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Monday, August 1, 2011

Welcome to Kochistan part 2 - The Women of Kochistan.

August 1st, 2011
by Stephanie Baselice
part 1 is available HERE

The other day my daughter came in from the back porch to tell me there were two ladies outside and she had no idea what they wanted. Having some idea, I wiped my hands on my apron and came out onto the porch. Two sixty-ish women in flowered dresses approached my back steps. One greeted me, and said they were on a "Christian Mission" in my area. I reserved judgment and let her go through her intro spiel. 

 When she got to the part about how she understood that most people had their own church, but since I had children, wasn't I worried about what was going to happen in the world, and with Obama and everything, what did I think was going to happen, I gently told her I'd prefer not to discuss religion with her and wished her a blessed day. The flowered Christians made a civil retreat. But I am indeed worried about what is going to happen to my world. Especially since I have children though not necessarily because of "Obama and everything." 

It is becoming evident to me that for quite some time now there has been an organized, well-funded push by corporate and ultra right-wing interests to hijack the United States from its people, and re-orient us into a Plutocratic Corptocracy. This is occurring at a variety of different levels, using a broad range of tactics including, though certainly not limited to, pulling hard on the strings of fear that hold together the fundamentalist Christians. And it has clearly been working. Owing to the prominent role of the Koch brothers in this effort, I have (only partly in jest) been calling our evolving nation "Kochistan," though recent events suggest “Murdochistan” might be just as apt.

Americans are finally becoming aware of this reality. The recent union busting in Wisconsin and similar efforts in other states were a major wake up call for many people. Dismantling the last of the unions, especially when tied to the new powers of "emergency financial managers" at state level is scary enough. Yet with the ascendency of the tea party into national and local politics, we also get the rolling back of any environmental protections aimed at preserving life on the planet for our descendants, as well as an onslaught of hate-filled misogynistic legislation aimed at not only abortion rights but the basic human rights of women and gay people. Together these efforts create a web of changes many describe as the advent of...fascism in the United States. The union of corporate and right-wing conservative interests with political power is potentially a short road to fascism, even as I admit that the term has become a somewhat meaningless pejorative for any oppressive regime. The Military Industrial Complex that Eisenhower feared does seem to have brought us to a state of endless war and the values of liberty and opportunity do seem a fading light in the distance.

Bald fear of the future, tied to the experience of dwindling opportunity is the most immediate concern for many people. With the financial crisis and recession taking precedence in the concerns of most of my friends, the onslaught of fascism is hardly foremost on their minds. The people I know are collectively dealing with massive layoffs, cuts in pay, and overwork as a result of staff reductions. Employers, emboldened to demand ever higher rates of return on each employee's time, add pressure. This trend is paired with ever lower salaries, bonuses and benefits.

Most of the actual legislation appears to be aimed at two objectives: removing or relaxing any environmental protections and rolling back women’s rights. Literally hundreds (thousands?) of bills have been put forward this year, and many have passed which limit abortion rights (or at least restrict access) and remove safety nets that allow women to support themselves and their children without a husband....viewed from a distance it is really dramatic. As a woman, and especially as the mother of a pre-teen daughter, I find this terrifying. In several states, it is now possible for a miscarriage to be treated as a felony. 

 When I was a child, equal rights for women was a serious discussion, there was even an amendment to the Constitution on the table. Needless to say, the amendment failed. At the time, most of the conversation I heard amongst the grownups was that the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) could not pass because it would allow/require women to be in active combat in a draft situation. What I do not remember being discussed at the time was that according to the tide of history, the battlefield has often been the clearest path to legal equality for any subjugated group. Evidently though, this is not true for the women of Kochistan. 

 These days women are in active combat situations, but it seems equality is moving backwards, rather than forwards, even for our soldiers. Of course one can always hope that the current backlash is temporary and the tide of history will overpower the current trend and return its momentum towards legal equality for all. But that hope fades with each new troglodyte bill and with Michele Bachmann's candidacy for President.

I try to read a fairly broad swath of periodicals in order to compile my opinions from the space between competing narratives. Among the publications I read regularly is The Atlantic. June's cover of The Atlantic features a woman in full veil (eyes showing, not a burka) and chador—at least I assume it is a woman—and the title: “Is this the face of Arab democracy?” The title brings up a lot of obvious questions about our cultural assumptions and prejudices, but I will leave those alone for the moment and focus on the image itself and what it brought up for me.

Chador, for those unfamiliar, is a large circular cape—traditionally worn in Iran as a covering for respectable women when they go out in public. Since the Iranian revolution, the chador is traditionally black (though this has not always been so). It is generally seen now accompanied by various other forms of hijab—modesty—which essentially means a veil between the sexes. A veil worn by women whenever they appear outside their homes. A veil of “modesty” covering all but the eyes and hands. Evidently there is a lot of room for interpretation of the prophet Mohammed’s views on modesty—the language of the Koran on the subject is equivocal. Similar garments are worn throughout the Muslim world., with various degrees of modesty being expressed through a wide variety of garments from beautiful decorative headscarves to the tent-like burka, which has a lace panel to hide even the eyes from view. 

 I want to say here I am resolutely in favor of this option when freely chosen by the women who wear it. I have heard that hijab can be a tremendous relief from the pressures of public presentation in an environment where women are mercilessly judged on their looks. And I have learned that the history of veiling is heavily influenced by class and social status. Higher status women have been historically more likely to be covered in public. In Iran, at one point servants and prostitutes were not legally permitted hijab. They had to venture out into public without the social protection provided by veiling. This fact may go far to explain the willingness of modern Muslim women to accept and even embrace the requirement to be covered in public. Nonetheless the issue of hijab has often been part of political changes in many countries--changes which clearly designate women as second class citizens at best. It is also a point of contention in the Western world, often seen as a symbol of "otherness." During the past 30 years, many places have used hijab requirements to push women out of the public sphere, or even into it, as in France.

I am reminded by all this of my dear friend Marita, who is from Iran. She has told me plenty of stories about living in Chador. It was not optional for her—it was required of her in Iran, even though she is Armenian and not a Muslim. She always hated it. Her big dream in life was to go to college and to ride a bicycle. She is now doing both those things, here in the US, but hers is another story. The story that I come back to is one she told me about women’s swim days. Iran gets hot. Evidently men and women swim on different days, by decree. Sexual apartheid is very rigorous in Iran. She told me the women must swim in full hijab. Imagine for a moment, trying to swim in a chador. Articles I have read recently on Iran tell a different story—that some women even wear bikinis on the women’s swim days---perhaps things have changed over the past ten years since she emigrated--but Marita told me that each year someone would drown. Usually a young girl new to the garments, who had not yet learned to navigate within them fully. Pulled down under the heavy water by her billowing black skirts and cape and veil. Horrified, I asked how they could stand it. Marita told me "The people.... they have nothing. They are so happy just to get wet."

Right. Somehow, from environmentalism to modesty, the brunt of the burden of meeting social standards seems too fall most heavily upon the women. With all the legal changes brought about by the current war on women, I wondered what chador-like symbol will be forced upon us in the nation of Kochistan?

And the answer I come up with is.....Dagny Traggart. No hijab. Not modesty. Supreme, sublime arrogance. The tyranny of objectification within the context of objectivism. Ann Coulter. Sarah Palin. Michele Bachmann. Women who are at once beautiful and arrogant and predatory; who are admired for these very qualities (well, I don't find Ann Coulter at all beautiful but she is certainly tall and thin and blonde, which often passes for beauty in our culture). The admiration and emulation of the predator is our Kochistani form of oppression. This is true for men as well as women though that is a topic for another time. Here I am speaking of the tyranny of continual, unrelenting competition between women as opposed to social forms which foster solidarity. How many women can ever hope to compete at that Dagny Taggart level? Very few. Imagine going bikini shopping with your frienemy the underwear model. I'd almost prefer to swim in a cape, and I look pretty good for being middle aged. As a woman, to admire or even despise the power babes of Kochistan is to acknowledge their superiority and to accept one's place lower down the food chain, and to accept separation from other women by accepting the doctrine of competitiveness. 

Michele Bachmann is running for President. It appears the Republican strategy for connecting to women is to separate us from one another. To provide women with nearly impossible role models which simultaneously allow us to imagine some kind of agency and equality, by picturing ourselves in their shoes, and to force us to either become predators or to accept our inferior status as prey. To drown us in the chador of our own insecurity, and thus keep us from uniting against the forces which would keep us subordinated.

In Ayn Rand's libertarian propaganda novel, Atlas Shrugged, the character Dagny Taggart knows from an early age that people do not like her because she is truly superior. She is smarter, stronger, better looking, more fortunate than the others. In true objectivist form, she is her best, truest self when she uses those advantages to their fullest, without apology or even consideration given to those who are less fortunate. She is a predator. Objectivism is a predatory philosophy. This is why it is so appealing to those who wish to keep and even enhance the status and power structures that are already in place. Like the divine right of kings, objectivism justifies the imbalance of resources and power within a larger moral framework. The morality expressed in Ayn Rand's novels is the glorification of the selfish self. It is the "invisible hand" of the market at work...the idea that individuals relentlessly pursuing narrow self-interest will somehow magically bring about an optimal distribution of resources. 

Uber-capitalism, free market fundamentalism—call it what you will. I find objectivism to be profoundly immoral, but everyone has a right to his/her own opinion—at least for the moment. I do find it deeply disturbing that Ayn Rand novels are a centerpiece of educational programs that call themselves conservative especially since I had not always viewed conservatives as predators. But this is what they have become. In modern conservatism, traditional patriarchal morality dovetails with predatory social and economic values to create an oppressive regime here in Kochistan. Our chador may be invisible, but many of us will drown in it nonetheless.

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