There is currently a wonderfully written article on The Atlantic Monthly‘s website entitled, “Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen is Wrong,” by Uzma Kolsy that I urge all of you to read. But my post isn’t about Uzma’s writing. It is about the comment section.
I love reading articles from The Atlantic—possibly because they are free and often deal with topical cultural/gender/racial issues. But what is often times more revealing, and interesting, than the articles themselves are the comments made by The Atlantic‘s readers. First, let’s acknowledge something: all of those leaving comments must sign in somehow; whether that is through Facebook, Gmail, or whatever online system the kids use these days to remember their friends’ birthdays. They must take the time to sign in and leave a comment. So, it is with some effort and time that they devote to their often inane and dimwitted comments. Okay. Have I lost you yet? I’ll get to my point in a moment.
The article concerns Femen‘s activity regarding Muslim/Islamic culture—and their assumptions about a monolithic, oppressed Muslim female who must be represented, spoken for, and rescued (if you do not know who Femen is, please follow my .org or wiki link). Uzma argues that Femen’s “core flawed presumption” is that “Muslim women are oppressed because Islam is inherently oppressive” (Kolsy). She goes on to write that instead of removing their shirts and presumably speaking for, i.e. representing, Muslim women, they should donate their time to Muslim charities and social organizations. Her bulk argument is that the Femen organization is not helping Muslim women by considering them “unfree” or “oppressed,” but rather they are, first, bringing negative and fallacious attention on Islam, and secondly making Orientalist, racist and sexist presumptions about a women’s right to “choose” the hijab, or any other clothing.
Now, I have “cherry picked” two incendiary comments from the article to diagnose, and I realize that not all people think this way, but I wanted to mention that I am aware of that bias. I would also like to acknowledge that by highlighting these quotes I realize I am bringing a type of promotion or fame to these ideas—which I certainly do not promote or champion. Here are two comments made by readers of the Atlantic article in question:
1) “Muslim women are not making choices. They are making choices within a very limited set circumscribed by men, or by their mothers or other women who have a vested interest in the system.”
2) “If the Muslim women of the world did remove their hijabs in solidarity, you know exactly what would have happened to most of them: they would be beaten, if not murdered. Whipped back into compliance by men who are cowards and cannot trust their own wives to fend off the advances of another man.”
Now, here comes the controversy: I agree with point one, but on the condition that it be changed to “no one is making choices”. “Choice,” for me, is a highly contentious term. Many of us take it for granted that we have “choice” or that we feel the necessity to exercise some conception of “choice” on a daily basis, e.g. I “choose” to write this late at night instead of sleeping, even though I know I have to get up early (I will refrain from using ironic, and rather annoying, quotes from now on). But the problem is that a division wedges itself between those who have choice, i.e. those free to act, think, vote, etc., and those without choice, i.e. those oppressed by some larger force like culture, class, religion, etc. But the thing is: we are ALL influenced by immutable social forces, such as ulture, class, religion, gender, etc.; these things ALL enforce our decisions, actions, and lives.
Let’s be obvious for a moment. Do you wear glasses? Yes? Then you have a different mindset than someone who does not. Thought about corrective surgery? Investigated the price? Someone with 20/20 has not. Think about your glasses? Their care and cleanliness? Do you think about wearing contacts when you pick out sunglasses? A person with 20/20 has not had these thoughts. “Sure,” you say, “that’s biological”. Right. Okay… Guys, where do you buy your underwear? Target? Walmart? Is it Hanes? or Fruit of the Loom? Have you ever bought a single pair of Calvin Klein underwear at Macy’s for the price of four pairs of Hanes? No? You should. Because you have that choice.
Here’s where it gets sticky. You don’t have that choice, but you think you do because a nice mix of consumerism and late capitalism is an empowering and entitling narcotic. The danger is when that entitlement bleeds over into politics, ethics, gender, sexuality, etc. That you think you have choice is all that matters to Ronald McDonald, underwear factory owners, or managers at Target or Walmart. Even if you try to prove to me that you have choice, you are doing so out of a condition—sure, go buy the Calvin’s, gentlemen, you will love them! That condition is that you are trying to prove something to me, so the action is a necessary one, not chosen. Even a seemingly random act has a causal condition. But when we use the term choice, we are isolating a phenomenon in order to distinguish that act from others as important. We are telling a story. You are selecting, most often unconsciously, what information to exclude and what to include based on your experiences and the inherit desire for social acceptance. And that story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning isolates and solidifies the cause, the middle is the detail-y bit, and the end, well, the end is our moral justification—”I may have done something wrong, but here is why I did it. Do not condemn me“.
I find the use of the term choice abhorrent and despicable when used to distinguish one group from another as those possessing choice and those not possessing it. In its most casual and vulgar form it is employed to justify personal morality, and isolate and punish the other individual’s failure to achieve—”I have been able to do this, therefore you are able to do this. If you do not, then that is your choice“. This example ranges from arriving to work on time, living a healthy lifestyle, to earning a degree. Rather than choice, I prefer the terms desire and decisions. These terms allow for social influences and a range of numerous possibilities—as opposed to the either/or of choice. As far as I am concerned, choice is an absolute: either everyone has it or no one does. There is no way to clearly distinguish between those who have choice and those who do not. By creating that distinction to judge others lives of which we often know very little, we reveal the forces that have shaped our own morality; and more often than not, we reveal our bigotry, our fears, our hatred, and our ignorance. Just as some of those individuals making comments on Uzma Kolsy’s article have done.
- Put Your Shirts Back On: Why Femen Is Wrong (theatlantic.com)
- Topless Jihad: Why Femen is Right (theatlantic.com)
- FEMEN Topless Jihad: Who’s Got Feminism Right, FEMEN Or Muslim Women? (akandezainab.wordpress.com)
- “FEMEN needs to recognize that Muslim women do in fact have agency, and the idea that Muslim women…” (anoncentral.tumblr.com)