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Gendered value

29 Jan

Italian women partisans

For many years, American women have served in the United States Armed Forces, in many different capacities: in both Iraq and Afghanistan women served in ground combat troops. Despite the fact that a female soldier was not technically allowed to be in combat troops, this prohibition never meant that women were not involved in on-the-ground battle, saving lives and risking their own.

However, because of the continued ban, the recognition the women received for their duties and their abilities to move upwards in the Armed Forces chains-of-command were severely limited.  Last week’s decision to lift the ban, basically allowing women to enter into all echelons-upper and lower-within the Armed Forces provoked delight and satisfaction in women in the military.   

http://www.npr.org/2013/01/24/170198106/woman-who-sued-to-reverse-combat-ban-was-stunned-then-ecstatic

Colonel Ellen Haring was one of the two women whose lawsuit provided the final nail in the ban’s coffin. Haring was interviewed last week on NPR, and spoke of the many opportunities she saw bypass her; 80% of the highest position general officers were taken from people (men) in the combat specialities units that women were barred from joining. This structure could not be integrated unless the ban was revoked.

Does this mean that women in the military are now on a fast track to equality? Of course not. Sexual assault in all of the armed forces is only now finally being seen as the epidemic it is. More women in more places will not make this disappear, but it will almost immediately make finding an administrative ear somewhat easier.

In the above interview, Colonel Haring was asked whether the decision would make her more likely to hesitate if her daughter approached her about joining the military, seeing as how now there would be no impediment to her serving in the most dangerous elements available.

Haring replied that she has one daughter and two sons, and would be fearful and hesitant for all three of them. “I don’t think you can place more value on one of your children versus the other simply because of their gender.”

Haring brings up an excellent, contradictory, thorny point. For as long as “women and children first” has been stated, as long as women and children have been counted as casualties of war and men mentioned afterwards, and the idea of Chivalry has been considered infallible, the female sex have been deemed to be of more “value” than the male.

This “value” is by no means monetary, it instead refers to a kind of sacredness that the female embodies. She must be protected, guarded, defended. This type of value is that of the negative: for it is what she is not, what she cannot do, that renders her of value. She is weak, she must be protected. To no longer see her in this light the spell is broken. If she does not need male protection she is no longer weak. If she can protect herself, the historically male duty to protect, defend, and guard becomes no longer male.

To not “value” a daughter more than a son, is to perceive one’s children as equals, in ability, potential and possibility.

Malala Yousafzai: Brave enough to go to school

19 Oct

Malala Yousafzai, now being treated in hospital in the north of England, has woken up and communicated with her doctors. The passionate and vocal advocate for the education of all girls everywhere, no matter the opposition, excuses, and violence of her foes, was shot in the head by a member of the Taliban.

Despite the international outcry–complete with people everywhere declaring their support through the slogan “I am Malala”, the Taliban have publicly stated that a bounty remains on Malala’s head. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/oct/16/malala-yousafzai-deserved-say-taliban

The group refuses the right of Malala to express herself or even to exist based on their claim that because of her positions in support of President Barack Obama and against the Taliban army, she must–in accordance with the Qur’an–be killed.

Human rights crusader Angelina Jolie penned an opinion piece titled “We are all Malala,” claiming that this tragedy has led to the beginnings of  a revolutionary movement in Pakistan for the rights of girls to be educated. She insisted that the Taliban is losing, that in its declaration “Let this be a lesson,” it is the Taliban that is being schooled.  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/10/16/angelina-jolie-we-all-are-malala.html

If only this were the case. As long as Pakistan remains desperately poor, corrupt, and at the various mercies of the United States and Islamic fundamentalism, positive change will remain virtually impossible. Thousands of Pakistani and Afghan teenage girls might shout that they are all Malala, but that is because metaphorically they are: lacking in access to education, health care, and civil rights, at the mercy of the adult men in charge of their lives.

Angelina Jolie and girls around the world might shout “we are all Malala,” but they fundamentally are not. The average American, French, Japanese, Chilean girl cannot possibly understand the difficulties, obstacles and potential daily tragedies that a young female in the Swat Valley faces. It’s a nice turn of phrase, but it’s false.

Of course, Malala and all the other girls in the region yearning for the basic human right of access to education must be supported. But the fact remains that as long as American and NATO forces continue their military scourge, complete with daily drone strikes and omnipresent occupation, the Taliban and its allied jihadists will continue to wage their war against Western forces, and whoever and wherever else amongst their fellow countrymen and countrywomen they see it reflected.

When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, America had not yet begun its war against the nation. Prior to its occupation, President Bush claimed that one of the reasons for its strikes against the enemy state was its severe and brutal oppression of women. This was a telegenic excuse. Further, it must be acknowledged that the American and coalition forces’ occupation has done little to change the average Pakistani or Afghan girl’s life for the better.

Death by AK-47 for Afghan woman

10 Jul

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/08/us-afghanistan-execution-reaction-idUSBRE8670IS20120708

A young Afghan woman, wife of a Talibani, was shot to death after being accused of adultery. Video of the event can easily be found online, the “God is great!” cheers of the male bystanders heard after the woman is shot several times by automatic weapon.

The hideousness of this incident is so obvious it almost needs no comment. The murder occurred in Pashwar Province, one of the “safer regions” closer to Kabul and home to many Western military forces. It does not matter how close a woman is to the occupying Americans, how close to the most cosmopolitan city in the country, how seemingly unfriendly to Taliban forces the area is supposed to be, and how completely chaste she is. All it takes is an accusation, one sentence decrying any woman’s character, and she is as good as dead.

These are the daily obstacles any woman faces in the country of Afghanistan.

July 11 Update:

http://www.thenews.com.pk/article-58384-Afghan-women-protest-over-girls-killing

Dozens of female activists protested near President Karzai’s compound in Kabul this morning, including a woman deformed from an acid attack by a spurned suitor, and another woman who, as a child bride, was tortured and imprisoned by her husband’s family after she refused to prostitute herself.

However Karzai responds, what effects could his government produce? His administration has completely and utterly failed in its battle against the Talibani resurrection, nor has the man himself ever convincingly argued for the rights of Afghan women. The protest is effective if it increases international awareness of  the plight of Afghanistan’s female citizens.

The virginity test:great structural contradiction

4 Jan

The international news media last week was full of shocking accounts of Egyptian female protesters who, arrested  during the recent violent military crackdown in Tahrir Square and beyond, were rampantly subjected to so-called “virginity tests” while in police custody.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16339398

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had not really heard the term “virginity test” bandied around that often, so I was curious as to what exactly it might mean. Aside from Wikipedia, the sites I found were mostly just articles referring to the tests. (It seems that the term is such an obvious descriptor, that definitions are not totally necessary.) So, I guess the term itself must be thought of in literal terms: the attempt to decipher whether or not the female studied is a virgin. Further, this attempt is activated literally–whether the female subject has a hymen or not.

Why would the Egyptian military and its police arm use such an antiquated, misogynist form of intimidation? Further, how exactly is the virginity of the female protesters relevant?

Well, I guess it is safe to say that the tests themselves point to the Egyptian state being much less advanced than perhaps hoped. Also, despite the general notoriety of Egyptian culture historically, tests such as these point a big fat finger against assumptions of intellectual and cultural advancement.

Think about it this way: the majority of Egyptian men are most likely not virgins. Therefore, in order for them not to be virgins, they are having sexual intercourse with others. It is often commensurate that the female side of the population be statistically in harmony then, as the two sides are having sexual intercourse together. However, if the female partner in the culture is considered more valuable as a virgin, and if the nation-state works to regulate this virginity (as is the case here), then it could be surmised that the men are not having sex with the women, but with unknowable others.

But, who the men are sexing is not as important as the imperative that the women are not. This inherent contradiction–politically, culturally, socially–is not considered important. The status of female purity remains paramount.

So, the average female–be she a protester in Tahrir Square or not–represents sex, in that she must stand in for the lack of it. This all-at-once-while-none-at-all is a form of sexual schizophrenia rooted in a violent misogynist double-standard.

Surely, the men in uniforms and boot-straps are not virgins, nor are they doctors; they are, however, somehow rendered credible judges and juries of the female body and her prior experience. They are somehow considered appropriate evaluators of female citizens they do not know, and to whom they are by no means intellectually, emotionally, or physically superior.

The dangers of protesting while female

22 Dec

In the midst of the continuing protests rollicking Egypt, several female protesters this weekend were singled out by the military police, and were violently and sexually harassed. One woman’s plight, in particular, has shocked people within and outside of Egypt. Beaten repeatedly, stripped of her abaya, and left half-dressed on the street, the woman’s experience has shaken both the protest movement and the military government.

The vibrant blue bra worn by the beaten woman has provoked an enormous array of contradictory responses. Some men were reported as suggesting that, perhaps she desired the attention–violent or otherwise–given her decision to wear such attention-getting undergarments. Others have used the occasion to opine that, had she stayed at home with her father or husband, such things would not have happened.

The Egyptian female response to the incident has seemingly triggered a more coherent response. Thousands of women have descended on Tahrir Square in the past few days, combining to produce the largest collection of female demonstrators and dissenters in the contemporary history of the Egyptian nation. Rather than convince politically and culturally dissatisfied women to stay home, the violent, degrading  and humiliating sexual assault has instead encouraged women of all stripes to join in the otherwise generally male protest movement that continues to threaten the fragile detente between the current Egyptian military government and the people.

Further, this particular image strikes a series of chords connected to personal feelings, cultural customs, and religious traditions situated within Egyptian history in a much more unstable and complicated way than the focus on the Tahrir Square protests would suggest.

The wearing of the veil carries connotations of choice, freedom, restriction, unknowability, autonomy, desirability, chauvinism, orientalism, feminism…I could go on. The point is: the veil’s meanings remain extraordinarily contradictory, complex, and opaque.

An image of a woman protesting: in a veil: stripped down to an electric blue bra: all these singularities themselves carry very strong waves of connotations; the combination they produce together is overwhelming in its capacity to mean so many different things to so many different people.

For the moment, it must be enough to think on the women in the square–angry, in solidarity, and unafraid.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/21/world/middleeast/violence-enters-5th-day-as-egyptian-general-blames-protesters.html

When buried alive, an engagement ring can serve as a useful tool

21 Dec

Michelina Lewandowska and her boyfriend moved from Poland to Britain several years ago. But now, engaged and with a small son, the boyfriend decided he wanted her out. So, one day he tasered Michelina, shoved her in a box, and buried her–leaving a large tree branch on top of the shallow grave for good measure.

Lewandowska, upon awaking and finding herself buried alive, thought fast and used the only tool she possessed: her engagement ring. Using the ring’s edges, she sliced through the tape binding her ankles; using the ring’s convex grooves, she dug her way through the dirt and up to the wood’s open air.

Though Lewandowska and her boyfriend had previously broken up, she continued to wear her engagement ring. Perhaps it symbolized hope, a vague future of possibility, or an end-route in which she had no way out. Well, it turns out that pesky symbol possessed something she truly needed: a weapon for survival.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2070665/Michelina-Lewandowska-Buried-alive-woman-says-Marcin-Kasprzak-told-hated-her.html

Can girls riot?

10 Sep

I just saw Attack the Block, a new English film about a group of Council Estate friends who, in the middle of mugging a young neighborhood nurse, glimpse something furry, loud, and bright crash into the park. This sight quickly plunges the boys into a fast-paced, dangerous and deadly war with a band of blobs that just keep coming.

The battle forces the viewer to pick sides: the wannabe thugs vs. the malevolent aliens. It’s a no-brainer, particularly since the boys are led by the charismatic and beguiling Moses.

Although they like to rob and pillage, the depiction of the boys evolves into something more complicated; indeed, the socio-cultural critique of poverty, racism and the English class system hovers over the alien battles, becoming the most overt with the shot of Moses, hanging by the Union Jack from his council apartment. Determined to vanquish the aliens, he will use anything he’s got to protect the block.

This film got me to thinking quite a bit about the recent London (which quickly segued into many English cities) riots, and as the film has arrived so soon after those events it seems impossible not to think about them. So I started doing a little research, trying to determine just who was being highlighted in the images and coverage of the riots. And, just like in Attack the Block, a question arises: where’s the girls? It goes without saying that there were young women running, looting, and protesting alongside all the boys and men, but there were few glimpses of them.

Why is that? Does the sight or thought of a young woman engaged in such acts provoke too many feelings, rendering her inclusion just too complicated? Is it harder to condemn the riots when the “softening” presence of a girl shows up? Is it just too hard to believe that girls can be thugs too? Or were most of them too covered up with scarves, hats, and hoodies to determine the sex of the troublemaker?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/aug/23/riots-chance-to-treat-girls-different?intcmp=239

According to the opinion piece listed above, it’s not just the culture-at-large that has a difficult time picturing, interpreting, and responding to girls acting out or illegally, the judicial system and penal institutions are generally set up to process, interact, and rehabilitate the male. This void in policy furthers a dearth of understanding, which in turn produces a negativity in terms of change and rehabilitation. Until the girl offender can be seen, she cannot be understood, and hence, nothing changes.