In “The Color of Sex: Postwar Photographic Histories of Race and Gender,” by Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins (reprinted in The Anthropology of Media: A Reader, 2002, pps. 92-116), we encounter this very illuminating passage dealing with the figure of the veiled, non-Western woman, photographed by National Geographic, placing the apparent obsession with the veiled woman in a broader historical and cultural context:
Fanon (1965: 39) pointed out in his analysis of French colonial attitudes and strategies concerning the veil in Algeria that the colonialists’ goal, here as elsewhere in the world, was “converting the woman, winning her over to foreign values, wrenching her free from her status” as a means of “shaking up the [native] man” and gaining control of him. With this and other motives, those outsiders who would “develop” the third world have often seen the advancement of non-Western women as the first goal to be achieved, with their men’s progress thought to follow rather than precede it. In the nineteenth century, evolutionary theory claimed that the move upward from savagery to barbarism to civilization was indexed by the treatment of women, in particular by their liberation “from the burdens of overwork, sexual abuse, and male violence” (Tiffany and Adams 1985: 8). It “saw women in non-Western societies as oppressed and servile creatures, beasts of burden, chattels who could be bought and sold, eventually to be liberated by ‘civilization’ or ‘progress,’ thus attaining the enviable position of women in Western society” (Etienne and Leacock 1980: 1), who were then expected to be happy with their place (pps. 109-110).
Lutz and Collins are right in that we can find evidence going far back in the literature of men writing about the abuse of women by their native male partners. In my own research on the historical narratives that invented the “extinction of the indigenous” in the Caribbean, I came across this passage from a volume published in 1858 with a lot of material about Trinidad’s aboriginal population (specifically: De Verteuil, L. A. A. 1858. Trinidad: Its Geography, Natural Resources, Administration, Present Condition, and Prospects. London: Ward & Lock, p. 172):
“At present there cannot be above 200 or 300 Indians in the colony, so that the aborigines may be said to be almost extinct….finally sunk under the ascendancy of a more intelligent race….but I also coincide in opinion with some judicious observers, who trace the approximate extinction of those tribes to the marked presence manifested by the Indian women towards the negroes and the whites, by whome they were kindly treated, whilst they were regarded by their husbands, of kindred race, more as slaves and beasts of burden, than as equals or companions. As a consequence of those connections, there exists at present, in the colony, a certain number of individuals of Indian descent, but of mixed blood.”
This narrative of the West bringing freedom to the women of the non-West is hardly absent today; if anything, it seems louder and even more hypocritical than ever before, especially when we learn that one of the agents of this liberation–the U.S. military–is a misogynist’s paradise. Presumably looking at the Arab revolution–but not really–media celebrities have cynically and opportunistically exploited the reported rape and assault on CBS journalist Lara Logan in Egypt as an excuse for a sweeping commentary on “Middle Eastern attitudes” and “Muslim men” and the need for a “sexual revolution,” with some like Bill Maher insisting, “We’re better….we’re better!” (this is how Maher, inevitably, always purchases a space of acceptance, radical on some fronts, but reassuringly jingoistic and blatanly ethnocentric on other fronts). In line with this discussion, I recommend the recent articles and reports below for a much deeper and more up to date reading.
Roger Ebert’s ‘sad focus,’ by South/South:
Extract: Here’s why Ebert’s statement was out and out harmful and hurtful: • It singles out ‘Middle East attitudes toward women’ at the exclusion of all other regions and all other people. • It promotes a generality about ’Middle East attitudes toward women’ that is unverifiable, but one that easily plays in to orientalist, bigoted and racist attitudes toward Middle Easterners, Arabs and Muslims. • It makes the indignities that women suffer, from unsolicited groping to catcalls to group sexual assault into a cultural issue rather than a grave and global obstacle to gender harmony. • It wrongly limits the scope of sexist attitudes to the Middle East. This is ethnic exceptionalism. • In the face of all these generalizations it obscures rape culture: ‘Rape culture is rape being used as a weapon, a tool of war and genocide and oppression. Rape culture is rape being used as a corrective to “cure” queer women. Rape culture is a militarized culture and “the natural product of all wars, everywhere, at all times, in all forms.” • In the past decade of the Global War on Terror, brown bodies have been attacked on the basis of such justifications. If women in the Middle East are mistreated and subjected to derogatory attitudes and beliefs, then Western ‘civilized’ nations are justified to ‘liberate’ Middle Eastern women from their men.
Five inquiries on the worth of an Afghan woman, by South/South:
Extract: Is it worth remembering when Laura Bush visited Afghanistan in 2005 to put ‘a female-friendly face on an unpopular pro-corporate agenda‘?
In Tahrir Square and the Pentagon: Sexual assault exposed, by Suzanne Merkelson, Foreign Policy–a definite “must read”:
Extract: When one woman made a mistake at work, her boss called her a “stupid fucking female” and spit in her face. She was later stalked, sexually harassed, and raped. Another woman got drunk with her coworker, who was her superior, when he raped her. She spent the next two years forced to continue working with him; her work assignments were downgraded because she took medication to cope with the trauma of the ordeal. A third woman was sexually harassed by a supervisor and raped by a coworker. When she sought help from her workplace’s chaplain, she was told that “it must have been God’s will for her to be raped” and was recommended to attend church more often.
Where do these women work?: The U.S. military.
Military sexual abuse ‘staggering,’ Al Jazeera:
Extract: According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of sexual assault on women in the military is twice that in the civilian population. A Government Accountability Office report concluded that most victims stay silent because of “the belief that nothing would be done; fear of ostracism, harassment, or ridicule and concern that peers would gossip.”
While a civilian rape victim is ensured confidential advice from his or her doctors, lawyers and advocates, the only access a military rape survivor has is to a chaplain.
Gates, Rumsfeld Sued Over U.S. Military’s Rape Epidemic, by Jesse Ellison, The Daily Beast:
Extract: A landmark lawsuit filed Tuesday against Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, alleges that the military’s repeated failures to take action in rape cases created a culture where violence against women was tolerated, violating the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights.
…and some interesting statistics that show how much better “we” are:
- “According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day” (National Organization of Women)
- “1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime” (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)
- “Rape and sexual assault comprise 2.1% of all workplace victimizations, accounting for an average of 36,500 incidents annually” (Houston Area Women’s Center: Sexual Assault in the Workplace)