Sunday, July 1, 2012

Things In My Cabinet: This Land Is My Land

Look at that adorable kid. Via Brand New Traveler's Eyes
This past Thursday morning I did something I have never done before. I wore a burqa. It was a full burqa, handmade and hand-embroidered, a beautiful deep midnight blue color. The woman who was drawing me found it in a vintage shop in Pittsfield; she asked me to wear it as part of a series she is doing on transparency and opacity, on the complex veils we drop between public and private. (She's also doing a nun, a Virgin Mary, etc etc...) She told me bluntly that the burqa itself, just as a garment sitting on a dressmaker's dummy in her studio, really deeply unsettled her, and she wanted to come face to face with that. She explained that she'd originally thought of asking a Muslim woman of her acquaintance to model it, but her friend isn't at home in a burqa any more than I am, and in the end she asked me because - well, I guess because I went to Hampshire College and learned about feminist discourse and othering and the subaltern and all that, and also, maybe, because she knows I'm a bellydancer and there's nothing I love more than beautiful drapey blue satin. Even in a more, hmmm, challenging context.

So, okay. I'm going to say a slightly shouty thing. Here it is: America is a pretty good country in a lot of ways. It is not, however THE BEST COUNTRY EVAAAAR, and it does not have a particular moral monopoly on righteousness. But you could be easily fooled on that one. Google the word "burqa" and most of what you'll get is a bunch of Americans doing the one-note scream about OPPRESSION ZOMG. In the past, I've figured that this is because Americans like it when other countries are less than awesome, because then they can feel really good about themselves and America and whatnot and continue to believe that All We Do Is Win, etc. But now I'm thinking that maybe that? is actually a simplistic view of a simplistic view. Because, well, things looked a little different from under the burqa...

This could have been me. My hands look a little like that. Seen
like this, without the tanks and tents and sad babies, it's a little
harder to comparmentalize, no? Via
Specifically, I looked different. I looked in the mirror and I didn't see me. Like I said, it was a full burqa, and it had a face screen, so even my eyes were obscured. What I saw was simply a sweep of gorgeous peacock drapery, like a faceless lapis painting of a Madonna. I wasn't looking at myself in a veil. I didn't recognize myself at all. It wasn't alienating or frightening at all; what I saw was so lovely, really, that it didn't bother me that i wasn't seeing myself - it became more like looking out a window than looking in a mirror.

That is to say, I stopped being conscious of how I looked.


I'm an artist model and a dance teacher. I'm used to thinking about my body in space; I'm used to thinking about how my body looks. I'm conscious of myself, albeit in a positive way, almost all the time. I have an image of myself in my mind's eye whether I'm walking down the street or making dinner. It's unconscious at this point. Further, I'm used to being looked at. I get looked at more than a lot of people do, of course, because, like I said, artist model -- I'm naked for a living -- but also because, well, you know, that's what happens when you walk outside and you're not wearing a burqa. (Of course people still look at you when you're wearing a burqa. It's just that they don't see you, if you see what I mean.)  So the experience of visualizing myself and literally not seeing me was -- fascinating.

Let me say this right now: I cannot speak for women who actually wear the burqa, either by choice or no. The burqa is an oppressive garment in some contexts and not in others, and I am simply not well-versed enough in Muslim culture and history to make any kind of generalization or judgement about the situation of those who wear variations of the veil. This piece of writing is not about the burqa in the context of Islam. It's about the burqa in the context of my own personal relationship to privacy and publicity, and what the experience of donning this particular garment got me thinking about. That is, I'm not here to make a value judgement about the burqa as an item of clothing, but rather to think about what leads Americans (specifically, me) to make value judgements about the burqa as a symbol and icon.

Because here's the thing. When I put the burqa on, I didn't think HELP I'M IN JAIL.

You want to know what I thought? (Of course you do.)

I was thinking about the burqa as a symbol of oppression, because I'm not sure that anything other than an awesome, thoughtful class on Iranian Cinema in college ever really taught me to think of it as anything else. It's the visual sign of everything that seems foreign and alien and backwards and repressive about the Middle East, even if you're a progressive-minded liberal like me and you totally don't see the big deal about the President's middle name. before this experience, if I thought about the burqa at all, it probably went something like this:  I want to be forward thinking about Islam, of course! I want to be respectful of different cultural customs! But those damn burqas, man. It's one thing if the women who wear them can choose. But what about the women who have no choice? Except, under the burqa, it was harder to wrap my head around why it was so all-fired important for me to show my body all the time. It wasn't claustrophobic. It wasn't unpleasant. It was almost calming. And I got to thinking, well, okay, so there's this whole thing about my acceptance of this custom hinging on choice, well, am I so certain that I have a choice in how I dress?

See, this? This misses the point. Or rather makes it.
Via Silk Roads & Siamese Smiles
Because you know what's not really done in this country? Walking down the street in privacy. There was this kind of startling moment where I realized that if I want to go outside and not be seen, there's nothing I can wear. There is no American equivalent of the burqa, no acceptable and ordinary method of being private in public. I can wear huge clothes and sunglasses, but I still get looked at. To pass through the streets in genuine privacy, I would have to wear something that others would only be able to recognize as a garment that is one of the most vivid icons of all that is foreign, frightening, and un-American. If I want to go somewhere without revealing my body and face to everyone around me, I can only do so by invoking a culture that is more frightening to my fellow citizens than, well, just about anything else. (Except maybe atheists? Apparently Americans like atheists even less than they like Muslims.)

It surprised me that I had never had this thought before.

So, actually, I don't have complete choice. I mean, yes, I can wear a burqa if I really want to (though there are countries where it is forbidden) but the act of doing so is an incitement to suspicion and mumbles of terrorist and generally speaking, just wanting some damn privacy is seen as such a totally foreign desire that I can't have it without being hassled another way.

What this says to me is that we, as a culture, are not doing so hot on the whole idea of the body as a private thing. Oddly enough, this week I encountered not one but two articles that kind of clicked into place while I was thinking about this.

The first was an essay I read by Katia Hetter about not owning her child's body. She writes that she is teaching her daughter that she doesn't have to hug grandma - or anybody else, ever. Hetter says that she's teaching her child to be respectful, gracious, and welcoming, but that she will never, ever, ever demand that her child show physical affection for anyone. Period.

I thought this was hilarious. I'm
honestly sorry if you found it totally
offensive. Honest. Via Motifake
There is no passive-aggressive, conditional, manipulative nonsense behind my statement, she writes. I mean what I say. She doesn't have to hug or kiss anyone just because I say so, not even me. I will not override my own child's currently strong instincts to back off from touching someone who she chooses not to touch. I figure her body is actually hers, not mine.

What a concept. Another choice quote from the article:

"When we force children to submit to unwanted affection in order not to offend a relative or hurt a friend's feelings, we teach them that their bodies do not really belong to them because they have to push aside their own feelings about what feels right to them," said Irene van der Zande, co-founder and executive director of Kidpower Teenpower Fullpower International, a nonprofit specializing in teaching personal safety and violence prevention. "This leads to children getting sexually abused, teen girls submitting to sexual behavior so 'he'll like me' and kids enduring bullying because everyone is 'having fun.' "

Yup. I'd say that's about right. Do I think that being forced to kiss that aunt you hate necessarily leads to a feeling that your body isn't yours, or that being allowed to not kiss said awful aunt definitely protects you from ever feeling like your body isn't yours? Hell, no. But it's a start.

Ursula Wagner, a mental health clinician with the FamilyWorks program at Heartland Alliance in Chicago, adds that forcing a kid to display affection "sends a message that there are certain situations [when] it's not up to them what they do with their bodies."

That is, it's pretty darn easy to give kids the message that their bodies - our bodies - are not actually private

The other piece I read was a lot harder. Rosie, of the excellent, honest blog Make Me A Sammich recently wrote a post called  A Brief History (The Bad Parts Version) (note: multiple trigger warnings). In it, she writes about the timeline of abuse that has led her to become a feminist. By the time she was nine, multiple people had made it clear to her that her body was not hers to control. It didn't get better. She is a smart, brave, thoughtful, articulate woman, and she writes clearly and very, very powerfully about what happened to her. It is absolutely worth reading. It is absolutely not easy to read. And it shouldn't be. Except that one of the worst parts of reading her post was the knowledge I was carrying, the whole way through, that what happened to her is not unusual. Not surprising. It's commonplace. Ordinary. For me, that's maybe the hardest thing of all. The adults who laughed it off, who didn't notice, who didn't help, who did the things that took her right to own her own body away from her - they're everywhere.

By the age of ten, she writes, I was really starting to get the feeling it was just me.


Bingo. Via Literate Lobsters Are Literate
So here I am under this burqa, this beautiful floating garment that's turned me into a blue silk shadow, and I'm thinking whoa, you know, this is kind of amazing. I feel - private. Why does this freak us Americans out so much? Why this? So what if you can't see everybody wandering around in miniskirts? Of course, if you're absolutely not allowed to show yourself ever and you'd really rather like to, that's one thing. But I have this feeling like there's nothing quite like the burqa for arousing a kind of screaming panicky hysteria in us Americans - yes, that's a vast generalization, I know, but I don't mean that the burqa arouses feelings of panic in all Americans, just that it seems to me to arouse more panic than, well, a lot of other things. It's like this big Symbol of All That Is Wrong With Them Ay-rabs. If you hate Obama and you think all Muslims are terrorists, the burqa looks like a great outfit for hiding bombs. If you're a bleeding-heart liberal, you're outraged that Afghani women can't bare their arms. And I guess what I'm saying is that actually wearing a burqa made me wonder if our reaction to the burqa as an item of clothing says a lot more about our relationship to physical, bodily privacy than we think it does. And what it says does not reflect well on us at all.

When I say the word privacy, and the desire for it and the right to it, I mean specifically the privacy of the body: sovereignty over the self, the right to keep your body apart from any and all other bodies if so you desire. And when I say that we have a f!#&ed up relationship to privacy, what I mean is that we don't get taught that we own our own bodies. That's why what Ms. Hetter said and what Rosie said and what I thought about what if I wanted nobody to look at my goddamn body all go together in my head: because they're all things that center around the crazy fact that somehow we've neglected to think of our own bodies as being ours. Not the way that property, say, is ours. Our property, see, is something we very much respect -- and we respect the property of others, too.

For example, take a house. Your house. You own it.

If you invite someone for dinner at your house, and they start acting like a dickbag, nobody will ever question you for throwing them the hell out and slamming the door. Nobody will ever say to you, "But you promised them dinner! You said they could come in!"
Except squirrels. Everybody has to accept that
squirrels are totally gonna steal your shit and
you totally do have to put up with it.
Via Troletti Photo
If you have a beautiful garden, people will admire it, but nobody will yell "HEY GIRL I LIKE YO' GARDEN WHY DON'T YOU GIMME SOME OF THOSE SUGAR MAPLES!" - or if they do, everyone will look at them like they're a lunatic. Only a recognized nutcase would ever show up on your doorstep demanding you give them some plants to take home. And if you catch some random person cutting your begonias, although people will understand that the plant thief may have been sick with admiration over your lovely blossoms, they will all agree that it is absolutely not justification for taking them without permission. Not even one. Not without asking first. They're your flowers, after all!

No matter what you have in your house, nobody will ever tell you that you deserved to be burgled just because you had a nice TV and you didn't close the window. They might think you were a bit naive, maybe, if you lived in a bad neighborhood and didn't lock your door -- but it certainly isn't your fault some dickweasel busted in and took your stuff, and certainly nobody would ever suggest that the aforementioned dickweasel had a right to your flatscreen just because you didn't put bars on the window, or because the screen was visible from the street.

Nobody is allowed to go in your house without permission. Ever. No matter how old you are, or if you're drunk, or if you left the back door open. Not telling them they couldn't go in your house is never considered the same as saying they could.

No matter what a dick you are or how nice your house is, anybody who paints it ugly colors or smashes your windows gets punished. Under no circumstances is it okay for somebody to vandalize your home. People are shocked and horrified when damage occurs, and ensure that the perpetrator is held accountable.

If someone knocks on your door, you don't have to open it. Everyone will understand if you don't want to talk to random people on your porch, even if they're being nice.

If you live in a bad neighborhood, no one will ever accuse you of being totally unreasonable for being suspicious of anyone who lingers too long around your place. Even if you don't live in a bad neighborhood, if you've ever had your house broken into at any time, no one will fault you for being cautious. And anyone who hangs around trying to peer in your windows is understood by all to be a serious creep.

Even if you give someone a key to your house, you have the right to take it back at any time, or tell them that you don't want them to come over tonight, even though you usually like having them there. And there is no justification for anyone being in your house without your explicit invitation, for any reason, at any time. None. Nobody will argue with that. Sometimes miscommunications happen, but nobody has the right to refuse to leave your house because of them. 

Right? Like, you see this fence, and you're like, DUDE, what an
AWESOME FENCE. And then you don't go in the damn house
because it's NOT YOURS. Via The Morrighan
If you want to build a fence, you can. If you want to leave the entire house visible in all its glory from the street, you can. People might think you're a showoff or a crank, but they won't think they have more or less of a right to march up your front walk. It's your house and you can do what you damn well want with it. Nobody will suddenly start thinking your house belongs to them just because they can see more of it -- or less.

People who don't know when they're not welcome in somebody's house are universally seen with scorn and distaste, as are people who try and force their way in (at parties, say) when they know they're not wanted. You have sole discretion over who comes into your house and who stays out, and no one will ever question that.

In fact, in some states, you are legally justified in shooting dead some dinkhead for just setting foot on your property without permission. I am not saying this is a good law. This is the reason Trayvon Martin is dead. But it is a law. On the other hand, you are not allowed to break someone's arm because they pinched your butt on a bus in Florida, let alone shoot them in the back. This, more than anything, illustrates the fact that your body is not considered your property, and trespasses against it are trivial.
But, as it happens, your body is a house. It is the first house and the last house of your soul and your heart and your mind. This is not a metaphor or an analogy. Your body is your property. We are not taught this. In fact, we're not taught it to such an extent that it took me putting on a piece of clothing usually associated by Americans with the utter obliteration of the rights of women to even make me notice that for some bizarre reason my (theoretical) house is considered more inviolable than my own body. But there is, in fact, no difference. Our bodies belongs to us and they are our own goddamn kingdoms.

So this is a blog about joy, right? What's with all this dark stuff, huh? Well, joy doesn't happen when you lightly gloss over the horrible, awful, bad stuff that eats the experience of joyousness alive. I think we have to talk about it, Rosie writes–the good, the bad, the horrifying–if we want things to change. It took me nearly half a century to wake up, but here I am in my bathrobe, drinking my coffee, working out a plan for the next 50 years.

I don't want to wear a burqa all the time (and I really don't want to argue about whether or not the burqa, as a piece of clothing, is repressive or freeing or whatever; my singular experience with one has absolutely no bearing on the matter and gives me exactly zero insight into the conversation). I just wanted to write about the stark and bizarre realization that getting myself wrapped up in a nice piece of fabric opened up in my brain: hey, guess what? America doesn't really care much about making sure you know your body belongs to you. Your house, yes! Your car, yes! But your body? Naw, dude. Not so much. But maybe, maybe, if I keep standing up and saying THIS HERE BODY BELONGS TO MEEEEEE, and you go ahead and sing along, eventually we'll no longer be in the peculiar position of living in a society where I can kill somebody for stepping on a piece of dirt that belongs to me but not for laying a hand on the territory of my body.

That's a more simplistic ending than I wanted.  I was hoping for something deeper. Not sure I got anything else. Just -- I liked being invisible. I liked the privacy. I liked feeling like my body belonged to nobody but me. But then, after all, what could belong to me more?

I love you all. 


  1. I think we must be in the same mental space, right now. My post that went up today, I wrote before I left on vacation, but I could almost believe I read your posts first and went over and wrote mine, except I know I didn't.

    So, yeah, I'm tired of people, other people, trying to decide what's good and right for me, and that includes what I do with my body. Or your body based upon what you let me do to your body or not do to your body or whatever. It's not up to me to inflict what I believe on someone else and that includes how they dress or not dress and what that may or may not mean.

    As for the comment about children:
    When my younger son was a baby, he didn't like "going" to people he didn't know. That means he really didn't want anyone other than my wife or me to hold him. And guess what. We didn't make him. If he didn't want to go to someone, he didn't have to. People usually got it. Except his great-grandmother. She was highly offended by what she saw as his rejection of her and held it against him (and us) the rest of her life. Seriously. All because we didn't force my son into her arms.

    She was a mean, spiteful old woman, and I wouldn't have wanted to go to her either.

  2. I can understand being resentful, especially if you're, well, old and starved for affection and you grew up as part of a generation that had a lot more rules regarding the treatment of elders, and shows of affection were linked to duty and responsibility rather than genuine expression of emotion. But I'm glad you didn't make your son hug her.

  3. It wasn't just a hug, it was the whole "let me hold him" thing, which made him freak out. So she was mad at him (an infant) for not wanting to be held by her and mad at us for making him, so to speak. She didn't care that he was like that with almost everyone (he would usually let his grandfather hold him). At any rate, it was just mean to be an example of what you're talking about. Many parents would have enforced it on the kid.

    Of course, she made the cycle worse, because she treated him differently as he grew up than she did her other great-grandchildren. In short, she acted more like an infant than he did.

  4. Everything in this was just dead on. It's true that we value our personal possessions and property in ways that are different from our time, our body space, etc. You break into a house with open doors it is still a crime. Yet a woman will be questioned on why she wore what she wore, why she went to the party, why she drank, how much she drank, if she said no, how forcefully she said no, if she fought, etc. I watched a friend break after making it through the rape, the reporting of the rape, the aftermath, but then the court broke her. They brought in witnesses to say she dressed inappropriately on a regular basis. They introduced that she wasn't a virgin, and somehow that meant that she was open for anyone to take advantage. She was a freshman in high school, and this was a stranger rape. Had it been her house, they wouldn't have questioned her paint color, or the style of drapery she had in her window. They wouldn't have said, "Well, you've let other people enter your house, so that means anyone can come in."

    We Americans have an entirely distorted view of the body, in all the ways you've mentioned and so many more. Breastfeeding a baby is wrong in public, but dressing in a revealing fashion isn't. Have you seen that new commercial talking about how girls drop out of sports much earlier now and are more worried about physical appearances? It's a compelling commercial.

    Anyway, my long rant aside, a burqa, one not forced on me, is sounding pretty good right about now. It's bizarre how one's body has become such a commercial thing these days. I feel like we rail against the human body more than other places, yet use it and show it more than other places, if that makes any sense.

    1. Thank you, Shannon. Your friend sounds like she went through hell. That's exactly the kind of thing I meant. If we saw the body as being the property of the person inhabiting it, that horrible court experience would never have happened. "You're on my land, I don't want you here, get the hell off" would be valid and unquestionable.

      I don't know that we rail against the body more than ALL other places, but I do think that America has a uniquely bizarre relationship to it than many other places, in exactly the way you say - we shame the body as a concept while venerating (obsessing about?) it as an object. I think that's no less true for other genders than it is for women.

  5. Great post, Jericha. The power of clothing and what our clothing supposedly represents has been on my mind a lot today. I'd love to talk to you about it, but not on the internet:)
    I was interviewed by Katia Hetter for a travel piece she did. Small world.

    1. I'd love to talk to you about it too. Do you have my email?

      I'd never even heard of Katia Hetter until I saw that article. I was fascinated. She writes well! Did you like the piece she did with you?

    2. I don't think I have your email. Send it to me on Twitter when you get a chance. I think I'm going to write about this thing, but it's going to be controversial. Still debating whether to do it or not.

      Yeah, the piece she did was fine. I was just a small part of a big story on travelling and relationships. My husband and I drove his cargo van on Route 66 for our honeymoon. This was not my ideal trip, but I did it and ended up having a really good time.

  6. This is so true...I'm Canadian, but the same thing happens here when it comes to women and what they wear..and being taught from a young age that your body is not really your own..having to give the horrible old aunt a hug because it's the polite and respectful thing to doesn't make sense that trespassing on a piece of ground, or stealing electronics or vehicles are greater crimes than trespassing on someone's body...that reminds me of the story of John Walsh, when he was trying to find his missing son, Adam, the FBI told him that if it was his van that was missing they could help him, but since it was his son, there was nothing they could do. Fortunately John Walsh helped to change that..
    I wouldn't mind trying a burqa to find out what my own experience would be while wearing one..I remember watching the news in the early days after 9/11, and they had a women reporter try on a burqa and tell us all what it was like. Of course her description was entirely negative...can't see properly, unwieldly amounts of material to maneuver..the reporter couldn't imagine having to wear such a garment while trying to shop, look after kids, etc..
    btw, I love the comment about Americans liking atheists even less than they like muslims...I am an atheist and I find that that's true.
    I once heard someone say,(I forget who it was), that America will never have an atheist President. In Canada we don't really know, or care, what religion the Prime Minister is...or maybe it's just me that doesn't know or care!
    I also read Andrew Leon's post earlier today...between the two of you, I've done a lot of reading today and I kind of feel like my head's going to explode with trying to absorb the deep insights you both have...this is a good thing! We used to have discussions like this years ago when I was in film school, but not so much lately..thanks.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Eve. Interesting to hear the perspective of someone in Canada on the same issues - especially atheism. I'd be fascinated to know the difference between Canadians & American views on that. I haven't spent any time in Canada & I'm curious about whether "God Bless Canada" is a thing there the way "God Bless America" is here...

      I do think that generally speaking religion and views on the body tend to be bound up pretty strongly. I wonder what country it is that has the least screwy relationship with the body, speaking in terms of obesity, anorexia, self-reported comfort or discomfort, societal pressures to look a certain way, etc -- and what sort of religious background that country has.

  7. Oh, thank you :) and I'd love to hear what happens if you do...


Please do try to be thoughtful and considerate when posting comments, but we do love hearing what you think!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...