Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rockclimbing and default speakers.

In our sexuality class we had been discussing how the man has usually been seen as the 'default' human being, and the woman is the aberration, or the man 'modified'. For example, medical research on the signs and symptoms of a heart attack was done only on male subjects, with the assumption that women would show the same signs. However, this was later found to be inaccurate, since women show different signs of a heart attack.

While this concept of man as the default human was explained as having originated and continued from Western thought in a specific century (18th if I remember correctly), I can't deny that this way of thinking is prevalent among people I know i.e. young Malays, Muslim Singaporeans.

As I was pondering this androcentric concept in class I recalled an incident about five years ago which highlighted the absurdity of this way of thinking. I was helping out with a youth group from a mosque that was holding a rockclimbing workshop for young teenagers, to help raise their self-confidence, team-building skills, etc. In so many of these Islamic events and group activities, boys or men are often taken as the default speakers for the entire group. I get the impression that female speakers are often 'added on' to give the perspective of Muslim women, or to address only the women (this probably has roots in some hadith or obscure law that I don't know about so I won't comment on it).

So it was time to demonstrate to the mixed-but-physically-gender-segregated of boys and girls how to wear a harness. If you don't know what a rockclimbing harness looks like:


And because somehow it would have seemed improper to ask a girl to demonstrate how to wear the harness in front of a mixed group, especially because it entailed having to open her legs (!) in public, a guy was asked to do it. Somehow, no one thought that seeing a male-related bulge in the middle of the harness would be improper for the entire group. Because, well, the man is the default, and he speaks for everyone.

The rest of the workshop also had other absurd moments, such as when some of the girls were upset that while they were climbing the wall, the male instructors had come over to help cheer them on or shout out tips as to which foothold to get next. Why were they upset? They felt that the male instructors were looking at their butts.

I have done sports in mixed-gender, mixed-religious, and mixed-ethnicity groups, and I keep getting this feeling over and over again. I keep feeling that in a situation where the greater the social control in terms of dressing or behaviour, the more a small transgression (or perceived transgression) can be seen as aggressive. For example, when girls wearing a headscarf run around playing and the wind blows to expose a bit of chest (still covered with clothes!) or neck (le gasp!), the girl herself or her peers can feel especially exposed, than if all of them were to run around in T-shirts and long pants.

In the rockclimbing incident I started out talking about, the heightened awareness of gender segregation made some girls feel that the guys coming over were looking at them - why else would the guys come over? It was difficult to think that perhaps they just wanted to know how the girls (their friends, and in some cases, their siblings even) were getting on.

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