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.