Laurie Toby Edison

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Practicing Culture

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’re coming in quite late to the long, multilocated conversation that got started when Jill at Feministe posted about being a “fun feminist.”. This really got the feminist blogosphere going. We note with interest the responses that center around the class implications of spending money on beauty (such as Arwen, plus an excellent Bitch|Lab post which is quoted everywhere, but may have been deleted), and recommend that you take a look at them; that’s not what we’re focusing on just now, however. In addition, Winter at Mind the Gap has a very finely reasoned post which covers both the class aspects of spending money and the deeper interaction of class, feminism, and judgment (precisely the area in which we are about to set foot).

Instead, we’ve been connecting this up with some of the ongoing conversations about burqas and hijabs, the role(s) of feminism in the world, the obligations or expectations that come with feminism, the complexities of these issues, and the dangers of purity.

Does that sound like a lot? It is.

We have to start somewhere, so let’s start here:

So much of how we live our daily lives consists of cultural manifestations, reflections of our time, our place, our worldview. This is a neutral statement, true for all people in all times and places, and not a value judgment on specific cultures or cultural practices. Many cultural practices are harmless; others are benign; still others are rich and glorious, and add immeasurably to our daily lives. One aspect of this, inevitably, is that everyone’s reading of other people’s cultural practices is deeply affected by their own cultural context.

Everything specific that the patriarchy demands/expects of women is such a cultural practice. Some of these things do actual physical damage to bodies and/or intense damage to human spirits. Others are temporary, changeable, and erasable. Not everyone will agree about which ones fall into which of those two groups.

If you believe a behavior causes actual damage, it’s your job to oppose it to the extent that you can. This does not mean disregarding the cultural context; it can, however, mean opposing that context. If you believe a behavior is temporary and erasable, then it’s up to you whether or not to engage in it. Being 100% pure at anything, from feminism to your exercise regimen, has dangers.

The more culturally-female behaviors a feminist engages in, the less like a feminist she will seem to the outside world.

Amanda at Pandagonmakes a very clear point about the difference between the custom and the individual who engages in it.

Criticizing the burqua is not the same thing as criticizing the woman who feels she has to wear it to survive or even just to get by. Same thing with a veil or hajib—you can criticize the power inequities that the garment is evidence of without attacking women who are better off wearing it than not, for whatever reason. And same thing with make-up or high heels or shaving or whatever. That women feel they have to act more or “do” femininity to achieve perfectly reasonable goals, like be attractive or to get a job or whatever is not a sign that those women are somehow awful. It’s a sign that they are in a socially inferior position and have to put up with more shit to get half as much.

The standard cry when people find out that a woman is being abused by her spouse is, “Why won’t she just leave?” Well, turns out if abused women have more options, they do get out—since the passage of the VAWA, for instance, domestic violence has gone down 50%. All the wagging your fingers at women and just telling them to leave in the world didn’t drop the rate of domestic violence. If only it were that easy. Feminine submission is a coping strategy. If women have options, they will take them.

Amanda doesn’t say this in quite so many words, but she makes the point that the law is a very powerful weapon, and we as feminists get to have some say as to where it’s pointed. Respecting a culture does not mean respecting its abuses of its citizens.

An affluent First World woman can choose whether or not to get a Brazilian bikini wax, or wear spike heels, or massage wrinkle cream into her skin every night. She can also choose whether or not to have Botox treatments, starve herself, or have her breasts injected with silicone. While all of these choices play into the preferences and pocketbooks of the patriarchy, the first set are comparatively harmless to the woman doing them, and she can stop at any time. The second set, in our view, have either major potential or major actual dangers to the woman’s health. And that distinction is important. Among other things, the risks of being 100% pure apply here, in all directions.

When it comes to the burqa, a choice which we believe most women would forego if they did not face enormous personal, familial, and economic consequences, it is interesting to look at Roz Kaveney’s fascinating ramble through the British Jack Straw vs. veil debate. We were especially struck by her comment that Straw

… actually has a very good reason for asking to see their faces which he did not mention in the article and which hardly anyone has mentioned in the newspapers, which is that Jack Straw is reasonably well-known to be seriously deaf and to need to lip read.

Possibly this is something he is going to mention later, but I think that it has rather more to do with the deeply oppressive cultural attitudes to deafness in this country as not a proper disability, or as funny. He can’t mention it, because being deaf is not being in a minority people respect.

So this appears to be a case where a cultural practice runs up against a disability, and a prejudice against a disability. In that case, must one automatically respect the cultural practice? We say no; what’s more, we say this is a place for a potentially rich and useful dialogue on the intersection of the two–a dialogue that cannot happen if the cultural practice is treated as immutable. (Most disabilities are, at least in the medium term, objectively immutable.)

We’ll close with two paragraphs from Winter’s post (link above). The first is from near the beginning of her long post, and the second from near the end:

I do not want to argue about whether individual woman should not wax their legs because I don’t see how that argument makes any difference to present conditions, and I think it serves to divide women into the good sister/bad sister roles we’re all manipulated into occupying. If we sat around at Mind the Gap meetings arguing about who’s the better feminist because she doesn’t shave her legs, we’d never get much done; hell, we probably wouldn’t even have a group, and we probably wouldn’t deserve one.

It strikes me that that the insistence upon self-analysis and self-justification evident on feminist blogs such as the Happy Feminist’s might itself be an inheritance from the white-middle class femininity which demands that women constantly police their gender performance. So, I wonder if the insistence upon analysis of feminine practices is actually informed by the very femininity we claim to be resisting, the femininity that tells us we should analyse and police ourselves and other women for signs of doing it ‘wrong.’

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2 Responses to “Practicing Culture”

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  2. Lynne Murray Says:

    Just a quick take from a former religious fanatic (or maybe I’m a recovering religous fanatic–LOL!) on the socializing aka brainwashing aspects of the last paragraph you quote from Winter’s post on Feminist “policing” where she alludes to:

    “the femininity that tells us we should analyse and police ourselves and other women for signs of doing it ‘wrong.’”

    Advocates of the feminine arts can infantilize women from the opposite end. It’s all about enforcing a community standard. One thing I remember from my full-fledged fanatic days was that constant attitude adjustment was part of day-to-day life in the organization. It was impossible ever to get it right, so we were encouraged to maintain a kind of perpetual childhood and to seek wisdom from others. There was a good side to this–talking out problems can be helpful, and some people had solid advice on things like dealing with co-workers without simply quitting. But a lot of the advice received had an agenda, and it was like a school from which no one was encouraged to graduate.

    I see this kind control mechanism in the socialization of women, and we have internalized it so efficiently that it’s like those people (probably not all female!) who always walk in high heels until their tendons shorten and they are incapable of placing their feet flat on the ground. It’s good for those who aim to control us for us if we never trust ourselves or consider ourselves equal to any task. If we are always be looking for approval, advice and validation, not because we have tried and failed, but even in advance of trying.

    I had the great good fortune to be raised by parents who encouraged me to think myself adequate to any task. But I remember, in the mid-1970s, when feminism was being nationally debated but controversial (wait a minute, it’s still controversial!) having my lack of mastery of the feminine arts criticized by a young woman leader who told me, “Your problem is that you were raised as a human being and not as a woman.”

    Much as I admire the skills (and they are skills) of walking in high-heels, wearing short skirts, styling hair, applying make up, etc., I was quite honored by the remark.

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