Redefining Oppression: Restriction of the Mind and the Body

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The more days I spend as a twenty-something American citizen, the more I am shocked by how mesmerized the West is by physicality, and perhaps more importantly, how quick we are to judge based purely off of the physical. The revitalized feminism movement is fighting for a woman’s right to dress and look however she pleases and that a woman’s body does not exist for male pleasure and adoration. Along with the physical aspects of modern day feminism, there is a push for women to participate in politics and make up a greater percentage of leadership roles, however, much of the buzz about feminism is centered around protests like Slut Walks and “Free the Nipple.” These demonstrations make up much of the conversation about feminism, as though a woman’s physical rights overshadow her right to knowledge, power, and participation. As Fatema Mernissi explains in Scheherazade Goes West, thanks to Immanuel Kant, Western women have to make a “terrible choice” between “beauty and intelligence,” and “it is as cruel a choice as the [Islamic] fundamentalists’ threat: veiled and safe, or unveiled and assaulted” (90).

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What I find to be both disturbing and fascinating is how, although the West has created the image and stereotype of an oppressed Muslim woman who is veiled, voiceless, and not equal to men in public or private sectors, in America, we observe women who have no choice but to be completely unveiled and remain voiceless and subordinate to men in the home and on the street. As Mernissi describes, on the contrary in Islam, communication and intelligence are the primary aspects of intimacy and sexuality, and a woman must use her wit and language in order to earn the respect of men, and often times, vice versa. The caricature of the inferior and silent Arab woman is a Western creation, and because of this, it is no surprise that the West’s own women often find themselves tricked into the same mold, although it looks physically different. We have been taught that our eyes should perform above our minds, and this is the greatest achievement of Western men – they have succeeded. The Western man has created a Western woman who is silent, beautiful, and stupid, and this is exactly what Mernissi has a problem with when she sees what the West has created out of Islamic harems. Although Mernissi’s harem woman has been trapped, she has been by no means controlled and subdued; on the contrary, women in Islamic harems are sexually and intellectually powerful. Western women have been stripped of practically all of their power, not because men are afraid of them and are keenly aware that when a woman gains power she uses it (as is true in Islam), but because women have been taught to become the physical prizes of men, and if they fail in this, they are of little to no value. Not only does the Western woman have to choose between beauty and intelligence, but she must choose between veiled and unsafe or unveiled and unsafe, in psychological, emotional, and physical ways.

Egyptians dance as they celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular revolt that drove veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak from power after 30 years on February 12, 2011. AFP PHOTO/PEDRO UGARTE

The West has succeeded in diverting the word oppression away from our own culture, and women in America are finally beginning to ask the question of what oppression really is and what disguises it can wear. Oppression exists in the Islamic world, and the Arab Spring has brought about transformation in the lives of Islamic women. However, the oppression of women in Western culture is only beginning to be brought to the surface, and when it has been, there will be change, and there will be anger. Just as Mernissi is furious with the West for subduing and creating a homogenized Islamic women, women of the West will be furious with men who have perpetrated the expectations of a silent woman, and perhaps we will have a Spring of our own.

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