Tag Archives: Gender equality

International Day of Nonviolence

Feminist Activism is all about strategic nonviolent action and activism (SNVA) so today, the International Day of Nonviolence, I wanted to share with you all some thoughts on nonviolent strategy and successful activism. Today is different in key ways from the International Day of Peace because nonviolence is, by definition, different from peace. See these FAQ from the Albert Einstein Institute for a simple yet thorough explanation.

My practical knowledge of activism comes from years of working with non-profit women’s organizations like VOX: Voices for Planned Parenthood, the Gay-Straight Alliance, the National Organization for Women, and the V-Day Campaign. Tabling, phone banking, burma shaves, political rallies, marches, protests, and productions were all lessons I learned in high school and college.

My theoretical knowledge of strategic nonviolent action comes from Dr. Mary E. King and the UN-Mandated University for Peace. Dr. King served as the press secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. She and Casey Hayden co-authored “Sex and Caste”, which has been credited as one of the first documents of the women’s liberation movement. Her experience and vast knowledge of the literature about SNVA brought the ideas of brilliant theorists like Gene Sharp to the forefront of my actions, and allowed me to meet Retired Colonel (and expert strategist) Robert Helvey via Skype to discuss how SNVA could be used in the United States to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

As celebrations of Gandhi‘s birthday–the International Day of Nonviolence– occur from Oman to Armenia to Tibet, I’d like to define for you, in my own words, what some prominent concepts of nonviolence mean for me. While you’re reading, think about how they can be applied to abolishing patriarchy and establishing gender equality.

Nonviolent action is not passive.
It is not inaction.
It is action that is nonviolent.

Peace: Not just the absence of violence but a state of calm and understanding that leads to respect and love. A lofty philosophy, nearly impossible ideal, and absolutely necessary goal. Peace can and will only be achieved when equality is achieved.

Nonviolence: Not to be confused with nonviolent action, nonviolence is a preface or adjective in many phrases in the field of peace studies. The biggest mistake most people make when thinking nonviolent action is ineffective is confusing it for principled nonviolence which tries to win the hearts of opponents. Most people who practice some kind of nonviolence, especially those who practice nonviolence strategically, do not believe in principled nonviolence.

Principled nonviolence: The religious, spiritual, moral or ethical belief that violence is wrong and must never be used under any circumstances. Many great nonviolent leaders like Gandhi and MLK have used principled nonviolence to demand discipline and adherence to nonviolent behavior amongst their followers, with the belief that nonviolence is morally superior to violence. Pacifism and satyagraha are forms of principled nonviolence.

Strategic nonviolent action/activism: The strategic use of nonviolent actions with the understanding that well-planned strategic nonviolent actions are statistically more successful than violent action. Nonviolent action produces change through conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration, and targets six sources of power to do so (authority, human resources, skills and knowledge, intangible factors, material resources and sanctions). Nonviolent action can be broken down into acts of commission and acts of omission, and into three different categories as described and defined by Gene Sharp–nonviolent protest and persuasion, noncooperation, and nonviolent intervention. In 1973 Sharp outlined 198 methods of nonviolent action with the caveat that the number of methods could be infinite. Through the wonders of the internet, telecommunications and social networking the creativity of new methods never ceases to amaze me. Other phrases that are often used interchangeably with SNVA include people power, civil disobedience, political defiance and nonviolent struggle. My favorite word to neatly explain SNVA is the Turkish word direniş.

If you want to learn more about SNVA follow Feminist Activism on Twitter @FeministSNVA, read everything you can get from the Albert Einstein Institute, keep up with Change.org and the Care2 and Avaaz petition sites, and find and participate with your local NGOs’ actions through Idealist, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. Most importantly, find your passion, figure out what you want to change, then make it happen! Happy International Day of Nonviolence everyone, go out and kick some ass–metaphorically of course!


Man Up! by Göktuğ Salgırtay

Man Up!

Be a man.

That’s not manly.

Are you man enough?

I want a real man.

We often hear these phrases when a male person’s manliness is explored. What is really in question here though? Is it his economic status? The size of his penis? His physical strength? His courage? His supposed lack of emotions? Whatever it may be, there are many misconceptions about masculinity. A “real” man is mostly described as fearless and tearless, a warrior.

Yes, it is a fact that most of the world’s soldiers are men. Military training, boys’ peer groups and media often promote a direct link between being a “real” man and the practice of dominance and violence. It is true that men are responsible for most violent crimes, largely due to the fact that men rather than women are central to the symbolism of violence in mass media, sports and political rhetoric.

It is clear, there are links between masculinity and violence. To recognize this is not to say that all men are violent, or that men are naturally violent – it is to discover masculinity and its effects on gender-based violence.

Pointing out issues about masculinity can be misunderstood. It may be seen as unfairly blaming men for all violence, or implying that women are inherently better people. On the contrary, it may be seen as a way of excusing violent men, since the behavior is attributed to masculinity, which many believe to be natural and unchangeable. The focus, however, should be on characteristics of socially constructed masculinity that lead men towards violence, and on the ideologies that reinforce aggressive behavior. This allows the focus to shift towards prevention of violence against women and the building of positive alternatives.

Violence against women is used as a “policing mechanism” to emphasize socially set gender roles, and to perpetuate gender-based inequality. There are structural and personal roots to gender-based violence. At the structural level it is grounded in Patriarchy; a system that positions men over women (and other men). At the personal level it is also based on pressures, fears and emotions that underlie many of the dominant forms of manhood adopted in different settings.

The biology of sex does not explain the issues; biological differences are just that, while social patters of violence require social explanations and solutions. Our understanding of masculinity must embrace economic production, power and authority, sexuality and emotions, and identities and communication. Eliminating violence against women and building a culture of peace requires change in masculinities. But it does not require men to be weak or incapable. On the contrary, violence often occurs because masculinity is constructed to make violence the easy option, or the only option considered. We must move towards a leadership that does not see violence as the only alternative. The leadership “inherent” to masculinity should be used to work towards gender equality rather than to further segregate the gender hierarchy.

Education can open up a diversity of pathways, and allow boys and men to use a broader spectrum of their capacities; emotional, communicative, and political. Education can show boys and men a variety of ways of being a man, and allow them to experience this diversity. It can develop boys’ and men’s capacities for nonviolent action, training them in techniques of peace as they are now commonly trained in the techniques of combat.

An educational effort in this direction cannot work in isolation. It needs to be supported by action in other areas of life that will make greater diversity of experience possible for men, and nonviolent conduct easier for them. This means action to reduce gender hierarchies across the spectrum of social life, media, workplaces, and institutions.

Moving towards gender equality is an important part of the culture of peace as well. Cooperation and dialogue between women and men create new knowledge and positive change. Men’s groups should not pander to those who might attempt to emasculate them for fighting for gender equality. Media constantly emphasizes the “natural differences” between men and women. The fact is what men share with women – talents, languages, interests, institutions, and family – is far more than what divides them. As long as we focus on the mutual benefits and share the responsibilities, we will have the basis for a non-violent future.

 

Göktuğ was born and raised in Istanbul. He moved to the US during high school and was lucky enough to live in many awesome cities while earning his degree in gastronomy. Thirteen years later he’s back, living in southern Turkey near his family. He and Feminist Activist are currently living and loving on the beautiful Mediterranean Sea. He is very proud of his partner’s work towards gender equality.  


Socially Constructed Gender Roles: The Root of All Evil

For me, inequality is the biggest issue facing humanity today because it is inequality that is the root cause of so many of the world’s problems. Environmental degradation- inequality in resource distribution and power relations. War- inequality between nations. Poverty and violence- inequality between individuals. I’m sure you’re wondering where socially constructed gender roles come into all this.

From the time the sex of a fetus is known, even before it is born, its gender is being socially constructed for it, telling it how a good boy/girl should look, sound, act, and think. This socialization process continues on everyday for the rest of one’s life. Every society and every family have their own ideas as to how a good boy or girl should be, and these ideas are consciously and subconsciously taught to children from the moment they are born.

As soon as a child is birthed in the United States it is wrapped in pink if it’s a girl and blue if it’s a boy so that the whole world has a visual cue of whether or not it’s appropriate to call the baby “tiny and pretty” or “big and strong.” The first question everyone asks when a child is born is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” (totally denying the existence of intersex people) because the answer shapes the entirety of how other people will relate to this tiny human being. And what is a socially acceptable way to relate to people of the same and the opposite sex varies greatly across time and culture. Many, many people have done research and explained this phenomena much better than I can with this post.

Now, I know some readers are thinking “What’s the big deal? Girls like pink, and they like to be called pretty. Boys are supposed to be strong.” This is where the fault lies. Yes, there are biological differences between the sexes, I am not denying that, but to demand that on the basis of external genitalia one child play with trucks and one with dolls is like trying to push a rabbit through a key hole– you may eventually succeed but it will be messy and not without serious injury.

This separation of the genders, the dichotomy of man/woman, is dangerous and illogical, for man can only be defined by what he is not: woman, and vice versa. The danger lies in dichotomies themselves for the most basic pairing is good/bad, therefore in any other dichotomy society forms one side will equate to good and one side to bad (masculine/feminine, light/dark, straight/gay etc.).

From this we learn as young children that men are rational, strong, and intelligent AND that these are the traits a leader must embody. To contrast, we learn that women are emotional, fragile, and intuitive and that these traits are not suited to leadership. Therefore if a woman wants to become a leader, wants her voice to be respected and heard, she must take on “masculine” traits at great risk to her femininity and marriageability. At the same time if a man embodies the “feminine” qualities of being emotional, fragile and intuitive, he is seen as less than a man and inherently unworthy of respect.

Women in nearly all societies around the world at disadvantaged from the moment they are born simply because the rules have been written to favor males. For a very long time women in the US were relegated to the private sphere, if they had the class privilege, and men were expected to be in the public sphere. Again, the dichotomy here public/private reinforces what is important and what is “personal” and therefore unimportant, respectively.

The male norm of reference (ie. when someone says, “Think of a person,” most people think of a man) means that women are expected to be able to physically and emotionally act like men if they are to compete in the public sphere while men who wish to stay home and care for their children, though ridiculed for their choices, are not expected to give up their “masculine” traits. Sports and physical strength is the best example of this. Over and over again in opposition to the idea that men and women should be equal is the statement that men and women are not physically equal. True. Yet, the definition of what physical strength is was written to describe a man! Practically all sports were invented by men and then when women cannot best men at their own game they are considered undeserving of equality???

Such strong messages are sent to children from a very early age as “Boys don’t cry” and “Good girls sit with their knees together” are uttered across America. This idea that to be “ladylike” is to take up as little space as possible, while men are encouraged to show their physical abilities by taking up as much space as possible, not only reinforces the sexist public/private dichotomy but also leads to low self-esteem and eating disorders.

What we tell children they are, can be and should do has a profound impact on each individual child. If a child grows up being told s/he can do and be whatever s/he wants, that child will usually believe it, whether or not success is to follow. For children who grow up in poverty whose parents don’t have the time, resources or role models to encourage their children to great heights, those children will unfortunately probably continue to live in the cycle of poverty.

The same is true of gender expectations. If a young boy is playing and scrapes his knees he is told to buck up and so, stops crying, at which point some loving adult says “Boys will be boys.” Check that article out for a great POV on how gender roles harm boys too. In many families the same scenario with a daughter would play out quite differently, if a young girl scraped her knees playing she might be chided for being “too tomboyish” while the loving adult in her life will lament that now she won’t look pretty in her Sunday dress.

I maintain that this most basic reinforcement of inequality that permeates every single component of our lives, is the basis for and the rationale behind anyone’s ability to perpetuate inequality on any other level. It is no shock that the leaders of most companies that perpetuate environmental degradation and most of the world’s powerful politicians are male, that most violence in the world is carried out by males, and that most of the world’s poor are women. Men (and women) have been taught all their lives that men are better, and to be “good masculine men” they must be physically dominant, stoic, and decisive. It is no surprise these traits carry over into their leadership styles which then impact every aspect of life and maintain inequality.

This is not to say, in any way, that there are not brave, heroic men and women and intersex people all over the world fighting against inequality. Everyday people risk their lives fighting against environmental degradation, war and poverty, and speak out against violence against women, children, the elderly, the disabled and the LGBTQAI community. (See what I mean about the male norm of reference! If you’re not a young, nondisabled, straight white male you’re the Other.)

Every fight against injustice and inequality is a good one and worth the fight (as long as its nonviolent… and we’ll get in to strategy in another post) but those hoping for true equality will always fall short of the mark if they do not address the underlying cause of all inequalities: gender inequality caused by socially constructed gender roles. The following quote by Graça Machel, President of the Foundation for Community Development Chair of the GAVI Fund Board, explains this well.

“Without gender equality none of the Millennium Development Goals will be achieved. That is why this report is so valuable. ‘Because I am a Girl’ documents the impact of gender inequality on the lives of girls. It shows clearly and powerfully that our failure to make an equal, more just world has resulted in the most intolerable of situations. In today’s world, to discriminate on the basis of sex and gender is morally indefensible; economically, politically and socially unsupportable.”

So, by now, I hope you’re salivating wondering how you can help eradicate all forms of inequality from racism to ageism by challenging socially constructed gender roles. It’s easy! All you have to do is speak out when someone makes a blanket statement such as “All women get excited to get their hair done,” or “All men love cars;” buy gender neutral toys for any little ones in your life; equally cite examples of men, women, transgender, intersex, nondisabled, and disabled leaders of all races, ages and classes; support marriage equality; speak out against militarization (more on this in another post); and volunteer with your local women’s organization.

Ok, you don’t have to do all of it. But if you did, you would be amazing, and would be rapidly contributing to worldwide equality. The biggest, and easiest thing you can do is to just ask “WHY?” If someone makes a blanket statement, start a conversation about gender roles. If someone challenges your offering of a gift like a deck of cards or marbles with “Why didn’t you get him/her a present that is more masculine/feminine?” they are obviously ungrateful, but it is a good point for you to ask why it is so important to that person that the child be lead in one direction or the other.

I genuinely do not understand the apprehension people have about equality between the sexes, nor do I understand the archaic clinging-to of scripted gender roles. Strength, emotionality, intelligence, intuition, and anything else that can be described as either “masculine” or “feminine” are simply HUMAN traits, and should be treated as such. Henceforth some boys would become strong stoic men and some girls would become passive emotional women but there would also be space in society for strong emotional men, passive emotional men, strong emotional women, and strong stoic women, in addition to space being opened up for intersexed and transgender people.

I am not advocating all women disregard their feminine traits or men throw off their masculinities, rather, I want everyone to be free to be who s/he is without coercion from society telling them they are too this or not enough that. The world would not exist without balance, and socially constructed gender roles brazenly defy any balance within an individual because certain qualities have been labeled as being “boys only” or “girls only.” Every single one of us needs to embrace the “feminine” and “masculine” traits within us and not being afraid to flout tradition. (See the article below at pinkisforboys for a great discussion on the problem of naming with respect to “feminine” and “masculine”… the fact that I can’t think of any other way to describe these traits that isn’t gendered is proof of the problem!)

This post has gotten longer than I expected it to be, but I never want to leave you without a complete understanding of where I am coming from in fighting gender inequality. If you have any questions, comments, suggestions, links, or information please join the discussion in the comments. And love one another!


Religion and Modest Dress

France has certainly stirred up quite a storm with their recent enforcement of a ban on the niqab, one version of the hijab that covers the face, in addition to the hair. Women who cover their faces in public will be subject to fines and citizenship lessons. While everyone has an opinion, finally including Muslim women in the debate over niqab/hijab is a huge first-step to overcoming the political wedge being driven between courageous women on both sides by right-wing groups.

As stated previously, women’s identities occur ”in the context of a racistclassistsexist society which places greater value on people who are fully able-bodied and young. Our personal experiences often parallel the experiences of women with whom we identify…. When we foster discussion as to who is the most… oppressed, we encourage the colonialist tactic of divide and conquer.” (Shah, Sonia. 1997. “Women and Gender Issues” http://www.asian-nation.org/gender.shtml). All women must first listen to each other, and then come together to support each other’s rights.

There are many, many things to consider when discussing hijab, the principle of modest dress in Islam, including the fact that observant men are also expected to dress modestly, how laws regarding expression of religion will affect various women, and why women wear outward expressions of religion in the first place. Many Islamic scholars argue that the niqab is a cultural relic and not a true observance of Islam, which adds another layer to the debate.

As an Atheist and someone who is uneducated about the world’s religions, I do not like to discuss the topic; as a feminist and someone who is concerned about every individual’s right to express her/himself, I will now delve into the common principle of modest dress found in the three Abrahamic faiths.

One of the many things Islam, Christianity and Judaism have in common is the principle of modest dress. Each of these three major religions also has followers the scale the spectrum from excruciatingly devout to merely a follower in name alone, and their outward expressions of their faiths reflect this. Here in Turkey, because a religion is strongly encouraged to be included on the birth certificate of a newborn, many parents state that their children are Muslim, with no intention of ever stepping foot in a mosque. Consequently some young women whose families force them to cover their hair rebel by wearing lots of make-up and tight “Western” clothing too. Likewise, many American families are “Christian” but do not attend church or actively practice the religion. This is to say nothing of those people, in any faith, who practice their faiths only in their houses of worship and are bad people everywhere else.

In Judaism the principle of Tzniut requires Orthodox men to dress modestly (no short-sleeved shirts or shorts) and women to cover from their collarbones to their elbows to their knees, not wear open-toed shoes or pants, wear demure colors, clothing that does not show their shape, and, if they are married, to cover their hair. Because many married Orthodox Jewish women often cover their hair with wigs they are perceived as less “frightening” than Muslim women who wear a headscarf. Jewish men too are expected to dress modestly and cover their heads out of respect for God.

Anyone who has ever been to Catholic school can tell you that nuns are scary. And while the habit is not required of regular practitioners of Catholicism, the only women allowed to serve as authorities under the Catholic Church are required to wear black, shapeless dresses and cover their hair. Other branches of Christianity also encourage modest dress, with some practicing women not allowed to wear pants or show their figure. Also the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Dunkard Brethren, among other Christian denominations, require simplicity and modesty in the dress, including head covering, of all followers.

While many of the world’s religions require followers to cover their heads, rarely is covering the face a requirement, and if it is, it is only required of women. In Catholicism women were expected for centuries to wear a veil in church, the difference here being that in Islam women are encouraged to hide themselves from unrelated men, and in Catholicism, women are encouraged to hide themselves from God. I am a fan of neither of these ideas.

Unfortunately, these major religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, are all patriarchal in nature, with women’s voices traditionally being left out of the “written word of God.” Of course there are examples in each of the holy texts, the Qu’ran, the Bible and the Torah, of messages of love and peace and equality, but there are also a number of passages which promote violence or revenge or inequality. Interpretation is key to utilizing the idea of a loving God to promoting human rights, including the rights of women.

Oddly, both sides of the niqab ban debate claim to have women’s rights in mind. I find it sad, if laughable, that politicians and religious leaders alike raise the banner of women’s rights only when they have no other excuse for their actions (ie. Let’s invade Afghanistan to “liberate their women!“) If either the French government or the Islamic leaders in this debate were truly concerned about women’s rights, especially Muslim women’s rights, they would have been speaking out long ago about the racism, sexism and socio-economic disadvantages Muslim women face in Muslim and non-Muslim countries on a daily basis, to say nothing of opposition to war and drone attacks.

FEMINISTS have been speaking out against the mistreatment of women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, for decades, and yet our pleas for governments to change laws that truly can affect women’s lives have gone unnoticed. Muslim women’s groups and Islamic feminists have also been speaking out about the issues of concern to them… obviously their voices too go unheard since “veiling” is not usually amongst their biggest concerns. Poverty, education, healthcare, democracy, unemployment–these are the rights Muslim feminists are demanding. We cannot diminish their real needs by imposing our ideologies onto them.

Now, one of the most important ideas I learned in graduate school was this: Cultural relativism is one step away from racism. Let me explain. By excusing away some particular behavior as “cultural” we are condoning/allowing it and claiming there is no room, need or ability for change. “[Insert any race/ethnicity here] men beat their wives… but it’s part of their culture. Those people only send their children to school for two years… but it’s part of their culture.” These ideas are inherently the same as blatantly racist statements like “X people are stupid.” Thankfully we do cry out when culture/religion are used to torture and kill people- as in the picture above, but this retroactive lamenting of “cultural practices” still does nothing for the women being killed for being raped.

There are fundamental human rights that every individual on the planet should have access to. In my mind those (should) include: education, healthcare, food, water, shelter, clean air, the right to vote, economic opportunity, the right to form legal bonds, and freedom of speech, movement, assembly, demonstration, physical expression, sexuality, and yes, religion. Of course age and issues of consent arise with such things as sex and voting, but these are still fundamental rights.

The debate over whether or not the government has the right to ban certain types of religious dress is a quagmire. On the one hand, the government has a duty to uphold secularism, work towards gender equality and fight religious/gender oppression, and on the other hand, the government has a duty to protect its citizens’ rights to practice their faiths. The French government has taken the stand that face coverings in public are of such significance to the government that it is justified in denying personal rights.

I fully appreciate the arguments that many women do not really have a choice in wearing the niqab, that the niqab disappears women and takes away their individuality, that outward expressions of religion have no place in government offices or schools, and that in the name of security one’s face should not be hidden. I also appreciate the arguments that telling women what they cannot wear is just as oppressive as telling them what they can wear, that the niqab/abaya allows women to be appreciated for what they say and not how they look, that freedom of religious expression is a fundamental human right, and that not all Muslims are terrorists!

ALL WOMEN ARE JUDGED ON OUTWARD APPEARANCE. Women who wear hijab understand this as much as any woman, and sometimes choose to wear hijab out of rebellion against colonialism/government oppression/imperialism etc. Whether or not women are judged as being sexy enough for marriage material in the West or pious enough for marriage material in the East, what women wear is under constant scrutiny by other women, men, and society in general. Adopting standards of modesty specific to women objectifies women as much as encouraging women to show off does. In both cases women are to be seen, and then their worth determined.

Obviously my mind is not made up as to whether or not the ban is ethical/legal. My biggest concern with the ban, however, is the isolation it is likely to cause. Essentially, the French government is saying, “Either remove this expression of your religion (culture), or stay home,” further widening the chasm between the public and private spheres for women. Another of my concerns with the enforcement of this ban is class issues: French Muslim women who wear niqab will be fined or required to take classes in French citizenship, and the government of France is basically telling the women of the Gulf States, where niqab is the law, that they are not welcome unless they are willing to endanger themselves.

What is needed in this case is not a band-aid solution to the gaping wound that is women’s inequality. To tackle the underlying causes of why men and women are held to different standards in any situation we must start deconstructing socially constructed gender roles in every society. This is hard, dangerous work, but until women are no longer seen as property to be protected from the eyes of lustful men, (and the eyes of lustful men are rightly shamed into looking at their own feet!) we must educate ourselves and anyone who will listen as to the necessity, for men and women, in abolishing strict gender roles.


Day 27- Sexuality in the US

Disability is one of the few factors in women’s lives that can overcome racist assumptions about their sex lives. Nondisabled black women are very often compared to or pictured with animals in advertising[1] and this idea that black women will be wild, animalistic lovers is in the back of many people’s minds. But, if a black woman is in a wheelchair, most people will see the chair and assume asexuality before they make any association to her skin color. Neither assumption is correct but it is interesting how one aspect of a person’s identity can overshadow everything else.

Physical appearance is extremely important to American society and the superficiality of the media directly affects all people but has the direst consequences for women. In the hierarchy of patriarchy the closest women can get to the top is when they are young, thin, nondisabled, white (blond), straight and pretty looking. To be clear, women do not actually have to be any of these things but to be successful, especially in the media,they must appear to be all of these things.

Visibly disabled women are automatically excluded from this cult of beauty, as are women of color, normal-sized and heavy women, transgender and lesbian women, and older women. The male/female dichotomy has such a stranglehold on aesthetics in the United States that even when someone who does fit this description, like actress Julia Roberts, forgets to change something natural about her body (shave her armpits) she is publicly chastised and ridiculed for not conforming to the beauty ideals of Hollywood.

The four Killing Us Softly documentaries with Jean Kilbourne best explain how dangerous being bombarded by these images can be for women. American women are expected to be nearly hairless, have flawless skin, long, silky hair, no fat or cellulite, a small waist and big breasts. The beauty industry in the U.S. is a multi-billion dollar per year business and has a big interest in challenging women to be flawless, knowing they will never achieve perfection but will spend lots of money trying.

Even women who have slightly masculine features can be discriminated against and face violence, especially if they are assumed to be lesbian. Obviously the male/female dichotomy is most dangerous for transgender and intersexed individuals who have the courage to confound gender stereotypes and live according to the aspects of their gender identity that they are most comfortable with, but even internationally acclaimed athletes are facing the consequences of being accused of not being feminine enough.

Caster Semenya, a world-record-holding Olympic runner, was forced to undergo sex testing to see if she is “female enough” to compete against other women. In accusing female athletes of not being entirely female the The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are not concerned about fairness to all involved but rather about their own public images.

The co-founder of the IOC’s Olympic Science Academy and of the Sports Science Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, Tim Noakes, claims “As many as eight ‘intersex’ women may have been expelled from athletics in the past and I gather that they were warned that if they made a fuss, they would be exposed. So it seems it’s not about athletic advantage, it’s about keeping the Olympics free of ‘intersex’ athletes, free of unwanted complications. It sends the message that women must do what men say and if the eight previous athletes had to be sacrificed, so be it….”[2]

Noakes contends that athletes suspected of being intersexed are not treated with respect. Whether or not Semenya is found to be intersexed or not, he feels she should be allowed to compete stating, “You can’t exclude ‘intersex’ athletes and there is growing consensus… that whatever gender you were assigned at birth, that is your gender…. There is no single test that will show whether you are more male than female.” He goes on to argue that “some genetic variants” are allowed in sports and if they are “linked to gender, so be it.” Because the implications for forcing gender conformity are so widespread the LGBTQI community must come together to fight against discrimination on the basis of sex.

“As long as dependence is seen as a personality flaw in the lesbian community, our ability to be a truly diverse and inclusive force to be reckoned with is nonexistent…. As long as we think some of us are going it alone and others aren’t, we are ignoring the very real facts of social structure. The possibility of going it alone is just an illusion that distracts us from organizing. You are either successful on someone else’s back, or arm in arm with her. Your choice.”[3]

In a similar way that Asian-Americans are pointed at as being “model minorities” so too are lesbians singled out of the larger LGBTQAI movement. Well, not lesbians, per se, but actions that traditionally would have been classified as lesbian. And it is not because American culture suddenly woke up and decided to be more inclusive; it is precisely to continue dividing minorities and to pit them against each other so that they cannot fight together.“That’s the capitalist stake in keeping us divided. If we’re tied up fighting each other, we won’t be struggling together against the real enemy.”[4]

More and more heterosexual women are engaging in activities that twenty years ago would have had them classified as dykes: publicly kissing, touching and fondling other women. Some would argue that this shows a greater acceptance of gay culture in the United States. While acceptance of homo- and bisexuality has grown greatly over the past decades these straight-but-seem-bi women are using the heterosexual male lesbian fantasy to their advantage while simultaneously reinforcing gender inequality. Katy Perry, a popular U.S. performing artist, took this advantage to the extreme with her multi-million dollar record deal showcasing her not-really-lesbian behavior. Again, the labels one chooses to use to identify herself are extremely important personally, and politically.

Sexual relationships between women in the United States are generally seen in one of four ways: as an arousal tool for heterosexual men, as harmless (i.e. not cheating for a woman in a monogamous heterosexual relationship), as a threat or an abomination against God, or less often, as legitimate loving relationships.

The first two analyses of lesbian relationships are closely linked; they assume that women loving women poses no threat to the heterosexist patriarchal machine because women are valued less than men. The “joke” is still made that some women are only lesbians because they have not yet had sex with the “right” man.[5] This patronizing of women’s sexuality takes away agency and shows that often women’s opinions and feelings are not respected even when they are clearly voiced. The other side of this coin is that many men feel that if their monogamous female sexual partner engages in sexual activity with another woman it is not cheating, while if she were with another man it would be, once again showing how little value is placed on women owning their own sexuality.

This criticism should in no way be seen as a disapproval of polyamory, or love between multiple consenting adults, but rather as a critique of the sexist and misogynistic way in which women’s sexuality is viewed by the American culture at large.

The third view of lesbian relationships is the most overtly harmful because people who view women loving women as a threat to their way of life are more likely to act out against it by pushing for discriminatory legislation or in the form of hate crimes. Real opposition to lesbianism often comes from the Religious Right in the United States that has a strong interest in maintaining the patriarchal hierarchy. Because lesbians generally operate outside the normal sphere of “woman depending on man” this weakens men’s power over women, something the Church sees clearly. The lesbian community has often been an example of the strength of women and many heterosexual women have learned from lesbian communities that there are alternatives to depending on men.

Bisexualwomen, while they face some of the same discrimination as lesbians, also face discrimination that is unique to their situation. Biphobia–the fear or hatred of people who identify as bisexual–exists both in the heterosexual community and the homosexual community.

Everyone in America is brought up seeing the world through dichotomies: black/white, male/female, good/bad, straight/gay, etc. This socialization is just as effective on homosexuals as on heterosexuals and is often responsible for the polarizing of butches and femmes in the lesbian community. People who see the world only in pairs of opposites lack imagination and are made uncomfortable by anything or anyone who does not neatly fit into the good box or the bad box, as dichotomies always result in one side being clearly more valued than the other.

Bisexuals are discriminated against by heterosexuals who can only see that they love people of the same sex. They are further discriminated against by the homosexual community who see them as traitors to the cause for loving people of the opposite sex. Bisexuals are often seen as indecisive, confused, oversexed and/or dangerous. This exclusion can lead to both physical and psychological health problems; a recent survey found that bisexual women have the poorest health of all women. The LGBTQI community has poor overall health in general–a direct result of being marginalized by society.

“Compared to heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, and bisexuals…were more likely to be tense or worried, to smoke, have asthma, abuse drugs, or be victims of sexual abuse. Bisexual men and women were also more likely than heterosexuals to say they faced barriers to getting health care, had higher cardiovascular risk, felt sad, and had contemplated suicide in the past year. Binge drinking was more common among bisexual women than heterosexuals.”[6]

Bisexuals were also more likely to be poor and bisexual women reported the highest rate of sexual assault among all sexuality groups. Most bisexuals do favor one sex more than the other but are openly attracted to both men and women. Some bisexuals explain that they are attracted to certain qualities in people and it does not matter what sex the person possessing those qualities is. While bisexual is the most commonly used term for people who are attracted to more than one gender, other terms may be more appropriate to individuals’ situations such as pansexual, fluid, or omnisexual, as these terms do away with the male/female dichotomy that the term bisexual reinforces. Again, naming one’s own identity is an important step in political action.

Slowly bisexuals are becoming more accepted within the LGBTQAI movement, as is apparent that people rarely forget the ‘B’ in the alphabet soup, but the people behind the letter are still rarely visible. Women of all sexualities must be included in the campaign for gender equality in the United States and around the world.

The LGBTQAI movement has long been visible in the United States and has paved the way for Pride Movements around the world. The determination of the politically active sexual minorities within the U.S. can be felt all the way to the White House. Only last year, in 2010, did LGBTQAI individuals earn the right to visit their partners in the hospital and make medical decisions for them if they are the appointed guardians. Nation-wide legalization of same-sex marriage is still a ways off, at least until California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, gets to the Supreme Court.

“It’s not possible to know whether the final ruling in this case will broadly confront the overarching denial of equal protection and due process created by prohibiting one segment of society from entering into marriage. The Supreme Court has, in different cases, called marriage ‘essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men’ and a ‘basic civil right.’”[7]

Other legislation is also in the works to guarantee civil rights for the LGBTQAI community. On May 20, 2010 Senator Al Franken introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act to the Senate, the bill “would prohibit discrimination in schools on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.” According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) more than 85% of LGBT students have been harassed and more than 60% feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

Moreover, one-third of LGBT students “missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, five times higher than a national sample of students.”[8]Despite the advancement of rights with this legislation LGBTQAI students in New Jersey will still not be able to find books in their school library with which they can identify. The school board took the liberty of banning “gay-theme books” from a local high school.[9]

Just days before Senator Franken introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act, the Human Rights Campaign reported that the Minnesota governor had vetoed a bill that would have given same-sex couples the right to take charge of their partners’ remains after death and also to sue in cases of wrongful death.[10]

In many ways laws regarding the rights of same-sex couples, or sexual minority individuals, follow the “two steps forward, one step back” rule. The most visible battle currently is to reform the United States Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which the Obama administration historically has decided not to defend.

And very recently the US finally overturned the military’s policy of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) regarding sexual orientation of service members. Under this policy those service members who were found to be homo- or bisexual or who disclosed their sexual orientation to anyone could be discharged from the military. Even though this policy was supposed to apply equally to all serving in the military those serving who filled a difficult position, or were much needed by the military, were generally overlooked in the witch-hunt. “In 1994 Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, winner of a bronze star in Vietnam, won reinstatement in the Army Nurse Corps after being discharged for admitted homosexuality.”[11]

The ban disproportionately affected minorities and women. The latest data, compiled by the gay rights group Servicemembers United from Defense Department numbers, showed that in 2008, 45% of troops discharged under ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ were minorities, while minorities were 30% of the service. Women accounted for 34% of the discharges but were 14% of the military.[12]

Highly vocal spokesperson for the repeal of DADT, Lt. Daniel Choi, an openly gay Korean-American man whose skills as an Arabic translator made him too valuable for the Army to let go, was reinstated while DADT was still ineffect, after being discharged because of his sexual orientation. He and other military activists took direct action to overturn DADT, including handcuffing themselves to the White House fence, and fasting.

Autumn Sandeen, a disabled transgender Navy veteran who handcuffed herself to the White House fence, was disrespected and harassed while in custody because of her gender identity. Federal law enforcement officers referred her to as an “impersonator,” “shim,” and “it,” degrading and dehumanizing terms that do not reflect the federal government’s duty to protect and honor all American citizens.

In an eloquent and telling letter to President Barack Obama she wrote, “I personally approached this civil disobedience action with honor, courage, and commitment — the core values of the U.S. Navy — and my honor, courage, and commitment was met with disrespectful and dehumanizing epithets by your representatives in the Park Police and U.S. Marshals.”[13]

Inclusion of a clause disallowing discrimination based on sex or gender in the Constitution would provide grounds on which Sandeen’s case could be taken to the federal level. As has been seen with legislation regarding homosexuality, individual laws are not striking forcefully enough at the inequalities faced on a daily basis by a considerable number of Americans.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in American society for women in general to be disrespected or dehumanized. One of the cruelest examples of this is the lack of Reproductive Justice (RJ) available to so many women in the United States. Because women’s opinions are not valued their autonomy and decision-making abilities are frequently called into question while men’s decisions are considered sound and logical.

In the Catholic Church priests are not punished for sexually abusing children over decades while one nun was excommunicated for allowing doctors to perform a life-saving abortion on a woman in a Catholic hospital.[14]When women make the choice to terminate a pregnancy they are vilified by right-wing conservatives who only proclaim to be pro-life until they themselves need an abortion.

One blogger explains, “Women are talked about, and legislated upon, as though having the organs in question disqualifies women from the discussion.”[15]But abortion, and legal, geographical and financial access to it, is not the only concern of the RJ movement.

SisterSong explains that Reproductive Justice “is the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives.”[16]

Demands for RJ can include accurate sex education for all women, including disabled women and lesbian women; economic and legal access to birth control and emergency contraception; the right to choose and form a legal commitment to one or more partners; and the right to become pregnant and adopt. Some of these ideas, especially recognizing same-sex marriage and the right to become pregnant, are still fairly radical but are imperative to ensuring that all women in the United States have equal rights.

Sexologist Bianca Laureano of Reproductive Health Reality Check questions the medicalization of women’s sexuality (and the “selling” of female sexual dysfunction) in the United States from a RJ perspective:

“When people discuss “comprehensive sexuality education” what do they really mean? Because when I discuss it I’m not just talking about sharing options in contraception, birth control, consent, etc. but I also include race, class, national origin, dis/ability, immigration status, and the criminalization of certain communities. Who decides what “comprehensive” means and includes/excludes?
Why is the U.S. sexuality and sexual health field so racially White, able-bodied, English-speaking, doctorate degree having, and older…still?!…
Why not mention the big elephant in the room: that FSD is focused on people whose sex assigned at birth is female and does not include transgender people or people who identify as intersex? How do we continue to “Other” and medicalize bodies that do not conform to what medical professionals have classified as “normal”?
How does a disability framework complicate, challenge, or affirm the medicalization of sexual dysfunctions?
What about working class and working poor people? Is sexual dysfunction just a illness of the middle and elite class who may have health insurance to cover such medications, procedures, access to entering into a trial, or the time to seek out specialized care?”[17]

As Laureano’s questions show, there is much work to be done to ensure that women are not discriminated against just for being women. All American women, LBTQAI, straight, disabled, nondisabled, Arab, Asian, black, Latina, Native, mixed-race, immigrant, and white of all classes, religions and ages must work together in strategic nonviolent action to include women in the Constitution and make sure discrimination on the basis of sex is no longer legal.


[1]Kilbourne, Jean (Producer). (2010). Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women [Motion picture]. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

[2] Borland, Ken. 19 May 2010. “Eight athletes secretly banned over gender doubt.” National Post. Johannesburg, South Africa. 10 June 2010 http://www.nationalpost.com/sports/story.html?id=3047610

[3] Brownworth and Raffo, 1999.

[4] Alaniz and Wong, 1999.

[5] An idea that springs from “corrective rape.”

[6] Cooney, Elizabeth. 10 June 2010. “Survey: Bisexual women in poorest health.” White Coat Notes. Boston, MA.

[7] “Marriage, a Basic Civil Right.” 11 June 2010. Editorial. The New York Times.  p. A30.

[8] Presgraves, Daryl. 20 May 2010. “Franken Introducees Student Non-Discrimination Act in Senate to End Anti-LGBT Discrimination in Schools.” 10 June 2010 http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/news/record/2579.html

[9] Marinelli, Louis. “Gay-theme books banned from high school.” 10 June 2010 http://www.protectmarriagesite.com/nj.html

[10] Warbelow, Sarah. 17 May 2010. “Update: Minnesota Gov. Pawlenty Vetoes Domestic Partner Funeral Rights Bill.” 10 June 2010 http://www.hrcbackstory.org/2010/05/update-minnesota-gov-pawlenty-vetoes-domestic-partner-funeral-rights-bill/

[11] Celebrating Women’s History: A Women’s History Month resource book Ed. Mary Ellen Snodgrass. 1996. ITP: New York.

[12] Bello, Marisol. 27 May 2010. “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ affects women, minorities more.” USA Today. 10 June 2010 http://www.usatoday.com/news/military/2010-05-26-dont-ask_N.htm

[13] Spaulding, Pam. 26 April 2010. “President Obama: A Transgender Veteran Is Not An ‘Impersonator,’ ‘It,’ Or ‘Shim.’” 10 June 2010 http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/4/26/860860/-President-Obama:-A-Transgender-Veteran-Is-Not-An-Impersonator,-It,-Or-Shim-

[14] Bradley Hagerty, Barbara. 19 May 2010. “Nun Excommunicated for Allowing Abortion.” National Public Radio. 10 June 2010 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126985072

[15] Presley, Katie. 14 May 2010. “3 Main Ways Right-Wing Legislators Control Women’s Bodies.” Ms.blog 10 June 2010 http://msmagazine.com/blog/blog/2010/05/14/3-main-ways-right-wing-legislators-control-womens-bodies/

[16] Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice. 2007. “What is Reproductive Justice?” SisterSong. 10 June 2010 http://www.sistersong.net/reproductive_justice.html


Day 22- Equality Now

Over the past week we’ve had discussions about violence against women and a few of the many organizations that work to eradicate VAW by using strategic nonviolent action techniques. The second week of March was a look into what women in different parts of the world are doing to overcome injustice in their own countries. And the first week of March we delved into what women of different races have done and are doing in the US to work towards gender equality.

The rest of the month of March will be a hodgepodge of activism, with no particular theme, other than take action. We will learn about women’s use of SNVA within the disability movement, sexual minority strategic actions, organizations that fight for reproductive justice and much more. Any ideas, suggestions, advice, links, comments or information would be more than welcome.

Today we will focus on the incredible work of Equality Now. Equality Now may be the first encounter I ever had with a women’s rights organization and organized feminism. I was in junior high and someone from EN was featured on Oprah and was talking about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). From then on I was determined that no one should suffer abuse just because she is female.

Equality Now is available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. This organization combats many forms of gender discrimination and gender-based violence, including FGM, human trafficking, rape, domestic violence, political participation and reproductive rights.

Started in 1992, “Equality Now documents violence and discrimination against women and mobilizes international action to support their efforts to stop these human rights abuses.” They have organizations in New York, Nairobi and London. There is an open position at the NY office for a bookkeeper and they also have internships at each of their locations.

The Women’s Action Network of Equality Now is how individuals and international organizations are mobilized in support of or in opposition to a specific issue. Here is a long list of the current actions supported by Equality Now. They include letter-writing campaigns to end FGM in Tanzania, and to end the femicides in Ciudad Juarez, among many other actions.

Equality Now also organizes political campaigns such as a benefit to combat human trafficking and sex tourism, and they publish Awaken which raises awareness and acts as a forum for strategies to combat FGM. They are also active in using UN mechanisms to urge governments to change their policies that are discriminatory towards women, and they support the Lawyer’s Alliance for Women Project which promotes individuals’ use of the law to combat injustice. Here is a list past events Equality Now has held, including a film screening of Fatal Promises and a panel discussion with the authors of Half the Sky. EN is supported by such celebrities as Meryl Streep.

There are many ways to support Equality Now and its work, including joining the WAN, taking actions and making donations. Equality Now also offers a list of creative ideas for ways to fight injustice. EN offers a number of items for sale featuring their super sexy logo and you can spread the word about their work by becoming a Facebook fan.


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