“You take it too far”

It’s not uncommon for people who have never experienced systemic, institutionalized oppression of a certain type to accuse those who have, and identify it, as being “too sensitive” or “taking it too far.”

For people who have never been on the receiving end of systematic discrimination, or for people who are, but for some reason, prefer it that way, it may not be that obvious. If it’s not something overt, like hanging a human being from a tree, or bombing their home or place of worship, or physically assaulting someone while yelling racial slurs, then clearly it’s not systemic racism, it’s because of something else.

Studies have shown that those who are on the receiving end of racism are the best able to identify it. And why wouldn’t they? While I understand that there are all kinds of discrimination that take place against people based on religion, race, size, ability, gender identity, I certainly can’t pick out anti-Semitism as easily as a Jewish person can, or transphobia as easily as a trans person can. I’m going to defer to the people who are on the receiving end of it to tell me.

Microaggressions, which are all too familiar to people with subaltern identities, are difficult to prove. It is possible for people to behave in a way that’s racist, even if it’s not a conscious decision for them to behave that way, thanks to several hundred years of white supremacy conditioning some people to be seen as smarter, more capable, or more attractive or more “refined” than others based on nothing but an arbitrarily defined set of physical characteristics.

It’s when a white Canadian says that of course white men in China go after local women in a way they don’t in Ghana because “That’s different, because they’re Asian, and they’re hot!”

It’s a “friend” telling saying that it’s not good not to cook because you’re “a girl.” (Two in one-infantilizing and gender policing simultaneously!)

It’s describing East Africans (any people of color with physical characteristics usually associated with whiteness) has having “more refined” features than the rest of Africa.

It’s your cousins and their friends laughing at you and saying “I hope I’m not being sexism” when you point out real, problematic, misogynistic behavior.

It’s me saying something in Japanese (to a table of people who don’t understand Japanese), explaining what it means, and then having them argue with absolute certainty about it- because by definition, as a black woman, it’s impossible that I could possibly know what I’m talking about, right?

It’s having all these types of incidences dismissed with a “You’re taking it too far” by someone who does not understand what it is to live life on the receiving end of this.

The thing is, it’s impossible to prove that (some of) these incidents came from a place of maliciousness, or even prejudice. I can’t prove when a white person sticks their hands into my hair without my permission that they have done it because of my race, because it’s not like I have a recording of them admitting to it. But I know that that’s what they are doing, because I have grown up on the receiving end of racism and sexism my entire life.

So no, it’s not me that’s taking it too far. It’s not the countless other people who are far more educated than I am on issues of discrimination and power dynamics who are taking it too far.


Further reading:

How to Tell if a White Person is Racist

“People are Nicer to Daddy Because He’s White”


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.


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.”

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.

Gender Discrimination v. Abortion Rights

I am 100 per cent behind a woman’s right to choose what to do in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. I am completely against “informed consent” laws that require a woman to have an extremely invasive ultrasound before being allowed to go through with the procedure. It seems like a complete waste of time and money to make a woman undergo what I think constitutes a sexual assault before allowing her to exercise something that is her right. I am completely for actual informed consent, when a woman is advised of what the procedure entails, and what risks there are.

I think that any reason for wanting to get an abortion is legitimate. Regardless of how stupid someone else might thing the reason is, it’s still a woman’s decision to decide what happens to her body.

There is one instance where I think abortion restrictions should exist.  The only instance in which I think restrictions on abortion should exist is when it comes to gender-selective abortion. It would be impossible to regulate, because a woman wanting to abort a fetus on the basis of its sex could just give another reason. But if you believe in gender equality, then aborting a fetus simply because she shares the sex of her mother is completely antithetical to what you want achieve. Girls have a right to life, a right that cannot be taken away simply because of their femaleness.

Some states have laws against gender-selective abortions. But as I said before, this is almost impossible to enforce, and preventing a woman from having an abortion when she wants one is a violation of her reproductive rights. But aborting a fetus for being female is an extremely misogynistic act.

India and China, the biggest offenders when it comes to gender-selective abortion due to their sheer population size, are already missing tens of millions of women and girls. India’s 2011 census showed that the country was missing 37 million women and girls, and sociologists estimate that by 2020, there will be 35 million women and girls missing in China.

Some sociologists argue that having so many extra men results in an increase violent crime. There is no positive effect of too few women. On the one hand, women are undervalued by society, which leads to gender-selective abortion, while on the other hand, the deficit of women means that they are in such high demand that they’re kidnapped and forced into marriage- a result of social norms that place a high emphasis on marrying and having children.

Many societies prefer sons because boys are educated whereas girls aren’t, meaning they grow up to be breadwinners, they carry on the family line, they take care of their parents in old age. But girls are also capable of going to school, making money, and without women, no one’s family line would be continued. The only thing that can increase the value of girls and women in people’s eyes is education. Education for girls, so they can reach their full potential. Education for entire societies to realize that girls and women are just as capable of being contributing members and have more to offer than just their wombs. I’m not arguing that girls are identical to boys, but girls are just as important to every family, every society, every country, as boys. Only when this is universally accepted will the worrying gap between men and women be closed.