A Value Shift Toward Fashion

a picture of clothing in a closet
Photo by Ajanet Rountree

I have thought a lot about the phrase “speaking truth to power” over the last few days. Perhaps my musings have a lot to do with the free space I have in my mind now that my thesis is complete. Or it could be the anger I feel knowing that children of Hollywood actresses and the like scammed their ways into colleges and universities while I sacrificed, saved, budgeted and continually sought/seek to maintain my integrity on my significantly less flexible income. What did it mean for me to know that some people have no idea or care about the struggle of other people? What did mean to have someone blatantly disrespect the work ethic of millions of people? Nearly one year ago, my colleague Lindsey wrote a blog about The True Cost of fashion as highlighted in a Netflix documentary. For me, it was an eye-opening read as I found myself confronted by my disrespect for the work ethic of millions of people. After reading her blog, I was committed to shopping differently, but I honestly did not know how or where to begin. You see, I like clothes. I use the word like instead of love because love affirms a commitment whereas like can be fleeting and fickle; therefore, I like clothes and love colors, patterns, and fabrics. I agree with Orsola de Castro’s declaration that “clothes are the skin we choose.”

I cannot say that I have gone this year without purchasing new clothing, but I have not bought as much as I have in years past. I have also become mindful of my giving to charity stores because as the film points out, unsold clothing goes to other countries and overwhelms their local industry; thereby limiting the jobs and transferrable skills like sewing and tailoring. Watching the film, I realized that the core of this change was the shift in my paradigm which subsequently caused a shift in my values. De Castro asserts that our choice of clothing is the manifestation of our communication – fundamentally a part of what we seek to communicate about ourselves. So, I began to ask myself, “What did I want to communicate about myself? Did it matter to me that some of my clothes are years old if they still fit and have been well maintained?” No, but the change in my values was not merely about not caring about the durability of my clothing from years ago. It was about the lives of those on the other end of the stitches and sewing machines.

A downside of globalization is the increase of fast-fashion at the expense of the lives of garment factory workers. Globalization has allowed for the outsourcing of fashion to low-cost economies where the wages are low and kept low; therefore, those at the top of the value chain get to choose where the products are made based upon where they can compete and manipulate the cost of manufacturing. The only interest companies have in countries like Bangladesh is for the exploitation of the people, most of whom are women. The result of the Bangladeshi factory worker is that the “budget conscious shopper” can now purchase clothing that is “cheap enough to throw away without thinking about it” as proclaimed by Stephen Colbert. Last year I began questioning how my consumption of fast-fashion had continued to perpetuate the injustices of the gouging of low-wage countries experiencing the exploitation of their citizens while I claim to advocate for liberty and justice for all. Was I true to myself by ignoring the plight of millions of people making the $20 pair of jeans I brought with my e-coupon? I began to think about it.

a photo of clothes hanging in a closet
Photo by Ajanet Rountree

According to the film, Bangladesh is the second largest fashion producing market in the world after China. In 2013 the Rana Plaza took over 1,000 lives and had been noted as the worst garment disaster in history. In the year following the tragedy, the fashion industry had its most profitable year. Despite the trillions of dollars made globally by the industry, the lives of the workers are disposable. There is no standard wage or guarantee of work conditions. In Cambodia, garment workers protested and demanded a living wage of $160 US a month. The protesters met with aggressive government force that resulted in the deaths of five workers and several others injured. Companies in low-wage countries do not own the factories or hire the workers. Therefore, they are not officially responsible for the treatment of workers and the human rights violations they endure as a byproduct of their need to work. The research of Kevin Bales reveals the depths of the impact of the global economy on human lives in his books on disposable people.

As consumers in a capitalistic society, we distance ourselves from the devastation of poverty and inequality by comforting ourselves with the notion of ‘at least it’s a job’ and ‘sweatshops have the potential to bring about a better life for workers eventually.’ In a Fox News interview highlighted in the documentary, Benjamin Powell of the Free Market Institute defined sweatshops as “places with very poor working conditions as us, normal Americans would experience. Very low wages by our standard. Maybe children working; places that might not obey local labor laws. But there is a key characteristic of the ones I want to talk to you about tonight, Kennedy [the host of the show], and that’s they’re places where people choose to work. Admittedly from a bad set of other options.” There are several things worth noting about Powell’s statement. First, he acknowledges that the conditions are deplorable. Second, he knows that ordinary Americans have not experienced any situations like this. Third, he knows that there is a possibility that children are employed in these factories because there is no enforcement of local labor laws. Lastly, he soothes his conscious and those of the viewer by suggesting people choose to work there. In an article, Powell and Zwolinski argue that the anti-sweatshop movement fails in at least one of two ways: internally by failing to maintain their allegiance or externally but uncontroversial by yielding to objections that should be viewed as legitimate concerns. They insist that sweatshop workers voluntarily accept the conditions because it is a better alternative for them. Is it American pride that allows us to assume that a citizen of another country would willingly choose to work in a job to feed and clothe their children/family that Americans would not do? Have we become so full of ourselves that we willfully accept the sweatshop conditions for others but not ourselves for a $5 t-shirt or $15 dress?

The documentary states that fashion is the most labor dependent industry with nearly 1 in 6 working globally in some part of it. Most of the work is done by those with no voice in the supply chain. Many factory working parents must leave their children to be reared by other family members who live outside of the city or factory area due to the long hours and low-wages; eventually seeing them only once or twice a year. Shima, an Indian garment worker, tearfully states, “There is no limit to the struggle of Bangladeshi workers. People have no idea how difficult it is for us to make the clothing. They only buy it and wear it. I believe these clothes are produced by our blood. A lot of garment workers die in different accidents. [Regarding Rana Plaza] A lot of workers died there. It’s very painful for us. I don’t want anyone wearing anything, which is produced by our blood. We want better working conditions so that everyone becomes aware.” Livia Firth, creative director of Eco-Age, chides that we are profiting off their need to work. They are not different from us, but we treat them with disrespect and like slaves. Economist Richard Wolff concludes that American desire for profit at all cost is in direct competition to the values we claim to possess as Americans. In other words, as consumers of fast-fashion, we are perpetrators of injustice because we assist in the exploitation of workers through the violation of their human rights. Our capitalist economy thrives on our insatiable greed, our irrational fear, and our thirst for power all at the expense of someone else’s survival in poverty and inequality.

Am I anti-capitalism? Perhaps. I am anti-inequality and the continuation of needless injustice at the expense of those most vulnerable so if the divide between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen because of capitalism, then yes, wholeheartedly I am against it. Beyond whether I am anti-capitalist lies the question of whether I can remain unchanged when faced with the narrative of someone surviving in an unjust situation? Put another way: can someone with less social and economic power speak into my life and cause me to change? Yes.

If our economic system thrives on our individual and collective materialism, then any change in our behavior and values will change the system. Changes in our individual and collective action and values mean changes in the individual and collective lives of those on the other end of the thread and sewing needle. This year I have learned that challenging myself to live in a way that keeps the narratives of those who cannot speak up for themselves t the forefront of my mind is—I joined with them—our collective way of speaking truth to power.

You can join us!

Women in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East and occupies about “four-fifths of the Arabian Peninsula”. It is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. When thinking of Saudi Arabia, most people associate it with religion, petroleum wealth, and tribalism. Although, throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has become more urban while experiencing vast technological, educational, social, and economic changes. However, in terms of women’s rights, Saudi Arabia has received much backlash.

Women’s Rights Timeline in Saudi Arabia

In 1955, Saudi Arabia’s first school for girls was created and, in 1970, the first university for women opened its doors. In 2001, women were allowed to get personal identification cards as long as they had permission from their guardian. Furthermore, it was issued to the guardian, not the women. Until 2005, it was cultural practice for women to be forced into marriages even though it was considered illegal. Four years later, in 2009, the first female government minister, Noura al-Fayez, was appointed. In 2012, women were allowed to compete in the Olympics on the national team for the first time. Before the 2012 Olympic Games, there was a possibility that Saudi Arabia could be banned due to gender discrimination. A year later, women could ride bicycles and motorcycles in recreational areas but only if they wear the full Islamic body covering and have a male relative present. That same year, 30 women were sworn into the consultative council, the Shura. In 2015, women could run for office for the first time, which resulted in 20 women being elected to municipal roles in the absolute monarchy. Beginning just last year, women can now go to the sports stadiums and drive. Furthermore, in order for women to get their driver license, they do not need permission from a male guardian and can drive by themselves. Finally, in 2019, there a new law established where women would receive a text message if they got divorced, whereas in the past, their marriage could end without their knowledge. Additionally, they can check their marital status online or in court, but only if she has her husband’s approval or if he has harmed her. Many of these policy reforms still include male supervision. While persecution is a high risk, women are willing to fight for their freedom.

Women2Drive. Source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons.

Their Stories

Rahaf Mohammad al-Qunun fled from Saudi Arabia to Canada; she was seeking a place where she can be free. Even though she left her family behind, now she can make her own decisions. She said, “I don’t have any contact with my family, but I think that’s good for me and for them. I feel like this is my home now. It’s better here.” Two girls, Reem and Rawan, escaped from Saudi Arabia to Hong Kong. Reem claims, “Our rooms were the prison cell and our fathers and brothers were the prison keepers. Saudi Arabia is one big prison.” However, they cannot stay in Hong Kong for long because they are at risk of being possibly removed or prosecuted. If they are forced to return to Saudi Arabia, the outcome could result in imprisonment or death. Cases similar to Reem and Rawn’s tend to often be covered up.

Why Women Run  

One of the most common reasons women flee Saudi Arabia is due to the restrictions placed on where women can travel. Women are not given the right to leave the country without their male guardian’s permission. Furthermore, a woman’s ability to choose her marriage partner is solely dependent on the permission of their male guardian. In January 2019, the country set the minimum age of marriage at 18, but girls aged 15-18 can still become married without the court’s approval. Other reasons include but are not limited to domestic violence, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and inequality in divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

 Technology and its Effect on Women’s Rights

 With every technological advances comes benefits and drawbacks. The benefits can include a platform where people are given a voice to share their thoughts and an accessible platform from anywhere in the world. However, the drawbacks comprise of undesired scrutiny which can make one an easy target. As a result, one of the biggest questions now is “whether it is the responsibility of technology companies to make sure their platforms are not used by governments to repress their citizens.”

In Saudi Arabia, there is an app called Absher, which the government can access. The purpose of the app is for men to approve or deny women to go abroad. As mentioned earlier, some women have tried fleeing the country and must do this secretly due to not having permission from their male guardian. In this case, technology is detrimental for women’s rights because it places a limitation on their freedom. Technological advancement makes it easier for men to have power over women by “policing” the women’s movement. Whenever a woman wants to go to the airport, she cannot leave without the government and her guardian knowing because they receive a text alert; people have gotten around this system. For example, Salwa left Saudi Arabia by getting her father’s phone and replacing his information with her information. Thus, she was able to make consent for her sister and herself, although risking legal consequences. People believe that these apps are causing discrimination to become more normalized. Unfortunately, even though the companies are aware of the circumstances, removing the app would not solve women’s issues in Saudi Arabia. The government in Saudi Arabia has a website that comprises of the same functionality as the app does.

 

Free. Source: Max Pixel, Creative Commons.

The Future

During a session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, leaders of Saudi Arabia discussed their goal of developing the country by increasing participation from women. In fact, the number of female diplomats has expanded steadily over the years. While the future for Saudi Arabia’s women is unknown, there is “cautious optimism” in regards to women having a bigger role in society and politics.

Sexual Assault on College Campuses

A woman who is talking to someone.
Beautiful woman. Source: Henry Söderlund, Creative Commons

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual violence .  The term sexual assault refers to “any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without your consent.”  Though, the most obvious examples of sexual assault are physical, such as rape and unwanted touching, it can also be found in verbal and visual forms, such as sexual harassment or exposing oneself.

Sexual assault is a particularly significant concern on colleges campuses.  It is experienced by one in five college women, and the majority of survivors are women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four.  For men between 18 and 24 years old, being a student increases the likelihood that they will be assaulted by 78%  in comparison to those of the same age who are not students.  Due to the breadth of its impact, sexual assault on college campuses is an issue that urgently needs to be addressed.

Intersectionality and Sexual Assault

When discussing this problem, it is important that we recognize that not all groups experience sexual assault at the same rates.  The people who are most at risk are those from minority communities that typically have less social and political power than majority communities.

This is an intersectional issue.  Women of color, for example, experience sexual assault at higher rates than white women.  According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault when compared to people of all other races.  People with disabilities are twice as likely to experience sexual assault  in comparison with people who do not have a disability.  Members of the LGBTQ+ community are also at a greater risk.  According to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender individuals are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives .

Title IX

Title IX is part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded schools.  Colleges must have systems in place to deal with sexual assault, since it can have a serious impact on an individual’s educational experience.  They should investigate every reported incident and make any necessary accommodations to make sure that the education of assault survivors is negatively impacted as little as is possible.

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has proposed some changes for exactly how colleges are to handle reports of sexual assault, but, at the moment, students still have the rights set forth by Title IX and the Clery Act, which include the Campus Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.  Under the Clery Act , survivors have “the right to receive written explanation of their rights and options,” and colleges must have “a policy on campus disciplinary proceedings” for sexual assault.  In these proceedings, both the survivor and the accused have the rights to equal opportunity to have each other present as witnesses, the accompaniment of an advisor of their choosing, and “simultaneous written notification” of any updates.

If you have experienced sexual assault on a college campus, you can report it to your school, get to know your Title IX coordinator  and school’s policies, and file a police report.

College students walking across campus.
College student. Source: Yuya Tamai, Creative Commons

Rape Culture

Exacerbating the problem of sexual assault on college campuses is the prevalence of rape culture.  Rape culture consists of the behaviors, language, and beliefs through which sexual violence is “normalized and excused.”  This can range from victim blaming, to the use of phrases like “boys will be boys,” to sexual assault itself.  This is especially impactful on the relationship between women/girls and sexual assault.  Rape culture leads to people asking female sexual assault survivors questions about what they were wearing and whether or not they were drinking, as if those factors are the reasons why people are attacked.  As girls grow up, they are taught what steps to take to help them stay safe.  The responsibility to prevent rape and assault is primarily placed on the people at risk of experiencing these things rather than being focused on teaching people not to be perpetrators.  Rape culture is a huge part of why many survivors do not report their assault .  Among survivors on college campuses, more than 90% do not report.

Rape culture is also perpetuated by phenomena such as toxic masculinity, which emphasizes the gender expectation for men to be aggressive and dominant.  Many people use this traditional view of what it means to be a man to minimize the significance of sexual assault to simply “men being men.”  This idea, as well as rape culture as a whole, frames sexual assault as something that is inevitable or a normal part of life rather than a serious problem that needs to be stopped.  This also leads to the assumption that men are always the perpetrators and survivors are always women, which is completely untrue.  Men and non-binary individuals can be assault survivors. Women and non-binary individuals can be assaulters.  People can be assaulted by someone of the same or a different gender.  Sexual assault does not always fit the stereotypes we have been taught.

Safety Precautions

If you are one of the many people who worries about their safety and about assault on a regular basis, here are some things you can do that will hopefully help you feel a bit more comfortable.  If you are not someone who feels the need to think about these kinds of things, this may be an opportunity to broaden your perspective and learn more about the things many of us have do to in order to feel even slightly safe.

  • Try to avoid walking out alone at night.
  • If you have to walk alone at night, consider calling someone and staying on the phone until you reach your destination.
  • Do your best to walk in and park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Carry pepper spray with you.
  • If you are out at night, try to make sure that someone knows where you are going to be and at what times.
  • Check the back seat of your car before getting in.
  • Make sure you have a reliable form of transportation if you are out at night.
  • Avoid jogging alone at night.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings, especially if you are alone.
  • Consider taking some classes in self-defense.
  • If you get a drink at a party or bar, watch them make the drink and do not leave it alone.
  • Consider downloading an app like Noonlight, which can make it easier to contact emergency services if you feel unsafe or if you are unsure if you should call 911.

Sexual Assault Is A Human Rights Issue

It is vital that throughout the conversation about sexual assault we recognize it is a human rights issue.  It is an issue of equality for people of all genders, sexualities, races, and abilities.  Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states, “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” but many college classes do not end until it is already dark outside.  Safety concerns prevent some people from taking these classes, while other people are able to take any of the available classes they want. According to Article 27 of the UDHR, “…everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community,” but many cultural events, such as concerts and educational events, happen at night.  If someone fears going out that late and/or has no safe mode of transportation, how can they enjoy this right?  How can they use their right to freedom of expression if they are afraid (Article 19)?  How can someone live in an environment that supports their mental health and wellbeing if they are afraid (Article 25)?  How can they enjoy the equality that all people share if they are afraid?

Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors

#MeToo’s Moment of Reckoning: Sexual Assault in the Spotlight

by Dianna Bai

Disclaimer: This blog post focuses primarily on women and girls who are victims of sexual assault and harassment, though the author acknowledges that both men and women are survivors.

a protest sign that reads "Can you hear me now? #MeToo
Can You Hear Me Now? #MeToo. Source: Alec Perkins, Creative Commons

The nation was transfixed on September 27 when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford appeared in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify about her memories of sexual assault, she alleges, at the hands of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh when they were both teenagers. Hailed as a “cultural moment” that is couched in the grander chorus of the #MeToo movement, Ford’s quiet, emotional, and powerful testimony serves as a reckoning for women who have suffered in silence for so many years. After Dr. Ford’s testimony, women and men across the country used the hashtag #IBelieveHer to show their support. Two sexual assault survivors confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator on Capitol Hill, possibly the reason why he decided to call for an FBI investigation before the Senate vote on Judge Kavanaugh.

Whether or not Dr. Ford’s testimony changes the Senate vote, she will be a positive example for legions of women who have been afraid to tell their stories. The #MeToo movement is about women taking back their power. As the movement founder Tarana Burke said, “Everyday people…. are living in the aftermath of a trauma that tried, at the very worst, to take away their humanity. This movement at its core is about the restoration of that humanity… They have freed themselves from the burden that holding on to these traumas often creates and stepped into the power of release, the power of empathy and the power of truth.”

Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault

The prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment is staggering in the United States and worldwide.

  • Sexual assault is any sexual activity that the victim does not consent to, including rape and sexual coercion. It can happen through force or the threat of force or if the perpetrator gave the victim drugs or alcohol as part of the assault.
  • Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in the workplace or other social situation.

Scores of men in power have recently been exposed for sexual assault and sexual harassment by the #MeToo movement. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are problems that penetrate every level of society and every industry: politics, business, the media, and academia among them. These are only the industries in which women have been most vocal as part of the #MeToo movement. Workers in low wage industries face the most exploitation and are less likely to go public with their stories. According to the National Women’s Law Center, sexual harassment is most severe in low wage industries, including the service industry. In the fast food industry, for example, around 40 percent of women have experienced unwanted sexual behaviors on the job and 42 percent of those women felt that they could voice a complaint for fear of losing their jobs. In the #MeToo era, men in high profile industries have been publicly exposed by the media. In the industries that do not dominate the imaginations of the public, employers are even less likely to take sexual harassment and sexual assault seriously because they do not fear a public relations crisis.

Sexual Assault

The National Crime Victimizations survey estimates that there were over 320,000 incidents of rape and sexual assault in the United States in 2016. Two-thirds of them will go unreported. It is a social phenomenon according to many scholars. The human rights organization, Stop Violence Against Women, puts it this way, “Social conditions, such as cultural norms, rules, and prevailing attitudes about sex, mold and structure the behavior of the rapists within the context of the broader social system, fostering rape-prone environments…”

Culture is pervasive and omnipresent, creating a powerful influence over the everyday behaviors of people. Gendered norms are ingrained ideas that help define the role of men and women in society and what is acceptable or not. Gender studies scholar Melissa Berger argues that despite being a highly developed country, “American culture and society is imbued with gendered norms relating to domination, over-sexualization, violation, and power and control over women and girls. In fact, violence against women is so pervasive that some scholars have argued that America has a culture of rape, domination, and victimization of women.”

Some of these attitudes include:

  • Men are dominant
  • Male are entitled to sex
  • Manhood is tied to sexual conquest
  • The woman’s body is a sexual object
  • Women should be pure

Even if a country denounces sexual violence against women on the surface, implicit biases may render such behavior acceptable. These prevailing attitudes, whether implicit or explicit, contribute to the continued oppression of women in American society. A Yale law professor pioneering research on the #MeToo movement emphasizes that sexual assault and harassment are typically manifestations of sexism rather than sexual desire. Some men attempt to prove their manhood or worth by denigrating women.

The controversy over sexual assault has left an indelible mark on college campuses in recent years. From student complaints filed at Columbia University for systematic mishandling of sexual assault allegations to the rape convictions of student athletes at Vanderbilt University, Baylor University and Stanford University in the past five years, universities have had to come to terms with their campus cultures. Twenty to twenty-five percent of college women have been victims of forced sex. A researcher who conducted surveys of college students over two decades found that between 16 to 20 percent of men said they would commit rape if they were certain to get away with it. That number rises to 36 to 44 percent if the question was reworded as “force a woman to have sex.” Many colleges are actively trying to change their culture as it relates to sexual violence, spearheading campus wide campaigns to educate students about sexuality, consent, and intervention.

New laws can affect the culture of sexual assault in a significant way, changing how university administrators respond to sexual assault and encourage or discourage victims from coming forward. Legally, it’s been a delicate balancing act between protecting the rights of victims and the accused. The Obama Administration required the lowest standard of proof, a “preponderance of evidence” in deciding whether a student is responsible for sexual assault. A “preponderance of evidence” means that universities must find the accused to have more than likely committed the crime. The Trump Administration’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has enacted new policies that require a higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence,” meaning that it is must be highly probable that the assault occurred. These new guidelines certainly send a signal that there will be less protection for students who report sexual assault. Critics of the Trump Administration argue that the new policy will discourage students from reporting sexual assaults and give universities the opportunity to drastically decrease its attention to sexual assault without retribution from the government or legal systems.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is not about sex but the abuse of power. The social psychologist Dacher Keltner writes in the Harvard Business Review that feeling powerful can lead to an increase of sexual harassment. “Powerful men, studies show, overestimate the sexual interest of others and erroneously believe that the women around them are more attracted to them than is actually the case. Powerful men also sexualize their work, looking for opportunities for sexual trysts and affairs, and along the way leer inappropriately, stand too close, and touch for too long on a daily basis, thus crossing the lines of decorum — and worse.” Institutions where systems of power are in place are fertile grounds from which abuses of power arise.

The EEOC reported in 2016 that approximately 1 in 4 women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Think about the implications of that statistic. Everywhere, women (and men) are wearing the invisible scars of abuse whether in the workplace or school. The National Women’s Law Center estimates that 70 to 90 percent of these cases go unreported since victims do not want to derail their careers, cause themselves embarrassment, or believe that nothing will be done. The attitudes of powerful men and victimized women reveal that sexual harassment is clearly very much a cultural problem. We live in a culture that can denigrate the dignity of women at work and in school.

a #metoo sign
Source: GGAADD, Creative Commons

The consequences for women

The most distressing aspect of the widespread, societal problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment is the destructive effects it can have women’s physical and mental health in the long run. Aside from the physical pain and discomfort, victims of sexual assault frequently suffer from post-traumatic stress, depression, suicidal thoughts, and low self esteem, among other consequences. One important aspect of Dr. Ford’s testimony was how she described the impact it had on her life. A trained psychologist, she said the trauma caused by her sexual assault “derailed her life” for four or five years and affected her academic performance in the first two years of university. Decades later, she still needed to talk about the incident in therapy and suggested to her husband that they install a second front door — an escape route — for their home.

For women who have experienced sexual harassment on the job, it often means that their careers will suffer. It can lead to a loss of wages from taking leave for physical or psychological distress and sometimes voluntarily leaving the job for a better environment. One recent study showed that about 80% of women who have been harassed leave their jobs within two years. A recent case from the #MeToo movement, the case of Stanford political science professor Terry Karl, is an example. As an assistant professor at Harvard University in the 1980s, she had been sexually harassed by a senior faculty member who had the power to give her a promotion. Although she filed a formal complaint with the university, it was ultimately she who decided to leave Harvard while he stayed on as faculty and gained increasing renown.

#MeToo Around the World & the Inevitable Backlash

The United Nations estimates that 30 percent of all women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence from intimate partners or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. The sheer number of women who have experienced sexual harassment across the globe is also astonishing. Here is only a sampling: 57% of women in Bangladesh, 79% of women in India, 99% of women in Egypt (from a survey carried out in seven regions), 40% of women in the U.K. have experienced harassment in public places.

Addressing a problem of global proportions, it’s no wonder the #MeToo movement has spread quickly to other countries. In the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, India, Africa, and the Middle East—creative variations of the #MeToo hashtag have caught on and in some cases caused the downfall of men in power such as British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon.

But the successes of #MeToo have been met with plenty of resistance, even giving birth to the hashtag #GoneTooFar. A Bucknell poll in 2018 revealed that Americans are deeply divided about the impact of the #MeToo movement, with 41 percent believing that it was “just about right” vs. 40 percent believing that it had “gone too far.” Many people believe that the #MeToo movement has gone too far in creating a culture where men are publicly shamed and presumed guilty until proven innocent. It can also create an environment where men are increasingly wary of women and more likely to exclude women from social and mentoring opportunities because they fear the consequences of sexual harassment accusations. We can hear echoes of this sentiment in one of the last lines of Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement: “I ask you to judge me by the standard that you would want applied to your father, your husband, your brother or your son.”

From state capitols to the technology companies of Silicon Valley, men are becoming reluctant to meet behind closed doors with women and thinking of segregating themselves. The counter narrative was especially poignant in France, where the actress Catherine Deneuve published an open letter with over 100 other notable French women in the arts denouncing the #MeToo movement for infantilizing women and denying their sexual power. They argued that seduction is a sexual freedom and that women could discern between sexual aggression and an awkward pickup. Have we empowered women so much with the #MeToo movement that we are now persecuting men? Who is really the victim here and who should decide the fate of the men accused?

The moment of reckoning for Brett Kavanaugh and #MeToo

The question now becomes whether there has been real change in our culture. The current #MeToo narratives and counter narratives are reflected clearly in the partisan atmosphere that permeates American politics. Twenty-seven years ago, Anita Hill made her allegations about the sexual harassment she endured from then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in an eerily similar “moment.” In the end, he was confirmed in spite of her testimony. Will Judge Kavanaugh be confirmed for the Supreme Court? Will more women be inspired to speak up after hearing Dr. Ford’s testimony? Will a new generation of young men who have grown up watching the #MeToo movement unfold think differently about their relationship with women. Or will there be a “chilling effect” in offices, schools, and boardrooms across the country as men react defensively? Is this the “cultural moment” that women everywhere have been waiting for?

To learn more: Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, will be speaking at UAB on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018 at the Alys Stephens Center.

 

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

Women’s Rights are Human Rights: Ireland Continues to Criminalize Abortion

Tomorrow, May 25, Ireland will vote on a referendum of their Eighth Amendment: the abortion amendment. The referendum posits safe and regulated healthcare, as well as the removal of the stigma placed on both the women who seek abortions and the doctors who perform them. **This is a repost from the fall of 2016. 

March for Choice in Dublin On Saturday 29th. September 2012. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.
March for Choice in Dublin On Saturday 29th. September 2012. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.

Abortion. It is a heavily debated topic. From the beginning, its very existence is consistently brought up in philosophy papers and classes as a moral question. The negative connotation associated with abortion can make many people cringe when they simply hear the word. In the United States, it is an issue that conservatives and progressives rally around, but for different reasons. Classic conservative ideology revolves around public virtue, self-reliance, freedom, and cultural solidarity. One might argue that if classic conservatism highly values freedom, then the ideology would advocate for the freedom to choose whether to have an abortion or not. However, modern conservatism has implemented a little twist in such ideological freedom. Modern conservatism has emphasized the nuclear family model and to a degree, Christianity. Ronald Reagan once said, “We cannot diminish the value of one category of life — the unborn — without diminishing the value of all human life.”  We see a shift in ideological values. The argument could be made that modern conservatives still value freedom as much as the classic conservative ideology does. The new paradigm frames the issue of abortion as not about the freedom to choose, but rather the act of having an abortion is committing the act of murder. This places a negative stigma with regards to abortion due to the fact that murder is socially condemned and lawfully illegal. Progressive ideology tends to promote social justice, egalitarianism, and inclusiveness. It tends to frame the issue of abortion as the mother’s right to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not because a fetus is a part of her body, and not a human being considering that it has not been birthed. The belief that abortion is immoral stems from the emphasis on family values as well as religious interpretations that consider abortion an act of murder. In relation to all of these things, is it fair for a national government to ban abortion? I’m not talking about defunding Planned Parenthood or limiting the amount of abortion clinics in a country. Is it fair for a national government to blatantly make abortion illegal and a punishable crime? The United Nations Human Rights Committee doesn’t think so in relation to Ireland’s ban on abortion.

Ireland’s deep-rooted Catholic tradition appears in many of its laws, one of those being the country’s eighth constitutional amendment. The amendment of 1983 established a nationwide ban on abortion. The amendment reads: “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” It can be debated that this amendment implies that the unborn fetus has more rights than the person carrying the child. So, when it comes to the United Nation’s definition of Human Rights, who do those rights extend to? Can an unborn fetus have human rights? Once again, the United Nations says “no.” The broad definition of human rights given to us by the UN states “human rights are universal legal guarantees protecting individuals and groups against actions which interfere with fundamental freedoms and human dignity.” The word “individual” has been deemed insufficient as to identifying if that entity must have already been born in order to take ownership over human rights. Due to the need for clarification on what makes someone an “individual,” there have been a few other conventions and commissions within the UN that has attempted to resolve such confusion on this controversial issue. For example, the Convention on the Rights of the Child does not identify one’s right to life until birth.  However, the CRC does say, “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.” Rhonda Copelon, Christina Zampas, Elizabeth Brusie, and Jacqueline deVore argue that “this reflects, at most, recognition of a state’s duty to promote, through nutrition, health and support directed to the pregnant woman, a child’s capacity to survive and thrive after birth…” They also argue that access to safe abortions to pregnant adolescent women is a human right given to women under the right to adequate health. That is, providing safe abortions will decrease the maternal mortality rate due to the decrease in unsafe abortions.

Ireland’s law on abortion insinuates that if the fetus has any sort of problems in the womb, that the mother will still be subject to carry it to full term. In the 2011 case of Amanda Mellet, 21 weeks into pregnancy, the fetus was diagnosed with Edwards’ Syndrome and congenital heart defects that led doctors to believe that it would either die in the womb, or perhaps only live a few hours after being born. Amanda and her husband had requested an exception to the ban on abortion because of the emotional toll that carrying the fetus to full term would bring upon the both of them, but especially for Amanda who would literally have to carry the fetus whose life was already predetermined to end in just a matter of time. The Mellet couple was denied such an exception due to the fact that the mother’s life was not at risk. However, they traveled to Liverpool where they would be provided a safe abortion by a doctor without being criminalized.

About Ten Thousand People Attended A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita Halappanavar. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.
About Ten Thousand People Attended A Rally In Dublin In Memory Of Savita Halappanavar. Source: William Murphy, Creative Commons.

Ireland’s abortion ban carries a heavy weight on the issue of the mother’s health. Although Irish Law claims that the only exception for a woman to get an abortion is if her life is at risk, doctors claim that the language used for exceptions is very vague and medical professionals would rather not perform one at all rather than risk going to prison for following their own interpretation of the exception to the law. In 2012, Savita Halappanavar was in extreme physical and emotional discomfort when she knew she was miscarrying, but her request for an abortion was denied because doctors said that the fetus still had a heartbeat. She arrived at the hospital on Saturday. On Wednesday, it was discovered that the heartbeat of the fetus had stopped; Savita died due to septicemia one week after arriving at the hospital. It is believed that if the doctors would have performed an abortion, Savita would have lived.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee ruled that Ireland’s abortion ban is a violation of women’s human rights because the law “subjects a woman to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.” Such a ruling should not come as a shock to the international community considering UN legislation has insisted that the rights of the unborn are non-existent. Ireland’s law arguably gives more rights to the unborn than it gives to the human. Ireland is creating a social stigma that labels women who get an abortion as murderers and criminals.

Under Irish law, women who have had an abortion within the country are subject to up to fourteen years in prison. So, what’s the solution? Ireland insists that women who want access to a safe abortion should get one out of the country. According to Amnesty UK, a minimum of ten women and girls travel out of Ireland and into England every day in order to get access to a safe and legal abortion. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to travel out of the country to acquire proper medical treatment due to the expense of making such a trip. Also, those who are refugees or asylum seekers are not legally able to leave Ireland at all. Therefore, although Ireland may think that they are being reasonable by allowing women to receive abortions elsewhere, they are still impeding on the human rights of women. Even for the ones who can afford to travel, it is still an expense and a nuisance to have to leave one’s own country for such a procedure; especially for those who are experiencing extreme pain and suffering due to a complicated pregnancy.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee looked at the case of Amanda Mellet (the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a complaint for her) and found that her human rights were being violated under articles 7, 17, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I commend Ireland on accepting marriage equality, but it is now time to recognize the rights of women. Women have been denied certain rights for so long and although we have gained many, the good fight is not over. The same government who says that it is okay for same sex couples to marry should be the same government that allows women the right to terminate a pregnancy.

 

 

Cornbread Millionaires: Reflections on Riva and Josephine

 by LEONARD SMITH
a picture of Birkenau in the snow
Birkenau. Source: Midnight Believer, Creative Commons

I was enthused and a bit trepidatious when professor Madden-Lunsford announced we would be attending, as a class, the lecture of a Holocaust survivor and an African American woman whose father had been lynched when she was a child. I knew their stories would be both amazing and difficult to hear.

During my undergraduate studies in the early 90’s at Auburn University at Montgomery, I took a history course on the Holocaust. Before the course I had considered myself knowledgeable of the Holocaust. I discovered how ignorant I was when I learned of: the depth and breadth of the brutality and mass murder; the willing collusion of many nations and millions of people; how many nations including the U.S. denied sanctuary by not increasing immigration visas; how entire educated societies and cultures readily accepted the expansion of racism and anti-semitism to point whole scale genocide without question, because it fed their fear and anger; the discovery that if a group can be successfully scapegoated almost anything can be done to them, with little resistance, because to defend a scapegoat with logic and reason is to become a scapegoat. The most shocking discovery for me was that despite mountains of irrefutable evidence, the number of Holocaust deniers was growing. The knowledge I learned in that course changed me permanently and profoundly. I lost much of my faith in mankind. For a period of time during and following the class I suffered recurring nightmares.

Before entering the class I had naively believed that such an event could never happen again. I now know that not only could it be repeated, but that it has, in Cambodia, and most recently Sudan.

However, I also discovered that individual human courage was boundless and that miracles large and small happen. That was where my last personal seed of hope took refuge.

It is with this background and knowledge that I intellectually looked forward to, and was emotionally apprehensive of, hearing Riva Hirsch and Josephine McCall speak. I knew that these women were and are courageous. I wanted to be near that courage and learn from it.

Riva is a force of nature. She spoke of her own miracles; being found in Ukraine by people who spoke German and because of her Yiddish background being able to understand them (She referred to Yiddish as Jewish and I hoped that didn’t confuse too many people in the audience); the guard not looking underneath the carriage where she was hiding during her flight to safety; being hidden by a nun, who also spoke German, and that nun paying the ultimate sacrifice for helping her. When she spoke of being all alone in the forest, battling malnutrition, typhus, malaria, and hordes of lice, I knew she was made of far sterner stuff than I.

Riva spoke of her father’s business and how her family and his workers were a close knit group, an extended family before the war came to the Ukraine. Yet, for fear of putting themselves and their families in danger, these workers shut their doors to Riva and her family during their flight. Only one offered temporary refuge and only after Riva’s mother gave him all her jewels. As Riva spoke, so many of the atrocities I had learned of in that Holocaust course came back to the forefront of my mind. My faith in mankind was eroding again.

Though I had girded myself for  Riva’s story, Josephine, was like so many neighbors, coworkers, and friends I have known over the years. I had heard voices like hers over countless retail counters, through back screen doors and hollered from front porches. Her soft Blackbelt accent lulled me into a sense of comfort.

Riva’s story had taken place in WWII era Ukraine; a place I had only known through books and movies. But, I am familiar with Lowndes County, Alabama. I spent my childhood in neighboring Montgomery county. I had crossed Lowndes county many times on both the Old Selma Road and Highway 80. I knew the upper echelons of white society in Lowndes county were mockingly referred to as cornbread millionaires. They lived in antebellum mansions full of antiques; they were land rich but money poor. So much so, that if you went to their homes for supper, the only thing they could afford to serve in their heirloom china and silver was cornbread and beans with hog meat. I had heard it discussed that this facade and lack of resources made whites in Lowndes County particularly brutal in their treatment of black folks.

I am well steeped in the culture and nuances of Southern race relations. Though my experience of it is as a white male, born in 1964. This was the first time I had heard someone speak personally of the loss of a family member at the hands of open, socially sanctioned racist. I was surprised to learn that lynching was defined as death at the hands of three or more people and was not limited to death by hanging. I should not have been as surprised, as I was, when Josephine informed the audience that indenture (the practice of holding someone on your land as a laborer if they owed you a debt, essentially de facto slavery) was still enforced by they law in Lowndes County in 1947.

Josephine stated that her father, Elmore Bolling’s crime in the eyes of white men was that he had succeeded and purchased land, resulting in a white woman having to move off the property. Even though Mr. Bolling helped the women move and found her exactly the accommodation she wanted, his actions still constituted a crime against an unwritten social code, punishable by death.

I knew whites who thought this way, including many within my own family. They believed that all black men were lazy and stupid. Therefore, if a black man succeeded and had wealth, he must have cheated a white man or had help from interfering Northern whites and/or the Federal Government, which was the same as cheating a white man.

That was what was most disturbing for me about Josephine’s story. Her father’s murderers could have been friends of my grandparents or distant relations. Many people within my family were certainly capable of such a crime. Even the more moderate older family members believed that if a black man was lynched he must have done something stupid to put himself in harms way.

Both Riva and Josephine talked about how we must continue to speak up and talk about such atrocities and not let the deniers corrupt history and attempt to repeat it. Silence is the enemy of justice.

My lack of faith in mankind was growing. I wondered if speaking out was enough. The attitudes of many whites I know, especially those young enough to know better, is still shockingly racist. Just this week, I spoke with a friend who teaches high school English. She was distraught because a student had turned in an essay that was essentially a white supremest manifesto. The student was not a child on the fringe but rather a well liked person very popular in the high school social structure. I am often gobsmacked when I hear well educated white colleagues use the N-word, assuming I am as racist as they. I looked around at the audience in attendance and found them to very simpatico with the Riva and Josephine. The people who most needed to hear the speakers were not there. Just last night the local CBS news reported that according to the Anti-defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents were at a twenty year high. Up 47% in just the last two years.

I am honored to have heard Riva and Josephine’s stories and bask in the presence of their courage. I will speak up and continue to seek to root out my own internal vestiges of racism.

I spoke to Josephine after the presentation. We chuckled about Lowndes County’s cornbread millionaires. She told me where her father’s historical maker, that she had worked so hard to get erected, was located in Lowndesboro, just two hundred yards from the yellow flashing caution light. I knew the spot.

I spoke of my racist father who carried a badge and a gun for the Montgomery police force for twenty-five years and then twenty years more as an Alabama State Trooper. I told her, with dismay, of my father’s braggadocios, I heard as child, after he had a few beers. He told how he and his friends in high school would lay in wait in the dark, to catch the black men walking to town along the railroad tracks on Saturday night to visit their wives or girlfriends who were domestics and nannies in town. They subjected these men to humiliations and tortures. Their favorite being to strip them of their clothes and put them in the trunk of a car. They would release them naked on the highway, hands bound with lit firecrackers tied to their ankles and backside. My father always smiled with glee when he told these exploits. Josephine, compassionate and understanding of my grief over having such a father, clasp my hand and nodded. She was familiar with these kinds of events.

I left the lecture remembering that in my youth, in the seventies and eighties, I had believed by now we, as a society, would have a more level field of justice and opportunity for all, and that hate crimes would become fewer and fewer as society became more enlightened and heterogenous. However, as I walked to my car, a fear chewed at me. Was the leveling so many had fought for, and were still fighting for, beginning to slope again, becoming muddy and slippery, rising in elevation to the disadvantage and injustice of minorities? Will there be enough voices speaking up to again seek a leveling? History does not make me hopeful.

 

Leonard Lee Smith holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Auburn University at Montgomery. He is a non-degree seeking graduate student in writing at University of Alabama at Birmingham. He won a Hackney award in 2012 for short fiction. He has told stories for The Moth Radio Hour

 


Fast-Fashion: Unethical and Unsustainable

Garment workers working at sewing machines in a factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh.
Bangladesh.Gazipur BIGUF.2015.Solidarity Center. Source: Solidarity Center, Creative Commons

Prior to the 1960s, about 90% of the clothes purchased in the United States were also made here.  Since then, it has been reduced to only about 3%.  Over the years, companies have increasingly chosen to outsource their labor to countries with lax labor laws (or a willingness to overlook them) to pay less for the work that is necessary for clothing production.  The purpose of this blog is to highlight the negative impacts of these choices based on the information given in the documentary True Cost.

The term “fast-fashion” refers to the shift in the fashion industry that has resulted in faster production with lower costs.  At first glance, this appears to be an extremely beneficial change, especially for the general United States consumer.  We can buy more clothes and spend less money in the process.  However, it is important that we take time to ask how it is possible to the industry to have changed the way that it did.  What does it really cost?

Garment Workers

When discussing the costs of the fast-fashion industry, one of the most well-known examples is the Rana Plaza building collapse of 2013 that occurred in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time, the building was being occupied by garment factories for western companies such as Children’s Place, Joe Fresh, and Walmart.  Workers in the factories told their managers that they had noticed cracks in the building but were told to go back to work.  At one point, the managers were even given an evacuation order (which they ignored).  Nothing was done.  As a result, 1,129 workers died, and even more were injured.

Outside of the tragedies that have occurred in the industry’s factories, many of the factories cut corners on a regular basis to reduce production costs.  Work areas are frequently found to have poor lighting, which can be damaging to the workers’ sight, and toxic chemicals, which can be harmful to their respiratory systems.  As of 2016, the minimum wage in $67 dollars each month, which is far less than fair compensation for the labor of these workers, especially in such poor conditions.  More often than not, these workers cannot simply quit and find work with better circumstances.  They must be able to provide for themselves and their families and lack the education and qualifications for more favorable employment.

Environment

Fast-fashion is also an incredibly unsustainable industry.  Eileen Fisher, a high-end fashion retailer who aims to use sustainable and ethical production methods, has called the clothing industry “the second-largest polluter in the world.”  It’s easy to see why.  In 2013 alone, 15.1 million tons of textile waste were created.  The majority of this waste ends up piled up in landfills.  These piles release methane as they decompose and are a noteworthy factor in global warming.  Even if their relationship with global warming were not an issue, the amount of land required to store of all this waste is simply unacceptable.

Leather tanneries are also a significantly harmful part of the clothing industry.  The chemicals used in the tanning process are extremely toxic and are often disposed incorrectly.  This leads to the pollution of the drinking water, soil, and produce of the communities surrounding the tanneries.  These chemicals lead to serious illness and diseases.  People living in these areas are facing skin problems, numbness of limbs, and stomach problems.  The chemicals are poisonous to both the environment and the health of human beings.  Not only do climate change and pollution have harmful effects that we can see today, but they are also severely damaging to the world and resources that future generations will have access to.

People in the street in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Wide avenue in Old Dhaka. Source: Francisco Anzola, Creative Commons

Human Rights

The issue of fast-fashion is one that impacts many different areas in human rights.  Regarding employment, Article 23 of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that every person has the right to “just and favourable conditions of work,” as well as the right to “just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity.”  The harmful work environments and low-wages involved in the clothing industry prevent workers from accessing these rights. Additionally, Article 25, the UDHR depicts the right to a standard of living that is sufficient to maintain an individual’s health and well-being, which requires an adequate income.

Fast-fashion also has a connection to gender equality.  In the garment industry, 85% of the workers are women.  Often, these women are single mothers without any other real employment options, due to a lack in access to education and other similar resources.  They continue to work in poor working conditions because they want their children to be able to go to school and have better job opportunities in the future.

What You Can Do 

It is easy to fall into feeling like there is nothing you can do on this side of the counter and ocean.  Fast-fashion seems to be a very distant issue.  However, there are changes you can make in your own life to be a part of the transformation of the fashion industry.  First and foremost, it is important that you make an effort to stay informed on the issue and inform others as well.  A problem cannot be solved if no one acknowledges that it exists. Second, if you can afford it, buy from brands such as Eileen Fisher and People Tree who work to produce clothing through sustainable and ethical methods.  Such companies are generally more expensive than what we have become accustomed to because of the fast-fashion industry, but the products are typically of a higher quality.  If you need more affordable options, try to get clothes second-hand, whether that be through clothing swaps or going to thrift shops.  Apps like Depop and Poshmark, make it possible to buy clothes directly from other individuals, or sell your old clothes directly to other people.  Selling your unwanted clothes through apps like these, you can help keep clothing out of landfills.  Donating clothes can be a great option when you want to clean out your closet, but it is best when you can come relatively close to directly giving clothes to the people who will receive them.  Of the clothes that are donated to “mission stores” like Goodwill, only about 10% are purchased in those stores, and the rest have the potential to end up in landfills.

Finally, though the aforementioned options are wonderful and should warrant consideration and use, it is imperative to recognize that we do not need to purchase clothing nearly as often as we do.  Advertising glamorizes things that we do not really need so that we will spend more money.  New trends come out nearly every week, so we feel the need to buy more stuff just to keep up.  Society has become very consumeristic, and this contributes to industries, such as fast-fashion, that disregard the health and safety of their workers to allow people in countries like the United States spend as much money as possible.  By purchasing less of what we do not need, we can avoid supporting these harmful practices while also saving money ourselves.

You may not always be a part of large-scale change, but you can make small, daily changes that, when combined with the efforts of others, can truly make a difference.

Black Panther: A Game-Changing Film

A laughing boy.
Child laughing. Source: cheriejoyful, Creative Commons

On February 16, 2018, the revolutionary movie, Black Panther, was finally released for the world to enjoy.  The film provides the audience with a much-needed source of representation for the black community, both on and off-screen.  Black Panther is part of a revolutionary change in an industry that has historically disregarded people of color.

Depiction of Black Characters

It is easy to see that Black Panther is a game-changer in the film industry in relation to its production, but it also includes a much-improved depiction of black characters.  They are multi-dimensional and have their own personal histories and experiences.  They are not forced into any one single role, challenging the idea that people of minorities are limited to the surface-level narratives that society usually expects.  They are real people who have struggles, fears, and triumphs.  It lacks the stereotypes that films often use to create characters of color.  The normative roles given to black actors are often of dangerous criminals with limited education, such as drug dealers and con-artists.  These kinds of characters worsen the incorrect and harmful perception that much of society has of black men.  When black roles are actually given positive characteristics, they are still generally given littles depth, and are used as nothing more than support for the white main character.

The Black Panther himself, T’Challa, is not just a superhero (though his being a superhero is significant in itself).  He is the king of Wakanda and acts as a diplomat, representing and speaking on behalf of his country at the United Nations.  He is respectful of women and recognizes their value and strength, as seen through his female bodyguards, the Dora Milaje.  He does not let toxic masculinity impact his actions and has a strong connection to his family.  T’Challa is brave, intelligent, and compassionate, making him a well-developed main character and hero.

Even Eric Killmonger is given depth and undeniably human experiences.  If one seeks a traditional villain among the movies’ characters, most signs point to him.  All of his actions are focused around defeating the Black Panther and taking over the throne, and he does not care what it takes to do so.  However, if we look closer, the circumstances are not so black and white.  His anger towards T’Challa stems from the death of his father and Wakanda’s years of ignorance of the suffering of African Americans.  His primary goal in defeating T’Challa, is to send Wakandan resources to people facing oppression.  His methods were misguided, but his motivations are fairly easy to understand.

The development of Killmonger conveys the idea that we all think of ourselves as the hero in our own stories.  T’Challa sees himself as the hero, fighting to save the country he knows and loves.  Killmonger sees himself as the hero, trying to correct the wrongs of the past and seek what he believes to be justice.  The only thing that changes is the framework of the story, the perspective through which you are experiencing it.  In real life, the vast majority people make the choices they make because they believe they are doing the right thing (even when they are wrong).  While this does not excuse actions that harm other people or mean that everyone is concerned with doing the right things, it does suggest that wrongdoings are not independent events.  Every experience we have impacts the choices we make.  If we want to make the world a better place, we have to address the causes and events that have led to different negative situations.

People are complex.  The fact that this concept is explored in a film about characters of color is indescribably important because it goes against the stereotypes and archetypes that are often used to create such characters.  It gives the characters dimensions which reflect the human experience that connects all people.

Depiction of Women of Color

The film’s use of well-rounded characters does not end with those who are male.  The character stereotype of black women in films is loud and dramatic and is perceived as having an attitude problem.  They are considered bossy, aggressive, and sometimes even mean.  The female characters in Black Panther defy traditional expectations and radiate empowerment.  Black Panther depicts numerous powerful black women without objectifying and over-sexualizing them as many movies do.  They are just normal women.  Realistic, intelligent, kind, and brave. These characters stand on their own and serve a greater purpose than supporting the development the male characters.

Shuri, T’Challa’s half-sister, is a sixteen-year-old genius who leads the development of Wakandan technology.  She offers representation for increasing number of women and young girls, especially those of color, who aspire to be part of the STEM field.  She is not limited to being “the smart one.”  When the time comes, she is ready and more than willing to be part of the fight to protect her country.  In addition to her brilliance and strength, she is also equipped with a vibrant personality.

Okoye is a member of Dora Milaje, the group of women who act as bodyguards for the Black Panther.  She is a fierce warrior, dedicated to serving her people to the best of her ability.  She is strong and loyal, ready to sacrifice her relationship to do what is right for her country.  She would do anything to protect Wakanda.

Nakia is a Wakandan spy, who goes undercover in an effort to undermine human traffickers in the beginning of the film.  She takes action and puts herself in dangerous situations in order to help others.  Her work is her passion and main priority, and she refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of romance. She also encourages T’Challa to share the resources of Wakanda with the rest of the world.  She is driven and wants to make the world better place.  She is a world-shaker.

A smiling boy.
Jamaican. Source: Ashley Campbell, Creative Commons

Watching Black Panther as a White Woman

This film is not just important for the black community, or even just for minority groups.  It is important for white people to watch the film as well.  As a white woman, I originally went to watch Black Panther to simply support a film I knew was important for people of color and to enjoy the experience.  However, as I sat in a theater full of children of color, listening to their reactions to the dialogue and every plot twist, I truly believe that I gained a deeper understanding of the film’s importance.  The kids were excited and absorbed in every moment.  I realized the extent to which I am privileged to have characters I can identify with in just about every movie and television show.  It is something that I have taken for granted for a long time.

I also realized how important it is that black people have an increased opportunity to speak.  White people need to be close allies of course, but we should not dominate the conversation.  We need to support the creation and maintenance of platforms from which they can represent themselves.  We have a history of making everything about us, and we need to ensure that that does not continue.  In the past, white people have stolen land, enslaved entire nations of people, and destroyed families for their own selfish gain.  We now need to be a part of fixing the damage that our ancestors have caused and work to empower people of color in every way possible.

Why Does this Matter?

There are some people who question the importance of representation in the media.  They do not understand why it is so vital to have well-developed characters of color and female characters.  Dr. Christopher Bell provided a thorough explanation of this in his TED Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes!”  In his talk, Bell explains public pedagogy, or “how societies are taught ideologies.”  This involves concepts such as what it means to be a member of the different genders, how to behave while in public, and how to be polite.  According to Bell, we now live in a 100% media saturated society, meaning every part of our lives, including public pedagogy, is influenced by what we seen on television, in films, and on social media.  The characters and the people that children see through the media are key in their understanding of the world.  When children are unable to see people they identify with as leaders, scientists, or artists, it is difficult for them to see a future where they are doing those things.  The media you consume impacts your outlook on who you can be.

The film shows traditional gender roles being smashed through all its characters.  Women can be warriors, scientists, and world-changers. They can be protectors and leaders. Men can be compassionate and emotional. They do not have to fit into ‘traditional masculinity’.  People can support each other in their choices, regardless of how it fits societal expectations.  In the film, the country of Wakanda contains a society in which gender roles do not seem to apply.  The proposal of a woman becoming the leader and Black Panther is not questioned.  The king’s guards are women, and no one tries to fight it or questions the Dora Milaje’s ability to protect their leader.  All people are equal and are offered the same opportunities.

In addition to its being a huge leap in representation, the film also acts as a proof that change is possible.  More representation, better opportunities, and a better future are all within reach for marginalized groups.  It is crucial that we maintain this momentum.  The Black Panther film is an immense milestone, but there is still more to do.  There still needs to be more representation for the black community and similar representation for other people of color.  We need to work towards a future where such a representative film is a norm rather than an anomaly.

 

The Right to Menstrual Hygiene

a picture of three girls smiling
Jordanian School Girls. Source: David Stanley, Creative Commons

It probably goes without saying that periods are difficult to manage. They are painful, expensive, and often quite problematic for people who experience them.  We use resources such as pads, tampons, pain relievers, and bathrooms in an effort to manage menstruation. According to the WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is when people with periods are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.  For those of us who do have access to what we need to manage menstruation, it seems that we often take these things for granted. But what if someone doesn’t have these resources within reach? The bottom line is that a lack in opportunity to practice proper menstrual hygiene is a violation of human rights due to its negative impact on mental and physical health, access to education, and gender equality.

What Is the Problem?

The aspect of this issue that might be the easiest to recognize is the inaccessibility of products like sanitary pads and tampons. One study in Kaduna State, Nigeria reported that only 37% of women in their sample had all the products needed for proper menstruation management. In Uganda, 35% of women reported the same thing. This can partly be attributed to financial issues and the frequency at which the products must be purchased. Some products, such as menstrual cups or washable pads, can be washed and reused over an extended period of time, making them cheaper in the long run. However, they are initially far more expensive than the disposable options. They are simply outside of the budget for many people. Even when someone can afford to pay for the reusable materials, finding somewhere to purchase them may be a problem.

Issues of accessibility do not end with menstrual hygiene products. In many countries, schools lack proper sanitation facilities, like bathrooms, which are vital to being able to safely and comfortably replace and dispose of used menstrual products. This is seen in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where there is an average of 1.2 “toilets” per primary school. These “toilets” are actually pit latrines. They are not usually kept in good condition and rarely have sufficient waste disposal options. In situations like this, there is little to no access to a truly safe and private place to change menstrual materials.

a picture of a traditional pit latrine, which looks like a very small building with a tin roof and two tin doors
Traditional Pit Latrine. Source: SuSanA Secretariat, Creative Commons

Exacerbating this issue are the stigma and shame associated with menstruation. Around the world, girls are taught from a young age that having a period is something to hide and to be embarrassed of. In many countries, girls are even considered to be “dirty” when on their period. This can be seen in western Nepal, where there is a tradition called “chaupadi” which requires that girls and women stay outside throughout menstruation. If they enter a home, it is believed that all of the people and animals of the household will fall ill. This perspective puts both their mental and physical health at risk. Menstruation is frequently viewed as a taboo subject, so many girls are not taught anything about it before their first period. Even after they begin to experience menstruation, they do not have access to much knowledge of why it happens or what good menstrual hygiene management is.

It is also important to recognize the relationship between menstrual hygiene management and the transgender community. Menstruation is typically referred to as a strictly feminine issue, but that is simply not the case. Many transgender men and non-binary individuals experience periods, and they should be included in the conversation about menstruation. By failing to recognize their connection to menstruation, we fail to recognize the validity of their experiences and identities. This failure is a problem within itself, but it can also have repercussions on the mental health of transgender and non-binary individuals and their ability to access sanitary materials and bathrooms for menstrual hygiene management. We need to actively work towards being more inclusive with the language we use when discussion periods and related topics. This involves choosing gender neutral terms over gendered terms, such as choosing to say “menstrual hygiene products” rather than “feminine hygiene products”.

Why Does It Matter?

According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has “a right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being” of themselves. When you are told that one of the basic biological processes that you experience and cannot control is shameful, it has the potential to lower the value that you see in yourself. Combined with the common lack in understanding of menstruation, this can lead to significant amounts of fear and confusion and have a considerable negative impact on mental health. Article 26 dictates that everyone has a right to education. Without access to clean menstrual management products or places to change and dispose of used ones, many girls around the world miss school during menstruation to try to keep it hidden. Some girls do not even have the option to go to school during that time. This creates a disparity between the educational and career opportunities of men and women, violating Article 2 of the declaration, which says that everyone is entitled to their rights without discrimination based on distinctions like one’s sex. It is unacceptable to allow limitations to be placed on individuals’ access to their human rights based on something that is uncontrollable. In order for things to change, individuals must take action.

What Can We Do?

Part of the reason why access to menstrual management products is such a difficult issue to deal with is that the majority of people are not comfortable talking about it. Even in the United States, where we generally have access to education about the most basic aspects of menstruation and know that it is normal and healthy, there seems to be some sort of collective, irrational fear surrounding the topic. Periods have a direct impact on half of the world’s population and an indirect impact on all of the population. We cannot continue trying to pretend that the obstructions of human rights that are caused by poor menstrual hygiene management do not exist. Conversations about menstruation might be uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary. uncomfortable at first, but they are absolutely necessary.

Many organizations have begun working towards improving MHM worldwide. AFRIpads, for example, works to provide menstrual kits with reusable sanitary pads and storage bags to women and girls throughout Africa, while creating job opportunities within the organization for women in Uganda. They also collaborate with Lunapads in a program called One4Her. For each eligible product that is purchased from Lunapads, an AFRIpad is donated to a student in need. On UAB’s campus, we have access to a chapter of Period: The Menstrual Movement, an organization that is dedicated to improving access to menstrual hygiene products for homeless women in the United States. If you are interested in taking action, the group is currently hosting a donation drive for pads and tampons through October 31. You can find donation boxes by the elevators in any of the residence halls. They are also hosting a Period Packaging event at the Spencer’s Honors House from 6:30pm to 8:30pm on November 1, where people will come together and pack menstrual hygiene products in kits to be given to those in need. Additionally, the Blazer Kitchen is hosting a toiletry drive through October 30, to which you can donate menstrual hygiene products, as well as many other non-perishable items.

If you lack the resources to financially support the improvement of MHM, do not be afraid to speak up and get involved in the conversation. Be a part of spreading awareness and breaking the stigma surrounding periods.

 

Protecting the Dishonored: The Jailing of Honor Crime Victims in Jordan

The silhouettes of a man and a hijabi woman face each other with a sunset behind them
We will stay forever. Source: Kamal Zharif Kamaludin, Creative Commons

“And the Oscar goes to, Mad Max! No.” The audience laughs as they await the announcement from host Louis C.K. for the winner of the 2016 Best Documentary Short. He pauses, then reads “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy!” Applause erupts as Obaid-Chinoy makes her way to the stage, and during her brief acceptance speech she reveals that “Last week, the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.” Another round of applause sweeps across the theater as the crowd cheers the progress made to end this extreme case of violence against women.

Obaid-Chinoy’s film focuses on eighteen-year-old Saba, a Pakistani girl who was the victim of an attempted honor killing, defined by the BBC as “the murder of a person accused of ‘bringing shame’ upon their family. Victims have been killed for refusing to enter a marriage, committing adultery or being in a relationship that displeased their relatives. In many instances, the crimes are committed by family members against a female relative.” Saba survived the encounter, and the resulting documentary chronicling her experience caught the attention of human rights activists around the world. Pressure from these groups was put on the Pakistani government to change the law allowing the perpetrators of honor crimes to avoid charges should the victim or relatives of the victim forgive them, and as of October 2016 the law was changed so that there are now mandatory prison sentences for those who commit an honor killing. However, this is not the case for every country, as other loopholes exist to protect the perpetrator while simultaneously punishing the victim.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy smiles and poses with her newly won oscar.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. Source: Disney, Creative Commons

During my stay in Jordan, a second film on honor crimes caught my attention. Shown to the local community at the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in downtown Amman, I sat with 50 other people as we watched If You Meant to Kill Me, a 2014 feature length documentary by Jordanian filmmaker Widad Shafakoj. Her film spotlights Jordanian women who are survivors of honor crimes but were detained in prison by the state “for their own protection” due to the lack of shelters serving victims in the community. These women would spend years inside their cell, released only after a family member signs a paper stating they would not harm her or until the guards arbitrarily decide to let her go. Once released, the women often have no money, no community connections, and no support to help them start again.

Jordanians who commit honor crimes face the threat of arrest in theory, but traditions and stigmas going back generations have created informal barriers to prevent the perpetrators from conviction. An honor crime is not committed by a single individual but instead multiple individuals, ranging from immediate family members to a group within the community. This poses a difficulty for police to convict participants because they must identify an entire social network. To counter this difficulty, they have adopted a second approach that only involves a single person: the female target/survivor. By putting the target/survivor in jail, it relieves the justice system of the stress of convicting an entire family or worrying about another crime being committed. The system also faces little backlash for this decision as the families of the women imprisoned accomplishes two tasks. Without advocates to help their case, the female target/survivor resorts to her families for a signature for release; thus, exposing herself to a future risk of violence.

Jordan is publicizing its work on improving other women’s issues inside of its borders, with some measured success. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, and ratified by Jordan in 1992 with the intention of allowing women to have equal rights under the law. However, Jordan still maintains two reservations to the document:

The first reservation is against Article 9, which states that women and men should be granted equal rights in transferring their nationality to their children. Currently, a child of a Jordanian man and a foreign woman can take Jordanian citizenship, but a child of a Jordanian woman and a foreign man cannot take Jordanian citizenship without a special identification card. The second reservation is against Article 16, which states “Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.” Here is where the difficulty lies, for within a marriage the woman has far less legal power and is therefore tied to the relationship formally and informally, even when violence is introduced.

Freedom House, in 2010, reported that while “domestic abuse is a valid reason for initiating such a divorce, it is often very difficult for a woman to prove her case, because Shari‘a courts require the testimony of two male witnesses.” This poses a significant deterrent for victims to come forward as their own testimony will not be adequate in a court of law. They also risk forced imprisonment for their safety should they come forward, making the risk even less of an option. Besides acting to protect their own safety, the women also shoulder the burden of staying to protect their children. Freedom House reports that the father is the de facto guardian of his children, and while the mother may be able to leave with the children initially, should she remarry she would lose custody. This forces the mother into a position of staying in an abusive situation, where there is a threat of death, or leaving without the security of a second income source to support herself and her children.

A group of hijabi women cut a ribbon to open the new shelter.
Women for Afghan Women open a shelter in Badakhshan province. Source: State Dept, Creative Commons

With the outcry growing louder to find a better solution for these women instead of placing them in protective imprisonment, a small number of departments and shelters developments give an attempt at a solution. The Jordanian government created the Family Protection Department within the Public Security Directorate in 1997 to work specifically on cases of domestic violence and sexual assault; however, their focus is children in the family, instead of the women. In 1999, the Jordanian Women’s Union opened a shelter capable of housing 20 women. The Family Reconciliation Centre opened its first house for 50 women in 2007 and a second in 2009 for 80 women. A

Between the three current shelters, a maximum of 150 women can be protected in a non-prison environment, but with a population of 9.5 million as of 2016, the number of shelters are incredibly too small to adequately serve the women of Jordan. Even if women are gaining more rights to interact equally in the public sphere, the lack of safety for some women in the private sphere blocks them from participating in this progress.

The dedication of more resources is necessary to ensure the women in danger are properly cared for in a safe environment. Additionally, attention to convicting perpetrators is imperative; allowing the women to reenter society knowing they are not at risk for future harm. Freedom House does note that Jordan is taking steps to enact more punishments that are forceful: “stricter sentences are now issued for honour killings and a new specialized tribunal was set up by the Ministry of Justice in 2009 to hear such cases.” The arrests of those committing the acts must occur immediately to hasten the release of the victimized women presently held indefinitely within the Jordanian prison system.