Feminism | Posted by Julie Z on 08/4/2009

Ms. Magazine’s Summer Issue

The Summer 2009 issue of Ms. which came out today (August 4th)

In the past month, the feminist blogosphere has been buzzing about the Summer issue of Ms. Magazine. For the content? No, the concern is about the imagery of the cover, and it’s depiction of a white woman juggling her white middle class problems in a Hindu deity’s pose.  

As Mandy Van Deven over at Bitch Magazine online put it: 

“It’s completely inappropriate to utilize Hindu iconography in this context, mocks the religion, and diffuses the imagery of its ‘true’ meaning. When a cultural or religious symbol is used for marketing purposes by cultural or religious outsiders that fail to convey respect for and understanding of the intricacies of that culture or religion, it is offensive. Westerners have a history of seeking to eradicate ‘Other’ cultures and religions in favor of their own, and Ms. Magazine‘s perpetuation of this ethnocentric process is shameful.”

Community writer nrjo2004 at feministing also commented: 

“The problem with the commodification of culture in this careless manner is that it’s dangerous for South Asian and diasporic communities – it presents South Asian culture as a complete, fragment-free, unified category. What we wind up with is more Orientalist perspectives circulating through movies, magazines and stores, more South Asians having to answer for an entire group of individuals about everything from food to yoga, and more ignoring national, gendered, class and sexual differences within the community.”

I have to say, I do agree with these comments. It sort of reminds me of how when Slumdog Millionaire came out and everybody claimed to be “obsessed” with Indian culture, and began to want to consume more “Indian stuff.”

Uh…excuse me. Just because your western minds were opened to the “reality” of one culture (I refer to Slumdog Millionaire as reality lightly, as one movie should not and does not represent an entire culture – just because you’ve seen it doesn’t mean you now understand India) doesn’t mean it is now something for you to consume or to be “obsessed” with.

I know that I, as someone who had been interested in Indian culture long before Slumdog Millionaire was released, had been really offended by this consumeristic response to an entire culture. Of course — although I knew comparatively very little about the culture, as all I knew came from only my own exploration, not my roots in the culture — I understood that just because you like a movie, decide to go and buy bangles, a sari, whatever, and declare your love for Indian food doesn’t mean you have even the slightest inkling of understanding of such an intricate society. And a society is not something to be “obsessed” with — it’s people’s lives, their beliefs and history. By saying your obsessed with it just makes you seem like your culture is above theirs, that there culture is a nice addition to your own. 

So, of course that whole situation is different than what Ms. Magazine did, but it’s similar too. Like the people I know who fell in love with India after seeing one movie (and then forgot about it a few weeks/months later), Ms. Magazine probably had harmless intentions with this cover. I highly doubt that they were trying to belittle South Asian culture in any way, but nevertheless it was a pretty careless move on their part. 

I must say though, it’s unfair to judge a book (or magazine) by its cover. 

This issue of Ms. has some really interesting articles. The cover article that has caused so much controversy is actually a thoughtful look at Mommybloggers and their rising political and economic power. Not something you’d expect from the cover, which to me indicated it would be another article on how – *gasp* – lonely Mommies all over the country are forming friendships with other Mommies on the internet, but they only write about Mothering…because that’s all Mommy bloggers know about. Thankfully, Ms. took a much more holistic, and in my opinion realistic, look at the Momosphere – something I find really interesting and inspiring. 

Another article, Baghdad Underground, describes the intricate “railroad” system in Iraq that shelters the victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and then helps them to relocate safely away from their abusers. The article describes how, “Saddam Huseein’s regime persecuted political dissidents but allowed women personal rights and freedoms; assaults on women were rare. But when violence engulfed the country after the U.S. invasion, women became ‘the easiest targets,’ says OWFI member Dalal Juma. Violence agains women is rampant and goes virtually unchecked by Iraq’s new legal system, which is influenced by conservative clerics now dominating the country’s politics, and which follows tribal and Islamic Sharia law more closely than it ever had during Hussein’s harsh but secular rule.” This underground railroad also attempts to protect Iraqi women from the growing rates of rape, often committed by police officers and interrogators, and tries to stop the”honor-killings” of these women by their families due to the “disgrace” the rape victims bring. It also helps women who would otherwise be sold into sex trafficking. 

Stones Can’t Stop Them is another article appearing in this issue about the rise of Taliban-style laws in Afghanistan, including one that will legalize marital rape, prevent women from leaving home without a male relative’s permission, and recognize child marriage, and the brave women who are speaking out against it. 

Also looked at are the issues of women’s colleges in the Middle East, human trafficking in Ghana, a profile of Dr. George Tiller and a supportive look at Sotomayor amongst others. 

Really, I don’t think any other feminist magazine out there takes such intensive looks at hard-hitting issues. Just because they were off on their cover absolutely does not mean they were off on content. 

The summer issue came out today, so I highly suggest that everybody goes out and picks up a copy. Besides it being a really good read, it’s important (especially now!) to support feminist media.

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  • Jenna @ at 10:49 pm, August 4th, 2009

    People need to get out of this victim mindset. It was a pose intended to go with the theme of the magazine – balancing her problems. The political correctness in this country is really getting annoying. It’s one thing to be against dropping ethnic slurs, but to get so upset over a magazine cover is pathetic.

  • Shelby @ at 12:03 am, August 5th, 2009

    I’ve heard that a lot lately–political correctness being referred to as “annoying”–and I have to completely disagree. While Ms. Magazine didn’t intend to be in any way iconoclastic or offensive to Hinduism, it was irresponsible of the publication to allow such an image (one that clearly mirrors a Hindu deity) onto the cover of the issue.

    As a feminist, I often hear that I’m being overly-sensitive, or too politically correct, when I show concern for issues that others don’t. While I may not celebrate Hinduism, I certainly wouldn’t belittle a Hindu’s concerns over the image. And I would never be so insensitive as to refer to their concerns as “pathetic”.

    Likewise, when Jessica Simpson recently used the term “Indian giver”, I spoke up about it. Was I being annoyingly politically correct? I don’t think so. I think it’s our responsibility, as progressive women (and men!), to challege disparaging remarks (or images) when made (or printed). Thanks, Julie, for bringing this to our attention.

  • Jenna @ at 4:47 pm, August 6th, 2009

    Indian giver is a term that’s been around forever. In fact, the it refers to the way white people would make bargains with the Indians and then take stuff back.

  • Jo @ at 8:34 am, August 7th, 2009

    I don’t know if I agree or disagree with you but I just wanted to state my opinion. No one other than Indians can actually like or follow the Indian culture. Well I guess you could if you believe that women aren’t human beings and exist solely to serve men.

    I’m not saying this in a racist context, I’m saying this because I am Indian and I know what the culture is like.
    You may get a million Indians saying that their culture does not oppress women, but it does!

    I think people thinking they like India or want to be like Indians just because they saw some silly movie means nothing. The movie did not show anything about Indian culture nor does it have to do anything with Indian culture.

    If the movie did have anything to do with culture
    - the guy would have never come on Who wants to be a Millionaire
    - The girl will still be a prostitute
    SAy that she did get out of prostitution like she did and got married to someone
    - She will NEVER leave her husband for another man even if her husband abuses her. NEVER.

  • Radhika @ at 6:30 pm, January 7th, 2010

    Am I the only one who doesn’t find appropriation racist? The entire English language is based upon “appropriation” of Latin, Greek, German, Spanish, French…should I go on? Taking aspects of other cultures that someone likes is a form of cultural exchange. And I think it’s hilarious that P.C. liberal whites are the ones getting their panties in a bunch about a culture both they and their detractors know precious little.

    Cultures were meant to be exchanged and shared. The fact is that cultures are open, dynamic, fluid, and constantly taking influences from other cultures. They always have and they always will.

    Jo, are you joking? I’m Indian, too, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire was insanely popular in India. (“Kaun Banega Crorepati,” that was the name, actually. Hosted by Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan…both huge Bollywood stars.) Would the popularity of Western clothing, the English language, and American game shows in India be another example of cultural appropriation?

    Also, you’re correct about certain aspects of Indian culture – but those same things apply to Western cultures as well. There are plenty of people who don’t appear on game shows, that are sex workers, and those that are afraid to leave abusive relationships all over the world. That’s what feminism is about.

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