Stealthy Freedoms and the Colonial Gaze

by Zishad Lak.

Zishad is a PhD student in Canadian Literature in University of Ottawa. Her thesis examines the relation between names and migration in contemporary Canadian novels.

A few months ago a Facebook page created by a London-based Iranian journalist caught a lot of attentions and was shared mainly by my non-Iranian friends on Facebook: Stealthy Freedoms. Stealthy Freedoms is a Facebook page where Iranian women post their pictures with headscarves removed in public to protest the compulsory head cover. Their hair is often romantically disheveled by the wind; smiles are in order for the camera: pictures worthy of Facebook profiles. In fact, if one did go through the Facebook profile pictures of Iranian residents I suspect they will find a large number of women among them are not wearing a scarf in these pictures and a number of these unveiled clichés are taken outdoors in public spaces. This is not in any way to justify the compulsion of certain attire on women, that is absolutely not defendable, but rather to maintain that the mere uncovering of hair in public is no longer shocking in Iran, if it ever were, nor does it break a taboo. It is in no way comparable to Amina Tyler’s denudation that risked her life. The difference between the method used by FEMEN and the pictures posted on Stealthy Freedoms Facebook page is worth pondering.

In the past decade or so we have been seeing an emergence of queer and feminist movements of colour criticising the white supremacy inscribed in what they call white feminism. This has been a place of contention and has often created a gap between feminists of colour that found themselves silent victims in the discourse of white feminism and white feminists who refuse to see and accept their privileges. The latest Twitter hashtag, #solidarityisforwhitewomen, attests to this divide; one that I believe invokes much needed debates and is an essential part of a dynamic feminism, or any decolonising movement for that matter. Those feminists who deny such divides choose to close their eyes on the omnipresence of white supremacist heteropatriarchy and reduce the movement to mere legal equalities in a justice system that is inherently sexist and racist.

Whoever claims to be a feminist is then a feminist, no question about it, far from me to police that. Feminism after all, is a political imperative, an affirmation that such a movement is required here and now. But this does not mean that every unthoughtful action in the name of resistance must be praised. Feminism comes with a commitment and a responsibility. It is costly; if it isn’t you are not doing it right. It is lonely; if you are praised by right and left you are not disturbing much. So sometimes lighthearted, non-radical actions don’t translate into small contributions or do not simply die in obscurity but impose set backs on the movement.

We saw that following her release from detention, Amina Tyler bared her body again, this time, inscribed on it were words that denounced FEMEN’s Islamophobia and in doing so she set an example of how a dynamic decolonisation must constantly interrogate itself and the repercussions of its actions. So it is not necessarily the group, FEMEN, whose leader in turn denounced Amina, that I evoke but rather the method of protest that is used by this group or similar manners of protest (such as this) The subject in these protests is not still, she interrupts a formed body and unsettles the naturalised norm before those most loyal to it.

In the opening picture of this article, for example, FEMEN protesters appear topless before the eyes of anti-abortion protesters and their children. The parents cover the eyes of their children to protect them from being exposed to desexualised breasts, breasts that unlike those of their mothers, are not maternal and do not serve any purpose in reproduction. What is more, the rage of heterosexual men in online forums and comment boards against these demonstrators illustrates the unsettling effect and affect of these bodies. I have read men use the most abominable terms to describe these women’s bodies, expressing their utter disgust over the exposed cellulites, criticising the women for being too thin, too fat, but most importantly and most often as sexually undesirable. These de-monstrating bodies are monstrous in that they deny these men the object of their desire. They move, are moving; for these women often march into an event to disrupt it. When captured in picture, the text inscribed on these bodies compels the eyes of the spectator to move, these bodies are not still, not even in the picture. I cannot however help but see in the picture of a woman, with wind in her hair and smile on her face the reproduction of the immobilised object before the gaze of the other. It is then not surprising that reaction to these pictures were often times positive. Many on social media hailed these women for exposing ‘the beauty of a woman’s hair’, the reason for which, expressed these users, it should not be covered. If breasts of topless FEMEN protesters are desexualised, hair in the case of these Facebook freedoms becomes the object of fetish, much like it originally was for those who imposed the compulsion in the first place.

 My second point, going back to my introduction about the feminist divide, is the gaze. Feminism has traditionally bemoaned, and continues to do so, rightfully might I add, the male gaze and its dictating dominance. Yes, that is still there. But – and this is why the uphill battle for racialised women is steep – what is often neglected in mainstream feminist discourse is the colonial gaze, including that of ‘white’ feminists. This gaze, much like the male gaze, objectifies the subject. The body becomes the picture, the picture represents the ‘affectable other’ aspiring to be human. As Andrea Smith justly points out, in her article, “Queer Theory and Native Studies”, ‘the very request for full subjecthood, implicit in the ethnographic project to tell our ‘truth’ is already premised on a logic that requires us to be objects to be discovered.’

There is of course a danger to criticisms like the one I presented in this post and it is a valid one at that: local resistance risks being thrust into obscurity to be protected from colonial interpretations. What we should be wary of is the audience or the interlocutor that is implicit in the message around which the actor organises her actions. I find it hard to believe that the Stealthy Freedoms’ page was set up merely as a local resistance, the fact that the organiser herself does not reside in Iran confirms to a great extent my suspicion. Iranian feminists inside of Iran, much like other feminists all around the world, are faced with and fight against the heteropatriarchal powers in micro and macro levels. As Western feminists we have a responsibility too: to be critical about the kind of struggle that is brought to our attention and reflect upon the reasons behind the publicity they receive. As coloured feminists, we should be alert about the colonial relations that appropriate our movements and not hesitate to denounce them, as Amina Taylor did so bravely and in doing so exposed the racism engraved in certain Occidental feminist movements. I strongly believe that despite all the good intentions behind it, Stealthy Freedom is deeply invested in a naïve heteropatriarchy that makes of immobilised women objects to be saved by the humanity of the universal subject. The struggle faced by women of colour cannot be assimilated into a universal and international feminism. For as long as the universal is defined by the Western subject, women of colour are, to use Andrea Smith’s words, a particular aspiring to humanity, to the universal humanity of the ‘self-determined’ Western subject.

(Image from a Toronto Sun report of the event (Tony Caldwell/QMI Agency))

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Who gets to talk about the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver?

 

During the summer, I read an article in the Vancouver Sun entitled “260 agencies, housing sites crowd Downtown Eastside.”  The byline reads, “a new list compiled by the Sun includes 30 health care operators, services for families, and more than 100 linked to housing. Sun reporters… ask why they are all crammed into one tiny neighbourhood.” The article was published at the end of June but it’s been sitting in my desk drawer covered in highlighter and notes ever since. Despite its presence amongst the other materials I turn to when I write, I haven’t picked it up again for several reasons.

Firstly, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. Even as someone relatively new to recognizing classism, poor-phobia, and settler colonialism, reading the article was an excruciatingly frustrating endeavour. Starting just with the headline, the article is set up to frame the services available in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) as excessive and inefficient, fuelling neoliberal angst that social services are a “waste of my tax-dollars”. What the article fails to reference is the criticisms of the not-for-profit industrial complex that come from the DTES itself. These critiques ask different questions about services in areas like the DTES that centre on the lives of those who are actually receiving and in need of services.

Secondly, I didn’t want to erase the issue of voice. Here I was, reading the article, asking when the reporters might refer to the opinion of someone with actual lived knowledge of the DTES. The article does reference the Carnegie Project and quotes Scott Clark, a resident and worker within the DTES whos involved with ALIVE, the Aboriginal Live in Vancouver Enhancement Society. These are saving graces but it seems too convenient that they reside at the end of the article after the PhD bearing “experts” have weighed in. If I could feel myself so angered by the voyeuristic gaze of social scientists and the like, what right do I have, as someone who has neither lived nor worked in the DTES, to take up space with my own voice?

However, what I do have lived experience with is rich, degree holding white folks who write for an audience that looks a little too much like they do. And what I can say on that matter is that these are not universal experiences or opinions. Their “expertise” is not going to end poverty or foster robust social justice. And that’s why we need to silence our “how to fix the DTES narratives” in favour of a committed effort to standing back and letting the work being done in that community, by and for that community, really thrive.

So I’m going to take a break from the Vancouver Sun and seek out media that’s more responsible, honest, and representative of the incredible things being done in the DTES everyday. For a few examples check out “Megaphone Magazine” or the “DTES Power of Women” page at Vancouver Media Co-op. And, for more on the non-profit industrial complex, hit up the library and check out The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex by INCITE! Women Of Color Against Violence.

 

Image sources: evonniastarr.blogspot.ca and wrongkindofgreen.org

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Vegetarianism & feminist food autonomy: Why I don’t care what you ate for dinner.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about food. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about my fairly recent decision to stop eating meat (I was pescetarian for about 2 years before also choosing not to eat seafood a couple of months ago). Because it’s recent change, a lot of people have asked me what motivated the decision. However, my answer always feels too complicated to adequately explain in casual conversation. Thankfully, that’s exactly when blogging comes so in handy! 

Firstly, here’s some reasons why being vegetarian works for me. I’m an animal person. I wholeheartedly believe that you can be an animal person and still eat meat but, lately, that just hasn’t worked for me. Not eating meat made sense for me philosophically and it didn’t disrupt my relationship to food or eating negatively so I thought, “why the hell not?” 

Secondly, in North America where so much meat is produced by factory farming, vegetarian diets* can be a way to build a more sustainable relationship with food and the environmentHowever, this is not to say that there aren’t plenty of ways to eat meat in a sustainable way and it’s important to consider that non-meat diets contain products which are the result of environmentally (and socially) harmful practice. (My decision to be vegetarian is similar to my decision to compost or take shorter showers. It’s just something I decided to incorporate in to my life as a way of reducing my negative impact on the planet.)

Being a vegetarian has also improved my relationship with food in general. Food shame is something we’re often taught to do to others and it’s definitely something women especially are taught to do to ourselves. Being a vegetarian hasn’t stopped me from food-shaming myself entirely (that kind of complicated unpacking of patriarchy is the sort of thing that requires a lifetime of work) but it has helped me to deflect some of my negative thinking. Instead of being concerned about calorie content, I can research what leafy greens have the most protein. Instead of searching a menu for the meal with the least amount of fat, I can ponder the many ways to replace meat with mushrooms. It’s not a perfect system. But, for the moment, it’s working and I’m having a lot more fun with food than I have in the past. 

Despite all of this, the most important pillar of my philosophy around vegetarianism is that I couldn’t care less whether or not you are.

This often confuses people and I can understand why because the vegetarians we’re used to seeing in the media are the kind of militant PETA-style anti-meat campaigners who tend to see discussions of diet through black and white lenses. Trust me, people who “diet preach” make me just as uncomfortable as the rest of you and most of the vegetarians I know are respectful folks who’ve just chosen to eat a certain way. Here’s three of the most significant reasons why my decision to eat or not eat meat has nothing to do with you and why your decision to eat or not eat meat is the least of my concerns.

1. Choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet is a privileged choice to make. Having the financial means to cut meat from a diet while still eating in a way that’s nutritious is challenging because fresh fruits and vegetables are often inaccessible and non-meat sources of protein like tofu and nuts are expensive. In 2012, Stats Canada determined that 13% of Canadian households are food insecure. On a collective level, ensuring people have enough to eat seems a hell of a lot more important than arguing about what we “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating. 

2. Food and eating are cultural phenomenon and, for a lot of people, meat is an important piece of cultural expression. Colonization, environmental degradation, and unsustainable practices of resource extraction have disrupted traditional ways of eating across the planet. In opposition to this, emphasizing culturally significant relationships to food can be essential components of decolonization. My friend Laura phrased this so well in her very poignant Facebook rant:

animal liberation activists screaming ‘it’s not food, it’s violence’ in front of my work on july first – a day which should be reserved for protests against the ongoing violent colonization of those indigenous to this land we call canada, who have sustained themselves by eating meat since time immemorial, who are only harmed by western animal rights movements, whose diets have been colonized and continue to be colonized, as with every aspect of their life and culture since contact. partake in vegetarianism/veganism if you want, stand up against animal abuse, fight against capitalist/corporate greed, eat ethical meat if you can afford it, do NOT lose sight of the privilege inherent in making any of those choices, and do not push your settler-colonial diet activism bullshit onto those whose land you stole.”

3. The way people (and especially women) are taught to relate to food is, to put it simply, fucked up and we really need to stop shaming each other about it. Food is a feminist issue. It’s a feminist issue in the ways that it intersects with class, culture, and colonization. But it’s also a feminist issue because judging you for eating meat is just as harmful as you judging me for eating dessert. From the very foundations of our relationships to food, eating, and each other, we need to see food-shame as any act that creates a hierarchy of diets. For many, feeling good about eating is hard enough – we don’t need to shame each other about what we’re eating too. 

To make a long story short, being a vegetarian makes me happy. However, what makes me even happier is emphasizing respect, compassion, and kindness when it comes to food and eating in general. So go ahead and order the ribs. I won’t judge you for eating them but I might make fun of the barbecue sauce on your nose… sorry.

*I use the word “diet” several times throughout this blog. To clarify, I’m using the word to just mean “the kind of food that someone eats” as opposed to it’s more colloquial reference to the restriction of food.

Image credits: (1) durangofoodnotbombs.wordpress.com; (2) spookyfemme.tumblr.com; (3) 4.bp.blogspot.com; (4) thickthreads.blogspot.ca

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Romance and Representation in “Insurgent”

Ah! Summertime! The time when the school semester is over and a person gets to actually choose what books they read. On my list for summer 2014 is the “Divergent” trilogy and I just recently finished the second in the series, Insurgent. (For the record, I haven’t read any of Allegiant nor have I seen the film adaptation of Divergent).

The “Divergent” trilogy sits amongst a collection of young adult science fiction novels (like “The Hunger Games” and “The Mortal Instruments,” for example) that recognizes the importance (and marketability) of young female heroines. However, on the feminist blogosphere at least, fan-girling over the likes of Tris (“Divergent”) and Katniss (“The Hunger Games”) hasn’t come without careful analysis of what’s missing from these series. While the predominately male-dominated world of science fiction has made space for these ladies, we are a still a far way off anything resembling fair representation. Namely, Tris and Katniss are able-bodied, cisgendered, straight, and white (whiteness is debatable for Katniss, but the movie adaptation portrays her as so). Max Thorton from Bitch Flicks points out that

“Just because straight white pretty cis girls are beginning to be represented in specific (or rather, in one specific niche that is still derided in male-dominated geek culture), we can’t assume that this means the trend will continue in the right direction without some very real, tireless, and vocal work on the part of us consumers.”

 Badass lady heroines like Katniss and Tris are absolutely a step in the right direction. But until we are also seeing non-white, dis/differently-abled, trans*, and queer girls kicking ass on screen, we still have a long way to go. (More on this here, here, and here).

(Note: my mom read this and immediately thought of Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy.” Larsson’s books aren’t really young adult oriented and they’re definitely not science fiction but Lisbeth is such a fantastic queer ((and potentially dis/different-abled)) heroine that I couldn’t not mention her here!)

Maybe that’s one of my favourite things about series like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” I can love them so much while simultaneously critiquing them and using them as a starting point for broader conversations about popular culture. One topic that I’ve been increasingly interested in while reading both Divergent and Insurgent is the development of Tris’ relationship with the story’s central love interest – Four. 

Tris and Four’s relationship changed a lot between Divergent and Insurgent. In her review of the film, Bitch Flicks’ Amanda Rodriguez notes that the main character, Tris, 

“gets rescued a lot, mostly by her love interest, Four… This made me roll my eyes a lot because I didn’t pay $10 to watch a young woman lead be so dependent on a dude for her survival.”

I’ll admit that this is a frustrating element of the first book and I expect that the movie simplified the damsel-in-distress trope even more for the benefit of Hollywood.

However, all of that changes in Insurgent. Firstly, the theme of “rescuing” stood out in the novel for other reasons. The most important rescue in the book happens when Tris’ nemesis, Peter, rescues her from certain death. Despite their personal hatred for each other, Peter saves Tris in order to pay the debt he owed her for saving his life earlier in the book. This stands out as far more thematically important (to me, at least) than any lifesaving being done between Tris and Four.

Secondly, the resolution of the story’s central conflict depends on Tris going against Four’s wishes and undermining his authority as a community leader. This allows Tris to emerge as a political actor in her own right, separate from Four and many of the other characters. Not to mention, it is her best friend, Christina, with whom Tris ends up saving the day which equals a lot of awesome girl power.

What I liked most about the way Roth developed Tris’ decision to undermine Four was how explicitly she allows the reader to see Four attempting to control Tris, and Tris directly defying that control. More than once, Tris is determined to put herself in harm’s way for the good of her allies and Four tries to deter her through guilt. He uses their relationship as a means of control by telling her that “if you do that again, you and I are done.” (page 260) Eventually, he even puts the blame for himself being in danger on her by saying, “You die, I die too… I asked you not to do this. You made your decision. These are the repercussions.” (page 338)

It wasn’t a side of Four that I was a huge fan of. But what I did appreciate was the way that Tris ultimately responds. She calls him on using the fate of their relationship as a way to control her at the end of the novel:

“You tell me you love me, you trust me, you think I’m more perceptive than the average person. And the first second that belief in my perceptiveness, that trust, that love is put to the test, it all falls apart…. So you must have lied when you told me all those things… you must have, because I can’t believe your love is really that feeble.” (page 503)

In the end, it is Tris’ belief in herself that triumphs and that is the reason that her and her allies end up being successful. My favourite line in the whole novel is when Tris says to Four: “I am exactly who you think I am” (page 503).

This side of Tris is amazing. It’s not just her determination to protect her family and her community that I so admire, but her fierce trust in herself. Despite whatever tired romantic tropes get dredged up in Divergent, Tris and Four’s relationship in Insurgent carries one message to the girls and young women who are reading: Boys are awesome and fun. However, as soon as they stand in the way of our goals, our sense of self, and our ability to be agents in our own right? Well, then they can fuck right off.

This is something that I enjoyed about Insurgent a lot. However, I have to ask myself why it is that Tris gets to be the feminist heroine and why her relationship with Four can be highlighted in exciting ways. Tris gets to be read as “non-traditional” because she’s a teenage girl with qualities like bravery and power that typically aren’t associated with girls in pop culture. Four can be a “non-traditional” love interest because he admires Tris for qualities like strength and determination as opposed to beauty. But Tris and Four are still traditional enough. They’re still white, cis, straight, and able-bodied. It is only because they didn’t rock the boat too much that they were allowed to achieve the ranks of mainstream popularity.

If you read Insurgent you might have noticed Lynn admitting to being in love with Marlene (another woman). But, this is as Marlene is dying. As a consequence the reader’s awareness of Lynn and Marlene’s romantic relationship ends as quickly as it began. That it is Tris and Four’s relationship that I focused on in this post, and not Lynn and Marlene’s, speaks volumes to where power structures continue to play an enormous role in the production of popular culture. We’re going to need to rock the boat a lot harder if we want that to change.

Image credits: skreened.comdivergentthemovie.comthe-antisocial-hipster.blogspot.ca

 

 

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An Ode to Killjoys

Being a feminist killjoy is something that I’ve reflected on a lot, and held close to my heart, ever since reading “Feminist Killjoys” from Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness in Women’s Studies 101. Ahmed has written an inspiring amount about being a killjoy and her words have done a lot to transform something that I had once felt shame about into a label I wear with pride. Here is her definition of “feminist killjoy” from The Promise of Happiness,

“The feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness. In the thick sociality of everyday spaces, feminists are thus attributed as the origin of the bad feeling, as the ones who ruin the atmosphere…”

But Ahmed asks us to wonder if it is the feminist killjoy who caused the bad feeling, or if she merely pointed out a bad feeling that already exists. Ahmed tells a story of sitting around a dinner table and voicing her disagreement with a problematic remark made by a family member. The mood instantly changes and becomes negative. Was it the killjoy who changed the atmosphere by challenging the remark? Or was it the maker of the remark (or the remark itself) which brought the negativity forward?

In my own life, moments of killing joy are some of the most authentic I’ve ever experienced. But I’m also aware that being a killjoy can be difficult. It can exhaust us, sadden us, silence us, or even make us unsafe. At the very least, it’s disheartening to notice “people’s eyes rolling as soon as [we] open [our] mouth[s]” and to feel that we have “ruined the atmosphere by turning up or speaking up.

When I get caught up in feeling shame for being a feminist killjoy, it can take a lot of strength to fight the instinct to apologize. Often, that’s a battle I don’t win. I call out an oppressive remark, the mood becomes negative, and I shoulder the blame for the gloomier atmosphere. I feel myself teetering uncertainly on the thin line between socializing “like everyone else” and being true to my ethics. I’ve taken up too much space in the conversation with my negativity. So I apologize.

What happens when we start apologizing for other people? When we try to dilute our killing of joy by playing down the negativity of what we find to be problematic?

A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend that stayed with me for many reasons. She explained to me that she had been told by a supervisor at work that she should be careful about how she dressed. Her supervisor was worried that if she looked “too good” she would distract men and make women jealous. Only a few weeks later, another friend explained her experience of being singled out in a room of co-workers (as she was the only Black person in the room) when someone made a joke about Black women being “easy.”

What connected these two stories for me was the ways that both of my friends started telling them. The first friend began with “I really don’t think this guy is sexist, but…” and the second started with “not to say this person is racist, but…”

What my friend’s supervisor said is sexist. The joke my friend’s co-worker made is racist. Whether or not we want to go ahead and use this as evidence of one being a racist or a sexist, these are both clear examples of the kinds of racist and sexist microaggressions that are so hard to quantify, yet so impactful in perpetuating structural oppressions.

Despite this, both of my friends started their stories by apologizing for someone else and by taking the responsibility for killing joy on themselves. It is as if the commenters weren’t the source of negativity, but that my friends were for pointing out the sexism and racism inherent in their remarks.

This post isn’t a criticism of my friends, or their choices made in telling their stories. On the contrary, it’s an expression of the empathy I feel regarding their instincts to apologize for being killjoys. For that reason, I want to say to my friends, and to all of us who’ve felt the same:

Killing joy is kick ass. It’s the kind of truth we deserve. I will always love you, honour you, and cherish you for all the joy you kill because that is what is required for us to led authentic and whole lives. We kill joy and space is made for our experiences to be validated. That is space we are all deserving of.  

images courtesy of: feministdisney.tumblr.com and www.etsy.com

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