Few other objects in our world are loved, loathed, prodded, violated, destroyed, caged, freed, and celebrated as the female form. It is the central anchor of much ‘patriarchal’ dominance; a crippled or bowed woman means any man is bigger than her, no matter his real height. Some of our first creative expressions – perhaps our oldest – concerns the female form, as seen in the ‘Venus of the Fels Cave’.
I am hesitant to use ‘just-so-stories’ but there are as many suggestions as they are theorists, about this universal fascination. For example, one reason for her allure, suggests Peter Watson, might originate with her godlike powers of creation of that all important product: human-life. If religion is the impotent, myopic, and ignorant expressions of wonder at being alive, it’s no wonder the goddess was celebrated as the creator. Watching a screaming tiny person emerge from the blood and entrails, our ancestors could only wonder what powers must generate such life? We must not forget, there was a time when we had no idea how reproduction worked. Human life seemed to happen suddenly, without explanation, but still retaining the awesome impact it appears to have on people – not me, other people. The female was accorded these godlike powers, perhaps for this reason.
As I say, I find this explanation too simplistic. It is fascinating or ‘tantalising’ – to use Peter Watson’s favourite word. We must not forget other reasons: the perceived weakness of the better sex, the detraction from hunting to allow child to come to term, the caring of said child, and so on. But these, too, seem simplistic.
What interests me is what oppression of the female form represents today. It is no coincidence that the places many of us consider a cesspool of female oppression also dresses its women in what Sam Harris calls ‘cloth bags’. Islamic countries with their love of god and even greater love of treating women like GI Joes in the teeth of angry children, are being rightly criticised for their treatment of the better sex. There is no increase in civility, gentlemanly manners or cordiality when women are prevented from driving, raped whenever their husbands feel like it, and are unable to leave these pre-arranged prison-sentences.
It’s not so much men behaving badly as men behaving honestly when confronted with an object they can own, or use as they will. And this points us back to its battleground-status. Governments walk all over her – whether it’s because she wants to be topless like her male counterparts or because she wants the right to control her own form; men kill each other over her – a hangover from our ancestral past?
My good friend Emma asks at her blog:
What is it about the female body that is so outrageous that in some cultures it must be covered from head to foot? Why are those Saudi men such jerks?
Well, as we noted above: it’s no fault that covering women up gives men licence to treat them as a sperm bank, punching-bag, and cook. Seeing them dress up means the women have given in to the strict dress-codes as set up by a male society. It means they have given themselves over to being property. This is not volunteered servility, but the awful scenario of being born a woman in an Islamic country.
I recall the great AC Grayling challenging John Gray about progress, in an interview with Julian Baggini. Grayling anchored his defence of progress by saying that at no other point in history, would he want to be a woman. To be one today in a secular democratic society is, so far, the best women could hope for, it appears. (Of course he is aware of such societies not necessarily reducing male idiocy and thuggish behaviour carried over from a thuggish form of religion).
Look how the female form is used today: as testament to our ‘progress’ as a species, as an allure for some expensive product, as a measurement of wealth (two girls, one old octogenerian). Its power can be used accordingly. But Emma’s point needs to be answered. It seems to me that giving men licence, through Islamic persuasion, to do what they like – the Quran sanctions such things – means there is no stopping or curtailing the tide of thuggish brutality. It’s as if they know their weakness is women, and so must control it. Notice this gives rise to that horrid excuse: ‘She was raped because of what she was wearing.’ The battleground is also the artwork, the deceiver, the devil’s gateway. She is hated because she appears powerful. It’s not enough to deny her body freedom, we must also deny her mind.
Stephen Hawking often speaks eloquently about being restricted because of his condition, but completely free in his mind to touch the ends of the universe. But how many repressed Muslim women, living in backward, brutish, Islamic environments even know our universe is wider than what the Quran claims? It’s not enough for us to talk about the oppression of women, to acknowledge the female form has power. In these, my speculations of Islamic communities, I see the greatest wonder aimed at the female form; I see nothing but the need to shackle wonder lest it stray away from god’s throne; I see men trying to blame all the ills on someone else. So the question is not ‘why are Saudi men such jerks?’ but ‘why are they obsessed with the female form?’. And the answer is simple: we all are. Some of us, however, think there are better ways to treat them than sticking them in a cloth bag.