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Sucking up to the biggies

Guardian writer, Sara Wajid, interviews Alice Walker on her affair with Tracy Chapman, and the connection between the niqab and high heels.

I’m not convinced that women have the education or the sense of their own history enough or that they understand the cruelty of which men are capable and the delight that many men will take in seeing you choose to chain yourself – then they get to say ‘See, you did it yourself’. Like we wear these high heels that hurt us, well it’s foot-binding, you know, but we think by now, ‘that’s very sexy’ … “It’s very, very dangerous, that’s all I would say. I’m for women choosing whatever they want to do but they have to really know what they are doing. If I had to offer any counsel I would say [to British Muslim women] ‘Use some of this time not just to be on the defensive but to interrogate your own culture and see how much of it you really believe yourself in your heart and how much of it you can let go of. You don’t have to be a prisoner of your religion.'”

I believe that most women do understand their oppression by men and it is not a question of education – that is so damn patronising. Many women are constrained by their cutlure and society. Where are they supposed to walk away to? It is not an easy decision to make even when you know it is the right decision. It is a lot easier to walk away from oppression in the US or Britain than it is in Bangladesh or Nigeria. Even in the US it is not always that simple as we saw from the film Boys Dont Cry where difference can lead to rape and murder if you happen to live in the wrong place or are poor.

There is a big step between understanding your oppression and being able to step out of it. Women in the real world have to make pragmatic decisions about how to survive often with children, in societies where there are no support networks. Ms Walker is surely educated enough to know that class also has a part to play in what options are available to women and what realistic decisions they can afford to make at any particular time.

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10 Comments

  1. boy, that’s really disappointing to read. I really like alice walker–i thought she had more sense than that. I agree, women know perfectly well–and I think you rightfully point out, working class/poor women know better than rich women do. but we have to actually stay and make changes in our culture because we can’t afford to run away.

    very condesending.

  2. Yeah I’m sure a woman who’s beaten by her drunk husband needs to go to school to know she’s being oppressed.

  3. i think it’s easy to say that most women know/understand their oppression by men when it is overt and occurs at the individual level. but i would say that the reason the system of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” thrives is becuase oppression is a structural concept in which its most dangerous aspects are not readily seen by many individuals. There is an article titled “The Five Faces of Oppression” by Iris Marion Young. In it she states that the causes of oppression “are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.” I believe this is what Walker is referring to–wanting women to take a look at these unquestioned norms that may not seem oppressive b/c they’ve been normalized.

  4. It’s this kind of class arrogance that really bugs me. The same kind of classism that says poor women are unqualified to raise their own children but the government can do a better job, or the middle class, or the wealthy. Same kind of classism that enables a woman like Madonna to think she can swoop in and save an African baby–from what? Being poor and African, of course.

    Of course, in Ms. Walker’s world I guess middle class women escape their oppressors all the time. Cuz of being so educated, and all.

  5. Dara@ I think you would be surprised to know that having spent a great deal of time talking and spending my days with many poor rural and urban women that they are very much aware of the covert ways in in which oppression of women and the poor is exercised ie ” the causes of oppression “are embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols.” Women use different ways to subvert these “norms, habits and symbols” in the daily lives. To say they do not understand these oppressions or just sit by and do nothing is first of all disingenuous and secondly just not true.

  6. ohno

    You must all have been very enlightened people. I never knew or understood my oppression for years. learning opened the door to my undersatnding and freedom. I wish someone had showed me a way out sooner.

  7. Comment by post author

    Sokari

    I am sorry this happened to you in this way and that some how “we” are enlightened people, that would be as patronising of you as Ms Walker’s statement. People have different life experiences and reach their own understanding at different times in their lives depending on those experiences.

  8. Jay

    To say nothing of human agency. Perhaps Alice’s life is so simplistic. Perhaps a woman can and does feel empowered wearing high heels or niqab. Or, shocking, both, since women here in the U.S. can look very stylish and hip in both.

    Condescending and very sad.

  9. Alice’s remarks are condescending and sad, but not very surprising. What Alice Walker said was very typical of privileged Americans. She has forgotten the struggle because she no longer struggles. She has transcended race and gender and class.

  10. Comment by post author

    Sokari

    Exactly – when did she sit down with some regular everyday ordinary women to know what they have to say and their world view. you hit the nail on the head!