Comment on Burqas and Boobs


[If this is too long jump to the end for the tl;dnr version]


How often “ignorance is bliss” has meant the ignorance of a perceived ‘other’ in proportion to the bliss of a privileged frame of reference.

sam @samuelheard on Twitter

A few days ago Brad Warner posted a link, International Topless Jihad Day: FEMEN Activists Stage Protests Across Europe (NSFW PHOTOS), on Facebook about the FEMEN protest in which white women removed their clothes in order to protest the detainment of a Tunisian women, Amina Tyler, who posted a topless photo of herself online and faced a backlash in her community. The Tunisian student went into hiding after some of the more conservative elements in Tunisia called for harsh punishments. Some in the FEMEN group posted outrageous exaggerations of Ms. Tyler’s situation such as she was being threatened by the state with lashes or had been put in a mental hospital. These have been proven false:

Several media outlets reported that the woman had disappeared, with FEMEN leader Inna Shevshenko saying she was unable to reach the Tunisian activist. Le Monde reported on Monday however that according to her lawyer, Tyler is in safety. Famous laywer and feminist Bochra Belhaj Hmida told the AFP that “Amina told me she was doing fine and was going to take up school again soon.” She added that “she didn’t disappear, wasn’t admitted to a hospital,” addressing rumors that Tyler’s parents had her admitted to a mental hospital.

~from Huffington Post International Topless Jihad Day: FEMEN Activists Stage Protests Across Europe (NSFW PHOTOS)

It is not unusual for the FEMEN group to distort the truth in order to further their own cause.

Along with posting the link to the story Brad also wrote, “I totally support this!”

Screenshot - 4_6_2013 12_34_14 AM

This piqued my curiosity so I asked Brad, “Why?”

This did not bring a response from Brad on this posting but it did bring some random dude out to immediately “mansplain” everything for me because you know, I was totally asking for his opinion and don’t know how Google or feminist politics works and am completely ignorant about anything to do with Brad Warner. How kind of Random Dude. He even explained Brad’s position, or his interpretation of it, for Brad too. Doubly kind. [Men frequently “mansplain” to and for other men as well. It’s a dominance tactic.]

[I’m even going to protect Random Dude’s privacy here on the open Internet because I don’t know if he wants his name beyond Facebook’s walled garden. Aren’t I also kind?! ]

Sometime later I posted another link on the topic from Al Jazeera, Muslim women send message to Femen and tagged Brad Warner on the item. He did respond to the tag with:

Interesting. I have no qualms with women who wear hijab because they want to. But I do have a very big problem with societies and governments who require them to be worn. I also have very serious doubts concerning the burqa and (to a lesser extent) the niqab. I find it very difficult (not impossible, just very difficult) to believe anyone really wears those by choice, especially the burqa.

[As an aside it is good to know that a woman with an opinion can get a response from Brad Warner on a political issue without flashing her boobs. So maybe some of Brad’s mansplaining followers should take a hint.]

So I made a big response to his response, which is polished up a bit here and which I want to expand in subsequent sections of this post. I’ll emphasize the most relevant points.

1) In the FEMEN situation it’s less about what women wear and more about the fact that well-off white people are playing white savior (again). Rather like the US government “liberating” Iraq, Afghanistan (and possibly soon Iran). There are lots of feminist activists in the Middle East…lots. That includes women directly challenging regimes by getting in cars and driving alone (Saudi Arabia), by setting up women’s anti-rape protection squads in Cairo, by going to school despite bans by the Taliban (Pakistan), I could go on (and on). Where are the FEMEN supporting all that? They aren’t even aware of it or if they are they don’t give a shit because it requires them to get over their ego image of themselves as saviors to these women.

It’s even more stupid and dangerous than that Kony2012 bullshit.

As well FEMEN have demonstrated they are not in any way inclusive. They deliberately don’t let women who don’t “look good naked” into their groups, that includes disabled women, fat women, older women. In their main groups they also don’t have women of color. They have literally attacked other women (sex workers in various parts of Europe and in Brasil among others) It’s all about young, white, educated, well-off European women demanding society 1) pay attention to them,  2) do what they say is right without regard to any of the people actually involved in the situations they bring attention to. Look at their website. There are no women of color in their groups. They do all their actions without a coherent politics. Their few statements on anything are incoherent babble. They scream “Patriarchy” but act in a wholly patriarchal manner to anyone who questions them if they allow questions at all. [no comments allowed to any of their posts] They decide, without consultation, what is supposed to be good for other women [based on their biased, narrow viewpoint]. Why aren’t they focusing on the Catholic or the Ukrainian Orthodox churches in their own countries? Why aren’t they challenging their own governments policies? It’s all about a certain privileged kind of feel-good self-promotion. In other words they don’t give a shit about burqas or whatever, they only want to get in the news. They have fucking photo shoots of themselves all dressed up (or undressed) in their “radical” outfits. They challenge nothing. And are full of shit.

2) Also get your FEMEN merchandise here [It’s a highly commercial aka capitalist enterprise]

3) The FEMEN mission statement such as it is: “The mission of the “FEMEN” movement is to create the most favourable conditions for the young women to join up into a social group with the general idea of the mutual support and social responsibility, helping to reveal the talents of each member of the movement.” also “We build up a national image of femininity, maternity and beauty based on the Euro-Atlantic women’s movements experience.” from They also support castration and the death penalty. There’s a whole lot more if you look beyond the boobs. And it ain’t pretty.

Brad further incorporated his response into his most recent blogpost, Brief Comments on Burqas, Hijabs, Niqabs and Nudity in General

There he amplified his remark and also said:

The first link I got was to Femen’s “Topless Jihad Day.” Femen is a group of women in Europe who protest naked for various feminist causes. I like them. Sometimes maybe they go too far. But sometimes maybe one has to go “too far” to make a point.

OK Brad likes them. I’m going to primarily deal with the FEMEN aspect of that post because burqas aren’t really the FEMEN’s issue. Sure they use it for their own purposes but their lack of understanding of it is woeful.

Brad apparently likes the stated point of their causes and perhaps their tactics. I can agree with that. I’ve got no problem supporting other women who are resisting oppression and certainly have no problem with “diversity of tactics” (aka Black Bloc for the origins of that term and what it means in it’s entirety) when situations call for it. The tactics of the FEMEN encompass direct action, violence (they have attacked and beaten other women, particularly sex workers), visibility, confrontation, property destruction, social disruption and many others.

What I don’t like about the FEMEN is their politics, such as they are. Their politics supports the status quo far more than even perhaps they would like to believe. I’d even go so far as to say their politics is pretty right wing if not fascist in some instances. That is their understanding of other women’s lives and their disregard for the same, their motivations which are highly self-serving, their stifling of other women’s voices, their co-opting of other women’s struggles, particularly those of women of color and their celebrity seeking narcissism at any cost. I’m not sure Brad has thought about that or is even aware of it.

So let me “womansplain” it to y’all. (or whoever may still be reading)

On Saviorism

<Hyperbole warning.>

Oh the burden imposed upon us white people. It is so fucking enormous. Gotta save everyone else from their oppression, especially if that oppression is caused by more of their own people. The more it supports our own self images the better, the more it reinforces sexual stereotypes of our own culture the better, the more it keeps those “ugly girls” away from us the better, the more famous it makes us the better.  As to the oppressed, the further away the better, the stranger the culture the better, the less we know about it or have to actually talk to them the better. Doesn’t matter if they don’t see it as oppression because, in the words of the FEMEN leader, that white girl whose name I can’t spell, responding to Muslim women telling her and her group to GTFO:

“They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me’.

“You know, through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves.

Yes the beautiful young white topless women will save the world! Not because they understand the larger socio-cultural, religious and economic context, not because they’ve had experience being a family of color trying to parent while holding down 2 minimum wage jobs (for example), not because they’ve understood what they studied in grad school about religion, politics or culture, not even if they’ve done some kind of “I’ll be your savior” fieldwork in “the heart of darkness” of Africa, not because of the “self-empowerment” of  rad-fem encounter groups, not because they actually associate with anyone of a different demographic than themselves [Does the maid count?],  but because…?

I can’t think of a reason. Narcissism seems to fit best though. What they lack in objectivity, they make up for with hubris. Idiot compassion on media screens everywhere.

What About Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Iranian, Iraqi, Turkish, Omani, Yemeni, Indonesian, Moroccan, Algerian, Sudanese, Libyan, Cambodian and other Muslim and non-Muslim Feminists Around the World?

Muslim and non-Muslim feminists from all parts of the world can and do speak for themselves. There are many.

For example a number of Muslim women have come together and produced An open letter to FEMEN. In that letter they write:

We understand that it’s really hard for a lot of you white colonial “feminists” to believe, but- SHOCKER! – Muslim women and women of colour can come with their own autonomy, and fight back as well! And speak out for themselves! Who knew?

We are proud Muslimahs, and we’re sick of your colonial, racist rubbish disguised as “women’s liberation”!

BECAUSE we are fed-up and tired of hearing from women of privilege perpetuating the stereotype that Muslim women, women of colour and women from the Global South are submissive, helpless and in need of western “progress”.

BECAUSE it is these kinds of colonial attitudes that commit more harm than good, so stop trying to kid us.

BECAUSE we are sick of the appropriation of our terms and our customs, done without our permission for whatever reason people see fit.

BECAUSE we don’t have to conform to your customs of protest to emancipate ourselves. Our religion does that for us already, thank you very much.

BECAUSE rubbing shoulders with far-right, racist and Islamophobic groups is just ANTI-FEMINIST beyond bounds, not to mention EXTREMELY DANGEROUS.

BECAUSE you don’t really care about violence and harm being inflicted upon women, you only care about that when it is perpetrated by brown men with long beards who pray five times a day.

BECAUSE not all of us are white, skinny, physically non-disabled and willing to whip off our tops merely for press attention. Check yourselves before you go into the streets again.

BECAUSE we live in a messed up world, what with heteronormativity, white supremacy, empire, the class system and capitalism, but FEMEN are concerned most about contributing more to a climate of rampant Islamophobia instead. Take aim at male supremacy, not Islam. Your priorities are messed up.

So, next time you decide to take the crusade for global women’s liberation into your own hands, JUST REMEMBER that before FEMEN came along, there have been and will continue to be women all over the world dreaming and fighting for their own emancipation, and WE DON’T NEED YOU!



Sofia Ahmed, Student
April Reilly, Student
Ayesha Latif, Student
Zarah Sultana, Student
Sabeeha Mahmood, Photojournalist
Malia Bouattia, Student
Rabi’a Khatoon, Student
Sajidah Ali, Student
Zaira Ejaz, Student
Sumreen Rashid, Student
Shakira Akther, Black Students Officer at the University of East London
Sumaya Abdullahi , member of the Muslim Student’s Association at the university of Alberta
Fatma Musilma, Fellow of the Institute of Swimming Teachers and Coaches

These are the women that the FEMEN leader calls “slaves”?!? I don’t think so.

Here’s a few more women that have some lessons to teach:

Taslima Nasreen of Bangladesh, author who is exiled from her country @taslimanasreen on Twitter

Arundhati Roy of India, author, Booker Prize winner, activist.

RAWA of Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan is the largest and oldest women’s organization in Afghanistan. They are based in Kabul. Many of their members have been killed, imprisoned, raped and beaten. They are also on Twitter @RAWA77

There are hundreds if not thousands more I could list here.

Here’s a sampling of some of the changes women in the Middle East and other places are fighting for and have brought about themselves:

Cairo women protesting against rape

Image: Women in Cairo, Egypt protesting against rape and rape culture. Feb, 2013. From Think Progress






Here’s a few headlines from the past few months from Ahram Online (my comments or updates in brackets):

Egyptian women’s group proposes new sexual harassment law:Proposed law contains broader definition of sexual harassment with stiff sentences for repeat offenders and those convicted of offences in the workplace

Egypt women’s council slams Islamist rejection of UN rights document:Head of Egypt’s Women’s Rights Council criticises Muslim Brotherhood’s negative stance regarding controversial UN declaration on women’s rights (Egypt did eventually sign onto the agreement BTW)

Egypt’s president denounces discrimination against unveiled student:President Mohamed Morsi condemns recent discrimination incident against a student in Alexandria for not wearing Islamic veil. (That’s the Morsi of The Muslim Brotherhood)

Saudi religious police lift bicycle ban for women:Saudi newspaper says kingdom’s religious police are allowing women to ride motorbikes and bicycles in recreational areas, as long as they are accompanied by male relative and dressed in full Islamic attire (This may seem a small victory but it is a victory nonetheless)

Saudi women given unprecedented permit to attend book fairs – with men:Women in the Kingdom, as well as men will be permitted to attend next week’s Riyadh book fair, says the head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police.

Saudi Arabia frees all arrested women protesters:Saudi police say all women arrested earlier this month in the city of Buraida are released except two who refused to leave even after all procedures for their release were completed.

Saudi king swears in first women members of Shura Council:Saudi King Abdullah swore in the country’s first female members of the Shura Council, an appointed body that advises on new laws, in a move that has riled conservative clerics in the Islamic monarchy

Pakistani woman makes history with run in May vote:Pakistani housewife becomes first woman to run for parliament in conservative Bajur region

Syria Kurd women set up battalion: NGO:Human Rights groups reveals that a group of Kurds women formed the first women division in the city of Aleppo to fight against the government forces


Women in India fight police to have anti-rape protest

Image: Women in India fight police in order to stage anti-rape protest. Dec. 2012. from Indian Women Teach Us All Feminism on the Femina Invicta blog. Check that site for more of the protest photos.

This is what it can be like on the ground. This is the  battleground of biopolitical sexism in the world beyond the privileged borders of white Europe, Australia and US/Canada.

This is resistance.

Where are the FEMEN supporting these efforts? Where are their statements of solidarity? Do they even have a clue what is happening in the rest of the world? Do they even care? Will it disrupt their photo shoot schedules and body painting sessions to take the time to learn about any of this?

As For Nudity…

…that’s not even the real issue. I’ll talk about the real issues first then about the nudity.

The FEMEN stance is not much different than that of Sheryl Sandberg, privileged COO of Facebook, who blames women for their own failure since they haven’t embraced the same slavery-to-ambition work ethos she has. See my post on another site Lean In and Fall Off the Edge about that since I don’t want to repeat all those arguments here. It is also no different than the ivy league pseudo-progressive ivory tower feminists telling working class women, single mothers, women of color and all those not within their tight little chattering class social circle, how to live their lives and even what their lives mean, not to themselves but to these self-appointed feminist spokeswomen.

Now about the boobs.

Maybe Brad should know that none of the Suicide Girls would be allowed to be FEMEN because of their choice to pose on the SG website. If FEMEN found out they’d be ejected from the group. It’s pornography, which FEMEN allegedly despise, though they have no problem using a soft core version of it to try to make their muddled point. [Not unlike PETA posturing about animal welfare only to end up killing around 85% of the animals in their care.]

As Elly Badcock wrote in the article That’s not what a feminist looks like on Counterfire:

Women’s liberation cannot be reduced to measuring the amount of flesh we’re permitted to show….

They [FEMEN] might join Muslim women in asserting the right to wear hijab or niqab without fear of attack [by whites primarily]. Interestingly, activists in the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) have mentioned that the burqa can sometimes make it easier for them to carry out political activity, as it can disguise political leaflets and hidden cameras. FEMEN could listen to these women, the women they are patronisingly attempting to ‘save’.

The banning of headscarves in France is another example, which FEMEN applauds. [I mentioned the stupidity of the head covering ban before What Else Needs to be Banned in France? back in 2010] It only oppresses already oppressed women further and punishes them economically as well in that they will not be accepted for jobs and could face fines and even imprisonment. Now there is talk of further bans, Muslims worry about broader France headscarf ban. So much for the liberté portion of the famous French motto liberté, égalité, fraternité.

This is far more complicated than flashing one’s boobs for attention.

Naked protests as a form of civil disobedience are also nothing new. Here’s a whole Wikipedia article about it Nudity and Protest.

As for hijabs, abayas, niqabs, burqas, chadors, and the like…

It’s really tempting to say when Catholic and Orthodox Christian nuns are no longer wearing habits (many still are) and women aren’t required to cover their heads when they go into some of these churches, and when American and European female Buddhist teachers are no longer shaving their heads, and when … but you know that’s fish in a barrel.

One step further. In comments on Brad’s post Tattoozen (a favorite of mine) got even closer to the mark with:

In my opinion clothing is often used to control women’s role in society. High heels, corsets, dresses, burquas all limit mobility and activity. All the cultures with these arcane dress codes also decree women to be weak, subject to victim hood, and needing to be “protected”. It’s about control and subjugation.

This is true. With clothing, without clothing, women’s bodies are policed by their societies, not just by the men but also by other women who have inculcated their societies social values regarding appropriate gender presentation. Scantily clad women are called “sluts” and “whores” and modestly dressed women are called prudes, oppressed, etc. There is no way to win that game. It’s something played on the surface and signifies much deeper structures and beliefs that support those structures including patriarchal/heirarchical beliefs.

Those beliefs are something worth examining. Fortunately Brad Warner has provided a unique insight into some of those beliefs although I don’t necessarily think he meant to. Since it’s such a good example I’m going to use it as a departure point for this portion of my post.

Brad Warner wrote in the past of his admiration for and the usefulness of the idea of “The Prime Directive” which came from the Star Trek franchise, in the post FLORIDA and THE PRIME DIRECTIVE.  I like Star Trek as a bit of entertainment and I don’t have a big hate-on for Brad either, but there’s some deeper issues. There are a great number of things that are overlooked in the post (such as talking about material conditions like technology as different then economics…not so much…but that’s a long digression) or that are contradictory, that I could comment on, but I’ll stick to the main point. Brad wrote this, emphasis mine:

It is impossible for us to adopt a kind of Prime Directive when it comes to our dealings with cultures on our own planet that have yet to adopt a humanistic outlook. They’ve already been contaminated. Technological knowledge is spreading across the globe at a rate never seen before in history. It may take thousands of years for a society to develop sufficiently to be able to create a jet airplane. But because human beings are all basically equal in intelligence and ability, a fanatic from a far less developed society can learn to fly one in a week or so.
It is imperative that this un-stoppable spread of technological knowledge be paired with the spread of a more realistic and humanistic worldview. And this worldview is, itself, highly threatening to fundamentalist religions.
Some people get pretty upset at the suggestion that what is seen as the Western worldview should be pushed upon people who have their own worldviews. But I don’t really see the humanistic realistic worldview as fundamentally Western. It is the worldview that the West has used to get as far as it’s gotten. But it isn’t our view. It isn’t one viewpoint among equals.
I know some people recoil in horror at the suggestion that any viewpoint is fundamentally better than others. But it seems to be to be undeniably true that some worldviews are actually better. Humanism and realism work because they are more in line with how things actually are than with how we might wish them to be.

We can play spot the contradictions and unfounded assumptions there if we want to but I’m going to sum it up with two points—colonialist thinking and American exceptionalism. That’s the worldview Brad is expressing.

Colonialist thinking is tied very closely with cultural imperialism. The Star Trek perspective is very much one of cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism presently, in our world, not the post-scarcity world of Star Trek,  is closely tied to neo-liberal thinking. The term cultural imperialism itself means:

…the cultural aspects of imperialism. Imperialism, here, is referring to the creation and maintenance of unequal relationships between civilizations favoring the more powerful civilization.

Within the current cultural imperialist viewpoint the most prominent is American (or Western) exceptionalism which:

…is the proposition that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific world mission to spread liberty and democracy.[2] It is not a notion that the United States is quantitatively better than other countries or that it has a superior culture, but rather that it is “qualitatively different“.

That difference is expressed as the “better than” view vis-à-vis other nations or peoples. It is a view that is at the heart of imperialism and oppression. European exceptionalism may not be as prominent as American exceptionalism but it is no less pervasive. The FEMEN not only express European exceptionalism but one that drastically excludes ALL that is not personified by them. They seek to institute and reinforce a narcissistic monoculture in which they stand at the center, admired.

The origins of what has been called the humanist or rationalist perspective, which many of the “exceptionalists” espouse, are tied very closely to European philosophers. Big topic but briefly stated from the Wikipedia entry on Colonialism:

In A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), Spivak explored how major works of European metaphysics (such as those of Kant and Hegel) not only tend to exclude the subaltern from their discussions, but actively prevent non-Europeans from occupying positions as fully human subjects. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), famous for its explicit ethnocentrism, considers Western civilization as the most accomplished of all, while Kant also allowed some traces of racialism to enter his work.

[Subaltern is a term most often used by Antonio Gramsci from post-colonialist theory. It means “the lower classes and the social groups who are at the margins of a society — a subaltern is a person rendered without human agency, by his or her social status.” It is a position within oppressed classes and marginalized groups that is more extreme than the oppression of being lower class and is often the result of deliberate exclusion.]

There is a tendency to explain, or explain away, the perspective of non-European peoples and to view them and their cultural practice as objects upon which the European (Western) viewpoints are to be imposed. [This happens with the adoption of Buddhism in the West all the time in case nobody noticed.] There is a certain luxury in being able to impose these views, not just by way of shaking one’s boobs at TV cameras, but it also often manifests at the point of Stinger missiles and cluster bombs, extortion clauses of IMF aid programs and loans, corporate expropriation of lands for the purposes of mining and other resource extraction, etc.

The viewpoint that Brad has espoused in his previous post is the same thinking being demonstrated by the FEMEN group. He wrote the Star Trek one a couple of years ago though. One hopes that over the years further experience and knowledge provides an opportunity for gaining a more mature, nuanced and less somewhat jingoistic approach. Time will tell.

The takeaway (or the tl;dnr version)

FEMEN is to feminism what Genpo is to Zen. An insincere, opportunistic, profiteering, exploitative, narcissistic, self-indulgent aberration.

Oh yeah…if your comment starts with “I didn’t read this but…” or “I only skimmed but…” don’t bother commenting. Use your own blog.

Dances with Power

I have a post in the works about rationalizations people use when confronted with ugly realities of improprieties in their beloved institutions. It’s really long and won’t be finished for a couple of more days. (That’s not a promise as I’m wrestling with it) It started with looking at the current brouhaha going on in the Sasaki situation but it became pretty clear that the issues are way bigger than that so it expanded and still needs some rewriting. There are some parallels with the Shimano situation but it’s not exactly the same. The details of these kinds of situations tend to be rather sordid so I prefer not to go into them and look at the context which allows such behavior to occur. AKA structural issues. In other words there are themes that recur and they recur with such frequency we take them as somehow normal. Normal is just another word for habitual and conditioned in the most popular fashion. So that’s in the upcoming piece as well.

In the meantime I have been noting an interesting back and forth between Brad Warner and Grace Schireson on the Sweeping Zen site recently. The commentary that followed by many others. It has been interesting and the fallout of it pretty ugly.

Additionally Peter Schireson, husband of Grace, wrote a post related to this dialogue. Dude, you’re not as funny or as smart as you think you are. That’s all I’m going to say about his “contribution” to the discourse.

The original debate was about a very critical point. Or rather several points that have been conflated into one. Hence I think Brad and Grace are to some degree talking at cross-purposes. So here are some of the points with my brief responses. I’ll elaborate on some of them after the list.

The big question: Can there be a legitimate emotional/sexual relationship between someone in power and someone not?

My view: Possibly, but with a lot of caveats.

That brings up some tangential questions though:

  • Is it always wrong for a dharma leader to be involved with someone in their own sangha? My view: While both are in a formal teacher/student relationship there should be institutional regulations and escape mechanisms to deal with such an eventuality. And it is an eventuality in many situations. To think otherwise is to either be hopelessly naïve, morally arrogant or willfully blinkered to the human condition. The Boundless Way sangha has actually thought about that in their Code of Ethics with this clause:
  • Any priest, senior Dharma teacher or transmitted teacher who finds a romantic relationship beginning with a member of the sangha should inform the EAR Committee of this relationship and seek guidance as to the most healthful way to proceed.

    If the people involved are in a teacher-student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher-student relationship, but not both.

  • Can a woman voluntarily and of her own free will enter into a relationship with someone who is in a position of direct power over her? Yes. Caveats.
  • Should women who have been victimized by those in power over them be protected, fought for and expect justice?  Yes. I will always stand up for women who have been victimized. And I hope others would too out of compassion, empathy and solidarity.
  • Doesn’t that infantilize them to have someone else speak on their behalf? Sometimes. Depends who’s doing the “white knighting” and why. (I got on Brad’s case about infantilization in comments on his blog. I was objecting to his use of the word “girls” in a rather facetious way while referring to women who practice Zen. He recognized my objection and stated his reasons for the terminology as well as apologizing for the offense. I’m cool with that.)
  • Is this even “white knighting”? What is white knighting? Usually it’s men who jump at the chance to defend the virtue of women mostly to bolster their own sense of manhood and importance. It tends to be dismissive of the actual concerns of women in favor of what these men think is good for them. Some people, men and women, do “white knight” in situations like this. Others not. It’s exploitative when “white knighting” is done mainly to bolster the egos and sense of moral rectitude of the defenders. Righteous indignation can be such a high! We have to check pretty carefully what’s underneath that particular rock before we pick it up and throw it. I know this because I’ve been bitten a few times by what crawls out of there.
  • What constitutes victimization? Coercion. By individuals, groups, institutions, cultural and sub-cultural morays, economics, gender roles and all the other potentially oppressive factors. I have a lot to say about coercive relationships in the next post.


Let me tell you first how I come to this viewpoint. I have 4 angles of view on it. All from experience. (though activism, Buddhist practice and academic study puts it in further perspective)

  1. I have been violently sexually assaulted in my life.
  2. I have been in situations of gendered coercion.
  3. I have had, quite a few years ago, a non-coercive, fully voluntary beneficial relationship with someone 20 years my senior who was also one of my professors at university.
  4. I have been in several positions of power that I could have easily exploited sexually or otherwise had I chosen to do so.

I’m not going to give out the sordid details of any of it. But it has all been instructive.

Grace wrote a heartfelt piece A Zen Woman’s Personal Perspective On Sexual Groping, Sexual Harassment, And Other Abuses In Zen Centers. She does a good job in capturing the current zeitgeist and the oppression and abuse women face with alarming frequency. Rape culture in all of its manifestations is alive and well, even in the Zen community. Rape culture isn’t just about physical violence or forceful sexual intercourse. It is a psychological, emotional and experiential milieu of coercion, submission, shaming, belittling, dismissal,  fear and intimidation. It was all pretty familiar to me since I’ve experienced it too. Most women have. And she also covers some of the bullshit we are fed, or after while sometimes begin to feed ourselves, about the desirability of men in power, that it is the power that defines male sexuality and desirability, and to become an object of that power by any means necessary defines female sexuality, and in a larger context male-female gender relations in general. Pretty sad state of affairs. So she wrote some important things there. And she is pretty absolute in her moral opinion that under no circumstances should intimate relations develop between teachers and students. In a perfect world that would be…well, perfect. But neither Buddhist practice nor present day society requires people to become eunuchs-male or female*. Alas and alack we have to look around and see things are not always as we think they should be. So we have to deal with that. (*reference to Germaine Greer-the eunuchs of first wave feminism have moved on)

[Side Note: It is unfortunate that Grace dragged in an innocent unaffiliated woman to fling down as some kind of trophy to demonstrate moral and rhetorical superiority in her second piece where she brought up Brad’s former girlfriend, who was not a student, in an attempt to shame him for enjoying a physical relationship. Cheap shot, exploitative and sensationalist and unnecessary to make the point. Also the allusion to that in her husband’s post. Same objection.]

Some men do bad stuff like coercive sexual abuse. More often it is men because men are more often in positions of power. (one of a number of reasons why) We cannot however go so far as to declare all men “the enemy”. They’re not. I am unsure if there even are people in these situations who are “The Enemy.” There are people who are, in various combination, damaged, arrogant, ignorant, selfish, sociopathic, greedy, foolish, entitled, patriarchal, blinkered, rude, self-involved, egotistical and corrupt involved in these kinds of situations. In painting a portrait of male abusers as enemies we run the risk of using an overly broad brush thereby painting all men in the same fashion. Is this not what women, and especially feminists, object to? We also risk distorting situations to fit that enemy narrative and creating scapegoats of all kinds. Or at the very least punching bags upon whom we release our righteous anger.

That too is harm.

Further by jumping on bandwagons to rally troops under a morally righteous banner in order to fight these “enemies”, we invoke notions of superiority and particularly purity, that ultimately serve to exclude, vilify, shame and dehumanize anyone who falls in the shadow of and finally under the wheels of that juggernaut. Ultimately that will include nearly everyone. Nobody’s pure enough to drive that chariot for long. It causes a lot of collateral damage particularly when we lose focus and become blinded by our own rage.

That too is harm.

One thing I’ve always admired about Brad Warner is the transparency he brings to his public face. That’s really unusual in American Zen. The posturing is pretty absurd in that realm sometimes. (see current drama for a whole bunch of that) He might be a bit too much of a smart ass sometimes, use vernacular terminology that gets misinterpreted or not always avail himself of the wonders of Google when fact checking things but there are three things that are consistent with what he writes:his blatant honesty, his courage to put himself and his personal experience out there for scrutiny (with the consent of those he might choose to include-that’s important) and his compassion for just about anyone (except Genpo maybe). Even when I disagree with him vehemently, which is often, it’s never the case that he seems totally unreasonable, unapproachable or unwilling to examine his own position. That’s also pretty rare in American Zen where certitude and inviolability seems to rule.

It is a little dismaying to read some people’s interpretations of what Brad Warner has said. Did they even read it? There’s some serious disconnect with reality to some of the criticism. Almost hallucinatory in it’s warped portrayal. Outrage at imaginary statements is the delicious poison of the day. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written and do not recognize those portrayals at all. Sure there are some points worth re-examining and some valid criticisms, not so much of the position he takes but perhaps about the way it has been expressed or the tone used. I don’t however see him advocating full scale Caligula inspired orgies in Zendos or anything even remotely similar.

My take on it is that people are people with real feelings and human longings. This is in contrast to those scenarios of abuse and coercion and non-consent. These are different categories of human experience and conflating them is a mistake. I think that’s a valid point and seems to be what Brad was getting at.

After Grace’s piece Brad wrote in comments:

Abuse is abuse. But not every romantic relationship between a “member of clergy” and a “congregant” is abuse. It would be wrong to make all such relationships illegal.

What is being conflated is roles and people. We are not our roles. If we get rigidly entrenched in and attached to those roles we buy into a socially contrived and supported story about ourselves, and often our own importance. Performing the role becomes the central factor in our being. That is a position that is inherently insecure and leaves someone on the defensive most of the time.We slip into and out of roles all the time. That’s our social nature.  It takes a certain amount of clarity, maturity and wisdom to delineate the differences. Zen practice, all Buddhist practice is in part about developing those abilities, though some people may have missed that page in the Big Book of Buddhism.

I’ll return to that snippet I quoted from Boundless Way that I mentioned above. It seems pretty clear to me this person/role distinction is being recognized.

If the people involved are in a teacher-student relationship, a choice must be made between either pursuing that personal relationship or continuing the teacher-student relationship, but not both.

I think there’s some amount of wisdom there. To attempt to continue in both aspects is a sure fire way to undermine both. So making all relationships “illegal” under every circumstances is not only unduly rigid and unrealistic, it also denigrates the person in favor of the role. It turns them into a shell of a human, easily replaceable by anyone who can learn the proper script. That is the kind of thinking that leads to the kinds of problems under discussion so furiously in the Zen Buddhist corner of the Internet presently.

I agree with both Grace and Brad on a lot of their points. In fact it seems some of their points overlap. That seems to beNew SVG image getting lost in the language being used.  I’m talking a Venn diagram here not a polarity.

There also seems to be a notion that there is only one version of the truth, one acceptable moral stance, one way of expressing that, and one winner out of all of it. In the mean time women who have been negatively affected are the pawns of those who wrestle for moral superiority. And other women, who report no lasting effects or damage from their interactions are similarly being ignored and dismissed.

All these women carry the truth.

To deny any of them their truth is to deny them their humanity and to choose to only view a partial picture. Partial pictures serve particular agendas. Partial pictures objectify. Everybody know how bias works.

It strikes me that from a Buddhist context, truth is a pretty primary thing, the whole truth not only the parts that we want to be true or those that serve our arguments best.

If women have entered into consensual, non-coercive relationships that have brought them benefit then we have to accept that as possible.

If women have been coerced into activity to which they did not consent and which has done harm we have to accept that as well.

In the first instance there is nothing to be done. There is little point in trying to paint a victimhood status on someone who doesn’t view themselves as a victim. There are such things as fully consenting, non-coercive, enjoyable and fulfilling relationships borne out of what may have been at some point a situation of power imbalance. Does it always have to involve exploitation? No. Does it always end badly? No.

One could say, in some circumstances, “Oh they’re just not educated in power dynamics or oppression and so forth” That would be making a big assumption, removing their agency, denying their experience and in effect doing the very thing that an alleged abuser is accused of doing. This is a very tricky area to get into. Where there is no structure in place people in the direct vicinity do the best they can in the abusive situation.There’s a reason why police or the state are often the ones to lay the charges in domestic violence or rape cases rather than the victim. There may well be a condition of denial or shock. Certain outsiders fulfill the role of surrogate victim in those instances. There is a structure, however flawed, in place for that. These surrogates are both authorized and trained to act in that capacity. Random commenters and other do-gooders, no matter how well intentioned are not.

It also strikes me that even if people somehow involved in one way or another are credentialed in some helping profession their proximity to the Zen community precludes any pretext of objectivity. Outside agencies or people without vested interests that may conflict with the best interests of those who have been harmed are the better solution to dealing with the multiplicity of harms lest it become amplified by the echo chamber.

In contrast to the voluntary, consensual relationships that happen, some people’s lives can be altered irrevocably and not for the better when on the receiving end of coercive sexual attention. This is harm. This must be recognized even if there are other cases of not-harm. Cases of not-harm do not mitigate or cancel out cases of harm. It is not a zero sum game. Harm remains until it is addressed. Some women have put their experiences out there for the public to read. Most choose not to. That is a choice that must be honored in light of harmful circumstances which did not allow choice previously.

What we also have to consider is the harm done to those who were also affected as members of a particular sangha and the mahasangha. In this case there are several men who have spoken out about their discomfort with the situation, about trying to stop what had been reported to them as abuse and about their rejection by the community for that activity of conscience. This too is denying harm by denying them their experience, their agency and their opportunity to address the harm that has come to them, not indirectly by hearing women’s stories, though certainly that would be distressing to most caring men, but harm directly administered by other members of the sangha who assisted in enabling the primary harm and silencing those who wished to stop it. In attempting to uphold certain values that are not only implicit in much of American society, but explicit in the Buddhist context, they have been belittled, shunned, shamed and had their characters assassinated.

This too is harm.