Marriage Equality Is Only The Beginning

•April 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

In two days, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Obergeffel v Hodges, what will likely be a landmark decision regarding same-sex marriage that is expected to focus on equal protection and the right to full faith and credit. Activists and members of the community are eager for the Supreme Court to hear arguments and release their decision, which will hopefully be a major victory for proponents of marriage equality.  I am with them: it seems absurd, in 2015, to still have to be arguing that people who are in loving, committed relationships should have access to the benefits of state-sanctioned monogamy, or that those rights should be transferable across state lines.  Marriage equality will be a victory, but it is just a battle, not the war.

Marriage equality will be great, but I think the problem is that focusing on it has detracted from some of the even more important issues facing the LGB community.  I say this as someone who does not necessarily identify with the community, but someone who has listened to many of the concerns articulated by those who do: bullying in schools, a refusal to discuss sexuality in health classes, discrimination in the workplace and the housing market, access to appropriate and sensitive healthcare, hate crimes, and suicide among the LGBT community are also major concerns facing the community, perhaps even greater concerns impacting an even wider range of rights violations, that will not be solved when SCOTUS rules on Obergeffel v Hodges.

Let’s talk workplace discrimination, arguably the next area where progress has been seen for the LGB community, but where said progress has still proven insufficient.  It is currently illegal for the federal government or for federal contractors to discriminate based on sexual orientation, but that is a fairly recent development.  Under current Congressional rules, House staffers can be fired or refused promotions on the basis of their sexual orientation. A vast majority of states lack any law protecting individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, and even fewer protect against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is a piece of legislation that would serve as a federal-level prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it has yet to be introduced by the 114th Congress.  And this is an issue on which we are arguably seeing progress-~-a sad statement on this country’s level of tolerance and acceptance of the LGB community.

If that lack of tolerance is pervasive, it starts early: a 2005 survey of teens in the United States revealed that the number two reason why adolescents are bullied is because of their real or perceived sexual orientation.  Approximately 9 out of 10 LGBT teens report having been bullied at school, with fairly devastating consequences: students who identify as LGBT are on average five times more likely to skip school because they feel unsafe, and about 28% felt forced to drop out of school altogether.  That same study indicated that LGBT teens were two to three times more likely than their non-LGBT counterparts to commit suicide. Those numbers might be a decade old now, but the 2011 numbers are not any better: the CDC’s data indicate that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGB peers, and the numbers are much worse for LGB youth coming from non-accepting families.

All of that is just focused on LGB-identified individuals, without taking into account the statistics relevant to the trans community, where things are equally bad if not worse. Marriage equality might be a step towards acceptance for cisgendered LGB individuals, but it does nothing to address transphobia or protect the rights of trans individuals in the United States.

The reality is, we have a long way to go, even beyond the issues of bullying and workplace discrimination, and equating “marriage equality” with “equality” does more harm than good.  It makes it seem like the other problems will just go away, or that they are less important, if the courts rule in favor of same-sex couples in this upcoming case.  But consider a few things: violence against the LGBT community actually increased in 2013, and though I don’t have the numbers for 2014, I’d guess they don’t look good either.  A very large number of LGBT youth have been harassed, or feel unsafe, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  LGBT youth are still at particularly high risk of homelessness, and are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol.  Violence against trans individuals, especially trans people of color, is inexcusably frequent in the United States.

I’m as excited as anyone (well, anyone not directly effected by the decision) by the possibility that the Supreme Court may rule in favor of same-sex couples, giving a large number of individuals access to the rights and privileges of matrimony in the United States.  But marriage equality is a battle, and I’m scared that when we win it, we may well lose sight of the war.  LGB Americans deserve more than the ability to apply for a marriage license; they deserve to feel safe in their homes, in their schools, and in their communities.  They deserve education, including sex education, that addresses their needs and their lived realities.  They deserve legal protection when hate crimes are committed against them, and they deserve a country that promotes tolerance such that those crimes cease to be committed.  They deserve access to their religious and spiritual communities of choice, and they deserve to be able to be themselves at work without fear of being fired or denied opportunities for advancement.

If we win this court case, take a moment and celebrate.  And then remember that there is more work to be done.  The fight for equality is far from over, and we all need to be in it, to the very end.

Balancing Safety with Intellectualism: On Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces, and Challenging Comfort Zones

•April 15, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I keep coming across this article from the New York Times, “In College And Hiding from Scary Ideas”, and as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been realizing that there have been few really nuanced discussions of the issues related to safety in intellectual spaces.  This article actually does try quite hard, and I’m fully willing to give credit where credit is due: if universities cannot bring controversial speakers onto campus, if students insist that their colleges become liberal echo-chambers, then our intellectual growth as a nation is likely to stagnate.

College-~-especially liberal arts colleges-~-should be about broadening your horizons and challenging your assumptions.  That necessarily means being exposed to ideas you don’t necessarily agree with, and ideas that make you uncomfortable. It might mean challenging your privilege or being forced to defend something you don’t think you should have to defend-~-I’m totally okay with that.  I’m okay with the idea that if I want to talk about rape culture, I may have to defend the idea that rape culture exists and is a problem.  I’m okay with the idea that things like abortion are controversial issues and may make some people upset or uncomfortable, I’m okay with the fact that not everyone has the same ideas as I do about HIV prevention or sex education or care labor-~-part of being intellectually rigorous in my activism means that I should be able to articulate not only my ideas but my justifications for them. My dad always says that being a reform Jew or a conservative Jew is harder than being an Orthodox Jew because you have to actually think critically about and defend to yourself why you accept the practices you engage in, because you aren’t just accepting everything about the religion on face.  That critical engagement is necessary if we’re to make progress on important issues and debates.  We should be having these debates, because people need the opportunity to engage with ideas that are different than those they encounter every day.

I’m also okay with the idea of speakers at special events tackling issues like rape culture and critically examining whether or not many of the ideas that the feminist movement promotes are based on valid assessments and assumptions about society.  You know why?  Because special events are voluntary.  Wendy McElroy should have been given the space to articulate her viewpoint at Brown, and Jessica Valenti should have had the opportunity to refute her, without the very existence of the debate being controversial in and of itself.  Students who might be triggered by this debate have the option of simply not attending, which means that they already have the ability to protect themselves.

Where I think this New York Times article-~-and the criticism of efforts to protect trauma survivors more generally-~-goes a bit too far is where the author starts to attack trauma survivors themselves for their “hypersensitivity”.  The author references an essay Judith Shapior, former president of Barnard College, wrote for Inside Higher Ed, in which Shapiro suggests that students self-infantilize and that this trend towards reducing triggers or creating safe spaces is a part of that trend.  I’m not sure where I stand on this self-infantilization issue-~-I simply haven’t looked at it enough-~-but when the Times dismisses trauma as “quasi-medical”, I think it runs the risk of completely dismissing an entire branch of psychology and counseling that deals with the very real experiences of survivors of traumatic experiences.

I think that universities do need to offer trauma survivors the tools to take care of themselves-~-but don’t necessarily need to do all of that protecting for them.  I think trigger warnings fall on the safer side of this line.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: trigger warnings are not about protecting students from content they may find potentially offensive, it is about helping survivors of trauma to brace themselves or avoid situations where they might be forced to partially relive their trauma.  They may not be perfect, but they are at least something, and though I have had individuals tell me, time and again, that trigger warnings violate the intellectual freedom of those forced to use them, I can’t tell you that I agree: trigger warnings don’t say you cannot discuss a subject.  They are just a tool to allow students who might be disproportionately impacted by the discussion to prepare themselves.  A survivor of relationship violence, I work with other survivors of relationship violence every single day as a domestic violence counselor; but I am prepared for their stories, prepared for the environment in which I work, so I am still able to focus, and I have tools in place to ground myself if necessary.  Allowing students to opt out of special events like debates or presentations if the content may be triggering is another good way to let students protect themselves without compromising the intellectual nature of the university.

I get that we all want universities to be safe spaces for ideas to be freely discussed.  I also get that it’s useful, important even, for survivors to confront their trauma, to talk about these issues.  I’m not at all convinced that every context is the right context at any given time for every survivor, and a class discussion or academic debate about sexual assault may do more harm than good.  And before you dismiss trigger warnings as stupid and trauma survivors as “hypersensitive”, ask yourself this question: have you ever had a dissociative episode in class, or started shaking and crying in public, because you were blindsided by a trauma reaction? A little warning actually can go a long way, and if you haven’t experienced a trauma trigger, consider that there may be more to the issue than you’re necessarily able to see from where you stand.

As an advocate, I work off of what the victims services sector calls an “empowerment model”: that is, I don’t make decisions for my clients, but rather give them the information and resources that they need to make decisions for themselves regarding their safety and well-being.  That’s the model I’d love to see universities shift towards in dealing with trauma.  We should be teaching trauma survivors good coping mechanisms, through support groups or general trainings on how to ground someone who is having a traumatic episode, the same way we would teach safe space trainings or bystander intervention trainings.  We should be offering resources so that survivors can pick up the pieces of their lives and decide what they need to stay safe.  We should be offering students the opportunity to adequately prepare themselves if they are going to encounter triggering content so that they have the chance to really engage in the discussion without incurring pain unnecessarily.  And as for the safe spaces the New York Times article initially sets out to critique: I don’t have a problem with giving students the resources to ground themselves and take a breath if necessary after they confront opposing and potentially triggering discussions.  If we don’t allow for students to take care of themselves after putting themselves in disquieting situations, the odds are they may disengage altogether-~-which is, in this author’s opinion, just as great a barrier to getting the intellectually rigorous, mind-opening debates that universities claim they want.  I think there’s a balance that can be achieved here, and I think we need to be cautious in which tools we implement in our quest to achieve it.

On Sexual Assault Awareness, Testimonials, And A Different Kind of Story

•April 6, 2015 • Leave a Comment

One in five women in the United States have a sexual assault story, and this month, I’m sure you’ll hear several of them.  Testimonials have traditionally been an important part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and they’re certainly valuable, but I don’t want to tell you my story.  In fact, I reserve the right not to, because it’s not the story I think matters most.

I don’t really talk about that night when I was a teenager, because it’s no one’s business.  I don’t really tell people about what’s happened since. I don’t really want to talk about what it feels like to say yes just because you’re scared to say no-~-again, because it’s not really anyone’s business.  I’ll tell you that it feels gross.  I’ll tell you that I wish I’d felt safe enough to walk away.  I’ll tell you that it’s complicated.

And I’ll tell you, right now, that if you don’t believe me without all the ugly details, that’s your business, because this is my story, and my truth, and if I have to scream it silently in my own head because that’s the only place I feel OK telling it, so be it.

I don’t need to tell you those stories, though, because those stories are everywhere.  Every story I’ve read in recent years about sexual assault-~-from Steubenville to UVA-~-is about the night it all went wrong.  It’s about how we handled the perpetrators.  It’s about how society treated the survivor.  Those stories still matter, they are still worth telling, but I’m not here to tell you those stories, because you’ve heard them before.  I want to tell you the story of what happened after, because my story didn’t start or end with trauma.  I want to tell you a story not just about surviving, but about living.

I’m not the only survivor who rhetorically draws the distinction.  Surviving is about coping, about getting through it, about putting one foot in front of the other, about getting out of bed every day.  Surviving is sometimes about knowing when to fight back and when to just let your body and your brain deal with the situation however they can.  Surviving is sometimes about knowing when to take the hit so you live through the night.  Surviving is ugly business sometimes, hunkering down during a thunderstorm, shivering through the power outage, forcing yourself to remember that eventually the sun will rise again.

Living is something a little different, something I’m still getting better at.  It’s not just getting out of bed-~-it’s wanting to.  It’s not just taking the next steps to move forward, it’s moving towards something.  I’m getting there by setting goals: getting through a day or a week at a time, taking on smaller projects, remember what I was capable of.  I’m getting there by picking and choosing confidants, learning when I needed to cry and when I needed to square my shoulders and push through.  I’m getting there by imagining the girl I want to be, and taking small but concrete steps so that when I look in the mirror, I see her looking back.  I dress a little differently, do my makeup a little differently, listen to sassier music, work as a domestic violence advocate. I fill my room with affirmations and reminders that I can get through this.  I remind myself that eventually, it will be okay.

When I was a rape crisis-counselor, I often told clients that healing is a process, a journey.  Trauma recovery-~-getting from surviving to living-~-can take a long time, and it’s not a linear path.  You slide backwards, you get lost, you fall down and have to get back up, and all of that can make you feel discouraged.  But I want to tell you, if you’re going through it, that it’s okay.  It’s okay to have really bad days.  It’s okay to want to want to cancel your Friday night plans because you’re just not up to being around people for five hours.  It’s okay to need to set boundaries, cut certain triggers out of your life, keep a stash of chocolate around because you need an emergency pick-me-up.

It’s okay.

In the last year, I’ve learned that one of the most powerful things-~-for me, at least-~-has been hearing other survivors tell me, in their own voices and their own words, that it will get better, that we are not alone.  In them, I have found sources of inspiration and strength.  They are living reminders that even when you feel like you are staring up at a mountain that is too steep to climb, there are others willing to give you a hand and pull you upward.  In them, I have found confidants, friends, and sources of support, people who can tell me in no uncertain terms that I’m not crazy, that I don’t need to feel ashamed, that it isn’t my fault.  People who have walked this road, who are still walking this road, and who know where some of the twists and turns and stumbling spots are.  People who know that there is something we are all working our way towards.

It’s April now-~-the United States’ Sexual Assault Awareness Month.  I’m sure I’ll be posting content about prevalence and resources and different signs to look for, but that will come later.  Today, I want you to remember, if you are carrying a survival story inside of you, that it is okay.  It is okay if you do not want to talk about it, or if you don’t want to do so yet.  It is okay if you need to scream, or cry, or tell your story in monotone to someone just to hear it out loud.  It is okay if today is a “hide under the covers and watch Netflix for six hours” day, or a “sit in your bathtub in the fetal position while the shower runs” day.  Tomorrow will be better, and it it’s not, maybe next week will be better.

Our stories are not written by the people who hurt us; they are written by us, when we remember that we can still decide what happens next, that we are more than just our bad days and our triggers and our scars.  And our stories are not about the people who hurt us-~-these are our stories, and they are about us, picking up the pieces, chasing our dreams, living our lives.

My Religion and My Feminism Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

•March 29, 2015 • 1 Comment

If there is one thing I truly hate about liberal intelligentsia in the United States, it’s this: it has become too easy to paint liberal ideas and religious sensibilities as diametrically opposed, and too easy to write off religion as something stupid, meaningless, or ultimately bad for society.

As a collegiate debater, I encountered this rhetoric all the time, though it is hardly limited to the debate community.  I can’t count the number of times I have heard religion referred to as “oppressive”, “manipulative”, or “coercive”, even though religion’s survival in modern times would indicate that rather than serving as a force of full-on indoctrination, religions actually have something to offer such that they can still compete in a marketplace of ideas that has become increasingly skewed towards pure rationalism.  I can’t count the number of people who have looked at me like I was crazy when I said that I believe in G-d, even though I’ll let you in on a not-so-secret: you may be right that we lack proof that G-d exists, but we also lack concrete proof that G-d does not.  I tend to keep religion out of my political discussions because when we talk about religion in America, we almost always talk about it in one of two ways: in terms of Islamic fundamentalists, or in terms of the Religious Right.

So let’s get a few things straight here: religion can be a force for good or for bad, depending on who is controlling the narrative.  It can be used to inspire people or to punish them, to comfort people or to tear them down, and it all comes down to interpretation and application.  When the Christian Right in the United States uses their religious beliefs to say that women shouldn’t have rights or that it infringes on their civil liberties to have to interact with the LGBTQ population, that’s a poor application of religious belief (and of the idea of religious freedom, for that matter, but I’m coming to that).  When anyone uses their religion to justify acts of violence against others-~-whether we are talking about the 9/11 attacks or bombings of women’s health facilities in the United States or, for that matter, violent acts that early Zionists committed in the name of their cause-~-that’s a poor application of religion, and we should be critical of these acts and of the ways in which religion is used to justify these acts.  We shouldn’t just blindly accept things “because religion”, that would be silly.

But we also cannot pretend that religion was never or is not a force for good in this world, because that simply is not true either.  So much of the education, healthcare, human rights and other development work being done in the developing world, particularly in rural areas, is being done by religious organizations, in part because no one else is willing to do it.  In the United States, there is valuable work being done to fight poverty, work with immigrants, and combat violence and drug usage in inner cities by faith-based institutions, and they are, again, sometimes the only organizations doing this work. On top of that, recent research suggests that problems like drug addiction don’t necessarily come from the presence of drugs-~-they come from the absence of meaningful relationships and social and intellectual fulfillment, which means religious organizations may play an even bigger role in helping to reduce problems like drug addiction by providing increased access points for a supportive community.  Here’s a list of faith-based initiatives undertaken in partnership with the United States Dept of Health and Human Services: notice that a lot of important behavioral health services are being provided through these organizations.

When we allow ourselves to engage in religion-bashing-~-or worse, we allow our movements to engage in religion-bashing-~-we make it that much harder to accomplish our goals.  It’s easy to paint, say, the American South or Midwest as hyper-religious and intolerant, but that’s painting with way too broad a brush, and it alienates people who might otherwise want to speak out.  Religion-bashing also makes it harder for religious individuals to feel safe engaging with social justice activists and organizations, when they’re made to feel that because they hold religious beliefs, because religion is important to them in their daily lives, they will not fit in, and may well be painted as The Enemy.

On top of that, from an intersectional perspective, we need to include the voices of individuals who do identify as religious to talk about the ways in which religion may actually be harmful or helpful.  I’m not talking about passing a Western judgment on religions the way that France did when it banned the burka-~-that goes way too far, and fails to take into account the real lived experiences and opinions of Muslim women living in France.  If feminism wants to claim it is about giving women-~-or even just giving people-~-choices, they we need to be open to what these other voices have to say, and support a freedom of religion that lets people actualize through their faith if they so choose.

As a Jewish woman growing up in the United States, I can’t speak to the experiences of women of other faiths, or even Orthodox women in America, or Jewish women living abroad; but I can tell you that there are feminist issues that exist within my community.  Women of the Wall is an organization which for years has pushed for Jewish women to be able to wear prayer shawls while praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a practice that is currently illegal in Israel.  In the US and elsewhere, Orthodox women sometimes struggle to get divorced because their husbands demand too many concessions before giving them their get (religious divorce document); without this, even if they succeed in getting a legal divorce through secular courts, their community will not accept their marriage as terminated, and they can’t get on with their lives.  There are Jewish institutions that will not accept a bar/bat mitzvah as real if it is performed by a woman rabbi, because parts of the religion still do not accept that women can be rabbis.  These are issues within my community that concern me, as a feminist and as a Jew, and I should very well be able to combine those perspectives to address them.

But on top of that, any movement that claims to be working towards freedom from oppression has to recognize this simple fact: backlash against religious people because they are religious, or because of the religion they practice, is a form of oppression in and of itself.  We deserve to live in a world that is free not just from sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, but one that is free from anti-Semetism, Islamaphobia, and any other religious persecution.  When we allow religion-bashing to work its way into our rhetoric and our approach to the issues, we lose ground in fighting against these evils as well, and the fight for religious freedom is still a fight worth winning.

Starting with Sisterhood

•March 25, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been in the movement for a couple of years now, and over the course of my involvement with institutionalized feminism, I have been exposed to bits and pieces of the history of the women’s movement.  I’ve written in the past about parts of it-~-for example, about the history of the family planning movement-~-but as I have spent more time working with organizations that would define themselves as feminist in nature, as I learn more, something has become incredibly clear: so much of what we now identify as the feminist movement started out as women helping other women.

The oldest gender based violence crisis center in the country is the DC Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), founded just over 40 years ago.  Before that, responses to gender based violence were very much a case by case basis wherein women would help other women they knew.  Prior to the establishment of laws and systems to address domestic violence, the DV movement was simply a collection of women taking other women into their homes.  At the time, domestic violence was considered a “family issue” (and this attitude sometimes rears its head today, making it difficult to prosecute a large number of DV cases).  Though the movement against gender based violence is not all of feminism, it is arguably one of the most central at the moment, along with efforts to promote women’s bodily autonomy, equal pay, and access to educational and professional opportunities.

That list is nowhere near comprehensive, of course; the feminist movement is an umbrella term that encompasses a large number of issues and perspectives all focused on integrated marginalized voices into the discourse.  But I would say that in general, and this is just one blogger’s perspective, much of the movement has stemmed from, and gained its power from, this idea of sisterhood.

Many of you will have heard the saying “sisterhood is international”, the rallying cry of internationally focused feminist work.  And it is, though maybe we need to be refocusing to say that “sisterhood is intersectional” as well.  “Love your sisters, not just your cis-sters”.  The idea of sisterhood is not an uncommon one within the feminist canon, and it can be a powerful premise: we are in this together.  Women helping women, while it seems parochial at first, has led to waves of change in this country, from individuals helping other women to look after their children while they worked to women taking in survivors of abuse to, I hope, women in privileged positions using their voices to amplify the concerns of those whose message might otherwise not be heard.  One of the biggest problems that feminism has faced, that women’s movements have faced, comes from the fact that the movement has not been as inclusive as it could have been, or as it strives to be now.  When white suffragettes asked Black suffragettes to march at the back of the column, when cis women ignore the concerns of trans women and trans men, when white middle class women recognize their own pay gap but fail to see how much worse it is for women of color, the movement struggles.

There is no one group that speaks for everyone, no one movement that encompasses every concern, and that is, honestly, okay.

But maybe sisterhood is a good starting point as we consider how the movement can go forward.  It may be Women’s History Month, and that makes this a great time to look back-~-to honor some of the amazing women who came before us, and to recognize some of the mistakes they have made so that we can do better.

Sisterhood is intersectional.  It has to be, if we are going to meaningfully tackle the problems that we face as a society.  Reproductive justice needs to include culturally competent medical care, so that doctors stop fixating on things like size, disability, or making assumptions about individuals based on race, and actually start providing quality medical care.  And reproductive justice might include things like access to contraception, but also needs to include things like an ability to raise your children without fear they will be shot by the police.  When we decry violence against women, we need to remember that women of color and trans women are even more likely to be subjected to violence, and keep in mind the social barriers that create this elevated risk and make recourse more difficult to access.  When we talk about the additional risks that women face with regards to HIV and other STIs, we need to remember that African-American women are placed at an elevated risk because of the impact that high levels of incarceration in the Black community has on HIV transmission.  For any issue we can claim impacts women, it’s worth keeping in mind that it impacts different women in different ways, and we all deserve a fighting chance.

Looking back at our history, I can see how the idea of sisterhood helped get us here; I still believe it is a great cornerstone for the movement we are trying to build.  But when we talk about sisterhood, we need to make sure we are not just talking about the sisters who we think look like us: when we stand on the shoulders of the women who came and fought these battles before us, we should be able to see further, do better.

Happy women’s history month

5 Women Changing the World

•March 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I never really know what to say for Women’s History Month, but I feel like it’s worth recognizing that women are still making history, every day, around the world, so in honor of Women’s History Month (which is quickly drawing to a close), here are five women who are changing the world:

1. The Gulabi Gang

The Gulabi Gang might not be one person, but they’re definitely making a huge difference where they operate.  Who are they?  They’re a group of women operating in Uttar Pradesh, in Northern India, who work together to protect women from abusive situations, teach self-defense and self-reliance, and take steps towards eliminating child marriage in their region.  Their founder, Sampatpal Devi, taught herself to read and write with the assistance of her brothers, the only members of her family to go to school until one of her uncles agreed to sponsor her education; after watching a man mercilessly beat his wife, and after being beaten herself when she tried to intervene, Devi and a group of other women in her village teamed up to punish the abuser.  In 2006, after numerous requests for similar interventions and self-defense trainings, Devi and her colleagues formed the Gulabi Gang, choosing the pink sari as their uniform.  Today they are active across North India, both on the streets and politically, fighting to end violence against women.

2. Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai has become a relatively common name, with the anti-war, pro-education Pakistani activist having been named the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Malala has been celebrated in the West as an example of the triumph of hope, flourishing in spite of an oppressive government, having grown up in a region where the Taliban has often barred young women from attending school.  Though she is best known for her work surrounding girls’ education, it’s worth noting that Malala has also been an outspoken proponent of positive peace more generally-~-that is to say, fighting poverty, not the poor, and putting an end to techniques like drone strikes, which inspire fear and lead to less stability in the Middle East.  She and her father also co-founded The Malala Fund, which works to help young women in the developing world, including girls in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, girls kidnapped or under threat by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and adolescent girls learning technology skills in Kenya.

3. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi

In 2012, after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi started a hastag-~-and a movement-~-that went viral following the 2014 death of Michael Brown: #BlackLivesMatter.  All three identify as queer Black women, organizing to massively change a system that has repeatedly, in various ways, made it clear that in this country, their lives are not protected, and their work deserves recognition and respect (as does the work done by Darnell L Moore).  As the statistics on their site point out, the average life expectancy for a Black trans woman in the United States is only 35 years; and every 28 hours in the United States, there is an extrajudicial killing of a Black man, woman or child.  Their efforts have at times been co-opted by other groups and other movements, and it’s important to remember where this came from, and also that it’s not just a hashtag, and it’s not just about one incident: #BlackLivesMatter is about challenging a system that has for too long deprived too many people of their basic human rights.

4. Ruth Bader Ginsberg

To be honest, when people mention the Notorious RBG, I fangirl a little: Ruth Bader Ginsberg has been on the bench for so long that she has played an important role in some key SCOTUS decisions, and moreover, she has begun to call out our courts for the role they have played in upholding or facilitating injustices in this country.  When asked how many women she thought would be included in her ideal makeup of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered “Nine”.

Image result for ruth bader ginsburg

In addition to serving, for three years, as the only woman on the Supreme Court (in the period between Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement and the confirmation of Justice Sonya Sotomayor), Ruth Bader Ginsberg has played a role in decisions dealing with everything from equal protection to contraceptive access, and was one of the major dissenting opinions in Bush v Gore, Gonzales v Carhartand Burwell v Hobby Lobby.  She has been an outspoken proponent of reproductive rights and women’s involvement in government, and her retirement will be a sad day for the judiciary.

5. Dr. Hawa Abdi

Dr. Hawa Abdi Diblaawe, or “Mama Hawa” as she is known in Somalia, was Somalia’s first female gynecologist, and is a major advocate for women’s health in Eastern Africa today.  In 1983, she founded the Rural Health Development Organization, which operated as a one-room clinic offering free obstetric services to women, and which later evolved into a 400-bed hospital.  In 2007, the organization changed its name to the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, and gradually expanded to serve as a relief camp which, during the 2011 drought, housed approximately 90,000 people.  Though the compound has been forced to suspend service twice due to violent threats, today it is operating fully, run by Dr. Abdi and her two ob/gyn daughters, Deqo Adan and Amina Adan.  The facility now includes a hospital as well as a school and a nutrition center, and runs programs to inculcate its own self-sustenance, as the organization offers its services free of charge.

Women around the world are making a difference in their hometowns and their home countries.  I had to select women (and groups of women) whose work has received recognition, but it’s worth remembering that the smallest things can sometimes make a huge difference, and that every one of us has the capacity to change our world, even if it is just in a small way.  There is no way to know what might trigger something bigger, or what might make it possible for someone else to take that next step towards achieving something great.

Happy Women’s History Month.

Staying, Surviving, and Defying the Good Victim Paradox: A Perspective on Domestic Violence

•March 16, 2015 • Leave a Comment

“Why didn’t you/she/he/they leave?”

When it comes to domestic violence, I feel like this is often the most common question.  Why not leave–as if leaving is the most obvious thing in the world.  As several other media outlets and Twitter campaigns have striven to show, there are any number of reasons why someone doesn’t leave: they think it is their fault, they lack the resources needed to find a new place to live, they still love/care about their abuser, they are dependent on their partner for income or health insurance, they are trapped in a cycle of substance abuse, they don’t have anywhere to go…the list goes on and on.

The thing about these stories is that they illustrate an important point: domestic violence, from the perspective of the survivor, may not be black and white.  When people ask why someone didn’t leave, the truth is that they are judging a situation that they can’t know all the details of, and imposing their standards for an idea survivor actually doesn’t serve to support actual survivors of intimate partner violence.  It’s nice to think that we would all leave at the first sign of trouble, but that actually isn’t true in most cases; and it’s nice to think that anyone could recognize domestic violence if they saw it, but I can say from my personal and professional experience that that isn’t necessarily true, either.

Though I keep mentioning it on this site, I think it’s worth reiterating that not all violence is physical. Emotional abuse–particularly mind games, gaslighting, and blame-shifting–can have a survivor questioning their own understanding of the situation and make them unsure if their reactions and feelings are legitimate.  This means that in some cases, it’s difficult to actually recognize and confront the problem of interpersonal violence in the home, because the survivor may internalize the idea that this is their fault or that their perceptions are off-base.  On top of that, some forms of violence can become normalized with time, such that they become difficult to recognize as problematic–this is particularly true, for example, of sexual violence in established relationships.

Even when a survivor can recognize and come to terms with the fact that abuse is happening and is a real problem, actually confronting it can be difficult and dangerous. On average, it takes about 9 attempts for a survivor to successfully leave an abusive situation; that’s not nine thoughts related to leaving, it’s nine interactions with advocates, shelters, the police, etc.  There are all kinds of reasons for this: our most common narratives of domestic violence might focus on physical violence–especially beatings–but abusive situations also tend to include elements like stalking, wherein the survivor might not be able to move about unmonitored, or the control of the survivor’s finances, which would make it difficult to leave.  On top of that, there can be legal barriers that are not always easy to navigate, including issues like child custody.  A survivor might not want to leave if their partner is using child custody, children’s insurance, or threats to their children (or, for that matter, their pets–a large number of survivors stay with their abusers because they don’t want to leave beloved pets behind).  And even if the survivor decides they have the money to leave or opts to stay in a shelter, there can be all kinds of barriers to entry: shelter space is often limited, the shelter may not be nearby, or age restrictions regarding children may pose problems for survivors looking to remove themselves from abusive situations.

As if all of that were not enough–and, frankly, it should be–the sad reality is this: a survivor of domestic violence is most likely to be re-assaulted or killed within two weeks of trying to leave or calling the police.  In many cases, leaving can be flat-out dangerous, with a high risk of retaliation by the abuser or their family or friends.  In truth, the risks of leaving may be similar to the risks that accompany staying, so it’s up to each survivor to determine what will make them the most safe in their own situation.

Leaving seems like it should be obvious, from the outside looking in.  But every time you want to ask, “why didn’t they just leave”, remember that leaving may well be the hardest thing that survivor ever has to do.  Leaving may leave them homeless, unemployed, unable to care for their children, unable to see their children, or even dead.  Leaving is not the obvious answer, and it’s time to prioritize the actual needs and safety of survivors over impersonal narratives derived from a privileged conception of morality.  Survivors of domestic violence deserve far better than your judgement.  They deserve to know someone has their backs.


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