This idea of “colonial desire” deals with sexualized stereotypes, one of which I mentioned in my last blog post. We have the well-known image of the sexy and mysterious belly dancer or exotic other whose only goal and instinct is to pleasure the men whose gaze she easily captures (Princess Jasmine); the (American) Indian princess whose thoughts are similarly one-dimensional as she scantily covers herself, falls in love with a white man, and inevitably succumbs to his foreign charm (Pocahontas, anyone?); the luscious geisha who represents Asian women as weak-willed, passive, and subservient to the opposite sex; and the African queen whose dark skin is desired within both the male gaze and the colonial gaze because she must inhabit the space of other; her coloring serves as her sex appeal, which is what all of these women share in common. These hybrid stereotypes long only to please the men who objectify them, and their pseudo-cultural identities are intertwined in this desire. Because these females are mere stereotypes, they have no agency or free will; they are products of colonial desire. Po-Co Studies tells us that “even the positive features of colonial attitudes in discourses . . . reflect an eroticized vision that is fundamentally reductive” (36). Hence, the cultural identities of women considered to be other have been reduced to the erotic. Above, I mention Pocahontas, a figure as well as a Disney film which echo “persistent fantasies of inter-racial sex” (Po-Co Studies 36). Part of the princess’s appeal to John Smith is that he is white and she is not; she is dark, which means that she is wild, more a beast of the forest than a proper lady; she knows the earth’s secrets, of course, because she is Native American, and just as desperately as Smith wants in on those beautiful and mystical secrets, she longs to share them with the unenlightened white man.
I mentioned the Hottentot Venus a few weeks ago! I was not aware that this is what she was called, however. I read about this in an issue of Bust–I remember thinking about the large bums which are associated with black women and their bodies. It’s funny these short passages mention that the others’ otherness as spectacle “is not a phenomenon of the distant past.” I’m thinking of spectatorship today as it relates to all women, but particularly to black women’s butts. We now hear about Brazilian butt lifts and butt implants, and even black women are “enhancing” their derrieres with the aid of cosmetic surgery. I wonder if this is to accentuate already existing characteristics or to fulfill the expected and (somehow) desired role of Hottentot Venus?
Note the look of defiance on the black woman’s face–arms crossed, direct eye contact with the viewer, her eyes say, “I dare you to challenge or inferiorize this–this is bigger than you.” I’ve also placed here a Nike ad which a student brought into the Writing Center in the Spring. She was writing an essay about the ad (and working with another tutor), but I snatched it and my eyes glazed over. With the assistance of the text (which is oh so poetic, too!), this women undeniably challenges our anglo (or simply American) beauty ideals. This woman need not meet our gaze to assert her position of power; she’s too busy focusing on her workout! The Hottentot Venus image, of course, intersects with the concept of colonial desire. Even after death, Baartman’s body was sexualized and reduced to a “primitive sexual appetite,” hungry for the anglo world to consume her image.
After reading, re-reading, and reflecting upon Mohanty’s words, I understand that much of this essay is expressed in the name of sarcasm: “Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India and Egypt all wear some sort of a veil. Hence, this indicates that the sexual control of women is a universal fact in those countries in which the women are veiled” (346). Since when does the veiled woman stand for the sexual oppression of Muslim women everywhere? I assume that Mohanty views the veil as a sort of anti-feminist metaphor for the masking, concealment, distortion, or rejection of female sexuality. Why? After my last blog post, I think it’s clear why I’m in favor of not only the veil but the veiled woman. Westerners must understand that women are not hidden nor are they themselves hiding…from their bodies or anything else. Again, if this is a custom in a woman’s homeland, she may simply be expressing her cultural identity and pride by wearing her veil in public. I think (as reductionist as this may sound) Mohanty may agree with me when I say that Westerners need to re-examine their own ideals and stop intruding in this “third world” with kind-hearted but overzealous attempts to “save the day” for these oh-so-terribly oppressed women who are so tragically incapable of inciting change in their own regions and lives.
I’m so glad that Mohanty’s text focused consistently on Arab women and the veiled woman, in particular; just when I thought my brain had no more space for the introduction of new feminist thought and concepts, in marches the veiled woman, conflicted yes resolute, proud yet concealed, marginalized yet thriving at the center of public attention. I love you, veiled woman.
I’m sure we all thought about Malala as we read Ahmed. The fact that she is only 14 years old only highlights the fact that this girl is a cultural symbol of change, a shift in thought and ideals. The fact that Malala was leaving school when she was shot is also significant. Malala was accused of promoting “pro-Western” ideas, which is laughable because it implies that we, the Westerners, are isolated and alienated in our all-too-accessible opportunities for women to not only learn, but to educate others. Just as Cait pointed out: women are oppressed, and this includes Western women. We are not alone in these endeavors, and this type of stereotyping on the part of the Taliban only downgrades their own cultural identities to simple-minded, barbaric, and immobile.
Ahmed tells us about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who challenged the alleged Muslim belief that women don’t have souls (Po-Co Studies 320). Again, another dehumanizing and objectifying stance, even if this rumor (that Muslims indeed believe(d) this) was proven false. Ah ha! Here it is: the veil “gave women a kind of liberty, for it enabled them not to be recognized” (same page!). This is the validation I’ve been waiting for; thank you, Ms. Ahmed. Again, if I could get away with wearing a veil or even just a simple headscarf, I would gain liberty. This is power, people! I tend to be a hermit (a voluntary one, thank you!), so the ability to go about my business without the fear of being recognized by those I wish to avoid sounds like a pretty legit deal to me. The male gaze undermined. Fuck yeah.
As Ahmed discusses Cromer’s attack on the Muslim religion, we are snidely told that “Christianity teaches respect for women” (Po-Co Studies 322). Bullshit; the bible is saturated in sexism. Adam’s other wife, Lilith, was demonized (as a vampiric succubus) simply because she wanted to be on top during sex.
During my undergrad work at a Catholic university, we learned that in traditionally religious marriages, men control the finances while women’s duties remain in the kitchen and laundry room. And let’s not forget that even God is gendered as “He.” Do people (“progressive” women) even pause to question this insane concept? The nurturing life force of this planet is undeniably feminine, yet so many of us kneel before a faceless, tyrannical, masculinized presence? No thank you. I don’t wish to begin a religious debate, so I’ll stop. My point is simply that Christianity is not the solution to Cromer’s allegations of misogyny and female oppression. We’re also introduced to this idea that “Muslim women needed to be rescued by their Christian sisters” (323). I think I’ve beaten this issue enough, but I’ll just say that this delusion furthers Muslim women’s otherness in the name of eurocentric foolishness. Muslim women must suffer such a tragic, primitive existence that they must be told they are oppressed, and we can set them free. Forgot Christianity–the West is God.
In Ahmed’s interview, I appreciate that she questions this idea of the “Muslim world.” I now feel foolish for having used this term myself over the years. Ahmed asks, “[W]here exactly are the borders? Are they in Chicago? . . . Where does the Islamic world end and where does the West begin?” Obviously, she makes a valid point; the Muslim world is everywhere because both Muslims and traces of the Islamic faith are everywhere.
I also want to touch on this idea of civilization or “being civilized,” which echoes Nervous Conditions and also Ahmed’s assigned text for this week. This stifling concept is, of course, eurocentric; all Others are simply barbarians and must give up their native culture. Ahmed says, “In sub-Saharan Africa, they didn’t wear enough clothes . . . In the Middle East, they wore too many clothes.” We can’t win. We see traces of this today in our own culture as we relate to women, which I know I’ve already brought up in a previous blog post. If women cover up too much, they are “prude” or are terrified of their own bodies and sexuality; if women enjoy flaunting their bodies or derive satisfaction from sex, they are whores. In any case, mocking and attempting to initiate change within a culture of “underdressed” women is just as ludicrous and ignorant as attacking women for wearing headscarves.
Another comment that struck me was, “I don’t think there necessarily has to be a contradiction between a woman feeling empowered and feeling devout.” If the veil empowers women, then Ahmed is urging them to wear it. If the veil reflects one’s devotion to God, then wear it. The disconnect (assumedly in the Western world) between these two ideas is that a woman’s devoutness is empowerment, which is reflected in the wearing of the veil. If the veiled woman is to be seen as “buried” behind her veil as Cantor has argued, then she is simply buried in her own rapturous faith (if this is how one chooses to look at it). For whatever reason the veiled woman chooses to be veiled, she is not civilized in her decision. Empowered or devout, the veiled woman is seen by the hyper-visual West as a heathen, an Other, a dark impostor with dark secrets (but she is too buried to reveal or share them, so this is threatening).
I also want to note that many “members of the upper classes maintained it [the veil] was . . . ‘a sign of propriety and a means of protection against the menacing eyes of male strangers’” (Po-Co Studies 333). Obviously, I can identify with this idea–I understand the male gaze all too well. If women truly want to utilize the veil in this way, then, again, wear it. However, I think it may be more important that we (both Muslims and Westerners alike) teach our boys not to rape women with their eyes. I’m under the impression that males who are guilty of this fail to see where the problem lies; it’s a form of penetration, and it disrupts females’ sense of calm and security because it’s forceful and unwelcome. These are my thoughts, but I’m not holding my breath.
Mohanty writes that “only from the vantage point of the West is it possible to define the ‘third world’ as underdeveloped and economically dependent . . . I am suggesting then that the one enables and sustains the other” (353). It is the colonial gaze which she is referencing here; the Orient situates itself within the unfaltering gaze of the West. Western thought is the culprit when we pause to consider the poor, tragic souls who live in the sandy land, condemned by the west and cursed by their god. I recently tutored a student who, in her paper, claimed that Muslims as a people (get ready for the outlandish “blanket statement” here) are too bound up in their faith, and their religion is their identity, is their lives, is their only reason for existence. When I told her that this was dangerous writing and thinking, and that Muslims are much more than this, it simply didn’t seem like there was room in her mind for such truths.
Oyewumi explains the process by which “females were . . . reduced to ‘women’” (342), which makes readily and painfully apparent the connotations and subtext attached to the mere term “women.” I can detect the contempt, ridicule, and dismissiveness in which many utter the word. However, this applies to men as well, and can be encountered amongst our own culture, i.e. in the company of other females (and on the subjects of love, romance, and relationships), one may hear, “He’s just a man–what do you expect?” The stereotype is that men are insensitive, emotionally crippled, and governed by their hormones while women are hysterical, living, breathing emotion who fall to pieces when the wind blows.
Let me preface my discussion of Woman at Point Zero by sharing this: my mother works at a women’s prison in New Jersey, and when she tells me about the dozens of women who are incarcerated for killing their abusive boyfriends and husbands, I tell her that they should all be given fucking medals rather than life sentences. My mom talks to some of these ladies and gets to know them and their stories (how they choose to see their stories, anyhow).
The cover of this book (my edition, at least) immediately communicates a tone of solitude, isolation, and imprisonment. Here is darkness which leaks into an old, worn wall above and an intricately detailed gate below. While walls must be destroyed in order to pass through (and symbolize the impossibility of such a feat), gates are meant to be unlocked and opened. If we turn the book around, we see that this wall and gate extend completely around us (sorry, I was unable to locate a quality photo of the book’s back cover!). In any case, we’re surrounded.
Spivak tells us that “the relationship between woman and silence can be plotted by women themselves” (82). Firdaus embodies this observation. This woman gains power through silence, through her rejection of human interaction and pleas for freedom. If she is damned, she owns her damnation, innocent or not; she is voluntarily in shadow once she arrives to prison.
I think my favorite part of Saadawi’s text (novela?) is simply the experience of sitting, reading, and allowing her poetic language to course through me. The ways in which our narrators describe their feelings (along with this rampant theme of darkness and despair) is fluid, cosmic, and ethereal: “I held her [Miss Iqbal’s] eyes in mind, took her hand in mine. The feeling of our hands touching was strange, sudden . . . My fingers held on to her hand with such violence that no force on earth, no matter how great, could tear it away from me” (30). We can feel the earth rocking beneath us as we absorb the girl’s images and feelings.
I especially appreciated that Firdaus is in love with her school teacher. I was so struck when she tells us, “she [Miss Iqbal] reached out in the dark and took my hand” (33). This is, of course, metaphorical and thus beautiful, blinding, and hopeful. After all that Firdaus has undergone, we have this hand reaching out in the dark, the hand of another woman whom Firdaus loves. These scenes or silent moments are possibly the first or most vital within Firdaus’s story. However, Firdaus has been let down by both men and women, so I don’t think it can be argued that she has simply turned to Iqbal for feminine solace and sympathy.
At the bottom of page 43, we very clearly and undeniably encounter the male gaze, so I’m all over this:
In the dark I suddenly perceived two eyes, or rather felt them, moving towards me very slowly, closer and closer. They dropped their gaze with slow intent to my shoes, rested there for a moment, then gradually started to climb up my legs, to my thighs, my belly, my breasts, my neck and finally came to a stop, fastening themselves steadily in my eyes, with the same cold intent. (43-44)
So, this passage gives me the creeps because I can empathize with Firdaus in this way. After the chilling encounter, she is thankful that he did not have a weapon, but what she does not yet know is that the male gaze is a weapon of sorts; it is used to inferiorize the subject of the gaze, to search the female anatomy rapaciously, and to deflect the gazer’s own twisted sense of pleasure. Men are visual; we know this. However, this does not mean that men as a species are misbehaved barbarians. Does it?… “Any one of them, it doesn’t make any difference. They’re all the same, all sons of dogs, running around under various names” (mysterious green lady on page 55!)
With the mention of the sea along with the green imagery surrounding this woman, she made me think of Green (Tibetan) Tara (who is proudly tattooed on my back), goddess of centering and enlightenment, who has sworn to forever be reincarnated as a woman (the only Buddhist deity to choose so). Tara is a bodhisattva, which means that she has attained nirvana, but chooses to return to the earthly plain in order to help others reach it as well. All of this green imagery also serves a symbol of Firdaus’s ongoing growth and development as a woman and a character in her own narrative. The woman even tells Firdaus, “Everyone knows me” (56). This is who I pictured seated next to Firdaus, carefully pulling her shawl over her own shoulders.
The passage of self-discovery we find on page 58 is bittersweet because these revelations intersect with Firdaus’s “pricing” herself. As we read, it is assumed that Sharifa is a guide of sorts who has entered the young woman’s life to comfort, protect, and empower her, not to price her sexuality rather than her character (just as men have done to Firdaus). It is at one of Firdaus’s lowest moments that her body is utilized to thrust forward recognition and preservation: “I started to examine the fingers of my hands. The fingers were mine, they had not changed” (66). As Firdaus undergoes what seems to be rebirth after rebirth, she feels that she cannot recognize the image of her own body, her own being, and her slender fingers are able to pull Firdaus back to herself before she floats too far into the dark, abandoned streets.
We should also note the conflict Firdaus feels between the oppositional binary of pleasure and pain. This is not just a sexually-located contradiction, but speaks to the pain of living and the ecstasy of dying: “It ended with pain, a pain which felt like pleasure . . . I had experienced it long ago . . . Yet it seemed to go back even further than my life, to some day before I was born, like a thing arising out of an ancient wound, in an organ which had ceased to be mine” (60). There is also a theme of oceanic imagery throughout the text. Firdaus consistently likens her anxieties to the easy, predictable flow as well as the terrifying turbulence of its waters. These images remind me of the poem we read several weeks ago, and it is obviously situated in our story here because of the seas connections with the feminine divine.
The comically repulsive descriptions of Sheikh Mahmoud, Firdaus’s new husband, remind me of Joyce Carol Oates’s language in a scene from her novel Foxfire, in which Wimpy Wirtz exposes himself to the teenage Maddy, and her “girl gang” intercedes to beat the man up for his attempt to molest the girl. These grotesque images of men, their manners, their body, and their masculinity are helpful to the reader as we circumnavigate these anonymous, expendable, and secondary male characters. Mahmoud is repellent: “At night he would wind his legs and arms around me, and let his old, gnarled hand travel all over my body, like the claws of a starving man who has been deprived of real food for many years wipe the bowl of food clean, and leave not a single crumb behind” (45). He consumes her like food, ravenous and with no consideration for Firdaus’s pleasure, comfort, or happiness.
On pages 73-74, Firdaus embraces her newfound power as a woman, albeit as a prostitute. A faceless man says, “‘Your wishes are my orders,’ and he paid me on the spot” (74). This is the very particular type of situation many traditional feminists may argue is yet oppressive and demeaning to Firdaus. However, as many housewives must submit to routine rapes and beatings, prostitutes can collect their money and leave, or simply tell the man that it’s time to go (reference For Colored Girls–this situation toys with gender role reversal as well). We see this embodied in the way Firdaus excuses Di’aa from her flat. This being said, prostitutes indeed can be more empowered than women who do not sleep with strangers for money. After, Di’aa “unveils” the truth and destroys Firdaus’s happy ignorance rather quickly, however: “After I had spent three years in the company, I realized that as a prostitute I had been looked upon with more respect, and been valued more highly than all the female employees, myself included” (81). May we call this “false consciousness” (Po-Co Studies)? Our book tells us that “subjects collude with ideology by allowing it to provide social meaning” (203); is this not just what our Firdaus accomplishes as she rationalizes then retraces her steps to deconstruct and re-erect her ideology?
Clearly, this is a conflictive situation not just for Firdaus, but for all of us. Do we refrain from respecting prostitutes simply because they have sold their bodies for money? I had a brief conversation relating to this idea a few weeks ago with Dr. C. In an interview, recording artist Sophie B. Hawkins said something to the effect of, “My sexuality is more than my pussy.” This being said, I’m not sure I buy into the idea that prostitutes “sell their souls.” After all, this implies that our sex (which we preserve, offer, or have taken from us) is us, defines us, rests at the center of who we are. Nope, I don’t buy it. Nobody could ever take my soul, and I don’t think any of us believe that Firdaus’s soul has been snatched by any of these nondescript men, either. We hear enough about soulless women selling their bodies, but what about the men who pay for them?
My favorite moment in this area of the book has to be when Firdaus so lucidly declares, “I now knew that all of us were prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices” (82). Wow. I think this would be an interesting concept to discuss in Dr. Bleach’s Intro to English Studies course as it relates to capitalism and “selling out” within academia and publishing. This line from Firdaus forces us to confront ourselves, which I’m a fan of. If it makes us uncomfortable, upset, or frightened, we should probably explore it further. I think more people need to question the things we do and sacrifice for money before we judge those who fuck for pay (although I’d say what Firdaus does isn’t fucking; it’s more like enduring).