Those up on these things know that today is Boobquake day, during which women are encouraged to show just a bit more skin when out in public. The point is to rebuke the Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, who recently remarked that scantily-clad women cause earthquakes.
Without commenting on the Facebook-promoted Boobquake phenomenon itself, I think it’s important to note that Sedighi’s comments, as absurd as they seem to reasonable people, exist on a continuum with the only-slightly-less absurd words of American right-wing pundits and preachers. While a great many social conservatives would dismiss Sedighi’s remarks, one suspects that most would do so more out of antipathy towards Islam than out of a genuine sense that what he said was wrong. After all, while the number who believe that a push-up bra leads to cracks in the earth’s crust are few, it’s common to hear conservatives bemoan the lack of modesty among today’s youth (and by youth, they almost invariably mean young women.)
“I can’t believe what young women are wearing these days” is an ancient lament. While it is axiomatic that what scandalizes one generation is accepted as normal by the next, it’s also true that standards tend to fluctuate rather than steadily decline. Think of the plunging necklines of the early 19th century in Europe, and contrast them with the Victorian prudishness that only emerged decades later. These things go in cycles. It’s simply ignorant to assume, as many anxious guardians of public morality do, that “things have never been this bad, and without radical (state or divine) intervention, things will get even worse.”
The real constant in history is the way in which the bodies of young women are seen as threats to the social order (if not also to the stability of the globe’s tectonic plates). Those who believe in the myth of male weakness argue that the vast majority of heterosexual men are driven mad (or at least unavoidably distracted, tempted, etc.) by women’s unwillingness to cover up. Those who don’t understand how testosterone and Y chromosomes actually influence behavior insist that they render males helpless at the sight of boobs and buttocks and uncovered thighs. The social conservatives adopt a simple formula, basing it on a creative misreading of both Scripture and evolutionary psychology (and yes, it’s notable that many right-wing Christians abandon their hostility to evolution when they see that its misuse serves to bolster their argument that women need to cover up.) The formula: social upheavals (and perhaps temblors) are caused by women’s refusal to police themselves (and each other). Since men are incapable of sexual self-regulation, God gave women (and women only) the gift of self-control. When women refuse to exercise that self-control on behalf of both themselves and their brothers, chaos results.
It’s easy to mock Sedighi. But when we repeat the lie that women are more capable of self-regulation and are therefore expected to exercise modesty as a strategy for restraining men and protecting society itself, we are taking essentially the same stance as the befuddled Iranian cleric. Boobs don’t cause earthquakes. They also don’t cause rape. They don’t cause men to be distracted or unfaithful. Exposed in whole or in part, they don’t portend the decline of civilization or of human decency. We need to repeat this message over and over again.
Building a just society means, among a great many other things, reiterating over and over that each of us has the capacity for empathy and for self-control. All of us ought to enjoy the right to delight in our bodies and display them as we choose. And make no mistake: women’s bodies are only threatening in a culture that denies the possibility of universal male accountability, and denies the reality of women’s sexual agency. (Not to mention a society that is ridiculously uncomfortable with one particularly effective way of feeding infants, but that’s another post.) Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi is an enthusiastic denier of both possibilities. But so too are many others who disguise their medieval views of human nature behind only slightly less ridiculous assertions.
Happy Boobquake day.
See this post for a take on the real biblical meaning of modesty.
In a discussion on my Facebook page beneath a link to this post, my friend Joanne writes:
Showing off my boobs doesn’t really make the people staring at them committed to freedom for Iranian women
I think we all agree to that. Note that I’m not celebrating or promoting Boobquake (it ill-behooves a male feminist to do so). I certainly don’t think that displaying women’s bodies is a particularly effective tool for solving discrimination. But I do think that the enforced concealment of women’s bodies is part and parcel of the problem. To the extent that a public, media-savvy campaign can expose (pun intended) our own hypocrisy about women’s sexuality and female flesh, then I think that events like Boobquake are fine. But they need to be a spur to serious reflection and continued activism.
Check out some thoughts at the Ms. blog as well.