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Entries in equality (7)

Tuesday
Mar192013

Demanding Abuse-Free Porn Is Great—But What About Everything Else We Buy?

@RHRealityCheck

Earlier this month, the European Parliament rejected a proposed ban on “all forms of pornography,” including online porn, throughout the continent. This news elicited a variety of reactions, including a piece by The Guardian contributor Tanya Gold, in which she argued that porn should be certified by a committee of “authentic feminists” before it is published—or, at the very least, consumers should learn how porn is made and where it comes from.

I am not sure what an “authentic feminist” is, and I do not particularly like the idea of someone with a specific mindset deciding what I get to see or read. I do, however, agree with the notion that we, as consumers, have a duty to try and ascertain if the products we buy are made in abusive or coercive situations.

But why only porn?

What about diamonds? Watchdog groups have long reported torture, slave-like situations, and the use of child labor in diamond mines in several countries, including Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. Profits from diamond mines have fueled conflicts for decades, contributing to the deaths of thousands of civilians. Yet the diamond market continues to grow, both worldwide and in the United States. In the United States, this is likely linked to the fact that many women, for reasons I cannot fathom, find getting married without a sizeable diamond engagement ring objectionable, if not impossible. In fact, over 80 percent of U.S. women who get married receive a diamond engagement ring, averaging over $3,000 a piece. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the most frequent question women ask about engagement rings is “How much did it cost?”—not “Was anyone harmed while producing this?”

And how about shoes? A recent study released by Stop Child Labor examined 28 shoe-producing companies and found that at least eight used child labor at some point in their supply chain. Moreover, the study concluded that none of the 28 companies could guarantee that child labor was not used in their production chain, because they only supervise the final link in that chain. But how many of us first think about child labor when we see a gorgeous pair of heels or go shopping for new sneakers?

The same is true for chocolate. As a recent Oxfam campaign documented, women who pick cocoa beans used in products manufactured by the world’s largest chocolate companies are regularly subjected to labor rights abuses, including low pay, excessively long hours, and sex discrimination. Cocoa sold with the Fair Trade label, which guarantees a certain level of pay and labor rights, represents only about 0.5 percent of the current cocoa market worldwide. So it’s fair to assume that very few people think about such worker conditions before they buy a candy bar.

I’ve deliberately mentioned products that are indulgences, because none of us needs diamonds, chocolate, or multiple pairs of shoes. So in these cases, it would be possible for us to ask the right questions and refrain from buying products fueled by abuse. But most of us do not. Why is that?

One reason is transparency. As in the case of the shoe suppliers, it’s not always possible to determine whether a shoe company sources its products using child labor, because watchdog groups cannot always see through the multiple supply chain links. Sometimes even the companies themselves have a hard time with that.

Another reason is convenience. I know environmentalist vegans who smoke, ignoring what tobacco farming does to the environment and farm workers. And I know Fair Trade lobbyists who drink Diet Coke like it’s water, even though Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries have had their share of alleged child labor issues. In short, I know any number of people who choose to examine some of the products they consume in detail but leave the rest alone. I am OK with that. As someone clever once said, the examined life is no picnic. We all choose our battles.

This does not mean governments can abdicate their responsibility to implement and enforce human and labor rights. And it does not mean that we shouldn’t demand transparency in sourcing for everything we consume. Pornography, like shoes and diamonds and chocolate, should be abuse-free.

It does, however, mean that it is hypocritical to demand abuse-free products only for things we don’t use or like. In her piece, Tanya Gold compares porn to meat (another product we don’t really need), arguing that we should demand the same transparency for both. I say we should demand transparency for all products and then leave people to decide which, of the abuse-free alternatives, they want to consume.

Monday
Jan282013

Trans Inclusion: Trust, Verify, Educate

@RHRealityCheck

Last week, the pundit-sphere erupted in vicious back-and-forths over the (lack of) space for trans women in mainstream feminism, and how to talk about transgender people to begin with.

The comment that led to the storm has since been described by the author, Suzanne Moore, as a throw-away line, and, while certainly thoughtless, it was indeed a minor and non-essential component of the essay in which it appeared. In short, in an article about the current state of women’s rights activism, Moore described the perfect body women are expected to have as “that of a Brazilian transsexual.” 

A twitter-storm of criticism ensued, making the point that trans people are victimized and excluded by mainstream feminism (I am paraphrasing the hostile tone of this debate which went both ways). The controversy peaked when the Observer on Sunday published a retort by another writer, Julie Burnchill, that included such offensive language about transgender people that the Observer ultimately took it down

It is obvious that not all women face the same challenges. Every disadvantaged group of humanity has a different history of exclusion and suffers in different ways. How we see ourselves, how others see us, and how we believe they see us: all of this has an impact on our experience of discrimination and abuse. 

As a result, the two main substantive points in this debate were not mutually exclusive, though they were presented as opposites. On the one hand, it is true that girls are treated differently (in most cases less advantageously) than boys most everywhere, and that this suffering has an impact on adult women’s self-worth, identity, and ability to exercise our rights. It is also true that many transgender individuals suffer a different—and often both violent and invisibilized—type of exclusion throughout their lives, an experience that would color anyone’s understanding of what is safe and what is not. This is so whether we are talking about trans women or trans men.

Add to any of these one-dimensional exclusion narratives issues such as age, ethnicity, nationality, education, money, and religion, and it will be clear that discrimination varies greatly from sub-group to sub-group. This is hardly news. The point here is that entering into a debate over who is more excluded than whom is a non-starter. The answer will always be: “it depends,” and it is hardly conducive to change to get into a bidding war of wrongs.

There are, however, two lessons to be learned from the Moore/Burnchill vs. Transgender debacle. 

Lesson number 1: we have a long way to go on trans inclusion

I highly doubt that the editor of Suzanne Moore’s original piece saw the troublesome comparison of “ideal female body” with “Brazilian transsexual” as anything other than descriptive or maybe funny. It would surprise me to learn that there had been any conversation about its potentially inflammatory nature. The same is true for the editorial process that led to the publication of Julie Burnchill’s piece, which has been made public. It is abundantly clear that no one thought to seriously question the taste-level or justifiable offense that would be felt upon its publication. 

To be sure, both Moore and Burnchill are free to express both tasteless and insensitive views. The articles may be offensive, even very offensive, but they don’t incite to violence or discrimination and so are publishable without criminal liability—or should be. 

My concern is that the trans community seems to be invisible or “other” to the editors. If these editors did think about the offense the pieces or mentions would cause, that concern was dismissed as irrelevant. This happens most frequently where the butt of the “joke” is already in a disadvantaged position. In a distant past, for example, it was considered reasonable to publish offensively abusive language about Irish immigrants in the United States, because the Irish were seen as less than human and in any case not “one of us.” 

The sentiment that trans people are lesser, have brought it upon themselves, and should just get over it, has permeated a good part of this debate, down to a very unhelpful conflation of “transsexual” with “trans women” with “cross-dressing.” We can do better.

Lesson number 2: we have a long way to go on trust and solidarity

Suffering is felt subjectively: this is the very reason the experience of the victim is central to the definitions of sexual and racial harassment in U.S. law. Imagine a situation where the person who calls a colleague “bitch” or “sexy mamma” gets to decide if that contributes to a hostile work environment or not. No one would ever get beyond the “you just don’t have a sense of humor” defense. 

Of course, identifying abusive language is easy where it so far oversteps existing ideas of propriety that the suffering it generates is “objective” or felt by most, and where the intention to insult is explicit. 

It is much harder where the injury most probably is a result of ignorance rather than intentionally injurious. In such cases, as for example where a mainstream feminist writer compares the ideal female body to that of a “Brazilian transsexual,” our law and practice should allow for trust. Not the kind of trust that leads to impunity and abuse. But the kind of trust where the first reaction to sub-par communication isn’t to assume intentional insult but rather to educate and inform. 

For example, the first time a former boss called me “Sweetie,” I didn’t retort by calling him a sexist pig, I told him I preferred to be called by my name, and not by terms that, to me, implied he had little respect for my professional abilities. He never called me anything other than Marianne after that. And, at least in my presence, he started calling other female colleagues by their names too.

In short: the invisibility of trans communities is real. So are unthinking insults. By treating the latter as intentional, we do nothing to inform and educate about the first.

Monday
Jun182012

Crime and Obesity: Let's Get to the Heart of the Problems

@RHRealityCheck

There is something deceptively simple about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blanket initiatives. Whether it is giving the police unfettered discretion to stop and frisk anyone they think might look like a potential criminal because “it saves lives,” or banning the sale of large-container sodas because, well, that saves lives too, the initiatives promise easy fixes to complex problems.

They are, however, based on a blindness to prejudice that is compelling precisely because it is wrong.

In short, Mayor Bloomberg’s initiatives purport to be color- and class-blind. If the stop-and-frisk program affects mostly men of color, Bloomberg argues, this is purely coincidental. And if most of New York City’s overweight population lives in the poorest boroughs, that is also just by chance. Maybe, this line of argument implies, it is just that men of color and the resource-poor make appallingly bad decisions about their lives and health.

Incidentally, I am not arguing that our definitions of what should be subject to punitive measures and what constitutes a “normal” weight are perfect or even always good. The point I am making is about policy effectiveness. And in that sense, even a cursory look at correctional and obesity statistics in the United States reveals deep-seated disparities which knee-jerk reactions — in particular those that blatantly ignore color and class —cannot fix.

For example, 87 percent of those stopped and frisked in New York City in 2011 were either black or Latino and mostly male, even though drug possession and use — the ostensible reason for most stops — is equally prevalent among whites. And on health, compare the pricing of a Happy Meal and a pound of organic locally grown apples and you might have an idea of why the poor constitute the majority of the nation’s obese, and why many of them, at the same time, are malnourished.

Here’s a hint: It’s not because we don’t know better. 

Obesity, like being caught in the criminal justice system, is a condition disproportionately suffered by the poor and the relatively powerless. And it is self-perpetuating. Extra padding, much like a criminal record, is easier to acquire than to shed.

To articulate these truths is not to say that overweight individuals and those in conflict with the law are immoral, stupid, or devoid of agency and responsibility. It is not even to say that the decisions that led to the obesity and punishable behavior necessarily all are bad.

It is simply to acknowledge that all of us make decisions within our specific constraints, and that policy initiatives that seek to influence these decisions must look for ways to eliminate the constraints.

In the current case, our approach to crime and weight is better understood as wilfully ignored discrimination. The Supreme Court has pretty much systematically sidestepped and ignored racial profiling in the criminal justice system, resulting in continued discriminatory outcomes. And though discrimination against overweight individuals is prevalent in the workforce — in particular when it comes to obese women — only the state of Michigan and six cities ban this type of discrimination directly. This creates a vicious cycle of discrimination which perpetuates existing class and color disparities — a reality that policy initiatives to end both crime and obesity will have to contend with to be effective.

So why do politicians push for color- and class-blind initiatives? A key reason is that solutions to discrimination are more complex (and thus harder to sell to the public) than those which punish individual choice.

Take public school lunch. Many children depend on public schools almost entirely for their culinary development.  In New York City, for example, 62 percent of all children qualify for free school lunch, and many who don’t qualify still eat both breakfast and lunch at school. As a result, if food at school is overly fatty, salty, or sweet, this is what our children’s palates become accustomed to. The federal government has issued new guidelines to address this issue, but cooking healthier food in school cafeterias requires time, and time requires better benefits and higher salaries for cafeteria workers. Meanwhile, schools blame parents for not contributing, and increased money for school lunches is not high on the political agenda.

My point is: It should be.

Instead of spending money on policing serving sizes for sodas at the gas station, New York City Hall would do well to help instil healthy eating habits in children in the first place. And focusing on effective anti-obesity measures will probably save more lives than any amount of stopping and frisking. After all, heart disease has been the leading cause of death in New York City for at least the past decade.

Either way, there is no excuse for the discrimination that is inherent in current approaches to both crime and weight.

Monday
Nov072011

Sacrificing Women's Rights For "Popular Rule:" Why Equality is Essential

@RHRealityCheck

Over the past week Libya’s interim prime minister Abdel Rahim al-Keib has made numerous statements about human rights, at times announcing high priority to the protection of rights in his administration, at others hinting that some Libyan citizens (notably women) shouldn’t expect too much.

Judging from experiences in other countries women may not fare better after a dictatorship or autocratic rule than before it.  In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai signed a bill that made women subordinate to men, allegedly in an attempt to win votes. And earlier this year, peaceful female demonstrators in Egypt were submitted to forced virginity tests and brought before a military court a full month after Hosni Mubarak had resigned.

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether the current political set-ups in Egypt, Libya, or Afghanistan are more democratic than what came before, it is valid to ask whether women’s rights often are sacrificed for the sake of popular rule.  In last month’s Tunisian election, the Islamist party Ennahda won approximately 40 percent of the votes, making many worry that this country, with arguably the most advanced legal protections for women rights in the region, might slide backwards. Others countered that Islamism and feminism aren’t necessarily opposites but can, in fact, be linked.

The truth of the matter is, however, that without certain potentially unpopular back-stops to protect the rights of the disempowered, majority rule (or ruling party rule) does not always protect equal rights for all.  Indeed in the most extreme cases, state officials accused of wanting to annihilate entire groups of people within their own country can be democratically elected.

It is noteworthy that governments seeking to limit the human rights of a particular group often use the same justifications, regardless of geography or political set up.  The two most popular excuses are these: 1) our culture does not support that kind of thing; or 2) we just have a different way of doing it. 

When the first type of justification is used—such as for example in the case of rampant and very violent homophobia in Uganda and Nigeria—any criticism is highlighted as external interference with “our way of life” and ascribed to neo-colonialism or worse. This happens whether the criticism comes from in- or outside the country itself.

When the second type of justification is used—such as for example when Princess Loulwa Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia said that women in her country are better off than in the west because “men have a duty to look after them”—those who push for more inclusive policies are simply seen as misguided: they just don’t understand.

To be sure, notions of equality, including gender equality, as a social good have not been static throughout history and the expression of what equality looks like varies a lot even within countries.  While I believe that equality is absolutely essential to human dignity, I therefore accept that this belief has not always been as broadly accepted as it is now.  

But perhaps the more interesting question in the juxtaposition of women’s rights (or gay rights, or ethnic minority rights) and democracy is not whether some people’s rights are sacrificed for popular rule (they are), but rather whether they should be as a matter of principle (I think not).

For me this is more than just a question of conviction.  Equality has proven to be intrinsically linked to happiness, health, and peaceful societies.  In comparative studies, those societies with more equitable distributions of wealth do better than more unequal neighbors on a number of social parameters such as infant mortality, crime rates, and individual contentment.  Moreover, we already know that where violence against women surges, general violence is likely to grow too.

So next time someone questions the support for the rights of a specific group of people, you might want to ask them if they support those same rights for themselves.  Not to show them up by highlighting their hypocrisy—though that might be an added benefit—but rather to make the point that we are all interdependent. Libya’s prime minister would do well to remember that too.



Tuesday
Aug022011

A Step Backward for Puerto Rican Women

@PRDailysun

When it comes to ending violence against women, Puerto Rico has taken a giant step backward.  To be sure, the islands have had a comprehensive law to protect women and girls against domestic violence since 1989. But the Puerto Rican Supreme Court has blocked a lot of women from its protection.  

In a decision handed down in March, the Court upheld a lower court's ruling that a victim of intimate partner violence was not protected by Puerto Rico’s domestic violence law because she was not married to the man who attacked her.  The woman, who was separated but not yet divorced from her husband, was battered by her new partner.

The Supreme Court held that the historical background of the law indicated that the Puerto Rican legislature’s intent was to protect the integrity of the family and its members. So, it held, the law did not apply to extramarital affairs. The court did make clear that the assault violated other criminal law provisions.

The ruling has, understandably, outraged many people, as far away as New York, where city and state elected officials voiced their objections. For starters, Puerto Rico’s domestic violence law explicitly applies broadly to interpersonal relationships. It covers violence by someone with whom the victim lives or has lived or has had a consensual relationship and does not require a marital bond between the victim and the abuser.   In other words, the ruling imposes a perverse interpretation on a commonsense and literal reading of the law, based on far reaching assumptions about the intent of the legislature.

But more important, through this ruling the Puerto Rican Supreme Court is sending the message that some women may not deserve equal protection from the state.  This is the wrong message to put forward in a society where interpersonal violence is a serious problem.   

According to official sources, on average, 20,000 domestic violence incidents are reported every year in Puerto Rico, along with about 3,000 incidents of sexual violence.  Official sources estimate that, in the case of sexual violence, only about 15 percent of rapes are reported.   If the proportion is the same for domestic violence, approximately 130,000 women and girls are subjected to domestic violence every year, and 18,000 are raped, in a place with only 4 million people. Whatever the actual figures, violence at the hands of their partners and families is a serious problem for Puerto Rican women and girls.

Paradoxically, Puerto Rican women are far from disempowered. Women on the islands achieved the right to vote in 1935, before almost any nation in Latin America and the Caribbean (outdone only by Ecuador, where women have been able to vote since 1929). And Puerto Rico’s women and girls have long outdone their male counterparts when it comes to education: a century ago, nearly three quarter of the graduates from the University of Puerto Rico were women.  Today approximately 160 women are graduating from Puerto Rico’s higher education programs for every 100 men. 

So the reason for the high rate of interpersonal violence has to be found elsewhere.  Emerging evidence from across the world suggests that it’s not enough for women to be financially independent and educated for the incidence of domestic violence to drop—though those are  necessary conditions.  

 But because violence against women often is fuelled by deeply held notions of male dominance and entitlement, it doesn’t stop just because women, objectively, are as educated and employable as men.  Rather, successful anti-violence initiatives must engage men and boys as well as women and girls to do away with prejudices about what families “must” look like, and what women and men “should” do. 

The Puerto Rican Supreme Court’s ruling is particularly problematic because it does just the opposite. By suggesting that “integrity of the family and its members” trumps the right of certain women in certain relationships to equal protection against violence, the court undermines the many valid initiatives to stop violence against women in Puerto Rico.  And that’s indeed something to be outraged about.