Thursday, 6 September 2012



Since the holiday season is now over, I decided that I ought to begin the rather tedious task of sorting through three years of university work to figure out what needs keeping and what can hit the recycling bin. In my sorting through and ordering and filing, I came across a sheath of notes I had made about an article by Saba Mahmood, entitled Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War on Terror. Bear with me here.

What interested me and sparked the ideas for this post were two quotes I had quoted from the text, one of them which begins mid-sentence but still captures the point of the idea. It's important here to outline that I am not using these comments to talk about Islam or Muslim women - I am using them only for the ideas they spark about the world of Second Life. I am aware of the danger of using a text like that, but am not going to shy away from such things when it is possible that they have something important to say in another forum. I will put as full a citation as I can at the end of this post, so that should you wish to find the article for yourself and read it as it is, in its original context, you can do so. 

Quote one:

...securing the judgement that Islam's mistreatment of women is a symptom of a much larger pathology that haunts Islam - namely, its propensity to violence.

Quote two:

Women who contend that the veil is part of a religious duty, a divine edict, or a form of ethical practice are usually judged to be victims of a false consciousness, mired in a traditionalism that leads them to mistakenly internalise the opinions of misogynistic jurists whose pronouncements they should resist.

In a sense, it is pretty easy to modify both of these quotes to make them fit just about anything and any way of life that we might disagree with, but I think perceptions and, dare I say it, realities of Second Life have much in common with what Mahmood suggests is laid (unfairly) at Islam's feet. That misogyny exists in Second Life is without question, and I would not hesitate to suggest that SL also has a 'propensity to violence', be that because of its use as a sexual playground or because nobody wants to roleplay situations in which everybody is happy and safe and at peace with everyone else and themselves. That would be unimaginably dull, I'm sure, and largely useless to the world at large. 

But how do these quotes, in particular the second one, translate out of a question of what women might choose to wear within Islam, and into what women might choose to wear within Second Life? 

With equally dire ideas, it would seem. 

When I logged into SL a couple of nights ago, I was invited by a friend to join him in an apparently notorious space brothel bar (which shall, for the time being at least, remain nameless). There were a few other women there, also friends of his, and they were dressed in all manner of different outfits. He asked a couple of them if they would mind getting up and dancing around the poles that were there, for our entertainment. One chose to ignore him, but then, when another lady got up to dance, she gave in and joined in, too. I was not asked to dance, though whether that is because I had chosen a markedly unprovocative outfit that evening, or because I've said "no" every other time I have been asked, I cannot say for sure. But that I have to question says it all for me.

Can you see me now?

There you see the trappings of these ideas emerging. Dressed sedately in a space brothel bar, I felt that I would not have been asked to dance for their entertainment, whether I had said no before or not. Alongside some of the attire the other girls were wearing, I would be willing to bet money on that assumption. A judgement was made, by me and by them and by the friend asking the girls to dance for him, based on our attire.

What one chooses to wear, especially in Second Life where the avatar is often seen as a canvas for the expression of personality, has an impact on what other people think you are or want. A short skirt or a latex catsuit with artificial nipples sewn in says 'I am flirty and up for sex', whereas a roughspun tunic or a turtleneck jumper says 'I'm just here to be your friend'. If your hair is blue and your clothes are impossible-seeming or strange, you smack of fun and frolic and a good laugh, but if you choose to make your avatar an advocate of as-I-was-born 'normal' fashion, you're boring.

But also, whether you dress in what might be deemed a sexually provocative way, or you dress like you know your grandma would want you to, you are stuck as Mahmood suggests women who wear the veil are stuck. Both choices describe a miring in traditionalism - a traditionalism based on the points of view of misogynists, who simultaneously expect you to be a sex goddess and a private possession, seen only by them, who should be dressed for home life. People make judgements about you without hanging around long enough to find out what you are really like, or what you really want - and whether or not your choices for your attire are based on your own, sound reasoning, or somebody else's imported logic.

I have no doubt that, to some extent, SL is guilty of hoading women who feel the need to dress a certain way because of a misogynistic viewpoint imported from the real life into the virtual - and I think that can work both ways, in terms of taking your clothes off or piling them on. But I also have no doubt that there are plenty of women dressing themselves in SL based upon their own carefully considered opinions and desires.Why is it assumed that people are incapable of such? - isn't that a kind of misogyny, too?

It is also ludicrous, in my opinion, to suggest that any visual aesthetic could tell wholly and completely the personalities and desires of anybody. A fun person might wish to have blue hair, but that doesn't mean that everyone with blue hair is fun and un-serious. A short skirt doesn't automatically say 'I WANT SEX', and a plain white shirt is not akin to stamping the word 'ASEXUAL' across your forehead. Looking good and/or sexy isn't an invitation to sex anymore than looking scruffy and dirty is an automatic denounciation of it.
And here is where the 'propensity to violence' really comes in. In the quote about Islam, the idea that isolated cases indicates a sense of the whole is completely, completely unfair. But in Second Life, it doesn't quite seem to work that way. Because if you think these are things that only become relevant in notorious space brothel bars, you would be mistaken. This is something that chases all of us across the grid every time we log into SL. And as a testament to that, when a complete strange told me on a public sim a little while back that she thought I looked good, not only was I desperately surprised that she'd even noticed my sedate little avatar, but she felt the need to go to great lengths to tell me that she wasn't trying to chat me up or anything. I thought that was a little weird at the time, but then, stood in that space brothel bar, if someone had done the same, wouldn't I have run a mile?

It's a kind of violence, this. Because of the way we understand semiotics in relation to our patriarchal - and until very recently, really, our very decidedly misogynistic - society, a simple compliment can be perceived as an act of violence. Going out naked in SL and not engaging in sex becomes violence. Covering yourself up becomes a defense against expected violence. And it is so, so wrong.

It seems like such an obvious thing to say, and yet I have struggled with the wording of this post, read it over and over again, worrying that somehow, I haven't quite hit the nail on the head. This is going to sit uncomfortably within me now because I am not sure that I have phrased it correctly. But I felt the need to say something.

Why is this such a mire?

[Mahmood citation: "Chapter 8 - Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War on Terror" by Saba Mahmood, in Gendering Religion and Politics - Untangling Modernities ed. by Herzog and Braude.]

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