Tuesday, March 08, 2011

International Women's Day 2011: Women and Democracy

Last year on international women's day, I wrote a blog post on what the 8th of March is and what it isn't. I felt that was needed; a surprising amount of people want to congratulate women or bring them gifts or congratulate them for being women. Why this is completely wrong you can read there.

This year I want to focus on something recent, something beautiful, but something still troubling. I wrote a while back on women in Egypt's revolution and how they had been made invisible. Lately, the media has started picking up on the importance of women in the front lines of the revolution, demonstrating side by side with the men, women from different religions, backgrounds, with different stories, but the same goal. Even Naomi Wolf wrote a piece on it for Al Jazeera and it involved no rape apologia (!) even though it was far from original.

As the revolution has spread to Libya and other countries, women are still out there, they are still shouting and they are still fighting for freedom and democracy. These women are very much a part of bringing about a freer and fairer society with the hope of being a part of that as well. I did express my worry in the above blog post on women not being properly included in a reconstruction of an Egyptian society, and I stressed the importance of making sure that they were included in order to guarantee a fully free and equal society. But as it seems, sadly, the women were welcome as long as they were needed to further men's goals and needs, and are today being pushed back to their traditional roles - a pattern that is all too obvious in conflict and upheaval where women are expected to participate or support but later return to their assigned duties when it is all over.

Today, these women are once again braving the streets, in a country where it is estimated that 80% of the women have been sexually harassed and much of it takes place in public places, to demand their rights and recognition for the role that they played in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. As this post is being written, there are reports of harassment and violence targeted against the international women's day protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo. (I will update with a proper news article when I find one.) What is said to have happened is that men have entered the square, harassing women and using violence to stop them from demanding their rights. In essence, it is an anti-feminist, anti-women's rights counter protest. The women have served their purpose - they helped overthrow the regime - now when the men have reached equality and freedom, we can go back to the status quo and continue harassing and oppressing women.

Women for Women are organising an event today called on the bridge standing in solidarity with all the women around the world whose voices are not heard, calling for peace and an end to violence against women. They are standing with the women from Afghanistan who continue being excluded from reconstruction processes; with women from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where rape is used systematically as a tactic of war and terror; and with all other women trying to make a difference, like the women in Egypt today, and the women in the Ivory Coast, where women have been killed today in a protest.

Today it is international women's day. It is a day when we are supposed to celebrate what we have accomplished in the past in terms of women's civil and political advancement. It is a day to celebrate the present and all the brilliant women and men who work so hard to include women and make their voices heard. And it is a day to try to change the future, to shout to be seen and heard and included. The violence and harassment against women who are simply trying to demand what should be theirs already - respect, autonomy and being heard - is sad.

These events, the violence against women and the violation of their rights of assembly and walking down the streets without being sexually harassed, shows the importance of this day. This day is important, because today, and only today, the spotlight is on the women. Media all over the world are reporting on events, protests and have in depth analysis of women's movements, women's rights and all things women. For years, women in Egypt have not been able to walk the streets safely, as they are not today, but today the world is watching and crying out in sheer horror. These women and their bravery have always been beautiful, but today it is visible too. Today, these kinds of events are allowed to be seen and heard and discussed.

It has been 100 years since international women's day was established. We have done a lot of fantastic things but, as today's events show, where women are not even allowed to protest for their rights, we still have a long way to go. Don't quit just yet.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tory MSP: Rape Survivor Has Herself to Blame

I think this will be my first post commenting on Scottish politics, but I thought this very relevant to bring to people's attention as the Scottish election is coming up in May.

The F Word UK reports how Bill Aitken, MSP has implied that a woman who was raped on Renfrew Lane here in Glasgow might have been a hooker because
“Somebody should be asking her what she was doing in Renfrew Lane. Did she go there with somebody? … Now, Renfrew Lane is known as a place where things happen, put it that way.”
This is a completely outrageous statement! What does the woman's line of work have anything to do with rape? Can she not be raped because she allegedly sells sex? If it is true, and the woman is a sex worker, it doesn't matter. Sex workers deserve the same access to rights and protection as people who are teachers or bus drivers or politicians or unemployed or whatever. They are people, and they have rights. The views of people like Bill Aitken are downright dangerous to the well-being of these people and feed into a wider stigmatisation of sex workers where it is seen to be acceptable to rape, abuse and treat them however one likes.

Furthermore, what is really problematic, apart from the obvious victim blaming that the F Word UK have already pointed out, is his view of who can and cannot be raped. Not only is there an implicit assumption that sex workers can't be raped because they voluntarily (although, not always voluntarily as Bill Aitken should know) sell sexual services, is the obvious moral assumptions on the part of Aitken. By stating that the woman a) was in the wrong part of the town at the wrong time of night, she must b) be a sex worker or something like it, he is stating that only certain women can be raped. In his view, it seems, a virtuous woman would not be seen in Renfrew Lane or thereabouts at certain points of the day; thus, this woman must be morally inferior or corrupt in some kind of way. (That sex workers should be morally inferior or corrupt is, to begin with, a stupid assumption). In Bill Aitken's world, good people do not get raped. This, in itself, gives rise to very interesting questions on how he would take it if someone he viewed as "good" actually was raped. Either they must be inherently evil or the rape would not have taken place; or they have not been raped and are either exaggerating some sort of consensual sex or they are lying, which would make them liars instead. This is such a backward way of thinking it does not belong in the 21st century.

What is even more outrageous is that this man sits on the justice committee that helped formulate the policy on rape! This man, who wants to blame the rape survivors for putting themselves at risk of rape, is actually forming policies on the matter. I suspect it shall not be long until he issues another statement saying that the most efficient way to prohibit rape is to put all women (because in Aitken's world, I suspect only women can be raped) in a cage and throw the key away. After all, in that case women cannot walk on the streets where they might get raped. But we have to remember that we cannot put this cage in someone's home, because as Aitken might know (but have forgotten) the majority of rapes happen in the home or by someone already familiar to the survivor. Uh oh, would not this make it even worse for women who are now caged up for the familiar men (in worlds like Aitken's, men are perpetrators and women are victims) to use at their whim?

I suppose, then, that Aitken has come up with the golden middle-way in this scenario. Because women cannot safely be protected, in the case of rape, we shall just blame them. Because we all know that women incite men to sexual violence, and especially sex workers who flaunt their genitalia and their sexuality. Because as we all know also, if you have agreed to sex one time, your consent is indefinite - the person is yours for the taking.

What Bill Aitken is managing to do through his statements is placing the responsibility of rape onto the survivors and every single potential victim. He is also implying that if you are raped, you are a slut, and therefore you provoked the act of rape.

People like these should not be close to power. Other people that should not be close to power are people like Annabel Goldie, leader of Scottish Conservatives, who refused to condemn Aitken for his statements. It is people like these who make the streets less safe because they feed into a culture where the responsibility lies with the victim, and the perpetrator walks free from it. It is not outright encouraging of rape, but it is pretty damn near.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Average Human and Changing the World: What We Can Learn from Egypt

If you have missed what has been happening in Egypt for the past three weeks, you must have had your head buried in the sand. The people of Egypt followed suit from the people of Tunisia and overthrew the man who had been oppressing them for 30 years. It was a revolution organised by the people and made possible by the people who for 17 days refused to give in before the man and his collaborators stepped down and handed over the power to the people.

Similar protests have occurred throughout the Arab world, with the most recent being Yemen and Algeria. Jordan recently had its government fired by the king (see Guardian article on Algeria) and there have been rumours of unrest in Iran. Added to this the Iraqi Prime Minister promising three years before the next election not to run for a third term. This is all because the people of these countries have become fed up with being oppressed, fed up with not having a job to go to, not having enough money and living in fear of having their human rights violated.

This entire process of change and democratisation would not be possible if it weren't for the people. If the people, men, women and third gender people together, adults and children, academics, housewives, manual labourers and unemployed youth, did not come together and shout with one unified voice this would not be possible. It is impressive and it is glorious how these people manage to do that, the resolve they have shown. It is inspiring and it is beautiful.

I think there is definitely a lesson to be learned from this for people living in already democratic societies. In the past few decades, voter turnouts have plummeted and people have started experiencing a political apathy. Democratic participation today is not what it was fifty years ago, and this contributes to a downward spiral. People are disgruntled because the politicians do not do their jobs and therefore do not vote, but politicians cannot do their jobs properly if the public does not clearly state what it wants (usually done through a vote, but arguably more civic republican measures such as citizen panels could be beneficial). It is a vicious circle and it benefits no one, apart from perhaps non-person entities such as corporations, which can creep in in the widening gaps that are growing between citizens and their representatives and insert their policy preferences there. There is little that phase us nowadays, and if one does not have a stated interest in politics, or a certain area of society, then there is usually little patience for politics and the power players.

There has been talk about a decline of political capital, one of the famous authors being Robert Putnam and his book about the decline in the American social capital, Bowling Alone. While I do not agree with some of his theories (let's face it, the man is a little outdated when it comes to his slandering of the internet and its potential), he does have a point in that we are not nearly as good at coming together and discussing politics and the state of society. There is just so much else to occupy our minds: TV, the internet, the million various offers of "fun stuff" that are made available to us every day through advertisements. There is so much amusement out there, and we forget about the politics, we forget about the society and we forget about what part we play in it.

This is why the Arab world can be such an inspiration to us in democratised countries. We got the democracy and many of us became lazy. We expect the world to turn out in a certain way, but we also expect it without clearly stating what we want, how we want it and why we want it. We just expect certain things to exist, and when the flaws show, we complain, which is our right and duty as citizens, but we often do not bother to become involved.

If there is anything the past month in Tunisia and Egypt has shown us it is that we can make a difference. We can become the catalysers for change as long as we organise, we mobilise, and we get the message out there. Things will not happen straight away, and neither did they for the people of Egypt and Tunisia, where discontent had been brewing long before the actual protests took place. It seems strange that, in a democracy where we have so many more channels of expression than non-democracies, we would not make use of these and try to express our thoughts and feelings about politics and society. Some have done it, and some have made headway, such as the feminist online movement through, among others, Sady Doyle at Tigerbeatdown with the campaigns #DearJohn (about the proposed legislation in the US House of Representatives that will effectively stop a lot of aid to women who need abortions) and #MooreandMe (when Michael Moore gave into conspiracy theories and told people to never, ever believe someone who accused someone Moore likes of rape).

We need more of this! We need more of people who want to stick their noses out, who will come out and say "Hey! This is wrong because such and such and such." We need more civic participation and less whinging and whining. Keep on pointing out things you disagree with, but do something about it, even if it is just to invent your own twitter hashtag for it, as in the case of Tigerbeatdown.

These Arab revolutions should inspire us and they should make us want to act. Yes, we have democracy, but no, everything is not great, there are always things to be done to improve things. So look at the videos in this Al Jazeera article and feel inspired. It is never a waste of time standing up for something you believe in.

Books mentioned in this post:

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer

Before I opened this book, I went to Amazon to read the reviews of the book in order to get some kind of inkling what this book was all about and what Germaine Greer, a person I've never read before, could possibly say in it. As I have said, there is no one feminism, but several feminisms and one feminist writer does not represent them all, so I wanted to know what kind of feminism I was going to encounter in this book. The reviews were interesting, it was everything from the types where Greer is claimed to have completely changed someone's world to accusing her of hating all but homosexual women. Both are quite expected when dealing with feminism, but I was happy to see that it was a provocative book as these usually make for interesting reading. I was not disappointed.

The book is structured in four sections called "body," "mind," "love," and "power," each section dealing with topics that, not so surprisingly fall under those headings. I shall structure my thinking according to these sections below in order to get some kind of coherent text instead of loads of brain splatter.


I think my favourite part of the book, and the one that was thought-provocative in a way that I could grasp was this section. In it, Greer discusses everything from body ideals to abortion and female genital mutilation (FGM). Actually, one of the things I had read about this book before I read it was how Greer had been under heavy criticism as it comes of as if she is defending FGM in this book, and I will explain why I disagree with this assessment.

In this section, Greer talks about manmade women, plastic surgery and the strive to look as unnatural and unwomanly as possibly can. From the position where Greer stands, all this shaving, use of make up, obsessive striving to become thinner than is healthy and the consequent widespread use of plastic surgery to look as 'perfect' as possible, is nothing but a result of mainly male thinking that the female is not female enough and so has to be altered in order to fit their imaginings of the female. She rightly argues that a woman is a woman in her natural state. The armpit hair, the leg hair, the often asymmetrical breasts and the body fat is all woman. A woman is never more woman than before she alters her appearance, because that is what the woman is - nothing more, nothing less. No one can be more woman than woman herself in her natural state. It is an interesting thought and one that a lot of feminists have argued, but one that is nevertheless important to be reminded of. Women themselves take part in the reproduction of this culture, Greer argues, but it is imposed by men.

This ties into where people have (perhaps mistakenly) argued that she is a proponent of FGM. In the section talking about plastic surgery as a self-mutilation, Greer mentions FGM. Why is it, she asks, that in our culture we accept that women go through vaginoplasty (plastic surgery on the vagina) to ensure that they look like what they think is culturally appropriate and acceptable, while we do not accept this argument with people in non-Western civilisations? She not only draws parallels to vaginoplasty, but also other forms of plastic surgery like breast augmentation. She invokes the argument of cultural relativism to prove how absurd this entire plastic culture has become and reminds us that we are really morally opposed to it. Of course, Greer fails to acknowledge that plastic surgery is legally supposed to be done to an adult with her consent, but FGM is done by adults to children, which makes a helluva difference. With regards to health risks, distorted body ideals and the danger in trying to fit a narrow description of 'perfect', she is, however, right.

It is also in this section Greer tries to rally up feminists not to accept trans people as female, arguing that at the end of the day, trans people can never be female because they do not have the sex chromosomes for it. This argument really surprised me as generally feminists are very pro trans people out of a very simple explanation - feminists believe that gender is a social construct, that is to say that femininities and masculinities are something that we are taught, something we are socialised into, rather than something that is biologically determined. Therefore gender is fluid, and the key issue is what gender someone identifies as, not what they were born as. If someone who was not born biologically female identifies as a female, this person will be female to most feminists. That Greer, who has been one of the most prominent feminists for a long time, would fail to make this separation between sex and gender is just unbelievable. As the book goes on, however, it is not so shocking anymore, as Greer seems to take a more "back to nature" stance with sex and genders, putting much emphasis on woman as a sex and gender as well as gender as a social construct. To me, the extent to which she focuses on the female sex in the first section somewhat contradicts her thoughts on gender in the social later on. But it does raise an important point even though it perhaps does not explicitly say so - the point of the third gender, or rather the lack thereof everywhere but in Australia.

I will not go through the entire section, because even though it's a non-fiction book, I don't want to recount everything for people that might possibly want to read this book. Suffice to say that the section deals with most things that have to do with the female body and in a very interesting and thought-provoking way.


This is also a section where Greer focuses heavily on the difference between men and women, both biologically and socially. In her chapter on oestrogen, she questions the need for it in menopausal women and also questions why there is only chemical contraception for women and not for men. Greer argues, and I have heard this argument elsewhere as well, that there are ways to create chemical contraception for men, but as this would emasculate them, this is not done.

I also enjoyed the chapter on soldiers and violence as this is what I am currently writing my dissertation on and something I am considering looking further into when I will hopefully study gender further. (Fingers crossed that I will meet my conditions!) I will not go into this as I have written about gendered violence before.


Here Greer writes about women's capacity to love, and women's apparently insatiable need to be loved back. She writes about how women always love but are never loved back, beginning with the relationship between the daughter and the father and continuing on in later life up until death. Greer claims that a woman will never receive the amount of love back that she gives; to a father, to a partner, to her children. Interestingly, she also claims that mothers will always love their children unconditionally but implies over and over again that it is their sons that will receive the attention, not the daughters. If this is because mothers, according to Greer, cannot love their daughters as much as their sons, or if it is due to a girl child's apparent utter disinterest in their mothers, she fails to make clear. In either case, it is a contradiction. Either mothers love their children more than they will ever be loved back, as Greer claims at one point, and this will include their daughters; or they are not capable of the unstoppable, indefinite love that she claims that they are. This is one of many times where I feel Greer is more out after glorifying the female species rather than understanding why things are as they are.

There is nothing wrong in aiming to increase the status and view of women - on the contrary. This is one of the things that I really enjoyed with the Whole Woman; the attempt to view woman as a beautiful being instead of an incurable, screwed up, weak mess that deserves to be stomped on and forgotten. All human beings deserve to be seen and heard and loved, but all human beings are also at the same time flawed in that beautiful way that makes us who we are. We are capable of being both at the same time. Making out one gender to be above the other or worthy of being viewed as 'perfect' is not beneficial to any human being. That is what got is into this whole mess with gender roles and gender hierarchies in the first place.

I really enjoyed how Greer put sex in the "mind" section, pointing to the bond between the mental and the physical that often exists in sexual relations for both men and women. This mental bond does not have to include love, that is not at all what I am saying here, but it does have to include trust and respect for it to be enjoyable for both or all parts. Her critique of the quick jumping to penetrative sex is exquisite. She raises some really good points in that section, but what they are, I shall leave for you to find out.


This brings us to the final section which deals with the structural inequalities in society and Greer continues to be controversial and thought-provoking up until the last page. Here she deals with the somewhat irrational fear of male violence, arguing that society has led us to constantly fear male sexuality, male violence and male aggression when we often do not have to. This disproportional fear gives men more power and control over women. Liz Kelly in Surviving Sexual Violence argues much the same. The disproportionate fear by women of men leads to women not daring to act in certain ways and do certain things in fear of the possible consequences which happen in a minority of cases. This is comparable to the victim blaming that all too often happens after rape, where women are cautioned they should have been more careful, and that next time they should think before they act/dress themselves/speak lest they get hurt again. Women's fear of men is an oppression in itself, and while men are partly responsible for it, not all of them are, and women are actively reproducing these fears as well. At the same time it is quite interesting how Greer at one point in the book makes all men into sexual predators through saying that a father's love for a daughter will inevitably become inappropriate at one point or another (a claim I am not even going to discuss because that's how little I agree with it - don't feed the troll).

As always, I am always happy when masculinities are discussed, and Greer delivers in this area. She talks throughout the book about the gendered pressure on men, like that on women, that exists in society - the pressure to perform sexually, the pressure to act aggressively, to protect, to earn money etc. Once again we are back to gender as a social construct. Although, Greer points out in the very last few pages that her aim is not to order people to be in a certain way, but rather for herself and others to feel comfortable in their own skin, in their natural beauty - both internal an external. She wants to make the Whole Woman. That is an aim I can relate to and that I will support.


These points made above are just a tiny piece of all what is thought-provoking, controversial and wise in Greer's book. It is a book of 425 pages dealing with everything female and women. There is a lot that I disagree with that I haven't brought up, a lot of arguments that I still need time to digest before I can make up my mind on them, and a lot of arguments that I will remember, use and be grateful to Greer that she reminded me of or pointed out to me. It is definitely a book that requires an open mind; there is no point in reading it if you already have your opinions set in stone. If you are, however, curious about feminism, this particular feminist, or are someone already immersed in the gender debate who wants to explore and find out more, I would recommend you read this book! It should be noted, though, that this book is kind of a sequel to the Female Eunuch, Greer's debut book written in the '70s. I have not read this, so I can safely say that you do not need to read it before you read the Whole Woman, but if you want a bit of background on Greer and the arguments she expands in the Whole Woman, I am sure it is interesting reading.

Books mentioned in this post:

This book is registered on BookCrossing.com. Here is the journal for it. As more people read the book, the journal will grow with their thoughts and reactions to this book.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Tea Musings: God, Creation, and the Missing Third Gender

This time brought to you by a special blueberry/grapefruit Earl Grey blend called "Grandpa's Mix," bought as usual at Tehörnan in Umeå

I am absolutely not alone in this, I know, but I have to question, why is there an assumption that God inevitably and unquestionably has to be male? Apart from the references to God in the Bible as a male pronoun, where does the assumption come from?

The Bible is, after all, whether one believes in the message, the literal wording, or just the plain fact that the book exists, a manmade creation. Even the Bible says so. It is written by chosen people who are, in some way, conveying God's message to be spread to the people on Earth. It is easy for people to mix up pronouns. The debate around and the lack of a proper pronoun for the third gender tells us so.

In Genesis, we are told that God made us in his image. It says:
"Let us make man in our image... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

God is the Creator. God is what some people assume created Earth and everything on it. But woman is also Creator. Woman, through her possession of a womb, carries the same ability as God; she can create life. She is what nourishes, carries and sustains a life for (optimally) nine months before that child leaves the safe haven of the womb to face the world. If God is Creator and woman is Creator, then why, if God made us the image of 'him', is God referred to as a 'he'? Would it not make more sense to think of the Creator as a woman, the way she was so beautifully depicted in pagan religions? If God were a man, why did 'he' create the Paradise as a brilliant metaphor for the womb where Adam and Eve were nurtured and loved for a time before they were borne into the world?

Granted, woman needs man to create a life. Or rather, woman needs man's magic seed to create a life, but without the male species it would not be possible to create life (although science is at this very moment challenging those assumptions). Both woman and man are needed to create life. Woman and man together are the Creator. If man cannot create without woman, and woman cannot create without man, why is the Creator referred to as a 'he'? Would it not make more sense to think of God as of both genders, or perhaps genderless?

If God is omnipotent, as God is said to be, and can do everything that man and woman and all people accomplish together, would this not make God both man and woman and neither at the same time?

Religion as an institution has long discriminated against women and LGBTQ people, and even though it is getting better in some countries, it is still not good. It is far from good. The discrimination against everything but the narrow definition of male that Christianity subscribes to has its roots in history and is as such a culturally rooted phenomenon. The supremacy of the male is recorded in the Bible, but the Bible also follows the assumption that God is male, even though there is no evidence but a personal pronoun to prove this. The Bible is also written by human hands, with human minds and so also was exposed to human limits and flaws.

Human minds are limited by the language we use. If the language is not broad enough, there will be no room for interpretation or accurate definitions. Instead we are confined to the language that is at hand at the time of recording any event in history. If we think of the world in terms of two genders, it will be two genders that are present in our historical recordings. If the world today only has one country that has gone so far as to adopt a third gender, the assumption is that the world was hardly thinking in those terms at the creation of the Bible.

If God is both male and female and at the same time neither, is this discrimination against everything but the narrowly defined male a mistake due to the non-existence of the third gender at the times the Bible was written?

Friday, February 04, 2011

Naomi Wolf, Wikileaks and Inconsistency

Naomi Wolf has written a piece on the Huffington Post about the "lost cojones" of America's journalists who refuse to defend Julian Assange against the American government in the Wikileaks leaks issue. This post does not discuss the alleged sexual crimes Julian Assange is said to have committed, so I don't really have much of an issue with this post, in fact, Wolf and I are in agreement when it comes to a lot of this. She rightly points out that he is wanted for very similar things to what journalists often see as their work - exposing secrets of the government, acting as the watch dog against the powerful and the mighty in society, ensuring that they do not abuse their power.

As always, there are people who would be in disagreement with this view of the media's role, but the media can be an effective tool in exposing power abuses. The problem in that is that media in and of itself becomes a power player holding the sole power to expose scandals and shape the opinion of the people. Media, too, can become too powerful. Just take the Murdoch imperium, for instance, which owns a significant amount of the media in the US as well as the UK; media which is quite well known to engage in a lot of right-wing rhetoric and opinion building (Fox Entertainment Group, is one example).

But enough about that. Let's get back to Naomi Wolf.

After arguing about the hypocrisy of all the American journalist (apart from herself, I suppose), she asks the question:
So why do all these American reporters, who know quite well that they get praise and money for doing what Assange has done, stand in a silence that can only be called cowardly, while a fellow publisher faces threats of extradition, banning, prosecution for spying -- which can incur the death penalty -- and calls for his assassination?
A valid and interesting question, but not nearly as interesting as the answer she herself offers immediately after:
One could say that the reason for the silence has to do with the sexual misconduct charges in Sweden. But any serious journalist in America knows perfectly well that the two issues must not be conflated. The First Amendment applies to rogues and scoundrels. You don't lose your First Amendment rights because of a sleazy personality, or even for having committed a crime. Felons in jail are protected by the First Amendment. Indeed the most famous First Amendment cases, the ones that are supposed to showcase America's strength and moral power, involve the protection of speech most decent people hate.
Say what, now?

Once again, the frustrating woman has done what Jessica Valenti has criticised her for earlier: claiming not to read the internet, but somehow still find out all the criticism against her and then utterly fail to engage with it in her next piece but somehow try to correct it anyway. It is just that the woman never faces the criticism. She just ends up arguing against herself, as she is in this case as well.

Naomi Wolf has over and over managed to make Wikileaks and the rape charges against Julian Assange synonymous, which they are not, as I have written about over and over. I will try it one more time. Wikileaks the organisation is not Julian Assange the person, and everyone would do better in understanding this, supporters of Wikileaks just as much as the US government who are seizing the opportunity to bring Julian Assange to trial for completely unrelated accusations.

Back to the point. So Naomi Wolf is now criticising all the journalists in the United States of America for not being vocal enough about the horrific things that the US government might do to him (which they should criticise) because of their incapability to separate the sexual assault accusations against Assange from the organisation Wikileaks, while she has herself not been able to do that throughout the entire debate. I don't know if I should be happy it seems she has taken criticism to heart, or frustrated that she does in no way try to correct the blatant rape apologia she has been spreading. To be honest, I think that this new insight on her part will only last as long as it doesn't suit her purpose to write a provocative article again. As soon as the trial for extradition starts, I am sure she will be back to her rape apologetic self, calling the women jealous, petty and liars again.

What is more, and what is really, really relevant seeing as Naomi Wolf is a self-proclaimed feminist who has been held in quite high regard in feminist circles is her use of cojones in the headline. Cojones is a vulgar Spanish word for testicles denoting courage. While this word is relatively accepted and mainstream when it comes to talking about courage, much like 'balls' is, it is a word that refers to the male genitals meaning that females cannot in any possible way have these, i.e. courage. It is a word that is grounded in male/female gender roles with the male as the courage, active protector of the weak, passive, incapable female. Females cannot have cojones, nor can they have balls in the sense that they are being used synonymously with courage. Cojones and balls are not female, they are male, and exclusively so by biology. Courage is male, by biology, it implies, and it is physically impossible for women to gain it. It does not take a deep level of gender analysis to see this, and that Naomi Wolf has failed to do so is nothing but embarrassing. Granted, the headline could have been set by someone else, as often happens when articles are published, but in that case I really do hope that Wolf engages in a very long and heated lecture on why this particular word is inappropriate to use.

Someone mentioned in relation to her previous pieces and appearances on rape and Wikileaks (both separately and in relation to each other) that she is arguing what she is arguing in an attempt to revive a down-spiralling career. This latest addition seems to say so too. Unfortunately for Naomi Wolf is that if she doesn't engage with the criticism she is receiving, and respond to it appropriately, she is unlikely to gather much support. Judging from her performance on BBC World Have Your Say three weeks ago she is not likely to engage with anyone criticising her soon, but rather keep on patronising and ignoring them. It seems she is digging her own grave.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Tea Musings*: Bodies

Tea of the night: A berry flavoured rooibos called the Queen of the Forest, bought at Tehörnan in Umeå.

Recently I have started reflecting over something. A year or so ago I started losing weight. I found myself not to be happy with my weight or the future implications it could have on my health if I continued in the same way. I was not overweight, but my clothes did not fit as well as before and I started feeling uncomfortable in them, so I took to the gym, I started eating more healthily. I dislike diets and would not call what I did a diet, it was more of a cleaning up of my diet; less processed foods, saturated fats, junk food and snacks; more fruit, vegetables and balanced meals with less carbohydrates and more proteins, unsaturated fats, vitamins and all those other essentials that my body likes.

The change was noticeable, both in mind and in body. Clothes quickly went back to fitting well again, and after a while they were too loose; I had more energy during the day and, above all, slept better at night, which is so valuable if you are, what I call a 'stress sleeper', like me. (For some reason I have a hard time going to sleep and that is usually the time of day when I am the most stressed out, which in its turn makes me even more stressed out - vicious circle.) Other people started noticing the change too, and I got comments on how well I looked.

It is interesting how once someone starts losing weight, people immediately comment on it. It is regarded as a nice thing to do, a recognition of the supposedly hard work that someone has put in to shed those extra kilos, and people mean well while they do it. It has struck me, though, how this seems to be one of the most flattering compliments out there, and you can tell that people always take great care in conveying their noticing your weight loss to you. Don't get me wrong, it is a nice thing to compliment people, regardless on what it is on, but I think this says a lot about society.

People take such great care telling me that I look 'amazing' or something like it, that I cannot help but feel it is a way of validating me in the eyes of society. I know that these compliments are not meant in this way, but the amazement and the pat on the shoulder type comments are a way of implying that I have done well, that I am striving towards the elite of those untouchable modelesque women and men who cover the glossy magazines and enjoy higher status in the spheres of society - that superficial elite that so many people would give a limb to belong to. I have become more valid in the eyes of society, I am on my way towards becoming a person now, not one of those undefinable lumps of flesh that we see everywhere. If I just do a bit more work, put in those extra hours at the gym, I will reach that separated sphere of unrealistically thin and beautiful people and I will be someone who matters.

This whole attitude makes me confused. I am just the same as before, perhaps a bit more energetic, perhaps my mind has become a bit quicker because I feel more alert, but my personality has not changed as far as I am aware. I feel just the same, so why should I not be just the same? Or rather, why should I not be treated just the same? It is interesting, because I don't seem to be alone in this feeling of being treated differently. People who have lost more weight than me also report being treated very differently, see this forum, for instance, or this. People are friendlier, they smile, they see you, and they see you in a good way. Your existence is not nearly as provocative to people as before, or perhaps they are just more likely to notice you.

It is interesting, that. Even if it weren't so that people were provoked by anything above a size medium, what is it that justifies that people who are a medium and below deserve more attention, more smiles, more acceptance? What is it that makes them so much better than the rest of the people? A letter on a label on the inside of their clothes? Their compliance to the incredibly impossible standards of celebrities who do not even manage to look like they are represented so they have to be airbrushed into a 'better version' of themselves added onto all that expensive make up applied by professional make up artists? Whatever standard it is that validates those people is too damn hard for them to reach even for themselves. It is a twisted ideal that focuses on completely the wrong things. What have I, or anyone else, achieved from being thin? Apart from health, that is, but people that are larger than a size medium can be healthy too, and it is certainly not without risks to both mental and physical health to strive for a 'size zero'. Besides, how does any of this, in any kind of way, justify treating people differently? Hint: it doesn't.

I want to point out again that compliments are nice, and most people, including me, appreciate them, even (sometimes in other people's cases especially) when they relate to weight loss. I am not in any kind of way suggesting that people start giving less compliments to others, I am just trying to share what I have noticed. In general I am in favour of much more compliments to be distributed to other people, as long as they are honest, and perhaps relating to more things than weight or other appearance-related things. Surely there must be more things that people are good at than looking good?

* A friend of mine complained a while ago that while there is a lot of feminism in my blog, there is no tea. There is no better way to incorporate this than to show how I keep myself fuelled while writing. This is how my ideas are conceived, baked and carried out - tea is nearly always involved.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt: A Revolution With Invisible Women

Egypt is going into its fifth day of protests against the Mubarak regime today. It is following the example of Tunisia who successfully toppled their government and replaced it with a new one that has said it will respect civil and political liberties to a greater extent than the previous government.

Interesting in violent uprisings like these is how the women are largely invisible. Firstly, this is because men are the primary perpetrators of as well as participators in violence in political uprisings (see The Gendered Society by Michael Kimmel as well as Cynthia Cockburn (2001) 'Gender in armed conflict and peace processes',
in The Cyprus Review), but it also has to do with the focus of conflicts and violence as male.

There is coverage of women in the revolution, for instance this piece on women in the Egypt revolution or this shorter piece kindly given to me by Twitterer @trishzanetti. The major news outlets' coverage of women is, however, shining with its absence.

I have mainly been watching the Al Jazeera coverage of the Egypt revolution because of its presence in the region and the availability of a live stream of video coverage rather than text, but I have also followed the news on various web sites, such as the Guardian's live blog as well as the BBC's live blog. What has struck me as really obvious is the lack of women in the commentary on the revolution. While Al Jazeera has had women reporting on the revolution, the experts and commentators from the ground have been heavily over-represented by male views. The Guardian's coverage is mainly by men, and in the expert comments provided on their live blog through Reuters three out of four are male.

In coverage of revolutions and violent clashes like these it is important to point out the absence of women. Militarism and violence are both attributed to masculinities by female and male masculinist and feminist scholars alike (again, see Kimmel above); it is a male system built on a male perspective that ironically relies on both males and females for its continuation. Males take an active part in violence, both in war and political revolutions, and females take over the male responsibilities while this is going on, added on to their usual continued responsibility for the family sphere as well as the bearers and rearers of culture (future and present children).

What is more is that males and females experience conflicts differently (see Caroline Moser, 'Victims, Perpetrators or Actors: Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence') in their respective roles. In a period of civil and/or political unrest and during violent conflicts, gendered violence, including domestic violence, increases (see any of the references above, as well as official UN documents on conflict) and this violence is perpetrated by men toward women.

During situations like this revolution in Egypt, women's movements tend to organise and join together for peace and progress in society (Cynthia Cockburn has written extensively on women's organisations in conflict). Where is the coverage of this? Where are the representatives of these organisations, and why are they not invited to comment on the revolution? Peace-promoting women's rights organisations have been organised for decades, and they are represented in the Arab world, so why do we not hear their voices?

United Nations Resolution 1325 stresses the importance of including women in (re)construction of societies in order to ensure that women are being sufficiently represented and that their concerns are voiced, included and implemented in social policy. This resolution has been drafted in the way that it has because it has been recognised that women experience conflicts differently and that they are heavily underrepresented in the (re)construction of a society, leading to their exclusion from the (re)constructed society in the wake of a conflict. Resolution 1325 is supposed to be a way to ensure that women are being considered and included in a society that is going through (re)construction, because a society cannot be fair and equal and guarantee people their rights if the entire people is not heard.

While what is going on in Egypt presently is not a war in the classic sense, it is hopefully an end of an oppressive regime into one where the people's concern is taken into consideration. Considering that women are also people, it is surprising and disconcerting that their voices are not heard more in the media. If 85% of the speakers, commentators, experts and news anchors are male, all sides of the conversation is not covered. It will inevitably become a skewed coverage working within a framework of male perspectives. The female perspective is invisible - it exists, but it is not heard. Consequently, what is heard is not the people's voice, it is the male voice.

I have written over and over about the importance of rhetoric. This includes the inclusion and the exclusion of voices as well as the normative framework one chooses to operate within. If this revolution is to ensure the Egyptian people's rights, it needs to include women too. Media can start by helping out to bring them onto the agenda, instead of allowing them to remain invisible.

These links to women in the revolution were posted in the comments section:
A Facebook album of women participating in the protest
The Humanitarian Space has also raised concerns over the invisibility of women in the Egypt revolution, with more specific references to women's movements in Egypt.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Feminist Fantasy? Elantris by Brandon Sanderson

This post will contain minor spoilers, so if you do not wish to know anything about the book, please stop reading here.

Having been a fan of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time for quite some years now, and having been a fan of fantasy for as long as I can remember, I was not able to resist picking up a book by Brandon Sanderson when it became clear that he was to be the one to finish Jordan's epic fantasy series after Jordan's death in 2007. Luckily, I found one of Sanderson's free-standing fantasy novels in the sale when Borders closed down (yes, I remember where and when I bought every book in my bookshelf), the one called Elantris. As I had barely heard of Sanderson before his involvement with the Wheel of Time, apart from a note I made when still in high school that I should read his Mistborn series, I was quite curious to see how this author, who has done such a great job with the Wheel of Time, would hold up on his own. There was no doubt in my mind that he would be great as Jordan's wife and editor had personally picked Sanderson out to finish the book series which at the time had grown to 11 books, with more planned.

Before Christmas, I finally got around to reading Elantris and was surprised quite early in the book. There is one thing to fantasy books that is both frustrating but partly what makes it so compelling: it is built around medieval worlds. Medieval worlds in all their glory with shining armour, magic and the occasional dragons also bring with them a rigid set of gender roles. Women are women who dress in dresses, cook food and while there might be women who are awesome at points and defying the normative confines of gender through, say, slaying a nazgûl, they usually do it in the disguise of a man.

Robert Jordan is not exactly known for using fluid concepts of gender in his books, and while he arguably has strong female characters, there is a constant raging battle of the sexes taking place within Rand-land where women are poised against men and the dividing line of gender seems to be based on the notion of biology rather than cultures, so that women can co-operate over the boundaries of culture but will always, no exception, be confused by men's ways of thinking and vice versa. There are inherent qualities ascribed to the genders in the Wheel of Time that are not challenged. (More on gender in Wheel of Time from Swan Tower.)

So when I picked up Sanderson's Elantris, I was not only pleased to find that he did not use such a rigid concept as Jordan had in his Wheel of Time, but Sanderson actually experiments with gender roles in this book in a way that is seldom found in the fantasy genre. Two of the main protagonists, Sarene (a woman and Teod princess) and Raoden (a man and Arelish prince) seemed from the outset to have broken the norms of gender to such a degree that I could not help but suspect that this book was, among other things, very much an intended experiment in gender. Sarene, the princess, feels she has been denied love and being viewed as a woman all her life for being so opinionated, blunt and political, while her betrothed Raoden is a character who bases most his decisions on irrational trust, emotions and empathy. Both these people, however, operate within a world where women are oppressed and forced into passiveness while the men enjoy all the power and most of the freedom of being and movement which is what makes it so interesting. This is a world that is built much like other fantasy worlds, but one in which these particular characters challenge the norms.

I started off by loving these characters. There is nothing that peaks my interest as a clear break and challenge to our non-fantasy real world's norms, even if it is just fictional characters in a book. I loved it how Sarene would be forceful and scheming and how Raoden would use his inherent belief in the goodness of people, a totally irrational assumption, to argue for his political beliefs. I kept cheering these characters on - at least until it became dull. Sarene continued her scheming, manipulating and to completely discard any kind of human feelings, basing everything upon rationality. She was breaking her gender roles as a woman, but instead dressing in those of a man. Now, while this shows that assumptions of inherent qualities in women might very well be wrong, it is hardly a breaking of rigid gender roles. Instead of challenging women's gender roles, Sarene just assumed another pair of them, albeit the antonyms to her own. Same thing with Raoden. He seemed to rely on empathy and caring to the degree I started wondering if he was modelled upon the stereotypical view of mothers and motherhood. Instead of being the stern but loving father of his people, he started becoming the loving and nurturing mother of Elantris. There is nothing wrong with these qualities in people, but from a gender challenging perspective it is not so interesting. It is more about switching gender roles than actually challenging them.

Fortunately, as the book carried on, at least one of the characters started becoming human. Sarene, in all her cynicism, hardness and political scheming started thinking about how she yearned for the great love, that she was afraid that no one could love her for her ways because she was a woman with personality traits like those she had. There was a lot of thoughts on how she had tried to change, but would not become as silly as the ladies in the court in her home country and her adopted country. She was content with the person she was, that was clear, but she felt it unfair that she should have to sacrifice such things as love and a family because she was intelligent. These types of considerations are very important lest the character shall become a cliché; one of those women in fantasy who challenge the norm to the degree where they adopt the ways of the other gender and refuse all traditional gender traits. Once again, this is not challenging the gender normativity, it is just buying into another side of it, consequently reinforcing it. A woman who has to assume male gender roles to be taken seriously is not challenging the system, she is reinforcing it through proving and thinking that she has to adopt masculine roles to gain power and be taken seriously.

This, unfortunately, is where it started to go wrong. Instead of Raoden starting to question his irrational belief in empathy and emotions, he kept going in the same direction even though there were several opportunities for him to question his belief. In a way, this could be a sign of unwillingness to develop personally or, if he weren't so intelligent, be a indicator of naïvete. However, with him eventually becoming something akin to a demigod who would not only be the most powerful such, but also the most controlled and wise such, it hardly offered any opportunity to question his perceived superiority. His beloved princess would show human flaws and stay human, he himself would not, and become a powerful demigod of a king. Added to that, when Sarene strives from her expected gender roles she is severely disliked, almost shunned by men and women alike. Raoden, on the other hand, breaks gender roles and is described as "loved by all." The symbolism is quite striking.

Elantris actually had several other themes that were interesting from a political and/or sociological standpoint. There was this constant view of 'otherness' displayed by Elantris, and especially after the transformation when its inhabitants were shunned and feared. The moral story and implications of this was interesting and important as well.

The politics in the book was also interesting; a guide to how to not build a nation. It can definitely be read as a criticism against capitalism with the portrayal of Arelon's nobility being silly despot merchants and the social status in the country being dependent on one's private property holdings. The religious differences and the portrayal of how it affected societies in their various different ways, as well as the inability to coexist side by side was really interesting if one considers our own human history. It is enough with one religion wanting to eradicate the others for oppression and civil wars to come about.

All in all, it was a really interesting book. A great approach to a social experiment that points out a lot of social ills and challenges quite a few social norms; it is a book that is riddled with implications of the choices people make socially, economically, religiously and politically. It was a novel that I found really interesting in the way that it was as much a good story as a well-thought through social experiment. It is clear that Sanderson has given this world quite a lot of thought.

Although I found the depiction of gender somewhat lacking, I really enjoyed the attempt to walk away from narrow gender confines that are so often found and reproduced in the fantasy genre. I would most certainly recommend people to read it, and I will read more of Sanderson in the future. It gives me hope to think that there can be such a thing as feminist fantasy.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Banning Guns, Yes, But Rhetoric is Also Important

The Economist writes in last week's edition (technically still this week's until tomorrow) about the blame game, saying that opportunists should not focus on the rhetoric of American politics, but on the gun laws themselves.

There is no doubt that banning guns in America would contribute a great deal to keeping armed violence down domestically - it is simple logic, less guns, less opportunity for violence and gun accidents. To completely dismiss the rhetoric, or almost completely as in this case, is to isolate only one part of the problem, albeit the biggest one, and ignore the others.

As the article notes, and as people have noted when writing about the Loughner shooting, what is commonly known, is that the right to bear arms is a part of American culture, at least in some circles. It is a part of the constitution (although the interpretation of said amendment can vary and it could be argued that much stricter gun laws could be put in place without violating the constitution) and an issue that has created social movements to ensure the protection of the second amendment and the gun laws that have come out of it. For some people, it is an essential right to own guns and to be able to use them to protect oneself and the family.

The issue is, though, that in a society, or parts of a society, where people have a tendency to invoke violence instead of diplomacy when faced with a threat, or people threatening to use violence through weapons, it creates a hostile environment. There is a reliance on guns and what is seen as the inherent right of every citizen of the United States of America to bear arms. This is as much a problem as the actual fact of owning guns. If people see it as their right to bear arms to protect themselves, they also see it as their right to use them. If a violent rhetoric is then used as a deterrent or as a threat and is combined with the notion of an unalienable right to bear arms, this could lead to trouble.

That it is a problem that guns are so easy to come by, is not something I would deny at all. That the gun control laws are not working the way they should be when Loughner, who allegedly should not have been able to buy a gun because of previous army troubles, can do so anyway, is not something I would argue against at all either. In fact, being Swedish and not understanding why people would at all want to keep weapons in their house that can kill other people, not to mention be used against themselves, I would absolutely argue that legislation that allows this is nothing but counterproductive and idiotic. Why would any state want to give its citizens the easy access to weapons to kill each other, or for children to be accidentally shot to death? It's beyond me. Point being, I do not have a problem with the Economist's call for banning guns. I think it is a sensible argument.

It is when the legislation becomes separate from cultural and social influences that I start seeing a problem. Guns allows for violence, that is true, but there are also other ways of assaulting people. Perhaps it would be harder to kill politicians if there were no guns as personal body guards would probably stop any person trying to lay hands on a politician, but the problem here is that the average person does not have body guards. If a violent rhetoric still exists in society there will still possibly be a problem with violence, because a violent rhetoric in the way that primarily right-wing politicians in the US are using makes it acceptable, in fact, it is an indirect encouragement of violence. If violence becomes normative in discussions about politics, or about any action in society, people start seeing it as something acceptable, and once that happens, what is to say that there will not be people exercising violence against average citizens demonstrating for a cause that the perpetrator(s) do(es) not agree with? This happens in societies where guns are not nearly as readily accessible.

When violence and politics are seen as something that go together, it becomes a problem. A democratic society is no longer democratic where people are silenced through violence, by any means. Violent rhetoric can contribute to a mainstreaming of violence within politics, and it does not matter if it is guns that are being used in visuals, like Sarah Palin and her famous crosshairs, because it is the violence in the rhetoric that is dangerous. If that type of rhetoric is used and people do not have access to guns, they will find other ways to use violence; other means of violent protest. Banning guns is a fantastic idea, but the rhetoric is also very important to watch lest it leads to violence becoming the norm in political debate and discussion, or that violence starts to be associated with politics.

I have said it before: violent rhetoric does not belong in a democratic society, it is counterproductive and may lead to an undermining of democratic principles. Implications and consequences of using a certain type of rhetoric needs to be watched out for. If rhetoric were not important, then politicians would not need nearly the enormous amount of staff and resources that go into politial PR, spin, speech writing etc. Words do matter. So does legislation, but banning things will only work insofar the public is on board with the idea. If the rhetoric persists while guns are banned, violence might still be used in politics. Banning guns is a good start, but there needs to be work done on the rhetoric too.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

the United Nations and Human Rights Male Normativity

This semester I am taking a course called "Human Rights in Global Perspectives." As opposed to the class I took last semester on the politics of accessing human rights, this course is actually on the theory, philosophy, rhetoric and implementation of human rights internationally, and to a certain extent, on state level.

As part of the course work, I have had to read different treaties and agreements on human, civil/political and socio-economic rights. Tonight I have read the Universal Declaration on Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights; and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. All three are quite short reads and fairly repetitive, so if you want to have a look through them, I would recommend that you do.

What struck me to begin with is that these arguments are such blatantly male-centric documents, probably because they are written by men and for men. Remember, CEDAW - the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women - came later, as it was widely viewed that women's rights were not sufficiently covered by these previous covenants.

And no wonder that UN, member states and women's rights groups felt the need to create a separate and complementary agreement referring specifically to women and women's needs after these, so called, universal rights documents had been produced. The covenants are literally teeming with male-centric language and rhetoric. In every single instance, when referring to an individual in the documents, "his," "him," "he" is used. Even if the use of the gender neutral plural pronouns were not widespread at the time, it would not have taken much energy and effort to add a corresponding female noun there to make sure that the female gender was represented as well. Although, it should be noted that this would probably not be accepted practice today anyway, as there are people who do not define as either gender and are thus not covered by these gendered nouns. Unfortunately, this thinking had not come as far in the 1948 when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was finalised, nor in 1966 when the two covenants were.

If it were not blatantly obvious in the way that any other genders but the male gender are excluded, it is certainly obvious in the very first article of the UDHR, which states
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
The word 'brotherhood' implies that either we are operating under a male normative set of rules, i.e., all people, women, men, all human beings, should act and operate under the rules for something which is defined as 'brotherhood', implied by the name to be a set of rules set up by males for males. Even if this would be an inclusive set of rules, welcoming all genders, it would still be referring to a specific set of male normative rules. If it is not inclusive, then it means that all genders, apart from the male one, would not be included in this 'spirit of brotherhood', which is a human right. Women and other people not identifying as male, would thus be excluded from human rights. This is set out in the very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

As if this was not enough, the sacrosanctity of heteronormative culture is also inscribed in the Covenant on Civil and Policial Rights (1966) in Article 23. I quote (my bold):
Article 23

1. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

2. The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized.

3. No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

4. States Parties to the present Covenant shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. In the case of dissolution, provision shall be made for the necessary protection of any children.

There is so much wrong in this article, but let me just start out by saying the natural and fundamental group of society? In this part of a sentence, the UN and its signatories have assumed that the heteronormative family is a biological fact and that it shall not be threatened. By what? Gay marriage, probably. Assuming that blood bonds are very strong is not in itself a wrong, but not defining what they mean by 'family' is. I assume, however, that in the 1960s, when this covenant was agreed upon, it was quite self-evident what was meant with 'family,' as homosexuality was still illegal in many countries. Point 2, also indicates that this was the intention, as "the right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and found a family..." probably means to each other and not to whomever they so wish.

That fact, alone, should make all of us question the intention of universal human rights. Or shall I say universal as long as one conforms to the white male heteronormative society in which families are the untouchable cornerstones of society and women are not a part of being human to the extent that complementary agreements have to be made to ensure that they, too, are covered by human rights. (If you want more information on either of these topics, just look into the two of big debates within human rights 'are women human?' and 'are human rights Western?')

International debate and treaties made by international organs like the UN are riddled with gendered language. If there is one thing that I have learned while reading for my dissertation on the discourse around women in conflict, it is that. While there seems to be a will to mainstream gender into organisations, which essentially means making sure that gender has been taken into consideration at all times, there is a disconnect between that and the implementation of gender-neutral policies. Not to mention that gender mainstreaming as an approach has been severely criticised, among other things, for 'streaming' women away, neglecting women's particular concerns that may exist.

So when I am reading documents like these, the fundamentals of human rights, which are supposed to be universal, and women are supposed to be included, but the language is so blatantly male-centric, it is hard to believe that things will get better. The problem is that the entire framework within which, and upon which, human rights implementation, discourse and philosophy are based, is gendered. Regardless of what improvements we do in the future, there will always be the male-centric original documents that to a certain extent neglect or exclude women and other people who do not identify as male. Added to that, it also excludes LGBTQ groups that wish to exercise, what is supposed to be a universal right to marry whomever they wish.

As long as our rights are based on a male perspective, we will be excluded in one way or another - through implementation, in the rhetoric (which is a severe problem), in the discourse (which is slightly different from the rhetoric), in the philosophy, in the politics - in all aspects. Human rights cannot be universal until everyone is included, and according to the Western thought on human rights, they are. Human rights may be inalienable and universal, but the implementation and thought certainly do not ensure this. It could even be said to hinder the universality of human rights through its exclusionary nature. If human rights are to be universal, rhetorical issues like these need to be paid attention to. Ignoring gendered aspects of human rights is not benefiting anyone, apart from the white male.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Perky Boobs Part of Your Uniform

Another gem from my twitter feed.

Apparently an airport security firm have gone to court over dress codes for their staff, including underwear. Women will from now on be forced to wear bras to work, all "to preserve the orderly appearance of employer-provided uniforms." Yes, that sounds about right, because the first thing you think about with unsupported breasts is "disorderly"? Perhaps asymmetrical, saggy, small, or imperfectly shaped boobs are such an offence according to this airport security firm that they have to have a standard for the breasts so that they fit into the uniform.

Interesting is that this whole fight for the women to wear a bra as a part of their uniform tells quite a lot about the intentions for it. I mean, there are bras and bras. There are bras without padding, which are essentially no bras at all, or at least to the onlookers eye, there is little to no difference at all, because the bras do not lift, nor do they shape. They just sit there as an invisible support for the woman's comfort. Externally it cannot be seen whether the woman is wearing a bra or not, which probably means that they would not qualify as a part of a uniform for this particular airport security firm, as they do nothing to add to the orderliness required. If they are against no bras at all, the logic follows that they would also oppose bras that do not add anything particular.

There are also bras which are strapless and do not add much of a support, but can be comfortable to wear for women who wear strapless dresses or do not want their bra straps to show. They are not particularly great for health reasons as they do not usually give the back the support it needs for those women with larger breasts. Would these qualify as acceptable bras under the uniform standard? Possibly, since they could add to the uniform looking more orderly. What the difference would be, I do not know, perhaps the nipples would not be so obvious if the airport is a bit chilly?

But if this whole disagreement is because of the firm not wanting their workers to be looked at in a sexual way, then padded bras and especially push up bras should be banned too. Both make the breasts look larger and more artificial, which can be seen as 'sexier.' They also usually offer better support, but this really has to do with getting a bra that is the right fit rather than anything else. A bra, no matter if it is a Wonder Bra or a H&M bra will give you the support you need if you do not have your correct measurements, so in this case no bra would be just as acceptable. But, as the airport firm has itself argued, this is not for health, it is for orderliness.

Implied in this silly argument of orderliness is an expectation on how women's breasts should look to be deemed appropriate. If they are not perfectly round (as a padded bra must be used in order for it not to look like the woman is not wearing a bra), sitting at a certain level, exactly the same size, they are not acceptable breasts; they are abnormal, ugly and inappropriate for any professional person. It is a great insult to any woman out there and a completely absurd argument that violates a person's right to be. Asymmetrical, non-round breasts are not a sign of bad hygiene, the way that dirty hair can it be, nor can they hurt anyone or hinder a job, the way that long finger nails can. This is nothing but an attempt to sexualise women further and make the absurd society ideals a part of women's working uniform. What were the judges thinking? Are they now regulating breasts?

Ironically, in their search for the perfect breasts, this airport firm has effectively hidden everything that is natural about breasts. They are no longer allowed to be breasts, but rather the padding of an underwear garment.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sarah Palin and the Consequences of Free Speech

Sarah Palin has done it again, said something of such utter stupidity that the clocks start ticking backwards. Today she has posted a video accusing journalists and other people criticising her violent rhetoric of blood libel, a term most often used (according to above article) "to describe the false accusation that Jews murder Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals, in particular the baking of matzos for passover. The term, which is centuries old, referred to anti-Semitism and violent pogroms against Jews." Rep. Giffords, who most people are aware of, was shot a couple of days ago in what seems to be at least a partly politically motivated action and her condition is still critical, perhaps not so surprisingly as she took a bullet to her head.

I don't really want to discuss the details of the violent rhetoric of the US right, as there have been others who know more of the subject and can express it better among them Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. Suffice to say that the right wing in USA have been using, condoning and, some might even argue, encouraging violent rhetoric in the form of gun imagery when talking about their political opponents. While it has been fairly clear that this imagery has not been meant to really hurt someone, it is distasteful and horrible. What I really want to discuss is Palin's call for protection under free speech in the face of this horrible event.

Free speech is good. Free speech is great. A lot of productive discussion can come under free speech and democracy and the progress of society would be impossible without it. No person, or few persons, alone can take on the development of a country and its inhabitants. While more voices might sometimes be confusing, it is definitely a benefit for the greater good. That is not to say that rhetoric is not important. I have argued consistently, both here and on my Swedish language blog, that rhetoric is key to how policies are interpreted, implemented and constructed. After all, we all act within the references of what we know, and rhetoric shapes much of our perception of society, which it is also such an important thing to challenge normative rhetoric and the (inappropriate) use of it.

Under free speech, the notion is that you can say nearly whatever you want, as long as there is no direct hate crime or slandering of another person. Fierce opposition is common and encouraged among politicians, especially in today's media hyped society where the harshest words make the best newspaper heading. But with great freedom, comes great responsibility, to paraphrase Spider-Man's uncle. If you are allowed to say nearly whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, you should also be prepared to take responsibility of the consequences. I am not saying here that Palin and her buddies are responsible for the horrible shooting against Rep. Giffords and the other people, but it can most certainly be argued that their violent rhetoric could have inspired the shooter. This is something that Palin should recognise and own up to. She needn't apologise for the shooting, because she did not hold the gun, but she should at least recognise the possibility that her rhetoric and her imagery have or could have contributed to political violence. If she uses violent rhetoric in politics, there is a possibility it could lead to political violence.

When violent rhetoric becomes the norm within certain political circles, politics will be associated with violence. From putting crosshairs over political candidates, to threatening that people will start picking up their guns if the political outcome is not in their favour, as Sharron Angle did, there is a hazy line to resorting to violent tactics. When violent imagery and euphemisms are used in such political contexts, it indirectly condones such behaviour and might even encourage it. The use of such rhetoric is nothing but irresponsible.

People are not accusing Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle or any of the other users of violent rhetoric, of having pulled the trigger and fired the gun at Rep. Giffords, they are calling for them to take responsibility for abusing words and imagery. Being a person in power, you have to be careful of what you say and how you say it, because people listen to you. That is the whole point of power, you can influence other people to do what you want them to do. If you start talking about picking up guns, or if you make political representatives targets on your website while in a power position, you cannot completely turn your back to the fact that people might act on it. The reason why this rhetoric was used in the first place was to make people passionate about politics, Ms. Angle says. Did it not cross your mind, then, that perhaps making people passionate about gun violence and politics in the same sentence was not such a great idea?

Enjoying the freedom of speech does not mean that you are automatically immune to all criticism, regardless of how harsh it might be - it means the opposite. Now people are using their freedom of speech to make Palin et. al. realise what it is that they did wrong, because in a democracy, violence and politics should not be associated with each other - not from the state against its citizens, nor from the citizens against its state.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let This Folly Stop Now!

Assange's lawyers have today come out with another outrageous defence argument. This time, they are arguing that he should not be extradited to Sweden because he might be sentenced to death in USA. I suppose this makes sense if you also believe that Sweden is a feminist state that is really run by the CIA and that sex by surprise is actually a crime in Sweden, and not some awful euphemism for rape used to trivialise the crime.

First of all, even if one would buy the lawyer's claim that Assange might be tried and sentenced to a death penalty (this is indeed one of the crimes punishable by capital punishment in the US, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org), the country he is supposed to be extradited to, Sweden, did away with capital punishment in 1921 and the country itself is a driving force against capital punishment everywhere (Page in Swedish). That Sweden would therefore extradite a man they even consider risks a capital punishment would be very surprising to say the least. Not only because of the current government's commitment against it, but there would be a public outcry in Sweden if this happened. (Strange, since we all know that Sweden is really USA/CIA, right?)

Secondly, as has been said before, but is apparently worth pointing out again experts think that it would be very hard to extradite Assange from Sweden to the US. Not only are there problems with the extradition treaties that would possibly not allow him to be extradited, there might also be a problem with it having to be a tripartite negotiation. Not only does Sweden have to agree to an extradition (which is unlikely if they think that Assange's human rights will be deprived, as argued above), the UK also has to be in on it. As the UK also has abolished capital punishment, albeit a bit later than Sweden, in 1998, it seems unlikely they would condone such a punishment.

This whole situation has been handled exceptionally badly both by Assange's lawyers and by Assange himself. Instead of publicly issuing statements requesting that this be dealt with in court (whether it regards fighting the extradition or facing allegations of sexual assault), a load of utter BS has been uttered to reduce the credibility of the Swedish legal system, Assange's accusers and the Swedish government. There has been encouragement by Assange and his lawyers to dismiss these rape charges as lies, and fair enough, denying such an accusation is his right and if he believes himself to be innocent he should rightly do so, but to claim it is part of a 'honeytrap' is only to undermine the credibility of the women, and serves nothing but to damage them in the public eye which is hugely unfair. It is fully possible to claim innocence and not attempt to set up a public trial and encourage harassment at the same time. (Yes, it is encouragement, because Assange and his lawyers are hardly blind to what is going on and that the women are targeted and harassed, that their names, addresses and phone numbers have been made available on the internet for the purpose of harassing them. To not realise this would be to be intentionally ignorant and naïve.)

I have consistently called for this to be a trial within the Swedish system of justice, if it even goes so far, Assange might, after all, not be extradited to Sweden in the end. Also, he is only wanted for questioning at the moment, there has been no trial set. I am not in favour of Naomi Wolf's tactics of naming and shaming rape/ sexual assault survivors, and neither am I in favour of doing so with people that have gone no further in the process than being accused of sexual offences. That the Assange case went public to begin with is a very sad thing, indeed, but that does not make right the treatment of the women by Assange and his lawyers, especially when it cannot be proven that they were the ones leaking the rape accusations in the first place. That they are now capitalising on this scandal at the expense of these women who, according to themselves, have been victims of a crime, is appalling and unjustifiable. If it turns out, on the other hand, that these women were the driving force behind the leaking and have secretly been orchestrating a hate campaign against Assange, of course they should be held responsible for that, but until this is proven, one has to assume their innocence, precisely what that Assange's supporters are calling for with regards to the rape accusations against him.

If these women are expected to take responsibility for accusing one of the world's most loved and hated person, then he should rightly take responsibility to act like an adult when he is accused of a crime.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Alcohol Problems Are Not Shameful

I've written some on this over at my Swedish language blog, and I suppose it was just a matter of time before the topic made its way over here as well.

An old Independent article caught my eye today when someone I follow tweeted it. In it Simon Carr explains how he has gone from 30 bottles a day to one bottle a day, but even though the amount the drinks classes him as a person with an alcohol problem, he refuses to call himself an alcoholic or even think about whether or not he does, in fact, have an alcohol problem. Although his drinking would be classified at least as risk behaviour for becoming an alcoholic, I am not interested in discussing whether or not he drinks too much, should cut down, or should keep on going the way he is. If he has an alcohol problem, it is on him to first realise it and then admit it, because if the person who allegedly has an alcohol problem refuses to do something about it, nothing can be done about it. A general rule is, though, that if someone in your close vicinity thinks that your drinking is a problem, then it is a problem. To you it might not be, but to someone else it is, and therefore it should be taken seriously and discussed.

What really upset me about this article is how Carr makes it out to be something shameful to have an alcohol problem. Alcoholism is a disease, it is classified as such - both a physical and mental as it affects both - and what is more is that it is a very cruel disease that not only affects the person who is an alcoholic, but friends and family who are usually caught up in an enabling position, made possible through the hiding and keeping quiet so as to avoid the ugliness that is attached to being an alcoholic.

Media have discussed over the past five years, or even more, about the alcohol behaviour in Europe, that alcohol consumption has risen pretty much all over Europe, and in Scotland, my current home country, new laws were passed just last year to curb binge drinking and lower the overall alcohol consumption. That we are consuming too much alcohol as a society is no news, and that it would be beneficial to all of society (apart from perhaps the companies profiting from the increased alcohol consumption) health-wise, economically and socially, if overall drinking would be lowered is something I am going to hazard to guess most people would agree with. Not all people have a problem, and if it is not a problem, then, by all means, go ahead and continue your alcohol habits. I am not proposing a complete ban on alcohol here - it would not be possible in our society today. Besides, adults should enjoy the responsibility of choosing how and when they consume alcohol.

What needs to be done is to stop this hushing of drug addiction, both alcohol and other drugs. When a person is stuck in an addiction, their behaviour alters radically. Did you know, for instance, that liver cirrhosis affects your brain when the liver cannot break down the chemicals it would if it were healthy? The tissue dies and scars and becomes hard and because of the decrease in healthy liver cells that would normally digest and take care of different toxins, it cannot, and so these toxins rise to the affected person's brain and physically affects the behaviour of the person. Liver cirrhosis is a fairly common disease in people with long-term alcohol problems, and the only cure for it is to stop drinking period. (Of course, there are other ways than drinking that can result in liver cirrhosis, Hepatitis C is one such example, but alcoholism is by far the most common cause.) Addiction also leads to a lot of lying, manipulating and aggression, which can be unrelated to liver cirrhosis as that disease comes from a long abuse of alcohol substances and the manipulation and lying often starts early on in an addiction (the hiding of bottles, lying about amounts of alcohol consumed etc.). When in an addiction, nothing matters more than the next hit (of alcohol, of other drugs), including family and friends. It is sad, but it is truth. A person with an alcohol addiction might want to change their habits, but they literally cannot. It is a brutal and cruel disease to all people involved.

Lying and hiding another person's addiction only enables that person to continue on with their habits. Often it is done out of love, because the person hiding and lying wants people to see the addict for the person that they really are, not the addiction. Sadly, this is a problem in society, where alcohol and other drug addiction is associated with something dirty, weak and ugly. There is nothing weak about the person becoming an alcoholic, anyone can become one, although genetical predisposition and environment contributes to people getting caught in an addiction. There are alcoholics that function perfectly in their work environments (one of the most common myths, that if you can manage our job, you're not an alcoholic), who are intelligent, charming, powerful - all in all, great people. Where it often shows is the social sphere, and not necessarily only with friends or acquaintances, but family and close friends. That is where an addiction becomes the most clear. The first people to realise there is a problem will be the close people, and the first one to deny it will be the addict. Even if the family and close friends will hide the problem from the outside world, there will be a problem, and it will be very present and real to some people.

The greatest service you can do to anyone who is an addict is to be honest about it - to them, to yourself, to all people. You do not have to tell anyone if you do not want to, but don't make excuses for the addict's behaviour. There is nothing shameful about someone being an addict. That person is a person with a problem, but the key thing to remember is that it is a person. It is a person who might not behave the way that they do if they had a different option, and often to an addict, it seems that they don't, or they might do, but they do not want to change or they cannot. The fact still remains that there is a person in there, hidden behind manipulative behaviour, lies and all other sorts of crazy things addicts get up to. This person needs to be seen, needs to be heard, and needs to get the opportunity to break free from the addiction in order to take control over their own life. Because when an addict, there is no control, there is only being controlled by the substance abused.

The best way to achieve this is not to continue hiding alcohol problems or to be offended when someone might indicate that you have a problem. If someone thinks you have a problem, you should seriously listen and consider if you do, because if someone tells you you do, there is a great possibility that you might have an alcohol problem.

News flash to Simon Carr: Dying from liver failure is not quick and painless. It is a painful process in which both you and everybody surrounding you will suffer. It affects your entire body and it costs the health care system lots and lots of money. You might get diabetic, requiring insulin on a daily basis. Often, because of the scar tissue in your liver squeezing your main blood vessels, the blood is trying to squeeze itself through your smaller vessels which inevitably become more fragile and these bursting is one of the main causes of death for people with liver cirrhosis. These are called varices, and if your bleeding is caught early enough you can be saved through a massive blood transfusion and surgery, both of which cost the health care system. Apart from that, there is the severe organ failure. When your liver can't digest the toxins you put in your own body, these toxins will travel to other organs and affect them as well, leading to a complete organ failure. Other unpleasant symptoms include vomiting blood, itchiness, loss of sex drive, insomnia, breathlessness and memory loss and confusion. These are just some of the things that might happen when contracting liver cirrhosis, most of which can be treated to some degree by drugs and continued medical check-ups.

Alcoholism is no disease to dismiss offhand and take as an offensive accusation. It is a serious and real disease and it affects so many people around the world (relatives and friends included). It is a cruel and brutal disease and it should be taken seriously. It should not be hidden and lied about. And above all, former, current and future addicts should not be stigmatised. The stigmatisation of alcohol addicts only lead to less people seeking help for this brutal disease and that is a tragedy to all people affected.

More on liver cirrhosis and alcohol problems: NHS - alcoholic liver disease, NHS - cirrhosis, NHS - cirrhosis symptoms, Alcoholic Anonymous for more information on alcoholism, Al-Anon for families and others whose lives are affected by someone with an addiction, Down Your Drink - a UCL based informational site on alcohol consumption.