Political Protest, Social Change and Bare Breasts

(Inspired by a recent conversation with Nina Mankin and Tatiane Feres)

 

In the midst of the Femen-inspired current where women and girls in North Africa (Egypt and now Tunisia) pose naked in the name of freedom from societal oppression and patriarchy, I feel compelled to make a few remarks. I am aware that this is an extremely sensitive and emotional topic for everyone and I am keen not to be misunderstood. Therefore I will very carefully specify what I think the issues are.

 

  1. There is no doubt that there is societal prejudice against and relatively excessive control of the behaviour of women in Egypt and, I assume, in Tunisia.
  2. This is consciously problematic for some (and not all) women. This is an important point because many women will vehemently deny that they are under any oppression – which brings us to point 3.
  3. This control is society-wide in the sense that it is not just the prerogative of men, but also of women who believe that their place is defined by the space men have created for them.
  4. Some women and some men strongly believe that something should be done about this.
  5. Aliaa el-Mahdy and (more recently) Amina believed they were doing something about this by posing naked (Amina had the slogan ‘my body is mine and not the source of anyone’s honour’ written on her chest- see the photo attached). They believe they are challenging patriarchy and social/moral norms.
  6. There is no doubt that such actions, by definition, constitute a challenge to patriarchy and norms, but are they addressing women’s broader problems of achieving equal rights and recognition in these societies?
  7. One answer is yes: through being subversive you launch debate and discussion on those issues, issues which otherwise remain dormant.
  8. An alternative answer would be that such actions are counter-productive since in being so radical they will cause serious offence in those communities, and people will not see beyond the offence and grasp the message conveyed by this subversive act.
  9. There is truth in both answers. In the case of Egypt some felt that what Aliaa el-Mahdy did will be pivotal for women’s liberation movements, while some women activists felt it was counterproductive as it tainted women civil rights movement in the eyes of a conservative society waiting for any chance to accuse such movements of immorality.
  10. Again there might be some truth in both claims.
  11. So I don’t particularly feel I can confidently say such actions are productive or not, as this really will depend on the nature of the goal you want such actions to achieve. If you want to shock, and you perceive some long-term value in shock – through introducing new elements into collective consciousness for example – then they are productive. If you are concerned with slow, gradual, social change then you will perceive such actions as counterproductive, if not downright harmful to the cause.
  12. Both points of view have something going for them. I am left, then, with the message conveyed by women who bare nude in protest. This message at the core of it is quite simple: My body belongs to me.
  13. The simplicity of this message is what makes it so powerful and divisive.
  14. Basically you can either agree with this message or reject it. This is the source of the perennial misunderstanding between those with a religious outlook and those without, or between the majority of Egyptians, say, and the majority of North Europeans in relation to the question of the meaning of acts of nudity (excuse my generalisation but the point is to identify two positions rather than groups).
  15. The first position (P1) rejects this statement as false: your body does not belong to you, there are so many other caretakers such as God and Society.
  16. The second position (P2) finds this hugely insulting and demeaning. My body is mine, it’s the most ‘mine’ of all things, like my private thoughts. No one has any claim on my body.
  17. And so for P2, those who adhere to P1 appear to disrespect individuality at its most basic – the notion that you have sole autonomy over your body. This disrespect is further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Arabs/Muslims/etc) are backward and belong to the dark-ages.
  18. Alternatively, for P1, those who adhere to P2 represent the worst excesses of individualism: unhinging the body from the sphere of morality as a meaningless physical substance. This may be further explained in line with common prejudice by saying, for instance, that those people (Europeans/Westerners/etc) are mired in immorality and disgusting in the way they have forsaken God.
  19. And so there is a stalemate and we can all part without an ounce of shared understanding and with both sets of prejudices confirmed. Great. Just another day of life as we know it.
  20. But there is a solution. And as with all good solutions it involves some kind of synthesis of P1 and P2, as both contain some truths, and the challenge is to articulate this synthesis .. to be continued ..

 

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Review: Freedom, Reassessments and Rephrasings

http://metapsychology.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=book&id=5510&cn=394

[Excerpt]

Starting with Isaiah Berlin’s definition of freedom as “negative and positive liberty”, Hirschmann proceeds to demonstrate that positive liberty does not consist only in the removal of external barriers and the facilitation of conditions conducive to the expression of freedom but must also include attending to “internal barriers”- fears, addictions, compulsions – that may prevent individuals from making the right choices and accessing their freedom. Building on the ideas of Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes she extends the notion of the social construction of the virtuous citizen to the social construction of desire and choice, thus reversing the question from what I want or desire to why I harbor certain desires and make certain choices. Freedom then becomes not only about the absence of constraint to make a choice but also about the discursive construction of choice, and true freedom “has to be about having a say in defining the context” where choices are made. Hirschmann’s thesis raises many important questions, one of which I would like to introduce here: given the constructed nature of desire and choice, and the inevitable presence of what Sartre would call ‘Bad-faith’ (1943/2001, Ch. 2), what grounds do we have in determining the real freedom of an agent?