Category Archives: Gender

Women on Top

A week ago, Micah Zenko asked me to contribute to a blog post that would address the question “Women are significantly underrepresented in foreign policy and national security positions in government, academia, and think tanks. Why do you think this is the case?”

Turns out, that’s not an easy question to answer – the scope is broad, and the problem isn’t confined to this field. Women are underrepresented at the top in a lot of fields – economics, journalism, medicine, business, etc – which suggests there’s a cultural component to this. And indeed, a friend of mine is working on a psych PhD on why women aren’t seen as effective leaders. I’ve been after her to write about this for G&L, but it boils down to  the traits that Americans associate with being an effective leader are, broadly speaking, not the traits that we associate with women. If we don’t see women as effective leaders, why would we promote them to leadership roles?

But I think the problem for women starts much earlier, long before biases about women’s leadership potential kick in. I think the problem starts when women first enter the workforce (actually, it probably starts earlier than that, but I can’t solve the education system):

There’s a gap in the types of tasks women and men are assigned early in their careers. Intentionally or not, women tend to given more administrative or support work rather than policy or research work; path dependence takes over from there. I recall a prominent scholar regularly asking his female research assistant (RA) to pick up his dry cleaning and take his car to the shop—things he didn’t ask of male RAs.

So women writ large aren’t doing the right work to gain the knowledge, experiences, and networks necessary to move up. How to fix that? Employers, pay attention to what assignments you give your staff, both female and male. Your male interns need to learn to greet guests at events just as your female interns needs to learn to take meeting notes. Sure, the work needs to get done, but make sure you’re assigning work fairly. It should not be up to your female staff to decline assignments that aren’t appropriate.

Also at issue is mentorship and sponsorship:

Young women have trouble finding men willing to act in that capacity because there are few mechanisms to develop the rapport that underlies a good, productive mentoring relationship.  Conversely, men may be concerned about how a mentoring relationship will be perceived and shy away as a result. But mentors are vital for opening doors and offering suggestions and feedback about career choices—efforts that are particularly valuable in the foreign policy world.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to find some fantastic men to act as mentors, among them my co-bloggers Daveed, Jon, and Sky. They help me navigate the terror of writing publicly, they offer suggestions for managing my career and educational choices, and they tell me when I’m being too hard on myself or when I’m not trying hard enough. Their honest feedback and support has been invaluable.  Which is not to say we don’t also need female mentors – I don’t know where I’d be without Eve Sandberg, Stephanie Carvin, Erin Simpson, or Laura Seay – but in a field where the old boys’ network is still real, we need men too.

But where do young women find male mentors? That’s a problem I’m not sure how to solve, and I’d love to hear suggestions for how to overcome it, because I think this is a huge, huge deal. I found mine organically, through a year’s worth of inconsequential chatter and afternoons spent at happy hours that built into the rapport necessary for honest feedback. But I also initiated a lot of that contact, asking for help and insisting they pay attention to me, which is not something women generally feel comfortable doing, and which has the potential to aggravate wives and girlfriends (Amy, Bethany, and Julia – thank you for being awesome). So… let’s hear it. How do we bridge this gap?

All this is not to deny that women may also have some difficulty moving from the middle to the top of the national security and foreign policy world. There are real challenges to managing that transition as well, as Jolynn Shoemaker, Director of Women in International Security, highlights:

Work-Life Concerns: Inflexible schedules, unrelenting travel, and constant pressure to be in the office are common features of these jobs.  Many women are looking for opportunities to contribute meaningfully but also have more control over their personal lives.  They perceive that the foreign policy field is unaccommodating to flexible arrangements or detours from the traditional advancement track, and they feel pushed out.

Career Burn-Out:  Mid-level women point out that the 24-7 schedules and constant pressures are leading to more women opting out of leadership opportunities.  Whether they have families or not, younger women are re-examining the established definitions of success, and in some cases, concluding that the personal sacrifices are too high.

Lack of Sponsorship:  Women recognize that they need “sponsors” –powerful advocates who will open doors for them – but that male colleagues are benefiting much more from this support.  Women also point to an underlying sense of competition, ineffectual mentoring approaches, generational divides, and different views on work-life balance as obstacles to building these relationships with senior-level women.

So yeah. I highly recommend you read the entire post, then spend 10 minutes thinking about what you can do to help your female staff or friends or Twitterbuddies to advance in their careers. Then go do it. Invite somebody to lunch, or ask them to help with a research project, or whatever. Or stay home with your kids and let your wife go to her office happy hour. This is partly a numbers game, and the more women with the experience, knowledge , and networks necessary to get to the top, the better off we’ll all be.


Apropos of nothing except that this is a pink-but-not-sickly-sweet drink, here’s my new favorite cocktail (courtesy of Drinksnob). Happy International Women’s Day, everybody!

Blood and Sand

1 oz Scotch (I used Tomatin 12 – no call to go too high-end here)

1 oz blood orange juice

3/4 oz cherry brandy (I used bourbon that had had cherries soaking in it for a few months, but Cherry Heering is fine)

3/4 oz sweet vermouth

Turn off Twitter. Shake everything over ice. Strain into glass. Be happy.

Posted in Careerism, Cocktails, Gender | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Women in combat: efficiencies, standards, expectations, perceptions, discourse

I posted a piece on Saturday about some of the issues around women in combat. It has drawn quite a lively response, both in support of and opposition to my arguments. I know that post barely touched on the myriad real-world logistics and complications, foreseen and unforeseen, that would come with implementation of a full integration of women into all military MOS’s. One of these issues was brought up by commenter BK:

But let’s talk about efficiencies… Is it efficient to have to to secure separate facilities for a handful of women in an environment that is completely dominated by males? This is the reverse of racially integrating the services. At that time, we had twice as many barracks and latrines as we needed because they had to be divided by race. By integrating the services we reduced the physical footprint of the military. It made sense. Effectiveness was difficult at first (there were race riots and lynching) but eventually the culture adapted and from a physical/mental stand point there was no discernible difference. Efficiency was IMPROVED by integrating the services and therefore, it was a win-win situation for the military.

Such is not the case for introducing women into combat units. Again, I think the culture will likely adapt, as it did after integration, but it will be painful in the short term and in today’s media environment considerably more well known than the problems of racial integration. (Consider the gender equivalent of racially motivated lynching…and no, I don’t have enough faith in the young Soldier fresh off the street and fueled by alcohol to expect that he will behave appropriately.) But eventually, this will all die down. (Just as racism and racially based attacks still occur in the US military, such things would still occur to women in the future, just not at the scale of the initial levels.) But…and here’s the kicker, I now need to expand my infantry basing requirements to include separate facilities for women, and that makes the force less efficient.

Aha! You say. Well, let’s just go the way of “Starship Troopers” and make everything unisex! Women and men can shower together. They can bunk together (in the same open bay, not in the same bed…at least, not officially). Problem solved. But, you gotta convince the wives and girlfiends this is a good idea (we eventually got their consent for missile silos and subs) and you have accept the abuses that are going to occur.

The facilities issue is just the sort of sticky thing we will have to contend with if and when women are allowed into all MOS’s. And my reference would have been Battlestar Galactica because I never miss an opportunity to reference Starbuck or Helo, but ideally we would have a gender-neutral system with shared facilities all around; however, I’m under no illusions about what a challenge this idea would present right now. It would be a hard thing to ask of any woman, considering the military’s serious sexual assault problem. I don’t doubt that making this kind of arrangement work requires a sea change in thinking.

Related to the issues BK broached, I had a conversation with a friend last night who asked me to square for him what seemed like disparate viewpoints: the desire for equality of opportunity for women on the one hand, and the special measures being undertaken by the military currently in an attempt to curb sexual assaults on women. I told him I did not see these as conflicting, not considering sexual assault prevention as special treatment but rather as an attempt to provide a reasonable baseline for a safe workplace. Both men and women deserve to be able to go to work without fear of being raped or otherwise attacked, and while even more underreported among men, this is a problem for both genders.

In the course of our conversation, he rightly stated that the way the sexual assault issue is framed is wrong – as being about men attacking women rather than simply about perpetrators and victims – and contributes to stereotypes about women being soft and weak, and men being tough and brutal.

I’ve been thinking about this and the issues brought up in the comments, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that the issue of sexual assault and the inequality issues I touched on in my Saturday post and its comment thread can be seen as symptoms of the same larger issue, a very basic mode of thinking that needs to change, specifically that woman are ‘other.’ Women are being viewed as an alien presence being forced upon military units. I don’t believe that everyone sees things this way, but I do believe that a good many people do. I suspect that we would find significantly fewer sexual assaults in units that foster a sense of camaraderie that includes everyone, regardless of gender. If the women in a unit are truly embraced as part of the unit, then it is not such a stretch to consider gender-neutral facilities and combat MOS’s.

The framing that my friend was referring to keeps women separate, and that is where it goes wrong. Sexual assault prevention is not about protecting women from men, it’s about protecting people from criminals. Sexual assault is not OK no matter who is committing it and no matter whom it is being committed against. I further reject BK’s argument – an argument that is quite common, I would add – that says essentially that men can’t be expected to not rape women in certain circumstances. This attitude not only takes agency and personal responsibility away from men, but represents a dangerous complacency with criminal behavior. [Update: please read the comments below. BK has responded to indicate that I misunderstood the original argument, and to clarify what was actually meant].

A more useful approach would be to work to change the culture that frames women and men as separate creatures in need of separate rules; and to straight-up expect more from people. If we treat rape as an inevitability and an expectation, we foster a culture where it’s seen as something verging on acceptable. Until we make these changes in our individual and institutional attitudes, inequality and sexual assault will both continue to be problems.

I’ll be the first to admit that this requires an enormous culture change, an alteration of deeply ingrained beliefs, cherished ideas, chronic complacency, and low expectations. It might seem idealistic, and I’ll cop to it: in some ways, I’m an idealist. I’m not blind to the enormous practical challenges and personal and logistical trials of such an undertaking. But I do believe in asking more of people, in holding people to a higher standard; and I believe that while we may never reach any ideal, if we don’t even bother to conceive of one, then what’s the point? I won’t accept inequality – or a rape epidemic – because the problem is too large or institutionalized or intractable, or because fixing it is too hard or painful or uncomfortable. We need ideals to weigh the right and wrong of our choices against. We have to want something better.

I’m not all starry eyes and pies in the sky though. It is a fact that the slow but steady arc of change has been toward allowing women into more and more roles in our military, so that it seems to be only a matter of time before all paths are open to women. I know that we need more than just high expectations and speeches about equality; we need consistent and serious consequences for sexual assault, and a sober assessment of standards and leadership. (See Jason Fritz over at Ink Spots, whose last couple of posts on this have been really giving me food for thought, on this subject. And I think a reassessment of leadership priorities is a good idea in general, not just because of gender issues). I think we are doing ourselves a disservice if we aren’t considering the future, and thinking about the best way of getting there and what changes we can make now that might ease later transitions.

One final confession: I’m still thinking all of this through. I considered not posting this, but I don’t learn nearly as much if I’m not participating in the conversation. I think public discourse is important in a general sense, and on a personal level, I appreciate all the comments, from those who agree with me and those who don’t. I’m happy to have people point out the angles I’m missing, or help me to flesh out ideas through debate or dialogue. So let’s keep talking.

Posted in Gender, Military | 12 Comments

Women in combat: just because we don’t like the issues people have with it doesn’t mean they’re not real

I grew up: fully convinced that I was inferior to no one; assuming that anything I wanted to achieve was possible; and blissfully unaware that the world outside did not always reflect these beliefs, that inequality lingered everywhere, and that many people had ideas about superiority and inferiority, and what other people could and couldn’t do. Before Operation Desert Storm, it never crossed my mind that women were not allowed to serve in combat, and when I found out, I thought it was incredibly stupid. If women wanted to serve their country, to risk their lives in tribute to that service, why on earth would they not be allowed to? Why should men have to bear that alone? It was hard for me to wrap my mind around it.

More than two decades after I first considered it, the issue of ‘women in combat’ still stirs up a lot of emotions in people, specifically the emotions that make people defensive. I could say this about many, many issues, but getting defensive is not productive here. Nor is name-calling or jumping to extreme conclusions. I think that those who oppose allowing women the same opportunities as men are wrong, but we need to be able to realistically face and discuss the legitimate questions and concerns around it. I think it is possible to acknowledge that these issues are real without allowing them to dictate our decisions.

The latest round of discussion was kicked off this week when the Pentagon, having wrapped up a nearly yearlong review of the issue ordered by Congress, announced the easing of some of the restrictions on women serving in combat roles. To a large degree, this change simply formalizes what has been a reality for some time. Women can now be formally assigned to battalions in certain roles where previously they would have been in those same roles but ‘attached’ temporarily. Women are still not permitted to hold certain MOS’s, including infantry (or: what most people think of when they think of troops in combat). Many see this as one small step toward the inevitable result of women being permitted to serve in any role in the military.

Here’s the part where I defend Andrew Exum (probably not surprising since I like and respect Ex) and…(probably not someone I’m likely to find myself defending very often) Rick Santorum? Yes, Rick Santorum, too.*

Santorum was asked for his thoughts on the loosened restrictions. Here’s what he said:

In the immediate aftermath of these comments, there was a general uproar as people understood Santorum to be arguing that women are too emotional to handle combat. There were some good reasons for thinking this: 1) We have all heard that tired old sexist excuse before, on this very issue, among others; and 2) Santorum did not do a very good job of saying what he was trying to say. See, that’s not actually what he meant. [I'm making no judgment here on whether or not Santorum is generally sexist, just addressing this particular statement].

Santorum made two points and, like it or not, they are both legitimate concerns. First, what he meant when he spoke of the emotional challenges of having women in combat was something like men’s protectiveness toward women. Second, in the follow-up interview, he also mentioned the average difference in physical abilities that exists between men and women. I’m stating this up front: I don’t think either of those is actually a reason to deny women the opportunity to pursue, e.g., a career in the infantry, or in a tank crew. I do think both points are worth unpacking a little.

Some men would have a harder time seeing women hurt or threatened in combat than other men. This is hard to refute. It’s ‘women and children first,’ or chivalry, or manners; or on the flip side, it’s condescension, or infantilization, or minimization. Whether it comes from a place of honor or a place of diminution, and whatever you want to call it, there’s no denying this could be an issue for some men. That being said, so what? It is incumbent on those men to be grown-ups, to be professionals, and to get over it and do their jobs. People adapt. Men will see women in different roles more often, they will become accustomed to it, the culture will change. The more common it is, the more normal it will become and the less of a potential issue it will be. In the meantime, we can rely on training and professionalism to carry people through.

As to the second point, the plain truth is that on average, men are bigger, faster, and stronger than women. It’s biology. This is not to say that all men are bigger and stronger and faster than all women – that is clearly not the case – but the average woman when compared to the average man will have more limited physical abilities. Plenty of people have expressed concern about women’s ability to meet the physical standards required to serve in a MOS like infantry. This issue, too, is quite simple to address: if they don’t meet the standards, they don’t get in. This shouldn’t be about getting a 50/50 breakdown of men and women in your infantry platoon; it should just be about women having the same opportunity to be a part of that platoon as a man. This might well mean that only a minuscule number of women will make it to the front lines in these roles. So be it. The standards should be maintained at a level that prioritizes the maximum safety and effectiveness of the unit. Maybe there aren’t many women who would have both the desire and the ability to serve in this capacity, but those who have the desire should certainly have the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not they have the ability.

There are any number of other details and questions around this issue that are worth discussing (the career advancement issue that partly informs this debate, for one), and perhaps I will come back to some of them in a later post, but in the interest of keeping to the discussion of the day, I will leave off here. Granting women the opportunity to take on any and all ‘combat roles’ will require something of a culture shift, but it is really just part of a larger cultural shift that has been ongoing in society for decades. I think it likely that it will happen, and I don’t doubt that it will continue to be contentious until it does, but in the meantime, it doesn’t make for useful discourse when supporters of equality pretend that all of the questions, customs, and attitudes of opponents don’t exist, or dismiss them outright, any more than it helps when opponents resort to rank sexism or condescension to try and make their case. Here’s hoping that public debate of this issue will continue, and that it will be more civil than not.


*It should be noted that Santorum made these points as part of an argument against women in combat, while Ex has repeatedly stated that he favors equal opportunity.

Posted in Gender, Military | Tagged | 64 Comments

Rape Is Not An Inevitability of War

Does your Wednesday needs some sobering research on rape as a tool of war? Well! The Women Under Siege Project launched today. I’m proud to have contributed some research on the Libyan conflict to this incredibly important endeavor, and I’d highly recommend you take some time to browse the site. Women Under Siege looks at the use of sexualized violence* in a range of conflicts in order to understand the commonalities and the prevalence – and it is horribly, horribly prevalent.

The employment of sexualized violence in conflict is often a choice and an explicitly or implicitly endorsed policy, not just a random crime. It is used intentionally to punish families and communities, not just individual women. And I mean, nobody’s laboring under some delusion that war’s suddenly going to get safer for women and children because we did some research. I get that bad things happen in war, but the intentionality is what gets me, and why I think this project is so important. Without attention, without outrage, without documentation, decisionmakers in conflict situations will continue to think they can get away with using rape as though it’s a legitimate use of force under the laws of war.

And I’ll be honest – I really struggled with the whole “what’s the point?” of this project. It feels Sisyphean – stopping sexualized violence in war? Really? But Gloria Steinem puts it in context in a Q&A:

LW: Does your work in the women’s movement give you encouragement that we can make headway on sexualized violence in conflict?

GS: Yes, absolutely. In my lifetime, we’ve shown that rape is not sex but violence, and changed the laws that required a virginal victim and a bystander willing to testify. In my high school, boys used to say there was no such thing as rape, that “you can’t thread a needle unless the needle holds still.” They’re not saying that anymore. Actually, I get letters from men in prison who really understand rape because, in the absence of women, they’ve been used as women. Sexualized violence, in and out of conflict, has been named and punishments codified. Now we have to get this off paper and into life.

LW: Do you think it’s ever possible to bring these atrocities to an end or at least significantly curb them?

GS: Yes, I do. To say otherwise would be to excuse them as human nature. We know there have been societies in which such crimes were rare or absent; they are not human nature. And even if they were, the most significant characteristic of humans—the one that allows our species to survive—is that we’re adaptable. Violence in the home normalizes violence in the street and in foreign policy. Because we genderize the study of childrearing as “feminine” and the study of conflict and foreign policy as “masculine,” we rarely see that the first causes the second. Of course, the goal is to stop war altogether. If we raised even one generation of children without violence and shaming, we have no idea what might be possible. But at least we can limit war to those who want to fight it.

So read. Be outraged. Be horrified. Don’t think it’s somebody else’s problem and it doesn’t affect you. Your silence makes it worse.

* I feel like I need to get into definitions here, but at minimum, we’re all clear that rape/sexual assault is about violence and control and really has nothing to do with sex, right? I use the term “sexualized violence” because that’s what Gloria Steinem uses. She explains why in the above-referenced Q&A.

Posted in Gender, War | Tagged , , | Comments Off

Courtney Messerschmidt Is Just a Beer Commercial

In case you missed it, ding dong Great Satan’s Girlfriend is… well, not dead, but outed. If you missed the brouhaha, here and here and here. Good timing, too, because after she linked to Caitlin’s excellent post about women in IR/FP/natsec and had the temerity to stick some random co-eds on top, I had just about had it with people holding her up as some vanguard for women in the field. The character of Courtney Messerschmidt was not some paragon of womankind; she was a pernicious element that can’t go away soon enough for my tastes.

To be clear, I’m not objecting to her ideas (what few I could glean through her mangling of the English language). I don’t agree with neoconservatism, but I do support free speech and freedom of conscience.  Had she simply spouted gibberish without the photographic accompaniment, I wouldn’t have had quite as much of a problem.

No, I’m primarily outraged by her claim to be promoting women when she was very clearly doing the opposite. Not to go all Sociology 101 on you, but her choice of images belied her commitment to promoting women’s participation in these traditionally male-dominated fields. Her photos were generally of rumpled, possibly drunk, teen/20-something girls, often suggestively dressed, posing for the straight male gaze. Sometimes there was a militant element, but just as often these girls are in their Victoria Secret PINK best in a dorm room. This is what women in foreign policy are supposed to look like?

And I get that it’s a marketing ploy. It’s the same basic premise as a beer commercial – men like looking at women, men feel entitled to look at women, men pay more attention when women are half-dressed, and somebody somewhere benefits (though rarely the women being looked at). In the case of beer, the company makes sales, because men are the primary purchasers of beer. In the case of Courtney, she gets attention in a crowded marketplace of ideas, because men still dominate the field.

But unlike in the beer scenario, women were actively harmed by the Courtney character*. Courtney is a prime example of a patriarchal bargain at work. By sexualizing her intellectual output to draw in (male) readers, she was participating in a system in which women as a whole are disadvantaged in exchange for her personal gain. Once inside the in-crowd, she made noises about girl power without doing anything to dismantle the system that holds up the male view as the only one that matters. All gender is performance, but her performance of a specific form of femininity and the resultant attention she got for it disadvantages women who aren’t willing to take their clothes off to be heard. Most smart women realize that men will pay attention to you if they’re sexually attracted to you, but that that doesn’t equate to respect for your ideas. So most smart women keep their clothes on and struggle to be heard above the din in the normal ways.

Look, it’s not easy being pretty, young, and/or female in this field. I’m not claiming to be the second coming of Liz Taylor here, but I frequently question whether I’m being taken seriously because I’m talking sense or because I’m cute and charming. Are you reading this because I’ve got a great rack? Is my writing being promoted because I’m female, and therefore need that extra boost because well hey she’s trying but she’s just a girl, or because I’m legitimately good at this? I don’t want to be thought of as good for a girl; I want to be thought of as good period full stop. I don’t want to do better than I otherwise would strictly because I’ve got two X chromosomes.

If I were feeling charitable, I’d feel sorry for the real Courtney, tucked somewhere in this collective. She’s made some bad choices, dropping out of college, et al, and this probably seemed a good way to get some attention. But y’know, I’m just not feeling charitable. We’ve all had to fight to get where we are. There’s an older generation of women who had to fight more. To cheat your way past the real work of establishing yourself and building your legitimacy through the objectification of young women… nope. No charity. There is a level of self-centeredness and willful perniciousness on display in this little collective that takes my breath away.

I imagine there will be no consequences for her. I expect that she/they will still write for Wings Over Iraq and Line of Departure – free content posted constantly is hard to pass up – and I expect Tom Ricks will continue to venerate her as the voice of an up-and-coming generation. I also expect she/they will continue attaching photos of sexy ladies to titillate a male audience, who are clearly the only people who anybody would want to write for anyway [/sarcasm], because they don’t understand how harmful that is to the real women out there. So, y’know, thanks, Courtney. Thanks, anybody who publishes those photos. Thanks for continuing to legitimate the objectification of women. If you’re the future of foreign policy and national security, I want nothing to do with it.

* There’s an argument to be made that beer advertisements also harm women; see here, here, and here. Basically, read Sociological Images. It’s the best blog out there hands down.

Posted in Gender, Metablogging | 20 Comments

Setting the bar low in Saudi

A lot of people have reacted to the recent campaign by some women in Saudi Arabia to gain the legal right to drive with 1) a sort of affronted surprise that women are not already allowed to drive there; and 2) a strong burst of support/a petition/a tweet of solidarity/a letter to their Congressperson/the Secretary of State. All can think every time I read a story about the Women2Drive campaign is ‘Wow. The bar is just so, so low for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.’

Let’s look at a small sampling of the issues that are making headlines and sparking debates as regards various countries in the Middle East and North Africa lately.

Egypt: the role of the army, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, the new constitution, the survival of the revolution, the absence of international observers in the planned elections.

Libya: NATO’s intervention: its appropriateness, its efficacy; the Libyan rebels: who they are, what a government run by them would look like, whether or not they are any better than the current regime, whether or not the West should be arming them.

Syria:  human rights violations – torture, kidnappings, mass killings, government crackdowns, refugees, sectarian divisions, burgeoning civil war.

Yemen: lawlessness, tribal divisions, terrorism, AQAP, semi-covert U.S. intervention, power struggles, whether or not Saleh will return and what that return would mean.

Bahrain: human rights, torture, military tribunals, sectarian divisions, the validity/seriousness of reform talks, Saudi intervention, whether or not the Shia populace is being oppressed by the Sunni regime.

Lebanon:  Hizballah’s role in the government and society, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s indictments in the murder of Rafik Hariri.

Tunisia: wait, we talk about Tunisia? Oh right, they had one of those revolution-type things, too…

The point is that however far from universal rights and democracy each of these countries might be, the discussion about each of them is about issues of democratization, human rights, sectarian balance, political participation, freedom – in other word, serious business. Here is what a similar survey of stories and debates on Saudi Arabia from recent months would look like:

Saudi Arabia: women fighting for the right to drive a car.

This, I think, is excellent news for the Saudi regime.

I want to be clear: I support the goals of the Women2Drive movement. I absolutely think that the women of Saudi Arabia should be legally permitted  to drive a car. However, I also think that it is greatly to the benefit of the Saudi monarchy that this is the issue getting the world’s attention, because this is utterly inconsequential in the grand scale of women’s rights, and human rights in general. At least some of the women who are fighting for the right to drive understand it in a larger context. Manal al-Sharif, one of the organizers of the campaign and the woman whose imprisonment for driving brought international attention to the movement this past May, said “[driving] is one of our smallest rights. If we fight, we can build women who trust themselves, have belief to get the bigger rights we are fighting for.” She clearly sees this as the first small step toward a larger goal, and coming from a position of such immense inequality, there is a pragmatism to seeking the goal of equal rights one step at a time. However, it’s important to remember that it is just that: one small step.

To an American, to a Westerner, to almost anyone, it sounds like such a basic and obvious thing: of course women should be allowed to drive. Of course we should support this movement. When Ms. al-Sharif’s situation drew such attention this past Spring, it led to a large petition, an open letter from several U.S. Congresswomen, and a public statement of support from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This is all well and good, but I think it’s important to remember it’s just one piece of a larger issue. Saudi Arabian society has some of the most acute gender inequality in the world, not to mention a strict official religious interpretation that inspires discrimination to the point of oppression, an almost total absence of the rule of law, and a dangerous lack of guarantees of basic human rights.

Women are not legally permitted to drive. They are also forbidden from traveling without a male chaperone, from working in many industries, from interacting with men outside their own families, from appearing outside their homes in anything less than head-to-toe cover. They only have a say in whom they marry if their father/male relatives allow them to. Women’s voices mean little in court: it takes two women to equal the legal weight of the testimony of one man, and generally a woman needs a male relative to speak on her behalf in court anyway. Sexual violence against women, when prosecuted at all, is often found to be the fault of the woman, no matter what the evidence presented. Saudi Arabia is a true monarchy. There is no parliament, merely a shura council, the members of which are appointed by the king and dependent on him for what power they possess. The only publicly elected offices are on municipal councils. They wield very little power, and women are not eligible to run. Women also, needless to say, do not have the vote.

It is not just women’s freedoms that are restricted in Saudi Arabia. The religious police can arrest people with impunity, and there is little recourse for individuals who do not come from influential families. There is no rule of law. In fact, there is very little in the way of legal codes. The justice system operates primarily on uncodified sharia law with no judicial precedent, and regulations set by royal decree. This leaves cases open to the interpretation of the individual judges, although the government has spoken of codifying its interpretations of sharia law over the last couple of years.

Religious freedom is strictly curtailed. There are no churches in the whole country, for example, and most of the spectrum of Islam is barely tolerated, if at all. Wahhabi religious leaders regularly impugn Shiism, some going so far as to denounce Shia as apostate. There is a very small Shia population in Medina, the members of which keep their sectarian identity so quiet as to be almost hidden. The majority of Saudi Arabia’s Shia communities are in the eastern part of the country, in the land of vast oil fields, and their occasional expressions of protest or dissent have been met with harsh crackdowns. There is little doubt that it is with an uncomfortable eye on their own Shia population that Saudi Arabia has sent troops and arms to the Bahraini regime in recent months.

In the last week, the substance of a new anti-terror law was leaked to Amnesty International. While Saudi spokesmen have condemned the leak and stated that the law is strictly intended for use against terrorists, critics have pointed its potential applicability to crushing internal dissent. The law expands the definition of terrorism to include ‘harming the reputation of the state’ and allows prisoners to be held without contact for up to 120 days, and sometimes longer. It also includes harsh penalties for a variety of acts, including a minimum of ten years in prison for ‘questioning the integrity of Saudi Arabia’s rulers.’ While a number of these measures would be nothing new in the country’s judicial system, this would codify what Amnesty is referring to as “massive human rights violations.”

All this is a long-winded way of saying that the battle over women driving is one the Saudi regime can afford to lose, and certainly one it can afford to have making headlines. Simply put, with the bar so low that women gaining the right to drive would represent a great victory for rights in the kingdom, we are a long way from calling for comprehensive human rights reform there, and that’s just the way they want it. Support Women2Drive, yes, but also strive to maintain perspective. If women gain the right to drive, it will be a victory, but a small one and by no means should it be seen as the end of the conversation. In a country where women have been imprisoned for being raped and peaceful Shia protesters have vanished into state custody with barely a whisper, it’s worth questioning whether we’re discussing women’s right to drive in spite of the wishes of the Saudi establishment or because that establishment has decided that it’s worth allowing public airing of this inconsequential issue in order to avoid public address of more substantive and uncomfortable ones.

Posted in Gender | Tagged | 1 Comment

Can We Stop Acting Like “Feminine” Is A Dirty Word?

This post was co-authored and morally supported by Lauren Jenkins.

Today’s post was going to be about CJ Chivers’ great book talk at Politics and Prose last night, but instead we’re talkin’ gender and language (ooh, bet you didn’t see that one coming!). Our hackles are up, and unsurprisingly, we’re feeling sassy about it.

Some quick background: Bryan Fischer, head honcho of government affairs (read: lobbyist) for the American Family Association, wrote some crap about how the Medal of Honor has been wussified because it’s now awarded for the saving of lives, not for the mass destruction of enemy forces. Of course, he couches this call for death in a whole lot of holy rollin’ later on. Jesus was all about the killin’, apparently – maybe we just have different versions of the New Testament? Anyway! In Mr. Fischer’s words:

But I have noticed a disturbing trend in the awarding of these medals, which few others seem to have recognized.

We have feminized the Medal of Honor.

So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?

I would suggest our culture has become so feminized that we have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery. We know instinctively that we should honor courage, but shy away from honoring courage if it results in the taking of life rather than in just the saving of life. So we find it safe to honor those who throw themselves on a grenade to save their buddies.


How horrible. How weak and girly of us. It’s crucial that we prove how stereotypically manly we are as a country by putting as many bodies on the ground as possible. Isn’t that why we’re at war?


Huh. Okay then. Moving along.

Adam Weinstein makes the excellent counter-argument of “Way to be a Christian, you hypocrite” (we paraphrase). Ink Spots’ Gulliver goes in for a clinical dissection of what heroism is in the modern military. Both make salient points, and they’re both worth reading on this – especially Adam and his poignant shout-out to his battle-buddy, Baskin-Robbins.

But let’s get back to the language used here, which falls under the rubric of “women, and everything to do with them, are inferior.” According to Fischer, “feminizing” the Medal of Honor is So Not Okay.

Too often, this is the subtext of modern discourse (see: here, here, pretty much the entirety of here). Frequently it’s so subtle that it goes unnoticed, but this is a particularly egregious example, done consciously and with the full intent of denigrating women (which Adam points out). Implying that the “feminization” of anything is by default a negative is Really Not Okay.

Fischer uses “feminized” to stand in for what he really means to say: we, as a nation, have lost a Jesus-like willingness to spill our enemies’ blood. Basically, Fischer is just asking for a fragging if he ever comes across either of us playing Call of Duty: Black Ops.

We’ve become weak. Er, “feminine.” We’re all clear that that’s what he’s implying here, right? Because that should make the answers to these next question obvious: Is it “weak” or “feminine” to protect life instead of (or in addition to) taking life? Does weakness have anything to do with gender?

Did you answer “no” and “no”? Congratulations, you’re smarter than Mr. Fischer! If there is a trend here, it has more to do with changing societal norms about how we prosecute wars and exactly nothing to do with anything intrinsic to being a woman. Or a man, for that matter.

Women are not weak. Being female is not an insult. Being female is not incompatible with heroism, duty, and honor. Setting aside the question of whether preserving life is of higher value than taking life, Mr. Fischer sets up a false dichotomy between men and women, implying that preserving life is strictly in the feminine domain, and therefore an unacceptable action for a man. He would prefer to see men engage in the approved-for-men-only action of killing, and to be awarded medals for destruction. It’s patently ridiculous to say that both men and women are incapable of taking life – or of preserving it – when needed. These are not gendered actions, nor should they be. It’s 2010. Let’s move on as a species, and stop pretending men and women are from different planets. Let’s stop using “feminine” as a dirty word.

We are, of course, happy to discuss further, either here in the comments or on Twitter (@dianawueger & @laurenist). However, we’d like to direct your attention to this comic first. Then you may feel free to suggest we make you some sandwiches, at which point we’ll give you a phone number for some great Thai take-out. The end.

Posted in Gender, Military | 1 Comment