Saturday, August 21, 2004

More bad news than good

I've been thinking of changing this blog's title to Humanity's Status Update, since it doesn't look too good at times, but Women's Status has more of a ring to it. I watched an interesting interview with Carmen Bin Laden yesterday on the BBC's Hard Talk Extra programme. She described the vicious circle going on in Saudi Arabia: women are denied an education and then relegated to a second-class role because they are uneducated and have nothing to say. If they have money, they shop - though a driver has to take them to the stores, of course, because they are not allowed to sit behind the wheel.

The first thing the ruling classes do when they want to control a segment of the population is deny them an education. (Before slavery was abolished in the USA, slaves could be hanged on the spot if their masters found out they could read.)

Today's bad news has to do with my "day job," which is translating. According to a New York Times article titled "Lost in Translation" (registration required), Simone de Beauvoire's The Second Sex was bowdlerised and distorted by a 1950s translator who knew nothing about existentialism and little about French!
Since the American publishers, Knopf and Vintage, allegedly refuse to authorise a new translation, it's time for English-speaking women to learn (or brush up on) their French - or wait till the book enters the public domain in 2056...

I suppose this is good news - it is a bit odd to see the world's Number One Stepford Wife among the ten most powerful women on the planet - but according to the BBC this is the top-ten power list for the "second sex":
Condoleezza Rice
Wu Yi
Sonia Gandhi
Laura Bush
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Sandra Day O'Connor
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Megawati Sukarnoputri
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo
Carleton "Carly" S Fiorina

Shame on me for not knowing that Wu Yi is Vice-Premier of China
Carly Fiorina chairs Hewlett-Packard

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Personal note

I suppose I should write something about myself to put this blog in context - explain where it and I are coming from. I'm 48 years old, which means that I was born at the tail end of the baby boom and missed the Woodstock era by a trice (I actually went to Janis Joplin's last concert in a prim summer frock, sitting next to my father, who wore a business suit, surrounded by flower children screaming for the lights to be turned off so they could smoke pot. Janis refused to perform until their demands were met.) However, I imbibed enough of the values of the 60s to reject the materialism of the "me-generation" and the Yuppie outbreak that followed.

My parents and my nationality are British, but I was born in Canada, raised in Puerto Rico, went to high school in New York, and then went on to live in England (where I studied Anglo-Saxon archaeology for 2 years at UCL), Spain (where I vegetated as an unmarried hausfrau) and Los Angeles (where I earned a BA in English Lit and an MA in Latin American Studies from UCLA). For the last 17 going on 18 years I've been living in Bahia, in the northeastern part of Brazil. I am white and my two daughters (one adopted) are African-Brazilian. My ex-husband was, for me, the embodiment of two cultural treasures I prize in Bahia - capoeira and Candomblé. Ironically, after we married, he tried to get me to stop participating in both (we met at a capoeira school, and by the time I was seven months pregnant, and had to stop training, I had reached a reasonably advanced level). Basically he wanted me to be the "3 Ks" ("kinder kirche kuche") type of wife advocated by Hitler. Our marriage lasted 5 years - it endured that long because I wanted my daughter to have a father in the house, but finally I decided that living with unhappy quarrelling parents was worse for her than having a single Mum.

Over the years, I have become increasingly incensed at the treatment of women in general, and intelligent, educated women in particular. It almost seems like there's a genocidal push to ensure that intelligent women don't have children and therefore don't pass on their intelligent genes (I don't know how that works actually, because neither Einstein's parents nor his offspring were geniuses as far as I know). Perhaps the trick for survival is for an intelligent woman to act dumb until she at least manages to get pregnant. (I'm being ironic here.) In The Mill on the Floss, a man marries a stupid wife because he believes women shouldn't be as clever as men, and then finds that her stupid genes went to his son and his own intelligence was passed on to his daughter. Genetics...always a crap shoot.

As I've mentioned, sexism is rampant in Brazil, but I see it everywhere. Women are expected to fit into a range of stereotypes and be driven by hormones. Women even speak of their own gender in the third person (I always feel that I should be writing "we" and "our"). The older I get, the more I learn, the wiser I am (unless it's wishful thinking), the more men talk down and patronise me. Where's the logic in that?

I have a theory about all this. Young boys tend to be intimidated by girls, who are usually taller and learn faster, according to surveys I've read. Then, suddenly, the boys become men who - for the most part - are bigger and stronger than their female counterparts. Mens' intra-gender values are generally based on penis size and physical strength first, and intellectual development second (although now nerds are more highly valued because they tend to become the richest people on earth, like Bill Gates). Since most women can only compete with men on the second, less-valued level - intelligence - all that remains is to dumb women down and, hey presto, men are the dominant sex.

With apologies to people of African descent who may be offended by the "n-word," Yoko Ono and John Lennon were right, "Woman is the Nigger of the World". Read the lyrics and weep.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Good news for the EU (I hope)

Once again, my source is the BBC (I read their news website all the time and recommend it for truly fair and balanced reporting): Top EU body to appoint more women
The president-elect of the European Commission has succeeded in one of his first objectives - getting more women nominated to be commissioners.... It will be the strongest female representation since the Commission was created in 1957. The Commission headed by outgoing Commission President Romano Prodi featured seven women out of 30 members.

Still - and there's always a downside isn't there - I wish that there were already a representative number of women in the European Commission without having to resort to some kind of affirmative action. The human race will truly have made progress when EU commissioners - and everyone else - are judged on their talent regardless of gender, ethnicity or creed.

Good news for some is bad for others

This just in from the BBC: Divorce divides Morocco and W Sahara:
"A new family code in Morocco, known as the Mudawana, is having differing effects on women's rights in the Islamic kingdom and the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which falls under Moroccan rule."

There is a human tendency - related to the survival of the species - to focus on and remember bad things and neglect the positive. It's good to know that - at least until this new law was passed - the Saharawi women in the Western Sahara had worked out an excellent way of dealing with wife beaters in their society: shunning and shaming. Again, according to the BBC report:
"For us, if a man beats his wife, he is no longer a man, he is a dog," said Salka, a 45-year-old Saharawi woman, recently divorced for the second time.
In the Western Sahara, if a man beats his wife the minimum he must do to ask her forgiveness is hold a second wedding, with all the gifts of camels and jewellery that entails.
Even so, he will rarely be successful in convincing his wife to return.

Unfortunately, because the new law is the same for everyone, the Saharawi women have actually taken a step backwards so that their sisters in Morocco can be assured of not being beaten by their husbands and even thrown into the streets to starve with their children (now, in Morocco, the spouse who has custody gets to keep the house - I wish that were true in Brazil!).

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

China bans gender-selective abortions

This story gave me the idea for the good news/bad news slant on women's issues - China is cracking down on abortions of female foetuses. Chinese families have a tough enough time as it is because of the one-child rule, and due to traditional and cultural values, they prefer to have male children. The problem is, when there are more boys than girls, many heterosexual adult males have no one to marry (unless a black market in baby girls and kidnapped women springs up, which it has). Here's an article on the subject in the Herald Trib, titled Seeking balance, Beijing bans sex-selective abortions

The whole thing harks back to that line from a margarine ad: "It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature". (Which reminds me of Margaret Atwood again - though not specifically on women's issues - I highly recommend her other dystopian novel, Oryx and Crake.)

India is also trying to tackle the problem of using ultrasound and selective abortion to prevent girls from being born, which is mainly due to the (now outlawed) custom of paying hefty dowries for daughters. One bride became a hero because she refused to pay the groom's family's extortionate dowry demand. (This is supposed to be a "good news" entry, but the rebellious bride was a welcome exception. Also according to the Herald Trib, many dowry disputes lead to murder.)

Monday, August 02, 2004

The Handmaid's Tale

The web address for this blog is a tribute to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale [see study guide here]. I was amazed at her prescience - and she bases her dystopian visions on current events and facts - when the Taliban suddenly ordered all women in the area they controlled (including doctors, lawyers, etc.) to don the blue burka and stay home. Neither women nor their daughters were allowed to work or go to school or leave home without a male escort. If they didn't happen to have a man to escort and support them - and many men were killed fighting the Soviets - they were blamed for not having prayed enough to keep their men alive. Their only recourse was to beg.
A recent movie called Osama dramatically illustrates the plight of women and girls when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. According to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, George W. Bush did business with the Taliban before he became president, and then, when it was politically expedient in the post 9/11 world, he sent out his "Stepford Wife" Laura to express the solidarity of American womanhood (which she supposedly represented) with the oppressed women of Afghanistan.
I was incensed by the sheer hypocrisy. For a long time, nobody seemed to care what was happening to women under the Taliban regime until they became a convenient excuse to vilify Bush's former business partners. I wonder what the Afghan women's lives are like now that they have been "liberated" - are they still afraid to walk around without a suffocating blue tent covering them from head to foot, on pain of being beaten or raped? That's not a rhetorical question - I would really like to know...
While women's rights are being rolled back to the middle ages in some parts of the world, women who live in countries where they have achieved mostly equal rights with men are willing to throw it all away for the sake of femininity. I don't intend to rant here, but being a feminist doesn't (or shouldn't) mean imitating the worst attributes of men. On the other hand, being feminine doesn't mean trampling on the hard-won rights for which some of our sisters gave their lives. Nothing should be taken for granted. If you need a reminder, read The Handmaid's Tale.

Introduction - Good News and Bad News

The idea for this blog has been boiling up for some time - every time my blood boils at a news report from somewhere in the world that makes clear that (a) the feminist movement is either being eroded or has in some way backfired or (b) it has never reached certain parts of the world and possibly never will. I don't plan to focus on the bad news, however. Occasionally there is good news for women and I hope it will cheer my readers (if I have any) as much as it does me. I don't know how much good this will do - there's an NGO called "Women's Rights Watch" that is probably contributing much more than I ever could - but I like the story about the hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire with with a drop of water. If enough people do the same, we might not put out the fire but we will at least make a difference.
Some of the most recent bad news comes from the Vatican - the Christian version of the Taliban - which is
blaming feminists for the breakdown of the family and acceptance of gay marriage. Today's bad news is that, according to Prof Carol Black, president of the Royal College of Physicians (et tu, Carol) the predominance of women doctors is seen as "weakening the medical profession". If this goes on, it is lamented (by a woman), physicians will be the equivalent of secretaries or (heaven forfend) nurses. Interestingly enough, in Brazil - where I live - sexism is rampant and pervasive, but no one questions the vast number of women in the "liberal professions" - doctors, lawyers, architects, dentists, although so far, no Indian chiefs.