The ignorance of soundbite histories

Amanda at Pandagon wrote a great post about how important it is for members of our political class to understand the history of birth control before they make ignorant statements all over the press ( e.g. “feminists are pro-abortion” or “being pro-choice is racist; Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist”) and then make equally ignorant policy decisions:

Truth told, the history of birth control in the 20th century is a confusing one and hard to break into easy-to-read partisan packages.  Eugenics was a popular theory throughout the early part of the 20th century, until the Nazis put an end to that, and while Sanger was motivated primarily by her socialism and her feminism, she wasn’t above asking people with less than perfect motivations, such as the KKK, for support.  But it’s rich for modern people to act like this sort of bargain with the devil is impossible to understand, since future people will look at the fact that Pat Buchanan was allowed on MSNBC in the same dim light we use when looking at the social esteem that the KKK had in the 20s.  I’m not making excuses, but pointing out that Sanger’s footsie-playing with racist elements was about a short-sighted pragmatism instead of evil, the kind that we forgive in folks like Rachel Maddow.  In the 60s and 70s, you have the same problem.  The actual proponents of birth control and abortion rights were motivated by social justice, but more than a few racist legislators promoted birth control and abortion for seedy reasons.  Does this mean that women’s human rights should be revoked?  Or that perhaps the issue of complicity is more unnerving and complicated than most of us would like to admit?

Read the whole thing.

Seeing old friends

Light blogging for a few days. I’m back in the town I went to high school in, visiting some old friends who are back for a little while.

Totally unrelated –sexist online gaming advertisements get me riled perhaps more than they should, but this is pretty damn obnoxious:

Sexist gaming

You stay classy, Huffpost.

Protests against and for the Shia Family Law

There were at least two organized demonstrations today, a large one against the law (attended by at least hundreds of Hazara university students, the MPs one would expect there, and some other civil society folks) and a smaller counterprotest by religious students in  support of the law. The third demonstration –if you can call it that– was, from the reports I’m reading, basically a mob of stone-wielding, spitting men who attacked the women demonstrating against the law. Later on, Mohseni supporters attacked the co-ed Lycee, and more clashes took place outside Mohseni’s madrassa.

The sh*tstorm continues.

More here and here.

The Fallout

So, to begin with, it seems no one is 100% certain what the controversial Shia Family Law actually says. There’s a lot of speculation, some of it probably well-founded. It’s unclear whether UNAMA has the final text, and apparently no one in the press does. Or maybe they do by now. It’s not clear. The phrase “reportedly” is being thrown around in about half the news stories coming out on this issue.

In any case, Hillary Clinton and a host of other diplomats made it very clear at the Afghanistan summit in the Hague that they’re exceedingly displeased at Karzai’s support for the law.

Take this report from Canadian Press:

Outrage grows over Afghan rape law

OTTAWA — Canada isn’t sacrificing the lives of its soldiers and spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan so that men can rape their wives, say angry government and opposition MPs.

There’s growing outrage in Canada and abroad over controversial legislation in Afghanistan that would restrict the rights of minority Shia women, making it illegal for them to refuse sex to their husbands or even leave the house without permission.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he will use this week’s NATO summit to put “direct” pressure on his Afghan counterparts to abandon the legislation.

“That’s unacceptable – period,” he said Wednesday. “We’re fighting for values that include equality and women’s rights. This sort of legislation won’t fly.”

The proposed Shia family law has cast a shadow over an international conference in Europe on Afghanistan’s future […]

Or this one from the Sydney Morning Herald:

Pressure on Karzai to drop sexist law

Julian Borger in The Hague

April 2, 2009


The President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has come under intense pressure to scrap a new law that the United Nations said legalised rape within marriage and severely limited the rights of women.

At a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on Tuesday, Scandinavian foreign ministers challenged him to respond to questions raised over the law.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was reported to have confronted Mr Karzai on the issue in a private meeting.


“This is an area of absolute concern for the United States. My message is very clear. Women’s rights are a central part of the foreign policy of the Obama Administration,” she said […]

From the Globe and Mail:

“If these prove to be true, this will create serious problems for the government of Canada, for the people of Canada,” [ Trade Minister Stockwell Day] said. “The onus is upon the government of Afghanistan to live up to its human-rights responsibilities, absolutely including the rights of women. If there is any wavering on this point … this will create serious difficulties, serious problems for the government of Canada.

A few points:

1) It’s great that women’s rights are being raised as a sincere concern here, and not an afterthought or window-dressing for realpolitik. (I imagine this also has something to do with the many angry emails that have been landing in various foreign ministers’ inboxes over the past 24 hours.)

2) Why doesn’t anyone have the full, final text of this law yet? 24 hours in the news cycle is an eternity, and I can’t fathom why –even if leaking the law was not allowed– that it has (seemingly) not been leaked by someone yet. I mean, seriously, what is going on?

3) That, in the midst of this maelstrom of outrage, the Afghan Government has not released an official statement on this along with the text of the law, leads me to think it’s probably as bad as it’s being reported and there is frantic behind-the-scenes scrambling to do damage control. Government silence usually means either panic or apathy. I’ll wager the former in this case.

4) Via the Sydney Morning Herald:

Mr Karzai signed the law last month. Although the text has not been published, the UN, human rights activists and some Afghan MPs said it included clauses stipulating that women cannot refuse to have sex with their husbands and can only seek work, education or visit the doctor with their husbands’ permission.

That was written a few hours ago. Why wasn’t this brought up a month ago, when Karzai signed the law? Why was this story delayed until the day the summit began in the Hague?  Very weird. Very, very weird.

International aid officials say the law violates UN conventions and the Afghan constitution.

If the law stipulates what we’re being told it does, then yes, it absolutely violates both international human rights law and the Afghan Constitution.

5) What was Karzai THINKING? Did he not believe this would become the aid-endangering shitstorm it has?

6) Moreover, how was this supposed to win Karzai the Shia vote?  That doesn’t make political sense.

Maybe I’m way off base (I don’t think I am, but, then again, I’m not in Afghanistan), but family law is not remotely the biggest issue Shia care about. Given that Shia communities have so far not received an equitable share of reconstruction resources, I would think better infrastructure (say, in West Kabul, or the very poor Bamiyan or Daikundi provinces) and the promise of more say in state affairs would be the way to win over the Shia.

The way the news articles are being worded makes it seem like all it would take to send Shia voters flocking to the polls for Karzai would be some good, old-fashioned misogyny.

Color me skeptical. And confused.

  • **

In the comments on my previous post, Asiyah wrote:

I don’t know about the bill itself but generally, the Meshrano and Wolesi Jirgas have to approve it before it gets to the President. Also, the Ministry of Justice has to review and make sure the law is in line with the Constitution and international treaties signed.

Also, from what I understand, Islamic law comes into play when there is a gap in the national law. Also, the national laws should be in line with Islamic law (this phrase in the Constitution is still debated or ignored, depending on the person).

I plan to discuss the process of law-making in Afghanistan on my-so-far-inert blog

I’m looking forward to Asiyah’s new blog.

Concern trolls, FGM, and “honor killings”

Judy Warner and Ann Corcoran are insidious concern trolls, individuals who feign concern over the welfare of a person or group of people as a means of advancing an agenda to harm the individual or group in question –in this case, Muslim refugees, and Muslim women generally.

Why do I even entertain them? A couple of reasons.

1)    Google “refugee resettlement.” RRW is the third site that comes up. I cringe just typing that, but the sooner pro-refugee activists and resettlement workers acknowledge that RRW is a problem and begin countering the misleading and untrue statements (about refugees and resettlement agencies) posted there, the better. People like Ann Corcoran and Judy Warner are a threat to the vital work of refugee resettlement. Though acknowledging that may cause their stony hearts to beat a little faster, it still needs to be done.

2)    I have a lot of writing to do for school these days, as my time as a student wraps up. Blogging helps me break up the monotony and keeps my eyes from glazing over from having read and written about, say, budget offices, for hours and hours on end.

Now, I would like to respond to two issues Judy and Ann (and other concern trolls) go back to again and again: “honor killings” and FGM. I’ll start with honor killings, because, coincidentally, I have to write something about this for class as well. The following is an excerpt from a recent RRW post.

My own opinion is that honor killing is so barbaric that we should cut off immigration from any country where it is practiced, with very few exceptions made, only for those who have shown they are reformers, by deeds as well as words. I mean, of course, Muslim immigration, since honor killing is now practiced all over Western Europe. We don’t have to keep out Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, though it would be a good thing if he took more notice of it than he has. –Judy Warner

Judy quotes an interview by Katherine Jean Lopez (yes, the same blogger who infamously mocked Jessica Valenti of Feministing for wanting a feminist wedding) of psychotherapist and professor Phyllis Chesler, who recently wrote an article titled, “Are Honor Killings Simply Domestic Violence?” in which Chesler concludes –using methodology any college freshman social science major would recognize as hopelessly flawed– that no, honor killings are very different, and much worse (in Chesler’s view) because; non-Muslim men who beat or kill women in their lives for reasons not related to personal or family “honor” feel bad about it afterwards, whereas Muslim men who kill feel no guilt whatsoever; non-Muslim batterers don’t kill their daughters, only their wives (whew!); and spousal murders by non-Muslim are pretty tidy affairs, unlike grotesque and bloody “honor killings.” And there are a bunch of other patently ridiculous claims in there, as evidenced by this table from Chesler’s article in the The Middle East Quarterly (a rightist screed masquerading –poorly—as a scholarly journal).

Table 1: Differing Characteristics of Honor Killings and Domestic Violence

Honor Killings

Domestic Violence

Committed mainly by Muslims against Muslim girls/young adult women.

Committed by men of all faiths usually against adult women.

Committed mainly by fathers against their teenage daughters and daughters in their early twenties. Wives and older-age daughters may also be victims, but to a lesser extent.

Committed by an adult male spouse against an adult female spouse or intimate partner.

Carefully planned. Death threats are often used as a means of control.

The murder is often unplanned and spontaneous.

The planning and execution involve multiple family members and can include mothers, sisters, brothers, male cousins, uncles, grandfathers, etc. If the girl escapes, the extended family will continue to search for her to kill her.

The murder is carried out by one man with no family complicity.

The reason given for the honor killing is that the girl or young woman has “dishonored” the family.

The batterer-murderer does not claim any family concept of “honor.” The reasons may range from a poorly cooked meal to suspected infidelity to the woman’s trying to protect the children from his abuse or turning to the authorities for help.

At least half the time, the killings are carried out with barbaric ferocity. The female victim is often raped, burned alive, stoned or beaten to death, cut at the throat, decapitated, stabbed numerous times, suffocated slowly, etc.

While some men do beat a spouse to death, they often simply shoot or stab them.

The extended family and community valorize the honor killing. They do not condemn the perpetrators in the name of Islam. Mainly, honor killings are seen as normative.

The batterer-murderer is seen as a criminal; no one defends him as a hero. Such men are often viewed as sociopaths, mentally ill, or evil.

The murderer(s) do not show remorse. Instead, they experience themselves as “victims,” defending themselves from the girl’s actions and trying to restore their lost family honor.

Sometimes, remorse or regret is exhibited.

In the Lopez interview, Chesler writes:

Although most Muslim organizations claim that such honor killings have absolutely nothing to do with Islam, many scholars and critics of Islam strongly disagree.

Right. Because when it comes to Islam, non-Muslims and “critics” know better than Muslims. That makes perfect sense.

Muslim countries do not often prosecute honor killings. More progressive countries, like Jordan, deal with the intractable problem of honor-related violence against women and honor killing by locking up the potential victims, often for as long as a decade.

Jordanian feminists are tackling this issue head-on, and Jordanian Queen Rania al Abdullah frequently speaks out on the need for better access to justice for Jordanian women.

Sharia law believes in fathers’ and husbands’ physically punishing disobedient women. It does not clearly admonish its followers not to kill women who are viewed as “dishonoring” their families.

Look, I’m no fan of religiously-based law of any kind, but Chesler’s either really misinformed or really intellectually dishonest here. I defer to Krista at Muslimah Media Watch (MMW) on this one:

Even the most extreme and violent (mis)interpretations of Shari’ah don’t allow for beheading a woman who divorces her husband.  The way that Shari’ah gets talked about in relation to this case [the recent murder of Pakistani-American TV executive Aasiya Hassan by her estranged husband in Buffalo, NY] – usually without a direct link; the word just gets thrown in there to imply a connection – is really worrying, and puts the blame on Islam for something that would be clearly condemned within an Islamic legal framework.

As for Chesler’s claim that Muslim communities are psychopathically a-ok with violence against women in their midst and stubbornly unreflective about the issue…

Faith: The second issue that this tragedy brings up is the Muslim community’s complicity in domestic violence against women. Muzzammil Hassan was supported by various Muslim organizations in the U.S., including ISNA, despite the fact that all three of his wives left him because of domestic violence. He had a reputation for being violent and abusive, yet he still managed to gain a platform at major Muslim conventions throughout the U.S. because he founded Bridges TV. Abusers should not gain the support of Muslims, yet too often we are silent when they are among our mist. I hope that this tragedy really makes Muslims take a cold, hard look at how we treat domestic violence and abusers in our community. Not just speak about the issue, but actually stop embracing and sheltering abusers and take actions to help victims of abuse.

Sobia: What heartens me is the response from mainstream Muslims to fight intimate partner violence. Just as after the tragic Aqsa Parvez murder, this time again mosques across North America delivered khutbahs against domestic violence, explaining how un-Islamic such terrible actions are. It appears the Muslim community is stepping up to the plate in North America and, as such, showing Aasiya Hassan respect.

In an earlier post, the MMW bloggers posted official responses by Muslim community organizations, and they were mostly along the following lines:

We must make it a priority to teach our young men in the community
what it means to be a good husband and what the role the husband has
as a protector of his family. The husband is not one who terrorizes or
does harm and jeopardizes the safety of his family. At the same time,
we must teach our young women not to accept abuse in any way, and to
come forward if abuse occurs in the marriage. They must feel that they
are able to inform those who are in authority and feel comfortable
confiding in the imams and social workers of our communities.

Community and family members should support a woman in her decision to
leave a home where her life is threatened and provide shelter and
safety for her. No imam, mosque leader or social worker should suggest
that she return to such a relationship and to be patient if she feels
the relationship is abusive. Rather they should help and empower her
to stand up for her rights and to be able to make the decision of
protecting herself against her abuser without feeling she has done
something wrong, regardless of the status of the abuser in the

Of course, the likes of Judy Warner, Ann Corcoran, Katherine Jean Lopez and Phyllis Chesler are too busy accusing Muslims of not caring and not speaking out against violence against women to pay attention to what Muslims are actually saying and doing on the issue.

Chesler’s reaction to the Hassan case is really telling of this mentality, and total disregard for research. It’s also vicious and incredibly condescending.

[…] in the wake of the alleged Hassan honor murder, Muslim leaders are insisting that the Hassan case cannot be an honor killing because it does not fit the description of a classical honor killing as per above. It does not, but it is similar to some other cases of Muslim wives in the West. But, in the past, these same leaders characterized the classical honor murders as “only domestic violence,” or as “teenager problems,” or as “immigrant problems.”

[Members of the Buffalo, NY Muslim community] should stop “protesting” so much. Perhaps Hassan was a serial wife abuser. Perhaps this last failed marriage and this last wife who walked out on him was too much shame for him to bear and he reverted to his empowered, barbaric Pakistani ways. There should be some communal humility. Some sorrow. (I believe there is some, by the way.) And some acceptance of responsibility for having looked the other way and rewarded a monster with so much funding and honor. What I am seeing instead, is an attempt to cut him loose, to say that Hassan is not really one of us, that he is not a “good” Muslim.

Faith at MMW made an excellent point when she wrote:

I am troubled by the focus on “honor killings” as a phenomena of certain ethnic groups instead of “honor killings” being one of the many manifestations of how patriarchy can lead to violence against women. The way “honor killings” was reported in the story and the way it is reported in general, “honor killings” are often disconnected from the larger issue of patriarchy (which affects all women) and instead focused on as a purely localized issue that affects certain racial groups. I would like “honor killings” to be focused on as part of the global fight against violence against women.

Chesler’s singular focus on “honor killings” is perplexing and disturbing. She writes:

Domestic violence is not the same as femicide, which is what an honor killing is. Clearly, both phenomena are reprehensible, but they are not exactly the same.

Well, ok, so-called “honor killings” are a subset of femicides, and they’re both part of the broader, global problem of violence against women. Chesler’s “scholarship” (see that table again) would seem to imply that she does think “honor killings” are worse than other femicides.

She claims that five thousand women are killed in “honor killings” every year. That may be true, but misses the point. The point is violence against women, perpetuated by patriarchy. In Russia every year, fourteen thousand women are murdered by their intimate partners.

A Russian women’s rights activist puts that number in perspective:

“The number of women dying every year at the hands of their husbands and partners in the Russian Federation is roughly equal to the number of all soldiers who died in the 10-year war of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan,” says Natalya Abubikirova, executive director of the Russian Association of Crisis Centers. The Moscow-based umbrella organization of 32 groups advocates for women’s rights and seeks to raise awareness to prevent discrimination and violence against women.

To give a few more examples from non-Muslim majority countries: in India, thousands of Hindu women die in gender-based violence, much of it related to dowry and marriage, and the scale of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is truly nightmarish. In the US each year, more than a thousand women are murdered by their intimate partners. In all of these places, local activists are working bravely to tackle local manifestations of the global problem of violence against women. (Here is a great series on how Congolese women are working to stop rape.)

I’ll conclude by addressing the RRW post that “inspired” me to write all this in the first place. Again, Judy wrote:

My own opinion is that honor killing is so barbaric that we should cut off immigration from any country where it is practiced, with very few exceptions made, only for those who have shown they are reformers, by deeds as well as words. I mean, of course, Muslim immigration, since honor killing is now practiced all over Western Europe. We don’t have to keep out Gordon Brown, Britain’s prime minister, though it would be a good thing if he took more notice of it than he has.

A few problems with this argument:

1)     How exactly does one prove “by deeds” that she or he is against “honor killings”? That’s like the Belgian Government (I lived in Belgium during my study-abroad semester) asking me to prove that, as someone born in a country with high rates of gun violence, I not only condemn gun violence, but have taken action to stop it. I don’t own a gun? Too passive! I’ve written that civilians in a liberal democracy should not need fire arms to defend themselves against the state or each other? Mere words!

2)    “I mean, of course, Muslim immigration…” Ah, there we go. See, Judy? Honesty isn’t so hard. It doesn’t make you less of a bigot, of course, but…

Bringing this back to refugees.

Resettlement is stressful for all refugees, of all religions and nationalities. Stress and isolation can increase the risk of violence in refugee families. Resettlement workers understand this and act accordingly. When I worked full-time in resettlement, I ran seminars on family life and legal issues for refugee women and men (seminars for both sexes were held separately). In these seminars, I made sure my clients understood the basic letter of the law, and what support options were available to them if they ever found themselves being abused or threatened with abuse.

Violence against women is never, ever ok, under any circumstances. It’s reprehensible and tragic. If people like Warner, Corcoran, Lopez, and Chesler had even a shred of real respect and empathy for victims and survivors, they wouldn’t use them to cynically advance anti-immigration and anti-Muslim agendas.


Female Genital Mutilation:

[Female Genital Mutilation] is supposedly a cultural (cultural relativism is crap) and religious (Islamic) obligation which destroys the sex drive and helps assure men get their sexual pleasure but that their women then don’t stray too far.  But it does more than that, it is the worst form of child abuse wrapped in a veil of secrecy often dooming girls to a lifetime of pain and psychological trauma. –Ann Corcoran

1) FGM is a regional and cultural practice. It has nothing to do with Islam, and is nowhere mentioned in the Koran.

2) If FGM was part of adherence to even, to borrow Krista’s words from a different context, “the most extreme and violent (mis)interpretations of Shari’ah,” it would be rife in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead, it’s unheard of in those countries.

3) FGM is widely practiced among Christians in the same areas of Africa where it is practiced by Muslims. Take Ethiopia for example. Eighty-five percent of Ethiopian women are estimated to have undergone some form of FGM, yet just about a third of Ethiopians are Muslim. (Stats and map.)

4) FGM is practiced for various reasons, and there are multiple kinds/degrees of FGM. In Sierra Leone, for example, it is a womanhood initiation rite. In Iraqi Kurdistan, people aren’t sure why they do it, except that it’s been done for as long as anyone can remember.

5) Activists in countries where FGM is widely practiced are working hard to put an end to it through community education and alternative livelihoods for women who make their living carrying out the procedure.

6) When working with refugee from countries where FGM is widely practiced, resettlement workers do their best to make sure  their clients understand that; A)  FGM is illegal in the US, B) medical options are available to women who had it done in the past, and C) parents who inflict FGM on their daughters in the United States will lose custody of their children and almost certainly face criminal prosecution and possibly deportation.

To conclude this post, let me make one, overarching point. It is not only unfair, but also bad policy, bad advocacy, and bad scholarship to make assumptions about individuals based on population level statistics, and to make sweeping generalizations about whole categories of people based on individual examples.

The old boys club

I’m taking a class on peacekeeping and post-war reconstruction right now, and about a quarter of the class is female. Out of that quarter, only I and occasionally one other woman ever speak. And when I speak, I get dagger stares from some of the guys, stares that communicate, oh just shut up you haughty, uppity woman, what the bloody fuck would you know about reconstructing a judiciary after  a period of mass atrocities?

Well, for starters, certainly not less than you, pal!

The professor is a great guy, humane, witty, self-deprecating and teaching from years of real-world experience. Unfortunately, however, he is not exactly gender-sensitive. He uses only masculine pronouns when referring to positions in peacekeeping missions, and talks about “the guys who do ___” and “these___ guys” and, today, “all these guys who come in with no knowledge of the area and big swingin’ you-know-whats.”

At which point I shouted out, “WOMEN TOO!” (Which, in retrospect, was a funny phrase to append to that previous one.)

More dagger stares.

Good grief. Classes like this one are already overflowing with testosterone and bravado, more need not be encouraged, and it is wrong to give the impression (even unintentionally) that there aren’t plenty of women putting their necks on the line in the world’s crummier places every day in the service of peace and human rights.

Oh, and I’d like to see my female classmates look a little less bored and put away the damn iphones. Not helping. Not helping at all.

Bits and pieces

I’m in the very early stages of planning a short documentary about refugees resettled in my city. It’s an extra project I didn’t expect to be doing this spring, but I think I can squeeze it in, probably where sleep is supposed to go in my schedule. Maybe I should give up blogging. Wait, no, blogging keeps me sane and helps me organize my thoughts.


Here’s an example of how living and working abroad in a development/human rights protection/post-conflict situation changes how you view the world:

Every time I see a black H2 Hummer cut off a city bus here, I don’t think: “Overcompensating suburban dad,” I think, “Local arms smuggler?”


And speaking of overcompensating, I checked my spam filter today, as I do every once in a while to make sure no work emails got lodged there by mistake, and saw a penis-enlargement advertisement with the subject line: WOMEN WILL BE YOUR RESIGNED SLAVES!

Um, wow. FAIL.

Samantha Power on the Obama transition team

Samantha Power, Harvard professor, former journalist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning eye-opener on genocide A Problem From Hell, is back on Team Obama.

Given the horrifying escalation of violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (site of the deadliest war since WWII, fyi), Power’s deep knowledge of mass atrocities and strong views on how they should be stopped and prevented are very, very necessary. Here’s hoping she has a bigger role soon, and makes a few people give a damn.

Of course, that’s not a point the Washington Post would make. Oh no, under the charming headline “Adviser Who Insulted Clinton Is Reviewing State Department” the Post gives us this:

Samantha Power, the Harvard professor who was forced to resign from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign last spring after calling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton “a monster,” is now advising the president-elect on transition matters relating to the State Department — which Clinton is slated to head.

[…] In short, she is part of a team that is likely to work directly with Clinton, a potentially awkward situation for the two women. Obama is expected to officially announce Clinton as his choice for secretary of state after the Thanksgiving holiday.

In other words: Like OHMIGAWD!!!!1! Total girlfight in the making! So AWKWARD!

Please, Washington Post, spare us the “pushy bitches and their catfights” subtext in stories about women public intellectuals and politicians. It’s offensive and damn irritating.

Now, back to writing about media framing of war crimes in the War on Terror.