Thursday, 2 August 2007

Anita Kunz's New Yorker Cover, Henry James's The American, and Choices

There has been quite a bit of chat about the July 30 New Yorker cover which shows three young women on the subway, one dressed in a burka, one in a nun’s habit and the third—in between the other two—in a halter and shorts. The comments have tended to run toward the vituperative, to the extent of vilifying societies which “force” their women to cover themselves up. There also has been considerable speculation about the ethnicity of the sweetie wearing so little.

As I said in my earlier post, I think that women—particularly young women—are socialized to the norms of the society they live in. In mainstream North America much emphasis is put on sexual attractiveness, for its own sake and to sell things. So, while the girl in the halter top may have chosen to flaunt her youth and beauty, her “choice” is influenced by the culture around her. Same thing for the young nun: a Catholic upbringing still puts a high value on the religious life.

As for the woman in the burka, I have heard Western women who’ve spent time in Iran say that it can be liberating to pass through the world completely covered. I can’t comment on that since I’ve never tried it, but I do know that the Muslim world is far from being monolithic and given the variety of headscarves I see in Montreal these days, it would seem that an element of fashion is at work in the choices Muslim women make about their dress.

This discussion comes, as it happens, when I’m re-reading Henry James’s The American, where the choices of two attractive, intelligent women must be approved by their fathers and brothers. The words that James gives the women sound quite contemporary at times, so it is a shock to realize just how narrow their field of action is. In the 130 years since James wrote this book North American society has changed substantially, giving far more choices to women. Bravo, I say—but at the same time I don’t want to judge the choices made by women of other cultures.

1 comment:

Sissy Willis said...

Moral relativism in the face of gynophobic Islamicists could get you killed, girl.