Monday, May 31, 2010

Tragedy in vinyl

If you were to ask me how life was panning out, having moved in with my handsome gentleman companion, I would wax lyrical about the many things that are just lovely. But right now, I'm going to tell you about just one of them.

Life with a record player.

I haven't lived in a house with a record player for years. My parents had a record player with accompanying magnificent old school fabric covered speakers on wooden and steel 70s stands. I used to adore playing my story book 45s, turning the page when the bell dinged. I also danced daily to Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat at the age of 3. I remember falling asleep in our tiny Frances St house with the reassuring sounds of the music (usually an opera or else Gilbert and Sullivan) my parents were listening to filtering into the room. Later I found their old copies of Hair and the Beatles box set and danced away to them. When my parents seperated, the record player went with Dad. 

Later, my brother Tristan bought one, and as a student I lived in a house that had one. But they weren't my record players and I didn't buy records for them. 

And now I live with a man for whom music is fundamentally important, and has a considerable record collection, half of which I adore and half of which is just not my thing. But I have rediscovered the warmth of sound that vinyl gives you. It's not like other sounds. And I'm not sure how much of this I associate with my early childhood, but regardless, it's wonderful, and it's opened me up to new kinds of music, and new ways of listening to it.

Sunday mornings Leith has a habit of putting on Jazz - Coltrane or maybe something like the Swingle Singers (!) and I can't recommend this enough, accompanied with eggs and the newspaper.

I also tagged along a few weeks ago with Leith record shopping. And I got the bug. I got it bad. Because all of a sudden I realised: these records can become instrinsic to my home life. I enjoy playing Leith's music, some of it more than others, but in the record store were albums guaranteed to send shivers down my spine. Artists whose tracks had not been released on cd and nor were they likely to be in future. And artists who belonged to a vinyl era. I bought Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. And oh my I love those records. And I fantasise about going back to buy more!

Another realisation I had was that the songs that most move me, that send me outwardly catatonic while inwardly I get all stirred up, are the most pathetic, tragic and anti-feminist love songs. They're the songs I go to when I know I'm tense and need to provoke a good cry. I don't know quite what this says about me. And I don't know whether I can untangle what I perceive as the tragedy of the love the women feel from the tragedy that the women should feel love for such objects in the first place. 

All I know is that these songs slay me. I'd like to leave you with a few, but trying to find them on youtube is like trying to find a diamond in a big pile of poo. I thought about providing the lyric, but the lyric without the music and the delivery are hollow at best and do nothing to convey the heartwrenching truth of these songs. The only one I can find is Aretha. For the others, the best I can do is provide a few links and urge you fervently to check them out, with a box of tissues handy, and preferable on vinyl.

Good for nothin' Joe - Lena Horne 

I don't want him - Nina Simone

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Banning the burqa: Racism in feminist clothing

The 'debate' about potentially banning the burqa in Australia is very troubling to me. Many people have jumped on this bandwagon recently in the name of Freedom, Democracy, Feminism, Equality, Civic Responsibility and goodness knows what else.  And I haven't agreed with a single one of them on the issue.

I've agreed with a lot of the objections to the burqa. I find the implication that one's appearance can offend your peers or your God pretty offensive. But then, I'm an atheist. And I don't think society is objecting to religion. Just Islam. But an individual objection to something (hello Southern Cross tattoos) is different to banning it. Banning something takes individual values that are acknowledged as having place in society (religious, family, aesthetic) and making them universal. It is handpicking one set of difference and saying that we don't want that here.  The arguments being put forward for the burqa being an unacceptable difference are masquerading as libertarian and feminist and democratic.  And I posit that they are not, they are racist. So let's look at some that have been prominent lately, and I'll show you why.

One argument is that by covering the hair/face, women are concealing important aspects of their identity. They are not fully participating as citizens. Well tough shit I say. I can walk into a bank wearing sunglasses. Or a hood. When my hair was long I would wrap it up into a scarf to clean the house or simply on hot days. Eastern European and Mediterranean women will wear headscarves.  African women will wear headscarves. Indian and Asian and Anglo women will wear headscarves. So why just ban Islamic headscarves? Uh, that would be racism.

A further argument is that the burqa carries a symbolic element that is offensive to women, as exposing the head/hair is considered to offend god and man in Islam. Well I happen to agree that this is a daft notion. Did I mention I'm an athiest? But Jews do it with their skull caps, nuns do it with their habits. So do you want to rip the habit from a nun in the name of her freedom? I don't see anyone ranting about these other forms of religious coverings in the newspapers or suggesting for a moment we should make it illegal for these other groups. Only Muslims. That's racism.

There are people arguing against it on the grounds of feminism. That many women would prefer not to wear a burqa but are forced to by their family and community. In righteous feminist outrage, these advocates want to remove the shackles of this oppression by making it illegal. 

Well I put it to you that the people advocating on these grounds are not giving one toss about women in this situation. Because they will only be further oppressed and excluded by a ban on the burqa. They will not be able to leave the house, and their freedom will be further curtailed. Honestly this argument of 'freeing' women by banning the burqa is the most selfish and stupid of the lot. The only people it will make feel better is the rest of us. The white priveleged people who will no longer have to squirm and feel uncomfortable when a burqa clad lady gets on the tram. The ones who refuse to allow that some women are choosing to dress that way as an expression of their ideological conviction. Banning the burqa is not about feminism, and it's not about freedom. It's about one group of people deciding what makes them feel comfortable, and imposing it on another group of people. Again, racist much?

This doesn't mean that I don't think that we, as a society, should try to tackle religious and sexist values that result in women being forced to dress in a way they do not wish. We absolutely should do that. But banning the burqa doesn't do this at all. It doesn't involve any engagement with the people who would enforce it. It only punishes the women who are already oppressed through having to wear it, and punishes those who have freedom and use it to choose to wear it. Discuss the burqa. Discuss with the people who think it's important. There are knotty issues wrapped up in there. Confront them in dialogue. Don't ban it.

And if anyone wants to go down the road of 'how free is the choice of the women who are choosing it?', well good for you, it's a damned important question. But don't pretend for a second that any of us aren't making value-laden peer pressured choices all the time. Of course we are. We have freedoms, but they are not absolute, not for any of us. I've yet to see one commentator acknowledge this fact.

If I had my way, then I wouldn't wear clothes in Summer. At all. I would get my tattoo out at work and in front of my grandmother. How is this different from a young woman who covers her hair in front of her relatives? The outcomes for me might be less severe if I transgressed these norms, but I choose to follow them because it makes my life easier, it makes my grandmother happier. Is it a loaded choice? Of course. Do I wish the conservative people in society could cope with my having a tattoo? Absolutely. Do I wish that conservative Muslims could cope with the exposed heads and hair of their female relatives? Darned tootin. But for society to BAN it? To make it illegal? How is this anything other than a socially sanctioned punishment for a difference that we can't tolerate. How dare we call ourselves multicultural or diverse and entertain such a notion?

Do I have a problem with women being forced to wear a burqa? Yes.

Do I have a problem with a woman freely choosing to wear a burqa? No. 

Can I know how free the choice is of a woman I know nothing about, beyond what she's wearing? No.

So what are we left with? The burqa oppresses some women. Undoubtedly. And banning it? Oh wait, that is a problem and will oppress women. Yep. 

Let's recap. Burqa = oppressive.  Banning the burqa = oppressive. The difference between the two options? White people feel better about themselves.

So why would we ban it, when every objection to it has its counterpart in other religions and social norms? Um, because we're racist?... 

NB My friend Beck has pointed out (see comments) that the burqa is a full body covering, as distinct from a hijab which is a headscarf. Thanks for clarifying Becky.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


I sat up tonight pottering around and playing on the internet. I was trying to show some solidarity to Leith, who is up working just like he has been every night this week. But in actual fact all I did was snicker audibly at people's twitter feeds, fart surreptitiously a few times, and go to bed. Despite making him a cup of tea, I am clearly lousy at solidarity.


Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cherchez la Femme - Part 2

Ok, so I utterly failed at writing up Cherchez la Femme the next day. And yes, I am a lazy and haphazard blogger. Also, beyond an immediate whole-hearted endorsement of the evening, as I pondered the event, and discussed some of the ideas with friends and loved ones over the following view days, it took me some time to organise my thoughts. For feminism is complex, it operates in many different spheres simultaneously: personal, professional, social. It touches on understandings of free will, and the role of the environment in shaping subconscious associations, and how you understand yourself as an agent in the world. The degree of responsibility you feel towards others. And I am constantly flummoxed by the murky and mysterious ways in which these ways of knowing and of being interact. As someone dear pointed out to me recently when genuinely curious as to why I would feel so strongly about a feminist cause, my life doesn't show any signs of having experienced disadvantage based on my gender. So why am I so upset?

But I don't want to have an emotional or intellectual outpouring here, nor get too philosophical. Nor will I go into the detail of the night itself. Mel has already done so as articulately as anyone could wish. I enjoyed the night thoroughly, and thought it entirely worthwhile. That said, I'll be honest, I wanted some answers from Cherchez la Femme, and I didn't get them. I got a lot of ideas to ponder instead. And later on, I got questioned about the case for feminism and female disadvantage. Because all the women at Cherchez la Femme were educated, employed, stylish, assertive.

And so the best possible response I can offer to anyone, man or woman, who may wonder what need there is for feminism in our Australian society today, is a simple imaginary exercise.

  • Imagine you have grown up in this world a girl. 
  • Think about what things adults might have said to you as a child. How important is it to be told you're pretty? How often do you hear that, as opposed to some other praise?
  • Imagine you wanted to run around and get muddy and swear and yell. How might that have been responded to by your parents and teachers?
  • Imagine reading some of the most exciting profound literature of your youth about wondrous worlds beyond your door. What do the men in these books do? How about the women? How many of the adventurers and protagonists and heroes are men? You're not one.
  • Imagine the schoolyard and fighting for the sought after downball courts. Would you win them? What would it take?
  • Imagine going into the 7-Eleven to get some milk for your Mum pretty regularly. You pass newspapers, chocolate bars, and a rack of magazines with breasts all over them. You're only little, do you stop and wonder why there are no magazines with men on them? Or is it simply that those ladies are pretty?
  • Imagine learning history at school. History is the story of things men have done. There aren't really any women in history. No one seems to notice. You don't. At least, not yet.
  • Imagine that despite playing sport all week, when you turn on the television all the players are men. You're not one.
  • Imagine being at high school.  Imagine you always do better on tests than the person you have a huge crush on. Do you think he's cool with this?
  • You're told to be polite and ladylike to your superiors. You're told that this will be necessary if you want to get ahead in the world. You're told it's not fair but it's just the way it is. Polite and ladylike means non-confrontational.
  • Imagine the hierarchy of popularity amongst your friends is determined by their degree of popularity with the opposite sex. As in, whoever the boys like best is who the girls will also defer to. If you haven't already, you may start to say to yourself, what the fuck?
  • Imagine that you're not allowed to do things your brother is because you're more likely to be assaulted. Everyone acknowledges that it's not your fault that you're more vulnerable. But you have to take responsibility for it. You are told to dress modestly, act discreetly, not take risks. People say this because they love and care for you. Truly. Who then is left to complain to?
  • Imagine that critiquing the bodies of your gender is a passtime that is done by your friends, your peers, the media and society both publicly and fairly constantly. 
  • Imagine reaching for the new remote and trying the wrong button, only to have it gently but firmly taken from you before you even get a chance to look at it twice.
  • Imagine a world in which young women will opt to be photographed in porn-style poses for a clothing store or a website; they find it empowering. You know you're not a kill-joy that you wouldn't find it empowering at all, but others may not see it that way. But many of those others are the intended consumers of those images, and you are not.
  • Imagine you can get a job as easily as a man can. Imagine knowing that despite working your arse off and being damned good at your job, you are paid statistically less than you would be in the exact same role if you were a man. Your boss would be offended if you suggested as much to him. Probably almost every woman's boss would be. But the women are still paid less, including you.
  • You're less likely to be promoted regardless of performance. Your reproductive organs make you a risk to a business, regardless of your plans for them. This is fairly commonly accepted.
  • You're less likely to both have a family and reach the upper echelons of your field. Your partner isn't.
Please, if you haven't already, imagine some or all of these things.  Imagine that you are generally very happy. You are in a loving relationship of equals. You are respected by your friends, colleagues and family. You work hard. You have fun. And you have a problem with the way the female gender is constituted in the world. This is what it is for me to be a feminist. It isn't always angry and ranty, but sometimes it is. It isn't whingy and it isn't anti-fun, unless your idea of fun requires an imbalance of power. It isn't blaming the men or the women of our generation for creating these power dynamics, but it does require the men and women of our generation to take some responsibility for changing it, and for men this means changing it away from their advantage. It is an act of recognition that there remains a problem. 

So do it. Imagine you have grown up, and live, as a woman in the world. And then tell me whether there's still a need for feminism in Australia.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Cherchez la femme

Tomorrow night I'm going along to Cherchez la femme. It's the first of a monthly series my excellent friend Karen has organised as a soiree to discuss feminist issues, and I am very proud of her for having the chutzpah to get something like this started.

I'm not quite sure what to expect. So many of my attempts to participate in a feminist dialogue end in disillusionment and frustration, and yes anger, at the dogma that can often dominate these discourses. But here's what I'm hoping for tomorrow:

  • I'm hoping to meet assertive intelligent women. 
  • I'm hoping there'll be lots of men there. I know so many men that I would call progressive, and would call themselves progressive, but I honestly don't know how many would be likely to opt to spend their Tuesday nights participating in the issues directly in this kind of forum. I'm guessing not many.
  • I'm hoping that there'll be genuine heterogeny, a vast difference of experience and opinion, and that the only thing people are agreeing on is the fundamental drive for equality of opportunity for women, with all the nuances that can entail. 
  • I'm hoping to laugh and have a few beers.
  • I'm hoping for acceptance without conformity.
I'll report back tomorrow.