The legacies of Orientalism and the exoticizing of women

[content note: Discussions of Orientalism, with mentions of racism,  sexualisation, rape, violence, slavery, genocide, and colonialism]

Orientalism is a way of thinking that gives rationalization for European/Western colonialism based on the oppressive history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as “exotic”, “backward”, less “enlightened”, and in need of imperialism to be rescued. Part of it involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, uncivilized — representing a widespread socialization of which Europeans/Westerners are seen as inherently superior in comparison.

A part of Orientalism includes exoticization against the “Orient”/”Other” (East), which also involves seeing women of color as needing to be liberated via hypersexualization. In history, Orientalism hugely affects religious women of color and seeks to suppress certain religious rights. For example, historic colonialist violence relies on Orientalism to unveil religious Muslim women of color. This is found in the example of when Lord Cromer, a British leader in Egypt, accused the Egyptians of degrading women through veiling. Thus he attempted to unveil Egyptian women, which can be said to be a form of hypersexualization; and he attempted to show himself as liberating the “Orient”, whilst using the opportunity to end the pre-existing Egyptian practice of training women to be doctors and furthering colonialist interest at the expense of women. However, due to the large legacies left behind by historic colonialism, Orientalism can encompass many things globally and is not exclusively a religious issue; thus it extends to structures of institutional racism that are still alive today, which also effect non-religious women of color.

Indigenous feminist Andrea Smith has said that the logic of Orientalism is considered the third pillar of white supremacy, and thus Orientalism has been used to defend the logics of slavery and genocide. An increasingly globalized, all encompassing Orientalism further strengthens widespread violence against women of color in this world.

Thus, relating back to exoticization, the socialization of the “exotic Other” not only gets passed down through certain explicit imperialistic agendas but also gets transmitted via worldwide entertainment industries like Disney.

Just one small example can be seen from this:

Disney's Jasmine. An example of the exotic and sexualised portrayal of WoC in western media.

Disney’s Jasmine. An example of the exotic and sexualised portrayal of WoC in western media.

“Often times, white people think they’re complimenting me by saying I look ‘exotic’. They don’t realize that the word ‘exotic’ itself is bloodstained with a history of colonial rape, or what it means for me, as a WOC, to be the exotic Other in a white supremacist world. Or white women will sigh with longing over Jasmine tropes and evince a desire to embody/consume the Other: darkening their hair, wearing black eyeliner, big earrings or saris. They like to play at being what they think I am, what they think Jasmine is. For them, Jasmine is a an exciting adventure, a garment they can put on and take off at will. For me, she’s real, she’s my everyday, she walks in my skin and looks through my eyes. The degradation and violence that she endures is done to me. The brilliant Emi Koyama once said “There’s no innocent way of being in this world”, meaning that no one, not even the most enlightened among us, can exist outside of history, outside of the legacies of colonial violence that shaped the world we inhabit.” — Tassja, The Jasmine Diaries Part II: ‘Exotic’ is Not a Compliment.

Why is this relevant to feminism? This is because Orientalism is very much tied with racism, xenophobia and violence against women, especially women of color. This particularly impact women of color as Orientalism involves an imperialistic mindset which normalizes historic colonialist violence against the “Orient”.  As Tassja quotes, “This is how the First World regards the lands and people of the Third World whose resources they have gleefully plundered and monopolized, and this is how women of color are symbolically, culturally and sociopolitically situated in white colonial hegemony. Thus the politics of land theft and resource usurpation, of cultural imperialism, systematic rape and dehumanization, intersect on our bodies and shape our sexual self-awareness.”  Today, similarly imperialistic mindsets still thrive. Such oppression tend to be tied in with today’s Othering and Western privilege, as Kamali says that the legacy of Orientalism demonstrates itself in governmental and communal policies for integration of immigrant groups in host societies. The assumption is that “they” are different and culturally the opposite of “us”. ‘Knowing is to subordinate’, therefore, “we” must understand “them” in order to be able to change them and make them adjusted to our society. “We” already know that “they” are different and strange, since they come from “the Orient”. When the element of exoticization is added to the Othering, it becomes an added form of fetishizing of conquest, of which women of color experience a threefold discrimination of patriarchal rape culture, cultural discrimination in the form of xenophobia, and white colonialist supremacy. Although this disproportionately affects of women of color, this also impacts women with white privilege. This is because Orientalism supports the idea that the European/Western cis male should remain the overseer of women’s issues over centuries, even if it requires imperialism and genocide.

For further reading and references, here are a few links:

Conceptualizing the “Other”, Institutionalized Discrimination, and Cultural Racism
What is Orientalism?
Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy.
The Jasmine Diaries Part 1: Colonial Legacies and Modern Dilemmas.
The Jasmine Diaries Part 2: ‘Exotic’ is not a compliment.
The Jasmine Diaries Part 3: Beyond the ‘Exotic.’

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International Workers’ Day

Today is International Workers’ Day, so I found a good series of videos on the relation between feminism and working class women, and feminism on the left, by Those Pesky Dames. Feminism is often followed and participated in by more upper and middle class women than working class women. In these times of austerity, with women facing the brunt of the majority of cuts in services, it is vital that activist groups both on the left and in feminist circles include the voices and actions of working class women. Feminism needs to be more accessible to those without a university level education or time on their hands to do lots of research online (which, due to health problems and having such time on my hands, is how I managed to get to grips with some of the academic language). Anyway, the Dames’ video playlist says a lot of things better than I can, so give them your time and YouTube hits. 

On matters of why feminism is needed in the ranks of socialism in the UK, there is this, which as a socialist (non-affiliated with any party) saddens and angers me.

May Day bank holiday is coming up! Unfortunately, for us in the UK we may not have a bank holiday on the first Monday of May for much longer as the Conservative Government in 2011 plan to move the extra bank holiday in May to October, and May Day has come under their sights as the May bank holiday to be cut. There is more on the international history of May Day on the page, and is well worth a look as a jumping off point. 

Also, in an interesting twist, I found this article on the socialist feminist roots of International Women’s Day, founded in 1909! 

In Solidarity,

Pix

Is energy a feminist issue?

First things first: what do I mean by ‘energy’? In the simplest terms, something we use to make machines work. Common examples are combustible fuels (e.g. gas, petrol, paraffin) and electricity (you’ll be needing some of that to read this!), though electricity is usually generated by burning fuels, so you’re just having the fuel burnt a long way away from you.

“Why did it take most of human history, until the late 19th century, for feminism to get going?” I believe the answer is one of power, electrical power.

To assess whether or not energy can be considered a feminist issue we need to look at the history of energy and feminism in parallel with each other. The first major energy boom in the developed world was during the 19th century during which coal was being exploited to run steam engines and furnaces for industrial uses, powering the industrial revolution; however, this energy was not available at home, unless you were both extremely wealthy and didn’t mind having lots of spinning axils inside your house! (Yes, some people did try it, it didn’t last long). The key here for women was that this energy was only available in male-dominated spaces: factories, ships, mines, trains. With women still confined to traditional gender roles they had no access to this power until the advent of electrical power stations in the early 1880’s and Nikola Tesla’s invention of the alternating current system. Power began, starting with the rich and large businesses first, to enter the home and into the hands of women.

Historically men seeking to repress women have had to find ways to keep women busy. Near constant pregnancy with plenty of children to look after has always been a common tactic, but for women without children, or in-between pregnancies, this isn’t enough to keep women in the state they wanted them in: too tired to think, too busy to do anything else and trapped in a box. So the go-to plan was never-ending busy work in the form of housework. Many good books have been written on women and housework from a feminist perspective, and they will give you a far superior account of this part of history than I will; however, for now let us suffice to say that doing all possible housework to perfection by hand is an all day all year occupation. Women in positions of wealth (well, their husbands’ wealth) have had access to a form of power to reduce housework for millennia: servants! Why did it take until the late 19th century for these women to get feminism really going? Remember, most suffragettes were from middle-class backgrounds where they had the finances to hire servants. Well, apart from reasons of wealth (being a rich woman beats being a poor woman, even beats being a poor man in many regards), class divisions, etc. women simply had either too many servants or not enough. Servants, being human beings, need supervision and as you get more wealth you get a bigger house, which needs an army of servants to keep clean and working, who need someone to manage the human resources, which once you get to that size is a full time job leaving you in the same position: too tired, too busy, and stuck at home. Too few servants and you had to spend any time you gain not managing them on doing the work yourself.

When electricity brought energy into houses it was very quickly realised by some entrepreneurial individuals that there was money to be made making new electrical machines to run off the new domestic electricity supplies. Most of these were machines that mechanised dull repetitive tasks which were invariably linked to housework. For example, the vacuum cleaner. It makes cleaning floors much faster and easier than doing it by hand with a broom and so saves a lot of time and effort. The first vacuum cleaners were powered by coal fuelled steam engines that came to your house on the back of a cart and needed a whole team of men to operate; electricity allowed for the engine driving the vacuum cleaner to be reduced down to a portable size and for it to not vent coal dust all over the inside of the house! Electricity wasn’t available to most of the population yet due to the sheer expense of the new system; however the upper and upper-middle classes soon found themselves saving money by hiring far fewer servants, now equipped with new electrical domestic labour saving devices, making managing servants a far less time-consuming task. This newfound time and energy allowed for women to dedicate themselves full time to their own pursuits. One popular pursuit quickly became being treated as human, hence suffragettes.

Work made Easier... and in half the Time with the aid of a Eureka vacuum cleaner.  The thrifty housewife uses the Eureka vacuum to clean her draperies. curtains, rugs and overstuffed furniture, making them all look bright and new. Call us for demonstrations.  Established 1871 Hardy's  GOOD FURNITURE LINCOLN

Work made Easier… and in half the Time with the aid of a Eureka vacuum cleaner.

After WWII, electrical power grids in developed nations began rapid expansion and integration, with most national power systems dating back to the 40’s and 50’s. Over this period of time the vast majority of homes, and certainly all homes in urban areas, gained a supply of energy that was rapidly becoming more convenient and less expensive, which brought with it the mechanisation of domestic tasks to women of increasingly lower income households. This meant that by the late 1960’s a large amount of female labour had been freed by the increased productivity of performing domestic tasks, which as households were still normally financed by a man’s income alone meant this time was to be spent, in most cases, as women pleased. Note this is the same time that the female consumer as a general marketing idea came into force. Previously it was thought the only women worth marketing to were the wives of rich men, but now with more free time and husbands with the highest average wages compared to the cost of living the world has ever seen, an opportunity for profit was created, something that would also not have been possible without the mechanisation of ordinary households.

This surge in mechanisation of domestic tasks provided a second large scale release of female labour potential, which was used in part to drive the second wave of feminism that was being built upon post-war ideas about gender, sexuality, etc.

Currently, feminism is still benefiting from ever increasing levels of mechanisation, reduced working hours and faster cheaper communications to discuss ideas, apply political/economic pressure and to coordinate feminists causes across the globe, many of which are in developing nations that are in various stages of reaping the benefits of industrialisation. But all this is still underpinned by the same system that we have been using for over a century, and with increasing resource pressures and climatological issues presenting us with new challenges to face our energy system, I believe this has been for some time, and continues to be a feminist issue.

This is also a kyriarchal issue. With many developing nations generating much of their power from coal and putting exponentially increasing number of cars on roads, it would be a piece of supreme hypocrisy for the developed world to say, “You can’t have all those things we’ve had for so long, the carbon cost is too high.” But we can’t ignore the issues at hand, which is why I believe that it is imperative for any feminist group, especially an intersectional one, to support the development of practical solutions to these issues, whatever they may be, as things could go very badly if we just bury our heads in the sand. If energy starts running low, who is going to end up being cut off from the supply first? I’ve seen the contingency plans for what national governments plan, and minority groups will be hit hardest by even the earliest and least drastic stages.

This is one of my cases for putting literal power in the hands of the people, taking this vital underpinning of our societies out of the hands of rent seeking companies and into the hands of the people who would be most affected by the system breaking down.

Further reading:

[1] “A woman’s work is never done: history of housework in the British Isles 1650-1950” by Caroline Davidson

[2] “Women and the Machine: Representations from the Spinning Wheel to the Electronic Age” by Julie Wosk

[3] “A New System of Alternating Current Motors and Transformers” by Nikola Tesla