Malala Yousafzai Stands Up for Us All

There are a couple of old saws that I was taught as a young journalist, which I continue to pass on to my media studies students now.

One is: if it bleeds, it leads.

And another: one powerful human interest story is worth a million statistics.

We saw both of these principles in action with this week’s news of Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistan girl who New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof calls “one of the world’s most persuasive advocates for girls’ education.”

Everyone probably knows by now of how the Taliban viciously shot Malala in the neck as punishment for her outspoken insistence that girls should be allowed—and indeed, encouraged—to go to school, just like boys.

She is now the face of millions of girls worldwide who are denied the chance to get an education and empower themselves and their communities.

This week the Times also reports that in Africa, unprecedented wealth is being generated by the efforts of a rising tide of entrepreneurs—many of them women.

UN Women, formerly known as UNIFEM, has argued for years that by educating a girl, you help her whole family, including the children she will one day bear.

After all, as the Chinese say, “Women hold up half the sky.”

I am glad to see that Pakistanis have come together to reject the extremist politics of the gunmen who shot Malala.

We should all light a candle for her today as she is flown to the West for more treatment, and pray that this brave girl survives the attack and returns to the fray to serve as a defiant model for all girls, whose instinctive human desire for education will not be extinguished so easily.

In the Christian tradition, Eve takes the blame for the fall from Paradise, and here in the U.S., too, we can see many examples of strong women being sharply checked: for instance, in the shooting of U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords or the mocking of Hillary Clinton for wearing pants suits and acting tough.

The story of Malala Yousafzai is one particularly emblematic story among many that could be told, of women and girls who dare to stand up to patriarchal power, and learn quickly that such defiance has its price.

Lately we’ve been seeing a steady drumbeat of reports—most of them disapproving—of how women are becoming more successful in school and in careers, threatening traditional male dominance in the public sphere.

Maybe it’s time for a reminder that feminism was never about dominance—it was and is about equality.

What’s so threatening about that?

I’m sorry, but real men don’t shoot 14-year-old girls under any circumstances.

To me a real man is the one who encourages his children, regardless of their gender, to stay in school and work hard to be prepared to step out into a future that is sure to be challenging.

A real man applauds his wife’s successes, and stands by her side when things are rough.

Real women do the same.

The truth is that gender is just another one of those culturally conditioned differences, like eye shape or skin tone, that fade to irrelevance before the profound reality of our human similarities.

Having unlocked the secrets of the genome, we now know that human beings are genetically 99% the same as field mice.

Isn’t that enough to convince us that men and women are only different in the most superficial ways?

Sure, women can bear children; men are more muscular.  But our brains are close to identical, and our hearts are the same.

Our spirits, freed of our physical bodies, know no differences.

It’s time to soar above the petty in-fighting of gender, and work together for the good of all.


Across the Gonad Divide

I’m getting tired of seeing the gender card being played as a veiled excuse for ideological dominance.

David Brooks

Conservative critic David Brooks predictably pines for the good ol’ days when boys were boys and men were men, and schools catered exclusively to the values and needs of these scions of masculinity.

The problem, as Brooks sees it, is that our schools have become feminized and namby-pamby, with anyone who isn’t able to play by the rules liable to be rushed to the school nurse’s office for ADD drugs.

In a recent column, he calls for “more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.”

Feminist pundit Caryl Rivers retorts that schools are appropriately training kids—both male and female—to “succeed in the new workplace in which communication, focus, determination and teamwork are key ingredients.”

Brooks wants to see teachers celebrate and honor “competition” and  “military virtues” in a “boot camp” type of school environment.

I would hope that “communication, focus, determination and teamwork are key ingredients” of military training as well as ordinary schooling.

So what’s the real difference here?

There have always been men who communicated well, who enjoyed sitting in classrooms and paying attention to the teacher without the need for psychotropic medications, just as there have always been women who enjoyed competitive sports and the top-down hierarchical approach of the military.

The problem comes when we view gender difference as a black-and-white either/or issue, rather than more properly as a spectrum of behaviors and characteristics.

Rivers is right that the past decade of funded research on brain physiology and neuroscience has largely come up with nothing: “The alleged great differences between the brains of boys and girls are a myth.”

That’s because boys and girls are not Martians and Venusians—they’re humans, and the human brain of girls and boys is more alike than it is dissimilar.

We should not impose our out-dated gender stereotypes on either boys or girls.  Instead, we should learn to see our children as humans first, and then—somewhat incidentally–as gendered.

We don’t have time to be tilting at the windmills of gender stereotypes right now.

We need all hands on deck—boys and girls, teachers and school administrators, and media pundits too—to focus on the most important challenge of our time: transitioning to a sustainable society.

If gender is a spectrum from female to male, on which we each locate ourselves somewhere, we will need the entire spectrum’s wisdom and strengths to carry us into the next great era of human existence on the planet, the Anthropocene.

The question to be asking ourselves as we move forward is: what do we want the Anthropocene to be known for?

Bloodthirsty violence and competition, military-style?  Or mutual aid and cooperation, diplomacy-style?

I know what I prefer.  And I don’t think the fact that I have ovaries instead of testicles has a damned thing to do with it.

Solstice reflections: Women as Victims of Violence and as Peace Agents

Winter solstice eve, 2011.

The darkest day of the year, and yet presaging the return to light.  The stars and planets continue to wheel overhead, taking little notice of all the sturm und drang here on Earth.

Tonight there is one image that keeps calling out to me for comment.  It goes by the Web shorthand “woman with the blue bra, Cairo.”

Did you see that one?

Someone captured on camera a brief two minutes of violence in Cairo, Egypt, when an unnamed protester was dragged by military forces in the street, then stripped of her abaya, under which she wore only a blue bra–and then beaten up some more.

WordPress has taken away my ability to post video, so you can watch it here.

It goes right up there with the video from New York City, towards the beginning of the OWS protests, of a police officer spraying peaceful, captive girls in the face with pepper spray.  This video has apparently been watched on You-Tube more than 1.5 million times.

There is something about seeing women being beaten up by masked, uniformed security forces that sets off particular triggers in most of us.  It’s certainly no accident that the Occupy protests swelled dramatically in numbers after that pepper-spray incident, or that more than 10,000 protesters, mostly women, turned out in Cairo following the posting of this image on the Web.

Part of me wants to question why it is that we get so upset when women protesters are attacked.  After all, they knew the risks they were running when they went out into the street.  And what’s the big difference between a man and a woman being beat up by goons, anyway?

But there is a difference.

The difference is that it’s always men doing the beating.

Yes, we have some women in police and military uniforms.  And yes, women can be violent.  But you will have to look long and hard to find cases where women bore the responsibility for killing or attacking civilians, in any circumstances.  It may happen, but it’s pretty rare.

So when we see a mob of men stripping and beating a woman–in a society where nudity is absolutely taboo, to boot–it’s impossible to ignore the full impact of the insult intended.  And in a society where women are forcibly kept out of leadership roles, the message is all the clearer.

Stay at home where you belong, or we’ll do this to you, too.

I’m so glad that the women of Cairo did not take this attempt at intimidation lying down. Just like the women in New York, who took the unwarranted police brutality as a gauntlet thrown down to test their protest mettle.

The question of whether men are in fact more aggressive than women is still a matter for debate in academic circles, but taking a look around the world, it’s pretty clear that men commit almost all the violence in every context.  When women murder or assault, it’s almost always in self-defense.

And yet women are still held back from leadership roles in most societies, and even held back from the peace-making negotiating tables in post-conflict regions.  A big exception is Rwanda, where women have taken a leadership role in rebuilding that shattered society–mostly because the men had succeeded so well in killing each other off.

We have moved past the point in the intellectual history of gender studies where feminists were striving to be “the same as” men.  Women don’t want to be the same as men if it means repeating the same old history of violence and abusiveness.

What we need is to move, as men and women, beyond the violence that has continually plagued human society.

Violence towards each other; violence towards other species and the rest of the world.

The only way to move forward as a species is to disable that aggressive switch, and become the consensus-seeking conciliators we have always been in our finest moments as human beings.

As we return to light this solstice night, this is my fervent prayer: that the aggressive, masculine energy that has dominated this planet for the past 5,000-plus years will begin to shift to a more peaceful, creative, feminine energy, from which both men and women–and the planet as a whole–will benefit.

Let it be so.

Sex 101: From Plan B to Pleasure

I have mixed feelings about the decision of Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius to overrule the FDA’s recommendation to allow over-the-counter sales of Plan B, without any age restrictions.

On the one hand, the knee-jerk liberal in me says wait a minute–access to contraception in any form should not be restricted.

On the other hand, it makes me a little nervous to think about young kids–say, 12-year-old girls–being able to buy morning-after pills as casually as they might buy cold medicine.

Our society is already sexualizing young girls way more than I think is healthy.  If Plan B were widely available, it might be used as just another reason why girls should open themselves up to sex at a younger age.

Another part of my hesitation comes from knowing full well that Big Pharma is pushing over-the-counter (OTC) sales just to make more profits on the drug.  I don’t think they are really that concerned with the welfare of young women.

Rather than simply making Plan B available OTC, I would like to see a national conversation (let’s call it a national general assembly) on the issue of the hypersexualization of youth, on the one hand, and the with-holding of sex education and contraception, on the other.

It saddens me that students in my gender studies classes are still reporting that sex education in their high schools consisted mainly of scare tactics ranging from “have sex before marriage and you’ll go to hell” (Catholic school) to “have sex and you’ll get disgusting STDs” (public school) to abstinence-only “just say no” programs.

In an age where the answer to any question is readily available on the Web, we owe it to our teenagers to present these issues in much more depth.  We should be discussing sexuality in all its multivalent nuances, from issues of sexualized violence (what happens if you say no and he doesn’t listen?) to the pros and cons of each of the many contraceptive options, to what I see as very often the missing link in contemporary discussions of sexual relations: pleasure.

Sex isn’t just about contraception, it’s not just about STDs, it’s not just about violence, it’s not just about worrying over drawing limits of one kind or another.

It’s about pleasure.

Her pleasure as much as his.  Mutual pleasure.  Mutual desire, mutual satisfaction.

Any sex ed worth its salt needs to be honest with young people, both boys and girls, about why sex makes the world go round.  It shouldn’t just be discussed in terms of threats, warnings and prohibitions.

Sex for pleasure is one of those defining human characteristics that too often gets lost in discussions of Plan B, abortion rights, and HIV-AIDS prevention.  These are all important issues, but let’s not lose sight, along the way, of what it’s all about.

The drug companies have not yet figured out how to package pleasure.  Let’s hope they never will.

Challenging rape culture

In my Gender Studies class this week, we’ve been talking about “rape culture.”  It’s a term that’s bandied about somewhat cavalierly on college campuses, and is probably much less familiar out in the ordinary workaday world.

Well, wake up world.  Rape culture is here.  And it doesn’t need the ironic scare quotes.  It’s real, and it’s not funny at all.

You know you’re living in a rape culture when women’s bodies are suggestively displayed, commodified, in sexually enticing poses obviously intended for the male gaze.

In the culture of rape, “no” means “try harder” and it’s always the woman’s fault if she doesn’t like what’s going on.  Stupid bitch, if she didn’t want it, she shouldn’t have worn those heels/had that drink/come to the party.

Rape culture sanctions violence when necessary to overcome resistance.  She was asking for it, anyway.

Rape culture oppresses dissenting men, too.  Men who fail to conform to the code of dominant masculinity are “faggots,” and being called out as anything akin to feminine–pussy, for example–is the worst insult you can throw at a guy.

Lately I’ve been realizing that rape culture extends a lot further than women’s bodies.  It’s also responsible for the prevailing attitudes towards our environment–our Mother Earth.

Not for nothing are both Mother Earth and Mother Nature gendered female.

Some patriarchal cultures manage to respect Mother Nature while still maintaining a stranglehold on her female children.  For instance, in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which I’m re-reading now for another class, the all-powerful Oracle of the Hills, a goddess, is interpreted by a priestess whose pronouncements no men dare question.  This doesn’t stop the protagonist, Okonkwo, from beating up his wives on a regular basis.

In Judeo-Christian and Islamic cultures, the patriarchy dispenses with goddesses.  Or at least, goddesses of the truly powerful, fearsome kind.

In Euramerican cultures, we have sex goddesses, who exist to pleasure their men.  Islamic cultures shroud their women in veils, but towards the same end: women exist to please their men.

The explosive growth of the international pornography industry, in which it is still rare for women’s pleasure to be of any interest at all, bears testimony to the extent to which rape culture rules.

In 2006, the pornography industry had larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined–and it’s only grown in the past five years.

Porn is a vast unregulated jungle.  It’s not all bad.  But some of it is really terrible.  Some of it is sexualized violence–rape–thinly veiled as entertainment.

Yes, the girls get paid.  But many studies have shown that female porn stars often come from sexually abusive childhoods, or are teen runaways, or are lured into the trade through drug addiction and prostitution.

In Euramerican porn, women exist to give men pleasure.  Doesn’t matter if they get fucked over in the process.  Doesn’t matter if all that’s left in the end is a hollow shell.  There’s always another slut waiting in line.

Yeah.  It hurts me to talk like this, but I want to convey the mind-set of this industry.

And then I want you to think about how this mind-set translates to the Euramerican assault on the environment, our Mother Earth.

Or the sub-prime loan scandal (it’s Occupy Foreclosures Day, after all).  Fuck’em over, make a profit and move on.  All that matters is the bottom line, baby.

Sometimes it seems as though the more powerful actual women become in real life–ie, successful at playing the formerly all-male games of education and career–the more frantically obsessive men’s consumption of pornography becomes.  The power they miss in real life, they can find acted out for them in porn fantasies.

But the environment is another story.  Mother Earth is not going to play men’s games–that is, she doesn’t care to beat them at their own game.  When she starts to resist, the game will be over.

In porn, women go along with the game for a variety of reasons.  Generally speaking, women do it to survive.

Likewise, women collude with the patriarchy in the rape of the Earth because it’s just easier to go along than to resist.  And the lifestyle has been pretty comfortable over the last 50 years, hasn’t it.

I would like to see a frank discussion of the connections between rape culture as played out in porn and rape culture as played out between humans and the environment.

We need to acknowledge that there is a serious problem in both the private and the public realms (along these lines, we are just beginning to see confessions of “sex addiction” hit the media.  How about “fossil fuel addiction”?).

The problem is a symptom of much deeper ills in human social relations, which transgress the usual boundaries of race, class, gender & nation.

Why are porn and energy extraction biggest, the fastest growing industries in the world?

What does it mean to live in a rape culture?  Who benefits, and who loses?

Most importantly, how can a rape culture be transformed?  And what is our alternative vision?

My vision is this:

The one-sided model of domination and extraction (“getting some”) needs to shift to a dialogic model of sustainable mutual pleasure.

Human beings should serve in a steward relation to our Mother Earth, tending and enriching her in exchange for the nourishment and pleasure she can afford us.

Likewise, sex should not be about domination and debasement, but about mutual pleasure and uplift.

In these transition times, such a transformative shift should be possible, if each of us begins with our own selves, our own backyards, and lets the ripples of range move outward.

Let it be so.

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