Muslim feminists have too much to worry about already to think about homophobia

Once a week I meet with people studying gender in the Middle East and we talk about the assigned articles we’ve read during the week. Last week, it was about sexuality and homophobia. Emerging from our discussion on homosexuality rights in the Middle East (particularly in Lebanon and Palestine) is the question why many Muslim feminists have failed to include sexuality rights on their agenda. Not one, but two people answered by saying that Muslim feminists have too many issues on their hands to fight for gay rights, which suggests that homosexuality rights is not really an Islamic feminist issue and that more pressing injustices – FGM, polygamy, personal status laws governed by the Sharia court – Muslim women’s issues essentially, should always take precedence.

There was for a moment a mental jawdrop, but then I realised that this state of affairs isn’t surprising at all; feminism has always been about picking and choosing issues that mattered most to its members who have experienced those issues first hand. White feminists are never really going to care about Black feminists, and perhaps mostly because it’s nearly impossible to place oneself in another’s shoes and understand what it’s like to endure life as a Black woman.

In the case of Muslim feminism, to say that all its members are straight, cis and able women is a bit of a stretch, but this certainly is reflected in their movement – that Muslim feminism is for straight, cis and able Muslim women. Compared to the widespread violence implicated on gay men in Iraq, female homosexuality in the Middle East in general is relatively sheltered from persecution. This is perhaps due to the practice of gender segregation in public and private spaces, restrictions on the movement of women and girls, and the fact that female sexuality and desire are very often devalued. And according to Iman al-Ghafari:

Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet.

The two huge obstacles to pursuing gay rights activism within the Islamic feminism framework are perhaps the apparent prohibition of same-sex relations in Islam and the deeply homophobic attitude that prevails many Muslim communities. With only the story of the prophet Lut (AS) and the morally corrupt citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah that is hyper-reduced to a story of sodomites (but not their other sins and the dubious doings of Lut (AS) himself) as legally/socially-binding final word on homosexuality, self-identified gay Muslims have very little to defend themselves with from the systematic condemnation often reserved for criminals.

What is being attacked in homophobic societies here are not actually the identities “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” the way we understand them but really the ‘feminisation’ of men and the ‘masculinisation’ of women. Notions of masculinity/femininity and sexual identities in the Middle East are not commensurable with those constituted within Eurocentric psychological/ psychiatric/ feminist jargon. To be a man and have sex with another man, as long as he stays ‘on top’, does not necessarily make him gay. In fact, in some Muslim communities, to be the penetrator in whatever form of sexual relations often equates with a kind of hypermasculinity. Those who do identify themselves as “gay” however gain the validation of their identities through the internet, media, and social circles. Arguably, most who do call themselves gay belong to the middle class.

It should matter a great deal to Muslim feminists to take on board other ‘non-traditional’ issues like sexuality, not to mention transgender and disability. These non-traditional issues can benefit greatly from the activism work and academic rigour that Muslim feminism is particularly strong at. Perhaps then Muslim feminism is not only about Muslim women; which is not a bad thing, but an ever-broadening movement that rises to the challenge whenever oppression and Islam intersect.

8 most memorable musical moments

I’ve been tagged by Gareth to list what I think are my 8 most memorable musical moments. I’m torn between memorable performances caught on film/video and moments that have shaped my musical taste, so I thought I go half and half here. But as the curse of blog memes go, I have to tag someone else whom I think reads my blog; so now I tag the fabulous Jha.

  1. Love Me or Leave Me by Nina Simone was playing on my Yahoo internet radio years ago when everyone was still using Yahoo as a search engine and making websites on Geocities. What grabbed me in this track is Simone’s baroque cadenza syncopated with jazz rhythms. Simone was an amazing singer and competent classical and jazz pianist, and was someone I wish I could emulate, but as some people I know and love can testify, that hasn’t been a very successful pursuit – yet.
  2. Singing as a tribute to Roy Orbison is k d lang’s Crying. The duet between the two is really good too, but there’s something quite special about lang taking command of the audience in this video. Standing ovation material this one definitely is.
  3. Party Fears Two by The Associates. There are two things I found out about Party Fears Two that will stick with me forever; first, it was released on the year of my birth, making it quite ancient and strangely lacking the timelessness of Bach and Ravel, and second, the voice of Billy Mackenzie.
  4. A list of my favourite music won’t be complete without something classical. I first listened to Prelude from Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin in a shadowy 1951 recording of Robert Casadesus playing the opening of Ravel’s tribute to the baroque master of the harpsichord, Francois Couperin during my mid teenage years. The recording however made this magical and mysterious piece even more magical and mysterious. This video recording is perhaps one of the best that captures the piece’s texture and colour, and the zither-like climax!
  5. Slow Hands by Interpol. I was in the advanced stage of indie music appreciation when arty New York bands like The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were becoming big. It was around the time I fell in love with NYC’s relatively smaller bands like Interpol for its deep base, open drums, old-fashioned guitar twang, and the sexy baritone of Paul Banks. Somehow, their live shows only seldomly showcase Banks’ signature voice for some reason; it often comes out a little flat. Anyway, here’s a video where Banks sounds pretty decent and looks adorable, thankfully without his ridiculous hats and unfortunate distribution of facial hair.
  6. Melati Di Tapal by General Wiranto. There’s nothing like a shady politician who does a little crooning on the side. This song is one of my favourites despite its half-hearted reference to Sri Kandi and message to women in the military, it also reminds me of my undergraduate days as choir pianist and occasional soprano. Melati has survived decades of different renditions, but Wiranto’s jazzed-up smoky night club version of the anti-colonialist ballad is particularly cool.
  7. Love of My Life by Queen makes me all nostalgic about the last years of Freddie Mercury’s life, when my mum played Queen’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2 on repeat in the car every time we go out. It was when I saw him singing on stage in a TV programme that I knew what true rock showmanship is and should be about. But I’ve only begun to appreciate this particular song recently when my stepdad and mum sang this together at a karaoke session last year. It has the most beautiful and heart-felt lyrics, and my parents – who are both terrible singers – make this song all the more poignant.
  8. The Plaint; O Let Me Weep, For Ever Weep by Henry Purcell, performed and choreographed by Pina Bausch. I often associate musical memory with images, but rarely from films. The Piano is one of the few examples, but I find the opening of Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her very memorable visually and musically.

The hidden penis: on censorship, the female gaze and the queer eye

Memory can sometimes be a strange beast. While thinking about this piece, I suddenly remembered an article that Cath Elliot wrote on the Bad Sex in Literature award two years ago under the title, Flaccid prose and the first comment the article provoked:

flaccid is an unnecessary man-hating word to use in the title. I’m all for feminism, but not man-hating.

It struck me as odd why anyone, the commenter in particular, whom I assume to be a man, would find the word – just the word – offensive. For me, describing the unerotic depiction of literary sex, written mostly by men, as “flaccid” is an example of Elliot employing the English language at both her creative and acid best. But oozing from the depths of a corrupt imagination, the word “flaccid” is a probably used as an accusation of something else, something accused as man-hating and deeply un-feminist. Somehow a flaccid penis = an inactive, disappointing, poor-performing male-associated sexuality. Did the commenter think the word implied those things, too?

I’ve been thinking for some time about the neglect of the penis as an object of visual pleasure, and the censorship that deems the male genitalia as “overtly sexual”. My thoughts come from the frustration with the hypersexualisation of women’s breasts in the media, whatever shape and size they might be, as acceptable and even harmless. Representations of the penis, especially when erect however, have been treated with more sensitivity, perhaps more nervously, and have an aura of taboo. Though I have to admit it’s not fair to equate the erotic symbolisms invested within the representation of women’s breasts with the penis and say ‘heck, yeah’ to equal opportunity objectification, I think it’s more important to explore examples in film and media that prefer to maintain the double standard in the treatment of sexualised and dehumanised anatomies.

There are clearly double standards in the practice of objectification of bodies. Female nudity – full frontal or partial – has long been a tool to beautify and sex-up commodities, homes and gardens, film narratives, calendars, book covers, just about everything that it has become banal. The banalisation of women’s naked bodies makes the images of naked breasts on British TV after 9 pm no big deal, because female breasts are not considered pornographic. Erect penises, however, are. The censored video of Girls’ ‘Lust for Life’ on the American MTV channel is a case in point. The original video, termed the “hardcore XXX gay porn” version, depicts the singer singing into another man’s penis and naked women frolicking about. In the edited, “clean” version, the offending penis went out while the breasts stayed.

Could the heterosexual male’s fear of being aroused by the sight of an erect penis be an issue here? Because surely, erect penises have hardly made a mark in the cinematic world dominated by male moguls and directors. Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane was apparently ground-breaking in the controversial sense when it became the first film to show an erect penis in a love scene. But to pass with an 18 certificate by the BBFC in 1976, Jarman altered the aspect ratio of the bottom half of the film to shrink the offending appendage to its erm, flaccid(?) state for the censors’ viewing. Things have changed little now, but the film nonetheless enjoys an uncensored version on British TV today, an artistically-rendered display of homoerotic affection on film, and 2 seconds worth of historical hullabaloo.

Chippendales in Las Vegas (source: Wikipedia)

The two examples above have been material made by and for gay men. Images made for a heterosexual audience however have often been stereotypically cheeky and comical (think Chippendales and The Full Monty) and not necessarily masturbation material. With that in mind, it’s interesting to note the similarities in the ways the male nude is represented for the straight female gaze – tanned, muscular, and exceedingly fit – with those usually made for the gay men’s gaze.

The nervous uncovering of men’s bodies for viewing pleasure has a lot to do with the psychoanalytic and consuming power of the gaze: when men expose their bodies (read: penis), their masculinity is put under intense scrutiny. Just as many women are insecure about their bodies, men are too. The insecurity that men feel about the size/shape of their penises and their sexual performance are perennial issues as old as the hills, but it has found its way to self-censorship in public discourse and the media unlike the insecurities many women have felt about their bodies in general – women’s insecurities attached to their notions of femininity and bodies have been exploited mercilessly.

An example of female exploitation reinforced by the hidden male sexuality/penis is particularly evident in Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘The Good Woman of Bangkok‘, a cinematic sex diary of a man’s sexual adventures with Thai sex workers. Although O’Rourke readily admits to the camera to being a client of one the sex workers, images of himself having sex with the sex workers are deliberately self-censored, keeping his sexuality and performance a secret. Here in the most exploitative of situations the power of the gaze is linked with the hidden penis; to watch is to exploit, being watched is to be exploited.

The penis is considered the “proof” of masculinity. But beyond that, across different cultures, it is valued as a symbol of mythic power and even seen as sacred. Exposing it for everyone to see, women and gay men alike, the penis risks devaluation not just of itself, but a man’s very notion of masculinity. It takes a man with a fragile identity to view himself this way of course, but it doesn’t help that we live in a homophobic society and in one that limits female arousal to six-packs and tight asses. So what now you ask? More naked men’s penises to empower the female gaze, and to deconstruct heterosexual masculinities and the meaning of the erect penis? I’m not exactly sure, but by pointing out the hidden-ness of the penis in our increasingly pornified media and popular culture is one way to start.

Book review: Women of colour and feminism

First published at Feminist Review. (Thanks Mandy!)

If many postmodern feminists would have it, colour or“race” wouldn’t be of primary concern in theorising oppression; a woman would be seen as much more than her race, class, and sexuality. In other words, every woman’s experience of oppression is nuanced, different. And if the postmodern approach is hugely popular and trounces other feminist methods of studying oppression, Women of Color and Feminism by Maythee Rojas would be rendered obsolete.

But it hasn’t, and that’s because we cannot get past race and the “assumptions based on our physical features [that] invariably work against our attempts at self-actualisation.” Thus the only way to gain some control over our lives as non-White women is by claiming politically-charged identities. In this, Rojas means ‘Women of Colour’.

Rojas expresses surprise that her students, who are mostly people of colour, do not identify with the term, but she doesn’t have to investigate too deeply to discover why: women of colour, as a group and in its use as terminology, have long been marginalised within academia. Learning about “Others” is reduced to courses on multiculturalism, and everywhere else, people are expected to be perceived as simply people. Rojas does not suggest, however, that the term is a loaded one, or one that has the political potency that feminist also has. Typically associated with the Black civil rights movement, “colored” can sound outdated and exclusive, and it’s unsurprising that not many, especially outside the cabal of feminist academia, take it up.

Women of Color and Feminism is interspersed with profiles of women and historical vignettes that readers are made to understand as inspirations for feminist consciousness in different ethnic communities in the United States. One cannot help but note a sense of tragedy that overhangs each profile. Anna Mae Pictau-Acquash, Saartjie Baartman, Korean camptown women, and Josefa Loaiza are all women whose lives have been marked by and remembered for the brutality inflicted on them because of the way they looked and where they came from.

Disco diva Donna Summers makes an unexpected appearance as the subject of Rojas’ analysis on the sexuality of women of colour. Known for her risque lyrics and sexy media persona, Summers’ 1970s career is projected as a kind of yardstick for how much women of colour, particularly Black women, have gained following the sexual revolution in the 1960s. It’s far from a ‘happily ever after’ of sexual autonomy and empowerment, Rojas notes, as everything the disco singer represented—in her music and image—was hugely complicit in reinforcing heterosexist ‘love’ and resurrecting the ghost of the Black Jezebel.

Rojas also covers a range of issues pertaining to the struggles of women of colour that are not usually associated with mainstream feminism. This includes reproductive rights as the right to remain fertile, as women of colour have been known to be sterilised against their will for numerous racist reasons, and the rights of incarcerated women to better health care in prison, protection from abuse behind bars, and better rehabilitation programmes.

The limitations I find in Rojas’ already expansive account is the omission of feminist work by women of colour whose goals are integrated within mainstream feminism’s agenda. This is important, especially in her final chapter on transnational feminism in which she stresses the key to feminism’s dynamism is the need for common links with other feminists to be established on a continual basis—not just with other women of colour, but with white women too. Women of Color and Feminism makes it clear that under the pressure of silence and marginalisation, more and more women of colour feel compelled to create narratives that represent their unique experiences through whatever means possible. Visual art, stand-up comedy, and blogs are the new, life-affirming sources of inspirations for feminists of colour, and not Rojas’ flawed selection of women of colour’s tragic lives.

Film review: Diagnosing Difference

This review also appears on Bitch Magazine’s latest issue No. 45, codenamed Art/See.

As an undergraduate in genetics, I learned about “abnormal gender” from medical texts, which taught me that the line between what was female and what was male was clear; anything in between was a chromosomal disorder and an aberration in nature. The message in such books–still used as reference material, however arcane–encourages stereotypes about and elides the complex reality of the transgender experience.

In Diagnosing Difference, director Annalise Ophelian has made what is generally an excellent 101 guide to transgender issues told through a number of interviews with activists, performing artists, and academics who all identify as transgender or queer and express their gender in ways that has been medically defined as pathological. (Even today, a trans person in the US is allowed access to hormones and sex reassignment surgery only after seeking therapy for what is known as Gender Identity Disorder.)

Without the device of voice-over narration, Diagnosing Difference lets the subject matter take the limelight and tell its own story. The documentary tears apart some common misconceptions : that transgender identity is about sexual preference, for instance, and that trans people need sex-reassignment operations to complete the experience. The concerns of the interviewees are the stuff many take for granted: going to public toilets, access to medications to look physically male/female, and finding health care providers interested in more than one’s gender performance.

This documentary should be required viewing for people who have either no clue about what being transgender entails, or know only a little bit. And the timing seems perfect: The recent media spotlight on South African athlete Caster Semenya reveals a society still obsessed with the rigid notions of the gender binary and, like the medical textbooks that delineate normal from “abnormal” gender, not sure what to do with those of us who fall somewhere in between.

File under: transgender, healthcare, United States. Other films worth checking out include Southern Comfort (2001), Transparent (2005), and the recent Iranian documentary, Be Like Others (2008).

Marketing Muslim lifestyles and redefining modesty

This post was first published on Muslimah Media Watch

If a hijab in Pucci-designed print could speak, what would it say?

I attended a seminar presented by Professor Reina Lewis on Muslim women’s lifestyle magazines last night and was faced with this bizarre question. It all started with the actual seminar itself, which showcased the latest research adventures of the fashion and design professor. Weaving together previous work that included alternative Orientalist narratives in the 19th century and queer lifestyle magazines, Lewis’ paper focused on the Muslim women’s magazines that emerged at a crucial time (post-9/11) when more positive representations of Muslims were needed in a Western public discourse that had  none. And the so usual suspects were mentioned: emel, Sisters, Muslim Girl, Azizah, and an anomaly, Alef–being the only one that didn’t try hard to get a particularly Muslim lifestyle look.

Having the enviable position of fashion professor, Lewis was more interested in how women/the human form were presented the magazines, what Islamic fashion is really all about, and the advertising contained within the magazines than the content. For her, visual representation in print media of women who were getting more covered up than their mothers, grandmothers, and their non-Muslim peers was striking and counter-cultural.

The same way Nylon and Harper’s Bazaar are different from each other in presentation and content, Muslim lifestyle magazines set themselves apart in these ways too, but addition to that the magazines self-define or defined by others as either “Muslim” or “Islamic”. emel, Lewis said, is a “Muslim” magazine in that it reaches out to an audience of diverse backgrounds and levels of religiosity, while Azizah is more “Islamic” because it caters to a more conservative readership. It’s hard to not find these labels contentious as they could lead to a series of polemical questions, like, is emel less Islamic than say, Azizah or can a lifestyle magazine as a guide help a reader gain a more Islamic look?

Of course the latter is a silly question, but having read fashion and lifestyle magazines myself before I’d say that there is a level of self-identification in (a few of) the models and the “I am what I buy” ethos that is much invested in brand advertising today. And so for attaining the trendy or at least up-to-date Muslimah look, one only need to look at what other people are wearing, and simply flick through magazines for reference.

During the Q & A session, someone from Saudi Arabia had asked a thought-provoking question about the real purpose of fashion in faith-based women’s magazines. It was a question that I had pondered over a long time ago when I decided on two things: to not be a follower of fashion and not to wear the hijab. The question goes something like this, “If fashion is about self-expression and to a large extent ‘being noticed’, how does Islamic dressing and the fickle world of fashion reconcile with the concept of modesty and inconspicuousness?” I remember the days when I had to wear the hijab in college and becoming the object of male attention which made me uncomfortable. Without the hijab, I found to my relief that the unwanted attention seemed to have lessened, but this had nothing to do with how much skin I was showing with or without the hijab, rather the headscarf became a marker of what good young Muslim men found attractive. This was when I learned that the hijab had more complex meanings.

This brings me back to the rhetorical Pucci headscarf and what modesty means to different Muslim women. In addition to being a symbol of devotion, modesty, and cultural identity, the hijab today has taken an extra meaning, one that fits nicely with the global consumer culture and current trends. The hijab as represented even in the most conservative Islamic women’s magazines often doubles up as a fashion accessory.

Not to sound overly fussy, but isn’t being fashionable attention-grabbing and hence immodest? I need to mention again that I am not into lifestyle magazines, fashion, and do not wear the headscarf, so I’m perhaps the least equipped person to explain whether Islamic fashion is modest or not. At the same time I think my assumptions that modesty clashes with fashion is probably unfounded, too.

What are your thoughts?

Worrying quote of the day

“Loads of people who work in the sex industry are academics – education is a very expensive habit,” said Catherine Stephens, an activist for the International Union of Sex Workers who has been a sex worker herself for 10 years.

“At a brothel I worked in, I think I was the only one not doing a PhD.”

On the exposing of erotica writer Belle de Jour’s identity, who was also revealed to have taken up sex work to fund her PhD in informatics, epidemiology, and forensic science… *sigh* I didn’t think getting a PhD would be that difficult.