A Walk In Saudi Arabia

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Just when we’re watching the Enlightenment being burned alive by a pack of snarling university sophomores. . .
Just when we’re seeing common sense being sacrificed on the altar of pseudo social justice. . .
Just when we discover that the barbarians at the gates have kicked in the door and are actually pitching their tents in the garden. . .
And just as we realize that our society isn’t going to Hell anymore because it’s already renting a house in the subterranean suburbs. . .
It is at this moment that an anonymous Saudi woman puts on a miniskirt, goes for a stroll in the historic streets of Ushayqir and challenges the darkness to a duel.

For the uninformed, Ushayqir is part of an ultra-religious conservative area of the Kingdom of Saud, a vast patch of sand that exists entirely in the 8th century.  By law, women in Saudi Arabia, must be covered — toes to tonsils — in a black bag called an abaya.  They also have to cover their hair and, if they don’t want a boatload of grief, wear a veil.  BTW, they can’t drive cars, associate with unrelated men, go anywhere alone or even leave the house without permission.  Women in Saudi Arabia aren’t actually bought-and-sold property, but if the sandal fits, you might as well slip it on.  So, a woman walking around as casually as if she were in London, Rome or Paris is cause for alarm in the land that time forgot.  She can be arrested, imprisoned and even whipped.  Why?  She’s dangerous.  She is as dangerous to the established social order as any dissident author, any fiery orator, or any armed revolutionary.  She’s dangerous because she has the audacity to exist — and somewhere, sometime, somehow, some other girl might see her.

I don’t know if this is a Rosa Parks moment or not.  Quite frankly, I’m as ignorant as most Westerners about the nuances of the Middle East.  But I do know this.  While Western feminists and intellectuals may posture and pose, debating how many misogynists can dance on the head of a pin, this woman’s simple act of defiance is a very real candle in an increasingly dark world.

 

International Women’s Day — 2013

snooki3I wasn’t the least bit shocked to discover that Nicole Polizzi has lost 42 pounds; actually I hadn’t given it much thought.  I was a bit surprised, though, to find that it’s headline news.  Granted, she wasn’t “above the fold” as they say (that was reserved for Hugo and Stompin’ Tom) but she was still there, dressed in a bikini bottom smile to generate magazine sales and promote the 2nd season of her television show.  I’m not opposed to people using their bodies to make a living; after all, professional athletes do it every day.  Nor am I against self promotion, although I am wary of some of the stuff people get up to, to put their names in the public eye.  (Witness Dennis Rodman’s recent adventure.)  Weight loss, however, is nothing serious; Oprah Winfrey was using it as a marketing ploy (tool?) back when Ms. Polizzi was still in diapers.  (That’s a disturbing image, BTW)  No, Nicole can put herself out there all she wants.  Even her ensuing interview didn’t bother me that much.  I’m not sure my life is any fuller knowing that she’s not quite as horny as she used to be, but I suppose, in an abstract way, I’m glad she still makes time for sex when she can.  What I did wonder, however, was what would history’s serious women think about the antics of contemporary females like Ms Polizzi who have taken to whoring their privacy for so little gain and such limited fame.  What, for example, would Lillian Hellman have to say, or Tina Modotti or the tongue that launched a thousand quips, Dorothy Parker?

For those of you who don’t live on this planet, Nicole Polizzi is Snooki the sex gerbil from Jersey Shore, and Lillian, Tina and Dorothy are some of the great-grandmothers from the 1920s and 30s who cut a path for her to get there.

The last thing the world needs right now is a lesson in feminism.  However, I think that we should stop for a moment, take three deep ones and get some perspective.  Snooki and her cohorts are smart business people.  They know what sells, and they’ve packaged themselves as the product.  This is not a sin.  Their transgression is not what they do; it’s the way they do it.

Way back in the day, the women who first strolled through the Men Only door in the media arts were considered anomalies, at best.  They were there for the female perspective.   Men did the heavy intellectual lifting, and the girls softened the edges, normally on a separate page.  This all changed in the 1930s.  Unwilling to be segregated, women like Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman took centre stage, as accepted (if not equal) parts of the New York literary scene.  They did their share of crap (both wrote for Hollywood) but they also confronted some serious social and political issues.  Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934) dealt with lesbianism before most of America knew it even existed.  Meanwhile, the outspoken Parker was eventually blacklisted for her sharp and uncompromising political views.  At the same time, women like Martha Gellhorn and Msnookiargaret Bourke-White were making their bones as legitimate foreign correspondents.  Gelllhorn covered the Spanish Civil War for Collier’s and Bourke-White went to the Soviet Union for Fortune Magazine.  (She was the first Western journalist allowed in, by the way.)  Other photojournalists, like Dorothea Lange were picturing the Great Depression with a feminine eye, and Tina Modotti was putting a female face on the Mexican Revolution.

The one recurring theme throughout this entire period was that women were just as smart as their male counterparts, just as serious — but they were still women.  They didn’t just echo men.  Amelia Earhart might fly with the boys (and frequently did) but it was the typewriters and cameras of the age that gave the world a uniquely female intellectual voice.  People stopped, looked and listened.

Today, a lot of people are going to stop and look at Snooki in her faux leopard bathing costume.  They’re going to watch her TV program and listen to what she says.  At twenty-five, her claims to fame are being frequently drunk, getting punched in the face and losing 42 pounds after the birth of her first child.  As a businesswoman she’s obviously smart and clever enough to turn these minimal assets (?) into a million dollar industry.  However, I wonder what the girls* from the 30s would make of what their female voice has become.

Happy International Women’s Day

*Make no mistake: Hellman, Parker, Gellhorn and the rest were just girls at the time.  They drank and partied to excess.  They smoked Virginia tobacco and Mexican marijuana.  They listened to cool jazz and Cab Calloway’s hot jive.  They had sex with who they wanted to; when they wanted to.  They married, divorced and frequently took lovers.  They danced in the streets.  They were young and acted like it.

International Women’s Day 2011

Yesterday was International Women’s Day; in fact, it was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  This is a landmark occasion, so, at the risk of being condemned to patriarchal hell for all eternity, I’ve decided to write a few words.  To the arch-feminists in the crowd: yes, I understand I can’t speak with any authority about women.  To the folks caught in a 19th century time warp: no, I haven’t sold out my gender.  To everybody else: keep an open mind.  (One of the hazards of living in the 21st century is the disclaimers just keep getting longer and longer.)

Either way, International Women’s Day is an important event.  It’s a day to stop for a moment, take out the equality scorecard and see how everybody’s doing.  There are three schools of thought on women’s equality: 1) Women have come a long way in one hundred years, 2) No, we (they) haven’t and 3) Oh, God!  Do we have to do this again?  Personally, I roll with #1 — with a ton of asterisks, if, for no other reason than a couple of weeks ago, Hillary told Hosni to clean out his desk.  In 1911, she’d still be baking pies, defending husband Bill and staring down the gossip in the hope that he might be home for dinner.  See what I mean?  There’s something very plus ca change about the relationship between Venus and Mars in our society, but that’s my whole point.

Women may be doing all the things men do, but our world is full of subtle illustrations that women’s equality is quietly missing the mark.

For example, female role models have changed over the last hundred years.  Back in the 20th century, long before anybody thought about the equality of the sexes, the public faces of women’s achievement were people like Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the women’s movement gathered speed girls looked to Shirley Chisholm, Sally Ride and Sandra Day O’Connor as the kind of people they wanted to emulate.  These days, however, despite over half a century of better education and opportunity most girls know more about the Kardashian sisters and Snooki than they do about Indra K. Nooyi or Olympia Snowe.  And it’s important to note that Snooki is actually replacing the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.  This has been going on for a while.  Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against either Snooki or Kim Kardashian.  They both strike me as very good businesswomen, who have taken limited resources and turned them into substantial bucks.  I just don’t think the girls I knew, back in the day, who worked so hard to be taken seriously by their male counterparts, envisioned sexual marketing as the conduit to equality for their granddaughters.  It’s really all about image versus substance.

The female image has also changed quite a bit since 1911.  In film, for instance, women spent most of the last century as emotionally confused damsels in distress.  Today, they’re far more independent.  They get to choose their partners.  They solve problems.  They have their own storyline.  In action movies, sometimes they get to saddle up with the men and go out and do battle with the monster or the villain.  This all looks very much like an equal opportunity to get eaten by the swamp beast, but take another look.  The boys are wearing some heavy-duty armour but she’s dressed in high heels and a thong.  In other words, it’s “We’re all in this together honey, but you don’t get as many clothes.”  It’s pretty much the same in all movies.  There’s always an extra button undone.  I have no problem with filmmakers portraying female sexuality, but times have changed and movies should also.  When Halle Berry comes walking out of the surf in Die Another Day (2002) she looks remarkably like Ursula Andress walking out of the surf in Dr. No (1962.)  I understand the director did this on purpose.  My question is why?   (And I’m not even going to talk about Catwoman, which is a disgrace.)  I think most people find it hard to believe that any assistant district attorney, or vice-president, or special government agent spends that much time falling out of her clothes.  Yet this is the image of women we’ve all come to expect, if not accept.

Of course, in the end, it’s not only about image.  We just happen to live in a visual age.  It’s how we judge ourselves.  And it’s how we judge women.  At this point in time, celebrities — male and female — hold pride of place in our society.  Scientists, doctors and economists do not.  Sex sells.  These are all facts; we might not like them, but they do exist.  Therefore, it’s only natural that young girls are looking at wild and crazy Kim Kardashian and steering away from stern and steady Condoleezza Rice.  However, history has a way of sorting things out.  Let me tell you a story.  One hundred years ago, in 1911, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  At the same time, she was being ripped apart in the French newspapers for having a love affair with Paul Langevin, a married student who was five years younger that she was.  This went on for months.  Today, history remembers Marie Curie but has all but forgotten the love affair.  Chances are good that, on International Women’s Day 2061, people will remember Irene Rosenfeld, Angela Merkel and Sonia Sotomayor; Snooki, Kim and Khloe will all have been swept away.