Saturday, February 11, 2006

Talking Vaginally


I'll always been a bit hesitant to embrace Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues. Sure, the play is funny and witty and sadly applicable to the current state of affairs. Yet there was always something a little too essentialist about celebrating the cunt and something a little too potentially imperialistic about claiming to speak for oppression of women in Afghanistan and Africa. My penchant for cultural relativism always took precedent.

But last night I went to see Yale's production and the monologue about comfort women and the Japanese government's refusal to acknowledge made me weep. Women are constantly denied visibility about our achievements and about the violence we endure. The silencing of comfort women during World War II is enacted by the same mechanisms which silence Yale women (and men) who have been sexually assaulted and harrassed and violated on this campus - who have been denied the right to protection and support because of social stigma and the administration's refusal to take a more proactive stance. The truth is, as Jean Beaudrillard writes, we are all victims. We are all complicit in the oppression of others but we are all also, in various ways, oppressed. Women and men, here and abroad, are all victims of partiarchy.

On a lighter note, bravo to the women who performed the Vagina Monologues here at Yale. It must take an impressive sense of self to take that kind of risk to be so honest and so real, to share stories about violence, about pleasure, about shame, about sexuality, about orgasms in such a hostile space. We thank you.

10 comments:

Jen C. said...

I admit I have not seen the monologues - not for ideological reasons, but just as I haven't.

However I did want to share an interesting critique of the Monologues by Betty Dodson: http://bettydodson.com/vaginano.htm

Reading this (somewhat unexpected) perspective made me eager to see for myself next time I have the chance.

AMac said...

Hi,

I stopped by the blog after reading a Wall St. Journal Op-Ed by John Fund.

Fund quoted Della Sentilles' comment on the new career of Taliban deputy foreign secretary Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi as a Yale student:

"As a white American feminist, I do not feel comfortable making statements or judgments about other cultures, especially statements that suggest one culture is more sexist and repressive than another."

Wow.

Fund also quotes Ziba Ayeen, a Afghan-American who fled her native land with her family in the 1980s: "The irony of Yale educating an official in a regime that barred women from going to school is too much."

The courage displayed by Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes to mind. Sadly, a search of this blog for her name comes up There are no web results for this query. Perhaps some feminists are more equal than others.

> ...and something a little too potentially imperialistic about claiming to speak for oppression of women in Afghanistan and Africa. My penchant for cultural relativism always took precedent.

Even the casual reader could have guessed.

The blessing or curse of blogs is that your words are liable to persist for a long, long time. I think about that whenever I post.

Perhaps when Ms. Sentilles has a little more life experience under her belt, she won't be deeply ashamed of what she's written on the intersection of women's rights and Islamism. Some apologists come to regret their easy accomodation of evil. Others don't.

I guess time will tell.

Anonymous said...

Amac,

I appreciate your response and your linking to the op-ed. Unfortunately, you left out my rational for feeling uncomfortable: "American feminism is often linked to and manipulated by the state in order to further its own imperialist ends". Additionally, John Fund did not contact me or interview me for the article and took that comment from a written conversation on the blog I was having in defense of my editorial on misogyny at Yale (See "In Defense of Feminism" 2/27).

I, too, was troubled by my quotation and its placement next to Ziba Ayeen's comment. On some level that is precisely my point, I cannot speak for Afghan women because I do not know enough. I will never understand what it means to be denied all access to education, to be forced to wear a burqua. And, I would never be as audacious to presume I know more than she or that I can even make comparisons. Misogyny is all over this planet, as a feminist at Yale, I have, perhaps selfishly chosen my own feminist project and it has to do with the academy precisely because that is the one place I think I can speak out because I am a participant.

As the rest of my quotation in the WSJ explains my hesitancy to "judge" the Taliban is more a criticism about the US government's decision to care about women's rights only when its interested in other things (e.g. terrorism, oil, symbolic violence in retaliation) rather than a defense of the Taliban. If the US really cared about women's rights it wouldn't deny American women access to health care, there would be equal pay, and the number of sexual assaults, especially in the US army, would decrease. And, the US would not focus on just Afghan women, but all women all over the world. I don't see anyone in the White House lamenting the treatment of women by the Saudis or female genital cutting in parts of Northern Africa or the blatant denial of right for women in Turkey (i.e. divorce law). It's not like the Bush adminstration or even Laura Bush cared about Afghan women before 9/11. I also don't think bombing a country does much to protect people, especially women. It just means more deaths and less safe places to avoid rape by Afghan men and foreign soldiers.

That being said, it's complicated. This blog is suppose to be a space where people can disagree and learn, including the bloggers, especially me. My ideas are still developing and sometimes they come across as less thoughtful than the should be.

-Della

AMac said...

Dear Della,

I assume that the irony in your response is unintentional, or you would have written more subtly.

You say you avoid speaking "for Afghan women because I do not know enough. I will never understand what it means to..."

How fortunate that your understanding is broad and deep enough to criticize planetwide misogyny, the US government's motives concerning women's rights, and the meanings of terrorism, oil, and symbolic violence. Your insights are also sufficient to declaim about American women's access to health care, gender equality in pay, sexual assault rates in the US Army, the treatment of women by the Saudis, FGM in Africa, Turkish divorce law, and the decline in the number of safe places in which to avoid rape in Afghanistan.

That's two paragraphs' worth of confident assertions, from one comment on one post on the Vagina Monologues.

Yet notwithstanding the eloquent restatement of think globally, act locally ("as a feminist at Yale, I have, perhaps selfishly chosen my own feminist project and it has to do with the academy precisely because that is the one place I think I can speak out because I am a participant"), you have nothing to say about the face of evil that happily shares your classrooms.

That would be former Taliban deputy foreign secretary Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi. Far from hiding his thoughts on women's rights (etc.), one must suppose that his exotic combination of noteriety and diversity is what earned him a place at Yale.

Your complaint about Fund seems to be that he quoted you. If you think that he misrepresented your writing or took your words out of context, you haven't explained how.

Anyway--your newest classmate embraces a feudalism that is best-in-class for bigotry, homophoby, intolerance, and misogyny. Curiously, the political philosopher who formulated many of the ideas that you disjointedly embrace was rather famous for his preference for capitalism over feudalism.

If it's not doubleplusungood, you might reflect on his reasoning, and its application to your present situation.

CPAguy said...

Della,

You are an American feminist. You have the right of free speech, an outstanding education, and a blog. If you won't speak up for the women of Afghanistan, then who will? Of course you can't speak to the totality of their experience, but there are certain aspects of the treatment of women under the Taliban that you can condemn as wrong. They were under a brutal regime that gave them virtually no ability to speak for themselves. They need people like you to speak up about their conditions.

Now that the US military has defeated the Taliban, and conditions are improving for afghani women, where should feminist attention be focused next?

Tom said...

Amac,

Why do you think that Della's stated hesitancy to speak for other women disqualifies her to know or speak out on anything else?

Also, you write: Yet notwithstanding the eloquent restatement of think globally, act locally, you have nothing to say about the face of evil that happily shares your classrooms.

Sorry if I missed this, but when exactly was Della asked to address this? Della can correct me if I'm wrong, but the quote taken from Fund's post does not even seem to refer directly to Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi. To criticize Della for having "nothing to say" on a topic on which she has not yet spoken seems rude and presumptious, in my opinion.

One thing is certain: you came over here to construct and attack a straw man in the comments section of a post that has nothing to do with what you wanted to fight about. This is, of course, bad blog etiquette. I know, I know--you just had to post it somewhere, preferably where God and everybody could witness your righteous indignation (because sending a mere email is not nearly exhibitionist enough, is it? Or am I being unfair?).

I won't speak for Della, but I'm not impressed.

Tom

AMac said...

Tom,

Your comment on ...disqualifies her... is a silly straw man.

when was Della asked to address Taliban spokesman Hashemi's presence at Yale? Um, given her position as a feminist Yalie blogger I solicited her opinion at 10:35am, above. Della responded at 4:27pm, above. If your point is that--this being her blog--that she didn't have to respond, than we agree. Bad etiquitte to thoughtully and politely discuss matters with a post's author? Not in my world.

Or am I being unfair? Carry on, by all means. Or, if you wish, let Della decide which comments she chooses to delete, or let stand, or respond to. This being her blog. Her being a grown-up. And all that.

Tom, if you're at Yale, I'm interested in how you handle the apparent cognitive dissonance between nonjudgmental/feminist/postmodern ideology and your institution's recruitment of the evil, misogynist Hashemi. If this is the wrong forum--Della's call--provide a link, if you wish.

Tom said...

Amac,

Just one quick point of fact: in the 10:35 am post above, you did not solicit Della's opinion on the subject about which you subsequently accuse her of having "nothing to say."

You came, you copy/pasted, you ranted (on a random and unrelated post). Then, she responded, and you invoked the straw man by attacking her over an opinion you are projecting but that she has not yet expressed (i.e. your assumption that Della has no criticism of the Taliban's treatment of women).

By the way, I'm not at Yale, but to conflate nonjudgementalism with feminism and postmodernism speaks volumes about your preconceived notions of each. I don't happen to believe that Yale should be in the business of denying someone admission based on their previous actions or thoughts, whether the applicant is a former criminal or a communist. Rather, I think that Yale should be concerned with whether or not applicants will make positive contributions to the academic community at Yale University. If there are extenuating circumstances such as a record of on-going violent behavior, that would be reason to deny someone admission, but I don't believe that ideology alone should disqualify someone outright. Do you?

As a post script, I apologize for contributing to the hijacking of this thread in order to further this conversation. Della, please delete away as you see fit; Amac, please email me if you'd like to continue: thoberg@[nospam]gmail.com

Tom said...

P.S. "...a silly straw man"? Not at all--you spent the first section of your 9:35 am post above mocking the supposed "irony" of Della's hesitance to speak on behalf of other women, in the face of her willingness to opine on other topics. I didn't make that up--you wrote it. So it's a man, baby, not a straw man. And the question still stands: Why do you think that Della's stated hesitancy to speak for other women disqualifies her to know or speak out on anything else?

The answer, as you know, is simple: it doesn't.

AMac said...

Tom,

Thanks for your thoughts. You make your points clearly, as I hope I have done.

I won't respond to you at any length--it's Della's blog and post. If she wants to start a new thread on feminist thoughts about Mr. Hashemi at Yale, maybe that will be a place for me to weigh in again. Meantime, I'll drop you a line.