If men get to run without a shirt on, women should be able to too

In warm weather, running can be hard with extra layers on. As a runner, I know. From May to September, when the weather hits 60-90 degrees every day, I’m not running with a sports bra, shirts and shorts on; I’m removing as many layers as I can so I don’t overheat and harm myself. That means I’m running with just a sports bra and shorts on. My comfort and my health override any preconceived ideas of what women should be wearing while they workout. The same can be said of all women when they’re exercising.

For this reason, Rowan University is wrong to police women track athletes who were exercising while the football team was in practice, and were called out for removing their shirts after a particularly difficult practice. After an afternoon workout of mile repeats in 60-degree weather, the athletes finished their workout in their sports bras, while some male runners ran without shirts on. Can you guess who was told they were distracting the football players? The women.

“I was holding a 5:45 or 5:50 during mile repeats. We were dead and sweaty,” teammate and senior Hannah Vendetta says. Team members recalled that one of the football coaches approached the women’s cross-country coach and told them that the runners were distracting the football players. A few days later, the team learned during an athletics department meeting that “they all had to wear shirts during practice. Also, the cross-country teams were no longer allowed to use the track while the football team practiced. Instead, if they wanted to run in the afternoon, they would need to make do with the Glassboro High School track across the street. Or they could change their practice time.”

The University administration has claimed that there has always been a policy wherein only one sports team at a time has use of the facilities, but students and alumni have disputed the claim that the policy has ever been enforced. In a response to the administration’s explanations, alumna Grace Kaler tweeted, “From the Year 2010-2014, this policy was never enforced. We had always shared the facility. As a former captain, and student-athlete, I am so disappointed to see the sports bra rule still in play, but now to cover it up with this, is extremely disheartening.”

Rowan student Gina Capone heard of the incident from her former teammates and, enraged, posted an article on Odyssey. Her piece took the Athletics Department to task, citing unfair treatment of the cross-country team, policing women’s bodies, and perpetuating a “boys will be boys” culture on campus. The next morning, the post had gone viral, throwing Rowan into the spotlight on the eve of hosting the NCAA Division III regional cross-country championships. The university can profit off of women athletes, while also policing their bodies and what they get to wear when it gets too hot to train?

There is a verbal policy in place – the “shirts required rule” – that supposedly applies to male and female across all sports. According to VP of University Relations Joe Cardona, “The verbal policy was adopted to create standards for all student athletes. We want to keep standards above a normal rec or intramural team. You’re playing a NCAA sport.” But only the women were policed by the “verbal policy”; the men without their shirts on were completely disregarded in the call out.

Thanks to the outrage from Capone’s article, the university has created a new written policy, reversing its stance. “There will be no restriction of sports bras without shirts as practice apparel. By clarifying our support for women’s athletics and its student-athletes, Rowan strongly affirms its commitment to ensuring that women are able to train and perform at the highest levels,” says University President Ali A. Houshmand.

But the underlying issue of policing of women’s bodies remains. A runner is not running without a shirt to attract men nor to distract football players. They are running because it is hot outside, and unnecessary clothing is going to be discarded to maintain an athlete’s comfort level. If you’re so worried about the football players or men getting distracted, set punitive measures for those players. I’m willing to bet grueling wind sprints or any other exercise will teach a player not to ogle another athlete.

Stop policing women’s bodies. They aren’t there for your entertainment. Learn to do better.

 

(Photo Credit: Outside)

In South Africa, at the Curro Waterfall preschool, Black Women teachers demand justice

A half hour out of Johannesburg and “a breezy 23 minutes” from O.R. International Airport lies a place called Waterfall, “one of the fastest transforming suburbs in South Africa” Waterfall boasts “soaring investor confidence …, burgeoning residential, commercial, mixed-use and retail precincts”, Waterfall City, The Mall of Africa, brand name restaurants, malls, schools … and, according to recent reports, racism with a large component of sexism. Specifically, the Curro Waterfall pre-school,  known as a Curro Castle School, has had a practice of slotting Black women as assistants and White women as teachers, often despite respective qualifications, and then segregating assistants from teachers. They are referred to differently, and they have segregated staff rooms. As today’s Mail & Guardian notes, “The signs on the staff rooms did not read `whites only’ or `blacks only’ but teaching assistants were segregated from teachers.” Within a month, three Black Women teachers resigned from Waterfall Curro. The teachers are going under the names of Sibongile Khumalo, Juliet Bongo, Lerato Makhubela. Concerned parents raised a ruckus as did teachers, and now an independent investigation is underway.

While this is clearly an issue of racial discrimination on the part of the school’s management and some of its staff, the events also speak to the importance of an intersectional approach. Where are the women? Everywhere. Three Black Women resigned within a month. White Women teachers told their children to call anyone who was White a teacher, and to call anyone who was Black an assistant. The children age from three months to five years. What are they learning at the juncture of race and gender?

Black women are slotted into lower paying positions and then forced to accept them. Black women are demeaned and told by the administration to tough it out. When Sibongile Khumalo perceived that she was being treated differently than her White colleagues, she went to the executive head of Curro Waterfall, Graeme Waite, who told her she could stay or she could go. “It was a way of killing my confidence or something because, by that time, I was destroyed. Only resilience kept me going. I told myself that I’m not going to leave this school until I can prove a black person is competent,” explained Sibongile Khumalo.

The three Black Women teachers stayed, and stayed in the assistants’ staff room. Finally, a group of parents began investigating and found racist practices in employment and culture. They wrote to Curro Group CEO Andries Greyling and demanded that Waite be fired. As of now the staff rooms are allegedly no longer segregated by `rank’ and Waite continues as executive head of the preschool.

The issues raised here – salary, culture, dignity, happiness – affect all workers and all people, but not necessarily in identical ways or with identical impact. Women workers struggle with the killing of their confidence in ways that are particular to their being positioned as women workers. What happened at Curro Waterfall was racist sexist, with the two parts intensifying each other and the whole. When it came to the three Curro Waterfall teachers who demanded justice, remember this: All the women were Black, all the Blacks were women, and all of them were brave.

 

(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian / Wikus de Wet)

Adila Chowan’s victory over racist sexism affects women “not just in South Africa but internationally as well”

Adila Chowan

Last week, the North Gauteng High Court of South Africa handed down a decision in Adila Chowan vs. Mark Lamberti & Co. Adila Chowan sued her former employers – Associated Motor Holdings and Imperial Holdings – and her boss, Mark Lamberti, for economic loss, suffered through wrongful and intentional acts, and for injuries to her reputation and her sense of self-worth, or dignity. Adila Chowan, an Indian Muslim woman, claimed that she was bypassed for promotions, for which she was eminently qualified, in favor of white male candidates. When pressed for reasons, Mark Lamberti told Adila Chowan that she was “a female, employment equity, technically competent, they would like to keep her but if she wants to go she must go, others have left this management and done better outside the company, and that she required three to four years to develop her leadership skills.” In court, Adila Chowan explained, “Because I pride myself on the fact that I am a qualified professional chartered accountant. I had built my career. I had been a CFO. And in Mark Lamberti’s eyes I was being narrowed down because of my colour and being female.” The court agreed with Adila Chowan and found in her favor.

The Court found that Adila Chowan had struggled in a toxic work environment in which white males could reduce her, repeatedly and with impunity, to the status of racialized sexualized object. At the same time, the Court found that, when Adila Chowan filed a grievance, the process was corrupted by the involvement of precisely the supervisor she was accusing. From the smallest detail to the largest structure, everything was wrong.

In his decision, Judge Pieter Meyer noted, “The present matter, in my view, is a classroom example of an appropriate case where delictual liability should be imposed. There are ample public-policy reasons in favour of imposing liability. The constitutional rights to equality and against unfair discrimination are compelling normative considerations. There is a great public interest in ensuring that the existence of systemic discrimination and inequalities in respect of race and gender be eradicated. As blatant and patent as discrimination was in the days of apartheid, so subtle and latent does it also manifests itself today. The protection afforded to an employee, such as Ms Chowan, by the PDA [Protected Disclosures Act] against occupational detriments by her employer on account of having made a protected disclosure that was ‘likely’ to show unfair racial and gender discrimination, is one of the measures taken by the legislature to eradicate the existence of systemic discrimination and inequalities. If employers are too easily insulated from claims for harms, such as the occupational detriments to which Ms Chowan was subjected to on account of having made a protected disclosure to her employer, they would have little incentive to conduct themselves in a way that complies with the provisions of s 3 of the PDA.”

“As blatant and patent as discrimination was in the days of apartheid, so subtle and latent does it also manifests itself today.”

That “subtle and latent” discrimination doesn’t end with Court. Read the articles following the Court decision, and, with rare exception, the focus is on Mark Lamberti and whatever will he do now. One article has a photo of Adila Chowan. All the others picture Mark Lamberti. Adila Chowan has noted that Lamberti apologized to the media, never to her. In reflecting on the case, Adila Chowan said, “For me, I was trying to come out there and tell women that you can make a difference, and you can be heard and can stand up for yourself … Remember, being an Indian Muslim woman, you are seen as marginalised and [you are] basically invisible behind the scarf … This is not just in South Africa but internationally as well, where you see a differentiation between [the attitudes towards] men and women.”

Adila Chowan has waged a mighty struggle at the crossroads of racism and sexism, and she has won, and yet, somehow, even now, she must struggle, again, to have her name and her story told. Adila Chowan is the story. This is Adila Chowan’s story. Remember that.

(Photo Credit: Mail & Guardian)

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem fighting racism and sexism in France for real equality

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem

Not long ago, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, then the French Minister of Women’s Rights, introduced and successfully defended a bill entitled “For Real Equality Between Women and Men.” This bill supported the normalization of parity. After the recent reshuffle of the government, Vallaud-Belkacem has become France’s Education Minister. This position is the fourth most important in the ranking of ministers in France. She is also the first woman to hold this major ministry.

Her nomination could have been a sign that something was working toward real parity in the highest political representation in France, but alas no. Immediately after her nomination, Vallaud-Belkacacem was targeted in right wing magazines by sexist and xenophobic attacks. These attacks used her dual Moroccan and French citizenship, her Muslim origin, her youth (she is 36), her sex, her support for same sex marriage, her support for the inclusion of gender theory in regular primary and secondary education, and, finally, her active feminist support for women’s rights.

Valeurs Actuelles, a magazine that the former president Nicolas Sarkozy uses regularly to make statements about his eventual return to politics, staged her as “the Ayatollah” on its front page, with an edited photo that accentuates the darkness of her eyes, making the portrait loaded with negative representations of Islam. The subtitle uses play on words to suggest that she is going redesign the National Education system. The title of another magazine “Minute” does the rest: “A Moroccan Muslim at the National Education, the Najat Vallaud Belkacem provocation.”

None of these displays of hatred is new. The latest was Christiane Taubira, the Minister of Justice, whose origins and skin color sparked off racist and sexist slurs. Both women epitomize the fight against all inequality, including gender, ethnic and social inequality. Christiane Taubira reacted and wrote to her colleague in a tweet, “They must have nothing in their heads, be empty in their heart, and have hardened souls. Najat, you’re flying high with our ambitions for schools. Thanks.”

Meanwhile, the line between right and extreme right becomes increasingly blurred. In a tweet by a right wing city counselor of Neuilly sur Seine, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was accused of using her femininity, also called “skirt promotion”, to access this position. The counselor, of course, added a suggestive picture. Another right wing enclase, the city of Puteaux, in a charity effort to support families with children returning to school, distributed strong blue backpacks to boys and strong pink one to girls, making clear the separation in colors and roles of girls and boys in a binary society.

“Najat Vallaud-Belkacem is the ideal target for all those who would like to distill the idea that an immigrant woman could not legitimately be part of a government” says SOS Racism, an association that denounces all sorts of racism. These attacks go beyond that. They exploit the old demon of colonial countries to block advances in women’s rights and human rights and to achieve various goals: controlling the population at large, curtail all debates, policing the whole of the neoliberal environment.

When Najat Vallaud-Belkacem was Minister of Women’s Rights, she declared that we needed to be politically proactive to address gender inequalities. She was right about that. When she said that gender, class, ethnicity are the bases of inequality and that hatred is the way “to emptied hearts and hardened souls” where inequalities grow, she was right again.

 

 

(Photo Credit: RTL.fr)

The false case against Christiane Taubira

Next weekend, Europe goes to the polls. Betting on the destabilization and nationalist sentiment fostered through neoliberal economies of fear and debt, the right and extreme right parties hope to win more seats in the European parliament. Their strategy is simple: announce a time of turmoil and crisis and then reduce political discourse to the mythology of the white male moralistic views as the only source of security. In fairness, the leftist parties have not done much to propose real alternative discourses and policies.

Last week, the right used this strategy in France against Christiane Taubira, the French Minister of Justice.

At the beginning of her appointment, Taubira brilliantly passed a same-sex marriage bill. When the most conservative constituents launched sordid assaults, Taubira responded with literary quotations that won the day. It was a virtuoso performance.

No virtuoso performance and no victory in the name of justice and equality can go unpunished.

And so the French right wing has launched an all-out campaign against Christiane Taubira.

They Americanized their techniques, using the power of repetition of simple and nationalistic slogans against her. Their goal was to blur her message and vitiate her work on undoing the politics of security that criminalized the vulnerable, at-risk populations attacked by anti-migrants sentiment or austerity measures.

After innumerable racist attacks, the neoliberal conservative coalition finally created a buzz around a song. The song was the National Anthem, La Marseillaise, sung by a chorus and soloists. Along with other members of Government and the President of France, Taubira attended a ceremony to commemorate the abolition of slavery. It was a solemn occasion, althought not for the Front National (FN), the nationalist party, that marked its denial of the offense of slavery by refusing to participate. They also refused to celebrate General Dumas, the first French General born in slavery and father of Alexander Dumas.

What happened was this. Taubira didn’t sing. This was presented as refusing to sing, which triggered a methodic orchestration in the media of repetitive messaging. The only problem is that singing the national anthem has never been popular in France. None of Taubira’s colleagues sang the anthem that day, but it was Taubira who was viciously attacked. Some questioned her “Frenchness” and demanded her resignation. The message was already prepared. A series of attacks and accusations overloaded the media. What is remarkable it the technique; the terms used repetitively by the members of this political “SWAT team” went from accusing her of sectarianism and of being unworthy of her position to being lax and having a contemptuous tone.

Thanks to her strong background in racial and social justice and activism in Guiana where she was born and grew up, Taubira was undaunted. Guiana is a French overseas department located in the Caribbean side of South America. Her political engagement is linked to this land, and she embodies a liberating ideal that has made her the bane of the elite of the right and extreme right in France. Before she became Minister of Justice, Taubira had been a French parliamentary deputy for Guiana between 1992 and 2002. In 2001, she put her name on a bill that recognized the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and slavery as a crime against humanity. At that time, she published a book, L’esclavage raconté à ma fille (Slavery explained to my daughter).

At the beginning of her career, Taubira denounced the crude mistreatment by the post-colonial French state of the overseas population. As Minister of Justice, she has denounced the politics of mass incarceration. She has also asserted the responsibility of civil society to respect human dignity as France’s overcrowded prisons have resulted in France being reprimanded by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2012.

Taubira’s problem is not singing the national anthem. Her problem is keep open the possibility of a fair debate on her penal bill in a National Assembly in which some members have gendered and racist slurs prepared for her. The manipulation of public opinion is not new, but these violent and ongoing attacks on Christiane Taubira signal that the project of hyper incarceration knows no limits.

This instrumentalization of language and communication is there to obscure the real responsibility of conservatives in the advancement and normalization of fascist and extreme right parties in Europe, not to forget the Tea Party and the dramatic turn to the right in the United States. The songs we should pay attention to are those of social destruction as multiple trade agreements are secretly negotiated, in particular TAFTA that threatens women and social cohesion in Europe, in France and elsewhere. The global prison is inscribed all over this agreement.

Christiane Taubira did not make any faux pas. If you must attack someone, attack her neoliberal detractors, who are not worthy of public position and who know neither the lyrics nor the melodies to the songs of justice and humanity.

 

(Photo Credit: Libération / Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP)

These racist attacks assault the heart of the Republic

Christiane Taubira

Last week, France’s much acclaimed Minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira, a Black woman from the French Department of Guyana, was confronted with yet another series of racist slurs in the city of Angers where she was to deliver a speech to the magistrates. A group of men, women, and children, evidently representing the good Christian family model, was waiting for the minister outside the courthouse. When Christiane Taubira passed by them, they shouted, “Taubira, get lost, you stink, piss off.” Then, a 12 years old girl hurled  a racist slur involving monkeys and banana, something she learned in her family circle no doubt. Even a Catholic priest was seen screaming racist epithets.

These attacks have been Christiane Taubira’s everyday life since she was appointed Minister of Justice, but initially they were somewhat more limited. Last spring, however, after Taubira passed the “le mariage pour tous” (marriage for all) bill, the vitriol escalated. Many have applauded her determination and her superb appearance at the Assembly, echoing Simone Veil’s fight for abortion rights. She received a standing ovation, from representatives of the left, center as well as some right wing supporters. She is no average politician.

Coming from a family of eight, Taubira left Guyana to study. She holds two PhDs and quotes commonly René Char, Paul Ricoeur or Aimé Césaire and Léon Gontan Damas, the poets of Negritude.  Now, she is courageously introducing a bill to reverse the penal policies of increasing lock up at a time of reduction of funding for social services, introduced by the previous government under Sarkozy. Sarkozy and some of his ministers and collaborators were known for statements and actions that encouraged the racialization of French society by stigmatizing and insulting many from various origins.

First, there was Sarkozy’s infamous address at the University in Dakar in 2007, where he argued that Africa is backward. He said, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African man has not entered history”, suggesting of course that the white man had a “civilizing mission”. Then there was his collaborator Claude Gueant who proposed that “not all civilizations are of equal value” (toutes les civilizations ne se valent pas). Then there was the “identity discourse” debate that he wanted to bring to the Assembly, out of which emerged the newly created Ministry of National Identity. Sarkozy’s political approach has ripped apart the social fabric of France.

In a recent interview, Christiane Taubira, remarked that under the previous government “an inner enemy has been constructed … It has thrived under the doctrine of decline.” These attacks are part of the deconstruction of social cohesion, which is the constant inspiration for Taubira’s work at the Ministry of Justice.  For Taubira, the “not republican right” has forgotten the history of the French nation. This is more serious than a slip up. It signals that something particular has been going very wrong, even though racism has always been rampant in the former colonial powers, especially at the time of financial crisis. Here, the sense of impunity that these demonstrators showed is “a challenge to the republic,” said Taubira. She called on the political leaders of the country to speak clearly as the foundations of a country are shaken when a Minister of Justice is attacked in these racialized, sexualized terms. She expressed her surprise “that there hasn’t been a clear and distinct voice decrying this drift in French society.”

Instead of the “clear and distinct voice,” the right and extreme right wing has done everything to control the debate through a reverse attack against Christiane Taubira , so as to signal that they are the masters.

Some voices have been heard not only to denounce the attacks but also to express distress, as Christiane Taubira has been an iconic figure of the hope for a better republic for many French women and men. In the face of these nationalist racist, sexist attacks, it is clearly time to finish the work of the revolution and rewrite the emblem of the French Republic. Let “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” become Liberty, Equality, Humanhood.

 

(Photo Credit: Liberation / Francois Guillot / AFP)

A Better Half: Young Feminists Can Rewrite Half the Sky

In many ways, Half the Sky has occupied much of the consciousness of what can loosely be defined as the newest “generation” of Western feminists. It is assigned routinely in college classrooms. While it has stimulated students in the U.S. to think about women’s issues at a global level, it does so at the expense of feminisms that have, over the past few decades, attempted to recognize and correct abuses of privilege by Westerners conducted in the name of “third world women”.

Looking at the bestseller from the vantage point of a young feminist, one passage captures much of what is problematic about Half the Sky. Discussing ways that readers could get involved, the authors warn, “American feminism must become less parochial, so that it is every bit as concerned with sex slavery in Asia as with Title IX in Illinois… Likewise, Americans of faith should try as hard to save the lives of African women as the lives of unborn fetuses.”

Somehow discussing the obstacles faced by women globally without any mention of colonialism, past or present, Kristof and WuDunn systematically dichotomize the West and “the rest” through such passages.

First, the passage reduces American feminism to an issue that barely begins to shed light on various forms of oppression in many women’s lives today – forms of oppression that are gendered, and also defined by race, class, able-bodiedness, and so forth.

Second, the passage relieves the reader of undertaking any immediate action by creating distance between her (and her apparently post-feminist American existence) and the issues at hand.

Third, Kristof and WuDunn fail to emphasize the importance of Westerners acting as facilitators or supporters of actions led by women at the grassroots themselves. By stepping in, and effectively stepping on local women, to create their own initiatives, the chance for cross-border solidarity is destroyed. This dichotomy reprises the historical legacies of colonial calls to action revolving around purportedly irreconcilable differences between “civilizer” and “uncivilized.”

The passage also argues for a space in global feminism for people who believe that the lives of unborn fetuses are equivalent to those of African women.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, out of the 5.6 million abortions carried out in Africa in 2003, only 100,000 were performed under safe conditions, a direct result of the fact that 92% of female-bodied people of childbearing age in Africa live in countries that have restrictive abortion laws. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 7 maternal deaths in Africa are caused by unsafe abortions. Including anti-choice politics in a book that spends two full chapters on the gravity of maternal mortality seems contradictory, given the statistics. More to the point, it stymies any productive discussion on the struggle for control over women’s bodies and bodily agency as part of all issues examined in Half the Sky.

Throughout Half the Sky, Kristof and WuDunn refuse to acknowledge any relationships among capitalism, colonial and postcolonial globalized economies, and gendered inequality. For example, at one point they argue, “The factories prefer young women, perhaps because they’re more docile and perhaps because their small fingers are more nimble for assembly or sewing. So the rise of manufacturing has generally raised the opportunities and the status of women. The implication is that instead of denouncing sweatshops, we in the west should be encouraging manufacturing in poor countries, particularly in Africa and the Muslim world.”

Half the Sky argues that sexism is to be found only in far-removed places, that the noble effort of combating sexism in these far-removed places is available to everyone and requires no critical self-analysis or questioning of one’s understanding of women as they exist in their own locality or politics, and that by replacing one kind of oppression with one that benefits industrialized countries, sexism has somehow been defeated.

This cannot become the dominant narrative for young feminists.

And yet it is.

Half the Sky has succeeded in garnering attention towards women’s issues, but its strategies are limiting and ultimately dangerous. How do we retain the momentum and critically, and politically, address the problems?

There must be a way to gain support for feminism that doesn’t rely on easily “marketable” ideas. For now, Half the Sky is the platform we have. We must surround it with other conversations, discussions that press global feminist activists to take responsibility for our actions, including our mistakes. That would be a first step.

(Photo Credit: Young Feminist Wire)