Today in Misuses of Legislative Authority

Joining Ugandan lawmakers’ most recent effort to ban mini-skirts in the “asinine interference with our freedoms” legislative initiatives file, local authorities in Kisumu, Kenya are considering a bill that would require women on bicycles and motorcycles to ride sidesaddle.

Apparently, riding astride is “uncultural.” And, like the much maligned mini-skirt, it threatens road safety by distracting male drivers. (See Uganda’s former Ethics & Integrity Minister, Nsaba Buturo’s, 2008 justification for a proposed mini-skirt ban here.) One motorcycle taxi driver interviewed by KTN insisted that having female passengers riding astride behind him compromised his ability to drive.  

Clearly, everyone would be better off if the ladies would just keep their legs together. Except, of course, for the women perched precariously on the backs of boda bodas with no way to keep themselves from flying off in the event of an unexpected stop, turn, or collision. But that’s a small price to pay to protect male drivers from having the knowledge that women have legs forced upon them, right?

Gulu’s Girls Gone Wild

According to this op-ed in The Observer, a new scourge has replaced LRA raiding parties in northern Uganda: horny teenage girls.

Sam Agona, “ICT and social behavioural expert,” reports that once the young women around Gulu no longer had to worry about being forcibly recruited by rebels, they decided to celebrate by getting busy. And they’ve kept it up ever since:

Young girls have continued to come to town in the night, not only to look for money through sexual acts but also to seek plain sexual satisfaction through actively involving themselves in the practice.

Agona gets impressively hand-wringy about the fact that “in Gulu, females have desire for intensive sex just for enjoyment” which he describes as “a situation I accept is human but very bizarre.” (Apparently, no female has ever desired “intensive sex” with Agona.) He also swallows whole a rumor that “at a place called Olego, near the Uganda-South Sudan border, women there detain men who do not heed to their sexual demands.”

Then, like any good op-ed writer, he turns to his cab driver for answers.

Per the driver, “it is very hard to control girls,” particularly in light of their annoying habit of conducting their sexual relations in private, where concerned (ahem) men can’t observe them. And, of course, “the existence of the concept of ‘human rights’ made it more difficult to apprehend the girls.” Human rights, man, always getting in the way of right-thinking men’s ability to control the women around them.

I look forward to the inevitable follow-up in which Agona unveils an ingenious plan to settle these ladies down by removing their clitorises. Ugh.

H/T Ledio Cakaj

WTF Friday, 8/2/13

This week’s WTF Friday traveled to the blog via Metro-North from New Haven. Yale University has released its latest Sexual Misconduct Report, which manages to avoid using the terms “rape” or “sexual assault” one single time, even when discussing, well, rape.

You see, when such things happen in the rarified gardens of Yale, they’re not crimes, just “nonconsensual sex.” Observe:

“A YC student brought a formal complaint charging that a male YC student had nonconsensual sex with her.

Update: The UWC found sufficient evidence that the respondent engaged in certain conduct of a sexual nature that was nonconsensual. In addition, the UWC found that the respondent violated the Yale College Code of General Conduct. The respondent was given a two semester suspension, was placed on probation for the remainder of his time at the University, was restricted from contacting the complainant, and was encouraged to continue counseling for alcohol abuse, appropriate sexual behavior and the respectful treatment of others.”

Let’s break that statement down, shall we? The quoted text refers to a complaint by a female Yale student against a male Yale student. The “update” sets forth the resolution of the complaint.

Yale’s University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, or UWC (there’s something amazing about the fact that Yale didn’t even keep the “sexual misconduct” part when choosing an acronym for its committee on sexual misconduct) investigated the allegations, and found that the perpetrator had, in fact, assaulted the victim.

That sexual assault was a crime, and most likely a felony, but there’s no mention of that in the report. (It does, however, make a point of noting that the perpetrator violated the College Code of Conduct, which I think we can all agree is the real problem here.)

Isn’t the term “nonconsensual sex” amazing? The way that it somehow implies a gulf between a situation in which someone has sex with another person without consent, and a totally different situation in which that person commits a rape or sexual assault? Yale apparently thinks there’s a distinction between the two, because the most severe punishment it meted out to any of the perpetrators described in the report was a suspension.

What’s a person got to do to get expelled from Yale? Non-consensual cannibalism?

I don’t know if that counseling for “appropriate sexual behavior and the respectful treatment of others” is available to universities. But it sure seems like Yale could use it.

h/t Texasinafrica.

The Senate Should Confirm Nina Pillard Already

I wholeheartedly support Cornelia “Nina” Pillard’s nomination for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, because she is awesome. Professor Pillard taught two of my classes at Georgetown, so I can say from personal experience that she is a smart, diligent, judicious thinker. She is also a triathlete with practically-bionic strength. (That is less relevant to her judicial nomination, but still cool. Her exploits in the law school’s gym were legendary amongst my classmates.) The Senate should confirm her already.

I am not the only one who thinks that Pillard would be an asset to the federal bench. Here is Professor Viet Dinh, former deputy Attorney General under George W. Bush, and probably Georgetown’s most famously conservative faculty member, on Pillard’s qualifications:

“She is a fair-minded thinker with enormous respect for the law and for the limited, and essential, role of the federal appellate judge– qualities that make her well prepared to taken on the work of a D.C. Circuit judge. I am confident that she would approach the judicial task of applying law to facts in a fair and meticulous manner.”

And here is a statement from a group of 40 prominent attorneys who practice before the Supreme Court, including several who served in senior roles in the Reagan and Bush justice departments:

“We believe that Professor Pillard would bring to the D.C. Circuit unquestioned professional integrity and intellect, a breadth of experience, and dedication to fairness and the rule of law. We urge her confirmation.”

And yet, if you listen to the Republican members of the judiciary committee and the denizens of the National Review echo chamber, Pillard is some sort of crazed radical who probably shouldn’t be trusted with young minds, let alone federal cases. Never mind that she has assisted dozens of litigants, from all points on the political spectrum, pro bono as part of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute. Never mind that she collaborated with Dinh and the Bush Administration to litigate (and win) Nevada Dept. of Human Resources v. Hibbs before the Supreme Court. No, apparently Pillard is “out of the mainstream,” and would be “the most left-wing judge in the history of the republic.”

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“With a Smile on His Face”: New Account of Sexual Assault in Tahrir Square

Another day, another revolution in Egypt. And with that new revolution comes a new outbreak of mass sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square.

This is not a new phenomenon. In February 2011, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square to report on the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, when a crowd of men overpowered her crew, stripped her, and subjected her to a prolonged and brutal sexual assault. In June 2012, documentarian Natasha Smith suffered a similar assault at the hands of a mob who stripped her and violated her with their hands as they dragged her, naked, through the square. There have been many more attacks against Egyptian women following the same pattern: a group of men isolate a woman, then surround her with what one activist has called “the circle of hell” – a ring of men who strip and assault the woman, surrounded by outer circles of accomplices who enable the attack by pretending to help the victim, and distracting the crowd from what is happening.

I recently spoke to Joost Schefferss, a 21 year old journalism student from the Netherlands who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo, about an attack that he and his friends suffered in Tahrir Square last Sunday. Thankfully, his group was rescued shortly after the assault began, narrowly avoiding a more serious fate.

Joost had gone to the square with two friends: another male student from the Netherlands, and a young Swedish woman. (His friends prefer not to be identified.) They were accompanied by two Egyptian journalists. Although Joost and his friends had no involvement in Egyptian politics, he felt an “intense strong feeling to go there to see what was going on.” He sensed that history was happening nearby, and thought it would be a shame to miss it.

They arrived at the square in the late afternoon, while the sun was still bright, and spent several hours there without incident. The atmosphere was happy, “like a festival, or something like that.” Helicopters flying Egyptian flags circled overhead, and the crowd cheered them, taking the choppers’ presence as a sign of support from the army. “It was a good atmosphere, great, really.” He took photographs, and tweeted about the excitement of the crowd.

As evening fell, and it began to get dark, however, Joost felt the mood of the crowd begin to change. “Be careful, be careful,” people in the crowd began to say to them, in English. His group linked together to walk single file, “like a train.” Each held onto a shoulder of the person in front of them, with the two Egyptian journalists bracketing the line in front and back, an engine and a caboose.

They began to make their way out of the square. Suddenly, “at a certain moment, the people were pushing, pushing, pushing. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”

“It kept on going, and I felt a guy pushing me on my back, and again.” He briefly thought that it was merely the density of the moving crowd, but when he turned, he saw that there was plenty of space. Joost realized that the pushes were deliberate attacks meant to separate the group. Surprisingly, their attackers were teenagers. The person pushing Joost was “like a kid, of 17 or 18 years old.”

As he struggled to stay on his feet, Joost realized that his Swedish friend had lost hold of his shoulder. “I started to look, where she is, where she is, where she is? And I saw her, being pushed through the crowds by the Egyptian journalists, to get away from there.”

“She was pushed away, and the other guys were pushing me very hard, front and back.” He tried to follow, but the young woman was surrounded by a group of youths who were sexually assaulting her. “She got touched – hands were all over her whole body, grabbing her.” The two Egyptian journalists were trying to protect her, but they were unable to escape.

The Egyptian boys around Joost and his other friend continued to slam into them, trying to knock them to the ground as they tried to reach the young woman to help her. Joost felt certain that she was the main object of the attack. “That is the tactic of these groups. They push, and they push and they push, and at a certain moment the girl is gone.”

During the struggle, Joost made eye contact with one of the attackers. Horrifyingly, he looked like was having fun. “I looked the guy straight in his eyes… his face was really, really happy. He was enjoying it, definitely. There was a big smile on his face.”

Joost does not know how long the assault lasted, because he was just focused on keeping his feet, and getting to his friend. Suddenly, a group of broad-shouldered, muscular Egyptian men ran up to them and “smashed” away the youths committing the assault. With the Egyptian journalists, their rescuers joined hands to form a circle and made their way through the crowd, out of the square. Joost believes that things could have gotten much worse if they had not been rescued. “We were really lucky, after all.”

Once they were out of the square, most of their protectors disappeared – probably back into the square, to return to their patrol. However, “one of them walked with us to our car, just to make sure we arrived there, as safe as possible.” Joost would like to find the group, to thank them for their help, but has not been able to do so thus far. The rescuers never introduced themselves, so it is unclear whether they were volunteers with an official organization like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or just concerned citizens.

“The guy who accompanied us to the car, he had a red t-shirt and a red key card with a red card on it, but I don’t know exactly what the red card was from. I also don’t know who he was, where he was from, or what else – I’ve got no clue at all.”

I asked Joost if he had any sense of what the attackers’ motivation might have been. He offered a few general theories, such as the mistrust created by Egyptian ad campaigns telling people not to trust foreigners, and the frustration felt by young men who are unable to get jobs or marry, but while those explanations might explain Egypt’s generally high rates of sexual harassment, they don’t explain the specific phenomenon of mob assaults on women in Tahrir Square. Joost has also heard that there is credible evidence that other sexual assaults were designed to drive women and journalists out of the square. “There were signals that those attacks were structured to get the journalists off Tahrir and make everyone afraid to come there and protest.”

That doesn’t seem to fit his own experience, though. “They could have been instructed by special forces to [attack us], but I really doubt it, because they were so young.” He imagines that if such attacks were planned, the organizers would send “a big group of strong men, to make sure that it happens. Not a bunch of kids.” (He hastened to add that this was just his own impression, however – he doesn’t have enough information to comment about the phenomenon of these assaults more generally.)

Whatever the motivation behind this particular assault, at this stage it seems clear that these attacks are taking place with horrifying frequency. Last Friday, a Dutch journalist was reportedly gang raped in Tahrir, and remains hospitalized for her injuries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer organization in Cairo that sends volunteer patrols into Tahrir Square to protect women from attack, received 46 reports of mob sexual assaults on women on Sunday, 17 Monday, and more than 20 yesterday. The victims of yesterday’s attacks reportedly included “grandmothers, mothers with their children,” and 7 year old girls.

Despite the ongoing assaults, however, women continue to participate in the Tahrir demonstrations, and to volunteer with the bodyguard groups patrolling to rescue women from sexual assaults. Three cheers for their bravery, which is an example to us all.

Dear Vice Magazine: How Could You Do This?

When I was sixteen, Iris Chang gave the graduation address at my high school, from which she had graduated the decade before. It remains, to this day, one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen.

Statue of Iris Chang at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial

I wish that I could find a video or transcript of the speech, because it is difficult to do justice to it without access to the text, but she exhorted us to resist the forces of cynicism and disappointment, and told us that we had the power to change the world, and somehow managed to make it seem more like a road map than a collection of graduation-day platitudes.

At the time, Iris was only thirty, but she had already published two books, including The Rape of Nanking, a meticulously-researched account of Japanese atrocities during their conquest of that city during World War II. At sixteen, I was not yet planning to go into the human rights field, but I remember watching her give that speech, and thinking that if I grew up to be someone like her, who did the things that she did, that would be something to be proud of.

Many times, since then, I have thought about her speech when I have felt tempted to be the kind of person who just gets on with life and doesn’t bother reaching for something better. At those times, I have remembered seeing her, up on that stage, telling a room of fascinated children that we would have moments when cynicism and surrender seemed like attractive options, but that she believed we would be strong enough to overcome them. And then I have decided that cynicism can wait for another day.

I am not the only one she affected that way. Author Paula Kamen once wrote in Salon about turning “Iris Chang” into a verb, meaning to think big. She encouraged her university students to “Iris Chang it”: “Just decide what you want and go get it. To the point of being naive.”

This isn’t a funny post, because six years after she gave that graduation speech, Iris Chang killed herself.

And then this week, for reasons beyond my understanding, Vice Magazine decided that the way to remember her, and the personal costs she bore in her attempts to stand in solidarity with the victims of horrific crimes, was to publish a photograph of a fashion model reenacting the scene of her suicide. Which was accompanied by a caption explaining where to buy the outfit the model was wearing. And which was part of a multi-page spread called “Last Words,” which also contained stylishly accessorized reenactments of the suicides of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sanmao, and Elise Cowen, and of one of Dorothy Parker’s unsuccessful suicide attempts.

Iris had a son, who was two years old when she died, and is only eleven now. She had a husband, and parents, all of whom are still alive. If seeing the photo was enough to make me burst into tears, I can only imagine how her family must have felt when they saw it. (I fervently hope that they did not). There is no question in my mind that Vice did her family a disservice when they decided to publish it.

But the magazine’s decision to publish this spread was also a disservice to its readers. Iris and the other writers depicted in the spread have expanded our world through their work, and made it a more interesting, vital, and just place. Vice could have depicted them in a way that honored that work, and encouraged their readers to seek it out, thereby making their own worlds bigger and more exciting. Instead, it depicted them as nothing but a group of high-gloss deaths, good for selling clothes and not much more. There was nothing about that photograph that would lead someone to, say, read Iris Chang’s Atlantic piece on the “Oskar Schindler of China.” How unfortunate that is. I cannot understand why anyone in the writing business would want to so undermine the value of extraordinary writing, but apparently Vice did.

Vice has removed the article from their website, and replaced it with an unimpressive apology of the “sorry you felt offended” variety. I hope that they will do more than that to make this right.

International Law for Dummies (and/or Former Heads of the IMF)

Good afternoon! Welcome to today’s installment of “LOL international law”

I’m sure that all of you have google alerts set up for “diplomatic immunity” just like I do, so you are probably aware that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, everyone’s second-favorite International Man of Mystery-and-Rape-Accusations, has recently moved to dismiss the civil suit filed by his alleged victim, on the grounds of diplomatic immunity.

Exhaustive searches of the internets have not revealed a copy of the motion itself, but according to the New York Times, Strauss-Kahn is making a rather novel argument: He claims that because he was managing director of the IMF at the time of the alleged assault, “he was entitled to the protections adopted in 1947 at the Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of Specialized Agencies.” Noting, correctly, that the United States is not actually a party to that Convention, his lawyers nevertheless claim that it is “applicable in American courts because it had been adopted under customary international law.”

Unfortunately, as DSK’s lawyers would know if they had taken my introductory international law class, there are a couple of teensy little problems with that argument.

As a primary matter, it’s not at all clear that the convention in question actually is part of customary international law (“CIL” to its friends). In a nutshell, customary international law is a form of international common law that is derived from the practices of states – if the majority of affected states consistently follow a rule out of a belief that is a legal obligation, then that rule can become part of customary international law. Sometimes treaties reach this status, but not that often. Whether this particular treaty has is somewhat debatable, but even if that’s the case, it may have been superseded in this country by the United States’s more specific agreement on the subject.

However, even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the Convention is part of CIL, DSK still has some issues. The Convention clearly states that the executive heads of specialized agencies are entitled to two separate types of immunity: (1) absolute immunity for all acts and communications performed in their official capacity, and (2) the immunities ordinarily afforded to diplomats under international law. Both types of immunity have their pros and cons. Category 1, functional immunity (fancy Latin term: immunity rationae materiae), is pretty rad because it’s permanent. If you do or say something in your capacity as head of the IMF – like, say, bailing out much of southern Europe – and people later get pissed off about that, then you’re protected. You can’t be sued or prosecuted for it, ever, even once you leave office. However, that kind of immunity is limited to official acts – think making speeches and arranging bail-outs, not your sex life. On the other hand, the second type of immunity, personal immunity (immunity rationae personae) is basically the reverse. It protects the diplomat from suits and prosecutions arising out of private acts as well as public ones, but it ceases as soon as the individual in question leaves the diplomatic post, or as soon as the immunity is waived by the sending organization or state. When that happens, the diplomat is no longer protected from lawsuits or prosecutions for acts that occurred during his diplomatic tenure – diplomatic immunity protects the office, not the individual. Thus, for DSK’s argument to fly, he’d have to show that his actions in that hotel room are covered by one of those two types of immunity.

I think he’s got an uphill battle with respect to category 1 (functional immunity). It’s pretty clear that he was in New York on personal business – lunch with his daughter. And even if he were in town for international monetary activities of some sort, sex with hotel maids – consensual or otherwise – is simply not in the IMF head’s job description. (Which, I imagine, comes as a relief to Christine Lagarde.) So the accusations in the civil case don’t arise out of activity that would be covered by official immunity. I just can’t see a way for DSK to win dismissal on that basis.

For category 2 (personal immunity), he has a different problem. If we assume that the Convention applies, then he was theoretically covered by personal immunity at the time of the alleged assault. That type of immunity does provide blanket protection from judicial process, even for acts done in a personal capacity. However, DSK resigned from his position on May 19, long before the civil suit was filed. When he did so, he lost his diplomatic immunity. That means that he’s now unprotected from suits in U.S. courts, even the suits arise out of acts that took place while he was still IMF head.

So, no: you can’t haz immunity.

(Photo credit: our Science Person Emily’s new kitten, Max. Hi Max!)

WTF Friday, 6/4/10

  • Hadley Freeman of the Guardian does a nice job lampooning certain media outlets for giving Madonna credit for the release of the Malawian couple mentioned here. After a lot of soul searching I am finally able to accept that this one isn’t satire. And still, as tinarussell pointed out to me, no one can seem to get it right that the couple is not two men, but a man and a transgender woman. A commenter and transgender activist named Natacha had to set Freeman straight.
  • Worst/Best sentence of the day: “A founder of the Irish Republic, Eamon de Valera, famously idealized Ireland 70 years ago as an innocent land of saints and scholars, whose villages were joyous with the laughter of happy maidens. If he came back today he would be shocked to find that a village in Ireland is just as likely to contain a brothel, populated by sex slaves from Africa.” (Via Feministing)
  • Three Namibian women are suing the state for allegedly sterilizing them without their knowledge them because they are HIV positive. “The women say the doctors and nurses should have informed them properly about what was happening.” I’d say so.

WTF Friday, 4/23/10

  • Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic change criticizes Robert Mugabe for inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Zimbabwe’s International Trade Fair: “It is no secret that Ahmadinejad has perforated human rights credentials. He has made his reputation as a war monger, a trampler of human rights, an executioner of those with dissenting voices and a leader of questionable legitimacy due to his controversial electoral victory in last year’s presidential election in June.” Yea, dude, I think that’s why he was invited.
  • Oh and speaking of things that are completely reasonable, here is senior Iranian cleric, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, droppin’ some knowledge: “Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.” Interesting. Can’t wait to see the regression on that one.

Things That Suck: The Manila City Ban

I’m pretty good about keeping tabs on viciously stupid domestic policies (all-time favorites include the anti-prostitution pledge and the merciless application of the material support bar to asylum) but I rely on experts in the field to keep me apprised of other countries’ bullshit legislation and executive orders. Recently, via a tip from the very wonderful Payal Shah at the Center for Reproductive Rights, former Mayor of Manila Jose “Lito” Atienza’s Executive Order 003 made it onto the list.

EO 003, which was issued in 2000 and remains in force, deprives women in Manila of access to contraception and family planning information. Although the order did not impose an outright ban, its call to “promot[e] the culture of life” by “discouraging the use of artificial methods of contraception” has resulted in an effective prohibition. Since its issuance, city clinics and hospitals have not provided contraception.

Unsurprisingly, the policy hits poor women, who cannot afford private healthcare, the hardest. In its 2007 report “Imposing Misery: The Impact of Manila’s Ban on Contraception” CRR chronicles the plight of impoverished women struggling to feed children they would have preferred not to conceive. As the aforementioned Payal and a colleague explain in their op-ed at today:

“For a woman who cannot afford contraceptives, the harsh effect of the ban is felt every day – when she is forced to limit the amount of rice she can provide for her children, when she is abused by her husband for declining sex to avoid pregnancy, or when she is forced to endanger her health with high-risk pregnancies that she could not prevent.”

But, the good news is that the Philippine legislature is currently considering a new Reproductive Health Bill. If enacted, the bill will overturn EO 003 and make it a prohibited act for a public official to “prohibit[] or restrict[] personally or through a subordinate the delivery of legal and medically-safe reproductive health care services, including family planning.”

Debate over the bill has stalled, amid allegations that it would legalize abortion. ABS-CBN reports that “the average number of Filipino women who die yearly due to childbirth and pregnancy complications has doubled in the last four years” with 3500 pregnancy-related deaths occurring in 2008 while lawmakers sat on the bill.

So, um, on the off chance that you have a Filipino Congressperson, you should call him or her and push for passage of this law. And if you doubt the necessity of the measures contained therein, consider watching this excellent BBC piece (I’ve included the first third from YouTube below) on the effects of the Manila City Ban: