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Don’t call her ‘exotic’

  • Published at 11:56 pm March 7th, 2019
Women from different ethnic groups are often objectified and glamourized
Women from different ethnic groups are often objectified and glamourized / MEHEDI HASAN

We need to stand with all women, regardless of race and ethnicity

Last week, when I visited Bandarban, my co-workers would occasionally exclaim: “Oh, look at these local women wearing exotic clothes and carrying heavy baskets on their backs!” 

I would pause to understand why no one found these laborious tasks that damage the spine problematic at all.  

When I tried to burst their privilege bubble, they would respond: “Well, they chose to live here in the middle of the hills.” Then it struck me that they never asked themselves why the locals would choose to not have access to things as basic as water, education, and health care. Of course, the view of the hills and the lakes were too tempting. 

Our aboriginal women are self-reliant, working both indoors and outdoors. They grow their own food, weave their own clothes, produce handicrafts, alongside climbing hills and carrying firewood. But in terms of the poverty line, nutrition levels, or education attained, indigenous women have been found to be the furthest behind.    

To understand their unique situation, it is necessary to recognize our identities are multi-layered. In Bangladesh, women are disadvantaged compared to men. Indigenous women are further marginalized, resulting in being one of the most disadvantaged groups in the country. They are prone to discrimination and sexual and gender-based violence on account of their gender, ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status.

Violence against indigenous women is commonplace, but hard-pressed to be found in the news, and demonstrate the lack of it in their everyday lives. 

Unfortunately, all these are overlooked when our women are reduced to an exotic breed. 

Exoticization is a type of stereotype often directed at ethnic groups, which objectifies and glamorizes them. Here, women from ethnic backgrounds are considered “other” or alien to the dominant majority group. It can often indeed be a racial and gendered experience. 

There are different degrees of exoticization -- I choose to believe that my colleague’s can be attributed to ignorance. It’s quite terrifying to think how the perpetual cycle of exoticization and ignorance can trap an outsider’s perception. 

You probably don’t even use the word “exotic,” but hint at it when describing the bright skin, hair, jewellery, vibrant clothes, and culture. Most see little issue in complimenting an ethnic woman with that label. For them, the phrase merely highlights the woman’s features as being different from those of women from the dominant majority.

In reality, “exotic” is a degrading term that demotes them into sub-human status, and the patriarchy is commonly at a loss to understand how.

The culture of hyper-sexualization leads to high rates of sexual assault. Perpetrators of sexual violence, particularly repeat offenders, strategically pick and choose who their victims are going to be. One of the things they look for is how well-connected this person is to the community socially. How likely are they to be believed if they were to report this to the police?

To understand the institutionally racist hyper-sexualization that exoticization induces, we need to look at the legacy of how indigenous women have been exoticized as an expression of power. They are labelled “exotic” in no way different from their land and culture. The result is a fetishization of our indigenous women, yet a dire lack of respect for them. 

More importantly, in the context of rape culture, where a man can get away with victim-blaming, exoticization adds yet another element to how our women have provoked their sexual desires. There is no accountability -- just the bestial gaze of predators.

Problems that are specific to a certain subset of women will continue to persist if the rest, who aren’t experiencing this type of discrimination, do not acknowledge them and advocate for change.

The whole purpose of Women’s Day is to stand with all women -- not just ones like yourself. Making our solidarity intersectional makes perfect sense: Our life experiences are based on how our multiple identities intermingle.

There are plenty of compliments one can give to an ethnic women, but “exotic” certainly isn’t one of them. 

Myat Moe Khaing is the co-founder of Agncy, a platform that allows workers to report working conditions to labour organizations. She can be reached at [email protected]