Category Archives: Gender

How Faculty Can Use Syllabi to Help Reduce Campus Sexual Assault

Note: This article was also published in The Chronicle For Higher Education and The Huffington Post.

As university presidents, deans, lawyers and counselors are called to task for their missteps in handling the rash of campus sex abuse scandals, the one group that has the most interaction with students is largely left out to sea–their professors. Faculty are rarely informed of individual cases, and are told little about personal issues which lead to students suddenly failing or withdrawing. This occurs despite studies which show that more than with any other group, interaction with their professors provides vital support and strengthens not only students’ academic but also personal outcomes.

While they deal with students primarily in the classroom, faculty are not insensitive to their students’ larger struggles. Is there anything professors can do to complement the work done by counseling centers? There is — and it involves adding only one paragraph to a syllabus.

The campus sexual-assault bill this past summer, plus the many media exposés about the campus rape crisis, have raised awareness of Title IX. Title IX mandates that colleges receiving federal funding provide gender equity, not just in sports, but in all areas of campus life, meaning that all students should be able to study in an atmosphere free of harassment, sexual violence, and gender discrimination.

By taking the simple measures of incorporating Title IX language into syllabi and giving students the names and numbers of the primary campus resources, educators can do their part to provide support for victims and help end the epidemic of campus sexual violence.

Consider the example of Laura Dunn.

Dunn was just a freshman at the University of Wisconsin when her life changed forever. The dedicated student-athlete was out drinking with new friends from her crew team when two of her male team members offered to take her to another party. Instead, she says, they drove her to their place and took turns sexually assaulting her as she drifted in and out of consciousness, begging them to stop.

Laura’s story is not unusual. Sexual violence has been labeled by the Centers for Disease Control as a major public-health problem, affecting approximately one-fifth of American women. The percentages are staggering for younger women; it is estimated that between 20 to 25 percent will be the victims of a completed or attempted rape during their college careers alone. College men are not immune either; 6 percent will be victims of some form of sexual assault during their college tenure. That said, sexual violence remains a gendered crime, with most victims women and most perpetrators men.

According to a 2007 report, first-year students like Laura are especially susceptible, particularly during the first three months of their freshman year. Not wanting to accept the fact that she had been raped and not knowing that she had the right to report, Dunn, like so many survivors, stayed silent. For over a year she told no one, while she fought to focus on her schoolwork. Her grades dropped, she lost weight, she struggled with nightmares, and she broke up with her boyfriend, whom she never told about her attack.

But then things changed. During a summer philosophy class she was finally given the tools to take back control over her life. While discussing how rape is used as a weapon of war, the professor stopped the class to mention that sexual assault is also prevalent on college campuses, and that the dean of students was required by Title IX to handle assault cases. As soon as class was over, Laura went to the dean of students and reported, launching a two-year process that would prove stressful but would lead to her decade of work in survivor advocacy.

Laura Dunn’s case reveals the value of faculty involvement. Professors are not substitutes for trained counselors, but because of their daily interactions with students, they constitute the most obvious source for early intervention. This process can begin by simply incorporating into the syllabus relevant language, such as:

Title IX makes it clear that violence and harassment based on sex and gender are Civil Rights offenses subject to the same kinds of accountability and the same kinds of support applied to offenses against other protected categories such as race, national origin, etc. If you or someone you know has been harassed or assaulted, you can find the appropriate resources here …

These resources should include the Title IX coordinator, counseling services, a rape crisis center, and campus police. Confidentiality is of the essence. The Campus Sexual Assault Study indicated that when students know they can talk confidentially, they are more likely to report. Furthermore, since many universities and colleges have poor resources for students and are even under federal investigation, it is suggested that other resources besides campus authorities be included. A few good organizations are Know Your IX, End Rape On Campus, SurvJustice, the Clery Center for Security On Campus, and Not Alone.

A statement in a syllabus might also send a message of accountability to potential perpetrators. In a now-classic study, the authors found that the perceived threat of formal sanctions (being dismissed from the university or arrested) had a significant deterrent effect on potential perpetrators of sexual assault. In a 2002 study that utilized self-reporting, the majority of undetected rapists were found to be repeat rapists, and the results of this study were replicated in a subsequent 2009 study of Navy personnel. These studies suggest that many perpetrators continue to offend because they have not been caught and do not think they will ever be caught, or if caught, sanctioned. Depriving them of the culture of silence may limit their actions by increasing their fear of the consequences.

Thus, a statement in a syllabus could send a multipronged message: Survivors have the information needed, and the campus community as a whole is watching and will hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.

Many departments now mandate that syllabi include the university’s religious-holiday policy, the code of academic integrity, and contact information for disability support services. Since a quarter of female students are or will be survivors of sexual violence, a statement on Title IX is just as important. One simple paragraph could provide students with the tools they need to come forward and report the violence they have suffered. The more we normalize the conversation, the easier it becomes.

This article was co-authored by Karen Dawisha, professor of Political Science at Miami University – Ohio.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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Teen Sexual Violence: What Our Media and Culture Is Missing

The year 2013 has definitely brought about a shift in cultural consciousness. For the last year, our culture and media have finally started to critically examine rape culture and the prevalence of sexism, harassment and sexual assault worldwide. We were horrified by the tragic events in Steubenville and New Delhi, India. These assaults touched and angered so many of us and triggered an urgent call not just for dialogue and awareness, but also, for education and systemic change.  To that end, the Title IX movement, which is working to fight campus rape culture, launched earlier this year. Its mission is to work to “support all survivors, to change how colleges and universities handle sexual assault, and to change a culture where violence is normalized.” Survivors and allies have filed federal Title IX and Clery Act complaints at various universities in the U.S. for not providing the needed resources and for covering up rape when it happens.

For the last year I have wanted to add my voice to those who are covering these movements, but I knew I needed to learn more before I wrote about such an important issue in the public sphere. So I read and researched like crazy, and most importantly, listened to the hundreds of survivors who told me their stories. Even though I was thrilled by the increased visibility of this issue in the mainstream media, as I gained more knowledge I started to become frustrated with the vast amount of misinformation being propagated by our media and culture at large. A few weeks ago, I finally felt ready to co-author a piece on the media framing of teenage sexual violence for The Huffington Post. I am publishing the slightly longer version here, along with related articles and research that go beyond media framing to provide resources for parents, teens, and educators to end sexual violence. This will be the first of several pieces on sexual violence.

Last month, teenager Daisy Coleman bravely wrote a piece that detailed how another student from her hometown of Maryville, Missouri raped her and videotaped the assault. Her story echoes a familiar pattern of other high-profile cases involving teenagers, such as the Steubenville, Louisville, and Saratoga cases. While we find it encouraging that the mainstream media has been covering these cases, too much of the coverage has dismissed substantive research in favor of perpetuating various myths about young people and sexual assault.

We need journalists to re-frame the tone and questions that guide their reporting. The majority of the pieces covering teen sexual violence fall into superficial tropes that focus on the role of alcohol, the victim’s clothes, and sexting by “impulse-driven teens.” By fixating on sexting instead of what these teens are truly doing, which is “sexual assaultexting,” the media detracts from the fact that these boys are choosing to sexually assault another person and then shame them through social media.

Additionally, many journalists use language that deflects blame from the rapists and subtly shapes how readers understand teen sexual violence. Journalists tend to use passive phrasing, such as “she was raped,” which is problematic because it does not focus on the person who committed the crime. Too frequently, these cases are referred to as “scandals,” which only serves to sensationalize what happened while simultaneously obscuring that it was actually a crime. Often media coverage relies on terms that imply consent, such as “engaging in” and “sexual activity,” indicating a lack of knowledge about what constitutes rape. Ultimately, the way in which journalists cover teen sexual violence reflects a societal reluctance to label teenage boys as perpetrators.

These narratives support the “boys will be boys” myth that results in blaming the victim and the idea that teenage boys cannot be held truly accountable for their actions. Perhaps this explains why, in the coverage of the Steubenville rape case, reporters from multiple media outlets slanted their focus to be sympathetic to the rapists and blamed the victim. Who can forget CNN reporters expressing how “difficult” it was to hear the perpetrators convicted of rape crying in the courtroom, because their “promising lives” had fallen apart? But what about the life of the girl who they assaulted, who has to live with the rape for the rest of her life? This question is often absent from mainstream media coverage.

What we find so frustrating about this kind of reporting is that it ignores the fact that research has revealed the extent to which rape is a calculated and premeditated crime. Several studies have concluded that young people are able to understand refusals in many different contexts. Thus these cases are not accidents or miscommunications as the mainstream media often suggests: they are a result of boys not respecting a girl’s lack of consent. Understanding that perpetrators have specific attitudes, beliefs, worldviews, and cognitive frameworks that shape their decisions to override this consent and that need to be addressed by comprehensive socialization and education” is a different framework than what the media usually defaults to, which is that these young rapists are simply confused boys who rape by “accident.”

Additionally, while journalists often focus on the victim’s consumption of alcohol as causing sexual assault, research shows how perpetrators use alcohol as a tool to facilitate rape. Therefore, when media coverage focuses on the alcohol usage of victims, they are giving rapists the social license to operate because these men know that women who are drinking are seen as less credible when they report sexual assault.

Furthermore, research on college rapists mirrors studies of convicted sex offenders, which reveals that the majority of rapists are serial predators who often begin committing sexual violence as adolescents. Thus the cases we see in the news aren’t accidents or a ‘blip’ on a boy’s otherwise flawless record — they are more often than not the start of a long career as a serial rapist.

Given this research, it is distressing that articles that cover teen sexual violence pay little attention to how we fail to educate teenagers in ways that actually prevent sexual assault, such as comprehensive health education at school and in the home that focuses on teaching sexual respect and what constitutes sexual consent. Journalists need to work on reframing how we understand sexual violence prevention, because the research clearly shows that the only thing that causes sexual violence is someone choosing to assault another person. There needs to be an emphasis on preventative education which has been proven again and again to be a successful tool in helping to cut sexual assault rates amongst young people.

The tragedy of many of these cases goes far beyond the crime of sexual assault. It is also the dozens of young people who witnessed them and did nothing. We need to teach adolescents to act ethically in these situations. With bystander education, in which individuals are taught how to intervene when they see someone in trouble, these cases could have been prevented. Media coverage should stress the importance of bystander education as a successful way to empower young people to stop rape. Examples of noteworthy programs include the New York State Department of Health’s toolkit for bystander intervention and the University of New Hampshire’s Know Your Power campaign.

Most importantly, what needs to be clear in media coverage of teen sexual violence is that sexting, alcohol, and the Internet do not cause rape. The true issues at hand in these cases are disregard for other people’s bodily autonomy and lack of empathy for sexual assault survivors. Until those working in the media understand this, misconceptions regarding teen sexual assault will continue to be perpetuated to a wider audience.

When journalists ignore the research on sexual violence and toolkits about how to properly cover sexual assault and instead resort to superficial and sensationalist reporting, they are hurting efforts to end teen sexual violence. The media should not only do a better job when covering these stories, but also work to help educate and shape public opinion about what works to stop sexual assault. We owe it to young women like Daisy Coleman to accurately tell their stories and be allies in fighting sexual violence.

Resources for Teens:

Want to take action? Check out the I will End Sexual Violence and love is respect campaigns, as well as the Representation Project and SPARK movement to see how you can get involved in ending not just sexual violence, but the sexualization and objectification of young people in the media!

Resources for Parents:

The Conversation You Must Have With Your Sons

Hey Teenage Boys! Worried About Steubenville? Don’t Be.

Boys Will Be Boys, But Not Always Men

What To Tell The Next Generation

In Steubvenville Rape Case, a Lesson For Adults

Additional Resources for Educators:

The Effectiveness of Empathy-Based Rape Prevention and Bystander Training

Importance of Targeting Intervention at Teens

Five Creative Ways That Students Are Fighting Rape Culture

Why People Don’t Intervene When They Witness a Sexual Assault, and How We Can Change That

Please, No More Dating Guides

General Resources on Sexual Violence and Rape Culture:

Mapping a Global Pandemic: Sexual Violence Against Women

Rape Culture 101

This Is What Rape Culture Looks Like

How Slut Shaming Becomes Victim Blaming

The Five Ways Sexual Assault Is Really About Entitlement

My Related Posts:

Why We Need Independent Media

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The Real Housewives, Part I: A Queer Critique of Marriage?

Ok peeps, it’s time.  I know I have been teasing this for awhile, but I have decided to finally write a post on one of my favorite guilty pleasures, the Real Housewives franchise.  It was in my first post on why I blog about gender that I revealed my addiction to the show, and how it could be argued that engaging with such a problematic text contradicts my feminism. After all, this is a program that features women of um, privilege, who routinely get in vicious cat fights with each other and display uncontrolled materialism in their consumption of all things designer, birthday cakes, and Botox. It is, at first glance, misogyny on a stick.

So here is the thing. I am picky with my Housewives (I do have standards, after all). I personally find the OC women to be too boring (and I can’t tell them apart). The New York women come off as strong and independent, so I should love them, but their voices grate on my nerves (Ramona’s walk down the runway though? Classic). The Atlanta wives come off as too staged to me, though Kim and Sheree’s wig fight was a true media event that rivaled, in my opinion, the best hot-mess moments of Jersey Shore, Being Bobby Brown, and Hey Paula, combined. For me, those three franchises are like Nestle, while the flava’ of the fiery Miami ladies, heavily-filled lips and ostentatious wealth of the Beverly Hills women, and family drama and table-flipping of New Jersey, are organic, fairly traded, dark-chocolate bars.

Yeah, I’m a culture snob. Deal with it. 😉

‘These Straights be Cra-Cra!” (photo courtesy of Perez Hilton)

I was actually inspired to write about the series during the latest reunion episodes of the Jersey Housewives, in which the entire cast of women came together to rehash the events of the season. These reunion shows usually lead to emotional outbursts of anger that Andy Cohen, the host and only man on the stage, is often forced to subdue. The sexist implications of having a male voice of reason in between all of these unhinged women has always made me uncomfortable (hey, I have to insert my feminist objections somewhere!). But this past season, the husbands of each of the women came on the show, and as the couples hurled their accusations of divorces, debt, and foreclosures at each other, I found myself watching an openly gay Andy Cohen and thinking, “Ok homie, are you seriously trying to insert a scathing critique of traditional heteronormative marriage in a reality show? You mean, I can’t just zone out while posting my latest ‘Even More Fierceness!’ album up on Facebook? I’m going to have to write a two-part series on a show that everyone mocks and that I actually feel guilty about watching? You’re really doing this to me?”

Yup, he is. So get ready peeps, get ready.

Heteronormativity is the ideology that privileges heterosexuality as the norm and holds that people fall into distinct binary gender roles. The idea that men and women are ‘naturally’ more capable of doing certain things has historically been ingrained in our societal, educational, and religious institutions and reiterated in our media in countless ways. Most notable is the idealization of the  traditional family model in television that centers the working dad,  domestic wife, and two children on the one end, and erases from mainstream media visibility people within the LGBTQ community on the other. Queer is a term that refers to people or institutions that do not subscribe to these dominant cultural ideologies of gender and sexuality.

Jack and his Cher Doll. The infantilization of the feminine male.

While the media landscape has changed somewhat in recent years, it should be noted that even these seemingly progressive shows that offer more queer representations of gender and sexuality, such as Will & Grace, Modern Family, and even The Mindy Project, still must work within these dominant frameworks. In Will & Grace, the stereotypically feminine Jack was always contrasted with the more masculine Will as less competent, smart and successful, thus demeaning femininity. While Modern Family‘s gay male couple is in many ways a progressive example of mainstream queer visibility, they still seem to be working within heteronormative constructs that demand marriage as a legitimization of one’s romantic relationship, and the assigning of traditional binary roles when assigning tasks for raising their child. And Mindy Kaling’s smart, successful character at the heart of The Mindy Project is 31 and refreshingly single, but always talking about how she is single while fantasizing to Rom-Coms. But that’s for another blog post (I do actually really love her show and am already a Mindy/Danny shipper – so I’m totes part of the problem, girlfriends!).

This privileging of heteronormativity would lead one to assume that the heterosexual marriage in which men and women subscribe to traditional gender roles is what is truly ‘natural,’ but in fact, we know that this is not the case. Many heterosexual marriages end up in divorce, countless children are abused and neglected by their straight parents, and domestic abuse is all too rampant. If heteronormative practices were truly intrinsically right, then why are they often so flawed?

Theresa’s husband Joe is caught off-camera calling his wife their ‘pet’ names.

This point is driven home during the Housewives series again and again. While we are introduced at the beginning of each program to characters who seemingly live a fantasy life in their mansions and designer closets, the show slowly unravels the numerous ways in which this domestic bliss is just a mirage. Subverting the image of the ‘happy housewife,’ we are instead introduced to a wide range of characters navigating through, and often leaving, truly dysfunctional relationships. There’s Taylor from the Beverly Hills housewives, who alleged that she was abused by her husband and “didn’t feel safe” until he committed suicide a few days before the second season aired. There is Sheree, the Atlanta housewife whose messy foreclosure and custody battle was covered by numerous national media outlets.  And how can I not mention Theresa, who, kept out of the loop of her husband’s business dealings, is now dealing with bankruptcy and her ‘Juicy Joe’s’ pending jail sentence due to financial fraud? Of course, children are not left unscathed from their parents’ evictions and family drama. Who can forget Theresa’s daughter Gia crying while singing a poem to her mother and uncle, pleading with them to make peace? (yeah I know you forgot, but I didn’t, ok?)

A woman’s duty to shop! (1950s advertisement)

What is so interesting about the Housewives series is the way in which it seems to really provide a pointed critique (or at least, examination) of the role that many American women adopted after World War II, that of the domestic shopper. Although during the war women took on different professions that were left behind by their husbands, society then encouraged women to abandon these jobs and return to the domestic sphere once the war ended, while advertisers targeted them as professional homemakers whose jobs were to shop not just for their family, but for national economic prosperity.  Excessive consumption is never more apparent than on the Housewives, where the women spend thousands on designer shoes, lip fillers, and birthday parties for their children. Furthermore, this crass consumerism could also be attributed to these women’s flawed assumptions that they are ‘secure’ in their spending, either because they trust the personal and economic stability of their relationship, or because they believe that they will be protected financially if the marriage does end.

A foreclosure is just a bump in the road for Theresa, and she’ll need these high heels to jump over it!

However, as Leslie Bennetts’ excellent book The Feminist Mistake addresses, dependency can often jeopardize the lives of women and their children, as the newest alimony laws have made the futures of stay-at-home mothers increasingly tenuous after a divorce. This is what Theresa Guidice, who famously boasted in the first season of being able to buy expensive furniture in cash, discovered in the wake of her husband’s failed financial dealings which left her family bankrupt.

Is it any coincidence then that amidst the foreclosure accusations and stripper allegations hurled among these heterosexual couples and family members during the recent season of the Housewives of New Jersey, there was a beautiful civil union ceremony between Caroline’s brother and his spouse? Or that one of the most touching moments came from Rosie, Kathy’s lesbian sister, when she came out to her niece and nephew and discussed with them how difficult it was to accept herself in a society that made her feel like an outcast? Or how about when Andy Cohen actually inserted himself into one of the episodes to explain why Joe Guidice’s repeated use of gay slurs was hateful and wrong? By revealing the dysfunction of these heteronormative institutions, is the show more easily able to legitimize, and perhaps even center, queer issues and relationships?

Seriously, leave it to us gays to get it right! (Caroline’s brother and spouse, newly married)

For me, the most interesting conversation around gay rights was on the now defunct Real Housewives of DC, where a couple of the wives and their husbands were talking about the issue of marriage equality. One of the gay ‘sidekicks’ on the show, celebrity stylist Paul Wharton, was also in attendance, and he explained his belief that when you give one group of people rights and deny them to others, it makes it that much easier for day-to-day discrimination to happen. When one of the couples said that they “weren’t homophobic, but were against gay marriage,”  Wharton quickly retorted, “it does make you homophobic, you just don’t want the label.” SNAP.

Ok, let’s be honest here. How often in the mainstream media do you see this kind of discussion that really digs deep into the complexities of bigotry and how it can be manifested in more subtle ways? The absence of this kind of dialogue in mainstream news outlets can perhaps be attributed to the more masculine space of the public sphere that tends to view issues like gay rights through the lens of policy. Very rarely are we allowed insight into the more personal, but still very important, conversations that take place in the domestic, private sphere of our daily lives.

Ok seriously, are you kidding me straights? (Wharton with the DC housewives and husbands)

Many critics have lambasted the Housewives as a show that is regressive for women, and I certainly understand why many of the characters’ adolescent behavior should not be held up as role models for young girls. And while the gay characters on the show are often depicted positively, they are still one-dimensional personalities who are not really central to the series. Furthermore, the gay men in both the Housewives and other shows on Bravo are usually limited to stereotypical professions (hair stylists, fashion designers) and fall into what I refer to as the “Gay Helper” trope, meaning that their central role as a ‘gay sidekick’ is to constantly support the straight characters in their lives without question and to reassure them of their fabulousness, despite their many flaws (I’m looking at you, Rachel Zoe).

But then, to focus solely on these critiques is missing the point. While I hesitate to offer the Real Housewives as a progressive text, that does not mean that it isn’t saying something interesting. The show’s main concern is with marriage, and given that the franchise does feature some successful marriages and a gay civil union, it doesn’t seem to be necessarily arguing against marriage, but rather for a more egalitarian vision of marriage that empowers women and includes the gay community. This notion that gender and queer rights are not mutually exclusive is reflected in both the societal shift in favor of marriage equality, and the lower divorce rates among the younger generation that can be attributed to the greater acceptance of the two-income mold for couples, as well as the sharing of housework.

The purpose of the Housewives series then is not to demean women but to reveal how ridiculous women behave when they are tied to archaic and power-based institutions of marriage, which privilege men over women. Take Camille Grammar of the Beverly Hills Housewives, whose messy divorce to Kelsey Grammar was on display during the first season, following the revelation that Kelsey had cheated on her with a much younger woman. Now dating a younger man who she adores but is reserved about marrying, she notes in her second-season intro, “Diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend, Freedom is.”

You go, girl. And thank you for giving me an intellectual reason to write about you and your friends, in all of your botox-ed glory.

Does Alexis Bellino from the OC Housewives really have the right to speak out against marriage equality when she has been divorced already? These bloggers don’t think so:

Stay tuned for part TWO of this series, which will focus on the show’s centering of female spaces!

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Interview: An Inside Look at Development in Afghanistan – from a Woman’s Perspective

Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and as I watched the media coverage on various news stations, I couldn’t help but feel irritated at the fact that for 11 years, I had been fed details of a war through the filter of my television screen. When I mentioned my frustrations to a friend, she referred me to someone who is currently doing international development work in Afghanistan! This woman graciously agreed to be interviewed, but preferred to keep her identity and the identity of the company she works with anonymous. I hope that this can shed some insight on the unique challenges of working in development from someone who is actually working in Afghanistan, and what the possible future holds as the U.S. withdrawal looms closer.

Overlooking Kabul

Overlooking Kabul (photo courtesy of Max Becherer, The New York Times)

Q: So, can you provide some more background about what your role is, and what the goals of your development team are?

A: So basically, the team I’m working with is focusing on the development of the country’s private sector so we can improve the overall economic situation in the country. We’ve been there for over ten years, so we’re trying to stay on track for progress. I would say that the most important goal is to help the country be self-sufficient, in that they can become more self-reliant without international presence.

There are a variety of different players involved, but really the goal is to find local businesses and attractive opportunities, so the money we give can be spent towards promoting productive business growth to stimulate the economy.

Q: OK, so what would you outline as the main obstacles you’ve encountered while working in development in Afghanistan? Maybe we could start with some of the cultural challenges first?

A: Cultural context is crucial. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how much you read about the history and culture of the country you do work in, because in my opinion, you really need to be on the ground to understand the reality of the situation and what the risks are. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting to the environment and I definitely think you do better work here once you have a better understanding of the culture and are able to frame this notion of development within their (the Afghan people) terms.

On a day-to-day basis, there are smaller and larger challenges I’ve been faced with. For example, what I’ve experienced from the Afghanis we have worked with is that you can’t just jump into a meeting and start asking direct questions. That’s basically considered rude here. You have to allow a few minutes of familial conversation before you start business. And of course, even with the best translator, there runs a risk of misinterpretation, just because there are some phrases and words that can’t be perfectly translated, you know?

Q: And you’re a woman working in Afghanistan …

A: Yup, which offers its unique challenges, obviously. One of the first things I noticed is that you rarely see women outside, so there seems to be a confinement of women in the private/domestic sphere, though let me be clear that I am not speaking for the entire country, just where I am personally located. So as a woman, walking outside means getting stared at … a lot. And when I actually meet with men, I have to cover my arms otherwise I am perceived as being ‘too forward.’ It can get annoying to constantly have to monitor yourself, but I have to say, that for the most part, the Afghan people I work with have been really warm and welcoming. Of course, we’re working with the ones who are welcoming this idea of development in the first place, so the men I meet with are probably more open-minded to the idea of women from the West working in the public sphere.

Which brings me to another point. Just because some people are open to this idea of development, doesn’t mean that the relationship is completely harmonious and trusting. After all, this is a country that has experienced war for the last 30 years, and drastic changes in regime shifts. I mean first you had the Soviets in the 1980s, who were toppled by the American-backed mujahedeen that later branched out to the Taliban, and now, the current American invasion.

A market in Kabul. Almost 90% of Afghanistan’s national budget is financed by foreign governments.

And I think a lot of Americans forget that, both here and at home. There’s this attitude coming from our stakeholders sometimes of, ‘Why don’t they want help?’ and you really have to understand the history of international involvement in the country, and how there have been so many broken promises made. Even now, while I get to work with a lot of amazing stakeholders, there are some who are not always genuine, who are just trying to invest to add something to their company’s vita, you know? And so you have to be conscious of how things operate here, of how to best leverage your resources, and to make sure you are hooking up with the right people who are sensitive to the country’s unique cultural history and challenges.

Q: What about security?

A: The security situation is definitely limiting. You have to do a lot of coordination with logistics; you can’t just go out and see places.

Q: Do you feel that affects media coverage as well?

A: What I’ve gathered from the military officials I’ve talked to is that the relationship between the media and the military is um, pretty tense. The military claims they’re misquoted all the time …

Q: Right, but isn’t it difficult for journalists to get access to information? I remember a few years back Laura Logan gave an interview in response to criticisms from the Bush administration aimed at journalists that they weren’t giving the ‘whole story’ on Iraq. And her response was that due to security and logistical issues, it was difficult to move freely within the country. Have you ever seen the film Control Room? I couldn’t believe that the majority of reporting done from the CentCom (U.S. Central Command) base was located hundreds of miles from Baghdad …

A: I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if security issues placed restrictions on journalists as well.

Q: Not to mention that most media outlets are relying on AP reporters for their foreign news coverage, so it’s not like there’s a ton of journalists out there reporting on foreign affairs, even in Afghanistan.

A: Right, and I think that again drives home my main point. If you’re relying on the news for your media on Afghanistan, you’re just not getting the full story. Nothing compares to actually being on the ground and working with people here. And look, I’m not saying that I have full access to the country here, as I mentioned before. But even working here with the American government, I am still exposed in a way I never was before. Meeting with Afghan people and seeing the culture first-hand really changes your perspective.

Safety is still a concern for many women in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of Mauricio Lima)

Q: OK, now I want to ask you about the state of women in Afghanistan and it’s a two-part question. First of all, there seems to be a new focus on women’s education and empowerment in the developing world, because recent research has shown that there is an actual ‘net growth’ in economic development when girls are educated and women are given means of economic empowerment (like through microfinance). There is strong evidence that the education and empowerment of women creates a more educated, powerful community—their children are more educated, infant mortality decreases, and women who have access to the family’s finances are more likely to spend their money on the family’s health and nutrition then their husbands are.

So my first question is, how can development initiatives move forward successfully if Afghanistan is currently considered one of the worst places for women’s rights in the world?

And my second question is, even though there’s been a marked improvement in the education of girls, with over 2.4 million going to school, why do you think progress in other aspects of women’s development has been so slow?

A: Well I can’t speak to that specifically, because I don’t focus on women’s development, but I think there are several contributing factors, based on the conversations I’ve had with other people working here. First of all, just because you give aid to a country, doesn’t mean that it’s going to change cultural attitudes overnight. Even if girls go to school, they are still entrenched in deeply complex, patriarchal familial and societal relations. And of course safety is still an issue, and there are some who believe the military invasion has made the security situation more dangerous because of retaliatory threats by insurgents. But, there are also many who fear that when western forces withdraw, that instability might return and any gains made will be reversed.

One interesting aspect about women’s rights that I didn’t really consider before I came here was the huge gap in skill set. I mean, there were many women who attended university in Kabul in the 1960s and 70s …

Students at Kabul University, 1970s.

Q: I was going to ask you that! I recently screened a documentary film, Afghan Star, to my students for a section on how music can serve as a powerful tool for protest and change. And the movie follows these four contestants who are competing for a grand prize, and fans of each contestant ‘campaign’ for their favorite, in what the film argues is basically a first taste of democracy for many Afghanis. Anyway, they show flashbacks of Kabul in the 1970s, and it seemed to be kind of a hip, cultural mecca!

A: Yeah exactly. So you’ve got these people who are more educated, and then a lot of people who have been growing up during the war who are illiterate, and honestly, I just think it’s going to take time to bridge that gap, and a lot of patience.

A look back on the former ‘Paris of Central Asia’:

Q: So moving forward, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces with development?

A: Well first of all, we are currently having huge issues with inflation, because of all the aid that is being pumped into the country. Furthermore, since Afghanistan imports a lot of their products, the charges for customs are really high. They just can’t compete with countries like Iran, whose currency is really cheap, in that respect. And it’s going to take a while before the country has enough local businesses and ventures before they can compete with other industries. The argument is that when we withdraw out of the country and we invest less money, inflation will go down. But then if we don’t continue to support reconstruction aid, what will happen? Can we really accomplish all that needs to be done in the next two years? It’s something that those of us who are working in development, are still grappling with.

Q: OK, so here is my final question. Political pundits are always throwing around this notion that Afghanistan is impossible to keep stable, that it’s too tribal, too conservative a culture, too vast a region. But I recently read an article in the New York Times in which several Afghan scholars cited this viewpoint as condescending, as a reaction used whenever Americans do not want to engage in a conflict.

I mean, do they have a point? Sure the country’s been at war for 30 years, but it was only a few decades ago referred to as the ‘Paris of Central Asia …’

A: OK, let me say this in response to the ‘Afghanistan is tribal’ argument. I have met with different groups of people, from different ethnic tribes, Pashtuns, Hazaras, etc., and while there may be some cultural differences and tensions, most of the people we’ve met with seem to be on the same page of wanting to move forward with their business ventures, with progress in the country.

Can Afghanistan ever be stable? I can’t say for sure, but I will tell you there are concerns that Kabul might collapse as foreign aid and investment are withdrawn before 2014. It might just take a strong leader, and that’s why the next round of elections is so important. If they’re fraudulent, then I doubt the Afghan government will be able to assume responsibility for the security of the country.

But then, maybe change will come from the people themselves. My hope in the development work that I’m doing is that we can help to empower the Afghan citizens, and honestly, I’ve just been amazed at how innovative people are. Even if they don’t have formal schooling, many of them are self-taught artisans, are skilled in construction, agriculture, and different types of services. It’s really inspiring to me to see that despite these change of regimes, despite the oppression, the wars, the people here just do it. And that’s why personally, I have hope, even if I’m unsure as to whether everything can be stabilized in just two more years.

Stealth Festival

An Afghan woman at a one-day “stealth festival” called Sound Central, in Kabul October 1, 2011. The first music festival the country has seen since the Taliban regime. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

Please stay tuned for an upcoming interview with a Cultural Studies scholar from Kabul who has done extensive research on women in Afghanistan, the intersection of capitalism and development, and yes, even reality television shows like Afghan Star.

Afghan Star trailer … amazing film (and available on instant neflix!)

The documentary film Control Film

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Did Frank Ocean really ‘come out?’

Shortly after the release of his album Channel Orange, Frank Ocean responded to the critics who were questioning his use of male pronouns in some of his songs by revealing on his Tumblr page that his first true love was with a man when he was 19 years old. The internet then blew up, with some fans commentating on ‘what’ sexuality he was to others pondering as to whether it would hurt his album sales (it didn’t). Ocean has garnered accolades for his albums and television performances, like this one on Jimmy Kimmel, and the SNL one below. His voice and sound are like nothing in R&B at the moment, offering something very different from the usual generic dance hits you can hear at the club.

After Ocean released his Tumblr blog, the news media began to refer to him as “the recently Out Frank Ocean.” And that got me thinking, what does it mean to be ‘out?’ When I read Ocean’s sweet description of his first love, I don’t see any announcement of him being gay, and he doesn’t explicitly state that he is bisexual either. In fact, he never once in his blog frames the relationship in an overtly sexual way, saying that the two slept alongside each other, and that they had a ‘peculiar friendship’ that was never fully realized into a relationship.

And that is what is so brilliant about Frank Ocean. He’s a true bohemian, a true artist. He encourages people to ask questions, but never answers them. He uses male and female pronouns interchangeably, but his music  is ultimately universal, like when he touches on the theme of a lost first love in his song, ‘Thinkin Bout You.’ He doesn’t allow himself to be put into a box. He just is.

Just recently, I told a friend that I had a crush on Frank Ocean, and she replied by saying, “Umm….isn’t Frank Ocean gay?” Frank Ocean sings and raps convincingly about women, often in an explicitly gendered way (‘Songs for Women’ is an example, lol), but because of his one love for someone who happened to have a penis, we’re now labeling him as gay? Why are people who identify as straight never asked to defend their sexuality, even though there’s ample evidence that straight people may not really be born that way? (sorry Lady Gaga, I usually think you’re fierce but that song? Not feeling).

It’s not just his sexuality either, it’s in his music. Ocean has complained about the music industry automatically labeling him as an R&B artist because he’s a “black singer who can sing,” even though his music draws on electro, funk, hip-hop, and the introspective musing of an indie songwriter. Ocean himself admitted that he prefers to be referred to as a ‘singer-songwriter’ instead of an R&B singer, because “the former implies versatility and being able to create more than one medium, and the second one is a box, simple as that.” This human need to put people into neatly defined categories that make us feel more comfortable about our own identity and who we are is perhaps why we label Barack Obama as black, despite his multi-racial identity, and Rashida Jones’ character Karen on The Office as Italian, even though she’s half black, half white. Ambiguity scares the hell out of us. Labels keep us comfortable.

Frank Ocean’s Tumblr blog might prove progressive for a somewhat homophobic hip-hop community (Jay-Z and Beyonce offered their support), but in a way, I hope that he doesn’t become a poster child for the gay community. He’s approached civil rights in his music, like in ‘We all Try,’ where he defends people’s right to marry anyone they love, and for women to have control over their own bodies. I hope that he continues with his brand of secular humanism, and that he doesn’t allow anyone—the media, his fans—to categorize him, to force him to pick a single identity when his own is so fluid.

I doubt he will though. I mean seriously, did anyone catch his performance on SNL last week that was pretty much, the chillest thing ever? Ocean crooned his high notes to perfection on ‘Thinkin Bout You,’ and then while guitarist John Mayer hit a solo, crazy face contortions and all, he walked over and played a video game on the arcade set-up, letting John Mayer take the final spotlight of the performance. And I couldn’t help but think, “Frank Ocean’s not gay or straight. He’s just really. F#cking. COOL”

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Chick-fil-A and marriage equality-a civic, not religious, issue

So just yesterday, Chick-fil-A made a statement that “going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.” This, just a month after their chain was the center of one of the biggest culture wars recently, when the owner revealed that his restaurant supported ‘the biblical definition of the family unit,’ and regularly donated to organizations like Focus on the Family, which does not support marriage equality.

In the week following that announcement, all hell broke loose on Facebook. I saw posts from some of my Christian friends expressing anger at the owner of Chick-fil-A for making such a broad statement about Christianity. These friends cited that Christianity should be based on love, and not hatred and bigotry, and how can this one man define their belief system for them? Then I read other posts by Christians who stated that the government shouldn’t enforce its views on their moral beliefs, and that the definition of bigotry is relative, and that this guy was just practicing freedom of speech. I appreciate these different views, and I think that anyone who knows me would know that I agree with the former view of Christianity, but to that end, I find debates about what the Bible says to be fruitless. Everyone has their own definitions of Christianity, and there are some who look at the Bible as a book that emphasizes love and compassion, and others who take it in a more fundamentalist way. And that’s that – we can’t enforce our religious interpretations on other people, and I wouldn’t want to try.

So what I would like to do in this post is make the argument that the issue at hand is not entirely a religious one, it is a civic one. I want to address the supposed conflict with gay rights and Christianity, and I’m going to do so by digging up any knowledge I have left of Christianity from the eight years of Catholic school I attended. 😉 I also want to make it clear that I am framing this argument within a Christian framework, even though I personally do not consider homosexuality a sin. So please, bear with me. 🙂

I recently read on someone’s wall that the bible considers both theft and homosexuality to be sins, and why should he support something that is punishable by law because it is a sin? So I thought it was important to make a distinction here. While both theft and homosexuality are defined as a sin by the Bible, the issue at hand is not entirely a religious one. It is also a civic matter, and history has shown that some things that are explicitly applauded by the Bible and based in Biblical principles (for example, the practice of slavery), are not always the best principles for civic life.

If a man steals from you, he has committed a sin, and trespassed upon one of your civic freedoms (the right to own property). When that man is arrested and taken to prison, this does not happen because we live in a Christian country, but because we live in a country where the right to own property is upheld as a basic human freedom (which is not always the case in every part of the world).

Basically, there is a difference, legally and civilly speaking, between a sin and a crime. We as a nation punish and/or prohibit crime, but we do not always punish and/or prohibit ‘sin,’ as defined by many Christians.

I mean seriously, thank God (literally-oh dat’s cold!) for that, because if we treat sin and crime as the same thing, then wouldn’t we all be placed in jail, because … didn’t God say that everyone has sinned?

Let’s say that a Christian believes that the forgiveness of Christ is the only remedy for sin. And let’s say that a Christian thinks that homosexuality is a sin (again, not representin’ here, just trying to make an argument within this framework). Well if Christians believe that evil or lustful thoughts, or jealousy, or stubbornness can all be considered sins, can the ‘sin’ of homosexuality honestly be one that can be cured by the government? It is not like murder or theft, which deprive others of their rights to life and property.

I think that it is dangerous to deny anyone their civil rights based on a sin that, according to some religious fundamentalists, is largely of the mind.

I think that our Christian culture has become so enamored with the idea that a “Christian” law can somehow remove a sin from our country that it has lost all perspective. It seems to me that Christians have come to believe that they can somehow control sin through culture, if simply pressed down hard enough. And then, people won’t actually need the redemption of God to save them. If the laws of our land perfectly match the Bible, then we need only be “good Americans” rather than actual followers of Christ. Then the flag can replace our Bibles and the pledge of allegiance can replace the Lord’s Prayer, because they’ll be one and the same, right?

And, if you really believe in the power of God’s forgiveness, then doesn’t that reveal an insecurity with your faith if you have to rely on the government to eliminate what is considered internal sin? Isn’t that God’s role? Doesn’t She (oh no I didn’t!) do that for you individually?

Does it really line up with Christianity to force others to die to themselves so Christians can feel more comfortable and more righteous?

Ultimately, whether you consider homosexuality a sin or not, in my opinion our laws do not support the merging of religious and civic life, and legislating morality. You may believe that being gay and stealing is the same sin in the bible, but in civic life, it doesn’t really work that way. Stealing deprives others of their property and even their life, being gay does not. I have no problem with people having private religious beliefs that are kept in their homes and churches, but see a larger problem when these personal religious beliefs affect civic life-like denying a certain group their rights to life, liberty and happiness.

I’ll end with this. Courage of convictions is laudable, awesome, and necessary, but can and is historically capable of being applied incorrectly, in spite of the beliefs and faith of those holding those convictions at the time. People need to be cautious of confusing sin with crime and vice versa, and of mixing civil and religious motives.  As the recent statement released by Chick-fil-A reveals, having faith doesn’t mean never changing your mind. 

Thoughts?

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Why blog about gender?

Why blog about gender and sexuality? Honestly, I feel that bullet points are the most appropriate way to address this question, as I find it requires a certain urgency. So, here are a  few quick reasons:

  • Because we so demean everything woman and feminine that even a girl addressing other girls will say ‘you guys.’
  • Because we label ‘third-world’ countries as backwards when many of them (Burma, India) have had strong female leaders in office, while in the United States we are dealing with politicians who are making the claims for what constitutes  ‘legitimate rape‘ and female political representation so pathetic that we rank 90th out of 186 countries world-wide.
  • Because despite increased media visibility, hate crimes against transgender and gay people are on the rise.
  • And because when a transgendered boy is killed with a gun by a fellow classmate, he is blamed for the murder by a mainstream news magazine.
  • Because the average cost of a wedding is $25,000. Because there are like 6 wedding reality shows on television. Because despite the high number of divorces and abused and neglected children, we still value straight marriage as sacred and normative.
  • Because, despite the fear about women’s changing roles, divorce rates are actually declining among my generation due to women’s increased involvement in the workforce and men’s increased involvement in the domestic sphere.
  • Because men can’t enjoy fashion without being thought of as gay. Because a guy couldn’t enjoy a close friendship in public with another guy until a recent film made it OK.
  • Because a book and film about a girl who gives up her life for a vampire was adored by girls and young women around the world. Because it’s important to not dismiss these fantasies and because feminism exists in even contradictory places (see: my blog on fashion :))
  • Because I think we need to examine why submissiveness is required for women in religious texts, but not for men.
  • Because the marriage equality debate is just as much about people’s discomfort with subverting traditional gender roles as it is with homophobia.
  • Because protesting for feminism in Russia will get you two years in jail.
  • Because 200 million girls have been killed worldwide simply because they were born a girl.
  • Because a reality-show family of 19 children in which the daughters are not allowed to freely pursue their own career path is being heralded by national media publications as a charming example of ‘good family values.’
  • Because if we define someone’s gender by their genitalia, then what does that say about how we think about God?
  • Because a young Harvard blogger who was trying to start a candid dialogue about sex and gender was slut shamed into silence.
  • Because street harassment is a normal part of many women’s day, like brushing your teeth and eating breakfast.
  • Because fashion advertisers think rape is trendy.
  • Because Sex and the City’s mantra was that an empowered, financially independent woman is able to buy lots of designer things. And because that theme of empowerment was completely blind-sighted by the millions of women workers who are exploited every day in factories overseas to make these designer items.
  • Because we all (even the most critical of us), women and men, queer and straight, engage in the very things that we find problematic and regressive, like The Real Housewives, and designer labels, and patriarchial religions, and watching sexist music videos, and giving into societal pressures that dictates what we wear and who we fall in love with and what careers we choose and how we live our lives. And we need to have conversations about why we make these choices, and most importantly, I need to figure out why I can’t stop watching “The Housewives.”   Ultimately, this blog will be my space for therapy 😉

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