we may never truly understand, but shouldn’t we try?

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We  always went to Caffé Driade , whatever night they had “gay coffee,” a bit of a misnomer. In reality, it was me and my three friends drinking wine–not coffee–with local young people. We sat around tables pushed together under the trees. Nope, I wasn’t “in the family,” my friends shrugged and clarified when someone asked. It was, I’m bi, I’m gay, I’m lesbian… and then, her, she’s straight. “But she’s cool,” one friend said. The conversations draped themselves around our shoulders, lifted in smoke from the few who dragged cigarettes, our majors, classes, philosophies, and once the conversation winded into anger, instances of discrimination, stories of being LGBTQI. I listened.

I love my friends. I’m lucky to have a beautiful, diverse friend group, filled with strong confident women who identify all along the spectrum from heterosexual to homosexual. I know guys too, but I don’t have the “gay guy best friend” that stereotypically is acceptable in the straight woman’s posse. But I have lots of girlfriends, all orientations. The first time my mom found out about some of my friends, she asked me if I was gay, too. “It’s ok if you are.” I said, “I’m allowed to have gay friends and not be gay.” She said, “Sometimes you just get confused.”

Confusion (noun): Lack of understanding.

I started to read an article on the Good Men project the other day. The title was “Men May Never Truly Understand a Day in the Life of Women. But Shouldn’t We Try?” I love it when people are sensitive enough to stand above the THEY, blame, hate game and actually just try considering that people don’t make this up. We don’t make up sexism, homophobia, racism. People have experiences every day that remind them of their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender. The problem is that people who don’t have to deal with discrimination underestimate its extent. So when I saw the article, I liked it. I like it when people who aren’t female-identified stick up for females. Now, I’d like to tag-team this one and say, us heterosexual people may never truly understand a day in the life of LGBTQI individuals, but shouldn’t we try?

I work with middle-schoolers and bullying happens. One day a 5th-grader came up to me wailing, he called me a lesbian! I took the kids involved in the dispute aside and I said, “First of all, being a lesbian isn’t a bad thing, so I don’t want to hear you using it as an insult.” Today, I was driving in the car with my co-worker and she was telling me she will not stand for kids to use the words “gay” or “retarded” in a derogatory way. Her students know this and will police each other. One kid screamed, “You’re gay” at another kid the other day and the whole group of children went silent. One said, “You’re in trouble now.” My co-worker pressed her hand to her heart as she told the story. “Some kids are actually trying to figure out if they are gay or not and if they keep hearing it as an insult, those kids will just shrink more into themselves.” No child deserves to shrink inside, to feel they are bad and abnormal. No person does, yet this is just a small piece of what a LGBTQI youth experiences every day.

How do children, or even adults, learn to respect and understand another person’s perspective if they write people off as THEM, put them down, and use a word like gay as an insult? The danger here is that kids are told someone else is different, bad, and then they believe it. They never have another experience to change their mind. If the script they learn– “they are bad” — doesn’t change, they will grow up and always feel that way. Maybe they’ll then be the person who votes down gay marriage. Maybe they’ll beat up someone because they are trans, outside a bar one night. Maybe they’ll feel ok putting them down because they are bad and bad people deserve it. How does the script change?

I was in high school, applying to college, and I didn’t want to go to an all-girls college because I blatantly told my mother, “There are a lot of lesbians.” I wrote in my journal in high school, I couldn’t do it if I ended up with a lesbian roommate. I was filled with fear and I didn’t know any lesbians. How does the script change? How did I end up with an open heart? How could I have been that person that wrote and said those things? The script changed when I began to meet people in college who weren’t like me, who weren’t heterosexual. I heard their stories, I talked to them, I loved them.

So, basically, I’m saying, more straight people need to go to gay coffee. Make friends who are different from you otherwise you’re going to stay close-minded. Sure, if a ton of straight people start going to gay night that might ruin the point. It’s supposed to be about community, a way to maybe achieve respite and be with people with whom you can vent about the discrimination. But I was always the only straight person who ever showed at gay coffee. Sometimes on those nights, I imagined a world where there weren’t gay nights. I imagined we all were just gay and straight and together and it didn’t matter the orientation. And I really liked being there. I loved being with my friends and being myself and being ok with everyone and everyone being ok with me. We live in a world where people are so not ok, it’s nice to sit around and be ok. I also felt like my whole self. Among my open and out friends, who were beautiful and unashamed of their sexual orientation, I felt like I could never be afraid, never judged for anything about me.

“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” –Marianne Williamson

There was a liberty among my friends who were out. They seized their identity. They had a maturity that comes from searching deep inside, looking outside at society, and realizing their value came from them, and wouldn’t necessarily come from society. They had a perspective that came from knowing their worth and having to fight for it. Their liberation was a liberation that came from abandoning fear. Fear of hate, fear of stigma, fear of discrimination, maybe sometimes they were even afraid of themselves and how they could be different from the majority, how that could set them apart. They had to abandon fear and they liberated me, too.

I didn’t ever just go to gay coffee. I partied with my friends too. Sometimes I ended up at a party where I was, again, the only straight person or one of few. It was first Fridays at Vespa or gay dance party at East End or just my lesbian friend’s birthday party in her apartment. It was about being with my friends and not being some sort of alternative, super-hero straight woman being super cool because I was in with the LGBTQI crowd. Most of the time, I was just hanging out with people I loved. We were friends before we were gay or straight.

Back to the world I like to dream about. Last week, I was writing a story about a woman working for an LGBT organization in Ankara, Turkey. As I wrote the portrait, from an interview I did with the woman there, I traced out words about violence, activism, and human rights. In Turkey, very few people come out. The violence and crimes against them is so awful, people would rather hide who they are. Still, she spoke about the “community chain,” the world that exists where LGBTQI are isolated into their own communities. For her, equality is a community, side-by-side where people are free and allowed to come out and exist together. She said, “We have so many examples of different lives of LGBT. What I personally think, I want to break that community chain. LGBT people, they live in small communities, and I want to combat this. We don’t want to live in small places. The variety that society has is in the LGBT community as well.”

She wanted LGBT people to be people, first and foremost. People like all people, varied, different thoughts and lives. She wanted them to be out, liberated like my friends, and strong, unafraid. So can we live in a varied and diverse community with all kinds of people and skip the hate and discrimination? Can we combat the fear on an individual and societal level?

I believe we can. Liberation is the trans blogger who writes about being accepted and loved. It’s the Maine family who supports their daughter’s being who she is. It’s my friends posting articles on the movement, on the frontlines, reminding, reminding, reminding the world they are who they are and they are proud. It’s activism. It’s daily life.

It’s a student’s testimonial going viral. It’s imagining there will be a day no one is marginalized and hated. It’s retaliation. When someone gave a speech about how a man and a woman are made for each other, one of my friends posted as her status, “We were made for each other too. A woman and a woman. Living our own lives as one, walking together in harmony. Equals sharing a life. Living, loving, and laughing. One day we will be two moms with our own parenting styles, raising good children who become respectable adults. We love each other and we love who we are and the life we have built and are living together.”

And we love who we are. I hope every kid and person can grow up and love who they are. As for being “in the family,” I think we’re all in the family, that human one– you know. Let’s treat each other like it.

Written by carolinashley

December 19, 2011 at 10:10 pm

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Language detours and picking fights

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Language detours

Saturday night standing in the restaurant office at work, we’re talking, hands on coffee cups, taking a momentary break. Will is telling a story about work the other night, “And then I got raped… ” he began to say about how it got really busy and difficult, stopped, turned to me with a big “SORRY!” look on his face. “I mean… I got assaulted….” Laura and I shake our heads. He corrects again, “I got murdered…. ohh, no…” He hesitates. “How about, ‘I got slammed,'” I suggest. “Yeah, I got slammed!” And the conversation moved on. The brief detour though left me smiling and proud. He had turned to me and acknowledged that the language he was using was offensive and made an effort to adjust to vocabulary that wouldn’t minimize and trivialize violent experiences. I gave him a hug afterword. The best part is, I don’t distinctly ever remember talking to Will about language or even mentioned anything to him about using the word “rape.” I had never called him out before. He just knew from reading my Facebook (he says) that sexual violence is a serious issue that I work very hard to address and he deduced on his own that the language was inappropriate and would make me unhappy.

Briefly, an explanation of why you shouldn’t say “rape” lightly: when the word is used in every day contexts, trivially, it silences survivors; if rape is treated as a meaningless, weightless word when it is a heavy, weighty issue, it teaches society that rape is not to be taken seriously or acknowledge for what it is– a emotional, physical, and psychological abuse and crime against a person.

Two things about this fabulous language detour:

1. Sensitivity to the issues leads to change. Will’s growing sensitivity about the issues through knowing me and knowing more about how language can minimize rape allowed him to realize that he could make changes to implement that sensitivity in his every day actions and conversations. It made me joyful.

2. Speak out every day in every context. Post articles on your Facebook, call people out for violent/dangerous language, and never stop talking about the issue. Make people know you care about it and maybe they will start to question their own beliefs, attitudes, and words on their own. Like me, you may be surprised just how much impact you can have within your circle of friends — the hope is that once they care too, they will pass on the same sensitivity and knowledge about the problem to other people and other friends until the awareness spreads worldwide.

Picking Fights

However, I also experienced an example of a poorly handled situation last night. Walking out of a bar with friends, a tough Sicilian man starts to pick a fight with a Steelers fan about the Super Bowl. As the argument escalates, the Sicilian screams, “You have a rapist for a quarterback!” The Steelers fan nearly jumped the guy. The Sicilian continues calling Steelers fans and their families all rapists and as they pushed out into the street, screaming and coming to blows, I ran down the street with my friend, shouting back, “PEACE AND LOVE! PEACE AND LOVE!!” It’s my favorite line. Peace and love, yall. Yes, Ben Roethlisberger was charged with sexual assault and he is not a good person– but to use violence to incite violence is never a good plan. I’m not saying a drunk Sicilian and Steelers fan could have had a constructive conversation about the issue of sexual assault at that moment in time, I just would hope that avenging and accusing rape would not be used to start more violence.  Instead we could think about holding the perpetrators of assault accountable in constructive ways, helping the survivors of assault to feel believed and strong, and knowing that peace, love, and respect is the solution to the problem as a whole. Not accusations, not blame, and definitely not more violence.

Written by carolinashley

February 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm

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Line up for love

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“I continually see how blessed the life I have been given is and I hope I never forget this. Yes, sure life will hurt sometimes but I wasn’t born in a society where there’s mutilation of women, corruption, and injustice at every turn. I wasn’t born into a society that if I weren’t a boy I would never get a say, let alone an education or any rights. And I don’t live in a society that if I didn’t have a son I would be left by my husband and left with nothing.” –Alicia Fish, 19, working for a year in Nepalese orphan homes

This is about the holidays, about Black Friday. This is about gift-giving. People probably say what I’m about to say every year, but it hasn’t seemed to really sink in yet. So I’ll say it again, for my little sister and for violence and abuses everywhere, for world issues that we have the power to change.

My younger sister wrote to me from Nepal a few weeks ago in near despair. “Abuse is rampant and I’ve seen it myself,” she said. The girls, especially, are the biggest victims of the corruption and desperation. She tells me how the girls in Nepal pray that they will be boys in the next life. “It’s bad to say and totally horrendous, but when they’re older, can speak English, and have boobs, it makes them all that much more valuable.” There is always the underlying fear that the girls are at risk to be sold again, when many of them have already been rescued from trafficking.

The hope for her is the good will of volunteers, her own work with the children, striving to help them, love them. She described herself as “safety” for the children. The children grab onto her legs, arms, and she pours her love back into their hearts. She’s giving all of herself.

I read recently that Americans spend $450billion on Christmas gifts each year.

When I see statistics like that, I think of the mud and cockroaches that dampen and crawl through so many beds, the polluted water that enters so many mouths, the little girls that have no escape, no education, and the children who do not dare to dream because they cannot afford it.

Did you know the estimated cost to solve the world water problem by building wells and providing sanitary water to impoverished nations is estimated at $10 billion?

Then there are hundreds of other projects for causes—projects like Heal Africa, where monthly donations can provide Safe House services, education, HIV testing, and counseling to rape survivors in the Congo. There are organizations and not-for-profits that struggle to survive. A woman in Turkey told me this summer, “We don’t know if we can keep the lights on next month or if I will get a paycheck this week.” The average life of an NGO for women’s rights in Turkey is two years due to lack of funding. There are associations to help, people to feed, abuses to stop.

When we spend $450billion on starbucks gift cards and scarves, stocking stuffers, and line up for the latest laptop sale (or iphone, or ipod), we are giving to others. We want to tell the people we love most that we care. What would it mean if we told them, “I cared enough about you to give a local crisis center $50 in your name; it will provide people who’ve just had a horrible traumatic experience to survive.”? Or, I gave to give a little girl an education; or, I gave to give a rape survivor free HIV-testing. I gave to get an orphan out of the cycle of trafficking. I gave to stop abuse. I gave to support a volunteer in Thailand. I gave to give hope.

Imagine, for us who don’t have time to give a year of ourselves like my little sister in Nepal, imagine if we gave gifts this holiday season to fix world issues.

I personally have seen how much organizations struggle to do any good work in ending trafficking, violence, etc, because of lack of funding, and there are so many to support. From The Polaris Project to Apne Aap to the Family Violence Prevention Center of Orange County, good work is being done everywhere (nationally, internationally and locally); the list of good work can never be exhausted.

If you and I give in these ways, whose life will we touch? Imagine if instead of a gift certificate to a restaurant, I got a gift certificate that said, “A child just got a year’s worth of education.” What would that feel like?

Some people might be pissed—the ipod or the iphone is way better than some person you can’t touch or see or even hear their voice. But I want to try it. Invest in people. Invest in relationships, spark a conversation, start a revolution where it’s cool to give people gifts you actually gave someone else, someone who needed it more. I don’t want to line up outside Best Buy on Black Friday. I want to line up outside the soup kitchen, line up outside the Crisis Center. Or get online and research on Charity Navigator. Line up for love. Not things.

Written by carolinashley

November 26, 2010 at 9:30 pm

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Magazine myths

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Myth: Prostitution is glamorous, clients are good guys

In the Paris airport over the summer, the headline of the UK edition of Marie Claire caught my attention. “Prostitutes Interview Their Clients.”

I don’t know what I expected to read in the prostitution article but I was aghast in their portrayal of clients. Poor, sad, lonely men who are helped and encouraged by the prostitute to feel better about themselves and even be more “loyal” in their marriages because sex with a prostitute keeps them from “cheating.” The women in the article all had one reason for doing their job as a prostitute—the money. To support a family or pay for education. The men were kind to and appreciative of the prostitute. However, in reality the majority of prostitutes experience violence and rape throughout their career. For example, in one study completed on violence experienced by prostitutes, sixty-eight percent of sex worker interviewed reported being raped since entering prostitution. Forty-eight percent had been raped more than five times.

On the other hand, the magazine featured three sob story clients, sweet and needy. One said, “Coming to see you is my reward for being a good husband and father the rest of the time.” Another, “When I’m with you, I feel good about myself.”

The clear result of this article was glamorizing sex with a prostitute and the occupation itself by making it seem cushy and loving. All the men spoke so wonderfully of the woman and how much she enabled them to be better, happier men. Unfortunately this is not reality; it may be the truth in these 3 cases but not the majority. It is important to recognize that difference and recognize that there are myths being perpetuated by articles such as these. Myths that there is no violence, clients are kind and good men always, and the sex worker is happy and supported.

By contrast, in the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to speak with a former sex worker about her views on the industry. She helped me to see the underlying compromising damage and sadness in the work. Her perspective on men who buy sex differed very much from those presented by the article in Marie Claire.  To her, clients were often demanding– even abusive– and rarely respected the women they employ.

She told me, ”Customers think because they pay, they are in charge… so you [give] away something personal, something from yourself, something you’d rather not give. Emotionally, it’s dangerous to let somebody else make decisions about your body. It’s not a big thing but if it happens too many times a night, it becomes a big thing. If people constantly cross your boundaries, small ones, big ones, whatever, in the end, it does start to hurt you.” Clearly, unlike in the Marie Claire article, in the life of a prostitute, her choice is stripped from her on a daily basis; she is forced into impossible situations by men who believe they own her. Glamor there?

Furthermore, she told me about the terrible situation of sex workers around the world, saying,  ”Group rape among prostitutes is like a common thing over there [Vietnam]; customers can choose to have sex with or without a condom– it’s not an option for sex workers to choose. They don’t get any extra money if the customers choose to have sex without a condom. Of course the payment is really low. So, the customer is in charge all the way.” Violence and degradation is all too obvious in her words.

Moreover, she felt the industry changed her for life.  Even though she stopped being a sex worker over a decade ago, she remarked,  ”I see every man for the rest of my life as a potential customer…Even after work, a long, long time after it, you still look at people that way. Specifically men. You get a different view on people as a sex worker. I think sex workers are less naive in many ways. You become a little bit harder. If you have a lot of violent experiences, you become harder in a negative way.”

You see why the Marie Claire article hit me as so superficial and false. After having conversations like these and generally having an informed perspective on the violence affecting women worldwide, I am shocked that the article presented clients as simpering and sweet and the women as powerful and independent. In our world, prostitution is one more way that women are forced into abuse and stripped of their dignity. “Choice” to be a prostitute does not exist– women are driven to it out of economic need (majority of women say they became prostitutes for the money, which leads to the question, why are women’s bodies bought at huge sums but we don’t pay women the same amount as men in other jobs? #wagegap), women are trafficking into prostitution, women are placed in prostitution by socioeconomic status, lack of education and lack of societal support, women are taught by past experiences of abuse (80% of prostitutes have suffered childhood sexual abuse) that their worth is their physical self. There are countless reasons why women are sold into prostitution but the real question should be — the real question behind the Marie Claire article– why do we still think it’s kinda cool or pretty? There is this justification of it that is unfathomable to me– justifying with articles that paint a nice picture, justifying by saying women choose to do it, justify, justify, justify.

The next step right now is to acknowledge what trafficking and prostitution really means. Recognize and condemn the brutality many women face at the hands of men. If you are a man, stand up against it too. Say you choose respect and love and support. Say you will fight for it and against objectification. You won’t be alone —  read about ways men combat trafficking together through organizations like the Renaissance Male Project. Men who do that are the men who articles should be written about, who should be interviewed–not those clients who are perpetuating a cycle of  exploitation.

Myth: Women cry rape

The November 2010 cover of Cosmopolitan UK bears the headline- “Women who cry rape. What makes them lie and destroy lives?” OK, first off, false reports of rape exist. Yet, they are 2% of all rape reports. 2% are lies, NINETY-EIGHT percent are true.

By focusing on false reports, the magazine is highlighting the ideas that 1. women lie about rape 2. women “use” rape as a threat to destroy lives –and highlighting those ideas undermines the reality that women rarely lie about rape. Women rarely lie about rape. Again, women hardly ever lie about rape– and they are not out to destroy lives when they talk about it.

It takes immense courage to report rape and/or press charges; reporting it takes overcoming shame, self-blame, fear, victim-blaming, and drawing on an inner strength  to sustain reliving the experience on paper and in court. Women who undergo that battle are heroes.

Only, articles like this add to the repertoire of doubters in our culture, fuels a fire of disbelief in a society that already wants to doubt survivors and make them doubt themselves. Articles that focus on the liars overcome the truth-tellers. One article about a woman who lied? Then for every other article you see about someone trying to tell the truth, you also see people denying her and doubting her (because once they read an article about women who lie about that sort of thing).

For example, in the recent case of the Texas cheerleader,  one commentator declared about the 16-year-old survivor, “She’s either a liar or she was asking for it.”  In the case of 14-year old, Samantha Kelly, the stress of victim-blaming drove her to suicide. She felt no one supported her and that more people were on “his side” rather than hers.

So, if you’re reading the article here in Cosmopolitan that explains why women lie, instead you should ask the question, Why aren’t women telling the truth? When 1 in 4 women are affected by sexual violence in their lifetime — those women make up a quarter of the female population– why aren’t they telling THAT truth? What is it in our society that is keeping them from speaking out?

Written by carolinashley

November 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm

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My life is bro?

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It’s been a while since I’ve had time to comment on media or even write a post on this blog, but two sites have made it impossible for me not to write up something really fast–

My Life Is Bro and My Life Is Ho, pages modeled after My Life Is Average and F My Life, bring a new level of stupid and degrading to something trying to be pinned as “humorous.”  They are seriously NOT humorous and it would be nice if more people spoke out against the messages they promote. What are these messages?

Well, it makes statutory rape ok–  From MLIH: “today i told my 30 year old Global Studies teacher that i thought he was sexy. he told me to see him in his room after school for detention. when i got there, he locked the door and told me to give him head. so i gave him head them he fucked me on his desk. i loved it. by the way, i’m 14. MLIH.”

It tells men that it’s cool to discredit, ignore and degrade women simply based on their gender and that men don’t have to listen to them– From MLIB: “I got a new boss today at my job. Shes a woman. When she told me to do something I replied ‘But your a woman.’ The next day I got a promotion and now I’m her boss.”

It promotes calling women sluts, bitches and hos and saying they need to be back in the kitchen, making sandwiches– the majority of entries on both sites include references to women belonging in the kitchen–example from MLIB: “Today my bitch was sending me naked pics of herself thru text..i said fuck that, send me a pick of that sandwich your making me.”  and From MLIH: “i got naked & gave him a lap dance in a thong on my parents bed. that bro slapped my ass & told me to get back in the kitchen and make him a sandwitch… mlih.”

Seriously, yall?  Please don’t promote these sites, please tell your friends that these messages are not funny or good, and please stop putting them in your statuses and Facebook posts. The common defense of “oh, lighten up. It’s just for fun and no one takes it seriously” is not adequate. Attitudes like those represented on MLIB and MLIH are incredibly harmful and spread ideas of disrespect; they demean people when we should be doing all we can to lift people up and encourage well-being and equality.

Written by carolinashley

October 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm

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This is what a feminist looks like

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A video from the Feminist Majority Foundation featuring celebrities and different people of all genders declaring what it means to be a feminist.

Written by carolinashley

August 31, 2010 at 2:38 am

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A schism

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**This is a highly controversial topic and my opinions on it vacillate quite regularly; I am always open to learning more and hearing others’ opinions on this, for this post is actually a stance that I qualify and reconsider quite frequently. It is difficult to debate in one blog post all the multiple points there are to consider when it comes to these particular issues but this is my attempt at reconciling some differences and proposing a rational solution. See footnote for follow up.**

The Impossible Standard

As I became a feminist, I quickly learned cultural relativism is a dirty word. Cultural relativists believe morality is relative to the specific culture and society. In this opinion, morality becomes flexible and for many feminists, under this belief, ”women’s rights” become impossible to pin down– if one culture considers banning women in headscarves from university acceptable and another considers it egregious discrimination, then who is right? According to cultural relativists, both. The site cultural-relativism.com justifies, ”In a relativistic society, we have no right to judge or punish anyone. Right and wrong are now defined by socialization. Society changes and morality becomes a moving target.” Thus, universal standards of humanity and dignity evaporate… in fact, there is no universal standard.

Idealistically, I set out this summer to travel some and explore women’s rights in various countries by speaking to feminists in Iceland, the Netherlands, France, and Turkey.  I wanted to believe I could find a universal union among women fighting for rights. Equality would have a common face. Human rights would have one definition. Instead, I found a schism over two issues: quite predictably, prostitution and veils. All the women I spoke to, over forty altogether, were self-proclaimed feminists and staunch believers in their fights but their fights at times turned against one others’ and I found my own beliefs faltering when the issues became divisive.

Faith and Women

Last December powerful women united in Paris to declare the burqa–and by extension, the hijab and niqab–a gross violation of women’s liberties, representing subjugation and suppression of women.  This debate at Sciences Po university featured feminists from all over the world: Élisabeth Badinter (France), Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein (Sudan), Amal Basha (Yemen), Giulana Sgrena (Italy), Wassila Tamzali (Algeria), and Daniele Hoffman Rispal (France). I attended with interest and participated with gusto.

When one cried, ”They say we must hide our bodies because we tempt them. Well, I say, men, if you are tempted by our bodies, hide yourselves. We will not be ashamed anymore; women, hide no more.” I thought, Hurrah! Liberation!

The blame and shame is on women for tempting men? They must cover and hide? Well, is it not time all women throw down their veils and declare their liberty? No, I realized later; we are presumptuous to assume this will be the case. Even then, I mentioned to a friend tentatively, ”Banning the burqa will just mean that women who would otherwise get to leave their houses wearing it will be forced to stay at home.” They will be more suppressed by their relegation to an interpretation of religion, coupled with the restrictions of the law, to not even be allowed the basic liberty of going into the street.

While the French are guarding ideals of secularism with a burqa ban, they are in a way banning women from the streets. In an ideal world, they would rule that a woman should always be allowed to leave her house; they would condemn patriarchy and male-created rules for women. However, they do not have power over the private sphere and they do not want to condemn patriarchy because that means they would have to look at themselves critically as a patriarchy as well (News Flash: every country is ruled by patriarchy and subjugates women in its own way).  So they create a law that bans the burqa from the public sphere, thus forcing underground women who are ruled by the strict interpretation of the Quran.

The passage in question reads, ”Say to the believing women that they should guard their gaze and cover their private parts; that they should not display their ornaments except what [must ordinarily] appear thereof; that they should draw their head covering over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments.” (Surah 24:31)

I also choose to qualify interpretations of this passage because there are many Muslim women who do not wear any head-coverings, remain devout, and sometimes fight against veils as a misinterpretation within Islam and a form of female suppression. I worked last year in France in an association founded by a Muslim woman who led the movement against the burqa in the nation–this association is still presided over by a Muslim woman, supported by French women of all beliefs and backgrounds, and continues to combat for freedom from all head-coverings.

However, my suspicions about the problematic of the ban were confirmed this summer when I traveled to Turkey to speak with women activists there. One claimed, ”I don’t like religion but for many women the headscarf is liberty. They get to go out and get an education if they are wearing it.” Another mentioned, ”Banning it is like patting them on the head and saying, ‘you poor suppressed woman; we know better than you.’ But the university is where they are going to get liberation and freedom.” Indeed, the ban on headscarves in schools is keeping women and girls out of the education system.

AKDER, a Turkish Women’s Rights Association, was founded in 1999 by the very students whose education rights were taken away by the ban on headscarves. This group also united with professional women whose careers similarly ended with the prohibition. The group’s goal is to fight ”for to end all sort of discrimination… [and] against every sort of interferences and obstruction in exercising women’s personal rights like right to education, work and making career.” In a recent document to the UN, they lamented, ”Women who wear headscarves are banned from some public buildings and offices– universities being the most prevalent of  such places.”

It is for this reason that I slowly admit that the French (and Turkish) ban on head-coverings are presumptuous. While based in the stoic intentions of laïcité and the liberation of women (honorable), it is too many steps ahead of the religion it targets. In my mind, Islam needs to ban the burqa as a statement for women; the religion needs to say that women’s bodies and sexuality will no longer be repressed and seen as shameful or tempting to men. Yet, that’s not happening tomorrow, so the first step (a few steps more realistically) is to allow women who abide by stricter interpretations of the Quran to enter the public sphere, dressed as they are, receive an education freely and allow them to choose their future, their empowerment, and their battle for themselves. (For example of this, see ‘‘Islam’s Soft Revolution”)

Despite the divide among Muslims on interpretation of the Quran and wearing the veil, the universal standard that I can find within this split is education. Like AKDER states, the ban takes away the opportunity for education from women who wear the headscarf; it keeps them from enjoying the liberation of the mind and the possibility of building careers. While I do not like the idea of a veil as a woman’s obligation to hide herself while men in the religion have no such obligation, the truth remains that allowing women an education is where we must begin. Education will unequivocally enable whereas a blanket ban will simply promote an ideal that may not be yet realistic in the battle for the empowerment of women.

I am reminded of the enabling value of education in a story about my grandfather, a blue-collar worker from a family of thirteen children who was kicked out of his home at twelve-years-old and never received a formal higher schooling. When he had three daughters of his own, he left Switzerland for America to give them the best schools and universities so they might graduate with strong heads and intellect and opportunities. My mother told me growing up my grandfather was a self-educated man and World War II taught him most of all the power of knowledge. He would always say after the horrors of war, ‘They can take away everything but your mind.’ That story reminds me to fight for my own education and strive to have the best mind. So when all else fails, I will have the one thing no one can take away from me.

All people and all women, especially, deserve to have something no one can take away from them– the sheer ability and internal light granted by education. If it means foregoing some secular ideal by allowing a young woman wearing a headscarf into her university, then so be it. If it means not making a broad law against a repressive practice in a religion, then so be it. If it means we’re stepping back to acknowledge total liberation may not be achieved yet, so be it. That is my first conclusion.

(and finally let us not forget as we discuss this problem that Islam is not the only religion with women’s rights issues– religions in general relegate women to second class, following suit with society. From personal experience, when I was a six-year-old Catholic, I asked my mother in church one day, ”Why can’t girls be priests?” and she led me straight up to our pastor and had me ask him the question. He stammered and replied vaguely, ”Well, it’s not because we don’t appreciate women….Mary was a woman….” and I was devastated. Although, I would have really enjoyed being Pope, they wouldn’t allow me this possibility because I was born with an ”unacceptable” set of genitals. I must also qualify that some religions are moving forward and allowing women to be pastors, but this is not the majority and progress still must be made. Women must continue to demand the same freedoms that men have, in every sphere, religious or other.)

The Sexy Woman

The first time I visited the Red Light district in Amersterdam on a winter day in November, at the end of the long row of windows, I was clearly on the side of anti-legalization feminists– this is exploitation, women at the will of men– I didn’t want to see it.

The second time, I returned to spend two weeks in Amsterdam, trying to learn more. I wrote about the brown cobblestone streets along canals. Women in black or pink thongs and bras. I walked through narrow back streets and my shoulders brushed the glass and curtains and bricks on either side. I passed through brothels, pink hallways, with door-less open rooms. I could smell baby powder, heavy perfume, women. If you didn’t look closely, it was glamorous: the drug-addicts and cigarette smoke in the smooth rooms with the stark bed.

Seven days later, I sat down with a former sex worker to speak about her opinions. Since 1994, she’s been running a center for sex workers, educating tourists about the industry and giving workshops and aid to sex workers, including teaching self-defense classes for window and street prostitutes.

She explained, ”When I was working as a sex worker myself before, I didn’t understand all these people coming to the red light district, staring at the girls like they see some special type of monkey in the zoo. I used to hate the groups of tourists in front of my window. Later, I realized that because people don’t know anything about it, they have such unrealistic ideas about it. That creates such stigma and because of that stigma, it’s hard for sex workers to stand up for their rights or to go somewhere for information or for help or even to feel good about themselves. So I thought, well, you have to start at the beginning and explain to people more about sex work to give them a more realistic view or to give them a better idea about it, so they look toward the girls with different eyes, instead of eyes on things or mistakes.”

She qualified, ”It’s not that they should suddenly find sex work a great thing. That’s not my purpose. I don’t want to make it sound as the most fantastic profession you can have, but I want them to be a bit more relaxed about it and I want them to believe the fact that there are many people that choose to do this and they feel comfortable with it. That’s the only thing: I want them to look toward the girls without pity in their eyes. Not look down on them and make her into a victim but give her or him the opportunity to feel good about herself and show respect. To give her the opportunity to stand tall instead of hanging her head ashamed.”

She sighed, ”At the same time as I’m talking about sex work as work, I always tell people to skip the word ‘normal’ because it isn’t normal. It’s a profession: you have to respect people, you have to organize it, you have to legalize it because that’s much safer. Sex workers must be able to stand up for their rights and find help, which is only possible if it’s legal. If it’s criminalized, people will run away from police and helping organizations; it will be underground. But at the same time, I do realize that it has everything to do with sex, with emotions, with difficult social issues… I don’t think sex work itself is something positive, but it’s a way of making money for so many people in the world and they deserve respect for that.”

As she related her work and struggles with me, the underlying compromising damage and sadness unraveled in her words.

”For me, for example, I see every man for the rest of my life as a potential customer. If you work in the window for a long time, you learn to do quick judging… like you have only a few seconds to see a guy, to get an opinion about somebody, like is he ok as a customer? am I willing to work with him? Is he friendly? Is he respectful? or is he an asshole? So that becomes part of your system. Even after work, a long, long time after it, you still look at people that way. Specifically men. You get a different view on people as a sex worker. I think sex workers are less naive in many ways. You become a little bit harder. If you have a lot of violent experiences, you become harder in a negative way.”

The difficult power dynamic between clients and customers exposed personal compromise and shame.

”What I really hate is that sometimes customers think because they pay, they are in charge. You don’t want to have a fight with a customer, he wants to take you from behind, you’d rather not do that because you have some pain in your belly already–because you had a busy day or you have your period or you just have some pain in your belly–but you know that he comes quicker if he takes you from behind. So, because of that, you say, ‘Yes,’ and then after that you maybe have regrets because now you have even more pain in your belly or you gave away something personal, something from yourself, something you’d rather not give. Emotionally, it’s dangerous to let somebody else make decisions about your body. It’s not a big thing but if it happens too many times a night, it becomes a big thing. If people constantly cross your boundaries, small ones, big ones, whatever, in the end, it does start to hurt you.”

She reassured that the situation of sex workers is better than that of sex workers in other parts of the world.

”I spoke to somebody a couple of weeks ago who did workshops in Vietnam with Vietnamese prostitutes, and she explained to me how things were over there, and that was unbelievable. Group rape among prostitutes is like a common thing over there; customers can choose to have sex with or without a condom– it’s not an option for sex workers to choose. They don’t get any extra money if the customers choose to have sex without a condom. Of course the payment is really low. So, the customer is in charge all the way. That’s not the case here but I wish that here sex workers looked on the details, the small things that look really small with no meaning but in the end, with all these almost invisible borders, if you cross them too many times, then in the end they seem to be more important than they thought they were.”

I ask her about choosing to be a prostitute. She says, ”I have a daughter myself and people always ask me, ‘how would you feel about your daughter being a prostitute?’ Then I start with saying, ‘I have too much respect for my daughter to talk about her this way,’ not regarding sex work but regarding her life, these very personal things. She can do with her life whatever she wants to as long as she’s happy. I will always support her but to be honest, no. I don’t hope that she will start to work as a sex worker because that’s a too difficult and heavy job. For your child, you want to protect her from difficult things, like sex work. Not only because of the work but mostly because of the way people will treat her.”

But in the end she says about her time as a prostitute, ”I had a lot of fun. I made really, really good money. I had a lot of fun with my colleagues. That’s something you hear a lot from sex workers if you ask them, ‘What’s a nice thing about your work?’ colleagues is always in the top three… besides money.”

Ah, the money. Everything she told me insisted prostitution is not glamorous; it is not beautiful or good but her staunch faith was in the idea that women should be able to do this profession without shame because they have the right to make a living.

I realized that despite the combat between feminists over legalization/criminalization of prostitution, neither side actually believes prostitution is good. Everyone is in fact fighting with the idea that prostitution is not a happy profession. But it is a reality. The problem is how to work with it in society and make things better for the most amount of people. One side believes in putting it in the open, legal, and protected, to help the women. The other side believes criminalizing of clients can win the ultimate goal of condemning men for buying sex and eradicating the demand for prostitutes.

What about the money? It’s really about the money. There has always been money in selling sex (see: porn, magazines, advertising). While, ideally, women would be able to make more money in other economic ventures, rising to positions of power, being CEO’s, directors and presidents as easily and in equal numbers as men, and ideally wages would be equal in the same industries for men and women, and ideally there would not be poverty and need to strip for extra cash,  we do not live in an ideal world. We are striving for it, but like in the burqa debate, we cannot create laws based on ideals that are too distant from reality. We need to meet the problem where it is.

Where is the problem in reality? Well, men buy women. Women are in a social position where selling their bodies earns them more money than could even imagine otherwise or at all. My idea is to combat prostitution not by criminalizing the industry (and by extension shaming the women who do it and treating them like poor, suppressed individuals who are submitting to men and patriarchy). Instead, we should begin with the first steps of opening economic and social opportunities for women worldwide beyond the sex industry, educate men toward respect and away from using women for sex. In my mind, criminalizing men is an external attribution, if we go back to Social psychology; this means no internal change happens and permanent social attitude does not budge, meaning the problem won’t end and people will continue to buy women, regardless if it is illegal. The external punishment of criminalizing clients does not give men the will to listen and change from within. Until buying sex is rendered unacceptable by men themselves and women have no economic need to sell themselves, it should be legal, to give her better health services and help (I will not talk about choice here because it’s not about choice; as my conversation with the sex worker revealed, she hardly has the freedom to use her body willfully, as clients demand compromise and her choice is regularly stripped from her). Yet, legalization is a way to protect her.

Some even argue, legalization makes trafficking easier to combat. With prostitution out in the open, police and women’s organizations work together to focus on uncovering trafficking networks and rescue victims (even collaborating with clients by giving them an anonymous number to call where they can report if a prostitute they visited seemed not to be doing it willingly). The free-will prostitutes operate openly and regulation is a way of saying,  let’s protect the workers and save the victims instead.

I don’t want to stop at accepting legalization as a ”cure,” though. The true social change will occur through education and awareness, by raising our sons differently, to not accept porn and viewing women as sex objects, by teaching our partners and friends the impact that individual actions have, and creating economic upward mobility for women in arenas outside of sexualization. We cannot legalize if we are not committed to the ultimate goal of ending prostitution. Legalization can be a statement for accepting prostitution and deeming it acceptable. This is where the Dutch model stops. They must continue further to proclaim it as a way of protecting sex workers but build parallel programs to create mobility for women in other areas, change social structures so women have the opportunity for economic success outside the sex industry and demand changes from men as well.

I know this is a dangerous position. Yet, I want to acknowledge that we are neither changing men with the Swedish-model nor the Dutch-model. Both claim to protect women somewhat but neither addresses why men buy women nor create programs to combat the social structure that reduces women (inside and outside the sex industry). Treating women like objects and treating them violently and disrespectfully pervades society on all levels, not just the sex industry, and that is the place to begin. At the same time, we cannot  ignore the implications of legalization. Legalization has the air of making it socially acceptable to buy women. Yet the idea is to protect women while also fighting toward the permanent eradication of it from society by educating men toward acting more like respectful human beings who give others dignity (rather than exploit them) and by creating programs for social and economic upward mobility of women so they might earn similarly gross amounts of money doing jobs in other spheres (especially those that are still dominated by men). So in the end, the ban on prostitution comes from the internal choice of men and women, an attribution that condemns the practice based in fundamental personal values rather than adherence to a law. Now, laws merely slap clients and say, “Bad boy. Don’t buy women.” We cannot just slap them away and expect them not to go back; rehab on male attitudes toward women might be a good proposal instead. We must change society through changing attitudes; this way, we effect permanent and personal change.

The Impossible Conclusion

Back to the cultural relativists, societies and individuals may have different opinions on what’s right and wrong, but there are universal standards. Humanity. Respect. At this point in our world, if a woman is wearing a headscarf or working a street corner, protecting her right to health, education, and a living is first and foremost. No matter the ideals and academic debates between feminists over these issues, we must begin at the small steps of allowing access to choices beyond what is available in the present world. It is not effective to condemn the world for the way it is, blame and rant and ban, but instead we must ask why it is that way and propose the modifications that will grant the first steps away from that. No immense prohibition on headscarves or prostitution will solve the problem, no matter the ideological statement it makes.

As the former sex worker expressed gently her hope for young girls, she said, ” They have to take good care of themselves. They have to find themselves important.” Let’s begin by finding all women important and giving them the opportunity to enjoy life (with dignity and respect), liberty (through true choices for herself and her body) and happiness (free from shame and hurt and exploitation). That includes not judging her if she is wearing a certain article of clothing or standing in a glass window in the red light district. All women deserve the chance to feel important and valued. Let’s make her matter by working on the structures throughout society that hurt all women. Let’s make her matter by teaching men how much she matters and what she deserves. That ought to be our universal goal.

Don’t capitulate

After my summer speaking to women’s rights activists, in an effort to consolidate my thoughts and formulate opinions based on personal growth and new experiences, I wrote a piece highlighting the importance of education. In a step back from my previous views, I came down on the reserved side about burqa bans and legalized prostitution, non-committal overall, but certain that education and programming would be the only way to raise women up to a level where they might be able to advocate for their own liberation and become united about what liberation means.

 

So, what is liberation? I was having trouble organizing my beliefs after speaking one-on-one with sex workers in the Netherlands who considered themselves advocates for a women’s right to sell herself while simultaneously lamenting the horrors they’d experienced at the hands of male clients. I struggled to justify a ban on the burqa, niquab and hijab after meeting feminists in Turkey who faced discrimination and limits on their educational and professional opportunities as a result of the ban, yet who were unwilling to stop wearing the veil.

 

I concluded: no sweeping prohibitions or criminalization but a “meet-them-where-they-are” system of educating men and women, slowly changing attitudes, granting total access to true knowledge about respect and freedom… liberating programmatically before legislatively.

 

After I wrote that piece, a friend of mine from Paris and passionate feminist wrote to me. “Don’t capitulate, Caroline,” she said. Had I? Had I sold out my ideals for realism? I felt that I had moved from challenging everyone to aspire for something out of reach to challenging people to aspire just for the next step. Then after taking that step, they might aspire for the next one. Step-by-step.

Footnote: Don’t capitulate

6 months after writing what you’ve just read:

I wrote this piece highlighting the importance of education. After my summer speaking to women’s rights activists, I was making an effort to consolidate my thoughts and formulate opinions based on personal growth and new experiences. In a step back from my previous views, I came down on the reserved side about burqa bans and legalized prostitution, non-committal overall, but certain that education and programming would be the only way to raise women up to a level where they might be able to advocate for their own liberation and become united about what liberation means.

So, what is liberation? I was having trouble organizing my beliefs after speaking one-on-one with sex workers in the Netherlands who considered themselves advocates for a women’s right to sell herself while simultaneously lamenting the horrors they’d experienced at the hands of male clients. I struggled to justify a ban on the burqa, niquab and hijab after meeting feminists in Turkey who faced discrimination and limits on their educational and professional opportunities as a result of the ban, yet who were unwilling to stop wearing the veil.

I concluded: no sweeping prohibitions or criminalization but a “meet-them-where-they-are” system of educating men and women, slowly changing attitudes, granting total access to true knowledge about respect and freedom… liberating programmatically before legislatively.

After I wrote that piece, a friend of mine from Paris and passionate feminist wrote to me. “Don’t capitulate, Caroline,” she said. Had I? Had I sold out my ideals for realism? I felt that I had moved from challenging everyone to aspire for something out of reach to challenging people to aspire just for the next step. Then after taking that step, they might aspire for the next one. Step-by-step. Yet, as a revision, I’d like to say, sometimes I still feel like the idealists I wrote off in this piece. I want to believe ideals are unifying and achievable rather than divisive and distant.  I wish that legislative changes based on goals we hope to bring to reality in society (aka banning strip clubs, burqas, and buying sex) can happen in conjunction with programmatic changes (like educating men and women) and suddenly! … populations will be in agreement that women deserve the utmost respect and equal opportunity right away, laws made in their best interest will not cause uproar, disagreement, and controversy, and we’ll live in an equal world without controversy. But, really? Are we there yet? You decide. Do we need to take a giant leap or small steps to get there? Share your thoughts– idealist, realist, optimist, pessimist or otherwise.

Written by carolinashley

August 7, 2010 at 2:51 pm