Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Women and Terrorism

The BBC's World Program asked listeners to send in their definitions of a 'terrorist'. The answers were what one expected, ranging from the definition of a terrorist as someone who targets civilians to someone who is called George W. Bush. But one definition really stood out:"One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist."

These are men who define terrorism. Terrorism is something that might bring them freedom or terror. But for women? Granted, there are women terrorists, and women do experience the effects of terrorist activity as much as men do. But are there freedom fighters for women? Do terrorists ever work for women's causes?

I can't think of a single cause like that. The early British suffragettes came the closest, but even they stopped their violence at property or their own bodies. If freedom fighters ever fought for women, it was most likely in the sense that they fought for the right of previously oppressed men to have free access to their 'own' women or to bar other men from such access. Some women must have benefited from such movements, but this was not the intended effect.

Iraq is an interesting example. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraqi women first gained additional freedoms and rights. More women attended the university and there were women in his government. Later, some of these gains for women were sacrificed when Saddam courted the religious muslims and launched an islamization program. Yet women in Iraq are still more literate than in any other Arab country.

The liberation of Iraq may change this. The new freedom fighters there want an Islamic society. Some want obligatory veiling, and there are arguments about whether education is a good thing for women under Islam. The lawlessness makes going out into a major adventure for women, and there are news about kidnapping and rape. So who there is fighting for the women? Who really cares about the fact that women are the majority of the Iraqi population, with something like ten percent representation in the Provisional Council?

The answer is that very few people care about women. The status of women in Iraq is low, and determined by both traditional culture and certain ways of reading the Islamic law and the Koran. Who are outsiders to decide that things should be different for them? Yet outsiders decided that other things in Iraq were unacceptable, however much they, too, were based on tradition and religious precedent. Women just don't matter, very much.

Women don't matter awfully much in the greater terrorist wars, either. Their importance is as symbols: symbols of western decadence as the semi-naked women cavorting on our tv screens in the west, symbols of eastern backwardness as the totally shrouded shapes cowering in the corners of their hidden rooms in the east. Or as reversed symbols: the independent, self-confident western woman vs. the modest, pure eastern woman. Yet it's all about symbols.

In the wars of terrorism most real women are in the middle, in the mined no-man's land where they are possible victims for both sides. The war goes on over their heads and sometimes through their bodies. They are the ultimate definition of collateral damage.

Most women don't think this way, you might say. That's probably true. It's hard to get much constructive thinking going when the media bombard you with one false message after another, when daily life is enough to pull you down, when to realize that you ARE collateral damage would demolish your whole world view. So yes, most women don't think this way.

That's the unfair thing about being a goddess. We goddesses see through the smoke and fog and scraps of flying bombs right through to the truth. Sometimes.

Monday, November 17, 2003


Abstinence is the policy of the current U.S. government, when it comes to social ills such as Aids and teenage pregnancy. I think that it's a wonderful idea; it should be a lifelong vow for all its proponents. Maybe that way the U.S. would some day get a sensible government.

Don't get me wrong. I think that abstinence is a valid choice in sexuality, and it has many benefits. But it is a very difficult choice, and to imply that it isn't is cruel. Now, I wasn't much for abstinence as you may have noticed. My children (and what a bunch they are!) were fathered by all sorts of creatures. It was fun, on the whole.

And that's the problem with abstinence; you need to abstain from sex to achieve it, and sex is fun. Eating is also fun, and look at the size of the people in this country. "Just say no". Yessss, but... The spirit may be willing, yet the flesh is, as ever, weak.

History is a good teacher about the possibilities of abstinence in sex among the general population. Abstinence doesn't win very many contests here, I am afraid. People are created to be sexual creatures, and fighting that is fighting a basic instinct. At least the government should admit that this is true.

Children are too young for sex, in my divine opinion. They don't need it to complicate growing up, which is hard enough as it is. It's a good idea to encourage children and teenagers not to engage in sex too early. But to tell the vast populations of AIDs sufferers in Africa that abstinence is the best policy? To spend one third of the U.S. new funding on AIDS there on abstinence education? Or to try to make American schools stay silent about contraception? Whom do these policies benefit?

In some African countries it is believed that making love to a virgin can cure AIDS. In many African countries women have very little or no choice about whether to engage in sex or not. How can they be abstinent even if they wish to? In some Sub-Saharan countries the number of condoms in circulation is enough for one condom per man per year. Are all the men there going to have sex only once a year? I doubt it. I'm old and I have seen it all, but I have never seen abstinence work on any widespread scale.

And what about the teenagers who don't receive contraceptive information at school? What if they decide to have sex anyway? What if they have parents who believe in 'abstinence only' policies, too? What will happen to these children?

An interesting twist in the abstinence discussion is the return of the bridal gift thinking: the idea that a woman gives her virginity to her husband when she marries. She has saved it for him until then. It's not clear what he has saved for her, if anything.

In any case, the bride is supposed to say, on the wedding night:"Look, hon! See what I've got here! It's all unused and unopened, and all for you!" How nice. Especially as it stops any sexual comparisons of the groom with prior boyfriends and reinforces the idea that a woman's virginity is her most valuable attribute, yet not really hers. If I had a virginity to save, I'd save it for me, not any future beau I might glue my divine eye on.

If the 'abstinence only' policy wasn't so tragic in its likely consequences, it would be a rather fun spectacle to watch. We goddesses do get bored over the millennia, and at least these repeated human follies give us something to write about.

A postscript: It seems that the Bush administration applies the principle of abstinence to auditing the books of faith-based organizations receiving funds from the government, but lapses in this quite inexplicably when it comes to organization which advocate contraceptive education in addition to sexual abstinence.

On Social Critics

I think that I have finally found my dream career. For many years I grieved over the fact that since I was a goddess, they didn't also let me be the oracle of Delphi. (Oracles of Delphi were ancient Greek prophetesses who are famous for their nonergonomic work environment. This consisted of a cave to receive petitioners in, a tripod to sit on and noxious vapors to inhale.) The most imbecile utterances of an oracle used to be listened to with great reverence, but she still wasn't held responsible for the negative consequences of carrying them out in practice. She was always seen as right. This was the role I was born for, not the job of some lowly snake goddess.

Well, something almost as good as the oracle's job has been created in the last few years: the occupation of a cultural critic. Anybody can become one, or so it seems to me. A background in some of the social sciences might be desirable but doesn't seem to be a formal requirement. Knowledge of statistics is certainly not required. Neither are cultural critics held to the boring, limiting rules of "proper" research protocols. No need to worry about the difference between correlation and causation. No need to qualify any conclusions not based on empirical evidence. No need to avoid sweeping generalizations, naive simplifications and biased interpretations. What bliss!

This job was made for me. I can profess to the world all my pet peeves, and as long as there is smoke and vapors of pseudoscience the world will listen. I can take the word "culture" and make it a monolithic concept loaded with any adjectives I currently hate, and condemn vast groups of people with just a few well-framed sentences. I can choose any historical period I like, cut out the parts of it I dislike (say, petty wars) and remake the rest into a Rudyard Kipling "JustSo" story. And people will actually pay attention to me!

Why wasn't this job invented earlier, instead of the boring jobs of researchers? They could have avoided years of tedious study, analysis and mental discipline. More importantly, their academic writing would have immensely benefited from the freedom to dispense with the antiquated rules that all evidence should be considered and that alternative theories must not suppressed. And think of the stylistic improvements that would have been possible by being able to get rid of all those annoying little qualifiers: "some people", "sometimes", "one of the many reasons"...

Still, better late than never, both for me and the researchers. Cultural criticism, here I come! My tripod is on order, the noxious vapors are arriving by UPS next Monday and the cave facsimile in my study is nearly complete. All that is now missing are the adulators.