Women are neither pearls nor lollipops

There is no glory for women in comparing them to pearls and lollipops, says Shelina Zahra Janmohamed

Attention ladies. Are you a pearl or a lollipop? These are two analogies that are increasingly being used for women, so as to encourage them to be more modest.

Like pearls (apparently), women are beautiful creations that should be enveloped in oysters, otherwise their beauty and value will be robbed. Women are also like lollipops. Take off the wrapping and they will be swarmed by flies eager to taste their sweetness.

At first blush it sounds quite good to be compared to a pearl. The problem is that the expensive silk-smooth bauble is valued for the way it looks, and the implication for women is that we too only retain our value by being objects that are revered for the way they look.

No wonder, a woman is bought and sold on the basis of her beauty – a passive object to be traded by others.

It’s an analogy that paves the way for “fair” women to be valued and for “dark” women to have reduced social status. In other words, it robs women of their right to self-determination.

The pearl’s passive beauty is determined by the outside world. It has no power to exercise self-determination.

Men see them the way they want to – as temptresses who must be controlled for their own good. It is because of this that the imagery of the lollipop (surrounded by flies) is so offensive.

It’s not hard to understand why the analogy of the pearl locked in her oyster can lead to a Taliban-esque view of women who should be locked up at home with no education or medical care on the excuse that they should be protected from the outside world.

It’s also not hard to understand how this could lead to women being airbrushed out of the public space, political and civic arenas. There is no recognition of the variety and diversity of women.

I don’t want to be a pearl. I sometimes want to be a rock, sometimes like a wave, sometimes a cloud. Beauty is not my defining factor. I’m not an object to put in a box and be cooed at. I’m a real woman, with aspirations for self-determination, whose worth is recognisable in and of myself.

Of course, women have an inherent value, just as pearls have an inherent value. But the analogy here is erroneous, because it is particularly about hiding women away owing to their beauty or “tastiness”.

I have even bigger issues with comparing women to pearls and lollipops.

For example, why are men alluding to themselves as treasure-robbing pirates? Why should they be portrayed as flies? How offensive it is for them.

My biggest issue, however, is this: if women should act as pearls, then society must put in place the structures that underscore women as inherently valuable.

Just last week, a woman in Pakistan was stoned to death by her family for escaping a forced marriage. How is she then a pearl? Also last week, a female student in Saudi Arabia died of a heart attack, because the paramedics, who were men, refused to enter a female area. How does that reflect an honour for the value of a pearl?

To call a woman a pearl and then treat her like dirt shows that the comparison is superficial. It’s like laughing in the face of every oppressed woman. If women are not treated as valuable, then calling them pearls will change nothing.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk

Published: May 30, 2014 04:00 AM


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