The Day of the Girl

Malala Yousafzai

Today, October 11, has been declared by the UN as the first worldwide Day of the Girl. There are a lot of international action days out there, but I want to highlight today because recent events have shown us that there are so many challenges faced by girls worldwide:

  • Child Marriage is a special focus of action today. UN Women shares these factoids: Globally, one-third of young women were entered into marriage before age 18. One in six were married by age 15. 90% of teen pregnancies in developing countries are to girls who are married; child marriage legitimates pregnancies early in life, which can be detrimental to the health of these girls.
  • Maternal mortality is a related issue, since complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death for women aged 15-19 in developing countries. (UN) These problems are further exacerbated by the problem of female genital mutilation, which is widely practiced on girls in several African countries.
  • While access to education for girls has improved, many women and girls still face barriers to receiving a secondary and tertiary (university) education, and even completing primary school can be impossible in some parts of the world. If you haven’t read about Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban after speaking out for female education, please check out her story. Malala is still fighting for her life, and her father (who supported her fight for an education) is also on a Taliban hit list.

If you want to take action for girls today, the AAUW has some suggestions. Use social media to share information about the Day of the Girl today, and write to your Congressperson–or Congressional candidates–to ask where they stand on HR2103 (The International Protecting Girls by Preventing Child Marriage Act) and other efforts to protect women and girls worldwide. Find a volunteer program close to home that helps girls, like the Girl Scouts or Girls on the Run, and find out how you can support their efforts. Remember that girls in your community may also be affected by poverty and malnutrition. Internationally, consider supporting the efforts of UNICEF, Camfed, and other charities that support the health, education, and welfare of girls. We all have a role in helping to support girls, whether you are male or female. The girls of today are the mothers, the workers, and the hope of tomorrow. Let’s make a better world for them.


TV Review: Half the Sky

[FYI: This post contains some graphic descriptions of female genital mutilation, and links to related material.]

This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend an advance screening of part of the new PBS/Independent Lens series Half the Sky. The series doesn’t air on public television until October 1 & 2, but screenings are taking place at public libraries now across the country.

This series, based on the bestselling book by authors and NY Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, highlights issues affecting women worldwide. The entire 4-hour series will cover several issues dealt with in the book including education, human trafficking, maternal mortality, and violence against women. In my screening, we saw a 45-minute segment focused on maternal mortality and female genital mutilation.

I hope everyone will check your local listings and tune into this series. Even as someone who has read the book and understands the issues involved, I still found this episode powerful, moving, and informative. While maternal health was the focus of this episode, Kristof and the filmmakers do a great job of showing this issue in a holistic way. Most of this segment takes place in Somaliland, where the problem of women dying from preventable causes like obstructed labor, infections, and eclampsia are tied to larger problems within the society. First, no type of family planning exists for these women, and we are told that it is not uncommon for a woman to have 8-10 babies over her lifetime. One woman interviewed in the film has 15 children. Having too many children too close together poses obvious health risks.


Another, more horrifying problem is that of female genital mutilation. While maternal mortality is billed as the focus of the episode, I think FGM is really the story here. Most Americans probably don’t know this practice exists, and many that do probably don’t grasp the brutality of it. Even this episode shies away from fully explaining or illustrating the problem, and I think that’s a shame. While I understand the limits of what can be shown on TV, this practice needs to be brought out into the light. People need to understand that FGM still happens, and they need to understand that it’s not “female circumcision” as some kind of counterpart to male “circumcision.” Circumcision as we know it for boy children involves removal of the foreskin, often for religious or cultural reasons, and while there is debate about the practice in the U.S. today, it is often done in safe and sanitary conditions and doesn’t hinder male reproductive functions or sexual enjoyment. FGM, on the other hand, is a practice that has as its primary purpose to control women. To protect female honor, FGM is practiced to make sex less enjoyable for a woman. Extreme forms also make childbirth and premarital sex impossible.

In the most basic form of FGM, the clitoris and/or clitoral hood are removed. This inhibits sexual pleasure. In more intensive forms like that practiced in Somaliland, though, the process goes even further. All of the external parts of the genitalia, including the inner and outer labia are also cut away. Then, a girl undergoing the process is literally immobilized, her legs tied up for as much as 40 days while her genital area heals together, literally healing itself shut except for a small hole–sometimes as small as a matchstick–through which she can pee and menstruate. During the healing process, she also often receives little or no food or water because she has been so intensely mutilated that she can’t excrete properly. After experiencing all of this horror, once a girl comes of age to marry she will literally have to be sliced open again so that she can have sex or deliver children. And all of this is usually done by traditional “cutters” without anesthesia or proper sanitation. (You can see diagrams of various procedures here.)

Folks, this isn’t like the circumcision that men experience. I can’t emphasize how inappropriate the term “circumcision” is. This is like if circumcision involved cutting off a boy’s entire penis and foreskin, sewing up his genital area, and then slicing him open again when it was time for his testes to drop. It is unimaginable, barbaric, and it would never be done to a male child the way it is done to females.

Crusader Edna Adan

This segment of Half the Sky does a lot to educate about the procedure. We meet a “cutter,” an elderly female who says she continues to perform the procedure mostly to make money. We see a traditional birth assistant and hear how she has sliced open several women with the same blade. We hear mothers explain that the procedure continues because it is demanded by the community; no one would marry their son off to a non-mutilated girl. We hear from Edna Adan–a former UN diplomat and the true hero of this episode–about how dangerous the procedure is not only because it obstructs labor, but also because mutilated and scarred tissue cannot properly stretch for delivery. Adan is fighting this practice with education, building a hospital and training midwives to go out in the community and fight this tradition. But she has a long road ahead.

This is just one of the six Half the Sky segments you will see on PBS, and I can’t urge you strongly enough to watch them all. As I said, the series avoids some of the more graphic details I’ve provided here, which is both a plus and a minus. The series is appropriate for older teens and young adults, but at the same time I hope it will spur viewers to pick up the Half the Sky book, hit the Internet, and research these issues further. Kristof and WuDunn make credible narrators for the series, though some of their celebrity co-hosts seem unnecessary. Watching Diane Lane talk to Somaliland women, constantly looking shocked and asking silly questions… it’s probably the typical reaction a lot of privileged U.S. women would have to the problem, but she was the least engaging part of the episode for me. I didn’t even know who she was at first.

If you’d like to know more, please check the Half the Sky web site for more info and showtimes for the series. You can also learn more about Edna Adan’s hospital online, and Tostan is another organization that fights the FGM practice and accepts donations, interns, or volunteers. FGM is a practice that should not exist in any form, anywhere in today’s world.

Let’s Talk About Soaps

I have a major guilty pleasure, and it’s watching soap operas. I started watching The Young and the Restless nearly 20 years ago (!) when I was a pre-teen, drawn in by the summertime teen-centered story lines that used to be a mainstay on these shows. Over the years I have started and stopped watching at various points, but I still tune in a couple times a week. Heck, I’ve even been a guest blogger at YR Critic.

Soaps, however, are an endangered species. This week, General Hospital was renewed–a victory for the show’s fans and a move that was all-but-certain from a network that canceled two beloved daytime dramas in the past year. There are only about four soaps left on broadcast TV. Networks have seemed eager to axe these expensive, scripted dailies in recent years and replace them with talk/reality shows. Soaps are expensive to produce, and audiences are declining. This is true. But can they be saved? Here are a few of my thoughts on soaps, and suggestions for the future.

  • Soaps need an updated view on gender issues if they are to survive. The Young and the Restless is particularly awful about this, but it’s not the only one. Victor Newman, the sometime-villan, often-times-hero of the show exhibits behavior towards his wives, children, and others that is clearly abusive, yet we are supposed to find that untroubling. He assaulted his wife Diane by pushing her out of an ambulance, but that was supposedly excusable because she faked a pregnancy. When his beloved Nikki was suffering from alcoholism, he was horribly abusive to her physically and emotionally. Then again, she had an affair with a bartender (who she eventually married), so that supposedly excused his behavior. He also continually meddles in the life of his eldest daughter Victoria, interfering with her relationships with at least three men who he didn’t approve of, and costing her custody of her own son when he tried to kidnap the child! In the year 2012, there’s no reason that this behavior should be acceptable and that a show should paint it as a victory when Nikki and Victor get back together or when Victor and his daughter reconcile. It’s not a feel-good story, it’s sick. Especially when so many young women are in the audience, the messaging of the show should clearly reflect that this is domestic abuse. Other shows are guilty of this, too. A recent story line on The Bold and the Beautiful (YR’s sister soap on CBS) featured the character Thomas attempting to seduce his step-sister Hope (ick)… by getting her drunk in Mexico. Hey, news flash: When you sleep with a girl after getting her so drunk she can’t say no, it’s not consentual sex. It’s rape. That this story even made it to the airwaves is inexcusable and irresponsible. Anyone need further proof that rape culture exists?
  • Soaps are not so great about race or sexuality, either. Interracial relationships have been problematic for Y&R. While Cane and Lily are an interracial couple and have a large fan following, Lily’s African-American father Neil has had a very different track record. An engagement between Neil and Victoria, who is white, was allegedly scuttled by writers several years back after viewers complained about the interracial pairing. More recently, he was engaged to Ashley, who is also white, but that was broken off as well. The generational dynamic is interesting–on Y&R, interracial romances occur among the younger characters, but happen only rarely/briefly among older characters. The minority cast is also very small. Y&R has one Latino character, who was only introduced fairly recently, and even more ridiculously The Bold and the Beautiful–which is set in freaking Los Angeles–has no regular Latino cast members. As for sexuality, having one gay character who appears mostly in party scenes does not amount to diversity. It’s surprising that with so many young characters we would not see story lines that deal realistically with characters exploring their sexuality, coming out, etc.
  • Writing can be insultingly bad. Crazy, outrageous plot lines sometimes make these shows fun, and have been a staple of soaps for years. However, in this day and age soap writers need to know that viewers expect more. We know more about the world now than viewers did 30 or 50 years ago. In the past year, Y&R has asked us to believe: 1) That a bone marrow transplant can be faked; 2) That you can get a restraining order against someone just because you don’t like them, without showing any evidence of actual harassment; 3) That you can be tried in Wisconsin for a murder that happened in Hawaii; 4) That Myanmar is totally safe and free and full of surfing Western tourists, and that you can enter and leave the country at will. No visa issues here! I could go on. It’s one thing to write in a way that is campy and outrageous and winks at the viewers; it’s another thing to just write stupidly and act as if the viewers won’t notice. I’m just saying, five minutes on Google and the writers should have figured out Myanmar was not the place to set a surf cantina. The same goes for the practice of retconning, or changing the story lines after the fact. It alienates long-time viewers especially and it should be used sparingly, if at all.
  • Production values need to improve. Soaps have obviously been struggling to cut costs in an attempt to remain relevant, but there’s a limit. Cheap sets or sets that are obviously re-used become tedious. And there’s only so many shots from rooftop gardens and outdoor cafes that are tolerable. Riddle me this–why would billionaires hang out at the local coffee shop?

It may be true that soaps are a dying genre, and as a feminist perhaps I shouldn’t be defending them. Yet, there’s something sentimental about stories and characters that have been around for generations. Soaps are a part of the pop culture and can represent a time capsule of changing fashions, social issues, views on gender and race, etc. They are also fun escapism. Likewise, the success of primetime dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, etc. shows that TV dramas do have an audience, can be somewhat progressive, and can be successful. It may be true that fewer and fewer individuals are home during the day to tune in to soaps, but nighttime rebroadcasts on cable, DVR usage, and online streaming still make it possible for these shows to have an audience. But, if daytime dramas are going to be saved, someone has to make them worth watching into the future.

Theater Review: Necessary Targets

It’s been a while since I posted a review piece on this blog (no coincidence that these things fall by the wayside mid-semester), but I saw a theatrical performance of Necessary Targets on Sunday at the University of Arizona’s Tornabene Theater as part of the Arizona Repertory Theater series and I thought I’d share a review.

This play was written by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues. (I’m ashamed to admit as a feminist that I’ve never seen that work either. What do you want from me? My life is busy and unless they stage a production in my office during office hours, I’m unlikely to make it.) The focus is on women in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, sometime around the mid- to late-1990s. The two primary characters, Melissa and J.S., are Americans. J.S. is an upscale New York psychiatrist who’s been asked to join a presidential commission to help war refugees, and Melissa is a seasoned war reporter working on a book who may or may not be going as J.S.’s “assistant.” The two journey to Bosnia in the play’s first act, where they meet a group of female refugees they are charged with helping. Over the course of the play, there are two themes of development: The development of the relationship between the refugee women and the Americans, leading to the revelation of their stories, and the development taking place within the American women.

I was lukewarm on this play overall. As characters, the refugee women are far more developed than the two Americans. As the stories of these women unfold over the course of the play, the Bosnian women come to feel real. This is likely no accident, as the play was inspired by Ensler’s own interaction and interviews with women in actual refugee camps. The stories of rape, murder, and abuse are therefore close to the ugly reality of what transpired in the conflict. The American women, on the other hand, are crudely drawn. While their character development is central to the play, these women are  caricatures and they to some extent remain that throughout. J.S. has such a stick up her butt, reflected in her very prim speech, dress, and actions, that one wonders why she would have ever been chosen for this assignment in the first place. She comes across more as a neo-Victorian society matron who would swoon at the first sign of danger than she does a seasoned professional. Likewise, hard-as-nails Melissa also seems a poor choice. We’re told she’s been trained as a trauma counselor, but from the very beginning she shows little to no interest in the wellness of the “traumatized war victims” she’s working with, and at no point in the play does she demonstrate any kind of sensitivity toward them.

There are also weird inconsistencies and many points that seem not fully developed. At the beginning of the play, we are told that refugee Asra is a lonely old women and it is insinuated that she’s never been married or had sex. Yet later, it is revealed that she was once a wet nurse for a child in her village. Is that possible? There are also hints that Melissa is suffering from an eating disorder, but this plot point only comes up at the beginning and end of the play and is not fully fleshed out. The play’s final scene, with J.S. reflecting on her time in Bosnia, has the potential to be masterful, but it fell short for me. Almost as if she (and Ensler) are unable to truly articulate the meaning of these encounters.

That said, the play does have moments of brilliance. When the tragic past of one of the refugees, Seada, is revealed, it has a powerful emotional impact. Another of the refugees, Zlata, a former doctor who has lost everything as a result of the war, consistently steals every scene she’s in. In this particular performance, all of the young female actors (drama students at the U of A) did a superb job. Kudos also to those who worked on the costumes and set designs. Sunday’s performance was the last day of this play’s run here in Tucson, but it won’t be my last visit to an Arizona Repertory Theater production.

Rape jokes–Still not funny, and they will make you look like a jerk

Pretty much the only show on TV that understands rape is not a joke.

I recently watched last week’s new episode of 30 Rock online, and I found it jarring to hear a rape joke thrown in–about Jenna and her boyfriend giving each other date rape drugs to spice up their relationship. This is nothing new: Rape jokes have been all over network TV lately. The Opinioness of the World has collected some recent ones on her blog, and I would also add that I have heard rape jokes on NBC’s Chelsea, CBS’s Two and a Half Men (which has been getting away with it for years), and I was aghast when CBS’s soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful–a drama aimed specifically at young people–featured a story in which a brother-sister team came up with the brilliant idea to get the underage girl he was interested in drunk, so that he could “hook up” with her, and this would clearly make her love him. Never was it mentioned that this, actually, would be sexual assault. It’s tempting to blame this epidemic of insensitive humor on the fact that there are so few women writing and producing TV these days, but it turns out that NBC’s Whitney, Chelsea, 30 Rock, and CBS’s 2 Broke Girls all have female writers and/or producers, and yet all turn to rape, date rape drugs, etc. as a source of humor.

Rainn Wilson made a date rape joke on Twitter yesterday, and I sent him some choice words before unfollowing him. It seems many others did the same, and I guess he deserves recognition for apologizing… But where is the sustained outrage? Where is the dialogue about the fact that this kind of humor is everywhere? I’m tired of feeling a jolt every time someone tells a rape joke on TV, I’m tired of wondering in real life whether I should get in their face or keep my mouth shut when one of my colleagues jokes about it, I’m tired of looking away or changing the channel when a rape scene, a rape storyline, or something someone says about rape in real life makes me uncomfortable. Why is it OK to joke, when this is happening every day to thousands of women, in the U.S. and worldwide, and most of them will never get justice?

Another blogger, Harriet J, wrote this post on the subject, and it’s long but it sums up my feelings pretty well:

[H]ere is my challenge for those who want to tell rape jokes:

Ask every woman in your life if she has been sexually assaulted. Ask her to tell you her story. This means your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, your grandma.

Once you have heard all their stories, go watch a movie with a rape scene in it. One you didn’t mind before. One you thought people were overly offended by.

Now tell me a joke.

Running Without Fear

This morning I ran 6 miles around Reid Park here in Tucson. I was a day or so late in putting in my miles in honor of Sherry Arnold, but I figured the thought counted more than doing the miles on a certain day. For those who don’t know, Sherry was a math teacher in Sidney, Montana who went out running on Jan. 7 and never came home. What happened next is unclear, but the only publicly released details about her case are that a shoe of hers was found along her path, and two men have been arrested on kidnapping charges in connection with her disappearance.

What happened to Sherry makes me mad, and it ties in with the point I made in my previous post about how we live in a society where women have to face the constant burden to protect themselves. I know I’m jumping to some conclusions here, but it seems like a pretty safe guess that if Sherry had been a man running alone in a rural area, she wouldn’t have been targeted. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve seen enough creepers out on my runs to believe that’s a fact. I’ve never seen anyone, male or female, drive up slow beside a male runner and follow along staring at them, or shout out the window, or lean on the horn to get their attention (unless the guy ran out into traffic or something). But these things happen to me all the damn time. Why does society turn a blind eye to this intimidating behavior and expect women to just deal with it? Yet when someone crosses the line and physically attacks a runner, we are aghast and don’t understand how it could have happened.

Thousands of people across the country ran in honor of Sherry this weekend. I ran in her honor, but also because I believe women shouldn’t be afraid to run. If you agree, I hope you will “like” this post, then get up and run today if you haven’t already.