Today I have a debilitating activist crush on Scottish 9-year-old food blogger (yup) Martha Payne, alias Veg. Martha’s charmingly creative, politically effective, and completely endearing blog, NeverSeconds, has inspired a culinary revolution at her school, not to mention adding a critical youth voice to debates on school lunches already underway in the UK. And she’s also raising money for Mary’s Meals, an international nutrition-focused non-profit.
Martha is charming and her blog is fun to read, and this story totally made my day. But her actions also speak powerfully to young people’s capacity to act as agents of change—in their own lives, and in response to problems they identify both within and beyond their schools and communities. This girl is nine, and she turned an every-day problem into an opportunity for creativity and activism. The world is full of young people like her—smart, dedicated, passionate, and serious about making their lives and their world better. Martha is lucky enough to have supportive adults in her life, and an education that equipped her to read, write, think critically, and use media effectively to get her point across. If we were serious about equipping more young people with the same tools and the same support structures—and serious about treating them like experts on their own lives—the world would truly be a better place.
Photo by Martha Payne.
This week in infuriating graphics, check out this doozy on the gender gap in the 2012 election coverage. I won’t elaborate, as the pie charts speak for themselves…UNLIKE WOMEN.
This exceptional conversation between French-Guinean journalist Folly Bah Thibault and Qatari author Amal Al-Malki went up on Al-Jazeera English a few weeks ago, but with a message as urgent and timeless as the one it conveys, it seems worth posting anyway. Speaking with the cool, razor-sharp clarity that is the hallmark of those whose opinions are both well informed and passionately held, Al-Malki—whose new book, Arab Women in Arab News: Old Stereotypes in New Media, explores east-west understandings of Arab women based on an analysis of over two thousand news items from 103 Arab media sources in 22 Arab countries—puts forth the radical notion that the Arab Spring has in fact brought little change for women across the Arab world. And based on stories I’ve heard from women activists involved in similar struggles worldwide over the past few decades, the situation she describes is frustratingly familiar:
This is the thing: women were major participants [in the Arab Spring]. They stood by the men’s side on the streets, calling for political reform and freedom. For a very short period of time, they felt and were treated like equal citizens. But the moment they spoke about women’s rights, hell broke loose, and they were downgraded again to second-class citizens.
Al-Malki’s analysis squares with troubling reports of female protesters from Tahrir Square being forced to submit to virginity tests by the police (a punishment I feel certain their male counterparts were spared). It also resonates with the analysis of other Middle Eastern and North African feminist thinkers whose words I’ve read or heard over the past few months, including Mariz Tadros, who at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in March of this year described a ‘backlash against women’s rights’ taking place in her native Egypt. To be sure, countless women marched side by side with men in the protests that toppled the Mubarak regime. But the new Egyptian parliament has the lowest representation of women in the country’s recent history, and the quota for women’s political participation has been eliminated—neither of which bode well for the representation of women’s rights and interests in the country’s new constitution.
Al-Malki’s points are forceful, but her analysis is far from simplistic. For example, she neutralizes the argument that religion—and Islam, in particular—is intrinsically hostile to women’s rights, deftly highlighting the difference between actual scripture and the political and patriarchal manipulation of religious discourse. Her distinction does more than place contemporary events in historical context, it sheds light on the complicated relationships between gender, religion, politics, culture, and change that continue to curtail women’s rights even alongside advances in so-called human rights.
Over the years, my work has enabled me to meet, interview, and learn from women activists and feminists from around the world—women from Cameroon to India to Nigeria to Nicaragua to Brazil. Most of those women were involved in broader political and social movements before they became feminists: they built their political consciousness and practical organizing skills alongside male allies in armed and unarmed revolutions designed to overthrow dictators, end colonial regimes, and install democracy. And despite the diversity of their countries and contexts, all of these women were uniformly dismayed to discover that when the chips fell, gender equality was not, in fact, part of the new democratic agenda. No matter what their political leanings had been in the past, the moment they realized that the revolution had been fought for the rights of men, not the rights of everyone, was the moment when many of them embraced feminism as the only way to ensure that they would ever be treated as full democratic subjects. In the words of Ngozi Iwere, a Nigerian feminist and community organizer who was actively involved in struggles to decolonize Africa and build a truly democratic Nigerian state in the 1970s, and who has remained active in efforts to advance women’s rights and organize marginalized communities in Lagos and across Nigeria,
You can’t have a women’s movement that will actually get women where they want to be in society without being part and parcel of the broader struggle for human rights and for access to resources for everyone in the society. At the same time, you can’t have a movement that wants to bring about socioeconomic or sociopolitical justice for the weak members of society, the lower classes, without putting women’s rights on the agenda.
This second, feminist revolution—the one women are still fighting all over the world, and, as Al-Malki’s analysis makes all too clear, the one that still lies ahead for Egyptian and other Arab women—is tougher to wage than the first. It doesn’t excite the international media, and it rarely attracts the support of male revolutionaries, who tend to consider it irrelevant at best and divisive at worst. But despite its unpopularity, as Iwere insists, true democracy can never flourish without it. And that’s why women keep fighting it—throughout history, and around the world.
Wow. You’ve gotta love the balls on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who’s taking a quick break from being under investigation for his links with a prostitution ring to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating last spring’s “sexual scandal” (or “alleged attempted rape,” for the less faint of heart) in New York—despite his well documented history of sexually harassing, and likely assaulting, women.
My advice to DSK: Quit while you’re ahead. And before you open your mouth: Yes. You are ahead. The French presidency never belonged to you in the first place. First of all, because France is a democracy, not an oligarchy. And second of all, because last I checked, approximately 50% of France’s population was female, and we’ve already established that you’re “unfit to lead an institution where women work under [your] command.” Or, in other words, unfit to lead.
If you were to look up ‘nailing it’ in the dictionary this week, it would likely redirect you to this pitch-perfect article by Katha Pollitt, which says everything that needs to be said about the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney tempest in a teapot in a few well chosen, far-reaching words.
Why this woman does not have a column in the New York Times is a continual mystery to me. She could break Maureen Dowd’s entire oeuvre over her knee with minimal effort. Speaking of which, if you haven’t read her spot-on 2005 column on Maureen Dowd, PLEASE DO. And while we’re on the subject of Katha Pollitt vs. the chronically underachieving NYT roster of columnists, let’s not forget her seminal 2004 take-down of one Nick Kristof.
Still, though, if you have to prioritize, definitely focus on the Rosen/Romney one…
Hey guys, since I know you’ve all been constantly hitting refresh on this page, just thought I’d take a moment to explain that I’ve taken a little hiatus from blogging to focus attention on my little friend above, whose care and feeding will be consuming all my time for the next couple of weeks. If you absolutely must have your fix, you can always follow me on the Twitter at @aelynch, where I continue to laconically nail it on the regular.
See you later this month!
Say what you will about Nigerian writer and artist Teju Cole’s Twitter essay, Seven Thoughts on the Banality of Sentimentality, inspired by Kony2012 but easily encompassing (in very few characters indeed!) the wider culture that gave birth to it. Even if you’re not ready to accept the righteous anger of those tweets, and even if international development isn’t a trending topic in your brain, Cole’s article in Atlantic today, The White Savior Industrial Complex, is a hands-down must-read.
Starting with his Twitter essay and the flood of anger and appreciation it inspired, Cole goes on to lament the absence of ‘direct speech’ in our contemporary political discourse, particularly when it comes to race, gender, and sexual orientation. He argues,
In the past few years in the U.S., there has been a chilling effect on a certain kind of direct speech pertaining to rights. The president is wary of being seen as the “angry black man.” People of color, women, and gays — who now have greater access to the centers of influence that ever before — are under pressure to be well-behaved when talking about their struggles. There is an expectation that we can talk about sins but no one must be identified as a sinner: newspapers love to describe words or deeds as “racially charged” even in those cases when it would be more honest to say “racist”; we agree that there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but no one is homophobic. One cumulative effect of this policed language is that when someone dares to point out something as obvious as white privilege, it is seen as unduly provocative. Marginalized voices in America have fewer and fewer avenues to speak plainly about what they suffer; the effect of this enforced civility is that those voices are falsified or blocked entirely from the discourse.
Circling back to Kony2012, then going far beyond it again, Cole laments the absence of not just ‘direct speech,’ but ‘constellational thinking’—that is, thinking that allows us to ‘connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” ’ Which he then links to using cell phones manufactured by poorly treated workers in China, to Nigerian popular protests on the removal of oil subsidies, to the need to examine one’s own privilege, to the complexity of being a middle-class African living in the United States. And then he…..I mean, I just can’t. Every word of this essay is just too brilliant to sum up. Cole has nailed it on so many levels about so many things, I hardly know where to begin. So just read it!
Photo of Invisible Children staff by Glenna Gordon.