Interview of Mineke Schipper by Swara Shukla

Mineke Schipper is Emeritus Professor of Intercultural Literary Studies at the University of Leiden. She taught at the Université Libre du Congo and has held visiting professorships in Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and China. She has a Royal Order of Knighthood for ‘building intercultural bridges nationally and internationally, inside and outside the academy’ from The Netherlands. She continues her scholarly work at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS).

She is the author of several academic books, essays and novels, including Naked or Covered: A History of Dressing and Undressing Around the World (2017) and Imagining Insiders: Africa and the Question of Belonging (1999). For her internationally acclaimed non-fiction book Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet: Women in Proverbs from Around the World she received the Eureka Award in 2005 for best non-fiction book.

 

  1. In texts like Naked or Covered, you explore cultural connotations of clothes. From your experiences living in multicultural societies, do you feel there is a sense of anxiety associated with clothes as a means to preserve one’s cultural and/or religious identity?

Yes, I think so. We all feel the need to belong to a group, and are provoked by shame and embarrassment when deviating from our favourite group(s); being confronted with outsiders leads to questioning one’s own looks and outfit, and to anxiously wondering whether “they are right and I am a loser.”

If we look at history, we can identify two frequent reactions – trying to assimilate with a possibly powerful group, or protesting and going against it. I lived in Congo for six years, teaching at the Free University of Congo. My PhD thesis was on African novels, focussing on images of Europeans in the novel: what do Africans say about “us”. As history teaches us, two main reactions to colonisation were, on the one hand, anger/protest against Europeans, and on the other, assimilation with western traditions. Feelings of not being accepted by other cultural groups may result in bitterness and the eagerness to assert one’s own superiority.  The same holds for religions, or for feminism: out of a sense of anger, one may develop the tendency to praise oneself or one’s own group without any self-criticism, while depicting “the other” as inferior and despicable.

All of these responses are provoked by insisting on differences. Insisting on one’s own identity as superior makes us forget what we share as human beings. Today society seems obsessed with appearance (largely supported by advertising and social media); the danger is that this obsession with appearance results in sexualizing society more than before. Among believers that promote the idea of group honour and live in fear of individual deviation, women (much more than men) may be forced to cover themselves according to rules that had been imposed many centuries ago in completely different circumstances.

Human imagination continues no less to project subconscious desires and fantasies onto other people’s bodies and one’s own. Wherever the body is largely covered, the desirous look first goes to the face, before moving down to the covered parts. There is a revealing old Jewish saying: “A woman’s closed mouth means a closed (i.e. chaste) vagina.” Of course, the reverse would suggest that opening one’s mouth equates with an “open” vagina. This line of thought corresponds with the Islamic saying that a wide mouth means a wide vagina. Similarly, there’s a Greek saying that goes: “A woman’s most beautiful ornament is her silence. Unfortunately she rarely wears it.” In other words, just covering and/or decent clothing isn’t enough, as long as this widespread fear of women’s presence in the public space is hanging around; especially her speaking in public is traditionally considered unbearable in many societies. As far as lack of covering or lack of silence is concerned, many societies easily jump to conclusions about women’s sexuality. In terms of men’s outfits, such questions seem to have preoccupied cultures considerably less. Societies afraid of or reluctant towards opening up are of course aware that change means sharing privileges.

  1. In recent times, debates and discourses on women’s sexuality, and their right to their own bodies have become significant. A key aspect of these, I think, is being able to choose what to wear. Given the often rigid framework of religion, society, and culture that clothing is rooted in, how important and/or challenging do you think it is to break away from these precepts?

What is your aim in wearing what you are wearing? The more freedom you have, the more responsibility you have. In my book Naked or Covered, published with Speaking Tiger Books, I have referred to the psychologist J.C. Flügel, who argues that  every human has this dilemma; whether to show oneself in “full glory” – either naked or dressed – or to completely hide oneself, fearing the risk of shame, disapproval, and guilt. Yes, we should get to make our choices in terms of showing or hiding. But we tend to pay critical attention to each other’s public opinion, and are inclined to believe that others should preferably stick to our rules and respect our taboos.

If, for example, we go to the office – what is the aim? Ideally, shouldn’t it be enough to possess skills and qualities that are relevant to your work? Or do we believe that our success will mainly depend on an impressive outfit? The link between freedom and respect is an important one while pushing boundaries of freedom.

  1. I am quite interested in your exploration of the idea of nakedness and exposure vis-à-vis women’s bodies. As you mention in your work, they are relative and contextual terms. However, the ideas of “obscenity” and “indecency” are potentially associated only with women’s bodies, which are – if I may say so –almost universally under scrutiny. Do you agree with this? Have you drawn a larger conclusion on how society perceives the male body in the diverse cultural spaces you have explored?

History indeed provides examples of male indecency. As I mention in Naked or Covered, in humanity’s decision to start covering, the penis seems to have been the first body part in need of hiding. Amongst the Bakairi – a people living in the Xingu area in central Brazil – men started tying a small string around their hips from puberty to neutralize their erections: an uncontrollable erection in public made a man ridiculous. As from puberty, the penis was put upwards along the underbelly; the foreskin was stretched and pulled over the glans, and firmly tied beneath the hip girdle. So the first human garment was a simple string and was meant for a man to avoid uncovered glimpses of the acorn.

Peter Ucko, a British anthropologist who undertook a comparative study of penis sheaths around the world, has stated that these garments developed in all sorts of forms and shapes; they were even ornamented with pearls sometimes. This reflects a significant ambivalence – the garment was meant to hide the penis on one hand and on the other, huge and impressive shapes of this garment drew attention. This is a good example of the ambivalence of covering oneself.

To give you another example of male dress being considered scandalous; in the European Middle Ages, a new fashion called the ‘codpiece’ was introduced, inspired by the bulging protrusion in the soldier’s armour – itself meant to be an extra protection suggesting virility. The new look included stockings attached to a small piece of cloth in the same colour so that the result was pronounced, bulging tights or trousers. Clergymen denounced the article as being introduced by the devil, stating that anyone wearing it would end up in the flames of hell. This, again, exemplifies supposed “obscenity” of male bodies.

  1. I am also interested in the veritably subversive idea of using nakedness as a means of protest – especially protests against rape. Would you say there is an element of desexualizing the female body that is inherent in protests like these? Since there is an external gaze involved in sexualizing women’s bodies, is it alternatively an effective means to direct and regulate this gaze?

The idea of naked protest is very old – stemming from old magic rituals in various cultures in different parts of the world. In a society used to covering itself, a public state of nakedness is an obvious statement. In various societies around the world, the ultimate female protest was women undressing themselves and going naked. In Nigeria, women explained this action by stating that they were putting a ban on the male, arguing that being the ones who gave the men life, they were now taking it back. Revealing their genitals in public was a means of power. The Chinese had the same kind of magic belief wherein female priestesses walked naked on the barren earth in times of drought to provoke rain from the heavens or even succeeded in scaring off the enemy’s army; again, an idea rooted in the power of giving life. A Tunisian woman recently posted a photograph of her naked breasts on Facebook, on which she had written in Arabic: “My body belongs to me, and no one’s honour depends on it”. Patriarchal notions state that women’s bodies are properties of men. Through naked protests, women provoke different reactions in men – agreement, amusement, enormous fear that is sometimes translated into anger over one’s excitement; embarrassment, shame, even aggression and hate. These stem from men’s growing awareness of the inevitable loss of privilege in the 21st century.

  1. Although I am generally opposed to stereotyping, I sometimes see it as a necessary evil – stemming from an effort to understand cultures that one might not have proximity to. What is your take on this?

I believe stereotyping is very human, because we cannot take into account everything around us. We are always at danger of putting people against each other, though. To take another example from Naked and Covered; in colonial times, the French represented the Arabs as people guided by their instincts, and at present, the Arab world is blaming the West for being the place where instincts rule.  Whenever we are stereotyping, we should also be aware of the fact that people we are stereotyping stereotype us too.

Europeans have, for example, had certain stereotypes about Africans being generally lazy. In my research about African novels, I found that Africans depicted Europeans as being lazy, because Africans did all the work for them. Certain western stereotypes included Europeans being anxious about sexually potent Africans taking away “their European women”; Africans, on the other hand, blamed Europeans for taking African women and children for obscene and immoral sexual reasons. In fact the mutual stereotypes looked quite alike.

Comparing our intercultural stereotyping – bringing stereotypes from different communities and cultures together – can help us overcome our own stereotypes and develop more mutual understanding instead of more conflicts. Spaces like talk shows and even The Bombay Review can help reach out and create platforms to bring together people from different cultures, and discuss covert stereotypes. By talking to each other about our mutual othering, we can also find out what we share. Shared stereotypes can give us an opening to find out what we share as humans.

In my research while collecting proverbs for my book, Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet – another Speaking Tiger publication – my experience was that talking about proverbs, the smallest literary genre that humanity has, immediately connected me to people from diverse cultures and countries, wherever I met them. Talking to women in the market, sitting next to an Imam in an aeroplane, or in conversations with taxi-drivers in a diverse range of cities – I discussed proverbs with lots of people for more than 10 years –  I found out how much we share across societies. All over the globe, proverbial messages are mainly from a male perspective; in almost all societies, for example, women are ideally expected to be younger and smaller so that the man can literally look down at her whereas she has to look up at him. She is also expected to have less education. It is a metaphor of defeat. The title is taken from a proverb in the Sena tribe in Malawi and Mozambique; “Never marry a woman with bigger feet than your own.” The Telugu have a similar proverb, with the same basic emotions, same fears, and rooted in body-shaming. So, I believe we can connect to each other by what we share, but as humans in daily life we seem to insist more on differences. Comparing proverbs about sex and gender issues from around the globe are an important yardstick for all of us to find out to what extent we are ourselves still brainwashed by a varied traditional gender chorus that even today may look strangely familiar. In order to change formerly accepted mentalities, we first need to get back to our underlying thoughts and beliefs.

  1. How significant and relevant would you say the field of intercultural studies is, especially in a time today that is fraught with intolerance, prejudices, and racial biases?

Very relevant! I think it helps each of us as individuals to find out what we share as opposed to what we don’t. When Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet was translated into Arabic, students there had asked me, “do you really like us?” Questions like these stem from ideas about others being arrogant and feeling superior towards us. This book is my most translated all over the world: it means that people in all continents do recognise these traditional messages. Studying proverbs about women has helped me become aware of the human universals that we share; not just the shape of our bodies as men or women, but also some fundamental needs (such as shelter, food, sex and procreation) and basic emotions (such as fear and love). If we forget feeling superior/inferior because we are different, we’d find it easier to connect on this one and only fragile planet we are sharing.

As I illustrate through a Chinese story in Naked or Covered – it is important to critically reflect on our own cultural perspectives. In the story, a man has lost his axe, and he suspects his neighbour. He feels that the neighbour looks like a thief, smiles like a thief, and walks like a thief. Then he finds his axe back in his own garage; the neighbour, consequently, doesn’t behave like a thief anymore, but becomes once again the familiar neighbour he always was.

  1. What research interests and concerns are you exploring presently?

I’m afraid I can’t say too much about it yet, but I am working hard on a book about a fascinating topic: the body parts that women do not share with men. Throughout history, most of the verbal comments on the female body have been transcribed in myths, tales, proverbs, and scholarly texts; almost all of them originating from male sources and perspectives (until quite recently). My material reveals so much fear hanging around between the sexes that I begin to  feel deeply sorry for humankind. The book has been scheduled for publication in Dutch by the end of September, and the English version will hopefully be ready next year.

  1. Lastly, what do you think about The Bombay Review? Any feedback, comments, or advice for us?

It looks like a very intriguing and interesting journal, enriching interest in humanities, and cultural and cross-cultural legacies. It seems to encourage curiosities on what we share and not share as humans.

My advice would be to look into and struggle with the rules that , consciously or subconsciously, we have inherited from our ancestors; question the luggage of the past that we are carrying along, without even being aware of it. I think we should constantly ask ourselves which part of this cherished or no-longer-cherished legacy we want to pass on to the next generation. As superior as our own traditions are believed to be, The Bombay Review can question the how and why. Or, as Never Mary a Woman with Big Feet concludes: “In order to define where we want to go and where we do not want to go as men and women today, we first of all need to know where we come from.”