May 19, 2010
Senior Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazim Sadeghi declared last month during a Friday sermon in Tehran that “women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which consequently increases earthquakes.” The fact that seismologists have been predicting an imminent catastrophic earthquake in Tehran for some time makes the statement all the more dangerous. Sadeghi’s words were widely reported by a range of western media outlets; however, the most provocative reporting came from a young blogger in Indiana.
Jennifer McCreight, a self-described “liberal, geeky, perverted atheist feminist trapped in Indiana,” responded to Sadeghi’s words on her blog, Blag Hag. She suggested that women should test the cleric’s ridiculous statement by collectively wearing “the most cleavage-showing shirt [they own]…the one usually reserved for a night on the town,” to see if an earthquake would result. She dubbed the experiment: the “boobquake.” This post was picked up by the wider media and the idea quickly spiraled; the boobquake was covered by CNN and Blag Hag received almost a million unique visits and thousands of emails over a few days. On April 26, over 100,000 women, recruited through Facebook and Twitter, participated in the boobquake experiment. The scantily-clad women did not affect the statistical frequency of earthquakes.
Jennifer McCreight claims that “the majority of people – including earthquake researchers, feminists, and many Iranians – thanked me for this exercise in skepticism.” Although the exercise was, according to McCreight, “light-hearted mockery,” the reasons why this exercise was perceived as amusing are more serious: Jennifer McCreight is pointing out the absurdity of Sadeghi’s belief that earthquakes can be caused by women’s clothing (or lack thereof). However, McCreight is also pointing out the absurdity of Sadeghi’s insistence that women be dressed “modestly.” She responds to this reasoning with an act of defiance: “cleavage-showing” tops and “immodest” attire.
The boobquake is an exhibition of the western ‘liberated’ woman’s ability to choose to wear whatever she likes, which automatically establishes the oppressed Muslim woman, who is forced (by men such as Sadeghi) to wear “modest” clothing, as the antithesis to this. This overlooks the fact that some Muslim women who dress modestly do indeed choose to dress this way. Foreign audiences are not always in the position to decide whether these women are oppressed; the belief that no Muslim women can rise above social pressure to dress in a certain way, but western women can, is misguided. Further enraging, McCreight places this commentary within the context of “light-hearted mockery” which is far from ideal. Half-hearted mockery of men who use their authority to control female behavior and perpetuate discriminatory norms does not chastise them but rather is only a benefit to our own sense of superiority. The dichotomy of the Western/Muslim woman established by the boobquake doubly overlooks the complexity of ‘cultural’ female Muslim dress and also lacks an appreciation for the danger and impact of Sadeghi’s attitude towards women.
The boobquake assumes that our right to dress provocatively is a sign of our liberation. It pits immodesty against modesty, establishing women with the liberty to choose immodesty as the opposite to those who do not. Western women’s choice to wear revealing clothes is, ostensibly, freely made. However, our belief that these clothes “look good” is the direct result of a male-created paradigm of beauty. The male desire to see female flesh and men’s perceived right to observe our bodies create our shared standards for female beauty. This is a classic example of patriarchy embedded so deep in our consciousnesses that we do not pause question it. I do not know what feminists thanked McCreight for her experiment but they clearly need a talking to. McCreight wrote in the Guardian that, “As a scientist and a skeptic, I firmly believe that we should test claims people make, especially when they’re ridiculous.” Jennifer McCreight is a self-identified feminist and the boobquake experiment is not only pointing out Sadeghi’s questionable science; it inevitably makes a (questionable) statement about Islamic women, modesty and female liberty.
Elizabeth Donger is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.