Speaking of Women's Rights: 05/10

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Tromping around Abu Dhabi in stilettos?

It might be cringe-inducing, but I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that the new Sex and the City (SATC) movie is set partially in Abu Dhabi.

Passing countless hours watching (often terrible) American blockbusters tells me this: Hollywood is fascinated by places with which the U.S. is engaged in some kind of conflict. Three Kings, Jarhead, The Kite Runner and War Games all draw their plots from political & military conflicts. Even movies that aren’t about war in Iraq or Afghanistan tend to reference those conflicts obliquely - films like Iron Man and Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay .

So why wouldn’t the SATC characters tromp around Abu Dhabi in stilettos? It makes a certain amount of sense. It also provides an opportunity to talk about how women dress in Middle Eastern cultures, and why.

One critic recaps a critical fashion moment in the movie this way. (The whole review is worth reading if you’re in the mood for a dose of hysterically funny and profane bitterness.)

When the locals complain … Samantha removes most of her clothes in the middle of the spice bazaar, throws condoms in the faces of the angry and bewildered crowd, and screams, "I AM A WOMAN! I HAVE SEX!" Thus, traditional Middle Eastern sexual mores are upended and sexism is stoned to death in the town square.

At sexism's funeral (which takes place in a mysterious, incense-shrouded chamber of international sisterhood), the women of Abu Dhabi remove their black robes and veils to reveal—this is not a joke—the same hideous, disposable, criminally expensive shreds of cloth and feathers that hang from Carrie et al.'s emaciated goblin shoulders. Muslim women: Under those craaaaaaay-zy robes, they're just as vapid and obsessed with physical beauty and meaningless material concerns as us!

Compare this to a post on In the Hot Shade of Islam, whose author actually resides in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). She describes Sharjah, where she lives, as “an extremely conservative area.”

Prior to moving to the UAE, most of my knowledge of Islamic women’s dress came from magazine articles and from talking to American Muslim women. Both stressed that the covering is about maintaining modesty. The Qur’an dictates that men and women “preserve their modesty,” but does not specify what that means. Therefore, veils and scarves of any kind are, technically, optional.

Though I see a lot of abayas and other types of coverings, I don’t see quite as much modesty. Rather, sequins, Swarovski crystals, and gilded embroidery sparkle on thousand dollar, hand-sewn abayas. The beadwork is more intricate than most of my Western friends’ wedding dresses. Looking at them is sometimes disconcerting. Even my nicest skirt seems quite underdressed when a trip to the grocery store requires a gown like a disco ball.

I tend to think and write about women’s issues in light of pop culture because it acts like a mirror, reflecting back the opinions and assumptions of the people who create and consume it. In the case of the SATC movie, the mirror is showing me fear, disgust and frustration (with a culture that has other-than-American expectations about women’s dress) alongside a sneaky assertion of superiority. When the previously modestly-robed women reveal their fashionable garb, I think the audience is meant to laugh and feel relieved: they are just like us. But assigning Western values to the fictional women in Abu Dhabi denies what is obviously a much more complex reality.

I don’t expect a Sex and the City film to be able to explain it all. But I do wonder what a culturally accurate version of the film would look like – especially since women’s abayas themselves can be designer icons, rather than what’s concealed beneath them. To me, that’s more interesting than the version of American fashion that the SATC franchise has been trumpeting for the past decade. In the Hot Shade of Islam offers an antidote, exploring pop culture topics like fashion without denying any of their many layers of meaning - the tagline is “Culture clash is terrific drama.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guest post: Race and midwifery on the border

This is a guest post from Kalpana Krishnamurthy, RACE and Gender Justice Programs director at the Western State Center. Check out the Center’s blog to read about regional news, analysis, and victories at http://www.westernstatescenter.org/blog-and-discussion.

I am 7 months pregnant with my second child, and am starting to imagine (and recall) the process of actually giving birth. For most of my adult life, I’ve seen a midwife to get my basic OB/GYN care. I like midwives, I like the vibe, and the attention and caring I’ve received. I also like the fact that I’m giving the finger to the medical establishment which has discredited and tried to limit the power of midwifery over the past 200 years.

But I’m still shocked by the recent story I read about the intersection of race and midwifery on the border. Imagine being a US citizen, trying to re-enter the country with your newborn daughter– and having your daughter’s US citizenship questioned because she was delivered by a midwife. To be absolutely clear—Yuliana Castro is a US citizen, born in Brownsville TX. Her newborn daughter is also a US citizen, born in Brownsville, TX. Both mother and daughter were delivered by midwives. And on this day, Yuliana was held and interrogated for 11 hours about their citizenship simply because they were delivered by midwives.

It’s another fantastic example of how our immigration system is broken. And how race, health care, cultural competency, and immigration are linked. For many of communities of color, going to the doctor’s office is challenging. We go into doctor’s offices where no one shares our racial or ethnic background, where assumptions get made by doctors about our health status, our risk factors, and our behaviors. Going to the doctor’s office means gearing up to advocate for yourself because your race may mean that nothing you say gets heard. So is it any wonder that Latina women would chose to deliver their children with someone who shares their cultural background, and potentially shares their first language? But in making this choice, Latinas on the border are opening themselves to racial profiling.

Questioning the ethics of midwives in the Southwest is part of a larger strategy to discredit midwives in general. Fortunately, a class action lawsuit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of the hundreds of women and children whose citizenship has been questioned because of who delivered them.

Photo credit: Jazmine Ulloa, Texas Observer

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back.

Seems like we’re always playing “Mother May I?” when it comes to progressive policies, laws and attitudes. That’s particularly true lately with respect to immigration. A Lebanese-born woman is the new Miss USA (hurrah! let’s ignore for the moment why we have the Miss USA and other beauty contests: we’ll take whatever progress we can get). Yes, you may take one baby step forward.

Mother May I take a giant step toward meaningful immigration reform?

No, but you may take two steps back for idiocy by the Arizona legislature in passing a xenophobic anti-immigrant law and racist abuse by Seattle police officers.

And while you’re at it, take three steps sideways because the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), the NAACP and other groups sued to challenge the Arizona law, but many advocates are disappointed that the U.S. Government has not done so.

We have a strange sort of willful blindness and selective memory about immigration: there’s the cliché that this is a nation of immigrants, compounded by the apparent tendency to ‘shut the door behind’ ourselves, with each successive generation objecting to the immigrants of the next. There’s also that weird veneration for families that have been in the country a long time. I’ll never forget one of my relatives who is seriously into genealogy asking a close friend, “When did your family get here?”. When he replied, “in the early 1900’s” her response was: “I am so sorry” as though somehow he and his family were to be pitied for not having arrived on the Mayflower.

Honestly, now --- what’s the inherent value in being able to trace your roots back to John and Priscilla Alden or Miles Standish? Does it make you more productive? Not really. More American? In what way? And why would that be good?

Just as insidious, but arguably more dangerous, is the tendency to avert our eyes from the reality that our economy depends on immigrants, both documented and not. Employers rely on cheap labor, and many exploit undocumented foreign nationals, yet until very recently, that side of the economic equation was simply ignored in the social and political debates. And it’s not just the U.S. economy: migration is both a critical and a contentious issue around the globe. Such deliberate ignorance, as well as many myths, abound regarding immigration, and you can find a good summary (and debunking) of those myths here.

Until we take off those blinders, face economic and geopolitical reality, and stop imagining that duration in the country means more than commitment to our nation’s ideals and Constitution, we won’t be able to grapple meaningfully with this issue.

So for now, let’s play a different children’s game:

If a cop stops you on the streets of Arizona and says, “Papers”, just answer “Scissors. I win.”

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Basketball As A Metaphor For How Women Are Doing

At seven in the morning at the downtown YMCA the basketball court is scattered with a mix of guys: tall, short, hefty, Black, White, Latino, shirted, shirtless, and so on. Then there’s the feisty 5’2” girl-wonder who plays with them… every. single. day. Though you can tell that they have a great deal of respect for her, she’ll so often be wide open and the guys will either take an improbable shot or pass to one of their male teammates.

Sometimes I think about this scenario as a metaphor for how women are perceived by society. Yes, we’re on the court now…but no one’s passing us the ball.


The number of women-owned businesses has risen by leaps and bounds in the last three decades, however that doesn’t mean that our businesses are on par when it comes to revenue. Researcher Sharon G. Hadary points out in a recent Wall Street Journal article that the average woman–owned business takes in just 27% of the average male-owned business. Hadary cites a litany of theories on why this is the case, including a reluctance to take on debt, a lack of access to capital, and (surprise, surprise) a “self-limiting view of themselves.” As far as fixes for these dilemmas, the best point she makes is this: “The more women who lead, the more women who lead,” which brings us to our next topic…


Washington State is on the progressive side, with three women in relatively high-power positions: The Governorship and both U.S. senate seats (though it’s rumored that Gregoire may be tapped to replace Elena Kagan as Solicitor General if Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court is confirmed). However, of the 147 members of the Washington State Legislature, only 48 are female. And the numbers are far worse on a national level – with just over 16% of seats occupied by a woman.

I’m sure there are a lot of theories floating around on why this is the case, but of particular interest is a study done a couple years back, that showed something hopeful, yet perplexing: The general public thinks that women make better leaders than men. Hmm…does this make me hopeful that we’ll soon be electing more women to office, or skeptical of a society who thinks this and still votes primarily for men. I’m not quite sure.


I’m sure you’ve been to see the Seattle Storm, or at least know of their existence (you are, after all, reading a blog concerning women’s rights). The other day we were talking about going to the game last minute and when someone suggested it might be sold out, my friend said “C’mon…it’s a Storm game. There’s no way it’s sold out.” In fact she’s right (with the exception of playoffs). The highest attendance in the 17,072 capacity Seattle Center last season was 9,686. My aunt solidified my hunch that so much of the reason for this is about perception by declaring that “women just look awkward when they play sports.”

This morning someone finally passed to my b-ball heroine and I watched as she sunk a shot from the 3-point line. There are so many smart and talented women out there with 3-pointers in their back pocket. For the good of society, let’s hope they get a chance to make the shot.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Egg donation? More questions than answers.

“Young women at top colleges and universities, long a prized source of eggs, are now being recruited not just through advertising in student newspapers but on Web sites like Facebook and Craigslist, even on highway billboards.”
This quote from a New York Times article on egg donation stopped me in my tracks for a couple of reasons. First, the very idea that my body might be considered a “prized source” gives me the heebie jeebies -- it's a pretty blatant statement of commodification and objectification.

Second: I’m just fascinated by the weird and complex world of compensated egg donation. I’m hoping to explore it more in a series of blog posts, but I want to start by summing up my initial reactions and posing a bunch of questions. I doubt I’ll find definitive answers to all of them, but I’ll try to dig in deeper.

Three (of the many) things that freak me out about egg donation

1. The thought of selecting donors based on traits that may or may not be genetic.

I understand that parents might want kids that look like them. Or, given some degree of choice in the matter, they might even want kids that are different from them in specific ways -- taller, blonder, straighter teeth. But does that really explain/justify seeking donors with particular SAT scores, or athletic abilities, or personality traits? I’m also curious about why certain traits seem important enough to potential parents that they would attempt to manipulate them.

An ad in a local free weekly paper reads:
Blue or Green Eyed Egg Donor Needed
Special donor needed for couple – begin at once. Seeking a healthy, college educated woman, 20-27. Best match would be 5’3” – 5’9”, slender/athletic build, blonde or brown hair. Extra great match to recipient: musical (voice/dance), athletic, adventurous, good sense of humor, empathetic. $5,000 compensation.
It’s as though the wannabe-parents are saying “Our dream child would have all of these traits, and science is too slow to figure out which ones of them are actually genetic – so we’ll assume ALL of them are, just to make sure we get the most perfect baby possible.” Even if a child can inherit empathy and a good sense of humor from her mother, what’s to stop a donor from claiming to have desirable traits that she really doesn’t have? Would the potential egg recipients demand proof? Is it OK for them to do that because they’re the ones holding the checkbook?

2. It’s risky and painful.

According the New York Times article, the donation process is like this:
First, a series of hormone injections stimulate the ovaries to produce 10 or more ova in one cycle. Next, the eggs are extracted surgically, under local anesthesia. […] Donation can cause abdominal swelling, mood swings and hot flashes. The most significant risk is ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause bloating, abdominal pain, and, rarely, blood clots, kidney failure, and other life-threatening ailments.
This sounds like a big deal! Not easy. Not fun. I’m curious about how many people do this, and what motivates them. I’ve heard anecdotes about women who donate eggs to finance major expenses (travel, grad school), but I would bet there’s a lot more variety than that.

3. Regulating the whole business.

The New York Times article quotes a doctor who studied the phenomenon of women being offered large sums – up to $50K – for their eggs.
“The concern is that some young women may choose to donate against their own best interests,” Dr. Levine said. “They’ll look at the money on offer and will overlook some of the risks.”

The study noted the possibility that the ads represented a “bait and switch” strategy, with large offers primarily designed to lure donors but with prices negotiated downward once they respond.
So a woman can be smart and independent enough to attend a “top university,” but when she considers becoming an egg donor there’s a danger she’ll become so dazzled by dollar signs that she cannot make a decision in her own best interest. According to Dr. Levine, some authority ought to dictate compensation, in order to protect women… from their own inability to make good decisions? This sounds problematic to me, not to mention paternalistic.

Of course, donating eggs is risky, and very, very complicated – and nasty negotiating tactics are reprehensible in this realm. I’m all for donors being empowered to choose wisely, and understand the risks they’re taking. I think some amount of regulation is appropriate, and necessary. But it’s hard to conceive of getting the details exactly right. How should women – and women’s right to control their own bodies - be protected when they're voluntarily donating eggs, and being compensated?

There is already a lot of knowledge and discussion about this out there on the internet. Good places to start: this article about egg donation in Canada, and Julie Shapiro’s blog. I’m just beginning to learn, and I hope to write more about this.

Please share your thoughts on egg donation in the comments! What do you think about compensation? Egg donors are often compensated, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. How do you set a price for a human egg? What race and class dynamics do you think are at play? Who benefits? Who is being exploited?) What about kids born from pregnancies started with donated eggs – how do they feel about where they came from?

Photo credit: Carly & Art

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Organic-bound? Let's hope so.

A panel of experts, put together by the president and known as the "cancer panel," released a report yesterday that brings to light the potential danger of all sorts of chemicals found in everyday products that American’s use. The report also shines a spotlight on the negative effects of under-regulation and points out that out of 80,000 or so products, only several hundred have even been tested for safety. The final report included a slew of suggestions for consumers, including the use of organic foods and products (I can just see how the right will characterize this – as Obama’s “organic arugula report?”). The fact that people are seeing this report as being a departure from the norm should tell us a lot about our priorities as a society.

The struggle against companies out to make a profit, no matter what the risk to our health, has been around for ages. Remember DDT? Then there’s the entire tobacco industry. Oh, and don’t forget our more recent struggle with the plastic additive BPA. Though federal legislation has been proposed to ban its use, the bill is none too popular, especially considering the lobbying powers of the food industry. Corporations have never really had our best interests at heart, it seems. Just the other day I listened to Maureen Storey - Senior Vice President, Science Policy, American Beverage Association – try to argue on NPR that “soda is comprised mostly of water,” and therefore it’s good for you. Uh, yeah. Sort of like Bill Cosby’s conclusion that it’s ok to eat chocolate cake for breakfast because it contains eggs and milk (except that he’s a comedian, and she’s scientist).

The panel also pointed out that when evidence of the effect of a substance is unclear, we err on the side of the chemical, rather than our health. Though the government may urge us to steer clear of “endocrine disruptors”(which sound like something from a sci-fi thriller), they won’t go so far as to ban them from the products we use in our everyday lives. I can’t help assuming that these decisions are being motivated by some company’s bottom line.

Is it silly to think that this new report could be the beginning of a shift in values? Might we begin to place more emphasis on protecting Americans from chemicals that cause cancer and other health issues and less emphasis on protecting a corporation’s right to make a profit at any cost? I suppose there’s always hope. And until then, you can check out the safety of the products you use here and here.

Home Economics 101: Why Improving Mothers' Bottom Line Is Good for Everyone

Unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Mothers’ Day is coming up; the marketers have made sure of that. And no doubt about it, mothers are good for marketing – both marketing about mothers (treat Mom to brunch! buy her a spa treatment!) as well as marketing to mothers. It’s a fact that women are more likely to be the decisionmakers for much consumer purchasing, from grocery decisions to family health care.

But even as moms wield some power in the marketplace, and increasingly, politically as well (witness the rise of groups such as MomsRising), when it comes to the workplace, being identified as a mother still is a double-edged sword. Or perhaps just a sword.

This is an issue close to home – not just because of Legal Voice’s work, but also my own work experiences. When I left a private law firm to teach, a partner said, “Oh, that’s great; you’ll be able to be with your child more, working part-time.” Never mind that, actually, I had accepted a full-time teaching position – more variable work hours, but definitely full-time.

And another recent example: I received a voicemail on a Friday. The caller, a colleague at another organization, said something to the effect, “I know you have kids so you might not be there on a Friday afternoon, but ....” As it happens, because of budget issues, our office is closed on Fridays – for everyone, not just those of us who are parents. But this person did not know that. Yet his assumption, simply because I did not happen to pick up the phone, was telling.

These may be relatively benign examples of a form of gender stereotyping – so-called “benevolent” stereotyping – but stereotyping nonetheless. And such stereotyping can have real consequences for women’s employment opportunities.

If you are a mother, employers are more likely to perceive you as not a hard worker, or not interested in work opportunities. (While this is true for both male and female parents, but the effect is more pronounced for women.) For example, people assume when you are out of the office that you must be attending to family responsibilities, rather than at a work-related meeting, or might assume a working mother would not want to relocate to another city, even if it would mean a promotion. Even though the employer is not acting out of hostility, such stereotyping can still result adverse employment actions. (See the E.E.O.C. guidance discussing this issue here.)

And, you might ask, so what? Especially in this economic environment, shouldn’t employers be able to hire the person who will be more likely to put in those extra hours? The one who won’t be running off to have a baby or needing those sick days to take their kid to the doctor?

That all may be true if the employer is acting based on real facts and individual circumstances. But more often than not, those decisions are based on assumptions, not real experiences with that particular worker. Here are just some of the reasons why gender stereotyping in the workplace should be everybody’s issue – not just a mothers’ issue:

  • Even young women without children are often paid less or not offered jobs, simply because an employer may believe (rightly or wrongly) that they are more likely to get married, take leave from work, and have competing demands on their time. So listen up, single ladies – you may think you’re different from the stereotypical woman, but chances are, your employer may not view you that way.

  • These stereotypes and other obstacles women face in the workplace result in a 77-cent wage gap – the amount that the average woman earns compared to the average man.

  • When you start out behind, it’s hard to ever catch up: The wage gap translates to a lifetime of lower earnings and reduced long-term assets – over $431,000 in lost pay over a 40-year career, not counting the concomitant ripple effect on Social Security and other retirement benefits. (Statistics from this report by the Center for American Progress.)

  • More and more households depend on contributions of women to the household income. Over 12 million families with children rely primarily on women’s earnings, with more than a third of mothers in most states providing at least half of a couple’s earnings or single working mothers.

  • If we closed the wage gap, the United States’ GDP could increase by 9 percent.

  • Without the wage gap, and with workplaces where women truly have equal opportunity to be hired, advance, and succeed, guess who would then have more income to spend on groceries, consumer goods, and other purchases that drive our economy? You got it: mothers. (And, of course, other women, and their households, too.) Increase their purchasing power, increase businesses’ bottom lines.

    So if you choose, buy a card for your mom, or for another mom, for Mother’s Day. But go ahead, be selfish too: support policies that make it possible for all women to have equal opportunities in the workplace. After all, it makes economic sense.