Thou Shalt Not Let Yourself Be: Women and Cultural Imperialism

 For Aika, Marie-Claude and Caterina, my sisters in arms against Imperialism
I’ve been meaning to write about cultural imperialism and how it affects women for some time now. It all started one lazy Sunday afternoon when three women (a Kenyan/Tanzanian, an Haitian/Swiss and a Lebanese) were watching a silly movie revolving around mixed race relationships. At a certain point, the heroine’s mother throws a fit when her daughter stops weaving her hair and keeps it natural. Here, my friends told me that the issue of hair amongst black women was very sensitive, which made me reflect on the issue of hair in the Middle East. I don’t know if we could describe it as sensitive, but something definitely is going on there. To me, here’s what could be the Rules of Arab Women’s Hair (according to most people anyway):  
– You will not have your hair short (metl el sabe 3amle)
– You will not have your hair curly and frizzy (uuuuffffff shou 3abe sha3rek). Yes, even though you were born this way, pah, what Nature knows anyway?
– You will straighten it
– You will dye it lighter
– You will put chemicals in them to make it straighter, smoother, longer, etc… even though you’ll soon be removing clumps of hair from your hairbrush. Il faut souffrir pour être belle wou skete.
The issue of hair seems trivial: on the contrary, it is a manifestation of cultural imperialism that has managed to establish the western beauty standard as the norm, giving an implicit complex to women of the South and women of colour. It’s not only hair, it’s also the booming lightning creams business in Africa and in the Middle East, the plastic surgery in Asia and the Middle East  to correct eyes and noses and so on.
Cultural imperialism is defined as the domination of a culture over another, by economical and/or political means.
Cultural imperialism proposes that a society is brought into the modern world system (i.e into the contemporary neo liberal order) when its dominating stratum is attracted, pressured, forced, and sometimes bribed into shaping its social institutions to correspond to, or even promote, the values and structures of the dominating centre of the system (Schiller, 1976)[1]. Cultural imperialism stems from the colonial order that explicitly considered the colonised as lesser societies who needed to be “taught” and “civilised” and is supported by current institutions such as the IMF.

Cultural imperialism expresses itself through the media: with the mass production of movies, singers and entertainment products that are exported to the periphery (to use terminology from the path dependency school), the centre manages to influence the societies it aims at. Women are particularly affected by this bombardment of images: with the shifting of beauty standards, they engage in a run to follow what is considered to be a model. I’ve been more than once quite shocked by the open remarks of middle eastern women regarding a woman’s skin color: fair is lovely (pun intended) while darker shades are considered a mark of lowly social class and associated with “peasants” and uneducated people.
While cultural imperialism explains part of the distorted body and beauty image, it is nevertheless important to keep in mind that even women from imperialist countries are submitted to the same diktats, even if in different ways. A western woman won’t apply bleaching creams on her face to make it lighter, but she’ll sweat and starve herself to attain the otherwise unattainable standard of super skinniness. Besides, there is a need not to fall in the trap of cultural relativism as many Southern government are currently doing, violating Human Rights (which are all equal, interdependent, indivisible and inalienable) on the false pretext that they are evil importation from imperialist powers that contravene the culture of the country.
As Edward Said put it, there is no “them” and “us” dichotomy, but rather, a consortium of political and economical powers in search of exploiting markets and spheres of influence. The media industry sends out marketed messages of how “cool” the imperialist’s state way of life is, construct worlds that reflect the values dominant in the imperialist state, preparing the field with discourse, and is soon joined by multinational companies who will relay the messages and create fake unattainable standards. Thus, a whole range of invented needs amongst people will be generated for ideas and products to be sold, duplicating profits and influence, a kind of “we’ll give you Pepsi and teach you to be empowered, our way”. As Julia Galeota puts it in the case of the United States:
Though the United States does boast the world’s largest, most powerful economy, no business is completely satisfied with controlling only the American market; American corporations want to control the other 95 percent of the world’s consumers as well.
With the vast majority of economic and media wealth in the hands of western powers, it has become quite easy for imperialists to market their products and way of life in developing countries, thus opening their markets and ensuring their model (political, economical etc) are looked up to. The product of the imperialist power becomes “cool” and “modern”. As Galeota argues, even if diversity is pitched, it is mainly a marketing strategy to access markets in a more subtle way: this is how you find Nancy Ajram selling Coca-Cola to the Lebanese.
Besides the issue of beauty standards promoted by communications means and media, there is also the issue of imperialist feminism that proposes that only Western women hold the keys to empowerment and are fit to go and teach their less fortunate sisters from the South. This theory is upheld by so called feminists backing up the ban of veiled women in public spaces in France or by going to southern countries to impose a certain way and vision of emancipation, which touches not only women’s rights but also presents neoliberalism as the “right” economical system.
In that instance, it is high time for women’s organizations and movements to realize that women everywhere are equally (although differently) oppressed and need to resist together the assaults of patriarchy and ruthless neoliberalism instead of becoming imperialists themselves and turn into oppressors of their sisters from the South.
As for the issue of hair and skin and noses and what have you, I’ll only have one word. Resist!
After all, isn’t resistance existence?
The Politics of Black Women’s Hair: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LRLCR9_PN00

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