wishes. I remember my “Seemantham” 18 years ago as one of the happiest events of my life. I felt so loved by the women who came to bless me and my unborn child. This photo of my mother kissing me makes me smile even now.

seemantham

18 years later, I was on the giving end of the love and attention as a young mother-to-be anticipated the birth of her child.

Such spaces for women to celebrate one another in a culture which is so openly misogynistic are valuable spaces. There are problems of course with glorifying these events as great sources of feminist wisdom. Women who choose not to have children, women who cannot have children, women who are unmarried – anyone who does not comply with the rules – are rendered unworthy of this show of affection, and therefore effectively invisible. But it occurs to me that it may be possible to try to sift out the valuable element of female solidarity from the murky mess of patriarchal rituals. While in theory the ceremony is defined in terms of patriarchy, in its actual enactment there are practices that may be seen as resistance. Or at least, the possibility exists to claim that space for resistance. I’d love to do an ethnography of women-only spaces in ritual cultures at some point in the future.

“What we need is not to break the tie, but to make it healthy – to wrest it from its patriarchal context, to allow for its full impact on us, strengthening the line of women” (Arcana 1985, pg. 149-150, quoted in Koppelman 1993 [1].)

Koppelman’s argument was about detaching real feminine ties from the psychoanalytic tool of patriarchy – where psychoanalysis was applied to separate daughters from their mothers in order to strengthen the patriarchal machinery. But we could use the same argument about wresting the tie from religion. Not just mothers and daughters but all feminine solidarity. Koppelman suggests detaching through narratives about mothers and daughters. I’m suggesting detaching through celebrations of femininity.

All religions assume a theory of toxic femininity – that femininity is somehow dangerous for men. This leads to the emergence of a masculinity that is in practice toxic for women – at best it infantilises them, and at worst it abuses them. bell hooks [2] wrote beautifully about the need for men to be free of patriarchy as well in her book “The will to change: Men, masculinity and love”. Her theory is that men and women need to work together to dismantle patriarchy. There are as many women as men who are complicit in perpetuating the oppressive structures, and there are as many men as women who suffer from the oppression. In the context of Hinduism, Sharmila Rege [3] has written about how Brahmin women comply with patriarchal structures in order to maintain their supremacy over women of lower castes. All this is by way of saying that there can be no gender-based classification into villains and victims categories. The patriarchy is too complex for that. The ideal anti-patriarchal future is one in which masculinity is not toxic, and women therefore do not need exclusive spaces.

However my sense is that both need to happen at the same time. Where the theory that femininity is toxic is so deeply embedded in daily practice and spiritual pursuits, masculinity in its most toxic forms is a real presence in women’s lives and may necessitate a retreat into women-only spaces. Do these spaces need to remain women-only forever? Perhaps not. Perhaps men who are able to detoxify their masculinity may enter with no adverse effect on women. Is being a women sufficient for membership in this space? Perhaps not, given the patriarchal bargains so many women make. But awareness and consciousness-raising seems to be an important part of reclaiming women-only spaces for detoxification. On their own, these spaces may do nothing more than reinforce theories of toxic femininity and practices of toxic masculinity.

UPDATE ON 25th SEPTEMBER 2014

I’ve been giving this issue some more thought, and some recent experiences and conversations have led me to look at the notion of women-only spaces from the perspective of women’s friendships. They are, after all, spaces carved out of patriarchal settings and in some ways may be seen as resistant to the imposition of silence about various forms of emotional strain that male-oriented family, work, and interpersonal structures place on women. Of course they could for that very same reason be seen as helping to reinforce these structures. For example, by providing a pressure valve they also may prevent women from feeling the compulsion to take transformative action. They could also reinforce class/caste distinctions by their tendency to form within rather than across these boundaries. Additionally, by comfortably occupying the space marked as “intimate” they may be seen as resisting developing into movements of collective solidarity.

Having said all this though, women’s friendships cannot be so easily written off as inconsequential or ineffectual. They are far too complex for that. As I have discovered, there is a lot of feminist work in this area, and I’d like to look more deeply into it when I have time. Women confide so much in each other, with the full confidence that their secrets will be  taken to the grave. In large part, this does happen. The “mean girls” sort of relationship dynamics is a source of amusement/horror precisely because it is not the everyday experience of women who build up deep and lasting friendships.

So women’s friendships are women-only spaces that have existed for a long time, but arguably have changed in significant ways in modern times. In the footnotes I have included a list of readings that I want to get to when I have more time, and if anyone has anything else to suggest, I’d be grateful you could plop the citations in the comments.

Footnotes

[1] Koppelman, S. (1993, February). Between mothers and daughters: Stories across a generation: The personal is political in life and in literature. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 47-56). Pergamon.

[2] Hooks, B. (2004). The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love. Washington Square Pr.

[3] Rege, S. (1995). Feminist pedagogy and sociology for emancipation in India.Sociological bulletin44(2), 223-239.

Readings on women’s friendships

[4] Kennedy, R., 1986. Women ’s friendships on Crete: A psychological perspective. In: J. Dubisch, ed., Gender and power in rural Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp.121-138.

[5] Johnson, F. L., & Aries, E. J. (1983, December). The talk of women friends. InWomen’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 6, No. 4, pp. 353-361). Pergamon.

[6] O’Connor, P. (1998). Women’s friendships in a post-modern world. Placing friendship in context, 117-135.

[7] Rose, S. and Roades, L. (1987), FEMINISM AND WOMEN’S FRIENDSHIPS. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11: 243–254.

[8] Roberto, K. A. (1997). Qualities of older women’s friendships: Stable or volatile?. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 44(1), 1-14.

[9] Aukett, R., Ritchie, J., & Mill, K. (1988). Gender differences in friendship patterns. Sex Roles, 19(1-2), 57-66.

[10] Aleman, A. M. M. (1997). Understanding and investigating female friendship’s educative value. Journal of Higher Education, 119-159.

[11] O’connor, P. (1992). Friendships between women: A critical review. Guilford Press.

Dancing backwards

Standard
ginger rogers fred astaireThere’s a quote by Bob Thaves in response to praise for Fred Astaire, in which he says “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels.” This is a small e.g., but a good one, that illustrates how the social construction of the world locates the default in one group of people, forcing others to accommodate themselves to that. As a result, what is easier for one group makes them look better, more talented, more dedicated, more powerful etc. When in actual fact the effort the other groups have to put in to overcome the bias against them means they may only rarely be able to match up. So because in the culture where that form of dance originated men are usually taller, and some attempt at height symmetry is desired, women compensate by wearing heels (rather than say, men compensating by dancing with bent knees). The dancers have to face each other, and men have the default privilege to move forward, so women have to compensate by moving backwards. These compensations make dancing well that much more difficult. And there is no inherent reason why the world cannot be reconstructed such that the default is a shared one, except that losing their privilege makes people in power howl in protest.
The Ginger Rogers quote is often used to celebrate how awesome she was. She was definitely awesome. But celebrating her compensation hides the reason she had to compensate in the first place. Attention should turn to dismantling defaults, not celebrating accommodation.