04 March, 2010

Exotification and infantilisation – even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious

So atrocious, in fact, that my über-white Microsoft Word didn’t recognise either word. It helpfully suggested ‘detoxification’ in place of exotification – that’s far more fitting with our culture, you know.

Well, no. It isn’t. The exotification and infantilisation of women of colour – particularly Asian women – are things we see all the time. Firstly, let me be clear: I’m white. I’m aware than I’m meandering round in the cosy warmth of the herd, and I can’t know the half of what women of colour experience every day. But, from where I’m standing, on my humble little podium of privilege, it’s becoming clearer all the time that attitudes toward women of colour are not improving.

I have a good friend, a Filipina (something else that Microsoft Word doesn’t recognise). Whenever we were together (alas, cruel distance separates us now), she experienced the kind of sexist discrimination you can probably imagine. Old guys making kissy-kissy noises at her on the street, soap-dodging shop keepers asking me to tell her how pretty she is – in short, men on the street shamelessly regarding her as some cute accessory - something I’d brought with me and that might, possibly, be available if they were charming enough. It’s the age old “Thai bride” syndrome (did you not know that every woman from the Far East is Thai?) – exotification in the extreme.

Sadly for these charmers, my friend has an MA in Post-Colonialism and is infinitely more likely to tear them a new one than offer them a happy ending of any sort. And I’m not even going to tell you where she’s going to shove than lotus blossom.

Something which has been creeping up into my awareness, though, perches uncomfortably on the opposite end of the spectrum - that rack of pigeon holes society tries to fit us into.

Another good friend (yes, I have two!) – an Indian Muslim – wears a headscarf and Western clothes which she adapts to suit her choice to cover up. We go out together - shopping, to a café, whatever - and never fail to attract looks. There’s a difference, though. These aren’t the kind of pervy-paternal, admiring glances that my Fili friend attracts. No, these are mistrusting, cold stares, which start at the headscarf, work their way down to her feet and then slide sideways to me – what, precisely, am I doing with her?

It seems that there are two very clear brackets for non-white women to fit into, and it’s pretty obvious which one gets the thumbs up from men. Filipina, Thai, Chinese, Japanese... it’s all about the delicate features and the almond eyes (tell me you haven’t heard this before). Even our sisters in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh are getting it – lucky girls! – as long as they’re not choosing to cover up. The minute you cover up, something changes and you become the lowest of the low.

You’ll see it almost daily from the Great Unwashed who comment on the Daily Mail stories. Non-white women are constantly touted as the best thing since sliced bread – “You really should try one!”. Muslim women, though, are different. They’re sly. They’ve got something to hide. They’re up themselves – “Who wants to look at you anyway?”.

It’s almost as though their sweet, brown flesh – so inviting – is not their own and, by covering it up, they’re depriving these white men of their right to feast upon the exotic beauty. They’re removing themselves from the pigeon hole these men have shoved them into. But that’s not why men are angry at them. No, that’s not it at all. They're angry "for them". And there's always some justification - some reason that a woman who covers up is wrong:

She does it because her husband makes her.

She does it because she’s oppressed.

She does it because she’s so blinded by religion that she just has no choice.

Let’s get one thing straight – we all do things because we are a product of the ideology we grew up in. Even if we rebel, it’s because we have something to rebel against. It is categorically impossible to be outside the system. Every choice we make, we make for a reason. It’s just that when that choice involved covering up, it seems to attract more anger, more vitriol than many others. Men abuse women in headscarves, they question their ability to decide things for themselves, they try to force legislation through that will make that woman show herself. They remove those women’s rights to make their own decisions. They infantilise them.

It simply cannot be, they say, that any woman in her right mind would object to showing her body. There must be a reason. Desperately they snuffle for one, completely ignoring what is – in most cases – the obvious. Muslim women, like other women, wear what they want.

Irrespective of our views on organised religion and the patriarchal (or not) roots of faith, I think – if we’re honest with ourselves – we know these men don’t care about the liberation of women of colour. The arguments don’t hold up. White women used to cover their hair. My great-aunt had a fabulous collection of rain-proof, sun-proof and industrial hair-spray-proof headscarves. Why did she wear them? Because she wanted to. She thought it was smart. She thought it was decent. Other women were wearing them.

It seems that men simply cannot bring themselves to accept that some women of colour choose to cover up. They don’t care about the reason, although they cite it until they’re blue in the faces: They’re being oppressed! Even the BNP – that woman-hating cesspit of a party – cites this as one of the key reasons Islam is “a wicked, wicked religion”. And this from a party full of gang-rapists, whose policies would systematically remove women’s rights to autonomy.

White women are deified if they’re the kind of middle-class, married, stay-at-home mums the 1950s dreamed of. Women of colour – and this is the uncomfortable truth – are supposed to be that juicy, exotic bit on the side, who’ll look up at men with their big, brown eyes, and think nothing but sweet, lotus-scented thoughts. We’re all being pigeon-holed, it’s just that they’re forcing us into different pockets. Divide and conquer.

Let me be blunt. I am white, and I cover up. I don’t cover my hair, but there’s not much else you’ll see. And why? Because I feel oppressed by the acres of female flesh used to sell, attract, flaunt, manipulate and coax us into submission. I’m rebelling, gently enough, against a system I can’t get out of. Sure I’m frigid. I’m a dyke. A stuck-up feminazi, who hates men and has an attitude problem. The big difference is this, though: no one questions the fact that it’s my choice. It’s time to reiterate our support to women who choose not to buy into the ever-changing, ever more sexualised image of women today, and that includes our sisters who choose to cover up.


  1. I've been reading this blog for a while but have never commented before. I had to on this article to say - an absolutely wonderful piece; thank you.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. [I really should learn how to use that edit function!]

    @ Overocea: Thank you for your comment - it means a lot.

    I wasn't even sure what I wanted to say when I started out on this piece - I just knew that something had been niggling.

    In the wake of 'Bride and Prejudice', 'Slum Dog Millionaire' and other more Westernised Bollywood(-esque) movies, Indian women have popped up on the radar as being 'fanciable'. They're starting to be perceived in the same way that Far Eastern women have been labelled for years.

    We've had all those FHM-type shots of Freda Pinto and men are starting to see the 'potential' in Indian - as well as Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan - women too.

    Women who cover up are an inconvenience. They don't fit under the blanket heading of 'exotic, decorative and submissive' that Western men are trying to throw on Asian women, and that seems to be where the aggression comes in.

    If it's depressing for me, I can't imagine how women of colour feel, but if this article goes a millimetre towards expressing a bit of solidarity and affirmation, then it's done its job!

  4. Really good article. Just wondered though, I always thought it was 'exoticisation'? Is there a difference?

  5. Just to add an extra layer of complexity to your excellent piece, it's worth pointing out that within the context of a Muslim society, covering up is not the protective panacea for misogyny that it is sometimes portrayed as being by a sympathetic Western commentariat. I am reminded of this piece about how the increasing adoption of hijab in Cairo has tracked closely with a rise in groping and harrassement, reaching something like epidemic proportions (83% of Egyptian women, most veiled, report having experienced some form of sexual harrassement).

    This strongly reinforces my belief that the covering or uncovering of flesh do not, in themselves, carry any inherent meaning. There is nothing "liberating" in either the hijab or the bikini. Both are simply different modes of controlling women's bodies and making a political landscape out of them. Despite the visible differences, the Catch-22 for the English and Egyptian woman is really the same: you do what society tells you it wants you to do (wear a miniskirt or a veil) and are punished for it (with harrassement, in both cases). The backlash against feminism strongly underlies and chronologically overlaps with the rise both in te cult of modesty and the cult of hyper-sexualised raunch culture.

    So when your Muslim friend covers up int he UK, she is not only subverting people's racist expectations of her as a passive locus for their sexual objectification; she is more directly rebelling against the backlash culture's proscription of women as creatures of sexual display, existing only for the pleasure of their male spectators.

    (You can test this hypothesis by looking at the reaction that non-Asian women wearing hijab/jalaba get on the street - the hostility is really palpable, because the sense of "betrayal", of transgression, is that much greater from a woman who is supposed not only to be completely bought in to the whole raunch culture gig, but is presumed to somehow be benefiting from it or "empowered" by it)

  6. I thought this piece was brilliant. I spend my life saying that many Muslim women choose to wear the Hijab or even the Burka (I'm white by the way) - but everyone - even the most enlightened think they all cover up because they're made to.

    I hate seeing near naked women used to sell anything and everything as well. Women are people not just bodies.

  7. Thank you so much for all the positive and really engaging responses!

    @ Alex: I'm not actually sure if there's a difference - Google seems to think not, and comes up with relatively similar numbers of results (17k vs 23k for exotification/exoticisation). My OED - now I look - only contains 'exoticism', so I'd say you're more likely to be correct and that 'exotification' is just a popularly used mistake!

    @Marina S: You make your points far more eloquently than I do! I strongly agree about Hijab not being the remedy for misogyny that both Western and modern British Muslims (in my experience) believe or hope it to be, and that NYT article seems to go a long way to underlining that.

    Style of clothing for women seems to be a red herring. It really is just another means of control, another mythical (and completely nebulous) set of rules from which women will always manage to 'trangress'.

    I have noticed, as you point out, disgust being displayed when non-Asian women wear shalwar kameez or similar, and when Muslim women wear western clothes - even the popular dress/cardigan/skinny jeans combo. There seems to be a lot of underlying anxiety and guilt based around women's aesthetic choices - the moralistic tone and reproving attitudes in this horror article are a good example (totally off-topic, but it got me riled this morning!):


    @ Jilly: it really is frustrating, isn't it? I think, perhaps, some of the whole 'oppression' debate (particularly from women) does stem from a misguided attempt to liberate women whose choices we don't necessarily understand. I have to catch myself time and again when I think about how little attraction being a housewife has. The point is, it has no attraction *for me*.

    To view ourselves ("uncovered" women) as somehow outside or above a dominant ideology is incredibly naive. Our ideology may not be as explicit as a religion, but it's there, influencing what we wear and how we behave.

  8. As an Asian male, I can't say anything about the veil - it's a woman's choice at the end of the day whether she wears it or not. The point is to ensure she's in a position to make that choice and not be forced one way or the other.
    If we really want to help Asian women, we ought to do something about the more deep-seated problems, like forced marriages, the fact that women are still regarded as less valuable than men and the attitudes reinforcing this, and all such other problems. All this fuss over a strip of cloth around someone's head is misguided, to say the least, when there are worse things to deal with.

  9. @LHearts: That article totally made me LOL. I was so baffled by the "different" "looks", because they all looked exactly the same to me - the varioations in amount/style of makeup were so minute it was obviously only the initiated (or maybe indoctrinated?) who would even notice them. Just goes to undescore how arbitrary and in some cases non-existent these demarcators of female acceptability are.

    If you want to get riled up on the topic of makeup though - and I realise you might not, feminists have enough to be angry about! =) - try this excrecable Hilary Mantel piece in the Guardian. It really made me want to hit somebody. Preferably Hilary Mantel.

  10. There are more important things to get riled about as Sayem says. And the more we (as a society) get worked up about Muslim women wearing headscarves/hijabs/burkhas, the more some are going to want to do it! It's an identity thing, and as such, has nothing to do with us who are not Muslim. Interestingly, I've seen be-hijabbed young girls, all properly head-covered and all, with either g-string or cleavage on display, which is interesting.
    Ah, yes, the Hilary Mantel article. Strange. It read like a April fool's piece. I read it because it seemed just so unlikely and I was waiting for a punchline which never came.

  11. @ Sayem: As you say, we need to focus on actual oppression rather than women's hairdos! Because that's what it boils down to at the end of the day. And even if it *is* a symptom of an oppressive, patriarchal ideology, you have to treat the disease, not the symptoms.

    @Marina: The Hilary Mantel article? I've totally missed it and, unfortunately, your link is back to the Marie Claire one! I assume this is some horrible trick to make me read more on how my lipstick shade could change my career destiny. Thanks for that ;)

    @Claire: Re the hijab/thong thing (try saying that in a hurry), it's something that gets my Indian friend riled up from an Islamic perspective. The reasoning behind it, in my opinion, is - as you say - an increasing politicisation of the hijab. Girls are wanting to wear it to show allegience rather than modesty, hence the lack of conformity in the rest of their outfits.

  12. I loved this article, totally agree. And, as a white woman who also does not like flaunting my flesh (never have), I occasionally use a long scarf to wrap round my head and neck in hijab-style because it is warm and makes me feel quite secure, actually.

    And I notice the looks I get when I do this. It's freezing cold, there is wind blowing all over the place that is chapping my face, hurting my ears, and the rain is just starting. So why are you looking at me as if I am strange? And why do you shift over on the pavement a little bit more as you pass me? And stare then quickly look away? I honestly have had that reaction. Or they completely ignore you (guys and young women are the worst for this). THEN I feel great because I am not getting stared at or judged. I'm just walking along minding my own business.

    Don't get me wrong, I wear pretty much what I want to and am in no way bothered by fashion, I constantly get bitchy looks from my female colleagues who think maybe I'm not making enough of an effort or whatever, and I really don't care. I'm comfortable, I'm clean, I wear what the fuck I want. I just thought it was interesting the way I notice people relating to me if I wrap a scarf around my head.


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