Sunday, May 18, 2008

The US Presidential Elections - An Arab View

CNN just aired an interesting piece where they held a forum for Arab News Networks about their coverage of the US Presidential Elections. Networks represented include Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV, and LBCSat. Somewhat obviously, the US election is considered extremely important for the Middle East and is seen as affecting the personal day to day life of Middle Easterners. There were some interesting perspectives, and here are some of the statements that struck me:

According to Al Arabiya, their network is viewing the US elections as a product to be packaged in a dramatic way to increase viewership. For example, they latch onto "Hilary Clinton when she is crying" to stretch out the drama and increase viewership. They mentioned "we have the the opportunity to deal with the US elections like we deal with the world cup" and "people are interested in how Hilary Clinton dresses up, and also about the foreign policy."

However, the rest of the networks had more of a sense of resignation about the race. "People don't believe that any of the 3 candidates candidate will make a big difference in foreign policy. The USA will not dramatically change the foreign policy towards the middle east." LBCSat's view based on the comments from their viewers is that "nobody believes either of the democratic candidates will win - it's the Arab mentality. An African American cannot win the presidency and neither can a woman. So all eyes are on John McCain."

Some highlights from the comments offered by the audience supposedly made up by viewers include:

"Not a single question about the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been raised in any of the debates and there have been dozens of them. So no one knows how Barak Obama or Hilary Clinton feels about the conflict." (From a Rep from the Arab-American League)

"I'd like to believe that someone like Barak Obama could be elected as President, but your country has let me down so many times before that I don't want to hope anymore."

"People see themselves in Barak Obama - they think that if it is possible for an African American, it could be possible for an Arab American."

All in all CNN pitched the show as this great debate, and it most definitely was not (of course the US news networks are guilty of dramatization too, although they would never admit it as frankly and proudly as Al Arabiya did), but I wonder if this piece was aired in the US or only in the international broadcasts? Anyone know?

And to end this post on a completely inappropriate note, watch this video. Akhmed the Dead Terrorist. Friggin hilarious. I'm totally going to hell, but at least I'll be going there laughing :)


Friday, May 16, 2008

Violence against women - Sudan vs. the US

Maybe it's because at the moment I've been working on writing a section for one of our peer education manuals on the link between Gender Based Violence and HIV, but I'm feeling rather militant today so you all now have to deal with it.

Here's a stat for you: In Sudan, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete primary school.

Think about that for a moment.

In Sudan:
91% of women have no formal education
94% of women cannot read or write
99.8% of womenhave no electricity
87% of women do not have running water
40% of women report having been beaten
93% of women have lost at least one family member
68% of women of married women live in a polygamous marriage*

I consider this to be violence against women.

I've also felt the need to put up a few more annectodes that I think point out the attitude towards violence here in Sudan - especially violence against women. The same person who was involved in the lashing story from last year left the office for about 4 hours yesterday without letting anyone know where he was going. This is the second time this has happened so when he came back I asked him what was up. His story was this:

His sister was 5 months pregnant, and is not on good terms with her co-wife (it is very common here for people to have up to 4 wives). Yesterday the co-wife called his sister up on the phone and started insulting her and they had a fight over the phone. I don't know about what. So his sister then went to the house, where the co-wife proceded to beat her up, even though she was pregnant. She ended up miscarrying the child. The reason why he left the office was to help her file a court case against the co-wife. This is incredibly sad, but then he was calling his sister "not smart" and blaming because she went to the house to confront the co-wife even though she was pregnant!!!

Thank God that at least in the US, biggest donor of aid to social justice programs around the world, they have equal rights and respect for women everywhere. Oh, that's right, NO THEY DON'T!!! It's easy here in Sudan to think that these problems are unique and that women in more "developed" societies have it made. In a lot of ways, it's true. At 25 years old I am able to choose my partner and whether or not to get married, I am well educated, I have a job in the field of my choice and am financially independent, and can do pretty much whatever I want with my life, wherever in the world I fancy. Would I have this choice if I was born in Sudan? The answer is a resounding "no". If I was a Sudanese woman, I would be married with at least 2 or 3 children, my husband would have at least 1 other wife, I would not have gone to school so would probably not be able to even write my own name (many people's signatures here are actually their thumbprint). I would be expected to run my household and raise my children with the little money left over on pay day from my husband's drinking sprees. I would never have even seen a doctor or other trained medical provider other than a community health worker - that is if I was allowed by my husband to see one - and would probaly be born, live and die in the same town.

But there are also stories of hope here. Last week we had the launch of one of our programs in Yei, Lainya and Morobo counties, which included training people living with HIV as peer educators. As we were standing in the yard before the event, one of our facilitators pointed out a woman wearing a red dress with yellow flowers who was seated with a few other women. She said this woman was one of the peer educators who participated in the workshop, she was HIV positive and so was her 2 year old child. Halfway through the workshop her child passed away while being carried on her back. The child was literally fine in the morning, seemingly healthy and laughing, but by the afternoon had passed away, with no indication of how. After only 2 days of grieving, this woman returned to the workshop and participated for the rest of the sessions, determined to get all the information about staying healthy that she could so she could pass it on to others in her community.

Today Washington University in St. Louis, my alma matter, is holding the commencement ceremony for the Class of 2008. Also today, they are awarding Phyllis Schlafley an honorary doctorate, and Chris Matthews is the commencement speaker. Hear that? It's the sound of my head exploding. Read this excellent piece by Katha Pollitt published in The Nation which echoes exactly how I feel about the situation.

Backlash Spectacular
by Katha Pollitt
The Nation "

Washington University is giving Phyllis Schlafly an honorary doctorate. Let me run that by you again. Washington University, the distinguished 155-year-old seat of higher learning in St. Louis, is giving an honorary degree to Phyllis Schlafly--archfoe of the Equal Rights Amendment, the United Nations, Darwinism and other newfangled notions, and the promoter of innumerable crackpot far-right conspiracy theories who called the Bomb "a marvelous gift that was given to our country by a wise God." Her eighty-two years haven't mellowed her one bit: last year she blamed the Virginia Tech massacre on the English department; called intellectual men "liberal slobs"; advocated banning women from traditionally male occupations like construction, firefighting and the military; and defended men's property rights over their wives' vaginas ("by getting married, the woman has consented to sex, and I don't think you can call it rape"). The campus is in an uproar, and no wonder. After four years of hard work, female seniors get to watch their school honor someone who thinks they should park their diplomas in the kitchen sink. Washington U might as well bring in mad misogynist Chris Matthews as commencement speaker. Oh. You mean...? No!Yes.

Tell me the backlash against feminism isn't crackling up a storm. I tryto keep my eye on the big picture and the bottom line: education, employment, autonomy, power. Surely, I tell myself, the fact that half of all new med students are female is more important than Paris Hilton's omnipresent visage; that a woman has made the first viable run for the presidency says more about the United States than that media clowns like Matthews basically call her a crazy castrating bitch on a daily basis; or that Caitlin Flanagan, smarmy enemy of working mothers (and another big believer in compulsory sex for wives), won a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.

But sometimes I think we're truly going backward, as Republican hegemony, conservative Christianity and anti-feminist media propaganda take their cumulative toll. All those judges, all that money, all that shock jockery, all those magazines obsessively following stars' weight and baby bumps: it would be strange if they had no effect. As far as concrete setbacks go, look no further than the case of Lilly Ledbetter, whose right to sue for pay discrimination was denied by the Supreme Court last May. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Justices overturned the standard interpretation of existing law to declare that Ledbetter was twenty years too late: the victim of pay discrimination must sue within six months of the initial discriminatory act--never mind whether she knew about it (many employers, including Ledbetter's, forbid workers from discussing their salaries; she found out she was paid less than any man at her level from an anonymous tip). Given the realities of life, the Court has given employers the nod to pay women less, as long as they can keep the women in the dark for 180 days. In April a bill to restore women's right to sue failed in the Senate, 56-to-42, because for some reason everything now needs sixty votes to become law. John McCain said the bill would lead to too many lawsuits (hello? all it would have done was restore the law we'd lived with for forty-four years); what women needed was more "education and training." Because right now, women are just too dumb to merit equal pay. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in a coruscating piece in Slate, if women take this sitting down, maybe they really are dumb.

The suspicion that women are dim would explain why Oklahoma has just passed a law requiring not only that women seeking abortions be forced to view sonograms of their fetuses but that the picture be taken in the way most likely to reveal the clearest picture--often up their vaginas. In other antichoice news, an abortion ban will be on the ballot again in South Dakota, this time with narrow exceptions for rape and incest. And mark June 7 on your calendar--it's Protest the Pill day, brought to you by the American Life League and other antichoice groups, which claim, despite the evidence, that "the Pill kills babies" by preventing implantation of fertilized eggs. Maybe it's good that the antichoice movement is outing itself as opposed to contraception, as prochoicers have long maintained and not many pundits have noted--but it also shows that they believe they can come out of the closet and not be dismissed as lunatics. Look for more struggles over government birth-control funding--already way down, thanks to budget cuts and inflation--as the antichoicers move the goal posts of how "life" is defined.

Yes, women are still making gains in education and--slowly--in politics and other areas. But long standing feminist gains are eroding: battered women's shelters, for example, are closing for lack of funds. And the advances haven't made the difference once hoped for. There are more powerful female Hollywood executives than ever, but as Manohla Dargis pointed out in a splendid rant (her word) in the New York Times, the movies are relentlessly male-focused: the conventional Hollywood wisdom is "Women can't direct. Women can't open movies. Women are a niche." Culturally, there's misogyny wherever you look: Grand Theft Auto IV, which offers players the opportunity to have sex with prostitutes and kill them, got rave reviews and is expected to have $500 million in sales its first week out. If there's a pro-woman cultural event with that kind of reach and impact, I'd like to hear about it. It certainly wouldn't be Vanity Fair's photo of tween icon Miley Cyrus, clad in nothing but a bedsheet at all of 15 years old--or the daily media onslaught urging women to focus on their babies like a Zen master contemplating a rock--when not taking pole-dancing lessons, getting Botoxed or catching up on the latest "studies" purporting to prove that they lack the drive and brains to do anything better with their brief time on earth. Feminism, please call home!"

*Source: Women for Women International

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Yei for Free Rice

Yei is a town about xx kilometers southwest of Juba, and it is absolutely beautiful. The rains started there long before they started here (speaking of rains, they are very slow this year in coming to Juba!), so everything is lush and green. The dirt airstrip was so small that you can't even see it properly from looking out of the side of the airplane, so it is a bit disconcerting when you are decending what seems to be directly into the jungle. Highlights of the trip included feeding a lolipop to a pet monkey named Max, finally getting to walk around instead of being driven around in a land cruiser, actually having a fabulous night's sleep because it is cool enough, and learning that if you crush the leaves of a teak tree, it produces a red dye that you can use as nail polish.

On the drive back to Juba we passed the first primary school built in Southern Sudan, the place where the late John Garang went to school. It didn't even look that old. It's crazy to think that schools are considered a modern invention here in Sudan.

I saw Salva Kiir this morning, the President of Southern Sudan driving by us on the way to a meeting at the Ministries - his caravan is only a few cars long, and although he has bodyguards that hang out the otherwise tinted windows of the SUVs, he keeps his own window open and his trademark hat on so that he can wave to people. So you can literally see the President, not just the motorcade, when he passes. Given the history of the country I personally would be crouched down in a ball on the floor, but you have to give the man props.

Right after seeing the Prez, I got a call that Simba had to be flown to Nairobi to go to the hospital. He has typhoid for sure (two tests came back positive), but there's something else wrong as well because he had a killer headache and fever that wouldn't go away. So off he goes for a week in Nairobi to rest with his family. I have to admit I'm just a little bit jealous :)

My mom sent me this link - - where you can play a multiple choice vocabulary game and for every word you get right the sponsors of the website donate free rice to the UN World Food Program. Pretty cool!