Category Archives: Feminism

Soon, the world might just be different

The world – at least its human population – has suddenly become remarkably different. The changes from the global pandemic are happening quietly and in solitude, as people shelter in place and renegotiate their patterns of life as best they can, seeking physical, economic, and even spiritual ways to stay healthy, secure, and buoyant. There are so many losses – tragic, painful, grueling, and mostly unmeasured losses – for those who contract the covid-19 virus, for those who care for and worry about them, and for those who depend upon them. We know this is a phase; there will be a time when this is over, when at least some of the accounting of suffering and loss can occur. We’ll mourn, we’ll find ways to heal, we’ll dust ourselves off, and we will move on.

But move on to what?

The invitation to imagine a future characterized by radically positive changes helps many of us make it through this deeply unsettling, troubling time. What we have endured (and still have yet to endure) from the pandemic has earned us at least that freedom to speculate. What if? Why not? Isn’t it long overdue? We find time to ponder what most about the past has failed us, and what simply must change. It’s a time to think big, and to seize an opportunity that may not come again for a very long time.

So here goes…

What if we demand that the patriarchal world order justifies itself? What if we insist that all who benefit most from patriarchal norms explain why we should not all give feminism a try? While patriarchy has many entrenched beneficiaries, the norms and power relations of patriarchy cause most of the planet’s population to be disadvantaged, diminished, disrespected, and exploited, now and since time immemorial. It need not be this way.

I can almost hear the scoffs, but I challenge you to read on…

Recently, I joined a small group of people on Zoom (yes, all women, although men had been invited) to discuss and constructively critique a thoughtful policy paper two of them had written and shared. Their paper dispassionately contemplated a feminist foreign policy for the United States; not as bizarre a notion as it might seem on first blush. Sweden, Mexico and Canada have variants of such policies in place now, and France, Luxembourg, and (if the Labor Party has its way) the United Kingdom are expressing promising intentions. But “feminism” is a fraught concept – a large proportion of women shy away from identifying as feminists, and arguably most men really haven’t bothered to learn even what feminism means. After all, they have seen no need to; presumably men have less frivolous things to think about and decide upon. Few women really expect men to engage on this topic; as women we’ve had good reasons to lower our expectations. Men have been almost entirely absent over the past four decades of advocacy for fundamental aspects of pursuing gender equality: ending domestic violence, stopping child marriages, shutting down sex trafficking, and granting women and girls equal legal status. Worse still, women have come to expect and even tolerate the absence of men in this important work.

If we cannot get individual men even to engage in serious discussions on the violence, exploitation, inequalities and marginalization faced by so many women and girls around the world – which men are at the center of perpetrating – what chance have we to find many men engaging on a feminist foreign policy for the world’s super power? The United States is unapologetically patriarchal; feminine values are relegated to a subordinate status and largely ignored. The United States exudes patriarchy in nearly all our political, cultural, religious, and governance institutions, and our foreign policy naturally follows this focus on power, dominance, strength, security, and wealth maximization. Yes, there are a few aberrations – for example the Peace Corps – but their modest budget has just been slashed again.

Why should our foreign policy be any different?

From the safety of your respective pandemic lock-down, hunker-down vantage points, I urge you to use this moment of global disarray and catastrophe to take a hard look at the system of moral values that underpins and sustains our world now. It’s a system that made a Trump presidency possible. It’s a system that is motivated by fierce competition, rigid hierarchies, “virtuous” self-interest, manipulation of others (persons, countries, genders) to serve the manipulator’s goals, accumulation of wealth and power with no “enough” point ever being defined, and security conceived primarily as the military and economic capacity to dominate (or at least intimidate) any perceived competitor or adversary. We measure our strength in weaponry, superbly trained and highly professional fighting forces, and wealth. Peace is seen only as a (temporary) lull in violent conflict. That system of moral values has a name – patriarchy – even if we are not encouraged to use that word.

In my own career in international development and human rights advocacy, my colleagues and I in this shared endeavor have been very poorly served by our existing American patriarchal foreign policy (although it is almost never referred to in such terms). Foreign aid and international development has no cabinet-level seat, and it rarely features in geopolitical strategizing. Those of us who work in this sector know that this isn’t a particularly lucrative or prestigious calling, but we don’t do it for the money. We do this work because we care. We want our efforts to make a meaningful difference in helping those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and largely ignored to overcome crushing poverty, to rise above lives of suffering, and to achieve freedoms and opportunities that most Americans simply (and rightly) take as a birthright. We want human dignity to be respected as an inviolable and universal threshold, and we commit our lives to this work.

For foreign policy, feminist demands are radical. We want economies everywhere to serve people; not the other way around. We want to see women and others who have been traditionally marginalized now have fair and reasonable access everywhere to genuine participation in decision-making and leadership. We want to see new norms, with room at the top of our “national self-interest” for making global such notions as justice, fairness, solidarity, collaboration, empathy, compassion, mercy, altruism, and long-term thinking. We want to measure our strength not only in our ability to defend ourselves, but also in the ways that we sustainably, creatively, and harmoniously live with each other and with our planet, in peace. We want leadership that inspires, motivates, and transforms – leadership that we now see in the countries that are doing the best in responding to and mitigating the pandemic – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Norway. They are all led by women.

Mostly, what I and others of a similar mind (not all of whom are women) want is to be respected. We want to know why we all should simply be expected to default to patriarchal norms. We demand that the advocates of patriarchy make their case for its continuance. I’m not here to make an irrefutable case for feminism, or for a feminist foreign policy for the United States. Instead, I ask a different question: why should we not have a feminist foreign policy? That’s a discussion I am very prepared for, and I am not alone.

Getting an answer means that the men and women who support and benefit most from the overwhelming dominance of patriarchal norms would have to undertake a task that they have long ignored and neglected. They would need to learn what feminism means. Only then could they contemplate the implications of instituting a feminist foreign policy in lieu of the patriarchal status quo. Only then could they understand the patriarchy that surrounds them and that defines the world that we now experience. Once they have opened their eyes, they might not like what they see.

So yes, an almost unique opportunity is soon upon us to push the reset button. Those of us on the outer fringes of the current power structure – we who claim the “feminist” label without ambivalence or hesitation – know we can’t argue our way to get anywhere near to that reset button. The outer fringes offer no leverage; it’s not a place from which to make a compelling case, even if it is grounded in universal human dignity and is morally strong. So instead we turn the tables, and employ our democratic prerogatives to demand that the advocates for patriarchy explain why their system’s dominance in the norms, means, and goals of our international relations and in our foreign aid ought to continue as it now is. We have been patiently asking for this dialogue for decades, and consistently we’ve been ignored and waved aside. At best we are cast as an “irritation”; more frequently we’re subjected to far more pejorative or crudely sexualized labels. The arrogance of those who would wish for patriarchy to remain The System is most clearly seen in the condescending ways in which they reject taking any initiative to open their own minds to explore any alternatives, no matter the egregious cost the status quo has on others.

Feminists know that we cannot force them to do so, so why should the defenders of patriarchy bother?

They should bother because for human dignity to matter, it must be universal. If we want a world in which unnecessary suffering, violence, marginalization, inequality, and exploitation will no longer be “the way things are”, human dignity must be a defensible threshold for all. If we want a planet that is environmentally sustainable – one that avoids the impending climate catastrophe – we need different values and transformed leadership. If we want a world in which we no longer tolerate the rapidly growing inequalities between the few who are wealthy and the masses who are in poverty, we need to end patriarchy.

That dialogue has yet to happen. We are not even close right now, and the ravages of the current pandemic bear grim testimony to our dysfunction under patriarchy. It is time to rethink. It is time for the beneficiaries of patriarchy to deign to learn about feminism, and to realize what it offers.

Feminism isn’t a panacea. But a world moderated and influenced by feminism in a meaningful way, at scale, now, would offer such promise.

Find out why.

Catastrophe

Some tears were not meant to be repressed.

In describing the email messages she’d been receiving, she may not have wanted her loss of composure to become the video image being broadcast to the small and scattered universe of our local Quaker community, each at their respective homes behind their Zoom monitors, atomized but oddly together in the midst of the pandemic. But it didn’t matter; her tears flowed and with good reason. This woman works in international development. She, I, and others in our shared line of work have long struggled to reconcile our many personal, very human connections with friends and colleagues in the “Global South” (the countries of the developing world) with the impersonal, almost antiseptic development “industry” that has grown up over the past seventy years to provide global relief and development services. It’s a competitive industry driven by measured results and by indicators of efficiency and effectiveness. It’s characterized by its perpetual scarcity of funds in the face of immense challenges in countries least able to cope. Most of us have long since stopped asking why that scarcity exists among nations that are so wealthy; those who advocate here for the plight of the faraway disadvantaged find very little traction among the American public for extending moral boundaries beyond national boundaries. But we persist in our vocation. Why?

Many (perhaps most if you scratch the surface) who work within the relief and development industry of the “Global North” (the more developed, wealthy, and powerful countries) feel a genuine sense of mission and service, even if the industry provides no institutional structure, space, time, or priority in discussing such sensibilities. Instead of musing among ourselves about our values, we’re constantly reminded that we have work to do. Still, we know: no matter how hard we labor or how earnestly we care, it will never be enough to stanch the stream of suffering and need, or to quench the thirst for freedom and opportunity.

There are people on the other side of this equation. Sometimes called “beneficiaries”, or more disturbingly referred to as “target groups” or “key populations”, the people of the Global South are no longer content to be periodically visited by expatriate experts who typically jet in, work intensely in cultural environments they don’t have time to understand, move their collected data and trip reports into the cloud, and then leave before they’ve even adjusted to local time zones. Such beneficiaries are progressively claiming a bigger role in their own development decisions, but then they have their own ways and they don’t always want to be rushed. I am frequently moved to recall the words brightly painted on a local taxi van (matatu) in Nairobi, Kenya: “No hurry in Africa”. I first saw that back in the early 1980s when I lived in that city; then and now it reminds me of how wide the divide is between the core sensibilities of the Global North and the Global South. For those of us who serve as one of those “experts” in the expatriate development industry, time is fleeting, time is precious, and time is money. Measurable results demand focus, and budgets must be adhered to and accounted for in terms of billable hours. Once our “short term technical assistance” travel is completed, we come back to join with the home office staff to review and complete our evaluation of the data we’ve collected, trying in our small incremental ways to improve international relief and development outcomes. Once evaluated, the data we labored to collect and understand is unilaterally abstracted by the relevant institutions of the Global North into dense, fact-filled technical jargon in the form of spreadsheets, reports, PowerPoint slides, regression analyses, and statistical profiles. It’s important work and there’s no time to waste…until a catastrophe upends everything. Then suddenly, there is indeed a strong reason to hurry in Africa. And in Asia, and in the Middle East – indeed throughout the Global South. The Covid-19 pandemic sets its own time, and it is perishingly fast.

What had been an evolving, largely casual, almost tentative growth of direct interpersonal communication between “us” and “them”, a sideshow that made working in the expatriate relief and development industry more personal and interesting, is now something altogether different. The voices reaching out to us from the Global South via the Internet are no longer chatty. They are frightened, on the edge of panic.

They are demanding our attention.

Until just weeks ago, the short email messages coming out of the Global South typically were poignant with humanity, friendship, humor – but always tinged with legitimate need. Through the Internet, individuals in the Global South – people with names, faces, and stories to share – were making their presence known by breaking the unwritten rules, and leaping free of the political-economy frameworks that we in the Global North conveniently have contained them in up until now. These “beneficiaries” have exhorted us to read, listen to, or watch videos of their stories, to engage with compelling but seldom complaining accounts of what a “day in the life of…” is like. They couldn’t force us to engage – the power of the delete button remains ours to wield – but my tearful Quaker sister reads her incoming email and social media every day. So do I. These messages assert “I matter too” – not just in aggregate, not only in a cost-benefit table – but individually. It’s an assertion that we must respond to authentically; critical international relationships at every level will stand or fall depending on how we answer. Ultimately, the authors of each message have been subconsciously asserting two thoughts: they too are dignified human beings, and the principle of universal human dignity is at risk of being so comprehensively ignored that it will soon fall into permanent irrelevance.

But now the messages have suddenly changed. The humor is gone and their exhortations to engage are taking on a sense of calling-in an obligation, something that has always just been assumed: that we genuinely care about their wellbeing. We are being directly challenged by the authors of these email and social media messages to make the words on our slick websites and stirring policy statements real. Words like “human rights”, and “universal human dignity”. We are being challenged to stand up and be accountable. Not only in monetary terms, although that too is important…the “beneficiaries” are holding us to moral accountability.

It’s a stretch. Our foreign aid, at best, uses human dignity as a rhetorical device, effectively making any notion of morally defending a universal threshold of human dignity – a threshold or secular “moral minimum” that we must all work with determination to defend so that no one falls below it – into a sham. Most of us don’t know that secular moral vocabulary, and anyway we’re not willing to shoulder our part of such a heavy burden. In the past we could get by this awkward accountability by burying it in the empirical reports and the dense jargon of international relief and development.

Now; not so easy.

They are right there on your monitor, looking you in the eye, and asking in real time some perfectly appropriate moral questions: what did I do to deserve this life of hardship, suffering, and indignity? Why aren’t our public health systems capable to help us survive this pandemic? Why is there no adequate safety net as our economies fall apart? Do notions of fairness, equality, and universal dignity hold any significance at all? As the pandemic explodes around the world, countries in the Global North search and often fail to find such answers for themselves; no one here has much of an answer for the urgent questions of the Global South. Our “beneficiary” friends are not naïve; most have grudgingly come to accept injustice and suffering as their lot, and long ago they have tempered their hope for improvements and parked such aspirations at the margins. But not now.

In just the past ten days, my Quaker sister and I (and no doubt many more people with friends in the Global South) have been receiving truly alarming emails. The messages in those emails are variations on the same theme: the situation for the poor and the marginalized who are now lock-downed due to the burgeoning pandemic – people with no reserves of food or money – is already beyond dire. Their prospects, and the plight of their dependent children, elderly, or disabled folk, is beyond bleak. And that’s before factoring in their vulnerability to infection from the novel coronavirus. Our 0.2 percent (and yes, that is two-tenths of one percent) of GNP funding that the United States allocates to foreign aid each year isn’t going to make a dent in this calamity.

Throughout most of the developing world, this is a perfect storm. Covid-19 has found the soft underbelly of the Global South, and it now is wasting no time in exploiting grossly inadequate public health systems, a lack of competent or caring governance by economically insulated elites, close-packing of ordinary people due to widespread poverty, rapidly increasing vulnerability arising from lock-down induced malnutrition, increasing violence and civic unrest, extremes of sexism and domestic violence, police brutality and lack of training, and no effective strategies to cope with a massive and deadly pandemic. Everyone in the Global South knows that little help from outside can be expected despite stalwart efforts by the WHO and similar under-funded international institutions; the more developed countries of the world are beset by our own deep challenges, chronic (and, in retrospect, inexcusable) lack of preparedness, and the exponential escalation in the spread of the virus right here at home. We have to prioritize our own needs, and…well…we have nothing to say in response to the alarming messages coming in.

Our hearts and prayers won’t cut it.   

This will all end, someday. Nothing will be the same; everywhere the death toll and devastation will be beyond reckoning. Whether we will learn anything from this, and begin to reconfigure our sensibilities, values, and plans remains highly questionable. Humanity has been on this journey before; the 1918 influenza pandemic caused by a variant of an H1N1 virus infected nearly one third of the planet’s population. We didn’t seem to change our ways much afterwards; apparently we mostly clamored to return quickly to the way things were before the flu. The consequences of our unwillingness to learn from that experience are all around us right now. 

Human suffering at this massive scale strains our capacity to comprehend, much less to cope with it. The reality that it is the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable who will suffer the most speaks volumes about our prevailing world of inequalities, lack of empathy, and highly competitive individualism. This intensity of misery and death condemns us for our short-sightedness, our bottom-line maximization, and the low value that we place on selecting political leaders of integrity and competence. Our democratic systems prioritize short-term gratification, not long-term reconfiguration of a scandalously inequitable world order and economies based on perverse, self-serving, “America First” values.

It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe of this scale to point us to the many flaws in our global patriarchal standards. We live in a world that classifies those values that are more aligned with feminine principles – empathy, altruism, compassion, public service, generosity, solidarity, and collaboration as being of a lower order – although curiously we suddenly stand in awe of the medical professionals who are valiantly and tirelessly living those caregiver, self-sacrificing values right now in our hospitals.

Those messages from the Global South demanding secular moral accountability aren’t going away, nor should they. More and more, they will be laying a very profound moral failure at the feet of those who have benefited most from our current inequitable world order.

Let the tears flow, but let’s start planning something new – and something very much better – for all of us. That’s right, all of us. It’s what universal human dignity – and the messages from the Global South – demand.

Madness

Photo: Honore-Daumier-Don-Quixote.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

 

Not too long ago, I took my daughter Audrey to a Washington DC production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the play Man of La Mancha. It’s one of my favorite plays, and one that I first saw when I was her age. It is based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in which an elderly gentleman is deluded into thinking that he is a valiant knight – Don Quixote de la Mancha – who is sworn to uphold the strict moral code of chivalry in a cynical, brutal, violent world that is devoid of such ideals. Although long past the time of armored knights on horseback, he and his faithful squire set out across the plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena on a madman’s quest, the virtuous and indefatigable champion of a better world.

Madness?

Perhaps, but for many of us Don Quixote is heroic, even if comically soft in the head. Does one need to be certifiably insane to yearn for a world in which decency, honor, love, and bravery speak to a man’s best character? Granted, chivalry is a problematic moral premise, given its machismo ethos, its disdain for the peasantry, and its relegation of women as chaste objects of beauty and purity. Still, considering what values prevailed four hundred years ago when Cervantes wrote this epic novel, chivalry was a monumental step ahead in moral evolution.

My musings are not only literary.

Given the full house at that play’s production, and the fact that this play and the novel itself have such continuing appeal to so many of us, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that many people yearn for a less cynical, more principled, more compassionate world…a world, for instance, in which the destruction of the planet’s environment for the sake of short term economic gain (by the few) would be recognized as the starkest madness. Our own children and grandchildren will pay a dreadful price for this morally indefensible position, and it is harrowing to even imagine what we are bequeathing to generations further into the future – if we have such a future at all. We know enough however to imagine such a dire future very clearly – yet still we as a nation respond tentatively, if at all. Madness.

Moral principles are important to me. In my decades of work in less developed countries, I’ve been face-to-face with those who are beset by intense poverty – poverty so grinding and debilitating that it is very hard for Americans to imagine. Still, we have poverty here too, yet despite being an exceptionally wealthy country we watch powerlessly as the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, while curiously so many poor citizens celebrate a new tax law that exacerbates this trend. Simultaneously, we cut back on foreign aid and humanitarian relief. Then we wonder why the rich get richer and the refugee numbers swell. Madness.

Human rights are important. Human rights describe and set the “bare-bones” threshold conditions for how human beings ought to live, and what governments ought to do to make this happen. Demanding that human rights be taken seriously is to demand governance that is about public service, justice, duty, and empathy – and being morally responsive to the “oughts”. Instead, we see our government unapologetically abuse the most vulnerable people of all – young children – by ripping them from the loving care of their parents, to “discourage” asylum seekers who are desperate for a place of safety – America – where they believed their human rights would be respected. Instead, and acting in our name, we see our government demonstrate astounding callousness, a total lack of empathy, and a disdain for human rights as they use the intense suffering of vulnerable children and their bereft parents to make a political point. This is morally repugnant. This is madness.

America’s president has walked away from our once-celebrated leadership in human rights, to petulantly demand that a vast and expensive border wall be constructed to keep out those persons whose asylum claims are morally sound, and whose hopes, dreams, and needs are very human. Were we instead to spend the wall money on strategically helping to solve the problems that drive people to seek asylum far from their homes, we might see positive changes and a steep decline in asylum seekers. Instead, Trump and his base insist on a wall for us all to hide behind, while the human beings on the other side of that wall unrelentingly suffer. “Not our problem!” Madness.

Gender equality and fairness (equity) is important to me. While Don Quixote would have been ethically challenged to imagine such a thing, we now know better. We are reminded by the example of courageous feminists – women and men – that the principle of human dignity is for all human beings, regardless of gender (or race, or ethnicity, or age, or disability status, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or…). Yet we have a President who has excused his boasts of sexual assaulting women as “locker room”, a Vice President who is hostile to women’s rights, and an Attorney General who has a long record of opposition to fundamental rights for women. In short, our political leadership undercuts any moral position that would recognize the worth and full humanity of the female half of the country, and of others who are marginalized. Still, more than 51% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Madness, yet again.

Yes, Don Quixote de la Mancha was almost certainly the victim of a form of insanity. Still, it was an insanity that epitomized humanity’s idealistic struggle for a better world, a world that “ought to be”. I’m more inclined to follow the example of Don Quixote, tilt at the windmills of greed, callousness, ignorance, fear, arrogance, lies, bigotry, hatred, and cynicism, than accept – much less politically celebrate – the feckless, morally bereft leadership that now prevails in our once proud country.

Hopefully the Democrats can find better leadership than a modern version of Don Quixote. Leaders with a clear and transformative moral vision, leaders with a commitment to democracy and public service, leaders who are environmentally intelligent and wise, leaders who actually possess empathy and decency and integrity. Leaders who are sane.

As the November mid-terms approach, as we confront the grim prospects of the nomination (by an illegitimate President) and the confirmation (by a morally spineless Senate majority) of yet another hard-right Supreme Court Justice, and the long-awaited revelations of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation (as Trump heads off to have his summit with Putin), I have to believe that clinging to idealism isn’t madness.

It’s the definition of sanity, and hope.

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

Less than One Percent

We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).

Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.

Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent

Beyond Abstractions: Confronting Trans-Directed Violence

Note: This blog first appeared on November 20th, 2017 on the Ms. Magazine blog site, and can be directly accessed there at:

http://msmagazine.com/blog/2017/11/20/beyond-abstractions-confronting-trans-directed-violence/

 

Gender-based violence (GBV) is no abstraction.

GBV’s impacts are grievous, debilitating—and can be fatal.  Women and girls are most often the victims of GBV, and by far the majority of perpetrators are men and boys. The fact that GBV is dramatically split along gender lines is disturbing—but for those of us who identify as feminist researchers, we feel fully committed to studying GBV, determining the most effective prevention practices and discerning the best ways to support victims.

We already know a great deal about the prevention of GBV and how to care for those affected. We just don’t know how to stop it. But opening up the conversation on trans-directed GBV may lead us to new and much-needed solutions.

The transgender community is largely synonymous with the experience of gender-based stigma, humiliation, bigotry, exclusion and violence—violence that is physical, situational and structural. Transgender persons are often the lightning rod for GBV—but why? As a transgender woman myself, it lies beyond my comprehension to understand how our personal claims to our authentic sense of identity serve to trigger such widespread extremes of violence. We’re simply being ourselves, and our authenticity brings little if any direct harm to anyone else.

My consciousness of GBV as it affects the transgender and gender non-conforming population is heightened at this time of the year. Around the world, November 20th is commemorated as Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). For those of us who are transgender, it’s a somber day of reflection and sorrow. Yet TDOR is also a day of solidarity, validation and sensitivity to context.

We know from the many stories shared within our community that those who are remembered today suffered not only a truncated, and frequently grisly, end to their lives, but that they experienced violence and exclusion on a daily basis, for years or even decades. That pervasive ostracization forms the backdrop—as well as the enabler—of so many incidents of acute, debilitating, tragic violence directed at the transgender community, also referred to as trans-directed GBV.

It’s not easy to talk about. By sharing GBV accounts through anecdotal narratives, we tend to elicit either puzzlement or pity. Those who are puzzled often simply can’t relate to such suffering. Those who express care and concern think of transgender people as sad, powerless and marginalized. “Marginal” isn’t a good place to be, and this simplified narrative leaves transgender persons with little hope for change.

Trans-directed GBV comes from a place of rejecting otherness and maintaining foundational gender norms within society. The gender binary, and the unassailable assignment of sex and gender at birth, are central planks in that platform. In so many ways and often with self-righteousness, society staunchly polices that most inflexible societal barrier.

Gender, sex and the panoply of associated gender roles drives a wedge into the heart of our humanity. At its most benign, that policing is a form of structural violence forcing transgender persons to confront ridicule and humiliation, assaults upon our dignity and the comprehensive loss of opportunity and choice in our lives. The doors to a meaningful and dignified life are closed to us, and in most countries, our authentic gender identity is officially repudiated. We become invisible—with no legal, economic, political or social recognition of the names and gender identity that we know ourselves to be.

For many of us, that bleak scenario is simply unbearable. Yet to deny our authentic gender identity would be more unbearable. Yes, the daily reality of living lives of exclusion, stigmatization, rejection and violence is bad—but not as bad as living a lie every day. For many of us, life in the wrong body is wrenching. We transition because we must. We feel a deeply-rooted compulsion to live life as ourselves, despite it all.

“Despite it all” is a heavy package. The anecdotal evidence backs this up, but there’s been very little support for establishing solid data. What happens to us really doesn’t have a measurable impact on the larger society. We’re few in number, estimated now to be just 0.6 per cent of the adult population in the U.S. Decision-makers will argue that there are more important issues towards which we should direct precious research dollars. It’s a common assertion, yet transgender persons offer singular insights into the meaning of gender that are relevant to people everywhere. Our “curious” status may offer an opening to learn more about the causes of GBV, as this affects both us and the cisgender population. Were we to be taken seriously, our sense of gender identity might even shed some light on the path to universal gender equity.

However, we’re rarely taken seriously, at least not in the sense of having our human dignity and worth respected. Arguably, the most reliable current source of data is the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS) of 2015, which included responses from nearly 28,000 persons above the age of 17 who identify as transgender within the U.S. That’s large for a survey—certainly the largest survey ever to capture the lived experiences of transgender persons.

The results of the USTS tells a powerful story of trans-directed violence, one of the deeply entrenched structural violence faced by the transgender community every day. The USTS notes that 14 percent of transgender respondents in 2015 were unemployed, and 29 percent were living in poverty, compared to 5 percent and 14 percent respectively within the larger U.S. population. The psychological impacts of encountering exclusion and stigma each and every day are harsh, with 39 percent of respondents, compared to just 5 percent of the U.S. population, saying that they experienced deep psychological distress.

The USTS bears witness to the reality that—over time—these levels of distress are unsustainable. 40 percent of respondents admitted to having attempted suicide in their lifetime. This rate is almost nine times the attempted suicide rate in the general U.S. population—4.6 percent. The data from the USTS is even worse for transgender persons of color, with attempted suicide rates cited at an alarming 54 percent.

For transgender persons now, and for all those who stand in solidarity to commemorate TDOR each year, we must move forward. Research must be carried out with respect and should include transgender participants. And funding is vital as we aim to get to the roots of trans-directed GBV, moving us all towards solutions based in a greater understanding of diversity.

The precious notion of universal human dignity and human rights demand nothing less.

Chloe Schwenke is the Director of the Global Program for Violence, Rights and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women. Previously, she served as Vice President for Global Programs at Freedom House and in the dual role of Senior Advisor on Human Rights at the Africa Bureau and Senior Advisor on LGBT issues globally at USAID during the Obama administration—becoming the first-ever openly transgender political appointee in the federal foreign affairs agencies. Chloe received her Ph.D. in Public Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Raw

It was 1979, and my first year in my new home in Nairobi. I’d audaciously (or foolishly) arrived in Kenya with no job and very little money, yet the job offers had come quickly. I’d soon found a modest place in which to live, and an old VW Beetle to drive. I was settling in and learning all that I could, quite unaware that an entire decade of life, work, adventure, and learning in Kenya was to unfold before me. So much learning ahead…

The lessons were plentiful, and among my most memorable early awakenings came from reading the local paper. The Nairobi Standard’s report that caught my eye was about a rousing debate in Kenya’s Parliament on a bill that sought to make polygamy legal. Already a widespread traditional practice in Kenya, the bill was designed to codify certain protections for the many wives a man might acquire, and it included one provision that was interpreted as a denial of a husband’s “traditional right” to beat his wife. MPs rose to protest indignantly. One of them, Hon. Kimunai arap Soi, said something that I’ve never forgotten: “It is very African to teach women manners by beating them.”

The newspaper article was jocular in tone, and more than a little condescending. Men drinking their early morning coffee in downtown Nairobi were quite amused. On the street in Nairobi some women even agreed, asserting that they would not believe in their husband’s love if he were not “strict” with them. I was left perplexed and disoriented; I struggled to reconcile this new information about social norms in East Africa in contrast to what my life had taught me up to that point. Had I known then what I know now (or had I been then who I am now) I probably would’ve taken note far earlier of the pervasive culture of sexism around me. I might have wondered why Kenya’s parliament at that time was 168 men and just 4 women. But that was 1979; back then I didn’t perceive much of that, despite my liberal middle class American upbringing. Still, I was astounded by what I read. I should have been outraged.

Everyone should have been outraged.

Of course the bill went down to defeat, and it took almost 36 more years – until May of 2015 – before some legal protection for Kenyan wives passed that chamber to become law. Despite that relatively recent milestone, women in Kenya and throughout Africa continue to routinely face wife-beating and other forms of domestic violence. Traditional norms will not be transformed quickly in cultures where women have been cast in a rigidly subordinate role for millennia.

To most Americans Kenya is far away, yet the issues are hardly remote. On August 26th I read a Washington Post article by Elizabeth Winkler about a graduate student named Alice Wu who is poised to begin her doctoral studies at Harvard. Ms. Wu will do well; she’s already established herself as an ingenious, resourceful, and highly motivated researcher. Ms. Wu used her statistical and computer skills to analyze over a million postings on an anonymous online site, Economics Job Market Rumors, to determine how women are currently talked about within the profession of economics.  She used a clever method to  isolate hard data on what was widely known anecdotally, but never before described in any empirical, robust way. Now we know. Thanks to Ms. Wu, it has become empirically clear that sexism and gender-based discrimination within the profession of economics is egregious, rampant, and remarkably crude.  In short, women within economics (or aspiring to be) are looked at, talked about, and described by many of their male counterparts (yes, even the Millennials) in ways that make it an irrefutable fact that the dignity of such women is not respected.

So much for the cherished notion of “universal” human dignity. Continue reading Raw

America is going in one direction – the wrong one.

Are Americans witnessing the triumph of ignorance, selfishness, greed, and incompetence?  If so, we ought not to be surprised. Outside of religious values tied to particular beliefs, dogmas and ideologies, we just don’t talk about morals. OK – sometimes we do love to ascribe some negative values (vices, really) to certain others: greediness, vanity, laziness, boastfulness. But when we attempt to describe our moral foundations as a nation, or even try to unpack what “American values” mean, we get tongue-tied. We often seem to have lost the vocabulary of secular morals, and we stumble forward without recognizing moral dilemmas in our path. Our inability to articulate a moral quandary might go some way in explaining the flailing soul-searching now happening about Charlottesville.

Has the notion of secular, universal moral values lost its appeal? Moral principles certainly have become obscured by politicized law-making, and “ethics” has come to mean only dry, tedious rules about disclosure and behavior. The voices of secular morality and ethical principles are largely notable by their absence.  Gone are the days when people of the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt labored hard to help craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now we have a Secretary of State in Rex Tillerson who lacks a moral vocabulary. He has consigned freedom, dignity, and human rights to irrelevancy, at least whenever these principles fail to align with what “the leadership” has identified as our economic and security interests. In the era of America First, our nation is self-maximizing, which arguably nations ought to be. But should there not be some moral constraints that we consider?

And yes, there is the commander-in-chief, the 45th President of the United States of America. Donald Trump does a credible job of being the incarnation of maximizing self-interest and eschewing moral determinations, even as he holds the office in which our many institutions of government were meant to be guided by. That guidance was always intended to be an executive function of looking out for the well-being of all Americans, and standing tall for universal moral principles even beyond our borders. But Trump is about winning, about wealth, about power, about Trump.

Trump is ignorant. But the ignorance I’m perplexed by isn’t about lack of education, or a deficient intellect, or even individualism on its own merits, but is more in the sense of ignorance as described by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master:

When we talk of ignorance, it has nothing to do with stupidity. In a way, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is an intelligence that works exclusively in one direction. That is, we react exclusively to our own projections instead of simply seeing what is there.

Given such ignorance at the top, what direction are we going in? While it is now popular (and in many contexts warranted) to deprecate Trump, you may think I’m being too harsh if I  ascribe ignorance to all those who adhere to modern economic dogma. The goal is “every man for himself” – and it is usually assumed to be the men and not the women who are out there heroically forging their respective individual “did-it-my-way” destinies, unconstrained by concerns about others. Individualism has become our unwritten national creed, and the foundation of our economy.

Arguably Trump is more a symptom or byproduct of the trend of unapologetic individualism, and not a leader of a new agenda. He’s already demonstrated – time and again – his lack of empathy, competence, judgment, or the temperament of a real leader. Trump is more about rule than leadership; he serves himself and his family. His “projections” are about winning, not about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. As president he’s turned his back on decades of global American leadership grounded in a moral agenda that once spoke to most American’s sense of common identity, common destiny, common decency, common good. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, America has personified and projected a new identity – America First. That doctrine is the natural outcome of an amoral, every-man-for-himself world view.

It’s the wrong direction. Continue reading America is going in one direction – the wrong one.

Only 700 million women

child marraige poster

“What would she do, anyway? It’s not like she has any real choices?”

Such is the cynical response I’ve often encountered, or variations thereof, when I’m moved by whatever furies impassion me on such occasions to advocate for an end to child marriage. It’s an odd counter argument, as if the normalization of a systemic wrong makes it acceptable – “natural” even. The way things ought to be.

But then again, no. Such cynics feel no need for “oughts” in their world view. “It’s just the way things are, dear.”

I’m writing this in New Delhi, India, a country which in terms of population size has the largest number of child brides on the planet. Granted, it is an uneven picture; in some Indian states there’s been remarkable progress in beginning to diminish this practice. Yet in other states, such as Bihar, the percentage of child marriages is over 60 per cent. It’s illegal, of course. India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act back in 2006, but the political will to enforce this law or to otherwise effect change seems inadequate. A National Action Plan intended to prevent child marriage, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has languished since 2013 with no passage in sight. Indian jurisprudence simply cannot decide how to define child marriage. As they ponder, the practice continues.

India is hardly alone. Niger in west Africa holds the ignominious title of worst offender, where 76 per cent of women are married as children. It’s daunting for me to wrap my head around such numbers. Yet the numbers are both daunting and damning; over 700 million women in the world today were married as children. That’s more than five times the entire number of women and girls in my own country, the United States. If you are reading this in the United States, just look at any woman or girl and think of five. Do that again and again, each time you see another female. Your head will be spinning before long. It should be aching, not just spinning. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, yet how often is it discussed by the general public, or cited as a priority?

Almost never. Continue reading Only 700 million women

Why we march

pride flags

Who were these people, and why were they there? More specifically, why would an international research organization — comprised largely of straight, cisgender (non-transgender) women — be present in such large numbers at a celebration of LGBTQI diversity in the heart of the nation’s capital?

To be fair, participating in Washington D.C.’s Capital Pride is special. Several years ago, when I was coerced by friends to come along and watch the march, I was at first intimidated but soon transfixed by this annual festival of unselfconscious exuberance and boisterous display. At Capital Pride, the smiles, warmth and welcome are pervasive. It hadn’t taken me very long to recognize that I was among my people, and that “my people” were a very diverse crowd indeed.

Over the years, I’ve gone from march observer to proud marcher, attaching myself variously over many Capital Pride marches to GLIFAA (the LGBTQI organization of the US government’s foreign affairs agencies), to DC Center Global (a terrific NGO who welcomes LGBTQI refugees and asylum seekers to Washington), or to my faith community, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Each group brought their own enthusiasm and distinctive character to the march, and in each case, I felt honored and energized to be among them as we marched the 1.5 mile route through 150,000 cheering onlookers. The sheer force of the validation and warmth directed toward those of us who identify as part of the LGBTQI community — or as one of our allies — was captivating, empowering, and…well…fun!

pride - trans

Last year, I marched with the Quakers, and as we found our assigned staging spot and waited (and waited, and waited) in the intense heat and humidity for the march to begin, I could not help noticing the zeal and enthusiasm of the group of marchers who were placed behind us in the staging location. I even recognized several of them, was quickly embraced and found myself the happy recipient of one of their trove of small hand-held “Pride fans” — their gifts to the throngs of onlookers. Little did I imagine that one year later, I would be among them, as a part of their organization. That organization is the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

Now — as an employee of ICRW — I haven’t any reason to avoid the question that struck me a year ago — if only for an instant. Why was ICRW at Capital Pride? Why would an organization that has forged a remarkable reputation for sophisticated, high-quality research on women and girls, gender equality and women’s empowerment find common ground with someone like me — a transgender woman — and others in the LGBTQI community? To be clear, I did not have to infer or presume that such common ground existed; ICRW was present in force last June, and will be again next Saturday. Their numbers and their enthusiasm said it all: ICRW is committed to celebrating that common ground.

But why?

As someone who has a relatively unique experience of the world of men — having been socialized and accepted as one for most of my life — the realities experienced by women around the world are sensed only faintly, if at all. The “patriarchy” may seem to be a tired cliché to most men, but for women and girls, the norms, assumptions, privileges and influence enjoyed by men and boys within a world structured around male power and domination are a fundamental fact of life. ICRW has the data to prove this, although few women feel any need to be convinced. What is vitally important, however, is the passionate commitment by those within ICRW — and in the global “women’s” movement more broadly — to the possibility of a better, more equitable world in which gender differences no longer establish ranking, determine access to opportunities, or render half the world as property, sexualized objects, or subjugated vassals. The women and men of ICRW carry a torch for the notion of universal human dignity.

As feminist researchers, we ask the hard questions to shed light on where society must change if that dignity is to be achieved and respected — universally. In short, we accept that we are agents of change, powered by the articulation of persuasive, verifiable, compelling data. It’s how we think and how we see the world around us. It’s what we do and who we are.

No surprise then that ICRW staff naturally and readily enfolds diversity within the universality principle of human dignity. No surprise, too, that ICRW staff — most of whom do not identify as members of the LGBTQI community — still feel an acute solidarity with and care for all minorities who are excluded and stigmatized simply for being minorities. And when it comes to sexual minorities, the only difference is that the data remains grossly incomplete. No one has yet invested the money needed to establish the gaps in social inclusion that LGBTQI people fall into. We have no doubt that the empirical evidence we identify through our future research will substantiate the anecdotal evidence now in wide circulation — that LGBTQI persons around the world face enormous challenges of exclusion, stigmatization, violence, humiliation and abuse.

Until that time comes, and it becomes possible to fill those yawning gaps in data, we will continue to march — proudly and in solidarity with LGBTQI persons — as ICRW women and men whose commitment to gender equity speaks to a deeper commitment. We march for universal human dignity.

Note: This blog first appeared on the website of my employer, the International Center for Research on Women, and can be found there at:

https://medium.com/@ICRW/why-we-march-b1bc87211022