Monday, June 8, 2009

You've never heard cat-calls like these

by Shannon Togawa Mercer

If you ever find yourself walking the streets of downtown Cairo (caveat: you are a pretty woman, - scratch that – you’re a woman), prepare for the most obnoxious series of hissing noises and cat calls that any city on the planet could hope to produce. I’ll say this: As I strolled down the Sharia Talaat Al-Harb I had never before been more thankful that I didn’t understand a language.

Egyptian society encompasses a number of different, and often conflicting, beliefs about relations between the sexes. I see young un-wed women wearing hijab walking down the streets and flirting, hanging on to young man. These types of “public displays of affection” are discouraged in ex-pat circles but they seem perfectly acceptable in normal urban society (as long as you don’t push it). On the other hand, EVERYONE dresses conservatively. With so much as an lower thigh showing (or even upper knee cap) I would probably be prevented from leaving my dorm building. Even with conservative dress (which, in my opinion, is comprised of my loosest pair of jeans and a decent t-shirt) I have been hit on more here than anywhere. I mean anywhere. Even The Street. Even more than at Terrace around 3 am. Just think about it.

Harassment is such an issue here that the American University required us to attend a lecture on it. During the lecture we were taught how to say – in colloquial Egyptian naturally – “Mind your own business”, “Don’t touch me” and “Act like a man”. Just a few weeks ago I would have thought that this was a joke. I assure you, it is not. The attention that foreign girls get (especially girls with light hair) is quite overwhelming, and the thought of us complaining of objectification in America seems a bit ridiculous from my vantage point (although I know it won’t the moment some New York construction worker yells down at me from his flimsy scaffolding).

For the most part I take it lightly, but there is a certain element of fear that is introduced when two men are staring so intently at you that they stop in the middle of a five-lane street crossing. Fear for them, yes, but also a profound amount of fear for your own safety. I don’t usually feel helpless. That’s just not who I am, but I have found that here, in Egypt, I have begun to discover the healthy amount of fear that I’m sure a lot of women feel on a daily basis.

It is terrifying. It is the awareness that, at any moment, these men could decide to act on their thoughts. No amount of women’s liberation rhetoric would save you then. The years of women’s rights activism wouldn’t mean anything. It’d just be you, and them. Despite how horrible this sounds, I’m glad that I’ve reached the point in my life where I can accept that I am not immune to disaster. I’m growing up.

I’m sitting in my dorm room just about ready to unpack my things and prepare for the next two months of classes. I think that I’m ready to take what Cairo has to throw at me, but I can’t be sure. This lesson is one of many that I have to learn before I leave and I know that I’ll come back to Princeton a better person for the entirety of this experience.

With that, I will conclude by saying: Thank you Cairo for the amazing things that you’ve taught me so far, and thank you for all the things that the next two months have in store for me. Thank you to the group boys who screamed “I love America” at me earlier today and an extra special shout-out to that particularly good looking fellow who asked me to kiss him this evening. I’m sorry I told you to act like a man. I didn’t mean it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Where the "abortion debate" is going

by Nick Cox

Nowadays, there is no abortion debate—that is, the ongoing shitstorm that the phrase "abortion debate" refers to does not rightly constitute an actual debate. A debate is a conversation in which people try to convince each other of some point or other by means of rational argument. The ultimate purpose of debate, at least according to charmingly naive optimist J.S. Mill, is to aid in the improvement of human society by leading people to truer beliefs.

Far from the polite tea party that the naive Mill imagined, the so-called "abortion debate" is a lot more like the World War that his progressive liberalism so naively failed to anticipate. It is not debate but trench warfare: each of the two camps, having dug itself into its own ideological stronghold, has set about reinforcing the walls with rhetoric and launching nasty slogans (along with the occasional bullet or pipe bomb) in the general direction of its enemy.

This analogy is apt in two ways. The first is that the "abortion debate" bears the image of a violent conflict. Most of the words exchanged in the debate present themselves as attempts to convince people of their position. But ultimately they serve as little more than attempts to demonize or otherwise lash out at the other side. The recent murder of Dr. George Tiller, which will sure as hell not win the pro-life movement any new adherents, was only a more literal version of the rhetorical ordinance that both camps are constantly lobbing at one another.

The second thing I want to emphasize about this battle, which explains precisely why it is not a debate, is that both sides are utterly entrenched. No one is convincing anyone of anything; everyone's mind is already made up. Furthermore, the two sides of the abortion debate are, as far as I can tell, completely irreconcilable. Quibbles about late-term or partial-birth aside, ultimately you either think abortion should be legal, or you don't; between these two options there can be no middle ground.

So there you have it: it looks like the "abortion debate" may already be the closest it will ever come to a satisfactory resolution. At this point bombarding each other with more and more arguments for why abortion should or should not be legal would be a waste of time. Instead, we should start trying to figure out if we can possibly reach some sort of truce. Although at this point we are probably dug in too deep to leave our trenches, I hope someday we can at least stop shooting at each other.