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Ally vs. Superhero: The Western Gaze in How We View News Coverage

2 May

by Queen Adesuyi

 As updates about the 200+ kidnapped Nigerian girls break out, hashtags such as “#SaveOurGirls” and “#SaveOurDaughters” flood my Facebook and Instagram timelines. There were common responses attached to each post with these hashtags and flyers that I saw:

“Why isn’t there more coverage?” “Why isn’t this headlining in the West?” “Why aren’t there any reports of this?” “Why haven’t we done anything?”

I even participated in these criticisms with my thought that if it were 200+ British girls who were kidnapped, the news’ outcry would be drastically different and those girls would have been found.

These criticisms and responses are well-intentioned and in many ways, necessary. Western media has been guilty of perpetrating stereotypes, ignoring important stories, and misconstruing the realities of many complex nations and cultures.

However, why is there an assumption that no one is reporting or taking action on this issue? Many of us are associating a story’s importance with how highlighted it is or is not in our [Western] media. Apparently, the gravity of the kidnappings cannot be legitimate until countries like the United States and the United Kingdom dominate in how it is covered in news. It’s as if Western media validates or legitimizes the narratives and actions of the “other” world. Victims of our own western gaze, many of us are also confusing news coverage with action. Obviously, what is more important here? Does what happens on the ground in Nigeria not count for something?

African media has been reporting this story from the very beginning. Nigerians, most importantly, Nigerian women have utilized their political agency as a response to the kidnappings. Nigerian women have mobilized and have started movements such as the “Million Women March.” Parents of the girls, local neighbors, and other Nigerian allies are raising money and rallying for the return of their daughters. Moves are being made. Yes, proper media coverage would be nice and ideal, but pleas for Western attention/help should not overshadow the fact that efforts made by Nigerians and other Africans are both legitimate and worthy with or without Western eyes.

Being an ally is always a positive. Who can object to sincere solidarity? However, the paternalistic nature of how we approach the “third world” is problematic in that it cultivates an elite, superhero mentality. This mentality deems efforts and actions taken by non-Western nations as inequipped and of no value. Just because the United States or the United Kingdom hasn’t headlined it (though they should) or it originally did not flood your timelines on social media, doesn’t mean that nothing or no one is working on the issue on the ground. Nigerians are taking stand. Nigerian women are taking stand.

We should all make sure to be aware of what happens in our global community, but we should also stop assuming that if our eyes are not watching then nothing is being done. We are not the end all, be all in feminism, the promotion of liberty, medicine, etc… though we like to think so.

The global community needs allies, not superheroes.

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Reacting to the Red Light District

11 Apr

by Nicole Chenelle

When I say that I spent a week in Amsterdam during my semester abroad, most people respond with something along the lines of, “Oh! So did you see the Red Light district?” coupled with wide eyes and giggles. I spent the week in Amsterdam with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class. We met with NGOs, government organizations, and former sex workers to discuss the status of sex work within the Netherlands. I definitely saw the Red Light district.

This week-long trip to Amsterdam with my Prostitution and the Sex Trade class was the reason I chose to study abroad at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. As a women’s and gender studies minor at Georgetown, the idea of studying prostitution in countries were it is legal was exciting. I had never engaged with prostitution academically, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to study the issue through a lens of legality. My Prostitution and the Sex Trade course included a three-day intensive study in our home base of Copenhagen, where prostitution is legal, a three-day trip to Sweden, where prostitution is legal but the client is criminalized, and this week-long trip to Amsterdam, where brothels, as well as prostitution, is legal.

The Red Light district of Amsterdam cannot be ignored. Centrally located around the city’s oldest church, the Red Light district demands that you notice the sex work happening all around you. Whether it’s the beckoning of the dolled-up women in the windows, the neon lights advertising sex shows, or rainbow-colored condoms hanging in the windows of the Condomerie, sex permeates the atmosphere of Amsterdam. The Red Light district is both a neighborhood which celebrates sex and pleasure and one who’s glitter and lipstick camouflages exploitation and human trafficking.

The majority of our class discussions and my own personal musings come back to this question – can you separate freely chosen sex work versus the trafficking of human beings for the purposes of sexual exploitation? Can sex work even be chosen, or do the economic motivators limit the agency of this choice? How can we, or should we even, aid the Eastern European girls in the windows whose boyfriends would legally qualify as pimps? How do we stop the human rights violation of trafficking while allowing individuals to sell sex if that is what they so chose? Is sex work just another form of labor, or is there something about sex which makes it inherently different? These are questions I have spent my semester abroad contemplating, questions that activists and lawmakers have spent their whole careers thinking about, without coming to an obvious conclusion.

Learning about the sex industry in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands has made my ignorance about the sex trade in the United States glaring apparent. I know prostitution is illegal in the majority of the United States, but it still exists. Criminalizing the prostitute herself (or himself, but most often herself) does nothing but create a cycle of criminality. Marring these women with a criminal record does the opposite of helping them exit the sex industry, but instead, makes getting a job in another profession near impossible. Is the Nordic model, or the criminalization of the customer, the solution for the United States? Criminalizing the men who purchase sex rather than the women themselves is a step in the right direction, yet I worry that the Nordic model merely plays lip-service to the ideal of eradicating prostitution rather than enacting real change. I find myself leaning towards supporting the legalization of prostitution, yet fear that legalization would encourage sex traffickers to do their business in that country. The more I study prostitution and the sex trade, the more I come to appreciate the complexity and nuances of this issue, and the more I recognize that anyone who has a simple solution isn’t thinking hard enough.

Ban the Burqa?

30 Nov

by Rebecca Chapman

Current obsessions over women’s clothing or lack thereof is all that seems relevant to ‘women’s news’ nowadays. It would be easy to trivialise such discussions as meaningless gossip, but when a government attempts to intervene on the issue, it ought to concern everyone.  Though we’ve heard about the rights and wrongs of Miley’s outfits, what really should be on the agenda is the burqa and the niqab. Of course, this contentious issue of women’s dress has never really gone away, but with two incidents in the UK in both the classroom and the courtroom, these items are once again back at the forefront of national debate. Back in August, a Muslim woman accused of intimidating a witness was ordered by a judge to remove her niqab when giving evidence; around the same time there was an overturning of the niqab ban at Birmingham Metropolitan College after a number of pupils protested. Both these events would have passed with little concern were it not for a certain section of the government using these stories to stir up debate around the issue. The burqa and the niqab apply to the most conservative form of Muslim dress, with the former being a full veil covering the whole head and face and the niqab leaving only a small slit for the eyes, and it is these items that are being called into question by the current government.

Let me start by saying this article is not here to discuss the rights and wrongs of Muslim dress, nor will it be addressing whether there is something inherently sexist about a woman covering her head and face. The sole purpose of this article is to ask whether a government has a right to legislate on the issue.

Amidst the recent discussion, non-Muslims have been voicing their desire to ‘liberate’ and ‘free’ women from the grips of such obvious patriarchal oppression. People with almost no knowledge of Islamic cultures and traditions have professed their outrage at women being forced to wear the burqa against their wishes. Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying it was time “to stop delegating this to individual institutions as a minor matter of dress code and instead set clear national guidance.” Comparing the burqa to an “invisibility cloak,” she claimed, “Women should be clear that the burqa is a symbol not of liberation but of repression and segregation.”  Perhaps Sarah Wollaston is making some valid arguments here, but as one may be able to detect from her name, Sarah Wollaston is in fact not a Muslim. In fact, her insular view provides a perfect representation of the tidal wave of opinion coming from non-Muslim women about an issue that is solely concerning Muslim woman.

With the push for the ban coming exclusively from the non-Muslim community, I can’t help but question the real motives behind this ban. The irony of a right-wing government presenting the issue as concern for women’s rights is not only laughable, but it is also irony of the worst kind. It’s difficult to believe that the current party in power in the UK, which has systematically and unapologetically attempted to curb the rights of women since its origins, has suddenly gained a conscience. If David Cameron is so concerned with women’s voices being silenced maybe he ought to have given more than 4 women a place in the cabinet of 25.  This is a policy of fear and ignorance, in which a minority of a minority are persecuted, posturing as a policy of liberation.

MPs are often in the habit of presenting complex issues as very simple ones and this is no different. Consequently, prominent voices in the Muslim community have raised concerns about the impact of the proposed ban. Salma Yaqoob, formerly a Birmingham city councillor, said: “The women who do wear the face veils are a tiny minority within a minority, so the thought that they’re any kind of threat to British society as a whole is beyond laughable. But at the same time, [these debates] do, of course, increase the vulnerability of Muslim women as a whole. Time and again, verbal and physical attacks on Muslim women increase when we have these so-called national debates. In emotional and psychological terms, I think it does a huge amount of damage.”

The argument behind the banning of the burqa and the niqab is grounded in creating a freer, more integrated society, but evidence provided by European examples suggests it does the exact opposite.  Since France’s introduction of the ban in 2011, Muslim groups have reported a distressing rise in discrimination, reflected by a legal system which has seen an explosion on physical attacks on women wearing Muslim dress. The law has given self-styled vigilantes the opportunity to use Muslim communities as a scapegoat (if the state discriminates against a minority, it stands to reason that certain individuals will follow suit). Confronted with the choice of defying the law and facing verbal and physical assaults, women are opting to stay at home, hidden away from the world. This law has made prisoners of law-abiding citizens, whose only crime is to choose to express their religion and culture through their dress. Despite the fact that every woman brought forward to answer for her ‘crimes’ expressed that they wore the burqa of their own free choosing, the French government have refused to relent.

Supporters of the ban have raised the point that nowhere in the Qur’an does it dictate that a woman must be covered from head to toe, but nowhere in the Bible does it dictate that Christians must where a cross around their necks. Instead, it is a personal choice taken for all kinds of reasons, not necessarily religious ones. In 1970’s Iran, the CIA-backed leadership outlawed the burqa and the niqab; women had their clothing ripped from their faces and, as a result, some choose to stay inside. But some chose to keep their veils, seeing it as the only way they could signal their opposition to American domination of Iran. This compulsory ‘feminism’ is both insensitive to cultural practices and ultimately useless. If there is to be a feminist movement within Islamic cultures, it must, and will come from within the community on their own terms. The reality is most Muslim women in the UK do not wear the burqa; the women who do, do so of their own choosing. As feminists, we ought to understand the importance of a woman’s right to choose.

It is not to say that there aren’t instances when the burqa or the niqab are inappropriate: passing through airport security where it is vital for the authorities to identify people moving in and out of their borders is one example that springs to mind. But there has been no argument from the Muslim community or instances in which there have been objections towards reaching a pragmatic solution.

Of course, clothing is not solely a Muslim problem, given that in their most orthodox forms many other religions provide strict rules for women’s clothing. And even in the relatively secular west, woman are frequently told what length their skirt should be, how much cleavage is appropriate and if their dress is sending out the ‘wrong signals’.

Men have presumed the authority to tell women what they can and cannot do with their bodies for centuries. As feminists we must resist it any way we can. A husband telling his wife she must cover her face is no worse than a state telling her she cannot. It is possible to disagree with the principle of the burqa or the niqab but object to legislature against them. And whilst the burqa may be considered a symbol of the oppression of women, it is most certainly not its cause.

How to Become and Grow the 17% (Part 1)

8 Feb

by Alissa Orlando

This week, Nick Kristof reported that there was only 17% female attendance at this year’s World Economic Forum.  In the United States, only 17 percent of American Fortune 500 board seats are held by women.  At McKinsey & Company, where Sheryl Sandberg worked after business school and I will work after graduation, only 17 percent of partners globally are women.

So the question on everyone’s (okay.. maybe every elite woman’s) mind is WHY?!?  Women are leaning back.  This is Sheryl Sandberg’s contribution to the debate (keep an eye out for the full book, Lean In, in March). Her argument is pretty simple:  “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.”  To add value in the workplace, one must actively contribute to the conversation, but Sandberg argues that women struggle between this professional expectation of being assertive and the social expectation of being submissive and conciliatory.

My thoughts?  There is definitely some merit to this for some women.  Next time you are in class, count how many times a woman will apologize for asking a question, be obviously embarrassed when answering a question incorrectly, or qualify her statements with an incredibly annoying series of self-deprecating or self-doubting phrases.  Count how many times a man will interrupt a classmate, challenge a professor, or push a point of personal interest, regardless of the class dynamics.  If a woman plays this more assertive role, what is the class reaction?  What happens when she outshines (or outearns) her male colleagues and goes toe-to-toe with her superiors?  This, folks, is leaning in.  Or not giving a shit.  But Sheryl’s publishers didn’t approve that title.

The issue with this explanation is that it emphasizes what women are doing wrong – rather than how women can be better supported.  There are plenty of women who are assertive and are leaning in, only to have someone block their place at the table.  Plenty of structural and societal issues still exist (which Sandberg admittedly acknowledges).  Most of the issues discussed are most pertinent to 40-something ladder-climbers.  Women need flexible work schedules to take care of their children.  They need to be given reasonable maternity leaves.  But what about us 20-something fresh-out-of (insert overpriced, prestigious University here)?  Here are some reasons why, even way before kids/work-life balance issues come into play, assertive women are head butting against some painful glass ceilings:

  1. Expected leadership style
  2. Mentorship limitations
  3. Personal life issues

I will explore these further in future posts about how to become and grow the 17 percent.  But for now, ladies, lean in.  Don’t qualify or apologize for your opinions.  Don’t be afraid to face rejection or be flat out wrong.  And don’t be afraid to defend your view when you think you’re flat our right.

Look out for more posts by Alissa Orlando on becoming and growing the 17%!

Breaking into the Boys’ Club

7 Feb

by Jenna Sackler

The reelection of President Barack Obama brings with it lots of hope for the future of equality, most notably regarding same-sex marriage. But hurdles still remain for gender equality, and I’m not even talking about Congress legislating our uteri or letting VAWA expire.  I’m talking about the section of politics most important to me: foreign policy.  President Obama’s first term foreign policy team included a powerhouse trio of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (aka my idol), Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and National Security Council senior official Samantha Power.  In total, women accounted for about 43% of his first-term appointments, in keeping with other recent Democratic administrations.  His second administration, however, will not be so equal.

Thus far, Obama has nominated John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.  While both men are, in my opinion anyway, very intelligent and capable of doing their jobs admirably, Obama avoided choosing any women.  Susan Rice was pushed abandoned due to her role in the State Department’s handling of the Benghazi attack in September.  Perhaps that was the right choice; had Obama continued with her nomination, critics would have never shut up and she would have been unable to do her job.  Michele Flournoy seemed like a great choice for Secretary of Defense (she would have been the first female SecDef, too).  She generally takes a liberal realist view, meaning that she is not afraid to fight when necessary, but prefers other means to solve problems.  She has extensive experience as Under Secretary of Defense for policy.  And—most importantly to me—she is a strong advocate for women in security, particularly women in the military.  Yet both of these accomplished women were disregarded.

Recent data shows that women hold only 30% of senior foreign policy-related jobs, in the government or not.  Possible reasons for this mirror reasons for lack of female representation in pretty much every field.  Work-life concerns, stemming from the fact that women are still not only expected to have families and children, but to be the primary caretakers of those children, top the list (as per usual).  Another major concern, especially in politics, is lack of sponsorship.  Mentors and accomplished older friends can make or break a career in Washington, and in general men are less willing to mentor younger women.  Maybe some want to create their own Mini-Me, maybe some are afraid the relationship will be understood “the wrong way.” Whatever the reason, women are unable to make those key networks early in their careers that will push them through the ranks quickly.  Finally, one concern that bothers me in particular, is that women tend to be less interested in issues of hard power, meaning military or economic power.  Women are more drawn towards development, diplomacy, and other types of soft power.  Soft power is absolutely vital to a successful foreign policy.  But (whether or not it should be) it is not the primary type of power in which the United States deals today.

This third concern affects me in particular because I am one of those (apparently rare) women who does enjoy studying hard power, in my case military power.  I am very interested in the fields of nuclear nonproliferation, arms control/transfer, and how the United States wields its considerable military weight.  The School of Foreign Service at Georgetown actually does a pretty good job, institutionally, of promoting women in international security.  SFS Dean Carol Lancaster launched the Institute for Women, Peace, and Security in 2011, and it has created a space for women studying international affairs to network and learn from each other—key for creating those mentor relationships I mentioned earlier.  I am also currently taking a class with the first female Secretary of State, Madeleine K. Albright. While the class itself does not focus on issues of gender and international security, sitting in lecture and listening to her anecdotes, then remembering she was the first woman in U.S. history to have such experiences, is amazing to me.

However, not all of my experiences have been so positive.  I took a class on the role of the military in exercising national power; out of 24 students, only 5 were women, and we were absolutely seen as less knowledgeable.  Not, to his credit, by the professor, but by the male students in the class—they could not fathom that a woman would know as much about submarine warfare as they did.  Which was only as much as they read from textbooks or the internet, as not one student in the class was a member of the military. In a language class, two female friends and I got half-jokingly labeled “radical feminists” for desiring stable, successful careers before starting families.  I have often been met with surprise when I tell people my research interests: arms deals, nuclear weapons, and terrorism.  People, mostly men, are shocked when a woman wants to study hard power rather than soft.

I’m hoping that outgoing SecDef Leon Panetta’s announcement lifting combat exclusionary bans will herald a new era of—or at least new conversation about—the role of women not just in combat, but in national security in general. Women represent 51% of the US population, 56.4% of students at public universities, and 59.3% of students at private universities. But they fill only 30% of top foreign policy positions, even fewer in the specific field of national security. As Rosa Brooks pointed out, endless data has shown a correlation between higher female representation and better results. Whether that has to do with some ‘different’ factor women bring or just that a gender-diverse panel is less susceptible to the dangers of groupthink is still unknown and frankly, not that important.  What is important is that this country (and the world) needs equal representation of women at all levels of government, perhaps nowhere more so than in foreign policy.  While I wouldn’t mind being the first female Secretary of Defense, I shouldn’t be.  There are so many, so many amazingly qualified women, with more entering the workforce each year.  Hopefully President Obama remembers that as he continues filling the National Security Council for his second term.

What’s in a name?

31 Jan

By Zoe Coyle

We live in a world where political labels are given the utmost importance.  Especially as a college kid in DC, it is nearly impossible to maintain a political discussion with someone without labeling yourself as a democrat or republican, liberal or conservative.  That is why Planned Parenthood’s recent decision to drop the term “pro-choice” from its lexicon (while still remaining pro-choice in action and values) can be both a disheartening as well as a puzzling decision. As a ‘pro-choice’ ‘feminist’, these labels are a valuable part of my political identity, and are inextricable from my personal and moral views as a whole. It’s sad to see a cherished organization shy away from a term that I am proud to hold on to.

However, as a student on a Catholic University, where topics like abortion can be the third-rail in many political debates, I also understand why Planned Parenthood would want to back away from a term that can provoke hostility. While more Americans are pro-life than pro-choice,  six in ten Americans do not want to see Roe v Wade overturned. As Gail Collins argues in her most recent column entitled “The Woes of Roe”, people support abortion rights a lot more when they themselves are not asked to make a legal decision about it; these findings show how labels don’t accurately reflect people’s political views in practice.

There is the fear of course, that a quiet burial of the term “pro-choice” is little more than newspeak in order to make reproductive issues seem more palatable. I am a member of the pro-choice group on my campus, Hoyas for Choice, and we have recently begun to debate whether or not we should remove the term “choice” from our name as well. For our group, the term “choice” can inaccurately describe the work that we do as a group – an umbrella term such as “reproductive justice” or “reproductive health” might not be as catchy, but it is a broader catch-all for students who might be uneasy about abortion but definitely support access to contraceptives on college campuses.  The term pro-choice does not always accurately describe the wide range of reproductive health and justice issues that organizations and activists work towards. A binary label system can very easily restrict and isolate people who can be both intimidated and unsure of how the two labels apply to them.  Furthermore, this division forces people to ‘choose’ a side on issues that are often not seen in black and white. Regardless of labels, an American citizenry that remains loyal to Roe v Wade is certainly something to celebrate.

Choice is a Jesuit Value

31 Jan

By Morgan McDaniel 

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This picture is of me, standing proudly in the free speech zone of Red Square, holding a piece of paper with a statement that some people might find controversial, disrespectful, or downright heretical.  To me, it is one of many beautiful pockets of truth amid the messy contradictions that are part of our Jesuit Georgetown identity.

Choice is a Jesuit value.  Let me tell you what I mean.

This week, H*yas for Choice launched our “Choice Is . . . ” campaign.  We wanted to show that even though people see abortion as a black-and-white issue, in reality to be pro-choice is to embrace all the shades of gray of human experience.  We want to show that no one’s life fits the same mold, and to be pro-choice is to respect every woman and man’s right to make decisions about their bodies for themselves.  That applies whether the decision is to have sex, to remain abstinent, to use birth control, to get an abortion, or to raise a child.  As Planned Parenthood’s newest campaign puts it, “nobody knows a woman’s specific situation – we’re not in her shoes.”

The reason H*yas for Choice has to use an asterisk instead of an o, and the reason we can only give out condoms in a free speech zone, is that the Vatican finds contraception and abortion morally unacceptable under any circumstances, so our Catholic University is prohibited from giving us access to benefits.  If we look at the history, this prohibition is completely arbitrary, and following it blindly is completely out of step with the Jesuit values I was taught to embrace since my first moment on Georgetown’s campus.  Let’s take a look at three of those Jesuit values, straight from Georgetown’s website for Mission and Ministry:

Cura Personalis

“Cura Personalis suggests individualized attention to the needs of the other, distinct respect for his or her unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights.”  I quote this sentence with pride because it has been the foundation of my personal growth and development around service and social justice at Georgetown.  I’ve learned that true service is based in humility and solidarity – that service based in privilege and the assumption that “I know best” is likely to do more harm than good.   It is not for us to judge or presume we know best.  We can only make a positive impact when we truly listen to those we serve.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that this language so closely echoes Planned Parenthood’s talking points – that we must respect each woman’s knowledge and understanding of her own situation, and respect her needs and priorities.

Faith and Justice

“This commitment links the authentic following of the Gospel of Jesus with an obligation to address the social realities of poverty, oppression, and injustice.”  This is an important point.  People who oppose contraception and abortion rush right past living breathing women in need to worry about justice for the unborn or unconceived.  I want to talk about justice for the women themselves , women who are part of our community.

Poverty and oppression are inextricably linked to a woman’s ability to control when she has children and how many she has.  Without being able to control her own reproduction, a woman cannot control her own income, ensure access to education, or have any job security.  Studies on this issue tend to focus on women in developing countries, but this is still true for women in the US and is absolutely true for many women at Georgetown.  We should especially consider the high rate of rape and sexual assault in the US and yes, right here on campus, even though people don’t like to talk about it.  One in four women will be sexually assaulted or raped over the course of her four years at college, and blocking access to contraception or abortion is perpetuating an injustice.

Community in Diversity

“Approximately 52 percent of our student body are women,” says Mission and Ministry.  That’s 52 percent of the student body who will face choices that the male authorities of the Catholic Church will never have to face.  How can Georgetown value diversity if it expects all students to conform to the same behaviors, same ideas, and same morality system?  To value diversity is to seek out and incorporate different perspectives, to learn from each other, and to understand and accept that different people have different needs and different contexts.

That extends to the ways that gender intersects with other identities and factors that make us diverse – race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status.  All of these things affect us differently and make our situations and choices that much more complicated.  If we want to respect and value the diversity of our community, we must abandon judgment in favor of compassion for everyone’s unique circumstances.

We’ve heard people say that H*yas for Choice is anti-religion, anti-Catholic, anti-Georgetown.  That’s not it at all.  Dig a little deeper under the doctrine and you’ll see what I mean.  When we say we are pro-choice, we mean we hold distinct respect for each person’s unique circumstances and concerns, and an appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights.  We mean we feel and obligation to address the social realities of poverty, oppression, and injustice.  We mean we value the diverse needs, contexts, and choices of every member of our community.

Choice is a Jesuit value.  Pass it on.