I recently came across the article “Laurie Penny on hair: Why patriarchy fears the scissors – for women, short hair is a political statement.” At face value it might seem kind of absurd to think that anyone would view another’s hairstyle as having anything to do with oneself. It’s another person’s hair! It has nothing to do with you! But yes, unfortunately, I’m sure most women can identify with what she’s talking about on some level, absurd as it may initially seem. She says:
“And yet, the amount of male attention I got [from growing my hair longer] – from friendly flirting to unwanted hassle – increased enormously. Not because I looked better, but because I looked like I was trying to look more like a girl. Because I was performing femme. Every time I cut it off, I noticed immediately that the amount of street harassment I received, from cat-calls to whispered sexual slurs to gropes and grabs on public transport, dropped to a fraction of what it had been – apart from total strangers coming up to tell me how much prettier I’d be if I only grew it out. People have done this when I’ve been quietly working on my laptop in cafes, because I really need to be interrupted in the middle of a deadline to be told I need to work harder on my girl game.”
NewStatesman || Laurie Penny on hair: Why patriarchy fears the scissors – for women, short hair is a political statement.
The thing I was reminded of when I read this article, especially this passage, was a conversation I recently had with some Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab (face cover) in addition to the hijab (head cover) and abaya (body cover). They all had religious reasons for initially choosing it, but when we talked about it from a practical point of view their descriptions of going out while wearing a niqab was very similar to the woman in the article’s description of the benefits of having short hair as a woman. In their view, wearing the niqab allowed them to just get on with their life without the drama of unwanted attention from men they do not know (nor want to know). Do I think women should have to cut their hair short or wear a niqab to accomplish this? No, of course not. But both of these tactics are answers to a real, practical problem that, honestly, is likely not going away anytime soon.
It’s funny, because modesty is often portrayed as one of the ultimate forms of “patriarchy oppression.” Like, “These poor women who are forced to be ashamed of their bodies.” But what if choosing modesty is actually a feminist act? It’s an act that reclaims my humanity apart from my sexuality. I think the view that modesty is a form of oppression is as anti-female as the view that a woman is only really a pro-woman, feminist when she rejects the “oppressed” role of housewife and mother in exchange for a male-ideal position in life. Both those views accepts and embraces the male-ideal value system of what roles are important and what roles are insignificant. It says her value, her equality is only achieved when it meets the male-ideal version of that value.
I know when we’re talking about “patriarchy” as it relates to feminism people are most often referring to “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” I understand that definition and don’t care to quibble with people who use the term that way. However, for myself, I think the word “patriarchy” is an poor descriptor. I am pro-female, I am Christian, and I don’t have a problem with true patriarchy. I do believe my husband, the father of my children, is the head of our home and family. I choose to submit to my husband as the leader of our family as I choose to submit to other tenants of my religion. However, does that mean I believe the government has the right to fill that role, or my doctor, or my teacher? No, I think those are false patriarchies. So often when people talk about an oppressive patriarchy they are really not talking about a specific husband or a specific father in a woman’s life. Yes, I know there are oppressive husbands and oppressive fathers, but in my view that falls under doing wrong to one’s neighbor, one’s fellow human, and not an inherent part of God’s design for the family. Most often when people talk about the oppression of patriarchy, they are talking about the system, people who often aren’t even related to the woman in any way. It’s a system that is male-idealized. It says that the normal and ideal state of being and viewing the world is male, and if you aren’t being male and valuing male ways of being, then there must be dysfunction.
When we buy into the idea that a woman couldn’t be choosing to submit to a true patriarchy model for their family, that she must be oppressed into this choice, we are buying into the male-ideal way of thinking, which says the only value is in being the leader, the only value is in being an income earner, and that childcare, while valuable, is not as valuable as making a more showy, “big” contribution to society. It also treats women as foolish, easily swayed beings, who can’t think for themselves.
I think true feminism is not about embracing the male-ideal as the female-ideal way of being. That’s not to say that a woman choosing a male-idealized role is inherently wrong, just that not doing so is not inherently wrong or shameful.
I’ve recently become acquainted with the term intersectional feminism. As I understand it, intersectional feminism seeks to understand feminism as it intersects with other aspects of women’s lives. Well, here’s how feminism intersects with this conservative, Christian woman’s life. I have value even though I choose to submit to my husband as the leader of my home and family. I have value even though I choose not to be an income earner. I have value even though I have chosen to give birth six times. I have value even though I choose not to limit my fertility. I have value even though I am against abortion. None of those things should negate my voice as a feminist. I can be pro-woman and be all those things. To say I can’t embrace those traditionally female roles and still be pro-female is to buy into the male-ideal view of the world. No! For feminism to be a pro-female ideology, it can’t reject traditionally female roles as anti-female. To be truly pro-female, feminism must accept women who embrace traditionally female roles alongside women who choose to embrace male-idealized roles. I am female and my voice should also be relevant to feminism.