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Alitji in Wonderland

In my post about a Swahili Alice in Wonderland I made a call for Alices who would look a little different from the blond English girl we know from so many depictions of Carroll’s classic, even those which are set in contemporary Europe or North America.

The 2018 Pirelli calendar came up. As did Whoopi Goldberg’s variation on the story, with its dazzlingly urban illustrations by John Rocco.

Now a new book has found its way to me: Alitji in Dreamland, (European-Australian?) Nancy Sheppard’s 1975 adaptation and translation into Pitjantjatjara, illustrated anew in 1992 by Donna Leslie (of Australian Gamileroi heritage).

Like Elisi, Alitji makes an attempt at translating Lewis Carroll’s Victorian world into that of a different culture, in this case situated in the central region of Australia. This book, too, seems to start off with the rather safe work of bringing a European cultural gift (Alice in Wonderland) to a faraway culture, without Aboriginal Australian cultures or people conversely impacting on the white homeland (whether this is England or white settlements in Australia itself). In that sense, Goldberg and Rocco’s book is more exciting: there, an African American Alice finds her way through money-obsessed New York City.

But as their story unfolds, Sheppard and Leslie’s work does touch on often dangerous cultural contacts. And in doing so, it gave me a new perspective on Carroll’s original story in the bargain.

The Caterpillar for example, who is often likened to a crabby Oxbridge don, is not only transformed into a Witchety Grub (which, interestingly, would have counted as a food in Alitji’s waking life), but also into a pink, or ‘white’, man. It gives a whole new angle to the famous question ‘Who are you?’ From a university tutorial, the scene has changed into a colonial interrogation. (I was perhaps slightly disappointed that Alitji ends the scene by eating from two sprigs of berries, rather than nibbling the top and the tail off the Witchety Grub.)

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland (1992)

The Mad Teaparty develops even more ominously.

The Stockman – the Mad Hatter – who seems to have been a light-skinned man in Sheppard’s conception (though not in the pictures), utters his usual

‘No room, no room!’

Of course Alitji retorts:

‘There is plenty of space’.

Territorial politics?

Then the Horse – the March Hare – chips in:

‘Your skin is very dark. You ought to wash yourself.’

Obviously, this is a comment the Aboriginal Australian girls reading the book in the 1970s may in fact have heard (do they still?), and its racism gives a much starker edge to the original Hatter’s ‘personal remark’ ‘Your hair wants cutting’.

As befits her, Alitji again has her answer ready.

‘My skin is always dark, even after washing,’ Alitji replied with dignity.

And so, there were a number of moments throughout this book which made me find the adaptation pretty grim. A final example:

A stockman is an Australian herdsman. The Horse in Alitji would probably have been his work companion. And like the Hatter his watch, so the Stockman has his own accessory.

Donna Leslie, Alitji in Dreamland (1992)

The Horse picked up the Stockman’s rifle and said,

‘Really, this is useless. Why did you tell me to put salt in it?’

Rather embarrassed, the Stockman answered,

‘It was good salt.’

The Hatter’s little machine was a watch, the Stockman’s is a rifle. Not the friendliest of machines to sit next to on a tea visit, especially when one’s hosts are as mad as a Hatter.

But then again, is the Hatter’s original watch so innocent? To what extent have clocks been used since the nineteenth century to terrorise schoolgirls, factory workers, prisoners, indigenous peoples?

Perhaps I’m only thinking this because I have been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish at the same time as reading Alitji, yet perhaps also Sheppard has simply not made such a violent leap at all when introducing her Alice into rifled company.

After all, is Carroll’s Alice not one of the most violent of children’s stories which we still read? (Children’s stories tended to be more violent in the nineteenth century anyway, but most we have stopped reading.) How about the Queen’s decapitations? How about the Pigeon’s children who continue to be taken away from her by serpents, or by little girls such as Alice? How about Alice’s own repeated laconic confrontation of mice and birds with her mice- and bird-eating pet Dinah?

It’s a cruel book, Alice is, and it seems only right that Sheppard and Leslie did not sanitise it.

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What we’re allowed to wear on Women’s Day

Today is Women’s Day. These weeks’ news again brought plenty of reminders of why this day is necessary.

In the Dutch North-East Polder, the police report, a fourteen-year-old was pushed off her bike, kicked in the head and back, and left on the pavement with bruises and brain injury.

Who did this? Two blonde boys aged c. 18.

Why?

Because she was a woman.

Because she was exercising her right to education and independent mobility, by cycling home from school alone.

And, finally: because she had the guts to say ‘no’. She said ‘no’ to the boys’ demand to undress.

Is this then ‘simply’ another case of gendered sexual assault? Not quite.

Because the fourteen-year-old was also wearing a headscarf.

And although most Dutch newspaper readers will have reacted with shock to the assault, its underlying mechanisms are perpetuated by a large proportion of those same newspaper readers. They are women and men from western-European, largely Christian extraction, and they are not so sure whether Muslim women should be wearing a headscarf.

It’s the people I’ve spent most of my life amongst. I think I understand them a little, and therefore I would like to ask them something.

I would ask them to imagine emigrating to a distant planet. The local inhabitants look just like us. However, there is a striking difference in the way they dress: everyone, whether male or female, wears the same skirt (pretty progressive, what?). And nothing else. Wherever they go, they go dressed like this; to parties, but also to work.

Most European immigrants are taken aback by the naked breasts of the local females. And all of the immigrant women continue to cover their own chest in public spaces.

In the eyes of the locals, however, this constitutes an act of repression, and they wonder what masculinist ideology forces these women to hide themselves. They decide to help them. Female employees and schoolchildren are sent home, bikini-wearing humans are chased off the beaches, and everyone is ordered to only come back after throwing off these absurd symbols of self-humiliation.

If for a migrant to Europe, wearing a headscarf is like wearing a T-shirt, surely their European hosts can sympathise and forbid neither. 

Of course, my comparison here highlights only one of the reasons women have to cover their hair or their face – but I think a fundamental one. It suggests that wearing or not wearing a specific headdress is largely a cultural matter. By that I mean that someone’s decision to (not) wear an item of clothing can best be understood by placing oneself in the position(s) that person occupies in the culture(s) she lives in. In the end, what we wear is often a matter of what we feel comfortable in, and that is not based on abstract choices but on the signals we emit with these clothes and the response we get from the people around us. (British physician and columnist Qanta Ahmed has also underlined the cultural rather than religious background of the hijab, though arriving at a different conclusion than I am.)

So European anxieties over Muslim dress are really about migration and the intercultural misunderstandings this leads to.

A few images to illustrate the cultural and regional nature of female dress decisions:

Women of three different religions in Israel (all three anonymous: 2012, 2010 and 2012, respectively)

 

These images should not feel unfamiliar. Nor should these:

Anonymous woman working a buzz-saw, probably in Hungary, 1955

Another anonymous model (Spain, 2013)

 

In a nutshell: not all Muslim women want to cover their head, while many non-Muslim women do.

So far, I’ve argued that to wear a piece of clothing is often a matter of conformity rather than repression. However, it can also be a part of personal style or identity. Of fashion. Or of shyness. Of distinction. Of rebellion against previous (migrant) generations; or of defiance of the locals who lack the experience of living in two cultures at the same time. Or it can function as a reminder and token of religious commitment… all depending on women’s cultural backgrounds, their interpretation of their religion, whether they are migrants or have long been settled, and many more factors.

But in the end, do we even need to understand women’s motivations in order to accept their decision? A decision which, after all, concerns their own bodies? (The same does not apply to the actions of their critics: these always concern other people’s bodies.) Do people need to justify the way they look? Perhaps public figures, who act as role models, may expect some form of public interrogation of their choices – but at the moment, this unfortunately means that we should in fact be talking a bit more about how men look.

To return to the student who was not allowed to attend school safely: our public discourse about what women and specifically Muslim women should wear, gave her attackers their motivation. Remember, this was not mindless bullying: the boys were 18, not 8. Their actions were the practical manifestation of a way of thinking which they had gleaned from their less violent neighbours.

As non-scarf-wearing Muslim Tahmeena (no surname) has said in Broadly magazine when asked about European employers’ bans on headscarfs:

There’s no liberation in being told what to wear […] in order to ‘become’ liberated

 

(An English rendering of the Dutch news item can be found on The World News.)

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Male suicide rates, closed mines and scalding hot water

What makes the men in the north-east of England so violent, both to themselves and to others? British artist Grayson Perry suggests it is because they have a history of doing tough work. But his question may need to be turned around.

In the first episode of his sensitive TV series on masculinity, All Man, currently running on Channel 4, Grayson Perry visits several communities of men: Durham ex-miners, mixed-martial-arts fighters, and the mates of a 30-year-old man who has unexpectedly killed himself. He asks himself why violence plays such a large role in their lives; and in particular, why the north-east of England has the highest suicide rate of England. It’s all to do with machismo. These men are not comfortable talking about their feelings. Nor are they attuned to listen to their own feelings. They bottle up fear, anger, and unhappiness. This explains why the professional fighters whom Perry interviews have a much more healthy mental life than the other men: they have an emotional outlet.

A photo taken in another place of high unemployment and (apparently) machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

A photo I took in another place of high unemployment, and apparently machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

But why the north-east? Because the work the men there used to do in the mines was so tough – the physical exertion, the risk of injury and death, the regular loss of friends and colleagues. Silence was the easiest way to deal with this toughness. And this silence has survived the closing of the mines.

This provides a fairly convincing explanation, except for one thing: the women’s work was tough as well. They lived in tiny cottages or cellars, dark, cold and damp, in most cases working longer hours than their husbands, which work involved things like carrying heavy buckets of water and handling scalding wash and laundry tubs and irons – even more than elsewhere, the men in the mining regions needed a daily scrub and change of clothes. They continued work throughout pregnancy, gave birth many times in their lives in very difficult circumstances, and saw many of their children as well as other family-members and neighbours succumb to disease and accidents. In sum, there is no reason to see their working lives as less tough than that of the men in their communities. And yet, they did not develop the same machismo, the same emotional silence, that Perry sees in men.

The bigger question therefore, is probably not why the men of the north-east are so tough, but why the women managed to stay ‘soft’ and in touch with their feelings. If soft is indeed what they are – they certainly commit suicide less often (three times as little, in the UK). But maybe we need a further explanation for that, one that goes beyond being able to work through one’s unhappiness by talking about one’s feelings: an explanation that includes social roles.

It may have something to do with feeling a useful and valued member of the community; with feeling that your continued presence is necessary for the survival and well-being of the people around you. Social expectations for men and women still differ: working-class men and women in the north of England face different responsibilities. Unable to function as mothers or housewives, when men’s task as breadwinner falls through because of unemployment they may have a harder time than women finding accepted roles in their community.

The cage-fighters have found a marvellous solution to this challenge in their role as knight or gladiator.