I lost my footing on the treadmill when I found the Asian Pole Summit ad in the Expat KL Magazine, which targets expats in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a Muslim country in Southeast Asia. My first thoughts as an American feminist were that the summit represents an unusual tolerance for female sexual expression, or maybe it’s not so different in this culture from belly dancing. Egyptian women once danced me under the table at a women-only party, but then I consider our proximity to the "lady sex" industry in Bangkok where erotic dance is more empowering to pimps than the dancers. Then I noticed the ad's Simone de Beauvoir quote, “one is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
The appropriation of this second wave feminist cornerstone made me ask “What is a woman--in Malaysia?" Beauvoir’s idea that “women” are a social construct threatens to crumble the Islamic gender norms, which circumscribe dress (even though the hijab is optional here), rights, and behavior. I let local women answer for themselves whether and how they feel might feel oppressed, but in any case the Asian Pole Summit’s audience lives in a society whose majority subscribes to strict gender norms and where men can take a two-hour flight and get all the pole dancing they want. In such a context, to tell women that they can empower themselves via a weekend of “killer workouts” and “exotic titillation” reduces the options for women to the virgin-whore dichotomy while doing nothing to challenge the patriarchal social structure wherein most married women have banking options that rival pre-1950s America.
This country is confused about women. Mini skirts and hijabs rival each other for majority so it feels to me that the only public woman seems to be a sexualized one, and therefore any choice a woman makes about her presentation is a response to the country’s secular-religious struggle. I wonder if female empowerment through the art of pole dancing is possible in a patriarchal society; as Andi Zeisler asks regarding do-me feminism, “If the standards and stereotypes by which girls and women are judged haven't changed, could it really be called empowerment at all?”
No doubt the Asian Pole Summit deserves kudos for its woman-centered approach and the apparent business savvy of its female leaders. The issue isn’t to pole dance or not to pole dance, but it’s a question of power and meaning. I'm not convinced that empowerment from sexy fitness will translate outside the studio's doors where a solitary woman, irregardless of race or class, is a target for robbery or abuse even in broad daylight (don’t be mislead by KL’s low statistics). Maybe the dance's power doesn't have to translate to be effective for an individual woman, but I think she might be best served learning a dance move that includes a few karate chops when she’s seduced a would-be attacker to his knees.