What is oppression?

My interest in the Middle East was sparked midway through my senior year while reading Geraldine Brook’s Nine Parts of Desire, an incredible piece of investigative journalism that deconstructs conceptions of Islam encouraging feminine oppression.  To highlight how modern Islamic practices have severely deviated since the Prophet’s time, she follows several Muslim women from different regions and social strata.  Her most striking narration is of her highly cosmopolitan assistant, Sahar, who suddenly dons the veil on the eve of Ramadan and with it, a life of Islamic piety.  “Hijab… gave [Sahar] security on Cairo’s bustling streets (9)”  “…she felt easier dealing with men.”  She states, ‘They have to deal with my mind, not my body (10).’”  Similar arguments recently appeared in my Islam course.

The feminist debates on sex work follow a similar vein. To many feminists, sex work, like the veil, can be seen as a liberating agent that allows women to throw patriarchy back at its perpetuators.  To Sheila Jefferys, stripping, in particular, is a harmful, oppressive practice promoting andocentrism; it is man’s way to regain control lost in the feminist movement’s advances.  Feminists who believe stripping is a source of feminine agency, to her, fail to marry reality and theory.  How could something be simultaneously oppressive and liberating?

I came to realize that oppression is strongly contingent upon perspective.  Clinging to our Western values and perceptions of liberty, we feel compelled to attack anything that appears to restrict freedom of choice.  We overlook feminist waves brewing in Saudi Arabia and the sleeping fetus concept that saves adulterous women from punishment.  The feminists fail to take reality into account.  Jefferys doesn’t address the Lusty Lady, pioneers like Tristan Taormino, or other forms of sex work.  Oppression requires a frame and the plurality of viewpoints.  Oppression is wholly subjective.


Brooks, Geraldine.  Nine parts of desire : the hidden world of Islamic women / Geraldine Brooks  Penguin Books, London :  2007

Cassell, Heather.  Decriminalization in California?: The Life and Death of Measure Q, SPREAD, Spring 2005, at 13.

Jeffreys, Sheila. “Keeping Women Down and Out: The Strip Club Boom and the Reinforcement of Male Dominance.” Chicago Journals 34.1 (2008): n. pag. JSTOR. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/588501 .>.

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One Response to What is oppression?

  1. anneweis20 says:

    I agree with your contention that views of oppression are relatively subjective, and I think that the position of women in the Middle East is a perfect lens through which to explore this concept. I too am incredibly interested in Middle Eastern studies, and particularly in the plight and position of women in the Middle East and within Islamic societies. In the west, we tend to automatically see Middle Eastern women as oppressed, especially those who wear the hijab. To western women in particular, the hijab appears to represent the misogyny and archaism of Islamic culture. We think, “Why would any woman choose to cover herself like that? What oppression.”

    However, in 1936 when the Shah of Iran made wearing the hijab illegal in an effort to ‘modernize’ Iran and improve the status of Iranian women, thousands of Iranian women protested the compulsory unveiling. They saw the hijab as an integral part of their Iranian and Islamic identities, and perceived the forced unveiling as an affront on their personal liberty.

    Years later, in 1979, when Iran became a fundamentalist Islamic Republic under the leadership of the zealot Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian women demonstrated publicly against the forced veiling that he implemented. From these two apparently contradictory stories from Iran’s history, we can see that the idea of oppression really is subjective.

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