When culture fails

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a widespread phenomenon. In the popular imagination, it’s often associated with Islam, or Africa, even though they both Islam and Africa are varied and diverse. While it is true that FGM is practiced in 29 out of 54 African countries, it also takes place in Asia, the Middle East, and even in developed countries such as the US and the UK. While it’s sometimes justified using religion, no religion officially sanctions the practice.

In reality, FGM is a tradition that is born out of and justified by the basis of culture. The reasons for continuing the harmful vary- it makes women more beautiful, it makes a woman a more desirable partner, or it assuages women’s natural wild, animalistic urges. In one Senegalese village, an imam said that without FGM, “Women would be jumping on top of all the men.”

Unlike male circumcision, which actually has some benefits (although there are plenty of people who oppose this practice as well); there is absolutely no physical, medical, or moral advantage to female circumcision. In fact, risks include severe physical pain, infection, decreased sexual pleasure, urine retention, fistulas, infertility, and even death. It keeps happening solely because of social expectations, and even though it’s normally carried out by women, it is supported by an undercurrent of patriarchal values that place much less value on a woman’s life than on a man’s.

Tostan, a Senegal-born human rights NGO, takes a holistic approach to ending FGM: Instead of just telling women to stop doing it, it focuses on educating whole communities about the importance of respecting the rights of all people. And it works: Malicoumba Bambara, a village near Thies (the country’s third biggest city), officially ended the practice in 1997.

Social norms approaches are another way of educating communities to eradicate harmful practices. In a nutshell, people make assumptions about what other people are doing, and then model their behavior based on this perception. Social norms approaches change people’s ideas about what everyone else is doing. When enough individuals change their ideas, it leads to a group-wide change.

Too often, people justify sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other discriminatory practices with “It’s our culture.” There is a flaw in this theory, though: Culture is something that is created by people. You’re not giving yourself enough credit if you think that you have to do something solely because it’s your culture. People make culture. FGM is a cultural practice, but it’s not infallible. Like I’ve said before, when culture harms people, then it’s the responsibility of everyone to change it.

 

Seriously, where the fuck are our girls?

On April 14th, nearly 300 Nigerian girls went missing in Chibo, Nigeria. Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the kidnappings on May 5th. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has said that they will sell the Christian girls and marry off the Muslim ones. While journalists in Nigeria were working tirelessly to get the word out, the international media remained largely silent. Why did the Nigerian military lie about having found the girls? Why did the parents have to go looking for the girls themselves? And why did it take so long for any kind of international intervention to take place, when merely weeks before thousands of dollars and hours of manpower had been spent trying to find a disappeared plane (full of non-African people)? Every part of this is appalling.

The world’s indifference to the kidnapped, or more accurately, enslaved girls resulted in protests, both within and outside Nigeria, as well as “hashtag activism”: in this case, the creation of #bringbackourgirls on Twitter. Some have criticized those participating of doing it simply to a) to make themselves feel better without actually causing any change, and b) helping to legitimize Western military intervention in Africa , and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s statement that it “will be considering not just the recent incidents but also longer-term counter-terrorism solutions to prevent such attacks in the future and defeat Boko Haram” certainly does nothing to assuage those fears.

It is, however, partly due to this type of social media activism that spurred the Nigerian government, as well as others, to action. The United States has sent experts to Nigeria to provide strategic advice in looking for the girls, and China, the United Kingdom, France, and Israel have also gotten involved. It’s disheartening that it took social media to get governments involved in looking for abducted children, but it shows that social media has the power to do more than allow people to pat themselves on the back.

It does say something that nearly three weeks after the original girls went missing, 11 more were kidnapped. It says something that a month after the girls have gone missing, they haven’t been found. It says that on an institutional level, the lives of girls in Nigeria are not valued. There are of course activists, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who care about the lives of the young girls in their lives, but the government’s complacency in looking for children is indicative not only of the government’s general incompetence to fulfill its obligation to its people, but that girls’ lives are simply not a priority.

Nigeria’s finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala made the statement that she was tired of speaking about the Chibok girls. Realizing her faux pas, she backtracked, but to be honest, I’m tired of talking about these girls too. Because they should already have been rescued. And because this should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

I can’t be racist: My best friend is black

Or, the black kid who sits next to you in English class does not consider you her friend, and you are racist

There is this phenomenon of people thinking and articulating that their associations absolve them from having to examine any of their behavior.

A few months ago, one of my classmates deleted a comment I made on her Facebook page because she said she didn’t want to discourage her friend from commenting after I responded to a dense comment that she made. It’s not my Facebook page, and clearly my friend is free to delete my comments as she pleases. What really surprised me was that she told me that her friend wasn’t racist at all- and was even married to a Liberian man!

The idea that a white woman’s fucking a black man means that it is impossible for her to be racist is flawed. I mean, it’s certainly not like white people-including women– have a history of sexualizing and dehumanizing black men, after all.

(Or, you know, white men doing the same to black women. Or Asian women.)

An acquaintance once told me that there was no possible way that she could be a bigot because her brother was gay. Clippers owner Donald caused a media firestorm week for saying things like “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people” and “You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.” His defenders are arguing that he’s not racist because his girlfriend is black.

Huh???

He (rather explicitly) demonstrated his racism. The simple fact of having a relationship, sexual or otherwise, with someone of a different race does not someone preclude the possibility of you harboring bigoted beliefs. A colleague said “I am definitely tired of the ‘I have a _____ who is ____’ thing. That doesn’t make you above bigotry. It’s pretty fucked up. It just washes away all responsibility and basically says ‘I don’t have to think. I did my one charitable thing by knowing someone who is lesser than me.’”

Lindsay Yoo at The Filthy Freedom Project says:

The truth? Your unrivaled collection of Tribe Called Quest and Fugees albums does not make you an ally. Your Asian girlfriends and proudly hoisted set of “authentic” Japanese samurai swords above your fireplace does not make you an “honorary Asian.” Your “deep” friendship with the Dominican man who makes your toasted-bagel-and-cream-cheese breakfast every morning does not suddenly make you color blind and should not excuse you from deeper conversations about our respective roles in perpetuating race and gender hierarchies in American society.

And the fact that you married a Liberian guy does not make you down. The simple fact that you have a neighbor/family member/acquaintance that possesses one trait or another doesn’t mean that you can’t exhibit problematic behavior. By this logic, a man who is married to a woman can’t be a misogynist because he married a woman. Several thousand years of human history would beg to differ.

Just because you’ve said something offensive, and someone calls you out on it, that doesn’t mean that we’ve condemned you as a human being and that your entire being is tainted with bigotry. Jay Smooth talked about this– years ago- if you say something and you get called out on it, that doesn’t mean that the entirety of your being is racist any more than someone who tells you have spinach between your teeth is telling you that you’re an unclean. If you’re really not racist (or sexist or homophobic or transphobic), then your behavior should reflect that. If you’re really not racist, you shouldn’t have to hold up your association with other human beings as examples of your exemplary, tolerant character.

“Sex” with boys isn’t sex

It’s physically impossible to have sex with a child. If you’re an adult and you are “having sex” with a child, that’s rape. Even if you insist that the child consented. The Huffington Post recently reported about a woman who was jailed for “having sex with an eight-year old.” When the story was reprinted in one of Ghana’s newspapers, The Daily Graphic, It was filed under “odd news.”

This indicates a lot that is wrong with how societies in general view male sexuality. A grown woman raping a boy is not odd, it’s criminal. The paper reported that “Loren Morris, 21, was 16 when she first slept with the schoolboy and continued until he was ten years old. Morris… would have regular intercourse with the boy, now 14, and was only found out after he was overheard bragging about it at school.” [emphasis mine]

The judge gave her a two-year sentence, giving the reason that “due to the concern and embarrassment caused to both you and your family that you will not be offending again, let alone committing sexual offences.”

In 2008, Kelsey Peterson, a 26-year old math teacher, pled guilty to raping her 12-year old student. Her defense? “I resent the term ‘child.’ You’re baby-fying this kid. This kid is a Latino machismo teenager.” Aside from the fact that “babyfying” isn’t a word, “machismo” isn’t an adjective, and a 12-year old isn’t a teenager, her defense places the blame on the victim of her predation, throwing in all kinds of gendered and racial ideas about sexuality, and who can and cannot be a victim.

In 2009, Lil’ Wayne disclosed that he had been a victim of sexual assault at age 11. In his documentary, he brags about how he “loved” it, even though when he later appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, he didn’t speak about the experience as though it was a positive one. Because it isn’t.

There is something wrong with what society is teaching both men and women about male sexuality when boys who are victims of a crime find that it’s something to brag about. I don’t believe that it’s their fault- the idea of a man being the victim of this type of crime is seen as a joke. How often do you hear jokes, especially in American media, about “dropping the soap” in prison, like in the Boondocks episode?

We are bombarded all the time with images about men being hypersexual, always wanting it and it being impossible for a man to be a victim of rape, because men always want to have sex with anything and everything. We have not created a world where a boy can come forward and admit to having been a victim; they are supposed to have enjoyed it. As Cara at the Curvature put it, “In cases where a man is the victim of a woman’s violence, rape apologism is strongly rooted in the denial that women’s actions can count as violence at all — and especially that their actions can count as sexual violence against men, who are routinely construed as incapable of being victims.”

When you add racialized stereotypes and expectations of how men are supposed to behave, it makes people that much more resistant to acknowledging that boys (and men) can be victims of this kind of predation.

It’s only when men and women are acknowledged as full human beings with individual desires, agency, and libidos, that survivors will be able to come forward without shame.

Building peace through gender in Dakar

29 students have just completed a Masters program in gender and peacebuilding at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. The program is run jointly by the university the United Nations Peace University in Costa Rica, and Femmes Africa Solidarité, an NGO that supports the inclusion of women in conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

The 29 graduates are made up of 15 women and 14 men and come from Benin, Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, to name a few. According to Vera Songwe, World Bank country director in Senegal, “Africa cannot have sustained growth without peace and without the participation of women, who make up 50 percent of the work force.”

As I’ve written before, even people who have Masters and PhD’s in peace studies think that “gender” means “women,” and fail to consider that men are also gendered. The courses offered as part of the program include gender and human rights, gender concepts and postcolonial theory, history of sexual rights, and masculinities and violence. The nearly 50% distribution of enrolment between men and women indicates just how important it is for both men and women to consider, and be considered, in gender mainstreaming as part of peacebuilding initiatives.

Women are affected by conflict just as much as men- from girls who are abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers to women who have to bear full responsibility for their households when their husbands are drafted. It’s impossible resolve conflicts without considering what women go through and how what women need differs from what men go through and what men need after the end of a violent conflict.

Djenebou Diallo, an Ivorian graduate of the program, says “Today, thanks to this master’s, I’ve become a different person, with new ambitions for Africa as a whole and my country in particular.”

The revolution begins… with menstrual pads

It seems as though women’s bodies have always been a source of controversy. Through media and daily interaction, I’ve learned that women’s bodies are disgusting and shameful, and need to be hidden. (That is, of course when we’re not supposed to have our bodies fully on display, but only after we’ve completely altered what we look like to fit a non-human ideal.)

Once, I used the word “clit” in conversation, and my white, male friend flipped out. “Do you kiss you mother with that mouth?” he exclaimed. “I would say dick around my mother, but never clit.” “Oh really?” I asked. “So male body parts are fine to talk about, women’s bodies are too dirty and vulgar? I get it.” He said that it was “different” because men’s body parts are funny. And what, women’s parts are disgusting? On another occasion, a black man (that I would most definitely not call a friend) kept trying to force a conversation about sex, even after I had repeatedly told him that I was not interested in discussing it with him. At some later point, he tried to make the assertion that I was responsible for cooking as a woman, and I said “really? You think having a vagina has something to do with cooking?” He freaked out because I said the word “vagina.” Interesting, how he someone preoccupied with trying to force a conversation about sex was so affronted by the use of the word “vagina,” the female sexual organ! The name of a body part, just like a cornea or tibia, was too disgusting for him to have to hear because it’s a female body part. I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed someone mentioning the word “period” or “menstruation” and seeing all men in the room grimace and cover their ears. Women’s bodies are just so disgusting.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, a man from rural, southern India, has spent the last 15 years trying to make sanitary pads affordable for women, starting with his wife, after seeing the rags that she used during her period. Women make up half of the world’s population, yet for so many, access to pads (much less alternative forms of menstrual sanitary accessories) is completely out of reach, sometimes meaning they end up dropping out of school and severely limiting their income potential; trapping them in a cycle of dependency.

Muruganantham ended up being completely ostracized from his community– his wife left him, his mother left, and he was run out of town, facing vitriol from both men and women- simply for trying to find an affordable method to provide with a basic health provision.

Fortunately, thanks to Muruganantham’s perseverance and his invention to allow women to make and sell affordable pads, women in over 1,000 villages have access, and stigma around a natural biological process is disappearing. He says of his success: “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide,” and is planning to expand to over 100 countries around the world, including Nigeria, the Philippines, and Mauritius.

Although the initiative is by no means a panacea for the vitriol that is directed towards women’s bodies on a daily basis, just imagine, all those attitudes changing, all that income potential for women, and all those pads, thanks to one man from a rural Indian village.

Sochi

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Sochi 2014

We are one week into the 2014 Olympic Games. I haven’t been paying very much attention, but I will say that the Russian police choir singing Pharrell Williams’ Get Lucky was hands down one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen or heard in my life. 17- year old figure skater Michael Martinez, the first Filipino to make it to the Winter Games in 22 years, is a real Cinderella story. Martinez, along with Julia Marino, also a lone athlete representing her country and the first Paraguayan athlete to ever compete in the winter Games, embody the determination and skill that the Games are meant to celebrate.

Russia came under fire in mid-2013 for passing a law banning “propaganda of homosexualism.” The law is draconian, and people and organizations have faced harsh fines and imprisonment for promoting acceptance of LGBT people. When LGBT people are subjected to violent physical assault, laws should be implemented to protect them, rather than make them even more vulnerable.

It’s not only when it comes to this issue that Russia’s domestic policy is problematic. The country’s human rights record is abysmal. President Vladimir Putin has destroyed any semblance of independent media. Human rights activists such as journalists and lawyers are arbitrarily detained, violently assaulted, and murdered. Thousands of medical patients die from lack of access to palliative care. Racism and anti-Semitism in Russia are also rampant with Central Asians, Africans and people of African descent (yes, there are black people in Russia!), and Jews all facing discrimination, although the election of a black councilman in 2010 is promising.

For an event that is meant to celebrate unity in athleticism, having Irina Rodnina light the Olympic torch was a questionable move. Last year, Rodnina posted a picture of Barack Obama manipulated to show a white hand holding a banana in front of him, imagery that is steeped with historical, racist baggage. Instead of offering an apology, she fell back on the “freedom of speech” defense to justify her bigotry.

Still, the solidarity shown by athletes, from an on-podium kiss after winning an event, to painting nails in rainbow colors, show that despite the problems that exist, there are plenty who look forward to Russia evolving into a nation with full respect for human rights.

How to be/not to be an ally

I am no expert on trans rights, but over the past several years, trans activism- blogs, videos, magazine articles- has taught me a lot about my privilege as a cis-woman, and how to be a good ally to those who are not.

Among those great teachers are Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and TransGriot.

A few weeks ago, Cox and Carmen Carrera were on Katie Couric’s talk show, Katie. As Sunnivie Brydum wrote on Advocate, they were subjected to Couric’s “spurious line of questioning wherein the host seemed fixated on the trans women’s genitalia, and the details of what gender-confirming surgeries the women may have undergone.”

Both women explained why it was harmful to trans people to constantly fixate on their “private parts”, rather than on real issues that affect the community. Cox said:

There’s a preoccupation with that and I think that the preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people and then we don’t get to really deal with the real, lived experiences. The reality of trans people’s lives is so often we are targets of violence. We experience discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community. Our unemployment rate is twice the national average. If you’re a trans person of color, it’s four times the average. The homicide rate in the LGBT community is highest amongst trans women. And when we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.

Couric reacted exactly how an ally should- she left the moment in when she aired in what she called a “teachable” moment, and thanked her guests for the correction, saying “You’re so well-spoken about it. That’s very well put. Laverne and Carmen, thank you both so much for being here.”

By contrast, Piers Morgan demonstrated exactly how not to be an ally when Janet Mock was a guest on his show, Piers Morgan Live. After her appearance, Mock sent out three tweets expressing disapproval with the way the show said that “she was born a boy” and that she “used to be a man.” Morgan then invited her to return to the show to explain.

Morgan made the second interview entirely about himself, how he had done nothing but support the LGBT community, how he had told Mock that she looked like Beyonce, how Marie Claire had run an article about Mock called I Was Born a Boy and therefore Mock had no right to object to being misgendered by his show. Morgan is now calling himself a victim of “cisphobia,” something that’s so absurd as to be laughable. Trans people do not have power over cis people, and the idea that an underprivileged community can pose any kind of a threat to a member of the most privileged one (white, straight, cis, upper-class, male) illustrates exactly how much Morgan has no desire to learn.

Something that Couric, Morgan, and many cis people (including me!) have in common is that we all have to shut up and listen if we really want to understand issues that affect trans men, trans women, trans POC.

 

A crazy way to live

I don’t really have anything new or constructive to say on the subject of violence against men of color, except that I am getting weary of hearing about young boys being violently assaulted because of their race. February 5th would have been Trayvon Martin’s 19th birthday, and it’s almost exactly two years of the anniversary of his death. Boys and men of color are so often victims of both extrajudicial violence for existing the way they were born.

Following Martin’s murder, a chain e-mail claiming that the media was not accurately representing his appearance, and that he was in fact a tall, muscular, tattooed black man made the internet rounds. Not only was it a photograph of rapper The Game and not Martin, those perpetuating this rumor seemed unable to comprehend that the mere fact of being black, tattooed, tall, and muscular and male does not make you any less of a human, and certainly does not justify someone murdering you in cold blood. Continue reading