NOT cool, Sudan

Sudan Radio Service reports that security forces invaded the home of Professor Mahdi Amin al-Toum last night and arrested him along with 8 other academics.

These arrests come amidst a month-long crackdown on media and civil society, following protests over the cessation of oil subsidies. Dozens of people have been killed in attacks on protesters, and hundreds have been arrested and detained.

The detained academics were meeting to discuss the present political crisis. Their number includes Abdel Mitaal Girshab, a dual UK citizen who directs the Center for the Training and Development of Civil Society, an organization whose aims include “promoting sustainable peace, expanding democracy and building a culture of constitutionalism and good governance.” All things, sadly, that Khartoum simply can’t abide.

In case it needs saying: This is a serious abuse of human rights. These individuals, along with the many others still detained after the wave of mass arrests, must be released immediately.

A Field Guide to the North American Responsibility Troll

I would like to thank Emily Yoffe for her article The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted, in which she spends more than 2,700 words explaining young women’s “responsibility” when it comes to preventing their own rapes. Not because I like it – it’s infuriating – but because it serves as a perfect example of a particularly insidious form of concern trolling. Let’s call this sub-species of troll, who criticizes women’s behavior in the guise of being concerned for their well-being, a “responsibility troll.”

The responsibility troll has a problem: he or she has a lot of thoughts about the way Women Ought to Behave, but knows that it’s socially unacceptable to insist directly on double standards for men and women. Luckily, however, our society is totally fine with restricting women’s lives if it’s for their own good (or, sometimes, for their children’s). Problem solved!

The responsibility troll won’t say that it’s not ladylike for women to drink the way men do – but she wants you to be aware that studies show that women who get drunk are more likely to get raped. The responsibility troll knows you think your right to choose is important, but he feels you ought to know that studies show that women who have abortions end up sad ladies who are full of regret. The responsibility troll doesn’t tell women that they should prioritize their babies over their careers – but does feel a need to point out that studies show that exclusive breast-feeding is best for the infant. Studies show, you know. The responsibility troll loves studies.

Responsibility trolls mimic the markings of genuinely helpful friends, so it can be difficult to distinguish them on first glance. However, if you know the signs, you’ll be able to easily spot these trolls in the wild.

1. It’s not your fault you do dumb things.  You can’t be expected to know any better.  (Because you’re dumb and the responsibility troll hasn’t told you what to do yet.)

The responsibility troll can rarely resist insulting the people he or she is supposedly trying to help. Emily Yoffe, for instance, refers to college women as “naïve” and “inexperienced,” repeatedly references their lack of “responsibility,” and suggests that they won’t know intoxication increases their vulnerability to sexual assault unless they are specifically trained on that subject – preferably via a program that includes older students describing the horror of their own assaults. Genuinely concerned friends won’t start from the assumption that you’re a moron, so if this happens to you, you’re probably dealing with a responsibility troll.

2. Double Standards = Double the Fun!

The responsibility troll loves double standards. Except, he or she will hasten to point out, they aren’t really double standards – it’s just that women should address woman problems, and men should address man problems. See? Fair!

Getting raped, for instance – that’s a woman problem if ever there was one. (You would never know, from listening to a responsibility troll, that men can be raped too.) That’s why Yoffe tells her daughter to remember that “it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself” from sexual assault.

Being falsely accused of rape, on the other hand, is a man problem.  Yoffe tells her hypothetical son that “it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate.” (No mention of anything the imaginary lad might do to prevent rape, such as intervening if he sees an acquaintance trying to take advantage of an inebriated woman. That would be asking a man to solve a woman problem, and therefore unjust.)  Personal responsibility!

3. It’s not that it’s your fault, it’s just that you have to take responsibility for your choices, and if you had made different choices, this would never have happened.

The responsibility troll can’t imagine any effective way to solve woman problems except via improvements in women’s behavior. It’s all about “personal responsibility,” remember? That’s why, to a responsibility troll, the victim’s intoxication is the most relevant part of this particular story:

“As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

That’s right: this perpetrator was apparently a known sexual predator. The rapes this man had committed in the past had not led to his ostracization from their social group, so he was still around, trolling for victims. This victim’s friends, who were sober enough to realize what was going on at the time and remember it later, failed to intervene when they saw this known rapist leading away their inebriated companion. And yet Yoffe focuses on the victim’s behavior. Personal responsibility!

To the responsibility troll, the solution is always more personal responsibility – preferably on the part of women. Later in her article, Yoffe spends several paragraphs bewailing the non-rape-related dangers that binge drinking poses to students of both sexes, but then brightly offers a solution: “If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest – and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle – I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.” (Emphasis mine, because of wow.) Apparently, it’s not even worth considering asking men to act differently until women’s behavior is perfect – at which point we should just cross our fingers that the runoff of from all that feminine rectitude will have magical dude-improving powers.

Readers attempting to spot a responsibility troll in the wild will do well to remember that no one who actually cares about you will suggest that you rely on “trickle-down” anything. Such statements are a sign that you’ve fallen into the clutches of either a responsibility troll, or a Reaganite Republican. Either way, it’s time to make your escape.

4. Pat Riarchy? Didn’t he play first base for the Yankees?

The responsibility troll is very, very uncomfortable examining any role that patriarchy, racism, or other such societal-level issues might play in the problem at hand – or the degree to which his or her trolling might be reinforcing those same harmful norms. The responsibility troll will make the obligatory references to societal obligations in order to defend herself against snarky bloggers like yours truly, but they’ll be tossed off in a cursory fashion, and usually followed immediately by the word “but.”

For instance: “[o]f course, perpetrators should be caught and punished. But when you are dealing with intoxication and sex, there are the built-in complications of incomplete memories and differing interpretations of intent and consent.”

“Built-in complications?” Wonder what those could be.

The source Yoffe cites – a guide to prosecuting alcohol-facilitate rape issued by the National District Attorneys’ Association – contains an extensive discussion of the ways in which social disapproval of women’s drinking makes it difficult to prosecute rapists. For instance, “jurors may view a voluntarily intoxicated victim with skepticism or dislike, and may assume that she put herself in danger with her behavior.” (Apparently responsibility trolls serve on juries, too.)

Articles like Yoffe’s bolster those harmful beliefs, but she doesn’t engage with them.  Instead, she compares the difficulties of prosecuting rape-by-intoxication cases – in which the victim’s intoxication must be proven – to the relative simplicity of prosecuting DUIs, in which the perpetrator’s drunkenness is at issue. By doing so, she manages not only to subtly equate being the victim of rape to being the perpetrator of a DUI, but also to completely miss the fact that her own source says that such judgmental attitudes are one of the reasons why alcohol-facilitated assaults are so difficult to prosecute in the first place.

5. Who cares about the facts? Personal responsibility!

The claims made by the study-spouting responsibility troll are often at some variance from the facts on the ground.  For instance, as Yoffe’s colleague Amanda Hess pointed out in her excellent response to Yoffe’s article, statistics suggest rates of rape and female binge drinking are actually negatively correlated with each other: the Justice Department’s national crime victimization study shows that there has been a precipitous fall in the number of rapes per capita since 1979, while rates of binge drinking among women spiked in the 1990s and have remained steady ever since.*  And it’s also quite odd that Yoffe responded to claims that a 14-year-old high school student was assaulted by her teenaged schoolmate by criticizing the choices of … college students?  It’s almost as if the responsibility troll is just looking for any excuse to make a trollish point.

All joking aside, though, this kind of thing does real harm.  It shames victims.  It supports norms that demand that women choose between their freedom and their safety.  And it distracts from strategies that might actually lower the incidence of sexual assault.  It needs to stop.

* The pedantic nerd in me notes that I have not examined the methodology of those two studies, and so can’t say if it’s reasonable to match their results against each other in this way.  That being said, I haven’t seen any evidence that the correlation goes the other way, as Yoffe seems to be claiming.

WTF Friday, 9/20/13

Today’s WTF Friday comes from Australia, courtesy of newly-elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who appears to be using “WTF” as a guiding political principle.

Abbott, the leader of the Liberal-National coalition, has caught some flack recently for appointing, as Minister for Women’s Affairs, an individual who:

  1. Questioned, during an interview about women’s under-representation in Australia’s political institutions, whether it was true that men had greater power than women, but then cheerfully added that even if it is true “that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?”
  2. Claimed that “[t]he problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience,” and called abortion “the easy way out” for “a pregnant 14-year-old struggling to grasp what’s happening.” Lest anyone think that he was supporting giving women an easy way out of a perilous situation, he went on to say that abortion was a “morally black and white” issue – in other words, a bad thing that should be opposed.
  3. Stated – while serving as Australia’s Minister for Health – that he would not have his three daughters vaccinated against cervical cancer unless the vaccine was added to the national immunization program. When pressed on the issue of why he would deny his children a vaccine that could prevent a life-threatening cancer, he responded that “maybe that’s because I’m a cruel, callow, callous, heartless bastard.”
  4. Claimed that “this idea that sex is kind of a woman’s right to absolutely withhold” needs to be “moderated, so to speak.”
  5. Said that he would tell his daughters that their virginity is “the greatest gift that you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving and don’t give it to someone lightly.”
  6. Appointed only one woman to his cabinet.
  7. Is Tony Abbott.

As a bonus, he also appointed a minister for aboriginal affairs who, in a discussion of aboriginal employment rates, seems to have advocated forcing them to pick up trash, whether they want to or not. Yup, you guessed it: Tony Abbott again.[Edit: Commenter Erin tells me that my sources on this were wrong, and Abbott is not handling Indigenous Affairs. Thanks Erin!]

I’ll leave the last word to Julia Gillard, though:

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?

WTF Friday, 8/9/2013

You know what worries me? When governments announce the restriction of certain groups’ access to public spaces, and justify it by saying that they’re preventing a scenario in which “[the dangerous minority in question] could meet our schoolchildren.”

In this instance, the dangerous minority is asylum seekers, and the government is Switzerland, which has historically been extremely generous to refugees.

The Swiss town of Bremgarten, which is the site of a new asylum seeker reception center, has designated 32 “exclusion zones” where the center’s residents will be forbidden to enter. Town officials told The Independent that “refugees would not be allowed to ‘loiter’ in school playgrounds and would be banned from visiting public swimming pools, playing fields and a church.” Also on the list: the public library, because god forbid scary refugees get their hands on any book learnin’.

The mayors of two other Swiss towns where additional centers will open have signaled their intentions to follow Bremgarten’s example, and ban asylum seekers from “sensitive areas.” (Again, like the library.)

Local and international human rights groups have denounced the rules as blatantly discriminatory, but the national government is backing Bremgarten. According to the head of the Swiss Federal Office of Migration, Mario Gattiker: “We need rules to ensure a peaceful and orderly coexistence of residents and asylum-seekers.”

These developments follow a referendum showing that nearly 80% of Swiss voters backed a new law limiting the availability of asylum.

Two thoughts on this:

(1) Bremgarten’s center, where the first asylum seekers moved in on Monday, can hold 150 people, and currently houses a handful of Tibetans and Sudanese, including one child. Not exactly a ravening Mongol horde, you know?

(2) Switzerland is way out in the international law weeds on this one. In addition to being hella racist (and therefore in violation of Switzerland’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD)), these measures are likely a violation of the asylum seekers’ freedom of movement, which can only be restricted under a limited set of circumstances, like when necessary to protect national security, public order, or public health. I’m just not sure preventing delicate Swiss schoolchildren from seeing a Sudanese man in the swimming pool counts.

And in case this bums you out as much as it does me, here’s a cat in a shark costume riding a Roomba. There’s also a duckling. You’re welcome.

Time for a Bechdel Test for African Characters? Some Thoughts on the Newsroom’s Very Special Africa Episode

The Newsroom went to Africa. It was not good.

In Sunday’s episode, “Unintended Consequences,” ACN sent a reporter named Maggie and a cameraman named Gary Cooper to Uganda to do a segment on the U.S. army building an orphanage there, because apparently that is news.

When she was done interviewing soldiers, Maggie relaxed with a visit to the orphanage’s classroom, in which children of all ages were having a “geography lesson” that consisted of reciting the names of continents when their teacher pointed to them on a map. Seems like geography to me! Then Gary Cooper came in with the camera and all the children screamed and hid under their desks, because they thought it was a gun. (could this be…FORESHADOWING?) See, cattle raiders were roaming them there hills, and the children were afeared.

A particularly adorable afeared child named Daniel – who, the show takes pains to tell us, has parents but has been sent to the orphanage temporarily to avoid cattle raider attacks, and so wasn’t even supposed to be there that day (IRONY) – bonded with Maggie by demanding that she read him him Lyle, Lyle Crocodile over and over again, and petting her hair. The teacher says that Daniel is fascinated by Maggie’s hair because he’s never seen a blonde person before, and that “blondes are trouble.” (OMG MORE FORESHADOWING.)

Through a series of mishaps that include Maggie not knowing where Djibouti is and not understanding that it is not light during nighttime, the ACN team was forced to spend the night at the orphanage. (Thanks again for those strong female characters, Aaron Sorkin.)

That night, obviously, cattle raiders attacked. At first everyone was like “hey, weird, this is an orphanage so we do not have any cattle.” But then it turned out that they were actually CAMERA raiders who wanted the ACN camera. Maggie didn’t know that because the raiders were yelling in a language that her fixer did not understand, and apparently none of the other people at the orphanage thought to bring it up. (Perhaps they were embarrassed to, because camera raiders are not a thing.)

So then everyone hustled to load the children onto what I assume was an AK-47-proof bus, but Daniel was missing! No one saw that coming at all. Daniel was hiding under a bed, with the Lyle book. OMG. Who will save him? The orphanage staff apparently hadn’t even noticed that they were short a Daniel, but never fear, American people are here! Maggie and Gary heroically tore the bed off the floor and dragged Daniel out from under it, then ran for the bus. Except that the raiders shot Daniel while Maggie was carrying him to the bus on her back, so he died from the bullet that was meant for her. MORE OF WHAT I ASSUME WAS INTENDED TO BE IRONY.

All of this is told through the framing device of a deposition, because, you see, the truly important thing about Daniel’s death was how it affected Maggie, and apparently in Sorkin world a deposition is a thing you use to evaluate someone’s emotional state after a traumatic event. We can tell that Maggie is totes messed up about what happened because she came home and gave herself a terrible haircut and tomato-red dye job. (Remember, blondes are trouble.) But she bravely soldiers on through the deposition with barely a wring of her hands because she is BRAVE (if rather bad at her job).

Africa has changed Maggie – changed her forever. You can tell by her hair.

Over at Slate, Willa Paskin suggests that we introduce the term “Lyle-ing” as an equivalent to “fridging” for storylines in which a black child’s death, instead of a woman’s, is used to instigate anguish and personal growth in a white main character. I think that’s a fine idea, but would suggest another addition: a Bechdel test for African characters.

The Bechdel test is a feminist movie evaluation tool introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. To pass the test, a movie must (1) have two or more female characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than a man. If a movie doesn’t pass the test, that’s a sign that it’s lacking in female characters, and/or just using them as emotional MacGuffins for the males around them. (Many, many movies do not pass this test.)

I think it’s about time for us to introduce an equivalent test for African characters: if a movie or TV show is set in Africa, then it should (1) have at least two African characters, (2) who talk to each other, (3) about a topic other than poverty, disease, or violent conflict.

“But, Amanda!” you say, “how would that even work? Everyone knows that on TV, Africa exists so that white people can go there thinking they will change things, but end up having Africa change them more than they ever imagined it could. What would Africans even talk about with each other? And where will the white characters get their life-changing epiphanies if they’re no longer allowed to save helpless innocents from some sort of horror or tragedy?”

I agree that it’s a tough challenge. Western audiences, trained on years of Carter-goes-to-Congo storylines, may be surprised to discover that people in “Africa” have problems other than those that ride in with one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. And screenwriters, long trained to think of Africa as a continent-sized arena for the battle of White Person vs. White Person’s Inner Demons, may initially have difficulty finding other uses for it. So, to get everyone started, here are some storylines that are guaranteed entertainment gold:

  1. Any Wedding Reality Show Ever: Nigeria Edition. After seeing Glenna Gordon’s amazing photo essay on Nigerian weddings, I feel legitimately betrayed by the reality TV industry’s failure to bring me any wedding shows involving mommy lace, little brides, or cash “spray.” Seriously, someone has to get on this.
  2. Arrested Development in Addis Ababa. According to NPR, Ethiopia is currently undergoing a construction boom so powerful that women are leaving traditional work as maids and nannies to join construction crews. Perhaps it’s time for the Bluth family to partner with a development firm run by a family of quirky Ethiopians to blow the McMansion market there wide open.
  3. Scandal: The Kigali Initiative. Olivia Pope & Associates get new client: a Rwandan diplomat who has been in secret talks about joining the opposition, and is afraid that the Kagame regime is about to have him killed. The gladiators in suits get to work, but it turns out that the plot runs deeper than anyone could have imagined, so they have to join with a team of Rwandan fixers to get to the bottom of it before it’s too late.
  4. Untitled Liberian Surfing Project. A ragtag group of Liberian surfing entrepreneurs decide that it’s time for Robertsport to host a major international surfing competition. Hijinks ensue.

Come on, entertainment industry: make it happen!

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.”

Continue reading

WTF Friday, 6/28/2013

And you thought Rick “the louder they scream, the more we know that we are getting something done” Perry was bad on women’s issues…

Sudanese MP Dafa’a Allah Hasab Al-Rasool is currently at odds with his fellow parliamentarians over his motion to ban women’s participation in athletics. When the rest of the subcomittee balked at including the motion in a report on the Youth and Sports Ministry, Dafa’a Allah told them “I made this motion to protect your daughters and wives.”

Because if there’s anything Sudanese women need protection from, it’s the dangers of exercise.

H/T: Stephanie Schwartz

Greetings from Guatemala!

Hola from the Land of Eternal Spring/Land of Eternal Shenanigans in Genocide Trials. That’s right – I’m in Guatemala.

Yesterday morning I went to observe the Rios Montt/Rodriguez Sanchez genocide trial. (Why, what do you do on your vacation?)

The highlights:

  • Rios Montt’s entrance. He shuffled into the room, looked around, and then walked over to the prosecution table and shook hands with each lawyer, one by one, before waving and blowing them a kiss. It was so bizarre that I still can’t quite believe I saw it, but I’m reasonably certain that I did. I was too far away to hear their conversation, but Xeni Jardin was closer, and she said that it was “mostly small talk.”
  • My successful achievement of a nearly 1/1 correlation between “hours spent on an airplane” to “minutes of trial observed.” After Judge Barrios called the hearing to order, she explained that Rios Montt’s attorney, Francisco Garcia Gudiel, had called her this morning to complain that he was suffering from “problemas de salud,” (health problems) and would therefore not be attending the hearing. Without him, it could not proceed. (The judge’s decision to temporarily eject Garcia Gudiel at the beginning of the trial has proven to be a problem for the tribunal. So, unsurprisingly, she seemed unwilling to take any risks, even though the lawyer’s sudden “illness” is highly suspect.) I think the whole thing took about six minutes, from “all rise” to the dismissal for the day.
  • The dress code: jeans and linen for the human rights lawyers. Suits for prosecutors and defense lawyers, and a couple of nervous-looking students in the audience. (I wore my usual NYC work clothes, which led to me being mistaken for one of the aforementioned nervous students. Oh well.) Spectacular traditional dress for the Ixil women, but button-downs and slacks for the Ixil men. And one extremely snappy red skirt suit for Judge Barrios.