“Walls, veils and other social norms...” (Mounira Charrad)
In Brazil, where post-modern freedoms, highly unequal opportunity structures and much discursive ambivalence regarding feminism produce a complex scenario for gender politics and change, the horsewomen I have interviewed over the course of the years see themselves as unconventional, openly or covertly challenging customs and norms that attempt to impose meanings of womanhood on everyone.*
On the other hand, the riding women I interviewed in Spain (Barcelona and Andalucía), especially those of the younger generations, tended not to see their activities in this sporting field as anything that made them stand out from other countrywomen. The patriarchal past that threw innumerous obstacles in the path of women’s choices and public sphere roles and activities is portrayed as largely overcome or surpassed. In fact, when I asked them a question that usually elicited an assertion of “difference” from Brazilian equestriennes, my Spanish interviewees would look at me with perplexity and often ask me to explain what I meant. “Different from others?? Braver than others?? No, we are all like this today”** was the response I got from one quite successful young Andalusian horsewoman - herself the only woman on a prominent equestrian team – after I had had my chance to clarify my admittedly tendentious query.
In the history of Western modernity, the passage from the Victorian or romantic era in which women were viewed as sexless bearers of a natural “virtuous” proclivity toward abnegation, service and love (but not sex) to a “post-modernity” in which ambiguous messages about women’s bodies and sexualities abound, new forms of social control emerge which, we could argue, take advantage of such ambiguities. The most difficult and paradoxical aspect of this situation is that it involves, or tends to generate, considerable complicity from women themselves, who so often desire to be exactly what contemporary hegemonic discourses tell them they should (must) be.
Some non-Western histories, it seems, have quite a different point of departure. Mounira Charrad and Fatima Mernissi have written about how traditional Islamic notions of women as sexual and dangerous underlie the institutional constructions of the “walls and veils” that are meant as material and symbolic barriers to the spaces and places where they would come into contact with men outside the closest kin circles. Western discourse has thus seized the opportunity to construct a simplifying dichotomy of “western freedoms” vs. “non-western bondage”, which – for all I have stated above and many other things that I need not repeat here – is at best, highly contentious. At any rate, as women around the non-Western world struggle to build their own idioms of emancipation - which include elements shared with Western feminism as well as particular, contextual ones – it should come as no surprise that some continue to include headscarves and protectively modest forms of bodily exposure.
*In recent (forthcoming) work, I have tried to show some of the ways in which women involved in different arenas of equestrian sport construct discourses on the body, on subjectivity and identity that pose a challenge to conventional ‘technologies of gender’, de-emphasizing historical notions of delicate, maternal or otherwise “controllable” female bodies and emphasizing such elements as strength and courage in facing risk and adventure - in ways which are radical enough to take them beyond accepted normative paths. Coupled with my informants’ discourse of physical competence, skill and bravery, was a relative lack of (openly expressed) concern for bodily appearance/perfection.
** This coincides with anthropologist Sara Pink’s comments emerging from her work on Spanish women bullfighters: “… a woman’s performance represents a statement about female body-use and body-image. The performance must be seen as a ritual statement about these notions of the female body through which it is relocated in a new position in society and culture -both physically in the bullring and metaphorically. The new body use symbolizes a new body-relationship to the rest of society by which the female body stands for not a reproducing body, but a publicly proven, physically fit body, and a successful, ‘dominating’ body."