Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Legalization of Domestic Violence.

Broken wrists. Blows to the head by a crowbar. Chipped teeth. Twenty-four stitches to close a wound. These are some of the injuries Claudine Dombrowski suffered at the hands of her boyfriend. The violence did not stop when she broke up with him. Alarmingly, his charges of domestic violence were reduced to disorderly conduct on a number of occasions. Imagine how she and other simularly situated Topeka, Kansas residents felt when earlier this month the city’s officials seriously considered decriminalizing domestic violence. The move to repeal the law regarding domestic violence was in response to the Shawnee County government placing domestic violence enforcement on the city governments’ tab. Decriminalizing domestic violence was a means to save money.

I am unsure what is more shocking: the fact that legalizing domestic violence was seriously considered as a means to save money, or that on October 12th, in a 7 to 3 vote, the City Council of Topeka, Kansas repealed the local law making domestic abuse a crime.

In September, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office faced a ten percent budget cut. In response, the county decided to stop prosecuting misdemeanors, like domestic violence. Of the 423 misdemeanor cases that were prosecuted in Topeka last year, almost half were domestic battery cases. That number should be greater because most cases of domestic violence are not reported to the police By September 14, 2011, nearly six days after the D.A. announced it had no intention of prosecuting misdemeanors, thirty domestic violence misdemeanor cases were turned back to the city police because the D.A. would not prosecute.

One news outlet suggests that this decision was the city’s attempt to force the county to prosecute misdemeanor cases. What county would let domestic violence go unpunished? Right now, Shawanee County is.

While Shawanee County and Topeka play chicken with one another and argue over who will prosecute domestic violence offenders (and front the bill), some alleged misdemeanor domestic violence offenders are being released. The release of these individuals sends a number of dangerous and powerful messages. First, the general public, the offenders and, most importantly, the victims are effectively told that the government is apathetic towards domestic violence and the people who experience it. Second, releasing people who have been accused of committing acts of domestic violence conveys a lack of respect and appreciation by the D.A. and the city regarding the amount of courage required to report and the complex emotional turmoil associated with reporting acts of domestic violence. Moreover, the absence of aggressive prosecution encourages violence because there are no repercussions for unacceptable conduct. Where there are no negative consequences for specific behaviors, then there is nothing to deter said behavior.

It is also important to keep in mind that the scope of domestic violence is greater than simply violent conduct by men towards women. By further reducing what little government attention and assistance is already provided to vitcims of domestic violence, this poorly thought out plan creates an additional hurdle in engaging in a serious discussion that addresses the complexities and breadth of violence in our homes.

Lastly, and what disturbs me most, is that this entire set up is encouraging victims, who are mostly women, not to report these crimes. As previously indicated, many victims already do not report crimes of domestic violence. This game of chicken is only damaging an already vulnerable population - which happens to be mostly female.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is safe to say that Shawanee County and Topeka has done a fine job of putting Domestic Violence at the forefront of everyone’s mind, even if it is in the most frightening way.

Friday, October 28, 2011


This week I learned the story of Amber Cole. I was surprised that I had not heard her story, let alone her name, prior to today. But I feel as though there are many elements of feminism, along with the very obvious child safety issues, associated with her “fame.”

For those of you that have not heard of Amber Cole, she is a 14 year-old young woman (many would argue still a “girl”) who was filmed giving oral sex to her boyfriend. The video also featured two other young men, who were filming the event. They were encouraging her and laughing as they filmed. Then, the video was posted online. It went “viral” and suddenly, it wasn’t just the two other young men who had seen the act, but the whole worldwide web.

I have heard these types of stories too often. Recently released studies find that, in fact, 1 in 5 teens have sent a sexually explicit photo via the internet, or cell phone. The trend of “sexting” is becoming more and more popular, especially amongst middle school and high school students. The next step in this kind of behavior is sending videos of sexual acts. “Good Morning America” did a piece about the prevalence of sex videos amongst teenagers as well.

So, is Amber Cole’s story one of just another bad teenage decision? Or is it something more? I venture to say it is something different. Once her video went viral, she was initially bullied for her roll. Unfortunately, that’s usually how high school students react. Stories of teenagers being tormented for partaking in “sexting” have made national headlines. But in Amber’s case, the reaction has been quite different. A “Leave Amber Alone” campaign started on the popular video-sharing site “YouTube.” Teenagers from around the country have shown their support by uploading videos, asking people to simply let Amber be.

Perhaps the most moving response came from the writer Jimi Izrael. He wrote this piece titled, “I Am Amber Cole’s Father.” He’s not really her father, although, her real father is reportedly outraged by his daughter’s “fame.” Izrael speaks about the shock he felt when he read her story. He writes about his feelings of anger about why a girl would know how to do the things she did.

Izrael also brings up two other interesting thoughts. He talks about the young men involved in the video. How did these boys think that it was okay? How did they learn to treat women like this? We cannot excuse them under the “boys will be boys” motto. But at the same times, he says he “knows” these boys because he too was once a young man.

Izrael also addresses race. As he sees it, there is a difference between how young white women and young black women act. This kind of behavior might be acceptable for young white women, he suggests, but, he argues, young black women cannot “afford” these risks. Whether you agree with his sentiments or not, I believe his piece is incredibly interesting.

Amber’s story is gaining more and more media attention. With this attention comes various rumors which I will refrain from discussing. But at the root of it all, and maybe the media is forgetting this, is that material such as this is child pornography. We may gloss over that fact because the video went viral, some argue she was “trying” to gain attention, and perhaps just “boys will be boys.” But it’s all unacceptable.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Wal-Mart chronicles: part II (looking forward)

Last week, I wrote about how the the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s certification of a class in a class action sex discrimination lawsuit brought by current and former female employees of Wal-Mart against the superstore. (See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011); Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 603 F.3d 571 (9th Cir. 2010).) Although the class action failed, the company continues to deal with the possibility of individual claims of sex discrimination.

In the wake of this public relations nightmare, the superstore is going to great lengths to re-brand itself as female-friendly. On Wednesday, September 14th, Wal-Mart announced new programs aimed at helping women-owned businesses and women workers. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Wal-Mart Chief Executive Mike Duke voiced the company's party line when he stated that Wal-Mart "want[s] women to view us as a retailer that is relevant to them and cares about them . . . [wants women] to be leading suppliers, managers and loyal customers."

Loyal customers perhaps most of all. Leslie A. Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart, additionally noted that the vast majority of Wal-Mart’s customers are women. According to Slate, most of Wal-Mart’s 200 million weekly customers are women, and women control $20 trillion in annual consumer spending.

Accordingly, Wal-Mart has developed five goals designed to help empower women across its supply chain. These goals, which the store hopes to accomplish by 2016, are:

1. “Increase sourcing from women-owned businesses.” Over the next five years, the company will source $20 billion from women-owned businesses in the U.S. That works out to $4 billion a year, a $1.5 billion increase from current annual sourcing from like businesses.

2. “Empower women on farms and factories through training, market access and career opportunities.”

3. “Empower women through job training and education.” Domestically, Wal-Mart will help 200,000 women from low income households to “gain job skills” and “access higher education.” Internationally, Wal-Mart will help 200,000 women through “successful retail training programs.”

4. “Increase gender diversity among major suppliers.” Wal-Mart intends to work with its professional service firms and major supplies to increase female and minority representation on Wal-Mart accounts.

5. “Make significant philanthropic giving toward women’s economic empowerment.” The company will support the above-listed programs with over $100 million in grants that will drive progress against economic goals.

Additionally, the company has established country-specific goals in those international markets in which it operates. For example, Wal-Mart China is “helping women farmers make their agricultural operations more sustainable and productive through its direct farm program.” In Brazil Wal-Mart is, apparently, hiring female construction workers to build it’s new superstores.

More information about these programs can be found here.

One needs only to watch the beautifully produced and absurdly predictable promotional webcast announcing the women’s initiatives to surmise that Wal-Mart’s first priority is probably its own public image, and not women’s well-being. That said, whatever the motivation, these programs seem admirable. A substitute for treating its domestic workers equitably? No. But admirable nonetheless.

In short, it’s hard to find fault with someone pledging billions of dollars to women’s issues. And so I sat, trying to find fault with Wal-Mart, but feeling on whole surprisingly positive toward the company. (The promotional video is working!)

Finally, though, I did think of one problem. The trouble with trying to help “women,” broadly, is that – as Wal-Mart’s promotional video actually makes clear – women are in such different situations worldwide. (See Katharine Bartlett and Deborah Rhode's chapter in the book Gender and the Law on non-essentialism.) In certain communities mentioned in the video, like China, throwing money at inequality through literacy programs and sex education classes will probably have a positive influence on both first-wave issues such as attaining legal rights and third-wave issues such as how men perceive women within that culture. But in other communities discussed, such as Arkansas, throwing money at the problem may not change either of these things. In those places, it may not be law or financing but our common social philosophy that needs to change.

No matter how hard it tries, corporate policy can't dictate national or regional culture. At the end of the day, it seems that Wal-Mart's problem may be, fundamentally, all of our problem.

The invisible cure

Helen Epstein, author of “The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS,” is sensible and effective—give women a voice and perhaps solve one of the world’s largest problems: overpopulation.

The United Nations is planning to announce this Monday that the world population has reached seven billion. We are living in an age of huge population growth, and there is question as to whether the earth and her depleting resources can support the extra billion(s). BBC News suggests that space is not the issue—if the entire world population lived in one mega-city, we could all actually fit in France. Alas, we do not all live in one place and the places we live vary greatly in terms of access to resources. Sadly, overpopulation, like most social issues, is mostly a problem for the poor. In southern Africa, children and adults, stunted from chronic hunger and poor nutrition, may have to share what little they have with an ever-increasing population. While the average number of children per woman has dropped over the last decade globally, the number of children that a Niger woman will bear remained an astounding seven in 2010.

This trend may be due to the fact that controls on population that have worked in other countries—namely, contraception and a push for abstinence (some would argue)—do not work in Africa because of deep-rooted, culturally sanctioned sexism. As I write this, I am careful to note the potential ethnocentricity of my words and judgments. As a Western-born woman in my 20’s, I am undoubtedly shaped by Western values of independence. But when I acknowledge my place as a woman of the world, bearing the evolutionary collective consciousness that is passed down over the generations regarding sex and childbirth, I cannot help but cringe that “choice” for Ghanaian women is between sex/babies and a beating. “If the man’s penis is up,” explained one, “unless it enters into the vagina, it won’t lie down. So allow him to have his sex and only then can you be free. Is it not better to have the sex than to have the beating?” This is not “choice,” it is not culture, and it does not deserve my deference.

Family planning and contraceptives have been rejected in Ghana by both men and women for years—something that has perplexed researchers. In describing Western scientists gone abroad, "Dr. Epstein borrows pseudonyms from the children’s Babar books. There they are — Celeste, Arthur and Cornelius — pleasant, ineffectual, two-dimensional cutouts pasted into a complex and dangerous landscape they will never quite fathom. It is a sadly inspired touch." So what makes researchers like Dr. Epstein, and Dr. James Phillips, Columbia University demographer, so different? Perhaps it is that instead of focusing their efforts on changing male minds, they focus on elevating and empowering women’s minds. Dr. Phillips noticed that fertility rates of born-again Ghanaian women were plummeting, he asked, “Why?” First, he noted that only Ghanaian men are allowed to speak with the ancestors and spirits. Thus, by introducing Ghanaian women to Jesus, missionaries were inadvertently empowering women to engage in a powerful cultural act previously closed off to women. Second, women involved in the church were given decision-making power. And even though the church did not promote family planning, the side-effect of this liberation was considered by Dr. Epstein to be “the invisible cure.” It is not a drug; it is not better contraception, or even education. It is simply empowerment. The message is sensible and effective: empower women and the world will be just fine.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Them rural folk: Heterosexuality down on the farm

When it comes to legal articles discussing sexual identities and gender construction that differ from the heterosexual "norm," one can find an ample amount of studies and articles exploring such gender issues. However, when it comes to deconstructing heterosexuality as an evolving phenomenon that is contingent upon space, geography, upbringing, and myriad other external factors, the dearth of scholarly material on the matter comes as a surprise. In her article, "'Riding the Rural Love Train': Heterosexuality and the Rural Community" author Jo Little addresses the heterosexual paradigm in rural communities that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes. According to Little, this "normalization of heterosexuality" subsumes any opportunity for rural men or women to deviate from the heterosexual norm and defines the sexual lives that these countrymen (and women) will lead.

Although I am a novice in gender studies, from my relatively limited exposure to gender issues I have yet to come across an article that embraces an argument similar to Little. Fortunately, reading Little's article is something akin to an epiphany- all of a sudden I realized that heterosexuality, when viewed as it's own category of sexuality among an array of other sexual choices, may not be any more "natural" for people then the choice to cross dress. Once one is able to acknowledge that the heterosexual norm is not an organic conception, but a gendered construction, the veil is lifted. When ensconced in the myth that heterosexuality is the center of sexuality, from which all other sexualities diverge, one is blind to the idea that heterosexuality codes our day to day to life. In her article, Little effectively uses a rural sample to show how heterosexual norms control life in the countryside. However, the bigger picture is not limited to rural life styles, but is indicative of a larger scheme in which “normal” sexuality is the standard upon which all other forms of sexuality are compared against.

Little uses two dating campaigns conducted in the UK and New Zealand to demonstrate the manifestation of heterosexual spaces in the rural community. The first example is from a campaign entitled “Farmer Wants a Wife,” in which several farmers place an advertisement for the ideal farmer’s wife. The terms the farmers use to describe themselves run the gamut of masculine terms, including “desirable” characteristics often associated with masculinity, such as “action men” “workaholics”, and “traditional.” The qualifications sought after in the perfect farmer’s wife adhere to conventional gender stereotypes. Women are to be “good cooks,” “need to understand that farming is not a 9-5 job,” and “feminine.” While these qualifications are not exhaustive of the desired female traits sought by these bachelor farmers, Little notes that a common theme runs throughout each of these personal ads- women are expected to conform with the expectations of rural living and accept that their husband’s work comes first. Furthermore, Little explains that the notion men need wives to fulfill everyday living is an example of how heterosexual norms control the nuances of the social structure in rural spaces.

The second campaign Little utilizes to show the effect of spaces on heterosexuality is an advertisement in New Zealand for a “Batchelor’s Ball.” The most critical part of this piece is Little’s depiction of a scene when the unsuspecting bachelors see attractive female staffers organizing for the Ball. One of the other staffers had to inform the men that these women were not for them. This precipitated a conversation with the men that the women they wanted were not good-looking or conventionally attractive, because women reared as wives possess different traits. Little explains that this distinction between “urban” career women with personal professional lives and traditional, “genuine” wives who may not be as aesthetically pleasing is an example of the effects of space on heterosexual norms. The urban is exchanged for the obsequious housewife who will neatly fit into the rural landscape without any disruption.

The effects of a patriarchal society in the countryside, whether in America or foreign countries, could mean that women are confined to their traditional gender roles. Since heterosexuality is not an option for rural farmers, any type of deviation from this norm can serve as a setback for women.

As we discussed in our last class, women may be marginalized and loose their voice in rural communities where the traditional family retains a stronghold. Services for women that stray from this archetype are inaccessible to women, such as abortion, screening for diseases, jobs, and education. When women operate under this restrictive structure where heterosexual life is the hidden foundation upon which all aspects of life are to be built, how can women be expected to improve their situation? It becomes impossible to rise out of poverty when the opportunity doesn’t exist, or when such opportunities aren’t even on one’s radar.

I would be interested in reading other scholarly publications that discuss the heterosexual paradigm on a larger scale. Particularly, I am curious to see the machinations of heterosexual space in other settings, such as suburban, metropolitan, and urban areas. On a micro scale, I would like to evaluate the effect of other more intimate spaces, such as small subsets of communities and see how spatial aspects affect manifestations of heterosexuality in these places.

The Divine Right of Kings... and Queens?

Two weeks ago, as I perused the Yahoo news banner, an interesting article caught my eye. A change in England’s sexist royal succession rules? I was struck by the title. How long have I been aware of the royal monarchy of England? I’d venture to say nearly my entire life, at least from the time I began choosing my own books and stories to read (full disclosure: I am a history nerd). Yet, in all of this time, it never once occurred to me that women were not allowed to inherit the throne. History, and royal throne, have long treated women as second-class citizens in comparison to their male counterparts, pawns to be controlled by and used by the world of men. Time and progressivity have overcome many of those transgressions but some continue to exist. Even today, first-born children of the English monarchy are treated differently as a result of their sex.

At the turn of 18th Century, the Glorious Revolution was fresh in the minds of the English and the Protestant majority sought to solidify its power and influence. In an effort to maintain stability in the country and preempt succession claims, Parliament passed the Act of Settlement barring Catholics or those married to Catholics from inheriting the throne and giving precedence to male heirs in succession of the throne. The existence of this law has continued into the present day and, until recently, had not yet faced a credible challenge. But, barring any political sparring by the UK’s Commonwealth states, it appears that Prime Minister David Cameron is about to change all of that.

Although the current rules prefer first-born males over their elder sisters, it does not prevent the daughter who is the first-born child from assuming the throne if no son is born. Queen Elizabeth is one such example. However, if she had had a younger brother, he would have become King of England. If the rules change, the first born will have claim to the throne regardless of his or her sex.

What strikes me about this article is that this enduring symbol of primogeniture continued to stand in our modern era despite the many advances that have been made in other areas of women’s rights. And how has it gone unnoticed so easily?

I am also sometimes struck by the influence of youth and popularity on politics (i.e., the excitement revolving around President Obama’s candidacy and inauguration). With the young, vibrant, and fashionable faces of the monarchy, William and Kate have reshaped the public view of succession in England. Suddenly, individuals are very conscious of the lack of gender equality in the country’s highest public office. What do you think? Would this movement have occurred but for the marriage of a popular, young couple? Or was this change inevitable?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

No boys allowed!

A week and a half ago, I criticized the Girl Scouts of the USA for continuing gender stereotypes. Despite my criticism, I do believe in their mission and ability to empower young girls. When I discussed the topic with friends, my belief in the good of the Girl Scouts required us to ask a larger question: should youth organizations be gendered at all? While we did not come to a consensus, my opinion is that gendered youth programs can be beneficial.

Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to gender bias. The media bombards girls with feminine stereotypes, particularly that their physical appearance defines their worth. MISS REPRESENTATION (Girls’ Club Entertainment 2011). Additionally, school teachers treat boys and girls differently, encouraging girls to be passive and diminishing their independence and self-esteem. Sherry Lynn Owens et al., Are Girls Victims of Gender Bias in Our Nation’s Schools?, 30 J. INSTRUCTIONAL PSYCHOL. 131, 133 (2003).

Over a decade ago, two teachers, Elizabeth McLeod and Megan Armstrong, saw what was happening to girls in the classroom. They found girls were losing confidence and self-esteem as they entered adolescence. To counteract this loss, the two women began GirlVentures, a San Francisco-based, girl-only outdoor summer program.

At a small charity event a month ago, I listened to Taara Hoffman, the current Executive Director of GirlVentures, talk about the organization’s mission and its benefits. It seeks to help “girls sustain the clarity, voice and self-confidence that they risk losing during the transition to adolescence.” The organization uses outdoor adventure education to provide a setting where girls can take healthy risks, overcome challenges, learn leadership and communication skills, and develop a self and group care ethic.

Studies show benefits to single-sex education. Instructors can break down gender stereotypes that arise during girls’ adolescence. Girls can freely discover themselves without the feelings of self-consciousness and intimidation that come from co-ed groups. Also, girls can learn in an environment where they are players, not spectators. Moving the single-sex education outdoors facilitates greater participation and increases the likelihood girls will share feelings and talk openly. Girls will have a safe space to take physical and emotional risks.

My friends expressed legitimate concerns against single-gendered organizations, but I think all-girl organizations are still worthwhile. They suggested that separating boys and girls will inherently create dichotomies between the two sexes and negatively affect their ability to relate to each other. First, I do not agree that all differential treatment is bad. Treating different people the same could still create inequality. Unfortunately, popular culture pressures girls into a different mold than boys, one focused on image and self-doubt. Single-gendered organizations offer an opposing force that releases the girls from cultural binds. Second, single-gendered organizations, like GirlVentures, only temporarily isolate girls. During that time, they strengthen girls so they can assert themselves when interacting with boys in other environments, like in school or at home.

When Taara Hoffman finished her presentation about GirlVentures, unlike the end of the Girl Scouts’ story on NPR, I felt encouraged. Through GirlVentures, girls from all walks of life come together in a safe and supportive environment. They emerge from their time together equipped for the immediate struggles of adolescence and the future challenges of adulthood. For one girl, as she puts it, “GirlVentures got me to find a voice I didn’t know I had; one that allows me to stand up for what I think is right and for myself.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bosnia, War Crimes, and a Seminal Case at the ICTY

Bosnia has been in the headlines of late, as a UN criminal tribunal at The Hague tries former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic for war crimes --most specifically his "alleged" leadership role in the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica in 1995. His stretched out trial before the tribunal -- commenced after Mladic spent over sixteen years eluding authorities-- has brought Bosnia back into the international limelight, a place they shamefully inhabited in 1996.

That year saw the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indict eight Bosnian Serb soldiers for the rape, torture, and enslavement of sixteen women in the Bosnian town of Foca in 1992 -93. The region was in the midst of an ugly dissolution, as fervent strands of nationalism spurred vicious battles between community neighbors and factions who had lived in relative (if not complete) harmony for quite some time.
As incident to a widespread surge of so-called "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims and other minority groups, women --and their bodies-- became a disastrous and effective tool of warfare.

I Came to Testify, showing on PBS Video here, is a powerful new chronicle of the sixteen women who testified in those tribunals, and who gave grave insights into the atrocities of rape and sexual enslavement that Serb soldiers instituted against thousands of Bosnian Muslim women. This documentary marks the the first time since the tribunal that the sixteen women have publicly spoken about these events. It is also a story about the development of gender-based sex crimes as a distinct category of international "crimes against humanity," as well as a profile of the three strong women (one German, one American, one Nepalese) whose prosecution strategies made such a doctrinal change possible.

Testify sets the stage of the story: In a small Bosnian town of Foca (FOH-CHuh), and in the heat of the cleansing, while men were taken off to their own prison camps, the women were rounded up for a different purpose. According to an audio montage of the witnesses, "They said we should get ready. There was a truck waiting in front of the high school... They didn't tell us where we were going, and we didn't ask... They took us to one of the schoolrooms. They would curse us, and tell us that we were getting what we deserved... There were 72 of us there... Once we were all brought together, that's when the raping started."

UN investigators later turned up considerable physical evidence in Foca alone that convinced the prosecutors that they could build a case that the Serbian soldiers had indeed instituted a comprehensive and systematic campaign of rape in the region --as an instrument of terror.

The scope of the campaign was chilling. Some experts and historians, the film tells us, put the number of individual women raped in the war at 20,000. Others said closer to 50,000. One witness, a 15-year-old, going by the anonymous name of FWS-87, endured eight months of torture, rape and enslavement at the hands of several named individuals. Others were held in rooms for weeks on end, raped, and sold at will or loaned to others in the form of personal favors and debts. One purpose of these actions was to discover the whereabouts of the men in town. Yet the effect of the campaign was powerful. Women and families in nearby towns and cities who heard about the events would quickly flee the region for fear of experiencing the same fate themselves.

Eight Serb soldiers were indicted, but the convictions were handed down piecemeal, and over time. Of the eight, three received sentences (of 28, 20, and 12 years) in February 2001; two died while trying to escape arrest by NATO forces; another received a 16-year sentence in 2006; still another got 34 years in 2007.

From a historical perspective, rape and sexual crimes against women and girls were hardly novel developments. These kinds of acts had long gone on in vicious wars -- from the Middle Ages throigh to the 200,000-odd enslaved, so-called "comfort women" held by the Japanese military during World War II.
Yet from a legal standpoint, international law (both human rights and criminal) was extremely slow in addressing these crimes as anything but another aspect of war crimes in general. The raping, then, was just one ingredient of the everyday "raping and pillaging" that came with war. (For a very good discussion of the history of sexual war crimes, and international law's eventual response to them, see: "Prosecuting Wartime Rape and Other Gender-Related Crimes: Extraordinary Advances, Enduring Obstacles, Stefan A. Riesenfeld, Berkeley Journal of Int'l Law, 2003).

One of the 1996 UN Tribunal Prosecutors, Peggy Kuo, spoke of how the international community had already begun to look more and more closely at sexual war crimes as a discrete wrong -- acts based on gender, not based on only war. A cynical realist may advance the argument that this kind of act --sexual violence in wartime-- is but another form of violence. They are all heinous, and they all deserve appropriate punishment as crimes against humanity. Yet clearly a recognition that rape is an act of violence is not to say that that is all it is. Wartime rape and sexual enslavement is its own evil, and revealing it in legal fora can have tremendous moral and precedential value for the international community. Says Peggy Kuo, "
"It was absolutely worth getting out there. It needed to be talked about. So that, even if we're not prosecuting every rape that occurred, we're acknowledging that this is what is occurring"

The Foca case, then, was a seminal one. While the Foca indictments mentioned as many as 62 counts of crimes against humanity, and also many violations of "the laws and customs of wars,", the ICTY singled out gender-related crimes specifically. This was the first time that rape and enslavement were qualified, and punished, as particular offenses of crimes against humanity under international law.

Other international tribunals have followed from the ICTY's groundbreaking lead -- most notably the war crimes tribunal in Rwanda. And it is encouraging that this area of wartime depravity was revealed for what it is. Yet, as one who has long felt that criminal laws need reform --and that lengthy sentences often fail to serve the purpose their length suggests-- I honestly cringed to find that some of the eight who were indicted were sent to prison for less than
20 years. I find myself thinking that, in that instance of punishing a crime against humanity, justice was done wrong by.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings: 20 years later

This October of 2011 marks the twenty-year anniversary of what is considered to be a landmark event in the struggle for women's rights. I am referring to the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings held in October of 1991 and the powerful testimony Anita Hill, a former employee of Thomas's, gave in front of the Senate. For those of you who would like a detailed summary of the events to which I am referring, this link should be helpful.

The impact of the Hill-Thomas hearings on modern-day perceptions of women's rights and, more specifically, the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, is difficult to exaggerate. Take, for instance, this article in the Nation magazine.

Anita Hill graduated from Yale Law School in 1980. The percentage of women in law school was 38 percent-in contrast to the approximately 50 percent it is today...if the percentages of women in all professions improved over the next decade or so, the ability to speak up and speak out was often constrained by fear of losing status, ruining one's career. It was the shockingly abysmal treatment of Anita Hill by the United States Senate that changed all that. Women were mobilized in a way unseen since the time of the suffragettes.

To understand why women were mobilized to such an extent, it must be noted, as the Patricia Williams article hints at, that Anita Hill's testimony in front of the Senate, as frightening as it must have been for her, was not greeted with the near-universal sympathy one would expect from an alleged sexual harassment victim. In her testimony, Hill was referring to incidents that took place while she was an assistant to Clarence Thomas, first at the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where Thomas served as chairman. She had worked for Thomas for two years in both positions, between 1981 and 1983.

Undoubtedly, in a situation such as this, it is normal to expect a degree of skepticism, particularly if, as was described in this matter, it appears to be a case of "he said, she said." It is always very difficult in circumstances such as this to determine with certainty who is telling the truth. That being said, the virulence and anger with which Hill's allegations were greeted, mainly by conservatives who had reason to be sympathetic to a conservative nominee to the Supreme Court, pushed women all over the country to rally to Hill's support.

Twenty years later, Anita Hill's testimony detailing alleged sexual harassment she endured while working under her boss undoubtedly still resonates with many women today, not least those who have suffered some form of sexual harassment, either in or outside the workplace. This powerful event has left a legacy as a key point in the struggle to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in America, especially in situations involving an imbalance in power, such as that which existed between Anita Hill, the assistant, and Clarence Thomas, the boss.

Here, you will find a transcript of the hearings.

Give me my ($300) space!

I am by all accounts an average sized person. I am usually around 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches tall, depending on the time of day and how much yoga I have done lately. The National Health Statistics Reports released a study of average American height in 2008, which indicated that American women average 64 inches (5'4") and that American men average 69.5 inches (5'9.5"). So, while I am a good 5 or so inches taller than the average woman, I am right-on-the-mark with respect to American men.

I generally think of this as an advantage. Since attaining my current height at the age of 12 or 13, I have been able to ascertain that most adult-sized furniture is made for someone right around my height. My feet always touch the ground, I can (usually) cross my legs under a table, and I never have any problems sitting in or otherwise using furniture in public transit, theaters, restaurants or any other place I encounter in my day-to-day activities.

So, too, is my experience with airline seats. Even though airline companies are shrinking seat sizes and available legroom and pitch to economy (coach) passengers, I still find myself fitting rather comfortably into my allocated coach seat (although I wouldn't say that I'm entirely happy with the amount of space I have). I usually request the aisle seat, due to the fact that I tend to make frequent trips to the bathroom and I never sleep on airplanes--so I don't mind getting up and out for those sitting in the middle or in the window seat. Sometimes there are no aisles, and that's ok. As a person who prefers the aisle, I usually make sure that I give the armrest I share with the person in the middle to that person, primarily because I think they have the worst placement of the three of us, especially if they are traveling alone--smack dab in between total strangers.

While I don't travel by plane as frequently as when I was attending undergrad in Rhode Island, I did travel to a conference in Philadelphia last week. A revelation I made a while ago, but that I had forgotten, became apparent yet again as I got comfortable in my aisle seat on a plane to Denver last Tuesday--men and women treat space differently. More specifically, as a woman I have had to surrender my space to men quite frequently. Most often, this plays out on airplanes--most likely because on airplanes every inch of space is used for a functional  purpose. Additionally, I am very aware that while the average coach seat is comfortable for the average sized man, it is likely not so comfortable for anyone who is over 6 feet tall. And, it almost goes without saying, that most of the world's population who are above 6 feet are male.

However, regardless of the size, and I would argue, even more so with average-sized men, I encounter many legs and elbows and other aspects of bodies invading the limited space I have while traveling on planes. In every single case, even when sitting next to larger, taller women, only men invade my space.  While some of this is forgivable, given the lack of space, I believe much more of it has to do with a subconscious societal practice that indicates that the masculine involves taking up space, while the feminine is defined in part by how little space one can take up.

In her book entitled Self Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again, Norah Vincent convincingly dressed as a man for several months and wrote her observations of the different social behaviors she experienced when she was presumed to be "one of the guys." The book, although not a favorite, talks at length about Norah's conversion to her male alter-ego, Ned. She discusses her process of re-learning basic spatial behaviors that she had been taught her whole life, identifying specifically this very issue. As a man, she needed to take up space--more space than she ever used as a woman.

While I understand that gendered use of space is subconscious, I try to make a point of taking up as much space as I can in whatever setting I have as a small form of resistance to the trend. As I see it, every time a woman makes herself smaller and a man is allowed to take up the resulting space, it reinforces the idea that women are subservient to men. While I understand that many of the space-related behaviors are subconscious, I do think that beginning to bring awareness to these gendered practices can result in perhaps a more overt change in gender stereotypes.

I welcome comments from others. What do you think? Should an average-sized woman expect to share her allotted airline seat and space with an average-sized man, simply because she is smaller? Or is there something else going on? How can we change things?

And how do larger people otherwise deal with the fact that airlines are shrinking coach space for all passengers? Should they be forced to pay more? Who should give?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The modern witch hunt

Women today enjoy an unprecedented amount of liberty and freedom, yet a brief look into the past reveals a history of persecution and villainization which still lingers. While the Western world may applaud itself for the progress women have made in recent years, “women as witches” is a paradigm that still lurks in corners of the world.

Women have been castigated for the fall of man as far back as the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis. Duped into eating the forbidden fruit of knowledge by the serpent (Satan), Eve tempts Adam to do the same, thus forever damning humans to lives of pain and suffering on Earth. The curse of Eve (and on all women) to suffer in childbirth and be subservient to men has been interpreted in various ways, and has been used to justify sexism and promulgate the belief that women are at their core lustful sirens.

The Virgin Mary is best known for the immaculate conception of Jesus - the son of God was born to her, a virgin. According to the Roman Catholic Church, this means that Mary is free from the “stain” of original sin with which we are all born as a result of Eve’s misstep. Further, Eve is said to be the mother of all humankind according to the flesh, while Mary is the spiritual mother of all the faithful. While Eve lost grace, Mary preserved it. Eve conversed with the devil for the ruin of man, while Mary conversed with Gabriel, for the salvation of man. It is also no coincidence that Eve is often portrayed nude, big-breasted, and with long flowing hair, while Mary is depicted as matronly with her hair covered.

Women are still battling these roles today as they strive to toe the line between being pure and motherly, or a lustful prostitute. This dichotomy, also known as the “Madonna-Whore” complex, has left women faced with a Hobson’s choice, unable to express themselves fully without confronting the possibility of criticism and contempt. Indeed, in 1968 feminists protested at the Miss America pageant to demand that women no longer play both roles at once. They noted, "To win approval, we must be both sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope…" Whether pitted against one another or held down by sexism, women live with an almost paralyzing level of criticism.

There are consequences for women who are unable to achieve the contrived and stifling balance of appearing wholesome yet attractive to men, namely the construct of the witch. The Malleus Maleficarum (a medieval treatise on witches) stated, "All witchcraft arises from lust, which in women is insatiable." Witches’ lust was supposedly for the devil, echoing the story of Eve and it was believed that the devil could easily seduce women to join him. This explained why most of the accused witches were female. Women also possess powers that men do not: the power to bear children, breast feed, menstruate, and provoke erections. Such powers were not explainable at the time, making it easy to turn women into evil beings. Further, years of witch hysteria typically parallel times of societal struggle, upheaval, and change, resulting in scapegoating behavior targeted at women.

Today, in parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Papau New Guinea, women are again threatened with accusations of witchcraft. Over the past decade, areas of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and Papau New Guinea have seen rashes of witch massacres which have included gruesome murders of women accused of being witches, and the mutilation of young girls’ genitals to destroy their “filthy” sexuality and to keep them “pure.” The attacks are mainly focused on elderly women living alone, and many posit that the witch killings are efforts to stamp out their unique sliver of independence. Other women are killed after their children or grandchildren fall ill, as it is believed that they have bewitched these sick children and are responsible for disease. One commonly held belief is that red eyes are a sign of a witch; women develop red coloration in their eyes due to cooking over open fires all day. The areas most affected also face extreme poverty and disease, and it seems that “witches” are again the scapegoats for these tragedies. Juliana Bernard, a Tanzanian woman working to end witch-hunting, sums it up,

"Witch-hunting is the most extreme end of the extreme views towards women held by many men here…We have no rights, no property, and no say. Widows are the exception – and that is why they are targeted. Anything bad is blamed on us, and we can't answer back. It ends with us being blamed even for disease and death."

Female genital mutilation, too, appears to overlap with the modern persecution of women as witches in Africa. Girls’ clitorises are completely cut off and their vaginas so badly maimed that they are left with nothing but scar tissue, making sexual intercourse torturous and childbirth deadly. It is believed that if a girl is left uncut, she will grow into a sexually insatiable woman (read: witch). While old widows may be targeted because of their independence, young girls are targeted because of their sexuality.

With all the strides we’ve made, women today are still vilified and persecuted in parts of the world as they were centuries ago. Whether in the media as promiscuous Hollywood starlets, or as too fat/skinny, or in the African bush damning the village to starvation and disease, women face consequences (sometimes risk their lives) simply for being women. Their sexuality is controlled, criticized, repressed, and exploited; their independence is conditional, fleeting, or nonexistent. Are we still punishing Eve with our witch-hunts?

With Halloween approaching, think about the modern image of the witch: they’re either old hags or sultry seductresses. Both can be seen as representations of a woman liberated (from conformity?), yet both are condemned and punished.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Moudawana: progress for Moroccan women?

In a town nestled in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, an 18 year-old girl named Fatima welcomed her guests for a traditional, Moroccan-Islamic celebration of marriage.

Per Moroccan custom, the festivities lasted for a full week. Throughout this time, the couple engaged in various wedding rituals. At the Henna Party, for example, Fatima's female family members adorned her hands and feet with artistic, intricate designs meant to ward off evil and increase fertility. The bride also wore a different gown for each day of the week-long wedding celebration--a decadence signifying the importance of this event to the rural town.

On the day of her marriage ceremony, friends, family, and community members honored Fatima and her new husband by eating, dancing, singing, and playing the drums. The party joyously danced, sang, and played music all throughout the unpaved alleys of Fatima's hometown. At the conclusion of the celebration, an optimistic Fatima looked forward to her married life ahead.

Immediately after the marriage, Fatima moved far from her hometown to live with her husband and his family. The newlyweds enjoyed several weeks together before it was time for Fatima's husband to return to his official military duties. As soon as her husband left, the hell began.

Upon her husband's departure, Fatima endured months of domestic violence from her abusive sister-in-law. At first, Fatima's sister-in-law mistreated her through verbal and mental abuse. When Fatima spoke to her family about the abuse, they encouraged her to "stick it out." She took their advice but remained vigilant.

After about a year, the abuse escalated. Fatima's sister-in-law attacked her with a shard of glass, and the injuries sent Fatima to the hospital. Without a second thought, Fatima's family picked her up from the hospital and brought her back to her hometown.

In traditional, Islamic Moroccan culture it is considered hashuma (shameful) for a woman to refuse to live with her husband's family; in fact, it is essentially prohibited. Living on her own was not a viable--or culturally acceptable--option, for she was a married, jobless, young woman. Even after moving back to her hometown, Fatima's family only allowed her to leave the house in the company of her father.

Since her husband and other in-laws failed to protect her, Fatima never wanted to return to her husband's family. Instead, she sought her own protection. Fatima requested a divorce under the Moudawana, the Moroccan family code.

The divorce proceedings lasted about six months. Before the judge, Fatima's husband and his family claimed that she failed her duty to act as a "good wife." As evidence of this failure, their claims included (false) allegations that she did not regularly attend the hammam, a public bath house, to keep herself clean. Ultimately, the court granted the divorce, and completely changed Fatima's life for the better.


A U.S. Peace Corps volunteer recently shared Fatima's story with me. Fatima's is only 22 years-old today. Thus, her story is modern; it is not a relic of the past. In many ways, Fatima's experience highlights the vulnerability of all women to domestic violence--including the vulnerability of women to each other.

Fatima's story also emphasizes the importance of legal protections for women. The judge in Fatima's case grounded the divorce decision on women's rights afforded by the Moudawana. Thus, as a law student, the story naturally drew my attention to the Moroccan family code.

First codified in 1956, the Moroccans created the Moudawana after gaining independence from France. Yet, this early version of the Moudawana looked much different than the current version. In the 1980s and early 1990s, civil society organizations (including women's organizations) and increased international attention to women's issues led to a movement for Moudawana reform. In response to this activism, the King created a 1993 Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development.

This decision sparked fierce debate amongst Moroccans due to its secular, rights-based inspirations. Recounting the events, Amina Lemrini stated that, "In our society we rarely talk about the roles of women or women's rights, but during that period, everybody had to take [a] position." (See Against All Odds: Women Partnering for Change in a Time of Crisis). Soon after the King died, his son, King Mohammed VI, created a committee to review the Moudawana. This committee included a judge, politicians, religious scholars, intellectuals, and even female representatives from women's organizations. A few years later, the King decided to replace the code entirely, and ratification of a revised Moudawana occurred in 2004. (See "Mudawana").

Celebrated by human rights advocates, the 2004 revision of the Moudawana addresses issues of "women's rights and gender equality within an Islamic legal framework." Specifically, the Moudawana created reforms ranging from age and consent of marriage to divorce and polygamy. I particularly like that the current version of the Moudawana amends the code to treat spouses as joint heads of household rather than giving that status and power solely to the man.

Although the 2004 revision of the Moudawana appears to represent a step in the right direction in terms of women's rights and gender equality, it signifies only the beginning for Moroccan gender reform. According to the Gender Gap Index 2010, Morocco's ranking fell from 107 in 2006 to 127 in 2010. The rankings--and even Fatima's story-- reveal that Moroccan women are still far from equality with Moroccan men.

Ann Eisenberg of Cornell Law School highlights the socio-cultural factors currently restricting the full application of the Moudwana in her student note entitled Law on the Books vs. Law in Action: Under-Enforcement of Morocco’s 2004 Family Law Reform, the Moudawana. Eisenberg notes that loopholes, critical judges, and fear of bringing suit resulted in only partial implementation of the celebrated reforms. Moroccans also criticize the Moroccan legislative and legal systems for issues including lengthy court proceedings and lack of resources like food stipends for divorced women who were denied spousal support. Furthermore, one must remember that the Moudawana only covers some reforms. For example, sex outside of marriage is still not recognized in Morocco.

The criticisms and flaws associated with the Moudawana indicate the necessity of further reform. So what can American feminists do to encourage and support such reforms? Are we too biased to offer productive assistance? Do American feminists understand what Moroccan women really want?

In Leti Volpp's article entitled Feminism Versus Multiculturalism, she confronts the flawed approaches of Western women toward women of developing countries. She explains that issues receiving the most attention by Western women better reflect Western women's own fears than the primary issues facing immigrant or Third World women. As an example, she states that "[t]hese concerns [of Western women] include violations that threaten the freedom of movement, freedom of dress, freedom of bodily integrity, and freedom of control over one's sexuality, rather than violations of the right to shelter or basic sustenance." Volpp continues to explain that many Western women ignore the fact that "these women are capable of emancipatory change on their own behalf." The women who recently received the Nobel Peace Prize and those women who fight for the right to drive provide ready examples of the power of women in developing countries.

Surely there's a space for an American woman like myself to lend support to my sisters in the developing world. Yet, I agree that this endeavor requires some caution. Hopefully in recognizing my biases and helping--rather than driving--native women toward their preferred reforms, a Western woman like myself can respectfully promote gender equality and women's rights across the globe.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Girl Scouts are about more than just cookies

When I think of the Girl Scouts, two things come to mind: colorful boxes filled with delicious cookies and brown sashes filled with merit badges. So when I heard that the Girl Scouts are releasing new badges for modern times, I confess I initially started craving Samoas and Trefoils. My heart sunk when I learned I would have to wait another 91 days, 19 hours, and 23 minutes before cookie season comes to central California. In the meantime, I can take a moment to reflect on the Girl Scouts’ big news while holding myself over with Oreos.

The mission of the Girl Scouts of the USA is to build “girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.” Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low hoped to accomplish this mission by removing girls from isolated home lives and exposing them to community service and the outdoors. She held the first Girl Scouts meeting in 1912 with 18 girls. Since then, the Girl Scouts have grown to 3.2 million members, 2.3 million girls and 880,000 adults.

To record a girl’s accomplishments in the organization, the Girl Scouts award insignia—“the official items that girls . . . can wear on their uniforms”—including badges. Among the new badges are Digital Movie Maker, Website Designer, and Geocacher (a person that searches for hidden objects using GPS). The Girl Scouts have divided the badges into different categories such as Legacy, Skill Building, Financial Literacy and Cookie Business. Kathy Cloninger, the chief executive officer of Girl Scouts says the badges encourage “the critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship that the next generation of leaders will need to make the world a better place.” I agree with her.

Yet, I could not help but think that even with the new badges, many of the badges still retain feminine stereotypes. Some of the badges appeared to have relabeled old badges, for example the new Science of Style badge. This badge replaces the old badge for Fashion, Fitness, and Makeup. The new badge’s purpose is to look deeper into the science of fashion and makeup, like the chemistry of sunscreen and perfume or the nanotechnology of fabrics. Despite overlaying the activity with science, the badge is still steering girls into a traditionally feminine arena.
Some of the new badges are simply an intervening step to a more traditional feminine role. The new Locavore badge (a person that eats locally produced food) is in the cooking category of badges. After a girl scout earns the Locavore badge, the next step is Dinner Party. After making the girl aware of local foods and encouraging her to make healthy choices, the Girl Scouts teach her how to serve as a hostess.

Last spring, Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland, published a study that analyzed distribution of activities between the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Her results show that the Girl Scouts offered significantly more art activities and communal activities. The Boys Scouts offered more science activities and self-oriented activities. Denny’s study even noted gendered differences in the naming of the badges. For example, the Boy Scouts offered badges named after careers: Mechanic, Astronomer, and Geologist. The Girl Scouts offered corresponding badges named more descriptively: Car Care, Sky, and Rocks Rock (Rocks Rock is no longer offered).

When the story came on the radio, I was initially encouraged, yet I was ultimately disappointed. The Girl Scouts are taking strides in educating girls in a new age. But, I question how much these changes will go further in empowering girls. These changes are the first in 25 years. As recently as 6 months ago, a study criticized the Girl Scouts for perpetuating gender stereotypes. Nonetheless, the Girl Scouts failed to use this badge “overhaul” to eliminate its contribution to these stereotypes. The Girl Scouts missed a great opportunity to show 2.3 million girls that they can not only make the world a better place, but they can take their place in it as equals.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Men and muscle

According to the Boston Medical Center, approximately 45 million Americans diet each year. For some dieters, losing weight is a health imperative. For many others, however, dieting has to do with body image, and can lead to unhealthy results, especially for women. One study found that images of fat women illicit a reaction in the section of the female brain associated with “unhappiness and self-loathing.” For homosexual men and women, a trait for femininity increases the risk of developing an eating disorder, whereas masculinity is protective against development of an eating disorder. But, men are not immune to societal pressures, and struggle in progressively larger numbers with body image issues.

Current research indicates that many men are becoming increasingly preoccupied and dissatisfied with their bodies, most often associating increased muscle mass with attractiveness. The desire for additional muscle is linked to masculinity. Thus, most men want more muscle—and a lot more. Indeed, popular media portrays unrealistic images of the ideal male body as perfectly toned and significantly more muscular than the average male (the equivalent of the size-zero female model).

Thus, for an overweight man, the challenge is two-fold. The man must lose weight, and gain muscle. However, while gaining muscle is seen as a macho activity, dieting is not. So what do men who want to lose weight do? They drink Dr. Pepper Ten! The ten-calorie drink is marketed as “Not for women!” and serves as a reminder that men do not diet, they drink manly chrome-colored cans of low-sugar beverages. I’m not sure how I feel about the marketing scheme. On one hand, I am sympathetic to an overweight man’s desire to make healthy choices, and am disgusted by the ad. On the other hand, I wish there were more anti-dieting ads, perhaps directed towards young females. …Or maybe I just wish the ads were promoting health, and portraying realistic body images.

Either way, it seems that women are no longer alone in their struggle to win the body-image race.

The Wrong Answer: A Game of Chicken with Women's Lives in the Balance

Last week, I read with shock and dismay a story coming out of Kansas. In the midst of economic downturn and the age of austerity, state and municipal governments have had to cut back budgets in order to remain in the black. Of course, deep cuts make sense given the situation these local governments find themselves in. The public should understand this. A hiring freeze in government jobs? Ok. Cut city funded firework shows during the Fourth of July? Makes sense. Mandated furlough days? Sure it isn’t good, but I understand. Legalize domestic violence? Yeah, ok… wait, what?!?!?!?!

Yes, in Topeka, Kansas, city officials were considering a controversial vote to decriminalize domestic violence in the city after the Shawnee County government dropped domestic violence enforcement on the cities’ laps. How could this happen? Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office’s annual budget was cut by 10%. As a result, the DA announced that the office would no longer prosecute misdemeanor cases, which includes domestic violence crimes. As a result, the county’s cities found themselves in charge of prosecuting these cases. But cities like Topeka are lacking their own resources and say they cannot handle the increased costs to handle prosecutions.

So what do rational adults do when their respective offices are constricted by budget cuts? They pick a hot-button issue with great potential for grossly tragic consequences to human life to wield as political swords, of course. Why would we try to protect those victims whose lives have been turned upside down by domestic violence, especially during the month of October, which has been the nation’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month since 1987? Why should we enforce laws against domestic violence, even while we all agree that domestic violence is a serious crime that should be charged? The real question, the issue we should all be focused on, is who is going to prosecute these crimes and who will pay for it?

In reality, this is simply a political game of chicken. And both sides are waiting to see who blinks first. By removing domestic violence from Topeka’s criminal code, the city counsel hopes to force the District Attorney to prosecute the cases because they remain a crime under state law. But this political posturing is putting victims of domestic violence at risk. As of yesterday, when the Topeka City Counsel voted to approve the measure, at least 35 incidents of domestic violence had been reported and not been pursued by the District Attorney or the city. And 18 people jailed have been released without facing charges.

Domestic violence is a crime that can reach deep into all facets of life. Young children, older adults, men, women – nobody is entirely immune. But the simple fact is that the vast majority of domestic violence victims are women. Domestic violence is already one of the most chronically underreported crimes in this nation. Decriminalizing this crime further marginalizes victims and pushes women to the fringe. Failing to prosecute these cases will have dire consequences. In an effort to regain or reassert their dominance over their victims, abusers typically become increasingly violent. And abusers can manipulate the situation, telling their victims that nobody cares about them.

I understand that political entities are guarding their sacred budgets and protecting them from being further diminished. I appreciate why the District Attorney is pressuring the county to reinstate his 2011 budget for 2012. And I get why the City cannot afford to take on the added expense of the cases. But this political gamesmanship is the wrong answer. There must be better options (i.e., hiring freezes, denying pay raises, splitting costs, or more) to address the financial troubles our local governments are facing.

A critique on essentialism

In today's world, women from all walks of life occupy powerful positions in the corporate world, the media, government, and politics. It is nearly impossible for one to come up with a framework for solidarity among women who are so vastly different. In any given situation, a female white worker at a law firm probably has more in common with her fellow male associates than she does with a lower class woman who works as a clerk at a convenience store. In fact, the only guaranteed similarities between the two women are biological traits, that may or may not be of equal endowment, utility, or appearance. Whether one wants to admit it, we live in a highly stratified class based society, and to envision that a monolithic feminism can encompass such variations is idealistic at best. Within this hierarchy are other differences, such as gender, race, sexual orientation, education and other parts of society that separate us from each other. In order to form a coherent feminist dialogue that runs the gamut of all types of women, one must proceed cautiously when categorizing certain attributes to "all women" as essentialists often do.

One example of the potential detrimental effects of essentialism can be found in the readings in a piece entitled, "Sojourner Truth: Reminiscences by Frances D. Gage, Akron Convention." In this literary passage, the author describes in detail the divisive approach women in the suffrage movement took towards equality, and many White suffragists were afraid that support for abolitionists would taint their cause. Well known suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed for the rights of White women at the expense of their African American counterparts, which silenced the voice of African American women. Although feminist discourse today does not overtly separate on the basis of race or class, perhaps the subtle impact of a feminist voice that fails to account for such differences may be more detrimental in the long term.

Another dilemma presented by the readings is the problem of intra-gender differences that may go unrecognized. Authors Carbado and Gulati posit a fictional scenario involving Mary, an African American female in a law firm. When the firm decides to promote several associates to partnership, 4 other black women are promoted, but Mary is left behind. Mary asserts a sexual discrimination/racial discrimination claim that can be explained as a hybrid injury that occurs specifically to Mary as an African American Women. However, on Mary's second claim based on identity discrimination, the court failed to see any possible violation. This situation signals the problem with intra-gender differences-while the court may sympathize with Mary's dual sex/race claim, the same court cannot comprehend the intra-racial dynamics that may set Mary apart. In this particular example, despite her stellar performance as a worker, Mary may have failed to conform with the firm culture by adhering to certain gender and race customs that set her apart from the other contemporary African American, female associates who made partner. Such expressions of identity include Mary's status as a single women (while the other women were married); Mary's decision to refrain from happy hours, and her desire to dress in traditional African garb, all of which there coalesces an identity that set Mary apart from her White colleagues and her African American colleagues. While the firm may appear to promote African American associates, it may have selectively chosen those who relinquished their unique heritage for conformity with the firm.

While I have not figured out how to resolve this problem, I'm not sure if intra-gender issues are specific to feminist essentialism. How one dresses and interacts in the workplace reflects racial, gender and class barriers. One's decision not to attend happy hour, or to wear cultural attire to work is probably not appropriately categorized under gender or race. A white woman striving for partnership who avoids happy hours, or a male attorney who trades a typical suit for an Irish kilt will face the same stigma as any other minority.

Although I don't agree with the intra-gender quandary that arise with essentialism, the general problems highlighted by the authors with respect to essentialism demonstrate the myriad opportunities for underinclusive classification based on this theory. This "intersectionality" problem suggested by the authors allows for those who do not fit a categorization to "fall through an anti-discrimination gap."

In order to rectify this problem, feminists must be able to include in their dialogue for women who are fundamentally different from one another. In this vein, postmodernism may provide a legitimate platform for women to rid themselves of external differences and find within each other a shared, female experience. Unfortunately, postmodernist theory, which eschews traditional binary systems and socially constructed ideas in exchange for a society free of these external half-truths, may prevent women from uniting behind a common ideology, however imperfect these commonalities may also be.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


We’ve discussed in class and in our blog the media’s problematic representation of women in politics. This of course is a particularly salient issue considering the success of two female candidates during the 2008 presidential campaign trail, and the current buzz around another female GOP candidate for the 2012 presidential election.

But the broader issue of representation, not just of female politicians but all women, in mainstream media is at the center of a new documentary titled "Miss Representation.” The movie presents a grim look at the ways in which media portrays (or fails to portray) powerful women and what effect this approach has on young women’s confidence and sense of empowerment. The tagline for the documentary, “you can’t be what you can’t see,” introduces the idea that young women today have few opportunities to see positive portrayals of women leaders in the media. Without positive examples of women in leadership positions, how are they to succeed?

From the movie’s website:

As the most persuasive and pervasive force of communication in our culture, media is educating yet another generation that a woman’s primary value lay in her youth, beauty and sexuality—and not in her capacity as a leader, making it difficult for women to obtain leadership positions and for girls to reach their full potential.

We’ve discussed many of these issues in class. We’ve discussed how female leaders and politicians are oftentimes criticized for non-political issues, those which would never be brought up in a conversation regarding a male politician. Just last week, Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown created controversy when he made a questionable comment in regards to his likely 2012 opponent, Elizabeth Warren. The Senator’s opinion on Warren’s never posing nude was a resounding “thank god!” But why would this even be an issue in a Senatorial campaign? Is it because there is a man and woman running against each other that sexuality comes into play? The writers and directors of “Miss Representation” would likely say “yes.”

How else do we see this kind of “sexification” of women come out in mainstream media? In mid-September, the Miss Universe Organization put on their “Miss Universe” pageant. The final question for Miss Angola (who would go on to win the crown) was the following: "If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?" I have one question in response…are you kidding me? Is this the basis on which the media are portraying and judging women?

To make things more confusing, mainstream media sometimes throws us a curveball by cloaking “sexification” in the form female empowerment. A more recent example of women in mainstream media that has me flummoxed comes in the form of ESPN’s Magazine’s "Bodies Issue.” The projected message of the “Bodies Issues” is that athletes’ strength and physique should be celebrated. The athletes themselves discuss openly how "liberating" their experience was posing nude. What flummoxes me is whether this is an appropriate celebration of the female athlete’s body or not? What would Miss Representation think? What do we think? Are we jolted by the nude image of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s star goalie on the front of the magazine? Do we applaud her or condemn her for sending the wrong message?

I’m not sure if I know the answers to my own questions, or if I’m entirely ready to answer them at all. My gut is that it’s a move in the right direction. I was especially impressed by the fact that the “Bodies Issue” included female and male athletes. To me, this was a bit of an equalizer, as it did not expose only females. But the question remains, are media getting better or worse at portraying women in a positive light?

The Wal-Mart chronicles: part I (legal issues)

On June 20th, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Ninth Circuit’s certification of a class in a class action lawsuit brought by current and former employees of Wal-mart against the corporation. (See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011); Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 603 F.3d 571 (9th Cir. 2010).) The lawsuit attracted extensive media attention; with over a million employees, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the United States. A lot of money was at stake.

In short, the women bringing the suit alleged that they were victimized by Wal-Mart’s practice of letting local managers make subjective decisions about pay and promotions. More than 100 employees filed sworn declarations stating that they were paid less and given fewer opportunities for promotion than male colleagues.

The Supreme Court's opinion is noteworthy both for settling this high-stakes dispute, and because it sets new limits on class action suits, limits that may affect pending gender discrimination complaints against units of companies such as Cigna Corp. (CI), Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS), Bayer AG (BAYN), Toshiba Corp. (6502), Publicis Group SA, Deere & Co. (DE) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (COST).  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, which governs class certification, sets forth four requirements. These are (1) numerosity -- the class must be so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable; (2) commonality -- questions of law or fact common to the class; (3) typicality -- claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class; and (4) adequacy of representation -- the representative, or named, parties must fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class. (Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 23.)

In its opinion, the Supreme Court ("Court") wrote that in order to prove 23(a)(2) commonality, a plaintiff must show significant proof that an employer operated under a general policy of discrimination in order to "bridge the conceptual gap" between an individual’s discrimination claim and the existence of a class of persons who have suffered the same injury. This has the potential to raise the plaintiff’s burden of proof from (A) the plaintiff’s having to prove merely that the alleged injuries were similar to (B) the plaintiff's having to show that the alleged injuries stemmed from the same "general policy" of discrimination.

The Court found that plaintiffs failed to meet that heightened burden of proof. Wal-Mart’s official company policy forbids sex discrimination, and the superstore has penalties for denials of equal opportunity. The Court found that no statistical or anecdotal evidence suggested even an informal "general policy" of sex discrimination.

The Court further found that the Ninth Circuit improperly certified the class members’ claims for backpay. Under Rule 23(b)(2) monetary relief is only available when a single, indivisible remedy would provide relief to each class member. Accordingly, it is usually incidental to injunctive or declaratory relief. Where individuals’ claims would be more fairly and efficiently adjudicated one by one, class certification is denied. (Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 23.) Backpay is a typical remedy in “pattern or practice” discrimination claims, and because it is so situation-specific, backpay tends to be easier to determine on a person-by-person basis than for a large group of people. (Interestingly, this monetary relief rule reflects an application of the basic principles of postmodernism and non-essentialism in an economic context.)

Although the Court denied class certification, the aggrieved women’s lawyers state that they will move ahead with claims on behalf of the female workers, either as individuals or as part of smaller groups.