Why we still need feminism

I don’t know about you, but I’m still reeling from last week’s horrific news story in Cleveland. In a matter of days, we’ve learned the details about what these three women endured while they were imprisoned by this man for an entire 10 YEARS. Let me say it again: THREE WOMEN WERE IMPRISONED IN A HOUSE IN A NEIGHBORHOOD FOR 10 YEARS. If I sound angry, it’s because I am.

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I’m outraged, but not just for obvious reasons. Not just because three young women had 10 years of their lives ripped away from them in an endless cycle of rape and abuse. Not just because, as young teenage girls, they were offered rides by a man already convicted of domestic violence and assault and needless to say, never made it home.

Nor am I outraged just because, so far, we’ve learned that two of the women were impregnated by their attacker. One of them gave birth to a daughter, who grew up in the house and is now six years old. The other, who says that she was pregnant five times, miscarried after being beaten and starved.

I’m outraged not just because police were called several times to the house, but never bother to investigated any further than the CHAINED SHUT FRONT DOOT. Not just because they never looked into neighbors’ reports of hearing strange noises coming from inside the house, seeing bizarre sightings like, I don’t know, NAKED WOMEN CRAWLING ON DOG LEASHES IN THE BACKYARD, or a little girl staring out the window of an abandoned house.

No, I’m not outraged just because of these atrocities. Not just because of the unimaginable suffering, fear, and hopelessness that each of these women surely felt, and the hope for freedom she probably lost.

I’m outraged that all of these things happened, and continue to happen to women all over the world, and yet it’s still easier to turn a blind eye and say you didn’t notice anything. It’s still more convenient for us to choose “not to get involved.” It’s still ok to chalk things up to “private issues” and simply walk away.

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And on top of all that, some still have the audacity to question if feminism is really relevant in today’s “progressive society.” I mean, do you know any women who still need advocacy, who still need someone to step up for them and say “Yes, I care?”

I’m outraged, of course, that women are kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, everyday, everywhere.

But what really kills me, what really breaks my heart, is the realization that at the end of the day, it seems like no one really cares–not even the people who are paid to.

Mexico’s “invisible women”

This week, a horribly graphic video of a woman being beheaded in Mexico made its way onto the Internet and was eventually posted on Facebook. The woman, bound and kneeling, is decapitated by a masked man with a knife before a group of observers.

The poster’s intentions? To let Facebook users know what’s really going on in the world–a right that, until now, Facebook supported. The site received numerous complaints about the video–as they have about other graphically violent videos–and it was eventually removed.

But not before it got 2,500 likes.

Beyond the ethics of Facebook and the question of whether or not users should be exposed to such material, the bigger story, of course, is about the video itself, and the murdered victim. Reports are that the woman was killed by her husband, a gang member in the Mexican drug cartel, for allegedly cheating on him.

As horrible as this video is, it’s far from the first recorded incident of gender-based violence. Violence against women in Mexico so common that it’s almost unremarkable. Femicido–femicide, or the killing of women because they are women–is a widespread phenomenon. Everyday, women simply disappear.

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Why is this happening? According to Women Under Siege, it’s largely due to a culture of allowed violence, also known as impunity:

“It is a horrible concept that is reduced to this: You want to beat up a stranger, your wife or girlfriend, murder her, torture her, kidnap her, slice her up or sell her. You can do it, and chances are nothing will ever happen to you. Sick minds, macho minds, have free rein because the government does little to stop the violence against women.”

Most women who find the strength to speak frequently disappear, their tortured bodies found stabbed, decapitated, or hung off bridges or in trees. The government does nothing: “The women who speak up are dismissed, told they are locas, told that all of their daughters were part of the narcotics business or wanted to run away.”

To everyone except their families, these women are invisible. They are erased as though they never existed.

But just like the videos, these women are real. Their suffering is real. Their deaths are real. We may not want to watch the videos on Facebook, we may not even want to read about them in the news. It’s a lot to handle, and after all, what can we really do?

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For one, we can talk about it. We can write about it. We can raise awareness and make their stories known. We can stop worrying about the kinds of things we do and do not want to hear about on the Internet and start having real discussions about serious problems. We can express respect, empathy, and sadness–for the dead and for the families that lost their mothers, sisters, and daughters.

We can acknowledge–at the very least–that to us, they are indeed visible.

Waiting to be heard, in her own words

On Tuesday, ABC aired Diane’s Sawyer interview with Amanda Knox, the American exchange student who was accused of murdering her British roommate Meredith Kercher in Italy. Although she was initially convicted of the crime–and served 4 years in prison for it–a second appeals trial revealed a striking lack of evidence in the case. In 2011, she was acquitted and released to return home.

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Amanda Knox

Almost six years later, Knox’s nightmare is still not over. Prosecutors appealed the latest verdict, meaning Knox will be on trial for murder again, likely sometime next year (in Italy, double jeopardy doesn’t apply). In the interview, Knox talks about the new book she wrote detailing her perspective on the entire ordeal, a memoir titled Waiting to Be Heard. In particular, she addresses the Italian media’s unfair (I say ridiculous) fabrications about her life during the trial, and how these lies affected the first conviction.

Simply put, the media tried Knox before the courts ever did. The then twenty-year-old was portrayed as a manipulative seductress who, along with her Italian boyfriend at the time,  killed Kercher in a violent “sex game gone wrong.” Some stories even described the murder as some sort of Satanic ritual. Her behavior after the murder also picked apart. Every move she made was construed to portray her as cold, uncaring deviant. The papers dubbed her as “Foxy Knoxy”–a childhood name that she earned for her stealth on her soccer team–and wrote stories about her fictionalized sex life. They obsessed about how she didn’t seem “remorseful.”

So why all this fascination with Knox? Why this fixation with her personal life, her reactions, her looks? Because the prosecution had a story and a scapegoat that they knew they could sell. Who cared if she was innocent? To them, she was another easy victim. The prosecutors would look like heroes for putting this hated slut away. And indeed, the public fell for it–it seems we still can’t resist the sick hysteria of a witch trial.

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Meredith Kercher

Knox’s original sentence was 26 years in prison, despite having no DNA evidence to connect her to the crime scene. Another man’s DNA, however–a drifter and convicted criminal named Rudy Guede–was all over the victim’s body, including inside her. He also left bloody hand and footprints on the walls and floor of the apartment–clear signs that he was the actual murderer.

Guede’s lawyers worked a plea deal that got him a mere 16 years in prison–a sentence less than Knox’s. He’ll be eligible for work release next year.

Even though he’s the convicted killer, I had to search to find his name.

Surprisingly, after everything, Knox still says that she encourages young people to study abroad. Her advice?

“Be careful,” especially if you’re a young woman. Kercher lost her life, but in a way, Knox almost did, too.

Could the modeling industry get any worse?

In the world of high fashion, models with skeletal frames are, well, the norm. In fact, the acceptable body weight of runway models is so low that models in the size 4-8 range are often considered plus-size. Healthy bodies are viewed as heavy. It should go without saying that this is really, really wrong.

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But apparently a lot still needs to be said. Last week, Swedish news source The Local reported that modeling scouts have a history of approaching patients at eating disorder clinics.  According to a doctor at the Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders, “People have stood outside our clinic and tried to pick up our girls because they know they are very thin.”

One of the patients approached was so ill that she was bound to a wheelchair. Another was only 14.

When the scouts were confronted about what they were doing, they explained that they look for “healthy, normally slim young people and that they never urge anyone to lose weight.”

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Right. They look for healthy models at a medical clinic for severely ill and emaciated young women (not to mention psychologically fragile). And how convenient that they wouldn’t need to encourage them to lose weight, since they’re already weighing in at near-death numbers.

This is not really about weight though, or about sizes. Most women know what a healthy size is for their particular body type, and it’s usually a range. On a spectrum of sizes, “healthy,” of course, can be found at both ends.

That said, no argument or opinion about what is and isn’t beautiful, natural, or even admittedly preferred makes this remotely okay. These young women are trying to recover from something devastating. But to the modeling industry, they’re up for grabs.

If nothing else, their actions should makes us question our own roles in this sick game. What magazines do we read, what designers and brands do we wear? And perhaps most importantly, what do we think about ourselves when we step on the scale? It’s time to stop feeding into an industry that is willing to pay women to keep killing themselves.

“American Novelists” means male novelists, of course.

In a New York Times op-ed last week, Amanda Filipacchi wrote about something strange going on over at Wikipedia. Apparently, editors are moving the names of women novelists from the category “American Novelists,” and putting them in a new category: “American Women Novelists.” Men’s names, of course, remain only in “American Novelists.”

According to Filipacchi,

 “It appears that many female novelists, like Harper Lee, Anne Rice, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt and some 300 others, have been relegated to the ranks of “American Women Novelists” only, and no longer appear in the category “American Novelists.” If you look back in the “history” of these women’s pages, you can see that they used to appear in the category “American Novelists,” but that they were recently bumped down. Male novelists on Wikipedia, however—no matter how small or obscure they are—all get to be in the category “American Novelists.”

Since Filipacchi’s piece, other writers have reported on it as well, and if you visit the Wikipedia pages it seems that they’ve halted this nonsense–for now. It would be one thing if Wikipedia created separate categories for both men and women. This might make sense in regards to simpler searching for a particular author.  But to create a “women’s” list and remove those names from the master list of novelists suggests that women writers are a derivative from the “normal” (read: male) category of writers.

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Joyce Carol Oates

So why is this happening in the first place? According to Deanna Zandt in an article for Forbes Woman (which is another interesting derivation–is this happening everywhere?),

“Anyone can edit Wikipedia, but over 80% of Wikipedia’s editors are young, white, child-free men, which means that their perspective is what largely dominates how information is organized, framed and written. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a young, white, child-free man’s perspective, of course– it’s just that there are tons of other perspectives in the world that should influence how a story gets told.”

If Wikipedia truly wants to provide users with neutral, unbiased information, it’s going to need more women editors. Duh. If “male” is the norm–the original category from which all others deviate–then sexism is also the norm. It’s subtle, and for that reason, it’s pervasive. It’s the status quo. And it’s not just up to Wikipedia to fix it. It’s up to us, too.

In the words of Zandt:

“[I]t’s not enough that we create an open system and say that everyone has the opportunity to work on it– we need to make intentional interventions into the status quo that involve raising the voices of those who are not heard as often.”

The truth of the matter? As long as we allow “the norm” to speak for us and to structure how we think about the world, we can always expect to be described in adjectives that reference our “otherness.” And right now, we’re allowing ourselves to be defined in terms of that difference.

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The “worthiness” of women’s writings

Michelle Dean wrote an article for New York Magazine this week titled “How to Win at the Women’s Memoir Game.” It examines the critical reception of women’s memoirs, work often reviewed as “oversharing.” For some reason, women’s memoirs are commonly dismissed as attempts to tell silly, sensationalized, or simply much too personal stories.

In regards to personal or “confessional” writing, Dean writes:

“The ‘confessional’ impulse has actually never been strictly a Woman Thing — just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up or Robert Lowell’s poetry, for starters. But the accusation that a writer has taken it to extremes, beyond art into sensationalism, usually is leveled at us alone.”

She cites Lena Dunham and Cat Marnell as two women who have recently scored book deals for their memoirs–works anticipated to be highly personal tell-alls.  The confessional nature of their books, however, makes them targets for criticism, especially in conversations about “serious literature.”

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Lena Dunham

More seasoned memoirists such as Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, however, have managed to escape some of this criticism. Why? Perhaps, Deen muses, because in their books “the sex is less prominent and the focus tends to be on personal tragedies that are more sympathetic to a wider audience.” In other words, in the eyes of critics, they’re not telling stories defined by their gender, or so clearly written for a female audience.

She concludes the discussion of their success with the observation that “there are, actually, degrees of craft involved in writing yourself, as Nora Ephron put it, as the heroine of your own life.”

Deen’s conversation about the type of critical response that women’s “confessional” or “oversharing” memoirs receive reminds me of the impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people do not feel like they deserve their success.  It’s a common experience among women, and it causes us to question the worthiness of our work and achievements.

The experience of feeling unworthy or untalented doesn’t come out nowhere, though. Women writers are especially scrutinized, and their work often taken less seriously than men’s. For this to change, women’s writing must be evaluated as writing first. And on that note, perhaps we should stop classifying anything created by a woman as “women’s” altogether.

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Violence against women in India: The norm?

Protestors have taken to the streets after another horrific rape in India. This past Wednesday, a five-year-old girl was found in a New Delhi apartment after being reported missing by her parents on Monday. The girl was abducted, tortured and raped for two days by a 23-year-old man.

The New York Times reports that, in addition to beating, strangling, and genitally mutilating the girl, the suspect inserted an eight inch bottle and a candle inside her. The objects had to be surgically removed.

On top of such a horrifying crime, the girl’s parents told reporters that the police “had failed to take their complaint seriously, failed to carry out an adequate search and then offered them 2,000 rupees—about $37—if they would keep quiet about the case.”

There has been a recent trend in extreme violence against women in India, or at least a trend in the visibility of these crimes. This case comes just months after the December gang rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old woman. A few days after her death, in an unrelated incident, an 18-year-old woman committed suicide after being raped by two men. Last month, a Swiss woman touring the country with her husband was raped by a group of men who also beat and robbed them.

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These brutal crimes speak volumes about the culture of violence against women in India. Protestors are also speaking out about India’s culture of victim-blaming among the police and judicial system.

According to The Huffington Post:

“This is the mentality which most Indian men are suffering from unfortunately,’ Ranjana Kumari, director for the New Delhi-based Centre for Social Research, told the newspaper. “That is the mindset that has been perpetrating this crime because they justify it indirectly, you asked for it so it is your responsibility.”

Victim-blaming is not unique to India. For many emerging countries it is still the cultural norm. Police incompetence–and indifference–make matters worse.

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India’s Parliament passed a new law last month making sexual harassment a crime, and rape resulting in the victim’s death punishable by the death penalty.

Passing the law itself was a significant step in the right direction, but the way in which this most recent rape of a child is handled–and the punishment her attacker receives–will set perhaps an even more important precedent for India.