The Right to Privacy in Public

I have been wanting to write about this topic for some time, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.  The actual topic is sexual harassment, and the unwanted attention that women have to deal with in public.  My commentary will join the billions of blogposts already written about this topic.  However, it seems to me that people are taking a bit too long to just get it. 

Too many people (read: mainly people who themselves don’t get constantly harassed) are quick to counter complaints about harassment/unwanted attention with any of the following:

-we have to stop feeling annoyed, and start feeling flattered, by the attention and compliments,

-we should be polite and accommodating to strangers who are just being “friendly”,

-smiling at strangers makes the world a better place.

While all of these responses irk me VERY much, I can see where they come from:

Unfortunately, many people who propogate these messages do not understand what interacting with strangers means for a lot of women.  Where I’m from, most people expect to be able to go out in public and about their business without actually being bothered by random strangers, and being demanded by strangers to converse with them.  These messages assume strangers helping out a friendly neighbor, an elderly person, or a distressed soul on the verge of committing suicide, rather than a creepy man who demands that women smile at him for his own enjoyment.  Unfortunately, the reality is that the majority, if not only, of strangers who demand attention from me just happen to be old men who, for whatever reason, only seek out interactions from other women.  My swift rejections to these advances are immediately met by “Hey!  I’M JUST TRYING TO TALK TO YOU!” and “Why don’t you give me a chance?”

I cannot stand or sit alone for more than five minutes outside in my city without being bothered by one of these idiots.  Unfortunately, poetic rhetoric is not on my side.  Apparently, we are obligated to smile to light up some other person’s day and converse with random strangers to alleviate their loneliness.

Or are we?  It has long been known that the definitions of being nice and polite have been warped against females so that rejecting male attention actually compromises our morality.  However, no one is actually obligated to interact with another civilian against their will on public transportation, in a store/mall, in a park, etc.  The difference is that women are likely to get too much unwanted attention, and then criticized for rejecting it.

The fact that many women feel uncomfortable in the presence of strange men is so misunderstood that, during the Trayvon Martin trial, women repeatedly became the punching bag as the racist bitches who avoided black men in elevators and on the street.  Therefore, George Zimmerman happened.  Even the President of the United States didn’t get it!  Has it ever occurred to some people that these women may have just been avoiding strange black men because they were avoiding, well, strange men?  And that they may be avoiding strange men because they have had previous negative experiences with strange men?  (Which is why I appreciate this nice response to Questlove’s annoying rant.)  Now, you can argue that women avoiding black men is racist, and thus women avoiding men is sexist.  Sure, I’ll give you that.  But as long as they aren’t going out of their way to shoot you, harass you, or disenfranchise you, you haven’t got much to worry about.

This is a good article describing one girl’s experiences with harassment under the guise of stranger-friendliness in the D.C. area, which is very similar to my experiences in San Francisco.  People who insist that everyone regularly interact with strangers assume that all strangers are sane and should not make the person feel uncomfortable.  They also forget that circumstances differ in places like big cities.  Many women, feeling the need to be polite, end up disregarding their feelings of discomfort and vulnerability, and possibly put themselves in danger.  It is about time we stop this nonsense.

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I’m Just Not That Into ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’

When it comes to unrequited love, our culture tells girls to get over it, because ‘he’s just not that into you’; and guys are allowed to play the ‘nice guy’ card.

We’ve all heard of this book/movie, right?  Here are some gems that come from it:

“We (men) would rather lose an arm out a city bus window than tell you simply, “You’re not the
one.” We are quite sure you will kill us or yourself or both—or even worse, cry and yell at us.”

What I get from this quote is that women’s emotions are more scary than they are meaningful, and men would rather avoid us when we are feeling them than tell us the truth and verbally communicate with us.  Also, all men think all women will go as far as to end their own lives – and that of their partner’s – upon receiving bad news.  Because we’re all cray, y’all.

“I’m tired of seeing great women in bullshit relationships.”    

“When it comes to men, deal with them as they are, not how you’d like them to be.”

I consider this book the frenemy of dating advice.  This is taking into consideration of the fact that practically 99% of them are directed at females, written by 100+ dating ‘experts’, with random, all-over-the-place advice on how to snag a man.

It isn’t all of the advice in HJNTIY that I have a huge problem with.  I am going to give this Greg guy the benefit of the doubt.  He is tired of seeing women in bullshit relationships.  He wants to clarify that if a guy is giving mixed signals, isn’t calling back, and is being dodgy in any way means it’s time to drop him and move on.  True and solid advice.

But does he have to be so condescending?

“And above all, if the guy you’re dating doesn’t seem to be completely into you, or you feel the need to start “figuring him out,” please consider the glorious thought that he might just not be that into you. And then free yourself to go find the one that is.”  

Oh!  Silly us.  It never occurred to us that a guy who initially showed interest in us and asked us out and everything was just playing around all along.  We were too busy being desperate and insecure and naïve to notice the subtexts and hints.

“You picked a lemon, throw it away lemonade is overrated. Freaks should remain at the circus, not in your apartment. You already have one asshole. You don’t need another. Make a space in your life for the glorious things you deserve. Have faith.”  

If I had just waited around being faithful all my life, I would never have gone out on a single date.

What I got from this books is: women should tip-toe around their dates’ inconsiderate habits, immediately let it go, and then go after what they really want all along.  The only reason women are unable to tell the difference between the guys they REALLY want and the assholes is because they completely misunderstood the signals and were overly optimistic.  Guys will go to any length to get the girl he wants.  If a girl wants a guy, she is desperate and needy.  If a guy isn’t dropping anything and running after a girl, he is just not that into her.  So, in the end of the day, women just have to continue waiting by their phones until the day that a guy really IS into them will call.

This book is the frenemy of dating advice because it claims to empower women while, in my opinion, doing the complete opposite.  The advice is patronizing, seems to assume all women are stupid and emotionally unstable, and simply instructs women to walk on eggshells regarding their dates’ whims and desires.  Basically, men are expected to treat us like shit until they don’t, and we are to accept this and continue improving ourselves until we find someone who doesn’t.

Life isn’t that simple.  It is not that easy to avoid/pick the wrong men from the right men.  Sometimes a guy is busy because he is juggling a shit ton of work and family commitments.  Sometimes a guy is busy because he is having an affair.  If he is busy because he is avoiding you, even if you two are going out, then you should probably ask him what’s up.  Even intelligent, secure women get duped and fall into bad relationships, because they didn’t turn out quite as they expected.  The guy seemed sweet at the beginning but then turned out to be a jerk.  Their date deliberately lied or misled them.  Their date is passive-aggressive and doesn’t want to communicate in a mature manner.  It takes awhile to catch on when the wool is being pulled over our eyes.  And if this behavior is as common as Greg makes it out to be in the book, then why did he not pen a book about “How to Facilitate Honest, Respectful, Communication with Your Partners” ? (The title is not as catchy, I admit.)

This is just another book that objectifies women and invalidates our feelings.  If we like a guy, we are desperate.  If we get genuinely angry at another girl, we are catty.  If we get hurt because he left us for another girl, we are jealous and bitter.  If we call a guy to see where we are at, we are crazy!

Here is my two cents (I’m sure you were waiting for it..):  Everyone plunges into the dating world almost, if not completely, clueless.  At minimum, expect your date, and everyone else, to treat you with respect.  If some idiot leaves you hanging, it’s okay to call him asking for a definite answer.  It doesn’t make you crazy – you are a human who deserves honesty and being communicated with.  Also, don’t take rejection personally.  REMEMBER, IT IS OKAY TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE A HUMAN BEING WITH FEELINGS AND DESIRES, TOO.

Best of luck.

Practically Feminist

PRACTICAL FEMINISM ARTWORK by Jen Giacalone

If there’s one thing that we can say for sure about the multi-headed beast that some call Third Wave feminism (or is it Fourth Wave now?), it’s that feminism often seems like it can be whatever the hell you want it to be.  This makes it difficult for us as feminists to speak with one voice about things that are really important.  And in the end, it may be hampering practical approaches to improving things.  Feminism isn’t an idea, it’s a collection of a lot of ideas, and we’re free to argue them with one another. That’s healthy.  But feminism needs to sort out what it’s trying to do.  Right now, it feels more like a chaotic, en-masse reaction to attacks on our rights, as opposed to a positive, proactive movement.

When I first started putting my toes in the waters of feminism, I was really only…

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I’m Not a Prude or a Slut: The Creepy Dichotomy

Friends, today I want to talk about sexual experiences.  Particularly, female sexual experiences.  Which just brings me to the question:  What the eff is up with the virgin-whore spectrum constantly used to (very inaccurately) describe women and their sex lives?????

While the “virgin-whore dichotomy” sounds like obscure women’s studies jargon, I think it captures the essence of mainstream cultural attitudes based on what I have seen in pop culture AND heard from people in real life.  And there is so much wrong with the assumptions related to it that I just had to write a blogpost scraping at least the icing of this multilayered cake.

In mainstream dialogue, women seem to either fall into the category of prudes or sluts.  This obviously is a result of the fact that many people think that a girl’s sex life is their business to discuss and categorize.  The descriptions also imply that pretty much any sexual choice a woman makes is problematic.  She is either having too little or too much sex, according to whomever is doing the labeling.  Let’s also not forget the obvious fact that these terms are usually used to manipulate the woman’s sexual behavior.  Girls are shamed for being “prudish” in order to prompt them to be more sexually active than they would originally choose.  Other times, they are shamed for being “slutty” to inhibit the sexual choices they would make.  In the framework of this dichotomy, you could either be a slut who isn’t respected, or a prude who is respectable but boring.  A lot of media also likes to play around with this concept by celebrating the idea of the “good girl gone bad” at the hands of a guy who successfully seduces an ‘innocent’ girl’s hidden sex kitten.  (Like in the creepy chorus of the “Blurred Lines” song.)

And I say, this is Just. Ridiculous.

I am what a lot of people think of as a “good girl.”  I’m on the quiet, mellow side.  I am an introverted academic.  I definitely like socializing as much as the next person, but I’m not hitting raging parties every weekend.

For some reason, to some people, this means I’m super virginal.

What my hobbies have to do with my sex life, I do not know.  But whenever I reveal that I am actually not a clean slate in the realm of sexual experiences (something I don’t like to openly discuss, to begin with), my lesser intelligent acquaintances exclaim: “but you’re so innocent!”

“But”???

But what?  I am innocent!  I have never committed murder, stolen anything, betrayed anyone, and I am very loyal to my loved ones.  What does this have to do with my sex life again?

I’m 23, and have graduated college.  It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that  as a young adult, I have had 1-2 relationships, and some brief dating stints, and along with them some sexual experiences.  That just makes me a…human.

Then, when my more outgoing friend decides to have more brief, casual affairs, and a lot of hook-ups, the judgmental audience suddenly takes to pearl-clutching and slut-shaming.  Some guys even think she is “easy” and will give it up to anyone, so she is theirs for the taking.

And THEN, whenever my Orthodox Christian friend defends her decision to wait until marriage, because it is something she really wants to do, she is described as being too difficult for men.

This bullshit needs to stop, for obvious reasons.

Both of the terms “prude” and “slut” are dehumanizing and disrespectful towards a woman’s decision with what to do with her body.  In this day and age, people need to stop thinking they can dictate another woman’s sexual decisions.  I don’t withhold from sex to be some guy’s creepy virginal-to-sex-kitten sexual fantasy.  A woman who is more experienced is not obligated to sleep with anyone who wants it from her.  Our sex lives (or lack thereof) are our own private matters – in addition to the other, multiple parts of our lives that make us who we are, as people – and we deal with them on our own terms.

The Freedom to Wear a Hijab

This is kind of a random topic given the usual theme of the blog, but I thought it would be interesting to write about.  It is also slightly more personal.  My inspiration comes from an engaging conversation I was having with my Muslim-American, fellow Pakistani-American friend, who personally chose to don the hijab as part of her religious practice.  She was telling me that the most patronizing attitudes she experienced were from Westerners – specifically both white men and women – who seemed to assume that she was, in her words, “like an oppressed, uneducated Muslim woman.”

I admit that I, too, once had Western-centric views about the hijab, despite being born into a Muslim family.  I denounced religion around the same time my friend chose to wear the hijab.  I thought that the hijab was an inherently oppressive cultural practice in Muslim societies, and just another aspect of what was wrong with organized religion (my view.)  However, my own hang-ups about religion aside, I realized what was wrong with this thinking when my friend brought up this observation.

When thinking about the agency of Muslim women – a popular discussion topic in mainstream media and cultural dialogue, the hijab automatically becomes central to this discussion.  However, it is not as simple as: hijab = oppression; hair = freedom.  It is about what wearing a hijab means for the woman.

Hijabi women in Western countries are generally not that different from any of the other women in those countries.  They go to school/university, drive, work, and a lot of them have professional careers.  (My said friend is currently in medical school.)  They also go to the movies, go to the grocery store, and go on dates.  I know many in my community who have very egalitarian marriages and family lives.  Unlike, say, the women who live in Saudi Arabia, these women whole-heartedly choose to don the hijab as integral to their religious practice.

Ironically, given a lot of Western feminist issues regarding the sexual objectification of women and scrutiny of female bodies, women who choose to cover and dress modestly may actually be exercising more agency.  Of course, you don’t have to wear a hijab to dress modestly.  But from what I hear, this is part of the pride with which a lot of Muslim-American women wear the hijab.  They refuse to take part in the race to flaunt their figures and peacock for men.  They want to be in control of their own sexuality.  On the other hand, for women in Saudi Arabia, freedom would be equivalent to the freedom to show their hair.  Women keep covered, but don’t necessarily have the sexual agency to the extent that Muslim women in the U.S. can enjoy.  What matters is whether women are doing the choosing, and making their own sexual decisions.

Objectification is rife everywhere

I’m going to deviate a little, but try to shed light on a bigger problem: women – no matter their cultural background or sexual decisions – tend to be commodified.  In the U.S. and some other Western cultures, non-white women are fetishized as exotic fantasies, such as the submissive Asian woman and the Middle-Eastern belly-dancer.  Now, let’s travel over to the South-Asian and Middle-Eastern regions.  There is a disturbing trend among some attitudes regarding white women in these countries.  It is, in fact, reverse-Orientalism.  Knowing that Western cultures tend to be more open about sexual practices compared to the strict standards in countries like Pakistan, white women are also fetishized.  A lot of men, who are already raised largely separate from the female demographic, are quick to label them as “more slutty than our women.”  While shaming women in their own cultures if they deviate from the standards, they are more than ready to exploit white women for their sexual desires.  One of the most obvious ways this is apparent is in the way white women are currently featured in Bollywood movies.

Ridiculous double standards of white and non-white women – whatever they happen to be – have something in common: they are exploited for the male gaze in mainstream culture.  Women’s personal decisions about their body – whether they choose to be modest or be sexually liberal, are always under scrutiny, and ready for exploitation.  A woman may choose to have multiple partners, or cover her hair, but these characteristics are not all that define the woman.

I have come to realize that even well-meaning women, such as myself, have (or had) weird cultural attitudes about the hijab and other Muslim practices.  In the current scrutiny of a lot of Middle-Eastern political regimes, we had thrown a lot of Muslim women under the bus – those who go about life making their own, dignified choices, and have forgotten to respect their exercise of agency.  All cultures are very nuanced, and there is no one Muslim culture from which the women need to be saved.

Real Women Have Lives

Recently, I came across an interesting blog article titled, “Hey, Not All Real Women Have Curves”, to which I say: true dat.

Of course, this resonated with me because I, too, am of the tall, lanky variety.  While I am thankful for the activism that has come into full force against the prevalence of starving models and unattainable beauty standards, I am sick of the crap that came with it: “Real women have curves” (So I’m imaginary??), “Eat a cheeseburger” (What if I’m a vegetarian/pescatarian/Hindu?), “Get off the scale!” (Who are you???), and “There is nothing sexy about toothpick legs.” (Ouch…)

Now, I’m not saying that thin women have it harder than not-so-thin women.  It’s just that we don’t really get a pass on the flippant body-snarking, either.  People think that I work out/eat fruits and salad and nutritious meals because I am constantly watching calories – not because doing these things actually make me feel good.  I don’t diet or count calories because I never had to.  I exercise because it reduces anxiety and releases endorphins.  I eat nutritious stuff with antioxidants to protect my immune system and be less vulnerable to the cold/flu.  Also, my dietary choices are none of your damn business!  I am also tired of too many people telling me that my inherited body type should determine my career path. 

Nowadays, I see a lot of headlines like, “I’m bigger than a size 6 and still feel confident enough to model in a bikini!” as celebrations of female empowerment.  While women of any size should definitely feel comfortable to wear whatever the hell they want, we are still, at the end of the day, much more than our body shapes.  Mainstream feminism has become whittled down to “Dove” feminism: advocacy for expensive designers to just continue making more clothes; inclusion in beauty pageants; and celebrating pears, apples, hourglasses, and tubes without realizing that we are identifying ourselves as pears, apples, hourglasses, and tubes!

When a guy says that he would rather bang an hourglass than a skeleton any day, what are we celebrating, exactly?  Objectification of a greater diversity of women?  Maybe that is a small improvement in the realm of South-Beach hook-ups, but this is some warped feminism, if you ask me.  Our lives are more than just what shape we are.  We have interests, hobbies, goals, loves, memories, a variety of experiences, and our own, individual sense of purpose.  I think it is some people’s inability to realize this about women that leads to objectification in the first place.

A giant leap for womenkind, or just Dove feminism? Tell me what you think!

However, I am not saying that we should halt the celebrations of physique-diversity that are going on.  This became necessary because the world got to the point where mainstream movies and TV shows stopped featuring protagonists above a size 2, and when they did, it was in a “look how tolerant we are!” kind of way.  I shouldn’t automatically be considered privileged because I was born thin, and media productions shouldn’t have to feature >size 6 figures in a conspicuous, apologetic manner.  The point is, focusing too much on body type just perpetuates female obsession with their appearance, and doesn’t do much for feminism in the long run.  It is an obsession that is also very easy for commercial industries to exploit (hence ‘Dove feminism’.)  The mainstream discussions about weight nowadays makes everyone – thin, fat, and anything in between – hyper-aware of their figures, and that can’t be too healthy.  There is much more to life, and it’s about time we focus on bigger and better things.

Strongly Recommended Awesome Article You Should Read: Hey Dove, Don’t ‘Redefine’ Beauty, Just Stop Talking About It

Reverse Sexism vs. Things That Just Suck

So a common concern among the feminist community is that some of us, when trying to denounce sexism, end up practicing it by simply denouncing things that are traditionally feminine (for example, wearing dresses, or being sensitive.)  I think this is a valid point in a lot of cases.  While I don’t believe in gendering character traits, I believe we should embrace what are usually considered feminine (nurturing, empathetic, peaceful) along with strength, independence, and intelligence.  However, there are a couple of “traditionally feminine” things that I never spare in my feminist criticisms:

1.) Over-emphasis on fashion/shopping/make-up as a sub-culture for females.

There is nothing wrong with grooming and taking care of one’s appearance.  Both women and men do it.  However, you will never see a film or TV show featuring a male character who worships his hair-gel or shoe collection.  However, there are countless chick flicks, TV shows, and of course, advertisements, targeted at women that center on fashion, clothes, and looks-based products.  We have two levels of this.  First, we have a bunch of films and shows for female audiences whose main themes are fashion: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Legally Blonde, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Pretty Woman, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless, Mean Girls, 27 Dresses, 13 Going on 30, She’s All That, Bride Wars…*stops for breath.*  Then, we have the rest of media made for women where most of the female characters (not necessarily the protagonist) – without a doubt – love shopping, and are hyper-aware of their fashion-brand and beauty product choices (any Disney Channel/Nickelodeon sitcom, HBO sitcom, ABC drama, anything starring the latest teen celeb, Julia Roberts, etc.)

Let me get the obvious justifications out of the way:

(i) What’s witda hate?!  A lil’ bi’o’ fashion never hurt anyone!

and (ii) But there ARE women who actively and voluntarily take part in this sub-culture.  Movie industries are just catering to the existing culture.

To which I answer (to myself):

(i) A LIL’ fashion never hurt anyone, but Hollywood blows it out of proportion.  Obviously, there are pragmatic reasons for this, coughcough*productplacement*coughcough*advertisementrevenues*cough.  But what are its implications?  We are sending the message to girls (especially young girls) that they should care way too much about superficial, shallow, and materialistic things like their engagement ring, purse, or lipstick brand.  One cruel aspect of our mainstream culture is that on one hand, we aggressively market fashion and beauty products to women, and then turn around and mock them for being shallow, shoe-obsessed bimbos.  If people really wanted to see young women evolve to care about substantial things, then they would market themes like character-development, compassion, social-consciousness, healthy relationships, ambition, hard-work, intelligence, and the like.  But instead, we get a slew of reality TV crap and films like Bad Teacher (a film about a gold-digging drugged up idiot) over and over again!  I can assure you that little girls will not be learning anything worthwhile (from their T.V.)

This should definitely go without saying, but for a lot of women, there is much, much more to life than clothes and hats.  Yes, seriously.  Making the majority of female characters in entertainment media all about fashion and materialism is astronomically offensive, and insulting.

and (ii) Yes, shopping-obsessed, materialistic women exist in real-life.  However, the proportion of the real-life females they represent do not even amount to the proportion of shopping-obsessed, materialistic female characters in mainstream media – which is almost ALL of them!  I personally do not know a single woman who is obsessed to the point of worship with Gucci brand shoes/purses.  Even for the girls I know who ARE fashion-conscious, they are still not as obsessed as their counterparts are portrayed in media, and they are still concerned with issues other than fashion.  On top of that, we also have to consider how many women become fashion-conscious as a result of the influence of the media they consume.  Like I mentioned, if we really want girls to develop values other than materialism, then we need to move past this dominant theme in movies and television shows.

*Note: I primarily focus on movies and television in my discussion, but I also spit on the women’s/fashion-magazine industry, i.e. Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Glamour, etc. 

**Yet another note: I respect fashion/fashion design as a creative/artistic pursuit.  However, this is not the way they are usually portrayed in the films mentioned above.  Most of the time, it is just about the woman being overly-conscious of her appearance and spending a reckless amount of money.

2.) Romantic comedies/chick-flicks

First of all, I will get a caveat out of the way: there ARE some (SOME) chick-flicks that feature empowering female role models.  Or at least have some elements of them.  Also, no I am not a cold-hearted, bitter robot who hates romance.  I love romance!  But here is the thing about romantic comedies:

A typical romantic comedy features romance between a heterosexual couple (aka, between a man and a woman.)  This means the central characters in a romcom are a WOMAN AND a MAN.  I want to paraphrase a quote from the documentary “Miss Representation” that says it best: Movies for male audiences revolve around men; and movies for female audiences also tend to revolve around men.  This statement perfectly explains why there is a problem with the fact that romantic comedies are synonymous with ‘women’s entertainment’ and ‘chick flicks’.  In addition, I feel that romcoms promote romance in the worst, most superficial way possible – but that is for an entirely separate blogpost.

When I was younger, I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of the films aimed at kids.  I got to enjoy films like Matilda, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Mulan, and the Harry Potter films – all of which have inspiring female characters.  The fun in watching movies ended when I entered high school, and I had to transition to more “mature” films such as  Pretty Woman and Sex and the City.  There ended all the adventures, magic, and action and mystery I got to enjoy with my childhood fictional friends.  In came the excessive self-consciousness with looks and unpleasant romantic drama.  I say, it is about time we reintroduce other themes into ‘women’s entertainment’.  Romance is a big part of life, but it definitely isn’t the only part of life.  And it is definitely more than kissing in the rain, sappy dialogue, and flowers and diamonds. 

One of the saddest films aimed at women I ever endured on an airplane. A film about an insecure, already-skinny woman who hates her figure, and finds her only solace in shoes.