After saying I needed another account like I need exposure to Ecoli, I signed up for Pinterest. Call it peer pressure, or my mind’s need to indulge in the very visual after hours of wrestling with words, I’ve been pinning my heart away. My boards (the groupings of images I select) reflect my interests or intended projects: a Yum-o! list of recipes I’d love to try for my well deserving family, a Family Wedding collage of ideas for an upcoming celebration, and a Writing Projects smatter of snapshots of dresses,and faces (including Robert Downy Jr.) who remind me of my characters. Getting slightly into it, I created a few more: one for research about Laos for an upcoming novel, another with Books Worth Reading in my heaps of free time, and Word! (Sayings I Love) for those times I need to dwell on the positive.
Revealing my Type-A personality, there’s this other board, Random, where I capture things that are interesting but don’t fit any of the others. “Random” for things that don’t On this board, I put a fairly innocuous image but one that stood out to me nonetheless (left). Continue reading
In an age where diversity is defined as relations between the races and women’s struggles are thought of being long over, I raise a hand in dispute. I constantly have to draw my own boundaries and define myself – not allowing others the permission to apply other words, particularly a word so ineffective as cuteness. The fact of the matter is, cute is not an innocent word. Hold on, you’re saying. Hold on. I like cute things. Okay – let’s play this game, then. Describe the cute things you like.
Kittens you say. Kittens are cute. And puppies. I just adore puppies. Yes, I agree. Kittens, as well as puppies and babies are cute – adorable even.
But women are not. At least not those who want to be taken seriously.
Language, it is a powerful force; it is the ability to name and describe someone. Words are as central to our ability to communicate as humans and distinguish us from all other types of animals. When words like cute are applied to grown women or even little girls, they cease to be innocent. Name the last time a tall broad shoulder man, dressed in an Armani suit, silk tie, and was described as cute. A red carpet fashionistas would never describe Daniel Craig as adorable. We don’t use cute to describe serious male actors, or anything masculine because, rationale sputters, they aren’t cute. Right. Men aren’t cute – that’s reserved for small animals, children, and women.
It’s troubling that an adult human can fall into the same category as two other beings with little agency or self-sufficiency and in constant need of attention. The essence of cuteness is that it defines our understanding of gender roles and how they function in our perceptions of ourselves and others. Cuteness will never allow a female student to achieve her full potential in a classroom or any other arena. After all, she has her achievement. She’s cute.
As a working woman from the age of twenty one, and holding a full time position while finishing a Ph.D. in Postcolonial Literature, cute was perhaps one of the most dismissive words to reduce my work and me, to rubble. Being young often added to this dimension of being a non-adult; the entire first year of my doctoral program I constantly found older students asking me if I was starting my Masters or even worse, a first year student. Celebrate your youth, you say: you may wish you looked this young.
Cuteness doesn’t only function as a limiting gendered term. Cuteness also covers ethnocentrism and a failure to understand products and people of other cultures. The politics of cuteness negotiates our reaction to things, people, and places that are outside our normal frame of reference. Since the normal frame of reference is usually a Eurocentric model, this means cuteness defines those things that are non-western by infusing them with an inability to be taken seriously.
Being a woman of a stature that in most cultures is considered small, (I stand at 5” 1’) little often directly translates into belittle. During the course of office repartee, my forays are noted by other staff members as coming from, “the smallest person in the department,” changed my conception of cuteness. It was a category that continuously defined me, constantly changing to shadow my scholarly work, my professional profile. This was a not-so-subtle form of discrimination dodging my steps.
Maybe my sensitivity is derived from a lifetime of being near a 4’ 11” woman: my mother. I laughingly describe myself as the fat giant of the family – I tower over my mother and sister, neither weighing over 100 pounds. People’s reactions to my mother illustrate the inherent problems with this language.
“Mohana,” they say. There’s a glimmer in the eye. “Mohana, you’re mother is so little.”
This is often said in an almost whisper as if it’s a secret. I nod and try to smile, a plastic tightening of my lips. Then a triumphant, “I’m taller than her!” as if this is a considerable achievement rather than an accident of nature. Then, almost without fail, as if on cue from some invisible script: men, women, even teenagers.
“She’s so cute!”
It often bursts out, head shaking in amazement, as if it never occurred to people that a body that small could birth three children.
It was no secret my mother has felt the pressure of cuteness her whole life; it would boil over in every family fight we had.
“You’re not listening to me because I’m small!”
There the accusation would hang and at about eight, I sighed and gave up trying to explain that it in fact was not because she was small. It was because she was our mother. But for her, the cuteness that pervaded her life diminished her in the world’s eyes. It wasn’t until I got to graduate school and learned expressive words such as performativity and subjectivity that I understood what was happening to my mother – and why I resisted the word cute when it applied to me. As a result of her height, people ascribed cuteness to my mother, which resulted in a one dimensional construction of her identity both as a person and as a woman. My mother’s understanding of herself and her status as person, her subjectivity, was informed by this primary idea that she was different from other people, and that her cuteness led to not being taken as seriously as others.
Yet while resenting it, she performs this identity of cuteness in her interactions with other people. She answers the phone in a shy girlish voice, whenever she laughs it’s really a tiny giggle but she covers her mouth, she lets my father dominate social situations even though she loves meeting new people. Cuteness constructs and defines my mother’s understanding of who she is and who other people expect her to be.
We undermine the meaning of women, and strip the meaning from beings when we place non-descriptive and unempowering adjectives like ‘cute’ onto them. Other words that fit into this category include ‘sweet’, ‘nice’ and I think we covered ‘adorable.’ To battle against this insidious form of discrimination, awareness, time and introspection are the keys to reprogramming these often visceral responses.
Now I pause when describing people and consider the adjectives used and think on them. Perhaps a question to ask yourself: would I feel empowered if this were used to describe me? And a follow up: the next time you do use one of those adjectives, ask yourself, what was it about that person/thing/place that I was glossing over? What didn’t I want to understand/appreciate/think about? Rather than label something in an effort to give it value, however well intentioned, ask a question instead. “Wow, that’s beautiful. Does that pattern have significance?” goes a lot further toward building bridges than, “I just love that fabric! It’s so nice.”
I am now in my thirties, a young mother, and happily married woman who refuses to let anyone dismiss me because of my age or appearance. In order to be taken seriously, I take others seriously and also work really hard. It doesn’t take long before people find out that I am someone they can rely on, trust, and confide in. Any one of those qualities they would take over someone who is known for being aesthetically cute.
I went to a very stimulating conference today, sponsored by Carnegie Mellon, Qatar, focused on research students had done on the issues facing immigrants living in Doha. I will leave aside my pleasure in undergraduate research, my congratulations to their faculty advisers, or my hope for their future as purposeful academics – all of which are true and any of which I could write a segment, and perhaps will later.
Instead, one remark has been ringing in my ears since I left the building.
A person from the audience interrogated one of the student panels, asking why the Indian Benevolence Fund did not intercede on behalf of a 63 year old Indian man whose restaurant enterprise had gone bankrupt, necessitating that he spend 7 years in Qatar working back a debt of 200,000 QR (apx. 54,000 USD). The man was unable to see his daughter in this intervening period.
Why, the questioner prodded the student panel, didn’t this ‘fund’ do something about this deplorable situation?
Well, I have a different question.
Why is this an ‘indian’ problem? Why are only indians moved by pity for this man?
Does not the idea of 63 year old man, unable to see his daughter, burdened by debt, move any heart? Of any nationality?
This is the basic question facing Qatar: how much does nationality matter? And where does it stack against the fact of our shared humanity?
The case on the everyday Doha street appears to be that social class and status marks those points between human and some not quite sub human but not quite above dust category of species.
In many countries in the world, you can be someone who works in plumbing, not a plumber, on Friday, Saturday, Sunday (or whatever days are your weekend). People can change their clothes, walk around with their families, be themselves.
But here, in such a small city, where we are all pressing up against each other, even on Friday, we see the small framed sub-continental men, shuffling their feet at the entrance of malls that they are baned from entering, regardless if they helped build them.
We in Qatar, and in the world, will only be able to progress in so much as we can move beyond race, class, even gender, to respond to the universal in those around us. We must do the good we can. Otherwise, all is lost.
I felt good when I left that room this evening because I saw the stirrings of this generation, Qatar and the world’s hope, beginning to grapple with these larger questions of how to deal with rapid change in a just and equitable manner.
But the question plagues me. Why didn’t I, as an naturalized American national respond to the plight of this 63 year old man?
As the man from the Indian Benevelonce Fund stated, quite passionately, “The minute we knew about it, two business men stepped forward and helped.”
It is my promise that I will seek to know and to notice where I can help – whether Indian, Filipino, Qatari, or Australian.
After all, isn’t this why I’m blessed with discretionary income, employment flexibility, as much schooling as I want , even up to a Ph.D?
I’m working in my office and a student, wearing nikab, a face veil that drapes in front of the face and covers everything except a woman’s eyes, which a friend who lives here affectionately calls a ‘ninja mask.’ (in case you need a photograph: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/niqab/).
A side note: many nikab clad women drive wearing these veils, despite the fact that the limit peripheral vision enormously. This is not just my un-hijabed opinion. When I was talking about this with another student, one who wears a shyla, a headscarf that covers hair, neck, and ears, she agreed and said this is an opinion that her father shares: women driving wearing nikab are not necessarily the safest (a whole new angle to women driving stereotypes).
But back to this particular day, she is wearing nikab and comes in to ask me to use my cell phone. She has to use my phone, she tells me, because her parents won’t let her have a phone. They think it’s “bad.” Yet, they think it’s okay for their daughter to walk into a stranger’s office (I have never seen this student before, expect on the first occasion that she came to use my phone) to ask to use the phone. This seems a discrepancy to the issue of modesty, which is what they seem concerned with, if her dress and lack of phone are any indication.
“You remember me?” She asked, as though surprised.
“No one else has asked to use my phone,” I respond. And it’s true. An area of the world where workers can SMS in to bosses that they aren’t coming to work, and people break up via mobile phones, not to mention use Bluetooth technology to make assignations with strangers in public, her not having a phone stand out.
At a mini-conference this week, I asked a few co-workers to help assist in taking microphones to audience members who had questions for panelists, I was confronted with the divide between acceptable forms of work and unacceptable forms of work. This is determined by status and image of course.
“Aren’t there any servants to do it?” One asked me.
Servants? Was work an extension of her home?
Let’s flash to the sight that greeted me as I got out of my car earlier this week: two women who work in the kitchen of our building, bringing tea and making copies, scurrying into the parking lot to get two grocery bags from staff in my building. The bas had the contents of the other women’s breakfast. They were items that could have been stuffed into my tote bag that was slung over my arm. I watched as the procession, the staff in front, and the tea ladies in back, proceeded into the building.
Back to the microphone handler search: Of course I had to start with the women because the men were too dignified to do this task.
Of the few I asked, most pointed to their long abayas, the hems of which were dragging on the floor, and said they couldn’t run because they would fall. This is how dress marks us in our everyday lives here; the thobes and abayas don’t allow for running, pushing, lifting, or any other semi-manual labor. They make for great gliding however, as women’s feet are hidden, and girls from a young age learn to walk in small, mincing steps, designer handbags dangling from the crook of their arms. There isn’t any sense of the egalitarian idea of shifting identities – I may be a plumber during the day but at night I can be whatever I want, all I have to do is change my clothes – you are what you wear, essentially.
There were two volunteers, eventually however, and this was even more interesting. One was sharp: the microphone was right there when someone needed it. She moved swiftly (even in her abaya) and stood to the side as the speaker said whatever was on his/her mind. The other was much more timid. And although she stood against the wall and made to approach several speakers near her, she never did actually hand the microphone to anyone. She was shy and the distances too far for her to travel.
“I might meet my husband,” one person said, as I asked her why she didn’t want to help us out (it was a long day and these handlers were on their feet for an hour at a time).
In the end she turned me down; I guess he’ll just have to wait until another day.