Seashells

But it is important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and then form them into a chain of their own making.

Vandana Singh – “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

At the start of this year Goodreads and publishers on Twitter did their usual thing of asking people what their ‘reading goals’ for the year are. I used to set myself reading goals, which I didn’t meet, until 2015 when I far exceeded my Goodreads challenge. Goodreads then proceeded to use my ‘achievement’ to shame my friends who had read far fewer books, failing to acknowledge (a) that some of those friends could not reach their targets for medical reasons and (b) that reading a ridiculous number of books – including some very good books – hadn’t stopped 2015 from being a pretty miserable year. For 2016, I resolved to read fewer books and it was a better year for me personally (despite the utter horror of events more broadly). In 2017 I repeated that resolution and added that I wanted to reflect more on the books I read, in part by trying to maintain this blog more regularly and in part, as Singh puts it in one of the short stories I have been reading this year, stringing more shells together as I read both fiction and non-fiction.

[Content Warning for violence against women]

As I read Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens, particularly the essay “Black Veil, White Flag”, I am struck by two particular connections to books that I read at the end of last year – as well as on-going events in the USA right now. Perhaps the more obvious connection is how Eltahawy discusses the ‘choice’ Muslim women make to wear headscarves, a ‘choice’ she herself made when she was seventeen, and the social and political circumstances that lead women to make that kind of choice. Andi Zeisler, in We Were Feminists Once, also emphasises how ‘choice’ has been presented as a central tenant of feminism in order to co-opt the movement away from collective radicalism towards individual ’empowerment’ and to disguise the limited overall impact such an approach has on the wider spectrum of female inequality. The end product of both of these ‘choices’ is that clearly anti-woman movements can argue that they are ‘feminist’ even though they circumscribe choice rather than expanding it, including an anti-abortion group that was going to be included in the Women’s March on Washington this Saturday, even though the march is against an administration that aims to roll back the clock on women’s rights as regards their bodily autonomy, usually phrased as their ‘right to choose’ abortion.

“My escape route was to emphasize the idea of ‘choice.’ If a woman had a right to wear a miniskirt, surely I had the right to choose my headscarf. My choice was a sign of my independence of mind. Surely, to choose to wear what I wanted was an assertion of my feminism. I was a feminist, wasn’t I?

“But I was to learn that choosing to wear the hijab is much easier than choosing to take it off. And that lesson was an important reminder of how truly ‘free’ choice is.”

Mona Eltahawy, Headscarves and Hymens p. 55

The second connection is perhaps less obvious. When discussing men’s violence against women in his book Angry White Men, Micheal Kimmel observes (p. 183): “Women’s beauty is perceived as violent to men: men use violence to even the playing field – or, more accurately, to return it to its previously uneven state that men thought was even.” This observation is similar to that which Eltahawy makes regarding the imposition of the veil on women perceived to be ‘too beautiful’:

“When I was younger and I would hear from men and women around me that it was the responsibility of an especially beautiful woman to cover her face so that she would not tempt men (again, the idea that the onus is on women to save men from themselves), it made me very uncomfortable, but I was timid in struggling with my headscarf and didn’t have the language or the ability to challenge the absurdity of such a line of thought.”

Headscarves and Hymens pp. 66-67

This idea that women, just by existing, are acting aggressively towards men is central to many of the ways in which women are oppressed. Our cultures pressure women to be passive but then punishes them even for that. In her 2014 essay “Grandmother Spider”, which I read in the collection Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit recounts the story of a university campus where, after a series of rapes lead to the suggestion that women not go out alone after dark, the men on campus were shocked by a poster put up suggesting that men be banned from campus after dark. It’s far from the only example of the onus being put on women to act to save themselves from men. But, as Eltahawy recounts in “Black Veil, White Flag”, the idea that women dressing more modestly reduces the likelihood that they will experience sexual violence is severely undermined by the evidence from those Middle Eastern countries where the veil is mandatory for women and nearly one hundred percent of women have experienced sexual harassment.

My Classical background leads inevitably to the earliest example of which I can think where the beauty of a woman was blamed for the violence of men: Helen, whose capture by Paris leads to the Trojan War. The very oath that led the kings of Achaia to rally behind Menelaos, Helen’s husband, to get her back was sworn because she was so beautiful that her father feared what would happen when he chose her to marry just one of them. While the case of Helen might seem different because her beauty led men to be violent to one another, not against her – it even stopped Menelaos from killing her when he found her during the sack of Troy – her beauty has been described with violence since at least Tennyson’s Lucretius in 1868 (which I learned from this article). Men have been blaming women for their own violence for a long time.

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