Of Two Minds

In class on Tuesday, I showed students part of a documentary film called SASA! about the interplay of violence and HIV in women’s lives in Uganda and Tanzania.  Sasa means “now” in Kiswahili (the Bantu language most of us know as Swahili) and was chosen as the name of the film to emphasize the need for knowledge building about how violence, disease, and cultural power dynamics impact women.  The organization that worked to create the film, Raising Voices, is a respected NGO working in non-violence, specifically regarding women and children. The film itself was made by The People’s Picture Company in partnership with Raising Voices.

The film follows the stories of women who have been personally impacted by violence and HIV.  Their lives illustrate the common barriers women face to health and personhood.  The issues are not particularly unique to this one place nor are they revolutionary in terms of what we already know about women, poverty, and heath — but they are still tremendously tragic.  Bride prices, cultural expectations, personal beliefs of a woman as economically dependent, social acceptance of plural marriage… when these are combined with violence and poverty, disease is not far behind.

(Quicktime 30 minute film here.)  SASA (30 minutes)

I was surprised at how much of the material discussed in the film came as a surprise to students, or at least, that they showed such great pain at the realities in the film.  I had been taking it for granted that these were things everyone knew about women in poverty: that their lives are characterized by great abuses and limitations that are unthinkable to women raised in the West.  In fact, I usually am frustrated by the over-characterization of ALL women, particularly AFRICAN WOMEN, of living these oppressed lives.  Films like this often frustrate me because I feel it gives us wealthy Westerners reason to pity women who aren’t like us, infantilizing their lives and experiences in patronizing, imperialist ways.  I’m more comfortable talking about strengths, resistance, community building, and learning.  These sort of films and stories can paints the picture that women, even women within these terrible circumstances, are completely passive — controlled by the whims of their fathers and husbands — providing no self-directed action toward any part of their lives.  In depth research into these issues shows us that women who we view as the most “oppressed” by our definitions of oppression still act in resistance in ways that we might not see or appreciate.  Those are the sorts of conversations I like to have.  Let’s talk about what works and build on it.

But this class is an overview class.  Many students within it have never been outside of the United States, least of all to a non-OECD country.  First, then, they learn of the realities of poverty.  Thus, the film.  Thus, the discussion.

It was a good class, a fine, interesting discussion.  But it left me a bit raw.  I’m not sure how to teach an introduction to the realities of global poverty without painting the “woe is me” picture.  Is there a way to tell a tragic, terrible story, showing relevant barriers and challenges without painting a picture of a passive victim and active perpetrator?  I tried my best to break up that binary dynamic, about how the limits on one equally limits and defines the other – if you define one as black, then by definition the other one is completely white, leaving no room for gray.  I tried to walk that line of breaking thought out of submission versus aggressive, masculine versus feminine, victim versus perpetrator… but who knows how far that was absorbed.

Maybe it’s just that easy to believe that men are assholes?  Or, maybe it’s easier to believe that women are passive, submissive, and silent.

Donors do like a good victim story, after all.

Still, I like this film.  I think it does a good job of showing the problems and gives focus to how the community is coming together in their own terms to deal with them.  It does an excellent job of showing the ridiculousness of the “ABC” approach and how utterly useless it is in women’s lives.  (The ABC approach is the “Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms” approach to HIV prevention.  You might as well tell women that drinking Kool-Aid will prevent HIV.  Actually, the chemicals in Kool-Aid are probably more effective in limiting HIV infection than ABC.  But I digress.)

It ends in a positive light, showing the impact of peer counseling and community work.  And of course it does!  Because ultimately the film needs to show interest and build compassion.  Ultimately, this is an agency that relies on donations.  It is a wonderful organization doing work I respect and admire.  The sort of place I’d love to work, actually.  When you think about it, they tread a fine line in this film: showing just enough compelling story for donors and then showing the proactive ways a good organization can be capable of improving even the most difficult of lives.

So why do we focus so much on all that terrible, victimizing stuff?  What is it that is so compelling?  Is it the same thing that makes us listen harder when the neighbors start to fight, or slow down to look at the scene of a traffic accident?  Do the realities of living in poverty provide good voyeur material?

I can’t help but feel a little frustrated.  Maybe it’s that I’m jaded and tired of the essentializing of ‘women in the developing world’.  Maybe I’m tired of seeing the same solutions for problems that seem never-ending.

In the end, I felt that putting it here might be a way to work it out.  Maybe I’m wrong and there are very surprising things to be found in this film.  Maybe I’m alone in my frustrations.  And maybe there is more we can do?


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No Cheese with this Whine.

Based on my last post, a friend of mine pointed out this Washington Post article by Rebel Dad comparing Mommy and Daddy bloggers where he asks, ‘do Dads whine less than Moms?’

Rebel Dad prudently offers the conclusion that Dads, though more and more active in the rearing of children and in many cases taking over roles as primary homemakers, just haven’t “earn[ed] our stripes yet.”  He ponders that Dads don’t get to whine as much because the gulf between the responsibilities of Mothers and Fathers in raising a child is too wide for the discourses to be the same.

Well, yes.  But there’s a lot more.

Somehow, gender equality went down the road of ‘proving’ the sameness of one sex to another: I can do what you can do, therefore, we are equal.  So the ‘rights’ of women were earned by women adopting masculine behaviors to prove workplace equality.  (Consider the well-known statement made by Gloria Steinem: “Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”)   To be successful, women have adopted a model of education and work life that mirrors the single man.  Activities associated with being a woman (marriage, babies, mothering) are seen as weak and inconsistent with professional behavior.  No one will take you seriously if you have a baby during your PhD because a man wouldn’t (physically) have a baby while doing a PhD.

It’s not just a bum deal for women; strict gendered roles are insulting to both sexes.

Here’s the thing: women and men are NOT the same.  One sex bears children and the other one doesn’t.  That biological difference needs to be taken into account for both to be equal.

Rebel Dad is 100% correct when he says that Dads don’t ‘whine’ as much as Mothers.  Because they can’t.  That discourse is feminine, reflective of the assumed responsibility of Mothers as parents.  Consider: a woman is shopping with a small child who is not behaving well, crying, fussing, whining… standard stuff.  People judge her parenting, blame her for not disciplining the child (even if she is trying to handle the situation) and may even make overall judgments about whether or not she is ‘working.’  If the same situation were playing out with a man, the response would be more empathetic; Dad has his hands full and doesn’t know what to do.  Both are patronizing, but associated with very different cultural responses reflecting very different gendered assumptions.

We Moms bitch more about parenting because when the chips fall down, the world looks to us to pick up the pieces.  Men can walk away, shrug shoulders in confusion, and just feign ignorance.  Women don’t have those options — or face harsh criticism when we do.  Coming to terms with being both a Mother and still be respected (as those hip, childless people we used to be) is a big part of Mommy blogging.  ‘Whining’ is one way to work it out.  Would Dads regain that same pre-fatherhood hipness if they whined in the same way?   No.  They work out their own parenting and gender conflicts in different discourse.

Moms are doing all we can, I think, to show that being a Mom IS hip and that the workplace, the academy, and society in general needs to accommodate our awesomeness.  All three are very slow in this acceptance, so pardon us if we feel the need to air grievances.

Just one more important point.  I remain deeply bothered about the initial questioning regarding ‘whining.’  Because asking whether Moms whine more than Dads is simply a thinly veiled open door for people to bitch about Moms.  AGAIN.  ‘Cause seriously, lady, you complain when you work and you complain when you stay at home.  Look, see?  Us men can handle either situation, and with less bitching!  So why don’t you just figure it out already?’

And that is the real whining we’ve all heard enough of.


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Maybe I’m wrong? Maybe we haven’t evolved?

One of the reasons I have been distracted lately is because I’ve been temporarily stunned to silence by the deafening sound of thousands of foreheads smacking into hands in despair and disappointment.  I’m sure you understand.  You heard the news, right?

Of the 192 countries represented in the UN General Assembly, only 66 (like, a third !!) are willing to support the phrase, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” And the U.S.A., with our fingers wagging at other countries whom we feel are not supportive of human rights (whatever in the world we feel they may be?), is in that pathetic majority.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, YEAH.  I hear all the cover-your-ass arguments about federal government and state jurisdiction and blahblahblah.  But you know?  Here’s the thing.  When you take these ridiculous “moral” positions and apply them to policy, it codifies a social dynamic of good versus bad.  In the policy forum, you build systems of inequality.  And in the social forum?  REALLY bad things happen.  Those who are seen as morally deviant are persecuted, seen as disposable, and not afforded the basic human rights to life and dignity*.  By refusing to support a document that recognizes all of us, with all of our wonderful differences and similarities, simply as human beings — it makes it okay to marginalize, penalize, punish, and destroy each other.

It is one thing to have personal or religiously-based reasons to struggle with different sexual orientations.  That is personal situation.  It is another thing all together to not recognize all people, regardless of differences, as human beings.  That is the fuel to the fire of hate, leading directly to the support of acts of violence, bigotry, and xenophobia.  The bottom line is, not supporting this document goes completely against our moving towards a more humane and just world.  (And means that we, the ‘human right watchdog’ U.S., are Big. Fat. Hypocrites.)

But hey, my Grandma taught me to roll with the punches, befriend the enemy, and make change from the inside.  The U.S. has a moral objection to homosexuality for no other real reason than some folks here just don’t like it.  So, since we’re on board for marginalizing people as non-human due to our own personal morals, I’d like to add some things to our “those not human” list.  Here are a few that offend my own moral sensibilities:

— Men who urinate in public.  Definitely against my morals.  Also, a threat to public health.

— People who hawk up snot balls and hork them in public places.  (See above.)

— Creationists.  (I should note that I find stupidity and ignorance to be morally offensive.)

I mean, if people simply loving each other is reason for being sub-human, then surely those on the list above qualify for the same (non)distinction.

Come on, U.S.A.  Come on, people of the world!  Our first job needs to be to protect and promote human rights without exception.  Period.  What are we, if we can’t do something as simple and clear as that?

* There is a good chance that something in one of those links came from Gentilly Girl, who is constantly linking to thoughtful and insightful articles on the topics above.


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I’ve Got a New Mantra

Edison said “Invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration,” which has been one of my favorite quotations for years because it absolutely puts those talkers into their place.  Yeah yeah, I’ve heard the talk, but honestly, what have you done lately?

You could say much the same about me and my writing, both the blog and otherwise, where I have all of these great ideas of things I want to say but just can’t get around to getting it down.  Writing about Love Your Body Day (on November 1st) was one of them.  My mind was full with thoughts of the cathartic spilling of the ridiculous things I allow myself to think about my body and ultimately myself.  I daydreamed about the post, what I’d say, fretting about how personal to make it, wondering how honest I could be.  I spent so much time mulling it about it in my head that I never did it.  The whole idea was to strike while the iron was hot and I let it freeze over.  So I moved on.

And then, via Kate Harding, I read this post about a recent interview with Ani DiFranco.  Ani, of course, being The Voice of My Feminist Generation — 30-something women who, 15 years ago, were listening to Not a Pretty Girl while reading deBeauvoir and making signs for the next demonstration.

Okay, I have to be honest here.  While that may have been going on in some circles, my mainstream appearance was a little much for that crowd and after attending a meeting and being insulted for shaving my legs I didn’t return.  Incidentally, though, in terms of my feminist studies and activism — I was the one selected to co-teach in women’s studies while still an undergrad; I was the one the Department approached about tutoring members of the football team in women’s studies in the aftermath of Bronzkala and VAWA; and I was also the one photographed going head-to-head with the Dean of Student Affairs over the issue of how the school handles sexual assault charges among students.  So ‘feminist’ appearances don’t mean much.  Ugh.  Did I really just write all that?  My glory days are more like gory days.


The point here is that although I look all peaches and cream and home baked pie with my blonde hair and occasionally shaved legs, for years I’ve harbored the secret desire to be Ani DiFranco.  To Just Be That Cool.  To have it all out there so plainly.  I hadn’t thought much about Ani’s music lately, being subjected as I am to constant requests for “Elmo” and “Imagination Movers” (occasionally veering into Young MC, as my kids are HipHop fiends).  Then I read about her new album and this song.

Everything I wanted to say about Love Your Body day?  All that stuff I was thinking about?  It’s right here.

lately i’ve been glaring into mirrors
picking myself apart
you’d think at my age i’d have thought
of something better to do
than making insecurity into a full-time job
making insecurity into art
and i fear my life will be over
and i will have never lived unfettered
always glaring into mirrors
mad i don’t look better

but now here is this tiny baby
and they say she looks just like me
and she is smiling at me
with that present infant glee
and yes i will defend
to the ends of the earth
her perfect right to be

so i’m beginning to see some problems
with the ongoing work of my mind
and i’ve got myself a new mantra
it says: “don’t forget to have a good time”
don’t let the sellers of stuff power enough
to rob you of your grace
love is all over the place

there’s nothing wrong with your face
love is all over the place
there’s nothing wrong with your face

lately i’ve been glaring into mirrors
picking myself apart

… okay, I know.  I KNOW.  But it’s only 6 days more.  And it starts with “Holly” and ends on my birthday.  How could I not?


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Tin Roof, Rusted (Part II): Party Conversations

One of the people I most enjoyed was a wife of one of Paul’s cooler co-workers, who is the Department head of the Math Department of a local high school and teaches AP Calculus and AP Statistics. She and I were discussing the importance of women in Mathematics and Sciences when she came out with this: “I have a class of 28, and each year, about 21 of them are female and all of them consistently outperform their male peers. Our student government is always female. So what I want to know is: WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING IN COLLEGE????”

A brilliant question placed so nicely within the observations and experiences of someone who faces it everyday. What is happening to women?

Once upon a time, Paul and I made similar observations about friends and acquaintances, noticing that they shared the same college: we joked that this particular university had a curious way of beating dreams and aspirations out of women. This particular university is also well-known for having faculty who openly have flirtations and affairs with students — and write about it — and maybe this isn’t a coincidence. What happens in college, and what happens after, and why is it so toxic to the promising potential in the talents of women?

Maybe it isn’t necessarily what happens in college, but is instead what happens afterward? She gets hired by Company X and gets stuck working with the guy with the roaming hands. This guy is pervasive everywhere and is typically one that everyone seems to like (or is maybe tolerated out of some strange peer-pressure fear), and while it’s well-known that he is inappropriate, he remains untouched by an indifferent management (make the environment more friendly to women? what is that a requirement of management?) Worse, he may be her boss. Or, her boss totally ignores her, calling in for the first time on the day she resigns. She gets paid less than her male peers, receives less promotions, and is hounded on her personal life (marriage and kids makes a working girl distracted, ya know.) Are all of these things illegal? Well, maybe, but they are all active and real… as part of corporate culture as power ties and pumps. Maybe my use of the word ‘corporate’ unfairly fingers business, which is not my intent: it is even worse in academia.

So what does the world offer to women, professionally? Well, I’d argue it offers all that it offers to a man — at a reduced pay, of course — IF the woman is willing to act like a man.

For a woman to be successful, she must remain aloof, act tough, rough, and hard (which will label her a “cold bitch” but is preferred to the alternative, patronizing treatment). She is constantly observed for signs of female-ness: did she marry, buy a house, or (gasp!) have a baby!? These are all connected to risk within the robot-male business model, where one must have no emotion to any thing but the job, dedicate all time to it, and reject life outside of work. Forget that 30 hours a week of work is the most efficient, connected to more completed in a work week, healthier employees, and a better overall company: you are required to be at work, even if you’re not doing anything at all, 12 hours a day, everyday. Not performing at this level is a feminine slip, a sign of weakness, and shows lack of dedication. Want to push back that 4pm meeting to 3pm so that you can make Tommy’s soccer game? Tisk, tisk… your priorities are all messed up. (Incidentally, if your male boss makes the same request, he’s just “being a good Dad.”)

A day of sexual harassment, hours and hours of extra work with little reward, pay out of whack with peers, and diminished opportunities for advancement… who would willing and openly choose this life? Staying home with babies (who actually need to be with their Mothers for more than the ridiculous 6-week window) does not sound like a “choice” but a rational path made by smart women who are lucky to have enough resources available to them so that they do not have to endure the torture of a sexist, hostile work environment.

If the work world was structured to be family friendly: to offer part-time opportunities with benefits (or have university health care so that benefits were not a requirement for families), and work options that allowed for quality jobs with less hours and more flexibility; if maternity leave was reasonable; if childcare was affordable and on-site for nursing mothers… in short, if women and families were valued, then I believe more women would remain in professional positions in all fields. Women “choose” to leave the work force because there is no other choice to make. I don’t think it a coincidence that so many women have part-time independent businesses, photography studios, craft endeavors, design consultant services: these are flexible areas where women can control their professional lives. Signs that women want to continue to develop themselves outside of their family identity and responsibilities, but cannot do so in the professional world. So they look for other places to do so.

So what happens to women to take them out of mathematics and sciences (and the professional world, in general?) Well, they get beaten. Enough licks and anyone with a ripcord will pull it to get out.

The whole situation sucks for men, too, who are expected to work, expected to find well-paid employment to support a family, expected to work too much, and expected to not notice that they are missed at home. What would it take to re-think how we work and who we expect to work? Is it too much to encourage young women to think beyond a life in homemaking and allow men to pursue art or craft-making without looking at him as irresponsible?


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