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Fear of a Female Body
Controlling women's bodies is a hallmark of religious fundamentalism. Why are liberal institutions getting on board?
Another liberal arts college is in the news this week after a handful of Muslim students claimed offense at an on-campus art exhibition by Iranian-American feminist artist Taravat Talepasand. The exhibition, which stands in support of the Women Life Freedom movement in Iran — a movement spurred by Iranian feminists in direct opposition to mandatory hijab laws and the morality police — explicitly defends the rights of women and challenges misogynist cultural and religious demands. A biographical statement about the artist and her exhibit states: “As an Iranian American woman, Talepasand explores the cultural taboos that reflect on gender and political authority.”
Some students were apparently shocked, hurt, and offended that an exhibition promising to challenge cultural taboos around gender and political authority indeed challenged cultural taboos around gender and political authority.
Two of Talepasand’s drawings, Blasphemy X and Blasphemy IX, show women in conservative garb revealing parts of themselves: A woman in a niqab shows her leg and crotch and gives the viewer the finger; a woman in a hijab pulls up her dress to show the sexy lingerie underneath. Several sculptures depict women in niqabs fully covered except for cartoonishly large protruding breasts. One piece references a teddy bear, which was at the center of a blasphemy case in Sudan: A teacher there allowed her students to name the bear, they picked the name Muhammad, and she faced 40 lashes and six months imprisonment (in the end, she spent 10 days in jail and was deported).
The exhibition, in other words, does a pretty good job at highlighting the small-minded and misogynist absurdities of religious fundamentalism.
The exhibition isn’t for everyone (what is?). But this exhibition has been challenged by a number of students at Macalester who say it’s offensive — and that because it’s offensive, it should never have been displayed in the first place, and should now be taken down. And the administration, briefly, ceded to their demands, hitting pause on the exhibition to listen to student complaints, before reopening it — but with black veils hiding its contents so as not to offend anyone who doesn’t choose to avert their eyes. This, the university said, was to prevent “non-consensual viewing.”
(I have some bad news for these students: If you are a person who has the gift of eyesight, life is a series of non-consensual viewings).
Nearly 80 students have signed a petition against the exhibition, on a campus of just over 2,000. And the petition is worth a read, because I think it tells us a lot about a troubling kind of intolerance and narcissism that seems pervasive among a particular set of self-identified young progressives. There’s an entitlement not just to an education, but to broad emotional safety and wide control over what happens on campus.
In the first paragraph of the petition, the author complains that “The Muslim community at Macalester was not contacted for input or consultation regarding the hiring of the artists and the content of the work being displayed.” This is odd — are students at a university typically consulted before schools bring art to campus? And it’s the kind of demand that can only come when you believe that you are an authority entitled to deference, not a student attending an institution in order to learn and grow.
Macalester junior Ikran Noor started the petition, saying some of the images support the Iranian Women Life Freedom movement. “But the ones that are particularly depicting hijabi women and niqabi women, I think those should be put down,” she told the Sahan Journal. She characterized the exhibit as “quite harmful.”
“It’s not like I’m saying, no one should see the art,” she said. “But take it elsewhere. As an institution, you have the right to say we don’t want to be associated with this sort of thing.”
If I were an administrator at Macalester, censoriousness, small-mindedness, and religious fundamentalism are the sorts of things I wouldn’t want to be associated with. And I would be very troubled if students at my institution believed that we shouldn’t be associated with art that challenges fundamentalism and embraces feminism.
But the Macalester administrators don’t seem so sure. Unlike the craven and cowardly administrators at Hamline University just a few miles down the road from Macalester, Macalester didn’t immediately and entirely cave to the wholly unreasonable demands of these young fundamentalists. But it did partly cave. It put an exhibition — one point of which is to criticize the mandatory covering of female bodies and the fear of female sexuality — behind curtains and frosted class, to cater to students who demanded the mandatory covering of images of female bodies. It attempted to prevent “non-consensual viewing” of the female form which is, by the way, awfully similar to the justification for mandatory hijab and modesty laws.
The university also emailed students a mea culpa: “Unfortunately, as the Taravat exhibition was installed, we did not take the steps needed to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and awareness of the possible impact of the art. For this and for the harm it caused, we apologize.”
And then the school posted a QR code that links to the student petition on the front door of the gallery, alongside a sign warning that the exhibition “contains images of sexuality and violence that may be upsetting or unacceptable for some viewers. Please view the exhibition with caution.”
I haven’t been to this exhibition. But nothing I can find suggests it depicts “violence.” Most of what I see are boobs.
If you can’t handle seeing breasts — including breasts on a woman who wears a hijab or niqab — I would recommend not going to any art museum or exhibit. I might stay off of the internet, too, and perhaps reconsider leaving the house.
The artist herself believes that these choices are censorious and inappropriate. “I really didn’t argue about the closure for the weekend or the pause,” she told Sahan Journal. “But nobody told me about the black curtain veiling all the windows. That’s a whole other level of censorship.”
Like in the Hamline case, the Macalester students who want this work censored don’t use the language of religious fundamentalism or blasphemy — although that is what they are, and that is what they are objecting to — but rather the language of social justice, therapy, and DEI initiatives. They talk about the “harm” caused by mere images of women with both breasts and headscarves. The sign that includes a QR code to sign the petition encourages viewers to “stand in solidarity” with them. The university uses this language, too, apologizing for “the harm it caused” and the lack of “cultural sensitivity and awareness of the possible impact of the art.”
Yes, this is a different, gentler kind of censoriousness than we see on the right. But it’s censoriousness nonetheless — and it’s frankly embarrassing that the school apologized or took any steps at all to placate students with unreasonable and profoundly illiberal demands.
This would be very clear to liberals if we swapped fundamentalist Christianity for fundamentalist Islam.
Consider the case, raised by a Chronicle of Higher Education story about this current Macalester controversy, of a Christian student at Duke a few years back who objected to being assigned the book Fun Home. That student, Brian Grasso, wrote an op/ed in the Washington Post about his refusal to do something he considered “immoral”:
As a Christian, I knew that my beliefs and identity would be challenged at a progressive university like Duke.
My first challenge came well before I arrived on campus, when I learned that all first years were assigned “Fun Home,” a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The book includes cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and multiple women engaging in oral sex.
After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.
But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” he says in Matthew 5:28-29. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away.” This theme is reiterated by Paul who warns, “flee from sexual immorality.”
I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
This student was immediately and roundly mocked by liberals and progressives. And in his defense, he was simply asking to individually opt out of a single assignment. If he had demanded that not only should he be allowed to read a different book but that Fun Home be removed from the reading list, or Renaissance art depicting sex be taken out of art history classes, or that Duke refuse any on-campus exhibition depicting a sexual act (or veil those exhibitions behind heavy curtains, and include content warnings and student petitions against them), I think liberals would be pretty universally appalled.
This is no different.
The fact that the students objecting to the Macalester exhibition are members of what is in the US a religious minority doesn’t actually matter. Does it matter for their personal feelings? Sure. But it shouldn’t matter for the fundamental principles involved, and for what the school chooses to do.
The world over, religious fundamentalists object to so many of the ways in which women move through public and even private spaces. Iranian women and men are putting their lives on the line as we speak protesting against the morality police, and their brutal enforcement of female modesty laws. In Afghanistan, women cannot travel unaccompanied; girls can’t go to school; women can’t hold most jobs; and women must be entirely covered by a burka that renders them socially invisible and identical to one and other. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox party wants to criminalize “immodest” dress at the Western Wall and ban music and non-Orthodox prayer. In New York City, Orthodox newspapers refuse to publish images of women and girls, including women who are running for office; one famously photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of the Situation Room. Across the US, Christian and Catholic schools impose sexist dress codes that disadvantage female students and send the message that the female body is a shameful and sexual object, and women and girls who reveal it are tempting innocent boys and men. At the same time, Christian fundamentalists are banning books that discuss LGBT life and issues, and passing laws that strip women’s authority over our own uteruses.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota, a number of students are embracing that same ideologies as the Morality Police and their ideological brethren.
Struggles for free expression and women’s rights go hand in hand. You can be sympathetic for students getting their bearings — students who perhaps grew up in conservative households, or students who just have the usual bad ideas held by lots of young people — while also believing that the job of a university is to emphasize pluralism and free expression, and to stand against censorship (even when the would-be censors emphasize their hurt feelings).
In the petition, the students write, “The decision to display and continue to display this exhibition despite the harm it perpetuates is a deeply problematic issue. It is targeting and harming an already small community that exists on this campus.”
The existence of an art exhibition that includes content challenging the politically powerful (and yes, religious fundamentalists are vastly powerful) is not “targeting” a small campus community. It’s also not “harming” that community by its very existence.
At some point I will write more at length about this, but for now: I am increasingly convinced that there are tremendously negative long-term consequences, especially to young people, coming from this reliance on the language of harm and accusations that things one finds offensive are “deeply problematic” or event violent. Just about everything researchers understand about resilience and mental well-being suggests that people who feel like they are the chief architects of their own life — to mix metaphors, that they captain their own ship, not that they are simply being tossed around by an uncontrollable ocean — are vastly better off than people whose default position is victimization, hurt, and a sense that life simply happens to them and they have no control over their response. That isn’t to say that people who experience victimization or trauma should just muscle through it, or that any individual can bootstraps their way into wellbeing. It is to say, though, that in some circumstances, it is a choice to process feelings of discomfort or even offense through the language of deep emotional, spiritual, or even physical wound, and choosing to do so may make you worse off. Leaning into the language of “harm” creates and reinforces feelings of harm, and while using that language may give a person some short-term power in progressive spaces, it’s pretty bad for most people’s long-term ability to regulate their emotions, to manage inevitable adversity, and to navigate a complicated world.
Universities are not doing students any favors when they reward this particular way of objecting to challenging ideas. And liberals and progressives do no one — ourselves included — any favors when we ignore the fundamentalists, misogynists, and censors who use the language of social justice to make all of our worlds smaller.