A few nights ago I sat down in a brainstorming session with a group of very eager female Oxford undergrads where we talked about the next Ladyfest Oxford programme next May and about who was going to organise what. You might be pleased to know that yours truly has volunteered to organise a workshop on sexuality in pop culture and its effect on ethnic minority women – yay! I realised how important and urgent the issue of diversity and cultural acceptance is in Britain and the fact that Oxford University – the cradle of many world leaders and intellectuals – has its share of utter racism – it had to be the right place to address such issues.
The meeting produced a range of somewhat interesting, if not bland ideas for the festival: from life drawing-cum-‘love your body’ lessons, belly dancing tutorials (brace yourselves, anti-orientalists!), feminist poetry sessions, film viewing and discussion, and then came naked calendar for charity … and my jaw dropped.
There is a saying that was said very often during religious lessons as I was growing up which was, if inversely attributed to Machiavelli, ‘matlamat tidak menghalalkan cara‘ or “the ends do not justify the means”. In this case the phrase ‘the charitable ends do not justify the sexist means’ rang in my head. How disappointed I was to meet young, educated and very privileged female proponents of the absolutely degrading naked calendar. What right-minded woman would accept ‘fun’ and ‘frivolous’ as justifications for just another form of objectification of themselves and others? As the only graduate student and perhaps being the only firm feminist present at the meeting, I felt like a miserable and prudish unmarried aunty.
The conventional calendar girls are usually of the bikini-clad variety with heaving bosoms (not in an Austen-esque way), hung in every car mechanic’s garage; in other words, not in your family kitchen. Suffice to say the sexy calendar belongs in the dominions of the macho and the sexist. The mainstreaming of the naked calendar is based on the idea that women of any age, size, and whathaveyou can be models too. If anything, this is seriously a misguided ‘feminist’ all-women-can-do-anything thought process that further sexualises and objectifies all women.
The naked/sexy calendar has moved on from being a sleazy but ‘informative’ pin-up for men to making its home in something really female-friendly, like fund-raising organisations. Not long ago I discovered that naked calendars for charity became particularly popular amongst post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors. This says a lot about how women, not just a number of female breast cancer survivors, view their concept of womanhood and why although lung cancer is the most prevalent type of the disease, breast cancer is at the forefront of media attention and public mention. Women’s breasts are so sexualised and constitute an integral element of female worth that without them or the lack of one is enough to be de-sexualising for some, and so essentially by posing nude for a calendar it proves their worth as a sexual and desirable being.
What does mainstream naked calendar means to us Muslim women? Probably not much other than “I probably wouldn’t do that, even in the name of charity”, but what about Muslim women who’ve undergone mastectomy? Let us be reminded that aside from the hijab fetish, Muslim women are generally never projected as desirable sexual objects in the media. And because calendar girls were never really women in jilbabs and niqab means that it isn’t our ‘duty’ to subvert its sexism and transform it into something Muslim-women friendly. But why am I even connecting naked calendars with Muslim women anyway? Because the more resistant we are to the pornofication of mainstream cultures, the more medieval we appear.
Related story: Betraying the student body? at the Guardian UK.