Friday, February 24, 2006

I don’t wanna be a stupid girl

Okay, girls I just have to tell you about a new song that just hit the charts, “I don’t wanna be a stupid girl.” This song is performed by Pink, an artist I have always admired for her ability to put out material that has a deeper substance than the typical shallowness that pervades contemporary pop culture.

In her new song Pink wants to know what ever happened to all of the smart girls and then she remembers, oh yeah, the smart girl is dressed in a skimpy outfit and dancing next to 50 Cent in a video. Pink boldly declares that she does not want to be that stupid girl.

After hearing the song and reading the reviews, I scoured the Internet to watch the video for this song and it made me feel ashamed for succumbing to the superficiality of that make-believe world at times. Pink mocks the likes of Jessica Simpson, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Brittney Spears by showing how these girls have little more than a nice voice and a set of fake breasts to offer the world.

In fact, these girls are the exact opposite of what I want my own girls to be in life. I do not want my daughters to think if they flaunt their beauty they can treat the rest of the world with disregard. The image portrayed by these famous faces, and that Pink is taking to task, is not the sentiment that young women should be embracing at this crucial junction of fresh opportunity that awaits women in the 21st century.

Like men, we no longer have to be beautiful to be someone in life. We are no longer a commodity to be bartered depending on how appealing the package. We are our own persons and we determine our own futures. Our intelligence, drive and determination will get us farther in today’s world than being just another pretty face.

I will admit, regrettably, that I have been sucked into this shallow world to varying degrees at different times in my life. For example, since my mother died from skin cancer, I’ve never been one to stay in the sun for any length of time. So when I wanted that deep tan donned by those in Hollywood, I wasted my money to try to get it. But it never looked good on me and I can’t help but wonder if those chemicals aren’t worse than the effects of the sun I was trying to avoid.

Now why would I waste my money on something so trivial when I know better? Just like every real woman in the world, I am beautiful in my own way and I do not need to try to look like someone else (who probably got her beauty from a cosmetic surgeon) to be beautiful.

Before I turned 30, I wanted desperately for the world to stop looking at my bosom and start looking at my brain. Now that I am approaching 40, I find more and more that my intellect and personality are the traits that make me shine.

No doubt there are men out there who want women who are ignorant and have no opinion – I have met this type of man myself. These guys would prefer a shallow woman to be arm candy instead of an intelligent one, but they are also usually shallow themselves and couldn’t keep up with a smart woman with a strong opinion.

I absolutely believe beauty and intelligence can coincide in one woman, but her brainpower should always outshine her pretty face.

In Pink’s video, there is a cute little girl struggling with a good angel on one shoulder telling her to be herself and a bad angel on the other shoulder encouraging her to be shallow – to flip her hair, look down on the “small people” and to be beautiful no matter what it takes. In the end, the little girl glances at her Barbie dolls and then takes off with a football instead. She chose to be her own woman and I’d gladly play some ball with her anytime.

Ladies, my concern is that our young women are growing up in a world where shallowness is celebrated and intelligence is scorned. Our daughters are finally in a position to be whatever they want to be in life, but too often the women they choose to emulate have limited themselves to be judged by their outward appearance.

Our daughters are expected to fit this unrealistic image of a paper-thin woman who is visually appealing and can sometimes sing (and sometimes not) and those girls who don’t fit the mould are left to feel like something is wrong with them – when in fact it is the sick system of anorexia that is wrong.

How many movies and television shows have an overweight, unattractive man playing the husband/father role and his wife is a beautiful skinny woman? There are several. Now how many shows have an overweight, unattractive woman married to a gorgeous, well-built man? I cannot think of even one. Both of these scenarios are unrealistic, but only one is broadcast into our homes.

This sends a very clear message that it is acceptable for men to be less than perfect, but it is not acceptable for women to be anything but perfect – as defined by shallow Hollywood. I love that Pink pops up out of nowhere and shatters that perfect image into tiny little pieces. I don’t need to have a tan or be paper thin to be beautiful, I am beautiful just as I am – and so are you.

We need women like Pink who will take such a strong stand for our daughters. Even more, we need to take a stand for our daughters by teaching them that they are beautiful even if they don’t fit the image being imposed on them through television and magazines. Together we can reshape society’s definition of beauty to include a more accurate version of real women.

The stupid girls from Pink’s song are the exact opposite of what this world needs from the feminine half of the population. There is poverty all around us, violence and wars, and people dying over cartoons. What the world needs is for smart ladies to stop hiding out in their houses, realise they have a responsibility to their generation and get out in the world with their sleeves rolled up, ready to work.

Someone needs to set this world in proper working order and it sure won’t be those stupid girls.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Are the scales of Gender Equality tipping too far on the other side now?

I was born into a world where little boys had so much promise and little girls, regardless of their intellect or potential, were treated with indifference regarding their role in society. Because of this, I try to bridge the gender gap whenever possible to show how important it is to have a world where both men and women are able to operate at their fullest potential.

After just a few decades of aggressively pursuing gender equality, it seems there is a turn-around of sorts. That is not to say that women are in fact on equal footing as men yet; indeed there is still so far to go. There are parts of the world where women are still considered property, not allowed to have a say over their own lives and bodies and must live their entire lives to please someone else – usually a man.

Even in countries where women are considered equal, there are still significant gaps in political representation and pay rates for the same jobs held by a man. Though these and other inequalities are still present, I truly believe that within the next decade or two we will have made even more substantial advances that will bring gender inequality to the brink of extinction.

However, I am now concerned about an alarming new trend that could prove to be problematic in regards to gender equality – it is what a recent Newsweek cover termed as “The Boy Crisis.” In a gist, there has been a considerable plunge in male academic performance in the last decade.

The cause of this decline is not fully understood as yet, some attribute it to the introduction of video games, others to the lack of male role models in the family unit and still others to the development of a teaching process structured to allow the girls (who just a few decades ago were given equal access to education) to catch up to the boys in the classroom. My guess is that it is probably a mixture of all of these factors.

According to the Newsweek article, “In elementary school, boys are two times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and twice as likely to be placed in special-education classes. High school boys are losing ground to girls on standardised writing tests. The number of boys who said they didn’t like school rose 71 percent between 1980 and 2001, according to a University of Michigan Study.”

I know there are some who believe that those who strongly advocate women’s rights are in actuality anti-male, but this concern is no more than just ignorance of the issue. My stance is for gender equality, which means that if boys are now the ones in jeopardy, then as a society, we need to take every step necessary to help them re-establish themselves in the academic world.

The article also reported, “Nowhere is the shift more evident than on college campuses. Thirty years ago men represented 58 percent of the undergraduate student body. Now they’re a minority at 44 percent.”

I have noticed this trend first hand with my own children. I have four children, two boys and two girls, and my boys have always struggled in school – even the one who has the IQ of a genius. As a mother, this has been quite frustrating for me because it is difficult to see all of this wasted potential in my own son.

I recently started taking a closer look at my children and their friends to see if there are any correlations that suggest that boys are indeed falling behind and I found something quite interesting. My daughter, who is a freshman at a university in the Midwest, has a boyfriend who is absolutely brilliant, but has chosen (at least for the present) to not attend college. Instead, he is working at a fast-food restaurant as a cook.

This is also the case with many of the girls she knows and their boyfriends. It seems that with this small group of children, most of whom I have known for years, the girls are choosing to get a higher education and the boys are not.

I finally persuaded my “genius” son to attend college (after much pleading, yelling, crying and reasoning). He is attending a community college a couple hours drive away and he has a girlfriend who attends a nearby university. Last week we were talking about how school was going and he told me that he has made friends with several other guys who are also attending his community college and have girlfriends who attend the renowned university.

In this case, the girls are the ones getting a first rate education while the boys are attending a community college – mostly because their parents are forcing them to do so. I know my examples are just a small representation of this bigger problem, but my family seems to clearly demonstrate the crisis highlighted by the Newsweek article concerning boys.

My advocacy for gender equality has always been to bring women up to the same standard as men – academically, socially, politically, spiritually (I believe women should also be religious leaders such as pastors, priests, Imams, etc.) and in any other way necessary. I have been such a staunch advocate of gender equality because I truly believe this world will be a better place when both genders are allowed to contribute with their full capacity to society.

This is also why we cannot allow the boys to fall behind academically. The consequences could be just as disastrous to the world as the thousands of years of feminine repression. The goal in gender equality is balance. When one gender is allowed to overtake another gender, the outcome will always be an imbalanced and unhealthy society.

It is of utmost importance to find a way to help bring the boys back into the educational institutions with a willing spirit to learn. Men and women may not be physically or psychologically the same, but both genders play a significant role in shaping the political, economic and social landscape of the world - and neither gender should be refused that opportunity.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Women and the Media - The Feminist Monster Myth

One afternoon, while writing an essay at the library, I stumbled across Susan J. Douglas’s fabulous book “Where the Girls Are - Growing up Female with the Mass Media”. Although her book was a personal account of a baby boomer’s relationship with the media, I - a young woman born in the decade that brought the world Dynasty cat fights and Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 - found it an informative, relatable read. One of my favourite passages mocks the stereotypes of feminists perpetuated by the media.

“The moment the women’s movement emerged in 1970, feminism once again became a dirty word, with considerable help from the mainstream news media. News reports and opinion columnists created a new stereotype, of fanatics, “braless bubbleheads”, Amazons, “the angries, “and “a band of wild lesbians. The result is that we all know what feminists are. They are shrill, overly aggressive, man-hating, ball-busting, selfish, hairy, extremist, deliberately unattractive women with absolutely no sense of humour who see sexism at every turn. They make men’s testicles shrivel up on the size of peas, they detest the family and think all children should be deported or drowned. Feminists are relentless, unforgiving and unwilling to bend or compromise; they are single-handedly responsible for the high divorce rate, the shortage of decent men, and the unfortunate proliferation of Birkenstocks in America.”

I laughed at the ridiculous caricatures scared people drew when it appeared that women were breaking out of the kitchen and into the big, wide world. It amused me so much that I copied out the passage and stuck in a scrapbook as an example of how change can create hysteria.

Then, I started reading about the accusations biographer Edward Klein was throwing at Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) in a myriad of different media formats - Vanity Fair, The Drudge Report and Fox News to name but a few. Seeing how the media eagerly lapped up the dramatic claims in The Truth About Hillary, including the unsubstantiated speculation that Senator Clinton was “sexually frigid” and that she was raped by her husband in order to conceive their daughter. And of course, Senator Clinton could not possibly deserve fair payment for writing a book because people were interested in what an intelligent, powerful woman had to say. No, according to Klein, “greed seemed to be the only explanation for the outlandish book deal.”

“She was a mother, but she wasn't maternal. She was a wife, but had no wifely instincts. She said she was passionately in love with her husband, but many of her closest friends and aides were lesbians,” he claims, not bothering to back up his claims with evidence or explain how having lesbian friends negated her love for her husband.

But its not only authors like Klein who feel its fair game to manipulate and insult a powerful woman by making implications and allegations about her family, sexuality and personal feelings.

Radio host and former cast member on MSNBC's The Situation with Tucker Carlson Jay Severin has called Senator Clinton an “anti-Christ”, “the devil”, “sociopathic” and a “Manchurian candidate”. He did apologise for once calling her a “lying bitch” but only because "technically, it's a redundancy."

Rush Limbaugh has also seemed to take a particular pleasure in attacking Senator Clinton claiming that she is a “real man” and apparently owns a “testicle lock-box”.
But then, this is a man who frequently uses the term “fem-nazi” and believes that those who speak out against sexual harassment are just jealous because nobody’s harassing them.

I have no problem with people attacking Senator Clinton’s policies or even examining her personal life if it is relevant to her role as a public figure. What bothers me is that too many media figures - many of whom are men - seem to take delight in using her gender or status as a feminist to discredit and attack her.

The media has enormous power - most of us consume it on a daily basis via television, the internet and newspapers. How many people hear Limbaugh and Severin and assume that they must be speaking the truth? How many people start to believe that a woman who demands equality is a “wild lesbian” or a “fem-nazi”?

If those in positions of power won’t stand up and end this rubbish, I guess we’ll have to make them. So, e-mail Rush, Jay and any other media figure that slurs women. E-mail their bosses and their sponsors. If they won’t do the right thing by themselves, lets see if they’ll do the right thing when we demand it.

Monday, August 29, 2005

"A Big Disappointment"

Sitting next to First Lady Laura Bush during the President’s 2005 State of the Union address, Safia Taleb al-Suhail was a powerful symbol of the Iraqi people who had yearned for freedom and finally thought that their suffering was almost at an end. Elections were coming up, a constitution to follow and hopefully, a peaceful, stable, democratic country for many years to come. She embraced the mother of a marine who died in the effort to create that new Iraq, touching people on the left and right of the political spectrum.

But almost nine months on, as Iraq is constantly being battered by suicide bombers, when assassinations are commonplace and children die under the wheels of armoured vehicles, hope for a brighter future is harder to maintain.

The draft Iraqi constitution was finally completed at the weekend - enshrining Islam as the basic source of law and calling for the Supreme Federal Court to include judges and experts in both law and sharia law. According to the Feminist Majority Foundation, this could suggest that clerics may serve on the Supreme Court.

Safia - who had hoped for change - had this to say. Wonder if the right will pay as much attention to her comments as they did to her presence at the State of the Union?

“When we came back from exile, we thought we were going to improve the rights and position of women. But look what happened – we have lost all the gains we made over the last 30 years. It’s a big disappointment.”

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Micro-Credit, Macro-Impact

I have lived in one of the most incredible cities in the world my entire life. My country is not ravaged by war, poverty, disease or natural disaster. My parents were in the position to give me a safe, comfortable home and my neighbourhood has good schools. Now, I’m a third of the way through my degree and looking at doing a post-graduate. I’m very aware of how lucky I am.

However, millions of women around the world have to struggle to even provide the most basic of things for their families. After a devastating famine in Bangladesh in 1974, Muhammad Yunus, an economist, decided that something had to be done to give the poor a chance to lift themselves up out of poverty themselves. He did this by making small loans available to small groups of people to start their own businesses.

This was a revolutionary step as it gave the poor a real chance to make a success of their ideas when usually, they would never be approved for a loan because of their financial situation.

From his original idea, The Grameen Bank came into existence and has proved to be enormously successful. Not only this is good for the economy of every area that the bank - and other similar micro-credit organisations - operate in, it also gives women a chance to earn their own living. 96% of the loans go to women, giving them real economic oppurtunity and independence.

Take a look at some of the success stories from women around the world.

Nurjahan is a borrower of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Her name means "the light of the world." Abandoned by her parents at three months of age and raised by a neighbor, Nurjahan was married at twelve only to be abandoned by her husband a year later, while three months pregnant. She returned to the family who had raised her, cooking for them while raising her son.
Before joining Grameen, Nurjahan had never earned more than $37.50 in a year and owned no land. After five years as a borrower with the Grameen Bank, her annual income is $250 (just above the national average) and she owns two goats, one pregnant cow, ten hens, and two-thirds of an acre of land. The land cost $1,000, more than four times the average annual income. Seasonally, she employs two farm-hands to assist with her rice crop. In a country where only 46 percent of the children reach grade five, Nurjahan's son is now in 8th grade.

La Maman Mole Motuke lived in a wrecked car in a suburb of Kinshasa, Zaire with her four children. If she could find something to eat, she would feed two of her children; the next time she found something to eat, her other two children would eat.
When organizers from the Association interviewed her, she said that she knew how to make chikwangue (maniac paste), and she only needed a few dollars to start production. After six months of training in marketing and production techniques, Maman Motuke got her first loan of US$100, and bought production materials.
Today, Maman Motuke and her family no longer live in a broken down car; they rent a house with two bedrooms and a living room. Her four children go to school on a regular basis; they eat regularly and dress well. She currently is saving to buy some land in a suburb farther outside of the city and hopes to build a house.


It seems that micro-credit iniatives really do make an impact and allow women to support themselves and their family. As Wikipedia points out:

More than half of Grameen borrowers in Bangladesh have all children of school age in school, all household members eating three meals a day, a sanitary toilet, a rainproof house, clean drinking water and the ability to repay a 300 taka-a-week (US$8) loan, which has brought them above the poverty level.

These small loans are making such a huge difference to people's lives, especially the lives of women. Its sustainable and it gives people pride in themselves by not forcing them to rely on charity. Maybe our governments should look at this way of lifting people out of poverty.