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Text 5 Aug

Anonymous said: I read "my self defense looks like hate" and thought -- that's exactly how I feel when I board a plane and see Muslims! They don't understand how menacing they look in those turbans, and so dangerous! I make sure I don't talk to Arab people without my hand wrapped around the cellphone in my pocket, in case I need to quickly call 9-1-1. If only Muslims were self-conscious enough to realize that wearing a baggy sweatshirt makes me fear they have a bomb strapped to their chest. Scary, right?

Wow. This comment is so far removed from the point of my recent post “my self defense looks like hate" that I didn’t even want to respond to it. But, I am compelled to, because I trusted you with very vulnerable emotions and you, Anonymous, did the same. We’ve both bared tender—and terrifying—parts of ourselves. So I’m assuming—and I’m trying very hard not to make assumptions about you—that we have a level of trust and can have this conversation with the upmost respect for our disagreements.

I do disagree with you, Anonymous, but I also owe you a point of clarity. In my post, my goal was to expose the terror that sexism and misogyny cause to women who live in American culture—how constantly vulnerable I feel because of the stigma attached to my physical status (as “woman”). I am NOT endorsing my own patriarchal-instilled fear as a healthy lifestyle (though it is often pragmatic). The fact that I feel this fear is problematic because (1) it indicates society’s willingness to devalue my body and (2) it indicates my own willingness to stereotype a huge group of people (men) as threatening to me, personally.

What worries me about your response, and please know I respect your honesty so much, is that you have distorted my point (1). You have unconsciously moved from fear-of-the-powerless to fear-of-the-powerful. Here, I am assuming that you are an American-born citizen; that you live most of your life in the United States; and that you are probably, but not necessarily, white (as I am). Those are my only assumptions.

I have a fear that looks like hate because I am a woman, and I fear men who are, in American culture, granted power over me. This fear is both public and private; I fear men I meet on the street who may feel they can act powerfully on my body without my permission (rape, but also sexual harassment). At the same time, I fear my friends, even men who are intimate in my life, because I have watched them turn from supportive feminists to men who treat my body with disdain (again, via sexual harassment) and, though my friendship may protect me from their physical and sexual abuse, I worry that they treat female strangers with the same (or greater)careless misogyny than I have experience from male strangers. You fear Muslims who are, I assume, strangers to you, as those on airplanes. You don’t, I imagine, fear the Muslims who are your friends, as I fear men who are my friends. Your fear is public only.

And, your fear is more limited: you worry when you go on a plane, or when you see a Muslim. But remember, you are a (white?) American, living in America: the mainstream culture fears with you and reacts to your fear (ie., Patriot Act, Arizona SB 1070, greater airport security). I am a woman and the mainstream culture undermines my fear as “extremist feminism,” even while causing me more fear (ie., blame-the-victim rape court cases; gender roles that leave me powerless; every Michael Bay movie ever, not to mention the rest of Hollywood). We live in a world where terrorism is sad and is one of our biggest problems; and a world where rape is sad, but it’s somebody else’s problem.

So yes, my fear is every bit as paranoid and extreme as yours. I’m glad you were able to empathize. But the power dynamic of our fear is totally different. My fear is grounded in a recognition of my powerlessness as woman—where yours is grounded in the threat to your power as American. Muslims kill Americans occasionally. Men, good men, sincere men, men who care about me, beat, rape, joke, and devalue female bodies on a daily basis. And where your fear captures headlines, mine captures shrugs—at best, a denunciation as “raging feminist.”

We cannot live our lives in fear, you and I. We cannot let our fears prevent us from building relationships—you can’t fear every Muslim, and I can’t fear every man. We must both approach, humanize, and build friendships with the stereotype we fear. But let’s be clear about the way our fear is created by society, and how much power influences what we fear.

I call on men (and women) to create a culture of less fear for women; I do not call on all Muslims to make all Americans less afraid every time they go on an airplane. We have to learn more about Muslim AND Arab culture (they are different). For example, many of the people you see wearing turbans on the airplane may actually be Sikh. There are a lot of really difficult things feeding your emotion, and I can’t discuss all of them here, but American-Islam relations are much more complicated than Muslims “trying harder” to make “Americans” feel less scared. (I say “Americans” because I’ve never had a fear of Muslims on airplanes.)

I understand you relate to my situation but please, don’t borrow my fear to justify yours. Thanks for listening.

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