Tuesday, October 25, 2016

"Stand by your man" is perhaps a thing of the past: country music's feminist rebels

Let's start with the fact that this isn't the first Feminist Legal Theory blog post about country music, so I'm not too ashamed, because I find myself in good company. However in a liberal region of the US, and an intellectual environment, it's not easy to admit an appreciation for country music.

This is particularly difficult in a feminist forum because, like Iris Goldsztajn in this article, I frequently find myself "desperately trying to reconcile the catchy tunes with their often clearly misogynistic lyrics." The more I celebrate my feminist ideals and understand myself to be a feminist (didn't know if I'd be saying those words six weeks ago, but grappling with the question goes far beyond our class), the more I switch the radio dial away from the local pop-country station.

However, country music has gripped me from a young age - my mom and I have always sung country songs around the house, and though he'll never admit they're country, my dad was the first to get me interested in the stylings of Little Feat and Lyle Lovett and Chris Whitley. These are my roots. This is the kind of music that I think of when I think of home.

Even from my early years, I understood the genre to be male-dominated. The few women that did get airplay on country radio said passive-aggressive things to other women like "I'm begging of you please don't take my man." (No knocks on Jolene, though, it is one of the best.) In addition, male country musicians and fans have been consistently misogynistic and patronizing to female country musicians. Examples include the tension and subsequent legal action between Dolly Parton and her song-writing partner Porter Wagoner, whom she called "very much a male chauvinist pig,” and the Dixie Chicks' enduring a slue of insults including "big mouths" and "dixie sluts" after their open criticism of the Iraq war in 2003.

I have thus been thinking a lot about relinquishing my love for country, and particularly pop-country, in a kind of protest of a genre that embraces ideals I find detestable. (There are many indie-country acts out there that don't have a machismo-misogynist feel: Ryan Adams, Shakey Graves, and The Civil Wars, just to name a few.) As I began to ponder this music-boycott, I immediately mourned the catchy, upbeat, guitar-driven songs that I had loved in the past.

However, I recently attended the Dixie Chicks last concert of their 2016 tour at the Hollywood Bowl. While the Dixie Chicks are seen as country outliers, they still fit squarely in the pop-country genre. I was afraid that I would return from this concert to Feminist Legal Theory class embarrassed that I'd crossed my own country-music-picket-line. But what I saw at the show thrilled me: I saw thousands of women. They danced out of their seats and full-throatedly sang songs like "Goodbye Earl" about a woman helping a friend out of an abusive relationship, and "Ready to Run" about avoiding marriage before you're ready. I realized then that if I want my pop-country music to be more feminist, perhaps I just need to look for it.

This is where women like Miranda Lambert and Jennifer Nettles come in. No one could call these ladies 'indie.' Like the Dixie Chicks, they're pure pop-country. However, Lambert introduced her song "Gunpowder and Lead" in a 2013 concert this way: "Now I've got to tell you two things: #1: I know how to use a shotgun. #2: It is never OK for a man to beat up on a woman. So that's why I wrote this pretty little love song."

Jennifer Nettles released a handful of songs with a feminist feel on her most recent album "Playing with Fire." The song "Drunk in Heels" has the lyrics:
Tired, tired, dog ass tired
Tired down to the bone
I've did a forty hour week
At the Quik-E-Mart
And another thirty-five at home
Dead, dead, the walking dead
Dead right on my feet
I like to put on my pajamas and go to bed
But no one in the house would eat
If I go to work
I have to makeup my whole face
And if once a month I wanna shoot the whole damn place
Well I just have to deal
If I bring home the bacon
I have to fry it up in a pan
I ain't saying that it's easier to be a man
But let's get real . . .

These current musicians who hoist a feminist flag remind that female pop-country artists have been pointing out paternalism's barriers for decades, if you really look for it. Dolly Parton's "Just Because I'm a Woman," Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," and more recently, Gillian Welch's "Miss Ohio" are just a few examples. More female empowerment country music can be found in this great article from the Country Music Project, or in this Elle piece entitled "Where Are All the Feminist Country Songs?"

I still listen to Dolly, Loretta, and Patsy Cline, despite that the majority of their songs are less forward-thinking than Lambert, Nettles, and the Dixie Chicks. I also still have a soft spot for all of the male musicians above: indeed, I'm convinced that Chris Whitley's Living With the Law is one of the greatest road trip albums in the world of music.

I think the most important lesson I've learned is that I can't abandon my music roots, just because their paternalistic origins haven't yet been up-ended. I think this sentiment goes for my roots on all accounts. It's time to look at them critically, and find new ways to view them. And also, to appreciate them for what they are, despite what they aren't.

And, for an upbeat pop-country-music ending from Sugarland: I hope "I will/Find what it means to be the girl/Who changed her mind and changed her world."

Empowerment in Protecting the Male Ego

To be male means to be strong and powerful. To be male means to be hard-working and in control. To be male means to be needed by women.

It is a thought, generally considered by men, that women require a male presence in their lives for various reasons. Women require men in their everyday life to carry out the menial tasks that they, as females, couldn’t possibly fathom. For instance, men earn a living in the public sphere to provide for their wives at home caring for their children and cleaning their houses. Women should not strive to work externally of the home. Should they do such a thing, the male species would be at a loss. What purpose would they serve then?

Upon consideration of this I began to realise the power women truly have over men. By the definition of the word, a man will only feel superior to a woman if he believes he is better and more capable than she is. Therefore, when women break this stereotype, the man is insecure in himself and unsure of what his role is. In this sense, women have a lot of power. We have the power to allow men to feel needed even when they may not be.

In an episode of ‘That 70s Show’ that I recently came across a seventeen-year-old girl is scolded by her mother for not allowing her boyfriend to feel like the “man” in the relationship. She goes on to explain that, while making your own abilities seem lesser for the benefit of the man seems anti-feminist, it is, in itself, an act of feminism. Allowing one’s self to appear weaker and more fragile in front of a man is a means by which one can gain a great deal of control. While he believes you require his strength and/or varying abilities, you are, in fact, permitting him to feel this way. The power is in the hands of the woman to determine the outcome of the situation. In this way, the man believes he has a great deal of power when, in actual fact, any power he believes he might have, has been granted to him by the woman and, can just as easily, be taken away.

This issue can be seen quite clearly in Trump’s very questionable campaign for presidency. It is very obvious that much of his strategy, to improve his own image, involves the insulting of others, no one more so than his opposing counsel, Hillary Clinton. Trump attacks not only all of womankind but, specifically, Mrs. Clinton. In an attempt to make her look like an incapable candidate, he couldn’t restrain from including her looks in the attack.

The attack serves to prove that Clinton is much too weak to serve as the President of the United States. He uses her ill health as a means of belittling her in front of the nation, portraying her as frail and old.

However, could it be possible for Clinton to draw a sense of power from this? Trump uses her fragility to reinstate his masculinity and protective power but, if this is a candidate who relies on the shortcomings of his opponent’s well-being to further his own position, then what legitimate strength does he have? It makes me consider the tactics Trump would adopt were he running against a man. It is a direct example of how a strong female highlights his insecurities. It is to be acknowledged that women can draw a sense of empowerment from this knowledge.

This hilarious JustBoobs sketch deals with the fragility of the male ego in a very satirical way. The women in this video address the many ways in which women should be careful about damaging men’s confidence. It comically describes the many ways in which women are expected to put themselves down to protect the feelings of a man. The conception that a man is required by females is ironic given man’s greater need for women. I feel it is a very positive way to view the many ways in which males have a tendency to try and put women down. Whether or not the woman is willing to act on this control, it is empowering in itself to know that one has the power to make a man feel almost entirely obsolete.  In this way, to be female is to be needed by men. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

An ultra-Orthodox paradox

Israeli Judaism is divided in four main branches: secular (Hilonim), traditional (Masortim), Zionist-Orthodox (modern-orthodox, Datiim) and ultra-Orthodox (Haredim). A new Pew Research Center survey finds that nearly all Israeli Jews self-identify with one of four subgroups.

The Haredi branch is known to have quite extreme policies and beliefs when it comes to women. In Beit Shemesh, a city in which roughly half of the residents is Haredi and the other half is more moderate, a number of conflicts and violent clashes arose in the recent years, as the Haredi population keeps growing. 

For example, protests erupted in 2011 after a group of ultra-Orthodox men spat on an 8-year-old girl and called her a whore as she walked to school in her uniform (Huffington Post). She - and the other girls and women who were cursed, spat on threatened or beaten- was not "dressed modestly" enough in the Haredi group's opinion. Other similar events of the sort occurred in relation with the gender segregation on public buses, which is required by ultra-Orthodox Judaism but is supposed to be strictly voluntary - as the High Court of Justice ruled. As a result to these oppression, women in the area are becoming increasingly feminist

Moreover, this previous blog post describes well what it means to be a woman in Jerusalem and discusses the links between tradition and discrimination.

However, there is one area in which discrimination against women surprisingly does not exist. That area is Israel's Haredi literary world. Indeed, some 80 percent of the community's writers are women, as Haaretz reports. Of course, censorship by rabbis still happens. When a word or topic is problematic, the novel is published in two versions - one fit for Haredi readers and one for the secular ones. This happened with a book on pregnancy, which is sold in a "for married women only" section of Haredi bookstores, because pregnancy is 
a word whose usage is avoided in public, for reasons of modesty (Haaretz).
One can only wonder about the reasons why ultra-Orthodox female authors are so prolific in Israel. The prominent authors interviewed in the Haaretz article, Sarah Fechter and Mali Avraham, have very unique and interesting views. Fechter said:
 The men sit and study. A writer is ‘formed’ around the age of 20, and at that age the men are studying and don’t have time for fiction. There aren’t many 20-year-old men who write. 
On the whole, maybe reasons behind this phenomenon do not matter that much, although it would be interesting to hypothesize. Some of these female authors are really famous and, in my opinion, it is probably beneficial to the Haredi community. It gives women a voice, a chance to be heard and to connect - with other women and men, secular or not, through literature.

My reaction to 'Half the Sky'

The documentary adaptation of Nicholas D Kristof and Sheryl WuDunne’s book Half the Sky” is a captivating portrayal of women’s oppression in the developing world. The documentary compiles a series of anecdotes telling the truly horrifying experiences of impoverished young girls and women. It exposes the sex slavery and human trafficking industries in areas such as Sierra Lione, Cambodia and India. I could barely keep it together during our viewing in class and still get emotional thinking of the women whose stories were revealed.

They tell how these women are beaten and raped if they try to resist the men who have bought them and how many contract AIDS from forced sex work without protection. They tell how in some cultures it’s accepted practice for a man to rape the woman he wants to marry to force her to submit to him. What invoked my feeling of utter hopelessness was the complete lack of investigation by the authorities. When perpetrators are caught, they are let go and even worse still, some complaints are not investigated at all.

The bare exposure of the sex slavery industry in this documentary lead me to reflect on my own experience as a young volunteer with the Children of Nyumbani Trust Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya. I worked in an orphanage with children whose Mothers had fallen victim of rural Africa’s torturous sex-trade. The kids in the orphanage were all HIV positive and were of high risk of contracting AIDS in their late teens. The youngest child I cared for was a two-year old girl called Mia.

It is extremely difficult to come to terms with women’s oppression in the developing world when you are met with the innocent, bright-eyed children whose lives are forever tarnished as result. This vile rape culture haunts their past and desolates their future. It is sickening to think that such beauty and purity can come from such evil, malicious intent.

One of the most shocking parts of Half the Sky is its depiction of the female genital mutilation (FGM) tradition which appears to be a high-earning trade in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. FGM is performed in the mistaken belief that it will benefit the girl in some way for example, as preparation for marriage or to preserve her virginity. This can be contrasted with the laws against FGM in the western world. In the UK, FGM is a serious criminal offence. Anyone who performs FGM can face up to fourteen years in prison and anyone found guilty of failing to protect a girl from FGM can face up to seven years in prison.

Half the Sky is a harrowing depiction of women’s lives in the developing world. It lays bare the utter powerlessness of the uneducated. It highlights the humiliation and torture these women are forced to endure in silence. While the viewing of this documentary was not a pleasant experience, it has heightened my awareness of the oppression and neglect of these women. It has motivated me to use my position as a citizen of a privileged country to speak the truth and to educate others on what is being hidden in the developing nations. After all, it is geographical luck that I was born in to a society which strives to protect, not to torture. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Toxic locker rooms

The candidate's comments do not need repeating. Our news cycle runs so quick that I was shocked my friend had not heard the 2005 clip yet by 2 P.M. the day they were released. The 2005 conversation between a then-59-year-old-twice-divorced-known-adulterer-accused-rapist-now-presidential-candidate and an off-brand Bush was so utterly disgusting it overshadowed the fact the former recently stated he still believes the Central Park 5 are guilty.

The relative moral outrage to the two statements is telling. Many politicians/pundits cited their daughters/mothers/wives to justify their anger and disappointment. Between the lines, these reactions also say: calling for the lynching of innocent black men just isn’t that big of a deal to me, and women’s humanity isn’t enough for me to care about sexual assault. But, weeks before the election, I am just happy conservatives are renouncing the Republican candidate. Today,  I am more concerned with the apologists.

Locker room talk. That is the justification from surrogates, supporters, and straight from the horse’s mouth. Some men have dismissed the locker room defense, pointing to their own benign experiences and essentially proclaiming “my locker room was not like that.” While I know that all-male locker rooms are not always hellholes, I have seen the worst of American masculinity come out in the locker room.

In junior high I witnessed a classmate get his underwear ripped off after P.E. class. In high school, I was held down and beat in the locker room after football practice. I carried a pocketknife to school because an upperclassman had a penchant for going nude and shoving underclassmen’s face into his groin. The conversations ranged from lewd to explicitly violent.

I disagree with the apologists. The candidate’s comments do represent “locker room talk.” And therein lies the problem. All-male spaces are the breeding grounds for misogyny and violence. Philip Cohen, writing on single gender workspaces,  put it best: “To understand the relationship between culture and behavior, you have to consider the possibility that extreme behavior is the tail end of a long distribution.” (http://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2013/03/the-problem-with-mostly-male-and-mostly-female-workplaces/274208/)

The Access Hollywood clip represents the spectrum of behavior that rape culture enables. On one end of the distribution is the listener who does not object, Billy Bush. In the middle is the trivialization of sexual violence, the actual recorded conversation. And at the extreme end are the acts of violence, committed by the man who wants to be president.  

All-male spaces play a pivotal role in fostering rape culture, in normalizing “locker room talk.” When men are not forced to confront the humanity of women in spaces that dominate their life, the mindset leaches out. The incubation of toxic masculinity results in real violence, against men and women alike.

The law has spurred along changes in all-male spaces, from the Virginia Military  Institute to the coal mine depicted in North Country. Yet no one would deny that more progress is needed. Which is why I am intrigued by a new all-male space that’s been created to spur change.

Students at Duke University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are both leading the charge of male group introspection. The Duke Women’s Center is sponsoring the Duke Men’s project with the hope of spurring the deconstruction of toxic masculinity. The nine-week program will consist of male-identified students and they’ll discuss privilege, the language of dominance, and intersectional feminism.

While the success of this project remains to be seen, I am optimistic about its prospects. An all-male setting might encourage higher participant receptiveness to the curriculum. The project is turning the locker room on its head, forcing the participants to grapple with gender issues when mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are not around. I hope that this, in turn, will make the participants better allies whose resistance to misogyny is rooted in the recognition of female humanity.

Links to posts about the Duke Men's Project and their Facebook page:





Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"I am Untouchable Now": Menstruation Taboos in South Asia

The last blog post written by Josie Zimmerman excited me with the discussion about female headed companies that are trying to provide the menstruating public with more products. However it also reminded me how women in other countries not only don't have options or access to menstruating products, but are shamed and put to the side lines of society while they are on their periods.

One of these countries is Nepal, a country which I love and receive my heritage from, but one in which rituals surrounding menstruation that shame and ostracize women continue to be practiced. This is most evident in the practice of Chhaupadi. Recently covered in a Guardian article this year, Chhaupadi instructs a woman be banished to a shed or structure outside of the main house and dictates that she not enter her home, cook, touch her parents, go to school or school. If a woman does not follow the dictates of Chhaupadi she is told she will bring destruction and misfortune to her family. "If she touches a crop, it wilts; If she fetches water, the well dries up; If she picks fruit, it doesn't ripen" (The Gaurdian).

Chhaupadi, which translates to "untouchable being," has been practiced in parts of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Its origins can be found in ancient Hindu scripture which says women are highly infectious while they are menstruating. While often thought of as solely practiced in rural isolated villages, an NPR article "A Girl Gets Her Period and is Banished to a Shed: #15 Girls" showed that the ideas surrounding Chhaupadi effects even girls who live in cities and have progressive parents. The article interviewed Prakriti, a teenager living in Kathmandu and studying for the SAT's to get into an American university, who told reporters she was blamed for her father's hospitalization for touching him while she was on her period. Even I, as a half Nepali growing up in the United States, was told by my father's aunt that I was not allowed to visit the temple while I was on my period.

While shame around menstruation is still ongoing and prevalent in South Asia, there are efforts to fight the stigma. Women in Nepal are beginning to flip the script on the long held ritual of Chhaupadi. For example, Prakriti who was told her father ended up in the hospital because she broke a dictate of Chhaupadi, has written her own book Imposter, which envisions a society where menstruation gives women superpowers. Also in India, entrepreneurs like Arunachalam Muruganantham are creating affordable and safe menstruation products for women who had previously been relegated to using dirty rags in private.

Chhaupadi is a practice that not only effects a woman physically - where she sleeps and eats, but also effects her mentally. It instructs her that having her period is something negative, something that only brings her distress and loneliness. The practice not only tells girls they are less then boys, but puts them in a position of inequality in society. While the practice won't disappear overnight, every small action that fights the stigma of menstruation will help take down Chhaupadi.