Archive | June, 2012

Science: it’s a girl thing. Or, what do test tubes have to do with lipstick?

25 Jun

Do outreach projects aimed at increasing the numbers of females and non-whites in a particular field work?

The recent attempt spearheaded by the European Commission to increase the number of female scientists in the European Union and beyond has come under fire by just about everybody. The project introduced itself with a short, flashy video where 3 girls strut towards the camera, wearing short skirts, strappy shoes, and safety goggles. The girls are glimpsed looking through telescopes in fancy outfits, striding through a laboratory with a smart haircut and a knowing smile.

The tagline–“Science: It’s a Girl Thing”–is written across the screen in lipstick, the “i” in Science an opened container of lipstick. This is confusing, to say the least, for it would appear that the project is aimed at the science of cosmetology over and against the hard sciences of biology, chemistry or physics.

Does the European Commission believe that the only way to get girls interested in science is to treat the field like a game of dress-up, using the set design of a Miss Universe pageant?


The Muslim Brotherhood and the female anatomy

19 Jun

Despite the fact that former authoritarian ruler Mubarak banned the archaic and brutal custom of female genital mutilation throughout Egpyt, there are recent reports that the Muslim Brotherhood has organized a mobile “medical” van that has been travelling through southern areas of Egpyt, with female genital mutilation as one of its principle “surgical” procedures.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been a subject of intense controversy and condemnation for decades now. At first, defenders of the practice referred to its “cultural” importance, decrying those western imperialists who sought to preach to others. Now, it’s being justified as a religious practice, which in turn renders those who attempt to curb its practice as Islamophobes.

But religion’s got nothing to do with it. And, even if it was a cultural practice, a tradition–who cares?! Traditions and cultures change and evolve as do their peoples. The slicing off of 1/4 to 1/3 of a female’s genitals do nothing other than lead to constant, chronic pain for the rest of a girl’s life. Intense pain during urination, sexual intercourse and childbirth; an increased susceptibility to disease and infection; an inability to feel anything other than throbbing, searing agony during sex: these are the after-effects of slicing off the external front area of the clitoris and lips of the vagina.

The tools: a few razor blades.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to the practice might mean that those knives are a little cleaner, but it must be demanded as to why they are propagating such brutal, hateful, torturuous practices? Why have The Faith and Justice Party members of parliament (including a female politician) denounced the existing law which criminalizes fgm, and stated their support for its continued practice?

The Muslim Brotherhood runs an extensive community outreach program, providing health, education and other social services. This benevolent arm of the party undoubtedly also serves as terrific propaganda for it, enabling its politicians to claim greater understanding of Egytian citizens’ needs and desires. So, if female genital mutilation is being done via the Muslim Brotherhood’s medical vans, this means that fgm is considered part of the party’s community outreach. Slicing off parts of a young girl’s body is part of the community outreach in which it is engaging.

Further, by providing the service via a “medical” van, the Muslim Brotherhood strives to give fgm legitimacy, supposedly rendering the procedure safe and presumptive. By advertising its services as “surgical circumcision for males and females,” it equates the two, and further attempts to justify fgm by referring to it as “surgery.”

See? It’s done to men too. Except male circumcision doesn’t lead to chronic pain, generally does not welcome numerous infections, and definitely doesn’t prevent sexual pleasure. Female genital mutilation is exactly what it describes: mutilation. A girl’s female parts are scarred for life; she is forced to bear the pain of her sex until the day she dies.

5 most dangerous countries in the world to be a woman

15 Jun

1. Afghanistan

2. The Congo

3. Pakistan

4. India

5. Somalia

Thomson Reuters has just published the results of its survey on the physical, emotional, legal, political and cultural safety of women throughout the world. The survey can be found in its entirety through TrustLaw, its non-profit international organization founded to assist in the proliferation of women’s rights everywhere:                              

India’s placement at 4th most dangerous country to be a woman is quite shocking considering its billing as the largest democracy on earth, and more importantly, that it remains the only country of the 5 who has been relatively free of violent conflict with both other countries and its own citizens. Its placement here emphasizes that war, starvation, religious turmoil, and a history of inherent violence are not the only precursors for placement on such an ominous list. Extreme poverty must be added to this cycle, and it is due to the ongoing catastrophe of poverty throughout India that the country appears within such an inglorious grouping.

The trading of young girls into marriage, the still-present custom of sati- the burning of a widow on a pyre, rampant female illiteracy, the prevalence of sexual slavery and prostitution in its major cities, the very common and culturally accepted use of ultrasound technology in the serviec of sex selection (i. e. the detected female fetus is often aborted), all of these components coagulate into a kind of unmoveable force against female progress, even in a country struggling to maintain and improve its democratic structures.  And then, even something as simple and overlooked as peeing becomes an overwhelming issue in such a poor and populous place:

It is estimated that in some slums there is one public restroom for 300 people; male restrooms and urinals outnumber female restrooms by anywhere from 35%-90%. The budding Indian “Right to Pee” movement is attempting to revolutionize the public restroom structure, but in the meantime the average urban Indian woman withholds the amount of water she drinks, goes in packs at dawn to defecate, and holds it in as long as she can.

Living in the Western world, it is easy to forget how the simplest parts of daily life have the possibility to become so much more arduous when the structuring element of poverty enters. Not being able to have regular bowel movements, having nowhere safe to pee at any given time, risking one’s health merely by having to crouch over a hole somewhere: these remain daily hurdles for the average Indian female in the 21st century. In addition to everything else…

Offended Greek politician throws water glass and blows at female opponents, thumbing his nose at the real crisis at hand…

7 Jun

During a nationally televised debate on the financial crisis, a member of New Dawn–the far-right neo-fascist party currently expanding its reach in Greek politics–hit a member of the Communist party several times across the face. Lianna Kanelli stood up in protest after Ilias Kasidiaris petulantly threw a glass of water at another panel participant, and was rewarded with several blows to the face.                                   

Rena Dorou, member of far left party Syriza, cried there is a “crisis of democracy when people who will take the country back 500 years have got into the Greek parliament.” Kasidiaris responded by throwing a glass at her.

Kanelli stood up and threw a newspaper at the violent facist, who then began to hit her across the head. The moderator attempted to intervene, but from the photographs and video it appears that the other panel members remained seated.

Granted, Greece is in a constant, elevated state of political, economic and social crisis, but Kasidiaris’ actions are not that of an enraged, emotional politian but instead those of a hateful, violent misogynist. To engage in throwing things, hitting colleagues and generally throwing a tantrum reveals a man unable to control his emotions during a minor debate. (Further, to direct his acts at female opponents is evidence of much more negative tendencies.) How can such a man produce positive change for the Greek people he was elected to represent?

Kanelli has said that she will not be pressing charges, stating that she is an adult who can take care of herself, and whose energies will remain committed towards the restoration of the Greek economy. “I can handle a punch…let the people decide when they vote. I am 58 years old, I just feel pity for his mother, his family and his colleagues.”

P.S. Later that day a commentator noted that, given the fact that Greece remains a male-dominated country with a certain reverence for the traditional woman, Greeks will not tolerate this kind of violent action. This got me to thinking a lot about the notions of chivalry, i.e. protecting the weaker sex. This protection is often considered respect, an upholding of traditional courtesty and regard; but protection is also a form of barrier construction, where those who are deemed not ready, too weak, not suitable for certain activities are kept at bay. I have nothing against courtesy and kindness, but it must be noted that a space where women are revered is often a space where they are restricted. If there were more female politicians and women in exposed areas of power, could it be argued that Ilias Kasidiaris wouldn’t have dared to act out in such a way?

The fatal sin of a singing woman

6 Jun

When the United States first attacked Afghanistan, it claimed that one of its dominant reasons for entering the country was to assist in efforts to liberate Afghani women suffering under massive Talibani prohibitions, oppression and violence. Throughout the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan it has relied on its friend and ally, Pakistan.

But how different is the official and unofficial treatment of women in Pakistan from the obstacles, subservience, religious and tribal laws, sexual violence and prohibitions faced by women in Afghanistan?                                                                               Last  month 5 women and 2 men were sentenced to death (via throat slit) by a Muslim cleric in rural Pakistan. The offense: potentially singing and dancing together at a wedding. I write “potentially,” because the wedding occurred 3 years ago, and the video has only recently appeared, rendering its provenence suspicious.

A cursory internet search finds short stories concerning the death sentence, but highly conflicting reports as to whether the women have been killed or not (the men reportedly escaped). The cleric has since been brought into police custody, his authority being officially questioned.

This is not a rare occurence: the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan asserts that at least 943 women and girls were killed last year as a result of “dishonoring” their family.

Lawyer Asma Jahangir, founder of the Human Rights Commission, the first woman to lead the Supreme Court Bar Association, and a fierce fighter against corruption and human rights violations for thirty years now, has become increasingly endangered by tacitly sanctioned government-run military and intelligence groups seeking to assassinate her:                                                   

The Human Rights Watch report on Pakistan cites an increasing amount of terror, violence and intimidation against its women: 

Honor killings, child marriage, acid attacks, lack of access to education, sexual assault by tribal edict: all remain constant and worrying factors for the female Pakistani population. According to the United Nation’s WomenWatch, in 2012 the Pakistani government approved the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill and the Acid Control and Acid Prevention Act, but without proper infrastructure, funding, cultural education and general acceptance how can measures such as these stand against tribal courts and women-hating edicts? And, given the United States’ increasing number of unapproved drone and military attacks, it is unlikely that the Pakistani government would listen to U. S. advice on the treatment of its female population. But then again, I haven’t heard any U. S. government or military official comment on such matters anyway.

P.S. As of the 7th, 2 of the women have been located by human rights activists. And while the 2 men have reappeared in court stating some of the women were killed, the 2 located women claim all are alive.

A Mother’s Health in Uganda

5 Jun

A high court in Uganda has just struck down a measure brought by the Center for Health, Human Rights and Development that sought to make the government legally responsible for the health of its mothers. CEHURD drafted a constitutional petition stating that the collossal failure of the Ugandan government to provide functional and progressive maternal health care services for its women was a violation of their human rights.

Roughly 16 women die in Uganda every day due to pregnancy-related causes; the majority of these can be eradicated through an increase in government funding to clinics, midwifery, and health educational outreach. The average woman who enters a government hospital to give birth is expected to bring with her a plastic sheet, razor blades, cotton gauze, etc. What happens during the “care” of a mother who does not possess or cannot afford these goods?

A constitutional petition wisely attempts to force the issue on the legal grounds of a nation’s obligation to protect its citizens. The petition legally and figuratively draws the female citizen out from under the rubric of “citizen,” it extracts the female human from the human in “human rights,” in order that the specific concerns that a female human Ugandan citizen has be addressed on those very same terms. By its insistence on particularity, the petition gives the lie to the claim that all citizens are granted universal rights; for all citizens are not universally uniform, thereby requiring rights particular to them. This does not succumb to the derogative ghetto of “special rights,” but instead acknowledges that universality is comprised of multitudes within it. To deny a woman’s human rights is to treat her as sub-human.

Wayfaring nuns

4 Jun

This week the Vatican, in the midst of its Vatileaks scandal, found some time to denounce American nun and former professor at Yale Divinity school, Sister Margaret Farley, for her 2006  “Just Love: a Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that Farley’s book is antithetical to the ideology and practice of the Catholic faith, and that the book cannot be used as a “valid expression” of Catholic teaching. Perhaps most egregious were Farley’s arguments concerning love and sexuality: “Among the many errors and ambiguities of this book are its positions on masturbation, homosexual acts, homosexual unions, the indissolubility of marriage and the problem of divorce and remarriage.”

In short, Sister Margaret Farley is a heretic.

In its official statement, the Vatican avows that homosexual acts are “acts of depravity,” finding them contrary to the “natural law;” Farley’s arguments in favor of acceptance, love and positivity were contorted to solely represent a wayward, non-Christian position intent on sowing “confusion among the faithful.”

Farley and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are just a token sampling of the female targets recently singled out by the Vatican. The LCWR have been noted as having “serious doctrinal problems,” their focus straying to resolutely non-Catholic ideas concerning female priesthood, homosexuality, and universal health care.

Network, a social justice non-profit organization headed by nuns, was also listed in the investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith; censured for its focus on poverty and social justice, rather than the demanded concentration on opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

The “Visitation,” a far-reaching Vatican investigation into all U. S. women’s religious orders and communities, was concluded last December, its conclusions ominously await.

It’s very tempting for me here to wax sarcastic about women not knowing their place, or losing their habits on the way to the homeless shelter. But what’s more troubling and surprising is the fact that these nuns are being condemned for their total commitment to and demonstration of Christian values and virtues. And no, not the ones derived from lurid exaggerations of Sodom and Gomorrah or salacious retellings of Eve’s voraciousness, but the virtues that Jesus Christ himself espoused: love, forgiveness, acceptance, understanding, peace.

In 2012, to be adamantly, absolutely, and fundamentally opposed to divorce, remarriage, family planning of any kind, gay and lesbian relationships, and the advancement of women in the religious order is to firmly plant oneself back into a time, era, and structure that no longer exists. To declare and mandate with certainty and ruthlessness that followers of a religion must adhere to dogma and rules created by followers of the prophet in question–rules written hundreds of years ago–is to remain in the past, backward, without sense and definitely with a closed mind and heart.

P.S. NYTimes op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about Sister Farley in the June 5th edition:                                                                                                     

Dowd notes with pleasure how Sister Farley’s book–published in 2006–has recently risen to the tops of bestseller lists thanks to the Vatican’s opprobrium. Rallying against the notion that sex can or should ever be engaged in for anything other than procreative purposes, the Vatican insists that any such position is fundamentally wrong: a sin against the wishes of God and his on-the-ground stewards, the bishops of the Catholic Church. 3 of these titans have been sent to the States to overhaul and indefinitely oversee  all Catholic women’s organizations, especially troublemakers like those in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Presumably, these bishops had nothing to do with keeping the horbes of molesting priests in their parishes.