Monday, December 29, 2008

I want more hunks on TV!

I would really really like to see more hunks on the TV screen. You know the shows:

Me, I'd want less of the 90/60/90 babes and more of the those good-looking guys. I mean, why are most of the TV shows' hosts male, old and ugly yet surrounded by those perfectly build Barbie dolls - especially on RAI channels? And why is it that only curvaceous women dance lasciviously? I'd like to see some hot men with really tight t-shirts and leather-pants lasciviously dancing on the little screen... Then - maybe, just maybe - I'd become a TV fan...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Man! I feel like a woman!

But not the way Shania intended it. I am violently forced to think of myself as a woman, defined through my body shape and my reproductive abilities. I'm visiting my hometown, where patriarchy still rules. In the first ten minutes of being there, two taxi drivers have already managed to remind me that patriarchal systems are all about oppression. It's the middle of the night, and two women head towards their car, passing by the two taxi drivers. There's no man around the two women, and this absence makes them vulnerable. The taxi drivers start making comments about the women. It doesn't matter to them the women could potentially be paying customers: they are - first and foremost - women. In other words, a prey. A prey to be verbally abused.

This was my entry into my hometown. At first, I felt angry. I'm no longer used to being labeled a 'woman'. I am no longer used with being approached and related to as a 'sexual object'. But can I start a fight with two men in the middle of the night in a parking lot? Maybe I should. Maybe I should tell them to shovel it. But I don't. The men know I won't. And even if I dare say something, they know they hold the upper hand: they'll only start calling me names and become more and more vulgar, reminding me of what I am to them - a sexual object. They'll laugh and make obscene sexual signs to me. And, if I piss them off too much, they may even cross that thin barrier that holds them back and start tossing me around like a toy. Because they can. So I swallow my anger, and I am left empty and humiliated. The only thing that could have saved me would have been the presence of a man around me. Then, and only then, the taxi drivers would show respect - but not to me, to the man to whom I (even if temporarily) belong.

I've been thinking about this incident for the past couple of days. I have been thinking about how this oppressive system rests upon the internalization of our gendered roles. And upon the humiliation of women. Anger giving way to powerlessness giving way to frustration giving way to humiliation giving way to numbness and conformity. There's nothing more powerful than taking away one's dignity. If the only way I am to preserve my dignity is to have a man of my own, then I'll do it, just as the other women before me have done it. That's what I'll tell my daughter, just as my mother has told me. Not because I want her to internalize the patriarchal rules of the game: but because I want her to be safe, to protect her from humiliation. Isn't this a vicious circle?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gendered Dilemmas

"I never wanted a girl", the woman sitting in front of me said tonight. "I really, really wanted a boy, cause you know, boys are so great". "Oh, yes, indeed, my husband wanted a boy very much too... Now we have a girl... I guess it's OK with me, but he really really wanted a boy".

As I watched the group of women talking about their pregnancies in one corner, and the group of men talking business in the other corner of the room, I had to ask myself just what kind of mentalities we still carry on into the future. Of course, many things have changed: men are now entering the kitchen, that forbidden territory their mothers inhabited. And occasionally the women are now able to tell them "bring this plate to the dining table, dear". But deep down inside, what do we think of each other? "Boys will always be boys," somebody once told me. "No matter what, when it comes down to gender, the truth is that one is born a boy or a girl, with certain features. A boy will always want the car, a girl will always go for the baby-doll". Will he or she? And is it the boy or the little girl who 'wants' the toy, or is it us, the parents, pushing the car onto the boy, and the pinkie thing onto the girl.

A few days ago I bought some Tylenol for my friend's baby. At the drug store, I was faced with a dilemma: do I buy the cherry-flavored Tylenol with a baby-girl on the box, or do I buy the blueberry-flavored one with a baby-boy on it? Guess what? I bought the 'girlish' one for a baby-girl... I just couldn't help it, I guess... Call it stereotype, call it a habit. The truth is, we routinely divide babies into gender. Each year, I bring a photo of a baby and show it to my students. I tell a third of them the baby is a girl, a third the baby is a boy and I do not provide a gender for the third group. Then I ask them to pick toys for the baby. And guess what! They always pick a doll for the girl and a car for the boy. The third group feels handicapped: they want to know what sex the baby is before they go on with the task. The Baby X experiment never ceases to amaze me; it puzzles my students and yes, it does provoke a vivid discussion. Truth be told, we go on reproducing the same gendered thinking in our everyday life choices and small talks.

And truth be told, the men still congregate in one corner, talking cars, business and sports. The girls are fluent in the language of the household, pregnancy and infant diseases. And why is it that almost all women find all babies 'beautiful', 'cute' and 'absolutely lovely'? It's almost as if there's an unspoken wall that, sooner or later, will divide the party into two genders. Of course, it is heterosexual men and women that fit this picture, but hey, there was no one challenging the gender categories at the party tonight... Maybe just me, an awkward fit, uninterested in the household talk, wishing the kids will stop screaming and not finding them that gorgeous after all...

Seavey, C.A., Katz, P.A., Zalk, S.R. (1975) "Baby X" Sex Roles, 1(2): 103-109

Monday, December 22, 2008

Anthropological Fieldwork in Refugee Camps

Culture Matters has an interview with Dr. Alice Corbet about fieldwork in refugee camps. We know so little about the everyday life of these camps that such accounts are indeed necessary to raise awareness. I especially appreciated the point made about the reasoning behind food rations: avoid making people 'want to stay' in camps. The underlying assumptions of such reasoning are so far away from humanitarian principles and so hypocritical, that it is hard to believe we do nothing to challenge them:

"Dr Corbet has spent over five years performing research with the Sahrawis in refugee camps along the Moroccan/Algerian border. She has faced cholera epidemics, landmines, dehydration, flying sand scorpions, faced slavery and even assisted in births and deaths in the most unsterile of conditions."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Untitled, Unlabeled

Sabina was a painter. It so happens that she lived in communist Czech republic. The fact that we are born in a place is an accident. We could easily be born somewhere else. Of course, being born somewhere carries some heaviness with it: the places and people you grow accustomed to, the social rules of interaction you come to know, the food your taste buds come to enjoy, all mark you. But they don't define you. It's what you make out of everything around you that comes to define you. And that's the trick most people fail to grasp. It is so much easier to simply stamp people with your ignorant stereotype of what they - a woman, a Czech, an Asian - allegedly should be like, then to take on the burden of paying attention to the individual.

When the Soviet troops invaded Prague, Sabina left for the West. But in the eyes of many Westerners, she was defined by her upbringing in a communist Czech environment. Sabina was first and foremost an oddity, an Other from another country and political regime. When her first exhibition opened in Germany, everyone assumed it was about living under communism. When she protested that, she wasn't heard:

"Do you mean that modern art isn't persecuted under Communism?
'My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!' she replied infuriated.
From that time on, she began to insert mystifications in her biography, and by the time she got to America, she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desparate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life"

(Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1984/ 2008, First Olive Edition, p. 275)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Should adultery be a crime? In South Korea, it is...

BBC invites readers to post their ideas on the topic "Should adultery be a crime?" ... no, really, should it? In my ignorance, I had no idea that in fact adultery is considered a crime in South Korea. As BBC reported today about the case of a Korean actress accused and sentenced for adultery, I was forced to ruminate - once again - over how gender remains a deeply political matter.

As I teenager, I had read the Bible and was astonished to find that people stoned to death women who had committed adultery. Not that I agreed to adultery, but to stone someone over sleeping around could hardly justify killing them. As a teenager, I've also discovered that it is much more easier for men to get away with sleeping around than for women. One only has to think of poor Madame Bovary... But no, Lord Byron could get away with all his love poems to his many lovers...

But to find out that in some places people may still be imprisoned for this... I mean, this is hard to swallow. I ran a quick search to see where adultery is a crime. According to Wikipedia's entry on adultery, here's where sleeping around can get you in trouble:
- the United States (some states, like Maryland, Pennsylvania and Michigan)
- South Korea

- Taiwan
- Iran
- Pakistan
- Uganda (until 2007)
- In 2004, Turkey tried to pass a law incriminating adultery.

The trick is that sometimes it's the woman who gets punished for adultery, while men are free to do whatever they want. I guess some things are the same as in Madame Bovary's time... Some people point out that adultery should be punished because it is immoral or because it undermines the morals of a society. Well, so do politics and capitalism, but when did morals ever stopped politicians or businesses? Hell, when did it stop priests and churches of all kinds? And exactly who is supposed to be the guardian of morality, who decides what is 'good' and 'bad', and based on what?

Hey, adultery is not the best thing in life. And yes, when your partner is guilty of it, you're not the happiest person on earth. But that's a private matter, not a public one. Each case is different. And each case is differently resolved by the people involved. But not by the state. Not by the police. Not by the court system. Yes, I can see in some situations, when the man decides to leave, the wife remains powerless and sometimes broke. So, there is a need for some mechanisms of support, but this does not in any way call for criminalization of adultery.

Photo credits: Smirnoff Sweetie

HBC: A Survivor, A Nation Builder... of White Canada

I like Ivaylo Ditchev's essays "Machines of Forgetting" because it brilliantly summarizes the violence of remembering and forgetting: "to forget is not only a ritual, a cultural or psychological strategy: we find it at the core of the political. In fact, to act politically means to liberate the present from the past" (Ditchev, 1998).

As I read today's newspaper, an article in the Business section hit me as a machine of institutionalized forgetting. The article in question, entitled "Feting HBC: A survivor, a nation builder" celebrates the wonderful things the company HBC (Hudon's Bay Company) did for the creation of Canada. In fact, the author writes, "Among commercial entreprises, HBC is a very rare thing, a unique thing, a company that turned itself into a country".

Right. And there's more: "In its first hundred years, HBC established a network of forts that would become Canada's most strategic outposts, and some of its principal cities, including Winnipeg and Edmonton". Indeed, how wonderful it is that such enlightened capitalists chose to come and establish wonderful cities in the virgin land of Canada.

Oh, wait a second, I have heard the story before. Was it "Heart of Darkness" that talked about the enlightened capitalists who were modernizing the indigenous savages in Africa, all of course in a very peaceful way? Or was it by destroying lifestyels, taking control of resources and turning people into slaves... gosh, I cannot remember... (sarcasm!). But I do seem to remember I couldn't sleep for weeks after reading the book... I wonder why...

Back to HBC, the cherry on top of the cake was this: not only did HBC helped create a country (presumably out of a virgin territory), but the photo accompanying the article is that of aboriginal people (hey my whitness kicks in, I think they may be Inuits but can't be sure) smiling submissively at the white man, with the caption: "The Hudson's Bay Company's incorporation is the No.1 business event in Canadian history...". No other mention of Aboriginals in the article. But of course, why would you talk about them when it comes to the wonderful act of creation of the Canadian state?

I'm not an expert in Canadian history. But I do have to wonder what the Hudson's Bay's story erases from history. Not to mention, how it played into the subsequent power arrangements between colonists and indigenous populations (hey, Canada wasn't a virgin land after all).

My blog is both male and female!

As I was browsing through Autist's Corner latest posts, I saw one which quickly caught my attention: a software able to identify the gender of the writer. This is not something new, and I could probably guess what type of things the software is trained to identify and classify as male/ female. But I still find it amusing that, in these times and ages, people would sit down and occupy their time with creating this type of software. Ah, the desire to classify, to order things, to create order out of chaos...

Anyway, if interested, I'm 57.9% female and 42.1% male. This says a lot about me, really... (no, it doesn't!). You can also analyze what type of blog you have: this one's an INTP category = the thinkers... (Oh, yes, this does indeed make my heart burst with pride... finally, recognized as such... - in case you had doubts, this is meant to be sarcastic!). And, fair enough, the soft goes on to recommend some books I can purchase from Amazon... Oh, so this has been just a marketing stunt?

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Wonderful Little Book Called Embroideries: A Glimpse behind the "Muslim" Curtain

As other Westerners, all I know about the "Muslim" world is filtered through the Western lens. Yet, I've also learned that it is hard to claim one "Muslim" world, just as it is hard to claim one "Western" lens. Though I do not know much about the historical background of non-Western countries, I've always made a point in telling people that it is hard to think of one "Muslim" world or of one "Muslim" religion. All I had was to do was think of say Christianity, or the debates over what makes the "West" to know that there is no such thing as 'one version' of things or 'one religion'.

Yesterday I found this little gem of a book by Marjane Satrapi. Some of you might know her as the author of the book behind the movie Persepolis, which got a lot of attention back in 2007 at the Cannes Festival. The little book I got yesterday was Embroideries - as I said, a wonderful little book opening up the big black box of women's lives in Iran. And not just any type of lives, but their sexual lives.

It is a delightful easy read which leaves one wondering about the 'difference' between those all too often invoked lines of difference between West and East, North and South, Christian and Muslim, and so on and so forth. An autobiographic book, Embroideries is the story of many stories told by women about their sexual lives, about the power relations which structure their lives but also offer them the opportunity to bypass them and make their own choices.

Here's a short interview (in French) with Marjan Satrapi about her life and writing such a political (yet banal) novel about women's lives in Iran:

Photo credits: Random House

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Creating Reality: What's the deal with Greece these days?

Don't know if you've heard, but there have been quite violent street clashes in Greece over the last days. I've read it first on BBC and I had a hard time understand what was going on. Why were the youths on the street? In what context did the police shoot to death one teenager? The story talked about 'groups of youth' and 'anarchists' and 'rioters', and I couldn't get my heard around that. A few hours later, a friend over in Europe spoke of the situation using yet another label: it's the hooligans. Mind you, I've heard about 'hooligans' taking the streets before in many politically sensitive and complex situations (May 1968 Paris is a good case in point). But it did make me realize that:

1. I do not have all the context information I need to understand what is going on in Greece. I mean, why were young people on the street anyway? Are we talking about 10-20 young people coming from a soccer game, filled with adrenaline and ready to pick a fight? Are we talking about an organized protest? Who were the supporters, why were they on the streets, how come the police resorted to violence? Just what is the context?

2. What I do know from media are in fact labels: depending on my political orientation, 'anarchists' can be good or bad, welcomed or threatening. The label implies an explanation of the situation by appealing to that complicit information between the media outlet and the readers - or, better said, that complicit information that the media outlet assumes readers to share with it, by virtue of reading/ listening to that outlet.

I wish there would be more about the social context in Greece, about the frustration with transnational capitalism, with the 'Great Powers' and their control in/of the European Union, with the economic situation, with the centralist state and so on and so forth. I wish there would be more context about xenophobia in Greece. As a friend put so rightly, should there have been a Roma people killed by the police, nobody would complain about the interventionist, totalitarian police or state. Double standards.

I do not know what's my position. But I do know it is hard to take a position because things are more complex than the media depicts them. And I do know that there are things to which I will agree and support, and things to which I cannot adhere. In the end, it all comes down to one's ethical commitments.

Photo credits: ethanlindsay

Friday, December 5, 2008

Nationalism made in Canada

I'm not an expert on the Canadian political or electoral system. I don't quite understand the fuss over the current political situation. The summary goes like this: Conservative leader and prime-minister Stephen Harper asked for elections. Got them, and Conservatives got a minority government with 143 seats in Parliament (House of Commons). The liberals got only 77, the socialists got 37 and the Bloc Quebecois got some 49 seats.

Now all is good, until the opposition parties decide to form a coalition. No big deal here, I've seen coalition governments in other parts of the world, and there's nothing illegitimate about them. But in Canada, it seems there is. No party can ever claim to fully represent the "NATION", simply because in any elections a number of people do not vote (so they are not represented in any sense). People also vote for different parties, which is, again, the whole point of a DEMOCRACY.

In the case of a minority government or a coalition government, what we have is partial representation. If politicians would really take into consideration their voters, then they would always create governments where all elected parties would be represented - then we can start talking of a fully representative government.

But politicians only care about their own agendas. And politicians know that the citizens are easily manipulable. Politics is not about what is right, it is about who frames the problem more eloquently. And nationalism has always been a very successful way to legitimize speakers: "I am speaking on behalf of the nation". The claim, as shallow as it is (who can speak for millions of people with millions of different opinions?), mobilizes, galvanizes and in/excites.

I've been told over and over again that there is no nationalism in Canada. But all it takes is for opposition parties to form a coalition, and nationalism is being brought back to the public agenda by the prime minister itself: this coalition, he basically says, is treason. It is undermining national unity. The Bloc Quebecois is separatist, and therefore the coalition is going against the Canadian nation. The coalition undermines the will of the Canadian nation, who voted for the Conservative government.

Well, excuse me, since when 46% of a 59% voter turnaround represents the will of the nation???
That politicians have always used nationalism is no news. But one needs to ask exactly where do all those journalists, intellectuals and everyday life people buying into this discourse stand? Is nationalism solely a political question? It is solely a top-down ideology which mesmerizes the masses?

The other day, someone I know received a propaganda email circulated at work which asked people (informally referred to as 'friends and family') to resist the separatists and the undemocratic coalition. What does it say about people spreading such propaganda by forwarding it to their address list? Let me spell it out: a coalition is not undemocratic. It represents a percentage of the votes. And it is legitimate.
And let me ask, once again: how is it possible that nationalism holds such a power over our minds? How can we not see beyond the 'national unity' talk? Why do we buy into it? And what does that say about nationalism as a meaning-making process?

Photo credits: Got the photo from AngryFrenchGuy's blog. Don't know more about its copyright...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

No Ingles aqui: When does language become political?

One of the best things about cities is the bistro. That small bistro, squeezed between a shoes shop and a travel agent, loudly featuring a lunch menu for 9Euros. Last week, we had lunch in one such bistro in a fairly touristic area of Barcelona, right by Placa d'Espanya. I do not speak Spanish (at least not enough to understand the various types of food available), so I asked for an English-language menu. "No Ingles aqui!", the waiter shouted harshly and left the table. Shocked more with the body-language than the actual statement, we started talking. But we didn't speak English among ourselves, and as soon as the waiter in question noticed that, he came back with a big polite smile on his face and handed us the English-language menu.

There's something so 19th century about this... The debate on English as an imperialistic language aside, I kept on wondering just what makes us turn language into a political issue in everyday life encounters. I know we cannot fully divorce this from the power context, but I've always wondered about the irony of trying so hard to create and distinguish languages from each other instead of rejoicing the benefit of being able to communicate. When I was young, I couldn't possibly understand why Serbs and Croats would insist on building two separate languages - Serb and Croat, out of the Serbian-Croat linguistic field. I remember the mix of envy and amazement I felt when my Armenian friend started negotiating the price with the Bulgarian merchant in Plovidv. I couldn't do that; but here were people who shared one or two words or sentences, who were communicating.

But in modern times, language is not about communication. It is about politics. Language authorizes speakers: to be listened to, to be respected, one has to talk in the right language. The clever politician talks in Catalan in Barcelona, in Spanish in Madrid and in English in London. We frown upon 'improper' uses of language. Just what the heck is 'whadda' or 'kinda'? We insist on the 'right' way of talking, on constructing grammatically correct sentences, and, occasionally, on avoiding the use of imported words. Au revoir email, bien venue courrier electronique. Language sets symbolic boundaries and symbolic borders. It differentiates between 'us' and 'them', between 'natives' and 'second-language' speakers. We are taught, from an early age, that our language defines us. That's where you can find the metaphysical connection to your soul: in the language which makes you more profound, more sensitive, more poetic or more rational (depending on the national rhetoric...). Romanian-born and raised writer Emil Cioran refused to speak and write in Romanian after he set his residence in Paris. Maybe he instinctively knew what Bourdieu had to say about language: that it not only confers symbolic power. It becomes the locus of such power, and thus a political issue.

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