Tag Archives: women

It was a fine day to go out on the water.

Fortunately, a tugboat made itself available for landlubber sightseeing.

We would view New York Harbor as we had never viewed it before. And believe me, we had viewed it before plenty of times. Once, even, on a tugboat, in fog so dense you could have been sailing in any harbor.

Walking to the South Street Seaport, along Peck Slip, you could almost inhale the atmosphere of past days when the first ferry in the city opened and you had to pay three wampum beads to get on. You got the attention of the ferryman by blowing a shell horn. The cobblestones may not be the originals, but they’re close to it. People steal them so the powers that be are always having to replace them.

The last surviving New York-built wooden tugboat, W. O. Decker, may have charm and historic panache, but something it lacks is an array of handholds to grip when you hit the swells. Before we climbed aboard, we got a briefing from Fern Hoffman, the captain. She got her accreditation from the Coast Guard, which she told me is like the DMV for sailing.

The Deckers have a long history of tugboat building. The W.O. Decker was built in 1930 in Queens. Apparently the family is still in the business. The tug was built for shifting barges and for local towing.

Things got tricky almost immediately. You had to descend a gangway to one ship, then cross one ship’s deck, climb a step and clamber down into the tug. You could see the harbor water down between the two vessels. It would be a good way to crush a leg or two. I balked, but the deckhands gave me a boost and we were good to go.

One of the deckhands, noting that I was a bit rocky, advised that it would be good to stay at the bow of the ship, so as not to feel the waves with as much violence. You can sit on the “bits,” I think she said, pointing to some metal knobs jutting up from the deck.

Yes, but. I would prefer not to, in the words of Bartleby. I’d rather stay glued to the bulkhead.

The Statue obliged as we cruised by. White sails, a tall ship, dozens of jet skis driven by the clinically insane.

So did Lower Manhattan.

This view pretty much defines chockablock.

It was good to take a breather in the saloon, and I wanted to abscond with one of the cups hanging from a beam but refrained.

The innards.

I would have liked to unroll the nautical charts stashed in the bridge.

A woman at the wheel.

She really pulled that thing, backing into the harbor as we got home.

Nicely done, said Gil.

There’s still time to mess up, she said with a grin.

I knew what she was talking about. But I needn’t have worried. My egress from the boat was 100 times more graceful than the onboard had been. Back on Peck Slip, I ruminated on a lesson I’d learned somewhere along the way: Walking on cobblestones improves your balance.

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A skateboard makes all the difference.

A bus shelter ad went up on 187 Street. A fresh-faced young women in pastels, a fanny pack at her waist, a skateboard flipped up in front of her feet. And a hajib. She looks like she’s having a ball.

The company behind the ad, Modanisa, touts itself as modern. It  offers all sorts of outfits, from evening gowns to track suits. The on-line catalog offers muted tones, flat black, stark white. What they have in common: a head covering.

Occasionally Muslim women sway down the sidewalk of the Bronx,  sometimes wearing light colors, sometimes black, some wearing the head scarfs called hijabs, others partly covering their faces with nigahs, others dressed head to toe in black (or blue) burqas with a mesh over the face so that some visibility is possible.  What does the world look like through a mesh screen, I wonder.

The practice of covering women’s heads is so widespread and variable in many countries that it is almost difficult to describe the practice. Basically, head or body coverings are worn by Muslim women in many countries as a sign of modesty. 

There have been fights over the right to wear burqas over recent years. Many countries, including, famously, France, banned the hajib around 5 years ago in public buildings and in schools. Syria and Egypt ban face veils in school. Remember the controversy over the “burgini”? Should women all wrapped up fit in on the beach? Nike has a version.

Others – Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Switzerland, just for a start– have banned the burqa, though not the hajib.

On the other hand, enlightened countries such as the U.S etc., turn a blind eye on the issue of covering up women, saying they are all for freedom of religion. But who created and runs  and enforces the rules of the religious that requires women to cover up? Men.of course. Men invented “modesty”. Burqas cannot be found in the Kuran. The necessity of covering up seems to be a male construct. 

The common denominator of all these types of covering is hair. Why is hair so threatening? Why does modesty absolutely require covering it? Because that’s what it seems to come down to. Men can’t be allowed to lay eyes on the hair of a women who “belongs” to another man. Hair is powerful, indeed. Hair is life.

Afghanistan and Iran are the worst offenders. Look at the history of Iran. Two slogans of the 1979 revolution: “Wear a veil, or we will punch your head,” and “Death to the unveiled.” In February 2018, Iranian Police released an official statement saying that any women found protesting Iran’s compulsory veiling code would be charged with “inciting corruption and prostitution,” which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

In Afghanistan, as is apparent whenever you watch the evening news, the Taliban are heavily invested in the burqa.

When the Taliban retreated a decade ago, women continued to wear it out of concern for their safety, actually afraid that if they dressed in street clothes physical harm would come to them. The burqa became a symbol of the conservative and totalitarian Taliban rule.

And, if a woman isn’t covered up enough, there is an even more startling version called the Gulf Burqa, a metallic-looking fashion mask mainly worn in the Persian Gulf, and said to indicate that the wearer is married.

Are we so different? America used to have unwritten dress codes for women. Until just about the Roaring Twenties, dresses brushed your slippers and any glimpse of an ankle was scandalous, verboten.

The ankle was seductive and had to be hidden.

In the nineteenth century, upward of the ground, bustles amplified the butt.

Crinoline hoops, the precurson to the bustle, had already made it difficult to sit down. It is said that doorways had to be widened to allow the voluminous bell-shaped skirts entry to a room.

In the days of chamber pots, I have often wondered, how did a woman wad up all that fabric to do her business?

Going to the beach was really raunchy. Bathing suits included boots.

Bicycles, in part, changed women’s dress. At the turn of the 20th century, everyone went bike-crazy. For men, it was easy-on, easy-off, and  you were suddenly free with the wind in your hair. For women, not so fast. All that heavy cotton pique draped over the pedals, the wheels. And women really wanted to ride – they were’t going to be left behind. Bloomers, born in this era, offered a solution, although they were greeted with some scorn.

Women had a liberty of movement they hadn’t had before. They had ceased being covered up. 

It took time for actual  trousers to come around for most U.S. women. Even as late as the sixties, sixth grade marked the last year we were required to wear dresses in my local public school. Katherine Hepburn and a few other social icons put on pants before the rest of their gender, sounding the alarum that such a mode of fashion wouldn’t damn you to hell for being “immodest”.

Now the spectrum has swung the other way, with people like Britney Spears unfairly beaten up for her clothing choices – for her to reveal her bosom now is the equivalent of her great-great-grandmother showing an ankle. Rihanna has a lingerie line with some fetching numbers. She has the power to inspire other people to dress immodestly.

We are breaking out of our burqas.You can really go down the rabbit hole with Modanisa, which is based in Turkey – which doesn’t require head coverings – and reaches 16 million people a month on its web site. Their statement of purpose: “ to meet modest women’s desire to wear the clothes that fit the life and times they live in.”

 First, as you click through the site, you freak out with their more traditional items, then you see the burkini.

Then you see that they actually have uncovered models’ heads to display their activewear.

I didn’t see a skateboard on the Modanisa site. You have to provide your own. Yet that, too, is a possibility, even in Afganistan, if countries like the United States stop coddling the men who repress women in the name of religion.

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Pretty in pink

is not just a creaky old John Hughes movie. Pink has become the ethos, the philosophy, the dream and the religion for girls of the elementary school age and under. Until they betray pink for purple…

This conclusion will not surprise anyone with eyes in their head over the past quarter century.

I’ve been told that in Japan, boys wear pink and girls blue. Not true, according to reputable sources (the interwebs). Males and females in that country do, though, apparently mix and match colors in their apparel, ignoring sex-related social constructs.

The stores on the Grand Concourse  have girl-pink stacked high.

Pink bikes beckon.

Stuffed animals present themselves as irresistable.

Magical.

Pink’s popularity for grown women grew over the 20th century, from the choices of Mamie Eisenhower to Jayne Mansfield to, jumping ahead, the Plastics in Mean Girls who dressed in pink on Wednesdays. Can we forget Hillary Clinton’s bright pink blazer?

The situation differs for small fry. They have all become princesses. Princesses are sweet, not solid. In fact, being a princess is nothing a child can aspire to. Yes, thy possess magic, but not with powers to make anything actually happen.

Why should anyone care? That toddler in her stroller, buried in fluffy pink, is so comfy, so cute!  And girls in pink grow up to be perfectly capable pink-attired woman, like this one awaiting her Covid shot.

Rainbows are everywhere now. Why not give girls the gift of choosing any color they truly desire? It would take  some counter-brainwashing, true, with all the material goods available, the clothing and toys and tutus drenched in pink. But it would be good if anyone could be pretty in any color.

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Hair is big

on the Grand Concourse. I pass at least one hair salon on every block, interspersed with supermarkets, household goods, bodegas, hookah shops and the goat restaurant.

The signs are not all for hair braiding. Straight hair gets its due.

Including this goofy martian coif.

But mainly the ads showcase braids.

Extravagant hair styling makes me think about novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s best-selling Americanah, described accurately by the New York Times as “witheringly trenchant and hugely empathetic,”  and which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2013. It’s a moving story about two people from Nigeria, one of whom comes to America and one to London. I won’t tell the rest in case you read it (and you ought to). But one thing that stands out for me in the fabric of the novel is the amount of time the main character spends in African hair braiding salons. This was foreign to me. If you read Adichie, the granular detail with which she describes having her hair done could only have come from her own experience.

Scholars of African history see the practice as many thousands of years old, with braids even etched into the back of the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza. African tribes, groups and regions adorned their heads in specific ways, not restricted to cornrows. Styles date back to at least 3000 B.C., including Ghana braids, Fulani braids, Goddess braids, Box braids and dreadlocks.

On the Concourse, there are many more images of fancy hair braiding than there are actual stylings on the street. It seems to be more aspirational, or maybe done for a special occasion.

Of course there are other origin tales besides the African. Some go back to the Venus of Willendorf, thought to be 25,000 years old and discovered in Austria in 1908. 

Just 11.1-centimeters tall, this limestone beauty  seems undeniably to have a head of cornrows. If I could steal one object from a museum, this would be it. I’d have to go to Vienna, where the Venus is exhibited in their Natural History Museum

Now for an alternative narrative, possibly apocryphal. It is said that cornrows were used to help the enslaved escape their misery. Cornrows were used to transfer information; they were maps of a sort. Benkos Bioho, a radical who lived in Columbia, South America, is said to have devised the practice in the 1500s. Bioho and ten others escaped the slave port of Cartagena and founded San Basilio de Palenque, known as the “village of maroons.” Later this became the first free village in the Americas. His reward: he was captured by the government, hanged and quartered. Before that, though, he taught braiding.

iCurved braids represented roads to be traveled to escape. Also, the enslaved hid seeds in their hair to plant crops once they reached freedom. No slaveholder would ever suspect.

It’s also said that braided hair was called “cane rows” to denote the sugar cane fields in which captive workers toiled so horrifically.

This strategy recalls the red blanket hung on the line to guide those on the underground railroad to freedom.

How much of this legacy is embedded  in the hair styles of Grand Concourse? The signs advertising braiding always looked gaudy to me. It’s good to look deeper.

 

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Venus in Ash

When the crew cuts down a tree, they lop off the upper branches first. The pruner in the bucket lowers the limbs carefully to the ground where, shaggy and brittle, they are fed into the monster of a chipper. Then the pruner glides through the air as the bucket returns to the truck.

What has captured my imagination watching tree after tree fall is what’s left standing, a chain-saw sculpted Venus to Milo. The Roman goddess of beauty, desire and ferility all covered in bark.

The Venus de Milo is widely agreed to be the work of Alexandros of Antioch. The statue is believed to depict Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, and it bears the name of Venus the Roman counterpart of Aphrodite. By the time it got to the Louvre it had been reassembled but the arms were never found.

The beautifully smooth Cycladic figurines, which are fairly numerous, came from Greece around the middle of the third millennium Bc. How often do you hold your arms crossed every day? Something so small generates so much power.

I love the even earlier Venus figures, one of which is the Venus of Willendorf.

She emerged from with all her limestone bumps and curves, evidence, say the archaeologists, of early female deity worship, dating to between 33,000 and 20,000 years ago. Austrian. Some knowledgeable people think they were self portraits. As ample as they are, they are missing one feature: feet.

They are imperfect Venuses. Aren’t we all?

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When I was a teenage seamstress I loved plain, unwashed muslin, so light and cool. Loved it so much I sewed a blouse out of it.

What I did not realize until now was the complicated past of muslin, recounted by BBC, especially Dhaka muslin, as the most expensive fabric in the world two centuries ago, before losing all its value. It took sixteen steps to manufacture it with a type of cotton that grew only along the banks of a river in holy Mehgna in Bengal. Garments of this fabric stretched back to antiquity – it was thought that gods and goddesses wore Dhaka muslin.

Something I have always loved are the names of different fabrics. In the 18th century New York you could buy lutestring(fine silk), armozine (strong corded silk), baize (coarse wool), cypress ( cobweb-thin silk for mourning clothes), erminetta, ferrandine, gingerline, hum-hum, a kind of calico named “harlequin moth”. Colors had colorful names: yes there were pink and cinnamon, but can you summon up “flystale” or “mousecolored.”

Dhaka muslin had its own lore. It was said that it was so light and thin, you could keep a 60 foot piece in a snuffbox, or thread a sari through a wedding ring.

At some point Dhaka muslin began being sewn into saris for Indian women, and then the fashion jumped the ocean to become very risqué gowns for ladies. Marie Antoinette and Empress Josephine were fans. But weirdly, Dhaka muslin had disappeared by the early 20th century. Somehow, the cotton used to make it died out, along with the techniques for weaving it.

It’s easy to see why. This is from the BBC article that taught me everything I know about Dahka muslin: “ First, the balls of cotton were cleaned with the tiny, spine-like teeth on the jawbone of the boal catfish, a cannibalistic native of lakes and rivers in the region. Next came the spinning. The short cotton fibres required high levels of humidity to stretch them, so this stage was performed on boats, by skilled groups of young women in the early morning and late afternoon – the most humid times of day. Older people generally couldn’t spin the yarn, because they simply couldn’t see the threads.”

As for weavers, they were treated as geniuses. The miraculous stuff came in thread counts of 1,200. Then the British tried to horn in on the trade, and their muslin just didn’t rank. On to America, and cotton!

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A true Amazonia

Matriarchies are a thing of the past.

Not.

A photographer with a wonderful eye travelled to the remote Estonian islands of Kihru and Manja in the Baltic Sea, where she spent time with a community of women, who collectively kept things together while their men went to fish. All elderly, all strong, they inhabited a world that had remained the same for ages. The photographer is Anne Helene Gjelstad, and her book is Big Heart, Strong Hands (published by Dewi Lewis).

Vahtia Helju, 2008

This female stronghold is sometimes pestered by tourists, but Vahtia Helju does not mind posing with her favorite cow.

We all know that the Amazons of Rome were mythical, and the same could be said of the women who dominated Basque culture at one point, Celtic, various indigenous peoples — well, all over the world, actually. But if you’re so sure it’s all fantasy, go to Estonia.

Jarsumae Vive

Jarsumae Vive at the age of 81 decided to take up skydiving. At that age, men have often already died. Women persist, to conduct their lives as they always have. When they pass away, here in Estonia, they are grieved by their sisters, and carried out the door feet first.

Kolski Leiday, recently deceased

Do you have mothers or grandmothers who have gone on past the point when anyone thought they would? The difference here is community, the love that keeps them going. And a favorite dairy cow.

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Honoring the Chipko

Probably for a lot of people reading Richard Powers’ powerful, Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory, the term tree hugger might come to mind. Some of the book is set during the Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest, and a few of the characters actually spend days, weeks, months (as I recall) at the top of one of the giants out there.

Richard Powers and his best-selling book

It’s funny, the longer it’s been since I put the book down, the more I like it. It’s got some indelible characters and a shattering ending, and if you haven’t read it go do so now.

One thing the novel is short on is history, deep history. I think this being Women’s History Month it’s only right to honor the original tree huggers, 294 men and 69 women belonging to the Bishnois branch of Hinduism who took it upon themselves to protect the trees in their village from being carved up for a palace and were massacred by foresters. They literally clung to the trees, and died for their bravery. Happy ending, the government decreed there would be no tree cutting in any Bishnoi village, and now the place is a happy green oasis amid an otherwise barren landscape.

That story sounds like it might be a little burnished by time. But the next chapter of tree huggerism is indisputable.

Chipko women

A group of peasant women in the 1970’s in the Himalayan hills of northern India took inspiration from those earlier tree huggers when they fought to have the trees in the vicinity preserved, throwing their arms around the trunks to do so. This was the Chipko movement. “Chipko” means “to cling” in Hindi. They had success; before long there was a tree felling moratorium in Himalaya. The tactic, called tree satyagraha, had spread across India and forced reforms.

Women did it. It worked. It happened to be trees they were protecting, but that smart, vigilant, protective, determined spirit can be admired throughout history and up to the present as we celebrate Women’s History Month. Let’s make it Women’s History Year. Or why put any boundaries on it? Let’s just say History and always highlight the achievements of women.

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