Intersectionality Saturdays: Choice in a Cultural Context

January 16, 2010 § 3 Comments

It’s been a really long while since I’ve posted on here, but I’m back for a weekly cross-post between Women’s Glib and my new blog on Jewish feminism, from the rib?. This column will focus on intersectionality – the connection of oppressions and liberation movements – and how it affects my life. Here’s edition #1:

Yesterday, I was talking to a girl in my Biology class who just returned from a semester abroad in Israel. She asked me the broadest yet incredibly popular question: “What do you think of Israel?” After living in various parts of Israel for five weeks this summer, I left more confused than when I arrived. When I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport, I was ignorant. I left realizing just how many diverse and seemingly unrelated topics there are to be ignorant about. Because of that ignorance, I like to gently lead people away from pre-supposed political answers and into topics I feel comfortable forming opinions about. These usually concern sexism and feminism.

Academically and socially, I feel authorized to speak on sexism and feminism. At times, I feel like I live and breathe books, blogs, and performances of feminist work. I am also a woman and recognize the exploitation of my own gender in the media, as well as what “society” (the largest abstraction of all) expects of me. Culturally, however, I feel like a feminist without a cause. Growing up as a white member of the middle class in liberal New York City with a mother whose income is greater than my father’s, the education of my choosing, and occasionally attending egalitarian synagogues, I am privileged and, on a superficial level, I have nothing in my own life to fight for.

So back to the conversation that got all these thoughts whirling. I redirected it to the treatment of women in ultra-Orthodox Israeli societies. While I was supposed to be researching viral causes of cancer cells, I spoke of the horrible treatment of women in education, in synagogue, and in the home. The girl in my Biology class responded that she does not see suffering amongst women in the ultra-Orthodox communities she has visited. Their roles are what they have been brought up with and it is what they want to continue with because they have never known anything else. It is their lifestyle.

My immediate response was that it is because they have not been shown an alternative. These women do not know they are oppressed because they have never experienced having equal opportunities. And then my Bio buddy threw at me one of the most provocative questions I could be asked: “How do you know your way is better?”

How do I know my way is better? I believe I know what equality is. I am proud to be a woman. I am proud to be a feminist and fight not only for my rights but for the rights of us all that are so interconnected. My way is what I have grown up with and has stemmed from the privilege I was raised with and the beliefs I have had the freedom to foster. I believe in choice and I believe that all women should be able to choose their own way in life, be it sexist or feminist through a traveler’s eyes. If a woman is happy and fulfilled singing lightly in the background of a synagogue or receiving an education different from her husband’s or forgoing occupational opportunities and chooses to do so, that is not sexist. She has chosen it for herself.

What does choice mean in a cultural context? Where is the line drawn between advocacy and – I’m going to make up a word here because we are speaking in a feminine lexicon at the moment – maternalism? How can we enforce a right to choose in communities where women do not know what choice is? And who on earth am I to say they do not know what choice is?

US Evangelicals’ Role in Uganda’s Homophobic Bill

January 4, 2010 § 1 Comment

The Times has an important article on the involvement of three US evangelicals in Uganda’s latest homophobic legislation.

The men — “Scott Lively, a missionary who has written several books against homosexuality, including ‘7 Steps to Recruit-Proof Your Child'; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay man who leads ‘healing seminars'; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, whose mission is ‘mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality'” — spoke at a conference in Uganda last March. Now some suggest that their involvement encouraged supporters of one of the most homophobic pieces legislation that has ever been proposed.

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

Now the three Americans are finding themselves on the defensive, saying they had no intention of helping stoke the kind of anger that could lead to what came next: a bill to impose a death sentence for homosexual behavior.

One month after the conference, a previously unknown Ugandan politician, who boasts of having evangelical friends in the American government, introduced the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, which threatens to hang homosexuals, and, as a result, has put Uganda on a collision course with Western nations.

The bill has received attention in the blogosphere for its horrifically homophobic human rights violations.

The article is informative, but the photos that accompany it are of trans Ugandans, and their captions discuss plans for transitioning. Obviously trans people — all people — suffer in a homophobic environment, but nowhere else does the article mention the bill’s ramifications for trans people. Do we need another reminder that trans and gay should not be conflated?

Smilla’s Sense of Snow

January 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

I spent most of the holiday vacation zipping through Smilla’s Sense of Snow, a Danish thriller by Peter Hoeg. It was published over 15 years ago but its themes of political corruption, ethnic tension, and the dangers of scientific exploration still feel relevant. The novel follows Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, daughter of a deceased Greenlandic hunter and a power-hungry Danish physician, as she uncovers the mystery behind the death of a Greenlandic child in her building in Copenhagen.

Most mystery novels revolve around men. If a woman is present in the book, she is usually a sidekick, often characterized as exotic and sensual. By the end of the novel, when the murder is solved, they have sex. (Think every one of Dan Brown’s bestsellers.) These women are certainly appealing — male readers are supposed to like them because they’re fuckable and just smart enough (not too smart to be threatening or emasculating); female readers envy them because of their breezy confidence and obvious sex appeal. But these women are insubstantial. By the end of the novel the author assures us that they are mere sex objects.

Smilla, on the other hand, is a fascinating protagonist; on the book’s back cover, People describes her as a “spellbinding central female.” She is complex. She has a sexual relationship with a neighbor, but it does not overpower or overwhelm her. She effectively resists the cold-seductress/willing-sex-object dichotomy, confidently navigating the murky waters between dependence, self-sufficiency, passion, and control.

In the midst of her new relationship, she consciously strives to maintain her own identity, setting aside time to spend alone in her apartment. She’s also damn strong, braving violence and swimming naked through the freezing Copenhagen harbor.

Author Hoeg also takes on issues related to the Danish colonialization of Greenland, exemplified in Smilla’s ambiguous relationship with her father and memories of assimilating to Danish culture after being forced to leave Greenland as a child.

I’m not the biggest fan of mysteries, but I highly recommend Smilla’s Sense of Snow for its intricate plot, brave political implications, and of course, beautifully crafted protagonist.

I Want to Get Demarried

August 5, 2009 § 4 Comments

This is a guest post by Barry, Ruth’s dad, originally published at his blog Baslow’s Electric OmniumGatherum.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my wife and want to spend the rest of my life with her, exclusively. I am not interested in pursuing other conjugal relationships. I don’t regret the strictures of marriage but I very much oppose the connotations, the religious connotations, with which the word seems inextricably encumbered.

I want to be mate-paired with my wife. I want to be attached socially, legally and emotionally. If, however, being married carries with it the association of heterosexuality, the aura of sacredness, and the necessary implication of procreation then it is a tainted concept. I want an alternative.

The term “demarriage” seems already to be in use by sociologists of the family, especially in Europe. As far as I can see (and I could have gotten this very wrong) I am using the term in a different way then they. They seem to apply the term to society as a whole to mean an increasing disaffection with the institution of marriage, an attitudinal shift in progress since World War II. When they apply the term to married couples it seems to mean a period of mutual alienation, of drifting away. When I say I want to get” demarried” I mean only that I want to adopt a new contract with my spouse, something we can call by a different name. I want my government and my society to offer me that choice.

Interestingly, something of that sort seems to exist in France. It is called PACS, pacte civil de solidarité. According to Wikipedia:

[it] is a form of civil union between two adults (same-sex or opposite-sex) for organising their joint life. It brings rights and responsibilities, but less so than marriage. From a legal standpoint, a PACS is a “contract” drawn up between the two individuals, which is stamped and registered by the clerk of the court. In some areas, couples signing a PACS have the option of undergoing a formal ceremony at the City Hall identical to that of civil marriage. Individuals who have registered a PACS are still considered “single” with regard to family status for some purposes, while they are increasingly considered in the same way as married couples are for other purposes.

PACS were signed into law in France in 1999 and, in certain respects, seem already to be a success:

According to the 2004 Demographic Report by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, the number of marriages in France had fallen each year since 2000.

266,000 civil marriages took place in 2004, a decline of 5.9% from 2003. However, the report found that the number of couples getting PACS had increased every year except 2001. There was a 29% increase in PACS between 2001 and 2002 and a 25% increase between 2002 and 2003. For the first 9 months of 2004, 27,000 PACS were signed compared to 22,000 in 2003. The report found that one PACS in 10 had been dissolved (less than divorces for couples married for the same period, for which one marriage in three will be dissolved by divorce or separation after the first 3 years…

France’s adoption of the PACS law has not been a panacea. The situation in France is far from perfect. Same-sex PACS couples still do not have the right to adopt, for example. It is, nevertheless, a step in the right direction.

It would be a good thing for us here in the States if we began discussing the adoption of such laws ourselves.

Shocking: teens know sex feels good

July 15, 2009 § 4 Comments

Via Tracy Clark-Flory’s excellent takedown of yet more conservative fear-mongering, news of a sex education pamphlet published by the National Health Service of the United Kingdom titled “Pleasure.” The word doesn’t quite inspire hives for me, but for some, it sure seems to: conservatives are calling it “deplorable” and — wait for it — “nothing less than encouraging child abuse.” Because apparently safe, consensual experiences that make us feel good are somehow akin to abuse. From Clark-Flory at Salon’s Broadsheet:

Beyond having the audacity to suggest that educators tell students that sex can feel pleasurable, the booklet says that teenagers have “a right” to sexual satisfaction, so long as it is in a safe and consensual situation. It also advises honesty about masturbation being perfectly healthy — it  winkingly says that “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away,” which strikes me as a cheesy attempt to be cool — and that sex isn’t always about procreation.

The guide also celebrates enthusiastic consent. Instead of promoting sex as something that you must resist “giving up,” if you’re a girl, it’s framed as something that you do because it feels right and you actively want to — it isn’t a bargaining chip, an operatic act that is performed to keep a guy around. “Far from promoting teenage sex,” says Steve Slack, director of the Sheffield Centre for HIV and Sexual Health, which published the handout for NHS, “it is designed to encourage young people to delay losing their virginity until they are sure they will enjoy the experience.”

Promoting the idea that teens should respect their partners and enjoy sexual experiences? Just like adults?! I’M APALLED.

Young people are certainly not the only group whose bodies are subject to public scrutiny and moral debate, but this backlash against the use of appropriate protection and enthusiastic consent to seek pleasure is an almost laughable example of the “keep your legs closed, you silly youngsters!” mentality. Is there a magical button, somehow pressed when a person turns 18, that suddenly allows them to experience sexual desire, pleasure, and satisfaction? Of course not; you and I know this is a ridiculous idea. But conservatives are all caught up in it when they act as though teenagers are across-the-board immature and utterly devoid of agency.

It’s not a secret: we know — because we’re doing it — that sex feels good.

This makers of this pamphlet, in my humble opinion, should create a curriculum and get it taught in middle and high schools everywhere. I know it’s not easy to convince school boards to actually mention S-E-X in their sex education courses; for crying out loud, there’s no mandated sex ed — beyond a brief discussion of HIV/AIDS — for public schools in New York City. But I would love to see it happen.

Cross-posted at Feministe.

My 64 Words

June 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

aung san suu kyiVia Cara, the story of Aung San Suu Kyi, a Burmese pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace laureate. June 19th was her 64th birthday, and she spent it in prison. Her supporters have launched an online campaign to garner attention and respect for this brave leader by calling for submissions of 64-word messages. From the site:

Aung San Suu Kyi…symbolises the struggle of Burma’s people to be free. She has been detained for over 13 years by the Burmese regime for campaigning for human rights and democracy in Burma.

She is currently facing trial in Burma. She was on arrested on May 14th and is now being held in Insein Prison, a prison notorious for its terrible conditions and horrific treatment of prisoners. Aung San Suu Kyi is being tried for breaking the terms of her house arrest, which forbids visitors, after an American man, John Yettaw, swam across Inya Lake and refused to leave her house. Her trial began on 18th May.

Aung San Suu Kyi has committed no crime, she is the victim of crime, yet is currently facing a sentence of 3-5 years. The United Nations has ruled that Aung San Suu Kyi’s detention is illegal under international law, and also under Burmese law. The United Nations Security Council has also told the dictatorship that they must release Aung San Suu Kyi.

Political prisoners in Burma are routinely subjected to torture and often denied medical treatment. There are serious concerns for Aung San Suu Kyi’s health in these conditions, particularly as she has recently been seriously ill.

Here are my 64 words:

I believe that freedom, peace, siblinghood, and love are the most beautiful things our human race can create together. Do not let any government convince you otherwise. Aung San Suu Kyi, you are an inspiration to all of us on this earth who believe in justice. We thank you for your incredible strength. I hope you have no more birthdays in this cruel imprisonment.

Add yours here; learn more from Yoko Ono’s link roundup here.

Students Speak: Inequality

May 30, 2009 § 1 Comment

Inequality – by Sasha, a high school junior.

If you’re like me, school takes up huge amount of your time and energy. Before you started reading this article, you were probably thinking about school. Maybe you’re worried about an upcoming math test, or thinking about how little sleep you got last night because you were up so late doing homework. Or maybe you were just thinking about someone who you’re hoping to sit next to in your next period class. In New York City, going to school isn’t really a choice and it is easy to think about all the trouble school causes. However, without the education that we are provided, we couldn’t be prepared to lead the life we want to live.

Nearly 66 million girls around the world (two-thirds of the world’s children) do not have access to education, leading to a higher illiteracy rate among women than men. 70 percent of the world’s poorest individuals are girls and women, meaning that a huge amount of the female population does not have the money to go to school. There are many factors other than extreme poverty that prevent girls from achieving access to education, such as childhood marriage and safety concerns like sex trafficking, domestic abuse and hate crimes.

The United Nations defines extreme poverty as living on less than two dollars a day. Many girls do not have access to clean water, resulting in sickness that prevents them from being able to work. Doctor bills result in cutting back even more. Their poverty impacts their educational opportunities as well. They can’t afford the required school uniforms, transportation, or the basic supplies. Unable to afford transportation, they are forced to walk miles to get to classes.

Marriage is a wonderful opportunity to commit your life to someone you love and receive their love and commitment in return. Unfortunately, many women and girls not only have no control over whom they marry, but they also have no control over when they marry. Despite many countries enacting marriageable age laws to limit marriage to a minimum age of 16 to 18, child marriages are still widespread. Poverty, tradition and conflict make the incidence of child marriage very frequent, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In 2006, there were more than 60 million child brides who were married or in union before age 18. For most of those girls, their marriage equals a death sentence to their education because either their husbands don’t allow them to go to school, or they are simply overwhelmed with the responsibilities of a wife.

When talking about sex crimes, rape, and domestic abuse, it is difficult to articulate the traumatic impact it has on the victim’s life. While researching the reality of sex crimes, I was immediately shocked by the numbers. In South Africa, a sex crime happens every 20 seconds. (How long have you spent reading this article?)

  • In Southeast Asia, 40% of girls are being sold into prostitution to feed their families.
  • In 65% of the cases reported in Cambodia, rape victims were younger than eighteen, and 12% of the perpetrators were closely related by blood or marriage.
  • 1 out of 3 women in Asia agreed with at least one reason to justify a husband beating his wife.

Do you believe that there is any reason to justify a husband beating his wife? These beliefs are the result of cultural norms such as preference for males and strict gender roles which allow for this behavior.

Let’s just say, to be optimistic, that a girl is provided with enough money to get to school, have the supplies and the uniform. She has never been physically or physiologically abused, and her parents haven’t made her marry and they allow her to go to school. The issue should be solved, right? Wrong. In November, girls on their way to school in Afghanistan were attacked by two men on their motorcycles who were repulsed by the thought of girls going to school, and thought it was appropriate to throw acid in their faces. 19-year-old Shamsia and her 16-year-old sister Atifa were on their way to Meir Weis Mena School in Kandahar, Afghanistan along with several other teachers and students who were similarly attacked. Unfortunately, hate crimes like these are not unusual.

Education is the most effective means of protection and empowerment for girls living in developing countries. Girls who are educated lead healthier lives, have greater involvement in the social and political life of their communities, marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and play a substantial role in the economic stability of their families. When girls are educated, the world is rewarded by achieving the engagement of an articulate and informed group of women.

Education means learning skills such as mathematics so you can tell if someone is trying to cheat you out of your money, or learning about history so you can try to avoid the mistakes that our ancestors made. Education means being able to read what other people have written, whether that is a fantasy book to allow you to temporarily escape reality, or an instruction manual to teach you how to put together a shelf, or philosophy to stimulate your mind, opening the door to literally endless possibilities. Education means learning how to express yourself in words and speak professionally so that you can become a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher and help others in your community.

Girls Learn International Inc. (GLI) is an organization that was designed to specifically tackle this epidemic. In their own words, “GLI pairs American middle and high school-based Chapters with Partner Schools in countries where girls have been traditionally denied access to education. The GLI Program gives students the opportunity to explore issues affecting girls in relation to global human rights, promotes cross-cultural understanding and communication, and trains students to be leaders and advocates for positive change.” Here, at our school, we are very proud to be part of this program. This year the GLI club has raised over $700 for its partner school in Vietnam for orphans with HIV/AIDS. Along with featuring our partner school in a documentary film on AIDS Action day, the GLI club has sent over care packages such as a scrap book with home decorated pages of each of the members as well as a care packages with mix tapes, friendship bracelets and Disney DVDs. Next year the GLI club is excited to make new, fun, creative projects to support the children in our partner school. You, too, can become involved with this cultural exchange by joining the GLI club next year and contributing to providing girls with an education worldwide.

Filkins, Dexter. “Afghan Girls, Scarred by Acid, Defy Terror, Embracing School.” The New York Times. 13 Jan. 2009.
The World Bank. 2009. The World Bank Group. 18 May 2009 .
Welcome to Girls Learn International. 2008. 18 May 2009 .

Previously in Students Speak: Beware The Virtual Babes, by Luke; Spice Up YOUR Relationship, by Jennifer; Letters From Kartini, by Nia; Coming Out As A Feminist, by Shani

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