how the world works

Video: The Gift of Fear

Watch The Gift of Fear on PBS. See more from The Open Mind.

If I could give a single gift to American women, it would be to lift from them the idea that they are required to be polite, that they are required to engage in conversations with strangers, that someone who offers them help is a ‘good person’ or a ‘nice man’. I talk a lot in the book about the words ‘nice’ and ‘charming’. ‘Charm’ is a verb. It’s not an adjective. A person doesn’t have charm, they use charm, to compel by allure. So a single gift that I could give, and that I try to, is to teach young women – I would have a high-school class, to answer your question very directly – that teaches young men to hear ‘no’, and that teaches young women that it’s alright to speak it explicitly. You know, when you and I say no, it’s the end of the discussion. When a woman says no, it’s the beginning of a negotiation.

Safety expert, and non-radical-feminist Gavin de Becker.

CITIES, how the world works

Das Weiße Band

Either I am choosing my friends more and more wisely, or men are just getting better in general, but each year more and more of my male friends are making explicit statements against violence against women.

Thank you so much for that. It is some kind of manifest sign that the ratio of violent men in my life is decreasing. It may seem like an abstract thing to some of you, but, when you’re a woman, it’s often very real.

CITIES, travel notes

On girls and bikes

Picture this: Turkish island of Heybeliada. Beautiful name, big blue sky, people sitting in cafes by the sea. An older woman, in her fifties, dressed entirely in turquoise, is helping a girl that could be ten years of age to get on a much bigger bike. They succeed; the girl rides off, the woman sits down with two women in a cafe, both younger (early thirties). The turquoise woman has a headscarf, but is otherwise in plain clothes. The young women are dressed non-religiously, as is the girl, who comes back, gets off the bike, and joins them at the table.

Continue reading “On girls and bikes” »

CITIES, how the world works

Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer

Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus
c. 1618
Oil on canvas
88 x 82 7/8 in (224 x 210.5 cm)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Very interesting post at Yes means Yes on communication patterns and how one says ‘no’, applied in regards to sexual violence. A paper by Kitzinger and Frith (1999) uses very fine-combed conversation analysis to discover that

– in English, saying ‘no’ is usually done indirectly: through use of pauses, aahs and ums, palliatives such as appreciation, and explanation. In other words, a typical refusal of an offer sounds like this: ‘Thank you, I would love to, but… uhm… I have to work all day tomorrow, so… yeah… I might not be able to.’ This is how a rejection normally sounds like, a rejection of any offer. In English, a direct ‘no’ is understood as a rude and aggressive communication tactic.
– in English, such rejections are clearly understood by both men and women; neither had any trouble hearing the implicit rejection, however politely expressed, and regardless of the fact that they did not include the word ‘no’. Continue reading “Re-thinking rape: It’s Not That They Don’t Understand, They Just Don’t Like The Answer” »

CITIES, how the world works, spatial poetics, travel notes

A note on violence

13 June

As I’m writing this, the first gay pride parade in Split (second biggest city in Croatia, biggest coastal, smack-bang in the middle of the area that was heavily bombed during the war, therefore, somewhat predictably, somewhat right-leaning) resulted in a violent riot, as the parade (of 200 mainly non-gay people – activists, intellectuals, supporters) was met by a rock-hurling counter-protest (of about 10,000 by the police estimate). Croatian media are exploding with commentary, all condemning the violence in the harshest possible terms. This is great improvement since the LGBT issue was first raised, only about 12 years ago, when no one spoke about it, and the general opinion was not far from an assumption that there are no homosexuals in Croatia. But, in a very strongly masculine culture, homosexuality is, of course, destabilising for a whole series of cultural paradigms. As one journalist wrote: Continue reading “A note on violence” »

CITIES, how the world works

Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)

At a lecture I was giving at a large West Coast university in the spring of 2008, the female students talked extensively about how much they preferred to have a completely waxed pubic area as it made them feel “clean,” “hot,” and “well groomed.” As they excitedly insisted that they themselves chose to have a Brazilian wax, one student let slip that her boyfriend had complained when she decided to give up on waxing. Then there was silence. I asked the student to say more about her boyfriend’s preferences and how she felt about his criticism. After she spoke, other students joined in, only now the conversation took a very different turn. The excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion of how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with nonwaxed girlfriends, saying they “looked gross.” One student told the group that her boyfriend bought her a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day, while yet another sent out an e-mail to his friends joking about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver.” No, she did not break up with his; she got waxed instead. Continue reading “Gail Dines: Visible or Invisible (being a young woman)” »

CITIES, poetics of life

On iPhones and belonging

I never quite realised that getting an iPhone would mean not so much getting a new phone, as getting an entire new life; the normal-phoned Jana has sort of handed the torched to iPhoned Jana – an entirely new person who sends emails from cafes, tweets overheard oddities, and can find out that elusive address whilst on her way (the previous strategy involved calling friends with smart phones). The new Jana is self-sufficient to an unprecedented degree. A kind of cyborg, really, in the most literal sense. I have weather reports, stock markets and international contacts at my fingertips. But that’s not all.

After ten years of having the oldest possible phones, I am suddenly up with the trends. I can participate in collective behavioural fads – play those games that people (in the sense of ‘society’) play. Then also: people (in the sense of ‘society’) make software (‘apps’) for people like me. Whatever service I have thought of so far (lyrics to songs, wardrobe organisers, on-the-go radio), it all exists. I say ‘uhm’, and they give it to me. Someone anticipates my needs.

This is actually quite interesting, because it’s very unusual for me. And it’s unusual, I think, because I’m so used to being a minority. And being a minority, I realise, it’s an experience largely defined by the frustration of seeing your needs not being taken into account. Or met, but that comes without saying. And, since even before being an immigrant of non-English-speaking background (an outsider’s outsider) in Australia, I was already female, poor and left-handed, I think being a minority really shaped my rapport with the world.

I can be literal and explain, since it so far may sound like whining. Left-handedness is pretty straight-forward: whenever an item has been designed with a modicum of thought (as opposed to just put out there, like a pole or a pinboard, exempli gratia), chances are it is not suited for a left-handed person. Typical and well-known examples: can openers, knives, male clothing (female clothing buttons up left-hand-friendly by a historical accident: it is not meant to be self-buttoned at all, but done by a maid), computer mice. Lesser-known examples: pasta makers, coffee machines, cars in most countries, entire writing systems (try doing Japanese caligraphy with a left hand!), most instruments (even supposedly balanced ones, like piano, are more difficult), every set of knitting instructions in the world. Being left-handed means constantly translating activities into something you can do.

But then take poverty – poverty not in its absolute, global sense, but in the relative sense of earning significantly less than the median income. This is poverty that registers in one’s experience as a feeling (of being poor), and that is by definition a state of minority (being relatively poor means deviating from the average, defined by the majority). In one’s experience, being poor registers as the perpetual state of not having access to the solution which has been provided to your problem, because you can’t afford it. It means not being able to get somewhere, because the only means of transport is too expensive. It means forgoing medical treatments, because you can’t afford them. It means having to do things the long way, because the short way isn’t your short way.

And then being a woman – this is a whole other story, involving, for example, the medical treatment of childbirth, maternity leave provisions, and is a long and tiresome story that plenty of literature has covered already. But there it is again – everyone’s short way isn’t your short way. This notion of the problem being one of provision, but also navigation, was repeated very nicely early this year in an interview German Labor minister, Ursula von der Leyen, gave in regards to the need to have business quotas for women:

I understand the position of young woman [sic] who say that we don’t need quotas. Many of these women have had the experience that they have no trouble in school, at the university and early in their careers. They haven’t yet learned that there are two career paths: the one for men with well-marked streets; and the one for women on unpaved roads that not even the navigation device knows. Most of the women who’ve made it into top management positions say that although they also used to be against quotas themselves, they now believe that women can’t get by without them. I was the same. I used to sing the praises of the right to choose. But I’ve now learned that you sometimes need a law as a catalyst for change. For decades, there was absolutely no change in the number of men taking paternity leave. But within two years of making men eligible to receive state funds while taking paternity leave, the figure has increased six fold.

Navigation, of course, is very easy with a smart phone. But my accidental discovery here is that one kind of empowerment negates another kind of disempowerment. Having an iPhone (which puts me, simply, into the category of ‘majority consumer’, as opposed to a sub-culture, a minority lifestyle which favours old phones) mitigates against being left-handed. Having money mitigates against being a woman. And so on.

To return to the notion of people (in the sense of ‘society’): what’s interesting is that, although one principle of exclusion (of me, from society) may be as functioning as ever, I can beat it with another principle that I do conform to. Hell, it even makes it much sweeter: I’m enjoying my iPhone like the world will end when I stop. But, of course, this is exactly the same principle that drives the poor to side with white supremacism, drives men to dispute women’s rights to things, and even, I would cautiously suggest, drives women to excel at school and then go into humanities. I reckon one gets just as great a sense of belonging to people (in the sense of ‘society’) from being one among a million players of Angry Birds, as one gets from making Shakespeare in-jokes. In a certain sense, both are diametrically opposed to hysteria.

CITIES, how the world works

Swimming pools, Muslims, and the burqini in Dandenong

Very interesting opinion piece by Julie Szego in the weekend’s The Age on a women-only Ramadan event at the Dandenong pool, at which all women aged 10 or up must be covered from knees to neck if they are to attend. The comments are a predictable mix of people saying “Try and ask for a similar concession in a Muslim country”, “THIS IS A WAR”, “Why aren’t they assimilating?”, “Islam is the only religion that wants to take over the world” on the one hand, and “it’s an issue of equity”, “some of these women are isolated” and “so, according to your argument, I should be able to turn up to my daughter’s wedding in the nude” on the other. The article, however, does try to analyse the issues: women’s rights, the requirements of public pools to serve whatever community they have living around them, issues of equity, and tolerance. It’s up online, for anyone to read.

It is, however, interesting to read the discussion if, like me, you come from a slightly different angle: I have spent years trying to find a proper sauna and swimming pool in Melbourne, ie one that doesn’t require a neck-to-thigh cover for women. All the therapeutic benefits of sauna are cancelled out by sports swimwear, especially of the full-torso female type, and it is not just beyond unpleasant to sit in 90 degrees covered in lycra, it is also stressful on the body, and potentially dangerous. I could frame it as a discrimination problem: if men can get away with tiny speedos, why aren’t women allowed in topless? But I think it is more probably a prudishness problem (see, for example, the case of a Brisbane sauna-as-art). It all gets much worse when I raise the question of mixed-sex sauna: the immediate, automatic answer this seems to provoke is ‘EWW’, or ‘why would you want people other than your boyfriend to see you naked’?


Compare and contrast.

Now, two things. First, it must be clear by now that I really cannot see Australia as the land of freedom to show one’s body as one likes. The whole argument of Western secular liberalism which celebrates the body, or even of some Aussie tradition of baring flesh, is simply not correct. There is a reasonable amount of Puritan disavowal of the body going on, or of sexualising all nudity at all times. As the Finnish artists themselves remarked, “there are cultural differences” between Finland and Australia. And, you know, it would be impossible to argue that this prudishness is not in any way connected to religion. The subject of nudity in the Australian society is so touchy that it’s ridiculously hard to even raise it in polite conversation without everyone getting red in the face and starting to crack jokes about paedophiles. (Which is, frankly, ridiculous. As is the oft-made remark about not exposing children to adult nudity. Children, especially toddlers and very young kids, could not care less.) Compare Australia to Scandinavian countries, to Germany, even France or Italy or Croatia, all places in which such scandalous behaviour as topless sunbathing (and swimming) and mixed-sex nude saunas, happens without much drama.

Second, I am always struck by the disingenuousness of packing together “liberal Western values”, “Enlightenment principles”, “feminism” and “women’s dress rules”. Call me bitter, but it is the same as coupling Capitalism with the struggle for workers’ rights; or, not very correct. Sure, there is a geo-historical link, but to say that one of the essentially Western (as opposed to Eastern, Muslim, or less-developed) projects has been equality of sexes is a gross overstatement, conveniently forgetting the fact that the universal suffrage, equal rights, and women’s lib were fights. As Tony Myers writes in the book I’m currently reading:

The [Enlightenment principle of] cogito [ergo sum] is the basis of the centred subject, or, as it is more commonly known, the ‘individual’. The consequences for this model of subjectivity are compelling. For example, until recently, it was generally accepted (by men at least) that only men were masters of themselves. Women, on the other hand, were supposed to be subject to passions and feelings which they could not properly control. That is to say, women were not centred subjects but decentred subjects. They were, therefore, not ‘proper’ individuals and were treated accordingly as second-class citizens, subject to the rule of the masterful men. In fact, the mastery of women formed part of the larger project to dominate the natural world itself (of which women were held to be a part). The results of this project, which is sometimes referred to as the Enlightenment Project, can be witnessed in the devastation wreaked upon the environment. If it seems a little harsh to rebuke a philosophical model with the destruction of the planet, it is perhaps worth remembering that only a subjectivity which thinks it answers exclusively to itself would risk the destruction of nature and not expect to be held accountable for it.

Or, as a great man of Enlightenment said:

Since dependance is a state natural to women, girls feel themselves made to obey; they have, or should have, little freedom… Destined to obey a being as imperfect as man, a woman should learn to suffer – even to suffer injustice – at an early age, and to bear the wrongs of her husband without complaint. You will never reduce boys to the same point; their inner sense of justice rises up and rebels against such injustice, which nature never intended them to tolerate.

(Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, IV: 710-11)

But, the point to make here is that Enlightenment did mark the beginning of a quest for knowledge in which nothing was sacred, nothing was beyond questioning. In particular, tradition. If there is any way in which feminism was Rousseau’s baby, it was in the call to question everything. This is why the ultimate paradox of defending the bikini because of our “recognised tradition of secular freedom” is deeply absurd: if there is anything contrary to the spirit of secular inquiry, it is upholding or banning practices based on how well they fit in with our “tradition”.


I am a little dispirited by the argumentation of both sides in this debate.

On the one hand, I don’t think there is anything particularly logical or reasonable in demanding that women cover from neck to knee in a swimming pool, just like I don’t think there is anything reasonable in having to wear clothes to a sauna. I agree with Szego, it seems to me important to remember that there is a principle at stake here, a principle of the female body not being automatically sexual, not being automatically shameful, and not being required to cover (or bare). Muslim misogyny is misogyny alright. David Gilmore writes, in a sweeping comparative analysis:

Muslim misogyny is really not so much an attack on women as it is a flight from woman “as the source of uncontrollable desires in the male self”. Islamic misogyny, like all others, is a flight from inner conflict over women; misogyny is the psychic consequence to male ambivalance and turmoil. The reification of this struggle that occurs in Islam is similar perhaps to what occurs in Christianity, Hinduim, and Buddhism, except perhaps for the added biographical ingredient of the Prophet’s apotheosis of sexual anxiety into lithurgy. One may say that St Paul and St Augustine played similar roles in forming Christian theology.

(David D. Gilmore, Misogyny: the Male Malady, p.217)

But this treatment of women does correspond to the same sentiments, fears and neuroses in the Australian culture, however secular it may be on paper. There is a corresponding prudishness on the Australian side, that all the talk about “Western liberal values” and “secular principles” cannot hide. In fact, what complicates the debate to such a large degree is precisely the way in which Australian commentators seem themselves unsure of whether there is or isn’t a principle at stake, or whether we are simply debating degrees of exhibitionism. Szego:

The Brimbank spokeswoman explained that [the swimming pools required that the] ”participants should be dressed appropriately, as is expected of a centre used by children and families”.

It seems to me that, until someone remembers what that principle may be, commentators can go hoarse talking about how the burqini “run[s] counter to the West’s more than 500-year struggle for individual freedom” (Szego). In practice, we are bound to get all confused about who is allowed to see how much skin on whom before we all have to blush and go “ooh”.