Lourdes Garcia-Navarro's recent article on NPR, posing the question of which location is "more" sexist, the Middle East or Brazil, displays a reductionism that is all too common in Western feminist discourse. Why is clothing and the ability or purported inability of women to fashion themselves continually heralded as the most potent site of feminist resistance in the west?
In her sweeping generalizations about women in the Middle East, Garcia-Navarro invokes the age-old equation of the veil with oppression. Her article doesn't include the voices of those veiled women who she deems oppressed and denies them the agency to speak for themselves. Much like the veil ban in France, this kind of approach fails to account for the myriad other modes of resistance that are possible in the non-Western world. A world that, if Garcia-Navarro is to be believed, lacks "sex appeal." The article creates an insidious binary of a scantily clad Brazil and a Middle East devoid of political and demographic nuance, where its entire homogenized population of women are shuttered, tradition-bound, and powerless. She mentions FGM. Yes, FGM is a serious issue, but its lazy and boogeyman-like inclusion in discussions like these doesn't do much apart from inspiring moral outrage and feeding the confirmation biases of Western readers, or triggering a wave of cultural relativism and disengagement from discussions about the practice. What about homegrown women's groups in the Middle East? Where are their voices in articles like this?
The notion of freedom in Brazil that Garcia-Navarro deploys in her conclusion, a freedom of women to adorn or not to adorn, is a neoliberal assumption that needs to be problematized more in the mainstream media. The nearly naked and "free" woman of Brazil is hardly free from society's expectations of sexual availability and accessibility by men. Freedom implies a certain kind of egalitarian existence, whether it's along sexual, racial, or class-based lines. Sex workers in Brazil's favelas are currently experiencing the brunt of brutal governmental policies to gentrify and pacify Rio neighborhoods ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. Questions of their sartorial freedom seem silly when up against the forces of class warfare, a war waged by the very same neoliberal municipalities who equate freedom with criminalization and profit maximization at the expense of the working poor.
Jason Huettner is a freelance writer in New York. He received his B.A. from Hunter College in 2010 in English Language, Literature, and Criticism. His areas of interest include military science, postcoloniality, and gender studies.
Image via Malcolm Evans' site.