Yemeni Women's Rights

I was glad to see that the NYTimes had the sense to publish this letter from TAINA BIEN-AIMÉ, Executive Director, Equality Now, about a recent article that misrepresented women’s rights in Yemen.

Offended Yemeni Women Protest President’s Remarks” (news article, April 17), you noted that Yemen’s conservative customs concerning women are not legislated as in neighboring Saudi Arabia. To the contrary, in many ways sex discrimination in Yemen is sanctioned both by law and in practice.

The Personal Status Law calls for wife obedience, allows marital rape, reinforces stereotypes about women’s roles as caretakers within the home and severely restricts women’s freedom of movement. The recent remarks made by President Ali Abdullah Saleh condemning women’s participation in public protests as being un-Islamic reflects the secondary status given to Yemeni women.

The Yemeni government must not only repeal all discriminatory provisions in its law, but also take steps to end discrimination by enacting laws that will protect women and girls, like setting a minimum age for marriage and supporting women’s equal participation in public life.

The face of the Yemeni uprising belongs to  a 32-year old mother of three.  Tawakul Karman (also spelled Tawakkol: her name in Arabic, توكل, means “trust”) has been cheered by students and others calling for the end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s autocratic regime.   The activist and chairwoman of Women Journalists Without Chains has been leading sit-ins and demonstrations calling for greater civil rights, education and economic opportunities.  Ms. Karman, who belongs to the main opposition party,  Al-Islah, has also spoken out against the rise of religious fundamentalism and violence in her country.
In the 2003 parliamentary election, Al-Islah won 46 seats. As of 2010, 13 of Al-Islah’s parliament members are women, including Karman.  She removed her niqāb (face veil) at a human rights conference in 2004 and since then has called for “other women and female activists to take theirs off.”

Catholic Bishops Actively Oppose Equality of Women, Again

The bishops are all hot and bothered about women in the church again, and, as usual, it is a nun who has driven them to distraction.

People who believe in divine revelation universally agree that revelation is received through language.  Language expresses and is shaped by the culture in which it is spoken.  Language reflects the cultural biases of the people who speak.   Language is continually changing  in response to cultural shifts (witness the recent addition of “lol” to official dictionaries of the English language), but language also shapes culture, influences the way that human beings understand their relationships to one another and the world at large.  Language–a cultural legacy inherited from our human ancestors–probably shapes us more than we shape it.

The Catholic Bishops currently harassing and censoring Sister Elizabeth Johnson, an internationally respected theologian, largely agree with this explanation of language as a culturally conditioned, living mode of communication.  They also agree that divine revelation comes through language.  Yet they perversely and incoherently insist that masculine imagery of the divine in the Bible has nothing to do with human culture, and is simply the direct expression of the deity.  God is male, they insist, and anyone who suggests that we use a gender-neutral language to refer to the deity should be punished.  Never mind that academics, scholars of religion and theologians alike, have been addressing the question of gender, and the choice of pronouns for the divine, with little controversy for 50 years.

A committee of backward-thinking American bishops have accused Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology at Fordham University, a Catholic institution, of violating church doctrine because she carries on this half-century of scholarship.  The Bishops oppose all scholars who ask whether or not God is male.

Sister Johnson irritates the bishops because she supports granting women greater authority in the church and because she speaks to organizations that promote same-sex marriage.  She irritates the bishops because she underscores the sexism in the rule that says only persons with a penis can administer the Word and blessings of god.   She irritates the bishops because she points out that men have always controlled the Catholic church and used it as a means to perpetuate patriarchal privilege.   “All-male images of God are hierarchical images rooted in the unequal relations between women and men, and they function to maintain this relationship,” she writes in her most recent book, Quest for the Living God.   This kind of statement really pisses them off, and that is why the bishops want to ban it.

I, for one, am going straight out to get and read her book.

 

not a happy I heart women post

Right, so today is International Women’s Day and all over the country and the world women stood on bridges to celebrate.  Nice symbolism.  Bridges lead from one place to another. They unite places otherwise separated and bring people together.

Think about it, though.  For all our progress–some might even say because of our progress–women seem to be standing on some pretty shaky bridges these days.   Yes it’s lovely that the Secretary of State is a woman and I do like Ms. Clinton but wish it were possible that we could call her Ms. Rodham.  Remember how she had to change her name to make conservative politicos in both parties comfortable enough to vote for her HUSBAND?  She had to do that not so she could get elected, but rather so HE could, and so that she might snug into the quaint and mostly decorative “First Lady” role.  This the voters demanded, apparently.

And look, now, after we thought we were done, at least for a while, with that demented,  logic- and syntax-challenged, gun-toting white wacko who calls herself “feminist” while training her rifle’s cross-hairs on democratically elected politicians who support all women’s right to sovereignty over their bodies, we’re suddenly beset with a radical extremist Christian who is going around the country spreading hatred for Muslims.   Have you tuned into Brigitte Gabriel yet?  Apparently she grew up in Lebanon and lived in Israel for a spell yet typically greets her audiences by screaming “Yee-Haw!” into the microphone.  Then she launches into a well-rehearsed rant against Muslims who, she says in an all-capitals sort of way, are TAKING OVER THE COUNTRY and INFILTRATING AT EVERY LEVEL OF PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIFE:

“America has been infiltrated on all levels by radicals who wish to harm America,” she said. “They have infiltrated us at the C.I.A., at the F.B.I., at the Pentagon, at the State Department. They are being radicalized in radical mosques in our cities and communities within the United States.”

Remind you of anyone? I think she learned it from the guy who is infamous for having spread his paranoid fever with statements such as:

“I have here in my hand a list of two hundred and five (people) that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department”

You guessed Joe McCarthy, right? Right.  This woman draws enormous crowds of fawning American Islamophobics, who write letters to her such as the following, which her organization, Act! for America sponsors on its website:

Now you are doing the right things to help this once great country try to regain it’s center. You are an awesome individual with such a sincere heart. And that brain of yours. You always know just what to say.

First of all, the proper punctuation of the possessive “it” is “its” not the “it’s,” which is a contraction of the verb “to be.”  Not clear whether this grammar problem stems from Act! for America or from the enthusiast who is awed by Brigitte’s brain.   In either case the quotation doesn’t convey a strong sense of intelligence and education.  Here’s more testimony from a loyal follower, who wrote this on ‘The Tea Party Platform“:

It was a distinct privilege to be among those at the Faith Bible Church in Arvada, CO on August 10, 2010 to listen to Brigette Gabriel.   It was an honor to later have the opportunity to meet her.  I walked away from that meeting with far more than her book,They Must Be Stopped, her 55 minute DVD and a lapel pin.   I walked away with a sense of urgency that should be felt by every American who wishes to preserve his/her way of life.

This follower explicitly stated that Gabriel preaches the following points:

  • The single goal of muslims is to replace our republic with a government based upon islam.  Their goal is islamic control.
  • There are a large number of active terror cells in this country already in place.   Some cities have a large number of active members.  Among those cities is my home, Denver.

By the way, Brigitte changed her name, too.  It seems “Nour Saman,” her real name, was way too Ay-rab for her radical Christian and right-wing Jewish audiences.  (Why the Aryan ‘Brigitte’?) And let’s take a look at her erudition.

Willing to bet that these audiences would characterize the following statement, which Brigitte allegedly made, as “just what to say”?

The difference, my friends, between Israel and the Arab world is the difference between civilization and barbarism. It’s the difference between good and evil [applause]…. this is what we’re witnessing in the Arabic world, They have no SOUL !, they are dead set on killing and destruction. And in the name of something they call “Allah” which is very different from the God we believe….[applause] because our God is the God of love.

Oy, vey! This hits on so many levels of “what not to say” that even my Republican grandfather, who rolled over in his grave the day I applied to work for Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA), must be kicking the sides of his coffin.  You don’t go around saying that some human beings who name their higher power with a different name than you do have “no soul” unless you’re trying to dehumanize them.  And we all know that dehumanized “things” are lot easier to kill than human beings.  There is “our God” who is the god of love and “their God” who is the god of hatred and therefore “our God” won’t mind if we exterminate them. All in the name of love, of course.

This woman is an alleged apologist for the Phalange group, Kataeb, and the terrorist group, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), who carried out the slaughter of thousands of Palestinians, most of whom were women and children, in the notorious Sabra and Shatila camps.

The veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk described what he found there this way:

there were women lying in houses with their skirts torn torn up to their waists and their legs wide apart, children with their throats cut, rows of young men shot in the back after being lined up at an execution wall. There were babies – blackened babies babies because they had been slaughtered more than 24-hours earlier and their small bodies were already in a state of decomposition – tossed into rubbish heaps alongside discarded US army ration tins, Israeli army equipment and empty bottles of whiskey.

This woman, who has been accused of defending this holocaust of innocent Muslim women and children, thrills American women and American men, with statements such as:

a practising Muslim who goes to mosque every Friday, prays five times a day, and who believes that the Koran is the word of God, and who believes that Mohammed is the perfect man and (four inaudible words) is a radical Muslim.

Has this woman heard of Indonesia?  Does she know any American Muslims?  Does she really want me to believe that the lovely Indian woman I recently met, a physician in her 70s,  a volunteer, like me, at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, and a Muslim, is a radical?

Muslims who believe that the Koran is the word of God and who believe that Mohammed is the perfect man do not share my beliefs but that does not make them radicals Muslims.   A Christian or Jew (or Buddhist or Jain, for that matter) who is so intolerant as to equate all Muslims with murderous terrorists does, however, fall into the category of “extremist” in my book.

Particularly when that woman encourages Americans–who are raving mad for her–to consider all Muslims “soulless” beings.  The name of her book, “Because they Hate,” more accurately describes her followers than the people she’s going around denouncing.

For International Women’s Day some Pittsburghers stood on a bridge to draw attention to the plight of Afghan Women, who happen to be Muslim and therefore members of the same “soulless” zombies  that Brigitte Gabriel is urging Americans to hate and fear.

We’re standing on some shaky bridges–and women like Brigitte Gabriel and her followers are working hard to undermine them completely.  How should we understand such extremism?  Doris Lessing, who almost always builds bridges, has this to say in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside:

Anyone who reads history at all knows that the passionate and powerful convictions of one century usually seem absurd, extraordinary, to the next.  There is no epoch in history that seems to us as it must have to the people who lived through it.  What we live through, in any age, is the effect on us of mass emotions and of social conditions from which it almost impossible to detach ourselves. Often the mass emotions are those which seem the noblest, best and most beautiful.  And yet, inside a year, five years, a decade, five decades, people will be asking, “How could they have believed that?” because events will have taken place that will have banished the said mass emotions to the dustbin of history.  To coin a phrase (8).

The very same people running wildly after Brigitte Gabriel today will probably disown her in the future.  But for now, they have caught the fever, the mass emotions of suspicion and fear and xenophobia that afflict so many Islamophobic American men and women today.   It would be nice if these extremists would stop building bombs under the bridges, these way-stations between groups of human beings who are different from one another, people who might actually like to get to know each other and who would surely get along better if they had ways to reach one another.

 

Current anti-woman legislation and the rise of Christian extremism

Bush Decides Upon “Handmaid’s Tale Look” for Women in Photo Op

Christian extremists have not quite taken hold of the country, but they pose an emergent, lethal threat to women, men, and children in the United States of America. They do not constitute the majority of Americans, who largely trust women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. Nevertheless, a vocal and fiercely religious minority have gained ground in state and federal legislatures and in right-wing media conglomerates such as Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which host women-haters and homophobes on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that contraception is good for society, and most think that in most circumstances abortion should be legal.  The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception, and a variety of evangelical Protestant organizations have helped to elect politicians now in national and state offices.  The legislation that these Christian extremists support would severely harm women, girls, children and men by preventing them from receiving vital STD screenings, routine gynecological care, contraception, and information about safe sex. They also present dangerous precedents for legalizing excessive government intrusion into private life.  They would allow the State to regulate human bodies as it has never done before and force women to remain pregnant, even if the pregnancy would kill them. Consider the most recent legislation that candidates supported by Christian extremists have proposed or passed in Congress:

  • The Pence amendment:  the continuing resolution on the national budget, which was passed by the House, includes an amendment that would eliminate all funding for Title X family planning, even though none of this money funds abortions.   The Congresswomen and men who voted for this resolution officially declared their opposition to programs that currently provide poor women with gynecological care, pap smears, HIV and other STD testing, cancer screenings, contraception and information about safe sexual practices.
  • H.R. 358, also known as the “Let Women Die Act,” sponsored by right-winger Joe Pitts (R-PA) and 137 other Representatives, encourages emergency rooms to let women die rather than perform abortions that would save their lives, urges providers to refuse to offer training or referrals related to abortion, and, most infamously, redefines rape in such a way that would exclude most sexual attacks.
  • H.R. 3, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and 209 co-sponsors, would require the IRS to monitor and impose tax burdens on Americans whose PRIVATE insurance covers abortion. As NOW observes: ” In testifying in favor of this bill in committee, a representative from the Catholic bishops proudly supported revoking abortion rights even in cases of rape. You read that right — and isn’t that rich, coming from the very men who have consistently protected sexually abusive priests?”
  • H.R. 217, sponsored by Christian extremist Mike Pence (R-IN) and 168 other Representatives, is another version of the Pence amendment.  It may die in Committee, but it will live and become law the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other Protestant groups have their way.

Recent action promoted by Christian extremists in the State legislatures

  • South Dakota: Be grateful if you don’t live in South Dakota, where Christian extremists tried to legalize the assassination of abortion providers and have shut down all but one abortion clinic.  On Tuesday the House passed a bill (49-19) that would force women who go to this last refuge to endure “counseling” designed to discourage them from having an abortion.  The decision to terminate a pregnancy is agonizing enough for most women who must make it, but South Dakota extremists want to make choice even more unpleasant for women by imposing a 72-hour waiting period between the time that they meet with their doctors and have an abortion.  If this bill passes,  State will incur approximately $1 million in legal costs defending it in court.
  • Nebraska: The Christian extremists nextdoor have introduced a bill nearly identical to the one that stalled in South Dakota, defining the murder of anyone who supports abortion a “justifiable homicide.” State Senator and devout Protestant Mark Christensen,  who opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape, introduced this legislation,  L.B. 232,  this week.  Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood told the Nebraska State Judiciary Committee that this bill “authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”
  • Virginia:  A state Senate bill introduced today would effectively close 17 of the 21 abortion clinics in Virginia by redefining all facilities that provide first-trimester procedures “hospitals” and subject them to a slew of cumbersome and unnecessary regulations.  These providers are already subject to state regulations but this bill would impose burdensome stipulations that similar medical providers in the state do not have to meet.  This legislation is likely to pass.
  • Pennsylvania:  The State of Pennsylvania unfairly requires teens under the age of 18 to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion.  If they are unable or afraid to get their parent’s consent, they can bypass the regulation by going through the courts.  The legislation does not grant the judge to force a teen to remain pregnant against her will, but a recently elected Allegheny State Judge thinks it does.  Judge Philip Ignelzi recently ruled that a girl just shy of her 18th birthday may not have an abortion, even though abortion is still legal in this country.  We must not underestimate the great psychological and physical burden that this judge has just imposed on a young woman in our supposedly free country.
  • Georgia: Woman-hating State Representative Bobby Franklin (R), who wants all rape victims to be called “accusers,” introduced legislation that would not only label all abortions “fetal murder” but require the police to investigate every miscarriage as a potential homicide. Hospitals would be required to keep records on and investigate every single spontaneous death.  A Uterus Police? What’s next? A regulatory apparatus to test the daily flow of women having their periods to insure that they haven’t unwittingly discharged “baby” parts, also known as fertilized eggs or zygotes?
  • Florida: Republican candidate for Mayor of Jacksonville and devout Baptist Mike Hogan confessed, in a Catholic Church in Mandarin that he would not bomb an abortion clinic “but it may cross my mind.” The congregation applauded.

We do not yet force women to veil themselves from head to toe, prohibit them from reading, or exclude them from public office, but if Christian extremists who seek to impose their private, religious views on the rest of us get their way, we could soon find ourselves living in a society not unlike the Republic of Gilead imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Amanda Marcotte, who thinks a lot like I do, already made this rather obvious and somewhat overblown point. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that bad things happen to people who refuse to speak out against injustice. As Offred  (Of Fred) recalls in Atwood’s important 1986 novel:

We lived, as usual, by ignoring.  Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.  There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men.  None of then were the men we knew.  The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others.  How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable.  They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives (Anchor, 1998: 56-57).

The debate over abortion has much to do with religion, but it shouldn’t.  On one side there are the pro-choice people, who may be Christians or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheists, but who do not want to impose their beliefs on other people.  They think women have the right to make their own decisions about their reproduction.  On the other side are the extremists who are eager–desperate, even–to impose their religious views on everyone else.  They do not trust women to make their own ethical choices.  Curiously, these very same “forced-birthers” also very often claim to be against the expansion of government and for a fiscal responsibility.  Yet they can’t stop themselves from introducing obviously unconstitutional legislation that would grossly broaden the State’s powers and that wastes everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money in the legal system. This legislation is not only irresponsible, as Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-CA) reminded Chris Smith and other Christian extremists who would have put her in jail for having a late-abortion of a fetus that her uterus had already rejected. “What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?” she asked.  “Nothing at all.” This legislation is not only sponsored by ignorant, bigoted men and women who have nothing but contempt for the black “babies” they claim to be saving, as Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out during the same floor debate.  Moore thundered:

I just want to tell you what it’s like not to have planned parenthood. … You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fruits and vegetables because they’re expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty.

This legislation imposes the views of a small but increasingly powerful minority of Christian extremists who are only too happy to keep Black women and children down, a small but powerful minority of Christian extremists who believe that God is male and that this deity intended men to have most of the privileges and power in the world because men, more like god than women,  are fundamentally superior to women.   This legislation is not merely the expression, , but also the weapon, of frighteningly hierarchical ideologues whom we tolerate and ignore at our peril.
Wake up from the “bad dream dreamt by others” and take action against religious extremism in America today:

Required Reading: “GOP: Tax breaks for everyone, except those pregnant teenage rape victims, the dirty whores”

I’m reproducing major portions of Amanda Marcotte’s post because if you are a feminist, you need to read it:

HR3, misleadingly named the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act”, is a perfect storm of everything that’s nasty about the modern, hyper-conservative Republican party.  It’s dishonest, since women who have federal health insurance are already banned from using that money for abortion care.  This bill is actually an attempt to shut down abortion coverage through all private insurance, including employer-provided insurance, which means that it’s beyond even the dreadful Stupak-Pitts amendment/executive order.  Some “small government”.  As Rachel Maddow documented, this bill is just the most egregious example of how the GOP basically hoodwinked the voters.  They ran on “creating jobs”, which they clearly have no intention of doing, since they’re going to be too busy looking for ways to put the screws to everyone they hate, a long list that includes poor people, people who read a lot, gays, and basically all women, but especially the most vulnerable in our society.

Sadly, the mainstream media (outside of a handful of awesome fighters, like Rachel Maddow, Nicholas Kristof, and Bob Herbert) has gotten inured to relentless attacks on women from conservatives, and subsequently fail to properly understand that a bill like this is pure misogyny, with a giant side dose of class warfare.  They’ve failed to cover the nefarious workings of Rep. Chris Smith from New Jersey, who competes regularly in the heavy competition in Congress for the title Biggest Misogynist, and who has made a special pet project out of trying to shut down any foreign aid that would include contraception, and who has accused Secretary Clinton of being a friend to child rapists because she believes child rape victims should get medical care.  But as you’ll see, Chris Smith is actually the worst enemy in Congress a minor victim of rape could have, starting with the fact that he seems to believe they’re lying sluts who need to be punished.

See, HR3 has—like the Hyde Amendment—a provision in it that carves out an exception for rape, incest, and the health/life of the mother. But because anti-choicers like Smith are such ruthless misogynists, they tend to believe the misogynist stereotype that all women, especially those who claim to be ill or victims of crimes, are lying whores until proven otherwise.  Or just lying whores, regardless of the evidence they produce.  And so, to make sure those lying whores don’t get their hands on those delicious, orgasm-inducing uterine scrapings, the bill has language in it that, in essence, assumes that 70% of rape victims weren’t really raped.  The exception is only for “forcible rape”, which is vaguely defined, but in practice tends to mean that anything short of getting your ass beat down means you weren’t “really” raped.  Even if you’re a 13-year-old who was impregnated by a 30-year-old.  Also, if you happen to get pregnant by your abusive, rape-y father on your 18th birthday, you will get no funding to make sure you don’t give birth to your own brother.  Consent is implied if you’re female under these guidelines, and consent to sex with your male relatives is implied the second you turn 18.

Don’t simply stare in speechless disgust.  Get your fingers to work, and talk about this!  Write to your representatives in the House.  Tweet (Marcotte suggets that you tweet against it with the hashtag #dearjohn).

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen

Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

What is happening in Yemen and why should we care?  Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week.  She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her.  He has no idea where she is.  “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.  She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.

With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights.  She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular.   She has also advocated taking off the veil.  In a recent interview by WJC, she said:

I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.

Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation.  In that same interview, she stated,

I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.

Will we hear from Tawakul again?  Probably not, unless the international community speaks out.  The government of  Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women  dissidents.

On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down.  They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province.  [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:

The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights

These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable.  But will they be heard?  What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?

What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years.  A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations.  Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen.  The official name of this political party is  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen,  “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].

Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women.  Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion.  Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa.  A similar, tragic  transformation took place in Iran.

To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women.  Clearly, they are not.  My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.

For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government.  There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.

I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it.  And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion.  And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.

So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy.  The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman.  Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution.   We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government.  We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.

What is Gender?

The people in this cartoon are “doing gender.”  What does this mean? What is gender?

Gender is an embodied social program, an ideological construction of the body that we do not simply perform in language and gesture,

but also inhabit and experience somatically (from the Greek, soma), in the body .

Gender is durable, although not inevitable, because it is produced and reproduced through symbolic and physical violence that privileges a purely relational, yet rigid, conception of masculinity that is sustained over against rigid conceptions of femininity.

The privileging of masculinity over femininity is wholly arbitrary–it makes no sense and might just as easily have been reversed, had certain factors in our history been different.

The patterns according to which we have interpreted our anatomies and behaviors come from culture, not nature.  Gender is a historically constructed way of responding to biology, sure.  But it is also a historically determined way of responding to  established practices of culture.

Historians and evolutionary psychologist believe that the invention of agriculture made an enormous impact on the way that human beings think about masculinity and femininity.  See, for example, the work of Christopher Ryan.

Gender is enforced and reinforced through symbolic and physical violence.  We all undergo a certain degree of symbolic violence, and we experience it directly whenever we “apply categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination, thus making them appear to be natural,” as Pierre Bourdieu explains in his stellar book, Masculine Domination (p. 35).

So, for example, when women view themselves through the constructed categories of ideal femininity in, say, women’s magazines, and perceive themselves to be hideously fat and unattractive because they do not have the elongated and emaciated bodies of the models featured there, then they are experiencing symbolic violence.

Or, when we learn, from our parents, our media, our teachers, civic leaders, and preachers, that women are less able to do math or philosophy or auto mechanics or law than men, and unconsciously choose believe these fictions, and make choices in our lives because we have accepted them, then are experiencing symbolic violence.

We see ourselves through the categories that are present in our culture. And because our culture is patriarchal, organized according to a scheme of perceptions in which things masculine are considered to be higher or better than things feminine, the categories (for example, categories of the perfect female body) through which we see ourselves are also the expression of that patriarchal order.

When we see ourselves according to these paradigmatic ways of understanding “woman,” we are victims of symbolic violence.  The culture doesn’t need to beat us up–we do it do ourselves every time we compare ourselves to these idealized images of starvation or hyperbolic nymphomania and find ourselves wanting.   We learn to think about ourselves as second, less important than men. We also learn to fear that if we do not look as though we are continually hungering for men, that they will not want us.

This, of course, is complete rubbish, since no one but an absolute ass wants someone around who slavishly caters to their idiotic desires.  And yet there are so many men who can’t seem to stand women who assert themselves, and so many women who slavishly cater, or who spend inordinate amounts of time preparing themselves to be the objects of men’s desires, and little or no time thinking about what their own desires really are.   There are also plenty of men who can’t seem to imagine that women have any legitimate desires whatsoever.

Gender works through a series of oppositions.  Men know themselves as “men” only insofar as they can declare or prove that they are not “unmen” or women.  Over against a denigrated Other, men set themselves up as men, as subject, as powerful, right.  Just as light knows itself to be light only in contrast to darkness, so masculinity is defined over against femininity.  There is no such thing as absolute masculinity or essential masculinity, just as there is no such thing as absolute or essential darkness, or absolute “down” that exists in and of itself without the concept of “up.”  Similarly, men habitually define themselves as men only in opposition to women.

But instead of understanding a reciprocal or equal relationship between men and women, we tend to set ourselves into hierarchical relationships.  That is, we understand gender as an order in which masculine always takes precedence over feminine.   But this doesn’t make any sense.   There is a reciprocal relationship between up and down, or hot and cold, or dry and wet.  You cannot think one term without the other.  That understanding makes it possible for you to see both ideas as concepts, mutually determining ideas, but not as a hierarchy.

(every wonder why the light half is usually on top?)

Yet we generally do not understand these sexual oppositions as mutually dependent and equivalent, but rather as a superior-inferior relationship, in which masculinity is always superior to femininity, always “above” that which is “below” it.  This is false thinking, an illusion of reality that has been enforced by symbolic and real violence.  Women who have defied it have been punished, branded as whores or sluts or witches or monsters or hags.  They have also been subjected to physical punishment, to beatings and rapes and mutilations and murders.  Think of Anne Hutchinson,

or wise women, or people you may know of extraordinary autonomy and intransigence who, because they have refused to play the part of the “good” woman within the patriarchal order, have been slapped down or destroyed.

The Hard Road to Freedom

What does it all mean?  And why am I still ANGRY?  Why are the National Organization of Women and NARAL, our nation’s strongest advocates for women women’s health, upset?

The mostly male members of the House and Senate managed to bring a little sanity to our insane health care system last night.   With nearly all Republicans voting against health–which in my book amounts to the same thing as voting for death– the Democrats took a first and very timid step towards better health care for all Americans last night.  But they caved into right-wing demagoguery and big-business interests anyway.  When will they learn?

Here’s how this bill, if it is allowed to stand, will reduce the liberty of women in our country:

1.  It will severely curtail women’s access to abortion.  Employers and employees will now have to write two checks EVERY MONTH, one for health care, and another for an “abortion rider,” if they want to have coverage for abortion.

WHY THIS IS BAD:  Before the bill, 85 per cent of insurance companies covered abortion without stigmatizing it.  : it imposes new restrictions–burdens and cumbersome procedures–that will effectively limit women’s access to choose, which is exactly what the religious zealots and terrorists wanted all along.

2. It will effectively cement the power of the Hyde amendment, which is not an established part of the law, but rather a measure tacked on to the appropriations bill every year.  Why?  Because the President agreed to issue an executive order that will lend the weight of his office to the anti-abortion measures included in the bill.

WHY THIS IS BAD: It shows us that the guys in government are willing to trade away women’s rights to get what they want.  The end does not justify the means. By strengthening the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion, this order weakens women’s constitutional right to choose to end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies.

3.  It will allow insurance companies in the health exchanges to discriminate against women and the elderly, most of whom are women, to charge women and the elderly more for health care –if the pool of people to be covered is greater than 100.

WHY THIS IS BAD:  It penalizes women for being female.  In the case of elderly women, who are poorer because they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace for their entire lives, it redoubles the penalty against women for being female.

4. It imposes cruel and unreasonable limits on health care coverage for immigrants.  Legal residents must wait a for five years to be eligible for Medicaid and other assistance, and undocumented workers cannot even use their own money to purchase health insurance through an exchange!

WHY THIS IS BAD: It’s racist and classist and backwards.  We are a nation of immigrants, and every one of us deserves equal access to health care.   And by the way–did you know that 25 per cent of all Black people in American immigrated to this country at the end of the 20th century?  So this policy is going to hurt, badly, at least 25 per cent of Black women in our country today. That’s shameful!

A good end does not justify bad means.  You can’t achieve justice for all by trading away the rights of some.

But WHY AM I STILL PISSED OFF?  Because religious extremists and religious terrorists are steadily eroding our basic freedoms!!!

Women have a basic right to bodily integrity and subjectivity.  By limiting our rights to the governance of our own bodies, by telling us that women do not have the ability or the freedom to choose what happens to their own bodies–a right they would never dare to take away from men–the lawmakers are attacking women’s fundamental rights to subjectivity, to personhood, to liberty.

I’m mad because these guys don’t care about my freedom, about my liberty–in fact they’ve shown me again and again that they’re perfectly happy to treat me as a less human than men, less entitled to basic freedoms than men.

Not enough Democrats and Pro-choice Republicans seem to be getting this message:  Women’s basic liberties are  falling under the monster-truck tires of the demagogues and the religious terrorists, who are determined to grind women into the mud.

These people are not just against health care, not just against abortion, they are against WOMEN.  (And on Stupak’s resolute disregard for women, especially for Nuns, see Jodi Jacobson).

And yes, some of these extremists and terrorists are women, but that means nothing.  Women have historically traded away their liberties in exchange for financial and emotional support from men–Women are not the only group of oppressed persons who believe what their oppressors tell them to believe, and who would rather take the lazy road of slavery than the hard road towards freedom.

Let’s all of us stop going along with the people who hate women.  Let’s all of us get on that road to freedom.