Archives for September 2009

Ishrat Jahan and the gender of aftermath

Ishrat Jahan

On the morning of June 15, 2004, in Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat in India, Ishrat Jahan and three others were killed by police. In India, these events are commonly referred to as encounters. The government claimed that Ishrat Jahan was “India’s first woman terrorist”. A recent magistrate report suggests that Jahan was simply a college student with no ties to any terrorist group whatsoever, and that the claims by the State were cynically manufactured. In India, this is a cause célèbre. In Gujarat, it is said, a dead woman haunts the State. The State is haunted.

A haunted State is a state that exists in the aftermath, a state in which the real occurs after the event, in which ethics is always deferred, always for a later determination.

Italy is a haunted State. Six Italian soldiers were killed last week in Afghanistan. Monday was a national day of mourning. As Italians gathered in the tens of thousands, it was not the soldiers who were said to haunt the assembled but rather “this gray area between peacekeeping, peace enforcement and combat operations….The ambiguity has haunted the country”. This ambiguity is precisely the clarity of the aftermath. We don’t know exactly what our mission is, but we will, once it’s accomplished. When it comes to war, the aftermath justifies the means … and the deaths.

But it’s not just the military branches of government that rely on the continual deferral of the aftermath. For example, Lauro L. Baja, Jr., a distinguished Philippine ambassador at the end of an illustrious career, faces the ignominy of a court trial: “When Lauro L. Baja Jr. returned to his native Philippines in 2007, he had just finished a four-year stint as ambassador to the United Nations that included two terms as president of the Security Council. A storied diplomatic career that began in 1967 culminated with the Philippine president conferring upon him the highest award for foreign service. Then a three-month episode from his U.N. days returned to haunt him. He was sued by Marichu Suarez Baoanan, who had worked as a maid in New York City for Baja and his wife, Norma Castro Baja. Baoanan, 40, said the Bajas brought her to the United States in 2006 promising to find her work as a nurse. Instead, Baoanan said, she was forced to endure 126-hour workweeks with no pay, performing household chores and caring for the couple’s grandchild. Baja denied the charges, saying Baoanan was compensated. He also invoked diplomatic immunity — a right that usually halts such cases in their tracks.”

How does this haunting work, and what does it tell us? If the allegations in the Baja case are proven, somehow those who committed the violence are haunted, because they are the subjects of history, the actors. What about Marichu Suarez Baoanan? Or Mildrate Yancho Nchang, who worked without pay or a day off for three years and then went to hospital when her employer, a Cameroonian diplomat’s wife, beat her severely. What happened to the diplomats? They got off. Diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is one issue, a matter of rule of law and interpretations of sovereignty. Existential immunity is another. Who haunts, who is haunted, how does haunting work, and, finally, is haunting gendered?

These are stories of aftermath. From India to Italy to diplomats’ households, the haunting only begins once the period called aftermath has begun. To be confronted with or to struggle with aftermath is to be haunted, but what exactly is aftermath? “A state or condition left by a (usu. unpleasant) event, or some further occurrence arising from it” and before that, aftermath is the “second or later mowing; the crop of grass which springs up after the mowing in early summer”. The math is the mowing itself, the action and process of chopping down. The aftermath is the grass that follows the violence and the act of mowing it, again and again and again. What is the gender of math? At its root, feminine. And what is the gender of aftermath? Woman. Ask those who haunt. They’ll tell you.

(Photo Credit: news18)

Going gay for porn and other disasters

Like a lot of people growing up, I got nervous speaking in public and got the obligatory suggestion from some adult that I picture the audience in their underwear.  The idea was that if I was standing in front of naked or mostly naked people, I couldn’t possibly be the most self-conscious person in the room.  Well, this didn’t work because I realized at a young age that there were some people that I just didn’t want to picture only in their undies.  At least this is what I thought at the time.  I’ve learned something recently though, had an epiphany really.  Here it is: NAKED PEOPLE ARE ALL POWERFUL.  It’s true.  Why else do we have to wear so many clothes all the time?  The more important something is, the more clothes people have to wear and the more they are reprimanded if too much skin is showing.  Why else would formal clothes be so stiff and uncomfortable? To reign in your nakedness, to contain it in cotton, woolen or silken shackles.

There is, however, a hierarchy to body parts.  They aren’t all created equal.  So I am going to focus on the big guns, the atom bombs of body parts, and discuss how they are destroying our society.  I consider this a very serious public service.  Let’s start with the ones making the news this week: boobs.  They seem innocent enough, right? Soft. Squishy.  Bouncy.  Bulbous.  Nothing to be scared of, right?  It would be like being scared of a jellyfish and that’s ridiculous, right?  WRONG! Anyone who has seen Finding Nemo knows that jellyfish are KILLERS and so are boobs.  Glenn Beck should be all over this one.  Let’s look at the evidence.  Exhibit #1:  over the weekend, Michael Schwartz, Chief of Staff to the ever-impressive Tom Coburn (R-OK), testified that pornography inflicts homosexuality on people because “all pornography is gay pornography”.  Of course you are male, only men watch porn, and seeing naked women makes you want to touch yourself.  The power of your own penis is of course so strong that you will desire other naked penises and the blight will spread.  Now, sometimes the strong can fight off the gayness like a bad cold but even a mild case of pornography at “least renders you less capable of loving your wife”.  But that’s only the beginning.

On a larger scale, the Detroit City Council is fighting to take back their city from the strippers.  A local church member opines against those who “want to use the city of Detroit as their dumping ground of their bottom-feeding, gutter-living behavior…Then they want to go back to their nice, suburban communities…It’s a shame that poor people, minority people are always the dumping ground for this.”  Translucent naked women and gutter-living patrons ought to be ashamed for single-handedly leading to the downfall of Detroit.  New legislation, however, is trying to ban lap dances and VIP rooms and may even require background checks, distance away from the dancer and opaque pasties in order to provide a safe distance between patrons and boobs, a move that one club owner calls ‘un-American’.  Yet, there are few things more profoundly American than taking our fears, and minorities, by the horns and making them illegal.

Nudity causes crime.  The lust that it inflicts sends people, men, into a blind madness over which they have no control.  They are blind animals.  It can’t be rape if she had that much cleavage or her skirt covered only half of her thighs!

Sound absurd?  This logic isn’t exceptional.  It exercises itself everyday when lawmakers justify cutting  government spending for public services, especially those that work with women, minorities and minority women who have experienced abuse while playing tough on crime.  Sexual violence is still one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S.  and obvious violence is only one facet of the way in which sex is policed.  The latest victim to this absurdity in the Washington, DC area is WEAVE, Women Empowered Against Violence, Inc., which may have to close its doors on October 1st. if it is unable to raise enough funds.  WEAVE is a major lifeline for victims and survivors in the D.C. area.  Help keep WEAVE’s doors open or look into the status of centers in your area.

(Editor’s Note: WEAVE closed in 2012.)

The gender of stampede

There was a stampede in Jakarta, Indonesia today. Few agencies have reported it, I’ve found only one. Thirteen people are reported injured, and it is reported that the thousands who gathered for free food and cash handouts, to mark the end of Ramadan, were overwhelmingly women and children.

Human stampedes are reported throughout the year, everywhere. In the past week or so, four human stampedes have been reported, Jakarta’s being the most recent.

In New Delhi, India, on Thursday, September 10, “Tragedy struck a government secondary school in Indian national capital New Delhi Sept 10 when five girls were killed and 27 other students injured, six of them very critically, in a stampede. The incident occurred when students were trying to make their way up and down a narrow staircase when they were asked to shift classrooms during an examination in the Khajuri Khas Senior Secondary School….Some students said they were asked to shift classes as certain classrooms were water-logged due to incessant rains since Sept 9 night. One of the girls, going down the staircase, fell leading to the stampede….All but one of the 27 injured students were girls.” In the end, 34 students were reported injured, five killed.

That was Thursday. On Saturday, in KwaNongoma, KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, “Tragedy struck at the annual Royal Reed Dance … when one of the maidens was crushed to death during a stampede that broke out following a scramble for promotional caps. Another maiden is in a critical condition while 10 others were seriously injured as the event turned into pandemonium.”

That was Saturday. On Monday, September 14, in Karachi, Pakistan, “Eighteen people were suffocated to death during a stampede here on Monday as poverty-stricken women battled for a free bag of flour being distributed by a philanthropist in Khohri Garden. The dead reportedly include a number of children as well. Meanwhile, several unconscious women were rushed to the emergency ward of the Civil Hospital in Karachi.” Actually, it was twenty women and girls killed, and fifteen were injured. Or was it at least 25? At any rate, the women and girls were waiting for free food.

Stampedes occur all the time. It could be sports events, such as in March of this year at the Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Côte d’Ivoire at a football, or soccer, match when a wall collapsed and the crush killed 22 and injured over 130. It could be the proverbial fire in a crowded theater or club, as happened in Bangkok this New Year’s, when at least 59 people were killed and over 200 were injured. Or it could be a sale at a big store, like Wal-Mart, as happened late last year, in Valley Stream, New York, not far from New York City. That was on the Friday after Thanksgiving, when people couldn’t wait any longer and broke through the doors, trampling a worker, Jdimytai Damour, to death. It happens all the time.

All of these incidents were described as stampedes. In the most recent, the dead and injured were all or almost all women and girls, but that is not my point here today. What exactly is a stampede, and how does a crowd crush become a stampede?

Stampede is a relatively new word, and it seems to be North American. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was coined early in the 1800s, Cowboys in the United States borrowed the Spanish word, estampido, which means crash, explosion, or report of a firearm, and estampida, which means a stampede of cattle or horses. It was an early example of transnational vaquero cowboy culture. The word didn’t come from Spain, it came from Mexico. Stampede, or stompado, was a “sudden rush and flight of a body of panic-stricken cattle” or horses. Later, stampede came to mean a “sudden or unreasoning rush or flight of persons in a body or mass”.

Here’s the thing. At its inception, stampede meant a thundering herd, powerful, dangerous. Today, when referring to people, it means a mass of people in flight who are threat mostly to themselves. How does that happen? Here’s one possibility. At the beginning, stampede was virile, masculine, big roaring animals and big riding cowboys. People, on the other hand, that was panic. In fact, the word in Spanish for the phenomenon of people rushing as a crowd and crushing one another in the process is precisely pánico. Panic. Sudden, wild, unreasoning, excessive, at a loss and out of control. And what is the term for mass panic?  Hysteria, the women’s condition: “Women being much more liable than men to this disorder, it was originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions”.  Hysteric: “belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb”.

It doesn’t matter who is trampled in the event called a stampede. What began as an articulation of masculinity, the enraged capacity to destroy all in its path, has become the embodiment of womanhood, the helpless implosion of self. What began as a roar has become somehow a whimper. When you read that a group was in a stampede, know this. It is not a neutral word. It is a gender, and the gender is woman.

And those who were in the stampede? Writing of the trampling to death of Jdimytai Damour, one person commented, “I’m particularly troubled by reports that police are thinking about charging individual members of the crowd. When people behind you start pushing you forward, there is often nothing you can do. And there’s a real fear that if you try to resist, you too will be trampled. Part of the tragedy is that there are undoubtedly people in that crowd who know they stepped on something that day, or who, in their excitement, spurred on the surge. These thoughts may haunt them for many years.”  Those who trampled will be haunted, those who lost loved ones will be haunted. The rest of us, we are meant to be haunted by the gender of stampede.

(Photo Credit: NDTV)

“Eclipsed” Last 10 days! See it now!

“Eclipsed” Last 10 days! See it now!

Written by Danai Gurira, directed by Liesl Tommy, world premier at the Woolly Mammoth, Washington, DC, until September 27, 2009 

In case you’re only going to read this one paragraph, I’m going to jump the gun. Don’t be put off by the subject of this play – five Liberian women in a rebel commander’s compound. Don’t file this event under “worthy but arduous.” Because this is the real deal: credible breathing funny characters emerge within minutes. You know them from the first volley of dialogue and action, and you understand the situation. This shack exists to serve and service CO, the commanding officer aka warlord who issues orders from just off stage to wives who call each other Number One and Number Three. As the lights come up, they are concealing from CO and the other men in the camp a third woman, a girl really, who has fled the fighting. The war, largely offstage, presses down on the play, as it did and does on Liberia. 

I like information, analysis and argument as much as the next woman, but the things I really know – outside my own experience – I learned from stories, through the powerful engagement that conjures empathy. The emotions experienced inside a story’s world burn into you and, fire-tempered, that knowledge stays. Such a story and such a world has Zimbabwean playwright and actress Danai Gurira written. 

A photograph from the conflict, featured in a New York Times article, sparked the play: three women combatants sporting tight jeans, attitude and AK47s. Gurira filed away the image and all it evoked. Years ago, she says (but it can’t be that many; she’s an elegant slip of barely 30), Gurira resolved to create stories about African women as real characters, not the usual stereotypes. If you were fortunate to see “In the Continuum,” the two-hander she wrote as her NYU drama school graduation project and performed in 2006 across the US and in her native Zimbabwe, you know she’d already begun to make good on that promise. Then, in 2007, she headed to peace-time Liberia to run workshops and interview numerous women about their experiences as combatants, wives, and survivors, as well as Peace Women in the mass movement credited with forcing the adversaries – Charles Taylor and the warlords opposing him – to the negotiating table and finally to a settlement. (As an innovative marketing strategy for “Eclipsed,” Woolly Mammoth held two screenings of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a powerful documentary about the Peace Women.) Gurira taped many hours of interview and promised the women that she would tell their story. 

Pledging to do justice to real, live women’s experiences makes perfect moral and emotional sense, but compromised drama, right? In this instance, happily, wrong! I could tell you about Bessie, the wise Fool of the piece, and her wig (“it still mek me look like Janet Jackson oh”), or about Maima, wife Number Two who takes the war name Disgruntled when she becomes a soldier (“now Disgruntled do whot Disgruntled like and no man come do no stupid ting to me or tell me whot to do”), or about the girl, who “can read and write and do all dem book ting,” reading juicy snippets from the biography of a certain American president, or about Rita, the peace woman, and her double quest in this particular camp. But you’d do better to meet them yourself, embodied with great skill and conviction by five African American actors. Five of the twenty – as South African director Liesl Tommy points out – who are employed in productions of “Eclipsed” in Washington, DC, in New York, in Los Angeles, and at Yale. Under Tommy’s direction and through a process of physical and visual immersion, the actresses at Woolly Mammoth (especially Uzo Aduba playing Helena, Number One) move like women who pound cassava, who kneel to scrub clothes in a tub or on a river bank, and who carry water in buckets on their heads, that swaying gait that gives African village women such straight-back carriage. 

What is this, you’re asking, a commercial? Where’s the critique? Ok, then. My major beef with Gurira is titles. “In the Continuum”? “Eclipsed”? These could name just about anything, including the latest soft-focus teen vampire porn series. Then, one of the actresses is more difficult to hear than the others. More interestingly, on Q+A night, an audience member was concerned that the wider context wasn’t clear enough from the play – although the ties between Liberia and the US – “America our fada,” says Bessie – are woven throughout. Political artists and audiences want it all – the art and the analysis. Think of 1986’s “Place of Weeping,” Darrell Roodt’s first film: one slim story staggering under the burden of representing all of apartheid South Africa’s types and tribulations.

I wonder, too, how Gurira will fare with male African critics. We don’t see a single man in the play, but like the war itself their presence surrounds the stage. Of the men of the LURD army and their demand for village girls after fighting, Maima/Disgruntled tells the girl, “Dey is beasts and beasts need to be fed. It dat simple.” Will Gurira, like novelists Alice Walker and Tsitsi Dangerembga, be accused of betrayal? Or have we moved on? And/or does the context of war qualify the situation – and therefore men’s behavior – as extraordinary? Perhaps Women In and Beyond the Global will make space for more discussion on this. Once you’ve seen the play, that is. The Woolly Mammoth run ends on September 27th. I’m all done pressing and exhorting. It’s up to you now. Except, to close, a few predictions:

You will leave Woolly Mammoth after a performance of “Eclipsed”

  • speaking like a Liberian (at least inside your head) for many weeks to come – “Ya dat funny oh”
  • your hands tingling from applause (and you might still be crying)
  • with a new awareness of women and war
  • living with and thinking about five characters, as if they were women you’ve known well and laughed with and care about, which by now they are. 

 Reviewed by Annie Holmes, knowledge coordinator for JASS ( and writer (


More about the play in Woolly Mammoth program notes:

Danai Gurira on NPR:

“Eclipsed” rehearsals in LA:

Washington Post Review:

Variety Review:

Womanhood, the original ‘pre-existing condition’

Every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted.

On September 11th the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) discovered that domestic violence is legally considered a ‘pre-existing condition’ in eight states and the District of Columbia and therefore a reason to deny health insurance.  The issue, however, is not new and in fact the Senate HELP committee voted on the issue in 2006; 10 Senators blocked the bill that would have made such discrimination illegal.  Unsurprisingly, all of these Senators are white, male, Republican and over 40.  In contrast, women are 85% of persons affected by domestic violence and the type of cold logic that looks at women in abusive situations as merely not cost-effective is not limited to either the insurance industry or Congress.

Victim-blaming happens every two minutes, at least.  The same neo-liberal ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ discourse that places responsibility for healthcare, childcare, all care really and economic stability on the backs of individuals equally without regard for privilege is used the blame individuals for their situations.  A woman being abused by her significant other, usually but not always a man, is blamed for the fact that this other person has chosen to mentally, physically and/or sexually abuse her and is in turn punished for it by the government and private insurance companies. The primary underlying assumption here: that someone being abused is actively choosing to be there or at least hasn’t chosen to leave. Aside from the gross ignorance and arrogance required to assume that all individuals have the personal financial, legal, physical and emotional capacity to pick up and leave an intimate partner, the fact that U.S. media and society removes all culpability from abusers is in every way abhorrent.  A woman may be a victim worthy of pity, if she never fights backs, but her abuser rarely is affected by his own actions.  Domestic violence is one of the most underreported crimes in the U.S.

The mentality which allows for trivialization of domestic violence plays itself out much more often in the public sphere than the private one.  Anyone who has ever been whistled at, flashed, followed or fondled on the streets could tell you that. Street harassment has been garnering more attention in the last few years and Washington, DC has become a city notorious for the intensity of the harassment that primarily women are subjected to every day on their ways home, to work or anywhere. With even a casual glance at HollaBack DC, one of a dozen blogs nationwide devoted to empowering individuals to end gendered street-based sexual harassment through talking about it (how novel), patterns become obvious.  The victim-blaming myths that preach that women are harassed because of how they act, what they wear and where they are when fall apart.  Harassment and abuse occur because someone chooses to harass and to abuse.  They occur because they happen in a culture which says that abuse is a private issue and that women are asexual and helpless.  Because street harassment, like domestic violence, is rooted in privilege.  It is a reminder that gender must be performed in certain ways and that certain groups are more equal than others.

Street harassment against women is generally committed by men and in DC it seems that most harassment is propagated by men of color.  This is not accidental considering that DC remains one of the most segregated cities in the US and that communities of color in the metro area are disproportionately poor and in the prison system.  While men of color are intensely disempowered, they still are able to gain power and reinforce privilege over women on the street.  Street harassment is the perfect tool for this because it is based in exploiting gendered assumptions of female sexuality, the most effective manner of gender policing in existence.  Whore, slut and cunt are after all still some of the most degrading terms for women in American English.

So what do we do?  The Tokyo police are in the midst of a so-called ‘groping prevention week’ in which police presence on the subway trains is significantly higher and gropers can expect to receive as much as 7 years in jail.  Some trains are even equipped with ‘women only’ cars now, a flashback to the 19th century in which women were seated apart from cars where men were smoking.  It’s swell and all that the government is taking the issue seriously in Tokyo, but this is a band-aid and instead of tearing a little skin, its segregating women and sending people to prison for almost a decade.  Not exactly productive.  In the U.S., gropers, if they were ever actually prosecuted, would have the added joy of being labeled a sex offender for the rest of their lives and be subject severe job and living restrictions.  But, recent events involving Philip Garrido have shown that these sort of punitive measures do little to stop abuse.  Separating men and women more and placing the police in the role of protecting women’s sexual purity is not just a bad idea, but ineffective.  Street harassment, domestic violence, asshole politicians and insurance companies are symptoms of larger privilege based problems which have only been exacerbated by extreme neo-liberal rule for the past 8 years.  There is no singular fix all and none of these things can be solved separately, but empowering discussion and action is a good start.  And getting some of those guys out of government wouldn’t be bad either.

(Image Credit: RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network))

ACAS Bulletin 83: Sexual and gender based violence in Africa

Sexual and gender based violence in Africa

A New ACAS Bulletin edited by Daniel Moshenberg

This Bulletin began in response to news reports of “corrective” and “curative” gang rapes of lesbians in South Africa. These were then followed by news reports of a study in South Africa that found that one in four men in South Africa had committed rape, many of them more than once. We wanted to bring together concerned Africa scholars and committed African activists and practitioners, to help contextualize these reports. We wanted to address the ongoing situation of sexual and gender based violence on the continent, the media coverage of sexual and gender based violence in Africa, and possibilities for responses, however partial, that might offer alternatives to the discourse of the repeated profession of shock or the endless, and endlessly reiterated, cycle of lamentation. To that end, we have brought together writers of prose fiction (Megan Voysey-Braig), lawyer-advocates (Salma Maoulidi, Ann Njogu), poets (Chinwe Azubuike), trauma scholars (Sariane Leigh), human righs and women’s rights advocates (Michelle McHardy), gender and transgender advocates (Liesl Theron), activist researchers (Sasha Gear). These categories are fluid, since every writer here is involved in various activist projects, advocates in many ways. The writers do not pretend to `cover Africa’, and neither does the collection of their writings. The writings treat South Africa, Nigeria, Zanzibar, Kenya, Sierra Leone. They are meant to continue certain conversations, to initiate others.

Read more here :

Download the Entire pdf (3.4mb) here:

Table of Contents

Sexual and gender based violence: everyday, everywhere, and yet… | pdf
Daniel Moshenberg

Untitled | pdf
Megan Voysey-Braig

Zanzibar GBV advocacy: important lessons for future legal reform strategies | pdf
Salma Maoulidi

Searching for the will to conscientiously prosecute sexual crimes in Zanzibar | pdf
Salma Maoulidi

Poet’s Note | pdf
Onwu Di
Of Widowhood
Chinwe Azubuike

Post conflict recovery in Sierra Leone: the spiritual self and the transformational state | pdf
Sariane Leigh

To be a woman in Kenya: a look at sexual and gender-based violence | pdf
Ann Njogu and Michelle McHardy

Trans-hate at the core of gender based violence? | pdf
Liesl Theron

Manhood, violence and coercive sexualities in men’s prisons: dynamics and consequences behind bars and beyond | pdf
Sasha Gear

Supplemental Material

Profile: Dr Denis Mukwge
Lelly Morris / The Lancet

Interview: Sexual terrorism in eastern DRC
Amy Goodman interveiws Christine Shuler Deschryver

Report: Soldiers who rape, commanders who condone
Human Rights Watch

The Association of Concerned African Scholars (ACAS) is a network of academics, analysts and activists. ACAS is engaged in critical research and analysis of Africa and U.S. government policy; developing communication and action networks; and mobilizing concerned communities on critical, current issues related to Africa. ACAS is committed to interrogating the methods and theoretical approaches that shape the study of Africa.

Critical: Does Social Injustice Alter Our Epigenome (for generations to come)?

A new subset of genetics—“epigenetics”—appeared on the horizon in the 1990s and has been getting a lot of attention lately because it suggests some fascinating and frightening things about how “lifestyles and environment can change the way our genes are expressed” over the course of our lifetime. It has even reintroduced the once discredited idea that “traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed on to future generations”, and several studies on plants and animals have already shown that such modified gene expression can be inherited. Unfortunately, other more problematic scientific theories—that activists and social scientists worked hard to debunk—are also being resurrected in the wake of epigenetic research, including genetic (or epigenetic) determinism”.

On one hand, research into epigenetics has the potential to strengthen social justice movements, especially environmental justice, by uncovering yet another way in which low-income communities of color are disadvantaged on a global scale. We already know that the so-called “Green Revolution” has wreaked havoc on women’s health, a fact which becomes even more ominous in light of epigenetic research showing that exposure to pesticides (in mice) has negative impacts on their offspring’s health for at least four more generations. This is not good news for migrant farm workers and their families in the United States or Yaqui girls in Mexico who are already unable to breastfeed due to pesticide exposure. Although epigenetic studies of human populations are just beginning, there is already some cutting edge research that supports these findings- for instance, Kaati, et al, analyzed a century of demographic information from Sweden, exposing that even temporary famine experienced by grandparents can affect the life expectancy of grandchildren.  

On the other hand, in our neoliberal age that stresses “personal responsibility” it may be more likely that this research will be used to blame people rather than help them. In his appearance on the PBS show about epigenetics, Dr. Randy Jirtle, Director of the Epigenetics and Imprinting Laboratory at Duke University, says that people have a responsibility to consider their lifestyle choices in light of the impact it could have on their children. In a similar vein, Dr. Szyf, professor of pharmacology and therapeutics at the McGill University School of Medicine, explains the relevance of epigenetics for psychiatry as follows:

the environment early in life anticipates the kind of life the person is going to live, for example whether it is going to be a stressful life or a calm life…The mother can convey to the offspring the type of world they are going to live in; that changes DNA methylation in the brain, and now we know, also in peripheral cells… I think that social environment can be as toxic as the chemical environment, if not more so.”

This sounds frighteningly similar to twentieth-century psychiatric theories on the etiology of mental illness- for instance, the once popular belief that children developed schizophrenia because they had a “schizophrenogenic mother”. In fact, has already jumped at the opportunity to re-open the mother-blaming theory- the website uses epigenetics to assert that “Research findings suggest that a mother’s parenting style can affect the activity of a child’s genes”, leading to mental illness. As always, no mention of the father’s (or other guardian’s) parenting style here.

In their interview for PBS, Szyf and Meaney explain their research on rats: offspring put in cages with “attentive” females could deal with stress better later in life than those raised by more “neglecting” females. To prove this was an epigenetic response, Szyf and Meaney gave the rats a drug that undoes the effects of epigenetics, which miraculously made the neglected rats “normal” again. How is this a women’s issue? Well, to build on this research there is a “10-year study, now underway, that will look at children from both nurturing and neglected backgrounds”. Szyf predicts that as a result of this research scientists will be able to show how stressful childhoods lead to poor health in adulthood, including depression, anxiety, drug abuse, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. In other words, being a “neglecting” mom can give your kid heart disease. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) the show fails to explore the idea that other stresses in a child’s environment—such as aspects of social inequality—might have similar effects. Given that disadvantaged groups, such as low-income African American women, often have disproportionately high levels of these illnesses (depression, obesity, heart disease, diabetes), will epigenetics be used to investigate the links between stress and poverty, racism, and sexism, or to blame these women for their children’s poor health?

In the Psychological Bulletin, Lawrence Harper (Chair of the Human Development program at UC Davis) does argue that social injustice can alter epigenetic expression:

oppression, is another recurrent, if unpredictable, and often long-term event that also meets the criteria for a selective advantage for epigenetic transmission. In this case, the nature of an adaptive response is not so obvious, but some aspects of temperament would be likely candidates for consideration….To the extent that undue bravery in the face of a potential enemy could lead to anything from reduced access to resources to death, caution would be an adaptive trait” (p. 11).

In other words, disadvantaged individuals may pass on “advantageous” personality traits to their children, like timidity. That’s a troubling assertion. Moreover, Harper decides that women are most likely responsible for this: “because the egg provides the larger contribution to the developing zygote, any epigenetic modifications are most likely to be transmitted via the mother”.

Epigenetic research is still in its infancy and there are certainly many scientists—perhaps even the majority—who think that the above studies relating to humans are correlational at best. However, the potential implications of future epigenetic research are virtually endless. In all likelihood, the field will lead to significant advances in medicine, including therapies for cancer that “turn off” the expression of certain genes. Yet the seemingly endless human propensity for using science to support ideological agendas makes it imperative that academics outside of the “hard” sciences, and activists, are included in the discussions about epigenetic findings in the coming decades.

Laura Meek,

Scatterlings: “Shoot to kill”

At this time four years ago, New Orleans residents of color were being hunted like animals by white citizens and National Guardsmen alike as the waters of Katrina receded…

…and now ZA has its own “shoot to kill” policy. On the anniversary of 9/11, it really makes me wonder about how “we” define terrorism. Brutality by the state = law and order, mean to protect “football fans [that] could become easy targets during next year’s World Cup“. The low income (or no income) citizens of South Africa, of course, are always easy targets in the state’s shooting range. Oh wait, did I say citizens? Turns out “those who use illegal weapons would lose their normal rights as citizens“. Is this not terrorism?

It certainly is terrifying, and there are so many more layers yet: the resources being allotted to “security” and construction for this event instead of towards economic justice, the high rates of crime seen as unacceptable for Western tourists but the price of admission for South Africans…and where is the speech at an ANC dinner, the huge push of resources, regarding violence against women and rape?

(Photo Credit: The Telegraph / AFP)

It may be Labor Day in the USA but not for the `un-worthy’ cleaners

Hands in Solidarity, Hands of Freedom mural on the United Electrical Workers building, Chicago, Illinois

It’s Labor Day weekend in the United States, and I’ve been thinking of the names, words, and voices that are consistently dropped out of the public accounts of workers and of labor. They’re stories that are deemed not worth telling or selling. Who decides the value of a story or the worth of a person or a people? Who decides something or someone is beyond worthless, beyond unworthy, is actually filled with un-worth? Consider two stories, from this weekend, that concern cleaners, and how their gender is `of no consequence’.

One involves cleaners at the University of the Free State, in South Africa, the other involves cleaners at GEICO headquarters, in suburban Washington, DC, in the U.S.

In February 2008, four white students at the University of the Free State made a horrible video. According to one report, “The video depicts four white male students taking four black, elderly, female workers and making them down a bottle of beer, run a race, play rugby and then kneel and eat meat which had been urinated on”. According to other reports, it was five Black elder workers, four women and one man.

Whatever the number, the workers were Black, overwhelmingly women, and elders. The media consensus? Racism. This was simply a matter of racism. Why? Perhaps because the students themselves said the video was in protest of racial integration of the residences. Perhaps.

Over this weekend, a full eighteen months later, the South African Sunday Times reports those cleaners, “four elderly female cleaners” are now “still being taunted”, by students, and are still haunted every time they don their cleaner uniforms. They have asked, since February 2008 when the film was made and circulated, for the University to change their uniforms. As of yet, nothing has changed, in either outfit or culture.

The report never deigns to quote any of the cleaners, instead opting only for the words of minister of higher education Blade Nzimande. And so the video remains simply racist. Gender matters not, elder status matters not. These topics are un-worthy.

I’ve been thinking about the names, words and voices of women workers, and in particular cleaners, because of an incident in Washington, DC. “12 union workers” lost their jobs recently when GEICO, the insurance giant, changed cleaners, and in so doing, moved from a unionized company to a non-union company. Service Employees International Union, SEIU, local 32BJ represents `property service workers’, and is staging protests. Washington Business Journal reports on the situation, without any names, other than those of corporations and union locals. Local National Public radio station WAMU reports on the protest, and interviews union district chair Jaime Contreras and company senior vice president Don Lyons. No workers. Radio América interviewed Jaime Contreras, who spoke, compellingly, of the workers’ situation. The television network, Univision, also ran a piece. They interviewed Dima Diaz, of SEIU, and Jose Rafael Cabrera, a dismissed worker. They tried to interview company boss Derek Miller, but no luck.

If you watch the Univision piece, you might notice that the majority of union activists and workers in the piece are women. Where are they in the reports? I am not saying the SEIU or the news media conspired to keep them out. But they did keep them out. It would be surprising if a crew of 17 cleaners was exclusively men workers. In fact, it would be shocking.

I understand that workers, women or men, may not want to have their names shared, might have reasons, many reasons, to protect their anonymity. But their words? As long as women workers, and in particular women workers of color, are kept out of reports of their own struggles, they will be continue to be considered un-worthy of attention, respect or recognition. Those women workers, those cleaners, have names, words, voices.

(Photo Credit: Harvard College Women’s Center)

Martyring the ‘Ballbreakers’

Shrine in memory of Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack

Last Wednesday, August 28th, residents of the 200 block of Q St. NW in Washington, DC were shocked by a brutal assault against two women, one of whom was killed.  Violence is nothing alien to DC, the District was once known as the ‘murder capital’ of the U.S., but this act stands out.  The motive, officially, is unknown.  The act occurred at 2:30 in the afternoon in broad daylight after the assailant had followed both women for several blocks and was exceptionally brutal. Tyli’a ‘NaNa Boo’ Mack was stabbed in throat; her injuries were fatal. The women involved were also both African-American, male-to-female transgender, were possibly been sex workers and there were supposedly several anti-LGBT epithets used by the assailant. The scene was also only a few blocks from a local transgender health center.  Yet, the motive is said to be unclear.

What is clear, other than that the attacker saw them as less than human, is that the media is not entirely sure how to talk about these women.  Different news outlets used several different ways of referring the Mack’s and the other victim’s gender.  A local television affiliate of Fox utilizes no uniform language at all.  Aside from one line mentioning that the victims were transgender women, the piece contains quotes utilizing exclusively male pronouns and refers to Mack by her birth name, Joshua, while focusing almost exclusively on the reactions of neighbors.  The focus is not on the victims but rather fear and the violent disruption of a normally tranquil area.  Coverage by the Washington Post, however, is a step worse.  The Post article refers to the women as transgender people and biological men living as women throughout the piece, again only referring to Mack by her birth name.  The writer, Paul Duggan, seems to be scraping for some shred of objectivity, but his own discomfort is readily apparent.  On the other end of the news spectrum, the Washington Blade, a local LGBT newspaper, utilizes Mack’s taken name and gender while focusing much more on what happened to these women, family’s and friends’ reactions and violence against transgender people more generally. All of these articles relate to the same incident but provide radically different information.  The kicker is that all of this criticism is possible after all of the articles, save Chibarro’s article in the Blade, had already been re-edited.  The original versions all referred to Mack and her friend as “transgender men”. News articles that blatantly disregard the gender identity of Mack and the other victim are no less policing than the act of violence itself.  One is simply more subtle, hiding behind science and journalistic integrity, and reinforces the fears that feed these acts of violence.

On the other side of the world, the media and science are policing gender more overtly.  Over the last couple of weeks, Caster Semenya has been ever-present in the international press, not because of her 800m win which would have garnered little attention in mainstream press, but because her sex was under scrutiny.  The media’s scrutiny and judgment of Semenya is more obvious perhaps because it is not tempered by a major act of violence.  But words are weapons and they feed already active fires that are raging against women outside of and within the LGBT community.  Semenya was required to take a gender test in order to be eligible to compete because she did ‘too well’ in recent competitions.  Such athleticism is not thought possible for women and Semenya’s muscular body was used as additional evidence to justify the testing.  The fact that she is a professional athlete and that most female athlete’s are muscular does not seem to dissuade the judging officials.

This case is disturbing and unsurprising for several reasons.  First, Semenya’s sex is called into question due to the combination of her athleticism and her apparently masculine or nonfeminine presentation and features.  The assumption is transparent; women are supposed to be soft, white and frail.  It is an assumption and argument that has been at the core of colonial politics and postcolonial politics.  There is actually not a chance in hell that Meadows would have been tested had she ran as well as Semenya did.  Second, Semenya’s family, like President Obama in a surprisingly parallel situation with the birthers, was able to furnish a birth certificate.  However, the documentation provided by a poorer black community in South Africa is apparently not reliable enough to be considered proof of the girl’s sex.  Would it have been has the runner come from a wealthy, Western and white family?  Third, the media has chosen to not only vilify and attempt to embarrass this young woman, but has likewise conflated several unrelated and yet entirely related issues: sex, gender and sexual orientation.  The latter two categories are not actually relevant to the IAAF’s argument of fairness.  The only thing they relate to is heteronormative notions of what it means to be a woman.

The results of Semenya’s test later revealed that she had 3 times the ‘normal’ female amount of testosterone in her system.  This was released on the same day as a BBC article claiming that high levels of testosterone turn women into “risk takers” and “ballbreakers”.  The implication is that ‘masculine’ women are practically not even women and that only masculinity can and should be able to compete in our society. Thus, by questioning her sex so publicly and utilizing gossip and conjecture as evidence, the media has placed Semenya on the 21st century’s version of the pillory.  She is meant to be an example for all young girls, especially if they are darker skinned and athletic, of what they can’t be: strong. In the same way, Tyli’a Mack was publicly murdered to warn against those born male being anything other than hypermasculine.

Caster Semenya

(Photo Credit 1: Washington’s Other Monuments) (Photo Credit 2: John Giles / PA / The Guardian)