Archive for April, 2010

Dancing Boys and Girls in Afghanistan

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I recently saw the documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, on the subject of Bacha Bazi, where “Prepubescent children are sold to wealthy or powerful men for entertainment and sexual activities.” It is deeply troubling to think about any form of pederasty being conducted in such an open way, particularly where the child is considered a status symbol of some kind, and there is a real danger of violence should they try to escape their situation.

In watching the documentary (and I have to praise the journalist for such a risky undertaking, the practitioners of Bacha Bazi are often warlords powerful in the region), it becomes clear that in making prepubescent boys dress like women and dance, then (often) rape or sexually assault them in some way (repeatedly, over time), that there is not only a terrible culture of pedophilia, but that it is in part related to the power dynamics between men and women; these men are accustomed to sexual relationships where they have the power, where they are significantly stronger and control all aspects of the relationship; women are less available to them, so they exploit similarly weak people within the society.

What struck me was that as horrifying as this practice is, it would be perceived as slightly less egregious if the dancing sex slaves were female. There are few people who are not deeply disturbed by children being sold into prostitution (except for these reprehensibles), however, as one person said about the doc, it combines two ‘taboos’ – the pedophilia taboo and the homosexual taboo.

Now, obviously, as far as I am concerned, there is no sexual-orientation taboo, sex with children is rape and disgusting regardless of the sex of the people involved, but I do think my co-viewer had a point in terms of ‘general opinion’ in that even if people don’t think homosexuality is wrong, they might find gay pedophilia grosser than straight pedophilia.

Does this apply to other, less controversial taboos? Perhaps – an incestuous pedophile might seem worse than a non-related pedophile, because they pervert the role not just of an adult but of a guardian. There is an added level of betrayal to moral conduct.

This then implies something about sexual relationships in general – that not only is straight sex privileged, but it is privileged even in criminal situations.

I think, too, that the dancing boys, in putting a male face into a commonly female situation, underscores the point that rape is about power and not about male frailty in the face of women’s sexuality. One might be less inclined to challenge female sex slavery because it falls within the parameters of standard male dominated power structures.

But it’s not just about gender – the dancing boys are also significantly about class. It is poor, disadvantaged families whose sons are bought or tricked from them. The power that these men wield is largely due to their financial situation, which allows them to buy political safety as well as poor children.

At the end of the documentary, the journalist reports what he has found to the UN, we learn that while this adds to the file, there is still little to be done – although one boy is helped to escape his enslavement, and charges are brought, they are soon dropped, and the police chief is back watching some of the dancing boys with the other child-slave-owning pederasts.

If a country has a culture where such behavior is politely ignored, what hope is there for any real human rights?


Le Mot Juste

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Everyone has there own personal pet peeves when it comes to misuse of language.

“Irregardless” sounds to some like nails on a chalkboard. They mean either ‘regardless’ or ‘irrespective’.

“Could care less” is lazy phrasing – try putting the n’t back in.

“Begs the question” does not mean raises the question, it refers to a logically fallacious statement which assumes itself to be true without proof.

And “Feminist” does not mean angry man-hating lesbian .

But, since so many people seem to take it that way, feminists – who are really most sensible people if the correct definition is used: a person who believes the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men – have to refuse such a title with abject horror.

Nadine Robinson in the Daily Observer (via Equality Myth), says “Please don’t use the “f” word. I may be a feminist, but I don’t want the label.” She goes on to describe experiences of sexism in school and at work, being held back and having to actively deny being feminist to avoid castigation.

People who genuinely believe that women belong at home raising children and keeping house benefit from using ‘feminist’ like an epithet and confusing it with some sort of sinister anti-male agenda, because, supposedly, if the woman is not at home making babies and muffins, this makes life worse for men. As they cannot perceive a co-existence of feminism and love for men or attractiveness or calm and happiness, they conflate the word with the opposite of all of those things. If people who hold this to be true are in positions of power, then women within the same organisation have to deny the (misused) label in an attempt to maintain or gain status.

Other women have noted this seeming change in definition, particularly among younger women. In the BBC 4 documentary, ‘Women’, Vanessa Engle interviews women with children, stay-at-home and working, looking at the division of labour in running the households, some of whom refuse the label of feminist (and whose husbands start to feel really awkward when Engle starts asking who does the chores), and the parents of some younger activists who also dislike the term and seem confused by the activity – one woman’s parents thought she was hypocritical because she was an activist but also wore make-up. These were in glaring contrast to her interviews with aged activists who, either smiling and active or ill, sad, and reclusive, still felt that feminism was undeniably necessary. (The documentary raised a lot of questions for me about the current focus of feminism, and drew some criticism for its focus on middle class white women and exclusion of key activists and groups).

I’ve mentioned before the problems of sexism, as well as the problem with ‘isms’ in general, but in this case, whatever one thinks of the validity of the label, its meaning has been perverted through misuse.

Although English is a bastard language – happy to steal and happy to change with the vernacular – it is broad and deep enough to contain precision. It is wonderful when people can claim words that have been used as derogatory, slowly drowning the ugly connotations with dark humour and a defiant, oppositional joy. (I’m thinking of the ‘n’ and ‘c’ words and perhaps that other ‘f’ word – in both cases, there is still a ways to go before they entirely clean, and of course there is constant refreshment of other equally insulting terms – I’ll leave my wroth for ‘that’s so gay’ for another time).

I think in this case, as with begging the question and ‘irregardless’, we can embrace our inner Lynne Truss and engage in a zero-tolerance campaign for accuracy.

Feminism is about a belief in equality between the sexes (and has a historical record of avidly supporting other people seeking equality and civil rights). It’s called ‘feminism’ instead of ‘equalitism’ or whatever, because at its inception, men were in the position of power, and the term needed to refer to the people it represented i.e. women.

Don’t let people tell you it means something else. If someone started using ‘Protestant’ to mean ‘psychotic vegan pterodactyl’ it wouldn’t gain any wider use because clearly that is not what it means. Obviously, no one really gains anything from that definition.

A heavier and more accurate example might be if someone started to use the term ‘Jew’ to mean, oh, let’s say ‘money-grubbing, baby-eating, messiah-killer’. Is this accurate use of the language? No. Does the fact that some groups of people do say and/or think this mean that Jews should have to change their name? NO, because clearly there is an agenda behind this misuse of terminology. An evil, hateful agenda, the prevalence of which is disgusting and encourages all sorts of violence.

No one is yet trying to kill feminists – well, except for abortion providers – but the attitude is the same; by trying to redefine the term, they weaken the situation of the people it describes and/or attempts to assist through mockery and dismissiveness in order to maintain the status quo or retreat to a supposed golden age where men were men, women were house-keepers and nannies, and everyone knew what was what.

In the face of this we should be defiant. We should refuse out of belligerent logical accuracy to allow this term to be corrupted by those who want to refuse and deny the right equality.

Because even if they eventually pull some irrefutable god-writing-on-a-wall proof that women are genetically inferior and flourish only in domestic and child-rearing environments (in spite of the billions of women evincing the contrary), their use of the word would still be inaccurate.

I am a feminist. And I know what that means.

Leader’s Debate

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=clegg+cameron+brown&iid=8532824″ src=”9/4/a/b/Britains_PM_Brown_11b5.jpg?adImageId=12492761&imageId=8532824″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]Last night I watched the first EVER leader’s debate in the UK, which seems so quaint since it’s so old hat in the US and Canada.

According to the ‘instant’ polls, Nick Clegg did the best out of the debate, with Cameron and Brown lagging.

I couldn’t help comparing the debate to the ones I’ve seen in the US; as much as I was interested in the politics being discussed, I found myself giving them presentation advice. One of the key things that they all need to do is not look down so quickly after they finish their piece – maintaining ‘eye contact’ with the camera would make them seem more sincere.

Cameron made a couple of weird ‘whaaaa?’ faces, which made him seem a bit juvenile, whereas Clegg seemed a little too theatrically surprised/disappointed in response to a couple of his opponents statements, which has the same effect. Brown also had a bit of a condescending smile/head shake thing going; without the smile it could have been a solid Obama-like move: ‘let’s be clear’ sort of thing.

The key thing about body language, which they could all learn from their Chancellor-candidates, is the importance of respect. The audience wants to see grown-ups speaking professionally, and passionately, while recognizing that their opponents are representatives for 20-40% or so of the country, and deserve to be treated as such.

That said, it wasn’t a terribly dramatic debate. Overall I would say Clegg was the best presented, being relaxed and phrasing his questions to the other leaders in terms the audience would use; he was definitely calling them out when the audience was thinking the same thing. However, I did think Gordon Brown seemed quite statesmanlike, and didn’t seem to repeat himself as much as the others. It is standard media instruction for politicians to repeat a key message/phrase 3 times so it ‘sticks’, but in something like this debate, Brown came across as having the greatest variety of things to say and the most depth addressing context and frame of reference, whereas Cameron seemed pretty vague and Clegg, while specific, did repeat a few key things to an annoying extent, where it made some of his points seem like non sequiturs.

Brown’s biggest problem in the debate was the excellent and irrefutable point that if his party has all these great ideas, why haven’t they enacted them over the past few years? Clegg’s financial information was the most fleshed out, giving him the ability to make key platform promises about rejigging military spending, increasing the tax-free income, and altering immigration, that had been fully costed. Cameron’s anti-immigration stance seemed popular with the pollees, while the rest of his policies, under attack from Clegg and Brown, made him seem much more pro-rich folk than he had before.

Overall, I was left with the impression that Clegg’s government would be best from a national standpoint, and probably has the best economic policy (because Vince Cable is a smarty) but might have weaknesses in international policy (his wanting to scrap Trident makes sense, but they need to state a strong alternative nuclear defense option to not seem naive about Iran and North Korea), that Labour could be a solid player overall if they would get their finger out and play nice with the Lib Dems to get some solid laws enacted to help the lower and middle classes while recovering from the recession and reducing the deficit slowly, and that under Cameron anyone poor, unemployed, under-employed, or not with middle to upper middle class parents who are still solvent, would be SOL, though they might technically ‘fix’ the deficit more quickly.

Current polls suggest a hung parliament. If Labour and Lib Dems could wrangle a coalition, I think the country could do well. If, however, people are intent on punishing Labour for slacking off, as with the election of Stephen Harper in Canada, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but a lot of people would be worse off. As much as Conservatives could be a fair party keen on small government, this one is still a party for the wealthy and the corporations.

Oh the Male Gaze

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Recent emails between myself and another blogger pal over the relationship between porn and (hetero) male’s attitudes toward women, led us to the inevitable consideration of the male gaze, and how we internalize it.

I have often thought that it should be possible to appreciate the aesthetics of human beauty without denying personhood or changing the value of non-visible traits, I just don’t know how one knows if that is what one is doing or not, and how one would go about changing it.

Obviously there are plenty of women who perform femininity in part because of the attention it garners from ‘the male gaze’ (whether the gazer is male or not, women notice each others appearance, too), and can enjoy said attention. Of course, then you get into a discussion of power – that the women with sex appeal supposedly have the power, but really the gazer does because they can withdraw that power by withdrawing their approval.

We’re (people in Western/developed nations) surrounded by messages that tell us we have to care about the way we look and our aim should be to look/smell/feel ‘good’ (the definition of good depends on the context and the advertiser), to consider ourselves not just as an individual but as an object of outside attention, and therefore exert control over the message our appearance/aroma/skin sends. I think everyone is trained to look at themselves with that kind of evaluation in mind – whether they choose to reject it or not depends.

So can an ‘equal’ (hetero) sexual relationship – where men and women entering a relationship with no preexisting imbalance in power or agency – exist when we have internalized this kind of evaluation, and where porn is an exhibition of the same? The argument against porn and prostitution suggests that in the presence of a culture in which one can view and/or purchase a female body for sexual purposes and it is considered normal, a woman entering into a relationship with a male is already in a situation where the sexual side of their interaction can be purchased by him elsewhere (less easily or acceptably for her), so to speak, and the availability of such alters the interpretation of its use and value.

It’s true that sex is a very ego-centric activity, but I don’t know that I would say it’s all inevitably objectification; I see sex more as a conversation, where concern and awareness of the each other’s thoughts and feelings are a critical part of the experience. But that’s within a relationship (however one wants to define it), porn and prostitution would of course fall outside of this consideration as they are exclusively about self-gratification and ignorance of the true personality and feelings of the other party.

We’re complicated. Can we do both?


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