learned today in intro to sociology that everyone is a conformist.
if you have the time and patience:
So while I write this you are probably sleeping in your huge bed, in your huge room, in your huge mansion in Cairo. I’m writing in my small desk, in my small room, in my crammed city. It is 4.26pm here and therefore 11.26pm there. While I’m freezing my skin off here, you are probably enjoying dry heat and the pleasant breeze of the night. Your life in Egypt I imagine is vastly different from mine (after all, I don’t go to David Guetta concerts or go dancing in exotic coastline clubs or speak Arabic or have a maid or go to international school or smoke cigarettes like a pro or live in an Islamic country or get to see the Great Pyramids from my bathroom window) but I guess there is one universal experience despite our diverse lifestyles. We are both women.
Remember that time you were telling me and Beth about how the police harassed you that one night? And the taxi cab driver said dirty things to you? And if you walk down the street in a short skirt they call you names? And because you don’t wear a hijab they assume you aren’t native and they say nasty things in Arabic when you walk by? Well, I remember. It stuck. We live in different countries with totally different cultures but society still imposes a rigid frame of what we can be as women, what we should be, what we need to live up to, and the lines we can’t cross. Why? Why does being feminine entail making compromises and accepting restrictions?
I was reading a piece by Susan Browmiller, Femininity, and she asked the same question. She analyzes what vain restrictions impose on individual women, men, and society as a whole. I realized that both in an Islamic center in Egypt and in the metropolitan bustle of the Big Apple, there is an ingrained vision of what women should be, and if we don’t live up to it, we can expect disapproval from men and a good part of society. Typically, I’m not fazed by the romanticized qualities of what it means to be a woman, I don’t do a double-take when I see the Hayden girls stand outside in subfreezing weather with their pumps and clumpy mascara and tight dresses, but since I read Browmiller’s essay I can’t help but dwell on how media, pop culture, and fashion, recreation force girls to endure rigid guidelines of what is attractive. The idea that women should cook, clean, and serve their husband, or the fashion statement of wearing stilettos to look sexier, mirror society’s gender division. Although these expectations to conform at times seem subtle, they are a demandingly concrete code of what is allowed or not accepted. I agree with Brownmiller that playing along with such limitations can reassure men that we are vulnerable and depend on their triumphant strength, and lower women’s self-respect.
Femininity subconsciously favors men, according to Brownmiller, because it encourages women to be dependent on men and brings out the weaknesses in women, making men seem more masculine in contrast. So in other words, that night we spent two hour getting ready, frying our hair, shaving our legs, we were actually feeding into David Rasumussen’s ego. And it’s not because of our own individual choices, but rather because we’re strapped down to a confined expectation by society’s impositions, that this happens. As women accept restrictions, men are fed the task of being the “knight in shining armor”. Go figure.
Everywhere I look I’m reminded of this heavily-enforced cultural femininity. I know we always used to sit in your bed, read Cosmo and just make fun of its hilarious relationship advice …but in a deeper context, it really reveals a grim and appalling depiction of women, and men for that matter. I just picked up my roommate’s Cosmo magazine and leafed through it and found a section titles “Sentences He’d Be Psyched to Hear,” and was appalled at what I read. The majority of the sentences are disgraceful and degrading, not only for women but also for men, presenting them as sex-craved idiots; the sentences insinuate that a woman’s essential purpose and pleasure in life is performing sexual favors. But there is one sentence “he’d be psyched to hear” that really stood out to me, one I had to read over and over in disbelief: “that pile of laundry isn’t going to do itself…which is why I’m gonna go do it!” I’m left speechless. My impulse is to nervously laugh. I hate to think that we live in such a patriarchal, unprogressive society.
Frankly, I could go on and on. I read a book last year called Usos Amorosos de la Postguerra Espanola (Courtship Customs in Postwar Spain) by Carmen Martin-Gaite and looking back on it, I realize that even though she is writing about Spain in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, some of her ideas on double-standards, family structure, womanly duties, obedience, and education are applicable today…universally. The politics of post-war Spain does not mirror current America (or current Egypt). Spain was recovering from a civil war with Franco leading the way as a conservative dictator, whereas I am currently living in a democratic, tolerant country. In post-war Spain, Martin-Gaite argues, women were pushed back to the Middle-Ages: women were subtly encouraged to be passive and sacrificial beings, single women were defined as boring and depressed, women who thought and questioned society posed a problem for society, and submission to men (along with housework and raising a family) was the role of women. Sexism was ingrained indirectly through the education system where boys read stories about heroic explorers, always saving the damsel in distress, and girls were to learn about cooking, sewing, hygiene and politeness. Many of the themes in Brownmiller’s work seem to echo those in Martin-Gaite’s.
So, this has ended up being a tangent about what it means to be a woman. Maybe it’ll inspire you…next time a guy on the street yells at you, tells you to stay at home and cook and clean and do what you’re supposed to be doing, you can tell him to piss off.
Miss you tons and thinking of you,