Are Allies Entitled to a Voice? To Self-Care?

24 Feb

by Kat Kelley

Despite the oppression I face as a woman, I derive privilege from many of my identities- I am white, a member of the Georgetown community, and- on the spectrums / in the spheres of gender identity and sexual orientation- I pretty much identify and present as cisgendered and heterosexual.

I’m also pretty good at being a feminist, within my communities, but I’m pretty subpar at intersectionality. I have struggled to find my voice as an ‘ally’ on issues that affect marginalized identities that do not define me.

Thus, I’ve made an effort to shut up and education myself, two leading pieces of advice on allyship from Mia McKenzie, founding editor and editor-in-chief of Black Girl Dangerous. McKenzie argues that ally is not a valid title or identity but a “practice,” an “active thing.” She continues on to say that it is ‘exhausting’ and that it “ought to” be, “because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their ‘allies’ be?”

This piece both challenged and rejuvenated my constant regular but inconsistent attempts at allyship. I absolutely agree that I am not entitled to the term ‘ally,’ and actually prefer McKenzie’s interpretation. I fuck up at social justice all the time and often ‘retreat’ into my privilege in the name of self-care. I feel fraudulent as an ‘ally’ every time I ‘pick my battles,’ every time I decide to ignore racist, ableist, heteronormative, or gendernormative microagressions.

I certainly do not want to misrepresent McKenzie’s words; she did not explicitly say that allies are not entitled to a voice or to self-care. I did, however, interpret her words to imply that the role for allies’ voices is limited, and that self-care is a privilege for individuals not experiencing a particular kind of oppression, and that instead of seeking self-care we should resign ourselves to exhaustion.

After reading her article, I immediately felt discomfort at her words, in large part due to the fact that my approach to social justice began in 2009, when I became a sexual assault crisis counselor, speaking to survivors of sexual assault on a 24-hour crisis hotline- a position in which self-care is vital. However, being called out on your privilege is uncomfortable, and often elicits a defensive response. I thought that I may just be reacting negatively to her words because of that privilege, because of how convenient it is to retreat into my privilege when I’m exhausted, or trying to maintain a relationship, or trying to study for a midterm or when I’m trying to cope with my own experiences of oppression.

Ultimately, I think we –members of social justice movements – should recognize that for the sustainability, mainstream acceptance (which is unfortunately a pretty valuable thing), and growth of our movements, we need to make a space for part-time allies. I don’t mean that we should validate the allyship of anyone who shares the HRC equality sign on their facebook page, but if someone listens to call-outs when they fuck up, if they strive to be better allies, if they don’t actively perpetuate privilege and oppression, I want them on my team.

Why? People of privileged identities are not entitled to the safe spaces of people of marginalized identities, and they certainly aren’t entitled to a voice in those spaces. However, social justice work is complex and the roles within a given movement are diverse. We need bridge people just as much as we need radical voices that won’t budge. We need people who can do ‘translation’ work, and leverage their privilege and reach the spaces in which they are accepted due to their seemingly-less radical beliefs.

This is coming from someone who six months ago was drunk-crying to her best friend soul mate, partner in feminism, utter idol and inspiration, Erin Riordan, saying “I’m not radical enough.” But ultimately, the Erins of the world could not uproot the patriarchy alone any more than the Kats could. While Erin is unapologetic and uncompromising (weirdly enough those words, just like ‘radical’ don’t always have a positive connotation; to me they are the highest compliments I can give), I could spend hours talking to a misogynist, meeting them where they are, facilitating their break down and challenging of their own biases. While my beliefs are ‘radical’ my approaches are more mainstream, more socially palatable.

We need the Erins of the world to call out HRC for sucking at incorporating trans rights and justice into their work, and we need the HRC equality sign all over Facebook to ensure that LGBTQ-youth know that a portion of their friends support (some of) their rights, so that bigots know that they can’t get away with saying ‘faggot’ in front of many of their peers. The invalidating oversimplification of these roles would be to label them as ‘prinicpled’ vs. ‘pragmatic,’ but ultimately no movement can succeed if they forget those most marginalized or if they alienate the mainstream members of their community.

We need casual allies, we need bridge people, not to speak ‘on behalf’ of people of marginalized identities, but to work within their communities, and encourage people of their privileged identities to recognize, check, and dismantle those privileges.

While I love intra-feminist dialogue, it can be frustrating to talk with individuals who don’t self-identify as feminists and whom need convincing that feminism is relevant, who invalidate the microaggressions I regularly experience as a woman. Allies have an invaluable role to play in validating the experiences of people of marginalized identities to people of privileged identities. I don’t need a man to tell me that my experiences are valid, but other men may respond well to their peers acknowledging that my experiences are valid and that I’m not just sensitive / overreacting / hyperaware.

Finally, self-care is vital to the sustainability of a movement, or of an individual’s work within a movement. Radicalism is more ‘popular’ or tenable in youth because burnout is real. Nonprofits that don’t enable and encourage their employees to practice self-care see debilitating levels of employee turnover.

It’s okay to turn off your feminist lens for 30 minutes to watch TV produced in our rape culture. It’s okay to not call your uncle out for racial microaggressions because you want to enjoy Thanksgiving. It’s okay to prioritize you over ‘the’ movement every now and then. Self-care isn’t selfish, self-care is sustainable.

Audre Lorde selfcare

Looking for Women Representation in HBO’s Newest Series

21 Jan

by Johan Clarke

The new series Looking premiered on HBO this past Sunday, opening with a jab at the “cruising” trope as one of the main characters, played by Jonathan Groff, awkwardly tries it  just for fun. From there, the show begins to look at his failures in the dating world, showing fairly honest portrayals of the lives of gay males in a fairly liberal American city. The show seems like it wants to destroy certain images about the gay community, and in some regards, it does.

To a certain extent, it does better than many other shows that have tried to do the same thing by having characters that are not just white. One of the main three characters in the show is Latino, but the show does not necessarily define him by his background. He and the other Latino character are not exotified (yet), but they keep their identities and are not wholly white-washed.

This representation is nice to see, but some of the creator’s comments on it have been less than ideal. In response to certain concerns that the show would be as lacking in diversity as Girls, which plays on HBO right before Looking, creator Andrew Haigh commented, “We have two very prominent Latin characters. We have an African-American character. We have an Asian-American character, so I think we are dealing with different ethnicities. There’s always a limit to what you can put in a half-hour show and we’ve never tried to represent the whole of the LGBT community because it’s an enormous community made up of lots of different elements. All we can really do is try and tell a story about our characters.” The comments sound similar to many other responses in the past from shows with lack of diversity. They have every right to tell a story about their characters, and as of now they do tell stories about the queer people of color fairly honestly. However, the beginning of his comment is akin to the “I have black friends” argument many people with white-savior complexes tend to use to say or do things they really shouldn’t be doing.

The problem is that they could have these characters, they just choose not to. At the moment, there are no characters on the show who identify as bisexual or pansexual, though Dom, one of the main characters, alluded to a girlfriend in the past, though it was done more as a joke. There are also no trans* characters on the show, furthering trans*-erasure in media. And they also have no lesbians in the show.

In fact, in the entire thirty minutes of the first episode, only one woman had a somewhat significant speaking role (there was one other woman, Augustín’s artist boss, who had a total of about three lines and was on screen for less than half a minute). The show does not even pass the first criterion on the Bechdel test. In a scene at a wedding ceremony, there is a shot of the guests, and the crowd looks uncomfortably masculine. The only female character is Dom’s long-ago ex, who is shown for about a minute as she gives him dating advice in a fierce, almost sassy manner. The only reason she is on screen is because she is a support for the male character to not make a bad decision, treading dangerously close to the rather sexist “fag hag” trope.

Some people may argue that the show is about gay men, so why would there be women? If the show wanted to accurately portray gay life, though, it would have at least more than one woman in it, or the woman would have more screen time. Gay men do not exclusively hang out with other men, and when they do hang out with women, they do not have to be overly feisty and talk only about the men’s love lives. This way of thinking has dangerous implications in creating a new trope of the “token female friend”, as the show is also dangerous to tokenize its characters of color.

If the show is not supposed to have women because it is a show about gay men, then it proves that female characters can only be love interests. Gay men would never have a girlfriend or would never be romantically involved in one, so why would they be allowed a character on the show? In fact, the only woman on the show is an old romantic interest because in media logic, men and women can never just be friends. It’s the same basic logic that fuels the notion of the Friend Zone.

Looking has great promise, but it has also set itself up for possible failure in regards to representation. For a show that claims to represent the real gay man, it does little outside of obsessing with his dating habits. If it wants to really show what it’s like to be queer, it will have to show more than one letter of the acronym LGBTQIA, and show that there are queer women as well, or any women.

Gender Journey

19 Dec

by Anonymous

This isn’t an argumentative piece or a politically correct one. Actually, I’ve just barely scratched the surface of gender variance in my life and wouldn’t know the proper words anyway. This is just a story really, or several, I guess. It’s my stories, of my life and my feelings. And that’s it. It’s a call to walk in my shoes for five minutes and see a different perspective than you may usually see.

I’m eight, and just starting to question everything. The great WHY. Why are there stars in the sky? Why are some people tall and others short? Why was my soul born in a girl’s body?

I don’t feel out of place in my female body, but I don’t feel attached to it either. If I had been born exactly as I am in a boy’s body, I would live my life as a boy with its privileges and downfalls and not think a thing of it. I mean, even the way I phrase it in my head “my soul……girl’s body” shows that what I consider to be “me” is ungendered, even at this age, even though my mom insists on forcing me into dresses and curlers for church. I didn’t like anything girly, and I think a lot of it was due to the stigma against women in society, so I felt more free to do things as a tomboy that are “unbecoming of a young lady.”

I’m seventeen and getting the hang of masturbation. Over the years, I’ve explored my body and fell in love with the responses I can cause with my own touches. I stop railing against everything feminine and let myself enjoy wearing an occasional skirt or some mascara. This is also the age I first fell head-over-heels for Laura.  From the closet, of course. But loving Laura showed me that liking girly things doesn’t make you less of a person in some way. Femininity isn’t a block you have to accept or reject as a whole. You can like what you like, hate what you hate, leave the rest, whatever.

I’m twenty and at university. As I pass a security guard, he says, “Good morning, sir.” I smile, but he quickly blushes, realizing his mistake. I liked it, though. I don’t even know why, but someone not seeing my gender correctly (according to society) really excites me. It’s like a glimpse of a future where no one really knows a stranger’s gender, but it doesn’t matter. I REALLY DON’T CARE WHAT YOUR GENDER IS. And I know that leaves me open saying to lots of possibly offensive statements, but I like my maybe/ maybe not gender, and I respect everyone’s right to define their own gender (or to purposefully not define it). Whatever floats your boat.

I’m twenty-one and at my grandparents’ house for Christmas. I know they disapprove of short hair for girls and so I wore a purple dress, my girliest clothes to struggle for their approval. I know it shouldn’t be this way, but it’s family, you know? Then my grandfather introduces me to one of his neighbors as “that boy.” This is not how gender fluidity works. I’m still upset about it. I hate when people purposely mess up a person’s gender identity, especially so they can use it as a way to insult them. I HAVE DIGNITY!! Okay, end of rant.

Thanks for sticking through my ramblings to the end. From talking to my friends and peers, I’ve learned that most of us don’t think or talk about gender as much as we should. I mean we talk about the bi-gendered world we live in, and male privilege, and the constraints on women in society, but we rarely talked about our gender, how we feel about gender, if we even feel the need for gender at all. So a strange point-of-view like mine may not be heard so often. So, I hope you got something out of this.

My Mad Fat Feminist

17 Dec

by Anonymous

There is a show (a British show—the best are always British) called My Mad Fat Diary. The title is fairly explanatory: Rae is a fat teenager who struggles with binge eating, depression, and self harm. There are only six episodes, but those six episodes are life-changing.

As someone who has identified as fat my entire life, I had never seen a fat character be a main character. She is no one’s sidekick. She is self-conscious and funny and just a little trite. It is a TV show with a fat main character and before I saw the TV show, I didn’t know why I needed it so badly.

Here’s the thing: people always try to hide my fat. It’s secondhand embarrassment; I am the living embodiment of something everyone around the world is afraid of being. My roommate freshman year said that fat people disgusted her. My friend said that fat people weird her out so much that she can’t even look at them. My classmates grimace as a fat person slips into the desk next to them. Being fat means I’m lazy and ugly and always relegated to the back of the photograph. Being fat automatically means I am unwanted because fat itself is unwanted. There is a reason fat people are known to be “jolly”: when we put up with your bullshit 24/7, we have to use humor as a coping mechanism, because otherwise we will literally want to tear our skin straight off.

I have found other ways of coping to get around being fat. I am the first one to every class, every day, every semester of every year because I have first pick of seats. When I choose where I sit and I sit down first, I don’t have to squeeze between desks and maneuver between gaps that I may or may not be able to fit through. It’s a defense mechanism. No one has to see how I angle myself to fit between the desk and the chair. When I eat at the dining hall, I go when the dining hall is empty so no one can see me eating alone. A skinny person eating alone looks different than a fat person eating alone. A skinny person eating alone is not a big deal; a fat person eating alone means they did not deserve to have someone sit with them. When I listen to my friends talk about how much they ate at dinner, about how fat they feel, or about the three pounds they gained over the summer, I stay silent. I am supportive in their quest to be skinny and I ignore the implication that what I am is undesirable. I smile at strangers on airplanes because I know they are angry they have to sit next to me during the flight and I avoid stares when I finish my Chipotle burrito.

Because I have been told my entire life that I am something that people do not want, I have believed it. I still believe it. But when I watch My Mad Fat Diary, I feel a little better about myself. Rae gets to be a main character. Rae gets to be interesting. Rae gets to battle binge eating. Rae gets to talk about her depression with a therapist and have it not be embarrassing. Rae gets to have a boyfriend.

Rae gets to have a boyfriend.

For the first time in my television-watching history, I get to see a fat person be likable and desirable. Rae’s visible sexuality (she masturbates to the fantasy of a Roman god in an early episode) is absolutely vital because I have absolutely zero idea what orientation I am; I have been conditioned to believe that I do not deserve sexuality. I am universally unwanted and, as a result, my sexuality is futile. So when every TV show, every magazine, every book and movie stars a skinny girl, my sexual erasure is reinforced. It doesn’t matter if the medium is alternative manga or reality TV; fat, sexual people do not exist, and they certainly do not exist as main characters who have entire stories and worlds revolve around them.

My Mad Fat Diary is a pioneer and a champion. It tells me that I deserve attention and that I deserve to be seen sexually, and what’s more, I deserve to have a choice. I do not have to settle for the first person who expresses any interest in me. I do not have to be flattered when I am harassed on the street because at least someone noticed me. When I am treated like a real person, and when I see myself as a real person, I can escape from oppressive structures that keep me meek and mild-mannered. I get to have a voice. I get to have self-worth. And yes, of course, my self-worth should be self-derived, but in the meantime, I get to walk through the world with the knowledge that there are people who think I deserve to be a main character. That I deserve attention and respect. That I, unlike my fat, am wanted.

(Note: I could write pages and pages and pages about how great this show is regarding issues of mental health, but that’s an essay for another day. Also, disclaimer: My fat experience is not the same for all fat women—WOC experience size very differently than white women.)

Prom

7 Dec

*TRIGGER WARNING* This piece contains accounts of sexual harassment.

by Katie

The boys on my cross country team have an offensive sense of humor. After practice one day, the team was talking and playing Frisbee. A freshman boy started making jokes.

“Oh hey, George, I’m going to rape you if you don’t run faster! Run faster! Run! Run!”

The atomic clock on the scoreboard couldn’t seem to move any slower as George ran away.

“I’m going to rape you! I’m going to rape you!”

The black numbers of the clock turned from 8:13 to 8:14 to 8:15. With each change of the numbers, I felt the tears creeping up to the sides of my eyes. I refused to take the taunting anymore.

“Okay, stop, rape jokes aren’t funny! Rape isn’t funny!” I asserted firmly.

“Um, no, rape is hilarious,” George replied, chucking me the Frisbee.

I fumbled with the Frisbee. It’s never been easy for me.

The tears started threatening me again, but I refused to let them control me. “No, rape is never funny. It’s used to dehumanize people,” I challenged as I gripped the Frisbee tighter and tighter.

“Why are you so emotional about this,” the freshman idiot taunted. “Men get raped too!”

Incredulous, I snapped, “I never said only women are raped!”

“Were you ever raped?”

“What? No! Of course not! And that’s not a question that you ask other people!” I half-screamed.

“Then why are you so upset?” George challenged me with a taunting sing-song tone.

“Because rape isn’t funny,” I replied coldly as a chill ran down my arms.

“Whatever. Wanna play some Frisbee?” the ignorant freshman asked.

“No thanks, I have to go home now,” I replied calmly, placing the Frisbee on the field and walking to the car.

But why was I really so upset?

Prom.

I had a crush on this guy for the entire year. He was best friends with one of the nicest, most hard working boys on the cross country team. He was smart (or so I thought), he was kind (or so I thought) and he was trustworthy (or so I thought).

I was a sophomore. He was a senior.

I was 15. He was 18.

At the end of the long evening, as we were standing in line for the coat check I could feel the ugly red blisters forming on my pinkie toes from my high heels. I stood patiently with my arms over my chest, making small talk with him. He stepped out of line and turned to face me. He opened his mouth in the way that people do when they have something of vital importance to say.

“Um, were you going to say something?” I asked, raising my eyebrows, confronted with a date whose mouth was gaping like that of a fish whose bowl had shattered.

He hung his head, embarrassed and sheepish. “Oh, it’s nothing.”

I took a long breath in and stated, “Okay, well, if you change your mind, I’m right here.”

After a few seconds of distraught contemplation he blurted out, “Can I kiss you?”

HERE? NOW?!?!? IN FRONT OF ALL MY FRIENDS?! UH, HELL TO THE NO!

Appealing to his sense of decency, I reasoned with him, “In front of all these people?”

He shrugged and leaned.

Every alarm in my body was screaming. The flashing red lights blurred my vision.

“THINK! WHAT DO I DO TO AVOID A KISS?” I screamed inside my head as his lips came closer and closer and closer. His eyes were closed. I could just run for it? But he was my ride home!

I suddenly remembered a book in which the character turned her face to so the undesired kiss would land on her cheek instead of her lips. I tilted my head too late. His lips landed half on my cheeks, half on my lips. I felt the dull thud of a lead weight being dropped on my heart. Seventeen Magazine lied to me. Everyone lied to me. My first kiss didn’t make me feel like flying, it made me feel like crying and running away. I went into survival mode. I needed to send the signal that I wasn’t interested. I stood with my eyes locked ahead, focused solely on obtaining my purse.

 “We need to try that again. That one wasn’t good enough,” he demurred.

I pretended to not hear.

Three agonizing minutes later with my purse finally in hand, I made my way to the door. But first, he tugged me into a corner.

 “Hold on a sec,” he purred, his hand on my lower back, corralling me towards his body. He closed his eyes and leaned in, closer and closer and closer and closer.

 I pulled him in for a hug and whispered, “No, no. I’m sorry, but no.”

 He finally relented.

As we walked out of the hotel ballroom, he kept trying to apologize.

“I hope this doesn’t ruin our friendship. I really like you. I want to keep seeing you. I really like you. I hope this doesn’t ruin our friendship. You know, I am going to college close by, so I hope we can keep seeing each other.”

All I was able to say was, “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” as I hobbled from the long night while chills ran up and down my body in the warm air on the May night. My repetitive speech of it being “okay” was mainly to myself, only partly to him. I would most definitely not being seeing him over the summer or while he would be in college nearby. Or ever.

His father picked us up from the hotel and we drove home. As my date and I sat in the backseat, I noticed he hadn’t bothered to put on his seatbelt. He simply pouted and stared out the window with his empty head held up by his enormous fist.

We finally parted ways forever when I broke up with him the next Tuesday. It was the right thing to do. The lead weight I felt on my heart was lifted. I felt like I could fly.

Though one thing remained. My first kiss was forced.

It’s been a struggle for me to define what happened. Was it assault? Was it sexual harassment?

Assault has too many implications for me. It implies that the coercion was violent. But sexual harassment is perceived to be trivial and unimportant, so I need a stronger word to embody the anger and sadness and anxiety I felt and even occasionally still feel. I need a word for the amount of Nutella with warm toast I consumed afterwards. I need a word for the hours I spent talking to my best friend. I need a word for the panic that washed over me when he appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. I need a word for the joy I felt when my friend reassured me that I could finally defriend him. I need a word for the worry I feel that made me not write this under my real name.

I can’t call it assault if he went to my school. According to the media, assault is only supposed to happen when you don’t know your attacker. To call it assault makes the experience real.

The Obruni Diaries: A Few Last Thoughts

6 Dec

by Allyn Faenza

As my semester abroad in Accra, Ghana comes to an end, I have been thinking through the things I have experienced, the people I have met, and the things I wish I knew before coming. I only talked to one person about his semester abroad in Ghana before boarding the plane. As a male, he had not been fully exposed to the sexism present in Ghana, but he did tell me that men would approach me and call me “obruni,” which means “foreigner.” I was not ready for living in Ghana as a woman, so here are a few observations I have made over the past four months that might help you understand what it is like to be a visitor here if you should choose to visit this frustrating, hot, wonderful little country in the future.

Here in Ghana women tend to dress modestly, but the rules of socially-sanctioned clothing are very complex. College-age females often wear tight-fitting blouses or T-shirts and skin-hugging leggings despite the 90 degree heat. Even when it comes to church attire, women wear long dresses that are worn very tightly. Here it seems like modesty is all about the length of one’s trousers not their tightness. Personally, I cannot wear leggings in this heat. Even though I may get a couple extra stares, I wear my shorts and skirts that hit above the knee. If you do dress as you would during the summer months in the States, expect some men to approach you more, stare at you, and assume you are sexually easy.

I wish someone had told me to come up with a plan for rejecting romantic advances. I was so intimidated by all of the male attention when I first arrived in Ghana. I had men at the airport asking where I lived and if they could have my phone number! The easiest way to turn a guy down is to be direct. At first, I was not sure whether making my intentions clear would help or hurt me, but once you have had men approaching you each day who tell you they want to marry you, you learn that the direct approach is best for your sanity and time. If I spoke to every man who talked to me, I would never feel safe walking around alone, and it would take lots of time to get from place to place. Some girls on my program pretend to be engaged or married, while I typically take the honest route. If their conversation takes the direction of a romantic proposition, I say, “No, I don’t want to be your friend or give you my number, because I don’t like you. Have a nice day.” Say whatever makes you feel comfortable. Women are so often convinced that the most important thing is to appear nice and spare people’s feelings, however, your safety is more important than saving a stranger’s feelings.

One other thing I wish I knew before coming here is how much I appreciate my privacy. In America it is not difficult to locate public restrooms with toilets for males and females. In Ghana if you are traveling on the highway or in the city, it is not common to find a public restroom. Instead, it is often a little field where men and women free-range urinate. There are so many health reasons that make this practice problematic, but I found the experience of urinating outside, near a highway or in a gutter at an open market so emotionally distressing. I treasure moments of privacy, but now I realize they are a luxury that comes with infrastructure development and social norms. As I have mentioned in my other posts, men sometimes grab me or touch me without my permission. This is because Ghanaian culture accepts men as sexual aggressors who have the right to touch a woman without her consent. If I protest their touch, men respond angrily saying that I have no right to tell them no because I am a woman. Being a woman here means life can oftentimes be less comfortable and private.

My personal lens is inextricably linked with my feminist lens, which has made many situations difficult here. I have found myself in this male-dominated society completely of my own choice. Numerous times I took a look in the mirror and asked myself why I was here. Why would I choose to go abroad somewhere like Ghana? But my experiences here have not been in vain.  Now I know that Ghana has changed me, made me stronger and prouder than ever to be female.

This is the final addition to the author’s weekly column about living in Ghana.

How To Get An Abortion

3 Dec

by Anonymous

I have never had an abortion. I do not know if I will ever have an abortion. I might, one day. It’s not something I think about or consider very often. I’ve never needed to think about it. But if I do need to, I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know where I would go to get an abortion or how I would pay for it. I have no idea how to get an abortion. I wish I did.

I think it is important to know how to get an abortion. Knowing gives you power over your body. Knowing gives you choices. Knowing makes you prepared. I never want to be pregnant, scared, and racing against the clock, trying to figure out where I can go, how I will pay, who will go with me, who will support me. I want to know. I want to know I will never have to be pregnant against my will.

I try to be prepared. I have been on birth control for years. I always use condoms. I should be safe. I should be ok. But things happen. I had sex with a guy I met in a club this past weekend. The next morning my friend joked that it would be hilarious if I got pregnant with the guy’s kid. I was horrified. I know I’m not pregnant, that the guy and I used two forms of contraception, that we were safe. I wasn’t afraid that I might be pregnant. I was horrified that my friend would joke about something like that. I was afraid that if I were ever pregnant, I would not know what to do. I was afraid that I did not know how to get an abortion.

I am studying abroad right now. I have some idea of what I would do if I needed an abortion in DC, where I go to school. I know I would go downtown to the Planned Parenthood Clinic. I do not what would happen. I do not know what abortion procedures are offered, or how an abortion works. I do not know if I would need recovery time, or if I would be ok right away, or if I would need a few days of rest, and excuses to explain where I was. I do know I would go with one or two of my best friends, if I found the courage to ask them. I would hope there would not be any protestors outside of the clinic. I do not know how I would pay for it. I know I would never tell my parents. But here, in Europe? I have no idea. I do not know where abortions are offered, what the laws around abortions are here, if I could get one as a foreigner. This is never talked about in the on-site handbook or during study-abroad orientation. I do not know if my health plan would cover it. I do not know how much it would cost. I do not know who would help me. I would be lost.

When you are abroad, how do you ask someone to help you get an abortion? Who do you go to? I struggle to imagine who I would trust to support me at home. I can think of only a few people. Abroad, no one.

I do not know what my friends here think of abortion. I do not know if they are supportive of reproductive choice, and if they are, if they are supportive not just in theory but also in practice. I do not know if they would actually help me navigate the confusing web of abortion.

I have a site director here, whose job it is to help and support students while they are abroad. But she works for a Catholic university, and I do not know her personal position on abortion. Even if she were supportive, even if I could ask, I do not know if she knows how to access an abortion here.

I would never ask my host family. I cannot imagine how they would react, what they would say. I do not think they would, or could, help me.

I do not know if I could ask another student here, a student who is from here and lives here. I do not know how they would react or what people think of abortions here.

I would have to look online. I do not know what I would find. I do not know if it would help.

Even if I found the proper care, I do not speak the language well enough to navigate my own care. I do not have the vocabulary to talk about abortion or my reproductive health needs. I have no way to care for myself when it comes to abortion and my body.

Perhaps this is extreme, but I think everyone should know how to get an abortion, wherever they are. Statistically, it makes sense. In the U.S. 49% of pregnancies are unintended, and 1 in 3 women in the US have had an abortion by age 45 (I could not find any statistics documenting how many trans* people have had abortions, but I would like to acknowledge that many trans* people have abortions as well and need access to reproductive care that includes abortions). Knowing where to go for an abortion, how to pay, what will happen before, during, and after the procedure-and which different procedures are available-is necessary.

I used to think of abortion as an issue distant from me. I advocated for reproductive justice from the perspective of preserving individuals’ bodily autonomy, but rarely did I think of the issue in relation to me and my own life. Now that I have begun to think of abortion as a personal issue, and as something that I may one day do, I realize we need so much more. It is not just the right to a legal, safe abortion that people need; people also need access and education. Without knowledge of how to get an abortion and access reproductive care, the right to an abortion hardly exists. Teaching about access to abortion and options for terminating pregnancy should be at the very least an optional part of sex education, and should be included in orientations for both university and study abroad programs. Without this knowledge, people seeking abortions or looking to have control over their reproductive care are left with much less power, and they are less likely to find the care they need when they need it. If we really believe in advocating for reproductive justice and the right to an abortion then we need to teach people how to get an abortion.

Tom Daley Is Not Gay, He’s Just in a Relationship with a Man

2 Dec

by Johan Clarke

Tom Daley recently came out via YouTube with the information that he is in a relationship with another man, surprising many and bringing pride to many different communities. In the wake of the Winter Olympics in a country with incredibly harsh anti-LGBT laws, the news that a well-known and well-respected athlete from the most recent Summer Olympics is queer provides awareness and visibility to a community that in the past has been erased. Stereotypes within the gay community are slowly coming down. More and more athletes are coming out as gay, giving pride and hope for young people who do not feel they fit into certain categories defined by our culture. One can play sports, be one of the team, and not have to be straight or pretend to be something they are not.

I find it remarkable that Tom Daley has found the courage to do something so brave and come out with his relationship with another man at this pivotal time. Coming out is still an incredibly difficult thing to do, and to do it in front of everyone in the world, to have everybody watch your every move, to judge you without having met you, takes incredible strength. I commend him for doing something so hard, yet so necessary. Daley is helping to change history for the better and creating a safer space for queer youths.

The media’s response, though, is not the most ideal. As I have written in previous articles, I do not like labeling, and I especially do not like labeling that erases other communities. Many of the articles that have come out this morning have titles with the word “gay” in it, yet in the video he posted, he never makes that claim. He says that he is in a relationship with another man and that he is comfortable and feels safe with him, but he does not say the words, “I am gay.” In fact, during the video, he claims, “I still fancy girls, but right now I’m dating a guy and I couldn’t be happier.”

This may seem like an unnecessary difference for some, but this is a prime example of bi erasure, something that has been going on for years. It’s fantastic that Daley has come out with his relationship, but it is not okay that the media has once again mislabeled someone. Daley has not defined his sexuality. He has stated that he is in a relationship with a man, but he has not come out as gay as several articles have claimed. He has not come out as bisexual either, so the media needs to stop saying that he has.

Mislabeling erases many different communities that struggle to have their voices heard. It makes it difficult for people who are unsure about their sexualities or who do not fit with “gay” or “straight” labels. It illegitimazes legitimate relationships and does not allow people to understand or accept themselves in ways they can. We need to stop enforcing labels on people or the great stride Daley made today in this announcement will do little in awareness for the overall queer communities.

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.

The Obruni Diaries: Relationship Checklists

20 Nov

by Allyn Faenza

Earlier this semester I was tuning into the local radio station to hear two friends’ weekly radio show. Each week they present a controversial topic and ask Ghanaian and international students to express their opinions on air. Seeing as they are both males in their twenties and trying to appeal to their audience, more often than not the weekly topic is about romantic relationships. One week, the conversation centered around the “relationship check-list” and attraction. There were four Ghanaian women, two Ghanaian men, and two international students involved in the talk.

My DJ friends began the talk by asking the participants to name five qualities or attributes that would attract them to someone of the opposite sex. My international friend responded first by saying that she was looking for someone who shares the same religion and work ethic as her, is compassionate, physically attractive, and musical. As she was explaining her list, I could hear some of the Ghanaian women giggling. The DJs asked them to comment on why they found her list amusing, and all four of them responded that the list was valid, but she was forgetting one huge point.

As the show went on, each of the Ghanaian women listed the attributes that must be present for them to be attracted to a man. While their answered varied due to their different personalities and backgrounds, all of them said finances were the main factor that would make or break their opinions about a man. One girl stated, “If a man likes what he sees, he should have the money to maintain it! That means paying for my nail and hair appointments, taking me shopping… I am just playing the game.” The girls hummed in agreement. Some chimed in saying, “A man’s job is to work and provide for me.” “He should take me places, give me things.”

These relationship expectations seem problematic to me. I do not know if my expectations of romantic relationships come from my experiences with my own family, from a result of culture, or from a combination of the two. But with a culture that is so family-centered and anti-individualistic, I thought the radio show conversation would be about how men and women work as a team to create something together, something beyond just one person’s capabilities.

I have been to different parts of Ghana and spent time with a few families. Each of them has a complex familial structure that would take years to fully comprehend. Neighbors support one another and the people who occupy the physical space of the home is a fluid group. In the native language Twi, the word for cousins is the same word as sibling, and all female relatives are referred to as “maame.” I was confused to find the women their age interested in maintaining the gender roles that leave males and females confined to traditional jobs, responsibilities, and behaviors. I thought the women would want to be empowered by their education; I thought they would be searching for more, expecting more of themselves, striving to create new expectations for women in Ghana.

Enforcing the patriarchal structure is as simple as maintaining gender expectations. When women in Ghana question why the men in their lives don’t support women in the workplace, I challenge them to look no further than their relationship check-lists. I challenge women to look beyond their wants and see how their actions are playing into the larger system of gender normativity. Because, after all, there is a difference between playing the game and playing into an oppressive patriarchy.