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Hadani Ditmars

Rationalising the male gaze: From brutalised bunnies to demonised niqabis

Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire exploited the objectification of women to sell 'sexual revolution' [Getty]

Date of publication: 6 October, 2017

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Blog: Covered or revealed, the female body is merely an object when it comes to the eyes of the patriarchy, writes Hadani Ditmars.
In the same fraught fortnight, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner passed away, and the Austrian parliament voted in favour of banning the burqa.

Unrelated events you may say? Not according to legendary Egyptian feminist and writer Nawal el-Sadawi who once wrote "plastic surgery is a post-modern veil".

But beyond mere patriarchy, as horror stories of abuse and harassment emerge from the Playboy mansion, and as Austrian male police force devout Muslim women wearing niqab to strip in public, the events are connected in other ways.


Forced covering, forced removal

After all, the same white middle-aged male baby-boomers who helped normalise Hefner's Barbie doll/sex-toy/surgically-enhanced objectification of women often take the Islamophobic "moral high ground" when it comes to Muslim women - acting as self-appointed white male "saviours". In both cases, women's agency is removed.

There is of course a long historical precedent for the forced removal of the veil - from Ataturk and the Shah of Iran, whose police, like their current Austrian counterparts, would stop women in the street and force their unveiling - often violently tearing them off.

Russian soldiers participating in the brutal invasion of Afghanistan would rape Muslim women in the name of "liberating" them.

Hefner's Playboy mansion-sized contribution to rape culture did the same.

From 1970s porn star Linda Lovelace - who recounted in her autobiography Ordeal (subtitled: Good Girl. Obedient Wife. Porn Slave) being "pimped out" to Hefner by an abusive partner and being forced to engage in degrading acts - to Hef's ex-girlfriend Holly Madison, whose memoir Down the Rabbit Hole recounted routine pressure to consume quaaludes, Bill Cosby's alleged rape drug of choice, Hefner's much touted "sexual liberation" is hardly the truth. 

Although models complained they were harassed by advertisers, Playboy allowed the abuse to continue because it was good for business

In 1985 two former playmates - Miki Garcia and Brenda MacKillop - testified to the Meese Commission on Pornography over abuse at the Playboy mansion.

According to a local paper - The Sun Sentinel - which reported on their testimony, "Garcia, 40… was told by models about rapes, mental and physical abuse, attempted murder, drug addiction, attempted suicide and prostitution."

The newspaper also reported: "Although models complained they were harassed by advertisers, Playboy allowed the abuse to continue because it was good for business, Garcia charged, saying that Playboy's attitude is: 'You are now a playmate. Don't be so stuffy. It's all right to do this. It's LA chic.' She falls prey to this."

Austria recently banned the niqab, despite the country
having fewer than 200 wearers [AFP]

Tyranny dressed as liberation?

Intriguingly, in Austria, the new ban on the burqa hardly "liberates" the handful of women it targets, whose imagined "oppression" is increasingly a choice.

One Ottawa woman in a 2013 survey conducted by Canadian University professor Lynda Clark said, "The reason I am starting [wearing] the niqab is that I am seeing in society that there is an oversexualisation of women and women's bodies. Once I started [wearing the] niqab, I felt more comfortable, and it was a sort of barrier to stop the advances."

Today, says Carla Amina Bhagajati of the Islamic Religious Community in Austria, these women "now are criminalised and... restricted to their homes".

Perhaps they can relate just a little bit to what life at the Playboy mansion is like. Madison writes in her memoir of strictly controlled early evening curfews, no guests allowed, permission required to venture anywhere without Hefner - and forced unprotected group sex.

The whole scenario reminds me of stories of the Sultan of Brunei, who, like many sultans, shared more of Hefner's "values" than with the sharia law he applied in 2014 to appease growing domestic fundamentalism.

Jillian Lauren, author and former mistress of the Sultan's brother Jefri, who penned the bestselling memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem, wrote in The Daily Beast of the new sharia laws governing alcohol, adultery and homosexuality: "One drunken evening in the early '90s, the Sultan and I committed at least two of the aforementioned offences as we looked down on the lights of Kuala Lumpur from a penthouse suite."

Liberation: More than miniskirts

As al-Sadawi so deftly noted when she wrote of the veil and plastic surgery being the same patriarchal mask, actual liberation is not measured in what women wear or by their outward appearance.

Women in pre-revolutionary Iran were not liberated simply because they wore mini-skirts. They still had to deal with the same issues of harassment, discrimination and wage parity that women did after the revolution. In fact it was Ayatollah Khomeini who introduced comprehensive subsidised birth control in the 1980s.

Although much of this was reversed under Ahmadinejad - it still looks pretty good to American women under Trump, especially those in Missouri who can now be fired legally if they use birth control.

When Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed Hugh Hefner in 1967, he told her that the ideal playmate was a young, happy, simple girl - not a "difficult" one - likely a description that would please the likes of Ahmadinejad and Trump - not to mention a whole generation of men who came of age longing for JD Salinger's deaf mute girl in the cabin, the unsurprising inspiration for a recent slasher movie.

Fallaci would later go on to interview Ayatollah Khomeini - whose revolution was initially supported by feminists and progressives before they were betrayed - and infamously tear off her own veil, calling it a "medieval rag". 

Pornography (both Western and home-grown) and, increasingly, plastic surgery are of course very popular in many Muslim majority countries where women still struggle to secure their rights

Apparently the Ayatollah just laughed it off. I wonder what would have happened to her if she'd worked as a bunny and refused Hef's advances?

Unsurprisingly, both Islamic scholars and Islamophobic pundits have commented on links between the Islamic State group - with their snuff film fantasies - and pornography. And pornography (both Western and home-grown) and, increasingly, plastic surgery are of course very popular in many Muslim-majority countries where women still struggle to secure their rights.

I imagine that if some former playmates ever banded together with some of the niqabi women in Austria currently being targeted by police, they'd have a lot to talk about.

Covered or revealed, the female body is the same object when it comes to the male gaze. To pretend that daddy knows best is merely to perpetuate the same patriarchy - whether it is the attitude of the Austrian state, Islamic State clerics - or would be American sultans.

In a place that apparently terrifies many grown men, somewhere out there - between the brutalised bunnies and the demonised niqabis - there is a space for a whole woman.

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone: a Woman's Journey Through Iraq. A former editor at New Internationalist, she has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades. Her next book, Ancient Heart, is a political travelogue of Iraqi heritage sites.

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

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