Wednesday, May 21, 2008
“If you were designing a publicity campaign for equality, you couldn’t come up with a better symbol,” Elena Valenciano, a senior Socialist party official said by telephone. “Sexual equality is Spain’s new brand, and that’s very innovative in a country that only recently admitted equality into its consciousness.
Well, good thing sexual equality is Spain's new brand. Although, brands do change ... hopefully sexual equality won't be eroded when it inevitably falls out of fashion. And, maybe this sucks to say, but I think things like the Defense Minister going on maternity leave could accelerate that process.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Friday, May 16, 2008
Despite trolling the web all morning, I haven't found much to post - which is why I went for the archives. This piece is a little old (March 08), but definitely interesting; it covers a convention of women in Jaipur, India to talk about women's contributions to peacebuilding, reconstruction, and conflict resolution. I could summarize but this quote does so much better:
"This is not about empowering women," says Ms. Merriam [conference organizer], who also co-chaired the United Nations' Millennium World Peace Summit in 2000. "It is about how women can transform society to help us find new ways of addressing conflict."
There are men here, too. The goal, participants say, is not to antagonize men. Yet each believes that women bring to the issue of conflict resolution a different perspective. Many liken it to that of a mother, stern but caring, and more open to finding alternatives to violence.
Where, oh where to start? So many interesting things at work here. First, the cultural feminism bit - the idea that being female makes you a nurturer, a listener, a mother. It's a nice idea, and one that many people would probably have no trouble accepting. However, capitalizing on it has it's own costs for the advancement of the anti-gender-stereotyping agenda. The women participating in this conference are using their femaleness to get what they want - a voice in the reconstruction efforts of their war-torn countries (Afghan women are well-represented in the article, for example - see this RAND study on the role of women in the rebuilding efforts) and to have things done in a way that they see as more effective and constructive, rather than forceful and violent (which, in addition to whatever inherent negatives those two things bring, hasn't been terribly effective). Does calling it 'a woman thing' take away from it in any way in the short term? Or might it lead to future returns, such as a new appreciation for 'typically female' things? (Are those two things mutually exclusive? I am inclined to think that even if gender roles were reversed, we would still all suffer because specific standards for each gender always leads to troublesome standard-enforcing).
Second, is it true? Does getting women involved really help? The RAND article on Afghanistan says yes ... but it's a very small study. It also - probably wisely - makes no comment on typically female v. typically male behavior - it just looks at empirical trends. Although I am sure I could find gender-biased language given a second read, that isn't the point of the article so I don't want to add any distractions.
I was bitching earlier this week about, basically, the tendency to look down at things that improve quality of life for women in ways that don't conform to the gender-equality agenda, and I may be showing myself a hypocrite here in writing critically about a conference that aspires to bring more communication and compromise into war and postwar scenarios. However, I do think the way that we think about things is important - it makes a difference whether you frame this kind of conversation as one where community-oriented techniques are valuable as opposed to one where inherently female personality traits are valuable. Of course, pragmatic considerations sometimes mean that the more 'progressive' framing is tabled - I am certainly not going to say that better reconstruction tactics should not be used for the sake of eventual gender equality. It is something that I puzzle over, though.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Anyway, Brown devotes one of his questions to addressing the effects of the redistricting (in 2006, from 25 districts to just 5) on women's chances of being elected. His view is that the redistricting did not help, and in fact hurt, the chances of having a Kuwaiti Assemblywoman. existing trends. Here is one very interesting bit:
Kuwaiti women exercised full political rights in the last parliamentary elections, voting and running as candidates for the first time. They actually constitute a majority of the electorate (56 percent of voters registered with the Ministry of Interior are women). But their voting patterns do not seem significantly different from men’s. And where they do differ, they have strengthened the Islamists. In at least one case, women voters pushed a candidate from the ICM—a movement that had opposed granting full political rights to women—to victory.
He goes on to say that, given the absence of a reliable voting bloc for a female candidate, it's unlikely that a coalition would include a woman on their slate. Head scratcher, right? Demands further reading. I get irritated with myself when I tend toward othering another group ... for example, in this case, I think, why would these silly women vote against their own interests? But at the same time, it is an important question - which positions draw the female vote? What are women's interests? One cannot take for granted that women's empowerment is important to every woman ... I have an incurable tendency to assume that of all women, and I daresay it keeps my friend group small.
The sentence discussed below is, for that reason, a breakthrough.
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
I find the "is this progress" question a little silly - are we going to reject something that makes it easier for women to do their jobs as the 'wrong' kind of progress? The problem is that women's lives are tightly controlled by gender segregation, both by the law and the societal prejudices that make them unwelcome in male dominated spheres, and any way that they can adapt to those conditions while maintaining their ability to advance their careers and act with agency is progress. Should their well-being be subordinated in the name of delayed gratification for observers who won't be happy until the Kingdom has a gender-neutral legal code and attitudes? Because it seems to me that's where the idea comes from - this isn't the way it's supposed to be, aka like our mythically secular and equal societies in the West, so it isn't progress.
And, as a side comment, I am fairly certain that, given the choice to stay in a women's-only luxury hotel where I was pampered, I might very well take it. This place looks sort of awesome. The hotel's Director, Lorraine Coutinho, considers this a selling point:
"The need for privacy within public spaces for women worldwide is increasing and we're just filling a demand that already exists," she says, noting that there are women-only hotels "all over the world, from Berlin to the US," a "pink beach" in Italy, a "ladies' special" train in India, and female-only compartments on Brazilian trains.
"Regardless of where we are in this world," she adds, "I think women are finding the need to have spaces that are dedicated to themselves."
The men's piece focuses on two cousins, one of whom is engaged to the other's younger sister. There is tension between them on the role of romance - is it enough to just wait until after you are married to be romantic, or are the young men missing out on the experiences that go with dating and falling in love outside of marriage?
“I am a romantic person,” he said. “There is no romance.”
What Nader meant was that Saudi traditions do not allow for romance between young, unmarried couples. There are many stories of young men and women secretly dating, falling in love, but being unable to tell their parents because they could never explain how they knew each other in the first place. One young couple said that after two years of secret dating they hired a matchmaker to arrange a phony introduction so their parents would think that was how they had met.
Now, in the desert, Nader’s candor set Enad off.
“He thinks that there is no romance. How is there no romance?” Enad said, his eyes bulging as he grew angry. “When you get married, be romantic with your wife. You want to meet a woman on the street so you can be romantic?”
Nader was intimidated, and frightened. “No, no,” he said.
“Convince me then that you’re right,” Enad shot back.
“I am saying there is no romance,” Nader said, trying to push back.
Enad did not relent, berating his cousin.
Under his breath, Nader said, “Enad knows everything.”
Then he folded. “Fine, there is romance,” he said, and got up and walked away, flushed and embarrassed.
Of course there is the Thomas Friedman technique of following around a couple of people and making generalizations about whole societies based on that understanding. Fine. But it seems that Michael Slackman here contradicts his own interpretations - isn't secret dating romantic? Isn't hiring a matchmaker to trick your parents into letting you marry the man you've been seeing behind their backs for years, and then living happily ever after, sort of Romeo and Juliet? Isn't Titantic, which the young men in the story seem to enjoy so much, a story of secret dating and breaking taboos and concealing love? Maybe this is crazy but it seems like what the men are really saying is that their experience is different from what they see in American movies ... and that's how they understand the idea of romance. These two individuals define romance differently, even, and see it as playing different roles in their own lives. Why efface that to make a point in this article?
Girls of Riyadh, which was by no means a literary masterpiece, in my opinion and others', at least took on the idea that individuals might approach love differently depending on their individual circumstances. Please - give the Saudis a little more credit.
The women's stories are ... I like it slightly better. I am not yet sure what I think about it.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
It is sort of propaganda ... but it raises some interesting questions. Who is buying the stuff these sewing co-ops produce? Are the goods being shipped out of the villages or out of the country? Presumably the co-op members are not buying their own things. Although maybe they are.
Also, isn't this kind of keeping women on the pink-collar track? Is learning to participate in a sewing co-op really helping women become more involved in the political process? I don't have a problem with the idea of a sewing co-op, but it's misleading to lump all positive goals into one initiative ... if your goal is increased female presence in the government, then having women start sewing co-ops seems like a roundabout way of getting there. Of course, maybe this is just a more holistic way of looking at "women's empowerment" ... but I fail to see the connections.
For the next few decades, Arab women, like others in many parts of the globe, are likely to continue to be objectified, commodified and stereotyped in the public sphere. But when we think about the superb endeavours of visionary women leaders in the region such as Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak in supporting women’s empowerment, we can be assured that the true face of the Arabian woman will eventually be visible at the end of this dark tunnel.
A bit depressing that the things he mentioned are standard fare for women in the media ... though it's encouraging to have those things acknowledged.
Carly Fiorina, Sheila Johnson and Farooq Kathwari are the co-chairs of the initiative. All business people, none of them Muslim women. Look, I don't care for tokenism ... but if you have three co-chairs, isn't there room for one Muslim woman if that's your target outreach group? And if you already have three co-chairs ... why not have four?
Maybe I am missing something... they are 2/3 female and 1/3 Muslim. Could be worse.
Monday, May 12, 2008
Friday, May 9, 2008
Susan Faludi (author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women) has an op-ed in the Times this morning on Hillary Clinton's willingness to cross the gender barrier between fighters and rule-enforcers (i.e. players and umpires ... etc.)
Interesting idea ... and clearly she is constrained by the Opinions editor, who must have kept her word count in check. However ... some examples of Hillary leaning on the rules and some examples of her later fighting 'like on of the boys' would have made the article more persuasive. (Does that sound obnoxious? I tutored writing in college ... forgive me).
The beginning, though, offers an insightful observation:
We do tend to hear that white votes for Hillary indicate racism of some sort ... which they might. But the idea that men are shifting their perception of women features less prominently in that discussion. (Though of course the two aren't mutually exclusive ... the idea that equality for women and equality for minorities is a zero-sum game is not new). Maybe that is because it would require an admission that sexism is a problem. Hmm. I won't hold my breath.
NOTABLE in the Indiana and North Carolina primary results and in many recent polls are signs of a change in the gender weather: white men are warming to Hillary Clinton — at least enough to vote for her. It’s no small shift. These men have historically been her fiercest antagonists. Their conversion may point less to a new kind of male voter than to a new kind of female vote-getter.
Pundits have been quick to attribute the erosion in Barack Obama’s white male support to a newfound racism. What they have failed to consider is the degree to which white male voters witnessing Senator Clinton’s metamorphosis are being forced to rethink precepts they’ve long held about women in American politics.
(Side comment: this photo isn't really related ... I just love it. She looks like the life of the party).
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Time and again, I saw women accept the status quo, take what they were offered and wait for someone else to decide what they deserved. Men asked for what they wanted and usually got what they asked for.
Thanks to Elizabeth for the link.
Then the Arab Reform Bulletin arrived in my inbox and I saw this interview with Ali al Rashed, a member of Kuwait's National Assembly (Parliament) which, coincidentally, addressed many of the assertions in Worth's article. For instance:
What do you say to accusations that the National Assembly has become an obstacle to economic growth?
This is not true, and I do not agree with it. The government merely wants to pin its own shortcomings in achieving growth on the National Assembly, and it uses the huge government media outlets to do this. It does this because the Assembly questions the government and holds it accountable on issues such as deficiencies in hospital, road, and housing construction. We ask why the government has no work program and vision for the years ahead.
When we entered the Assembly, we met with His Highness the Emir and the prime minister and asked them to submit any law or economic development plan that would benefit the country and that they wanted the National Assembly to enact. We were ready to hold a special session and to vote upon any plan without delay. The government did not once request that any law be enacted or voted upon. This shows that the neglect was on the part of the government, not the Assembly.And, ironically enough, this is the same individual whose words opened the Times article:
In a vast, high-ceilinged tent, Ali al-Rashed sounded an anguished note as he delivered the first speech of his campaign for Parliament.
“Kuwait used to be No. 1 in the economy, in politics, in sports, in culture, in everything,” he said, his voice floating out in the warm evening air to hundreds of potential voters seated on white damask-lined chairs. “What happened?”
The Daily Star has a piece that addresses the same issues as the one in the Times, but which also includes some important details about Kuwaiti democracy - namely that political parties are not entirely legal, that candidates must run as independents, and that the National Assembly is not governed by a majority. All pretty important details that lend some insight into the merits of the claim that too much democracy is the problem with Kuwait's economic development.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
I have one! Kate Walsh aka Dr. Addison Montgomery (or Sheppard, or Montgomery-Sheppard) gave an interview to Planned Parenthood where she talks about her concern for women's reproductive health and how she wants to address contraceptives during the shows on which she plays a doctor. (Is isn't all that recent but it's still great). Kate, can we be best friends? And then can you introduce me to Patrick Dempsey?
And, because it is too funny, a post on Kate's advocacy for women's health from the Abstinence Clearinghouse. I especially like the part where they call Planned Parenthood an "abortion trafficker".
But the Nobel laureate said
Here is more from Al Jazeera on the Grameen Bank's work with women in Egypt.
“Kuwait used to be No. 1 in the economy, in politics, in sports, in culture, in everything,” he said, his voice floating out in the warm evening air to hundreds of potential voters seated on white damask-lined chairs. “What happened?”
It is a question many people are asking as this tiny, oil-rich nation of 2.6 million people approaches its latest round of elections. And the unlikely answer being whispered around, both here and in neighboring countries on the Persian Gulf: too much democracy.
Second, too much democracy? Women got the vote in Kuwait in 2006. Yes, it is now 2008. That is two years. They continue to enforce a strict gender-conforming dress code as well. So, there is democracy but it appears that those who participate in it are ... well, elite men. Which is not to say that the Kuwaitis quoted in the article are "wrong", it is just that only a very narrow perspective on the political climate is represented. Do you think Sri Lankan domestic workers would also say that an excess of democracy is holding the country back? It seems like lazy journalism to quote a few rich guys and then say "Kuwaitis".
Finally, there is this tragedy:
The collapse of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy in the region and the continuing chaos in Iraq, just to the north — once heralded as the birthplace of a new democratic model — have also contributed to a popular suspicion that democracy itself is one Western import that has not lived up to its advertising.
This is not a quote, this is the reporter's interpretation. So it may be imbued with his perspective, as an American (I think - Westerner at the very least), on the failures of the Bush administration's "democracy promotion" policies. But if we take his statement at face value - that Kuwaitis feel that democracy is a Western import that has been a disappointment - then, well, that is a sorry state of affairs. Because clearly a disenchantment with democracy will not lead to a restriction in rights for oil tycoons in Kuwait ... it will lead to a restriction in rights for domestic workers-women-cross dressers and others whose voices are already marginalized in the political process.
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Monday, May 5, 2008
“There have been attempts from reactionary forces in the society, the ruling party and opposition parties, to abort the president’s initiative,” Yahya Saleh said at a symposium on Sunday, organized by his forum under the slogan Let’s work together to allocate 15% quota for women.
Reactionary forces in the society plus the ruling party plus the opposition party points to a more deeply ingrained set of prejudices than just reactionary forces alone. Especially given this statement:
The largest opposition party, the Islamist party Islah, still says women can only vote and not run for the posts. It is impermissible for any woman from this party to run.
So it may not be as simple as issuing a presidential decree. Best of luck, though, to all those women who will run in the upcoming (May 17) elections.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
The families consistently refuse the compensation because Blackwater has not, as of yet, taken responsibility and apologized for the deaths. The article presents this as a cultural difference in dealing with culpability - that Iraqis find our system of paying out blood money without accepting responsibility sordid. Maybe that is the case - paying compensation for a life is pretty sordid. But I think that interpretation trivializes the unique and awful circumstances of this case, and really lets Blackwater off the hook. If the way that Blackwater has handled the Nisoor Square incident is "our way of doing things" then I am offended by it as well, despite not being Iraqi.
Friday, May 2, 2008
Honour killings of Iraqi women are justified by alleged promiscuity or adultery. In fact, the practice targets holders of PhDs, professionals, political activists and office workers.
From traditional wear to fashion statement, the abaya is undergoing a massive transformation, much like the Emirati women who wear it. The subtle differences in the sisters’ outfits offer a perfect illustration of how some young women are pushing the limits of creativity while still respecting their culture.“We have to stick to traditional boundaries, but that does not mean that we have to lose our femininity,” says Nouf al Hamly, whose point is emphasised by her perfectly presented hair and meticulous make-up.
Of course there are many comparisons in the piece to the Dutch cartoons controversy. I haven't seen the film, but I am skeptical of the comparison. Especially given this statement:
He [Talebzadeh] added that he hoped his 35-millimeter film would start a conversation between religions: "In the 21st century, the arts and the media have to create an area for more cordial discussions between faiths at a time when information is moving in the blink of an eye. . . . We should be joining people together, not giving distortion and misunderstanding. We have to say, 'Have you looked at this door to know the truth about Jesus?' "
Though the last sentence raises some other questions.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
So, on Monday morning, I read this article on Alaa al Aswany. The article is lovely, in my humble opinion, so naturally I went out and purchased the book (image left, buy it on Amazon here). The article led me to believe that I was in for some sophisticated cultural commentary, and there was certainly some of that. However, there were so many mentions of heavy breathing and breasts that I was, frankly, embarrassed to read it on the subway. Ok, I thought, let's not confuse breaking taboos with sophisticated cultural commentary! Al Aswany's English teacher clearly did not emphasize showing over telling, so subtlety is not at a premium and this, for me, meant that I was not getting a narrative of individual experiences but rather al Aswany's op-ed on the problems in Egypt in puppetshow form. Almost everyone in the book seems to have sexual conquest as their primary motivation (or a slight reconfiguration, i.e. avenging sexual humiliation), with the exception of the one prominent female, who appears to have avoiding the imposition of sexual conquest as her primary motivation.
So, in sum, I was somewhat dismissive of the book. However, today I saw this article on censorship of sex at a Tehran book fair. Books are banned from the fair if they contain any mention of sex. So, while Iran and Egypt are not in any way the same, it made me think that I might have been a little too quick to dismiss al Aswany's method of cultural critique. Maybe attributing sexual conquest to everyone as a primary motivation isn't something I buy as a truth, but it's a pretty sharp condemnation of the way that al Aswany's Egyptian countrymen view the world, and looking beyond the obvious phallocentrism of the book to see it, as al Aswany wrote it, as more of a symptom of societal ill than as a characteristic in itself.
Apparently being a pop singer in the Arab world is enough to tag you with the adjective "raunchy" (Also here, and again here). Haifa Wehbe is supposed to perform in Bahrain around Labor Day, and the Parliament is considering whether to forbid her from doing so. Her dress and dancing is "sexually provocative" and a violation of Bahrain's traditions. But there is a mitigating circumstance, according to the BBC:
Ms Wehbe's reputation for revealing clothes and sexy performances have not endeared her to Bahrain's Islamist-dominated parliament.
But she did well in a list of the most desirable women compiled by the website, AskMen.com, and she has featured in People Magazine's most beautiful list.
Oh ... so no big deal that she's being DEFAMED by the Bahraini Parliament. She was voted one of the most desirable women by AskMen.com!! (The idea that being featured in those fora is in any way a compliment is one with which I take issue).
There are two things (well, way more than that, but I will restrict myself to two) that really grate me about this. One, is that the writer (named Frances Harrison, from the BBC) adopts the standards that he or she (Frances is an ambiguous name!) attributes to Bahraini society in discussing Haifa. Would Britney Spears, whose career has been significantly more, uh, colorful than Haifa's get tagged with a word like raunchy in the BBC? No. (in US weekly, maybe, but not the BBC!) Would Christina Aguilera? No. But since Haifa is Arab she is expected to be modest, even by British men and women. And since Al Arabiya used the word raunchy, it's appropriate for the BBC to pick it up. This is a brand of cultural relativism that makes me very uncomfortable.
Second, the fact that she's sexy (which is soooo weird for a female pop singer, right?) takes away from the real issue: that in Bahrain, the Parliament gets to vote on whether a concert can take place. Which is a clear restriction of civil liberties and free expression. However, that did not come up. The coverage became entirely focused on Haifa's body and what other people think of it. It became entertainment news - given the choice between covering this incident as a political issue of censorship and viewing it through the lens of judging a woman for her behavior, the media chose the latter. So, in addition to mistreating Haifa, the reporters that covered this story distracted their readers from the political importance of this sort of behavior by a government.
Haifa did in fact get to perform, and naturally what she wore was the focus of the AP's article.