Friday, July 07, 2006

Put This in the File of Why Feminism is Indispensable

Hanno sent me this article on "breast-ironing" in Cameroon, which serves as another obvious reminder why feminism is far from irrelevant. CNN reports:

The practice is now more common in urban areas than in villages, because mothers fear their children could be more exposed to sexual abuse in towns and try to suppress outward signs of sexuality, the survey said.

Its findings have prompted a nationwide campaign to educate mothers about its dangers and to try to eradicate it. A similar campaign some years ago helped drastically to reduce rates of female genital mutilation in Cameroon.

"A girl...has to be proud of her breasts because it is natural. It is a gift from God. Allow the breasts to grow naturally. Do not force them to disappear or appear," said a leaflet from the campaign.

I imagine that many people, who are not hip to feminist thought, might read this report and assume that the real enemies of women's rights to bodily integrity are their own mothers. Certainly many folks who read about FGM, and now breast-ironing, are perplexed over why these 'cruel' mothers inflict such harm on their daughters. What feminists will be perplexed over is the message of the public campaign aimed at educating women not to iron their daughter's breasts. Certainly the message is aimed at the wrong audience, since it is the men, who are raping these young girls, that need to respect these young girls and their developing bodies.

To tackle the first issue--why do the mother exact such painful cruelty on their daughters--we need to rely upon some sort of notion of 'patriarchy.' Feminists have grappled for decades over how to depict this psychological oppression that uses women as the very instruments for controlling female sexaulity. While in the mainstream here in the United States we see less obvious examples of this corporeal mutilation directed at controlling female sexuality, we do have more subtle and insidious examples of how women are employed to control other women sexually. One example, would be this rather inefficacious slide show. Other examples include the welter of slurs other women are willing to heap on each other: slut, ho, skank, uppity, bitch . . .

Many contemporary feminists have turned to the work of Michel Foucault, notably Sandra Bartky, to illustrate the subtle ways that dominant groups (patriarchy) subjugate, quite bodily, subjects they wish to rule. Bartky ("Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power") has a fascinating analysis of "disciplinary practices (see definition of disciplinary power in linked page)" of femininity, highlighted in the study of beauty practices like electrolysis, skincare, makeup, fashion (stilettos!) and diet. Certainly other women are great instruments for pressuring all women to submit to these often painful practices. Our mothers, in fact, regularly get on our cases if we gain a little weight, or don't take care of our appearance. Why do they do it? Are they merely critical? No. They fear the repercussions of not submitting ourselves to these beauty practices; we will be called---gasp!--man-hating feminists (see Echidne today). ***(A bit of digression: this morning I watched the Washington Journal on C-SPAN. One of the reporters, Pamela Hess, was rudely taken to task by a male caller, who assumed she was a feminist because she was not as dolled up as the other female reporter. The second reporter probably dolls herself up for such interviews to hold at bay precisely those comments. My former professor called this "putting on your armor.")***

Anyway, my point here is that what we take to be outrageous and egregious acts of female mutiliation, in the service of patriarchy, have been merely updated and modernized here in the United States. Sure, we don't iron our daughters breasts, but we do try to keep them looking pretty so they won't be made fun of or picked on in school. The time invested in keeping yourself pretty is time taken away from developing a rich, vibrant self. What feminists are charged with, in this day and age, is tracking the way that patriarchy continually adapts to its environment. What one hopes is that by tracking this beast, we can defuse its power over us. How?, is an open question. Some women do so by exaggerating the very expectations of feminine beauty they are supposed to adopt, thereby making fun of these demands. Others simply refuse to participate in the disciplinary practices of beauty or disallow moralistic slurs heap upon them by other women to stifle their "liberated" behavior. Whatever path you take, the way out of patriarchy is less than clear. No matter how much you reject the beauty world in the U.S., you will still suffer from failure to participate.

It behooves all feminists to not only fight these acts of female sexual oppression in Cameroon, but to remember, while doing so, that we are far from free of these same, but muted forces, in our our backyard.