Tank tops, it turns out, can be the focus of a raging debate, both feminist and nationalist. The setting: an impressive protest that takes place every Friday in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Palestinians and Jews demonstrate together against the eviction of Palestinian families and attempts to evict even more residents from the site where they have lived for generations, in order to replace them with Israeli settlers.
This coming Friday, August 6, demonstrations of solidarity with the Sheikh Jarrah protest are to be held in cities and towns across Israel, to mark the first anniversary of the eviction of the Ghawi and Hanun families from their homes in the neighborhood. Recently, however, a controversy has surfaced among the activists. Protest organizers have requested that participants refrain from wearing tank tops and shorts, to show respect for residents of the neighborhood.
An argument erupted immediately. Not a few demonstrators, both women and men, were angered by the attempt to dictate what the women could wear, a symbol of the familiar, age-old masculine bid to control women. They opposed the argument - itself age-old and outrageous - that feminist activists forfeit something in favor of the greater and important goal of struggling against the occupation and the injustices against the Palestinians.
Organizers were quick to point out that the request was made by Palestinian women who take part in the demonstrations and do not feel comfortable with their bare-shouldered partners.
Those opposed noted that any request for modesty in dress is in itself problematic, an oppressive tool stemming from the idea that women are temptresses and men those who are tempted.
There are more arguments, all of them good ones. They mentioned of course the problem of the standing of women in Palestinian society.
Here is another impossible juncture of nationalism and gender, feminism and colonialism: Jews with good intentions want to help disenfranchised Palestinians, but, alas, the society they want to aid does not match up to their liberalism, and they try to change that society. One hears echoes of Indian feminist philosopher Gayatri Spivak's statement about "white men trying to save brown women from brown men," made in connection to Indian women trapped between Indian patriarchy and British colonialism.
Aside from this, the question is raised: Who says that wearing tank tops is a feminist matter?
If one is talking about secular Jewish Israeli society, the problem is not one of coercing women to cover their bodies, but the opposite: the commercialization of female nudity, which may be seen on nearly every public billboard and influences grown men and women, and young people.
True, the issue is not really the tank tops, but the freedom to dress as you like. Here the well-known comparison may be reversed: The political is personal.Everyone must be accountable to themselves; those who feel that limitations on dress damage their freedom of self-expression can refrain from coming to Sheikh Jarrah. Whoever can abide by the request will act accordingly.
To my mind, respect for the culture of people who fight alongside you does no harm to feminism. In any case, one thing is clear: It is important to reject every attempt to ask women to wait for the realization of this seemingly tiny matter of feminism until all the national problems have been solved, as has been the Israeli custom for years. In practice, the opposite is the case: If the feminist struggle is advanced, there is a bigger chance that wars and national problems will move closer to solutions.
Less is less
More on the matter of shirts. "Eat Less" is the slogan that the Urban Outfitters clothing chain chose to grace a new T-shirt. As if the problems of bulimia, anorexia and other eating disorders were not increasing among women at increasingly younger ages.
As if the generous proportion of time the media disseminates information about starving models and the wonders of Photoshop wasn't always on the increase. As if there weren't enough images to make more and more women feel bad about themselves, to believe they will never look good enough, to force themselves into more and more rigid regimes that do harm to their health.
This trend, which has only worsened over the years, is surely a negative response to feminism: Okay, there's no alternative, you can be an executive director or anything else you want to be, but we've found other ways to narrow your path and in any case you won't feel too good about yourself.
After a large Web protest, Urban Outfitters stopped selling the controversial shirts on the Internet but, according to a Huffington Post blog, they are still available in stores in the U.S.
No woman or man among us is free of various kinds of gender phobias, it seems.
Last week I made an error when I referred to Hen Alkobi as a woman impersonating a man, as did the court which convicted her of attempted rape in 2003.
Alkobi, who was tried in court following sex with female minors, is transgender.
Being transgender is not an impersonation but an identity, which society has great difficulty accepting, and also makes the lives of transgendered people very difficult.
Even feminists like myself, whom society has great difficulty accepting and whose lives are made extremely difficult by society, and who attempt to avoid sexism, lesbian-phobia and homophobia, can sometimes fail and demonstrate trans-phobia.
If the revolution for women's rights has gathered force (not enough ) and the rights of gays has advanced forward as well in recent years (too slowly ), transgendered people still suffer greatly from prejudice, just as I illustrated here, although it was not my intention to do so.
I apologize to all those who were hurt.
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