Feminism in Zambia: Finding an Unexpected Champion

Our last guest post this month is by Stephanie Reinhardt. Stephanie is a Program Officer with Jhpiego and is currently working to support HIV/AIDS and maternal health programs in east and southern Africa. Growing up in San Francisco and joining forces with Larkin Callaghan at the age of 4 has left her overly opinionated and easily distracted by all the exciting things around her. Hey look – a baboon just walked by my office window! When she’s not bouncing around the globe, she’s very busy procrastinating.

Gabriel, a Zambian taxi driver who works outside an overpriced hotel in the capital Lusaka, drove me to a township on the outside of town last week. We started with the usual conversation.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“California,” I responded, “though I’m starting to feel like Zambia is my second home”.

I’ve been to Zambia six times in the past four years supporting public health programs run through Jhpiego, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins. After some discussion about various locations in the US he had learned about from other passengers, he jumped into his favorite story about American history to see if I knew it as well.

After slowing his taxi to traverse a particularly rough patch of potholes, Gabriel looks at me and said, “Well, you know about the Gremich sisters?” (Upon further research, I learned the correct spelling of Grimké sisters). I shook my head no, which gave Gabriel the green light to dive into his story:

“During the time of slavery in America (perhaps in California, or Texas or wherever), there were two sisters who wanted to put an end to slavery.”

I jumped in to briefly describe (with my best recollections from high school) the divisions between the north and the south that eventually led to the civil war, which I explained, for future reference was on the east coast of America, so I would guess that the Grimké sisters were probably from a state like New York. (Turns out they were from South Carolina, but later joined abolitionist circles in Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.)

Gabriel gave me a polite nod, but the civil war was clearly not his target conversation. With the eagerness of a school kid sitting in the front row, he continued his story, which he credited to a book he had read called, No Fear of Trying. Gabriel’s eyes grew large as he told the story of these sisters’ amazing bravery to publicly speak out against slavery. He looked at me and repeatedly tapped the top of the steering wheel with his palm to emphasize the profundity of this story. “These were the first women to speak at a podium…to men. Women did not do that at that time.” He described the message of equality and freedom that they took all the way to the US government. “People thought that women should not give public speeches to men. Lots of people threatened them and told them to stop, but these women were so brave, ” he continued. I was nodding in agreement, but apparently not giving the reaction he wanted.  “Isn’t that amazing?” he exclaimed. “It’s great!” I responded.

Despite a few factual inaccuracies (that the Gimké sisters final speech ended slavey, and this all took place in the 1950s), Gabriel’s story is pretty spot on. The Grimké sisters grew up in South Carolina with all the advantages of a privileged class awaiting them.  Unlike many other northern born abolitionists, the Grimké sisters had seen slavery first hand and felt compelled to not only put an end to the practice, but to put an end to racial and gender discrimination – an idea radically progressive for their time. They promoted extremely advanced messages for both racial and gender equality. Angelina Grimké letters demanded “educational reform, equal wages and an end to other forms of discrimination against women.”

What fascinated me most about Gabriel’s story was not that I was previously unaware of this significant historical biography (I am never shocked by the amount of information I don’t know or frankly, don’t remember). Rather, I was completely taken aback by his emotional response to this story. He loved these women for their bravery to stand up to men and wanted to share it with anyone who got in his cab.

Zambia is not a country known for its progressive gender relations. Women unfortunately still live very much as the mercy of their husbands, cultural laws and the State. As explained in a 2002 OMCT report on violence against women in Zambia:

Women in Zambia currently face many obstacles to the realisation of their human rights including high rates of violence against women in the family, in the community and by the State, discrimination in the application of customary laws relating to family and inheritance rights, low levels of representation in political and other decision-making structures, a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, poor health care services and the limited availability of affordable contraception.

The 2007 Zambian Demographic Health Survey (DHS) included an assessment of women’s empowerment by asking questions on employment and decision-making.  While great variations exist with regard to education level and location, overall 37 percent of men think that decisions about how to spend the wife’s cash earnings (if she has employment outside of the home) should be made mainly by the husband.  These views extend to a woman’s body as well – 46 percent of men think that the husband alone should make the decision on the number of children to have.  Only 64.8 percent of currently married women responded that they are the primary decision makers or make joint decisions with their husbands regarding their own health care.

So, given this context, I was baffled. I wondered if I had stumbled into the cab of an outspoken Zambian male feminist. As Gabriel’s taxi approached our destination, I probed him on his thoughts on women’s rights in Zambia. “Oh,” he responded, “we have learned a lot from Americans. Everyone is equal here.” Then he dropped the famous development buzz word “gender” and it was all over. “Yes, we have learned gender is important, so now we are all equal.” Ack.

I was hugely disappointed. My image of this Zambian male taxi driver in a superhero outfit championing women’s rights quickly vanished. I thanked him for the ride and started to get out of the car. As I was about to depart, he pulled out a small piece of paper and said, “You work in health? Can I ask you a question?” I nodded, and he continued: “My wife has decided that we should only have three kids, and so we want to stop now that we have three. Can you look at this list and tell me what you would recommend?” On the piece of paper was a list of family planning methods that they had received from their local clinic. I sat with him and explained the differences between some of the short term methods and the long term methods. I also described the vasectomy process should he be interested in the procedure. I explained that if his wife wants no more kids, a long term method, such as an IUD might be best, as it offers protection for 5-7 years. He smiled and responded, “Great, thank you. I will tell my wife this information and see what she wants to do.”

Maybe we have our champion after all.

99 Problems But A Gay Ain’t One: A Look at Gay Men and Reality Television

Our next guest post is by Zel McCarthy. Zel is a media professional and blogger based in Los Angeles. He tweets about music, politics, and nail polish at @ZelMcCarthy.

On a recent episode of Bravo’s show Most Eligible Dallas, likable girl-next-door Courtney told the camera about how much she enjoys her friendships with gay men. As she put it, paraphrasing Jay-Z, “I’ve got 99 problems but a gay ain’t one.”

In the following episodes that would prove to be true, even as one of her gay friends, Drew, picked a public fight with her over some mysterious and vague issue loosely regarding a lack of attention. That’s how friendships work on reality television: paradise to category 5 in a single episode. Truly, Drew is never a major problem for Courtney. While she hates when anyone dislikes her, Courtney’s biggest issue is (of course) finding a husband, who may or not be her best friend Matt.

It’s always bothered me when someone converts the word “gay” from adjective to noun. Comedian and Bravo star Kathy Griffin practically pioneered the noun-ing of “gay” by frequently referring to her homosexual friends, fans, and followers as “my gays.” Even if it’s not being used pejoratively, it’s always reductive. Instead of a person or man or even a self-obsessed reality TV personality, he is merely a sexual orientation. (Mind you, the phrase is never used to refer to gay women. They are excluded almost completely from Bravo’s narrative of gender and sexuality in society.)

Even more bothersome, however, is that gay characters on reality TV are so marginalized and stereotypical that they never get to be someone’s problem, much less have problems of their own. In fact, aside from fueling the on-screen drama necessary for its programming to function, gay men on Bravo’s slate of shows, like Drew from Dallas, are ubiquitous but never problematic because they are never the central figure of a story.

Whether watching the Real Housewives franchise, The Rachel Zoe ProjectPregnant In HeelsMiami Social, or Bethenny, the message is clear: if you are a gay man, you can be a human accessory in a rich woman’s life. From Jill Zarin’s “gay husband” to Kyle Richards’ “ladysitter” to the coterie of hairstylists, decorators, and event planners orbiting around an endless supply of narcissistic women, gay men are written to serve two functions: enhance the aesthetics of their mistresses, and act as a stand-in for the straight men in their life.

Even gay designer Jeff Lewis, star of Flipping Out, whose caustic outbursts at his employees pull focus from the window treatments, doesn’t get to be the star of his own life. He’s constantly appeasing the whims and fancies of the rich white ladies who hire him to revamp their homes. Through several years on the show (and a rough economy), we’ve watched the once successful house-flipper turn into a driveling decorator so desperate for the next job he’ll screw over his best friends to get it.

Meanwhile, the straight men (husbands, boyfriends, that sort of thing) serve as a foil to these flamboyant and endlessly problem-free gay men. The straights, such as they are, are coded as “real men.” They are fully sexualized, integrated into society with jobs, off-camera friendships, hobbies far beyond the confines of the feminized reality TV world, and comical only when they don’t understand the flurry around the importance of a pair of shoes or lighting at a party. On the axis of characters, they’re the rational yin to the emotional yang of gay men. Cheapened to stereotypes, gay men on reality TV become little more than well-dressed, occasionally articulate, placeholders in the lives of women.

These supporting characters of Bravo have become the reality embodiment of an archetypal role writer and comedian David Rakoff once named Fudgey McPacker. Without a life of his own, Fudgey stands on the sidelines, cheering on the leading lady, occasionally offering sassy retorts and painfully obvious tokens of wisdom. He gets to tell his girlfriends things like “girl, don’t you know he loves you,” before she runs to her leading man’s arms and they live happily ever after while Fudgey presumably disappears or finds another lady to devote his life to. Like Fudgey before them, the Brads, Dwights, LTs, Joeys, and Shawns of Bravo don’t get to have many independent storylines of their own; their on-screen characters don’t have their own essence. When they try to, they’re quickly jettisoned off the show (see Cedric from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).

While all media reflects the values of its culture, we look to reality TV to see our culture reflected, however misguided that notion is. I have often said to my friends that the gay community is so desperate for recognition it accepts any representation of itself on screen, no matter how negative. A glance at Logo’s The A List would prove that point handily, but also, consider how fervent Bravo’s gay audience is, despite the continued marginalization of its gay characters. I’d even say that there’s a certain comfort in seeing a stereotypical gay character; it validates one singular version of gay identity without straying beyond a previously accepted boundary.

Does anyone think that’s good enough?

We all know by now what reality TV is (scripted, sensational, entertaining) and what it isn’t (reality). Perhaps it’s a sign of progress that gay men have become a secondary staple of the genre and a lynchpin of nearly every Bravo series. But let there be no doubt about the space these characters inhabit: the periphery in the lives of a cadre of superficial women.

Ain’t that one bitch of a problem?

Social Netwrongning, Male Feminists and the Dangers of ‘-ist’ Humor

This month’s first guest post is by Erik Nook. Erik was born in the tiny town of Schaller, Iowa, but was raised by adventuresome parents in Durban, South Africa and Perth, Western Australia. Currently studying psychology and philosophy at Columbia University, where he also coordinates Columbia Stressbusters and volunteers for Men’s Peer Education, Erik hopes to eventually practice as a clinical psychologist.

Things I’ve seen on Facebook. (These were posted by a man, fyi):

“Man 1: On a scale from 1 to 10 how much am I annoying you right now?
Man 2: You’re as annoying as a girlfriend right now.”

“Any man can be really romantic and appreciative of his woman one day out of the year, but I think a real man can do it zero days out of the year haha.”

“A new reality show is coming soon. Its 18 women living in a house, dressed appropriately, keeping their mouths shut. Its called The Way Things Should Be.”

“You shouldn’t have just went to [college 1]. It seems like the girls here at [college 2] just keep getting hotter, younger, dumber, and sluttier. It’s awesome, haha.”

That was verbatim. Where to begin?

Let’s start with the obvious. These “jokes” are intolerably sexist. They’re too severe to just be called microaggressions, but the term still fits because they cause tangible harm through seemingly “innocuous” actions that actually perpetuate power imbalances, male chauvinism and female subordination/sexualization. But regardless they’re intentions, their content lays waste to basic dignities women deserve as human beings, namely freedom from presumption and freedom of independent action.

Less verbosely, they’re despicable, and I’m appalled that they were shared in such a public space. (With remarkably minimal backlash, at that.)

But it goes deeper than that. Consider the impact of reading this as a man. Not only am I repulsed by the fact that some of these men seem trapped in the stone age, I also shudder at the posts’ implicit definition of a “real man” as a heterosexual, sex crazed, power hungry, self-obsessed and unintelligent narcissist. It’s important for me to be very clear that I am not that kind of man, and that I know many other men who are nothing like that, either. This characterization of “real men” upsets me for both the hetero-normative statements and because it eclipses the fact that there are men who are genuinely interested in advancing (and finally realizing) the global equality of women by challenging these stereotypes. There are men who work within themselves and the world around them to end the microaggressions, to rebuild systems and to reform behaviors that ultimately help to destroy patriarchy, and I’m honored to know such men. When I think of “real men,” I think of them.

The struggle is getting men like this to be the norm. But let me tell you, we’re doing the best we can. Whether it’s one conversation, one program or one blog post at a time, we’re doing the best we can.

So now that we know my position on male feminists and how we can be allies in ending gender-based power imbalances, let’s return to the topic at hand. At its core, this post is about humor. It’s about the way humor functions and the responsibility we have to be aware of the implications of our language, even when used in jest. On the flip side of this perspective, one could read this blog and easily say I’m overreacting. To use the very words of the man who published these posts: “Jeez, they’re just jokes. Jokes aren’t to be taken seriously.” So, what’s the big deal?  It’s not like he’s actually hurting anyone. Is nowhere safe nowadays? Will there always be people getting their knickers in a bunch when someone just for kicks and giggles posts a joke about women on their own social media page?

Ummmm… yes!  And that person just might be me.  **readjusts knickers**

While facilitating Columbia’s mandatory diversity workshop Under1Roof earlier this year, I had students raise this exact question.  Communally, they wondered: “what’s so wrong with ‘–ist’ humor?” (By ‘-ist humor’ I mean jokes that are in some way racist, classist, sexist, ageist, etc – jokes that use stereotyped markers of a group to make fun of them.) Unfortunately, they left the classroom with the answer: “Well there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as you say them among people you trust, don’t overtly cause harm to the people you’re mocking and/or are a member of the group you’re ostracizing.” My efforts to dissuade this line of thought were sadly futile.

But let’s think about it for a second. When we laugh at a joke that reinforces a group’s negative stereotypes, we on some level assent to these stereotypes; the reinforcement perpetuates them. If we didn’t believe them at all, we’d react in puzzlement. Laughing validates the joker’s and the audience’s now explicit beliefs of imbalance and to them, justifies their ridicule of a population. Saying an ‘-ist’ joke even about the group you identify with doesn’t abnegate this negative consequence – instead, it’s an even stronger sign to ourselves and others that it’s OK to feel that one group is better than another; it’s a symptom of internalized submission.

It’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt.

Harm from ‘–ist’ humor is real. Whether it’s because a member of the targeted group “accidentally” overhears the joke and experiences unjust shame or if it’s because *people are not robots* and the quiet validation of a stereotype through a joke will inevitably bleed into other forms of prejudice and oppression, humor that perpetuates the marginalization of identities – regardless of what they are – should not be tolerated. If we were fundamentally devoted to freeing people from the indignities of marginalization and prejudice, we’d react to these jokes in anger, not in passive complicity or awkward complacency. Bystander intervention, people.

I hope this view isn’t too extreme or academic. The foundation of my post is calling for a little bit of self inspection and critical thinking. I’m asking you to take seriously your own desire for equality, freedom and respect and see how this desire implies that you be fastidious about managing your thoughts and actions. Just like the jokes at the beginning of the post, as harmless as they may seem when first put, jokes can hurt, enslave and oppress. Humor is great. Let’s admit it, it’s where it’s at. You’re tired, upset, sad, whatever – let’s laugh about it! Just be careful that your laughter isn’t based on something that’s somehow offensive and detracts from our overall goal of social justice.

Happily, the new insurgence of programs all over the country (including Men Can Stop Rape, Men’s Peer Education and 1 in 4) demonstrates that people are finally realizing that anyone can be a feminist, that feminism benefits everyone, and that in order for real progress to be made, everyone needs to be on the same page. We all have to have a similar vision of what equality and inequality look like for us to make that vision real.

Happy microprogressions, everyone.