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Rape and making women invisible

Rehtaeh Parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons

This week there’s been a lot in the news about the suicides of two young women, Audrie Potts and Rehtaeh Parsons.  Both killed themselves after surviving gang rapes, following which their rapists (in both cases, groups of teenage boys) sent around pictures of them naked and unconscious during the attacks.  In Parsons’s case, the police refused to press charges because, according to them, it was a “he said/she said” situation with no objective evidence — if you don’t count pictures of four men raping an unconscious woman as evidence, that is.  (The police reopened the case yesterday after public outcry.)  All this is following the high-profile rape case against two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio, who were convicted last month of raping a teenage girl and taking cell phone pictures and video of the attack.

Kids these days.  Always going around raping unconscious people and documenting it for posterity.  The things they get up to!

Bitter humor aside, how I wish that these young women had not decided to take their own lives.  I wish they had not been driven to feel as though their only option was to disappear.

Thinking about it today, it put me in mind of the culture of self-abnegation that surrounds being female today.  In some ways, women constantly are told to do a disappearing act.  For example, the pressure placed on women to be thin.  Not to be healthy, or fit, or even beautiful (although beauty and slenderness seem interchangeable these days), but thin, skinny, malnourished, sickly-looking, impossibly thin.  Runway models with their sunken, blank eyes and their matchstick legs, who are so thin that magazines airbrush the flesh onto their bones to cover up their protruding ribs, look like stretched-out corpses on parade.  The obsession with skinny women is really an obsession with making women take up less and less space, until they are actually gone.  Models look dead because the most attractive woman is one who doesn’t exist.

Don’t eat.  Don’t laugh too loud.  Don’t talk too loud.  Sit with your legs crossed.  Don’t argue.  Shh.  Don’t take up any space in this room, in this conversation, in this culture, in this world.  Slide the opacity meter on your life ever closer to 0%.  Become translucent, then invisible.  Disappear.

And so while I’m glad that these two girls’ deaths have not passed unnoticed, that the injustice they have suffered has brought public scrutiny to the violence women face, I wish I could talk to every young woman survivor and say, don’t do it.  I know this is awful.  I know they have made you feel powerless. I know they have made you feel like an object that exists only for their pleasure and power and mockery.  But don’t surrender to the message that you are the one who has to disappear.  Don’t do their work for them and make the problem that is you and your pesky determination that you matter go away.  Stick around and see justice done.

Make as much noise as you want.  Take up as much space as you want.  Eat what you want and dress how you want and be who you want to be.  Don’t disappear — be bigger and more visible and live life more fully than ever.   End this obsession with women’s death and replace it instead with a fervor for women’s life — life that is equal, happy, fulfilling, and safe.

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Girls’ education and the myth of “culture”

Lately, the news has been filled with horrifying accounts of the terrorist attacks on girls who are trying to get educations in the Middle East.  Every time I read another story about school wells being poisoned in Afghanistan or girls having to attend school secretly under the guise of taking sewing lessons, I get more anxious about the fate of women in the world today.

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

Most prominent among these attacks is the one on Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban for promoting girls’ education in Pakistan.  Malala, who at 15 has more courage and integrity in her little finger than can be found in the entire populations of mid-sized cities, has continued to forge ahead in her fight to secure education for women in the Middle East from her hospital bed in England–despite ongoing threats from the Taliban, which says that Malala is a target because she promotes “Western thinking.”

The slippage there between attacking women’s rights under the guise of attacking “Western thinking” makes me wonder to what extent terrorism is really all about controlling women.  Is the real crime of the West, in the eyes of the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups, our stubborn insistence that women deserve basic human rights?

Reading about these young women reminded me of an article I read a few years back by Mona Eltahawy called Why Do They Hate Us?.  Eltahawy argued that many Westerners have refused to really interrogate the notion that the culture in the Middle East is violently, destructively, and systematically misogynist.  And so, as dictators in the Middle East have been toppled by religious regimes, it is important not to forget that supporting democracy must always, always include supporting rights for women.  And that means it’s not okay to say that hating women and depriving women of rights is part of their “culture” and so we must accept it.

Think about it.  If these governments supported the systematic deprivation of rights for a minority ethnic group, would the international community support it?  Absolutely not.  But sometimes supporting rights for 50% of the population seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Education and human rights go hand in hand.  Outlawing education for oppressed groups is a favorite strategy of tyrants past and present — thus the ban on educating slaves in the pre-Civil War south and the vicious attacks on African Americans attempting to attend public schools and universities up through the 1960s.  Likewise, the oppressed are keenly aware that the first step toward equality is education.  Heather Williams, a professor at UNC (and member of my dissertation committee), has written a fantastic book about former slaves’ quest for education.

Before the Civil Rights movement, many argued that oppressing African Americans through violence and political disfranchisement was just the South’s “culture.”

Culture is not an excuse for denying anyone human rights, full stop.

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Vocational education

The New York Times Sunday Magazine is my favorite part of the New York Times, for its cool stories and excellent puzzles.  I am a great lover of puzzles, and I am not joking when I say that when I finish the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, I rip it out and put it on the fridge.  Because when you are 29 years old there are precious few honors left worthy of putting on the fridge.  I really should take up fingerpainting again.

Anyway.  This Sunday’s magazine was devoted to food and drink.  Food issues are almost always great, but one story in particular struck me — not because of its musings on  delicacies but because of its possibilities for education.

Nicholas Kulish’s article One Tiny German Town, Seven Big Michelin Stars explores the unlikely culinary success of the Black Forest hamlet of Baiersbronn, which despite being in the middle of nowhere and having a population of only 16,000 manages to boast the same number of 3-star restaurants as London and twice as many as Chicago.

Kulish, and the chefs he interviews, chalk this level of mastery up to the German apprenticeship system, which allows students the ability to spend half of their time working in an establishment in the field of their choice and the other half learning in institutes.  The combination of theory and hands-on experience makes for highly-skilled and highly-employable artisan workers.

I’ve often thought about what the U.S. can do to allow workers some middle ground between a bachelor’s degree and technical school.  It seems to me that many smart kids in the U.S. go to college because they don’t know what else to do, and they end up with a B.A. and a mountain of debt and not much more insight into what they really want to do with their lives.  Meanwhile, technical school is reviled as the training ground for grunt workers who couldn’t hack it in “real college.”

I think we should encourage people both to learn marketable skills and to learn the kind of critical reasoning, writing, and general knowledge skills that comes with a bachelor’s — these two tracks shouldn’t have to be divorced from each other.  Maybe I am trying to harken back to some pre-industrial utopia that never existed, but wouldn’t it be nice if there were people who had great, fulfilling day jobs and liked to read great authors and dissect political commentary at night?

I worry that the classes of education as they exist reproduce class inequalities — that you are either a thinking person or a doing person.  In this economy, those strata are widening farther and farther apart, so much so that a plain B.A. doesn’t get you much anymore.  What can we as a country do to close the gaps in educational equality and create job categories that allow workers to be both productive and mentally stimulated?

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Today in history: Marian Anderson sings on the front steps of the Lincoln Memorial

Before there was Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, there was Marian Anderson.  Anderson was a world-renowned contralto who was not permitted to sing in front of an integrated audience at Washington, D.C.’s Constitutional Hall in 1939.

Eleanor Roosevelt, all-time champion of awesomeness in the First Lady department, with the help of her husband what’s-his-name (just kidding!),

Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

FDR, arranged for Anderson to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  A crowd of 75,000 people gathered to listen to her sing in person, and millions more listened on the radio.

This was one of the first actions that helped to cement the Lincoln Memorial (which was completed in 1922) as a key site of protesting racial inequality in the United States.  One thing that strikes me as a historian interested in memory practices and Lincoln is the implication that going to the Lincoln Memorial is like going to a shrine to ask for the intercession of the god of American equality.  It’s both a symbolic and a spiritual gesture.

Today, the National Museum of American History celebrates Anderson’s historic concert.

And, through the magic of YouTube, you can listen to Marian Anderson sing:



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