The title is compelling and sits in the faith section of the Washington Post, a respected mainstream media source. Who wouldn’t want to read “The Blue Bra Revolution”…so sexy…such a feminist idea….so Arab Spring, but with that edgy, cool twist that the western audience craves.
And that’s the problem with the piece. The article is referring to an incident that took place in Cairo during a recent protest. A young woman was attacked and in the course of the attack her abaya was pulled away, fully exposing a blue bra. The author writes:
“Aside from the sheer brutality, I think what got to me was that she was wearing this gorgeous, sexy bright blue bra. Under her abaya. There was something so shocking about it, so unexpected. This person covered from head to toe demonstrated her beliefs through her choice of underwear. The blue bra said what I imagine her to be feeling: ‘I may be oppressed. I may not have rights. I may have to cover up my body and face. But you cannot destroy my womanhood. You can’t rob me of my femininity. You can’t take away my power.’” (Sally Quinn – The Washington Post 12/29/11)
I will not deal with the obvious wrong in the act against the Egyptian woman. There is no question that the force, violence, and resulting embarrassment was a violation and should be condemned. What I take issue with is the ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism that colors the entire article, an article penned by an outsider.
Through the author’s cultural lens we are given a passionate picture of a woman, oppressed, put down, forced to wear the abaya and hijab who in a courageous gesture wears a lacy blue bra. “The real her” The lacy, sexy, woman put down by men, forced to a life that screams “Let me out!”. “I may be abaya on the outside, but I’m Victoria’s secret on the inside!” Wow. That doesn’t sound like the Egyptian women I know and love. It sounds like a stereotypical viewpoint that will now enjoy renewed support through this article.
The author is indulging in what has become the favorite pastime of many Americans: Interpreting and then prescribing meaning to the behavior, dress and inner cry of women and others in the Muslim world. Cultural imperialism much?
But that’s not enough. After indulging in the diatribe, in an unexpected leap she moves on. Her next victim? Mary Magdalene. She speaks of a new book (“brilliant” she calls it) that looks at the life of Mary Magdalene and argues that Mary Magdalene could well be the lover of Jesus. The book imagines a conversation between Mary and Peter, the apostle. “You never truly saw nor knew me. You took the garments that I wore to be me, but you never recognized my true self.” And then the lament by the writer of the Washington Post article “If only Mary had had a blue bra”
At this point, you as the reader (who have read some of my rants) know that I had enough. When will we in the west stop prescribing our culturally based views of freedom on the east? When will we, instead of pointing the finger, take a hard look at our culture and the things that we consider keys to freedom, and be willing to say “maybe we need to reconsider this”. When will we stop condemning the veil and abaya, pieces of clothing that are sometimes forced, and other times worn willingly,prescribing feelings and thoughts to the women who wear them when we have never spoken to them, we have never asked them? When will we stop whining about the veil and start speaking out against hook-up culture? What is our obsession with forcing our views of freedom down other people’s throats? When will we cease to re-write the stories of characters of the Bible to suit our insatiable appetites for sex and seduction? Freedom indeed!
Most of all, when will we display cultural humility, that “life-long commitment to self-analysis and critique” that would, instead of assuming the values and thoughts of another, ask! And if the person is not available to be asked, as in the case of the Egyptian woman who has not yet come forward (and may very well not), not imagine her thoughts. After all – unlike Mary Magdalene, who can’t defend herself as she is dead, this woman is alive and perhaps even reading western media.
I was too upset. I needed help. I needed another opinion. So I sought it through my friend Lois. Lois has walked through life with me and knows my biases and quirks. She also sees the Muslim world through the lens of having grown up in the country of Jordan. Lois was the one who came up with the words that I couldn’t grasp, so passionate was I.
“It is the need to interpret things through our own cultural grid that is troubling, and then the need to fit Christianity into a modern gridwork, and just how we try to alter things to fit our own filters. It seems that instead of communicating across boundaries, it is easier to bring things within our own boundary of time and culture and interpret them from within those confines of safety.” And that was it. She got it.
When we choose to communicate and interpret only through our bias, we assign meaning to actions that could be way off base. When we ascribe viewpoints and feeling to people from an ethnocentric lens as opposed to a lens of cultural understanding we are on dangerous ground – no matter what respected media source we write for.
Bloggers Note: I urge readers to take a look at the section on women in “What a billion Muslims Really Think”. I believe it’s an important book and could be an eyeopener for many. There are also a couple of other blog posts that you may find interesting. Another note, the term cultural humility was coined by two physicians, Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia as they looked at developing multicultural education for physicians. The concept is a good one and one that my colleague and I use often in cultural competency workshops. Read more here.