On How We Shame Women and Why (The F Word: Let's Talk Feminism and Gender)

(This piece first appeared for a fortnightly column entitled 'The F Word: Lets Talk Feminism and Gender' that I am writing for The Weekend Express of News Express Ltd.
It has also appeared on bakamoono.lk an educational resource run by The Grassrooted Trust)

A friend of mine – A* had someone impersonate her on a popular networking app a few days ago. She was alerted by someone who messaged her on Facebook asking if she had messaged him using the app, realizing due to the style of the conversation that something wasn’t right. B* (the guy who messaged her) cautioned A* to ‘be careful’ as whoever was behind the impersonation had been intent on discussing a supposed nude photoshoot she had done some years back with a popular photographer.

When she told me this story, a weariness stole over me. When one is trying to shame, embarrass, or call into question the reputation of a woman, often using her sexuality is the first weapon of choice. Now had A engaged in a consensual photo shoot, why is this something she should be ashamed of? When she pointed this out to B, the concept seemed to baffle him. Of course, she should be worried correct? ‘Good, reputable’ young women don’t take pride in their bodies! Unfortunate this is what we have driven into the minds of our children – and the impersonator had learnt their lesson well. When they wanted to shame A, they didn’t choose to have her discuss how she had hurt someone, engaged in a crime, or been thieving, false or dishonest. They chose to say that she had taken pictures of her body, and being the body of a woman it should be hidden only to be shown to her husband.

This tactic of shaming is not unusual, nor is it rare or uncommon. One of the most infuriating critiques that I found current First Lady of the United States – Melania Trump faced during the Presidential Election was over photographs. Specifically photographs taken during her modeling career, where she posed nude for Vanity Fair magazine. It was used continually by political opponents as fodder to question her suitability to ‘uphold family values’, her character and her ‘suitability’ to be First Lady. This is frankly slut-shaming, and women are continually subjected to this. Why should she apologize or hide the fact that as a consenting adult she took nude pictures? And why should we pass judgement or shame her for it? Why is it that Justin Trudeau shirtless is something to be admired and Melania’s body something to be decried? As one article in the Huffington Post reminded us “Ultimately, the nude photos are irrelevant. They tell nothing about Melania Trump’s character or her ethics, and they certainly tell us nothing of Donald Trump’s”.

One does not have to look too far from home in any case to find hundreds of examples of this kind of shaming. Meliza Leitch is a young woman on Instagram who is regularly commented on for the images that she posts. These images focus primarily on her body, are being posted by her. Yet she is called names, regularly messaged by strangers telling her how terrible she is, accused of wanting attention and more. The concept that even if she is doing it for attention, or any other reason is not for someone else to decide seems beyond the realm of understanding for many. That she is free to display her body on her terms to whomever she chooses. What is even more baffling being why the dozens of Instagram accounts of young men who pose shirtless regularly are not shamed for taking the same pride in their bodies. Why they are not deemed immoral, ‘loose’, and the hundred other choice words women like Meliza are subject to nearly every day?

Some weeks ago, I discussed the rampant ‘nudes’ culture in Sri Lanka where intimate images young women had shared with partners are now being used as public masturbation material circulated without their consent. When the issue is shared with people, 9 times out of 10 the instantaneous reaction is to shame the girls for having sent the pictures in the first place. Perpetrators are acting with increasingly impunity, and have no fear of repercussions as they know full well the victims cower under the shame and will not come forward. Revenge porn has reached such staggering proportions that BBC reports 1 in 5 Australians have faced it, and Facebook has launched a tool to combat the issue. We have come to a world where a woman’s body and sexuality are dangerous weapons, and the owner of the body is the most likely victim. Truly the mind is blown.

We now drop the terrible ‘P’ Word (almost as awful as the ‘F Word’, feminism) – Patriarchy. In sociology, it is defined as “A patriarchy is a social system in which family systems or entire societies are organized around the idea of father-rule, where males are the primary authority figures”. Thereby for one group to rise as the rulers, other groups must be suppressed, and women are those other groups. This shaming of women very much rests in the framework of patriarchal notions, and this is where it all begins. The equality of the sexes (much less genders) cannot exist within patriarchy since it’s most defining feature involves men as rulers. Thus, we come back to what feminism asks – the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. Equality. A simple word, yet seemingly impossible concept to grasp.

If A had taken part in a nude photoshoot consensually – then I for one applaud her for being so comfortable with her body. As she didn’t, then it is still not a reason to be ashamed, she has nothing to be shamed for either way. The shame lies with those who shame her, who have used this as a tool to shame her, and to those that believe she had something to be ashamed about. If pictures are taken without her consent or through coercion then the one who took the pictures or asked for them should be ashamed. If pictures taken consensually were shared without any consent, then the one who did the sharing should be ashamed. The shame does not lie with A and women like her. The shame lies with those who truly have something to be ashamed of.

*initials changed


Louiqa Raschid said…
Great commentary. The initial example of Melania Trump was missing some nuances ... many people picked on the Melania nudes since the Republican party in the US shamelessly tries to promote "family values". The rest was very timely.

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