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Should I Stay or Should I Go? – A Somewhat Personal Humanitarian Dilemma

18 Oct

Seven years ago I broke up with someone I thought previously I would end up growing old with. I did it over the phone. I was convinced that being with someone like him would stand in the way of my real dream: to become an international human rights lawyer and contribute, if at all, to bring the tiniest change to some of the suffering and injustices I see and read about every day. They’ve haunted my dreams for as long as I can remember.

He was a family person, worked in the family business; never saw himself living abroad let alone in places that are “difficult”. It just wasn’t compatible with what I felt I needed to do. I was doing my Masters in Lund and already living in another country. Meeting people with the same dreams as mine from all over the world made it all the more real very quickly: the sea of possibilities. It only took a few months before I made that call. Perhaps it only formalized a decision I made by leaving in the first place.

It was a decisive moment. I was deciding for my career, for my ambitions. I now realize such decisions are not linked with the person you’re with but with all your future persons and possibilities. They are linked to your own choice of personal versus professional.

I ended up marrying a wonderful man who didn’t have those close ties to the Motherland. Someone who also gives importance to my career. He even moved to my home country where I found a job close to my dreams and heart (ironic, huh?) and it was due to his sacrifice to his own career that our relationship really made it. Today the tables have turned and it’s my time to make that move: I’ve done it! I’ve always hated men who drag their wives through the world to “look after” them and their family while they thrive in their careers; I could then not become a woman who asks for that.

So I moved to Europe to give him his chance and I’m starting from scratch in the highly competitive and brutally discouraging world of the humanitarian and not-for-profit sector. The opportunities fly before my eyes and I want to grab them all. It’s like a surreal scene from a Lynch movie in which I’m a paralyzed woman (or small man?) and there’s a group of rainbow colored birds waiting for me to catch them, at least one. But I can’t touch them.

Opportunities in the humanitarian field present themselves increasingly, as various parts of the world collapse and their peoples suffer. It’s sad, but true. Our professional opportunities thrive with war and persecution. Syria, Mali, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, the DRC: one simple P11 away from your dreams at a very high cost. Your personal life. Your chances of becoming the triumphant feminist that was able to have it all and who didn’t have to choose vanish before your eyes. And one memory comes to mind.

Katarina Tomasesvski. She passed away during the time I was doing my Masters in Lund. One of those female warriors who I so admire: former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to education. I met her once briefly and of course she never said anything about this, but I bet she had to choose. One of those pioneers that proved others wrong and became a “full on career woman”. She broke the ceiling but if I am not mistaken, died alone.

I’ll never forget the empty-gut feeling I got when I entered the RWI Library to find all her books she’d kindly donated in her will, piled in the Library’s big room against the walls, waiting to be catalogued. I never told anyone, but I took one. I still have it. It was a book on my thesis topic, but more than that, it was a piece of her life, a representation of that dilemma. No one else in her life seemed to have claimed her books; mine are so precious to me that I couldn’t believe it. So I claimed one, for me and for her.[1]

She and many women working on humanitarian issues make that choice every day.  They give it all for their calling, for their beliefs and (a lot of the times) for the organization they work for. Take for example, UNHCR, the UN agency with the highest divorce rates amongst staff members. You still see many “old school” men who found a wife to rotate every 3-4 years with them, but you rarely see women their age having that same experience. I never met one actually, yet I met several men. I would say though, for younger generations it’s more equal (though not totally). In any case, I’ve met many men and woman who make that choice everyday.[2]

I want more. I want it all. It makes me feel like a feminist failure not making that choice, as I see the birds becoming Neil Gaiman’s hunger birds, I close my eyes and just try to survive. I definitely thought it would be easier. I have contacts, I thought, with the organizations I’ve worked for. I have people who can speak for me and my work (I swear I’m pretty good!).

Naive as I was, this is not enough. You give these organizations your personal time, your family time and frequently, your sanity, your health and your sleep. I used to travel 2-3 weeks in a month and sacrificed a lot for my work (those who think frequent work travel is fun have never done it). You loose your figure from all the hotel food and say hi to your eye bags from nights of office work that you only get to do then. Yet the loyalty or appreciation you receive from the organization is best known for its absence. People may think you’re great but even when someone will go the extra mile for you, the organizational structure and values, its functioning, prevents any kind of good human resources policies and loyalty to be effective.

Only when you’re living the possibility of this choice is when you realize why all those colleagues who already made it joke sarcastically about how the failure with partner number 2 or 3 coincided with their amazing time in Bosnia, Rwanda or Kenya. So I still want it all, and even if it is considerably much harder to find an opportunity that doesn’t involve going to a “no family duty station” (and let’s not even get the risk of death, kidnapping and other harms in certain stations, that’s for another post), I will make the same choice everyday.

It’s a bitter-sweet taste. Some days more bitter than anything. And as personal as this post has turned out to be, it’s a reflection on the humanitarian system and what it requires of persons wanting to work in aid and development. We have created a system that allows highly passionate individuals to fully live only one kind of passion. It’s also perhaps a somewhat jealous tribute to all my amazing friends and colleagues, and the ones I don’t know, who make a different choice than mine everyday. The ones willing to sacrifice almost all for this calling. To them, chapeau! But they shouldn’t have to make this choice.

I guess I am still not one of them, and probably never will be, but the internal debate doesn’t go away. I have it with myself as I sit at my desk applying for much less exciting jobs that ultimately have less impact. Then I see Katarina’s book sitting on my shelf and I decide on the same route everyday, over and over again. What an exhausting journey this is!


[1] Allow me to clarify that all these facts are my own assumptions. I have no clue if someone in her life wanted them and she still decided to donate them to the library. I’m using her as a metaphor for many women (and men) I’ve met in for this situation and, mostly, using her example because that was the feeling I had at that moment.

[2] I also want to say, these people are not entirely alone. Many of my amazing friends who have made this choice have a strong network of friends and colleagues who become their family and I don’t want to paint them as sad people at all. That is, however, not to say that they have indeed sacrificed a lot, mainly family life, or even the possibility to have a family, for this compromise they have with their work.

The Baby Matrix

15 Oct

Yesterday I was reminded again why the world needs feminism. Why everyone, men, women, children do. And how it is sometimes hard when you start seeing gender in everything and how it permeates so many facets of lives and absolutely every facet of reproduction and child rearing. And how difficult it is to make someone – who does not see the world this way – understand without him or her accusing you of exaggeration.

But let’s start at the beginning. Yesterday, I went to the hospital to visit a baby. Not just any baby, my boyfriend’s sister’s baby. Which, by extension, is something like my niece and I am very proud. She is the tiniest baby with the most hair in the world. As I stood watching her, it seemed like she was singing to herself while she kept touching her face, not understanding that her hands and face all belonged to her. She is incredibly cute and adorable, obviously. However, I cannot be sure if she was already, like I suspect, singing Yellow Submarine to herself because I didn’t hear any sounds coming out of her mouth. Why is that? Because I could only see the tiny human from behind a glass wall and I wasn’t able to touch her. Do I suffer from the Plague or any other contagious disease which could potentially be fatal to newborn beings? Not that I know of.

The hospital I went to look at the baby was a Hungarian hospital. Hungary has a pretty advanced health system in terms of the actual treatment, proven, for example, by the fact that gazillions of Austrians and Germans come over the border every year for dental treatment because it is good and cheap.

But when it comes to newborns, what I saw yesterday is this: the mother, after the birth, is normally put in a room with one or two other mothers in the maternity ward. The maternity ward is a no go area for anyone who is not a mother, a baby, a doctor or a nurse. This means that you cannot visit the mother in her room, for reasons that evade me. If you want to see her, she has to come out. I guess one of the reasons is that the mother can get some rest and is not subjected to strangers visiting someone else in the room when she doesn’t feel well. However, this means, that a) the mother is totally alone there with no family or support to comfort her (the mum I visited told me she couldn’t stop crying when initially she was totally alone in a room and that she appreciates the presence of another mother now so that she has at least someone to talk to) and b) for you to visit the mother, she actually has to come out at the maternity ward. Yesterday, there were about five other mothers standing outside the maternity ward in a hall which had two iron benches and a snack machine and lots of crude lighting. All of these mothers wore night or hospital gowns and some additionally carried around their urinary catheters in a plastic bag. Now that is the state in which you want lots of strangers to see a tube carrying your pee emerge from between your legs, right?

But even worse than that, for me, was that the mums were not allowed to bring the babies outside. So there were five little ones in tiny beds on wheels propped behind the glass door for relatives to watch them and take pictures and make baby noises. The most positive hospital memories I have (well, the only positive ones) are from visiting friends and family with newborns. You sit around their bed, you marvel at the tiny hands and feet and their funny grimaces. Everyone takes turns in holding the baby and remarking how much it looks like Uncle Michael when he came out. You might wipe away a tear when you witness older siblings seeing their younger brother or sister for the first time, carefully stroking their head and then doing it again for the camera. You help the new mum with adjusting to this new life a bit, by reassuring that you are there, that you will be there through all the poo and baby vomit and sleepless nights ahead and that her baby is indeed the best, cleverest, most beautiful, funniest human being on this earth, the bullet that killed Kennedy.

None of this was possible in this hospital. And the very worst part, the thing that just put me over the edge, was that it was not even possible for the dad. Indeed, the person who actually took part in making the baby was not allowed to touch it either! He was allowed to stay in the delivery room with the mother for two hours after the birth and from then on he could only see his newborn child through glass. If there are minor complications during the birth which cause the mother to be very weak afterwards and prompt her to need a lot of rest for a couple of days during which she is unable to care for the baby, the baby’s father is not allowed to stay with his baby, not even during the day. The baby is cared for by the nurses and will, in that case, have little physical contact with anyone.

For the sake of completeness, in this hospital, it was  possible to pay for a private room in which the parents of the baby could stay together. So rich dads get to care for their newborns. In this room, however, no other visitors could be received either.

This experience was disturbing on so many levels I couldn’t believe the gender stereotyping and the sexism that this system manifested. I was outraged on behalf of all the fathers that had to look at their baby through glass not being able to hold and fed them and sing to them. On behalf of the mothers who had to go through the humiliating experience of carrying around their pee in front of twenty people they had never seen before. On behalf of the baby who should be able to experience physical contact from both their parents, as it is proven to be important to their development and well-being, particularly right after the birth and during the following days. And on behalf of them both for the obvious institutionalisation of gender roles and ideas on how child rearing should be organised and who should have a say in it. Mum stays in and cares for the baby, dad goes out to celebrate the arrival of his child with a couple of drinks (because, what else could he do, not being allowed to be at the hospital?), showing up every day with flowers and good words but not actively being able to help. Now many people only spend two days in the hospital, but with complications, it can easily amount to more than a week in which a baby can only be seen behind glass. I was appalled by the paternalism this whole system reeked of, telling grown up women that it is their and only their obligation to tend to their babies needs and that they mustn’t let anybody else touch the precious offspring (offspring which were totally healthy and, if it weren’t for the complications because of which the mum had to rest a little longer in hospital, would long be home and cuddled by friends and family).

For me, this was such an obvious manifestation of sexism and symptoms of antique gender stereotypes in a country in which a man is entitled to a grand five days of paternity leave and in which the paternity leave can only be shared after the child turned one, the constitution calls the family the ‘fundamental framework for community, in which the pre-eminent values are loyalty, faith and love’, and Fidesz (the governing party) politicians refuse to call domestic violence by its common Hungarian name (translated as violence in the family) because the family is a cozy sacred nest of peace and cannot be besmirched by associating it with anything negative. A country in which a member of parliament for the government party physically assaults his wife in such a severe manner that she ends up in hospital and, when asked, explains to the bewildered nation that his wife tripped over the pet dog. And a country iwhere another Fidesz member of parliament claims the reason of domestic violence is the fact that women don’t make enough children in order to be respected within the family and calls upon ‘ladies’ to produce two, three or four children ‘as a gift for the fatherland’ before  they ‘can fulfill themselves and may work at different jobs’.

But I am told that sexism has no influence on this particular case, on how maternity wards are organised and on the rights and obligations of mothers and fathers there. I am told that the reason are practical issues, or maybe corruption (that the hospital wants people to pay for private rooms) etc. I see how it can be hard to associate a specific case with a broader, systemic issue of society. I am not claiming that other issues are not also at work here. But it is frustrating to try to explain something that is so obvious to you to someone who just totally doesn’t see it. It makes me feel like in the sexist matrix. And it is easy to be told or to even feel like a fundamentalist, to feel like the one crashing the party when everyone else just wants to admire the baby (from far away). But these things are interconnected. How should dads and mums get a sense of child rearing as a shared responsibility when a newborn baby gets cut of basically any contact between themselves and their father in the first days of their life? How should couples arrive at the conclusion that they both have to tend to the physical and emotional needs of this tiny person when one of them is prohibited from doing so by the same institution which patronises them and puts their baby behind glass walls? And how should new mothers not feel left abandoned to the child-rearing tasks in a place where they are physically, actually, alone? All these are leads for and expressions of greater societal persuasions, convictions held by a majority that see a division of household/child-rearing labour and gaining employment and financial support of the family for women and men. They manifest themselves everywhere in the world, on all levels, in law and policy, as well as in the cribs of tiny humans.

How are maternity wards organized in your country? Can dads come and visit or even stay overnight? Are visitors allowed to see the mum and  baby in their room?

When the private becomes public, and we close our eyes at it

4 Jul

£££250PEOPLE-ONLY-Nigella-Lawson-1955474

We have all read about it. Nigella found herself a victim of domestic violence in the eyes of Britain and the world. The horrible event has been covered by the media from different perspectives that all dance around the Achilles’ heel of this particular form of abuse: are we really still categorizing this as a private matter?

Mainstream media in the UK covered the issue and public figures commented on it. The coverage revealed, with some exceptions, that people will bravely stand against domestic violence as long as they are talking about the topic in general, but not about a particular situation, person or woman. More importantly, we repeatedly read how accusing a man who might just have been joking or trying to make a point is surely not something we should rush into. After all: no one knows what really happened, is what people say. And it drives me crazy.

I saw the pictures and have a pretty good idea of what his actions against her were. I don’t know why he did it, but I don’t think it matters. Saatchi described the situation as a “playful tiff” and people seek to believe it: after all, who doesn’t dream about being choked in public by their husband? People just don’t understand humor these days…

Reading and talking about it, I am shocked by the amount of persons that insist they cannot judge the situation from those pictures. Have they really seen them? Unless these were fabricated (which no one, not even Saatchi, has alleged) the situation is pretty clear to me. Yet, these are some of the comments we were lucky to read from UK media and public figures on Nigella’s personal via crusis:

The only way the Saatchi marriage stands a chance is if everyone – including the Metropolitan Police – back off. Sadly, I doubt this is possible.” Said Christine Odone in The Telegraph. This one is so far out there I doubt I need to comment, right? I love the way she refers to the Saatchi marriage as an institution needing rescuing. Do take a look at the article though; you don’t want to miss Odone’s advice for victims of domestic violence: fry a Mars Bar to overcome your marriage crisis”.

Another one that made my day was Nick Griffin MEP’s tweetIf I had the opportunity to squeeze Nigella Lawson, her throat wouldn’t be my first choice”. Vote BNP!

Nick Clegg in a radio broadcast interview refused to comment on the issue because he wasn’t there and he had only seen the photos: “it could have been a fleeting situation”, he said. After all, it’s not violence if it was just this once… right Nick? He later rushed off to condemn domestic violence due to hard criticism, but only once Saatchi had himself gone to the Police and accepted a caution for assault.

Similarly, Greenslade had to issue an apology in The Guardian, as he initially said it was a rushed judgment to call this domestic violence and that the pictures only told part of the story. He made his point stronger by quoting Saatchi’s declaration: “I held Nigella’s neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point… There was no grip, it was a playful tiff.” In his apology Greenslade claims his doubts in condemning the act come from years of friendship with Nigella. With friends like these…

The Independent’s Ellen Jones could think of nothing better than to attack Nigella for lying to us: “Nigella has welcomed us into her home, but not her heart. More so than any other TV chef, she’s selling the illusion of intimacy – and we’re buying it”. Nailed! How dare Nigella not include her most private, difficult problems in her worldwide show!

While other newspapers took a strong stand on calling this abuse, they immediately dwelled on how this will have a catastrophic impact for her career and gave Nigella’s drama a paparazzi style coverage, rather than a serious analysis of a serious issue.

It’s not surprising to see all these comments and excuses stem from similar, old paradigms:

  • Domestic violence is private and no one should say, comment or do anything about it. It’s up to the couple to solve it and intervening is intrusive and unhelpful.
  • If it’s just once, not very hard, happened very fast, or was in any other way “excusable”; then it’s not really domestic violence and we shouldn’t rush to judge.
  • It’s good to condemn domestic violence in abstract and theory. However, when speaking about real people, let alone friends, one shall never comment on, even obvious, situations of violence.

Thankfully I have also read some articles (an exception to this trend, though) and some commentators still have the courage to call this what it was: outright abuse. Suzane Moore reflected on the fact that no one intervened despite later being eager to report on Nigella’s obvious distress. Moore writes: “If a man had his hands round the throat of another man during a meal would the waiters have carried on as normal?” I don’t think they would have…

Readers’ comments and non-traditional news sites have condemned this act: why didn’t any one help her? Erin Ryan for Jezebel has it right: this is NOT a private matter! And it isn’t really, when statistics say that 1 in 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, that one incident of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute and that on average, 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. It’s a complex issue to analyze and a complete picture of the extent and nature of domestic violence in the UK can be found at the British Crime Survey of 2004. However, those numbers are surely enough for us to conclude that it is a matter of public interest.

The issue is not simple: the reason why domestic violence is still affecting societies where gender equality has otherwise improved is the fact that it combines two problems we have a hard time dealing with; gender discrimination and the private sphere dilemma.

Domestic violence is a form of gender discrimination and a violation of human rights. Yet we seek to justify it or find an excuse for every concrete situation we come accross: there must have been something she said to provoke him, we don’t know his side of the story, etc. Saatchi’s ex-wife said he was never violent towards her, so there must be another explanation. We are desperate to find excuses for the powerful, dominant aggressor. He is, after all, the white, rich, male. If he says he was just joking, that surely should appease us all…

Take that and add the fact that we are taught to never intervene in private issues, and you have a perfect formula for the perpetuation of domestic violence. What should it mean, for the average Joe, that domestic violence is a public matter? And here I’m talking about any kind of domestic violence, where men and children can be victims as well.

It should mean that we should all stand against it when encountering it. A male victim of domestic violence said on BBC’s Radio 4 “Woman’s Hour” that the hardest thing for him was how his relatives, friends and neighbors isolated him when it started becoming obvious. They would look away on the street and it made him feel he was alone in it. His situation ended when someone anonymously called the police, but no one ever offered him help or approached his wife.

So all in all, it doesn’t matter if we all saw the fear and tears in Nigella’s eyes, if we saw the series of photographs of him grabbing her neck or pinching her nose like a school bully, or those of her fleeing the restaurant in tears. Let’s not rush to judge, right? Those must have been happy tears, she was still laughing and was surely just in a rush to buy her Mars Bars at Waitrose.

When we think of it, the reasons why we continue to be silent when we hear our neighbor’s walls bang and a crying voice are far beyond gender discrimination issues. We have lost (did we ever have it?) a sense of community and human solidarity. And I’m not talking about spying on your neighbors but about walking away when we know that there is an abusive situation going on. We say nothing when we see a parent hit his child or yell abusively at him on the street, even if we get enraged by it. We choose to walk away because “it’s a private matter”.

What do we fear will happen should we intervene? Embarrassment? Next time we’re confronted with a public act of violence or abuse we should stop and think. What does the person affected fear? Is our fear that important after all?

Masculinity and its Baggage: Patriarchy’s Perks for All

9 Apr

While I read our previous posts about sexism as manifested in different areas of life: the rape culture, the denial to abortion, internalized sexism and the battle against the devaluation of feminine characteristics, I find myself going back to the role of men in patriarchy and masculinity.

It’s not new to say that men in machismo always have the upper hand, in the sense that they are considered the powerful, rational, wise beings who shall dictate and protect, honour and lead. As with any group with power, there is abuse of it. This is not a matter of opinion but a fact: let’s look at the statistics of gender based violence, political participation, equal pay, etc.

However, as a feminist, I am a bit tired of the discourse of fellow feminists who continue to identify the battle against inequality as exclusively a female struggle; to see men as the enemy. They are not only wrong but stealing our real possibilities of success. It is only by seeing sexism as a social construct that affect both women and men –and I’m not trying to diminish the oppression of women in patriarchal societies-  that we will ever get there.

In his blog, Inequality by (Interior) Design, Tristan Bridges explains sexual and gender inequality in a great and simple way: as any inequality, gender inequality is reproduced in ways that feel natural, but are actually designed. Sexism, according to Bridges, is naturalized (men don’t cry and a woman reaches her purpose when she becomes a mother), minimized as tradition (from FGM and child marriage to men always having to pick up the bill), structured by relationships (husband and wife, brother and sister) and part of the social spaces in which we live in.

Although I always understood this, I learned it even better when I taught young adults about women’s rights. I started the class with the obvious concepts: sex vs. gender. Once these concepts and others (sexism, androcentrism and patriarchy) were clear, in an interactive conversation, I went one by one asking my students to share one aspect in which they felt personally affected by patriarchy or by living in a patriarchal society.

Everyone had more than one thing to say, men and women. A lot of my male students had a huge list, not because they suffered more than girls in general, but because they had never been asked to think about it that way, even less to talk about it. Patriarchy and sexism obviously oppress women, but this doesn’t mean that the roles that men play in it are all positive for them. Let’s think of some examples:

With all the rape culture news we’ve been seeing lately, I was sad when reading this Observer article about what a particular group of men in the western region of Goa (India) had to say about rape: “When the girls look sexy and the boys can’t control themselves, they are going to rape. It happens” was one answer. Another was “girls are not allowed outside after six [pm] because anything can happen – rape, robbery, kidnaps. It is the mentality of some people. They are putting on short and sexy dresses, that’s why. Then men cannot control themselves.” I cannot help to feel insulted as a woman by these comments, but also as a woman who knows so many men that would never think of using darkness and short skirts as a reason to hurt another person.

With these arguments being repeated over and over again, I wonder why psychiatry has focused its research on female hysteria, but never thought such irrational behaviour by men was worth any attention. It might be, of course, because of our long tradition of viewing these situations as innocent and helpless Adam tempted by the -oh yes- original sinner, Eve. Never gets old, does it?

As a woman I am offended by this and by our constant portrayal of women as dramatic, hysterical beings incapable of rational thought. Why do we have to be compared to ridiculously emotional beings incapable of reasoning? But again, I also hate that this suppositions, as they compare all the great guys I know and their rational self-control to that of crepuscular converted beasts. I mean, do we see the common trait here, people?

mascu

And this is just one of many examples. Men in patriarchal societies also experience other stigmas which build up pressure and stress and have a (not excusable) contributing factor to violent behaviour: men don’t feel, they don’t bend; they never cry or express emotions. Men should be strong and provide, as the survival of a family depends on them. In all situations, their manhood is at stake if the expected standards are not met.  Men should always be ready for action, for a man with a normal or lower libido is not a man, really. Isn’t this pressure also overwhelming?

For it is true, women in patriarchy live under the constant pressure of proving they are “good women”. But men in patriarchy live under an enormous pressure as well, that of always having to prove themselves as men. Manhood is questioned by parents while boys are being formed, by friends at school since they learn how to talk: Be a man! Don’t be a sissy! Boys don’t cry! Be the man of the house, daddy says when he’s leaving. Be strong. Men pay the bills. Men always take the hardest choice to protect women. And don’t complain about any of it, after all, you’re a man, you’ll survive. (This last line I actually got from a mini book I bought my husband in one of those brainless airport shopping sprees, entitled “Stuff Every Husband Should Know”. I know. I’m embarrassed).

Add to that millennial pressure of proving yourself a little bit of change, a change in the roles without a proper understanding of what those roles meant and how they affected men as well, and you have a recipe for disaster: like a pressure cooker it could explode leaving bad consequences.

Do we need more examples? Men during exile (refugee families) have a harder time finding jobs than women, which creates a reversed bread winner situation, making unemployed frustrated men more prone to domestic violence. There are also articles relating this lack of understanding of social gendered roles and their changes they have been experimenting with the success of the women’s rights movement, in very egalitarian societies such as the Swedish one: they have one of the better rates in the world related to various aspects of gender equality, but have not been able to tackle sexual and gender based violence successfully.

This should not surprise us, though. If we, men and women, continue to think and act as if gender equality and feminism are a female thing, if we continue to fail to involve men in this fight (and not only for women’s benefit, but for men’s benefit as well) we’ll never achieve equality in all areas of life, public and private.

We cannot continue to think sex and gender inequality is different from any other form of discrimination. Do we see racial minorities excluding non-members from their struggles? Do we heterosexual believers in equality not join our fellow LGBTI friends in their struggle for their rights being recognized as human rights? Why should this be different?

It’s very simple to me: people, if you believe and want to attain gender equality, you are a feminist, whether you are a boy or a girl. Learn about the concept, deal with the stigmas the word has and help to correct them in the general collective mind rather than hide from them. But don’t stop there; get involved in this struggle. If you are a girl, involve the men in your lives; help them understand this is important for everyone. If they love you they will fight for you too, in their own individual ways. If you are a boy, consider your role in perpetuating and ending sexual and gender discrimination. After all, we’re all in this together; this is in everyone’s benefit. It’s not easy, of course it isn’t! Social change is hard and as it’s seen as natural and traditional, you’ll have to battle against a lot of unconvinced persons (the hardest one will be yourself).

So it won’t be easy for anyone. Girls: you will have to open that space of shared ideas and comfort you already have formed with your girlfriends and other women. Opening means opening for debate, understanding where other positions come from and finding a way of selling yours. Boys: it will be especially hard for you, as this is relatively new and in my experience, it’s hard not to take things personally and not to feel always as the attacked party. But you’ll survive, after all, you are men.

‘Hell no, I’m Not One of THOSE Girls!’ or: The Battle with Internalized Sexism

3 Apr

In high school, and as long as I can remember, I have been labeled a feminist. Probably not in those words , but capturing the essence of the term or what other people thought this term describes. Which, in high school, was being someone pretty high-strung and slightly annoying, always ready to call others out on sexist stuff (wasn’t too aware of the more subtle forms yet and, I admit, the time I wanted to force the teacher to use the female form instead of the German generic masculinum for the sake of fairness, that might have been a wee bit over the top [Side note: I could never be a teacher. Oh, I would hate these little smartasses]).

In high school, and as long  as I can remember, I have been the good girl. Good student, well-mannered, nice middle-class family, that sort of thing. Being the good girl entailed to absolutely not, under no circumstances, being caught doing “girly” things. Because those were shallow. Brain-dead. Hysteric. Beneath me. For my teenage self, those two categories were not mutually exclusive. For my teenage self, talking down on specific types of women for their sheer “femaleness” went perfectly well together with championing women’s rights. You know, I was entertaining grand thoughts about IMPORTANT stuff. Equal wages, equal political representation, that sort of things. They: come on, they were just so ridiculous, so…girly. Ohhh, well.

When I grew up, there was a very clear divide between two groups and you had to decide which group you wanted to belong to: the girly girls (lots of makeup, lots of boy talk, lots of boy action (or at least, lots of talking about the hypothetical action), dislike for all things to do with school to be exhibited as in a shop window at all times) and the brainy girls (active in school, good grades, dislike for all things related to “shallow” stuff such as fashion, boys, physical appearance to be exhibited as in a shop window at all times). This was a decision to be taken, in my head, not only by myself, but one that by association also stretched to other members of my family. Hell, I remember one evening, I must have been around 12/13, when I asked my mum whether she could, in the future, stop wearing lipstick because the other mothers (read: the other mothers of the right sort of people) also didn’t do that. I can’t remember her reaction, but I’m happy to report, the lipstick stayed on.

For a long time, I thought that this divide was mostly in my head. That I could have been both the flamboyant party girl AND the opinion leader, if I wanted. But I don’t think it’s true. I wouldn’t have been taken serious, being one of “them” in addition to being interested in school stuff. I suppose that this is also a cultural issue of my small town German upbringing. I see less such divide in my friends from other countries or even in my friends who grew up in other, bigger places within the same country. However, the issue underlying the choice my teenage self was unknowingly faced with is a universal one: the issue is internalized sexism, the rejection and the devaluation of stuff considered “girly” by societal consensus. A bit as if it were a contagious illness that one could catch and which’s transmission upon oneself one had to dismiss in the strongest possible terms, as to dispel all suspicious that one is infected: ‘Me??? I’m not one of THOSE girls! See, I’m almost one of you! You can take me and my opinions seriously! They are not clouded by my femaleness, they are not diluted by layers of makeup, I don’t have time for all these superficial things, I promise!

One had to, at all times, uphold the good girl appearance, or else one ran uns the risk of becoming vulnerable, a target for the assumption that one cannot actually be taken seriously, being so colorful in the face, being in such a short skirt, being so emotional, being so girly.

I thought about this recently when I read a quote attributed to Ariel Levy:

“Attacking femaleness, deriding ‘girly’ stuff, rolling your eyes at ‘women’s issues’, declaring yourself a ‘tomboy’ who gets along better with men because women are silly or pretty or whatever – these are expressions of internalized sexism. If that’s the way you feel about your own sex, you’ll be doomed to feel inferior no matter what you achieve in life.”

This is scarily true. It doesn’t mean you should not be a tomboy, if that’s who you are. It doesn’t mean you need to start watching “Love, Actually” when Christmas time comes around and subscribe to People magazine if you are not interested. It doesn’t mean that, as a woman, you mustn’t do “manly” stuff or that “real” women have to do x, y, and z, but not a, b and c. There is no such thing as a “real” woman in the first place. Everyone, do whatever the hell you want! But, if you do or don’t do a certain thing just because being “girly” is associated with being shallow, unprofessional, profane, weak, unimportant, then you’re doing it wrong. Then you are being disloyal not only to other women, but first and foremost to yourself.

Yes, as a woman, you have been born into a world that is made for men. They set the standards, they define what is “normal”, you will always the “other”. But it doesn’t, in any way or form, get better for you or for anyone else with a vagina, if you think you can enhance your position by talking down on things traditionally, narrow-mindedly, wrongly associated with being female.

Not less serious (just mean)

Not less serious (just mean) [Copyright: TM&Copyright 2003 by Paramount Pictures ]

And not only is it disloyal: it’s dangerous also. It creates a divide between the “good” and the “bad” girls. Between those who are to be taken seriously and those whose opinions can be easily dismissed. Between the “rational” and the “hysteric”. And, between those who behaved prim and proper and those who “had it coming”. In times, in which the whole world discusses whether binge drinking at a party actually equals consent, in times in which it is actually necessary to stage Slut Walks and hammer it into peoples’ heads that the person responsible for a rape is….(drum roll) the rapist and not (surprise!) the victim, for wearing a short dress, for exercising her right to walk public spaces, for previously having fun, this is hazardous.

We want men to care for women’s rights. Because they are not a sideline issue, they are human rights. We want them to see us as equals, we want them to stop being scared of being associated with femaleness because being associated with femaleness is inherently being associated with weakness. Fair enough. Then maybe we should stop showing that we are so afraid of being associated with this femaleness ourselves, that we have to deliberately distance ourselves from it by means of words or actions. And maybe, just maybe, we should stop being afraid of it altogether. Just a suggestion.

Let’s all cry for da poor widdle rapists

22 Mar

This week in the little town of Steubenville, Ohio, two man-boy-monsters were convicted of rape. Ma’lik Richmond, 16, and Trent Mays, 17, were found “delinquent” (juvi court code for “guilty”) after prosecutors presented copious evidence proving that they had digitally raped a 16 year-old girl while she was virtually unconscious (blacked out from booze, though recent allegations indicate she may have been roofied). This evidence wasn’t hard to come by, seein’ as how the man-boy-monsters photographed the victim’s limp, urine-soaked body, texted/Tweeted the pictures for everyone to see, and posted a 12-minute video to YouTube bragging about their conquests. (Can one be charged with “idiocy” in addition to rape? And is that an aggravating or mitigating factor?) For a detailed and gut-churning account of the more than 350,000 text messages from the 17+ phones confiscated for evidence during the investigation, read this article from Yahoo Sports. (And can I just say, I’m fucking embarrassed that I just linked to Yahoo Sports as a thorough journalistic source. Do your job, mass media outlets.)

Because they are minors, the perps received relatively short sentences — a minimum of one year in juvenile detention for Richmond, two years for Mays (added time for distributing photos of a naked minor), with the possibility of remaining in juvi until they are 21, at which time the case will be reassessed.

Both teens will also have to register with the sexual offenders registry, meaning that they will always and forever be linked with this rape.  From now until the day they die (or until Congress ends the registry, whichever comes first), their neighbors, colleagues, employers, prospective mates, and future children will always be able to trace them to this heinous crime. (For the record, I absolutely despise the sex offender registry, though I understand and am sympathetic to its origin and purpose.)

Everything about this tale is tragic. That said, let us remember that the tragedy stems from the actions of the rapists and centers around the effects on the victim.

Apparently CNN missed that memo. The network is currently taking a beating for its sympathetic (to the rapists!) coverage of the sentencing hearing. Nothing like two semi-handsome budding football stars crying in open court to make middle America feel twangs of sympathy. Reporter Poppy Harlow told anchorwoman Candy Crowley (yes, those are real names; I can’t make shit like that up): “I’ve never experienced anything like it, Candy. It was incredibly emotional — incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.”

Needless to say, other news outlets and the general public wasted no time in condemning Poppy, Candy and the rest of the Lollypop Kids for their failure to recognize that (a) the rapists brought this shitstorm on themselves, and (b) the victim — remember her, the little girl who was raped? —  is picking up the pieces of her life after it actually fell apart.

Many are comparing CNN’s coverage to a two-year-old story by the Onion, a satirical website that has been prescient in much of its coverage recently. Life imitating art?

In a three-way tie for “Most Shitastic Coverage of the Steubenville Rape,” CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all aired the first name of the victim on live television. Really? You don’t think bleeping out the victim’s name would have been a wise use of the seven-second delay? Or is that only reserved for when Bono drops an F-bomb during his Golden Globes acceptance speech?

I find the Steubenville rape deeply disturbing at a very personal level. There have been a few times in my life that I have witnessed or been the victim of sexual harassment or (I now realize) rape. I was in my late teens or early twenties, so older than these kids, but I was a special kind of naive. I had no idea that what I was witnessing or experiencing “counted” as anything criminal. All I knew is that it made me feel icky — the kind of icky that is impervious to hot showers and heavy drinking.

So what made me not tell someone on the French train that an employee had tried to molest me while I was alone in a sleeper car? What made me not call the cops when I, in bed with a girlfriend sleeping off a bender at a close friend’s house, awoke to find a friend — who had been sleeping on the couch in the living room — dry humping me in his tighty-whities with his hand down my pants? (Although I did tell my brother a few days later and he, much to his credit, never once said “well, at least you learned a lesson”. Instead he called the dude and calmly threatened to kill him if he ever came near me again. So there’s that.) Why didn’t I intervene when a situation eerily similar to the Steubenville rapes unfolded before me at a small house party, except the rapists (and yes, now I realize they were rapists) wielded a VHS camcorder instead of cell phones and had no social media website to upload the video to?

Why did I stay silent? Because of the victim-blaming assholes that came out in droves following the sentencing of Richmond and Mays. “Public Shaming“, a Tumblr blog devoted to calling out social media douchebags, features three pages of posts to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other forums espousing the “slut was asking for it”/”she shares responsibility” mentality. Public Shaming came across such gems as:

image

and

image

Then you have “Why don’t we have a Dumb Fucking Whore Registry? Now that would be justice” by the aptly named Judgy Bitch. Charming. She argues that the unconscious girl (who was dragged from party to party, finger repeatedly, urinated on, and left naked on a stranger’s couch) was not actually raped. Rather, it was a case of “boys being boys” and “stupid whores being stupid whores.”  (Did I mention there’s a 12 minute video of the boys bragging about “how hard she got raped”? So by THEIR definition, let alone that of the Ohio criminal code, she was raped.)

And you wonder why I, like so many scared teens, stayed silent.

In my mid-twenties, a bit older and a bit wiser, I began to fight back. One incredibly strange night, a large man began beating his teeny-tiny girlfriend outside my friend’s apartment while we were having a party. (We didn’t know either of them.) He dragged her across the lawn by her hair while she kicked and screamed, pulled her between two buildings, pinned her down across his lap like a small child, and repeatedly punched her face while she wailed. After all the guys at the party refused to help her, I ran up, grabbed the woman, and kept running with her until I got behind a closed door. Cops were called, statements taken, and the biggest asshole at the party (now a US Marshall) yelled at me for butting into the business of others. I was shamed for, uh, I still don’t know — my action highlighting his inaction? (I realize this was not actually a rape incident. Still, you get the idea.)

In Steubenville: this is rape culture’s Abu Grhaib [warning: graphic (though pixilated) photo included], Laurie Penny from the NewStatesmen is able to articulate the importance of the Steubenville rape far better than I:

The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’… The Steubenville rapists claim that, when they drove a passed-out girl from party to party, slinging her into and out-of cars like a deflated sex-dolly and sticking their fingers inside her, they didn’t know they were doing anything wrong. That’s plausible, although it’s no defence. It’s plausible if, and only if, you have internalised the assumption that women are not real human beings, just bodies to be manipulated with or without consent, pieces of wet and willing meat there for you to use for your pleasure. There’s a word for what happens when one group of people sees another as less than human and insists on its right to hurt and humiliate them for fun. It’s an everyday word that is often misused to refer to something outside of ourselves. The word is ‘evil’… Anyone can be outspoken about Steubenville after the fact. The question is: who will stand up when the next Jane Doe is attacked, without expectation of thanks or acclaim, at risk of derision and ostracism or worse, and speak out about all the other Steubenvilles that are still taking place, and will continue to until enough people say ‘stop’?

Could the horror inflicted upon Jane Doe be a catalyst for change? Maybe. A Change.org petition calling on CNN to apologize for its coverage has over 200,000 signatures. Internet terrorists/hacktivists (depending on your point of view) Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) has steadfastly refused to let the rape go gentle into that good night. It continues to build a case against the “rape crew”, compiling and releasing additional information implicating a huge number of people. Some argue that Anonymous has gone too far — that most people involved in the case, including the victim, just want the mess to go away. But isn’t victim shaming and rape culture part of the reason they want everything to go away?

From the ashes of this soul-destroying story rises one anecdote that gives me hope for humanity. The aforementioned Yahoo Sports article highlights what seems to be the only teen in the greater Steubenville Metro Area with morals. Sean McGhee, Richmond’s cousin and Mays’ best friend, was at one of the parties attended by Jane Doe. He saw her stumbling and slurring and knew she was shitcanned. So that night, when rumors (and photos) began to surface of Mays and Richmond abusing her, he confronted his best friend and his cousin via text: “…you are dead wrong. I am going to choke the [redacted] out of you for that. You could go to jail for life for that. What the [redacted].”

Maybe there’s hope after all.

[To get a full breakdown of the photos, video, and timeline of events, see So you’re tired of hearing about rape culture? Warning, graphic. Because, you know, a girl was raped. And that shit is horrible.]

The Black List

10 Mar

I recently moved to the UK. As many women before me, I had to get registered with a General Practitioner (GP) in order to get birth control. The joys of having yet another unknown person ask me the most personal questions, giving me unsolicited advice about my personal reproductive choices and even worse, getting acquainted with my vagina are, as also many women will agree, not the joys we daydream about.

The great thing -I was told by the NHS website- is that I could choose my GP as long as it is a practice that is appointed to my postcode. I went into a review for GP practices and was disappointed by the kind of reviews I saw: they all reflected the amount of time they had to wait, whether the secretary was nice, and other banal information.

So here I was, asking myself, how do I choose a vagina friendly GP? And by this I mean, how can I make sure I go to a practice where my choices are met by a respectful, open-minded health operator, that will provide any service I may need in the future without a judgement?

I know what you’re thinking: just say it. Yes, I want to know I go to a GP that will not sabotage me in the future in case I ever need an abortion. No, I’ve never had one and am not planning to ever need one. No, I don’t think I would be terrible if I ever do and actually believe it’s my right.  I do realize abortion is not a right in the UK, this post I believe illustrates greatly some of the issues around abortion in this country.

Maybe it’s not even about knowing I can get one, but making sure I’m not with a GP that in principle believes I shouldn’t get one in any circumstances, or even worse, would on purpose deny me of an abortion, a service I am supposed to be able to get in the UK.

While I was googling away to inform myself on this issue, I  found out that in 2007, nearly a quarter of GPs were refusing to refer women for terminations and a fifth wanted the procedure banned outright. Yesterday, the Independent also raised the issue by reporting that since July 1991, when the abortion pill RU486 was introduced, less than 3,000 women have received it, while more than 60,000 women should have had the option of this non-surgical termination. Less than a half of the NHS hospitals that practice abortions offer the pill. GPs fail to tell their patients they have this option over surgical pregnancy termination.

I’ve been whining about this to friends and they’ve expressed worries from “the other side”. Do I think all GPs should be forced to practice abortions? No, I am a true believer of conscientious objection and think GPs should have a right not to do something against their beliefs. And I believe the NHS system has addressed this and GPs can opt out of providing this service.

But I think: shouldn’t we, women living the UK, have the certainty that we will get a GP that will provide us this service? That’s when the shit hits the wall in some arguments and people suggest I am creating a black list of doctors based on their beliefs, which could create massive discrimination issues. Fair point.

But then, what about us? If we have evidence that GPs are, because of beliefs or any other reason, sabotaging thousand’s of women’s access to a health service, shouldn’t they be accountable for this? After all, once the legal period has passed, that’s it, you’re stuck in a very difficult situation. I briefly thought of the Seinfeld episode “The Pilot”, when Jerry and George write about a show in which a person is convicted with becoming another person’s butler for a while by a judge. Could we then, in such a world, give the baby once it’s born to the GP? Sorry man, you failed to provide me this service, the direct consequence being me having this baby, so here you go: have fun!

As cynical as this may sound, we do have to think about a solution. And I believe the fact that the provision of abortion by NHS personnel is addressed around a GP’s right to opt out, rather than their duty to do so is a critical starting point. If we knew we had GPs that don’t believe in antibiotics and refuse to prescribe them for infections, what would the NHS do? Would they say: don’t worry, you can opt out. Or would they say: the consequence of you not doing this is critical to a person’s health and access to services, so if you won’t do it, you need to tell us now.

I understand that the basic problem is that abortion isn’t a right. And yes, that would fix a lot of problems. But in the meantime…we don’t go around asking if every health service we get is a right in itself, do we? “But doctor, I have a right to chemotherapy when I have cancer”… or “I have a right to painkillers when I’ve hurt myself and am in pain”. Or would we accept a situation in which a person’s died because they didn’t get a blood transfusion in a hospital due to their doctor’s beliefs? We would all be outraged. We consider all these services as part of our right to health and the consequent obligation of this is our State’s obligation to provide us with all it entails. But we are not outraged in this case… not all of us anyway.

So yes, I do think there should be a list. Maybe not a black but a white list. Doctors that are willing to provide this service should enlist and women looking for this service should have a guarantee that the GP they go to will have no problem in giving them what they’re entitled to.

The system still sees this as a favor, an option, something women cannot demand, something for a holy GP to decide in her behalf. That’s the reality, and the consequence of the denial of such a service is as long-term as any can be.

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