If Only Purple Were As Popular As Pink

•October 18, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Every October, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are hit with waves of products and campaigns featuring pink, the color of breast cancer awareness.

We see t-shirts, pink kitchen items, pink household appliances, pink accessories, all to benefit breast cancer research, primarily through the Susan G. Komen Foundation (which is frankly its own issue).

There are campaigns featuring slogans like “Save Second Base”, which is definitely problematic, but at least you see it.  The Race for the Cure, the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer (which occurs in different places at different times but mostly happens in October), etc., these all are featured prominently in October.

You will see ads for them on public transportation.  You will see signs, commercials, etc.  You know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  And that’s a good thing, aside from the need to diversify our donations for breast cancer support.  Breast cancer impacts a huge number of individuals across races, genders, and sexes.  We still don’t know enough about its causes, and we still don’t have a cure; survivors are in need of support services; and these are all things worth raising awareness and funding for.

My problem isn’t that Breast Cancer Awareness gets so much attention.  It’s that it virtually monopolizes attention in the mainstream media.  Everyone knows that it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and you can buy something pink to support breast cancer research at almost every major superstore, but October is ALSO Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and you can’t find something purple to support that cause unless you go looking specifically for it.  My other problem is quite simply this: we’re aware of breast cancer.  Sure, I may not be able to spew statistics on it off the top of my head, but for the most part, people are well aware that breast cancer is a considerable health threat to people, especially female people, in the United States and around the world.  Organizations working on breast cancer research are receiving funding and recognition.  The same is not necessarily true about domestic violence.

I suppose part of the problem is that it’s just easier to advertise about breast cancer awareness because the issue has become glamorized and sexualized in a way I think is actually pretty problematic.  Events like “Breastivals” on college campuses, and slogans like “Save Second Base” or “Save the Ta-Tas” ultimately buy into the idea that breasts are sexual, even if that’s not necessarily a good idea to buy into.  The other alternative is the use of feel-good survivor stories, which feature women who have “beaten” breast cancer, and women who love them and support them.  They make working towards a cure seem fun, something that can bring people, especially women, together.  These are less problematic, but they still follow the same formula: make it happy, make it appealing.

This just doesn’t happen with domestic violence awareness.  There’s no way to make it sexy-~-it’s ugly and brutal and sad.  It’s something we don’t like to talk about or think about or see.  Breasts?  We’re willing to think about breasts.  The fact that one in three female murder victims was killed by their intimate partner?  Not so much.  Domestic violence doesn’t lend itself to cheeky slogans or fun events, which makes it harder to create pleasant marketing campaigns for.  The problem is that domestic violence as an issue is more in need of fundraising and awareness than breast cancer: DV programs are often underfunded, there often aren’t enough of them, and their corresponding campaigns often lack the necessary support.  There are hundreds of thousands of DV and other IPV survivors who need things like housing, career training, legal assistance, medical care, and mental healthcare once they are finally ready and able to leave their abusive partners.  There are too many cases that ares till unreported because of the stigma attached to surviving domestic violence, and the courts are too-often biased against survivors, who often lose custody of their children or face other consequences once they leave.  Domestic violence is a complicated, wide-spread issue, and it deserves far more funding and attention than it gets.

Unfortunately, these two awareness months fall during October, and the reality of the situation is that attention is focused on breast cancer awareness, and not on domestic violence.  The White House went pink for breast cancer support, but did it go purple for domestic violence?  I don’t think so.  It may not be as much fun, but the reality of the situation is that public health and domestic violence organizations, and pro-women organizations, need to give at least some of their attention in October to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, because there are too many stories still untold, too many survivors still in danger, too many survivors struggling to get back on their feet, and not nearly enough support for them or the programs in place to help them get from here to healthy and happy.

Casey, Texas, Parental Consent, and Undue Burden: Some Thoughts

•October 14, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’ve noticed lately that my use of the “legal” tag on this blog is growing, a sure sign that all is not well with regards to legal enshrinement and protection of pregnant people’s or women’s rights.  Today, I want to re-examine a few of the ongoing battles over reproductive freedom taking place across the country, focusing on Texas and Alabama, through the lens of precedent put forth in Planned Parenthood v Casey, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that has recently been used in the evaluation of anti-choice laws in the United States.

What is Casey?  If you don’t love reproductive rights law the way I do, you might not have hunted down and read the decision in Planned Parenthood v Casey, and you might not be sure what it means.  The ruling upholds the prevailing interest in protecting a pregnant person’s right to privacy, at least until fetal viability (that is, the point at which a fetus could survive on its own outside the womb), which was initially articulated in Roe v Wade (1973).  It also draws on precedent coming from Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), and Carey v. Population Services International (1977) to outline the idea that liberty, as well as privacy, is a compelling interest in cases regarding reproductive choice, as bodily autonomy ought be upheld.  Casey came with a third conclusion by the Court, however, which stated that states could not impose an “undue burden” (actual language) on pregnant people who, prior to the viability of the fetus, sought to have an abortion in the United States.

What does that mean for us now?  Let’s start with the issue of parental consent laws in the United States.  While thirty-seven states require parental notification if a minor wants an abortion, twenty-one still require the consent of at least one parent.  I have several problems with this: first, it’s philosophically inconsistent with the idea that the minor is old enough, in most cases, to consent to sexual relations with another individual; if they aren’t, then they fall under the category of statutory rape and shouldn’t need to jump through hoops in order to access abortion care.  Second, not all teens can get approval from their parents in order to gain access to this kind of healthcare: their parents may philosophically oppose abortion, may be abusive or absent, or may literally not be in the picture.  The problem is that when this happens, the state cannot just permit the minor to exercise their own judgement, and instead, makes them go through a judge in order to gain permission to access abortion care.

This can be an absolute nightmare for teens in the United States.  In Nebraska, one of eight states that doesn’t just require parental consent, but also requires that said consent be notarized, a 2013 case featured a 16-year-old girl in foster care, who had just terminated the parental rights of her biological parents as a result of their physically abusive behavior.  As a result of her decision, she was made a ward of the state, and was forced to ask a Nebraska judge for the necessary permission needed to obtain an abortion.  The judge, who had formerly served on an anti-choice committee, made the ideologically-motivated decision to deny her an abortion, claiming that she was “not mature enough to make this decision”, despite evidence to the contrary.  But it doesn’t end with one ideological judge in Nebraska, and that’s why I’d like to direct my readers’ attention to Alabama.  In the state of Alabama, the mandated judicial bypass for young people who don’t want to involve their parents in their abortion decisions now involves two horrific elements: first, the state can assign a lawyer to represent the fetus, and second, the state can call as witnesses parents, teachers, boyfriends, peers, clergy members, etc., even if it means disclosing her pregnancy to people who did not previously know about it.  The new law has been used to humiliate pregnant teenagers, and the ACLU has already filed suit against it, claiming it is unconstitutional on the basis that it presented barriers that may make it impossible for young women to exercise their rights in the state of Alabama, and that the law is out of line with other measures around the country (principles that can be framed in terms of undue burden under Casey).  Personally, I’m glad this is happening, because disclosing a young woman’s pregnancy and desire for an abortion in a conservative area may not only humiliate her, it may also put her in personal danger, something the law’s authors either did not consider, or did not care about in their desire to shame women out of getting abortions.

That’s Alabama, but I also wanted to discuss Texas.  I was surprised, quite frankly, when recent rulings upheld the state’s TRAP laws and allowed the targeting of clinics across the state of Texas, shuttering all but seven of them.  While it is worth noting that this ruling is likely temporary, and that lawyers are already devising new strategies, including appealing to the entire Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which has thus far declined to reconsider) and appealing to the Supreme Court, while it stands it represents a widespread threat to reproductive justice across the state.  A dozen facilities have already closed as a result of the Oct. 2 ruling by the Fifth Circuit, resulting in the overloading of the remaining seven clinics and consequently longer waits at those facilities; while Texas officials have tried to characterize this as a mere “inconvenience”, the reality is that longer wait times may cause some pregnant individuals to be unable to access abortion services in the limited timeframe in which the procedure is legal in Texas.  It is my belief that this case may ultimately return to the Supreme Court, to be reviewed in light of the Casey precedent along with others being challenged under the premise that they pose an undue burden.  An August ruling by the Fifth Circuit kept the last remaining clinic in Mississippi open, stating that forcing pregnant people to go out of state to access abortion constituted an undue burden on pregnant individuals and impeded their rights to liberty and privacy; despite the Fifth Circuit’s ruling to uphold the Texas law, their previous decision in Mississippi may be transferrable to Texas in light of an additional ruling.

Texas abortion availability in light of HB2 leaves low-income women out in the cold

As of TODAY, the Supreme Court has put a hold on the enforcement of some parts of the Texas TRAP law, HB2, halting enforcement of the regulations that require clinics to meet the requirements of hospital-style surgical centers, and temporarily exempting clinics in El Paso and McAlln from regulations that would have required their doctors to hold admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.  Admitting privileges are a common tool used in TRAP laws, but they are often impossible for abortion providers to get for three main reasons: 1) Hospitals in conservative areas may refuse to grant privileges to abortion providers because they don’t want a relationship with groups like Planned Parenthood for political/optics-related reasons, 2) The doctor provides abortions in a different state than they practice medicine or travels from clinic to clinic because local doctors may refuse to provide abortion services for fear of community backlash (as in Mississippi), and 3) Abortions simply cause so few hospital admissions that abortion providers often don’t bring in the required minimum admissions needed for a hospital to grant privileges.  It remains to be seen whether or not the full law will be struck down, or even considered by, the Supreme Court, but for now, it is good to see the Court giving Texas women a fighting chance: their ruling may allow approximately a dozen clinics to re-open, at least until a full decision can be made.  Here’s hoping that the Court upholds Casey when the time comes, and continues to recognize that rights mean nothing if an individual cannot access or exercise them as needed.

7 Things You Should Know About Domestic Violence

•October 6, 2014 • Leave a Comment

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month…and it’s certainly an issue worth raising awareness about.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s an issue that’s been in the media a lot lately, particularly in light of the Ray Rice scandal.  One of its greatest impacts has been to encourage more survivors to come forward, and to generate a wider discussion about domestic violence.  It also inspired Corey Booker to introduce a plan to strip the NFL’s nonprofit status and use the money to fund domestic abuse programs, which are generally overloaded and underfunded, receiving over 170,000 requests for shelter each year, and unable to fulfill them all.

If we are going to talk about domestic violence, there are several misconceptions about the issue I think are worth making sure are dispelled, so here are seven things you should know about domestic violence.

1. Domestic violence is far from unusual…even for men.

I think the media stories, and the 170,000 requests for shelter per year, should be a good indication of how common domestic violence is, but in truth, that’s still not a full picture of how often domestic violence occurs.  In fact, 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 7 men, will experience some form of domestic violence over the course of their lives…and that’s just domestic violence (the numbers are even higher when expanded to include all forms of Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV).  And those numbers have actually gone down as compared to two decades ago.  It’s also difficult to get accurate numbers because survivors, especially men, are less likely to report their abuse for fear of social consequences including stigma and retaliation.

2. Domestic violence is not only physical.

Domestic violence (indeed, all iterations of IPV) can take on different forms, and physical violence is only one of them.  Domestic abuse often includes emotional abuses, especially gaslighting, which enables the abuser to convince their victim that they are at fault for what is happening. Abusers may also use tactics like sexual coercion,  verbal abuse including insults, personal attacks, or attempts at humiliation, withholding money or preventing access to financial resources, and surveillance in order to control their partners.  Physical abuse is often the form of abuse that gets the most attention, likely in part because it’s the easiest to notice from the outside, but it’s rarely the entire story.

3. Domestic violence happens across demographics, but individuals who live in low-income situations are more vulnerable.

Whether you are rich, poor, middle-class, educated, illiterate, Black, white, Latina, etc., domestic abuse does not discriminate.  That said, socioeconomic status does have an impact, and individuals who come from impoverished households are more likely to be victimized.  Low-income women are among the most likely to be financially dependent on their partners, who are more likely to abuse them.  This isn’t saying that all poor people are abusers or victims; that simply isn’t true.  But poor women are also among the least likely to have finished their education, and among the least likely to have the resources needed to leave their abusive partnerships.

4. Domestic violence is a major public health threat in the United States.

Domestic violence creates numerous health threats, the most obvious and direct of which is the prevalence of injuries.  Though it’s been difficult to find more recent numbers, in 2001, intimate partner violence accounted for 20% of all non-fatal violent crime against women in the United States, and 3% of non-fatal violent crime against men, and a 2003 CDC report indicates that intimate partner violence accounts for approximately 2 million injuries per year.  In addition to physical injury, domestic violence contributes to more than 18.5 million mental healthcare visits per year.  But it doesn’t end there: according to the CDC and other public health experts, women in relationships with violence are four times more likely to contract an STI, including HIV, than women in relationships without violence, and are more likely to engage in additional risk behaviors; HIV-positive women are also more likely to experience abuse, and more likely to experience more severe abuse.

5. Domestic violence can be fatal.

An estimated one third of female homicide victims are killed by their intimate partner.  Access to firearms in the household results in a 500% increase in likelihood that domestic violence will result in death when considering other factors of abuse, according to the American Bar Association-~-in fact, of women murdered with a firearm, two thirds were killed by their intimate partner.  Murder, particularly intimate partner homicide, is one the leading causes of death for pregnant women, accounting for approximately 20% of deaths during pregnancy in the United States.

6. Leaving isn’t always an option, and even when it is, it can be a difficult choice.

One of the major problems surrounding the discussion of domestic violence, and issues related to victim-blaming.  People ask, “why did she stay?  Why not just leave him?”  But the reality is that things are not that simple.  First, a person has to be ready to leave, which means they need to come to terms with what is happening; this is made more difficult because the abuser is likely blaming the victim for what is going on, until they internalize the idea that they are at fault.  On top of that, the abuser may be actively preventing the victim from leaving, or they may lack the basic resources needed to get away, as outlined poignantly in Mic.com’s “Why I Stayed” article, wherein survivors describe being physically blocked from leaving, shamed by their communities or religious figures for wanting to go, and not having the means to leave or a place to escape to.  (Read it, it’s worth it.)   Even when a survivor is ready to leave, doing so may have consequences: many victims do not have the financial resources to leave, may not have been able to develop credit while in the abusive relationship due to actions by their abuser, may not be able to afford an attorney to help them navigate divorce laws, or may fear losing their children (a valid fear given that 70% of the time, a woman will lose custody of her children once she leaves the relationship).

7. There are resources available, both for survivors and for those who want to help them.

If you are in trouble, or you need advice to support someone you think may be, you can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline, or SafeHorizon, which has a hotline in English and in Spanish.  There are additional resources available through the Women of Color Network, and Mending the Sacred Hoop, which serves Native American/First People communities.  For a list of organizations that help survivors of domestic abuse, see here.  To locate an emergency shelter, see here.  If you are in need of mental health services, many of these organizations may provide them, as do many religious organizations.  SafeHorizon can also provide free legal services, or referrals to organizations which can provide those services to individuals in need.  If you would like more information on red flags and the questions you should be asking, please see my previous post on Intimate Partner Violence, or visit the Red Flag Campaign’s website for more information.

 

 

The Problem With Crisis Pregnancy Centers

•September 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

If you are pregnant, and you need information/healthcare, you have a couple of options: you can go to your OB/GYN, you can go to a reproductive health clinic (like a Planned Parenthood), or you can go to a crisis pregnancy center (CPC).

Many feminist, and particularly pro-choice, organizations have come out against crisis pregnancy centers.  On the surface, this seems odd: CPCs are supposed to provide resources and peer-counseling: for example, some CPCs are licensed to provide things like pregnancy tests, and they’re generally advertised as health clinics.  But the reality of the situation is far different: CPCs are usually NOT licensed medical providers, and numerous reports confirm that many crisis pregnancy centers deliberately provide false information about reproductive health options, from counseling against abortion to lying about birth control.  Pro-choice means pro-family and pro-adoption as well-~-there’s nothing wrong with providing resources and referrals for pregnant people who wish to complete a pregnancy and either pursue parenting or put the baby up for adoption-~-but actively lying to individuals under the pretense of being a medical care provider is essentially fraud, and that’s the problem.

So how common are they?  A quick look at the Wikipedia page for crisis pregnancy centers tells me that there are approximately 2500 CPCs in the United States, as compared to 1800 abortion clinics (though I suspect those numbers may be out of date, with more CPCs and possibly fewer abortion clinics).  That same page also points out that 20 states provide funding to CPCs, and between the years of 2001 and 2005, 50 CPCs received $30 billion from the U.S. federal government.  A similar claim is examined by HuffPost, when they attack the premise that taxpayer dollars (which, thanks to the Hyde Amendment, cannot be used to fund abortions), are being used to fund religious campaigns against abortion-~-which is, obviously, hugely problematic.  Considering the fact that the majority of CPCs aren’t licensed medical clinics, this seems a bit odd (but then, it was the first term of the Bush Administration, and we had instituted policies like the Global Gag Rule).  One glance at the map on this page produced by NARAL Pro-Choice California gives a good idea of just how common CPCs are-~-which means they become a more likely choice for pregnant people in need of reproductive health services, which they often cannot and do not provide.  This is ESPECIALLY true in states which have actively worked to eliminate abortion clinics through TRAP laws, like Missouri, which presently only has one remaining abortion clinic in the state: pregnant persons in these states may feel a CPC is their only option, but unfortunately, it’s not a good one.

Source: Vice News

It’s not just that they compete for the attention and time of pregnant persons in need: it’s that they do so in a way that fundamentally undermines their ability to make independent reproductive health decisions and exercise their legal rights.  It’s not just about abortion, though these organizations DO counsel against abortion: that same NARAL Pro-Choice California report revealed that forty percent of CPCs included in the study advised that hormonal birth control increases the risk of infertility and can cause breast cancer, and sixty percent of CPCs included in the study advised that condoms are not effective at preventing pregnancy or the transmission of certain STIs.  Seventy percent of California CPCs included in the study said that abortion increases risk of breast cancer, and an even greater number advised that abortion increases risk of infertility.  Holy misinformation, Batman!  Those claims have all been debunked: abortion causing breast cancer was a claim based on deeply flawed studies that were then used by the anti-choice movement to attack reproductive rights, the studies that linked birth control to breast cancer were based on previous, now out-dated formulations of hormonal contraceptives, and legal, safely-performed abortion carries with it minor risks that would be inherent to any surgery, and doesn’t pose a threat to fertility later in life.  Oh, and as to the eighty-five percent of California CPCs which claimed that abortion causes mental illness?  Here’s a Guttmacher Institute report outlining the reality that abortion doesn’t have a direct link to depression or anxiety.  Basically, this is a pack of lies being handed to pregnant people who are often scared and unsure what to do, in order to discourage them from accessing abortion or utilizing contraception in the future.

Recently, a couple of undercover operations have looked to expose CPCs for the problems they create.  When one woman went undercover to a number of CPCs in Virginia-~-a state which has more than twice as many CPCs as comprehensive reproductive health clinics, and has enacted restrictive abortion laws-~-she was asked questions like these: “What is your relationship with your parents like?” “How is your financial situation?” “Have you told the father?” “What is his religion?” “Are his parents religious?” “How many people have you slept with?” “Would your parents be excited about a grandchild?”  These aren’t questions that are relevant to making a medical decision, they’re questions needed to gain information to use for emotional manipulation, which is what many individuals report is a main tactic of CPCs.  That same woman was also told that birth control is the same as medication abortion-~-even though it’s not.  Another study in Virginia revealed a counselor telling a client that condoms are “naturally porous” and therefore cannot protect against STIs, and that having an abortion would damage all of her future relationships.

In case you’re thinking this might be a problem specific to California and Virginia CPCs, it’s not: the undercover activist involved in that second investigation in Virginia, Katie Stack, is a co-founder of the Crisis Project, which films undercover videos at Crisis Pregnancy Centers.  Stack herself has also found similar problems in Iowa, and in Cleveland, Ohio.  Along with Vice‘s Fazeelat Aslam, and a Texas volunteer named Donna, Stack has been working to investigate CPCs across the country, creating a documentary called “Misconception”.  When Jacyln Munson (PolicyMic) went undercover to CPCs in New York City, she found the same problems: false information about contraception, including emergency contraception, incorrect models of fetuses, and slut-shaming via a lecture on how it was awful she had premarital sex.

These undercover efforts are part of a push to fight back against CPCs and the false information that they spread to pregnant people in need.  That effort needs to go further, though: supporters of reproductive justice, and honestly, supporters of science, need to campaign against the use of taxpayer money to fund ideological and scientifically inaccurate counseling.   Some or all CPCs may be potentially be guilty of fraud, a legal avenue that activists may choose to explore.  I am not sure what the most effective ways are to push back against CPCs, but some estimates indicate that after this year, they may well outnumber abortion providers 5 to 1 across the United States…and to be perfectly frank, if funding healthcare is already controversial, we should make sure we are at least actually funding healthcare, not individuals who are paid to lie to pregnant people with no one else to turn to.

On Feminism and Harry Potter

•September 20, 2014 • 1 Comment

Warning: spoilers.

I’ve always loved Harry Potter.  When I was seven, I had a pen pal with whom I corresponded solely about the Harry Potter books.  When I was eleven, I genuinely wished I could be whisked away to Hogwarts to study magic, instead of to middle school to study algebra.  When I was fifteen, I sobbed over Fred Weasley’s death.  And when I was eighteen, I joined the Harry Potter Alliance, which helped me to see the ways in which Harry Potter, as a book, has impacted our lives.

A recent article in Business Insider, entitled “Reading ‘Harry Potter’ Makes You a Better Person, Research Shows” discusses how the books are useful tools for teaching empathy…something that the founders of the Harry Potter Alliance have known, and been utilizing, for years.  By reaching out to fans of the books, the HPA has built libraries, created podcasts, moved petitions, organized phone banks, hosted Rock the Vote concerts, sent medical supplies to disaster zones, and worked to support individuals struggling with mental illness, among other great causes.  Reflecting on the HPA, and on the books themselves, I’ve been thinking of all the amazing, and subtle, messages that I got from reading these books as a young woman, about myself, about my potential, about figuring out who I am…and what that means, reading the book from a feminist perspective.

 

When I first set out to write this post, I wanted to recognize several of the female characters who most stood out across the series-~-and I will, in a moment.  But I honestly think that having a few strong women at the forefront is not what makes Rowling’s books so incredible.  Rather, it’s the fact that every woman in the Potter universe, no matter how good or bad she may be, has her own agency and makes her own decisions.  Characters major and minor live their lives in Rowling’s world in such a way that Hermione is special not because she is a woman who is also incredibly talented, but simply because she is so incredibly talented.  McGonnagal is one of the most amazing teachers at Hogwarts not because she’s the one female teacher with a spine (she’s not), but because she’s absolutely resolute in who she is, and she’s willing to fight for the Hogwarts she loves.  These are wonderful, strong characters who happen to be women, not women who stand out as great because the other women around them fall flat…and that’s more special than I think we sometimes recognize.

Take Lavender Brown, just as an example.  Lavender lurks in the background for the first five books, sighing over Professor Trelawney’s lessons, excitedly attending the Yule Ball, participating in class, until she starts dating Ron in Half Blood Prince and moves closer to the forefront, at least temporarily.  You’re not really supposed to like this about Lavender, because you’re mostly rooting for Hermione, but the reality is that from the moment you meet her, Lavender is an independent agent.  She’s not brilliant, but she’s not unintelligent either-~-she’s just different from Hermione.  Lavender genuinely seems to care about Ron, she acts on her own impulses and has her own preferences, and she ultimately makes the brave decision to fight in the Battle of Hogwarts at the end of the series.

The same is true for many of the other background characters, or even villainous characters, featured in the books.  There’s basically nothing likable about Bellatrix Lestrange, but she is definitively a strong character: she survives Azkaban with her personality intact, pursues her ends fairly relentlessly, and is a remarkably internally consistent character.  Narcissa Malfoy makes the brave decision to defy Voldemort and protect Harry in order to seek out her son after the Battle of Hogwarts appears over.  Even Aunt Petunia, who is an annoying and terrible guardian for Harry, still has and pursues her own objectives, and stands up to Vernon when she is forced to remember how vital her role is in protecting Harry.  Rowling also gives us Professor Sprout, Madam Pomfrey, handfuls of random quidditch players and DA members, Fleur, Harry’s first girlfriend, Cho Chang, and witches who are simply referenced as being incredibly powerful or important scholars, to round out a universe where women clearly matter.

It’s not just the women who are worth taking note of here, though: Rowling’s male characters are, generally speaking, respectful of the women they work with.  Harry and Ron openly admire Hermione and admit that they could never have succeeded (in school or in life) without her.  Fred and George are incredibly proud of Ginny’s accomplishments when they are all in school together.  And they’re equally respectful of their significant others: Rowling never allows any of her male characters to become emotionally or physically violent towards their female counterparts, and instead, they’re generally supportive of their female partners.  From Harry’s general support of Ginny to Ron’s open recognition of Hermione’s brilliance to Arthur and Molly’s obvious partnership, Rowling depicts healthy male-female friendships and romantic relationships for her readers to enjoy.

It is on top of a cast of generally empowered women that Rowling then gives her readers Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley, Molly Weasley, Luna Lovegood, and Minerva McGonagall.  Each of these women is a different kind of woman-~-some are tough, some are absentminded, some are sweet, some are sharp-~-but they all bring something unique and valuable to the table, and they each act on their agency in their own way.  And as such, each of these incredible female characters brings something different for a reader to connect to and admire, whether it’s Hermione’s academic prowess, Ginny’s athleticism and spunk, Luna’s intellectual curiosity and subsequent social outcast status, or Molly’s mothering but no-nonsense nature, they are all multi-dimensional, colorful characters whom you come to care about.

 

At the end of the day, its the combination of these elements that makes Harry Potter such a great read from a feminist perspective.  Obviously, Rowling does far more, tackling labor issues, mental health, ableism, masculinity issues, racism, and classism as she moves through the series, and that, too, makes the series invaluable from a social justice perspective.  Rowling takes issues that are of great importance today, and makes them accessible and relatable, through strong characters that readers come to love and admire…and honestly, that’s some of the greatest magic of all.

Fox News, You Need to Stop

•September 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment

As long-time readers of this blog already know, I’ve never been a fan of Fox News.  I try not to talk about it too much, but I can’t sit here, and call myself an activist, and pretend that Fox News isn’t actively promoting ideas that are fundamentally harmful to people, and especially to women, and which ultimately allow for more women to be hurt.

Fox News hosts have said plenty of things I have disagreed with.  Last week, they claimed that there was no such thing as an assault rifle.  They’ve claimed that Obamacare was worse than slavery…then amended that statement to say it was worse than 9/11.  They publicly called actor Robin Williams a coward following his death, though they later apologized for it.  Fox News hosts have made all kinds of Islamaphobic comments, and refused to apologize for them.  Each of these have been disgusting, and each of these have promoted hate that, as it becomes entrenched in our culture, places people in danger.  Shaming people for struggling with mental illness, attacking people for their race or religion…these are not the hallmarks of an actual news agency.  This is ideological spin at best, and publicly accepted endorsement of violence at worst.  I’ve brought this up more on the Radical Idea tumblr, but the thing I really need to get into here, now, on the WordPress, is their acceptance and apparent endorsement of violence against women.

Fox News, what are you doing?

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I want to make something clear: violence against women is no more horrifying, no more offensive, no greater a rights violation than violence against any other person or group.  I’m not picking this moment to attack the way Fox News talks about people and espouses its ideology because I think that misogyny is despicable but Islamaphobia is somehow acceptable.  Hate is wrong in all of its iterations.  But as I’m not Jon Stewart, and I’m not paid to comb through all the horrible things that Fox News hosts say and point out all the problems, I pick my battles for this blog (and privately glare at the internet and TV whenever I see further examples of this somehow-subsidized hate speech).  I’m picking this one now.  I’ll pick more in the future.

So what happened?  A week or so ago, Fox News hosts slapped on their internalized misogyny hats and declared, “let men be men” in a segment devoted to how street harassment is good.  How it’s just men complimenting women, and how there are “classy” ways to do it…like just clapping.  The Daily Show‘s  Jessica Williams responds to this beautifully, pointing out that “it’s not a runway, it’s a sidewalk” and “since going to work isn’t a performance, we don’t want your applause”.  It’s creepy, and it’s designed not to make women feel appreciated, but to make women feel like the sidewalks are not theirs to walk, like they don’t have a right to public spaces.  Even if an individual clapping or calling out to a woman means well, intent doesn’t matter because the root cause, and the effect, are the same.  Those men who believe they’re just trying to “appreciate” a woman walking down the street only believe that this is a thing they should do because societal norms, which say that women’s bodies are men’s to comment upon and control, tell them that they ought to, and that they have a right to.

But was this where the sexism train stopped?  Of course not.  Earlier this week, Fox News hosts crossed the line once again by mocking the victim of the Ray Rice elevator assault, joking that the lesson was to “take the stairs”.  I frankly don’t have the space left within this post to adequately get into the issue of organized sports and their relationship to gender norms and gender-based violence, but I’ll talk about it soon.  The issue I do want to focus on here is the idea that Fox News anchors, including their female anchors, continue to prop up detrimental behaviors that endanger individuals’ health or sense of safety, and shame survivors for what happens to them.  Janay Palmer was in no way responsible for Ray Rice’s behavior-~-no matter what their relationship was like, his behavior was inexcusable and frankly, criminal.  For this to be in any way downplayed or excused is offensive and unjustifiable.  It simply reinforces the idea that it’s acceptable to harm women, an idea that already manifests itself in the form of widespread gender-based violence around the world.

This isn’t about political ideology.  It isn’t about whether Obamacare was good for America or whether we need more gun laws.  This is about the rights of people to operate safely within our society.  A HUGE majority of women continue to do things like change the routes they take while commuting, walk with keys out to use as weapons, or even move to a new residence as a result of street harassment.  It’s not funny, it’s not sweet, it makes people feel like they are unsafe-~-and that’s wrong.  And there are thousands of survivors of domestic violence out there who genuinely believe that it is their fault, or who fear that they’ll be blamed or dismissed by family or friends if they come forward, who are stuck in dangerous situations, and when society-~-or those prominent in society-~-condone the behavior of abusers, it becomes that much more difficult for those individuals to extract themselves.  It’s downright irresponsible for individuals who have the ability to articulate a message that could counter this abuse to do the opposite, and it’s time to see a change.

That’s not to say that NO ONE is saying anything.  CBS Sportscaster James Brown gave a great segment talking about football, sexism, and domestic violence, for example, and Mic.com published a piece containing powerful tweets about the experiences of survivors of domestic violence.  But when major media outlets continue to cover stories with victim-blaming rhetoric and downright dismissal of the experience of survivors, they contribute to the problem.  Fox News can do better, and frankly should do better.  No one deserves to be attacked, no matter who they are, and those who continue to perpetrate harms against those around them need to be stopped.

Reproductive Rights Are Human Rights

•September 8, 2014 • Leave a Comment

On September 1st, Al Jazeera Online published an opinion piece entitled “Are Reproductive Rights Human Rights?”, which discussed a series of cases in which abortion was denied to women who, as a result, suffered serious health consequences, or even death.  The author, Julia Zulver, asks, “… what do we say to these women? That the rights they were given by CEDAW, which their governments signed on to, and which, if upheld, could have averted their tragic fates are too Western and too ideological? What can we offer them instead?”

Zulver also discusses the roots of the idea of rights, which are enshrined in order to protect the welfare of society.  But, as she rightfully asks, who defines welfare?  What is the good of the society?  Individual rights need to be weighed, in virtually all cases, against the good of the society in which said individuals reside.  This is why, although we have freedom of speech in the United States, you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded public space, because the resulting unnecessary panic could cause injuries, and the personal safety of everyone else outweighs an individual’s right to scream whatever they want.  Similarly, societies seem to weigh the rights of women to access reproductive healthcare against the welfare of their societies, and in many (often including the United States), they find reproductive health wanting.

I want to make a case here for why reproductive rights are human rights, and to do so, I want to discuss one of the only rights that seems to be enshrined in virtually every society, the one lauded by every religion, the one that is the basis of all of our other rights: the right to life.

I won’t pretend to you that the right to life is universally protected, because it obviously is not.  There are too many acts of senseless violence that ultimately go unpunished, too many genocides and political assassinations and disappearances throughout history for anyone to pretend that any society is perfect at upholding the right to life.  That said, almost every society espouses a belief in the right to life, and in the vast majority of countries around the world, there are laws that punish those who violate this right, and punish them heavily.  In some societies, there are additional mechanisms to support the right to life, including government subsidized healthcare or nutrition programs, etc.  We accept that the right to life matters because no one would want their own life truncated, and because no society could function well if there were simply constant violence because life itself was not respected.  Where the right to life is publicly and broadly violated-~-as, for example, in cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing-~-one of the most common precursors to the violence is the dehumanization of the targeted group, such that they won’t be seen as being on par with people in the society, and thus not worthy of these rights.

Once we’ve established that a right to life is generally agreed upon, several of the other human rights become far more defensible.  A right to clean water and sanitation?  That’s needed to uphold a right to life.  A right to food?  To shelter?  A right not to be tortured?  These, too, are needed to uphold the right to life, some basic sense of human dignity.  The reality that we still have slavery in the world today is a result of failures of the system, a failure of societies to be willing to actually act to enforce the human rights that are being violated within their borders.  But others become more slippery, even in the West: equality before the law is still a pipe dream in most parts of the world, even the United States.  The lines in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dealing with marriage laws may well be overly ideological, and it’s perhaps understandable why they become points of contention.

But I’m not concerned with marriage law in this moment, since we are focusing on reproductive rights.  At the end of the day, reproductive rights are human rights for the same reason a right to clean water is, or freedom from torture: they are necessary in order to uphold the right to life.  When countries weigh a woman’s right to access contraception, or abortion, against “society’s welfare”, and find that the ability of a woman to access an abortion in order to save her life would endanger the rest of society, what they ultimately say is that a person loses their right to life once they become pregnant; that right to life is not universal; and that the reason that it is not universal is because ideologically, people are opposed to the procedures that would save the individual’s life.  This logic would likely never hold for virtually any other kind of life-saving procedure, because the sentimental nature surrounding abortion doesn’t extend to other kinds of medical care.  A right to life shouldn’t be dependent on how people in a society feel about the methods needed to save people’s lives, because undermining this right should be seen as ultimately undermining the basis of a safe society-~-something that is universally valued.

Reproductive rights are also critical because arguably, in order to have any rights, a person needs bodily autonomy.  Forced pregnancy is considered by the United Nations to be a form of torture, because it strips a person of their autonomy, and can be a source of trauma for individuals subjected to it.  It’s particularly important to realize that those who can become pregnant may be endangered by their pregnancy-~-not just because pregnancy itself can present life-threatening complications, but because individuals may be targeted for harm by their families or communities should they become pregnant.  Individuals who become pregnant against their will (either because they were raped, or because their partners or families deny access to contraception) may experience depression, anxiety, etc., particularly for individuals already suffering from mental illness.  Protecting individuals’ health and welfare ought fall under the general umbrella of human rights as well, placing reproductive rights squarely in that category.

I fully understand that human rights are, in and of themselves, a subject for debate.  But the idea that individuals should have the right to live, and the right to control their bodies, shouldn’t have to be controversial-~-and in most of the world, they’re not.  If we can accept those premises as they apply to things like torture and arbitrary killing, we should extend these principles to reproductive rights as well, and uphold individuals’ rights to life.

 
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