Welcome to the WomanStats Blog!

The WomanStats Blog is an offshoot of the WomanStats Project. This project, begun in 2001, has both a research and a database component. Our research explores the linkage between the security of women and the security of states and the international system. To that end, we have constructed the largest compilation of information on women in the world: over 325 variables for 175 countries. The WomanStats Database is freely accessible online; click on our homepage link above. The purpose of creating a WomanStats blog was to allow project personnel to bring to the attention of readers interesting (and sometimes appalling) facts concerning women, and also to allow them to reflect upon their experiences extracting data for the project. Use the links to the right to access our RSS feed, sign up for email updates, and add our feed to your site. Other functions on site include search, comments, and ShareThis. The posts below are for 2012 and are listed newest to oldest, and we have archives and categories links to the right to assist you in finding particular posts. Enjoy!

In the Land of Wine, Cheese...And Sexual Harassment?

I had the pleasure of spending my summer studying language in France. Only one incident disturbed my reverie: I got groped. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. I have traveled to the Middle East, Southeast Asia and West Africa. Men have said things to me on the street before but no one has ever touched me. One night in June, I was walking to meet a friend at the subway stop around 10 pm, just after sunset in Lyon. I followed the same route, through a slightly rough neighborhood, which I took every day to get to school. I’d been warned to pay attention at night in this neighborhood but didn’t worry too much since I would only be there for about 10 minutes. As I approached the station, a man crossed the sidewalk, grabbed my chest and walked away laughing. I was shocked.

Not only was I shocked that a stranger felt he had the right to invade my personal space, but also I was shocked at my reaction. While I felt an externally focused anger at him, I also felt an internally focused guilt. My mind immediately jumped to the question “What did I do to provoke this?” Was my outfit too revealing? Should I have even been in this neighborhood? I was wearing a knee-length dress and a long sleeved sweater but the fact that I asked shows that I have internalized a “blame the victim” mentality. Whether I should have been in that neighborhood alone at night is a thorny question. In an ideal world, I would be able to walk anywhere at any time of day without a problem. Knowing that we sadly do not live in an ideal world, I tried to use my best judgment. In France, I didn’t worry about walking in that particular neighborhood at night partly because I was relying on general compliance with social norms that recognize sexual harassment as an unacceptable behavior and often a crime. While France has its share of sexism with its acceptance of overbearing male attention and marital infidelity, sexual harassment is recognized as an offense and the National Assembly recently strengthened its sexual harassment law. [1]

This incident made me feel vulnerable. It seems simple but I had never really felt truly vulnerable in the past where I couldn’t protect my physical safety and I couldn’t reasonably expect others to respect it. Why? By virtue of being a woman and being alone. That night, I asked a fellow (male) student to walk me home. I felt like an inconvenience and a child. He was more than happy to walk me but I just wished that I could walk around with the same liberty as him.

This truly was a minor incident in the scheme of things. I could (and did) avoid that neighborhood at night for the rest of the summer. However for many women, the space where they feel vulnerable is not just one neighborhood. It’s their entire society. They are subjected to harassment simply by trying to participate as full citizens due to a social acceptance of these behaviors. In many societies where there are no laws against sexual harassment and accepted as routine, it can inhibit women’s ability to transport herself across town or graduate from school. For example, the Burma CEDAW shadow report in 2008 describes how “women and girls interviewed revealed how they had been touched and groped sexually by men in crowded buses and other public places, including by men they knew well. Most women and girls keep silent when they suffer such harassment because they think it is shameful to talk about this to other people, and feel guilty and afraid that people will look down on them and gossip about them". [2]

The situation was similar in Lebanon in 2010 according to a Freedom House report where women, “are often subjected to gender-based harassment outside the home, most often in the form of sexual harassment on the street and at work. Victims prefer to confide only in people close to them and are made to feel ashamed should they decide to report such incidents to the police, who often do not know how to deal with these issues”. [3]

The current situation is even worse in Swaziland according to a State Department report, “Legal provisions against sexual harassment were vague, and government enforcement was ineffective; no cases have ever been brought to court. There were frequent reports of sexual harassment, most often of female students by teachers. Numerous teachers and some principals were fired during the year for inappropriate sexual conduct with students. Some teachers threatened students with poor grades if they did not provide sexual favors to them". [4]

The experience of studying the status of women around the world is very different from experiencing it firsthand. I can’t compare the vulnerability I felt from one minor incident compared to the horrors that so many women around the world endure. Yet, I have a deeper understanding of the women who feel powerless in the face of harassment. They’ve calculated that the best choice is to avoid it; the same calculation that I made when I avoided that metro stop. I am now even more amazed by women around the world who willingly face harassment to change their societies for the better.

1. “French parliament adopts sexual harassment law”. August 1, 2012. Accessed online at: http://www.france24.com/en/20120801-france-parliament-unanimously-adopts-new-law-sexual-harassment

2. Hudson, Valerie M., Mary Caprioli, Chad Emmett, Rose McDermott, S. Matthew Stearmer, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, "WomanStats Codebook," http://www.womanstats.org/CodebookCurrent.htm, [August 22, 2012].

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

Posted by AAH on 28 August 2012; Women(General)

"If you hit a girl with your hat and she doesn’t fall over, it’s time to marry her.”[1]

I came across this saying while reading about women in Afghanistan. I smiled and understood this “quaint” idiom to mean that once a young woman can stand up for herself and is not easily swayed, she is mature enough for the rite of passage into marriage. A quick look at the footnote informed me that I was very wrong.

This Afghan quip is referring to child marriage.

One of Afghanistan’s most destructive practices is that of marrying off their daughters at 16 years old or younger (the technical definition of child marriage) to a man who is often much older. Child marriages are part of a tangled web that keeps females subservient in many ways:

  • A woman who was married when still a child, to a man will always be treated as a little girl. She can never catch up to her husband’s status as the older, wiser spouse, and therefore, she will not be included in decision-making.
  • All child marriage is forced marriage as children are usually not consulted and even when they are, they lack the experience and knowledge necessary for such an important decision (similar to statutory rape).
  • AIDS spreads quickly to young girls because their bodies are still too small for intercourse, causing them to bleed.
  • Many girls suffer from fistula because their bodies are not developed enough for child birth, contributing to the world’s highest maternal mortality rate (that of Afghanistan).[2]
  • As girls discontinue their schooling once they are married, child marriage keeps females uneducated.[3]

Marrying off a daughter at the age of 10 sounds awfully barbaric to westerners. Why would anyone swap precious childhood for premature sexual activity and servitude to a much older husband?

Well-documented answers include poverty and illiteracy.

The poorest countries in the world have the highest child marriage rates—one suggested correlation being that parents of boys have to come up with thousands of dollars to pay the bride price for their sons’ brides-to-be. In order to come up with the exorbitant amount, many parents sell their younger daughters into marriage to an older man who can pay a handsome bride price for her.

Likewise, illiteracy is perpetuated within the cycle. Studies show that most parents who arrange underage marriages for their daughters are illiterate.[3] Being thus cut off from the world of education and power, such families are easily trapped in this tradition.

More complicated answers surface when we reflect our own society. In the US we revere childhood so much that our elementary schools average far less rigorous than those in other developed countries. We tell ourselves that “they’re just kids,” let them believe in Santa Clause; Make it illegal for them to work. But in reality are we protecting the childhood of our little girls?

What about the legalization of viewing child pornography in New York?[4] What about Toddlers and Tiaras? What about putting little girls in dance classes where they learn to dress and dance sensually like adults? From what moral high ground can we point our fingers at Afghanistan? And what accusation are we justified to utter? That their society is overly conservative while ours is…not overly sexualized? It becomes obvious that neither extreme empowers women.

To all things there is a season…and when you hit a girl with your hat and she does not fall down, it is not yet her season for sexuality.

1. UNAMA, “Harmful Traditional Practices and Implementation of the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women in Afghanistan,” 9 Dec. 2010: 18.

2. UNAMA 40

3. UNAMA 44

4. “Child Pornography Legal To View Online In New York; Court Rules Looking At Porn Doesn't Mean Possession,” The Huff Post, 10 June 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/child-pornography-legal-new-york-porn-possession-james-kent_n_1505916.html.

Posted by KS on 21 August 2012; Women(General), Education please

Trying to Plant Seeds

I’m currently studying at the University of Cambridge. Perhaps I was wrong in assuming that my fellow students would all have a basic knowledge and appreciation for feminism. Or perhaps I’ve just grown too accustomed to my interactions with the other WomanStats coders, where I so often feel like I am the least informed about the gender issues we discuss. Either way, I was woefully unprepared for the following exchange:

Anonymous male friend (AMF): What are you reading?

Me: Oh just some homework for my Politics of Gender class.

AMF: What’s that about?

Me: It’s an overview of the history of feminism in the UK.

AMF: Feminism? When I think of feminists I think of sour-faced, crusty, shriveled, old ladies who spend their whole lives bitter and alone.

Me: Well, I’m a feminist and I don’t feel like I fit that description.

AMF: You’re not a feminist!

Me: Uh… yeah, I am…..

AMF: (long, rather uncomfortable silence) Well then tell me about it, why do you consider yourself a feminist? Heck, maybe I’m one!

This is the point in the conversation where I cracked. I’ve since forgiven myself, considering the enormous amount of pressure I was under. There he was, staring at me, expectantly waiting for a five-minutes-or-less summary of the world’s history of gender relations. I faltered under the weighty responsibility of dispelling all the misconceptions that what is flippantly called the “f-word” immediately invokes. I kicked myself for being lazy about shaving that morning, for that was only evidence against my case. Perhaps it was the imaginary ticking of the egg-timer I could hear in his voice and see in his eyes. Or perhaps it was the sudden self-conscious itch of my leg hair against my pants. Either way, I choked.

My body’s initial response to his invitation was an eager tenseness as a fireworks show of WomanStats data began to explode in my brain. I jumped from variable to variable, debating over which fact would be the most colorful and striking. Should I open with female infanticide practice in China? Or maybe maternal mortality rates in Ghana. I might even start with a recent article I read on a Moroccan girl committing suicide after being forced to marry her rapist. It was a toss up. There was so much horrific evidence running around in my head, that it was hard to choose my lead-in. Yet his interest soon began to wane and I was only able to desperately spout out a few vague testimonials before my window of opportunity had passed.

I’ve since then replayed the scene many a time in my head, wondering what I could/would/should have done differently. How exactly do you go about discussing gender issues with a person who does not yet recognize the existence of these many inequalities? What is the best way to facilitate this usually drastic paradigm shift?

It’s tricky business. However, I think next time, if there is a next time, I will take a more personal approach. Something like FGM, for example, is indeed both a shocking and terribly damaging practice to women all over the world. However, it can sometimes be difficult to envision truly understanding, let alone alleviating these types problems for women that seem frequently so very distant due to either cultural differences or a mere matter of geography. Maybe it might have been more effective to point to something that is harmful for women in AMF’s society, something that might possibly be more tangible and pertinent for him.

Another tip of advice I’m giving my future self is to at all costs avoid being condescending or testy. Although it can at times be frustrating when someone casually refers to something you really care about as “crusty”, a lot can be said for the advantages of calm and candid conversation. The more and more I’ve talked with this AMF I’ve come to realize that he’s truly a bit scared of feminism. For him, it mostly just represents a men-hating belligerence. An opportunity like this can either add or take away from his negative perception, with a lot riding on things as simple as the tone of responses. Sometimes it’s easy for me to pretend that I have always been aware of and cared a lot about the problems of women around the world. But that is simply not the case and therefore not a fair expectation for me to have for others.

These feelings were echoed in a letter I found written in 1978 to the UK feminist magazine, Spare Rib.

Trying to be a Tree

Dear Spare Rib,

How many more letters do you get which are written on Mondays? It was a good weekend and now the kids are back at school and the man has gone to work and I am left washing sheets in the bath and eating all the left overs and feeling, let’s face it, “sorry for myself”.

We moved here two months ago from London. It is beautiful and healthy and friendly and unpretentious – the people are like trees, they have their roots solidly planted in their own history. I love it and respect it, but it’s probably part of my “problem”. It’s difficult to suddenly become a tree. Round here the ancient, gnarled socialists, who marched with Kier Hardie, wouldn’t vote for a woman if she stood at any election.

While living in Hornsey I flirted with women’s groups and gave the movement nominal if self satisfied support. But now I need you. I have always been a little nervous of the real hard-liners in the movement, because they tend to be impatient, even unintentionally arrogant (or maybe it’s my touchy nature) with the doubting, the half-hearted, the uncertain – for all those who march unerringly into the promised land, aren’t there just as many who could stumble in by accident if given a hand?

Best wishes,

Janet Fisher,

Skelmanthorpe, Huddersfield

As I read Janet’s wonderfully honest words, the last line rang in my ears. This week’s encounter reminded me that even thirty years later, there is still a lot of similar doubt and uncertainty surrounding the dialogue of gender issues. While I do not by any means profess to be a tree, I have become more acutely aware of my responsibility as a WomanStats coder to try and plant seeds. While our research is both a powerful and essential force for change, I do not believe it is enough. We must simultaneously try and plant seeds, or in other words, share what we learn so that attitudes will change and trees will grow.

Posted by CL on 14 August 2012; WomanStats

Reframing the “Having it All” Debate in Light of Women’s Global Situation

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Having It All”[1] speaks to a certain segment of society: educated women, predominantly from middle to upper class families, predominantly white. As a white woman pursuing an advanced degree in a field[2], like many other scientific fields[3], that sees a sharp decline in women’s participation in the upper ranks, this article spoke to me.

At first I wanted to do a piece using the data in womanstats database to do a worldwide survey and create a discussion of the article within that framework. However, that is slightly too grand an undertaking for my current time commitments, and possibly word limits. So at the risk of being redundant[4] with other bloggers[5], I shall forge ahead with an outline of my initial thoughts and hopefully return with data-based back-up. Consider this an extended hypothesis.

First we must address what exactly “having it all” means. As Slaughter acknowledged in her response article[6], this highly ambiguous phrase is not particularly useful[7]. Slaughter’s thesis is that society needs to change its expectations and give women greater flexibility in their work life. As a result, when women (inevitably) choose their family over their career, they will not be so far off the career track that they won’t be able to get back on that train. Essentially, in order to increase one’s ability to balance work and home, we need to decrease the penalties for momentarily favoring either the career or the family. From this, we can take “having it all” to mean “having work-life balance”.

It seems easy to forget that women have always worked for some form of wages, though this has not always been considered ideal. In European history (the kind I am most familiar with), women took on washing, sewing, teaching, and what-have-you in order to supplement their family’s income. This would for the most part, I think, fall into what is known today as the “informal” economy, of which women make up a greater part than men[8].

Working by necessity is unrelated to “having it all” as framed within Slaughter’s article, wherein women enter the workforce presumably for some sense of self-fulfillment. The assumption of one’s ability to choose runs through the article. If we widen the definition of “having it all” to include obligatory work – which is not necessarily any more or less fulfilling than any other kind of work – then we have to include “informal work” in our consideration, as it provides wage labor for women who may not be otherwise able to enter the workforce. This complicates matters significantly. There are actually three issues here at stake: 1) women’s ability to enter the workforce and progress in a career; 2) parity in household work – maintaining a home, food preparations, and childcare; 3) the effects of poverty on that balance.

At the end of the initial article, Slaughter concludes: “Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women”. Parity in leadership positions will improve work-life balance for all women such that they will be able to have both if they so choose – they will be able to “have it all”.

One may argue that if there is greater gender parity in leadership positions, benefits of work-life balance will trickle-down[9] to those below. While I would like to believe that is the case, I cannot accept that proposal at face value. It would certainly improve the situation for women like myself, who are starting from a privileged position, but I’m not convinced that would sufficient to effect the lives of all women (and men – I don’t suppose they want their work caring for their own children considered babysitting[10], any more than I want my career to be considered something to do until I have kids).

This is what I want to explore with the database – compare the status of women in leadership positions with other variables such as daily labor breakout, women’s participation in informal economy, women in the workforce and employment restrictions, as well as pulling in some observations on poverty. I want to see if improvements at the top of the economic scale are reflected in improvements at the bottom.

I suggest that it would instead take a radical change in the mind of people as a society that says that traditionally feminine activities – such as housework and childcare – are necessary, valuable activities and that career or childcare are both valid life-choices for men and women. This is not something that will simply be solved by placing women at the top.








8 Unavailable



Posted by LES on 11 August 2012; Positive Change, Coping Strategies

The Impact of the Media on the Status of Women

Women and men almost instinctively begin to take on societal roles based on gender as soon as they are able to understand the difference between boys and girls. We learn that boys wear blue, girls wear pink. Boys play with toy trucks and Lincoln Logs, girls play with Barbies and Polly Pockets. Boys play cowboys and Indians, girls play dress up with princess gowns and make-up. As these boys and girls grow up, most societies teach that the woman’s place is in the home, to care for the house and husband and to raise the children while the man’s place is in the workforce to provide means for his family. Society sees this as normal and acceptable behavior between men and women. While I see nothing wrong with these seemingly innocent societal roles among women and men, I do see something wrong with extreme societal roles that deem males and females so different that one is viewed as inferior to the other. For example, in Saudi Arabia the societal role of a woman’s place in the home has become a prohibitory one in which case women leaving the home can become quite the ordeal. A recent article tells of a Saudi Arabian woman named Manal al-Sharif who defied her country and chose to drive while being video-taped.

She then launched the video on YouTube. She was arrested the next day and held for nine days without being charged. She was released only after Saudi Arabia received substantial international pressure. While driving is technically not illegal in Saudi Arabia, Manal was still arrested because of a religious edict, or fatwa, issued in the early 1990’s that banned the practice. (1) Another prohibitory norm found in Saudi Arabia is an extreme patriarchal society. Manal explained that in school she was taught that “making a decision without consulting her male guardian was forbidden and sinful.” (1) With these types of ideas being taught to the women of Saudi Arabia, the future looks dim for the empowerment and equality of women in this country and countries that share the same ideals.

The solution seems then to change the mindset of an entire nation to the idea of equal rights and fair treatment toward women even within their societal roles. While such a solution is far-fetched, it is indeed possible by means of small steps toward women’s rights. One step which I think can be extremely influential is the proper portrayal of women in the media. Malcom X said this of the influence of the media, “the media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power; because they control the minds of the masses.” (2) The idea of the media controlling the “minds of the masses,” has been studied extensively. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that "television exposure during adolescence has also been linked to subsequent aggression in young adulthood. A 17-year longitudinal study concluded that teens who watched more than one hour of TV a day were almost four times as likely as other teens to commit aggressive acts in adulthood." (3) Although this study does not tell how women’s portrayal in the media affects societies’ attitudes toward women, it does make the point that the media does indeed have an impact on the behavior and attitude of society. This point is proven again in the article discussed above. Because Manal used the media to her advantage through the use of YouTube, she is now “the face of Saudi Arabia's Women2Drive movement, which plans to hold demonstrations on June 17 calling for women in that Middle Eastern country to be able to do something that's downright banal everywhere else in the world: drive themselves around town in an automobile.” (1) Manal’s courage has helped other women gain the courage to stand up for equal rights and has also helped bring to the attention to the men that women desire the same privileges that they enjoy. The media’s effect can be far-reaching. With that in mind, I decided to search for articles related to women for one week to lightly determine how women were being portrayed. I used CNN to represent the media for the United States and Al Jazeera to represent the Middle East. I wanted to compare the United States’ media portrayals compared to the Middle Easts’ because these regions differ greatly in terms of equal rights for women. The United States is seen as farther along than the Middle East when it comes to the empowerment and equality of women and therefore the needs of women in the U.S. are different than those in the Middle East. For example, some trouble a woman may encounter in the United States is not being paid as much as a man in the same position versus trouble for a woman in the Middle East may be not being able to go out in public without a male escort. I wanted to find if the media in each region is properly portraying the different needs of women living in different areas. The results of my findings are as follows:


Conservative group targets women voters Updated Tue June 12, 2012 (CNN) - The Concerned Women for America conservative group on Tuesday announced what they hope to be a $1 million voter identification, registration, and turnout effort targeting women. The group said the effort, She Votes, would be focused in 23... http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/12/conservative-group-targets-women-voters/
Is there a war on women in the Catholic Church? Sister Maureen Fiedler on Vatican's claim that U.S. nuns are 'radical feminists' Updated Tue June 12, 2012 Catholic nuns are going straight to the top today to address these claims that they have strayed from church doctrine. Members from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious will meet with Vatican officials. A report from a church watchdog accuses... http://startingpoint.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/12/is-there-a-war-on-women-in-the-catholic-church-sister-maureen-fielder-on-vaticans-claim-that-u-s-nuns-are-radical-feminists/
"Interfaith Voices" host: Women not treated equally in the church Updated Tue June 12, 2012 "Interfaith Voices" host Sister Maureen Fiedler appears on Starting Point to answer questions about gender equality in the Catholic Church. Sister Fiedler says, “It’s certainly true that at the institutional level, women are not treated as equals in... http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/12/interfaith-voices-host-women-not-treated-equally-in-the-church/
Clinton offers advice to young women seeking to emulate her Updated Tue June 12, 2012 By Jill Dougherty Whenever Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks before a group of women from other countries she's invariably asked whether she will run for president. But at Monday's opening ceremonies for the first Women in Public Service... http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/12/clinton-offers-advice-to-young-women-seeking-to-emulate-her/
Opinion: Do powerful women need to tame their unsightly bulges? Updated Fri June 8, 2012 Editor's note: Orit Avishai is an assistant professor of sociology at Fordham University. She is the author of "Managing the Lactating Body: The Breast-Feeding Project and Privileged Motherhood." (CNN) - Adele, who won big at the 2012 Grammys, once... http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2012/06/08/opinion-do-powerful-women-need-to-tame-their-unsightly-bulges/

Al – Jazeera

Why Arab women still 'have no voice' Amal al-Malki, a Qatari author, says the Arab Spring has failed women in their struggle for equality. www.aljazeera.com/programmes/talktojazeera/2012/04/201242111373249723.html
Lebanon's women warriors Lebanese women from all sides talk about participating in their country's civil war. www.aljazeera.com/programmes/general/2010/04/2010413115916795784.html
Turkish women protest plans to curb abortion Thousands took to Istanbul's streets to express anger at plans to reduce the time limit for abortions. www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2012/06/20126316302678229.html
Turkish forces kill 15 Kurdish women fighters Female unit of Kurd separatist movement PKK wiped out by Turkish army in Bitlis province, interior ministry says. www.aljazeera.com/news/europe/2012/03/201232414824922144.html
Egyptians protest against beating of women Thousands rally in Cairo to denounce military's attacks, as foreign ministry denounces criticism from United States. www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/12/20111220132113595450.html
Sacred women in Israel and Palestine Will protests against ultra-Orthodox Jews' campaign for gender segregation get justice for women in Israel, Palestine? www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/12/20111228131232259788.html
Qatari women prepare for Olympic debut For the very first time, conservative Gulf Arab state will send female athletes to the Games, in London. www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2012/05/201252216917310490.html
Libyan women hope for gains in elections Next month's elections to the national assembly present women with a rare chance to step out of the shadows. www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2012/05/20125178164415112.html
The new Egypt: Leaving women behind On International Women's Day, Egyptian women contemplate being overlooked in the formation of a post-Mubarak future. www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/03/201138133425420552.html

Based on these articles for just one week, I was pleasantly surprised to see how many articles were written about women and their varying issues. While much needs to be done to achieve equality for women everywhere, seeing these issues brought to light through the media is indeed a step in the right direction!

Posted by TS on 23 July 2012; Women (General)

Harmful Traditional Practices

As a WomanStats coder I have read and coded data on a variety of topics, including harmful traditional practices. Reading through these accounts and the debilitating effects these practices sometimes have on girls and women angers me and drives me to find an end to these practices.

However, when I think about the ramifications of trying to end these practices, I have often thought about the question of culture. If these practices are part of a specific culture, is it right to push my values on a society and advocate for an end to these practices? Where is the line between ending harmful practices and what should be preserved because it is part of culture?

For one of our WomanStats readings, we read Susan Olkin’s book Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? in which she explores the effects of multiculturalism. One of the conclusions of her analysis is that some group rights, usually for minority groups, will in fact be harmful for women. Reading her perspective helped me to realize that invoking the culture card in order to allow harmful traditional practices to continue is wrong and it can ultimately be damaging for women.

This concept was further reinforced when I had the opportunity to attend a side event during the Human Rights Council on harmful traditional practices. Women from many countries throughout Africa as well as representatives from various NGOs gathered to present their views on harmful traditional practices ranging from female genital mutilation (FGM) to widowhood rites.

Although it was acknowledged that culture and religion are often invoked as reasons for why these practices continue, it was discussed that there are other factors contributing to the perpetuation of these practices. Speakers at the panel discussed some of the underlying causes driving the continuation of harmful traditional practices and these include poverty, unequal access to education, unequal employment opportunities, and lack of enforcement of laws prohibiting these practices.

The panel concluded that it is important to address these underlying factors in order bring these harmful traditional practices to an end. Even though culture and religion are often invoked to protect these practices, this is not a reason to protect these harmful practices. When it comes to the question of protecting culture, I agree that it is important to keep in tact aspects of culture that are good, but ultimately it is important to bring to an end those practices which are harmful and destructive to any individual.

Posted by JH on 20 July 2012; Coping Strategies

WomanStats Goes Abroad: Thailand

Six months ago, just before I was hired to work for The WomanStats Project, I decided to do a summer internship program in Thailand. Being a student with a minor in women’s studies, I chose to do my three-month internship at a women’s shelter. Upon coming here, my understanding of Southeast Asian women and my knowledge about Thailand came mostly from the information in our database. Having been here for only two months, I am in no way an expert on Southeast Asian culture, nor do my observations in any way encompass the situation of every woman here, but my pre-conceived notions have shifted quite a bit. Still, I want to share my experiences and thoughts for the purpose of discussion with like-minded people, concerned about the status of women worldwide.

The women’s shelter I am at works with ‘single mothers in crisis.’ All the women staying at the shelter either have a child or are pregnant and most are years younger than me (I’m 21). They come to the shelter for various reasons. Some have been raped, some have gotten pregnant by a boyfriend or husband who then abandoned them, and all have little or no support from their families. The shelter often takes in women from the hill tribes who are denied Thai citizenship but exploited by the government. Those hill tribe women are probably the most disadvantaged in all of Thai society. Being a single woman with a baby is looked down upon here (as in many parts of the world) and most families will disown a daughter for that reason. A few weeks ago we had a woman who, having completed the shelter’s reintegration program, was ready to leave the shelter and go back home. When I asked her how she felt about going home, the only emotion she expressed to me was embarrassment. As a college undergraduate, there isn’t much that I have to offer these women except my non-judgmental support and friendship. It saddened me to hear this woman tell me that she was embarrassed to go home, and I encouraged her not to feel that way. She should have been proud of the immense courage and strength that she had been forced to develop in order to endure her situation. That very ability for humans to endure the most difficult of circumstances is something that I am humbled to witness every day.

Leaving work each day, I return to a host family made up of many women. I stay with a host family comprised of a mother and father and their one daughter. Some of my host mother’s sisters live next door where they take care of their own mother, who is currently 104 years old and still going strong. She is one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever met. Having given birth to twelve daughters originally, five of them (including my host mom) are still alive. (She had sons as well but no one has been able to give me an exact number of how many total children there were.) When I sit on the floor at her feet and hold her delicate, little hands, I feel nothing but immense love radiating from her. It takes a strong woman to bear a child, let alone more than a dozen children. I imagine that if we could converse beyond the boundaries of my rudimentary Thai, she would be able to instruct me on how to be the absolute perfect mother. I feel as though all the most kept secrets to life are within my grasp, and I constantly curse the language barrier for keeping me from them. From the look in her eyes, which seem to always be laughing, I sense that she is likewise aware of this.

One thing my Thai grandmother likes to do is tease me about my clothes. She frequently laughs at my shorts, which fall mid-thigh on me and tells me my legs are too long. She will then ask me if I think Thailand is hot. I tell her that if I wear full-length pants, I will get heat stroke. Thailand, in addition to being extremely hot, is a very modest country where the only scantily clad people are foreign tourists and prostitutes. Most Thais (women in particular) remain fully and modestly clothed despite the heat. It is rare to see bare shoulders or pants not covering the knees. And cleavage is something unheard of. Men can get away with wearing sleeveless shirts, but rarely do they go shirtless in public. Though much of the younger generation is becoming less modest in their dress, the majority of people maintain their modesty. Late one afternoon, having spent the day in the city, I hopped into the back of a covered truck which functions as a taxi, that goes by my house. The two long benches in the back of the truck run parallel so that passengers sit facing each other. I was faced with the decision of choosing which side to sit on as I climbed in. On the right sat a young mother with two loud, fidgety children, and on the left sat a silent monk in orange robes. Since monks are not allowed to touch women, I chose to sit next to the mother and risk having children climb on me, rather than risk accidentally touching the monk on the sometimes-bumpy drive. As we sat waiting for the truck to fill up with passengers, I looked around for the driver but couldn’t see him. I noticed a middle-aged woman in a hot pink t-shirt and sunglasses leaning against the door of the truck. She was watching a little girl play on the sidewalk and appeared to be waiting for something. It suddenly dawned on me that she was the driver of this particular truck (and I spent the next few moments sulking at the very gendered mentality that I had just exhibited). I had never seen a woman taxi driver in Thailand before that moment (and still have yet to see another). Sure enough, as soon as the truck filled up, she walked around to the driver’s side door and got behind the wheel, calling to the little girl as she went. The girl, whom I perceived to be her daughter, abandoned her game on the sidewalk and jumped into the cab, settling into the passenger seat as we took off away from the city. My attention was once more brought to the back of the truck as the younger child next to me began to fuss—obviously hungry and wanting to breastfeed. Due to Thailand’s culture of modesty, I expected the woman to cover her chest with a blanket or something while she breastfed the hungry baby, but she did not. Fully exposing her breast, she began to nurse the child and calm it in a soothing voice. I immediately scanned the faces of the other passengers of the truck to observe their reactions and what I saw made me smile. No one had made a face or even flinched at the sight of a woman’s exposed breast in public—not even the monk sitting directly across from her. I’ve never seen a nursing woman fully expose her breast in public back in the States. It seemed to me that women’s breasts are not sexually stigmatized in Thailand like they are in my own culture. If we had been a truck full of Americans, the woman probably would have made national news the next morning for causing a fiasco. But don’t get the impression that women are not sexually exploited here. Because despite things like acceptance of breastfeeding in public, the growing sex industry casts a long, dark shadow on the women in Thailand. It’s extremely hard not to have an encounter with the sex industry in Thailand. If you are out at night, you are guaranteed to see prostitutes on the side of the street waiting for customers. If you are lucky, that’s all you will see.

One morning, as I ate breakfast in the city with my fellow interns, we incidentally got to witness one of the many unpleasant consequences of getting involved in the sex industry. The café we were eating at had a guesthouse upstairs and one of the guests was at the center of a ruckus on that particular morning. He had woken up to two prostitutes dragging him out of his room and delivering him to their pimps waiting in the street. Apparently, the hung-over foreigner owed them 6,300 Baht (about 200 USD) for the previous night and had left (the brothel) without paying. After refusing to pay for things he “did not remember,” he suffered a physical beating from the pimps—something quite uncommon in Thailand. When they let up, the man went to get his wallet only to find it was not in his room. Not being able to remember where he left it, he gave them 50 Baht from his pocket and an iphone as collateral. As all this took place, I couldn’t help but turn my gaze away from the fighting men to the two prostitutes sitting silently on the side of the street. Watching their expressionless faces watch this whole scene unfold gave me the impression that tracking down customers for payment was a common occurrence—just another daily task to deal with in this business. Though slightly awkward for those of us trying to enjoy our breakfast, it certainly provided some interesting things to mull over and more of a first hand glimpse than I ever wanted into the sex industry.

I think this is a typical story to bring back from a trip abroad. Stories like this are the ones that we hear about from our friends and see in the movies. But there’s a side to prostitution in Southeast Asia that goes unnoticed by many foreigners, and is rarely even recognized by locals themselves. Louise Brown’s book Sex Slaves delves into the inner-workings of the sex industry in Southeast Asia only to discover that sex tourism is not the main objective of the sex industry and that foreign tourists are not actually the most targeted customers. Brown shows how it is actually the local men who provide the majority of the sex industry’s business and how the best brothels are kept secret from foreigners for them to enjoy. Betrayed by the men they trust, Southeast Asian women are forced into a life of indentured slavery to serve other men who have likewise been trusted by other women. With sex tourism drawing so much attention to itself, (as demonstrated above) it’s easy to see how the local sex business is kept extremely quiet and goes on unnoticed. Somaly Mam discusses a similar situation in Cambodia in her autobiography recounting her imprisonment in the sex industry, her escape, and her eventual success to found an organization that rescues young sex slaves from brothels all over Southeast Asia.

Don’t get too depressed about the situation of Southeast Asian women—change is on the horizon. The country known as Burma (named Myanmar by the long-reigning military dictatorship) is undergoing political reform. And the person leading the way to change is a woman. Having previously been under house arrest for 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi is now able to move about freely and her fame has grown exponentially over the past decade. Earlier this year she successfully campaigned for and won a seat in the Burmese parliament. She serves as a symbol not only of women’s growing involvement in political leadership but also of anti-dictatorship movements and democratic reform. There is a large amount of Burmese women taking refuge in Thailand (I have personally met several) and they are incredibly disadvantaged here. They legally cannot go to school and many grow up in Thailand without getting any form of education. The situation of Burmese people is a distressing one, and it is my greatest hope that drastic change is on the horizon. All over Southeast Asia there are many populations (like Burmese refugees) of women who reside on the brink of society and quite often fall through the cracks of social change. I didn’t come to Thailand to change the world—that’s a task I leave to those more skilled and experienced than I am. I came to see what life is like for disadvantaged women, to learn from them, to understand their experiences, to befriend those who need friendship, and to see what social change looks like firsthand. And now when I share what I have learned here, others will (hopefully) be moved to continue demanding equality for women in Southeast Asia.

Brown, Louise. 2001. Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia. Virago Press Ltd. UK.

Mam, Somaly. 2008. The Road of Lost Innocence. Virago Press Ltd. UK.




Posted by BRS on 11 July 2012; Women (General)

Historical Women

In 2011 German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 4th most powerful person in the world, and the top most powerful woman. If Forbes created a list of the most powerful women in history, here are two names that would make the top of the list and should be included in more history lessons:

Queen Hatshepusut (1503-1482 B.C.)

Queen Hatshepusut is regarded as one of the most successful pharaohs in Egyptian history, and Egypt’s most powerful female ruler. At first acting as queen-regent for her step-son, Hatshepusut took over full command for 21 years and demoted her step-son to second in command. Egypt prospered peacefully under Hatshepusut’s reign. Hatshepusut also became known as one of the greatest builders in Egyptian history. One of the obelisks she constructed at Karnak reads: "Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done" (Hatsheputsut, National Geographic). Unfortunately, after her death, Hatshepusut’s step-son erased many of the monuments depicting her reign.

Empress Theodora (500-548)

Emperor Justinian I’s wife and trusted advisor, Empress Theodora was probably the most powerful woman in Byzantine history. She was known for her intelligence and political aptitude. Empress Theodora also championed women’s rights by increasing divorce laws to better protect women and outlawing the trafficking of young girls. (Evans, James Allan. The Empress Theodora - Partner of Justinian. University of Texas, Austin: 2002).

Posted by AAW on 09 July 2012; Iron Women

Gender Parity in the Industry

What do Barbara Askins, Hedy Lamarr, and Stephanie Kwolek all have in common? They are all female inventors! However, when a new invention hits the market we often do not see the people behind the creative process, and so we do not know if a man or woman was behind the creation. Once in a while, we can guess the lack of gender parity in an invention process due to obvious business mistakes. I refer to the blunder of Apple Corporation of not considering the possible reference to feminine hygiene upon naming the first generation of their new innovation at the time, the iPad.

Here’s the question I would like to address in this blogpost; do we find gender parity in all fields of product invention and patenting? I happened to come across a report published by the National Women's Business Council of the United States. In this report, a quantitative study of the patent applications by gender variables was conducted to determine the gender trends of the patenting process over the last 40 years.

The findings of the study have been quite interesting to review and I wish to discuss a couple of the findings and the implications thereof. First, in which fields have women become increasingly participatory and thus applied for patents and trademarks for their inventions?

“Data processing as applied to Financial, Business Practice, Management, or Cost/Price Determination (705) shows a whopping 172.13% increase from 2008 to 2010. Surgery (604) is in the second place with an increase of 156.36%. Surgery (600) is in the third place with an increase of 129.91%. Data processing as applied to Database and File Management or Data Structures (707) is in the fourth place with an increase of 127.95%. Electrical Computers and Digital Processing Systems as applied to Multicomputer Data Transferring (709) is in the fifth place with an increase of 101.92%.” (NWBC 22)

So what does this mean? This means that since the 2008 recession, women have contributed significantly to the development of software and data processing in regards to business practices. At the same time, they have also become more and more involved in the development of surgical products and procedures to improve the medical field (of which women have been lacking). What’s even more important is the number of women applying for patents in the realm of the software and computer engineer (once classified as a “boys' club”). Women are contributing new ideas and new products to our economy.

However, with regards to parity, the data points suggest that all is still not well economically.

“The analysis shows a slightly lower percentage of patents by women that were assigned to private companies. 64.97% of all patents with women primary inventors in the period 1976-2010 were assigned to a U.S. non-governmental organization. This is a lower percentage than that for men who assigned 74.98% of patents to private companies. 19.77% of all patents by men were unassigned as compared to 29.41% for women. Together, these results suggest a slight difference between men and women in independent entrepreneurship: women are more likely to be independent entrepreneurs and keep their patents unassigned while men are more likely to be leading the research in businesses and corporations.” (NWBC 26)

It appear, that women are finding it much easier to develop their talents and inventions outside of the corporate system. That women are contributing as independent researchers is wonderful news, but it is also disheartening to learn that the current leaders of industry still seem to be excluding women from developmental circles, forcing women to develop their ideas independently. Such is the state of parity of women in the realm of patents and inventions. I hope that such trends do improve and that women are no longer excluded from corporate R&D units. If not, I fear for the future of industry in the United States.

National Women's Business Coucil (NWBC), 2012. Intellectual property and women entrepreneurs:Quantitative analysis. Delixus. 22-30. http://nwbc.gov/sites/default/files/IP%20&%20Women%20Entrepreneurs.pdf

Posted by MGH on 22 June 2012; Even in America

Don't Mow the Weeds, PULL Them

Before I address the gender issue that I feel compelled to write about, I’d like to first say a few things about my experience with the WomanStats Project. I am a new coder to project and while I may have a lack of experience I most certainly do not lack in passion. I have had an interest in gender studies for a while now and when I was given the opportunity to join the team I was so excited. I have learned more about the security of women in the world in the few weeks that I have been working for the project than I did in any of my undergraduate or graduate classes thus far. I feel as if my eyes have been opened to something that greatly saddens me, angers me, and motivates me to educate other about- the treatment and suppression of women around the world.

Now to give meaning to the title of this blog by addressing an issue that has brought me much frustration- the prominence of child pornography in Japan and the way the country has handled the problem, or lack there of. The title of this blog entry “Don’t mow the weeds, PULL them” refers to the way in which I feel the Japanese government has dealt with the problem of child pornography. Everyone knows that if when you mow weeds you have done nothing but make them less obvious, the roots are still grounded and they will grow back in no time. If you want to resolve a weed problem you pull them up and out entirely, roots included. The Japanese government has only mowed the weeds of child pornography solving the problem on the surface. Underneath, the weeds still live by their roots, as child pornography is still disturbingly common.

“Although the distribution of child pornography is illegal, the law does not criminalize the simple possession of child pornography, which often depicts the brutal sexual abuse of small children. The absence of a statutory basis makes it difficult for police to obtain search warrants, preventing them from effectively enforcing existing child pornography laws or participating in international law enforcement efforts in this area. Along with child pornography involving real victims, some law enforcement and pedophilia experts stated that child molesters used cartoons and comics depicting child pornography to seduce children. The role of commonly available sexually explicit comics and anime in the sexual endangerment of children remained controversial, with the NPA stating the link had not been proved.” [1]

This is paragraph taken from the 2009 Japan Human Rights Report, which can be found on the U.S. State Departments website. I find this to be disturbing and rather unacceptable. Outlawing the distribution of child pornography but not penalizing those who posses it is beyond me. Basically, as long as you don't get caught buying child pornography you are in the clear- how is this solving the problem. It’s NOT. It only makes the problem less obvious, like mowing the grass makes the weeds less obvious. But the point is that they are still there!

If Japan wants to solve their child pornography problem, they need to pull the weeds not mow them. They need to criminalize the possession of child pornography, establish a basis for statutory rape and outlaw comics that portray children in a pornographic manner-pull the weeds at the root. Without taking these actions the prominence of child pornography is not likely to be mitigated. It blows my mind that owning pornographic films of children is not a crime. In my opinion, there is absolutely nothing justifiable about feeling a sexual satisfaction from child pornography and there is no reason it should remain legal. Some may make the argument that it keeps the sexually-mentally ill from violating children out on the streets. However, my counter to that would be that I agree with the experts documented in the 2009 Human Rights Report who believe the existence of child pornography and pornographic comics of children,

“…could be harmful to children by creating a culture that appears to accept sexual intercourse with children or violence against children. Internet service providers acknowledged that the country was a hub for child pornography, leading to greater victimization of children both domestically and abroad.”[2]

In conclusion, I find Japan’s attempt at solving the problem of child pornography entirely unsatisfactory. I hope that more aggressive actions are taken in the near future to curb this problem because only outlawing the distribution of child pornography is not solving the problem, its making it less obvious on the surface. Again, it’s mowing the weeds.



Posted by CCD on 16 June 2012; Insane Laws; Pornography

The Emotional Development of a WomanStats Coder

Ten years ago when I began diving into the knowledge of women’s rights, it turned my scene of the world upside down.  I think that growing up in an upper-middle-class, fairly rural and isolated neighborhood in northern California before social networks, I had never been exposed to the problems facing women on a global scale.  I had been exposed to an idea here and there, but the magnitude of the problem had escaped my attention.  When I came to BYU I had the opportunity to do a summer internship with the World Family Policy Center at the J. Reuben Clark Law School.  My job was to collect data from UN documents and organize into files for further research.  

The process of reading and sorting massive amounts of information was profoundly changed the way I viewed myself as a member of a global society.  The initial experience changed the way I thought about political, social, and international issues.  It changed the way I read t issues and news articles.  I went through what I felt was massive internal struggle with what I chose to think about good and evil and what my place was in the world.   But shortly after that I married, finished my bachelor’s degree, and began my tenure staying home with my four children.  The passion still burned in my heart, but I was unable t o devote myself to the same amount of study of current events.  Time passed and I decided to go back to graduate school I was able to volunteer working with WomanStats.  I thought that I was prepared for the information I would encounter because I had already been exposed to so much information.  Imagine my surprise when felt that I went through a similar process again.  T his time as I read the government reports and first hand accounts the reality of the stories of women and young girls pierced my heart because I have four daughters who were almost the same age of the young women in the reports I was coding. 

When I saw the same feelings and emotions emerge in the most recent introduction to women stats I began to analyze my feelings and the process.  I was attempted to make my own brain comprehend what I was experiencing.  I needed in my own way to process the profound sorrow that my soul felt.  And even though recent psychological research has serious reservations about the theory of stages of grief, it was the most logical way for me to begin to organize my thoughts.  I was interested in the idea that maybe other people who embark on this journey might have a similar experience.  I wanted to share some of my personal experiences and how I tried to classify my thoughts. 

I think my experience began with an inability to comprehend the information I was reading.  It became this almost out- of- body experience where my brain was consuming the word on the page and I could organize it into the correct categories, but my heart had blocked out the information.  I felt numb as I read the horrible stories of female genital mutilation also referred to infibulation, and tried to assign a quantitative assessment to the table of countries.  This is also a difficult subject to begin with, as the cruelty of the practice is hard to deny.  To read about the removing of a girl’s genitals with no pain medicine, with dirty razor or sharp natural object, and with no sanitation was nauseating and so hard to wrap my brain around.  The cultural desire of some societies to perpetuate the practice of genital mutilation was unfathomable.

After a few weeks of scaling infibulation and reading the data collected by previous coders my brain began to connect the dots, and I began to feel profound anger. I was furious about the unnecessary pain that cultures inflict on its girls and women.  I was angry at so many things.  One evening when I was working I felt just so much anger that I had to get up and go to a grocery store and just walk around because it was so hard to sit there and read the stories and not throw up.  I was angry at the societies that allowed this to happen, the religious leaders that continued it, and the religions that did not stop it; at God for not striking them all with lightning.  I was mad at myself for not having the power to stop it and take the pain away.  One night I had a conversation with my husband about how this was so horrible and I was getting really frustrated with him for not fully understanding my anger.  We had a conversation that when something as follows:
Tom: “It’s not my fault that these horrible things happen”
Me: not responding
Tom: “Just because I am male does not make it my fault”
Me: “Well I will consider it, because I am not so sure, I will get back to you in a few days.”
I knew that it was not his fault any more than it was my fault that these horrible things happened in the world, but he unfortunately was the closest person to me and also happened to be male, which did not help his case in that moment.  T o his everlasting credit he still loves me. 

Once the anger began to pass I began to feel depressed.  I felt so hopeless about the situation.  I also felt very guilty that I lived in a safe community where I had taken so much for granted.  I remember driving in my car alone late at night and realizing that I was not afraid that I would be hijacked from my car at the approaching stop sign.  That there were no guerilla check points on my way home where a woman would never cross alone at night.  I was sad for all pain and the sorrow that so many women all over the world feel and it weighed very heavy on my heart.  During this same time I also became hyperaware of news articles and stories that had more heart breaking information I had never considered.  The depression and the hyperawareness seemed to feed off each other.  With new information came more sadness, but I could not allow myself to walk away from the headlines.  I think I had to believe that even in the darkness there was light at the end of the tunnel.  I had to believe that this process was valuable for myself and for others who lived half a world away. 

Along the way the depression seemed to turn into empathy.  I found myself surprised by a profound love for women I had never met, and will probably never even step foot in the nations that they call home.  I found the scales of my own prejudice fall from my eyes and I could see them as my sisters and as my friends.  I felt an overpowering feeling of profound love for the world at the exact same moment that my heart was breaking into a million pieces because their pain became more than sadness it became real.  What hurt them hurt me.  I heard a saying, “what breaks God’s heart will begin to break our hearts as well.”  I think for me this is very true, but thankfully I only get a small piece at a time, because the weight of the pain in the world would crush me. 

At this point I had to ask myself how could I possibly change the world.  The earth seemed so vast and the problems so numerous.  I found that I needed to place myself in a position to be called to action and to act when any opportunity presented itself.  I found the ability act to be therapeutic to my soul.  I did not like the feeling of being helpless in a situation.  I found that working for W oman S tats gave me an immediate place to be active.  I also found the need to educate myself on the issues that continue to plague our world.  In found it to be helpful to share stories from women with others in my social circle, and to be more confident in speaking up in social situation.  I also found peace in this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...."  

I firmly believe that we have a vital part to play in the process of shaping a brighter future.  And even though it is emotionally difficult to read and work with information that contains some of the most vial mistreatment of human beings.  I have found that my emotional journey was painful and grief inducing, but that it has changed my life in amazing and profound ways that allow me to be a better citizen of the world. I have also found the process often repeats when I am exposed to new information and personal accounts, but I am able to process my own emotions better and to arrive at a place where I find hope for the future even if it seems the process is far in the distance.   

Posted by JF2 on 4 June 2012; Coping Strategies

Changing the Culture of Menstruation

I previously wrote a blog post pointing out the stigma associated with female menstruation and it is obvious that this is a problem. It is prevalent in our cultures all over the world as well as in our media.  Menstruation is portrayed as a dirty or polluting influence for females.  It wasn’t until July 2011 that a feminine product company used red to represent menstruation blood, most companies continue to use blue as a representative color. [1]  The stigma has been such a large part of our society for so long it will difficult to change. But it is through efforts such as the VICE a photo series by photographer Emma Arvida Bystrom. [2]  The series is an extreme effort to fight the stigma, but there are several other options that we have as a society to fight the taboo that has been placed on women for generations.  I would like to discuss a few things that we can do as individuals to make a difference.

‘Always’ Runs First Feminine Hygiene Ad to Show Blood

I started my period when I was 14 years old which was a little late compared to my friends.  It seemed like such an exciting event and one of my friends who started her period earlier gave everyone “period” bags after they began menstruating. The little baggie was cloth and consisted of different feminine products and Motrin. It was something exciting and something to celebrate and I actually longed to begin my period like my friends.

I remember after I told my parents I had started my period. They took me out to a restaurant, just me and them.  It was a celebration of my womanhood and the power that I now possessed to create a life when the time came.  I am grateful for the attitude this began for me. But it wasn’t long before I forgot about the celebration and began to complain along with my friends. It was no longer new and exciting, but a burden. 
What if this type of celebration were to continue on throughout one’s life? What if we always celebrated our periods as a sign of power not pollution? What if every time we got a period we gave ourselves a little treat, not a consolation for our trouble? I am not dismissing the fact that menstruation can be painful and that it can be difficult to cope with the hormones.  But if we were to change our attitude about menstruation and celebrate it when it starts and continue to celebrate it through out our lives, perhaps it would change our dread for that “time of the month” and replace it with excitement or at least appreciation.

In the Huffington article about the Photo series by Bystrom, they discuss the different “embarrassing moments mentioned in Seventeen Magazine.  Menstruation is not a dinner table appropriate conversation and it generally discussed as a burden, dirty, smelly experience.

What if we were to change the way we discussed menstruation? I propose that we begin to change the way that we talk about menstruation, that we associate it with positive experiences, that we allow ourselves to discuss it openly and not treat it as a dirty secretive event.  What if we were to avoid complaining about our menstrual cycles and what if we were to stop joking about it in a derogatory manner?  What if we were to praise women for having their periods and talk about it in a positive manner? I believe that changing conversations will change the way we think about it and fight the verbalization of the stigma that already exists.

Women need to have confidence when going into the bathroom with tampons. We should not hide them or be ashamed that we are on our periods. It should be an event that we are either proud of or at least a matter-of-fact about. Why are we as women so embarrassed about something that represents something so beautiful and important to human existence? If we as women were to take a stand in our actions regarding our periods and walk about with confidence in ourselves and our bodily functions then perhaps we could begin to change the stigma that has followed women for centuries.

Menstruation is something to be praised and celebrated. It is something to be looked forward to with excitement not apprehension. We should not discuss it as a dirty or embarrassing occurrence. It is our privilege as women to have the power to create another human being inside us and menstruation is just a manifestation of that power.  I know that if we begin to do these things, if we change our conversations, if we celebrate our periods and are not afraid to show that we are menstruating women and proud of it.


[1] Stampler, Laura. Always Runs First Feminine Hygiene Ad To Show Blood
The Huffington Post, July, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/06/always-runs-first-feminin_n_891546.html

[2] Gray, Emma. Menstruation Taboo Challenged By VICE 'There Will Be Blood' Series. May 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/emma-gray/menstruation-taboo-vice-there-will-be-blood-photos_b_1528826.html

Posted by CKL on 26 May 2012; Positive Change

Why Doesn't the US Have Paid Maternity Leave?

America has a weak work-family support system and a large reason for this is the lack of paid parental leave.  Problems that result from this weak work-family support system include, among several other issues, delayed immunizations and doctor visits for babies, lower rates of breastfeeding, and financial difficulties for parents.  Delayed immunizations, fewer doctor visits, and low rates of breastfeeding negatively affect infant health.  This may lead to health problems throughout the life of the child.  Society is negatively affected when its denizens are unable to contribute their fullest to society and need a lot of health care.  The parents may also not be able to contribute as much as they would otherwise to society or be as productive at work.  Several parents who face financial difficulties, in large part because of the costs of raising children and the weak work-family support system in America, have to go on public assistance and/or file for bankruptcy. [1] 

Despite societal benefits from providing paid parental leave and thousands of people in the position of needing help with infant care, the United States only provides unpaid parental leave.  To put this into perspective, the United States, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that do not offer paid parental leave.  The Human Rights Watch posits that paid parental leave should be a right. [2]  

The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has been in place in America since 1993.  It provides for 12 weeks of unpaid job protected leave for new parents and to care for either one’s own serious health conditions of for a member of the employee’s family.  However, employees and employers have to meet certain requirements to be eligible for leave under the FMLA. Because of these requirements, only 11% of employers and 58% of all employees in America are eligible. [3] 

The impact of FMLA on employees is mixed.  Approximately 18% of eligible employees actually used leave protected under FMLA and roughly 24% of those employees used it for parental leave.  Almost 54% of the people who used leave under the FMLA were worried about finances since the leave is unpaid.  About 77% of employees said they needed the leave but didn’t take it because they couldn’t afford it. [4]

From the above statistics, it is clear that too many employees are not eligible for FMLA leave and/or too many employees cannot afford to take unpaid parental leave.  It does not appear that America will have improved parental leave legislation anytime in the near future since the most recent proposed bills to supplement the FMLA did not even make it out of committee. [5]  One of the main arguments against paid parental leave in America is that it’s not economically efficient.  I disagree.  Most other countries are able to provide paid parental leave for their citizens without detrimental economic effects.  Other employers and employees are able to work together to allow new parents to have paid parental leave.  It is possible.  We just need to realize, as a society, the importance of paid parental leave, and then work together to ensure paid parental leave is a possibility for new parents. 

[1] Failing its Families: Lack of Paid Leave and Work-Family Supports in the US (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2011), 1-2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] U.S. Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Divison’s 2000 Survey Report 

[4] Ibid.

[5] H.R. 2339: Family Income to Respond to Significant Transitions Act & H.R. 2346: Balancing Act of 2011

Posted by DG on 22 May 2012; Even in America; Maternity Matters

Urban Planning to Keep Women Safe from Rape

I want you to know that you own your body. It is not a public good. But for the women reading this post you also know that not everyone believes this. There are hours when you won’t venture on the streets alone, and there are parts of town which you don’t consider even driving through. Even in broad daylight, you are cautious; you’ll change your route if a man is walking behind you for too long. You do this because you fear sexual harassment and rape. You fear the stigma which is attached to your body as something to be used and manipulated by the public. Culture, folk-lore, beauty magazines, rampant pornography in TV and film; the list goes on-and-on of the everyday propaganda which defines the female body not only as a sexual object, but a public one. And the planning of the city you live in most likely perpetuates the vulnerability you feel in public.

In May of 1985 feminist urban planners came together at UCLA and held one of the first public discussions about what city planners can do to create safer environments for women. As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

“The city represents nothing more than an obstacle course to be navigated between the neutral zones of home and office. Hazards to be avoided include poorly lighted bus stops, park benches commandeered by hoodlums and overgrown shrubbery that may conceal an attacker.

 “[UCLA Professor of architecture and urban planning, Dolores Hayden] said that the woman who failed to stay in what was perceived as her rightful niche at home in years past became fair game for harassment--and worse--in factories, offices, theaters, parks and restaurants. ‘Because the urban working woman was no one urban man's property,’ Hayden observed, ‘she was (regarded as) every urban man's property.’”

According to a report by ActionAid in 2011 which looks at the security of women in growing cities of Brazil, Nepal, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Cambodia, urbanization can create environments which make it easy for perpetrators to rape and which make women more vulnerable to rape. The report found that the fear women have of being raped while out in a public space limits their rights and freedoms as equal citizens, mobility and freedom of movement, full participation in public life, psychological and psychosocial health and wellbeing, pursuit of economic labor and opportunities, educational attainment, sexual and reproductive health, access to essential services, and access to culture, arts, social life, and leisure.

Take a look at this interactive map on urban growth from the BBC website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/world/06/urbanisation/html/urbanisation.stm
Scroll the time line and notice the regions of the world with the largest increase in urban growth. Move the cursor to 2015 and the caption reads, “Most of the growth will happen in Africa and Asia, with Africa’s urban population growing fastest in percentage terms and Asia seeing the biggest volume of growth.” Now look at this WomanStats map, scaled in 2011, on rape and sexual assault and notice that in these regions rape is the norm or regularly occurs.

Although urbanization is not the only factor contributing to the norm or regularity of rape in these countries, it is a contributor and will continue to be a contributor as there is a lack of urban planning which creates safe public environments for women.

All over the world women are stifled in the areas reported by ActionAid because they fear going out; because their body is not safe in public. As Pratiksha Baxi, (lecturer at the department of Sociology, Delhi school of Economics, at the University of Delhi) writes in an article about the prevalence of rape in Delhi, India:

“Each time a slum is demolished and large numbers of people are relocated, the issue of the safety of women and girls is neither seriously debated nor considered. When a mall, subway or a multiplex cinema is built, the idea that the urban environment should facilitate rather than impede the safety of women is not given any attention. Even when the Delhi Metro blueprint was being prepared, it did not take into account the increased vulnerabilities for women caused during its execution or by the change in bus routes.

“Why is it that the prevention of rape and sexual violence is only about telling women to learn the skills of self-defense, use cell phones, avoid going out in the dark or calling for increased police presence? While the planning of the city by itself will not stop all such incidents of violence, surely planners who take deterrence seriously could contribute significantly in creating women-friendly urban environments? Why have urban planners not built in the prevention of rape into both the development and regulation of the city?”

After a recent rape close to the neighborhood which I live, there were a lot of comments focusing on the woman’s choice to be out after dark in the section of town she was in. Victim blaming is far too common and in retrospect she was raped along a running trail, designed by city planners for public use and enjoyment: women’s safety should have been planned into it. Why wasn’t the area better lit? Why were there no emergency boxes to alert the police? Why wasn’t brush cleared around the trail to prevent hiding places of an attacker? Why was the trail planned in such a way which leaves women vulnerable? Why should we stand the fact that we are not free to go anywhere we wish whenever we want in the cities which we live without fearing harm?  Rape prevention must become an issue of urban planning in the U.S. and globally.

Good planning is instrumental in how safe a woman not only feels, but really is. With globalization and the urbanization of the developing world we need to develop strategies and give aid in ways which change the urban landscape. NGO’s and the UN need to push for urban planning reform as part of public policies in urbanizing nations. In your own communities pay attention to the circumstances surrounding rape and petition for more lights, less alleys, less open parking lots, closer bus stops, and public emergency phones.

Cities are not just for men, they are for women too. Your body is your own. You and women around the world should be able to move freely in public without fear of sexual harassment and rape.

Posted by CHB on 9 May 2012; Women (General)

Where is the US Monument to the Mothers Who Gave Their Lives?

A question was recently asked of the candidates during the Republican presidential debate:  “What national security issue do you worry about that nobody is asking about, either here or in any of the debates so far?” As I listened to the responses, each with a different focus and level of expertise, I thought how great it would be to finally hear something along the lines of “well, although there are pressing issues in so many areas, I really feel that we must create a society where women are seen as equals, where they are no longer invisible, and where the opinions of all are accepted and valued councils of human decision making. We simply must allow women to have a voice at each level of society, from the household all the way up to international councils. We must recognize their sacrifices, achievements, and unique and important points of view in order to truly have a secure nation.”

I am pretty sure no one will ever say this, at least not a mainstream candidate in the next couple of years. But I hope. And the question made me again reflect upon all the ways in which women truly are invisible in our society. One that was recently again brought to my mind was the blood sacrifice women are required to give for their nation simply by giving birth. Several years ago I was at the site of Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. We stopped at an old church to see the stained glass windows, and as I walked around the grounds I came across a beautiful old statue. I have included the pictures below. It was a woman kneeling, as if in mourning. The inscription read “To the mothers of the nation, and in memory of Henrietta Heckscher. Died in childbirth June 11 1912.”  At that time, the world was about to enter into World War I. Hundreds of thousands of people were about to die due to violence, making it easy to overlook one mother’s death. But Henrietta’s husband commissioned the statue to honor his wife and all the mothers of the nation who have died in childbirth. Many people have given their life for our nation over the years, and I have great respect for each of them. There are monuments, schools roads, even national holidays named in honor of these heroes. But, as of 2012, this small statue in Valley Forge is the only one dedicated to the millions of mothers who have given their lives for the nation.

As scholars have written, “The World Health Organization estimates that about 529,000 women died in 2005 as a result of pregnancy and childbirth, and over a million more were permanently injured. In contrast, the Human security Report states that in 2005 there were 17,400 conflict deaths in the world. In other words, there were thirty times more maternal mortality deaths than deaths in international or civil conflict in 2005!” [1] And yet, the sacrifice of these mothers receives little attention. Maternal death has even been termed “the invisible death.” And maternal mortality in the United States is significantly higher than many European countries. Some may find this surprising, thinking that the US leads in every aspect of development. However, it is quite the opposite. The “invisible death” is an American phenomenon.  The United States is ranked 50th in the world, behind most European countries and some Asian and Middle Eastern countries. [2]  This is not just a small health issue, nor an issue confined to a few isolated families. Maternal mortality will not go away or decrease on its own. It is an issue of national security, of human security. The strength of a nation lies in families, and the strength of the family lies with the mother. They raise, feed, clothe, teach, love, care for, and nurture the children who will grow up to be leaders and the decision-makers. We cannot have mothers sacrificing their lives on a regular basis in this way. Not all maternal deaths can be prevented, but surely the United States should lead out in improving hospitals, research facilities, and safe care practices so that our mothers are no longer the “invisible death”.

The one beautiful yet isolated monument in Valley Forge is testament to the invisibility of maternal mortality. It is a great reminder of what mothers have done and are still doing, but it cannot be the only reminder we have. There is currently a movement to construct a larger and more visible monument to mothers. Information can be found here: http://mothersmonument.org/ . This is a wonderful goal that needs our support. It will be a tribute to all women who have sacrificed so much and will remind us that the protection of our mothers is the responsibility of us all. Hopefully someday soon this problem of maternal mortality and other issues of the invisibility of women will be addressed by political candidates, officials, and those in all positions of power.

[1] Hudson, Valerie M., Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett. 2012. Sex and world peace. New York: Columbia University Press.

[2] Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Maternal mortality in the United States: A human rights failure. http://www.arhp.org/publications-and-resources/contraception-journal/march-2011 (Accessed April 1, 2012).

Posted by BP on 2 May 2012; Maternity Matters

The Courage to Raise Good Men: Rejecting Toxic Male Role Models

Today I wish to respond to a trend I find too prevalent, being inflicted upon males and yet is quite difficult to respond to, namely, the issue of gender role confusion. Too often I hear phrases from my peers and society in the United States claiming; “All men think about one thing”, “Men should be tough”, “I worry for that boy, he seems too much like a girl”, and “Oh, its fine if he is a little wild, boys will be boys”. To be honest, who is at fault in these examples? Are the men or boys being observed only at fault for the stereotypical behavior? I wish to to observe that both parties of the observer and participant are equally guilty of different detrimental behaviors. Such is the point that Olga Silverstein and Beth Rashbaum point out in their book The Courage to Raise Good Men, which talks about the difficulties that surround both parents and male children in the growing process.

Often the authors cite similar examples I have pointed out, which examples give male children a kaleidoscope of mixed messages about their roles in society. Males are too often taught that to be men they must not be like or similar in many behaviors which are defined as feminine. According to society's stereotypes, if males exhibit feminine behavior they can bring harm to themselves by becoming homosexual or sissies (weak men). While at the same time harming the parents for having failed at raising their male children.

So therefore how does this dilemma inflict harm upon the work of feminists? According to Silverstein and Rashbaum it is similar as asking males to look both left and right in regards to all female issues and topics. In short, to be feminists while still being patriarchal. Clearly, there is a problem here, and the problem is addressed by Silverstein and Rashbaum. First, the relationship of the parents must be where they agree on one set standard for the male child, such that both contribute their unique and defining qualities of being both male and female to the child. Second, that if we decide that we do not want our sons to act in certain manners toward women, we must stand by that decision in all aspects of action, speech, and thought. As parents, we cannot tell our sons to support feminist behavior if at the same time we make remarks that to be feminine for males is either harmful or homosexual in any manner. If society wants the normative statements of which we all hope for, namely, equality between the genders, then we must first apply such thought into our daily lives.

To conclude, I wish to paraphrase an example found in The Courage to Raise Good Men, in which a mother brought her son to a family therapist claiming her son was lacking male influence in his life. Mostly the situation had become a concern due to a past divorce and the wife being a single mother. The concern was that the young man needed a man to be involved in his life, in order to teach him how to be a man. The therapist agreed that the young man needed male interaction as well as female interaction, notice the therapist did not say to the mother that she had to bring in a male into the boy's life and therefore she herself was free of responsibility. If we want to raise good males in society they must embody the best qualities of both genders! The same goes for good females. Just as we as feminists combat female stereotypes we should also combat male stereotypes of what males should be and support those men in all their endeavors. For society is made up of both genders so let us raise the standards for both to improve. In the words of Adrienne Rich, found in the forward to The Courage to Raise Good Men;

What do we fear? That our sons will accuse us of making them into misfits and outsiders? That they will suffer as we have suffered from patriarchal reprisals? Do we fear they will somehow lose their male status and privilege, even as we are seeking to abolish that inequality?
-Adrienne Rich (Of Woman Born)

I state we do not fear! Because we know they can and will be happier better people.

Posted by MGH on 27 April 2012; Thinking About Men

Sex and World Peace: The Book, and The Concept

My job as a coder is, like many jobs, at times difficult. I read and sort through government documents, newspaper articles, IGO reports, and any and all other information regarding women to put in the WomanStats database. Much of what I read describes violence, economic difficulties, discrimination, and overall hardships of women and children. I cannot possibly describe what I have learned and felt as I have read this information. It makes me incredibly sad, frustrated, disgusted, and at times, happy. And sometimes I can’t help wondering at times if what I do is worth it. Does my job as a coder really matter? As I read the new book Sex and World Peace by Valerie Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad Emmett, I was reminded of the reason I am a coder. Like most writers and readers of this blog, I strongly feel that one of the most important struggles in the world is that of women and their fight for equality and security. I also feel that this problem is one of the most overlooked and ignored; however, the authors are able to perfectly describe the situation and what we must do.

The anecdotes of the women all over the world almost made me cry- the violence was horrendous and sickening. The obvious economic injustices of women made me angry and disappointed. These injustices are not limited to third world countries or developing nations- they are in our own cities and jobs, possibly in our own situations. And the blatant discrimination and devaluation of women everywhere made me cringe. The book starts with an overview of what we were traditionally taught in international relations- and some important things that we were not. I love studying international relations and political science, however, the standard texts do not take a micro-level approach. They do not consider the impact of homes, families, or individual lives. As the text states:

“In this book we argue that gender inequality is a form of violence that creates a generalized context of violence and exploitation at the societal level. These norms of violence have an impact on everything from population growth to economics and regime type. In IR theory, we assume that our theoretical assumptions, such as the democratic peace thesis, are gender neutral. These assumptions, however, clearly take a male-centric view. We want you to see the whole picture…and to experience an approach to understanding that does not exclude but rather embraces a female perspective. It is this gendered approach that is often ignored and might be compared with the roots of the tree. In this book we will make the case that the treatment of women is an unseen foundation for many of the phenomena we see as important in international affairs.”

This perspective is not only refreshing and different, it is absolutely essential. As I said, this book reminded me of why I am a coder.  I read about horrible practices of violence that current ideas of IR have not addressed.  Policy makers, in many cases, have a perspective that misses what these authors see. Sex and World Peace gives a complete picture of national security and international relations. However, the book was by no means a simple description of the situation of women, but a call to action.  The authors invite all of us- politicians, students, scholars, blog-readers, and anyone with a desire to help human rights and equality- to think creatively in formulating solutions. We must understand the impact of the security of women on the security of states, we must devote the resources necessary to address problems, and we must develop an international system of rewards and sanctions. Although this sounds rather beyond the capabilities of the average person, these solutions begin in our homes and families.  As we expand our own view, we can use this to change those in our sphere of influence. We may not be able to immediately change rape in Africa or trafficking in Asia, but we can change our families. As I read, I was empowered and my desire to act was renewed. I wholeheartedly give my thanks, praise, and appreciation to the authors of Sex and World Peace.

Posted by BP on 23 April 2012; WomanStats; Women (General)

The Honor of a Man Lies Between the Legs of a Woman

Why do parents in some societies marry off their prepubescent daughters? Why are the practices of Female Genital Mutilation and the wearing of chastity belts common among some cultures? Why are girls of certain peoples punished for being raped? The answers to these questions are summed up in this Ecuadorian saying: “The honor of a man lies between the legs of a woman.” [1] Each of the above practices aims at ensuring the chastity of women. In “honor/shame” societies (many of which are in the Middle East and North Africa), the masculine honor of a man is directly correlated with the chastity of his female relatives. If he fails to control or protect his wife’s sexual virtue, and she is consequently unfaithful or raped, he cannot guarantee that her offspring is his own and he is completely stripped of manly honor.

The 2010 Iraq Freedom House report provides tragically pertinent example of such honor/shame ideology. If we judge the seriousness of a crime based on how severe the punishment is, then Iraqi society deems rape (worthy of 5-15 years in prison) a much worse crime than murder (for which the perpetrator will only serve 6 months-3 years). [2] At first glance, a Western thinker may find this utterly absurd. The system begins to make sense, however, when put into the context of an honor/shame society.

The first step of contextualizing these laws is to realize that what Westerners would consider murder, Iraqis see as rather acceptable “honor killings.” (“Honor killing” is distinguished by the victim being a female who has brought shame upon her kin.) According to the Iraqi penal code, “a man who kills his wife or close female relative and her partner after catching them in an act of adultery” can only receive 6 months to 3 years in prison if he is in fact tried and found guilty. [3] In that situation, neither the unfaithful woman, nor her lover is legally allowed to use self-defense and acts of revenge against the killer are prohibited. Condoning honor killings even more, the same short prison sentence (6 months-3 years) also applies to the killing of any person who makes reference to the dead woman’s sin, thus causing the husband to lose face. [4] These laws communicate that destroying an unfaithful woman and all reminders of her disloyalty is an acceptable way for her male relatives to reclaim their honor.

Iraqi laws on rape clarify even more cultural attitudes about how men’s honor coincides with their women’s chastity. If tried and found guilty, rapists are sentenced to 5-15 years in prison (a much longer time than the punishment for honor killing). However, if the guilty man marries his victim, his crime is completely forgotten and honor is restored to the victim’s male relatives. When the woman or girl was raped, her father, brothers, and uncles were horribly shamed because they failed to protect her chastity. The provision that marriage to her rapist will clear all shame indicates that the Iraqi culture values men’s honor above women’s happiness and safety.

Not only do honor/shame societies value men’s honor above women’s happiness and safety, Iraqi law shows that male honor is more important than female life. This ideology is foundational for much of the harm women face in the world. It is left for us not to idly point fingers at Iraq but to examine our own countries’ ideologies for the harm or security they provide their female inhabitants.

One of the most harmful ideologies in my own culture teaches that a female’s worth is based on her sex appeal. This is why old women are not revered for their wisdom. Young girls are dressed like teenagers instead of the children that they are. Advertising agencies uses sexualized images of young adult women to promote any product from beer to furniture to car repair. A female politician cannot run for office without being publically critiqued as if they were a fashion model. Media images are digitally altered to create an impossible standard for how every female should look.

My society may not fit the honor/shame mold, but its ideology about women causes outrageous harm nonetheless: increasing mental illness, sex-based crime, and fallacious beliefs, held by both males and females, about woman’s intellectual and professional potential.

Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, Chad F. Emmett, Sex and World Peace (NY: Columbia Press University, 2012), 8.

Huda Ahmed, “Iraq,” In Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress Amid Resistance, edited by Sanja Kelly and Julia Breslin (NY:Freedom House; Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010), 15 & 7

Ahmed, “Iraq,” 7.

Ahmed, “Iraq,” 7.

Posted by KS on 18 April 2012; Insane Laws

The Empty Community of Women's and Girls' Magazines

I secretly love women’s magazines. Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Vogue. I always have. As a girl who’d grown up with all brothers, teen versions of these magazines played the part of a knowledgeable older sister, answering questions about makeup and fashion and boys with an air of worldly knowledge and authority. I loved Jane Austen at this time, for much the same reason. Though my mom didn’t exactly approve of the magazines, she let me read them anyway, and would often thumb through them herself, earmarking some of the more meaningful pieces. “Look, here’s an article about college and career options!”

Her interest in the magazines came, I suspect, from her own search for a female role model. From high school construction jobs to a career in civil engineering, her offbeat interests required her to forge paths with very few women to look to for guidance: when she got her first job her boss had to clean out the women’s bathroom, which they had been using as storage—they had never hired a woman before. She had spent so much of her energy creating a place for herself, something her male colleagues took for granted, that she became extra sensitive to the influences and the role models her only daughter adopted. She tried to respect my independence while teaching me to pick and choose the best from the not-so-great.

In the years since those teen magazines, I have become more perceptive to the unrealistic and downright harmful beauty standards they peddle. Yet I still love to read them, and often do when I’m waiting at the grocery store check stand or the doctor’s office. Despite my criticism, I still love that experienced voice and, most of all, that sense of community with other women.

It’s a community we don’t often experience, is it? My first reaction to other women, hard as I try not to, is to size them up. To compare and categorize and compete. It’s what we’re trained to do, and it makes it difficult to find a sense of security and acceptance with any but our closest girlfriends. Even when we do commiserate, the conversation is often focused on our insecurities and flaws, “I need to lose ten pounds and then I’ll feel great about myself,” or on men, “How can I keep my boyfriend interested?” Our sense of female community is deeply, tragically flawed. But still we crave it, and that’s why we continue to buy magazines that peddle the same stale advice.

Though I think these magazines deserve more credit than we give them—their occasional articles on abortion and careers and sexual assault have done more to bring the feminist question to the general public than any exclusively “feminist” magazine—I think the fact that women flock to them is very telling, and very troubling. Why is there no other forum where women can interact as a community? Why is there no place for this conversation, free of censorship by an advertizing culture that capitalizes on female insecurity? Why are we taught from girlhood to keep other women at a distance, to see them first and foremost as competitors and not allies? I think the reason we keep buying these magazines is because we’ve never had the real thing. It’s like eating stale Saltines because we’ve never been allowed to have steak. The magazines only seem satisfying because of our desperate need for something more. But they ultimately leave us empty.  

It’s only when I look at the outlets available to men—numerous uncensored forums for them to express opinions and information on subjects that are important to them, especially political and social issues—that I begin realize the tragically stunted state of women’s discourse.  And it makes me wonder how our society would be different if we could change things. If we allowed women to speak freely and openly about public policy, for example—if this massive conversation was available in numerous media and print outlets, free from the pernicious advertisements directed at women, if the conversation was given the same seriousness as is given to conversations driven by men—how would our leaders respond? I can guarantee the priorities of the world’s leaders would be very different if the female voice was given a microphone and taken seriously.

The fact that this conversation is consistently forced out by the loud clamor of consumerism is, I believe, evidence of the truly disruptive potential of a unified women’s voice. Make us feel like we have to buy this and that and we won’t have the energy or the resources to fight for an equal place in a world that is equally ours. If allowed to use our energy and our intelligence to their fullest potential, we’d rock the boat and do more than upset the status quo. We’d destroy it.

When we find our voice and force it to the public square, we’ll change the world.

When do we begin? Well, now, that’s up to you.

Posted by VF on 25 February 2012; Women (General); Even in America

Who's Accountable for What "Pretty" Means Today?

Does the death of pretty also mean the death of personal accountability?

I read a blog post a friend posted to Facebook  about a month ago and I have been thinking about it ever since.


In the blog post, the author mourns the loss of the publicly projected innocence women used to aspire to and concludes that “years of women’s liberation has succeeded only in turning women into a commodity”. He writes that in the past, “many beautiful women, whatever the state of their souls, still wished to project a public innocence and virtue”. He immediately follows this statement with, “By nature, generally when men see this combination in women it brings out their better qualities, their best in fact.  That special combination of beauty and innocence, the pretty inspires men to protect and defend it”. Instead of wanting to be pretty, he argues, women want to be hot. He writes, “When women want to be hot instead of pretty, they must view themselves in a certain way and consequently men view them differently as well”.  Instead of wanting to “protect and defend” as a result of pretty, men want to “consume” and “use” as a result of hot.

Initially, I agreed with parts of what the author wrote. I don’t think our society values innocence as much as it used to. However, in many discussions about what ails society today, the concept of personal accountability seems to be disregarded.  

Arguing that a projected innocence will change men’s behavior and solve societies’ morality issues is like dousing yourself in cologne or perfume and refusing to take a bath.  In response to this post, one commenter stated that “Girls need to know you can look pretty and innocent and still have a little sexy look, with a few tiny things”.

The social standards of acceptable behavior may have changed, but that doesn’t mean personal accountability has to. Later the author writes that, “Of course men play a role in this as well, but women should know better and they once did.” I agree that women should know better. However, men should know better too. Do they not possess any ability to influence women to respect themselves? Do they not have the ability to exercise self-control or is their behavior completely dependent upon a woman’s choices? That kind of sentiment should be rather insulting to men.

Men who hold themselves to a higher standard will protect and defend all women- regardless of the “state of her soul” and certainly not conditional upon the image she publicly projects. Women who hold themselves to a higher standard will not merely aspire to “project” an innocence. Their goodness is not a means to capture or control another person’s choices. I have never felt like the women I look up to try to "project" any of the qualities I so admire. Those traits radiate from them because that is who they are, although they may be imperfect.

Although the author states that “Our problem is that society doesn’t value innocence anymore, real or imagined”, his previous comments may lead one to believe that our problem is actually that women don’t value projected innocence anymore.

A big problem with society today is that people don’t take responsibility for their own actions. I believe that people act for themselves and are not merely acted upon.

Posted by MR on 17 February 2012; Women (General); Thinking About Men; Even in America

What is a Feminist Anyway? Can Zooey Deschanel Be One?

In recent years there has been an increase of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope (MPDG) in media, which according to one blogger, is a girl who has an offbeat personality and a love of life with an “ adorable cipher, a saucer-eyed gamine whose quirky hipness and hip quirkiness make men want to change their lives for the better.” [1]  The current embodiment of this character happens to be an actress/singer/songwriter, Zooey Deschanel. So here is the debate. These quirky 20-something women are considered “too girly.” They love the “little girl” things like rainbows, ribbons and kittens.  The argument is that these women are simply playing to man’s fantasy of dating with little girls. That they are specifically acting in this way, liking beanies that look like pandas and wearing frilly clothes, to appeal to this fantasy.  They argue that his portrayal of women is degrading and offensive to feminists everywhere. 
            So who are these “feminists” that are getting so angry and attacking women for behaving in a way that displeases them?  These women are probably the bra burning, brilliant women who try desperately to improve women’s lives.  So who is right and who is wrong?  Should we turn our back on the cute and quirky Zooey Deschanel’s of the world or should we push them to be more aggressive and strong willed?

First I think it is important to expand upon Deschanel’s character.  I did some research about some of the things she is critiqued for.

#1. Zooey Deschanel tweets things like, “I wish everyone looked like Kittens” does not act “age appropriate” and she says things like:

"I've always straddled a weird line -- there's a lot of mainstream stuff that I love," Deschanel tells the mag. "At the same, I still feel like an outsider. I'm the outsider who's on the inside."
"I went to Northwestern because I had gone to a really nontraditional high school," says the actress, who counts Jake Gyllenhaal and Kate Hudson as her former classmates.


"I drive a hybrid, a Prius. I try not to be wasteful. I'm not a major environmentalist, I'm not Ed Begley, Jr., but I think there are little things you can do," says Zooey Deschanel. "I think the things that we all do every day add up, like recycling, reusing." On the set of "New Girl," her new Fox sitcom, "they got everybody reusable water bottles, so everybody has their own bottle. Those things can make a big difference." [2]
“She’s a relatively frugal spender” [3]

#2. Is her new website that she founded, entitled HelloGiggles. [4]

Oh brother, HelloGiggles? Is that a joke? Nope. That is the name. On this website you can buy t-shirts with ice cream cones and pinwheels. But what is the bulk of this content? Well, they write about things for women. On the about page it says, “Everything hosted on this site will be lady-friendly, so visitors need not worry about finding the standard Boys Club content that makes many entertainment sites unappealing to so many of us.” I assume the “Boys Club content” refers to such things as scantily clad women and inappropriate topics….so I decided to read the content I was pleasantly surprised to find such topics as: “10 reasons why I am not a Kardashian,” “5 Things I Learned from She-Ra: Princess of Power” and “How to portray girls in a good ways on TV.” My favorite quote from an article I read on here was this,

“Society – or maybe more to the point, MUSIC – has taken a huge spin. It’s not like I don’t like the beat of ‘Sexy and I Know It’ but, you know, the characters in the song are acting gross. Other songs, they’re so club-and-booty-obsessed. I don’t want to get my “freak on”. I’m a girl, I wanna have fun. Where is a song like ‘Single Ladies’? Why aren’t I hearing more girl-empowerment songs? Or boys singing about how awesome girls are?”

“Are my only fun pop choices KE$HA and LMAFO?" [5]

So remind me again why feminist bloggers are so angry with this? It seems to me that it is sending some good and fun messages out being a strong woman and sorting through bad media for the good.

#3. Zooey Deschanel’s character is weak and shallow and acts like a little girl

            Deschanel stars in a hit TV series called, New Girl. This TV series centers around the character Jess (Deschanel) who definitely fits the (MPDG) profile.  She makes up her own songs randomly, she loves kittens and wears frilly clothes.   However, she is smart and funny and confident.  In a recent episode she stands up for her way of life.

"I brake for birds. I rock a lot of polka dots. I have touched glitter in the last 24 hours. I spend my entire day talking to children. And I find it fundamentally strange that you’re not a dessert person. It freaks me out.  I’m sorry that I don’t talk like Murphy Brown. And I hate your pants suit. I wish it had ribbons on it or something just to make it slightly cuter but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart and tough and strong."

So is Zooey Deschanel a bad role model or a great example of being a girly and a feminist? That can definitely debatable.  Deschanel has some great qualities that women should try to emulate, but obviously some of the things she has said should be taken with a grain of salt.  So to answer the question I posed earlier, should we try to change the Deschanel’s of the world or simply ignore them because they don’t fit our particular brand of feminism? I would say neither. We should work together in support of women’s causes even if our personalities and fashion styles are different.

I am sure everyone agrees that acting stupid or “dumbing down” in order to not intimidate a guy is ridiculous. I am also sure that everyone agrees that acting like 5 year old to solicit sexual attention from a man is also wrong.
The question here is, can there be more than one type of feminist?

Can the stay-at-home mom without a college education who lives to support her children and husband still be a feminist?  Of course

Can an actress who dresses really girly and is an elementary school teacher still be “smart and tough and strong”? Yes.

Can a woman who despises bows and ribbons and most things “feminine” still be a “good” feminist? Yes!

Is it ok to wear hats with panda ears and bows in your hair and still call yourself a feminist? Definitely!
Feminism can simply be about desiring an equal voice for women at home, in schools, in government and around the world.  So feminists can come in all shapes and sizes and certainly can have different clothing styles and personalities.

Posted by CK on 12 February 2012; Women (General)

Baby Steps Away From Barbie

In July 2011 the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority banned cosmetics ads from L'Oreal/Lancome featuring Julia Roberts and Maybelline featuring Christy Turlington because the use of Photoshop caused the images to be misleading about the advertised product.  In December 2011 America’s National Advertising Division banned Proctor & Gamble’s CoverGirl mascara ad because of its misleading photo created by Photoshop.  It was a great baby step forward, but there is a lot of work to do in regards to Photoshopping ads. 

Although there have been several examples of obvious Photoshopping like the Ralph Lauren ad in October 2009 in which the model’s head was bigger than her hips, Photoshopping goes on all the time in less glaringly obvious ways.  In August 2010 the website for Ann Taylor accidentally posted the photo on the left until the photoshopped image on the right replaced it. 

Photo from BeautyRedefined.net

Another less glaringly obvious photoshopped image is of Faith Hill on the July 2007 cover of the magazine Redbook.  Her arm, back, and waist have been slimmed down, and wrinkles have been erased. 

Photo from BeautyRedefined.net

The following link is to a short video about photoshopping that makes me laugh and shudder at the same time.  The video comically spoofs photoshopping while making the point that most of the images we see are not real.  http://vimeo.com/34813864

Although the photoshopped images are not real, they present images of women who have “obtained” the perfect body, best typified by the Barbie doll.  If Barbie was a human she would be 5’9”, weigh 110 pounds, and have an 18 inch waist, 36 inch breasts, and 33 inch hips (Durham, 2008, 95-96). 

Cosmetic surgery is on the rise throughout the world and most people seeking cosmetic surgery are women attempting to attain the Barbie body.  (There are, of course, several factors in the decision to undergo cosmetic surgery; however, the constant bombardment of society with Barbie-like images as the ideal beauty plays a large role.)  According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, in 2010 the total number of cosmetic procedures conducted in America was 13,117,063 for a total cost of approximately $10.1 billion. 

According to the Webster’s dictionary, mutilation is defined as “the act of maiming, crippling, cutting up, or altering radically so as to damage seriously essential parts of the body”.  The act of cosmetic surgery itself can be seen as mutilation of the body.  Proponents of cosmetic surgery shudder at the idea of cosmetic surgery as mutilation and instead often describe it as empowering.  However,

[a]s more and more cosmetic procedures are presented as ‘empowering choices’ that we'd be silly not to at least consider--breast implants which can cause chronic pain and disease, injections to deaden the nerves in our feet so we can keep wearing those high heeled shoes, surgery to make our vulvas resemble that of a famous porn star, permanent makeup tattooed onto our faces, liposuction or stripping of varicose veins which can lead to chronic nerve pain - the greater is the pressure on us to conform, and the smaller the space in which we get to be content with ourselves the way we are” (Winter, 2004, 14).

I have heard and read arguments against banning photoshopped images.  Several of these arguments claim that consumers of the images realize they are not completely realistic and that there is nothing wrong with companies marketing their products in the most alluring manner as possible.  I disagree with those arguments.  Photoshopping is essentially cutting out unwanted parts and is, in a sense, mutilating the body of the photographed person.  As can been seen in the above photographs the women are beautiful even without the nonrealistic alterations conducted by photoshopping.  The constant bombardment of photoshopped images causes both men and women to idealize a body type that is physically impossible to attain in the real world.

Even though I know that the images are extensively photoshopped, I still criticize my own body in light of the ideals that are aggressively displayed in the media.  I understand the importance of exercising and eating right in order to take care of my body.  I know that the ideal portrayed in the media is physically impossible.  But what keeps me from stopping on the treadmill when my lungs are bursting, my face is bright red, and I’m drenched with sweat is the hope that I will fit into those jeans again.  I don’t think I’m the only one who has this dichotomous way of thinking.  So while I am thrilled that the advertising watchdogs are taking the baby step of banning misleading photoshopped images in cosmetic ads, I hope that advertisements begin to show real women instead of photoshopped shadows of women.   I realize that will take a very long time.  Meanwhile, I will continue to take my own baby steps towards better internalization of my knowledge about the impossibility of the Barbie body and acceptance of my own body.

Works Cited

Durham, M. Gigi. 2008. The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. New York: Overlook Publishing.

Kite, Lindsay and Lexie Kite. 2011. Photoshopping: Altering Images and Our Minds!. BeautyRedefined.net. 30 November.

 Winter, Amy. 2004. Feminism and the Politics of Appearance. Off Our Backs. Vol. 34 No. 11-12: 14

Posted by DG on 2 February 2012; Even in America

A Few Thoughts on Guns, Autos, Leisure, and Power

If you ask my friend Mitch what he’s been up to after a holiday, you don’t have to guess: he’s been hunting. Born and raised in rural southern Utah: what else could be expected? Just the way he describes how it feels to chase a mountain lion up a rocky hillside makes you wonder if you’re missing something unattainable in life (or that’s how I feel anyway).  Mitch doesn’t know any women who love to hunt, and he doesn’t bring any women with him when he goes. He told me that women get tired, and then they want lunch and get bored following a 15-mile trail. He just doesn’t know any women who would have fun doing that.

I remember when he told me this I racked my brain trying to come up with a reason why more women didn’t hunt; all I could come up with was that on average women have less free-time then men, and hunting is very time intensive. So, I asked him if he’d be willing to stay home and take care of his children while his wife took a week long hunting trip, he answered “No, I would not watch the children while she went hunting because my wife wouldn’t go hunting…but I would be willing to let my wife take a week long trip to New York with her friends to go shoe shopping,” and then he repeated to me how he didn’t know any women who enjoyed hunting as much as he does. But why don’t women hunt?

Entertainment is a people thing. People like to do entertaining activities: that is a fact. But what women and men find entertaining can vary greatly. Looking at a few case studies of my own encounters, it can have interesting connections to power and authority. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to analyze or present facts about the condition of men and women and their leisurely activities, but rather to expound a few of my own experiences in the United States and take away what can be learned from them. So kickback, relax, don’t worry about the heady stuff and think about your place in relation to what activities you devote yourself to when you’re not looking up variables on WomanStats for your research.

In Wyoming (nicknamed both “The Equality State”) I have met one young woman, Cara, who loved to hunt. She lived with her aunt, uncle and her cousins and on the weekends they’d all go hunting together as a family.  One of her best experiences she told me was when she shot her first buck. She explained nonchalantly how when she shot it, it didn’t die at first, so she had to get close and shoot it a few more times. She regretted it wasn’t cleaner. I’ve had a few men tell me the story of shooting their first buck, almost as if it were a passage of sorts into manhood. Cara is the only woman who has told me about her first experience with killing a buck; and of course she didn’t tell it as a passage into manhood, but rather as one into adulthood.

Cara grew up hunting and shooting a gun, but as explained by Mitch, not many women hunt.  The hobby of owning and using a gun is really knowledge of how to use a tool of authority in our society. It has been shown that domestic abusers who also own guns are more likely to threaten their victim by cleaning, holding, or loading guns during arguments. Women who are the victims in domestic violence, usually do not own a gun. A gun can symbolize power. As such, guns are connected to pastimes considered masculine.

My sister Megan is part of the United States Air Force Reserves Officer Training Program (commonly referred to as the ROTC) at a university in Utah. For fun on the weekends her division informally goes shooting in the mountains, but somehow word never gets around to her and the other women. Megan has asked repeatedly to be invited, because she has little experience with handling a gun, and would find it useful to practice before basic training this summer. Shooting clay pigeons is how the men in her ROTC group bond and network with each other, but because she’s not “one of the guys” she’s not invited. The lack of social networking in this way may have repercussions in future promotions. Are women economically disadvantaged in other ways because they do not participate (or allowed) in culturally masculine hobbies?

In the rocky-mountain states men drive Toyota trucks, but about 30 hours to the east in Motor Town USA, (Detroit, Michigan) Toyota is taboo and Ford is the natural law. Where there are no mountain lions to conquer or elk to hunt, men dirty their hands in the engine of a car. My dad’s family is from a down-river suburb of Detroit: blue collar, where everyone works for (or got laid off from) some American auto plant. People know cars. My Aunt Darla once dropped off her car to a mechanic. He called a few hours later to give the appraisal for fixing it. After chatting with the mechanic for a few minutes, she handed the phone over to her husband. The price was brought down immediately by about $100. It’s assumed that every man practices amateur mechanics in their off time. The professional mechanics in Detroit are wise enough to not overprice men; apparently this one was not honest enough to not overprice a woman.

Does the tradition of American women not knowing how to tinker with their automobiles stem from the same ideology that kept them from gaining an education? Is it one factor keeping them economically disadvantaged? There are obvious connections between who has a certain skill or knowledge and who holds the physical and economic power. Luckily you have the skill of reading, and hopefully you read this for fun, and maybe learned a few things. These are just a few short examples I have noticed in my own life, focused specifically on guns and cars: two masculine defined past-times.  So the question comes: When the hobbies and past times of people are gendered is there a correlation with who has the advantage in that society?

Posted by CHB on 29 January 2012; Thinking About Men

WomanStats Abroad Part Three: Stories from Senegal

            I never imagined I’d end up living in Senegal for six weeks, it just sort of happened.  I applied for a French Study Abroad program on a whim, always hoping but never really expecting for it to become a reality.  But somehow or other I ended up on a plane to that little pac-man shaped country I knew so little about. 

            My very first Senegalese interaction was with Aminata Sow Fall, arguably the most renowned francophone African female author.  Our program director was good friends with Aminata and together made the itinerary for our trip.  Our first evening in Dakar was spent having dinner at her home.  Her home was decorated with elaborately carved furniture and vibrant traditional fabrics.  It was lovely, yet much more humble than I would have expected for an author of her status.  Her voice was soft and low, but she commanded the room without effort, seated like a Queen in her striking boubou of bright yellow. 
            As we sat there drinking homemade bissap juice and eating the famous (and rightfully so) Senegalese mangoes, we were all completely enthralled by this grand intellectual in our midst.  She was powerful and bold, and as we later found out by reading two of her novels, she wrote about women who were powerful and bold – despite their oftentimes-distressing circumstances.  And even from the window of our rented Blue Bird Bus, it became immediately clear just how distressing those circumstances were. 
            I wasn’t so shocked by how many people that asked me for money, but by who asked me for money.  It wasn’t just the crippled or the homeless who were begging, it was every person you came into contact with.  If a vendor couldn’t sell you on a hand-carved statue of ebony, or as they would say repeatedly, “the gold of woods”, they would simply ask for a handout – arguing that America is rich, so I must be too. 

            One woman was dressed in an elaborate boubou with expensive-looking jewelry.  She was positioned near our hotel so everyday we would walk past her and hear her loud and sometimes angry demands.  She would send her two young children running after us, shoving their plastic containers in our faces.  They were not at all like the other children, usually the talibé- boys in oversized and filthy clothes, usually barefoot, who were sent to beg for their Islamic schoolmasters.  These two children were well dressed and clean, both wearing a sturdy pair of shoes. 
            I didn’t really understand these differences until in St. Louis, while reading and discussing Aminata Sow Fall’s second novel and winner of the winner of the Grand Prix Littéraire d'Afrique Noire- La Grève des bàttu (The Beggar’s Strike).  Here in an effort to improve tourism and advance his own career, a politician vows to “clean up” the city by getting all the beggars off the streets.  The leader of these mistreated beggars is a fearless woman named Salla Niang.  She, unlike many of her peers, is dignified and confident for she was not born a beggar.  Salla had given birth to twins, which in Senegalese culture, means that she has been cursed.  This curse can only be removed after living a certain period of time, usually several years, as a mendiant (beggar). 
            The face of the woman I saw in Dakar came immediately to mind as well as those of her two little sons.  They weren’t begging out of need for food or shelter or clothes.  The mother was begging to regain her status in society, to win back the respect she lost by giving birth to two strong, healthy boys.  And her boys were missing school to chase strangers down the street, a punishment for circumstances completely beyond their control.   What amazed me was that even though I could see these issues first-hand, it was the words of Aminata that brought me a greater understanding of the Senegalese sufferings and sorrows. 
            A second strong female character from La Grève des bàttu, Lolli Badiane,embodies the deep wounds that are commonly felt by women living in a polygynous society.  Lolli is the wife of the previously mentioned ambitious politician, named Mour.  Lolli is the mother of their eight children and a wonderful support to her husband.  During a time where Mour was unemployed, Lolli sold all of her clothes and jewelry to support the family.  She is educated and beautiful and well respected.  As Mour’s prominence rises, he becomes persuaded that another wife will add to his high status.  As he shares his decision with his dear wife, Lolli expresses at first disbelief and then “all the rage of a wounded lioness.  Her feline stare shot blazing rays on Mour’s face.” (p.43) After listening with shock to her uncommonly open resentment, Mour rebukes his wife for not accepting her “destiny” that God has dictated.  After his sharp words, Lolli accepts his decision, but is described as reserved and lifeless throughout the rest of the novel.  “People were no longer saying, ‘that’s Lolli Badiane’, but, that dress is Lolli Badiane.” (p.44)
            This particular exchange illustrates the differences in male and female perspective on the practice of polygyny.  The conflict represented here is in no way rare.  As a nation, Senegal currently maintains the highest rate of polygyny in all of West Africa, as 32% of all married men and 40% of all married women practice polygyny.  Although the number of polygynous marriages increased due to the rise of Islam, the practice itself has existed there for much longer, originally influenced by the traditions of West African animists.  Yet with a population that is 94% Muslim, polygyny is often attributed to religious beliefs rather than cultural ones. 
           For many Senegalese men and women alike, polygyny is seen as part of the will of Allah.  One woman named Saminista said “It is necessary for women to accept this practice if they are believing Muslims.  We practice it because we are Muslim, and it’s necessary to accept that which the good God has written.  Each must follow their destiny… It’s God who decides if a man will have several wives.  A good Muslim woman must always submit to her husband and accept what he says.” 
           Yet not everyone sees polygyny as a religious duty, as seen through the words of imam, Ousmane Sow, who said “It is a recommendation of God and not necessarily an obligation.  It is something one can do if one feels pushed to do it and has the means for it.”  In the Quran it reads “And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice between them, then marry only one or what your right hands possess: this is more proper that you may not deviate from the right course" (4:3). 
           While their religion does permit this practice, many of the Senegalese are motivated by economic or social reasons.  For a man, additional wives mean more children.  In Senegalese society, having a lot of children merits a lot of prestige for the man because his name will continue and he will be well known.  Posterity is also considered a sort of social security system, for it is the children’s duty to take care of their parents when they are old.  Additional wives are often as additional helping hands – as one man put it “The more wives we have, the more we are assisted.” 
            From the perspective of a woman, co-spouses can also mean “more arms”.  This additional help around the house allows the wife more free time to spend with her children or her elderly parents, or enjoy other activities like work outside the home or participation in political life.  But in the eyes of a second or third wife, social pressures for polygyny are often not viewed as kindly.  In Senegalese society, a woman who is of age and single or childless, is regarded without respect and is usually treated very poorly.  Fear of becoming an “old maid” is deeply ingrained in Senegalese girls, so they will choose to become a second, third, or fourth wife so as not to end up alone.  Pressure from parents is strong as well, for a man is considered wealthy if he has many wives, and a daughter becoming a third or even fourth wife would bring honor and an added social status to her family.  This measure of wealth is not always a safe bet however, because a man who does not have the means to provide for several wives will often do so regardless in order to merely have the appearance of wealth and high status. 
            Other reasons for the practice included that there are “way more women than there are men in Senegal” (Population: 52% female and 48% male).  Others praised the custom of “l’evirat” – where when a woman’s husband dies she becomes the wife of her husband’s brother, even if that brother is already married.  A justification that I had not been expecting was that polygyny is a way of avoiding adultery.  The man’s argument was that almost no man can be faithful to his spouse anymore so “it is better to have 4 wives than 10 concubines.”  Whatever the reasoning for the practice, the decision has to be made before a man’s first marriage- for it must be registered as either monogamous or polygynous under the Family Code.  As seen through the variety of responses the practice is extremely complex and therefore the reactions are as well.  In the final statement of a University of Gaston Berger student who claimed to be completely against polygyny, “But one never knows…”
            When I think back on the women of Senegal, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by the number of troubles they face in the quest for equality.  Polygyny, poverty, lack of education for girls, circumcision, to just name a few.  But then I think back on my cherished interactions with Aminata Sow Fall.  In my opinion, she embodies the hopeful future of Senegalese women, as well as the intent of every WomanStats member.  That is, to use our education, compassion, and creativity in order to help improve the lives of our fellow women. 

(Thanks to Mndy Leavitt for some of the information included in this blogpost.)

Posted by CL on 22 January 2012; Women (General)


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