#MeToo Editoral: By Refusing to Tell the Whole Story, New Republic Covers Up for UC Berkeley’s Indifference to Faculty Sexual Predators

I just wrote this indignant letter to the editors of New Republic.  We’ll see if they publish it:

Dear Editors of New Republic,

Thank you for drawing attention to the pervasive sexism and abuse of power at universities and colleges in the article, “A Professor is Kind of Like a Priest.” I applaud Irene Hsu and Rachel Stone for noting that Seo-Young Chu’s, Jane Penner’s and my stories are neither “single instances of faculty sexual abuse,” but rather part of a “larger culture of silence and complicity, which has made for a dangerous, destructive, and exclusionary educational environment.” I have a few complaints about the way the article was edited.

First, a correction. The copy reads, “After the two went out to dinner one night, Moretti returned with Latta to her apartment.” This is inaccurate. I have no memory of having dinner with Franco Moretti, and cannot remember why he came to my Oakland apartment.

Second, your article omits one of the most egregious elements of my story, which I told to Hsu and Stone. This is the university’s utter indifference and cover-up of my complaint at the hands of Frances Ferguson, then the Title IX officer at Berkeley. Ferguson covered up for Moretti by actively discouraging me from making a formal complaint, which she described as a harrowing experience likely to induce as much trauma as I had already suffered. Ferguson was a member of the same department and knew Moretti well enough to recognize whom I was describing when I went to speak to her, yet she commanded, “Don’t tell his name.” Ferguson’s icy demeanor and departmental association with the man who raped me twice, plus the fact that she was then the only university officer to whom I could go with my complaint at the time, made it clear to me that I would receive neither sympathy nor support from the UC Berkeley. She was the cold and indifferent face of the institution. Ferguson’s cover-up and Moretti’s threat that, if I were to file formal charges against him, the wife of another colleague in the English department, a powerful lawyer, would defend him and that he would ruin my career, silenced me for many years.

Third, your article fails to indicate that this same Frances Ferguson, Walter Benn Michael’s wife, actively sought to recruit Moretti for a position at Johns Hopkins University, where she was also teaching in the 1990s. It was only graduate student outcry after Moretti molested a female graduate student during his interview that foiled Ferguson’s wish to bring him to campus.

Finally, the editor of the article insisted that its authors insult me by asking whether I believed that Franco Moretti raped me both times that I remember having unwanted sexual contact with him. I emphatically responded, “yes.” The article fails to mention this second rape, and therefore also neglects to tell the whole story.

I will publish this letter publicly on Facebook, just in case you are too timid to publish it as an editorial in New Republic, where it belongs.

In truth,

Kimberly Latta, Ph.D.

#MeToo

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Kimberly Latta in Berkeley, 1985

 

What Happened at Berkeley in 1985

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Kimberly Latta walking in the Berkeley woods, 1985

During the first semester of my first year as a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley, in 1985, I took a class with Franco Moretti, who was then a visiting professor from Italy. He was considered one of the up-and-coming literary critics at the time and there was much excitement about his work. He was cool. He was hip. He hung out with the New Historicist and critical theory professors in the departments of English, German, French, and Hispanic literatures. I was particularly interested in studying with him because I had been told that he had particular expertise in the Frankfurt School of social theory and philosophy. I was 25 and very naïve. I had spent the previous year in Northern Germany as a Fulbright Scholar and was still coping with the shock of beginning graduate school in a country that felt strange even though it was “home.” Franco demonstrated a great deal of interest in me, and I foolishly believed it was because he found me intelligent. The quotidian details of our relationship—how it began, how many times we saw each other, and where—are difficult for me to recall, but I know that the relationship lasted for the entire semester, about 3 or 4 months. It seemed romantic at first. Quickly it became traumatic.

People want me to spin the narrative, run the film, so they can see it, comprehend it, fashion it into a chronology that makes sense to them. But traumatic memory does not work that way. Traumatic memory is fragmentary because trauma –the word derives from the Greek word for wound—injures the body and brain. As trauma experts Judith Herman and Bessel van der Kolk assert, traumatized people commonly report memory loss and dissociation because experiences of helplessness and terror cannot be integrated into normal autobiographical memory. Traumatic memories are jumpy, disjointed, incoherent, indigestible, cut off, separated, split away, like pieces of a puzzle that can never be put together.

I remember images, sensations, words, events, but could not say exactly in what order they took place. I remember meeting with him during office hours—his light coming in from the window behind him on the other side of his desk. He commented on my indigo-stained fingers. I apologized (!) and said I used a fountain pen. I remember him telling me, later, that he wasn’t attracted to me at first because he thought I had fat legs. Why? Because he had only seen me wearing those loose boots from the 1980s, the ones I got from my mother. They were real leather and I thought they were cool. The weather must have warmed up because, he said, he later saw me in shorts. It was then, when he pruriently gazed at me as though I were some Suzanna in the garden, that he decided to come after me.

He told me I was beautiful like Mathilde in The Red and the Black—not exactly a compliment. He said he had told “everyone” in the English department that he was in love with me. I remember feeling vulnerable, exposed, ashamed. I remember him inviting me to dinner in his apartment with other faculty friends. I remember being excited about the opportunity to socialize with the women and men I admired so much. I remember the dingy white walls in my apartment in Oakland. I remember him pushing me down onto my futon, going too fast, too far. I remember I said, “No.” I remember I said, “I’m not comfortable with this.” “I don’t want to.” I remember him saying, “O, you American women, when you say no you mean yes.” I remember leaving my body and hovering somewhere around the ceiling, looking down and telling myself, “This is not happening to me. It is happening to her, to that body, not to me, not to me, not to me.” I will never forget the bleak, blank despair of that moment, the collapse of consciousness , the escape into nothingness, the fall into disgust and shame.

I remember him telling me that professors in Italy routinely slept with their graduate students, so why was I being such a prude? I remember the yellowish late afternoon light in his office, the window just opposite to the windows in the library. I remember panicking and feeling paralyzed, terrified that someone would witness my defilement, would see him pushing me against the wall, unbuttoning my blouse, putting his hands on my breasts, his tongue in my mouth. I remember the cold against my back, my clenched and churning gut. I remember being stricken, immobilized, and ashamed. Ashamed of my degradation, my helplessness, my passivity. I remember feeling dirty.

I remember another time when he pushed me against the wall in his apartment. It was dark in there; the sunlight was outside. I didn’t protest when he undressed me. I stood there, allowed it to happen, and what came next. I was a doll, a puppet, a thing. “This isn’t happening to me,” I told myself. I absented my flesh, myself. My mind seemed to disintegrate, to become turgid and stupid. And for days and weeks and months it was impossible to think. I felt dead, utterly alone, separated, alienated, cast adrift, cut off from care, from concern, from love, from life. In class I felt such a sordid lurching in my belly and dizziness that I had to leave the room. Finally I stopped going. I took an incomplete.

I read in the news that Moretti said we remained on good terms. Maybe he meant that he gave me an A for the final paper I struggled to birth, that document of wretchedness. We did not remain on good terms. I saw him once, on an airplane on the way to the MLA. I think it was 1998. He came over with a big smile on his face and said, “Hello, hello! Do you remember me?” I was sitting with a friend, a tremendous supporter, and we were both on our way to our first interviews. My friend’s presence gave me courage. “Of course I remember you,” I said, “and I will never forgive you for what you did to me.” He turned away, ran back to his seat and never contacted me again.

Towards the end of the semester in 1985 I was unable to focus on my studies. I was constantly ill and nervous and frazzled, distressed, and ashamed. I didn’t know what to do. One of my friends must have suggested I go to the Title IX officer.  I don’t remember. I have forgotten—repressed?—so many things about that period in my life. The difference between ordinary forgetfulness and traumatic amnesia is that, in the latter case, although many moments are gone, the particularly grisly scenes remain permanently burned in. As van der Kolk puts it, “traumatized people simultaneously remember too little and too much.” Some memories are too much to bear.

I would never have gone to the Title IX office had I known who held it. It took all my courage to get myself there. With dismay and the familiar sensations of despairing helplessness, I discovered that the person responsible for protecting me was a not a neutral party, but rather, one of his colleagues, someone I was pretty sure he knew well. She was on his side. Or so I thought, reading her dispassionate expression and body language. She was not warm. She did not want to hear about it.   I was so ragged that I blurted out my story anyways. I told her that I was being harassed, sexually pursued. It’s possible I didn’t tell her that he had already raped me. I was so ashamed, ashamed of having been violated, of being unable to protect myself.   I remember her adamantly commanding me, “Don’t tell me his name.” This confused me. I had already told her enough about him—he was Italian, a visiting professor, in the English department—for her to know who he was. Of course she knew who he was. She discouraged me from filing a formal report, by describing the process as involving a scrutiny that sounded more traumatizing than what I was already undergoing. I remember insisting that she at least write down his initials, in case he did this to anyone else. She said she would. She also said there was nothing she could or would do for me unless I was willing to file formal charges. I do not remember her offering me the option to have the university administration write something like a cease and desist letter. Perhaps she did. I doubt I would have agreed to take such a path—it would only have led to retaliation and further abuse.

When I told Franco Moretti I had told Frances Ferguson that he was sexually harassing me, he said that if I pressed charges he would ruin my career. He said he would hire the powerful attorney-wife of a colleague in the English department (whose name I have forgotten, of course) and shred me. No one would believe me, he said. I believed him. The relationship ended there. I left the course, avoided him and his cronies, and did my best to carry on.

After he left Berkeley, Franco sent me two chatty letters, which I have not saved. I remember feeling flabbergasted by them. Why would he write to me? Did he think we were friends? Was he so narcissistically deranged that he actually believed that he hadn’t hurt me? After I had told him how devastated I felt? How I couldn’t even sit in his class any more, could not be around him or his faculty friends? I destroyed them. I didn’t want anything around me that was linked to him. My interest the Frankfurt school evaporated, and I turned to Simone de Beauvoir and other French feminists. It was difficult to go on, but I resolved not to let him destroy me completely. I avoided courses with people who I believed where close to him, but never really knew whom I could trust. A few good guys, especially Jeffrey Knapp in English and Michael Rogin in Political Science, were tremendous teachers and mentors for me at Berkeley.  But I didn’t tell them. I wanted to, but couldn’t. As soon as I passed the qualifying exams for the Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature—then a grueling four hours a day for five days in a row answering written and oral questions in three languages—I fled.

Writing about this takes a toll. Speaking about it, telling the story over and over again, has been far more stressful than I could have imagined. My throat constricts; my heart, thudding furiously, jumps into my mouth; my stomach aches; my forehead throbs. It hurts, physically, to remember and to tell the truth. My body knows what my consciousness refuses to acknowledge. I don’t go here often. I had buried all this deep down in the darkness, and now that I am bringing it back to the surface I am flooded with unbearable discomfort. I had not expected this.

Folks want to know what prompted me to speak out now. Because it is the right thing to do. Because I wanted to speak out long ago, but was afraid. He threatened me, after all. Now, thirty-odd years later, I know he can’t hurt me. Too many people can corroborate my story. As I have told my story to various friends in the academy of the years, many told me that they had heard that he had abused and harassed other graduate students. I was not the only one. Of course he denies it. Of course he is lying. Would you expect otherwise?

The hundreds of brave women who have spoken out—including Anita Hill, and all the women who exposed Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others—inspired me to tell my story. Women writing about what feminine beings endure, such as Rebecca Solnit and Laurie Penny, give me courage. We are warriors. I speak because I respect myself and because silence almost always helps the oppressors, rarely the oppressed.

This story is not just about Moretti and Ferguson. It is also about the unacknowledged power to intimidate and abuse that professors wield over students. It is about the men who harass female graduate students and the women who cover up for them or look the other way. Ever since patriarchy became the dominant mode of reproduction—Gerda Lerner traces its origins in emergence of Mesopotamian temple-towns 3,000 years before the current era—women have cooperated with misogynist power structures to advance their own social and political capital. I think most academics start out with good intentions but too many are perverted by the institutions in which they achieve fame and fortune. I can forgive but not excuse their corruption.

Why don’t more women speak out about their abuse? Rape survivors very often doubt themselves because our point of view differs dramatically from commonly held beliefs about sexual assault. As Herman observes, returning veterans who have been traumatized are at least recognized for having been to war, but the terrorizing violence that rape survivors experience is rarely acknowledged: “Women learn that in rape they are not only violated but dishonored. They are treated with greater contempt than defeated soldiers, for there is no acknowledgement that they have lost an unfair fight.” Sexist viewpoints, shared by women as well as men, too often dismiss what survivors experienced as terrorizing violations. Sometimes even close relations refuse to understand, forcing victims to choose between expressing their point of view and remaining part of the masculinist community, a community that routinely blames the violated for their violation. Masculinism privileges the masculine over the feminine in all aspects of being and in all body-minds and defines the masculine over and against the not-masculine, the not-strong, the weak, the helpless, the shameful.  I want people to know what happened to me and to all those who fight for dignity in an academic system riddled with institutionalized masculinism.

In my letter to Stanford, I wrote that I wanted to bring Moretti to justice. I mean that people should know about what he did and decide for themselves what consequences he should suffer. It is not my place to say what would be fair, what would be just. It is my place to demand that all people in the world start paying closer attention to the suffering of graduate students who are tremendously vulnerable to the kind of abuse that I experienced at the hands of men and women. The University of California has had a problem with professors harassing students verbally and physically for a long time, as William Kidder shows in his forthcoming essay. Moreover, as Ali Colleen Neff suggests in her piece about academic precarity, the cut-throat academy enables, even encourages, people to do terrible things to others in order to get a job, tenure, full professorship, endowed chair, distinguished emeritus status. Does the university regard this behavior as distinguished?

As I said, it hurts to talk and write about it. The truth hurts whether we utter it or not, and I feel compassion for and solidarity with those who cannot. Too many still suffer. Too many will continue to suffer until we change.   I want our society to transform by rejecting masculinism and embracing the worth and dignity of feminine beings as equal to (not the same as) masculine beings in every way. We start by believing the individuals who have had the courage to speak up, to talk back to the powers that have demeaned and abused them for so long. #Metoo.

 

Coda: I wish to thank all the wonderful people who read my letter to Stanford University and who have written to express their solidarity with me. You have helped me to heal more than you know.

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Kimberly Latta reading at her home in Santa Barbara, 1985

 

 

 

Jimmy Carter is My Hero

I have always loved and respected President Carter.  My admiration for him increases every year.  If Protestants had saints, he’d be a good candidate.

Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

25 JANUARY 2013

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

Copyright © 2013 Fairfax Media

 

 

Laxmi Update

27 June 2011

I continue to worry about Laxmi.   We’ve started math classes at the women’s center and she appears to have trouble even with rudimentary arithmetic. This may have something to do with her unfamiliarity with western-style numerals, but I fear that the problem is deeper.   It would seem that she has had very little schooling of any kind.  This concerns me because at 50 she is old by Nepali standards and will certainly be discriminated against as she looks for a job.  I brought her to the attention of the director of VSN, who wanted to do something for her.   I had hoped that we would be able to give her a temporary bed at the Women’s Center and a job as a house cleaner and caretaker.  But Shreezanna, whom Tej has wisely made manager of the center, did not want to bring her in for fear that she would never leave.

Tej and Shreezanna offered to help her to learn a new skill so that she could go into business for herself.  She could take sewing lessons at the center and work as a seamstress.  Or she could borrow some money in order to set up a small shop selling vegetables.  Neither of these options particularly appeal to her, not because she is lazy but rather because she knows that she lacks the bookkeeping, personality and time-management skills to go into business for herself.

Twenty-three years ago her husband abandoned her after seven months of marriage for another woman.  She continued to live with her husband’s family for a few years, but they pushed her out.

Nepal still operates under the medieval cultural assumption that a woman who has had sex but is not living with her husband is little more than a whore.   Therefore, traditional Nepalis regard a jilted or divorced woman as unclean, worthless, and untouchable.  The double standard permits men to sleep with whomever they please, as often as they please, without losing any status.  The fundamental assumption underlying this hypocrisy is that women belong to men as a kind of chattel and constitute lesser human beings.  Men enjoy greater political, economical, and social privileges than women do solely because they are not female.  What is the most pernicious effect of this misogynist worldview?  The damage it does to women’s self-esteem.  A woman who has been treated as a lesser being, a servant, a breeder, or a status symbol all of her life generally regards herself in those terms, even if she still has the sense in some forgotten region of her body and mind, that she is worthy, beautiful, and that she has the same right to a dignity and respect as any other person.

Laxmi has a strong sense of her own dignity but few options.  After her in-laws excluded her, she went to live with her brother.  He was kind to her but his wife looked down on her as a ruined woman and abused her.  Laxmi held out for nine or ten years, and then went to live with a niece.  I do not know why she did not stay with her niece’s family.  Laxmi then went to live with her sister in Pepsi-Cola.  Years passed, and the sister and her family decided to move back to their village in Solu Khumbu, the region around Sagarmatha, which westerners call Mt. Everest.  Laxmi did not want to join them because the villages would treat her roughly and rudely on account of her status.

She came to the attention of Sugandha, who wanted to help her but did not have much to offer.  She has been working long hours in his house for two meals a day and 500 rupees (about $8) per month.  He also convinced his sister, , but this situation became unbearable for one or both and ended soon.  Laxmi is now living with a friend.  Sugandha intended to assist Laxmi for only a short time, to give her shelter and food until she found a way to support herself.

I could have pushed Tej and Shreezanna harder and even, perhaps, have forced them to give Laxmi a room at the women’s center.  My donation, after all, made it possible for VSN to rent the flat, and it still has an unused room.  What difference does it make if she comes and never leaves?  Is the women’s center not supposed to help women just like Laxmi, women who have no husband, no family, no source of support, no or few skills, and no money?  Yes.  It is.  But the women’s center also needs to keep on going after I am gone.

Here is my still-evolving philosophy:  It is wrong to force well-intentioned yet potentially unrealistic and inappropriate Western attitudes and ways of doing things onto a culture that I still imperfectly understand. I believe that all human beings have the right to flourish and to meaningful work and to live their lives with dignity.  But I don’t know the best way for Nepali people to flourish with meaning and dignity.  I am a visitor here and aim to tread lightly.  Even if I did try to impose my way of doing things, the Nepalis would only go along with it for a short time and then return to what makes sense to them, what they know works.  So I think the thing to do is to aid people who are already working to improve the lives of their countryfolk in ways that make sense to me

I think it can be very hard to know whom to trust, but I trust Tej and Shreesannah.  I will defer to them in most cases.  But I will also do what I can to make the lives of the people whom they are helping happier, healthier, and more dignified. I want to enable and empower women and children to make their own decisions about their lives, to have a measure of freedom that they would probably not have without VSN.

So, what will happen to Laxmi?  I don’t know.  I was not able to raise very much money on her behalf.  What I received went to her.   People tend to prefer to help children and young people.  There is no social security system in place in Nepal.  She may end up going to her sister and her village, where she will be excluded from the hearth, the family circle, the fellowship that sustains emotional well-being and good humor. I don’t know for sure that this will happen to her.  I only know what people tell me, and that is this: a woman who has been abandoned by her husband leads a very terrible and hard life.  I don’t think Tej will let her fall into the streets, but I also do not know what he can or will do for her.  She cannot depend on him or on me or anyone else to take care of her.  I don’t know enough about her story to do it, or her, credit.

Please Help Laxmi

Laxmi on the porch near the kitchen

Click here to donate to this wonderful woman:  HELP LAXMI NOW

I’m very worried about Laxmi, the woman who has been working at Sugandha’s house.  As I reported before, she was living with relatives in Pepsi-Cola until quite recently.  They moved away, leaving her homeless.  I do not know why they did this to her.  It is unthinkable for a Nepali family to abandon one of their own and yet it happens all the time.  Most of the children in the orphanages have been abandoned or rejected by their parents, usually their fathers.  Husbands abandon their wives when they become pregnant, or if the children from her body fail to be male. In this powerfully patriarchal culture, women do not count for much.

Laxmi came to the attention of VSN only because she has been attending English lessons at the orphanage, where the women’s group has been meeting.  She is my age, 50, very gentle and kind.  When she first arrived she had a strong, full-bellied laugh and a direct gaze.  Now, only a week later, she is withdrawn, downcast, and somewhat frightened.  She is also very, very anxious.  Sugandha arranged for her to live with her sister, but the sister’s generosity has expired, and Laxmi again has no place to sleep.  In my very broken Nepali and her weak English, I discerned that she will spend the night at a friend’s house tonight, and that the friend’s house is very far away.  Before she could set out on this journey, she needed to eat.  She receives two meals of dhal bhat (rice and a watery lentil soup) per day, at 10 am and at 8pm, after the volunteers have eaten.  For this she spends the entire day, beginning at 6 am, cleaning and waiting upon the family.  She has no source of income.  I would like to help her find a secure place to live and a more reliable and dignified way to earn a living.

I have donated an amount of  money to set the women’s group up in their own headquarters.  These funds will pay a year’s rent on a large flat.  I want this place to become a shelter for women like Laxmi, women who have suddenly found themselves cast out, good women who need help.

Right now the apartment stands empty.  We need to bring in furniture, a counter-top gas range, a refrigerator and basic household items. Most important of all, we need beds, mattresses, pillows, and sheets.  It is vital that we provide a safe harbor where Laxmi and others like her can recover from the trauma that they have undergone, and begin to rebuild their lives.

I am still in the process of bringing this project about, but Laxmi cannot wait.  She needs your help now.  Any amount that you can give will go directly to her.  She is a very strong and capable woman, but she has suffered a severe setback and needs support to get back on her feet again.  Please give as much as you can.  Your money will help her through this crisis.  There are no overhead costs.  Every cent will go this deserving woman who needs your help. Please click to  HELP LAXMI NOW


			

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.

 

Whither the Revolution for Women in Egypt and Yemen?

Where are the brave, feminist women and men who helped to bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and who have long been agitating against Saleh in Yemen, now?  About a quarter of the million protesters who brought down the Egyptian dictator were women.   Tawakul Karman, who has led anti-government protests at Sana’a University for years, voices the concerns of progressive Yemeni women. Time Magazine and The Guardian call her the “head of the Yemeni protest movement,” but what power does she really have? Will the men–and so far in Egypt they are all men–who rise to power because of these women value or represent their concerns?  To ask this question is not simply to inquire about politics  in the Middle East, but also to consider how deeply entrenched misogynist attitudes and customs will influence the new states to come.

Nesrine Malik, writing for Altmuslimah, argues that the few women who have been featured as central to the Arab uprisings have been “tokenized” and do not represent any genuine egalitarian development in the Middle East:

While the prominence of women in the revolutions has been moving, there is a psychology behind celebrating and glorifying women’s political activity when it is part of a popular push. In these times women are almost tokenised by men as the ultimate downtrodden victims, the sign that things are desperate, that even members of the fairer sex are leaving their hearths and taking to the streets. The perception isn’t that women are fighting for their own rights, but merely that they are underwriting the revolution by bringing their matronly dignity to the crowd like some mascot

It was not a good sign when, on February 11, the day Mubarak fell, groups of men in Tahrir square groped numerous female protesters, and a gang of thugs from the crowd raped CBS journalist Lara Logan.

It was also not good when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over, appointed an all-male panel of legal experts to revise the Egyptian constitution.  A broad coalition of women’s groups immediately demanded that women have a greater part in planning the future state and that at least one woman lawyer be appointed to the panel, but their concerns were ignored.  On March 8, International Women’s Day, thousands of Egyptian women marched in Tahrir Square.  Instead of being celebrated for their heroic role in bringing down an oppressive regime, they were assaulted hordes of hostile men, who soon outnumbered them,  shouting insults and commanding them to “Go home, where you belong.”  Groups of men attacked and beat many female protesters and chased them down the streets.

Egypt and Yemen are ranked 125 and 134 out of 134 countries in a World Economic Forum report on the status of women.  Forty-two per cent of Egyptian and 57 per cent of Yemeni women are illiterate.  Genital mutilation is still practiced in rural parts of Egypt. Women occupied 8 of 454 seats in Parliament in Egypt and no seats in Yemen’s government.   Egyptian men freely grope, harrass, and insult women on the streets without fear of punishment.  The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights reported in 2008 that the majority of women had been harrassed, most frequently by state security officers.

Amnesty International reports that the Yemeni women “are valued as half the worth of men when they testify in court or when their families are compensated if they are murdered.”  Feminists have recently called for and end to the hideous practice of forcing girls into marriage at very young ages, sometimes as young as 8.  Last year a 12-year-old died from injuries sustained when her 30 year-old husband forced himself on her.  Another, 13, bled to death after her husband tied her up and raped her.  Predictably, top Yemeni clerics have denounced those who have called for a ban on the practice as apostates.

The recent abominable treatment of a very brave Libyan woman, whom Muammar el-Qaddaff’s forces raped, then abducted, isolated, and interrogated for days, has highlighted discriminatory attitudes in that part of the world as well.  The New York Times reports that

Like many traditionalist countries in the region, Libyans often treat rape as a crime against the honor of a woman or her family, rather than as an attack on the woman herself. In some families, a girl or woman who has been raped is cast out or shunned.

The change in the Egyptian regime so far has not made women any safer.

On March 9 the military cleared Tahrir Square of protesters and took at least 18 women into custody at an annex to the Cairo Museum. There soldiers beat or strip-searched these women while other men watched and took photographs.  They also forced the women to submit to “virginity tests” and threatened those “not found to be virgins” with  prostitution charges.  One woman found not to be a virgin by this humiliating “test” said soldiers afterwards gave her electric shocks.

Amnesty International has described these forced “virginity checks” as torture designed to degrade women because they are women and called for all medical personel in Egypt to refuse to administer these tests.

Journalist Rasha Azeb, whom the military detained, testified that soldiers  handcuffed, beat, and insulted her.  Before she was released, she heard the screams of the other women being given electric shocks and beaten.

17 women, including 20-year old Salwa Hosseini, were taken to a military prison in Heikstep, where guards tortured them further.  Ms. Hosseini told Amnesty International that

she was made, with the other women, to take off all her clothes to be searched by a female prison guard, in a room with two open doors and a window.  During the strip search, Salwa Hosseini said male soldiers were looking into the room and taking pictures of the naked women.

Let us remember that the men who did this were not working for Mubarak, although such abuses certainly took place under his watch.  These events took place under the jurisdiction of the provisional government.  Will they continue to occur?  Who will stop them?  Will they prompt Egyptians to vote for a more religious order, a rule of Shariah law?

Egyptian women are incredibly strong and determined.  Witness Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi, the determined feminist who founded Global Solidarity for Secular Society and who has been working to liberate women for more than fifty years.  Dr. Sadaawi argues that women need more than what passes for “democracy” in the modern world.  Women will only be free when the underlying roots of misogyny are broken apart and exposed to the light, where they will wither away.  Until men stop learning to demean, degrade, and condescend to women, the political systems that come into place will perpetuate these practices.

Sexism–prejudice–the unconscious or conscious belief that women do not have the same rights to self-determination, to subjecthood, to speaking out, to being visible, to making choices about their own bodies, to moving through public space independently, that men enjoy–this is the underlying cancer that destroys all societies.

Androcentrism, the mistaken belief that the world centers around men and that men should be in charge of women, is at the root of all other forms of oppression, because sexual difference is the first difference, the foundation of the awareness of self and other. Masculinism is a pernicious an evil in the European and American West as it is in the Arab world, and this is why feminists across the globe have reached out to one another.

Until we can learn to live with one another’s differences, whatever they may be (and they might be different ways of being male, different ways of being female, different ways of being sexual, different ways of interpreting anatomies and proclivities), until we can learn to stop forcing human beings to accept extremely rigid and narrow sexual roles (all women must…and all men will….), we will not be free.

The first step towards freedom, real liberty for women and for men, is to separate the state from the church, because nearly all world religions perpetuate the false belief that men are superior to women.   But as we have seen under Mubarak and Saleh and under every US president, setting up a secular government is not in itself enough to eradicate widespread prejudice and violence against women.

The only thing that will bring about the kind of change that we all desperately need is a feminist consciousness and a dedicated belief in the political, economic, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual equality of women.  The revolutionary action that thousands of Egyptian and Yemeni women have taken in the past months has done a lot to remind women–and women are the ones who most of all need to believe, to embrace this truth–that they are inherently as valuable as human beings as men, and that all women and all men, including gay and transgender and bisexual and cross-dressing women and men, possess the same rights to self-determination and social power as the dominant, heterosexual men who currently dominate global politics.

The argument I am making here should be clear:  thousands of lion-hearted women and feminist men have stood up to oppression in general, and against women in particular, across the Arab world.  It is wonderful to see Dr. Saadawi and Ms. Karman get the recognition they deserve after their years of struggle against and persecution by their governments.  I also salute Saida Sadouni, the Tunisian feminist “widely hailed as the mother of Tunisia’s revolution, a living record of her country’s modern history and its struggle for emancipation” and agree with Soumaya Ghanoushi, a writer for the Guardian who argues that Arab women have shattered Western prejudices of submissive, veiled women and

refuse to be treated with contempt, kept in isolation, or be taken by the hand, like a child, and led on the road to emancipation. They are taking charge of their own destinies, determined to liberate themselves as they liberate their societies from dictatorship. The emancipation they are shaping with their own hands is an authentic one defined by their own needs, choices and priorities.

Yes, all of this is true.  But it is also true that revolution may bring about a change in regime but not a change in deeply rooted attitudes towards women, not only in the Arab world, but here at home.  Feminists in Egypt and Yemen have been working hard to bring about truly egalitarian change for many years.  I support them and hope that their cause remains in the spotlight, because their cause is our cause.

Extreme Plastic Surgery, "Artificial" Sex, and the Insane Death of Carolin Berger

Today’s post began as a response to ECHIDNE of the snakes. who brought Carolin Berger to my attention

She was a German erotic actor who died in her sixth breast enlargement surgery, at the age of 23:

She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicon injected into each breast.  But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.The tabloid’s headline read: “The senseless death of Big Brother star Cora shocks the whole of Germany. “(Her) frail, 48kg (106lb) body struggled against death for 224 hours. She lost. Cora is dead. …Her previous five operations were reportedly done at a private clinic in Poland which refused to admit her for a sixth time.

I kept going over those weight numbers, the amount of silicone to be injected into her and her body weight. Then I started thinking about the widespread impact of heterosexual pron on what women’s breasts should look like and how we now regard artificial breasts as really the natural ones, how seeing a very thin woman with very large breasts on television now looks normal, in the sense of averages. Porn has also affected the shaving of the pubic hair.

If it has done all that, surely it must have had some impact on general interpretations of sexuality and on the roles women and men take in sex?

I think that the cultural turn towards increasingly artificial bodies would indeed affect sexual habits and roles.

Women who are willing to alter their bodies dramatically are likely to engage in degrading and humiliating acts that do not sensually stimulate themselves, but, rather, their partners.  Of course, being able to excite their partners would theoretically also get them off.  Presumably, they would be more stimulated by partners who fit the roles that they have learned to find exciting–wealthy, powerful, dominant.  These are the very men for whom they are mutating their bodies, after all, the men for whom they (think they) live, presumably.

Or would it be more accurate to say that these women live entirely in the Gaze, permanently disconnected from themselves as subjects, and utterly and only aware of themselves as objects?

I think that porn alters the mind and sexual experience because the culture has prepared the mind to alter.  We are all subject to deep and long patterns of dominant-submissive  behavior that are not at all “natural” in the sense of being permanent and unalterable.

In other words, it has not always been this way.  We have been humanoid, Homo Sapiens, upright, intelligent, and communal, for approximately 100,000 years.  Only about 10,000 years ago did human males begin to figure out how to dominate human females. Human females learned how to cope with that arbitrary and unnatural situation in various and often freakish ways.

Sexual desire is very malleable, easily manipulated–we know this.

But at what point does the subject who is experiencing sex as an object, and nothing but an object, utterly lose herself (or himself)?  At what point does the long-objectified self break down completely, in severe depression, catastrophic phobias, or addictions, or bizarre, disfiguring and self-destructive behaviors?

Coralin Berger seems to have broken down in the last sort of way.  We can imagine that she at one time had a sense of herself as a person, a girl, a young woman, before she became obsessed with her body, or, rather obsessed with the notion of herself as a body, a body that needed, in her eyes, continually to be improved.

We can speculate about the forces that influenced the way that she came to think of herself.  They are the forces that influence all of us: the family, the church, the schools, the juridical system, the economy.  There is also the increasing power of the media that manipulates our sense of ourselves as women, as men  (for some good examples, check out About Face and the film Generation M).  Each one of us resists these forces to the best of our abilities.

My question is: at what point do these forces drive us completely insane?  At what point does the self who struggles to think independently break down so completely that there is nothing left but a shell, thin, brittle, and driven to the operating table for the sixth and final fix?

Looking for work or having a baby? Leave the country: The Global Gender Gap

Of all the interesting and depressing statistics that the authors of a recent Newsweek essay on sexism at work–U.S. men still earn 20 per cent more than U.S. women do–the following seemed most important to reiterate:

The Global Gender Gap Index—a ranking of women’s educational, health, political, and financial standing by the World Economic Forum—found that from 2006 to 2009 the United States had fallen from 23rd to 31st, behind Cuba and just above Namibia.

The report measures how countries distribute their resources and opportunities between women and men.  That means it also measures how various countries continue to treat women as less than human beings.   It measures “hard” statistics in four “pillars” of civilization:

  1. economic participation and opportunity: “hard” statistics measuring what women and men get paid for relatively equal work; the ratio of women to men in positions of leadership (bosses) and workers;
  2. educational attainment: girls’ and boys’ access to education and literacy rates;
  3. political empowerment:  the ratio of women to men in positions at the highest levels of government;
  4. health and survival: life expectancy of women and men and  sex selection at birth.

Scores in each of these countries measure the level of sexual equality and freedom for women.  Women have more liberty in 33 countries than they do in the United States.

Women have the most liberty in the following countries: Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, S. Africa, Denmark, Ireland, Philippines, and Lesotho.

Women are least free in the following countries, in descending order: Morocco, Qatar, Egypt, Mali, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad, Yemen.

Why does the U.S. score so low? The statistics don’t look so bad at first, especially when you look at education.

We’re at the number one spot, with Iceland, when it comes to literacy.  93 per cent of our girls and 92 per cent of our boys are in primary school.  96 per cent of our women get some education beyond high school, while only 68 per cent of our men do.   Still, gender equality in U.S. literacy rates is no greater than it is in Mongolia, Cuba, Honduras, Latvia, and Nicaragua, so it’s hard to brag.   Consider the fact that, in Kazakhstan, women hold 63 per cent of the tertiary (beyond high school) teaching positions, while only 45 per cent of the tertiary teachers in the US are women.

Men overwhelmingly dominate positions of authority in U.S. institutions of higher education. There.  We’re not feeling so smug now, are we?

Things also look  not too terrible in category one–employment.  After all, 69 per cent of US women work, compared to  81 per cent of U.S. men.  But the average woman makes only $25,613, which is paltry compared to the average man’s salary: $40,000.   In Iceland, where 83 per cent of the women work, and 89 per cent of the men (it seems the Scandinavians DO have a stronger work ethic in general), women earn $29,283 compared to $40,000 for men per year.   There are even statistically more women in positions of authority in the workplace–bosses, managers, and senior officials–in the US than in Iceland.

In short, fewer U.S. women have access to paid work, and those that do get paid a lot less for the same kind of work than in other countries. Men are still powerfully discriminating against women in the U.S. workplace.

It’s rather humbling–and quite infuriating–to find out that women in 16 other countries–including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Mozambique–have greater economic equality and opportunity, compared to men, than they do in the U.S.  Canada is way ahead of us in providing jobs and equal pay for women, and Uzbekistan is ahead of Canada.

When you get to category 4, political empowerment, it becomes very clear that men are making most of the laws in our country:  women hold only 24 per cent of our high-level (ministerial) office, while 76 per cent of the high-ranking officers are men.  In Iceland, women occupy 36 per cent of high-ranking positions.  But they have also had a female head of state for 16 of the last fifty years, while we have never had one.

What really brings the US down in this study of equality between men and women around the world?   You guessed it: our abysmal health care system.

Maternal morality rates are a very good indicator of how a country takes care of its people, especially women.

HAVING A BABY?  LEAVE THE COUNTRY:  Women are  more likely to die in childbirth in the U.S. than in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

11 out of every 100,000 women who give birth in the U.S. die.  In Iceland, 4 of every 100,000 women die.   Okay, so we’re way ahead of Yemen, where 430 out of every 100,000 women, or Nepal, where a startling 830 out of 100,000, die giving birth.

Humane health care is the sign of humane attitudes, not wealth:  Women who have children in the U.S. receive far less support from government and private sources (like employers) than they do in 39 other countries, including Guatemala, Barbados, Columbia, Mauritius, Mexico.

Here’s the really startling statistic that shows that our failure to provide health care results in many more teen mothers than in other countries:

In Iceland, as in all countries that offer universal health care, or nearly universal health care to its citizens, only 14 out of 1,000 adolescents give birth. In the U.S., where  religious extremists who oppose giving women their constitutional right to make their own health care decisions, 41 out of 1,000 adolescents have babies.

How many of those 15-19 year olds are ready to be mothers, do you think?  And what kind of health care are those new mothers and their children getting?  How likely are those children with babies to get a higher education? How likely are they to fall into poverty?

I’m still mad and I’m still writing.