Sexism by anti-sexist activists

Change doesn’t come easily.

7 March is International Women’s Day, activism against gender inequity is experiencing a ‘third wave’, supported by writers, scholars and civic organisations alike – and yet, old habits are hard to shake off, even by these feminists themselves. Old habits, such as belittling women by the way they are named.

Carpenter around 1875 (from Wikimedia Commons).

As I was reading a biography of the activist Edward Carpenter, written by eminent women’s historian Sheila Rowbotham, it struck me that she referred to the women in Carpenter’s life by their first names, while the men were called by their family names. (This is especially clear in the chapter ‘Love and Loss’.) For an online example, see Rowbotham’s earlier publication Hidden from History. 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It.

In European culture, the use of first names traditionally implies intimacy, but also low status and a form of infantility or immaturity. First names are used for children, servants, nurses: Katie; Maud; Mary. Second names, on the other hand, have for a long time been reserved for people of power and authority, such as (male) politicians, authors, and teachers in secondary or higher education: Gladstone; Byron; Snyder.

(For a bitter laugh: google-image search ‘professor’ and then ‘teacher’.)

A romanticising painting of the Shelleys: William Powell Frith (1819-1909), ‘The Lover’s Seat: Shelley and Mary Godwin in Old St Pancras Churchyard’.

The distinction becomes abundantly clear in English literary history with the Shelleys, who were both famous writers. In most narratives about the Shelleys, Percy is ‘Shelley’ while Mary is ‘Mary’. It leads to such statements as ‘In mid-1816, Shelley and Mary made a second trip to Switzerland.’ (This one from Wikipedia, but exemplary of much academic writing as well.)

Another example, about contemporary writers: I use an appointment diary published by an international human-rights organisation, which contains poetry by political dissidents. Two Soviet poets from the 1980s are quoted: Irina Ratushinskaya and Nizametdin Akhmetov. She is ‘Irina’. He is ‘Akhmetov’.

Ratushinskaya, photographed by Mikhail Evstafiev. CC BY-SA 2.5.

Some women seem to be especially prone to being named in a way that places them at the bottom of the pecking order: these are immigrant women and women who have received less formal education.

Not too long ago, I was at a university conference about some of the work scholars in Britain are doing with local communities. Part of the aim was to show that such projects are a two-way street involving true collaboration between academics and people with other kinds of knowledge: knowledge from experience, or from family stories, for instance.

Unfortunately, these good intentions did not translate itself into the naming practices adopted by the (academic) presenters. The non-academic participants, mostly female and immigrant, were referred to by their first names, while the mostly indigenous/white scholars (also women in majority, in this case) were referred to by their family names.

Even scholars who make it their task to challenge racism and sexism have been immersed in a racist and sexist culture from a young age, and clearly even they find it difficult to shake of its influences.

No doubt I have been guilty of the same unfair practice over the course of my life. But once we start to notice how often it occurs, we can begin to be more careful about what we call people.

Michelle? Or Obama? (official White House portrait by Joyce N. Boghosian, 2009, from commons.wikimedia.org)

N.B. When I tried to locate the original source of this photo, the following message appeared on my screen:

Thank you for your interest in this subject. Stay tuned as we continue to update whitehouse.gov.

Sheila Rowbotham’s otherwise excellent biography is called Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (Verso, 2009).


Turkish women freer ‘than we believe’

Ethnic prejudice can lead to hilarious ironies.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the orientalist ideas of many Europeans (and European Americans, Australians, etc.), and specifically about the idea that the Islamic world is characterised by its oppression of women. In that post, I quoted an eighteenth-century English visitor to Turkey who experienced an ironic reversal of this oppression: she was the one who was being seen as oppressed by her Turkish hosts.

In this post, we move forward one century, to 1842 Constantinople, or Istanbul. In that year, the Austrian traveller Ida Pfeiffer made a remarkable solo journey to Jerusalem, one that she had to work hard to defend to worried compatriots at home. However, Pfeiffer herself was not devoid of prejudice. (And note that apart from religious contradictions, political conflict also played a role in Austrian preconceptions about the Near East: the Austrian and Ottoman empires had been waging war for centuries.) Let me illustrate this with the help of the following scene.


Adolf Dauthage, Ida Pfeiffer, 1858 (portraying a later journey)

In Constantinople, Ida Pfeiffer pays a visit to a mosque where she hopes to see a show of whirling dervishes (still popular among tourists today!). Waiting for the ceremony to start, she whiles away the time in the mosque’s garden together with several hundred other, more local women.

The women are sitting in small groups, chatting and eating pastry and dried fruits. Here, as in other parts of her travel account, Pfeiffer is fascinated by the cultural practices of the veil. She notes that in this dedicated women’s court, all have removed their white veil because the space is inaccessible to men. But what really strikes Pfeiffer is that

with divine zest, the women [a]re smoking a pipe of tobacco, and on the side they are slurping from a bowl of black coffee.

In this same period, ‘respectable’ women in Christian Europe were not expected to indulge in these pleasures, even if they were not officially forbidden.

The abolitionist Ida Pfeiffer is also wary about the existence of slavery in the Near East. In the same mosque garden, Pfeiffer assesses the relation between the ‘ladies […], their children and their nurses, who are all negro-slaves.’ Yet she finds that

the fate of the slave in the house of a Muslim is far from being so oppressive, as we believe.

The ‘we’, of course, speaks to the orientalism of her imagined readers in Austria, Germany, and the rest of Christian Europe.

Sitting in the garden, she observes how well-dressed the enslaved nurses are. They

sit among the rest of the party and munch away bravely with the rest of them. Only the colour of the face distinguishes mistress from servant.

The point I want to make is not about the living conditions of enslaved women in nineteenth-century Turkey – there is hardly any telling from this text, and since all she bases herself on is ‘the colour of the face’, Pfeiffer might even be completely misinterpreting the situation. Rather, it is about the traveller’s eye.

Clearly, Ida Pfeiffer is sufficiently capable to allow her observations to override her prejudices, and sufficiently brave to publish these observations in a book at home. Not all travellers are good at these things, and certainly no one manages to keep them up all the time (this includes Pfeiffer). But in this case, Pfeiffer saw the irony of encountering a set of women – the ladies in the garden -, in a country suspected of doing nothing but harm to women, that was in some respects freer than she could ever be at home.


Pfeiffer’s skirt looks like she can lower it to hide her trousers when required.

Reise einer Wienerin in das Heilige Land can be read online. I have quoted from p. 28, with my own translation. A nineteenth-century English translation is available from the Gutenberg project.


‘I am not an idealist’

Katja Swider on Statelessness: An Interview

The Dutch news broadcaster NOS just reported that the number of stateless persons in the Netherlands has at least doubled over the last few years, now reaching a number of 5,000 or possibly even 10,000. Legal scholar Katja Swider is currently finalising a doctoral thesis on the judicial aspects of this very issue.

You once told me that statelessness can happen to anyone. So how do you become stateless?

Statelessness is a lack of nationality. First you have to understand that if a person does have a nationality, it is simply because somewhere in the world, a state has decided to consider them a national. The rules used by states to decide whom they consider their own nationals vary tremendously. For example, in Iran, fathers pass on their nationality to their children. Another example: the US claim everyone born on their territory as their national – this is the ius soli principle. The Netherlands do not. For them, anyone with at least one Dutch parent is Dutch, based on the ius sanguinis. Most states, however, have a combination of ius soli and ius sanguinis. The Netherlands, for instance, do grant nationality to the third generation born on their territory.

Most people do not know how they have acquired their nationality. They have had it from birth and take it for granted.

Yet some people are not considered as nationals by any state. Those are the world’s stateless.

You can become stateless in a variety of ways. You may have never acquired a nationality, for instance by being born in a ius sanguinis state to parents who hold a nationality of a ius soli state – a Canadian expat couple who have a baby in Germany would run this risk. Or by having a single mum in a state where only men can pass on their nationality to their children. Such gender discrimination exists in as many as twenty-six countries.

Later on in life, you can also still lose your nationality. States can withdraw it in their persecution of unwanted minorities, as happened to stateless Dominicans of Haitian decent. Or your country simply ceases to exist – like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia – and you do not acquire the nationality of any of the newly formed states. In the future, we may have to add ecological causes to this list, for example if small island states sink below sea level and cease to exist.

Front of west-German travel document for stateless people, 1954. From Wikimedia commons.

Front of west-German travel document for stateless people, 1954. From Wikimedia commons.

So this is an important social issue. Is that also what attracted you as a researcher?

That was not the only reason. There is a technical story to tell here, and a personal story. To begin with the personal one: I have been a foreigner most of my life. I almost always lived in countries outside my nationality. As a child, this fascinated me. Not sociologically – I would integrate very fast and feel local almost anywhere – but in its legal, bureaucratic aspects. Going to strange places to be registered and renew documents… Being ‘Polish’ meant so much more when you were outside Poland! I felt the power papers have. I was always wondering what happens if you do not have them.

Then I made a friend at UCU who used to be stateless. I wrote a paper about her for a sociology course. My professor could not believe it was true. He actually checked my footnotes to make sure I did not misunderstand the legal situation. That is when I realised the issue was not well researched. A lot of things have changed since then. Now, statelessness is a hype in the United Nations and among NGOs.

So how about the technical story?

Statelessness is a fascinating legal concept. It is the product of the interaction between the nationality laws of different countries. The laws of a single state usually align: they make sense together. But statelessness arises on the boundaries between different national legal systems. Only if no single state claims a person as its national, this person is stateless. Consequently, every single jurisdiction in the world is responsible for every instance of statelessness.

The issue relates to the sovereignty of states. States need statelessness. But they are also threatened by it. They need it because sovereignty requires the freedom to determine the composition of their own population without having to coordinate this with other states. This inevitably leads to both statelessness and multiple nationality. Yet if a state contains too many ‘unclaimed’ people – stateless people – you have a problem, as a government. You cannot deport them, nor can you control them very well. This, too, can threaten sovereignty.

Then there is the interaction with migration, and the issue of human rights… Human rights are always lurking near statelessness, but we do not know where to place them. The right to a nationality? But what nationality? Is nationality perhaps a ‘right to have rights’? [a concept from Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.] But perhaps we should also consider the right to be stateless?1

A great deal more thinking has to go into statelessness. Then, we might even come to understand better what statefullness means.

You said statelessness is a hype. Many of the policy and research initiatives on statelessness that we have, seem to be only a few years old. Can we conclude that statelessness is a new problem?

No, it has been around for as long as nationalities have existed. And then again, according to people like Hobbes and Locke, statelessness is our natural state: when you go back in time far enough, you will find everyone to be stateless.

After the Second World War, the United Nations began to develop human-rights conventions, inspired by the Holocaust. In fascist Europe, Jews were both refugee and stateless. At first therefore, these two problems were not distinguished. They are merged for instance in the works of Hannah Arendt, one of the best-known thinkers on statelessness.

Then came the realisation that the two issues are actually quite distinct, from a legal point of view. It was decided that refugeehood was the more urgent issue. It was an emergency, a global disaster that had to be addressed there and then. So the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was adopted in 1951, and a UN agency established to supervise its implementation: the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The two UN statelessness conventions were adopted in 1954 and 1961, respectively, but almost nothing was done with them at that time. Statelessness was thought to be less related to the Second World War: a thing that had always been there and that should be dealt with at some point in the future. We now have a strong lobby for the rights of refugees, and solid legal mechanisms, which is very important, but the world also needs to deal with statelessness. In terms of human impact and legal complexity it is not much smaller than the refugee issue.

Sometime in the 1990s, the UNHCR also received a mandate over statelessness. I think this has created the hype. It took them about ten years to develop some expertise, to open jobs for people to work precisely on statelessness, and then the hidden problems were discovered.

So what might help stateless people in the short term?

To start with, it would help if their statelessness were recognised and documented. Having a piece of paper that says you are stateless is definitely not the end of your trouble, but it starts the conversation. It helps protect you against arbitrary deportation, for instance, and you may be better able to arrange a nationality for your children. But even this mere acknowledgement of your statelessness is not an option in most countries.

A wider awareness that statelessness is a legal issue, would also be good. Being stateless does not say anything about your social position or your political views. Still, a lot of suspicion surrounds stateless persons: that they are dangerous, or disloyal to their community. Yet stateless people often feel very much part of a nation. Their statelessness may only surface as they are trying to arrange some ‘silly’ paperwork. Even then, they often feel that a problem has to do with their ‘papers’, not their national belonging.

People know so little about statelessness, and that can really hurt affected individuals. At a conference, one stateless woman said that border crossings are hell because of the amount of explaining she needs to do. Once, when the question of nationality arose, she said she was stateless, whereupon a border guard honestly asked: ‘Where is that?’

What major legal changes or mentality shifts do you feel are needed in the long term? What would your ideal world look like?

I am not an idealist. My opinion is that the world is bad. People are bad, we cannot do anarchism, and we fail at communism. All great ideas just do not work because we cannot manage to be nice to each other. So I think that whatever we do, there will be a division between them and us; some will be rich, and others will be poor. In my ideal world, there is an awareness of this inherent injustice. People who are privileged feel guilty about that privilege. When a foreigner is denied access, this is done with the feeling ‘I need to do this in order to keep my society rich and prosperous’, and not with the feeling ‘I have a moral right to do it’.

1 Katja’s blogs for the European Network on Statelessness are heartily recommended: www.statelessness.eu/search/node/swider. In the contribution ‘States as a root cause of statelessness’, Katja explains some of the thoughts that go into her doctoral thesis to a non-specialist audience.

This interview first appeared in Post Magazine (winter 2015), 9-12.


An unkempt hair from a bushy tail

A reader of the posts on the hairy-women scale and Life of Brian, sent me another example of the horrors of hair. Or rather, of the horrors of people’s imagination around hair. She had spotted a painting on the same theme.

At the moment, the city of Den Bosch in the Netherlands is hosting a big Jheronimus Bosch exhibition. This exhibition contains the restored painting of Saint Wilgefortis, a saint venerated in western Europe since the late Middle Ages.

Jheronimus Bosch, Crucified martyr.

Jheronimus Bosch, Crucified martyr, detail. On display in the Noordbrabants Museum, 13 February – 8 May 2016. Usually, the painting can be seen in Venice, in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

According to her legend, Wilgefortis was a princess who had dedicated her life to Christ. Then her father sold her to be married; to a pagan husband, no less. She prayed for Christ’s assistance. This was given her in the form of a beard. Apparently, it made her so repulsive that the pagan king refused to marry her. Her unfemininity had liberated her! (This is what her name indicates in many languages – ‘Liberata’ etc.) Of course, the story is not over yet. In his anger, her own father killed her in the same way her spiritual husband had been killed: on the cross. After death, she continued to work various miracles and to help innocent people whose liberty had been taken away from them.

On the recently restored painting by Bosch, and especially on the infra-red images that have been made as part of the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, a subtle beard and moustache have become visible.

In a double irony, Wilgefortis’s beard not only turned her into a monstrous woman, but also gave her the power of a man, that is, not to be wed without her choosing. And yet, this was only a very limited power, dependent on her real husband – Christ – and restricted to the negative ability to say ‘no’ to her father, but not extending to the positive capability of saying ‘yes’ to a religious life (she was murdered). She was still a woman, an underdog. But isn’t that just what you would expect from a Christian saint?

The fact that Wilgefortis’s story probably stems from a misunderstanding of images of a crucified Jesus in full robe and with crown (even Bosch’s painting might in fact picture a different martyr altogether!), does not make her subsequent veneration through the centuries any less real or any less significant. It even adds a layer of interest by showing how difficult people find it to deal with gender ambiguity.

Bosch’s painting is more than five hundred years old, Wilgefortis’s story even older. The fear and fascination with ‘hair in the wrong places’ go back a long way.

For more on bearded ladies, see my column on Conchita Wurst.


The hairy-women scale

Do you have hair on your face? Of course you do. All over your face. All over your body in fact. Hair is everywhere. In some places it is darker (terminal hair), and in others lighter (vellus), but there are few places on your body where it doesn’t grow, except if your skin or follicles are damaged.

And except in places where you have shaven, plucked, threaded, or burnt it off. After all, we do things to make ourselves look nice. But what’s nice? Part of the answer lies in what scientists have been telling us is nice, which is what this post is about.

The seemingly innocent activity of grooming gets less innocent when we expect everyone to do the same; when we start judging people because of their hair. It may sound silly to take such an insignificant part of a person and make it the basis of our judgment of them. But it happens all the time.

It all begins with making categories. Categories based on hair.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European ethnographers went into the bush (!) looking for primitive people. They stripped these people naked, measured their every limb, and eventually their methods resulted in the following: the Ferriman-Gallwey score.

Ferriman and Gallwey scoring help (unknown clinical source, published on

A Ferriman-Gallwey scoring diagram (unknown clinical source, published on what-when-how.com/acp-medicine/hirsutism-part-1/)

The idea is that women’s body parts (not men’s) should be scored for terminal hair on a scale of 1 to 4. Adding up these scores tells a doctor whether a woman deviates from the standard. This is another representation:

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html.

Ferriman-Gallwey scale, modified by Hatch (1981). Published on medical-learning site http://www.e-sanitas.edu.co/Diplomados/endocrino/modulo_9/causas_hiperandrogenismo.html

Black fur has crept over this ‘healthy female’ like an extraterrestrial species over Sigourney Weaver. Is it comical or disturbing?

The woman on the left, numbered ‘1’, displays only slight signs of being ‘too’ hairy.

The woman on the right is fully ‘abnormal’. She is a hirsute! (Not all parts of the body need to grade ‘4’ for this diagnosis.)

Scientists devising scales like this start out with the whole breadth of human variation (they have rightly seen that we are not all the same), but then they do two things:

  1. They put everyone in line so they seem to fit a single ‘scale’.
  2. They attach a judgment to this scale.

For the early ethnographers, people on the left end of this scale were civilised. People on the right-hand side: primitive. It was one of the many instruments Europeans had in assigning ‘races’ to people. (How about the 1922 article entitled ‘A Study of Facial Hair in the White and Negro Race’?)

But you have even more reasons to be nervous if your own hair patterns resemble a score ‘4’.

Ferriman and Gallwey were two medical doctors who took up these ethnographers’ ideas, and applied them to medicine. The Ferriman-Gallwey score is now the measure commonly used by doctors who want to assess whether a woman is not ‘too hairy’. (Other scales also exist.)

So: women with a low score: healthy, feminine women.

Women with a high score: sick, masculine women.

(It is true that certain hair-growth patterns can also be a side-effect of a health problem, but this does not need to be the case – and a lack of hair can as well. My point is that we are not dealing with a neutral diagnostic tool named ‘patterns of hair-growth’, but a morally charged classification of ‘hirsutism’ as a ‘disorder’. Ferriman and Gallwey themselves tended to the former, by the way, but they are commonly used in the latter, pathologising sense.)

Many women do in fact count as ‘hirsute’ according to these medical standards: 10, 30, even 50 % of participants in various studies, depending on how they were scored and what part of the world they were from.

I have already mentioned the racist implications of this scale. Yet it does not only simplify and moralise the differences that exist between people in different parts of the world. It also simplifies and moralises the differences between women and men. Women with hair-growth that in the European world is considered feminine, are ‘civilised’ but also ‘healthy’. Masculine women are ill. And if they don’t fix this ‘illness’, by shaving, or taking hormones, then they are inconsiderate, selfish, dirty – is the wider social opinion.

Take a look at the exaggeratedly feminine body in the second picture: no nose, broad hips, narrow waist, and a tiny mouth. (Is this perhaps how the doctors who write this medical textbook prefer to see women?) The use of such a feminine model makes her moustache and hairy legs extra freakish. She is like the bearded woman. These pictures have a rhetorical knack of juxtaposing two ‘opposites’, in order that the reader will instinctively feel this is ‘just wrong’. The first image does a more neutral job in this regard.

Calling hair on women masculine – and masculinity in women a problem – also happens in descriptions of the scoring system. The same educative website instructs the learner to compare a female patient’s hair-growth with that of the men they know (hardly an objective measure), and see whether it is ‘equivalent to an adult man’ (scoring 3 points) or even to ‘virile healthy adult men’ (4 points). What happened to sticking to commonly observable facts and identifying actual hair? Instead, writers jump to the conclusion that patients’ very identity, their femaleness, is at stake.

A moral judgment is also implicit in the many medical descriptions of hirsutism calling these women’s hair ‘excessive’.

A somewhat older study that went through the trouble of examining two thousand patients, is particularly naive about it own assumptions. It writes:

a disperse upper border of the pubic hair is only found in men and never in normal women.

In a sublime example of circular reasoning, healthy women are defined by being… ‘normal women’!

Later researchers sometimes acknowledge this problem – a little:

Determining what is an abnormal amount of terminal hair growth, and thus what is hirsutism, is difficult.

Ok: so because there is simply an enormous amount of human variation, we cannot tell what should count as abnormal. Still, these writers did not wonder whether the endeavour itself of ‘determining what is abnormal’ may therefore be flawed.

Again, there is this huge urge to put people into categories: either you are (self-contradictively) masculine and therefore primitive or ill; or you are feminine and therefore civilised and healthy.

Interviews with women show that they are up against a lot of hatred and disgust if they show to be ‘hairy’. This freakification of hair also gets formalised, for instance in the world of sports. The International Association of Athletics Federations has even used the Ferriman-Gallwey index to see if they might disqualify sportswomen from competing because of an assumed unfair advantage. Apparently, women with uncivilised amounts of hair are really men in disguise. (If they really try to fool us, why don’t they shave? For this example from sports: see the book cited below).

As medical doctors and their lay disciples continue to use grading systems such as Ferriman-Gallwey on their patients and subjects, and to diagnose them with the serious-sounding ‘disorder’ of ‘hirsutism’, they only perpetuate the idea that the hair scare is justified. They make life harder for the hairier woman, creating unnecessary anxieties and feelings of guilt. May I then be excused in deeming the following reassurance to patients a little hypocritical?

Usually, excess body hair is only a […] psychologic concern.

Thanks to Ellen Samuels for showing how hairy sexism is tied up with hairy racism, and both with ableism, in her book Fantasies of Identification (New York, 2014), chapter 9.