Women are not an interest group

I recently finished a Masters degree in peace studies. Throughout the course, a lot of emphasis was placed on Johan Galtung’s idea that peace is commonly defined negatively- that is, that peace is often referred to as the absence of war, rather than the presence of something else. That “something else,” peace, has to include more than just not being at war- things like access to healthcare, adequate housing and food, education, and basic personal security. Another important thing is gender equality.

It seems that for people who are studying peace, people would doubtless want careers in peace, women- that is, the people who make up 50 per cent of the population- should not be considered a fringe group. Yet, when I told one of my classmates, a self-identified feminist, about some research I was doing on human rights, specifically how culture is used to justify oppression of women, she wanted to know how I made such a “huge leap” to human rights.

The only reason that someone would think women’s rights is such a “huge leap” to human rights is if you don’t believe that women are human. What else would women’s rights be other than human rights?

Another classmate made a presentation about Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. He spoke about security concerns, and when I asked him how what his research had found about how uprising had affected men and women’s security differently, he said people were more concerned with basic security than things like sexual assault.

For people who are receiving advanced degrees in peace studies to dismiss women’s concerns as secondary is extremely problematic. Women are half of the world’s population. Our concerns are basic concerns. A woman living under threat of sexual attack for leaving the house is a basic personal security concern. People who study peace supposedly want to achieve a state of actual, true peace, which includes addressing the gendered ways in which social, political, and cultural norms affect people, yet these two of my classmates, not to mention others, demonstrated that they believed that men are human, and women are not.

Women are not “gender.” Women are human.

Why the racist, sexist backlash against Cecile Kyenge is a good thing

In April, Cecile Kyenge was appointed minister of integration by Italy’s prime minister, Enrico Letta. She is the first black person to serve in Italy’s cabinet, and has lived in the country for the past 30 years after moving to Italy to study medicine at the age of 18. An ophthalmologist by trade, she has been active in integration issues since 2002. She founded DAWA, an organization to promote awareness and cooperation between Africa and Italy, and was elected to the Modena City Council in 2004.

Many people have been extremely vocal about their displeasure at Italy’s first black minister. Kyenge has been compared by Senator Roberto Calderoli to an orangutan, who also said she should be a minister “in her own country” (she’s an Italian citizen and has been in Italy most of her life), has had bananas thrown at her, and has even had a politician, Dolores Valandro of the Northern League, advocate for her rape.  In response to the victimization of an Italian woman,  Valandro posted on her Facebook page “Why doesn’t someone rape her so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?”  Because every time someone is a victim of rape, apparently the correct response is to go out and rape an Italian minister.

While Valandro was expelled from the party, Calderoli still holds office, and the public attacks haven’t stopped. And you know what? I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing.

I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing because it prompted representatives from 17 European Union countries to meet in Rome September to condemn the attacks. Joëlle Milquet, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, called the meeting, not just because of the remarks against Kyenge, but in support of all those who are victimized by racism in Europe: “What has happened to the Italian minister is unacceptable,” she said, “but we’re talking about a widespread phenomenon. It was necessary to mobilise in order to affirm the value of diversity and integration.”

I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing, because in the same way that racist whites resisted America’s civil rights movement, and racist whites in South Africa resisted the anti-apartheid movement, the Italian resistance against immigrant-friendly policies mean that members of society have noticed that Italy is become more inclusive. It’s a good thing that in response to Calderoni’s “orangutan” remark, journalist Daniele Passanante started a petition asking him to resign, and that nearly 200,000 people signed.

Of course, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism are not good.  However, the backlash against Kyenge’s appointment means that immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities are no longer an invisible underclass. African immigrants to Italy now comprise about 1,000,000 people, and there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities, such as those who have immigrated from Asia and Latin America as well. These statistics cannot be ignored, and the vitriol hurled at Kyenge means that Italians are aware that their country is changing. Continue reading