Fifteen Years and Fifteen Massive Steps for Womankind: A Look at the Millennium Development Goals

By Jessie Brookes

I know that there is a great deal of cynicism to be borne when looking at the work of the UN, especially considering gender equality — for instance, the Millennium Development Goals can hardly be called successful yet. Gender parity within education has been achieved (questionably) in only 2 out of 130 participating countries. Women hold 40 out of 100 non-agricultural, wage-earning jobs on a statistical basis alone, and inequality in terms of entry into the labour market is still a huge issue. By 2013, the increase of women in parliamentarian positions rose to 21.8%, from 10.1% in 1997: at such a pace we can potentially hope for gender parity in politics within the next 40 years. Aside from these, the goals themselves exclude significant issues regarding gender equality, including violence against women, sexual health rights and inequalities in unpaid care work.

In light of all of this, it is easy to lose hope in the possibility of global gender equality, at least through the MDGs and their oh-so-slow instigation.

Whilst I hope that I will never be heard to say that women’s emancipation is impossible, and that I will never say enough is enough — until equality is (if ever) absolute — the new year is a time for hope. Rather than spending my time analysing the ins and outs of the Millennium Development Goals and their flaws, I would like to spend a moment going through some causes for celebration in terms of gender equality that have occurred in the years since the turn of the millennium.

2000: The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, the first resolution to recognise the disproportionate and unique effect that conflict can have on women.

2001: Irene Zubaida Khan becomes Secretary General for Amnesty International, the first woman, the first Asian and the first Muslim to guide the human rights organisation.

2002: The 26th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women releases a statement in support and solidarity for Afghan women, declaring that “The participation of Afghan women as full and equal partners with men is essential for the reconstruction and development of their country.” The Committee calls for the recognition and respect of women’s human rights.

2003: The Female Genital Mutilation Act is brought in in the UK, making it an offence for any UK national or permanent UK resident to carry out, help with, advise or pay for FGM abroad, even in countries where FGM is not yet illegal.

2004: The March for Women’s Lives is held in Washington DC, a demonstration for reproductive rights and women’s rights, including 800,000 participants.

2005: The foundation of the Feministiskt Initiativ (Fi), a Swedish political party focused on gender equality, human rights and social justice, with the tagline “Replace the racists with feminists!”. In 2014, Fi won 5.3% of the Swedish vote in the EU election and, despite not meeting the 4% threshold in the country’s general election, became Sweden’s most popular political party outside of parliament.

2006: A criminal law amendment occurs in Pakistan, resulting in the Protection of Women Act which, among other things, inverted the law that women who reported being raped were prosecuted for adultery.

2007: The Domestic Violence Act is adopted in Sierra Leone, with strong focus on the protection of victims in domestic violence cases.

2008: Quentin Brice becomes the first female Governor-General of Australia.

2009: President Obama signs the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, allowing for victims of pay discrimination (often, but not exclusively, women) to file complaints against their employees with the government.

2010: The UN General Assembly voted unanimously to create a single UN body with the specific task of accelerating women’s empowerment and gender equality globally.

2011: The first SlutWalk takes place in Toronto.

2012: Every single country that participated in the London Olympics included women in their team — some for the very first time.

2013: 38 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean adopt the Montevideo Consensus on Population and Development: the first UN agreement to include a definition of sexual and reproductive rights “which embrace the right to a safe and full sex life, as well as the right to take free, informed, voluntary and responsible decisions on their sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity, without coercion, discrimination or violence.

2014: Iranian woman Maryam Mirzakhani becomes the first woman to win the Fields Medal for excellence in Maths. Malala Yousafzai is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

2015: Women in Saudi Arabia will gain suffrage along with the right to run for municipal elections.

These are just tiny pieces of success in a much bigger picture. There are so many things that have happened to further gender equality in the past fifteen years and we should be proud. Many would have us look at such facts and gains and be satisfied but none of these events are enough on their own. They are tiny steps towards a huge goal that sometimes feels unattainable. For me, such gains are evidence of just how important persistence is. There is a long way to go. There is a lot to fight for. It will take a long time and a lot of work. Every now and then, though, it is important to stop and breathe and look back at what persistence can, has and will achieve. One day the MDGs may become a reality, just like all of the above. But that will not happen overnight, and it will not happen without us, the little people, refusing to let them be forgotten. Happy New Year — let’s make it a big one.

Cyberspace: Whose Space? Looking Back at Media and Technology in 2014

By Hana Shaltout

“The crisis of modernity is, for feminists, not a melancholy plunge into loss and decline, but rather the joyful opening up of new possibilities.”

“Thus, while the computer technology seems to promise a world beyond gender differences, the gender gap grows wider.”

— Rosi Braidotti

 

I am writing this blog post as an experiment. As indicated in the first two quotes, feminist attitudes towards the internet and computer technology are contradictory at worst and ambiguous at best. Both quotes were in the academic article “Feminism with a Difference,” by Rosi Braidotti: a testament to the opposing viewpoints that take place in debates about the cyberworld.  In the last two weeks of my ‘Gender and Media Representation’ course, I came across several articles and scholarly pieces that addressed the relationship between feminism and new media. Mostly, they discuss how diverse the cyberspace is, however, for the most part, it was agreed that it is a “boys’ club” as Anita Sarkeesian astutely commented in her Tedx Talk. The experiment therefore is to see whether I — an Egyptian MSc student living in London — would be able to post something online which could bring about any kind of change. I want to understand which of the two quotes above is more truthful today, and reflect on them as we come to the end of 2014. Furthermore, I want to understand whether I have any legitimacy and, if I do, what kind of legitimacy it is, and why. To help me understand my own position on the Internet, I’m going to refer to other blog posts as well as the article “Feminism with a Difference” by Rosi Braidotti.

 To begin with, what is cyberspace? Because this is not an academic article as such, I’m going to use my own definition here (please feel free to modify/comment/ suggest etc.) and say that cyberspace is like the movie Tron (the “new”  one with the cool Daft Punk Soundtrack): a world where you can create your own identity, hide it, or refashion it; where you can game, speak, vlog, create, write, communicate, and interact with millions of people around the world.  The problem with this definition is that it is a utopian one — one where I assume that the digital world is neutral, fair and equal and exists outside the parameters of our own, “real”, world. (If you haven’t already read ‘Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,’ give it a read here.)

The first quote I gave you at the top of this blog piece shows how cyberspace can be a space for anyone, while the second brings us back to the reality of the Internet. Rosi Braidotti further comments:

“It consequently seems to me that, in the short range, this new technological frontier will intensify the gender gap and increase the polarisation between the sexes. We are back to the war metaphor, but its location is the real world, not the hyperspace of abstract masculinity. And its protagonists are no computer images, but the real social agents of postindustrial urban landscapes. The most effective strategy remains for women to use technology in order to disengage our collective imagination from the phallus and its accessory values: money, exclusion and domination, nationalism, iconic femininity and systematic violence.”

My question is, how can I “disengage”, and whether this disengagement is effective through the Internet. What kind of thing can I say or do that will allow me to effectively challenge patriarchy through my writing? Because 2014 has just ended, I will reflect on three gender issues that relate to media and technology, very briefly, and examine whether me talking about them is likely to bring about a change.

Firstly, we have witnessed new heights of technology in its power over the female body, specifically reproduction. It can be summed up by Foucault’s term biopower, which, in a word, is the control and discipline over bodies. An example of this was seen last year when Apple revealed its plans to offer egg-freezing to their female employees.

For those who are not familiar with Anita Sarkeesian, she is an activist whose main channel of campaigning is YouTube and the website Feminist Frequency. She is very vocal about how female characters are represented and portrayed in the gaming world, however she also raises those issues about popular culture more generally. Unfortunately, she is still facing threats two years after her Tedx Talk video was released.

Finally, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign was one of the biggest media campaigns of the year after Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria. Despite the fact that the hashtag and campaign went viral, the girls are still missing.

These three reflections on 2014 raise intriguing questions about the power of media and technology, not just in everyday life but also in the future. How effective is a Twitter hashtag? How is Anita Sarkeesian’s resistance to cyber violence going to play out, and what can we understand about cyberspace through her battle with patriarchy online? Is cyberspace an arena of innovation and collaboration or violence and destruction? And ultimately, how is the relationship between technology and bodies going to be shaped in the future?

All of these are open-ended questions which allow a multitude of opinions and understandings to flourish which, in my opinion, need to be discussed. What I would argue here, therefore, is not just that all genders need to call out problems and social ills, but that we need to make blogging about them credible in all forums. My legitimacy in this space comes from the fact that I am writing about feminism in a blog about gender. But what about the harassment Anita Sarkeesian faces all the time? How many people would listen to me if I talked about gaming and sexual harassment somewhere else online? How effective is it to write something for a blog like this one — and who would engage with it? And finally, how do we disengage ourselves from technology in a world where we are constantly plugged in: bombarded with information, keeping up with our emails, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Stumbleupon, John Green vlogs, and online news?  In order not to end on a pessimistic note, I will argue that despite setbacks, we can now express ourselves on the Internet like never before and get people engaged with important issues. At least that’s my mission writing for Gender and the City! Food for thought as we get stuck into 2015.

“Is She Just Hysterical?”: The Intersection of Gender and Psychiatry

By Lindsay Riddoch 

There are some mental illnesses that we hear about more than others. One of the ones we never usually hear about is Borderline Personality Disorder. Making up 1-2% of the general population but about 20% of in-patient admissions, Borderline Personality Disorder is a serious mental illness. Interestingly, it is also an illness where the gender bias is strong – 75% of diagnoses are handed to women. Whilst many mental health problems are more often diagnosed in women, the ratio of diagnoses of BPD is more obvious than most.

It is thought that around 70% of those diagnosed with BPD have been victims of sexual violence. Given the bias towards females as victims of sexual violence, it is thus perhaps not surprising that an illness so closely tied to surviving that kind of assault, is more often handed out to women than to men. This, however, does not begin to fully realise the gendered nature of this diagnosis. For starters, it raises a difficult question about the pathologising of reactions to surviving such horrific crimes. In particular, many people question the name of the disorder. If it is, so often, a reaction to a traumatic life event, or events, why is it characterised as a disorder of one’s personality – as opposed to a post-traumatic reaction?

In fact here we may stumble upon the crux of the problem. Experts in the field argue that men who meet similar criteria would be diagnosed instead with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Arguably, due to its association with soldiers, it is one of the most understood and least stigmatised mental illnesses. There is a surprising correlation between symptoms: difficulties with attachment, outburst of anger, intense anxiety, disassociation – all of these things are listed as symptoms of both Borderline Personality Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yet the former is one of the least discussed – and most stigmatised – mental health problems, whilst the latter is one of the best researched and understood. The former is the label handed to working-class single mums who have been on the receiving end of years of abuse, whilst the latter is handed to officers and cadets that have fought for their country. This is not a coincidence.

Some would argue that the key difference between the two diagnoses is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a temporary condition, whilst Borderline Personality Disorder is a life-long one. Firstly, that is simply not true, as many studies testify to the complete recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder – some argue, in fact, that time is still the greatest healer. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual itself is coming to the realisation that the distinction between axis 1 (‘illnesses’) and axis 2 (‘disorders’) is an unhelpful and arbitrary one. The idea that mental illness, like physical illness, sits in two distinct categories – those that one recovers from, and those that one deals with – is as archaic as bedlam itself.

Secondly, I would hypothesise that the pathologising of ‘anger’ and ‘impulsivity’ that is so key to the BPD diagnosis would simply not be seen as a problem in men. In other words, a man may recover from PTSD but still express ‘irrational’ levels of anger and impulsivity, and this is seen as normal. On the other hand, when a woman is recovering from the intense emotional reaction following her trauma, she is still considered ill because she might at times shout and hit people in a way that is simply not ‘ladylike’. The criteria for personality disorders includes the following telling line: “the impairments in personality functioning and the individual’s personality trait expression are not better understood as normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio-cultural environment.” The impulsive sex or occasional punch-ups of a man that has recently experienced trauma are, I would argue, likely to be considered normative for his socio-cultural environment.

We’ve all heard of hysteria, and the weird psychiatric beginnings of the vibrator. Yet we often openly and brazenly accept the psychiatric definitions of today. In reality, psychiatry as a field is designed to separate the normal from the ‘abnormal’. Its very existence is equivalent to the admission of the norm-seeking nature of society. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that, within it, one can find many areas where it would seem to be tied up with the norms of gender roles of today. A field whose diagnostic criteria rely so heavily on one human being’s judgement of another, is wide open to the infiltration of norms and expected behaviours of society.

The gendered nature of mental illness does not, however, end with diagnosis: it also creates an environment of discrimination and distrust within the mental health services. The movers and shakers of both historical and modern day psychiatry are white men. It is not surprising therefore that such a field struggles to deal with the overarching power dynamics and stereotypes of the society we live in. It was once said to me that if a transgender person, a rabbi and a black woman were responsible for founding early psychiatry we would have completely different notions of mentally healthy and mentally ill.

There is therefore a gaping need for those acting and advocating for feminism, to think and talk about the intersectionality with issues of mental illness. In a world that is talking more and more about mental illness, we must be careful not to lose our rationality and ability to question, even when those that are making the statements are psychiatrists. We are at a point where we are shaping, in our daily lives, the way mental illness will be seen by the next generation. To do this fairly, we must submit psychiatric diagnosis to the same level of scepticism and questioning as we do other facets of a gendered, and white-men-led system.

The Silence of Male Rape: The Case of Jonathan Heilo

By Jane Derishu

The occurrence of male rape is too often ignored by society. However, this is a reality that takes place worldwide. According to combined statistics from the Ministry of Justice, Home Office and Office for National Statistics, in the UK, between 2009/10 and 2011/12 there were an estimated 9,000 males victims of rape. In the US, as reported by RAINN, approximately 10% of all victims of sexual assault are men. The silence of male rape must end in order to properly address this issue, otherwise we risk overlooking victims of gender-based violence.

***

In one of the courses that I assist with, the Professor recently raised a question asking why it is forbidden for an individual to kill whilst the state has the right to do so. Some students argued that in the specific case of self-defense, the court might find the killer not guilty. The Professor responded by saying that they should try telling that to Jonathan Heilo. Although the class carried on, discussing Plato’s philosophical ideas, I couldn’t help thinking about the gendered aspects in Jonathan Heilo’s case.

Since most of you probably don’t live in Israel and are unlikely to have heard about this case (although it was all over the Israeli news at the time), I feel like I should give you some background knowledge. Jonathan Heilo is a 23-year-old Jewish Ethiopian man who killed another man, Yaron Eileen, who sexually abused, raped and blackmailed him.

Sapir Sluzker-Amran, who covers Jonathan’s struggle online, described the sequence of events that led to the killing. Heilo was blackmailed – not for the first time – by his attacker who asked him for 1000 Shekels (approximately £150) whilst being verbally sexually abusive towards him. Heilo, who did not want his friend who was with him to hear the comments, asked his abuser to come outside with him to discuss it. After Jonathan begged for his life and asked him to let go of the ‘fine’, Eileen threatened to kill him if he was not paid but Heilo didn’t give him the money.

Eileen demanded that Heilo come with him to a dark parking lot, 100 meters from where they were. Just as had previously happened (and two weeks after the last rape), Jonathan followed his perpetrator, paralysed – a common response of many rape victims. Eileen once again verbally abused Jonathan in a sexual manner and exposed his genitals to him. However, based on previous incidents, Jonathan anticipated what was going to happen soon after, and using the fact that Eileen had turned his back to him to pee, he killed him. A few hours later, Jonathan went to the police and confessed to the killing. In December 2013, Jonathan Heilo was convicted of murder while the court rejected his claim of self-defense and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Those who fight for Jonathan’s freedom often use another case of self-defense to point to the injustice made by the court – the Dromi case. Shai Dromi, an Israeli farmer, was charged with manslaughter after shooting an intruder on his ranch. This case led to a major public debate over a person’s right to shoot a trespasser in their own house. Dromi, who had a strong agricultural lobby behind him and enjoyed the support of many politicians, was acquitted. Moreover, this case led to change in legislation and created the ‘Dromi law’ which protects those who commit similar acts in similar conditions from a criminal conviction by using a claim of self-defense. Sapir Sluzker-Amran justifiably asks how come damage to one’s property can be justified as self-defense while ‘damage’ and danger to one’s body and life cannot? This exact question continues to bother me.

If there is one thing that I learnt from studying Social Sciences, is that for every social case, we can find plenty (the more accurate word would be infinite) of explanations. Therefore I would like to suggest one answer to this question that has already been suggested by others and two new answers that I came up with, which I find intrinsic to the debate.

The central argument regarding the injustice is that race and class differences are instrumental in the explanation of the unjust ruling. Dromi is an Ashkenazy Jew, who as I already mentioned was widely supported by politicians and the agricultural lobby. Compared to these privileges, Heilo comes from a low class and has a much less privileged status as an Ethiopian Jew living in Israel. It is more than possible that these differences led to the different outcomes and sadly this won’t be the first or the last time that this happens.

Another possible explanation relates, I believe, to the conflict reality in which Israel exists. Dromi killed an Arab and Heilo killed a Jew. It is possible to argue that a justice system that serves a country that engages in occupation and oppression of Arab people will treat the killing of a Jewish man differently in comparison to a killing of an Arab man. Even though it might be hard for most of Israeli Jewish society to accept this explanation, this is still a valid consideration.

Nonetheless, there is a new, gendered explanation that I believe may provide another explanation to the ruling’s differences. I believe that it relates to the fact that Jonathan Heilo broke the pact of silence regarding men’s rape in the Israeli society. Since I am a member of the Israeli society, I can speak for this society only and claim that, in Israel, rape is gendered in such a way that the rape of a woman is not perceived to undermine her femininity in the same way that the rape of a man infringes upon his masculinity. Male rape is an issue that is still muted in the Israeli society and one that is rarely discussed publicly. Heilo is guilty of breaking this silence. One cannot help but wonder if Heilo’s crime of putting the issue of men’s rape in the spotlight impacted, in some way, on the court’s decision. Is this Jonathan’s punishment for somehow exposing the Emperor’s nakedness? The answer, of course, is maybe.

Celebrating Being Single: Gender, Age and Coupledom

By Kate Gilchrist

It’s that time of year when the adverts for dating websites are in full swing, encouraging anyone who’s not already hooked-up to ‘fix their predicament’ in 2015. It reminds me of Tracey Emin’s announcement a few months ago – contrary to such ideas – which celebrates the fact that she is single in her new exhibition entitled ‘The Last Great Adventure is You.’ The Evening Standard quoted her as saying:

‘“I’m very much alone and wanting to celebrate that. It doesn’t mean I’m maudlin. I’ve got to make plans for the future alone.” Emin said that as they got older, couples considered retirement or moving to the country but, “when you’re on your own, you can’t make those plans.”’*

Her need to assert her singledom as a positive rather than a negative, speaks volumes. For a start, it stands out as it’s unusual – how often do we hear of people celebrating their single status in contrast to celebrating their married/coupled status? Emin refutes an association with sadness that being single apparently evokes. She describes how there is no ‘clear’ path set out for her to follow and how she must instead construct her own life plan. This is something Emin clearly feels is less straightforward to do than for those in a couple but, she says, is no less valuable. Emin’s gender and age (she’s in her early fifties) deepen the discrimination she experiences with regard to her single status. While the word ‘spinster’ is now outdated, the associations such a word conjures up are still firmly in place. Emin doesn’t explicitly talk about gender, true, but it led me to think about how such constructions are gendered. And not only how inherently (heterosexually) ‘coupled’ western society is, but also how gendered and aged the status of singledom is.

For example, the recent marriages of two ‘older’ celebrities – George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston – highlight this. They were framed in the media in such a way that not only constructed singledom in a highly gendered way, but also revealed how it is intersected with age.

George Clooney’s marriage at the age of 53, to lawyer Amal Alamuddin, was hailed as the final taming of the handsome playboy, with articles describing Clooney as Hollywood’s most eligible and lusted-after bachelor, and Alamuddin as ‘stealing’ his heart. Jennifer Aniston who – despite her brief marriage to Brad Pitt – placing her ahead of Clooney in terms of being coupled-up – recently announced she would be marrying again at the age of 46. But the media coverage has portrayed Aniston’s nuptials as a long-awaited, overdue ‘life-raft’, saving her from a life adrift as a single woman. While Clooney has just been having years of fun dating different women, (with lots of articles celebrating his list of ex-girlfriends), Aniston has apparently been tirelessly and miserably trawling through Mr Wrongs, to finally find Mr Right – much to our collective relief.

Thus the single heterosexual man is still linked to the image of the carefree, fun-loving bachelor, and while men are admired for eventually becoming ‘family men’, there is much less restriction on when that can happen, with older fathers often only praised for their continued virility (actor Steve Martin has become a father for the first time at 67 to very little negative comment). The older, single, childless woman is still castigated, as we can see from the relief over Aniston’s marriage and by Emin’s need to challenge its current status of ‘something to be pitied.’

Remaining single (or at least unmarried) would not have harmed Clooney’s reputation as much as Aniston’s. Clooney’s situation provoked more a suggestion of disappointment that no lucky woman could ‘catch’ him and an enviousness that Clooney can choose to play the field forever thanks to his sex appeal, rather than despair that he couldn’t attract anyone into marriage. This is not to say, however, that lone men escape entirely unscathed – the failure of a man to be (hetero)sexually active is always frowned upon at any age, whether they are single or attached (film The 40-year-old Virgin is a case in point). What about the other side of the gender binary when it comes to singledom and sex? The sexually active older single female – when not being cast as an animalistic ‘cougar’ – is virtually invisible, bordering a social taboo. And while the sexually active younger single female has become more visible, I’d argue that women pay for that visibility with an intense scrutiny and critique of their behaviour.

The celebration surrounding both of these celebs’ marriages shows that coupledom (ideally in the form of marriage) is always privileged over singledom. As many of my female friends and I can attest, in our mid-thirties we are repeatedly asked in social situations – particularly (surprise, surprise!) at weddings –  whether we are coupled up (married or in a long-term relationship) and if not, why not. That’s not to say that these questions are asked to intentionally harm us, but harm they can. I’m sure if we started asking married people why exactly they were married it’d reveal how loaded such a question is.

It was in response to repeatedly being asked that question that artist Suzanne Heintz, as documented by the Feminist Times, made an art project which explores how singledom is gendered. Using a set of mannequins, she constructed her very own husband and two children to make a fake ‘nuclear family’ and took family pictures in a kitsch 1950s Kodak style. It’s a family structure that haunts her as a single female of a ‘certain age’ living in the U.S. Despite the fact that the nuclear family is a myth rather than a reality (most people actually do not live in a family unit of one heterosexual couple and their children), it is still upheld as the ’norm’; a norm to which, by not conforming, we continue to pay a social price. Heintz uses her mannequins to demonstrate the true hollowness (perfectly embodied by dummies) of hailing only one way of living as, in her words, ‘the only successful life.’

As much as we’d like to think things have changed since the era of Mad Men, we’re just using different ways to reinforce a lot of the same messages. Can we start rewriting the scripts for 2015?

*(The Evening Standard even uses a headline that mimics the language of matrimony: “Emin: I’m going to spend the rest of my life alone and want to celebrate that”).