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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Women's Bodies and Other People's Values


In Quebec, we are experiencing an interest phenomenon. A provincial politician is trying to be Le Pen. She is stirring up xenophobic and racist emotions rather effectively with some doublespeak that pretends to be about secularism and feminism. The target? Religious Muslim women. The fallout? Pretty well everyone who is not .. erm .. well, let's just say that anyone who looks a little different has experienced annoyance if not rage at this political acrobatics.

I am used to people using women's bodies as a battleground. From my days as a sexual abuse counsellor - and a direct action activist - to my days working in hospitals with birthing women, I have been witness to the phenomenon of the woman's body being argued over, manipulated, commodified, objectified, ground up and spat out.

And it has grown up, this violence against women. Back in the seventies, as a rape crisis worker, it was pretty clear what was happening. If you were a woman, and you were alone at night, or walking home from work, you were a target and you could be raped. If you were a prostitute or an indigenous woman, you could be raped AND killed. Simple. Violence against women.

But today, the violence is coated in pretty words. What do you call it when someone puts his hand into a woman's vagina without asking her or looking her in the eye? Its called rape. Birth rape. Doctors who manhandle and abuse women when they are giving birth say that they are saving lives. They are not. They are exercising their power.

Politicians who make silly rules about what women can or cannot wear may say that they are doing it "for the women" (yes, in South Africa they say that rape is "for the women" too, when they are raping a lesbian to convince her to change her preferences). They say they are doing it for the Muslim women's enlightenment and freedom. 
They're not. They are also exercising their power.

I suggest we ban the type of clothing that overweight, middle-aged Quebecoise women wear, when they should know better. Oh, the tight T-shirt over a middle-aged belly! Oh, the tight jeans over hips that should be covered! Oh, the dyed blond badly-styled hair! The polyester double-knit suits! The shoes that Cinderella's sister wore!

But it's different, you argue. Those badly-styled garments do not speak of a deeper moral code - a code that oppresses women (we are speaking of Islam here). They are just off-the-rack, cheap garments, bought without a shred of moral judgement or thought. Yes, you're right. It heralds the victory of the mediocre fat lady; the no-brainers; the thoughtless violence; the amoral assholes who parade as sensitive do-gooders.

I went to a birth once with a lovely student of mine who wore a see-through spaghetti strap tank top and a fake leopard-skin miniskirt. It was a Montreal summer - hot and humid. In the greyish hallways of the hospital she looked like an angel from heaven - hot, sexy, and happy. The birth was a lot of fun: the birthing mother didn't take any shit from anyone and she gave birth on her hands and knees, even if the physician couldn't handle seeing her vulva "upside down". After the birth we ordered sushi.

Another of my fondest memories was a birthing woman who was dressed completely top to bottom: hat, wig, robe, undershirt, bra, panties, stockings and socks. She removed the panties and stockings to give birth but everything else remained. Her husband, who was not allowed to look at her, sang throughout her labor, and told jokes. She laughed that baby out. The room was full of love.

I have seen women's legs held down, women's bellies jumped on, women yelled at and berated. I have listened to doctors, nurses, and midwives tell women what to do; what to say; what to feel; how to move.

When will we rise up against this banal mediocracy?




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