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Four on Friday: The Violence Report

12 Aug

1. AS Jatin and I were driving to the Newark airport this morning to pick up my brother who was coming back from summer vacation in Mumbai, we listened to part of today’s Democracy Now! broadcast. Amy Goodman was interviewing a same-sex, binational couple who are on the verge of being separated thanks to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. The act was signed into law by President Clinton and denies same-sex married couples the protections and privileges that heterosexual couples take for granted.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign says that DOMA: “purports to give states the ‘right’ to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.” It also

creates a federal definition of “marriage” and “spouse” for the first time in our country’s history. This is an unprecedented intrusion by the U.S. Congress into an area traditionally left to the states. Marriage is defined as a “legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” and spouse is defined as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Marriages that do not fit this description would not be eligible for any benefits offered by the federal government. Under DOMA, even if a state were to recognize same-sex marriages, the federal government would not. The people involved would be unable to receive a number of benefits, including those related to Social Security, survivorship and inheritance.

In the case of the couple interviewed by Amy Goodman, Bradford Wells, a U.S. citizen, and Anthony John Makk, an Australian national, might be separated on August 25—the date that Makk has to leave the country or be subject to deportation. Wells and Makk have been together for 19 years; they have been married for seven. They were among the first same-sex couples to tie the knot when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2004. Makk is also the primary care-giver for his husband, who has HIV/AIDS. Wells described his relationship with Makk:

We got married on July 22nd, 2004. It was really the most momentous day of my life. I had never imagined that I’d be able to get married. And when the opportunity came to me, I realized that I was with the man I had looked for my whole life. I had never felt anything towards someone the way I felt about Anthony. And I didn’t think about us being torn apart in the future. We had been able to keep within the law and get the proper visas. And being together, although it was a lot of work, it was possible. It was only at the end of last year that we ran out of options. Now we find ourselves in this position.

Although last month President Obama said he would not defend DOMA in the courts, it is still on the books. Which means that for the moment, Makk and Wells are facing an uncertain future.

Bradford Wells (right) and Anthony John Makk on Democracy Now!

Bradford Wells (right) and Anthony John Makk on Democracy Now!

As one-half of a recently married, binational, heterosexual couple, it is especially unfair that Makk and Wells are being denied the immigration benefits that were extended to my husband and me. Makk said:

There’s thousand of couples in our situation. It’s not just us. And something needs to be done. And they can do it. And it’s clear—it’s clearly discrimination. And our relationship, as long as the other thousands of binational, same-sex couples—we have committed relationships, and they are just as committed as heterosexual relationships. And it is very discriminatory, what they are doing. And it’s—and I’m sure that the people will see it, and someone’s going to step in before I either have to leave or stay illegally. And this is something that we have tried over the years so hard not to do.

I remembering going to watch the gay pride march in New York in June, just a few days after New York announced its legalization of same-sex marriage, and the infectious joy in the air. That was a day of celebrations, and for good reason, but now it’s time to roll up our sleeves again. The work of fighting for marriage equality is far from over. Last month Sen. Dianne Feinstein announced a bill to repeal DOMA, called the Respect for Marriage Act. The White House later endorsed it. You can chime in here.

2. The plight of the same-sex California couple got me to thinking about violence: legal violence, physical violence, all the forms that violence can take. It can take the form of indifference, like the indifference of the world to the immense suffering in Somalia, to watch people starve to death and not lift a finger to help. This past week we’ve been hearing about the supposedly “mindless violence” of the rioters in the UK, and the violence of the cuts in government spending and their effects on the poorer classes in that country.

I can’t say I understand what’s going on, or why—and I don’t think I’m the only one—but here are a few pieces that I’ve read recently that have shed some light on these events.

Maria Margaronis blogs for The Nation online about the mood on the streets:

The police are overwhelmed; the politicians nervously continue to plough their furrows. “Sheer criminality,” says Home Secretary Teresa May, as if any attempt to understand what’s at the root of all this rage would imply condoning it. Labour politicians flirt with the temptation to blame government spending cuts, as if such fury could build up in a matter of mere months. Of course the cuts don’t help: they are the final straw, the irrefutable evidence that the poor are now dispensable, outside society. Nor does the larger sense that nobody’s in charge, that the economy’s in freefall, that bankers have been looting the public purse for years, and that our leaders have no idea what to do about any of it. There is a doomsday feeling on the streets of London: time to grab what you can, burn it down and live for now, because who knows what’s coming for us all tomorrow.

Michael McCarthy in the UK’s Independent writes of the death of British civility:

I think people were so frightened because something had been loosed and was on display, which was new to many people – and that was the sight of very large numbers of people, mainly young men, who were no longer constrained by our culture. The role of culture in making British society what it is, and in giving it its remarkable strengths, is not often remarked upon, but it is enormous. We are, or we have been, a culture-bound society: we have been governed largely by informal constraints on our behaviour.

This is in sharp contrast to a society like that of the United States, for example, which is largely a rule-bound society. To give just a single instance: drinking alcohol in the street used to be rare in Britain, because it was frowned upon – but in the US there are local laws specifically forbidding it. The rule-bound society, which is the reason for the vast proliferation of lawyers in the US, arose in America because the founding fathers created a new nation from scratch, starting with a written Constitution that set out the first principles and then writing down and proscribing everything else about people’s behaviour.

Britain, whose governing process evolved slowly and organically, does not even have a written constitution, merely a set of understandings about how things ought to be done.

But these understandings have, in the past, been widespread and very powerful. The bus queue and the idea of queuing generally is an example that persists; I remember my shock and spluttering resentment when I first went skiing, years ago, and stood patiently with the other Brits in the queue for the chairlift and watched as the little French and Italian kids skied to the front and forced their way in.

In the Independent, Camilla Batmanghelidjh responds with the argument that these kids feel no sense of community, of ownership:

If this is a war, the enemy, on the face of it, are the “lawless”, the defenders are the law-abiding. An absence of morality can easily be found in the rioters and looters. How, we ask, could they attack their own community with such disregard? But the young people would reply “easily”, because they feel they don’t actually belong to the community. Community, they would say, has nothing to offer them. Instead, for years they have experienced themselves cut adrift from civil society’s legitimate structures. Society relies on collaborative behaviour; individuals are held accountable because belonging brings personal benefit. Fear or shame of being alienated keeps most of us pro-social.

And in the Guardian, Zoe Williams writes about the psychology of looting, and the lack of worrying about consequences:

By 5pm on Monday, as I was listening to the brave manager of the Lewisham McDonald’s describing, incredulously, how he had just seen the windows stoved in, and he didn’t think they’d be able to open the next day, I wasn’t convinced by nihilism as a reading: how can you cease to believe in law and order, a moral universe, co-operation, the purpose of existence, and yet still believe in sportswear? How can you despise culture but still want the flatscreen TV from the bookies?

And on the BBC, usually my go-to network every morning, anchor Fiona Armstrong interviewed West Indian journalist Darcus Howe in this video that has drawn so much ire that the BBC has had to apologize for it. After Howe said he was not shocked by the events, Armstrong asks: “You say you’re not shocked. Does that mean that you condone what happened in your community last night?” In what universe does a lack of surprise equal endorsement? It goes on in that vein, see for yourself:

Democracy Now! subsequently interviewed Howe along with Richard Seymour, a popular blogger in the UK. Seymour offered his opinion on the riots and the seeming inability of the British authorities to stop the mayhem:

First of all, the circumstances of the killing are that they allowed people to believe that Mark Duggan had a weapon and that he shot that weapon at police officers, and that, therefore, you would conclude they fired back in self-defense. That’s absolutely untrue. The IPCC, the Independent Police Complaints Commission, has confirmed that the bullet that was fired and lodged in a police radio was a police bullet. So, it would be an interesting question, who fired that bullet and why? Which among the officers did so? But it certainly wasn’t Mark Duggan. So, they lied.

But in addition to that, they didn’t inform the family. They let the family find out from the media. And they didn’t send round a family liaison officer to speak to the family. None of the usual procedures, in this highly unusual circumstance, was followed. So, generally speaking, there was a backlash, a reaction against the police, as a result of this.

I just want to say also, in connection with this, Darcus mentioned the competition for the top jobs in the Metropolitan Police. It’s important to note the backdrop here. This is the deep crisis that has shaken the Metropolitan Police in the context of the hacking scandal, in relation to the relationships between top Metropolitan Police officials and the News of the World, News International empire. That has created a deep crisis within the police. It’s an ideological crisis as much as anything else. And so, this is, I expect, one of the reasons for the disarray that they’re in at the moment.

Riots are about power, says Laurie Penny of the Penny Red blog:

Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all. People to whom respect has never been shown riot because they feel they have little reason to show respect themselves, and it spreads like fire on a warm summer night. And now people have lost their homes, and the country is tearing itself apart.

And Dan Hind has a thoughtful piece on Al Jazeera arguing that the violence is not apolitical, and it is not driven by a single cause:

Civil disturbances never have a single, simple meaning. When the Bastille was being stormed the thieves of Paris doubtless took advantage of the mayhem to rob houses and waylay unlucky revolutionaries. Sometimes the thieves were revolutionaries. Sometimes the revolutionaries were thieves. And it is reckless to start making confident claims about events that are spread across the country and that have many different elements. In Britain over the past few days there have been clashes between the police and young people. Crowds have set buildings, cars and buses on fire. Shops have been looted and passersby have been attacked. Only a fool would announce what it all means.

All these points make sense to me. I don’t have the answers or solutions to this problem, but it seems to me that these authors do a fairly good job of sketching in broad strokes the motives and roots of this maybe not so “mindless” violence.

3. This past week, The New Yorker published a much-discussed anatomy of the violent raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 1. Written by a young freelancer, Nicholas Schmidle, in the narrative nonfiction style, it is a riveting account of what actually happened during that raid, and how the Americans finally “got” bin Laden.

What has been getting press in the aftermath of its publication is the fact that Schmidle did not speak with any of the Navy SEALS who actually conducted the raid; instead, the story was reconstructed from accounts by others who heard the radio communications and who, presumably, were very familiar with the details of the raids. Nowhere in his story does Schmidle reveal that he never spoke with the SEALS; and he tells the tale so skillfully that it seems as though he did. The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi revealed in this post just how Schmidle got his story. Farhi wrote:

Schmidle says he wasn’t able to interview any of the 23 Navy SEALs involved in the mission itself. Instead, he said, he relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men.

But a casual reader of the article wouldn’t know that; neither the article nor an editor’s note describes the sourcing for parts of the story. Schmidle, in fact, piles up so many details about some of the men, such as their thoughts at various times, that the article leaves a strong impression that he spoke with them directly.

Some readers were critical of this. Columbia Journalism Review questioned the secrecy of The New Yorker‘s fact-checking. Women’s Wear Daily collected the criticisms in this column. And the redoutable Poynter devoted many, many words to this minor controversy. (For the record, I think Schmidle and his editors could have made his sourcing clearer without losing the urgency of the narrative.)

But the most piercing critique was made by this Reuters blog, aptly titled, “When There Are No People in Pakistan.” It’s been making the rounds among South Asians on Facebook and Twitter, but I don’t see media critics at CJR or Poynter taking note of it. Presumably only Pakistanis care when their voices are left out of a story that takes place in Pakistan—this is violence by omission, perhaps?

Forgive me, Reuters, for quoting in such depth, but it needs to be underlined and highlighted:

In a post over the weekend which prompted me to re-examine the New Yorker story, Jakob Steiner at RugPundits complained about Orientalism. That in turn led me to look at how small a role Pakistanis play in the story. Pause here, and consider that Pakistan is a country of some 180 million people of diverse religious, social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. People who fret about their children’s education and grieve for their parents like the rest of us. People who in the office will bitch around the water cooler, and over dinner  talk about the weather. And yes. I simplify people’s lives, because those of us who live them (signpost irony here) know how simple they are.

Then start perhaps, by noticing the dog has a name and a breed. He (she?) is called Cairo and is a Belgian Malinois.

Now scroll down to what seems to be the first clear reference to Pakistani civilians. It was in the context of whether President Barack Obama should consider an air strike on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound or a helicopter raid.

“He (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) and General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, favored an airstrike by B-2 Spirit bombers. That option would avoid the risk of having American boots on the ground in Pakistan. But the Air Force then calculated that a payload of thirty-two smart bombs, each weighing two thousand pounds, would be required to penetrate thirty feet below ground, insuring that any bunkers would collapse. ‘That much ordnance going off would be the equivalent of an earthquake,’ Cartwright told me. The prospect of flattening a Pakistani city made Obama pause.”

The helicopter raid decided, the assault plan was fine-tuned. “The SEALs and the dog could assist more aggressively, if needed. Then, if bin Laden was proving difficult to find, Cairo could be sent into the house to search for false walls or hidden doors.”

And of the people who lived in Abbottabad? What of their reaction? Linguistically, they are described in three letters – a “mob”.

”After describing the operation, the briefers fielded questions: What if a mob surrounded the compound? Were the SEALs prepared to shoot civilians?” wrote Schmidle.

The first person to comment publicly on the raid did so on Twitter, a resident who asked what a helicopter was doing in Abbottabad so late at night.  He is a man with a full name, a profile and an online identity, who I and thousands of others found and followed easily enough on the day bin Laden was killed.  In the New Yorker article, he becomes merely “one local”.

In the final paragraphs of the piece, the journalist writes:

I don’t know what really happened that night from May 1 into May 2. I don’t know, and none of us know, how its repercussions will play out in Pakistan over the months and years ahead. But I would guess that any version of U.S. policy, based on the same thinking behind the New Yorker’s story, that there are no real people on the ground, is unlikely to succeed.

4. To end this piece on a slightly lighter note, I want to mention a mild form of violence to language, but humorously. I recently discovered this Facebook group, English Whirled Wide, which seems to collect images from around the world of quirky, ungrammatical, and just plain funny signage. In case they require a Facebook log-in to view their collection, I am pasting some of their images here:

Rail Museum, India. Sent by Parakram Hazarika

Rail Museum, India. Sent by Parakram Hazarika

English Whirled Wide says: Vipul Jain from India sent this CV "that landed on my desk."

English Whirled Wide says: Vipul Jain from India sent this CV "that landed on my desk."

To celebrate how we can contort and twist and refashion the English language, here’s Zigzackly’s declaration of the 2011 Great Grandson of Godawful Poetry Fortnight, which runs from August 19th to the 31st. To all those who point out that this “fortnight” only lasts 13 days, Zigzackly says, “Poetic license!”

In the spirit of English-mangling and good fun, here’s my contribution:

A journo once went to the sea
Where whales danced and exclaimed with some glee
But the writer took note
And dreamed up a big boat
Thus Moby Dick was created by he!

(Before anyone sues me for libel or defamation, let it be said that this is just my offering to the godawful poetry gods and has no bearing on the actual authorship of Moby Dick!)

In case my feeble attempt has disgusted my dear readers, I will leave you with some real poetry, by the United States’ new Poet Laureate, Philip Levine.

What Work Is
By Philip Levine

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Four on Friday: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!

29 Jul

1. CARAVAN, which is my new favorite Indian magazine, has a new piece out on sex selection by desi parents. I know I’ve covered this topic on my blog before, but this article—actually, it’s an excerpt from a book—makes a historical link that’s news to me: the connection between Western foundations and the World Bank in the 1960s and ’70s and population control using sex selection.

It started in the 1950s, when India was regarded as a “cauldron” to test population control measures; the thinking was, if it worked in India, it would probably work everywhere else. Rockefeller and Ford Foundation money started flowing into the country, along with funds from the World Bank and even the United Nations. The world population was growing fast, and one of the places it was growing the fastest was India. This was dangerous, because poor people were seen as more likely to lean toward Marxism. Mara Hvistendahl, the author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, from which this article was adapted, writes:

The population control movement arose at the precise moment that Western powers were losing their grip over Asia, Africa and Latin America. Around the world, colonies were gaining independence, with Cold War tensions replacing imperialism. Many early population activists thus belonged to the US business and political elite. Big names included Hugh Moore, the millionaire inventor of the Dixie Cup; John D Rockefeller III, heir to the Rockefeller family fortune; Lewis Strauss, head of the US Atomic Energy Commission; and Will Clayton, former undersecretary of state. Rising birth rates, as this group saw it, would make countries more susceptible to communism at a time when the US urgently needed allies in Asia and Latin America. “We are not primarily interested in the sociological or humanitarian aspects of birth control,” Moore and Clayton once confided to Rockefeller. “We are interested in the use which communists make of hungry people in their drive to conquer the earth.”

So Indians became proxies in this Cold War battle. They started with the All India Institute of Medical Science, or AIIMS, in Delhi, the country’s most prestigious medical center. The Western envoys began teaching the doctors there how to perform amniocentesis, an invasive procedure which carries the risk of miscarriage. But it became so popular for sex determination that parents began calling it the “sex test.”

In their remarkable openness about the tests, it wasn’t simply that the physicians neglected to consider the ethics of sex selection in the face of widespread patient demand. No: not only did the doctors believe sex selection acceptable, they believed that by culling female foetuses they were making the world a better place. Shortly after the amniocentesis tests began, several AIIMS doctors published a paper in the journal Indian Pediatrics explaining the project as an experimental trial with potential to be introduced on a larger scale. Indian couples clearly desired sex selection, wrote Dr IC Verma and colleagues. And that interest, if tapped more widely, could be a boon for India—and the world:

“In India cultural and economic factors make the parents desire a son, and in many instances the couple keeps on reproducing just to have a son. Prenatal determination of sex would put an end to this unnecessary fecundity. There is of course the tendency to abort the foetus if it is female. This may not be acceptable to persons in the West, but in our patients this plan of action was followed in seven of eight patients who had the test carried out primarily for the determination of sex of the foetus. The parents elected for abortion without any undue anxiety.”

While the doctors defended their actions with cultural relativism—“This may not be acceptable to persons in the West”—their logic was a variation on Malthusianism, which India inherited from Europe. Verma and his colleagues aborted female foetuses in the name of population control.

The article goes on to detail the power and influence that the envoys from the Rockefeller Foundation and other wielded on India’s population policy—so much so that they were able to redefine the priorities for the country’s director of family planning and shift it from a holistic consideration of maternal and child health and population control to a focus on only the latter. And in 1975, when the then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency and began forcibly sterilizing poor men in vast numbers, these scientists and philanthropists lined up to empty their pockets for her program.

Western experts later distanced themselves from the excesses of the Emergency, but records from the time show that many advisers supported, if not cheered, India’s fling with despotism. A World Bank official in Delhi at the time the Emergency began returned to Washington to urge that the bank increase its support for India’s family planning programme. The Indian government asked for $26 million from the bank, explaining it would use a portion of the money to build sterilisation camps in remote areas. The committee that considered the proposal turned it down—not because committee members were alarmed at the human rights violations being perpetuated with World Bank money, but because $26 million was, as one employee wrote to a colleague in the bank’s population division at the time, “disappointingly conservative”. Money came instead from UNFPA, which in 1974 had issued its largest grant yet to India, and the Swedish International Development Authority, which in 1976 contributed $60 million toward family planning in India. And World Bank money continued to flow into India. Between 1972 and 1980 the bank doled out $66 million in loans to the country for the express purpose of population control.

A few months after the committee considered India’s proposal, World Bank President Robert McNamara flew to India to make the bank’s support for the Emergency explicit. Arriving in Delhi as men were being forcibly rounded up for vasectomies, he met with Health and Family Planning Minister Karan Singh, who admitted the sterilisation campaign had entailed a few abuses. Still, McNamara was apparently unfazed, writing in a summary of his trip: “At long last, India is moving to effectively address its population problem.” When the archives of Western population control organisations were finally opened, the scholars who sifted through them might be forgiven for overlooking the role the organisations played in bringing sex-selective abortion to India. At a time when the president of the World Bank endorsed the forced sterilisation of millions of men, a few thousand voluntary abortions must have seemed like nothing.

2. About 10 days ago, the Institute of Medicine released a much-awaited report with their recommendations on how to strengthen preventive care for women, as asked by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). If the HHS approves these measures, then starting in January 2013, insurance companies would be required to cover them, without passing on the costs to their customers. The eight preventive health services the report recommends are:

  • screening for gestational diabetes
  • human papillomavirus (HPV) testing as part of cervical cancer screening for women over 30
  • counseling on sexually transmitted infections
  • counseling and screening for HIV
  • contraceptive methods and counseling to prevent unintended pregnancies
  • lactation counseling and equipment to promote breast-feeding
  • screening and counseling to detect and prevent interpersonal and domestic violence
  • yearly well-woman preventive care visits to obtain recommended preventive services

Importantly, it also stresses, “To reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies, which accounted for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S. in 2001, the report urges that HHS consider adding the full range of Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods [my emphasis] as well as patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity. Women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to receive delayed or no prenatal care and to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed, and experience domestic violence during pregnancy. Unintended pregnancy also increases the risk of babies being born preterm or at a low birth weight, both of which raise their chances of health and developmental problems.”

The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health in the United States, said in its release about the IOM report:

Making contraceptive counseling, services and supplies—including long-acting, reversible methods (the IUD and the implant), which have high up-front costs—more affordable acknowledges the reality that cost can be a daunting barrier to effective contraceptive use. The evidence strongly suggests that insurance coverage of contraceptive services and supplies without cost-sharing is a low-cost—or even cost-saving—means of helping women overcome this obstacle.

In a year when the same Institute mapped the amount of restrictions on abortion that U.S. states enacted in the first half of 2011—162!—the IOM report comes as a relief. Now all the HHS has to do is approve it.

Abortion restrictions in 2011 by the Guttmacher Institute

Abortion restrictions in 2011 by the Guttmacher Institute


3. In all the inflammatory talk among right-wingers of abortion and those who perform it as “murderers” and “baby-killers,” it’s worthwhile to go back to a 2010 article supported by The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund—where I work—that just this past week won the Planned Parenthood Maggie Award. “Not A Lone Wolf,” by Amanda Robb, was published in Ms. magazine last May, and investigated the case of Scott Roeder, the man who killed abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in his Wichita, Kansas church for his work. The anti-abortion brigade’s chatter after the murder centered around Roeder being a “lone wolf,” i.e., acting alone, without the support of the larger anti-abortion community. But Robb showed that he relied on a network of supporters to carry out the killing, from longtime connections with members of the Army of God—a secretive organization that has bombed abortion clinics and carried out murders and attempted murders of doctors who provide abortion services—as well as with James Kopp and Paul Hill, both of whom have killed abortion doctors.

Kopp was the murderer of Dr. Barnett Slepian, the abortion provider whose death in 1998 shook Buffalo and the national pro-abortion community. It also prompted (my friend and colleague) Eyal Press to write a book, Absolute Convictions, about the killing and the movement behind it, and the death threat to his own father, Shalom Press, who also performed abortions in his Buffalo practice. After the killing of Dr. Slepian, Dr. Press was the only doctor left in the upstate city who offered abortion services—which he continued to provide as part of his normal gynecological practice, despite the danger. I highly recommend it.

4. Did anyone read the recent New York Times article about the progress in male contraception? There are several methods that are being tested, and some of them will be presented at an October conference by the Gates Foundation. Different methods use progestin and testosterone hormones, some use a male contraceptive pill that results in nonfunctional sperm, and others are testing a drug that blocks the production of retinoic acid, which is important for sperm production. (Funnily enough, this drug also acts as one that helps curb alcoholism; if you drink while you’re taking it, it will make you sick. Dr. Amory, who is one of the scientists behind this particular method, quipped to the Times, “The joke is if it weren’t for alcohol, no one would need contraception.”)

Wow, to imagine a day when women don’t bear the brunt of contraception. Right now, there are exactly two methods of male contraception: the condom and the vasectomy. Women have the birth control pill, the nuvaring, the patch, the IUD (intra-uterine device), the diaphragm, and tubal ligation. Am I missing any? The pill, the ring and the patch all have side effects, some serious, as they interfere with a woman’s hormones; the IUD is not recommended for everyone, and the diaphragm is no longer easily available and is hardly used by American women. When it comes to sterilization, vasectomies are much easier procedures than tubal ligations. The former can be accomplished in an outpatient procedure that takes 30 minutes and has a minimum of risk, as well as being up to four times cheaper than tubal ligations. Tubal ligation for women, however, requires hospitalization, general anesthesia, and is more often than not an intra-abdominal procedure with a longer recovery time. It also carries serious risks such as perforation of the intestine, infection, complications from anesthesia and even pulmonary embolism. It’s also way more expensive than a vasectomy.

So why is it that in the United States, according to a 30-year Center for Disease Control report from 1995 (couldn’t find a more recent government study, sorry!), women get tubal ligations one-and-a-half to two times more often than men get vasectomies? I’m sure a chunk of the blame lies with unwilling men, but it’s also incumbent on clinics and doctors to include men in discussions about contraception. (Informal poll of readers: How many of the women reading this blog took your male partners along to the doctor’s office when you discussed methods of contraception? And for the male readers—how many of you asked to accompany your partner, or were asked by her, on such a visit? And did you in fact go with her? This question, of course, assumes that you went to the doctor to discuss contraception when you were in a heterosexual relationship. Do let me know your answers in the comments.)

This discrepancy in responsibility was rather humorously captured in this Washington City Paper blog post last year by Amanda Hess. The post begins:

Allison, 26, and her boyfriend were having sex—an activity they had engaged in many times over the six months they had been dating—when her contraceptive vaginal ring fell right out of her vagina. Her boyfriend paused. He developed a sudden concern over the efficacy of the couple’s method of birth control. “He was like, ‘Oh, no. How is it going to catch my semen?’” Allison recalls.

Allison, it seems, had had ignorant partners before.

“I was dating a guy in college who knew that I was on the birth control pill. Of course, he was concerned about me getting pregnant,” says Allison. “So he said, ‘You know, you should take four or five of these a day—just take as many as you need to,’” she says.

And then there was Jenna:

Jenna had been living with her boyfriend for several months when he floated his own contraceptive theory. Jenna was taking her birth control pills continuously, meaning that she was skipping the pack’s built-in placebo pills in order to stop her period. At some point, her boyfriend discovered how she had managed to avoid the monthly ritual. “I was thinking you were just magical, like a unicorn,” he told her. “I mean, you hope one exists somewhere, but you never think you’ll get to live with one…a cool chick with no period drama that has sex all month long.” He added, “The guys thought I was making it up.” (Boyfriends could not be reached for comment for this story).

Hess quotes a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which surveyed single Americans of both sexes between the ages of 19 and 29 and found that men in general were much less informed about methods of contraception than women were. And the discrepancy in knowledge widened when it came to female contraceptives, so that 78 percent of men said they were clueless about birth control pills, as compared with 45 percent of women.


Women shouldering the burden of contraception means more than just remembering to swallow a small pill every day. It is accompanied by a host of other responsibilities and costs: co-pays for gynecological visits, annual check-ups, the financial cost of contraception (and don’t forget that Viagra is covered by insurance companies, but not always birth control pills—though that might change if the HHS implements the IOM’s recommendations), not to mention the side effects, which can be myriad and major.

This has an impact on men, too. Their lack of choices for a long-acting, reversible contraceptive (LARC) means they must trust their female partners to take care of the contraception. And if it fails, as contraceptives sometimes do, they are supposed to be responsible for their children, whether they wanted offspring or not. I would think men would cheer a pill that gave them more control over reproduction. (And, it seems, they do. According to this 2009 article from Science Progress by Lisa Campo-Engelstein, a study showed that 55 percent of men would be willing to use contraception.)

But though the medical research community has been making noises about contraceptives for men for years, there is still nothing on the market. Campo-Engelstein suggests that this has to do both with gender perception (contraception is “women’s work;” women’s bodies are less complex than men’s; that men will not be willing to use methods that have side effects on their bodies, the way that women do; and more) and with the funding available for research.

The distribution of research and development money in the 1990s was as follows: 60 percent to high-tech female methods, 3 percent to female barrier methods, spermicides, and natural fertility control methods, 7 percent to male methods, and 30 percent to multiple methods, though mostly for women.[12] Researchers who would like to study male contraception often cannot due to a lack of funding. For example, Richard Anderson, a professor of clinical reproductive science at Edinburgh University, says that “most of the work [on male contraception] has been initiated by university investigators and the World Health Organisation. There has so far not been a lot of money from corporate companies.”[13]Despite positive findings on a male contraceptive pill, Anderson has not been able to conduct trials because no pharmaceutical company will financially support them.

In Hess’s post, Allison said, “I’ve been dating since high school, and it feels like the men that I date now have a very similar idea of birth control as the men I dated who were high school students. They get a preliminary idea in sex ed, and then there’s not really any education after that. Nothing ever changes.”

Let’s all, men and women, hope that this time, something will.


6 Jul

INDIA is in the news again, for the wrong reason. On Monday, Indian health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, announced to a conference on HIV/AIDS full of people in Delhi that gay sex was “unnatural” and that homosexuality “is a disease which has come from other countries.” (And at no point did some clever organizer think to cut off his microphone feed.) There was more, but since it’s been plastered all over CNN, The New York Times, the Guardian, and more, I won’t repeat it here.

Bring to mind a certain comment by Commonwealth Games official Lalit Bhanot about the appalling state of the athletes’ village that the New Zealand team encountered? Bhanot told a group of Indian reporters, “These rooms are clean to both you and us.” Foreigners “want certain standards in hygiene and cleanliness which may differ from our perception.” Someone really needs to invent a cure to the foot-in-mouth disease.

Meanwhile, here are some photographs I took at the gay pride parade two weekends ago, two days after the historic decision to legalize same-sex marriage in New York on June 24.

Tossing the rainbow ball with spectators

Tossing the rainbow ball with spectators

Spreading his wings

Spreading his wings

Shut up and bounce!

Shut up and bounce!

Proposing to 15th Street

Proposing to 15th Street, but there were no takers!

A shock of red feathers

A shock of red feathers

The desi contingent, rocking it to Sheila ki Jawani

The desi contingent, rocking it to Sheila ki Jawani

The come hither move

The come hither move

This sign was one of my favorites!

This sign was one of my favorites!

Meanwhile, since the day the new law takes effect, July 24, is a Sunday, the city will keep offices open so that gay couples can get married that very day. I can’t think of a better reason to work all weekend!

p.s. My friend Shaunak, who runs a photo blog, was also at the pride march. See his pictures here.

Four on Friday: Reclaiming Streets, Language and More

1 Jul
SlutWalk London 2011 by Garry Knight

SlutWalk London 2011 by Garry Knight

1. ONE afternoon almost a decade ago I was walking from my house in Bombay to Breach Candy, a 15-20 walk, and about five minutes in, I noticed that there was a man following me. I don’t remember what he looked like, or what he was wearing—he was a typical Roadside Romeo, one of those lewd, cat-calling types who like to sing suggestive Bollywood songs and make like an octopus with their grabby hands, that women in India encounter daily on the streets.

I had been followed by men before, and I tried all my usual tricks to throw him off. I stopped to enjoy the view of a park, hoping he would pass me by. He didn’t. I strolled into a nearby store, browsing the jewellery on sale, lingering over the silver section, but when I walked back out, he was across the street, waiting. Our eyes met and he gave me a cheeky wave. I had been irritated before, but now I was seething. On the next corner I saw a policeman, and I stalked right up to him. The words rushed out of me, how this person had followed me all the way from home, and how I had tried to lose him but he kept right behind me, and now this, the final straw, him waving knowingly, as though to say, “I’m still here. I’ll always be here. You can never be free on the streets of the city.”

While I was talking, people started listening in, as they are wont to do, and offering their own opinions. One Parsi lady, with hair fully white and cut in a bob, offered her support and congratulated me on doing something about it. Two women in salwar kameezes nodded knowingly; this had happened to them many times. A few men, enraged on my behalf, marched over to the man, who by this point was trying to slink away, unnoticed. They dragged him over to face the policeman, and I, who am not normally known for my bloodthirstiness, I was fiercely glad. They formed a knot around the man, who had no more sly smiles left in him, and I heard the sound of palm meeting flesh.

I walked away then, feeling powerful and vindicated. This was for all those times that a man had stuck out a hand and grabbed a body part that did not belong to him, for those moments of embarrassment and humiliation when I had had to walk past a group of men who were determined to undress me with their eyes, for the shock and violation caused by their crude comments and the baring of their privates—something that every woman, in India and around the world, has had to endure at some point or another in their life.

2. That’s why I’m so glad that an organization like Hollaback! exists, and that it has come to India. Hollaback! is an international movement to stop street harassment using mobile technology. Their “about” page says:

Street harassment is one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against… [It] is rarely reported, and it’s culturally accepted as ‘the price you pay’ for being a woman or for being gay. At Hollaback!, we don’t buy it.

We believe that everyone has a right to feel safe and confident without being objectified. Sexual harassment is a gateway crime that creates a cultural environment that makes gender-based violence OK… The explosion of mobile technology has given us an unprecedented opportunity to end street harassment… By collecting women and LGBTQ folks’ stories and pictures in a safe and share-able way with our very own mobile phone applications, Hollaback! is creating a crowd-sourced initiative to end street harassment. Hollaback! breaks the silence that has perpetuated sexual violence internationally, asserts that any and all gender-based violence is unacceptable, and creates a world where we have an option—and, more importantly—a response.

The way it works is this: if you have been harassed, you can take a photograph of the harasser with your smartphone (using their Droid or iPhone app; global apps to come this summer) or a digital camera, if you have one handy, map your location, and share your story on your local Hollaback! website. And as the Mumbai site says, participate in the Main Hoon Na! campaign: “The Main Hoon Na Campaign provides real options to people who want to help end street harassment with a simple message: If you see someone being harassed, go to them and ask them if they are OK, and if there is anything you can do to help.”

It’s simple, but powerful. So the next time you see someone on the street being harassed by a Roadside Romeo, shout, make a ruckus, tell a cop, take a photograph, or simply offer your support.

Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

Speaking of safely strolling down the street, a book came out earlier this year which addresses this very issue and I am dying to read it. It’s called Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets and it’s by three formidable women, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. The authors argue that “though women’s access to urban public space has increased, they still do not have an equal claim to public space in the city” and they draw from feminist theory to argue that “only by celebrating loitering—a radical act for most Indian women—can a truly equal, global city be created.”

Mumbai is famously safe. Unlike Delhi, which has acquired a bhayanak reputation, what with taxi drivers raping tourists and terrible tales of gang rape at gunpoint, Mumbai is supposed to be safe for women (well, relatively speaking, anyway). And indeed, even with my occasional encounters with leering, lunging men, I usually feel safe in my hometown as well. Why Loiter? shatters that belief.

As this review in Himal says:

The authors take us on an insightful and eventful journey, though one that leaves the reader a mite frazzled. Whirring through the bustling bylanes of Dongri and Nagpada, the posh Malabar Hill and Ballard Estate, middle-class Shivaji Park and the teeming gallis of Dharavi, we glimpse the array of women out on the streets, in the bus stops and parks. They take us on a desperate (and unsuccessful) search for a ‘ladies’ toilet in Andheri Station; a squashy ride in the ubiquitous local train; leave us breathless after a brisk walk across the Oval Maidan, where no woman must linger; and finally allow us to feel the sea breeze on the Marine Drive promenade. The book breathes Bombay, Bambai and Mumbai; it never lets us forget that there are distinct worlds in this city of 21 million. From the eyes of women, these worlds, separated by class, caste and religion, are hard to reconcile with the stereotypes of the freewheeling ‘Bombay girl’.

In a section on public toilets, the authors write, “If public toilets were to be your guide to imagining the city, what would they say about Mumbai? First, they would imply that there are very few women in public as compared to men… Second, they would suggest that if Mumbai women need to pee, they do so at home… And third, they would say, since even fewer facilities are open after 9pm, respectable women have no business being out in public after dark.”

Loitering without purpose, they say, is a way to reclaim public space, and I am going out right now (ok, when I finish this post) to go do some loitering of my own. It’s on the streets of New York, true, but no doubt I will attract at least a curious, assessing glance or two. I will go stand on the street corner, and not pretend to be texting someone, or waiting for a friend, looking impatiently at my watch, or window-shopping while walking slowly to my destination. I will loiter, because it’s my city too, and I am claiming its streets.

I am going to do my part in creating a city “with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, breastfeeding, exchanging corporate notes or planning protest meetings. If one can imagine that, one can imagine a radically altered city.”

3. Many of you will have heard by now of the SlutWalk movement which began in Toronto this past January when a local cop, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, told students at York University during a safety information session that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized.” Despicable remarks, and from someone who should have known better. People get assaulted every day, regardless of what they are wearing. The madonna/whore dichotomy is ancient and damaging and sadly, still in use. The women in Toronto had had enough, and they organized a SlutWalk, a march of women down to the police headquarters, in protest.

SlutWalk Ottawa by Rebecca Wolsak

SlutWalk Ottawa by Rebecca Wolsak

The movement spread like wildfire around the world, and to India: Delhi will hold its first SlutWalk in July. Though the word “slut” itself doesn’t hold the resonance in India that it does in the rest of the English-speaking world, the sentiment behind it is the same. As this DNA India article detailed:

According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), there is a rape every 18 hours, and molestation every 14 hours in Delhi. One of every four rapes in India is committed in the capital. Only one in 69 rape cases in India are reported; just 20% of these cases result in conviction of the rape accused. In other words, the chance of a rapist being sent to jail is 0.28%.

These are figures we should all be bitterly ashamed of—and do something to change. You can start by listening to Jaclyn Friedman’s amazing speech at the Boston SlutWalk. Here are a few snippets:

Well hello you beautiful sluts!

Do you see what I did there? I called y’all sluts, and I don’t know the first thing about what any of you do with your private parts. (Well, maybe I know about a couple of you, but I’ll never tell.)

That’s how the word “slut” usually works. If you ask ten people, you get ten different definitions. Is a slut a girl who has sex too young? With too many partners? With too little committment? Who enjoys herself too much? Who ought to be more quiet about it, or more ashamed? Is a slut just a woman who dresses too blatantly to attract sexual attention? And what do any of these words even mean? What’s too young, too many partners, too little committment, too much enjoyment, too blatant an outfit? For that matter, what’s a woman, and does a slut have to be one?

For a word with so little meaning, it sure is a vicious weapon. And, while the people who use it to hurt may not agree on what they mean by it, they’ll all agree on one thing: a slut is NOT THEM. A slut is other. A slut is someone, usually a woman, who’s stepped outside of the very narrow lane that good girls are supposed to stay within. Sluts are loud. We’re messy. We don’t behave. In fact, the original definition of “slut” meant “untidy woman.” But since we live in a world that relies on women to be tidy in all ways, to be quiet and obedient and agreeable and available (but never aggressive), those of us who color outside of the lines get called sluts. And that word is meant to keep us in line. To separate us. To make us police each other, turn on each other, and turn each other in so that we can prove we’re not “like that.” That word comes with such consequences that many of us rightly work to avoid it at all costs.

But not today. Today we all march under the banner of sluthood. Today we come together to say: you can call us that name, but we will not shut up. You can call us that name but we will not cede our bodies or our lives. You can call us that name, but you can never again use it to excuse the violence that is done to us under that name every single fucking day.

Friedman ended with this rousing call:

If you’ve ever been called a slut, stand up now and say together—I am a slut. If you love someone who’s been called a slut—stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve ever been afraid of being called a slut, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’ve been blamed for violence that someone else did to you, stand up now and say, I am a slut. If you’re here to demand a world in which what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business, and we can all live our lives and pursue our pleasures free of shame, blame and free, stand up and say it with me: I am a slut. I am a slut. I am a slut.

So SlutWalk Delhi, ignore the catcalls and the cynics who will try to pull you down, and let’s all say together: You can call me a slut, or a kutiya (bitch), a chinaal or randi (whore), but that doesn’t give you the license to commit violence upon my body.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

4. And thanks to my friend Meghana for bringing this excellent HuffPo article to my attention. (Meghana has a little girl of her own, who’s so smart she can say my name already, so she’s on top of this parenting stuff.) In it, the author recounts meeting the five-year-old daughter of a friend for the first time. Despite wanting to coo over how adorable she looked, the author made herself talk to the child about her love for books. Because it’s the constant discussing and praising of the way our daughters look—over the praising of achievements—that has led to the American girl’s obsession with physical appearance.

This week ABC news reported that nearly half of all three- to six-year-old girls worry about being fat. In my book, Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, I reveal that fifteen to eighteen percent of girls under twelve now wear mascara, eyeliner and lipstick regularly; eating disorders are up and self-esteem is down; and twenty-five percent of young American women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Peace Prize. Even bright, successful college women say they’d rather be hot than smart. A Miami mom just died from cosmetic surgery, leaving behind two teenagers. This keeps happening, and it breaks my heart.

Read the entire article here. And the next time you see that little girl in your life, give her a book. Maybe Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Four on Friday: The Men Choose

3 Jun

SO this week I was wondering what I’d do my weekly four-things-I-want-to-share-with-the-world post about, and the answer landed in my inbox. (Actually, it pinged me via Facebook, but inbox sounds better.) A friend—a male friend—sent me something (that has by now no doubt made its way around the world a couple dozen times) and said he thought I’d like to see it. The following day, another friend, also a guy, found me on Gmail chat and sent me a link to a podcast he thought I should write about on this blog. The men in my life seemed to be choosing this moment (well, three out of four of them anyway) to tell me about cool/interesting/weird things they wanted me to know about, so why not take advantage of it? So here’s my first reader-generated blog post.

1. If I were to start in strictly chronological order, this would have to go first. My friend Hasnain emailed me an article more than a month ago and I meant to write about it then (and I have the draft to prove it) but somehow it never got written. (A weekend trip to the Catskills may have gotten in the way.) It came back into my life through this fresh BBC post. From my incomplete draft:

April has not been a good month to be a blogger in India [May wasn’t much better and June is not looking so good either]. On April 11, the Department of Information Technology greatly tightened the rules governing Internet speech laws in the country, adding many broad and vaguely defined instances in which the government could shut down your website. A few days later, the U.S.-based watchdog organization Freedom House released its report on Freedom on the Net in India, and we didn’t do so well. Though India has no substantial political censorship, according to the report, bloggers and online users have been arrested in the past year, and our press freedom status is only “partly free.”

Many of the new “rules” stand out. Amongst the tidbits of personal information that can be collected from you, the Internet user, are  “physical, physiological and mental health condition,” and, most bewilderingly, “sexual orientation.” Seriously? It’s not clear whether giving out this information is mandatory or not, but given that it can be handed over to the government for a number of reasons, it’s troubling, at best.

Canadian media artist runran, who took this photograph, says that Internet speeds in Pushkar, India, are akin to paint drying

Canadian media artist runran, who took this photograph, says that Internet speeds in Pushkar, India, are akin to paint drying

Even more disturbing is this rule, which prohibits Internet users from displaying or hosting information that “is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever; harm[s] minors in any way” or “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states, or or public order or causes incitement to the commission of any cognisable offence or prevents investigation of any offence or is insulting any other nation.”

From the BBC post:

The onus on host websites to remove objectionable content is a cause for concern to Mahesh Murthy who runs Pinstorm, a digital marketing agency in Mumbai which manages clients’ online brand presence.

“Any individual can write to us and say that piece of content offends us and without any recourse we have to take it down,” he says.

“This gives us an extremely onerous responsibility to be able to police every bit of content before it goes out,” adds Mr Murthy.

The new guidelines are, in part, a response to the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, planned with the help of cell phones and anonymous email addresses. And other governments have similarly restrictive rules. But India’s record in using vague laws to go after its political opponents is not reassuring anyone.

2. The Facebook pinger, my friend Zed, sent me this Guardian article with British author V.S. Naipaul’s inflammatory remarks. In an interview with the Royal Geographic Society this week, he claimed that he considers no female writer his match. You’ve no doubt read or heard of this piece, which has been causing so much furor in the UK and here in the United States, already, but here are some choice bits:

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the “greatest living writer of English prose”, was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: “I don’t think so.” Of [Jane] Austen he said he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world”.

And also:

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said.

But the part that spawned a mini-series of follow-ups was his claim to be able to tell work written by a man as opposed to a woman from a short sample:

He said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Guardian humorously decided to query its readers to find out who among us can claim the same perspicacity as the Nobel Laureate with their “Naipaul test.” (Through sheer guesswork, I scored five out of 10.) The UK’s Telegraph also devised a similar test, though with five samples only. (In that one, I only guessed one correctly, and ironically, I guessed that the excerpt by Naipaul himself had been written by a woman. Wonder what Naipaul would make of that.)

Naipaul has been given enough publicity in the past week, what with his reconciliation—after a period of 15 years—with Paul Theroux over the weekend, and now this. This Wall Street Journal blog had the right idea, when it published an interview with Jennifer Egan, the 2011 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit from the Goon Squad (which, coincidentally, I just finished reading this past weekend), in which she said:

He may feel like he’s dealt a difficult and painful blow to women, but he makes himself look silly and outdated. And honestly, pretty vain.

Read this 1998 interview Naipaul gave to The New Yorker for an insightful portrait of the author.

UPDATE: I just came across this piece in the Indian newspaper Mint (where I’ve published several travelogues over the years) by Supriya Nair, which impressed me so much that I’m tempted to quote it in full. But that’s bad blogger etiquette, so here are the bits I liked best:

[Y]ou’ve probably seen these charts that came out earlier this year, which ran some numbers on how many women writers were reviewed in America’s top literary magazines — and how many women reviewers wrote for these publications. In some of the Anglophone world’s most liberal, forward-thinking — indeed, downright groundbreaking — publications, the imbalance on these counts isn’t small. In fact, it’s shocking.

Go look at those charts again. I’ll wait.

So, as you can see, women writers have bigger things to worry about other than VS Naipaul not liking their feminine sensibilities. (I mean, what next? Gay writers too caught up in unimportant things like sexuality? Japanese writers write too much about Japan? Derek Walcott just not understanding the West Indies? I’m agog, Naipaul. Agog!)

But — are they really bigger things? When I read Naipaul’s reported statements, after I laughed at him as you laugh at Internet trolls, I couldn’t help but think of the literary establishment responsible for the negligible importance given to women writers and reviewers, as the VIDA numbers demonstrate. VS Naipaul is a Nobel Laureate, read, reviewed and debated extensively — not to mention celebrated — in the pages of global opinion-makers like Harper’s Magazine (number of male reviewers in 2010: 27. Number of female reviewers: 7). And The New York Review of Books (number of male authors reviewed in 2010: 306. Number of female authors reviewed: 59). The New Yorker (male reviewers: 29. Female reviewers: 8).

Go read the full post here.

3. My friend Irfan (sometime Gmail chatter and full-time Canadian resident) sent me a link to this CBC podcast the other day, with this endorsement:

I was just amazed at this woman’s strength, courage, determination and vision.
The odds were heavily stacked against her. The environment, very hostile. Her demographic, a woman in a male dominated society.
She has a great vision to rebuild her country especially the weakest and most vulnerable…the women and children of Afghanistan.
I couldn’t help but admire her guts and her resolve.
She is winning in a society where the best of men hv failed.

How could I not listen? The interview was conducted on CBC’s The Current, with Anna Maria Tremonti, and the interviewee was Afghanistan’s first female deputy speaker of Parliament, Fawzia Koofi. The segment begins and ends with a letter Koofi reads to her preadolescent girls in case she is killed. At the time she wrote these letters, she was receiving death threats regularly. Happily, she survived to publish a memoir, Letters to My Daughters, and to garner enough support in Afghanistan that she is thinking of running in the presidential elections in her country.

Letter to my Daughters by Fawzia Koofi

Letter to my Daughters by Fawzia Koofi

Koofi was the 19th of 23 children, born to the second of her father’s seven wives. In the interview, she says, “My mother didn’t want me to be alive because she wanted me to be a son” so as not to disappoint her husband, Koofi’s father. So they put the newborn out in the sun to die.”I think for a woman, being a woman is a vulnerability sometimes,” she says.

But Koofi survived her first day, and has overcome numerous obstacles since. She was the first in her family to be educated. Her father, who was a Member of Parliament, was killed by mujahideen when she was a toddler. She had to fight with her brothers to be allowed to stand in election. Her stepbrothers would tear down her election posters when they saw them plastered on walls in public. They didn’t want their sister’s face to be displayed in public. “It’s like ownership,” Koofi said. But Koofi was already working by that time, and was financially independent, and so she prevailed. Now, she says proudly, in the last elections where she won a second term, all her brothers stood by her and supported her, putting up the previously reviled posters up in nearby villages to help her campaign efforts.

Now, at age 35, Koofi is a single parent (her husband died in 2003), a Member of Parliament, and a passionate activist for democracy and for human rights and women’s rights in Afghanistan. She is the kind of role model she found in Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India when Koofi was a child.

In an interview she gave to Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, she said: “I want to tell to the world, as a woman who has lived through all the situations, that women can make a difference. I want to show how strong Afghan women are.”

Spanish Class; courtesy

Spanish Class; courtesy

4. The final piece of this Four on Friday post comes from my husband, Jatin, who has just begun learning Spanish. Yesterday he came home from his Spanish class with a fascinating bit of information that he knew I would enjoy: in most countries where Spanish is the native language, most women don’t take their husbands names when they marry (I didn’t take my husband’s surname when we married). Not only that, when they have children, the kids’ last names come from both parents’ last names. As explains it, “If Juan López Marcos marries María Covas Callas, their child would end up with a name such as Mario López Covas.”

I’ve always thought that children should have the names of both their parents—and am delighted to know that the Spanish (thanks to an Arabic influence) have been following this democratic custom for decades and maybe even centuries.