On dressing for sunny London: dilemmas of an ethnic minority feminist

Oh dear, it’s that very short, very rare and very precious time of the year again when London is fully bathed in golden sunshine. Why the dread in my tone then? Because for us wimmin-folk it’s also time to come to terms with our fuzzy legs from winter. The fact that London sunshine hits when least expected doesn’t help – until a couple of days ago, I was quite cosy in opaque tights but today, if some are to be believed, I would have been scorching in them.

So after yesterday’s 26 degrees and prediction of 29 degrees for today, I had to face up to the inevitability of shaving my legs if I wanted to go with a bit of skin show. As always, this put me in the dilemma of having to choose between my feminist sensibility of not buckling down to the pressure to be the hairless female body and my supposition that hairy legs and skirt won’t go down well or would at least make me very self-conscious.

Unfortunately, I’m not as brave as this Vagenda lady who recently wrote about her experience of not shaving and baring it all as it was. It is also unfortunate that this nice sunny time of the year leads me to feeling guilty about my feminist self. It seems to be a circle of having thoughts about shaving, feeling guilty for having thoughts about shaving, and feeling bad about feeling guilty for having thoughts about shaving. It needs to be said that I don’t mind hair removal as much as the pressure to do it – I want to be able to choose for myself whether and when I want to get rid of my body hair.

Of course, there are alternatives available to skirts, alternatives that can cover my legs. When in India, I never put on any leg show even when it was 50 degrees, so obviously I am absolutely capable of wearing leg-covering clothing on hot days. But when I considered doing that, the first thing that came to my mind was – would people judge me if I did that? And by that I mean would people judge me as a conservative Asian looking girl with a Muslim sounding name if I covered up on a sunny day.

Obviously, I never had that insecurity in India, but now that I’ve been thinking about it more, I have been wondering whether self-regulating ‘migrant behaviour’ is a common migrant experience. Do migrants monitor themselves (their clothing, accent, food eating habits etc.) to be able to ‘blend in’? I suppose I was conscious that if a white girl wore jeans on a hot summer day, people wouldn’t form perceptions about her on that basis whereas if I did the same, I would be profiled as ‘ethnic minority’. It would be assumed that I’m not wearing a skirt (or shorts) because my ‘culture’ (yes, I needed to put that within inverted commas) does not approve of exposing legs. I first began drinking because I’d heard enough of ‘oh-you’re-Indian’ or ‘oh-you’re-Muslim’ and wanted to break that stereotype associated with me. I’ve just grown very weary of the whole culture argument that seems to be becoming almost too easy and too common to use.

Anyway, to cut the long story short I decided to ‘go Indian all the way’ and put on a very light cotton kurta and churidar (see picture if you’re not sure what that is). I might have got a few odd stares and a few ‘culture-needs-to-cover-legs’ understanding looks but I didn’t mind it so much because I felt very comfortable in what I was wearing. Which is good but not good enough.

Why not good enough? Because I want my choice of clothing to be a simpler decision, because I want people to not categorise me based on what I wear, and because one day, I want to be able to show my legs as they are.

Just one last thing to be said – the choice of title for this post was deliberate. I bet many people would read that as fashion dilemmas of those whose (cruel) culture doesn’t allow them to expose even on hot sunny days – I hope they won’t think that again so quickly.


Why Google’s Women’s Day Doodle irked me

Did you see Google’s Women’s Day Doodle or the Washington Post’s list of ways to celebrate Women’s Day? Neither represented my idea of Women’s Day. Why is it that it is becoming attractive to celebrate Women’s Day in a way that makes the majority of women invisible and subjects the rest to patriarchal denigration?

I apologise in advance for this post comes a bit too late. It was written on 8 March but has been published today because it was waiting for a few finishing touches!

Google Doodle for International Women’s Day
8 March, 2012
Google’s Women’s Day Doodle irked me a bit. There was something wrong about its floral and colourful appearance. Not that I hate flowers or bright colours. I love them but how can they be representative of Women’s Day?
I had an argument along these lines with a friend a couple of years ago. I noticed bright tulips on her desk on Women’s Day. She told me a group of men had taken her and other women out for dinner and given them flowers because it was Women’s Day. I found this celebration of Women’s Day very bizarre. I mean, isn’t this what happens everyday anyway – men take women out, give them flowers and pay the bill? How is that of any significance for Women’s Day?

Nestled in its ‘Lifestyle’ pages, the Washington Post’s list of 10 ways to celebrate Women’s Day is equally odd. Though it does include protest as one of the way Women’s Day could be celebrated, the list is unfortunately a bit lipstick-and-cupcakes heavy. Apparently, a marketing agency has initiated a ‘Rock the Lips’ campaign encouraging women to wear red lipstick to mark Women’s Day. It’s only as absurd as the Washington Post’s suggestions ‘Give flowers to women’ and ‘Eat a cupcake’ to celebrate Women’s Day.

Since when has feminism been about eating cupcakes and wearing lipstick? There’s so much wrong with these suggestions and ideas at so many levels.

First of all, as a blogger points out, feminism is about ‘power and politics and equal pay’. Lipsticks and cupcakes, as far as I understand, are not concerned with any of those. They are, instead, about having  ‘me-time’ in a very consumerist and elitist way. Issues affecting women are much more significant (for lack of a better word) than deciding whether your clothes match your bag or if your lipstick goes with your skin tone.

For millions of women, issues of concern include scraping enough food for the day, getting to work without being sexually harassed and assaulted, ensuring they have a safe place to sleep in the night. In light of this, even the suggestion of celebrating Women’s Day by wearing lipstick or eating a cupcake is, to use an extremely mild word, ridiculous, but also quite offensive for it trivialises the lived experiences of a vast majority of women, making them invisible. The majority of women, after all, do not have the choice to spend hours over choosing a bottle of pink champagne, the right shade of red lipstick and flowers that go with their home’s decor.

Secondly, obsession over women’s appearances (wear lipstick for Women’s Day) and sentimentality/frivolity (give women flowers for Women’s Day) takes us back at least a century. If ever there was an example of patriarchal celebration of Women’s Day (as ironical as that sounds), this would be it.

Thirdly, such suggestions of celebration of Women’s Day undermine the political significance and history of feminism. They deliberately gloss over issues that feminists have worked hard to bring to mainstream attention. They subscribe to a postfeminist propaganda that believes (or likes to believe) that women have achieved equality and can have it all. Further, putting women in corsets and high heels to celebrate Women’s Day not only reduces women to their external appearances but also takes the focus away from their political projects. It is the market trying to hijack Women’s Day from feminism.

Such a celebration of Women’s Day is not only classist but also sexist. For me, Women’s Day is an opportunity to revisit the relevance of feminism, to celebrate the achievements of women’s movements and to assess how much progress (if any) has been made so far. It is also an opportunity for cross-cultural and international dialogue on women’s issues, to learn from each other and to renew focus on action.

High heels and feminism: thinking about Feminist Guilt on World Femininity Day

Femininity and feminism have long been seen as arch enemies; after all wasn’t bra burning and chucking away heels and lipsticks the whole point of feminism?

(c) Flickr user Stephen Mitchell

Though a staunch believer in feminism, I have had my moments of weakness and subsequent guilt. I have had so many conflicting opinions about my own ‘femininity’ and my belief in feminism that it’s hard to count them. And I am not one of those ‘post-feminist’ ones otherwise it would have been easy to rationalise my behaviour as ‘having it all’.

When I put myself through the torture of wearing high heels, I curse myself for indulging in something that doesn’t make sense at all and for betraying feminism and yet, I do it. I wear hoops and earrings and pretty dresses and yes, I do look quite ‘feminine’. It’s a matter of feeling that this is something I shouldn’t do but wanting to do it, and it’s the want that wins. It’s what I call the ‘feminist guilt’ and I’ve felt the pangs plenty of times.

Thinking about it, the guilt comes from the irrationality associated with femininity. It’s hard to disagree with the femininity equals irrationality equation when you try figuring out why on earth would anybody want to wear immobilising heels, try to manage long hair or wear dresses that make it difficult to sit down. There is one reason that one could come up with and that is to find a mate. But then isn’t feminism against every woman’s eternal and ultimate quest to find a man? Isn’t it about realising that there’s more to a woman’s life than getting married, cooking and having children? It indeed is.

But my feelings towards my expression of femininity have not been entirely negative. For starters, I believe through an expression of my femininity and my very loud self-proclamation of being a feminist, I contribute towards at least putting a dent in the men-hating, bra-burning, lesbian, killjoys stereotypes of feminists, which, to be honest, don’t really contribute towards increasing affiliation with feminism.

Secondly, I have started to have doubts about how rational and practical masculinity is. Sure, it’s more practical to keep your hair short, wear flat shoes and put on comfortable clothes but how rational is it to spend hours watching football and drinking beer? Surely no more rational than spending a whole afternoon watching the royal wedding.

And yet, us rationalists haven’t been criticising masses who would congregate for Olympics in the same way as we rebuked people who were desperate to catch a sight of the royal bride. Is that just because sports are masculine and weddings feminine? If sports foster diplomatic relationships, it can well be argued that the royal wedding helped the British economy.

There is no conflicting opinion in my mind about the social labelling of certain traits as ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. But I do doubt whether rejecting femininity is the best way forward for feminism.

It might take a long time to eliminate the idea of classifying traits into masculine and feminine but we can start by not seeing masculinity and femininity in contrast and affording them more fluidity that they have right now.

Why I’ll be joining the London SlutWalk (in the Guardian)

(c) Flickr user creatrixtiara

Back home in a small conservative town in India, it would be considered perfectly acceptable to “Eve-tease” me if I went out in “western” attire (aka fitted jeans and T-shirt). In the capital city of the UK, things are surprisingly not very different – I run the risk of being called a slut if I “dare” to go out alone in the night wearing a short dress. The two scenes might not be exactly the same, but there’s a common thread running through them – you are a slut provoking sexual attention if you don’t conform to male definitions of modesty. And that is exactly what SlutWalk is protesting against.

Read the full article in the Guardian.

10 random reasons I am a feminist

Today, being the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, is a good time to introspect and think about why I am a feminist. I don’t know whether I should be happy or sad about this – it was really easy to come up with 10 reasons for why I am, and should be, a feminist.

For those who are exasperated with my feminism, in short – I am a feminist because I believe men and women should have equal rights, because I am angry at the everyday discrimination women face all over the world and because I want to rescue feminism from what it has been made out to be by anti-feminists.

(c) Jay Morrison

1. Every time I walk on the streets alone after dark, I walk in fear of being raped.

2. Whenever I go in to get technical help, I have to stop geeks from treating me like a dunce by clarifying that being a woman does not automatically mean I am technologically challenged.

3. For most men (at least those involved in media production), a typical woman is one who PMSes, hatches plots to get her boyfriend back from other women and is, more generally, a low IQ human being – apolitical and glossy.

4. Sexual harassment is euphemistically called ‘eve teasing’ in India.

5.  I am still the ‘bad one’ in the relationship if I refuse to take on more than my fair share of housework.

6. People appear surprised when it comes to their knowledge that I, a ‘self-proclaimed’ feminist can cook, clean and keep a house!

7. I am considered to be a ‘kill-joy’ if I refuse to laugh at everyday sexist jokes.

8. It’s still considered absolutely normal and not at all wrong that I may, at some point in life, lose my job as a consequence of getting pregnant.

9. I am angry that more than 100 million women are missing from this world.

10. I still happen to know a lot of people who flinch every time I use the ‘F’ word, it’s just so much fun to make people flinch!