First of all, I haven’t updated in a while, because I am no longer in Mongolia. Considering that this is a blog about gender in Mongolia, it is difficult to write about it when you are not there and immersed in it! And although I miss it massively, I have to spend the next year in the West writing more concentrated and academically about my experiences (something I will post here when I am done!). That said, I am planning to be back in Mongolia next summer and will see where life takes me from there, but until then… I have to unfortunately stop writing in this blog. I am very sad about this considering that it has thousands of hits from people all over the world (who are you people?!??!) who are apparently interested in gender, feminist anthropology and Mongolia and that is incredible! So, I hope you read again when I revisit this blog in a year or so (which I will do – I promise… my time with gender in Mongolia is not over). Thanks for reading! <3 <3 <3
ok, last post.
I am back in Berlin and I got called a “Püppchen” today.
While riding around Berlin on my black men’s racing bike and grunting at people to get out of the bike lane, I got called a diminutive form of the word ‘doll’ and an image of myself listlessly propped against a wall, legs splayed, devoid of a voice, empty smile sewn into my frozen face flashed before my eyes. I knew I shouldn’t have put that eye makeup on today…
Seeking my refuge in the coffee shop that was my destination, I arrived and jumped off my bike to the immediate attention of a few well-dressed men. The male gaze that confronted me hit me like a wave of ice water. I realized something that I had largely taken for granted in Mongolia: As a white woman, I had been (relatively) free of the constraints of a male sexualized gaze. My white skin shone like a beacon and blinded any other considerations of my appearance; I could largely do, say or wear anything and I was still a foreigner. Most Mongolian men did not look at me as a possible partner, because my ‘otherness’ made me fall out of the scope of potentiality. And thus, I felt relatively free in my body and appearance.
I miss how liberating that was… despite how twisted.
As I approached that coffee shop, I realized my year of non-sexualized corporal freedom was over. My white skin does not (fully) protect me now; suddenly the small things on my body – my gait, my choice of makeup, my short skirt or my knee-length skirt, a black shirt or a tank top – lend credence to ‘view’ me, appropriate my body, categorize me… I feel like a walking billboard.
Being A Feminine Feminist
Being called a doll evokes images of perfectly prepared, exaggerated femininity: clichés of airheads afraid to break manicured nails and giggling way too long at jokes that aren’t funny. These clichés fly in the face of everything about me that I think is feminist, but I refuse to let the sexualized gaze and femininity clichés I now encounter drive me to trade in my nail polish for a mohawk (although I could do both!). Encountering so many awesomely strong, independent, intelligent – and very feminine – feminists in Mongolia has made me have a lot of critical reflections of what it means to be a feminist woman and how culturally shaped even this –ism can be.
Before going to Mongolia, I went through a phase where I decided I needed to trade in my various hair colors, prominent piercings and ripped clothing – completely acceptable in the Berliner context – for something less ‘shocking’ since I didn’t know what type of people I would be encountering. Walking into my first meeting of self-proclaimed, Mongolian feminists, I guess I was expecting to encounter a group that somewhat represented what I had left back home. Walking into this group of highly stylish, fashion-forward, high-heel touting, cosmopolitan reading, brand name bag wearing, (occasionally) surgically operated women was not what I expected.
“Am I in the right place?” I asked myself.
Feminists can be dogmatic, too.
A few years ago after moving into my first leftist Berliner collective, I invited a friend of mine – who had been a former model – to my house to work on homework. She was superficially involved in very different things then I was, but we got along very well and she was interested in the concept of my new residence. We planned to work and then jointly eat with the rest of the collective, but those plans took a sour note when she entered wearing high-heels. I tried to warn her (“…wear black and not too much make-up…”), but even I was shocked by the reaction she received. The entire time and throughout dinner, nobody spoke a word to her.
Being myself completely aware – as a researcher of body ideals – what high-heels symbolically represent it is still completely unfair and generalized to conflate a woman’s personal choice to wear high-heels with complacency in oppression.
Coming from this background, I admittedly had to squelch my first impulse that this sexualized, femme fatale, “Sex and the City”-esque form of feminism I encountered in Mongolia was ‘wrong.’ How could embracing consumption and hyper-femininity be liberating?
Different means to reach a globalized end.
Feminism, like any other belief system, is historically and culturally specific. In other posts I wrote about how Mongolia was the second Soviet country in the world, about the antipathy in Mongolia towards China, and also about the rigid gender divide in the Mongolian countryside, which all contribute to gender relations and feminism in Mongolia.
The ‘New’ Woman
This quote from an Inner Mongolian Cambridge anthropologist describes well two streams of political thought that exist in contemporary Mongolian society but developed during the socialist era: a tension between looking to the ‘ancient Mongolian’ past (Genghis Khan, pastoral, traditional culture, etc.) or to the ‘modern European’ future for inspiration.
“Mongolian nationalism during the socialist period was characterized by a tension between a desire for development towards a Soviet-oriented civilization and the wish to develop a national culture. The traditional identity was being transformed into the concept of a socialist ‘new Mongol’…This change of identity which had its background in the difficult relations with the Chinese, lent the Mongols the political and nationalist enthusiasm to deny themselves their oriental identity, and instead strive to be a ‘Western’ nation…(Sanders 1987:4-5)” (16).
As a result of the Soviet pressure to ‘modernize,’ a new stream of thought developed that pit itself against the old, ancient and Asian (also due to antipathy towards China): a ‘new Mongol’ who was Europeanized, modern, middle-class, educated, and progressive. This philosophical stream still exists; only the criteria of modernity have changed to reflect free-market democracy.
This concept of the ‘new Mongol,’ and by extension a ‘new Mongolian Woman,’ was mirrored in my research regarding beauty ideals. I saw different streams of beauty concepts that mirrored this philosophical divide; women alternatively look to ‘classic Mongolian’ and/or to ‘modern European’ concepts of beauty and try to balance the two. And in the realm of plastic surgery, caucasianized beauty standards, and individualism through consumption, embracing these traits is a way of externally reflecting the ‘new Mongolian woman;’ the progressive, career-oriented, independent, educated, Europeanized, modern Mongolian woman.
In the context of traditional, rigid gender divides and the soviet mandate to curtail personal choice for the collective, to be an individual, making personal choices to buy products for yourself, to be able to earn your own money, and to express your femininity and sexuality (through reading Cosmopolitan magazine or in your appearance) is new and reactionary to the socialist era. To express femininity is to be proud of your uniqueness. To be an individual is revolutionary.
Feminism is culturally relative
Each form of feminism is a reaction to the specific cultural and historically circumstances and can take on many guises. Although I think the hyper-sexualized appearance of urban Mongolian women can also be a limitation, I myself learned that I had to think twice as a white, Western feminist to understand that feminism can have multiple contexts, forms and shapes. My form of feminism is not necessarily yours. My history is not your history.
Thus, being back in the Berliner context, I notice keenly how one item – say nail polish – is culturally encoded and received completely differently based on where I am. The same nail polish that might be a representation of my individuality or agency in one context, gets me called a doll – a disenfranchised, objectified mute – in another. A skirt in one context might be an expression of pro-sexuality liberation or a representation of commodified objectification. It might help me relate to and understand women in one country, but bar me from entering feminist circles in another.
Somewhere between butch and ‘beautiful’
One of my research informants – a female Mongolian writer – told me about her own personal transformation from butch to stereotypical beautiful (again: culturally specific) a few years ago as a representation of her shift in her feminist approach. She wrote about women and as such realized that by being feminine externally (and not necessarily internally) she had much more access to the women around her and to the female world in society. She was proud to be a woman, and thus did not want to negate her femininity to emulate masculinity. I myself noticed in my research that being more feminine in appearance opened up avenues to more anthropological informants, made them relax more, and allowed me to engage women on more levels.
Really there is no right way. I was critical of hyper-femininity in Mongolia, but being back in Berlin makes me feel like the pendulum swung to the opposite pole, which isn’t much better and is just as limiting to other types of women. And the onslaught of stereotypes, objectifying gazes, and belittling phrases towards feminized women in Berlin and Mongolia offer just as many surfaces to challenge gender norms in both mainstream and leftist culture as gender-bending does. Besides… it confuses all those pundits who want to stamp feminists as ugly, baby-killing witches (as the Pat Robertson quote goes).
So, I’m gonna continue wearing my nail-polish, thank you! And still grunt at you to get out of my freaking bike lane.