Monday, December 26, 2011

The Gift of Gender, Part Deux

Yesterday morning I sat in one of my sister's eminently comfortable lounge chairs in her Washington, DC, home, in wavering stages of wakefulness because of a protracted bout of jetlag and post-exam fatigue. It is a uniquely anguishing cocktail of symptoms, and does little help for sleep. Please try to avoid it where possible.

So there I sat, coffee in hand, marveling at the whirl of childhood vim and hysteria. The stage was set in the form of a Christmas tree bedecked with various discordant designs of glossy paper. Expectation weighed portentously in the air. Chris, my sister's husband, held bleary vigil over the mound of gifts. My sister, Catrin, tended vainly to the children (Lucy, 6, Mimi, 4), who were bouncing up and down in their pajamas, as if little electric bolts shot through their feet every few seconds. Wide-eyed, they awaited a bounty of gifts -- a bequeathment of generosity so excessive as to create, by my lights, decades of subtle psychological damage.

I had in previous years seen both of my sisters in various stages of the gift-buying process: the planning, buying, organizing, wrapping, and so on. I noticed that, no discredit intended to my bothers-in-law, that this was quintessentially my sisters' role. I saw it yesterday morning too. I looked back to my childhood, and remarked at (in the post-Santa years, before which my parents of course had nothing to do with Christmas) the buying and the anxiety over who gets what, and the tending carefully to children's myriad and almost unknowingly selfish "wants." All of this, I saw now with crystal clarity, was my mother's work. Period. And without having to do a study on the subject I would wager that this is the case for most American families and most American mothers.

Some of it may be explained by the fact that many families' private/domestic spheres still belong very much to the mom. Unfair forces still continue to keep many mothers limited to the private sphere of family life, and so gift giving, then, may be but one extension of that world. The parental "sorting process" --an interesting dynamic we covered briefly in one of our class's early discussions-- may also play a part in explaining the mother's dominance of the gift-buying domain. Fathers may end up being the caretaker of the trash, or of temperamental DVD players; mothers may end up in charge of dinners, the garden, or furniture arrangement. These are admittedly hopelessly obvious stereotypes, but it is remarkable how that sorting process often works with such consistency. Maybe gift-buying falls in Mom's hands, but maybe it does so for no greater reason than the presumption (likely flawed) that they are better at it.

At any rate, I have noted time and again my woeful skills at gift-buying. I have always pegged it to my brain --my quixotic and distracted intellectual musings, my acute lack of insight into my friends' evolving "wish lists." I might be misled into thinking that women are just better at this, using as very limited evidence my mother, my girlfriend, and my two sisters. They are all whizzes at it. Yet my brother also has a knack of divining intuitively what someone wants or what they might like. Clearly, then, this is about nurture and not about nature. In my sister's family, at least, Christmas gift-buying lands in her lap. She's good at it, yes, and she clearly enjoys putting thought an love into her children (not just on Christmas and not just in the form of presents). Yet I could sense her relief that this morning spelled the end of another harrowing month-plus of planning and execution.

Now, this isn't what I really intended to write about. I actually wanted to write about gender roles for children, seen in the way we buy things for children. Yet it was covered already, by one of my clever classmates, here. Even worse it was a thoughtful and good read! At least if she had done a rotten job of it, I could rationalize getting around the preemption. Alas, so be it. I will add my two cents anyway.

When deciding what to buy "our" children should we mix it up, and go for so-called "gender neutral" gifts, and allow them to move naturally to those kinds of toys they prefer? On one level, that would appear to make sense, in that there are some things all children love (children's books, DVDs) and there are some things (dolls, princess dresses, footballs, for example) where a child will rarely, though of course not never, be happy to receive and to play with both. The question is, which way will the children lean? According to gender assumptions about pink, dolls, swords, army men, etc.? Or according to the assuption that kids like all kinds of things, and if we allow the kids to choose, then the parents can follow the lead. That is what I think Rose Sawyer was getting at in her post, and it is a great idea to follow the kids' leads.

This article, here,
makes a similar point in decrying parents who reflexively suppress or turn a blind eye to a son who takes a liking to playing with dolls, or a daughter who wants to get a mohawk. The article talks about how more and more parents are allowing their children to run with it, and are supporting their choice. If we assume that there ave always been kids who wanted to cross genders by not falling in lockstep with the other football-loving boys --and if we assume that gender proscriptions hurt their ability to be who they want to be with their identities and with their toys-- then removing those restrictions will alllow more fluid toy-gender identities to emerge. Moreover, writes the author of the article, not only should it not be a "bad" thing for a boy to want a barbie, but unnecessarily worried parents should also cool their jets about exactly what that means anyway. A child psychologist interviewed for the column states that kids go through various stages of interest with their toys. It often says only that they like to mix it up, not that they will be straight, or gay, or transgender.

I found that insight a helpful way to get unfairly worried parents to sit back and let things happen, even if they are not yet willing to be enlightened enough to allow their children to be who they intuitively want to be. My niece, Sylvia, asked if I would play with her. I said sure. Little did I know that her main and almost only playmate is her rambunctious older Brother, Alfred, whose sole apparent purpose is to construct elaborate games involving knights, soldiers, and murder-by-sword. So I found it a bit jarring when Sylvia, a lovely little thing who looks as if primed to enter a Janis Joplin look-alike casting, said "Let's play WAR!!" and proceeded to chase me about the apartment with a plastic dagger.

However, I also noted, as may others have, just how uncanny it is for most --and I stress, most, not all-- kids to gravitate to toys according to these strict gender norms. The boys will so often find great glee, without any solicitation, upon building a fort, or throwing balls, and the little girl will so often want to play with dolls (case in point: Lucy and Mimi, who, every two hours or so, seem to demand being changed into a different princess dress!). Still, the fact that most kids act this way proves nothing. Articles like the Ny Times on, and Rose Sawyer's post, alert parents to their responsibility with their children, who can sense the foreboding pressure of parental gender expectations. A great way to understand the dynamic is to listen to his wonderful gem from the 1970s: It is a bit of poignant nostalgia, a great song/skit, from the pathbreaking children's LP, Free to Be You and Me. The skit is called "William Wants a Doll." You should listen to it. I grew up with this album. It is etched forever in my psyche.

enjoy the rest of the holidays all!

Sunday, December 25, 2011


In a post last month, we learned about Girl Effect, an organization dedicated to empowering girls around the world in an effort to end poverty. In an insightful reply, RoseSawyer highlighted the "The No Problem Problem" in America. People in the United States, she explained, often fail recognize the need for female empowerment on the domestic front. We forget that the same techniques used to inspire confidence in women abroad can greatly improve the lives of women at home. Agreeing with Rose’s statement, I made a note to look out for any news relating to female empowerment in the United States.

A few weeks later, during some late-night procrastination on Facebook, I noticed that a friend posted a link with a message encouraging her network to listen to an inspiring speech for an event called TEDxWomen. As soon as I clicked on the link, I realized that I had found just what I was looking for. It was a piece of empowering, feminist heaven--and all right there on my computer screen.

TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) is an organization dedicated to spreading ideas. Started in 1984, the organization hosts conferences, talks, and “TEDx” projects that provide communities with the ability to host their own, local, independent TED-like events. Central to each event is the accessibility of ideas. To achieve this purpose, each speaker essentially delivers the speech of a lifetime in eighteen minutes or less, and then the organization does its best to make these talks and ideas accessible to others.

TEDxWomen represents one of the independently organized efforts. On December 1st, women from around the world came together to discuss a variety of issues relevant to women and the female experience. Several videos of the event are accessible on the TEDxWomen website at I encourage you to watch them.

The speeches that I watched inspired me to do more than simply discuss the challenges women face—as we did so productively over the course of the Feminist Legal Theory course. They inspired me to do everything from encouraging my little sister to use her vocal talents to sing about the struggles of girls and women like the Girl Up/Project Girl Collective, to thinking more about using the interdependence created by technology to aid other women.

Although criticized for its failure to readily recognize the event as feminist, the events and website provide a space for people to empower women both at home and abroad. By acknowledging the power of women to insight positive change, hopefully more women will volunteer to help each other, to promote inclusiveness, to lead, or to just be nice.

The Sound of Music- A Different Perspective

Ever since I was a little girl, The Sound of Music has been my favorite holiday movie. I had always thought that the story of a young nun, Maria, who leaves the abbey to serve as a governess to the 7 unruly Von Trapp children was a rather innocuous story. While the movie will always be a classic, I noticed this Christmas that several songs in the movie carry many a sexist undertone. In this piece, I think it is fitting to take a new look at these epic songs from a feminist perspective.

The first song, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," is a duet between Liesl, the youngest of the Von Trapp children, and her boyfriend, Ralph. In this song, Leisl replies to Ralph's serenade with, "I am sixteen, going on seventeen, innocent as a rose. Bachelor dandies, drinkers of brandy, what do I know of those? Totally unprepared am I, to face a world of men. Timid and scared and shy am I, of things beyond my ken." In this famous scene, Leisl is wooed by a "man" one year her senior while dancing in a gazebo at night. As a child, I knew all of the lyrics to this song, and never saw anything fundamentally wrong with this seemingly innocent picture. Upon reflection, I realized that Leisl's character, and the words in this song, paint a different portrait then one I had once seen as a child.

First of all, it is important to contextualize my commentary. Obviously The Sound of Music was produced at a time when gender expectations and roles were drastically different, and the movie is set in a pre-World War II Austria. Leisl is portrayed as a hopeless romantic, enchanted with a young soldier. Though there may be nothing inherently bad about depicting Leisl as a chaste and angelic teenager, I believe that this unrealistic portrayal of the "virgin" teenager is detrimental to young women. I have been searching to figure out what exactly bothers me about Leisl's character, and it appears that I have found the answer. My reasoning is quite circular, but I have found why Leisl's "innocent" character can have a damaging influence on women. As an impressionable child, the words "innocent as a rose" resonated with me. Since I first saw the movie when I was 6 years old, the image of a virtuous Leisl stayed with me for years. The problem with Leisl is that the idea of a flawless virgin at the age of 16, "unfamiliar" with the "world of men", doesn't exist. And it doesn't take a genius to realize that grappling with a childhood make- believe character who sings about being "timid" around men may cause an adolescent girl to become disillusioned with real feelings that often arise during teenage relationships that are not exactly "innocent." When there is no countervailing character in one's most cherished movie who represents real life and the real emotions that surface during teenage lust, one can become disenchanted.

My discussion of "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" does not end with Leisl and Ralph. In the end of the movie, Maria, who has married Captain Von Trapp, sings with Leisl and the two perform a new rendition of the song. Leisl, distraught and frustrated that Ralph no longer wants a relationship, asks Maria for advice about love. Maria replies, "Lo and behold your someone's wife, and you belong to him. You make think this kind of adventure, may never come to you..." As a child, I had never viewed Maria as Captain Von Trapp's property, and to hear Maria openly declare herself as an "item" of Captain Von Trapp almost made my jaw drop. Not only is Maria singing about her husband, but she advertises marriage as an "adventure" that Leisl may some day be fortunate enough to experience. While I see how these lyrics can be beautiful, they may also be sinister. To explain that belonging to a man is an adventure to look forward to in life is damaging to a young girl's ears, for it belies the truth that a woman can find an independent and promising future without the help of a husband. Again, this movie is based in the 1930s, so the context makes the lyrics more understandable. But, the movie also shows how far we have progressed. Imagine a mainstream, popular Glee episode where the characters sang such lyrics. There would be public outrage!

Though I will continue to watch The Sound of Music every Christmas, I now watch it from a feminist perspective. It is with this newfound grace that one can still enjoy the classics, while remaining weary of any messages that promote unrealistic expectations of women.

Female sports reporters: pieces of meat

The history of sports goes way back. Way back to the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. Since then, sports have been widely popular and resemble wars waged on battlefields. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, etc. are 
Full contact, high energy sports [that] emphasize masculinity and therefore have made it difficult for female participation. It is often believed that these battles are no place for a woman.
Indeed, although (for legal purposes) the major sports leagues do not officially "ban" women from participating, there is a clear expectation and informal practice of keeping them male-only. Instead, they create separate, all-women leagues that are inferior and not nearly as popular as their male counterparts.

In doing research for this blog, I came across countless forums that discuss whether or not women should be allowed to play in the major sports leagues. The sexist comments were not surprising. The world of sports belongs to men, and that's just the way it is.

But every sports league and network needs its reporters and writers, and although there also are no official rules against women reporters and writers, they are certainly the minority. Of course, being the female minority in the male-dominated, testosterone-fueled world of sports doesn't come without sexism.

Jennifer Gish is a sports columnist for the Albany Times-Union in Albany, New York. In September, she wrote an article on the lack of talent on the Buffalo Bills this season and about how Bills fans were becoming a bit delusional. In response, she received hundreds of responses from Bills fans - sexist, insulting responses. Many of the responses had nothing to do with her capability as a sports columnist; they attacked her physical appearance:
Seen some photos of you and you are as ugly as your story about we bills fans. we may lose, we may win but you will still be ugly either way. in response to this story GO TO HELL and you may want to consider plastic surgery or something, you are one god awful ugly looking female.
Here's a picture of Jennifer Gish, by the way. She's not ugly - certainly not "god awful ugly looking." But why  is her physical appearance even an issue here? Oh, right - because that is how men place value on women. Writing skills, sports knowledge, and intelligence aren't what get the spotlight, but attractiveness is. If a male writer had written this exact same story, do you think he would have received the same hate mail? No. Even if he did receive hate mail, it wouldn't have discussed his physical appearance. 

Because the world of sports is a man's world, there is a widely held stereotype about women that they are essentially inept when it comes to sports. Even if a woman is as die-hard of a fan as a man is, she isn't taken seriously. It seems to be assumed that women don't like sports and don't know sports. I'm not surprised, then, that men react poorly to women whose job is to talk about, write about, and analyze sports. In fact, I bet that many men view it as a threat to their manhood, that a woman is "higher up" in the "sports hierarchy" than them. 

Although female reporters and writers have come a long way in the past few decades (meaning they are actually allowed to be sports reporters and writers), they still face an uphill battle. In addition to the issue of work-life balance with a career that requires one to work nights and weekends, most sports editors are male and rarely give the "good" positions or assignments to women. 

Indeed, female reporters are often delegated the work that male reporters consider themselves to be "above," such as sideline reporting. An article about the peephole nude video scandal involving ESPN reporter Erin Andrews referred to the controversial way women are used as sideline reporters:
Once upon a time, ex-jock lugs like O.J. Simpson worked the sidelines chasing down interviews with guys they once played with or against. But these days, those jobs are also filled by young, pretty women, while mostly male analysts narrate the game's action in a distant broadcast booth. It allows broadcasters to stock their shows with beautiful female faces who nevertheless remain outside the core of the show. 
This brings up another aspect of the female sports reporter: sexual objectification. Female reporters aren't hired for their ability to report sports, they are hired for their looks. The sports audience is primarily male, and what better way to raise ratings than with a nice piece of eye candy on the field. It's an issue in itself, but what makes it worse is when the woman becomes such an object of sexual attention that her privacy is taken advantage of. A man illegally filmed a nude video of Erin Andrews through the peephole in her hotel room while she unknowingly curled her hair and got dressed and mass-distributed it via the internet. The article linked to above sums the situation up accurately:
She has been reduced to a symbol of the tension between the still-limited opportunities for female sports journalists and the way the sports world has responded to them.
What is even more disturbing is how the mainstream media responded to the video. As Howard Kurtz pointed out, the media reported on the victimization of Andrews by the "peephole pervert," discussing her outrage and the egregiousness of the behavior. But along with that, multiple news outlets accompanied their stories with photos from the actual nude video - some barely censored, some not censored at all. Simultaneously, the news media reported on how the video victimized this woman and further victimized her by even more widely disseminating the private pictures. 

Sexual objectification of women is nothing new, but it is becoming increasingly common in the world of sports reporting and is clearly getting out of hand. What will the future be like for female sports reporters? Will they become more prevalent and gain more power and respect in the industry, or will they remain sexual objects put on the field to get good ratings and have their privacy and bodies exploited in the media? I'm not too optimistic.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gender and Gifts

Recently, Jimmy Kimmel released a YouTube video that went viral. The video was titled, “I gave my kids a terrible present.” The challenge: present your child with a holiday present a few weeks early, but make sure it’s something that the child won’t like. Videotape the reaction.

The clip is, predictably, funny. Most of the children appear to be 3-8 years old. Their cute, crestfallen faces are certain to induce fits of laughter. However, the video also indicates the extent to which societal gender stereotypes persist.

What makes a present “terrible?” Some of the “terrible presents” are gender neutral – an onion, a battery. But many of them are not. One boy receives a girl activity book. Another boy receives a Hello Kitty pink sweater. Another boy receives “ponies.” Each of these boys has a particularly vehement negative reaction.

In light of all that we’ve discussed over the semester, this struck me a discouraging example of gendered socialization at a young age. What makes a very young boy distraught over receiving a girl activity book, a hello kitty sweater, or a pony?  Why weren’t the girls upset about receiving batteries, or hammers? Why was the pony recipient’s sister devastated to receive a book?

The more I watched the video, the more I realized how ubiquitous and persistent gendered socialization is. In particular, I noted the extent to which hegemonic masculinity influences boys. In the article “To Lynch a Child: Bullying and Gender Nonconformity in Our Nation’s Schools,” Michael Higdon discusses bullying as a sort of “gender policing,” a way of making sure that individuals “mirror those stereotypes that exist within our society at large.” He points out that “our society tends to prize highest of all a form of masculinity referred to as ‘hegemonic masculinity,’ which is characterized by ‘power and the subordination of both women and non-hegemonically masculine men,’” and that, perhaps accordingly, “boys are both “more likely to bully and also be bullied.”

Boys’ resulting unwillingness to adopt traditionally feminine behaviors, in turn, helps to explain the so-called “reverse gender gap.”

And though a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, the clip in which a little girl receives “eggs” and a boy receives “a hot dog,” as well as the clip in which a young girl puts a rotten banana in her mouth, raise further questions. It’s not the children that I’m wondering about, here – it’s a society that (as regards the former) gave these presents, and (as regards the latter) selected this specific clip for mass viewing.

For gender-conscious parents, it seems that there will be an inevitable tension, during the holidays, between giving a child a gender-neutral gift and giving that child a gift that he or she will genuinely like. Perhaps, due to social pressures that Mom wishes didn’t exist, a little girl desperately wants a Barbie. What to do?

Although it’s arguably impossible to resist all of gendered socialization’s influences, I believe that it is worthwhile to resist giving one’s children those gifts that most blatantly entrench traditional gender roles. Children are malleable. My little brother was raised around three older girls, and wanted nothing more than to be accepted among them; he asked for ponies and paper dolls. A parent whose son (or daughter) throws a fit about receiving a gender-inappropriate gift can explain how the gift is “cool” – by pointing out, “the activity book will make you a better painter, like grandpa,” or “cowboys rode ponies.”

The winter holidays are a time of year defined by symbolism, and tradition. What better time to break away from the more restrictive aspects of our shared social history? What better time to start something new?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What Is Happening In Egypt?

Almost one year ago, the people of Egypt rose up against rampant inequality, government corruption, and Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian government shut down the Internet and cracked down on the populace. Eventually, the Egyptian military had to intervene. After the government capitulated power, the Egyptian citizens celebrated and the ruling military promised to return the government to the people in the form of democracy.

But those actions now seem a distant memory. In recent months, conflicts between the military and other political groups have begun to appear, leading to a newer series of protests. Amongst these protests, women have been repeatedly victimized and subjected to appalling acts of violence.

In recent crackdowns, the military has killed dozens of protesters and beat a number of women, dragging them by the hair and stripping them in public. After the above photo was released, the military justified its actions against the veiled woman because she was “immoral” – releasing a video showing the woman talking about sex outside of marriage with her partner. Seriously. That was their “she deserved it” defense. The image has sparked both domestic and international outcry. Hillary Clinton expressed her outrage saying, “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people.”

Thank goodness for Hillary Clinton having the courage to say what we all are thinking, despite the strain her remarks may have on the US relationship with Egypt. Indeed, some Egyptian officials have denounced her remarks, calling on the US to cease its interference. As Erin Ryan notes, perhaps the US should stop interfering – perhaps we should withdraw our $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt. However, in recent days, Egypt’s military offered its regret for the attacks.

I have a hard time accepting Egypt’s regret as a sincere apology. Egyptian culture has a long history of disrespecting women’s rights. This isn’t the first instance in which the military has beaten or stripped women. In some cases, the government subjected women to “virginity tests.” And rape is a rampant throughout the country. The Interior Ministry concludes that an average of 55 women are raped each day but some believe that figure is even higher. Many rape and sexual assault cases – as high as 98% in 2003 – are unreported to authorities. Egypt’s conservative society does not accept such issues being brought to the forefront because they consider them to be too private or personal. And social taboos prevent many women from seeking help.

Egypt’s “apology” is not an apology – it is politically correct. It is a child apologizing with his/her fingers crossed behind their back, knowing that they will continue to act as they have until they are caught again. A changed heart must accompany a real apology. Until the nation attempts to make social and cultural changes encouraging gender equality and women’s rights, Egypt’s heart will remain unchanged.

Let the boobies breathe

I have always had an issue with breasts. By issue, I mean, I have never understood why it is acceptable and legal for men to be topless in public, but for women, it is a crime in many places. What is the difference? Literally, the difference is a bunch of fat and mammary glands. Making it criminal for women to be topless in public is yet another way of patriarchal governments controlling what women can do with their bodies. Maybe if we didn't have laws banning exposure of breasts in public, they wouldn't be so taboo and so sexually objectified.

One thing that bothers me about this is that I have seen countless men, especially with the growing problem of obesity in our country, topless in public who have larger breasts than myself and many other women. And really, if you took pictures of just their chests and showed them to me, I probably couldn't tell whether they belonged to a male or a female.

In the summer of 1991, female University student Gwen Jacob in Ontario was arrested for walking home with her top off in 92 degree heat. She was charged with committing an indecent act and fined 75 dollars. Jacob recalls that she took her top off after seeing some men playing sports with no shirts on. A woman saw Jacob and called the police, saying she was concerned because her young children saw Jacob topless. Jacob challenged her arrest in court, arguing that:
Women's breasts are just fat tissue, not unlike men's.
The judge ruled against her and upheld the conviction, saying that breasts should not be uncovered in public because:
A woman's breast is part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch.
 This reasoning reminds me of reasoning I've heard for why Islamic women should wear hijab: to prevent sexual harassment from men who can't control themselves when looking at the female body. In that vein, any part of the body that is sexually stimulating should be covered up, right? Well, I happen to find a nice set of pecs on a guy quite scintillating, as do many women, but men can flaunt their pecs all they want. Is the judge implying that it doesn't matter what women find sexually stimulating, only what men do? If people were concerned about exposing body parts of men that women find stimulating, there would be a stronger argument for men not being allowed to go topless than for women. Rock-hard arms, six pack abs, perfectly sculpted pecs like a Ken doll - the entire torso is like a sexual playground, really.

What about the woman who called the police? She was concerned because her young children saw Jacob topless. This is so twisted to me - that parents want to shield their children from seeing breasts, a body part that belongs to more than half of the world's population. A body part that, if her children are girls, they will grow in a few years. A body party that, if her children are boys, their nourishment as babies likely came from her own breasts. I wouldn't be surprised if that woman is more concerned with her children seeing breasts than with them playing video games.

The good news for Gwen Jacob is that in 1996, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned her conviction, ruling that:
There was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited  and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue to look at her.
It may be good news that her conviction was overturned, but the reasoning is a bit strange. What if the scope of her activity wasn't limited? What if she was playing sports with those topless guys? What if her toplessness was commercial, just like men's toplessness is? Would the appeal court have ruled differently? I suspect so.

Many women, even in places where toplessness is legal, still choose not to do it. A current student at the University of Toronto said she'd never go topless:
No, because of the interpretation of the behaviour. It's still deviant, right? If you are going to make something legal, that's one thing, but the culture has to change around it.
Her statement reminds me of a discussion held in Feminist Legal Theory: does law influence society or does society influence law? Her interpretation seems to suggest that while perhaps a small group of society may change the law, the law won't necessarily change society as a whole. Or, if it does, it would take a really long time. is a U.S. organization that claims women have the same constitutional right as men to be topless in public.  They host an annual, National Go Topless Day in August. This year on Go Topless Day, a pro-topless protest occurred in Asheville, North Carolina, and was met with an anti-topless protest held by former conservative elected officials who called the pro-toplessness event "child sexual abuse."

As far as which States have decriminalized toplessness for women, take a look here. notes that:
Even if a top free law is firmly in effect, the police can still arrest you under the pretense of "disorderly conduct."  
The criminalization of female toplessness is yet another form of gender inequality, misogyny, and oppression. I applaud groups like, and I only hope that the movement continues to grow.

What if men ran the holidays?

I'm getting on a flight this evening to head to Tampa, Florida, which is where my parents live. My mom called me yesterday to wish me a happy second night of Hanukkah, to make sure I had my boarding passes ready to go, and, most importantly, to consult me about the menu for Christmas dinner. Side note: my family is Jewish, but my mom loves everything Christmas (minus the Jesus part of it), so our house has both a huge, decked out Christmas tree and a menorah made out of ceramic cats...

Anyway, my mom will be making some sort of delicious hors d'oeuvres, a standing rib roast, roasted potatoes, a vegetable medley, pies, cookies, pumpkin bread, etc. She also decided to have a Christmas day brunch for the family, and she's making what my sister and I call the "Jew Feast" which includes matzah ball soup, potato latkes, brisket, and kugel. She was consulting me about the menu for these meals because she calls me her "co-chef." Now, my parents are still married, and my dad is one of those dads who does all of the handy-work around the house; he is the model Mr. Fix-it. But I'm pretty sure he knows how to cook one thing: spaghetti sauce. In the twenty-five years I've  been alive, I think he's made it twice. So, I'm delegated to helping  my mom cook while my dad fixes a toilet somewhere.

As my mom was talking about all of the food we're going to make and showing me the newly-decorated house via Face-Time, I realized that my mom runs the holidays. She cooks, she cleans, she does all of the gift shopping and wrapping, and she decorates the entire house and Christmas tree. The only things my dad does are get up on a ladder to put some lights on the exterior of the house, strap the Christmas tree on the car, and bring the tree into the house (and these things are at the instruction of my mom). If my mom decided not to cook, clean, decorate, shop, and wrap, we wouldn't celebrate the holidays. I suspect this isn't something that holds true in only my household.

Women have historically and traditionally been relegated to domestic labor and childcare while men work outside of the home and provide financially for the family. Over the past few decades, women have increasingly entered the outside labor market, yet still bear the brunt of household chores and childcare, resulting in the "second shift:" women come home from their job only to go to work as a mother and, essentially, a maid.

Is this part of the reason why it's the women who "put on" the holidays? They cook, they clean, they shop, they wrap. Is it that women feel more comfortable than taking time off from their day jobs to act accordingly with their traditional gender roles?

A survey of women conducted in October 2011  found that they consider Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year's, and Halloween to be the messiest holidays (in that order). These holidays can triple the weekly cleaning time spent by women, adding nearly four hours to the "normal" two hours per week of cleaning that women already do. What I found most interesting about this is that many women claim that cleaning makes them feel good. Not because they actually enjoy they act of cleaning, but because they "feel most judged by how clean their homes are." Domesticity really is that entrenched. That said, two-thirds of women said they'd like assistance with cleaning, while only 11.6% said they'd like help with cooking, and even smaller percentages want help with child care, laundry, ironing, and pet care. However, only one third of women are actually receiving assistance with household tasks. Half receive it from their spouse, and 17% receive it from their children. 

Women also do 56% of the household gift shopping while men do 36%, and while half of women buy gifts for their significant others, one third of men do. Where the male percentage exceeded the female was in buying gifts for themselves: 47% of men compared with 35% of women. 

A recent survey of men revealed that a third of men think that women make too much fuss and stress too much over Christmas. Further, a majority think that they could run Christmas better than women - it would be less stressful, less expensive, and less rushed. If men ran Christmas, this is how it would look:

1.  No Christmas cards. 
2.  Food = take-out.
3.  Get gifts gift-wrapped at the store.
4.  No visiting in-laws.
5.  Put kids to work in the kitchen (rather than them helping out in the kitchen).

I must say, though men pitching in more during the holidays might go a ways toward breaking down the traditional female domestic stereotype, I'd rather eat a standing rib roast and Jew feast than some Chinese take-out. 

Women in Turkey: Part II

Part II

Naturally, these laws have had an adverse effect on the willingness of devout Muslim women to attend higher education institutions. Faced with the choice between practicing their religion as they see fit and pursuing their educational dreams, women have reacted in different ways, with some complying with the law in order to pursue their studies and others (in some cases, under familial or spousal pressure) giving up on such plans. Ultimately, we must ask if such regulations are justified for the sake of protecting the secular, democratic state and ensuring religious freedom for all, particularly for non-Muslim religious groups such as Christians, Jews, and Bahais, as well as agnostics and atheists? It would seem that the motivations for such laws can be understood when one takes into account the political tides in the region. Most recently, in Middle Eastern states that have experienced political upheaval in the past year (Egypt comes first to mind), we have seen Islamic fundamentalists, many of whom (e.g. the Salafis in Egypt) hold deeply illiberal views regarding women and religious minorities, greatly amplify their political influence in the region.

The most hard-core adherents of Kemalism in Turkey fear, with some justification, that such movements could gain a considerable number of adherents in Turkey, which would undermine the secular state. Thus, following this logic, permitting hijab in higher education institutions and generally loosening limits on manifestations of religion might open the floodgates and invite bolder and more radical challenges to the Kemalist state. The following essentially sums up the prevailing attitudes of many secular-minded Turks:

"Western-oriented turks fear that their country's image is suffering...These profoundly worldly Turks, who used to be the nation's elite, feel threatened by the creeeping Islamization of society. Specifically, they point to the fact that, under the AKP, the religious sectors of society have been reintroduced into the state bureaucracy. Under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, adherence to laws meant to protect secularism has been lax, complains Ural Akbulut, rector of the Technical University in Ankara. One already sees women with headscarves at some universities, he points out. 'On my campus, no one is permitted to show up in a religious uniform,' Akbulut emphasizes. 'If we lift the ban on headscarves, then they would come tomorrow in a chador and the next day in a burka. In the end they would be beating up girls who wear modern dress. We have seen in Iran how fast it can happen.'"

While most of us can sympathize with these sentiments, they seem to be very much overblown. While Turkey might be moving in a more religious direction under the AKP, it is a huge exaggeration to think that it will move in the direction of Saudi Arabia and Iran (both of which severely restrict opportunities for women). Most likely, devout Muslim women in Turkey will simply win rights that women in many other states already enjoy, such as the freedom to wear hijab in government institutions, including higher education institutions, and the freedom to express their religion openly in other ways. We can also expect religion to play a more prominent role in Turkish life with greater emphasis on conservative, religious values and perhaps greater pressure on women to stick to "traditional family roles."

This does not seem to be much different from what is advocated by Christian Democratic Parties in Europe and conservative groups in the United States. This will understandably arouse indignation from women's rights advocates who fear the further erosion in rights and opportunities for women. While such fears should, again, be carefully weighed, they seem to be without much foundation. One should consider the enormous socioeconomic progress Turkey has made in recent decades, rising living standards and democratization of the political system, which has brought the country stability and prosperity which is well beyond what exists in neighboring Middle Eastern states. Based on such facts, it looks as if Turkey is on an irreversible path towards even greater political freedom and socioeconomic prosperity. Relaxing strict regulations pertaining to hijab and other expressions of religious faith are signs of the growing maturation of the democratic state.

Seen in this light, such developments should be welcomed rather than feared.

Women in Turkey: Part I

Several weeks ago, I did my group presentation on Religion and Feminism. The topic I covered was Islam and the role Muslim women play in the public sphere, with an emphasis on the lives of Muslim women in Turkey. In my presentation, I briefly discussed the strict laws and regulations in the Republic of Turkey with regards to the wearing of hijab in public institutions such as schools, universities, and government offices. For my seventh blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to delve further into this fascinating and important topic and attempt to better explain the reasoning behind these highly restrictive laws and the effect these laws have had on the lives of devout Muslim women.

The roots of these seemingly harsh laws lie in the circumstances surrounding the creation of the republic in the early 1920s and in the ideology that arose out of this political upheaval. This ideology (which has since then been official state creed) has been dubbed 'Kemalism,' and is named after the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Kemalism stressed, among other things, the separation of religion and state, a principle that would, in the view of its adherents, help to empower women and allow them to play a meaningful role in society. This ideology continues to play a powerful role in Turkish politics. In recent years, there has been a growing fear that the secular state is eroding. These fears have been amplified after the rise to power of the Islamic-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP, in Turkish), whose chairman, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, became prime minister of Turkey in 2003. It is in this context that the strict regulations relating to dress (which we discussed in class) should be considered. The Islamic headscarf (or hijab), worn by many Muslim women, is prohibited in government buildings, in schools, and in most universities. These regulations are, as would be expected, very controversial, but they are justified by its proponents on the grounds that they are necessary to protect the secular character of the state, a key aspect of the Kemalist ideology which has governed Turkish life for close to 90 years.

This very issue arose in the case of Leyla Sahin v. Turkey. A female medical student, Leyla Sahin, brought this case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) challenging Turkish laws that prohibited the wearing of hijab in universities and other government institutions. Sahin relied on Article 9 of the "Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms" (adopted by the ECHR) which guarantees freedom of religion and protection from interference with religious activity provided that such interference is not necessary "in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health, or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others." Sahin alleged that the hijab ban constituted an "unjust interference" with her right to manifest her religion; that is, her right to wear hijab in higher education institutions, in accordance with her view of what is mandated by her religion, Islam. Unfortunately for her, the ECHR sided with the government of Turkey, finding that although there had been an inteference with her religious beliefs, such interference was justified. The ruling stated, in part:

"In democratic societies, in which several religions coexist within one and the same population, it may be necessary to place restrictions on freedom to manifest one's religion or belief in order to reconcile the interests of various groups and ensure that everyone's beliefs are respected...Likewise, the Court has also previously stated that the principle of secularism in Turkey is undoubtedly one of the fundamental principles of the State, which are in harmony with the rule of law and respect for human rights...In a country like Turkey, where the great majority of the population belong to a particular religion, measures taken in universities to prevent certain fundamentalist religious movements from exerting pressure on students who do not practice that religion or on those who belong to another religion may be justified under Article 9, Section 2 of the Convention. In that context, secular universities may regulate manifestation of the rites and symbols of the said religion by imposing restrictions as to the place and manner of such manifestation with the aim of ensuring peaceful co-existence between students of various faiths and thus protecting public order and the beliefs of others."

Thus, in this matter, Turkish law was found to be compatible with the "Convention." Part II of this topic will further explain the arguments for these laws and how convincing they are given the realities of Turkish life today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gendered Coffee

I’m going to out myself right now. I mean, truly, lay it all out on the line. Do you understand how uncomfortable I feel doing this? This is a terrible burden that I’ve held inside for most of my adult life. But there is no more for it. I’ve got to tell you…

I have a sweet tooth. I like sweet food. And, worse, I like sweet drinks.

Let me explain. I was in the middle of a long ten-hour drive. My female companion and I decided to stop at Dutch Bros. I needed some coffee, badly. But I’m not a huge fan of regular coffee- it tastes bitter to me. So I decided on their seasonal Pumpkin Pie Latte. It was festive and seemed like a very tasty treat. My co-pilot asked for a small coffee. As we slid into the drive-thru, I had no idea that I would soon be making a cardinal mistake – apparently, sweet drinks are not for males. And so ensued the following conversation:

Me: “Can we get a small coffee and a regular pumpkin pie latte?”
Pretty Barista (leaning down to look into our vehicle and across to my companion): “Would you like whipped cream and sprinkles on that latte, ma’am?”
Awkward pause ensues
Companion: “Oh, oh no. It’s not for me. I’m the coffee – he wants the latte.”
After some laughter and mea culpas, I denied the whipped cream and sprinkles. Then she responded, “It’s ok, I know some tough men who like it, too.”

I was struck by the gendered implications of this event, particularly the assumption that sweet drinks are for girls. Are men truly not allowed to enjoy a drink that is sweet to the palette? For a moment, I was slightly embarrassed to have been exposed. But why should I be? I could hear Catherine MacKinnon chattering in my ear – another power imbalance defined by the male perspective. Societal stereotypes say sweet drinks limit my masculinity, that a real man’s drink is strong. But fruity, sugary flavors do not cut into my manhood, revoke my “mancard,” or make me a “bitch,” as Hamilton Nolan or some comments on Jim Romenesko's blog suggest. Nor do they reveal a super-confidence or toughness that deserves admiration as an evolved-male. I simply like sweets and I will continue to order them.

On further reflection, I probably never would have recognized this gendered assumption and others like it had it not been for Feminist Legal Theory. Having had no prior experience with feminism, I joined this class to learn more about it and it is interesting to see how much I have learned in this semester.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Too pretty to do my homework so my brother does it for me!

Many of us are familiar with the arguably - no, definitely - sexist t-shirts adorning the torsos of college-aged males recently. Usually the shirts are a solid color with a slogan in the middle - slogans like "I'm the one you gotta blow to get a drink around here," "Nice new girlfriend - what breed is she?," "Nice legs - when do they open?," and "Tomorrow I'll be sober - but you'll still be ugly." Check out this gallery; you will find a plethora of them.
They are even described as "sexist" on the site that sells them. Men think they are hilarious and wear them with pride.

But it's not just men - women are wearing them too. Take, for example, the pink shirts that say, "Allergic to Algebra," "If you want it done right ask a brunette," and "Who needs brains when you have these?" (the latter placed strategically over the breasts). For both male and female shirts, the slogans generally focus on sexually objectifying women, a concept that certainly isn't new or surprising.

What is new, and becoming disturbingly more prevalent, is the marketing of sexist clothing to adolescents, kids, and even infants. This fall, the baby apparel company Gymboree unveiled online a new line of onesies that had parents up in arms. The onesies marketed for little boys read, "Smart Like Dad" while those marketed for little girls read, "Pretty Like Mommy." These gender stereotypical messages immediately upset parents (or, should I say, moms). A petition was started and sent to Gymboree that noted that there were no "Smart Like Mommy" onesies and demanded that the company "stop selling clothing with harmful gender stereotypes immediately." Gymboree pulled the onesies off of their website.

But there remained some apparel that were still clearly marketed to boys as being "Daddy's MVP," "Adventure Seeker," or "Mr. Personality" and girls as being "Daddy's Little Cupcake, "A Little Bon Bon," or "MVP: Most Valuable Princess." Gymboree still has a boys line called "Smart Little Guy" which includes garb with math formulas and the label "genius" while girls get "Cozy Cutie," "Pretty Little Ice Skater," and, "Turtley Cute." Great, not only are they sending the message that looks are more important than brains, but they're also making up words like "turtley."

A few months before the Gymboree controversy, J.C. Penney put a girls' shirt (for girls aged 7-16) on the shelves that read, "I'm too pretty to do my homework so my brother does it for me." To make it even worse, the product description online read, "Who has time for homework when there's a new Justin Bieber album out? She'll love this tee that's just as cute and sassy as she is." A double-whammy: first the message that girls shouldn't care about their homework because their looks are more important, and second, that God-forbid girls be bothered with learning - they should spend their time obsessing over a boy!

Come on, J.C. Penney, did you really think you could get away with this? Well, they didn't. A woman named Lauren Todd started a petition on that demanded the company stop selling sexist clothes. The petition got thousands of signatures and the story was picked up by various news outlets, which put the pressure on J.C. Penney who eventually discontinued sales of the shirt and released the statement, "We agreed that the shirt does not deliver an appropriate message."

The message these shirts and onesies aren't just inappropriate, they're damaging. As Mary Elizabeth Williams points out, kids are force-fed gender stereotypes and expectations from the moment the enter the world. Girls' rooms are painted pink; boys' rooms blue. Girls are put in dresses, taught to be "lady-like;" boys are dressed in pants and taught to be "tough." The media bombards girls with "girly" products, and it continues into adulthood. Girls and women are taught to value material things such as brand-name purses, shoes, and jewelry. Further, the media pressures women with the "ideal" body: skinny with breasts like balloons, perfect hair, makeup, and tanned skin. This ideal is unrealistic yet it has become to important to attain for so many girls and women. Women are taught that looks are most important - make yourself look good, and you'll attract the attention of men. We are all aware of the implications of this body ideal: low self-esteem among young women, depression, eating disorders that sometimes lead to death. The younger the manipulation and stereotyping starts the worse it is. The companies marketing this type of clothing to young girls and babies are disgustingly irresponsible. They are entrenching even deeper the idea that girls are dumb and all that matters is appearance - we should leave the thinking to the boys.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Plan B still slightly out reach for women of child-bearing age.

On Wednesday, December 7, 2011, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation that women 16 and under can purchase Plan B, an emergency contraception, without a prescription. Sebelius explains in her statement that “In order for the contraception to be switched from prescription to over the counter, there must be “enough evidence to show that those who use this medicine can understand the label and use the product appropriately.” Sebelius believed that this standard was not met, and therefore, overruled the FDA’s recommendation for the prescription to over the counter switch.

At a press conference on December 08, 2011, President Obama was asked if he “personally intervened in any way in halting the sale of the "morning after" pill to those under 17, and whether you think politics trumps science in this case.” Obama made clear that he supports Sebelius’ decision and that the issue is about whether women 12-13 were capable of taking the medicine properly. If not taken properly the medicine can have adverse effects. Obama said that “[w]hen it comes to 12-year-olds or 13-year-olds, the question is can we have confidence that they would potentially use Plan B properly. And her judgment was that there was not enough evidence that this potentially could be used improperly in a way that had adverse health effects on those young people.”

Interestingly enough, the FDA maintains that it did take into account whether women 12-13 are capable of taking the medicine properly. Amy Nieman, the Vice President of Teva Women’s Health Inc, the company that submitted to the FDA the application for the drug to be made available over-the-counter said that “[p]art of FDA's consideration was a Teva-funded study that tracked 11- to 17-year-olds who came to clinics seeking emergency contraception. Nearly 90 percent of them used the pill safely and correctly without professional guidance.” But, as an Editorial in the L.A. Times points out, “Sebelius waited until the eleventh hour to make her decision, rather than asking the FDA for more data earlier in its deliberations.” With an eleventh hour move like that, one can’t help but ask if politics trumped science.

And science appears to be on the side of the FDA’s decision. In a recent statement, the Union of Concern Scientists expressed concern that Sebelius’ decision was a political move. “This is the first time a HHS secretary has overruled an FDA commissioner on a drug approval decision. Noting that Sebelius is not a scientists, the Director, Francisca Grifo, expressed concern that “The secretary’s decision undermines the ability of FDA to make drug approval decisions based on the best available science. The president’s support for the secretary’s decision is unfortunate, as it is inconsistent with his own March 2009 memorandum on scientific integrity.”

In the March 2009 statement Grifo refers to, Obama said science “must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health.” And one would be hard pressed to argue with his statement that the public must be “able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.” However, this is one of those situations where the administration lost the public’s trust.

In a piece entitled Obama’s Science Fictions, Michael Specter hints that this is just what has happened: the administration is losing the public’s trust. In the piece, Specter contrasts Obama’s previous statements pledging to bring science back to the center of the Executive Branch's decisions with his conscious choice not to do just that in this instance. He concludes by posing the question: “If you don’t accept the recommendations of your most able and well-trained scientists, if you reject research results that have been endorsed heavily by dispassionate experts, then where do you end up?”

Let me tell you where you end up: with a lot of upset people. The Vice President of the National Organization for Women, Erin Matson, expressed discontent, interpreting Obama’s statement supporting Sebleius as being overly paternalistic: “In saying that he thinks he knows what’s best for women … and then [he] goes on to trivialize emergency contraceptives.”

Andrea Grimes, a blogger who writes about “sex, gender and feminism in Texas,” delineated how she is disappointed and downright crushed by how the Obama Administration has handled making Plan B available to young women. She expresses her frustration with Sebleius’s decision to overrule the FDA’s decision and her anger with Obama supporting that decision – pledging to remove her Obama/Change sticker from her car.

Hether Corinna was filled with hope when the FDA finally got on board with making Plan B available to women 16 and younger w/out a prescription. This hope was lost with Sebelius’ decision and the Obama Administration’s support. Corinna is now encouraging young people and women to speak out and express their disconnect

What I find interesting is that Hilary Clinton has been a long-time activist of making Plan B available to women of childbearing age, but she remains silent on Sebelius’ decision and Obama’s support. Susan Wood, who was the top official of the FDA, lauded Clinton’s activism and her work with two other Senators in who were "champions for science driving FDA-decision making." Clinton played an active role in securing access of Plan B without a prescription for women. In 2005, Clinton stated that she believed Plan B should be made widely available to women. A Clinton spokesperson did not return a request for comment. I am curious to know if her trust in the Administration is equally as wounded as everyone else’s’.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Stranger sexual harassment part 2

In October, I went to the National Lawyers Guild Annual Convention in Philadelphia. I traveled by plane with several fellow female law students, and after we arrived, one of them told the rest of us about her experience on the flight to Philly.

To give some background, this woman is a passionate advocate of women's rights (among others), and I consider her to be someone who is sure of herself and her values. She stands up for herself and holds several leadership positions at King Hall.

She had a window seat on the plane. A man, maybe in his late-twenties to mid-thirties, occupied the seat next to her. When he sat down, he made some small talk, took up both armrests as most men tend to do (the topic of men thinking they are entitled to space over women is for another day), and she put on her headphones when the small talk ended. The conversation did not consist of any talk of a sexual nature, nor did she make any indication that she was interested in him. Shortly thereafter, she felt something on her leg. She looked down to see that the man had placed one of his fingers on the side of her thigh that was closest to him. She said nothing. He then placed more fingers on her thigh to the point where, eventually, his entire hand was resting on her leg. She said nothing. He then proceeded to move his hand up her leg toward her crotch, and right before he got there, she shifted her weight and crossed one leg over the other, forcing him to remove his hand.

After she told us this, my first response was, "well, did you punch him in the face?" She said that she didn't say or do anything. She said that she was absolutely terrified and shocked that it was happening and simply froze. She didn't know what to do, and she didn't feel comfortable confronting him despite the fact that his touching was completely unwanted. Her mind was screaming with things to say, but she couldn't make them come out of her mouth. I was shocked. I thought to myself, if I was in that situation, the moment that man's finger touched my leg, I would have blurted out, "why the fuck are you touching me? Get your hands off of me!" I was absolutely flabbergasted that this intelligent, strong, feminist woman sat there in silence while a stranger groped her.

Another female fellow law student responded by telling us about her experience on BART not that long ago. It was fairly late at night, she was riding home on BART with a female friend, and an Oakland Raiders game had just ended. Two drunk, middle-aged men who had just left the game sat across from her on the train. They immediately hit on her and her friend, talked about their bodies and appearances, asked them very detailed and inappropriate questions about their sex lives, and made gestures and comments regarding specifically how they would have sex with them. She and her friend mostly blew them off or ignored them, but when they started talking about how they had daughters that were her age, she asked them how they'd like it if older men talked to their daughters the way they were talking to her, to which they replied, "whatever. I don't care." When she continued to be non-responsive to their harassment, they called her a dyke, saying, "what, you don't like the cock?" They then tried to talk her and her friend to giving them a "lesbo show." They endured the harassment until they got off the train. She said that she felt intimidated, especially because there were two older men who were drunk and very verbally aggressive.

Again, I was floored by the fact that both of these strong, pro-feminism women just sat there and allowed strangers to sexually harass them. I wonder if, in light of the research done by Fairchild and Rudman, these experiences contributed to either of these women feeling self-objectified.

After I heard the stories, I imagined how I would have reacted if I were in those situations. My impulsive response was that I would be very confrontational and make it clear that their behavior was not acceptable. But would I? I thought back on the times that I've been sexually harassed by a stranger, which thankfully has mostly been verbal harassment. I ignore it and I try to avoid the harasser. I apply a theory that I learned while studying Psychology in undergrad which is used when children engage in attention-seeking behavior: extinction conditioning. I ignore the harassing behavior so that the person doing it learns that he doesn't get a response when he harasses; if ignoring the behavior happens all or most of the time, eventually he will learn that harassing doesn't result in getting attention or getting girls. I realize that in this situation, as the research suggests, ignoring the harassing actually has the opposite effect.

In doing research for this blog, I came across some articles that reveal how countries have actually attempted to address the issue of stranger harassment. In India, women were getting groped and yelled at so frequently that the country created the "Ladies Special" - an all-female commuter train. Mexico City introduced women-only buses that are marked with pink placards. Japan has also experimented with female train cars.

But these are only surface-level fixes to a pervasive problem. Some have argued that it's sex discrimination itself - segregating men and women because men can't control themselves. In part 1 of this blog, I discussed how the research shows that there has been little attention paid to the problem of stranger harassment. In these countries, it seems as if attention is being paid to it, but not the right kind of attention. If the people who implemented these segregated transportation systems really want to fix the problem of stranger harassment, they're going to have to go deeper than pink buses and trains. They must address it at the legislative and judicial levels. Keeping men and women apart during transportation will only stall the harassment; holding men accountable and providing recourse for women who get harassed will curb it.

Stranger sexual harassment part 1

You're walking down the street when a car drives by and a man's voice yells, "ow-owwww!" You're in a crowded bar when you feel someone grab your ass. You turn around and have no idea who it was. You're on BART late at night after an Oakland Raiders game when two drunk Raiders fans twice your age start asking you about your sex life and begin discussing how they'd "pound you" if you went home with them. When you decline, they call you a dyke.

Part I will discuss the concept of stranger/street harassment and how it affects women. Part II will discuss anecdotal stories of real stranger harassment and how some countries have decided to deal with it.

Stranger sexual harassment, or "street harassment" is no new phenomenon. When women go out in public, they frequently experience men ogling, cat-calling, yelling sexual propositions, commenting on their bodies, groping them, and raping them. I have personally experienced nearly all of these, and many of my female friends have as well. While other forms of sexual harassment have been considered a problem large enough to garner the attention of the academic, legislative, and judicial communities (see the Civil Rights Act of 1964, landmark Supreme Court cases dealing with sex discrimination and sexual harassment), street harassment has been largely ignored.

Cynthia Grant Bowman's 1993 article in the Harvard Law Review describes stranger harassment as including
Both verbal and nonverbal behavior, such as wolf-whistles, leers, winks, grabs, pinches, catcalls, and stranger remarks; the remarks are frequently sexual in nature and comment evaluatively on a woman's physical appearance or on her presence in public.
She suggests that the ignorance of street harassment results from the fact that there is no legal recourse; a woman can't sue a stranger who gropes her and then disappears. She refers to Robin West's depiction of street harassment as a disempowering injury:

Women suffer unpunished and uncompensated sexual assaults continually...Although we have a trivializing phrase for these encounters - "street hassling" - these assaults are not at all trivial. They are frightening and threatening whispered messages of power and subjection...Yet, men who harass women on the street are not apprehended, they are not punished, the victims are not compensated, and no damages are paid. The entire transaction is entirely invisible to the state.

Furthermore, Deirdre Davis suggests in her article that street harassment is essentially sexual terrorism that intensifies the fear of rape and that the trivialization of it causes women not to talk about it, reinforcing its invisibility and effects. Street harassment has become so globally pervasive that women accept it as part of every-day life, even becoming complicit in it.

Kimberly Fairchild and Laurie Rudman's article states that, until 2008, the only attempt to document the differences between unwanted sexual attention from strangers and people known to the victim was done in 2000, using data collected from a national sample of Canadian women through the Violence Against Women Survey. It revealed that "stranger harassment is more prevalent than non-stranger harassment and that stranger harassment more strongly influences fear of victimization:" 85% of women reported experiencing stranger harassment while 51% reported experiencing non-stranger sexual harassment, and, "Stranger harassment reduces feelings of safety while walking alone at night, using public transportation, walking alone in a parking garage, and while home alone at night."

How do women respond to stranger harassment? Interestingly, and not surprising to me, Fairchild and Rudman explain that research suggests that most women are likely to respond passively and non-assertively to stranger harassment. Less than 20% of women use assertive or active coping strategies. Most commonly, women simply ignore harassment or attempt to avoid the harasser.

Fairchild and Rudman sought to expand the research on stranger harassment, and collected data from American female college students. They found relatively high prevalence rates of stranger harassment: 41% experienced stranger harassment at least once a month, 31% experienced it every few days or more. This included non-physical harassment such as catcalls, whistles, stares, sexist comments and "come-ons." More than a quarter experienced forceful grabbing at least once a month. They concluded that "stranger harassment turns public spaces into an everyday hostile environment for women."

The data also suggests that experiencing stranger harassment increases women's self-objectification. That is, they emphasize their body's appearance rather than its function and feel ashamed of a less than ideal body, which can lead to depression and eating disorders. Regarding how women reported coping with stranger harassment, it was revealed that women who responded actively by acknowledging that the behavior was inappropriate and either confronting or reporting the harasser were able to resist feeling sexually objectified. On the other hand, women who responded passively by ignoring or avoiding the harasser reported feeling self-objectified. Passive response was much more prevalent than active response.

It's a vicious cycle. A stranger sexually harasses a woman, increasing her fear of rape. Because of this fear, most women choose to avoid or ignore the harasser. Because there is no legal recourse in most situations, the woman knows she can't do anything about it because it is just part of every-day life. Because there are no consequences for the men that harass, and because most women don't confront them, men think it is acceptable behavior and continue to do it. What's a girl to do?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Woman's Choice: Between Faith and Education, Between Faith and Testifying

Yesterday, the Canada Supreme Court heard arguments from both attorneys about whether a state's witness should be required to remove her niqab (a type of Muslim headdress, here) while testifying in court in a criminal trial. The case has once again placed Muslim headdress as the uneasy battleground between a woman's religious choice and society's professed need to limit that choice.

It takes me back to the same kinds of issues raised a month ago. Then, in our class presentation on Feminism and Religion, a few of my classmates and I presented the case of Leyla Sahin v. Turkey [A good discussion of it is here, at the ComparativeLawBlog]. A companion case in France, "L'affaire du foulard," or "The Headscarf Affair" --no, it is not a Norman Mailer novel-- occurred in 1989. Both dealt with the same issues of women's autonomy and choice, state paternalism, and Europe's often very loose relationship with the concept of free exercise. I find the whole issue fascinating.

Coming into that week, I already knew that in some cases what is purported to be a free expression of religion is in fact an instance of little choice, and that, in some more fundamentalist Muslim circles, the practice was and is enforced by so-called cultural police. To the extent that the enforcement involves violence against women, the practice is troubling on a criminal and moral level; to the extent that enforcement involves nonviolent coercion, it can still be unsettling. Enlightened observers often find it difficult to accept instances where women's (and not men's) freedom is cabined by society's and husbands' proscriptions of what they may and may not wear. My more liberal sentiments find that manipulation of women's public self particularly disturbing.

Yet I also recognize that that is but one part of the bigger picture. I now realize that Muslim headdresses are, for the most part, not just individual women's choices, they are in fact vital choices -- symbols of allegiance to God, and willing sacrifices of the self to that end. In fact, Muslim friends of mine have told me that only the most devout Islamic groups even require hijab as a part of their religious practice. These are the same kinds of signs of worship used by Jewish men who wear yarmulkes, or Catholics who confess. They are choices, and they are obligations. That a niqab, for example, so demonstrably covers a woman's face is to many a distinction without a real difference.

In that respect, then, the decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to uphold the Turkish school's ban on wearing hijab on campus was a powerful underestimation of the importance of a woman's peaceful religious expression. The ECHR majority opinion expressed its need to respect religious pluralism, which it said "has been dearly won over the centuries," yet was all too ready to dismiss that hard-fought principle because the Turkish state had deemed such expression disturbing to the public. I couldn't help but think of that series of free(ish) speech cases from the US in the first half of the twentieth century -- where the discussion and promotion of anti-war and pro-Communist teachings was a potential source of societal implosion. Decades later, during which freedom of expression and religion have found voice in countless national and international instruments, the ECHR used its majority opinion to give its imprimatur to the Turkish government's similar brand of fearful moralizing.

But I digress again. What I find as troubling as the Court's treatment of religion is the heavily paternalistic rhetoric advanced by those who support the Turkish and French bans on hijab in schools. Nicholas Sarkozy, for example, perhaps the best spokesman for France's brand of secularism, said in 2009, "We cannot accept to have in our society women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity... That is not the idea that the French Republic has of women's dignity. The burqa is a sign of subservience. It will not be welcome on the territory of the French Republic." (as found in International Law: Norms, Actors, Processes, Dunoff, Ratner, Wippman, Eds.). This kind of thinking may be understandable to some, but it is an awfully shaky foundation for the creation of national legislation.

A similarly troubling element informs the Canadian court case mentioned at the start of this post. There, the defense attorney adamantly opposed a Muslim woman's (named N.S.) wish to wear her niqab while testifying against a cousin and uncle she accuses of sexual and physical abuse. In this case, the headdress is no less a religious symbol. Yet here the societal need is arguably much greater: the need for a fair trial for the defendants. There is a lot at stake for both sides, argued the defense attorney, and allowing N.S. to wear her niqab would rid the jury of the vital ability to use her facial expressions as a way to judge her credibility.

That may be so. Yet it also may have been overstated a bit. For one thing, the defense attorney surely knew that if N.S. would bve required to take off the niqab, she may refuse to testify, and the state would lose its key witness. There would likely be a dismissal or a mistrial, and I am sure that factor played a huge role in the attorney's urgency. Moreover, in stressing the importance of a witness' facial expressions, the defense attorney may have misrepresented the jury's concerns. He discounts the myriad other ways the jury could judge the witness' character, and presumes that a full facial view would have a tremendous impact.

Yet for all the defendants' concerns, it is N.S.'s concerns that would get short shrift if the court prohibits her from testifying in the niqab. First, it would put her in the impossible position between having to choose between testifying against her attackers, or defying her religious obligations. That is a horrible dilemma for the court to place her in. The chilling effect on the Muslim women community of Canada would be even worse. One can only imagine the drop in witness testimony by women afraid of the prospect of having to discard their very identities as women and as people of faith.

In the end, with this case, as with the European headdress cases, this all feels as if there are important decisions being made over women's matters. Yet the women in question aren't the decision-makers. They await word from the ECHR, or the Canada Supreme Court, to find out what limits will be placed on their right to publicly express their identities. What often gets lost in heated public debate about how things should be is adequate consideration of what women choose things to be. Hopefully, the Canada Supreme Court will recognize that a woman's choice between prosecuting her offenders and defying her religious self is no choice at all.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Just be nice...

When I sat down to write this final post on our Feminist Legal Theory Blog, I started to think about the themes that came up during class discussion and throughout our posts. We discussed the role that media, educational institutions, and gender norms play in the feminist movement. Another issue that came up in discussion, but perhaps was harder to write about, is women’s treatment of other women. My colleague, Hanestagless, touched upon the topic in a recent post. Many of the post commentators noted the prevalence of this problem. So, is there any truth to the notion that women are our own worst enemy?

You don’t have to go far to find studies and commentary about this topic. A paper recently released out of the University of Ottawa, titled, “Intolerance of Sexy Peers: Intrasexual Competition Among Women,” suggests that hostility towards female peers increases depending on how the peer is dressed. According to authors Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma, the less conservative females dress, the more their female peers judge and dislike them. The findings prompted Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer to write an article in response, titled, “Short Skirts Magically Turn Women Into Bitches.” (Note, although I found the Professor’s commentary interesting, I did not appreciate his using the term “bitches” to described female to female animosity). He concludes that his female students are more hostile towards each other in spring then in winter (when we wear more clothing).

Author Susan Tardanico, a regular contributor for to Forbes, recently published an article addressing what she refers to as “Relational Aggression.” In her piece, “The Psychological Warfare of Women: Are We Our Own Worst Enemy?” Tardanico explains that the same episodes of judging and criticizing amongst college women (as discussed in Schwyzer’s post) also occur amongst female executives. She uses the example of a female higher-up who, following her promotion, is essentially ostracized by her female co-workers. She questions why this happens so regularly and her answer is Relational Aggression, or as she puts it, “the single most damaging and often-used weapon in a woman’s arsenal.” I find it sad, but likely appropriate, that she deems this behavior a “weapon.” It’s likely appropriate because at the end of the day, it’s just that. Behavior that discourages female empowerment is destructive and counterproductive.

How does this destructive behavior play out in the real world? Tardanico points to an interesting study released in 2009, titled “Holding Women Back,” that researched the “glass-ceiling” within the female labor force. The study questioned what it was that is “holding women back.” The answer, as Tardanico reports it: “information about developmental opportunities is not shared (and therefore not known); recently-promoted women have little to no support when transitioning into a new role; and there is a startling lack of female advocates and mentors.” The suggestion being that opportunities aren’t shared, support is scarce and female advocates are lacking, because other women are holding back.

If this is true, it is something that we can change. Both men and women can take part…but especially women. Although it may take generations to make it “better,” it starts with a simple “just be nice.”