Fashion: A Sign of Liberation or Oppression?

In an imagined essay* by Carrie Bradshaw about her trip to the Middle East, she writes:

We felt just awful for those poor Arab women. We saw the way they looked longingly at our glamorous and vibrant couture. The difference between those women and us is that we look fabulous under oppression! We can get through the world of men getting us down because at least we can pick our clothes and drink cocktails by the pool.  We didn’t really get to talk to many Arab women on the trip, but the ones that rescued us were completely jealous of the fact that we could leave the house in our couture and they couldn’t.

This post is not about defending Muslim women and their way of life.  What it is about is the idea that Western women feel free because they can dress and behave however they want.

You’re probably thinking, Exactly!

But think about it for a minute. What’s the main reason we think that that Muslim women are oppressed? Because of the way that they dress. We don’t know, and don’t care to know, the first thing about their lives besides what they wear. The mere fact that they cover up convinces us that they must not be free to do the things that Western women take for granted.

But if we think that being “allowed” to sit around the pool in our bikinis drinking cocktails means that we’re not oppressed, we’re sadly mistaken. We’re just distracted from noticing it.

Some Muslim apologists insist that it is Western women who are enslaved by their culture and its demands on them to be sexy and Muslim women who are liberated because they don’t have to worry about what they look like. There’s some truth in what they say, but they’re missing the point. It’s not what women wear that signifies oppression or freedom. It’s whether or not they have the same opportunities that men do.

Some (usually younger) feminists are practically giddy about what they see as all their options. “The real feminist is not the woman who rejects her femininity; it’s the woman who celebrates it!” they cry. They think that spending loads of money on their hair, make-up, pretty little frocks and designer shoes and bags is a sign of self-esteem—and liberation. They see “old-fashioned” feminists in much the same light as they see Muslim women: as being trapped by their own values into becoming mere shadows of real women.

They may have a point as well. But the truth is, as long as women are kept busy debating fashion, they’re not noticing the real oppression in their lives. The female professional may make enough money to afford her physical upkeep, but is she making as much as the males alongside her? Is she getting promotions at the same rate and for the same, or even better, performance? Is she held back when she has children (or even just because she can have them)  in a way that men aren’t?

Being well-dressed doesn’t mean we’re not oppressed.

* “The Lobby for Abu Dhabi – An Essay by Carrie Bradshaw” by Sara on Muslimah Media Watch

The Nature of God

“A God who is beyond sex/gender has no investment in favoring males or oppressing women.” So wrote Asma Barlas in her article “Islam and Feminism.” Barlas states at the beginning of the article that she doesn’t like to call herself a feminist and yet she made an observation that could revolutionize religion.

Some feminists, especially in the ’70s, were fond of speculating what religion would be like if God was actually a woman. I always thought that exercise was silly, but I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt that way. Now I know: it’s because God is neither male nor female.

It’s unfortunate that we use the masculine pronoun whenever we refer to God (I do) because that only perpetuates the idea that God is male in character. Some people may honestly believe that He is. Others may honestly believe that She is female. But if you think about it, it’s clear that God is infinitely bigger than any box we can put Him into. We can speculate all we want—He is neither male nor female. He is male and female. He is androgynous.  But it only makes sense that He is, as Barlas writes, beyond sex or gender. He simply is.

It seems to me that if we kept that observation uppermost in our minds we could eradicate much of the sexism that exists in most religions. Of course men like to think of God as a male because that makes it seem like God sides with men. Men also strenuously object to the idea that God could be a woman, because they’re afraid that women would then start to claim the upper hand (as men have). But what if  God sees us each as persons who only incidentally are male and female (because of the mechanics or reproduction)? What if He doesn’t favor men over women or the opposite? What would our church fathers (and I use that term to refer to all religions) do with that?

Continue reading “The Nature of God”

What’s Up With This? Wednesday: Women in Music

Where are the female Beatles? The female Elvis Presley? Or the female Bob Dylan? Why have so few women made an impact on our popular music culture? There have been many biopics made of male singers and musicians, but hardly any of women. Is it because women aren’t as talented? Or as determined to get ahead in the business? Or because they haven’t been given the chances and the promotion that men have been given? Or are we just more interested in men than in women?

It’s not that women are totally ignored. They have always sold plenty of records. It’s just that they seem to fade from the public’s consciousness as soon as their heydays are over. In my day there was Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Janis Ian, Carol King—who even knows those names today? Even the better-known names like Janis Joplin and Joan Jett have never been given the accolades that their male counterparts were given.

Women have always fared better in country music for some reason. There have been movies made about Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, for instance. I have a theory about that. The bulk of country music is about topics that are popular with women: love won and lost, getting over (and getting rid of) a love gone wrong, family values, etc. So female country singers are competing on the same playing field as the males are.

The same is somewhat true in blues and R&B—at least when you’re just thinking about singers. There’s Billy Holliday, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Etta James, for instance. But as soon as you start naming famous blues musicians (specifically guitarists), women seem to drop off the radar. Who is there to compare with Stevie Ray Vaughn or Buddy Guy? Is that just because women aren’t as capable of or as drawn to playing the guitar? Or because they can’t get the support—and record deals—that men can?

The situation is even worse for female composers (dead and alive). Can you think of any?

Music isn’t the only field where women are under-represented. But when you think about how music permeates and shapes our culture, it is a little unsettling that women have (seemingly) contributed so little to this process. The strange thing is, topics that women relate to are very popular (even the Beatles started out with “She Loves Me, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”), but they are co-opted by male singers and musicians. Just like white singers used to co-opt the music of black singers.

Let’s face it: sexism and racism are a lot alike. Both are fueled by the white male’s feeling of superiority. Music producers (who are usually white males, at least until recently) control who gets recorded, and they seem to believe that men will sell better than women. If you doubt that men and women are treated differently, look at the music scene.