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))

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)