Trump signs gag rule, harming women world-wide.

Are Pregnant Women Persons? The Assault on Women’s Subjectivity

 

Trump signs gag rule, harming women world-wide.
My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life.   He had three daughters by two mothers.   Well after his daughters were grown, with children of their own, he impregnated a young Mexican woman–let’s call her Elena–and then had her imprisoned on charges that she was harming “his” fetus with substances.    I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs or alcohol while she was pregnant.   Uncle Lars alleged that she did, and managed have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy, directly in violation of her constitutional rights.

Read moreAre Pregnant Women Persons? The Assault on Women’s Subjectivity

Forced Reproduction and the Attack on Women’s Subjectivity

My uncle Lars (not his real name) was troubled for much of his life.   He had three daughters by two mothers.  Well after all of them had children of their own, he took up with a much younger woman, “Elena”,  and got her pregnant with a fetus that turned out to be male.  He would have a son and was determined to name him after himself.  Now, I do not know whether or not Elena used drugs, but he claimed that she did and managed to have her locked up in a State prison for the duration of her pregnancy.  Whether a blood test was administered or not I cannot say.  But I do believe that my uncle and the State violated her rights.
Why was he wrong?  Because taking a woman’s autonomy away from her on the grounds that she is endangering her fetus treats her as though she herself is nothing more than a vessel, an incubator, a thing, an object to be used and abused.  Such action pretends to protect the “unborn child,” the fetus, but actually serves the interests of those who take control of the expectant mother.   In this case, my uncle’s interests overwhelmed Elena’s, and the State sanctioned this takeover.  The fact that Elena was Mexican and poor, in addition to being female, made it harder for her to resist their assault.
In a well-known essay entitled, “Are Mother’s Persons?” (in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Berkeley, UC Press, 1993) Susan Bordo examines legal precedents and gendered attitudes toward the idea of a person as an embodied subject.  She argues that men are allotted constitutional rights to bodily integrity that women are denied in our country.
For example, in the case of McFall v. Shimp (1979), the court protected the bodily integrity of a man who refused to donate his bone marrow to his cousin, who would certainly die of aplastic anemia without it).  In fact, his cousin did die.  In a similar case, a Seattle woman who pressed the court to force the father of her leukemic child donate his bone marrow was denied.  The law sanctions these refusals on the grounds that a person is an embodied subject.  Thus, as Bordo explains, the law of the land insists that,
the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning, history, and value that are ultimately determinable only by the subject who lives ‘within’ it.  According to the doctrine of informed consent, even when it is ‘for the good’ of the patient, no one else–neither relative nor expert–may determine for the embodied subject what medical risks are worth taking, what procedures are minimally or excessively invasive, what pain is minor.

That is the theory of the embodied subject and informed consent.  In practice, this doctrine has not been applied equally.  Women, especially non-white, poor, or non-English-speaking women (women like Maribel), have been treated differently.  As Bordo puts it, “the pregnant poor woman (especially is she is of non-European descent) comes as close as a human being can get to being regarded, medially and legally, as “mere body.”

Again and again the court has forced women to give birth against their will, or have forced women to have Caesareans  in spite of their clearly stated, religious objections to the procedure.  Women, particularly women of color,  have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent.  Consider these cases:
1985:  Pamela Rae Stewart was charged with criminal neglect for failing to follow medical advice during her pregnancy.
1989: Jennifer Johnson, 23 years old, is sentenced to 15 years probation upon her conviction of delivering illegal drugs via the umbilical cord to her two babies.
1990  A Wyoming woman was charged by the police with the crime of drinking while pregnancy and prosecuted for felony child abuse.
1992: A 28 year-old homeless, pregnant, Native American woman, Martina Greywind, mother of six and addicted to paint fumes, is jailed for recklessly endangering her fetus by inhaling vapors.  She is also sentenced (ironically) to 9 months on a State prison farm.  She eventually won her release from jail and had an abortion.
A Massachusetts woman who miscarried after an automobile accident in which she was intoxicated was prosecuted for vehicular homicide of her fetus. (Bordo)
2008: A SC court overturns a conviction of Regina McKnight, who had already  served 8 years in prison on the grounds that she had “murdered” her stillborn infant by using cocaine during her pregnancy. Source: Alternet
Does the State go after fathers for their drug habits, smoking, alcoholism, reckless driving, physcial and psychological abuse of pregnant women?   No.
A recent study at the University of Bristol concludes that there is no evidence that a woman who drink moderately during their pregnancy endanger their fetuses.
Anti-abortion campaigns routinely ignore the personhood of the mother, arguing increasingly that the fetus, even at the zygote state, has more subjectivity than the woman in whose body it is lodged.  In other words, “as the personhood of the pregnant woman has been drained from her and her function as fetal incubator activated, the subjectivity of the fetus has been elevated” (Bordo).
In other words, it is not only women’s reproductive rights that are being challenged, but women’s status as subjects, embodied persons with inherent rights to say what can and cannot be done to them, that are being threatened by the anti-abortion crusaders.  These opponents of women’s autonomy have launched an assault against the personal integrity of women, whom they would reduce to fetal containers of beings whose rights exceed their own.
What makes pregnant women different than the kind of individuals that Locke, Hobbes, Descartes and others envisioned, is that women have the capacity to contain within the “other” within them.  When we are pregnant we are not singular, and certainly we have a responsibility as ethical human beings to nurture the beings we intend to bring into the world.  But we do not lose our bodily integrity and rights to self-determination the moment we become pregnant. 
 It is wrong to compel women to incubate a zygote or fetus that she does not wish to mother.  It is also wrong to force her, with force, imprisonment, or other coercive measures, to behave in a way that others do not consider acceptable during her pregnancy because that denies her right to self-determination.
To finish the story, a few years after the birth of Lars Jr., my uncle committed suicide.  No one knows where Elena took her son, who is my first cousin and the brother of my uncle’s three daughters. I don’t know why Lars killed himself, or whether Elena left him before he did so.  There is a tragic justice to her disappearance.  Why would she want to be associated with the family of a man who turned her into the police and had her jailed until she delivered “his” baby?  I hope she returns to us.  I would love to know her and welcome  my unknown cousin to the fold.

Hunger Pains

It’s only 11:28 AM and I am hungry.  When the hunger pains intensify, I remember that Nasrin is suffering much more than I am.

Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan, described her conditions in solitary confinement, saying, “There are no facilities in solitary confinement. She was just given a book, her eyeglasses, and a heating pad. She is currently living in a cell with three walls and a door and those items I just listed.”

 

I’m warm.  Drinking green pomegranate tea.  This is not that hard.

On #Iran and the brave Iranian protesters

Last night I had dinner with a lovely Iranian woman whose family is still living in Tehran.  She is planning to go back in a few weeks to visit her parents. I will worry about her when she goes.

This morning I came across this video, posted Feb 26, 2011, and Josh Shahryar’s remarkable comment about the Iranian state. Here are some excerpts:

Imagine a country where when protesters are killed, their families have to pay something called a “bullet fee,” because the government expended resources to murder them. Imagine being a war veteran, standing in a morgue and begging the very men who are responsible for your son’s death to return his body to you because you cannot possibly pay the amount they’re asking for.

Yes, stoning is horrifying, but there are other things you don’t hear about much. Imagine a regime that doesn’t execute virgin women. Don’t get too excited. It doesn’t mean what you think. It actually means that when a woman who’s a virgin is condemned to death, she’s married off to a prison guard in a sham ceremony hours before her execution so he can rape her. Only then can she be executed.

Imagine a prison, where instead of cells, they have shipping containers out in the yard. Dozens of detained protesters are forced into a container until there is no more room, then shut in for days without food or water. But that’s the least of prisoners’ concerns when they cannot breathe in such a confined space under the burning sun and can only wait to die of asphyxiation.

Imagine a police force that will drag the dead bodies of your loved ones from the streets after shooting them in a protest, then, bury them in unmarked graves. Imagine finding your child’s grave after bribing a dozen officials, then coming the next day to find the grave gone. Imagine that.

But most of all, try to imagine a state where if you speak of regime change or go out to protest or even try to raise awareness about these brutalities, you are condemned and tried for “fighting against God,” because apparently, the state is governed not by human laws, but by the laws of the divine. You won’t be tried for sedition, but for daring to challenge God’s authority on earth because you wanted to speak your mind.

This is what a proponent of democracy faces when he or she goes out to protest in Iran. Almost certain torture, rape, and even murder in the event of arrest. Fifteen hundred protesters were arrested on February 14 and many more on the 20th.

Now, tell me what you would do if you were a hungry, unemployed, disenfranchised Iranian? Would you try to go and camp out in a public square? Or would you march around the city? The fact that thousands of Iranians went out to protest on Sunday wasn’t a show of discontent, but a show of unparalleled heroism.

I’ll warn you, your subconscious may try to block you from absorbing the atrocities that I have written about here — it is certainly easier to think of Iran as if it is on another planet or even in an entirely different dimension. Makes us all feel better if we are as far away from such inhumanity as possible. I won’t blame you for not believing any of it, though. Sometimes, I can’t believe it myself.

The Culture of Rape in the Congo

 

In the last few days, Congolese thugs raped 60 women, men, and children.  Sexual violence in the Congo has escalated at a terrifying rate.  Over 15,000 cases of  sexual were reported there in 2009.   And in the first six months of 2010, there were 7,685 cases.  More than half of the victims were younger than 18 years old.  The catastrophic transformation of the region has become so severe that Nene Rukunghu, a local doctor was moved to say, “This is no longer a crisis, it’s becoming a culture.”

What does it mean to say that a crisis has become a culture?  What is a culture of rape? What could possibly sustain such a culture, and what happens to people who live in a rape culture?

Let us begin with some definitions:

Culture, -noun: the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Rape, -noun: an act of sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person.

In a rape culture, dominant human beings sexually force themselves onto others and transmit this “way of living” from one generation to another.  In a rape culture, sexual violation becomes a way of life.

It has long been established that most rapists are men and that rape is an act of extreme violence and aggression, as opposed to an act of sexual desire.  The aggressor inflicts himself on another to get power over another person by humiliating, degrading, and injuring that person.

Rape is a uniquely human act, barbaric but not like other animals’ aggression.  Only human beings rape because rape involves the complex, cultural understanding of “self” and “other” which the act itself reinforces.

Rape is a weapon of war that is used to shatter and erode the morale and dignity of an entire village, community, or people.  The act itself registers differently in different cultures.  It is most effective, or destructive, in cultures in which women are considered to be valuable only insofar as they remain sexually inexperienced and chaste.

This attitude is pervasive in cultures in which women are regarded as the property of their fathers or husbands, as chattel or goods that have a symbolic value that accrues to the owner of that property.  According to this way of thinking, the personal honor of the possessor suffers grievous injury when his chattel, his woman, wife, or daughter, loses her value through unauthorized sexual contact.   This way of thinking dominated Europe throughout the first millennium B.C.E. and is still vigorous in fundamentalist Christian pockets of the United States.

Rape, or any outlawed sexual experience, not only depletes the putative value of the woman, it also allegedly pollutes the honor of her father or husband.  In many cultures the rape of a woman is thought to pollute the honor of that woman’s entire family or tribe.  If you don’t already know about this, you should.  Introduce yourself to the topic with this video:

In order to recover their lost dignity and standing in the patriarchal community, the family or tribe will shame and ostracize the victim.  This practice was widespread in Bosnia and Serbia during and after the wars in that region, where rape was routinely used as a weapon of mass humiliation.  In aggressively patriarchal cultures, it is felt that male/tribal honor can only be restored through the murder of the victim.

In other words, patriarchal cultures are barbaric.  They are founded on the mythical belief that women are inherently inferior to men, and that therefore men have the right to own and control women.  Women do not have the right to own themselves or to make their own choices about their sexuality in these barbaric cultures.

Rape is an ancient means by which men have destroyed the mental and physical health of women to dominate and control them, but it is more fundamentally the crude method by which men seek to elevate themselves above other men.  By damaging the goods, and more importantly, the honor of another man or another group of men through rape, a man crudely proves that he is more powerful, more masculine.  Men in patriarchal culture are caught up in a mass illusionary game of quien es mas macho.

When men rape other men, they “feminize” their victims, treat them to the ultimate indignity to gain weaken their enemies and gain power over them.  But the rape of a man’s wife or child, especially if it is performed in front of him, also effectively emasculates that man.  He is forced to experience his own puny effeminacy in the face of other, allegedly more masculine men who have the power to take, degrade, and supposedly destroy, his woman or children before his eyes.

The rapist pathetically and barbarically “proves” his masculinity–his strength, his power, his honor–to himself and to his fellows, who also must engage in the same barbaric acts to sustain the fiction of their collective superiority over the people, the women, the men, and the children whom they are terrorizing.  For this reason, the rapist is completely unable to tolerate or even imagine how he might feel if someone were to rape his sister, or his mother, or his daughter.

Consider the frightening self-delusion  of the rapists in this video:

In the culture of rape that has grown up, tragically, in the Congo, men pass on to the next generation the perverted understanding that a man is only a man if he can out-man other men by raping their women.  But this culture is itself the natural expression of a culture in which men believe that men are superior to women, and that they have the right to possess, control, and govern their inferiors.

It is common to blame the crisis that has developed in the Congo on the Belgians, who brutally colonized the area in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Certainly it is true that the whites committed many terrible crimes as a result of their own racist and sexist assumptions.  But the culture in the Congo had gone wrong long before the whites came.  It went bad when masculinism–the arbitrary belief that masculinity is superior to femininity–began to infect African culture, probably about 6,000 years before the current era.

One could certainly say–as Andrea Dworkin did say–that all masculinist culture is rape culture. One in four women in the United States has been raped.   In any society in which men and women have internalized the arbitrary myth that masculinity is superior to femininity, a rape culture develops.  It does not always exhibit itself in the brutally overt violence that we are seeing in the Congo.  As explained very well in one of my favorite blogs, Ben Roethlisberger, the degenerate quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is a product and producer of rape culture.

At home as well as in the Congo, human beings–mostly men–appear to be degenerating utterly into something that we shudder to call human.  When gangs of children who themselves were kidnapped, raped, and tortured commit these very same crimes against other children, and against women and men who fall into their paths, the myth of masculinity has taken then down a very dark and deadly road.

The good news is it is simply a myth, a perversion of human culture.  We have the power to imagine and built a better world.

Muslim Feminists Disappear from the Headlines: on Tawakkol/Tawakul Karman

At last the New York Times wakes up to the revolutionary action going on in Yemen.  But there is nary a word about توكل كرمان, Tawakul Karman, the feminist activist and head of Women Journalists without Chains, who on January 23 was arrested (without a warrant) and jailed by the authorities for organizing a protest against the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh without their permission.  Up until her arrest, she had been active in student demonstrations outside Sana’a University.  Numerous people, including many women, clamored for her release, and she was freed on January 24.  She immediately returned to streets and bravely shouted:

We will continue this struggle and the Jasmine Revolution until the removal of this corrupt system that looted the wealth of the Yemenis,

to approximately 1000 demonstrators.  Since then, Karman has not surfaced in the news. Who has silenced her? Amnesty International believes that

Tawakkol Karman is being targeted for her activism and role in organizing and taking part in recent protests and sit-ins in Yemen.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), reports that a very reliable source informed them that someone from the government phoned Ms. Karman and told her that she would be killed if she left her house.

The way the Times covers them, the only people demonstrating in Yemen are men.  It also reports that

Unlike in Egypt, the peaceful protests in Yemen were not led by young people, but by the traditional opposition, largely Islamists.

Protesters in Sana’a, photo from NYT 28 Jan 2011

I dunno, these guys look pretty young to me.   Of course the demonstrators are mostly men, since women do not generally enjoy high status in this tribal culture.  But what is meant by “Islamists”?  Unfortunately, without qualification, this word prompts immediate images of “terrorist” and “fundamentalist” and “people we hate” in the American media.

It is crucial to remember is that women, educated, literate, politically active women, have been involved from the very beginning. Tawakul Karman, for example,  has spoken out aggressively against religious extremism and the rising presence of Al Qaeda in her country.  See her letter to Women Without Borders/SAVE [Sisters Against Violent Extremism] here.

If the US, which has supported Saleh to the tune of $250 million over the last five years, writes off this rebellion as merely an “Islamist” uprising, and chooses to support a puppet dictatorship instead of promoting civil rights and political freedom for all people in the country, it will probably bring about a much more repressive and anti-American result.

Ordinary women and men are participating in this movement.  Here is what the government did to women who peacefully protested the arrest of Tawakul Karman:

Human rights defender Ms Bushra Alsorabi was reportedly beaten by four security men who tried to take her camera. She was hit with an unidentified object thought to be a rubber bullet or smoke projectile resulting in burns to her body and clothes. She was hospitalised in the Republican Hospital in Sana’a as a result of her injuries.

Police used their guns to beat participants, they also reportedly pointed their guns at various participants and threatened to kill them. Five other women participating in the protest were also injured, two of whom had to be hospitalised as a result of their injuries. Up to 35 persons from the Al-Ja’ashen group of displaced people were arrested during the protest and were taken to five different police stations.

In their statement protesting the arrest of Karman, from which the excerpts above are taken,  Women Journalists Without Chains also reports that

Approximately 35 families were displaced from their villages in Al-Ja’ashen County in Ibb because they refused to pay unofficial taxes (200,000 YR) to the head of the tribe who is a member of the appointed Shura council. 10 months ago their villages were attacked and houses were burnt down, they were forced to flee, and currently live in camps in different parts of Yemen, including Sana’a. Those who still live in Ibb, Ta’ez, and Ma’reb are still targeted by security officials.

Although the NYTimes very briefly mentions that Yemen is

one of the Middle East’s most impoverished countries,

it suggests that the reason the people have taken to the streets has more to do with traditional opposition politics and Islam than with genuine frustration and rage at a regime that they view as corrupt.

Yemen is the poorest country in the world.   Roughly the size of France, it sits on the Southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula. It suffers massive unemployment and mismanaged resources, including water.  It it also riven by decades-old political strife between a once independent, Socialist South and North, which itself was split between the Islamist Islah Party and the General People’s Congress (GPC), the party of President Saleh.   The North and South were unified in 1990, but tension between the two very different entities have remained high.

In 2007  disgruntled former civil servants who had been forcibly retired after unification, lawyers, academics, students, and journalists, began to organize broad demonstrations to demand greater economic opportunities, greater freedom of the press, an end to corruption, and a fairer share of the country’s oil resources between the North and the South.  By 2009 more traditional community leaders, including tribal sheiks, had joined the Southern movement.  Most demonstrations were peaceful, according to Human Rights Watch, which monitored the situation through video and first-hand reporting, but there were some outbreaks of violence.

The government of President Saleh responded to these demonstrations with shokcing brutality.   In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported:

On an almost daily basis since 2007, the Southern Movement has organized largely peaceful demonstrations, sit-ins, festivals, marches, and other forms of public protests to give voice to their cause. With disturbing consistency, security forces have opened fire on protesters, killing and wounding unarmed demonstrators. The Yemeni authorities appear unwilling to permit public displays of grievances by the Southern Movement, regardless of their peaceful nature.

Government forces and extra-legal pro-government militias shot at, killed or wounded countless peaceful, unarmed demonstrators in various southern villages.  Saleh calls this squads of hit men “Committees to Protect Unity” (CPU).   In 2009 Saleh’s government also ordered hospitals and other medical facilities to refuse to treat persons who had been injured while protesting.   Some militias even carried out attacks on demonstrators within hospitals. It also instituted mass, arbitrary arrests of women, men, and, unbelievably, children, in a broad attempt to intimidate the population.  Newspapers were shut down, media outlets were attacked, journalists were arrested and harassed. Bloggers were detained, websites were blocked, academics and other opinion-makers were interrogated.

This same government is currently repressing the largely peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Sana’a.  These demonstrators are not religious fanatics or enemies of the state, but rather ordinary people whom a corrupt and oppressive government has thoroughly alienated.

YemenOnline today reports that all of its articles covering the demonstrations have been deleted by hackers.  Editor-in-chief Jamal Al-Awadhi stated that,

It seems  an undeclared war against freedom of expression and what happened means that there is control over the sites and there are those who intervene to manipulate by the news and articles using new technology.

Tawakul Karman and other human rights activists, the people who are calling for greater freedom of the press and for an end to repression and the rise of extremism in their country, are very important to the cause of democracy in the Middle East.   It makes no sense for the United States to support dictators and thugs.  As Human Rights Watch cautions, we need to make sure we don’t turn the “enemies of Al Qaeda into its friends.”  See their very smart seven principles for US Policy in Yemen here.

Even though she is a member of Islah, an Islamist opposition party, Karman is a moderate Muslim and a sane advocate for justice and liberty.  Her first name, Tawakul, means ‘Trust” in Arabic.  We need her, and others like her, to be okay.

Muslim feminists like Tawakkol Karman, as well as the Nawal El Saadawi, the Egyptian doctor, writer, and activist, or  Asma Jahangirare, the Pakistani lawyer and human rights defender, or Meena, the matyred founder of RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan), work to bring about peace and prosperity for all human beings.  The New York Times, and the rest of us, ignore them at our peril.