Author Archives: iregreaves
1 the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)
either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions: adults of both sexes.
“Hen,” the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun has stirred an interesting debate over the role of gender in our society. Even though this debate is not new, Sweden has undoubtedly been a pioneer in pushing for a “gender-neutral” education for children, by starting at the nursery school level. Sweden is the first country to establish a gender neutral nursery school. During the past few months, the media has increasingly addressed the question of gender in different spheres, ranging from gender-neutral underwear, to gender-neutral bathrooms, to using gender-neutral terms in schools, to the world’s first gender-neutral sex toy, to Veterans of Foreign Wars becoming gender neutral as well.
I have always been fascinated by the concept of gender, particularly how gender is socially constructed and how it gives us an identity. It is a fact that men and women are biologically different: we define our sex based on our reproductive organs. Gender however, is different. How do we define our gender? Other than the evident biological differences that exist between men and women, our society has constructed traditional gender roles that prescribe certain behaviors based on what is considered “feminine” and “masculine.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead was among the first to distinguish between gender and sex and study the ways in which cultural conditioning plays a much bigger role than biology in shaping men and women’s behaviors. Even though every culture differs as to what these behaviors entail, there is a sense of universality, (or rather, a “western universality”) among most of them, so for instance, it is the norm for girls to wear dresses and for boys not to wear them; or for girls to play with dolls and boys to play with cars, and so forth.
These might seem like pretty trivial examples, but if we analyze them closer we will soon realize that these behaviors are “taught” or “imposed” on us. I think that even if some children are given the choice to decide what toy they want to play with, family, society and school will still be responsible for shaping that child’s gender. This is why Sweden’s move to neutralize gender in schools is revolutionary in that it is challenging societal preconceived notions of gender.
Foucault’s studies on power relationships, gender and sexuality, explain how we construct our social meanings of normalcy, and how these social constructions are used to marginalize and oppress behaviors that divert from the “norm.” All social institutions play a role in forming these notions, and gender is certainly one of them. Foucault encourages us to find our identities outside of the “normal” patterns established by society (Feinberg & Soltis, 2009).
The deconstruction of gender, from a woman’s perspective, I think poses an incredibly interesting challenge and question for our future generations. Gender has undoubtedly played a role in power structures around the world and throughout history. Millions of women around the world still face discrimination and violence- just for the sake of being female. For example, women in Iran are worth “half” than their male counterparts, limiting their inheritance and property rights, making them victims of “justifiable” domestic violence, and requiring the permission of their husbands to travel, among many other differences. Will deconstructing gender and redefining gender roles improve their lives? Will our world become more egalitarian, just and equitable if gender as we perceive it today changes? I don’t have the answer to these questions but I do think they are worth asking and worth exploring.
In conversation with Dr. Mark Stern, who specializes in political economy, social theory, and public education, among others, when asked if he thinks gender matters, offered the following interesting insight: “I believe that gender could represent human potentiality. Gender represents a horizon or possibility for human engagement with the world–how we express who we are, how we feel, and what we do with that. Gender represents possibility to be and to be otherwise–potential, rather than limit (the way it currently functions).” Seen from this perspective, gender becomes an enabling factor as opposed to a disabling one. It represents another dimension of freedom- of freedom to choose and feel what we identify ourselves with.
Does gender matter? I would argue that it matters as long as it empowers us, and as long as it doesn’t function as a means of oppression or “normalization” where we hinder the potentiality of expressing our identities as human beings.
USAID, (The United States Agency for International Development) pledged $216 million to fund a major women’s empowerment program in Afghanistan. This is the largest women’s empowerment project in US government’s history. Newly-elected President Ghani has reaffirmed his commitment to invest in girls’ education, claiming that educating a girl will have it’s impact on the coming five generations. The funds will be spent through Promoting Gender Equity in National Priority Programs (Promote), which aims to advance the opportunities for Afghan women so they can become leaders in the political, private and civil society sectors. The main goal of the Promote program is to strengthen Afghanistan’s development by boosting female participation in the economy, supporting women’s rights groups, helping women gain business and management skills and increasing the number of women in the decision making positions within the Afghan government.
President Ghani’s wife, Rula Ghani, has been outspoken about her commitment to promote greater respect for women and advance women’s rights. As the country’s First Lady, Ms. Ghani’s role in expanding and supporting women’s rights represents both a threat and an asset for Afghan society. The mere fact that Rula Ghani is an American-Lebanese Christian poses serious opposition in a greatly conservative and Muslim society.
“This will be a first for Afghanistan that the first lady is seen in public and this can have a very positive effect on women,” said Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights advocate and member of Afghan parliament. “This is a male dominated society and a strong woman like her in the palace will make a huge difference. As an Afghan woman, I will be thrilled to see this great woman standing with our new president and advocate for women.”
However, this view is considered too progressive and it’s not shared by a great number of Afghans. According to Mawlawi Habibullah Hussam, an important religious scholar and imam in Kabul, Ms. Ghani’s public presence “can be fatal for the faith of Muslims in Afghanistan.”
A former member of Kabul’s provincial council and conservative who counts with a large following added: “The incoming first lady is not qualified … as she is a non-Muslim so she does not meet [Muslim] piety requirements… She is a foreigner so cannot be the confidant of a Muslim ruler. This is a very serious issue.”
Does Ms. Ghani represent a brighter future for Afghan women? There is a lot of speculation from both advocates and opponents within and outside the country in terms of her power as First Lady to push for girls’ education and gender equality. Former president Karsai’s wife, Zeenat Karzai, was also a well-educated woman, and a doctor by profession, but she never appeared in public with her husband nor worked in support of Afghan women. Ms. Ghani stands as a symbol of hope for many Afghan women who desire a better future for themselves. In the words of an Afghan writer, Asma, women in Afghanistan want Ms. Ghani to be more than a symbol: “Our new First Lady can prove this by showing her face, by asking Afghan women about their difficulties, and by becoming a public figure actively working for women’s rights.”
Thirteen years after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, women in Afghanistan still face serious issues. In a country that has been described by many organizations as one of the worst places for women worldwide, the challenges ahead are substantial. Child marriage, lack of education, lack of economic opportunities, isolation, discrimination, sexual abuse and lack of judicial protection are just some of the many issues that women face daily in Afghanistan.
These inequalities within the society are deeply ingrained in religious dogma. Sharia Law heavily discriminates, punishes and treats women as inferior. In my first post, I raised the question of the role of religion in morality. I dare to raise the question again: up to what point is it acceptable to justify and defend religion when it so evidently discriminates and punishes women? Why do we accept this as normal or justify it by attributing it to a “cultural identity”?
I respect freedom of religion and I do believe that we should all be free to choose the path that makes us better human beings without harming anyone along the way. But how can a path that oppresses, penalizes, is prejudiced and violent against women ever be considered acceptable? I raise my voice against this injustice.
I truly hope that the Promote program is successful in giving a voice to the women in Afghanistan. Their focus is on women’s leadership, women’s participation in government and the economy and women’s rights groups and coalitions. If Rula Ghani wants a brighter future for Afghanistan’s women, she will work together with Promote and be an active advocate for women’s education, empowerment, and equality, and serve as an example for the millions of voices who are desperately crying for change.
As a woman and a Venezuelan this topic has always interested and concerned me. In the last twenty years, the plastic surgery industry in Venezuela has become one of the most profitable businesses in the country, and Venezuela ranks among the top 20 countries that perform plastic surgery. The majority of these surgeries are breast implants for women.
Women have become enslaved to the country’s cult to beauty. This cult to beauty has been exacerbated by the media, with a pressure to look a like a Barbie doll, with body proportions that are only possible (if even so) by undergoing plastic surgery. Huge breasts, tiny waists (removal of ribs are necessary for this), butt implants and nose jobs to make the noses look tiny. This pressure is summed up in the words of Venezuela’s “beauty guru” and the owner of the Miss Venezuela Emporium, Mr. Osmel Sousa who nonchalantly said: “when there is a defect, I correct it [with plastic surgery]… Internal beauty doesn’t exist. That is something that ugly women invented to justify themselves.”
In the last few years, even shop owners have started making mannequins that have fake breasts proportions, and their sales have increased since then.
Plastic surgery is a phenomenon that influences women from all social sectors. Despite the high poverty rates in Venezuela, women from the lowest-income backgrounds undergo breast implant surgery. Former President Hugo Chávez, who died in March of 2013, publicly condemned plastic surgery, claiming it was “monstrous” that poor women would be spending money on breast surgery when they struggled to make it to the end of the month. Certainly the plastic surgery industry goes very much against the socialist ideals that Mr. Chávez endorsed of a society free of commercialism and consumerism, and he condemned it as a “mark of capitalist propaganda.”
Earlier this month, the annual “Miss Venezuela” contest took place, and girls from across the different states participated in the most-watched TV show of the year. The next day, the winner and the runner up spoke in a press conference about their plastic surgery: “I got my boobs done because I had to fill my bust… I’m not against surgery, I’m in favor of science and plastic surgery is a science.”
“I got a nose job…the important thing is that you’re happy with whatever you got done, and I love my nose, despite what they say…” Reading their declarations ignited my desire to write a post regarding this hot topic. Also, the shortage of breast silicone implants hit the news a month ago, emphasizing the importance placed by Venezuelans on the topic of breast implants.
I am very concerned about the obsession with breast implants that has taken over the country. When one of my friends said to me once, “getting a boob job empowers me,” I was perplexed and asked her why. She replied that it made her feel more beautiful, more desirable (to men) and that it boosted her self-esteem. I have given a lot of thought to her remarks along with many of my girlfriends’ who have undergone plastic surgery and express similar thoughts. In a free, democratic society everyone has the choice to do as they please, and if having bigger breasts make women feel better about themselves then why shouldn’t they get them?
However, I am digging deeper into this issue and find a truly worrisome problem ingrained in our cognitive social conscience. Why should our self-esteem as women be based on the size of our breasts? Why has our society given so much value to our outward appearance to the extent of sacrificing our health and even endangering our lives? Why have we succumbed to this objectification of our body parts? To me, this obsession with plastic surgery shows a severe crisis of values in our country, and it is a mark of the profound and overly plastic, materialistic society we have become. It is truly alarming how much of a role the media plays in shaping our identities as women and setting the parameters of what is and isn’t considered beautiful.
In class we have been studying the different theories and perspectives on development discourse. Is expanding people’s choices critical to development? According to Amartya Sen, development as freedom means expansion of choices, so then perhaps under this light, the choice to get breast implants can be seen as a form of freedom. If it makes women feel empowered, then more so. But when it comes to choices, we need to think of priorities and values, and dig deeper into their meanings. Can we objectively say these are “choices” that empower us and give us “freedom” when they appear to actually make us slaves to a standard of beauty set by a group of people?
Last week, the international media focused its attention on a modern-day slavery story that first gained attention in 2012 when Ilyas and Tallat Ashar, a British-Pakistani millionaire couple were accused of charges of trafficking, rape, abuse and fraud. They were subsequently found guilty and jailed in 2013. In 2000, Ilyas Ashar now 86, and his wife Tallat Ashar 69, trafficked a deaf and mute Pakistani girl presumed to be age 10 at the time, into the UK to “work” as a domestic help. Apparently, the girl was told her parents had died and arrived in the UK in 2000 with a passport that stated she was 19 years old, and was allowed into Britain on the condition that she did not apply for public money. She was kept in the couples’ cellar in their home in Eccles, Salford, in inhumane conditions, exploited, forced to work, beaten and raped regularly. Furthermore, the couple claimed benefits for the girl from the state.
Now, the court calculated the Ashars have to pay the victim £101,300 ($160,000). This is the amount that she would have been paid if she had earned the minimum wage working for the couple for 12 hours a day, every day since 2003 except for ten days off.
They are also required to pay back £42,000 ($67,000) in benefits to the state that they wrongfully claimed for the girl.
To say the least, I was repulsed by this news. I was not only appalled by the frivolous way in which the news has been handled by the media, particularly in the UK, but by the court’s concession to pay the victim £100,000. £100,000!! This girl lost almost ten years of her life enduring the most horrific forms of abuse. Nothing we do now can change what happened, and money cannot make up for all her suffering. But calculating £100,000 based on minimum-wage figures, considering that the girl was a minor throughout most of that time, over-working, raped, beaten, abused and that the Ashars are MILLIONAIRES, this amount doesn’t even come close to what the girl should have received in compensation. In addition, Ilyas Ashar received 16 years in prison and his wife 5. I am no supporter of the death penalty, but I certainly think the couple deserves a life sentence.
This is just another case of modern-day slavery in the world we live in. Women are the most vulnerable victims of sex trafficking in the world. This is an issue that I believe so-called “developed” nations as Britain, have greatly failed to address although they have pledged to tackle human trafficking. Unfortunately in many cases the victims are being trafficked to the “developed” world. I am still wondering how it is possible that the girl was not discovered sooner, particularly since the couple was claiming social benefits from the state on her behalf. How was she never checked on? Was just her signature sufficient? The girl was only discovered because the Ashars’ home was raided on money laundering charges. There are serious faults with the British welfare and justice systems.
On the Pakistani side questions also remained unanswered. Was the victim sold by her family to this couple? Was she just snatched and taken away? What are Pakistani authorities doing to prevent the trafficking of young girls? I failed to find any news that answered any of these questions.
In light of the recent Nobel Peace Prize awarded to a young Pakistani girl, (read my fellow blogger danibicknell’s post on this), we should give priority to the issue of human and sex trafficking, since it is one of the greatest challenges that many young girls face around the world. Furthermore, the issue of education and protection for trafficked victims is also an important debate to have. Should the “host” country take responsibility for the education and reinsertion of trafficked victims into society? UNODC has a Victim’s Trust Fund to aid NGOs, governments and civil society organizations to help victims of trafficking. Britain takes responsibility for its child trafficking victims, and it has taken responsibility for the education and reinsertion of the Pakistani girl in this story. According to equalitynow.org, there are at least 20.9 million adults and children who are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude, forced labor and bonded labor- of these, women and girls make up 98% of victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. These figures are only estimates, since the scope of the problem is beyond measurement. Most victims of trafficking remain in the dark, voiceless and helpless. In the 21st century we are dealing with serious issues of trafficking and slavery, and much work needs to be done in order to stop it.
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How do we deal with religious fundamentalism that becomes so deeply ingrained in the cultures of certain parts of the world and affect so negatively the lives of women? This is an issue I have always struggled with: up to what point can we justify or defend religion when it brings about so many negative consequences especially for women? The so-called “Morality Laws” in Sudan are examples of the serious and detrimental effects that laws based on religious moral codes have on women. President al-Bashir has imposed a conservative Islamist ideology since he came to power in the late 80s and incorporated Sharia Law as part of Sudan’s legal system. Anyone who dares to question or challenge the law will be dutifully punished with anything ranging from flogging to the death penalty. Amira Osman Hamed, a civil engineer from Sudan, is campaigning passionately against such laws after being spared of a public flogging because of “indecent dressing” for failing to cover her hair. Ms. Osman is just one of the thousands of female victims who every year face countless punishments for disobeying the law. According to her, in 2012, 70% of the 43,000 cases sent to the public order courts involved women. Article 152 of Sudan’s 1991 Criminal Act used to condemn Ms. Osman states the following:
‘(1) Whoever commits, in a public space, an act, or conducts himself in an indecent manner, or a manner contrary to public morality, or wears an indecent or immoral dress, which causes annoyance to public feelings, shall be punished, with whipping, not exceeding forty lashes, or with a fine, or with both (2) The act shall be contrary to public morals if it is regarded as such according to the standard of the person’s religion or the custom of the country where the act takes place.’
It is left to the police and local authorities to decide what constitutes “indecent manner” and “public morals,” which in the case of Sudan clearly draws from Sharia Law.
As the international media reignites an interest in the issues of gender equality, it seems like an appropriate time to address the role of religious morality in education. Where does morality come from? I am hesitant to believe it positively draws from religion, especially when there are stark differences from expected moral behavior between men and women. During the past weeks we’ve been studying the role of colonialism as it pertains to development in class. Religion is one of the big “imports” that former colonies inherited. However, it is often difficult to disentangle religion from culture in places like Sudan where both Islam and Christianity were introduced long ago in the first millenium. External factors by virtue of time and history become internal factors capable of causing destruction, war, and genocide. Sudan’s history is one that particularly shows the complexities of foreign influence, religion, colonialism and internal tribal conflicts. The most pressing problem now is that of Islamic Fundamentalism. I believe that bringing light to this issue is a necessary step before we can continue to discuss gender inequality. We need to support women like Ms. Osman in their struggle to demand equal rights and challenge so-called “morality laws” that are nothing other than misogynist, chauvinistic and sexist.
Amnesty.org.uk,. (2014). Amria Osman Hamed. Retrieved 6 October 2014, from http://www.amnesty.org.uk/amira-osman-hamed-sudan-woman-headscarf-flog#.VDHfaEu4klJ BBC News,. (2014). Sudan apostasy woman ‘to campaign’. Retrieved 6 October 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-29399209
Equalrightstrust.org,. (2014). In Search of Confluence: Addressing Discrimination and Inequality in Sudan. Retrieved 6 October 2014, from http://www.equalrightstrust.org/view-subdocument/index.htm?id=1010 Mutiga, M. (2014). Sudan’s ‘morality’ laws used to punish women, report finds. the Guardian. Retrieved 6 October 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/02/sudan-morality-laws-women-report
the Guardian,. (2014). Emma Watson’s UN gender equality campaign is an invitation to men, too. Retrieved 6 October 2014, from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/oct/03/emma-watsons-un-gender-equality-campaign-is-an-invitation-to-men-too