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, 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.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Sexual Assault Survivor? Suck it up, or go public.

Tonight I listened to the BBC World Have Your Say where Naomi Wolf was a guest talking about her recent article in the Guardian arguing that rape survivors should take a moral responsibility when they accuse someone for sexual assault and therefore be outed in the media - voluntarily or involuntarily. (See yesterday's blog post for commentary on the Guardian article.)

First of all, I want to say that World Have Your Say had chosen a brilliant person to argue against Wolf - Helen from Belfast but currently in London (that's how the host kept on talking about her), twice rape survivor and a brilliant debater. She refused to be patronised when Wolf started with her condescending and belittling way as described in this blog post by a blogger who went to a lecture with Wolf when she was at Oxford the other day. Wolf even at one point said "Bear with me, I know there are many new thoughts here" to Helen from Belfast but currently in London, upon which she retorted "I have been thinking about this for many years now," a brilliant answer from someone who refused to be patronised and talked down to the way Wolf tried with everyone who put her on the spot, including the host of the show.

There was much said by Wolf in the show that probably will give me nightmares for days to come and much that made me lose whatever respect I might possibly have had for Wolf as a feminist, at least concerning this subject, but perhaps everything as I have a hard time taking people with such an attitude seriously. It was quite obvious that Wolf argued the way she did because she wanted to get to the perpetrators. The argument went as such that if the perpetrators were outed in media, they would not be so keen on sexually assaulting another person. It would also lead to the the forced realisation of the assaulted people that it is not ever their fault that they are sexually assaulted, that the perpetrators always bear the full responsibility for a sexual assault. Also, the open talking about sexual assault by survivors would, according to Wolf, decrease the stigma and victim blaming attached to being a sexual assault survivor.

The problem is that Wolf is going about it backwards. I, too, wish that one day men and women alike could speak about sexual assault, consent and boundaries in an open and productive way, much as was attempted with the Swedish Talk about it campaign where men and women were encouraged to discuss both crossing boundaries and having boundaries crossed by another person. Men and women talked about being the (sometimes unintended or unknowing) perpetrator and about being sexually assaulted, but also about how threat of sexual assault sometimes is used as a tool of coercion or power. Although there were some (as always) who were trying to make the campaign out to be ridiculous, it lead to a lot of productive discussion and media in Sweden wrote about it quite a lot.

Encouraging people to speak about sexual assault, both as perpetrators and survivors is a great way to eradicate stigma and victim blaming and also define boundaries and consent. Talking about it encourages a respectful ever ongoing discourse in a relationship to make sure that both (or more) parties are comfortable at all times. Boundaries and consent may change at any time and therefore it is important to continue discussing them. What Wolf wants to do, however, is not to encourage people to talk about it, which would be productive, but to force people to come forward as sexual assault survivors, which can be downright destructive. At one point in the show she even said that, according to her, there were two options: press charges and come forward as a sexual assault survivor willing to talk to the press about it or to keep silent about it and live with it. In other words, the options Wolf gives survivors of sexual assault is to put oneself at the risk of victim blaming, threats, force and psychological hardship or to suck it up.

Not only is this suggestion ridiculous and very offensive, it also brings with it a series of problems. As Helen pointed out, because of the appallingly low conviction rates for sexual crimes (that Wolf claims to want to battle through forcibly outing sexual assault survivors), there is an infinitesimal chance that the perpetrator will actually be convicted for the crime he or she has committed. If then, one were to be sexually assaulted twice, as happened with Helen, and the previous case had been dismissed or ruled in favour of the perpetrator, and this was at the same time discussed ad nauseam in media, she (in Helen's case) would forever be "the girl who cried rape." Tell me how this would not do more harm to a sexual assault survivor than it would do good.

Wolf's faith in the media as the almighty defender of sexual assault survivors is also ridiculous. She stated at one point in the show that because institutions have failed in the past to protect sexual assault survivors, media would take on that role. As it has in the past, she means? Media - the defender of women who accuse powerful men of sexual assault. Sounds just about right, doesn't it? Or not.

What is more is that Wolf bases her argument on public trials for sexual assault crimes on her notion that if one wants to bring a case into the public sphere, one should be prepared to defend themselves publicly. Well excuse me, but where was the public when the crime was committed? Bringing someone into court is the only (legal) retribution that a sexual assault survivor may receive. Is she proposing going back to the olden days when brothers and fathers handled situations where a woman's honour had been violated? Perhaps she would think it more appropriate to settle the dispute with fists rather than going through the legal system which actually has the mandate and power to punish people who break the law. Or perhaps she thinks that media should be holding the public trials? Perhaps in an entertainment show kind of way? Yes, perhaps we could bring in Ricki Lake!? That sexual assault survivors are anonymous to the public does not mean that they are anonymous to the police and the judicial system, where these matters should be handled. That media, through publishing information on sexual assault cases, should be able to keep police and the judiciary in check is doubtful. Media are not exactly known to be without their own political agendas, not to mention that most media are funded through earnings, which means that they will publish what sells, and often in ways that make things sound more scandalous than what they might be.

Media does not need to know every little thing about individual sexual assault survivors, neither do we, the public. If women and men who have been on either end of sexual assault wants to come forward and talk about it, they should get the opportunity to. They should be encouraged by all means to do so, but they should not be forced to talk about it. Furthermore, if a wrong has been committed, the person whom it has been committed on should have the means to receive some kind of retribution, they should not - never ever - be told to suck it up. And just because it helped you, Naomi Wolf, and possibly lots of other women and men, to come forward and talk about being sexually assaulted, just because it made you stronger, does not mean it will to everyone at any time. You had twenty years to prepare what to say and think about it before you talked about it. Allow other sexual assault survivors the same courtesy. Forcing them to talk about it prematurely might only do more damage than good. Please, please, Naomi Wolf, stop patronising every woman and man who has ever been sexually assaulted.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Let's Crucify the Rape Survivors

Naomi Wolf does it again. This time she has written an article in the Guardian calling for a forced outing of the accusers of Julian Assange using the stigma attached to sexual assault survivors as the reason for doing so. While there are some valid points to Wolf's argument, for instance that not identifying survivors feeds into the rape myths about how sexual assault/rape survivors should look like, act, be, et cetera, she seems to completely neglect the other side of the argument, that sexual assault/rape survivors should not be involuntarily outed because they need to be protected against, say, the mob. Instead Wolf talks about taking moral responsibility, facing the accuser and changing the perception of rape as a crime.

The real issue, however, becomes quite clear when Wolf starts talking about Assange and him being dragged before the public eye and voicing worries about this case, because of geopolitical tensions, standing little chance of actually being free and fair. These worries are very valid, and a lot of people who call against rape trivialisation are worried about exactly the same thing. There is little doubt in most people's minds that this is a politically precarious situation where the Swedish judicial system will have to seriously guard its integrity against the pressures of political giants like USA, but perhaps even its own government. These sexual assault allegations are being stretched to the point of distortion from both Wikileaks supporters and Wikileaks opponents to further their own political agendas. (Key here being Wikileaks opponents and/or supporters of the organisation which is, as argued before, separate from the person Julian Assange.) Making sure that the trial is, therefore, free and fair and without political motivations (meaning keeping the trial to the allegations made, not ones possibly made in the future) is essential not only to supporters of free speech, but also to feminists and other people against rape trivialising around the world.

Wolf has previously complained how these rape allegations have been made to further a political agenda and that the women doing so should be ashamed of themselves. She, along with other self-proclaimed feminists have called this entire case a slap in the face against all rape survivors, basing this on the fact that because rape accusations have in the past been made against politically powerful people, this case must be the same. As I have written before, just because states and other power players can benefit from this situation does not mean that they have orchestrated it. The logic saying it inevitably has to be so is severely flawed, indeed, there is no logic behind it at all. Powerful states, people, organisations or any kind of players have always benefited from unconnected situations that happen to play neatly into their agenda. They can simply be capitalising from a situation that occurred simultaneously. Is it a big coincidence this is happening at the same time? Yes. Does it mean that Julian Assange cannot be a man who sexually assaults and/or rapes women? No.

This entire article by Naomi Wolf is nothing more than to further her own agenda. She is obviously a strong believer in Wikileaks and what it does. So am I. The difference between us is that I will not crucify potential sexual assault survivors just because of it. I can still believe strongly in free speech and not trivialise rape. In fact, I think it is contradictory to do what Wolf does. These women deserve to be heard, they deserve to be taken seriously - they deserve to be able to exercise their rights to free speech without being ostracised, bullied and crucified for it. That Assange became a victim of the press who published the leak of these allegations (appreciate the irony here) does not mean that it is right to bring these women to a public trial as well. Two wrongs don't make a right, as it is said.

What still baffles me, though, is how Wolf fails to understand that what she is doing is just as much a slap in the face to rape survivors all over. She has consistently said that rape allegations should not be used to further political agendas, and she is correct. That states are using these accusations as some kind of proof that Assange (read Wikileaks) is a bad man (organisation) is nothing but wrong. That does not mean, however, that these accusations are false or that these women are simply pawns in some greater political game. These accusations could be true and these women could be used to further political agendas at the same time. None of those statements are mutually exclusive. What Wolf does when she completely dismisses these accusations offhand is to feed further into the rape myths. She is doing exactly what she claims she wants to prevent: she is setting the terms and boundaries of who can and who cannot be rape/ sexual assault survivors. Apparently, Wolf has decided, to qualify as someone who can be raped or sexually assaulted in another way, the accusations must be made against someone who does not have political power. Because if these accusations are made against someone in political power, especially someone working as a rogue self-proclaimed hero of the average person, that being noble and all, it inevitably means these accusations are false. I wonder what Wolf would have written if these accusations would have been made against some powerful political player who works within the nation-state apparatus?

It is just as important today as it was a month ago to be able to hold two thoughts at the same time. Using these accusations to further a political cause related to Wikileaks is nothing but wrong, and that goes for both sides. The beautiful irony in this entire series of debate articles that Wolf has written against states using rape accusations for their own purposes is that she is doing exactly the same. She is no better herself than the states that she is criticising. What is more is that it becomes more and more obvious for each article she writes. What is sad is that she is losing credibility among feminists, but perhaps it is all for the best. If Wolf is to continue trivialising rape and feeding into rape myths she may as well stay far away from feminism and the feminist base, as far as I am concerned.