A couple of weeks a go, a new, so-called “anti-rape” underwear device got quite a bit of international attention. It was invented by a team of Indian students, including two women. The device was designed to give rapists an electric shock. It is also reportedly equipped with a GPS tracking device to alert the women’s parents and police that she is being assaulted. The underlying attitudes that led these engineers to make this device are representative of the problem of rape not just in India, but in other parts of the world. Rape and harassment are not seen as public issues that require social intervention, but rather these are perceived as personal problems that individual women must navigate and manage in their day-today lives. In Australia, women’s public safety is also positioned as a personal issue. Both the Jill Meagher case and the public sexual harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard exemplify that women are ultimately forced to fend for themselves, while society does little to acknowledge rape culture as a societal responsibility. Continue reading →
High heel shoes were once a status symbol for powerful men, from horse riding soldiers in 16th Century Persia, to European aristocrats in the 17th Century. Since the Enlightenment period, heels became associated with “irrational” fashion and pornography, and so “impractical” shoes became a symbol of femininity. What changed? Today’s post examines how history and fashion trends related to high heels help us to see how gender is a performance that entrenches inequality.
16th to 17th Century: Heels as a Sign of Masculine Utility, Wealth and Power
As far back as the 16th and 17th centuries, in different parts of the world, wealthy and powerful men wore high heels as a symbol of their social position. Persian soldiers wore high heels as they were seen as practical gear for horse riding. Later on in Europe, aristocrats wore high heels for the opposite reason: high heels were uncomfortable and they had no utility, other than to display one’s luxury. The men who wore them did not have to walk far and so to wear heels was a sign of privilege.
As men became more focused on education and economic and gender relations become more rigid, women are alternatively seen as emotional and unable to be educated. Women’s desirability is increasingly linked to “foolish” fashion. Heels become a symbol of femininity for the same reason they were once loved by wealthy European men: they are painful, impractical and frivolous. Men no longer wear heels because social ideas of gender have changed – men are supposed to embody practicality while women are treated as being irrational.
High heeled shoes fell out of favour with both women and men in France during the French Revolution. Civil conflict brings about death and poverty. Class and gender relations change once more. Displays of affluence through dress and shoes are no longer socially acceptable to the same degree. Consequently, high heels are once again seen as impractical for both genders. Continue reading →
The 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare.
Today I spent a great deal of time playing around with the Vatican’s virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. For an art and sociology of religion nerd such as me, the 360 degree view of the Chapel was loads of fun. Nevertheless, this got me thinking about the history of Christian art and, in particular, Michelangelo’s contribution to Western ‘high art’ culture. I am interested in how Western European art of the Renaissance period set up women as The Other of men, and how this gender binary continues to influence dominant discourses of divinity within mainstream Christianity.
Elizabeth Dodson Gray offers a feminist critique of the history of patriarchal depictions of divinity. She argues this form of patriarchy is best exemplified by the system of meaning behind Michelangelo’s design of the Sistine Chapel. Dodson Gray’s central point about ‘the process of naming the sacred’ helps to unpack the narrative behind the Sistine Chapel’s most famous work. Dodson Gray argues that throughout most of modern history, men had greater power in constructing discourses of The Sacred. As a consequence, symbols of God were constructed as synonymous with being Male. Until women began offering feminist critiques of religious signs and texts, religious imagination largely ignored women’s knowledge. Continue reading →
Lagos, Nigeria. (Credit: Airpanther, 2008, Flickr. Creative Commons Attribution)
A couple of weeks a go, in her CNN opinion column, Mary Robinson wrote her praise for women’s leadership in sustainable environmental progress. The piece was titled: Why women are world’s best climate change defence. Robinson is the former President of Ireland and she is now the head of the Mary Robinson Foundation (a ‘climate justice’ organisation). Robinson puts forward a call to action on the ‘gendered dimensions’ of climate change – but she doesn’t really say what this means. While the title of her paper talks about ‘women’, her commentary focuses on rural women in developing nations, especially in Africa.
Today I unpack the ideas that Robinson presents with respect to gendered environmental practices in African countries and developing nations. I contrast these with practices in advanced nations. I refer to Chimamanda Adichie’s writing about the dangers of telling ‘a single story’ about developing nations, specifically about ‘Africa’.
Different parts of the world face unique environmental challenges due to their national landscape and population distribution. Painting a singular picture about the gendered dimensions of climate change in developing nations narrows the scope of environmental progress.
Two years a go, a then-19 year-old Afghan woman known only as ‘Gulnaz’ was charged with adultery and sentenced to 12 years imprisonment after she reported that she had been raped by her cousin’s husband. Gulnaz became pregnant from the rape she endured. She gave birth in prison. Gulnaz and her child lived behind bars for two years until the international community heard about her plight. Her case became known when the European Union announced it had banned a documentary about Gulnaz and other victims of gender crimes, citing a fear for the women’s safety should their story become public (CNN).This rationale drew international criticism. Five thousand people signed a petition for Gulnaz’s release in late November.
Public harassment of women in India is known as ‘Eve teasing’. I’m using this as a case study to highlight the ‘Western’ media’s divergent constructions of sexual harassment at home and abroad.
In Australia and in Western countries such as the USA, the mainstream media tend to portray sexual violence and gender oppression as a barbaric practice that are culturally entrenched in developing countries. Gender violence is the stuff of others – it is something that members of ‘less civilised’, less enlightened societies do. In comparison, the Western media depict sexual harassment and rape in their own societies as fear-mongering events involving individuals, rather thananindictment of an entire culture. (See my discussion of the sociology of crime reporting in an earlier post.)
Today’s post begins with a case study of Eve teasing in India before moving on to discuss sexual violence on a global scale, including the ‘Slutwalk’ movement. I provide more detail on the USA and Australia to illustrate that gender violence against women is widespread in advanced, liberal democracies, as it is in other parts of the world. As today’s discussion is focused on women, I talk only briefly about sexual violence against men but I will return to this issue in the near future. Here, I will argue that the situation in India is one public expression of broader global patterns of sexual assault.
Beauty: in the eye of the shmeholder. Oh and biology and all that jazz, apparently. (Image via Fan Pop!)
I’ve been reading articles that recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Don’t give into this tripe and don’t panic – sociology can help un-package how and why nonsense about beauty becomes commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed.
As I’ve said elsewhere, Policy Mic is a great website that encourages smart political discussion between young people. This new Policy Mic article makes an earnest attempt to consider whether discrimination based on beauty should be legislated against in America. The author, public policy analyst Olivia Puerta, argues that notions of beauty are based on ‘biology’. Starting off from this flawed premise is unfortunate. This view accepts beauty and discrimination as fundamental characteristics of humanity. This makes it difficult to accept that social norms, legislation and education can make effective changes. Puerta writes:
‘Greta fiercest Gremlin’ don’t need no education, she gots her some erotic capital. (Image via Indestructible on Tumblr)
Catherine Hakim’s latest book, “Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital” argues that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead in life. The book continues to generate press in the UK, USA and in my homeland of Oz, in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. The latter impressively alludes to the fact that Hakim’s work distorts French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital. CORRECT! (Sociology props to journalist Rachel Hills!) The reality is that Hakim misappropriates the sociological ideas that would otherwise make the concept of erotic capital a useful way of thinking about sexuality. My review of Hakim’s work as well as another study on beauty will show that this type of research simply replicates taken-for-granted ideas about sex and gender. Sociology is useful only when it takes apart everyday ideas to help people better understand the social consequences of behaviour; in this case, sexuality, desire and what is considered ‘attractive’.
Bourdieu argued that economic and life outcomes depend upon intangible social processes, such as cultural knowledge (for example, the type of school someone attends) and social networks (the people we know who might help us to get ahead in life). Sexual capital and erotic capital are concepts that have been used to study the social, symbolic, economic and physical resources that affect the way in which sexual desire is constructed in different societies, and the social hierarchies that affect the sexual power and sexual enjoyment of different groups. This is not the way Hakim applies this concept.