Saturday, October 22, 2016

Toxic locker rooms

The candidate's comments do not need repeating. Our news cycle runs so quick that I was shocked my friend had not heard the 2005 clip yet by 2 P.M. the day they were released. The 2005 conversation between a then-59-year-old-twice-divorced-known-adulterer-accused-rapist-now-presidential-candidate and an off-brand Bush was so utterly disgusting it overshadowed the fact the former recently stated he still believes the Central Park 5 are guilty.

The relative moral outrage to the two statements is telling. Many politicians/pundits cited their daughters/mothers/wives to justify their anger and disappointment. Between the lines, these reactions also say: calling for the lynching of innocent black men just isn’t that big of a deal to me, and women’s humanity isn’t enough for me to care about sexual assault. But, weeks before the election, I am just happy conservatives are renouncing the Republican candidate. Today,  I am more concerned with the apologists.

Locker room talk. That is the justification from surrogates, supporters, and straight from the horse’s mouth. Some men have dismissed the locker room defense, pointing to their own benign experiences and essentially proclaiming “my locker room was not like that.” While I know that all-male locker rooms are not always hellholes, I have seen the worst of American masculinity come out in the locker room.

In junior high I witnessed a classmate get his underwear ripped off after P.E. class. In high school, I was held down and beat in the locker room after football practice. I carried a pocketknife to school because an upperclassman had a penchant for going nude and shoving underclassmen’s face into his groin. The conversations ranged from lewd to explicitly violent.

I disagree with the apologists. The candidate’s comments do represent “locker room talk.” And therein lies the problem. All-male spaces are the breeding grounds for misogyny and violence. Philip Cohen, writing on single gender workspaces,  put it best: “To understand the relationship between culture and behavior, you have to consider the possibility that extreme behavior is the tail end of a long distribution.” (

The Access Hollywood clip represents the spectrum of behavior that rape culture enables. On one end of the distribution is the listener who does not object, Billy Bush. In the middle is the trivialization of sexual violence, the actual recorded conversation. And at the extreme end are the acts of violence, committed by the man who wants to be president.  

All-male spaces play a pivotal role in fostering rape culture, in normalizing “locker room talk.” When men are not forced to confront the humanity of women in spaces that dominate their life, the mindset leaches out. The incubation of toxic masculinity results in real violence, against men and women alike.

The law has spurred along changes in all-male spaces, from the Virginia Military  Institute to the coal mine depicted in North Country. Yet no one would deny that more progress is needed. Which is why I am intrigued by a new all-male space that’s been created to spur change.

Students at Duke University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are both leading the charge of male group introspection. The Duke Women’s Center is sponsoring the Duke Men’s project with the hope of spurring the deconstruction of toxic masculinity. The nine-week program will consist of male-identified students and they’ll discuss privilege, the language of dominance, and intersectional feminism.

While the success of this project remains to be seen, I am optimistic about its prospects. An all-male setting might encourage higher participant receptiveness to the curriculum. The project is turning the locker room on its head, forcing the participants to grapple with gender issues when mothers, sisters, wives and daughters are not around. I hope that this, in turn, will make the participants better allies whose resistance to misogyny is rooted in the recognition of female humanity.

Links to posts about the Duke Men's Project and their Facebook page:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

"I am Untouchable Now": Menstruation Taboos in South Asia

The last blog post written by Josie Zimmerman excited me with the discussion about female headed companies that are trying to provide the menstruating public with more products. However it also reminded me how women in other countries not only don't have options or access to menstruating products, but are shamed and put to the side lines of society while they are on their periods.

One of these countries is Nepal, a country which I love and receive my heritage from, but one in which rituals surrounding menstruation that shame and ostracize women continue to be practiced. This is most evident in the practice of Chhaupadi. Recently covered in a Guardian article this year, Chhaupadi instructs a woman be banished to a shed or structure outside of the main house and dictates that she not enter her home, cook, touch her parents, go to school or school. If a woman does not follow the dictates of Chhaupadi she is told she will bring destruction and misfortune to her family. "If she touches a crop, it wilts; If she fetches water, the well dries up; If she picks fruit, it doesn't ripen" (The Gaurdian).

Chhaupadi, which translates to "untouchable being," has been practiced in parts of Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. Its origins can be found in ancient Hindu scripture which says women are highly infectious while they are menstruating. While often thought of as solely practiced in rural isolated villages, an NPR article "A Girl Gets Her Period and is Banished to a Shed: #15 Girls" showed that the ideas surrounding Chhaupadi effects even girls who live in cities and have progressive parents. The article interviewed Prakriti, a teenager living in Kathmandu and studying for the SAT's to get into an American university, who told reporters she was blamed for her father's hospitalization for touching him while she was on her period. Even I, as a half Nepali growing up in the United States, was told by my father's aunt that I was not allowed to visit the temple while I was on my period.

While shame around menstruation is still ongoing and prevalent in South Asia, there are efforts to fight the stigma. Women in Nepal are beginning to flip the script on the long held ritual of Chhaupadi. For example, Prakriti who was told her father ended up in the hospital because she broke a dictate of Chhaupadi, has written her own book Imposter, which envisions a society where menstruation gives women superpowers. Also in India, entrepreneurs like Arunachalam Muruganantham are creating affordable and safe menstruation products for women who had previously been relegated to using dirty rags in private.

Chhaupadi is a practice that not only effects a woman physically - where she sleeps and eats, but also effects her mentally. It instructs her that having her period is something negative, something that only brings her distress and loneliness. The practice not only tells girls they are less then boys, but puts them in a position of inequality in society. While the practice won't disappear overnight, every small action that fights the stigma of menstruation will help take down Chhaupadi.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Red wave of female CEOs

The comments on my last post brought up the recent media attention paid to President Obama’s female staffers.  The New York Times Magazine shone a light (see what I did there) on a technique the outnumbered women in the President’s Cabinet used to support each other and make sure their contributions were acknowledged.  It got me thinking about where else, beyond pop culture, I could find some examples of Shine Theory. 

I started with thinking about products that are marketed specifically to women.  Now, I don’t mean Lady Bics (covered so well by Flamingo), but more products that propose to fill a void in the market because they are “niche.” The first niche market that came to mind was menstrual products.  Companies like Thinx, Lola, and DivaCup have sprung up in the last few years as innovators in the world of feminine hygiene.  Unsurprisingly, these companies have been spearheaded by women who are frustrated with the lack of modernization in the industry.  The founders and co-founders of each of these companies were brought together in a common desire to put a product on the market that met a need that they had seen being ignored.   

The world of period management hasn’t had a ton of updating in the last few decades.  The biggest stir to the market was Kotex’s advertising campaign that presented a more “real” depiction of what Aunt Flo is like.  In the wake of this stagnation, Lola, Thinx, and DivaCup tackle this issue of subpar feminine hygiene products in different ways.  

Lola is a tampon subscription service.  They use 100% cotton (which is shockingly atypical), and allow customers to customize the number of each size tampon in their order.  Thinx is a lingerie line that has absorbent, antimicrobial layers in the crotch that can absorb up to 2 tampons worth of liquid.  Finally, DivaCup is a silicone menstrual cup that is used instead of tampons or pads.  Though they approach the market with different fixes, the ways in which the brands present themselves is very similar.  Each felt that the standard tampon/pad dichotomy was not good enough, and each found a new way to make women’s lives a bit easier.   

This is Shine Theory on a grand scale.  The women behind these companies not only partnered up with other women to get their ideas out there.  They also joined their voices with those of women across the country whose needs are often overlooked.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Abortion ban: the power of Polish protesters

I tend to think that in this day and age in the Western countries and especially in Europe, reproductive rights are a given. Alas, I am often reminded that it is not the case, and women in Europe - like those around the world - still have to fight to gain or keep their rights to contraception and abortion.

In Poland, historical events are taking place right now. As The New York Times reports,
Poland's existing abortion law is already one of the most restrictive in Europe. Abortion is permitted in only three cases : a severe fetal anomaly, a threat to the mother's health and life, or a pregnancy from rape or sexual abuse.
Because the existing law was not restrictive enough in the eyes of a civil organization called Stop Abortion, they proposed a new legislation to criminalize all abortions. In other words, this legilsation would impose a complete and total ban on abortion for women and doctors, who would face up to five years of jail time.

The proposition got enough signatures and support from the Polish conservative party (PiS) and the Catholic Church that it was considered by the Parliament. The power and influence of the Catholic Church on lawmakers in Catholic countries is considerable (see this excellent blog post about Women in Ireland).

On Monday, October 3rd, about thirty thousand men and women all wearing black clothes protested in the streets of multiple Polish cities. They protested with slogans such as "My body my choice", "Women just want to have FUN-damental rights". Many walked with hangers in their hands. Poland's Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski seemed unimpressed by the mass protest as he declared on the radio on the same day:
Let them have their fun [...] by dressing up, screaming silly slogans and vulgarities [they are] making a mockery of very important issues (The Guardian).
Nonetheless, today conservative lawmakers reversed their position and voted against the ban. The same members of Parliament backed the proposed legislation just days ago. It is thus undeniable that the protesters were successful in being heard.

Still, the new law is not yet buried, because
the lower house of parliament will still vote tomorrow to either reject the bill completely or return it to the committee for more work (Slate).
However, the organization Stop Abortion seems to have lost hope, as they casually declared murdered children lost. The Guardian notes that the Polish Senate speaker suggested a compromise law that would only ban the fetal anomaly exception. This is still a possibility,  in which case, protests are likely to continue.

I think it is important to notice how great an impact the Polish protesters had. They were heard and will keep on protesting if they have to, which I find inspiring. They took the power they had and collectively managed to change politicians' votes.

If a woman finds sanctuary in her work, does that make her less real?

A friend of mine read a recent blog post that I wrote about Hillary Clinton, and emailed me passionately to support my viewpoint. It seemed an innocuous and pleasing email, until I realized that my friend endures an injustice that I hadn't often considered. My friend, let's call her M, was particularly taken with a New York Times article cited in the blog post called Why Is Clinton Disliked?. This article, penned by David Brooks, essentially determines that Hillary's overwhelming issue is that she isn't intimate enough to the public because she is a workaholic.

Brooks goes on to say that for people who are "consumed by their professional activities," the "professional role comes to dominate the personality and encroaches on the normal intimacies of the soul." This comment made me wonder, are men frequently expected to engage in "intimacies of the soul" in our society? I think not. Brooks is thus likely criticizing women "workaholics" in particular, as opposed to workaholics in general.

The idea of this article deeply troubled M. She is extraordinarily career-oriented, and she was particularly bothered by the ending of the Brooks article: "Even successful lives need these sanctuaries — in order to be a real person instead of just a productive one. It appears that we don’t really trust candidates who do not show us theirs." To this, M responded: "Which begs the question: what if a person finds sanctuary in their work? Does this make them less 'real'?" She was worried, in particular, if it made her less real. I'm worried too if I'm less real too.

This worry led me to dig into a question that I thought feminism and our great nation had answered long ago: what do we think of passionately working (er . . .'workaholic') women? What I found was horrifying. I found a Huffington Post article  called 10 Things Nobody Tells You About Being A Single, Career-Oriented Woman in Your Twenties, whose main gist was to discourage women from being career-oriented in their twenties, because, "you’ll wake up one day without having a husband or kids, which is not what you wanted." This article also contained this gem:
6. Men who you meet socially will not necessarily love your success (they may even be intimidated by it). 
Remember the bell curve? Well, you’re toward one end of it. And there’s a good chance that a lot of people who you meet socially won’t be on the same end of that bell curve as you. Suddenly, you’re either at work with your equally-achieving, married male colleagues or you’re out at the bar dancing to 2 Chainz. Not great.
To be fair, the author of the above article had recently been dumped for being 'career-oriented.' However, I couldn't believe her words. I thought that she must be the only person on the internet following so heartily in Phyllis Schlafly's footsteps, but of course not. While British media messages encourage women to 'get fertile,' here in the US, Penelope Trunk encourages you to find a partner fast. Here, a working mother loses custody of her children to their father, unemployed for years, who she had "begged to get a job" to help support the family. This is apparently very common.

But what are women to do in a world where they are seen as less reliable, or less hire-able because of the assumption that they are less invested in work than men? And how are women to rebound when they're also seen as breaking the rules if they do put in the extra hours, succeed, ask for higher pay, or promote themselves?

It seems a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation to me. So what can M., who loves her work, is captivated by it, who finds her work a sanctuary, do? What can I do?

I think the best we can do, as women, is to find encouragement and power in a variety of places, and continue to do what feels the most right for our own lives. One of the places both M. and I find solace is in the professors we admire. These are professionals on the forefront of the fight for disability rights, women's rights, privacy rights, and more, and they still fight for their work-life balances: whatever that means to them. Sometimes life can be work and work can be life and that's OK, too. One admirable professor, Thomas Joo, says this about the study of law:
The lawyer learns to speak the language of the law, and in that language, he or she not only speaks the law, but also speaks about the law. Or, to put it another way, the difference between law and zoology is that zoologists do not train to become elephants. Nor do elephants bother studying zoology. But legal education requires learning both to think like a lawyer and to critically analyze that method of thinking—in other words, to become both elephant and zoologist.
Professional women must do this too. We must learn both to think like "the ideal worker" who excels in systems built to embrace men, and we also must learn to critically analyze that method of thinking. We must resist the pressure of patriarchal work environments and look with a critical eye at their legacies. Yet we must still try to live our own ideal of success and fulfillment in the patriarchal system as it is, despite being shamed or seen as "less real." What other choice do we have than to be both the elephant and the zoologist?

This tactic of changing the system from within it might just work, too. Perhaps, with innovations like "Worker Coops" and "Results-Only Work Environments" (ROWE was developed by two women), the woman who finds sanctuary in her work may be the wave of the future. Go M. go! Keep your nose in your appellate briefs and books and articles. Publish as much as you can. I believe in you. In my eyes, you are the best kind of real.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Breaking the glass ceiling; is this enough?

The term "glass ceiling" is used to describe the transparent barrier that prevents women and other minorities from climbing up the corporate ladder in the workplace. When Hillary Clinton was elected as the first female candidate for a major political party, her first words at the National Democratic Convention were:
I can't believe we just put the biggest crack in the glass ceiling yet.
Despite this historical achievement, the media have continued to base their commentary on superficial aspects of this campaign, sometimes writing solely about Hillary Clinton's hair. An article in the New York Daily News suggested that Clinton presents a good presidential look because of her "perfect highlights" on the cover of her new book.

Have any other news broadcasters published a similar article commenting on Donald Trump's hair? My research suggests not (despite the fact that his hair raises far more questions than Hillary Clinton's and in my opinion demands further explanation.) Nor was there an equivalent article written during the publication of Barack Obama's book before he was elected.

These observations beg the question: in the eyes of the media, when will women's achievements ever be enough? It scares me to think that in future generations, those for which this "glass ceiling" is deemed nothing more than a historical metaphor, successful women will still be required, on top of everything else, to meet superficial expectations for their looks.

If I have a daughter in later life, I imagine her coming to me at a young age, innocence and determination in her eyes as she confidently tells me she would like to become the head of government when she grows up. What would my reply be? "That is wonderful honey, but even after you have successfully come through your education, built a credible political reputation and gained the trust and respect of the nation, you must then prove your candidate worthiness by having well groomed hair and exuding an overall 'presidential look'."

This dual-standard for women to not only prove themselves professionally but to also satisfy certain expectations for their demeanor and looks is manifested in pop culture. It is hyper-sexualised in the showbiz and entertainment industries. This conceivably adds an additional tier to the glass ceiling, a further requirement in order to be deemed 'the ultimate woman'.

The roast of Justin Bieber was the third most watched ever for Comedy Central. Undoubtedly, the vast majority of these viewers were adolescents, mainly young girls. The roasting panel featured Martha Stewart who was praised afterwards for her dry and vulgar jokes. In her conclusion, the lifestyle personality advised the rebellious heart-throb to search for an influential, powerful woman to marry. She described this ideal future spouse as:
...a player in the boardroom and a freak in the bedroom. 
Pop-icon Usher released a hit song in which he expresses longing for a woman who is:

...a lady in the streets and a freak in the sheets.
This can be contrasted with self-proclaimed feminist Lilly Allen's lyrics:

If I told you about my sex life, you'd call me a slut but boys are talkin' bout their b****** and no one's making a fuss. 
In the eyes of the media, a woman who excels in the public sphere must also encompass the male's ideal in the private sphere. We are told that on top of other facets such as intelligence, relatability, humour, kindness and determination, women must also look good and have sex appeal. When I graduate from college and pursue a career practicing law, I hope that I will be evaluated on my hard work and quality of service to clients, not on my hairstyle.