I’m not sure why I’m writing this or even where it’s going, but I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘desirability’ lately and since this format is the one where I am most able to come to conclusions, I’m going to try it.
On Saturday night I went to a Halloween night with my flatmates. It was a classic case of incorporating hijab into a spooky costume and a classic case of feeling precariously placed in other people’s boxes. Whilst out a man approached me and started talking to me.
I’ll pause here for a second to try to dissect some things. Firstly, I always psyche myself out about doing things like going to parties or etc with white girl friends. It’s complex and it even feels hard to write about and too much of an exposé on me. But there are multiple things happening at once which I want to probe more. Nervousness about being visible and sober in a space where people don’t expect me to be – in the past bouncers have let me in with no ID simply because they clearly felt so awkward. Then there’s the fact of being with other women – white women, who will, because of that fact, be the show-stealers and crowd-pleasers and I will recede into the background. And yet even in this thought are the multiple contradictions that a) I don’t consciously want attention in this setting, b) I reject and denounce my own internalised objectification of my female friends as such and c) I condemn and understand there is nothing nice about men approaching women who are out to have fun with their girl-friends or on their own. I know there are power dynamics at play and double standards and sexualisation. And yet those harmful things parade as norms… norms of what it means to be a ‘woman’ which I, and others, are regularly and routinely excluded from.
Sometimes I think about how frequently cat-calling is talked about in feminist spaces. It is a widespread, normalised and routine way in which women are intimidated by men who perform an act of domination through sexualising women without their consent and making them feel unsafe in public places.
I have never been cat-called.
I think that tells us something about the racialisation of gender but it also shows how a certain type of womanhood and desirability are taken for granted and universalised. Things that are problematic consequently become tropes of what it means to be a woman and therefore, perpetuate exclusion and universalisation of one experience of womanhood – predominantly white.
So, back to the story of being approached by a man: I was taken aback. I knew this was a thing that happened, an interaction that occurred between people but I also knew and felt without a doubt that I was either the subject of fascination or fetishisation (or somewhere in-between). Indeed, this is a feeling that often haunts any interactions with men… The first thing spoken to me was something along the lines of, ‘this is great’ (me, presumably), followed by ‘We are all the same, everyone is equal.’ From the get-go I was not ‘the same’, hence the very fact these words were spoken.
To add to the layers of complexity this man was Iranian. He was a Muslim Iranian man. To me that did not come as much of a shock since I am usually invisible to whiteness and approached mainly by men of colour – specifically men whose heritage is in Muslim-majority countries. I think this is a product of multiple factors. One being that the sometimes impenetrable barrier of whiteness (as a power hierarchy) that can hinder non-white men from approaching white women isn’t there for them with me. I am approachable because I am accessible. And on the other hand is the fact that I am racialised in a different way by men who are racialised by white people to be the same race as me… in a convoluted and complex way it feels I am more visible as a woman to brown Muslim men, and more visible as a Muslim to white ones – though with the caveat that my visibility as a Muslim is what makes me fit ‘woman’ in the former case…
So, it’s complex. Being approached by this man made me think a lot about interwoven things. Why me? Clearly because I’m visibly Muslim. So its abstract and problematic and not personal then, right? Am I being paranoid? What does it mean? This has never happened before. Should I be flattered? Isn’t this how we define femininity to some extent? In unwelcome approaches by men? Does this make me desirable? How does that make me feel? Is that a contradiction to the idea of what hijab is about? But hijab becomes a form of femininity in itself does it not? And as such it is also liable to certain forms of desirability under different patriarchies… I mulled all this over whilst doing the thing I knew you were supposed to be assertive enough not to do: engaging and politely allowing him to mansplain Middle-Eastern politics to me. And then it was over.
[photo of wire lights reading: DESIRE]
It was an odd encounter though and one which came at a time when I’d been thinking about desirability and its context-dependency more and more. Comparing a campus like SOAS with that of Cambridge through the lens of race I’d been thinking about what it meant and how it differed in meaning to be a woman in both those spaces. In Cambridge to be consistently invisible as one and only affirmed in other spaces with women of colour – and in SOAS to be fully normalised as one but in a different way to white femininity.
I thought about how the desirability of me is contingent with what people expect and want from me. To different groups I feel never enough or too much of something in an identity-specific way. Too Muslim vs not Muslim enough; satisfactory British accent and ‘westernised’ vs too ‘Western’; not in-touch enough with Pakistani heritage vs non-British/non-white Other. Somehow being desired becomes dependent on fulfilling certain – at times contradictory – categories I simply do not. And yet, I recognise my many privileges – of being able-bodied, cis-gendered, neurotypical, not facing fat-phobia and etc which would all alter desirability in other ways.
And yet what is it to be truly undesirable? Well, the question itself assumes a cis-gendered heterosexual male desirer… and there I think the whole issue of desirability comes to a head. Desirability is felt; it is experienced and impacts our thoughts about people and interactions – but depending on who is doing the desiring, and whose desire we most agonise over, can it not also be a tool of control? To make desirability something to be attained is to cement our trappings in the parameters of the white heterosexual male gaze – even when the gaze is not white, as I have talked about, it remains heterosexually male. To be desired as a woman – no matter how problematically and harmfully – is conflated with being validated. Even in its dehumanisation it can feel humanising.
And then there’s also the inequality of desire. I recently decided to watch the Bollywood movie Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham simply because I hadn’t and it seemed like a thing to do. In the film the male protagonist chases and persistently hounds the woman he desires to convince her to desire him back. Indeed, many love stories show this pattern don’t they? Heterosexual male desire deserving reciprocity; women loving men simply because the man loves them. I wondered about the space for female desire. Would a female protagonist chasing a man and hounding him ever be romantic and legitimate or forever tragic and too keen? Maybe more than anything that reveals some of the power at play behind ‘desire’. It’s not universal and its definitely contextual… and I definitely still don’t know how I feel about it.
‘And what is this worldly life but the enjoyment of delusion’ [Quran, 57:20]