The Eye Does Not Have Permission To Own

(WARNING: Explicit and NSFW images and links included in this article)

Diana Vreeland, probably the most powerful and influential fashion editor of all time, once said that, “the eye needs to travel” especially for sources of inspiration, ideas and creativity. I would largely agree with her, but to that I would also add, that unfortunately whatever the eye sees, it also usually wants to take or own and that it takes enormous discipline to train it.

Vreeland in her famous red room, a study in excess if you ask me.

Vreeland in her famous red room, a study in excess if you ask me.

I bring up this quote because of the latest kerfuffle involving Miley Cyrus, her online fight with Sinead O’Connor, the latest video by Rihanna which leaves very little to the imagination and has feminists of all stripes and shapes in a twist.
Rihanna, in one of the more "sedate" shots from her "Pour it up" video.

Rihanna, in one of the more “sedate” shots from her “Pour it up” video.

My own opinion is that all this physical exposure is going towards the slow but inevitable complete and total ownership of the female form in the public space. Very little is left of the mystery and the power of it. Some might argue that calling your own shots in how you expose your body, with whom and within what medium is actually self-empowering. While I do think what a woman decides to do with her body, where and with whom is completely and entirely her decision, I do think that controlling the level of that mystery and privacy around your own body is even more empowering.
Another display of the genius of Dov Charney, the president of American Apparel. Do we really need shots like these to sell SOCKS? (and no, I don't find this sexy at all)

Another display of the genius of Dov Charney, the president of American Apparel. Do we really need shots like these to sell bloody SOCKS? (and no, I don’t find this sexy at all)

I don’t mean hiding female bodies behind a niqab or hijab (or nun’s habit in the West) but rather that women should be able to share the most private parts of themselves when THEY choose, that their bodies are not just a given to be shared, shown and given to any eye, like a public billboard sign.
Burqas and niqabs are the other extreme. I think it's possible to find a balance between these two extremes.

Burqas and niqabs are the other extreme. I think its possible to find a balance between these two polar extremes.

That’s largely the debate in the West however it has major implications and spill-over effects in the East and  the rest of the developing world.
India is now in the midst of an epidemic of rape.
It’s not like it never existed there. It’s always been an undercurrent of life particularly for women of low caste (check out the life of Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen to see what I mean) . However because of recent well-known rape cases going public and the unprecedented protests and serious soul-searching in their wake, the issue is being talked about more than ever.
4 of the 5 Delhi rapists (the 5th hung himself in jail). from left to right: Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Mukesh Singh, Akshay Thakur

4 of the 5 Delhi rapists (the 5th, Ram Singh hung himself in jail). from left to right: Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta, Mukesh Singh, Akshay Thakur

Last winter 5 thugs boarded a bus and brutally raped a physiotherapy student on her way home from the cinema with her male companion. It wasn’t bad enough that they all took turns raping her, then raped her with a 4 foot long iron rod which caused such horrific internal damage that it eventually killed her. It was the fact that the gang rape lawyer representing the 2 of the men recently came out and said “If my daughter was having premarital sex and moving around at night with her boyfriend, I would have burned her alive. I would not let this situation happen. All parents should adopt such an attitude,” (This is a lawyer folks, someone with more than a high school education, living in a major urban area, the guy who is supposed to put the bad guys in jail, he’s not some toothless village hick.) While these comments and attitudes are really, truly repugnant and belong in the Stone Age as far as I’m concerned, it touches an issue few have yet broached.
Rapists' lawyer, A.P Singh = First class douche nozzle

Rapists’ lawyer, A.P Singh = First class douche nozzle

No one has really discussed this but I think these gang-rapes and the nature of how violent they have become in recent years is largely due to the prevalence of free porn on the internet.
Before the internet, Western pornography was something that circulated in the hands of very rich, discrete Indians who secretly brought them in either via the West or from Japan. Due to India’s very strict obscenity laws,  that stuff was and still is, illegal. Getting caught distributing a copy of Playboy, Penthouse or Hustler would definitely land you in jail. The culture is extremely conservative despite what Bollywood movies, posh yoga retreats, globalization, friendly call-centers and neo-liberal policies may lead you to think.
That for many men in India and in other parts of the world, there are only two types of women in the world, the kind you enjoy and the kind you marry and the two are NOT the same. So of course this creates a double standard in Indian society which continues, in much the same way we have on this side of the Earth (The “why is it a guy can sleep around and be stud but if a girl does, she’s a slut?” type of arguments). Only in India they openly admit it and don’t deny it in the least. (Check out Mira Nair’s documentary “India Cabaret” if you can if you want to pursue this topic even more.)
One of the dancers from "India Cabaret" and how she's treated by her clients.

One of the dancers from “India Cabaret” and how she’s treated by her clients.

However with the internet, any sort of access is now possible. Viewing any sort of pornography is a few keystrokes away. There are no airport security, police officers and disapproving family members and public shaming to worry about. You can see anything you want, any time you want.  And it’s not just well-traveled Indian business men, university educated engineers and doctors, wealthy urbanites who can view this stuff. It’s also the poor migrant rural worker who left his village , who has never gone to school, who has never touched a girl in his life (except maybe a prostitute if he can afford one) because the public version of the culture he comes from does not allow it. It’s the uneducated rickshaw puller who has never seen nor talked to a woman from the West or even from within his own life aside from his mother or sister but has access and watches these porn videos and  videos of singers like Rihanna or Miley or Madonna or Christina and because he doesn’t know any better, then thinks that ALL women from the West naturally behave that way, are naturally that easy and are naturally that sexually open and voracious as implied in the images they create themselves or participate in.
One of Madonna's favorite dance moves.  Thankfully not every female hangs out like this in public all the time.

One of Madonna’s favorite dance moves. Thankfully not every female hangs out like this in public all the time.

“Maybe,” he might even venture to think, “perhaps all women deep down inside are like that so if I just isolate her and get a chance, she’ll do the same things for me which I see the women in those videos do. I get what I want, she’ll never speak up and no one will be any wiser.” (I mean I remember when Dynasty and Dallas were shown there. I had cousins come up to me thinking that I must live in a similar kind of house!)
As if I would ever live like these folks....

As if I would ever live like these folks….

When I was living in Turkey and specifically in Antalya, a very high-end holiday resort city which these days is full of very wealthy Russians, I had a weekly ritual, of buying either a copy of “The Guardian” or “The International Herald Tribune” every Sunday morning, have my breakfast at a local café and then walk over to one of the lovely public parks which looked over the Mediterranean sea, sit down on a park bench and read my newspaper. Guaranteed, within 5 minutes, some Turkish maganda-type (a sleazy guy) would sit himself down and try coming on to me. When I started yelling at them that I was a teacher, a hojam, they freaked out, ashamed and quickly fled.
You can't even have a serene moment to yourself even in a park like this in broad daylight.

You can’t even have a serene moment to yourself even in a park like this in broad daylight, if you’re a woman on her own.

Why did he act that way towards me?
What did he assume about me?
Turkey, unfortunately is known for sex-tourism for women, in much the same way Thailand is for men or Morocco or the island of Mykonos is for gay men. Usually older, lonely European ladies, from Germany, Russia, Holland, Denmark, Norway and England come with their girlfriends and “spend time” in holiday towns like Bodrum, Alanya, Antalya, Marmaris, Kemer and there are unfortunately thousands of male Turkish hotel workers or workers in the tourism industry who are there to serve them. I even heard stories from some of my students who specifically wanted to learn English so that they could get a job at a hotel so that they could meet a “rich Western lady” and once saw a 50-something British lady, have a 20-something Turkish lad move in with her in Fethiye and bought him a car. That jerk who tried coming on to me, just naturally assumed that because I was not Turkish, and like the other 98% of other non-Turkish women he probably has encountered, I was obviously there looking for a bit of action and so he tried to make a go of it. He spoke perfect English so clearly he wasn’t completely stupid. This was also Turkey, not a poor, developing nation by any stretch of the imagination, say unlike Bangladesh.
19 year olf Turkish boy-toy Cihat Haciveliogullari, with the dogs of his 53 year old wife Julie Haycocks.

19 year old Turkish boy-toy Cihat Haciveliogullari, with the dogs of his British  53 year old wife Julie Haycocks.

Another time, during the summer holidays in elementary school, I was shipped back to the old country to visit and stay with relatives. I must have been 10 or 11 at the time and still basically a kid. I was on a shopping expedition in Dhaka with two elderly aunts and some female cousins. Under normal circumstances, we had a driver who took us everywhere we needed to go but for whatever reason that evening, he couldn’t fetch us in time and we had to take the bus which caused a lot of consternation with my aunts though I didn’t understand why at the time.
Gulistan bus station did NOT look like this when I was there. Imagine this picture but with people teeming everywhere instead.

Gulistan bus station did NOT look like this when I was there. Imagine this picture but with people teeming everywhere instead.

Gulistan Bus Station in Dhaka is literally hell on Earth. It’s crowded, it stinks,  it’s teeming  with wall-to-wall people, mostly poor men, migrant workers from the villages. An older cousin quickly told me before we entered the crowd that no matter what happened, I just had to keep walking fast and not look at or talk to anyone until we got to our designated bus platform. So I listened to her and followed her in. Not even 20 seconds into the mêlée, was I suddenly feeling hands trying to grope me in places where I still didn’t have any places to speak of. I couldn’t tell who was doing it because it was just a constant stream of people all around us and they all looked the same. After a minute, I was ready to scream. By the second minute my disgust had turned into pure blood-red rage. I couldn’t take it anymore and that blasted bus platform was still 50 feet away. I grabbed the wrist of the next hand I felt on me, saw the arm it was attached to, saw the shoulder and then saw the face and then duly punched it without hesitation. He was shocked and fled. Bangladesh is very conservative socially and Muslim. Women are generally quiet and submissive so for a young girl to punch a man publicly is unheard of. The people around us saw what happened, my aunts were mortified but we got to the bus stop without another hand touching us.
A pretty good facsimile of your's truly as a kid.

A pretty good facsimile of your’s truly as a kid.

How women carry themselves and how they behave here in the West, whether they realize this or not, has a direct impact and even deeper implications in the way women are viewed and treated in other parts of the world, even if it may seem there is no visible relationship at first glance. The digital world changed all of that forever. So when Miley decides to fellate a sledgehammer or have a noted sleazeball (and unfortunately, influential fashion photographer) like Terry Richardson direct her videos, or Rihanna decides to open her legs wide open for all and sundry to look in, it may very well be their form of empowerment in the confines of the photo studio or the tiny video screen or their personal handicams, but it certainly isn’t for millions of women out there in the rest of the world, who board buses at night or who want to enjoy their Sunday newspaper in peace at the park or just want to get home safely.
What is this really saying?

What is this really saying?

It isn’t empowerment in cultures where male eyes don’t just travel but feel the right to own anything it sees. I think that’s the main reason why so many men in the West feel uncomfortable around women who wear hijabs, because it forces them to realize that these are women who are not and never will be sexually available to them and I’m near positive that’s what pisses them off the most. (It’s a totally different discussion and beyond the scope of this blog post, but Islamic feminism does exist and I have a few Muslim friends who do wear the hijab as a form of protest and as a feminist statement. In short it’s their way of saying to men “Look at *me*, deal with *me* as a person and nothing else. Not as someone who you can daydream about, not as someone who you can try to make a pass at eventually.  Just a person, and nothing else.”)
Wearing a hijab can be a political statement. For some women who are forced to wear it, it can be a sign of male domination. In other instances, it can be a form of rejection of male-imposed standards of beauty and sexual availability.

Wearing a hijab can be a political statement. For some women who are forced to wear it, it can be a sign of male domination. In other instances, it can be a form of rejection of male-imposed standards of beauty and sexual availability.

It isn’t body-acceptance when there are hundreds of millions of men who view a largely uncovered female form as permission towards body ownership.
I wish some of these artists would finally understand that sometimes showing more doesn’t always mean more. They may be showing more, but it’s hurting others even more. That when it comes to the female body, the excuse of cultural context is now forever gone thanks to the digital world. Sometimes showing less can be just as artistic and powerful.
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Categories: Politico, Pop culture, Raise your EQ, This is why the planet is screwed up | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “The Eye Does Not Have Permission To Own

  1. cw

    bang-on as usual. Great job.

  2. Mellie

    brilliantly said, thnak you for writing this.

  3. Linda-Sama

    right on! you nailed it. no pun intended. 😉

  4. Eve

    So excellent. Thank you.

  5. Very Insightful. This issue brings up the need for balance in our understanding of sexuality. Men’s bodies need to be honored as well as women’s. Men are caught up in all this disharmony as their bodies react to all the overt sexual baiting that goes on in our media. You brilliantly point that out by connecting men’s private behavior a half a world away from it.This is not just about women.

  6. What a powerful piece (as always) EER. You bring up so many things that I’m not quite sure where to begin. I completely agree with you about the behaviour of men around the world being dictated by what goes on in Western media (predominantly). Egypt sounds just like Turkey, sounds just like Bangladesh, sounds just like India on so many levels and I could never quite grasp how generations of men – educated and uneducated alike – could truly buy into the idea of the madonna/whore dichotomy.

    But then when I see things like Miley Cyrus twerking or “Ri Ri” doing god-knows-what it becomes a bit clearer. None the less infuriating, but clearer still.

    I find your hypothesis interesting about the wearing of religious garments like hijab/niqab/abbaya and why it may be an affront to Western men: “[…]these are women who are not and never will be sexually available to them and I’m near positive that’s what pisses them off the most. I’d be curious to know if that’s indeed the case, or if it’s a combination of the unknown/barbarian stereotype mixed in with a lust for the exotic, plus a power play thrown in for good measure. It certainly has given me food for thought…

    • I think many men buy into the whole madonna/whore dichotomy thing because that’s what is dictated in popular culture, in religion and especially in their own cultures which are largely patriarchial. I mean we’re talking centuries of the same kind of indoctrination. I think women, especially those in the limelight need to become even more aware of how powerful their own images are and to take back that control and try to project something more positive and empowering and not play into that dichotomy anymore. That would be a start. Unfortunately sex sells so many of these singers, actresses, play into it.

      As for the hijab pissing off Western men. I think the sexual unavailability thing has a part, but like you pointed out, I think the demonisation of the “Other” also has a part as well. What I’ve noticed is that when men can’t sexually fetishize something or someone, that something is automatically discredited, ridiculed, demonised etc. It really shows up their own inadequecies and insecurities if you ask me.

  7. Pingback: Merci beaucoup à vous tous! | The Shift Has Hit The Fan

  8. Pingback: Saying “NO” is Always an Option | The Shift Has Hit The Fan

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