Saturday, September 12, 2009

Feminist epiphanies, by Ani DiFranco, part 2

by Jordan Kisner

*This is the second of four pieces in which I examine a few of the many epiphanies about the kind of feminist I want to be inspired by listening to folk singer, spoken-word artist and badass feminist Ani DiFranco.

Feminists are pissed off.

At least, this is our reputation. Not just pissed off; we feminists are Angry.

The Angry Feminist is an archetype that evokes our bra-burning predecessors, women whose frustration at the inequalities and discrimination they faced boiled over into outright political rebellion. Tired of living in a country where women were expected not to work, and those who did were confined to certain careers and subject to relentless and unregulated sexual harassment, they fought for legislation like the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title IX, formed NOW. Tired of the pressure to be eternally soft, modest, docile creatures, they –well, some of them— stopped shaving their armpits, protested the Miss America Pageant and embraced sexual liberation. In other words, these original angry feminists became the worst nightmare of American traditionalists, and the work of their rage opened up unimagined opportunities for the women of future generations.

It follows, then, that the young women of my generation should respect and even revere feminist anger, if only out of gratitude. People, Ani sings, we are standing at ground zero/ Of the feminist revolution. Yeah it was an inside job/ stoic and sly/ One we’re supposed to downplay and deny/ But why can’t all decent men and women/ call themselves feminists?/ Out of respect for those who fought for this.

I mean look around. We have this.

But, young women (especially young feminists) are terrified to be perceived as too angry or too radical, perhaps because we are afraid of being reduced to it in the way our predecessors were. Prevailing American cultural memory has distilled the entire contemporary feminist ethos into a parody of the women on whose shoulders it stands. By assigning ‘angry’ to be its primary descriptor, American culture successfully marginalized, minimized and demonized the feminist movement both past and present. ‘Angry’ has become code, thinly veiled and infused with venom; the Angry Feminist is the Irrational Feminist, the Tiresome Feminist, even the Ungrateful Feminist.

And no one wants to sign up for that image. So nowadays we walk a razor-thin line in order to seem palatable and relevant: passionate, but not extreme; frustrated, but not bitter; activists, not harpies. Careful! Don’t sound too radical, and for God’s sake, don’t sound too angry.

I have spent a few years walking this line, and I think my committed-but-not-in-your-face style of feminism is as much a response to social pressure as it is an indication of my temperament. As I was ruminating on the problem of feminism and anger recently, Ani DiFranco’s song “Hide and Seek popped up on iTunes shuffle. DiFranco wrote the song about a woman who has endured a lifetime of sexual harassment, assault and exploitation. The final lyric of the song took my breath away:

Girl, next time he wants to know what your problem is, next time he wants to know where the anger comes from just tell him this time the problem is his. Tell him the anger just… comes.

I dare you to listen to that song, think about that woman and the countless other women like her, and tell me that we who don’t want to seem too angry are not missing the point in an incredibly irresponsible way. Every day women face situations about which all feminists, all women –hell, all people— should be furious. Every day women face situations that saddle them with an anger that they might never be able to shake. In our concern over image, we neglect to respond appropriately to the injustice, discrimination and violence faced by women the world over. We should be angry and unashamed to be so, filled with a rage that motivates us to demand a better world for our daughters the way our Angry Feminist mothers and grandmothers did for us.

So EW readers, I’m here today to announce that I, Jordan Kisner, am an Angry Feminist. I’m angry that rape is being used as a weapon of war in the Congo and I’m angry that the availability of prenatal ultrasounds in India corresponds to a rise in abortions of female fetuses. I’m angry that hundreds of thousands of American girls are deprived of accurate and factual sex education, and I’m angry that so many of my friends are victims of sexual assault. The time for tiptoeing is over.

What are you angry about? What positive change can young feminists effect by reclaiming Angry Feminism together?

Anti-abortion activist killed in Michigan

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

Anti-abortion activist James Pouillon, 63, was fatally shot Friday morning in Owassa, MI, a small town near Detroit, outside of the high school in front of which he frequently protested. His killer, 33-year-old Harlan James Drake, also murdered a gravel pit business owner that morning and, according to the Associated Press via NYT, authorities may have prevented a third shooting by catching the gunman beforehand.

The motivation was likely political. The AP article describes Drake as “[a] man carrying grudges against several people” and Pouillon as a “polarizing figure” who could “usually be seen with his anti-abortion signs outside schools, the library, city hall, even football games.”

This slaying is scary for several reasons. Most obviously, the struggle for abortion rights (and the protection thereof) has become unnecessarily violent. The history of the pro-choice movement is plagued with a history of violence from the opposition, including the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller earlier this summer, and now, the anti-choice movement can claim its first “martyr,” according to Reuters. This could be detrimental to the position of what pro-life groups like Operation Rescue frame as the “child-killing movement.”

But the immediate response from anti-choice activists is also alarming. Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, called for a press conference in Washington DC and framed this murder in the context of countless other death threats his organization has received in recent months. Most chillingly, he listed a PDF sample of death threats to Operation Rescue with the e-mail addresses of senders included, thereby creating new potential targets for the group’s “doubtlessly enraged followers to see,” Jezebel writes.

The murders of Pouillon and Dr. Tiller were both senseless and horrifying. Operation Rescue needs to recognize the hypocrisy in exploiting death threats, and the ongoing struggle for women’s rights needs to relocate itself within the boundaries of the legal system.

You make me feel like a natural woman

by Christopher Moses

This summer I had the great good fortune to teach a group of talented high school juniors in a course on ‘Forbidden Fictions.’ Whether banned books, unsettling ideas or political controversy, we tried to understand what made something forbidden—so often the surprisingly mundane, habitual or obvious (people have sex, governments fight wars)—and what made fiction so powerfully different from the real.

More than topics, though, I learned most in my attempts to teach. Particularly challenging was the class’s gender ration: girls outnumbering boys just over 3:1. So I tried something I wasn’t sure I could do—or what exactly it would mean, or how it would work. I deputized some girls as boys.

You’re a man. You, you and you. And for sake on gender-bending parity: you, one of our few boys, henceforth you’re a woman.

Now—how does this story sound? Uncomfortably true? Is that really how guys think—can you think like that?

It was the first full day of class and we had just listened to Junot Díaz’s ‘How To Date A Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie),’ the ironic, if not slightly tragic bravado of a young man’s commentary on how to have his way with varieties of ladies. The plot was obvious, the goal clear, the language crass—only the muted sarcasm manifested by cultural shame and loneliness made for much feminist empathy:

‘A local girl will have hips and a nice ass but won't be quick about letting you touch her. A white girl might give it up right then. Don't stop her. She'll say, I like Spanish guys, and even though you've never been to Spain, say, I like you.’

Perhaps confounding male-female roles would also help unpack the cultural exoticism of being young, white and daring. So too might the shared doubt of conquest and submission bring some home-grown confidence into the omnipresence of flirtation and dating?

Since this somewhat spur-of-the-moment classroom strategy, I’ve though a lot about what it means to force someone (or yourself) into another’s gender role. Traveling since in Southern Africa—and remembering back through other far-flung excursions—it struck me powerfully as a missing link in many efforts to promote women’s rights and healthy masculinity.

Universal and crucially all-encompassing standards always risk plowing over local tradition. How can empathy and the understanding of opposites (or at least others) help preserve the particular?

Empowerment too often means making you like me, or letting the lesser strive towards the greater. A shared recognition—feminism seems like a worthwhile term—has the chance to undercut power-seeking as the path towards freedom, and to instead provide understanding both for helper and helped, subjected woman and dominating man, tank-topped aid worker and modestly clad native.

Utopian theorizing aside, I’m happy just to challenge the often hyper-individualized notion of self-fulfillment and personal self-realization as the be-all and end-all of gender freedom. There’s a nauseatingly me-me-me effect that’s exactly the same as the mindlessly unoriginal attempt to be the model on the front of Cosmo or Men’s Health, to have the perfect body, wear the perfect clothes, date the perfect partner.

None of this challenges the overly private, personally shameful and falsely alone feelings of sexuality.

The creative space of a classroom might not be entirely transferable to the real world. But the suspended disbelief of students and teacher I think has as much to do with the hypothetical as it did with the hard facts of fiction. Stories and characters let us be another in ways both frightening and fulfilling.

Those original critics of the novel—early eighteenth century moralists fearful of this new genre—were really on to something. Beyond women-with-one-hand-free (to wander to and titillate the nether-regions while reading sultry stories), we learn a lot through the exploration of others. Going away has tremendous power, though coming back has even more.

So lets listen to Aretha Franklin’s lyrics closely. For all our fear of essentialized womanhood—for all my concerns about the balance of gendered perspectives in the classroom—it’s a matter of ‘you,’ less of true, natural or the real ‘me.’ That’s the scary part, that lack of liberal self-control. But such a reward, it’s hard to wait:

‘You make me feel so good inside…

You make me feel so alive…

You make me feel like

A natural woman.’

Boys, girls, men and women—this goal shouldn’t be forbidden or fiction, bridled by class (or race or culture).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Quick hit: Ginger Spice in Nepal

by Molly Borowitz

I don’t know about you, but normally when I think of outspoken activists and advocates for women’s issues, I don’t generally think of the Spice Girls. However, Geri Halliwell (better known as Ginger Spice) has recently arrived in Nepal as a goodwill ambassador on behalf of the United Nations Population Fund, intending to promote better maternal health and greater awareness about women’s issues. Some of the statistics she’s touting:

- In some districts of Nepal, over 80% of women have suffered domestic abuse

- Nepalese women face a 1-in-31 chance of dying from post-childbirth complications

- 1 in 10 Nepalese women experience uterine prolapse, an extremely painful condition which often results from poor post-partum care, having several children in quick succession, or undertaking hard labor too soon after giving birth

In her press conferences and travels around the country, Ginger encouraged Nepal’s men to protect and care for their women. “When we empower women and take care of them,” she said, “everyone benefits.”

Pain and porn: Zambian news editor on trial

by Laura Smith-Gary

[Trigger warning]

Chansa Kabwela, women's rights advocate, mother of two, and news editor of Zambia's largest independent newspaper, The Post, is being tried for distributing pornography, a charge that carries a sentence of up to five years in jail. Two of her colleagues for The Post, journalist Muna Ndula and editor-in-chief Fred M'membe, have been held in contempt of court for publishing an article in her defense, and activist supporters of Kabwela have been banned from court after some got into a scuffle with government supporters. This apparent governmental attack on Zambia's already limited free press (see the BBC country profile and the CIA factbook) is a blatant exploitation of the suffering of Zambian women and their struggle for justice and care.

The struggle began with nurses, on strike trying to obtain higher pay from the government. The strike quickly led to widespread failure of the Zambian medical system. The Post, incidentally, frequently wrote in support of the nurses and their campaign and was critical of the government, as per usual.

The deadlock between the nurses and the government probably led to hundreds, even thousands, of personal tragedies. We know the story of one. A pregnant Zambian woman went into labor, and after being turned away from two unstaffed clinics, made her way to the main hospital in Lusaka, Zambia's capital. There, she was again turned away due to lack of staffing -- but her delivery began in earnest on the hospital grounds. Her baby was breech, feet first, so the labor was a particularly complicated one. By the time a doctor came to her and operated, the baby had suffocated, its body delivered and its head lodged in the birth canal.

The woman's family went to Chansa Kabwela with a picture, a graphic depiction of the medically unattended attempt at delivery. Especially given the baby's senseless death, it was no doubt an extremely disturbing image. Ms. Kabwela did not publish the picture, but instead sent it to several women's rights groups and members of the government, including the office of the Vice-President, along with a letter asking them to end the strike and have nurses return to work. Her purpose, she has said, was to show the human cost of the strike and the urgency for resolution.

President Rupiah Banda, deliberately ignoring the wider implications of the image and the story behind it, seized the opportunity to attack the newspaper that had been critical of him. He furiously declared the picture to be pornographic and ordered a police investigation -- and now, Ms. Kabwela faces jail time.

I don't think that President Banda was intentionally building his attack on the suffering of women, but the gendered aspects of this story are unavoidable. The opportunity he seized was borne out of the desperation of women, and one woman's attempt to bring this desperation to the attention of those in power.

Because women had no power. The nurses, whose struggle against the government for more pay precipitated the medical crisis, are largely female: I do not know enough to evaluate whether they were being steeply underpaid or not, but a nearly month-long strike in a country with 50% unemployment is extremely serious business. Would a strike of that magnitude in a male-dominated profession have run a similar course? I genuinely do not know.

The mother, a victim of this struggle whose pain I can't even begin to imagine, is female. It's striking to me that it was her family, not her, who brought the picture to Ms. Kabwela. It is very possible she wanted this photo of her pain to be used to lobby for the end to the strike, and her relatives were acting on her behalf -- but the lack of explicit agency on her part makes me extremely uncomfortable. Her physical, emotional, and mental pain must be excruciating -- she's not just a concept, she's a person, a person who was just forced to feel her baby die inside her. She is more than a concept of "female pain," she's an individual.

The news editor who cared was female -- and I imagine it was her sex, as well as her position, that gave the family the confidence to approach her. Though the government may be attempting to attack The Post through her, it is this female editor who will, if convicted, bear the cost of the attack. She did have some amount of power, but as soon as she attempted to exercise it she became target.

Finally, it is an image of a female body, and sexualized contempt for the female body, that became the government's weapon. The attack would not have found purchase without the conviction that a picture of female genitals, even in the process of giving birth, is obscene and arousing. In this article, a female assistant to the Secretary to the Cabinet, is quoted as saying the images were so taboo she cried and forgot to make her boss his tea, and that it was difficult to give him the photos because it was not "in line with tradition for men to see such things." I understand that in many cultures and communities the delivery of infants is a strictly female affair, and that a man witnessing childbirth or even photographs of childbirth is taboo, and shameful. But pornographic? Classifying this as pornography indicates to me that men are assumed to see women in purely sexual terms, and demonstrates a commitment to ignore women's real agony in favor of focusing on men's supposed shame, disgust, or possible arousal when faced with this agony.

For the crime of not allowing women to suffer invisibly, and attempting to privately urge lawmakers to work for the wellbeing of all those in need of medical care, a female news editor is condemned to being not only punished but seeing her situation used by the government to strike a blow against non-state-owned press. Chansa Kebwala is charged with "distributing obscene material with intent to corrupt public morals." She is not guilty.

Vengeance is thine

by Chloe Angyal

New York City can be a very scary place. The 4-5-6 subway is always late, a bagel with lox costs $10, and when you walk through Chelsea, you’re forced to look at ads for the New York Health and Racquet Club.

First, there were the ads that showed a picture of a bathing suit, with the words “Friend or foe? It’s your choice” emblazoned over the top of it. In other words, “It’s your own fault you’re fat, tubby, but did we mention that for a small fee we can help you take care of that?” That said, there was a bikini version and a swim trunk version of the ad, so I suppose the NYHRC is to be commended its equal opportunity fat-shaming.

But now that summer has gone, and with it bikini (and swim trunk) season, the NYHRC has replaced those ads, which seem rather inoffensive compared to the new campaign. Behold: Vengeance Booty and Vengeance Abs. Because nothing will make a person regret breaking up with you like proving to them that you’re completely shallow.

Yes, the parties that stand to profit from our self-hatred have invented the natural follow-up to bikini season: exacting-revenge-on-the-summer-fling-who-dumped-you season! And just in the nick of time, too. I thought for a second there that I was going to have to stop hating my body until next spring. But thanks to the NYHRC, now I can be bored shitless on the treadmill all year long! For a small monthly fee, of course.

These posters are problematic in many ways, those most noteworthy of which is that they counsel the viewer to seek “revenge” for shallow behaviours (“she found a dude with a Jaguar”) with more shallow behaviour. Apparently, in NYHRC land, two superficial wrongs make a cosmic right.

Like I said, New York City can be a scary place – not least because some marketing director thought that this would be a good way to appeal to New Yorkers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The real gender test

by Molly Borowitz

Earlier this summer, South African 800-meter champion Caster Semenya made world headlines after the International Association of Athletics Federations accidentally leaked that she would be required to take a gender test in order to maintain her gold medal in the women’s race. While many people—especially South Africans—expressed outrage at the supposed slanders against Semenya’s womanhood, I have to confess that I found their fury rather misplaced. During pre-championship testing, Semenya’s testosterone levels were fully triple the normal amount for women, and the IAAF in fact requested the gender test before she ever stepped foot on the Berlin track. If you ask me (not that anyone did), the greater problems were:

1) if the IAAF was suspicious that Semenya might not really be eligible to compete in the women’s race, why did they let her? Why force her to endure the frustration and disappointment of having her success stripped away?

2) for such a large organization, the IAAF really needs to get its act together. Semenya’s story got out because someone sent an email to the wrong person. Come on.

3) it’s utterly ridiculous that they called that test a “gender” test. The IAAF has absolutely no business researching whether or not Semenya conforms to the West’s binary division of gender norms—i.e., whether she wears dresses, plays with dolls, and prefers pink to blue. No, they were investigating her SEX—her genitalia and her biochemistry—which are relevant to her sports performance. Her gender is completely beside the point.

As such, I initially found Semenya’s reaction to the IAAF’s blunder (and misnomer) quite inspiring. She and her family passionately asserted that her appearance and behavior should have no relevance to her sex; just because she looked, acted, or dressed rather like a boy didn’t at all mean that she was male. Their argument became even stronger when Semenya’s birth certificate—which declares her to be female—was released as evidence. Intentionally or unintentionally, she and her family were making a really powerful statement about the crucial differences between “sex” and “gender,” and providing an excellent illustration of why the two terms are not interchangeable. Just recently, however, the Semenya family’s admirable attempts to end the tyranny that is our automatic association between the female sex and the feminine gender hit a pretty serious wall.

Caster got a makeover.

The 18-year-old sprinter posed for South Africa’s You magazine in various outfits composed of sequins, dresses, and stilettos. During the shoot, she told her interviewers that “I'd like to dress up more often and wear dresses but I never get the chance…I've never bought my own clothes, my mum buys them for me, but now that I know I can look like this I'd like to dress like this more often.” Such a concession to gender stereotypes really flies in the face of her former defiance, her willingness to be a little different—especially in the sprinting world, where women often wear jewelry and makeup when they compete. Until this makeover, Semenya had been living proof that being a girl and being girly are not the same thing.

I want to be proud of Semenya’s professed self-affirmation—“I am who I am and I am proud of myself,” “God made me the way I am and I accept myself”—but this magazine makeover tells a rather different story, one steeped more in shame than in self-acceptance. The IAAF has permitted her to keep her gold medal, but I wonder whether Semenya’s public attempts to appear more stereotypically feminine don’t constitute a different kind of gender test—one which she might have failed.

Making the headlines

by Kaite Welsh

I
n preparation for the return of the Sawyer-Couric partnership on the evening news, the New York Times ran a piece on Diane Sawyer last weekend. A catchy summary of Sawyer's career to date and on-camera style, it illuminates the problems faced by female news anchors but does not fully explore them.

The role of the news anchor - in particular the female news anchor - is something that constantly occupies the press, and therefore becomes part of the viewing experience. In 2007, the BBC came under fire after they sacked Moira Stuart, a fifty-something presenter who in the 1980s became the first Afro-Caribbean female newsreader. The public outcry that followed in the British press is telling – even tabloids known for spouting racist, sexist opinions demanded her reinstatement. One, the Daily Mail, singled out US television for the prominence of its older women and expressed concern that younger, more "glamorous" presenters lack the authority of their older counterparts:

"If we viewers are to worry about serving British officers held at gunpoint in Iran, we like to think the latest update is brought to us by somebody who could point to it on a map; if global warming is up for discussion, it is comforting to believe that the person saying "atmospheric" can also spell it."

Particularly singled out was Natasha Kaplinsky, a presenter who had worked on news programmes since the late 1990s, and who holds a degree from Oxford. The paper condemned her for lacking the gravitas necessary for a primetime newsanchor, citing the “sexual tittle-tattle” – much of it published by themselves - that had followed her over the past few years.

Divisionary tactics such as these, where one woman’s rise to power must inevitably involve another’s fall, is something that the New York Times article also mentions, but fails to criticize in any real depth - the assumption that the off-camera relationship between Sawyer and Couric will be a new take on that old standard, the female power struggle. It is one perhaps best encapsulated by "Murphy Brown", the 1990s sitcom that frequently pitted Murphy, a hard-bitten serious journalist, against her colleague Corky, a perky, peppy former beauty queen. Beauty versus brains, and there can be no common ground between the two.

The crux of the issue is the fundamental problem still seen in perceptions of powerful women - in order to carry authority, does one need to be sexless? Does that addition of glossier lips detract from the importance of the words coming out of them? Or are we obsessing over the superficial in order to subtly denigrate the women who let us know what is going on in the world?

In addition, the concept that two dissimilar women have to be enemies rather than allies is not a new one, and the blame rests less on women themselves and more on a patriarchal society that places limits on how many successful women can inhabit the spotlight at any one time. As Virginia Woolf said, “Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”

As well as reporting the state of the world, it is important that news programmes also reflect it, rather than having “the white male anchorman” of whose demise the Times speaks, pontificating on the actions of people in powerful positions – an increasing number of whom are women.

Feminist epiphanies, by Ani DiFranco

by Jordan Kisner

I’m no heroine, Ani DiFranco protests in one of her songs, I just sing what I wish I could say and hope somewhere some woman hears my music and it helps her through her day.

This is as close to a dominant mission statement as DiFranco, a woman on many missions, seems to get. DiFranco, clearly a product of both American folk tradition and rock-and-roll, is known for vivid, poetic lyrics that showcase a feminist and political agenda as in-your-face as her hair (past favorites include a shaved head, green spikes and dreadlocks, though more recently she opts for natural and short-cropped). She writes songs about prostitution (“Don’t ask me why I’m crying/ I’m not going to tell you what’s wrong/ I’m just going to sit on your lap/ For five dollars a song”), poverty (I remember the first time I saw someone lying on the cold street/I thought, "I can't just walk past here, this can't just be true.”/But I learned by example to just keep moving my feet./ It's amazing the things that we all learn to do.”) and, of course, gender politics (I still answer to the other half of the race/I don’t fool myself like I’ve fooled you/I don’t have the power/you know, we just don’t run this place.) Some of her music is exquisitely beautiful, some of it is difficult to listen to (“Two Little Girls,” for example, isn’t a family song), but all of it reveals a woman with a sophisticated critical eye for American society and what it asks of the women who live in it.

DiFranco started touring in her hometown, Buffalo, New York, at the age of fifteen, and at sixteen she left home with her mother’s blessing and moved to New York. She recorded her first album at age twenty with borrowed money and sold it out of her trunk as she toured college campuses and bars across America, gaining a cult following as she went. Despite receiving offers from numerous record labels, DiFranco opted to continue producing her own work and founded Righteous Babe Records. Over a decade later, Righteous Babe now produces the music of 14 men and women who, like Ani, write about sexism, racism, war, sexual abuse, poverty, reproductive rights and social justice.

I first came across Ani when I was still in high school. My mother had bought a CD of hers in the '90s and, realizing the language wasn’t consistently appropriate for my young brother and me, filed it on a back shelf. I found it one afternoon, dusted it off, and popped it in the stereo. That first listen is an experience I remember vividly because I now locate it as the beginning of my own journey from an I’m-not-a-feminist-but to a fully formed blog-writing Women & Gender Studies-degree-earning feminist. The bravery she displays in writing songs –often autobiographical—about subjects girls and women are so frequently too ashamed to approach made a deep and immediate impression on me, and the realization that I, too, should strive for such courage was the first of many feminist epiphanies courtesy of Ani.

So over the next few posts, I will be exploring a few of my “AHA!” moments catalyzed by Ani DiFranco songs. It’s my way of paying homage to the woman who brought me here, tackling some tough questions (What does being an Angry Feminist really mean? How do we inherit body image insecurity from our mothers?), and, like Ani, chasing the ever-elusive ultimate goal: “to be Commander-in-Chief of my one-woman army.”

(Part 1 of 4)

Rape prevention on college campuses

by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite

Repacking my stuff into self-addressed cardboard boxes has made it incredibly real to me that, in a few days, I’ll be back on a college campus. And, as a young woman, I’m already anticipating the “avalanche of advice” that Jaclyn Friedman described in the American Prospect Wednesday: Don't hook up! Don't dress provocatively! Watch your drink! Actually, don't drink at all! Always stay with a friend! Don't stay out too late! Don't walk home alone! Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseam.”

In her well-timed editorial, she mentioned a lot of things we already know. Campus rape is prevalent: “Cautious estimates suggest that nearly one in every 10 female college students will be raped while she's at school.” Most rapes at college are committed by “repeat-offender sociopaths who know exactly what they’re doing,” not by “well-meaning boys confused about consent.” And, furthermore, schools aren’t taking the issue seriously enough, often treating the offense “like an unfortunate but understandable miscommunication.”

But Friedman was particularly insightful in noting that most of the burden of rape prevention is placed on women. While we devote lots of energy to educating and warning females about risks they should avoid, similar attention is not given to teaching male students how to, well, not rape. Jezebel provides a great analogy: “Too often, we're asked to accept sexual assault as though it's an act of God, something that just happens, like rain. It's our job to carry an umbrella to avoid getting wet.”

Colleges should treat rape with the urgency and awareness it merits. I wholeheartedly agree with Friedman’s call for “in-depth programs on healthy sexuality and sexual safety,” and for schools to “start teaching young men that alcohol is never an excuse.” Bystander training is also important; everyone should know what to do (and how to identify) when sexual boundaries are crossed. Campus policies should “support prevention, recover, and justice, not dismissiveness, victim-blaming, and denial.”

Rape prevention is most successful when all students are aware. This starts with a serious attitude adjustment on behalf of college campuses that should be, as Friedman urges, “implementing real policies that work, not just going through motions that make them look concerned.”

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Shockingly awful sex ed commercial

So there I was, riding an exuberant Obama high after his inspirational speech on health care reform (if you weren't fortunate enough to see it, here's what the NYT had to say) when I encountered this advertisement, linked from the Harpyness. And oh, did it kill my buzz. The ad was from Obama's Department of Health and Human Services, and it reassured parents that even though they may be nervous saying "penis" or "vagina" in front of their child, never fear - they don't have to talk about "the parts."

I don't know where to get started with this ad. First of all, it's encouraging parents to assume that just because they're uncomfortable talking about basic human anatomy, their kids aren't "ready" to hear about sex. And even if you can bring yourself to mutter the s-word aloud in the presence of children, don't worry - you can give them little enough information that they'll just intuit everything they need. Because after all, isn't that how we learn - by osmosis? Talking about stuff is so passe.

The one thing those kids are going to absorb quickly is that this is a topic riddled with shame, and they'll be even less comfortable talking to their parents if they do decide to have sex. The Health and Human Services website designed to help parents talk to their children about sex has some gems in it too. Apparently, sexually active teenage girls (but not boys) should be screened for depression (because we all know that oxytocin can kick in at any stage of life). There was also this shockingly offensive tidbit: "Children do better in homes headed by a married mother and father."

Needless to say, I am very disappointed in this move by the Obama administration. I thought we had left this regressive behavior behind when Bush left the White House. Or maybe I'm wrong, and we'd all be better off if we just didn't talk about "the parts."

Kim Clijsters: working mother

by Gracie Remington

The New York Times has an interesting article on resurgent tennis star Kim Clijsters in today's newspaper, documenting the Belgian tennis player's return to tennis after time spent away from the sport starting a family. Clijsters, who will face Serena Williams in the semifinals of the US Open after defeating 18th-seeded Li Na of China, retired from tennis in 2007 at the age of 24. She had turned professional at the age of 14 and was ranked number 1 in the world six years later, but the constant grind of the professional tennis circuit drove her to explore other interests. "I had other things in my mind that I wanted to achieve as a woman and as a person," she told the Times. She put down her racket, married American basketballer Brian Lynch, and gave birth to her first child, a daughter, in February of last year. Instead of furthering her distance from tennis, however, parenting only inspired her to return to the court. She returned to the sport last winter, realizing that having a family allowed her to balance work and personal spaces in a more efficient, well-rounded manner.

Clijsters' return to tennis is laudable in and of itself, especially given the nonstop travel and play inherent in the professional tennis circuit. That she has found the time, energy, and passion to return to the sport that she loves in a healthy way that allows her to maintain her pre-established personal life is fantastic, especially as many other female athletes struggle to come to terms with the seemingly opposed forces of work and family. Many of the other tennis players interviewed for the Times article expressed their total exhaustion with the tour and their lack of a personal life, highlighting the drawbacks of playing on the professional level. Ana Ivanovic, a former number 1 player who was eliminated during the first round of the Open, expressed her intention to "completely switch off," explaining that she "hadn't had a proper holiday in years." Despite her 21 years, she said she felt much older, "like 25, maybe," she laughed. Dinara Safina, the current female number 1, summarized her life as "just playing, playing, playing, playing, playing" after being eliminated in the third round. Annika Sorenstam, the former professional golfer, has enthusiastically been watching Clijsters play at the Open, but does not have similar plans to return to the game. Her husband stated that "We've actually joked about the fact that she doesn't miss tournament golf at all. It's the last thing on her mind."

Professional female athletes seem to walk a fine line between career and family, as the time needed for professional development always seems to outweigh personal matters. This subject is certainly undiscussed (and somewhat verboten) in the world of men's athletics, where fatherhood can be enjoyed in conjunction with a career in professional athletics. What is perhaps most interesting about the Times' profile of Clijsters is Roger Federer's discussion of her return to tennis. Federer, one of the best male tennis players of all time and a father to newborn twins, was quoted as saying: "It's nice that she hasn't lost the love for the game. Going out of the game at, what was it, 23? That's, for me, just shocking. I don't understand how you do that. Being a woman, obviously you don't want to wait till you're 35 to have kids. But it's nice to see her back in the game."

The fact that Clijsters' decision to end her professional career and start a family is "shocking" to a male tennis player comes as no surprise; Federer has been able to start a family with very little detriment to his professional career, and seems intent on continuing to play for as long as he can, regardless of the size of his family. But it necessitates a serious discussion about the nature of women's athletics and the ways in which an athletic career and having a family can be seen as something other than mutually exclusive for female athletes.

Bringing Amelia Earhart down to earth

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

When I was little, I had a poster of Amelia Earhart on my bedroom wall. I wish now that I knew what I had done with it - I imagine that she was lost in some move or room-cleaning. But I'll always remember the other Amelia smiling down from the cover of Doris L. Rich's 1989 biography (one that my father tells me is spectacularly boring), proudly standing next to her car and plane.

My parents have never held on to one story about the source of my name (my father's latest explanation, and the one I prefer, is that like Chelsea Clinton, I was named after a Joni Mitchell song), but when I was young, I adopted Amelia Earhart as my namesake. I read children's biographies of her, following her through her boyish childhood, where she climbed trees with her sister Muriel and refused to grow her hair long or wear gloves. I made a yearly pilgrimage to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., where her plane was on display, a relic equally important as the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. I was seduced by the story of Amelia's first encounter with the air, when she visited an airfield in southern California and was given a ride that changed her life. Like L. Frank Baum's Dorothy Gale, Amelia Earhart was an insatiable wanderer, an adventurer, qualities that elevated her beyond other female aviators of her day. She was a complex, turbulent figure, qualities that vaulted her to fame when she became the first woman, and the second person, to fly across the Atlantic, and certainly contributed to her untimely disappearance in 1937. But these complexities were mostly lost on 9-year-old me, and are certainly not part of Amelia Earhart's story in American mythology.

I returned to Amelia earlier this week, when I read Judith Thurman's fascinating profile in The New Yorker. The profile was undoubtedly written to coincide with the release of Mira Nair's film Amelia (starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart and Richard Gere as Amelia's husband, George Putnam, casting which distresses me), but there have been countless homages since her dramatic and untimely death, including a Gap advertising campaign and a Ms. magazine cover. I was most interested by Thurman's analysis of Earhart as a feminist icon, one which certainly didn't make it into the "biographies" I read as a child. In fact, much of Earhart's personality has been eclipsed by the myth of the courageous female aviator. In reality, she was a campaigner for women's education who never finished college herself and could never seem to hold down a job, an androgynous figure who nevertheless had enough "feminine" insecurity to shave two years off her age, someone who was ruthlessly independent and ambitious but also utterly careless. Thurman's profile neatly sidesteps the sainthood that Nair's film is sure to bestow.

The article made me rethink the way Amelia is presented in our cultural mythology, one that I never really questioned. Certainly, she did an extraordinary thing by entering the boys' club of aviation, and boldly doing what was, at the time, the most unthinkable of adventures. But this act - combined with the sensationalism of her disappearance over the South Pacific - has allowed us to neatly whitewash the most interesting, and unconventional, parts of her life. Among them are the letter she wrote to her husband when they were married. Earhart told Putnam, "You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me. . . . In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. . . . I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage." Extraordinary, right? This is the Amelia we never get to see.

She certainly made good on her promise of non-monogamy; most agree that she had a long affair with Gore Vidal's father, Eugene Vidal. During her lifetime, she was a subject of much controversy - her last flight was famously accused of being a capricious joyride, and many criticized Franklin Roosevelt's failed and expensive rescue mission. She was ambitious to a fault, and adored the spotlight that was cast on her after her first flight across the Atlantic. But she was also fascinating because of her refusal to let her gender limit or define her, and her determination to maintain celebrity because of her status as a pilot, rather than simply becoming an outrageous public figure. She was certainly not an angel or a saint, but her refusal to conform to the norms of her time, her constant straining for freedom from constraint, qualifies her for a different kind of immortality.

Inevitably, thinking about Amelia Earhart, I go back to Joni Mitchell. Her song, "Amelia," is one of the only homages that I think fully captures the reasons that Earhart will always be an inspiration to me. Mitchell sings, "A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly/Like icarus ascending/On beautiful foolish arms/Amelia, it was just a false alarm," and she is both warning Earhart and celebrating her. Who knows if Amelia Earhart finally found her escape when she disappeared in 1937, but she spent her life searching for a means to trick gravity, and master a world that never fully satisfied her. Like Mitchell, and countless other women who "sleep on strange pillows of [their] wanderlust," Earhart refused to allow society to confine her. And for that reason, I'm proud that she was my childhood icon (and possibly my namesake), a woman who should be remembered as more than just a female pilot.


Why "common motherhood" does not excuse Laura Ingraham

by Jillian Hewitt

First I’d like to say how grateful I am to be contributing to this blog; as many have said before, to be feminist is simply to be humanist. I am also honored to have the chance to write alongside so many intelligent and inspiring people.

In the Huffington Post this week, Tamar Abrams blogged about her experience on Laura Ingraham’s radio show. The topic? Ingraham interviewed Abrams and her 16 year-old daughter about using an image consultant to find “her fashion style.” I’m not sure why any 16 year-old needs a fashion consultant, but that’s a topic for another day. A liberal, Ms. Abrams clarifies that she agreed to do the show because “it was about moms and daughters, a topic on which there’s no political epicenter.” She imagines that if her close friend Amy Coen—who heads Population Action International, and has recently been diagnosed with ovarian cancer—were to sit down with her and Laura Ingraham, that they would all talk warmly about the common ground of motherhood. Finally, Abrams concludes that she is better off for having let go of political labels, “at least for a little while.”

I honestly believe that Tamar Abrams’ intentions are good—she hopes to bridge the gap between two ideological extremes, to show that yes, we have things in common and we can get along. Kind of reminds you of The View, doesn’t it? But (surprise!) I have a few problems with Abrams’ thought process. First, at least in this case, I’m afraid that she overestimates the benefits of casting off political labels. With regards to Ingraham it is not sufficient to say that she is “politically conservative”. Her conservatism gets lost in (and confused with) messages that are, quite simply, espoused in disrespect and intolerance. While Abrams says she realizes in the interview that “our political views define only a small portion of our selves,” it seems to me that Ingraham’s political views are simply another vessel by which she spews hatred. And while I don’t think we should try to shield our children from political diversity, are we really obligated to try to reconcile with the likes of Ingraham, O’Reilly, Coulter, or Beck in the name of “tolerance?” I think not.

Another part of the blog that seems problematic to me is this whole “common ground of motherhood” thing. How much in common does one woman really have with another just because they both have children? Abrams suggests that a conversation between Ingraham and Coen about motherhood would “undoubtedly produce the same tone of pride, joy and limitless possibilities expressed by mothers the world over,” and I have absolutely no doubt that this is true. But the fact is, only one of these mothers made news by calling Meghan McCain fat. We need to think about the differences between a respectful dialogue between two women (or men) whose political views conflict and the superficial dialogue between Laura Ingraham and, quite frankly, anyone. What I find unsettling is not just that Abrams accepted the invitation in the first place, but that she goes on to herald her appearance as some sign of progress. The fact that Ingraham invited a liberal and her teenage daughter onto her show to talk fashion does not seem to make it any less likely that she will return (the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that) to her old ways of “arguing” by attacking, belittling, and often outright lying. From a distinctly feminist perspective, we should be especially wary of these tactics because of the frequency with which they’re used against women (Meghan McCain and Hillary Clinton, for starters.)

At the heart of her post is the idea that motherhood can bring people together, and that political differences do not disqualify women from finding common ground—and I would not begin to disagree. In fact, I do not find fault with these assertions—I just think that in the case of Laura Ingraham, they don’t apply. Because it’s not about their political differences, it’s about one woman’s campaign to disparage those who do not agree with her. And isn’t motherhood more about the values you instill in your children than it is about the fact that you hold the title “mother?” What do we really have to learn from a woman who spent her college years avoiding restaurants that she suspected had gay employees? (No, seriously.) I’m afraid there are some people who, in the name of tolerance, equality, and justice, simply must not be tolerated. She does, for the time being at least, have an audience—but we don’t need to be part of it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Where's their vote?

by Kelly Roache

This is hardly the first story to be written about the August 20th Afghan Presidential election; some would even call it old news. However, coverage of women’s lack of participation in the process has yet to be discussed on Equal Writes or the majority of our other favorite feminist blogs – surprising in light of the New York Times Magazine’s recent declaration of women’s rights as “the cause of our time.” While my academic focus on the Middle East may make me partial to stories like these, it isn’t unreasonable to see that aside from being an inviolable human right, equality for women is essential to stability and progress in the region. For better or for worse, the United States’ investment in bringing democracy to Afghanistan should endow us with a particular awareness of – and advocacy for – the relevance of women’s rights (aside from it just being the right thing to do).

A deeply-rooted tribal and political imbroglio, the situation in Afghanistan is a daunting case. While over thirty candidates sought the Presidency this year, the election was ultimately a contest between sitting President Hamid Karzai and his former foreign minister, and ophthalmologist by trade, Abdullah Abdullah. Abundant allegations of corruption against Karzai and Abdullah’s stance as a reform candidate fostered additional tensions to the existing national strife. Still a perpetual threat to democracy, the Taliban’s attempts to intimidate the population – such as by threatening to cut off the ink-stained thumbs of voters – were all too successful, depressing voter turnout to an estimated 40-50%; in the 2004 Presidential election, nearly 70% of eligible Afghans came to the polls to cast their votes. As expected, almost immediately following the election, Abdullah began alleging fraud, with reports of stations where more votes were cast than there were voters registered, or of ballot boxes containing votes exclusively for Karzai. The official results are expected on the 21st, but will likely be delayed amid the bureaucracy of sorting out the claims.

While the world will certainly be waiting anxiously for the final tally, perhaps the greatest bloc of disenfranchised voters is already apparent, with reports of disproportionally low turnout among women. Sharia law provides that separate voting booths be operated for men and women to limit public mingling; however, nearly 650 women’s polling stations failed to open nationally, with only six out of 36 available in the Taliban-controlled South – that’s less than 17%. Moreover, a shortage of female staff members at the open stations deterred women from casting their ballots or, worse yet, filing complaints regarding these violations. To avoid the situation all together, many families opted for proxy voting, in which the men of the household cast votes “on behalf of” their wives and daughters. Similarly, women candidates may have faced the worst of the discrimination, denied media coverage and threatened with violence that discouraged other potential candidates and made campaigning impossible.

While a second round election between Karzai and Abdullah (Afghan law mandates this if no one candidate receives over 50% of the vote) initially seemed inevitable, the incumbent appears to have garnered well over the percentage needed to claim victory in early tallies (pending investigation of his challenger’s claims of fraud). While this may spare a country on the brink from more polarizing chaos of a runoff, it bodes about as well for the future of women’s rights in Afghanistan as the election proceedings themselves. In a country where the restrictive burqa is commonplace, Karzai exacerbated women’s status as second-class citizens with this spring’s Shiite Family Law. Ironically a political gesture to shore up the fundamentalist vote that may have won him the election, the law has been interpreted to legalize marital rape, barring a woman from denying her husband sex unless she is ill. Similarly, it placed restrictions on a woman’s right to leave the home, to divorce, and to maintain custody of her children. Surely this is not the “Enduring Freedom” we had in mind.

This summer, “Where’s Their Vote?” was popularized as a cry on behalf of those disenfranchised by the Iranian election. But we cannot afford to overlook the violation of women’s rights in Afghanistan as Americans or human beings, whether for political expediency or fear of complexity. The least we can do is demand that the results of the election reflect the will of the women – and men – whose lives it will shape, and who risked (quite literally) life and limb to say, “This stops here.” If we fail in this way, any progress, such as advances in education for Afghan girls, is slowly eroded. Then, the men and women of Afghanistan are little better off than they were under the Taliban.

Intersectionality, or why Carrie Bradshaw speaks for few women

by Nidya Sarria

I was doing some reading the other day when my younger brother looked over my shoulder. “We studied feminism in school,” he told me, trying to draw me into conversation. Delighted that he was taught about the existence of feminism as a form of political discourse, I asked him what he learned.

“Oh, not much,” he said. “My teacher said it wasn’t very important. It wasn’t even on the test.”

Not even on the test. I guess I should have known better.

My neighborhood is mostly working class, first and second generation Hispanics of Cuban and Central American descent. Not many women in my community attend college after high school, if they graduate high school at all, and fewer women ever read feminist literature. According to popular opinion, there is no place for gender equality, because men and women are inherently different and should stick to their pre-ordained roles. Feminism is seen as something made up by “crazy white women” and adopted by girls that try to “act white.”

This should come as a surprise to no one. It has long been said that the feminist movement caters to the needs and concerns of upper-middle class white women. This has resulted in third wave feminism, which diverges from the second wave by attempting to deal with issues of race, social class, sexuality, and other factors often ignored by previous generations. Nevertheless, though today’s feminism is meant to be more inclusive, it often fails to reach a diverse audience. Many people still believe that feminism, as a movement, remains concerned only with the needs of a few.

To some degree, they are right. Though I consider myself a feminist, I have to admit that I can sometimes feel uncomfortable in feminist spaces, such as online blogs and forums, if only because many of these women debate issues of gender equality from a perspective that I consider privileged and presumptuous. In too many cases to overlook, when a woman of color gives input, especially when the topic of discussion is related to questions of race or socioeconomics, she is ignored or treated in a condescending manner. I don’t believe this is usually deliberate. Nevertheless, it happens often enough that many feminists of color question whether they belong in the movement at all.

I’ve questioned my place in the feminist movement. Sometimes I have been offended by the tone of certain discussions I have observed, which don’t seem to acknowledge or care about the experiences of women who lack economic security and white privilege. Other times, I have felt that some feminist sentiments really are “too radical.” But the truth is, radical is another word for scary, so when I feel some feminist thought is too radical, I usually force myself to take a step back and consider why I feel threatened.

More often than not, I initially feel that some concepts are too radical because I have never before encountered them. These ideas are completely foreign to me. It is easy to ignore the English-language, upper-middle class, white dominated media and the lifestyles it depicts when it seems to have so little to do with me. So what if Carrie Bradshaw can be forty-something, and unmarried, and apparently fulfilled? She has the money to live in Manhattan and buy as many shoes as her heart desires, as well as at least three friends of similar background that support her life choices. Not all of us can claim the same. And yet, I remain hopeful that all women, regardless of their circumstances, can achieve the ability to choose how they want to live their lives.

While my beliefs qualify me for inclusion in the feminist movement on the surface level, in reality, things remain sometimes uncomfortable. I feel that until women of color can speak to other women of color about gender equality, women’s liberation will remain incomplete. Unfortunately, there are not many feminists of color, precisely because they feel marginalized by the movement. This creates a cycle in which feminist thought remains a form of political discourse available and applicable only to a privileged few. And yet, here I am. I could tell you, little by little, why I chose to disregard my childhood values and take on new thoughts and ideas, but that would be a long story.

Mostly I’m here because I think that feminism should have been on the test.

Warning: does not remotely resemble a perfect feminist

by Franki Butler

There are days when I see feminism as a school, a school where we sit diligently and learn of Susie B. and Betty Friedan, and if we’re lucky, Audre Lorde and Alice Walker. We’re taught how to recognize the workings of the patriarchy in the world at large and to rail against the misogyny and sexism of others. We’re taught how to lobby for better laws, how to critique crass Hollywood comedies and how to scorn a singer’s latest T&A music video. But often, we’re blinder to a deeper problem: the biases we hold within our own hearts.

I come here with a confession: My name is Franki Butler, and I am a misogynist.

Well, no, that’s not true. If it were, Amelia and Josh would have kicked me to the curb long ago. I do, however, hold a metric crap-ton of misogynist ideas, ideas that have become so tangled with my personality and my interactions with the world that I am unsure how best to unravel them.

I frequently privilege male viewpoints over female ones in conversations. I use the word “bitch” more often than most fratboys say “bro.” As much as I rail against Hollywood sexism, if I’m not looking for a romantic comedy I often default to my beloved male centered narratives rather than actively searching out female ones, convinced that a story centered around a woman will be too sappy/stupid/girly for my tastes. In times of severe emotional stress, I often tell myself to “stop being such a girl about it”. (For those of you who don’t know me, I am in possession of a XX set.) The list goes on; these are just the things I’ve caught myself doing in the past week.

And I’m pretty sure you do them to, or things like them. We don’t rail against the patriarchy solely for the outward harm it causes, but for the way it manipulates our psyches as well. It gets into our heads, and sometimes we need to do a bit of self-examination.

Most people I know are past the “bitchez r stoopid, har har” brand of misogyny, but it internalizes itself in all sorts of ways. For example, is this your favorite song in the world, (warning: Not Safe for Work), and do you defend it by saying “that’s just how rock music is”? Do you occasionally dislike female characters in TV shows/books/comics/movies for no logical reason, or do you like them only because they’re played by attractive actresses? Do you find yourself using gendered insults when non-gendered ones would work just as well? None of these make you a bad person, but they may be a sign that the gender issues of the outside world are working their way into your head.

And I don’t know how to stop it. All I can suggest is awareness. I’m not giving up the “Sex, Drugs & Rock n’Roll” playlist on my iPod, but I need to recognize that most of those songs are problematic. Most of my favorite films/TV shows don’t pass the Bechdel Test, but I’m looking for ones that do. If I want to be a good feminist, I can’t simply call out the missteps of others. I have to look to my own, as well.

I leave you with this lovely video. The song is arguably sexist and homophobic, but the video is a pretty fabulous critique on my favorite summer blockbuster (yeah, I know it came out 4 months ago. The video’s still awesome).


Monday, September 7, 2009

Anti-women's rights campaign triumphs in Mali

by Laura Smith-Gary

I’m sorry to start off our year with bad news, but here it is. For once, I recommend reading the comments as well as the article -- they seem to accurately reflect the conflict of opinions.

In the beginning of August, Mali’s parliment passed a law increasing the rights of women. The law would have, among other things, raised the age of marriage to 18, given women some inheritance rights, allowed divorce if a couple has lived apart for three years, and struck a clause from the current laws that states women “must obey” their husbands and instead asserted that husbands and wives “owe each other loyalty and protection.” It would also have defined marriage as a civil institution. Despite the furious objections of conservative Muslim clerics and parliment members, who stigmatized the law as the work of the devil, other members of parliament and President Amadou Toumani Toure -- also Muslim, as is 90% of Mali’s population -- strongly supported the law.


Now they’ve been forced to back down. Mali’s High Islamic Council condemned the law, and hardline Muslim groups throughout the country organized massive protests in opposition to its passage. Tens of thousands of Malian citizens took to the streets to demand the new law be defanged, or destroyed. The last week in August, President Toure announced that for the sake of national unity, he would return the law to parliament for review rather than signing it. This was not only a defeat for women's rights, it was a defeat for the President and his supporters, who were expected by many to pursue a more comprehensive human rights' agenda.


This incident's primary importance, of course, is the detriment to the rights of Malian women, and I don't want to downplay that. However, I think it also demonstrates an important point -- this is a classic example of illiberal democracy and a reminder of the difficulty of imposing women's rights legislation on an unwilling population. Mali has been a constitutional democracy since 1992, with three branches of government and separation of powers in the style of the United States. Though there were organizing powers behind these protests, namely conservative Muslim groups, it was by the people's demand that this law was rejected. This is democracy working -- working against freedom.


This is not the only time we have seen democracy act in opposition to women's rights this summer. Also in August, lawmakers in the Bahamas proposed a bill to outlaw marital rape and were met with outrage. One of the main arguments against the bill was that it violated Christian values, and that the current presumption of consent after the initial vows is more in line with a Christian understanding of marriage. In Afghanistan, days before the August elections President Karzai announced the new version of the Shia Family Law (I wrote about the first version here), which allows Shia husbands to refuse their wives food and water if the women refuse sex. Karzai needed the votes the conservative Shia clerics could bring him, and pressure from the E.U. and U.S. did not bring any major changes to the law.


Many in the U.S. have seen democracy as an assurance of freedom and rights for citizens. One would think that our own history of constitutional democracy, which includes nearly a century of legalized slavery and numerous other legal forms of morally reprehensible limitations of freedom, would remind us that U.S.-style democracy is not a silver bullet, but we remain convinced that our form of government naturally brings freedom in its train. We must reconsider this conviction, and realize that while the promotion and support of democracy may be an admirable thing, it is not the same thing as promoting human rights and freedoms. We must also acknowledge our limitations. President Toure and his allies are Muslim and have demonstrated their deep commitment to their country. If they cannot successfully promote a bill to improve the lot of women, it seems highly unlikely that pressure from an outside power can do so. I don't think individuals or states who believe in women's rights should give up, but I think we should be realistic and pursue strategies like education, or microfinance (or something else! anybody have ideas?) rather than relying on democracy or overt diplomatic pressure to bring about change.


For the women of Mali, parliament may well pass and put into practice a watered-down version of the law. While this will not be as large a step toward equality for women and universal human rights in Mali as the original version of the bill, it could still be a step. If President Toure and his allies can take small steps that are accepted by the people of Mali, they may eventually have an equitable society as well as a democracy.


For more on Mali, see the BBC's country profile, the CIA Factbook, and Wikipedia.