This photograph from the Rio Olympics sparked debate quickly followed by a storm of outrage and an even hotter debate when France went on to ban the burqa.
Feminists were at odds about what this means for women, for religion and for our freedoms. Not all Muslim women oppose wearing the burqa but feminists see it as yet another oppressive rule imposed on women by men. Yet even they are not certain that a ban is the answer since empowering women must involve respecting their religious and cultural traditions.
There is no question that what constitutes a feminist approach to issues is debated, and sometimes heatedly, within groups of people who all claim, and rightly so, to be feminist.
One such debate has arisen within Rape Crisis, after the organisation accepted money from a burlesque dance company called The Rouge Revue, which involves women dancing, wearing sexy clothes and almost but not quite going naked. The younger feminists in the organisation participate and feel it to be empowering and many of the dancers are rape survivors who use this dance form to explore their own sensuality and reclaim their pleasure in their own bodies and some of the dancers are gender non-conforming. Some older feminists think that this is completely mad because radical feminists do not dress up as male fantasy sex objects and perform titillating routines.
Of course all are feminists. But, and this is key, from different eras. Different kinds of feminists have defined themselves in different ways over the years and been undermined by men in different ways in very different times. The first wave of feminists were the suffragettes who fought for women to be able to vote and won. The second wave of feminists, rejected the unspoken social rules around women shaving their body hair, wearing killer heels, wearing lots of makeup and doing the ironing with a cheerful smile in a fresh apron before their husbands got home from playing their role as the main breadwinner of the household. They were part of setting up collectives of women who supported rape survivors, produced feminist media like Agenda and Ms Magazine and who rejected housework as the second shift for women in the workplace. They rejected pornography and sex work as exploitation and argued for women’s equality particularly when it came to wages. They went into the workplace as part of the battle for equality, often being the first woman to hold a position and having to do it with very little support from their colleagues. They were accused by men and other women of being militant, ugly, aggressive, loud and worse. But they fought and, to a large degree, they won.
This paved the way for the third wave of feminists to experience certain freedoms. They wore the killer heels and the lipstick and made their partners help with the ironing. They took on the workplace in greater and greater numbers, and in so doing laid bare the unspoken expectation of the workplace that women workers would behave like men who have wives taking care of things at home on the domestic front. They demanded better child care, paid maternity leave and the right to wear makeup and skirts and still be taken seriously. They have been subject to a far more subtle form of undermining. They were put under intense pressure to buy into all of the accessories of being pretty, feminine and sexy and were shamed for not wearing a bra or shaving their legs. On top of that they were still expected to get the good degree, hold down the high status job and have children, sometimes all at the same time. In the United States they became subject to the highly sexualized “raunch” culture in which women are objectified, objectify one another and are encouraged to objectify themselves and in so doing become Female Chauvinist Pigs, embracing a sexuality as aggressive as that of the very patriarchy whose rules they seek to defy.
And then there is what may one day be called the fourth wave, where the one who wears the skirts and heels is the subject of a whole different discussion, and sex, gender and sexual orientation are part of a fluid identity which makes defining yourself in a binary way start to seem old fashioned. Caitlyn Jenner happens. Men wear skirts, Caster Semenya becomes the subject of extended debate as to whether she is actually male or female, we recognise men marrying men and women marrying women, and not always needing to be too clear on the difference. Now sex is everywhere and nowhere, and women do the slut walk in order to make the point that they can dress any way, in any place, at any time and it’s not an invitation to rape. We are called upon by the “fourth wave” to recognise in addition to sexism the intersecting multiple oppressions of race, class, a restricted view of gender, poverty, sexual orientation and many more.
But our second wave feminists look at all of this and they talk about the objectification of women in raunch culture and ask why women would disable themselves by wearing high heels unless for men’s pleasure. They point out that while women may be able to wear sexy clothing in the boardroom, the boardroom itself is still dominated by men and nothing’s changed. For them a man who identifies as being a woman is not even a thing because women are women and the subject of oppression, and men being women is just playacting in an offensive way. And that, to go back to where we started, a burlesque show, which involves women dancing, wearing scanty, sexy clothes and then donating money to an organisation like Rape Crisis, is complete hypocrisy on the part of both giver and receiver. Worse, it is in fact capture by the patriarchy because we’re doing exactly what they want us to be doing.
And that’s a point of view. Biological determinism, which says women are in fact superior to men, is a view. But it’s from a particular place, and a particular time. In the current age women expect to be able to dance on tables in very little clothing, or none at all, make money from it, drink like fish, proposition the men they want to have sex with, vote, run companies, come first in the Olympics and run countries regardless of their race, religion or any other social identifier. That’s why we say that if you want to raise money for rape survivors by belly dancing or burlesque – go for it. We love it, we embrace it, and we’ll proudly say we accept your donation because this is the time we are living in and it belongs to all of us.
Kathleen is director of the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. We invite anyone reading this to share your opinion and submit your piece to her at firstname.lastname@example.org for publication on this site. We hope to spark our own debate to see what feminists of today, and any other day, think and feel.