Sunday, January 31, 2010

More on Pakistani hijras

"Spurred by the forceful chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was restored after countrywide protests last year, normally moribund authorities have been ordered to ensure hijras enjoy the same rights as other Pakistanis, in matters of inheritance, employment and election registration."

By Declan Walsh, writing in The Guardian, Jan. 29. Read on. And be sure to watch the slide show.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Sterilization, race, votes

Jon Jeter in the Washington Post (June 13, 2004) on the racial politics of sterilization in Brazil. Excerpts below.

Trinidade, a local councilman, was running for the Bahia state legislature. He wanted [Claudia Barboza Santos'] vote. So they made a deal five years ago, and each got what they wanted: Trinidade arranged a sterilization procedure for Santos, and she voted for him...

Brazilian women are having fewer children. The fertility rate has decreased from 4.3 children per woman in 1980 to about 2 children now, according to government statistics. Nearly one in two Brazilian women of childbearing age have been sterilized, according to a 2001 government survey. Demographers and health experts believe the figure is even higher.

"We have a culture of sterilization in Brazil," said Jurema Werneck, executive director of Criola, a women's health organization here in Brazil. "It's nationwide. A lot of politicians are elected because of their sterilization promises."

Brazil's efforts have led to increased criticism from women's health organizations, civil rights agencies and relief workers who argue that sterilization is an ineffectual anti-poverty tool. They also contend that sterilization programs feed racist notions about who should have children and who should not...

You don't solve poverty by reducing family size," Werneck said. "You solve poverty by expanding the economy through greater educational opportunities, through land reform. You have to create opportunities for women, not restrict them. There are far too many black women who are told that the only effective method of contraception is sterilization. Some people are quite well meaning in this notion, but there is a racist ideology behind it."...

"I really see sterilization as an attempt to exterminate a problem, and that problem is poor people and in Brazil that means black people," [Catia Helena] Bispo said.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The Straight State

Review of Margot Canaday's The Straight State in The Nation, by Steven Epstein. Excerpts follow:

For some time now, scholars of sexuality (following in the footsteps of those who have studied and challenged the race and gender hierarchies embedded in state policies and actions) have professed the analytical goal of what historian Lisa Duggan, writing in 1994, called "queering the state." These scholars have argued that the supposed naturalness of the heterosexual couple, and the unnaturalness of alternatives, is presumed and reinforced in the ordinary workings of government. Canaday's substantial contribution is to trace, in gripping and at times horrifying detail, exactly how the United States came to operate in this fashion over the course of much of the twentieth century. The Straight State provides a compelling history of the designation of "the homosexual as the anticitizen."

...For Canaday, "the state" is no abstraction. Taking a fine-grained approach, she insists that the state is "what officials do," whether it's worrying about what transient men get up to when the lights go out or deciding which men and women who served in World War II should be issued the "blue discharges" that made them ineligible for benefits. (There were about 9,000 cases of the latter.) In particular, it seems, what officials did was develop elaborate screening mechanisms to police the boundaries of belonging. Early twentieth-century immigration inspectors were warned to watch for what were described as "striking particularities in dress, talkativeness, witticism, facetiousness...flightiness...unnatural actions, mannerisms, and other eccentricities" that might serve as the telltale signs of sexual perversion to be excluded at the port of entry. (The all-too-common "hidden sexual complexes among Hebrews" merited special vigilance, according to the Marine Hospital Service doctors who lent their expert gaze to the task; they also pointed to the "beardless face [and] the high pitched feminine voice" that were so often found among Italian men.) Around the same time, examiners of military recruits were instructed to screen out those males who "present the general body conformation of the opposite sex, with sloping narrow shoulders, broad hips, excessive pectoral and pubic adipose deposits, with lack of masculine [hair] and muscular markings." Especially in these early years of state attention, the array of suspect perversions was diverse and diffuse, but the markers of excludability were written on the skin for the trained observer to detect at a glance. As the bureaucracy grew and officials adopted more varied and sophisticated tools for what anthropologist James Scott has called "seeing like a state," officials strove to recognize forms of abnormality unbecoming to citizens that only gradually came into focus as what are now taken to be gay and lesbian practices and identities.

Canaday's argument is that in the United States, the processes of state-building, the exclusion of sexual minorities from the ranks of citizenship and the definition of a modern concept of homosexuality were mutually reinforcing...

Modern notions of homosexuality and the modern US bureaucratic state grew up together, Canaday argues. And this coincidence of timing, she suggests intriguingly, may even help explain why the state became, and remains, more officially homophobic than many of its counterparts in Europe, where the bureaucracy was already consolidated before homosexuality emerged as a concern to be reckoned with....

The larger argument, however, is that a history of the modern American state is simultaneously a genealogy of what we now take to be homosexuality. In the early period covered by the book, immigration and military personnel spoke not about homosexuals but about perverts, mannish women, men who displayed (in a curious turn of phrase) "feminism," "wolves" who preyed on younger men and the "lambs" who were their prey. This mix of bureaucratic, medical and colloquial lingo described a hodgepodge of varieties of gender inversion and nonnormative sexual practices. Over time, though, homosexuality took shape in its modern guise, defined less exclusively by gender roles and more by what psychoanalysts called "sexual-object choice": the sex of the desired partner. At the same time, "the homosexual" stabilized as a type of person defined by a knowable preference or orientation that was manifested in its "tendencies" even when behavior was absent. The story of this shift has been told before, but Canaday's innovation is to emphasize the role of the state, and not just medical and psychiatric experts, in these redefinitions...

Importantly, though, Canaday does not imagine that the state was in a position simply to etch its categories and meanings onto individuals, as if the latter were blank slates. Instead, she describes a complex process of mutual reinforcement and resistance, similar to what the philosopher of science Ian Hacking calls "looping effects," whereby powerful institutions categorize what they see people doing and present those understandings to the categorized, who may then internalize them, change them or reject them in ways that influence categorization down the line. Canaday describes how many of those caught in the spotlight of state scrutiny ended up reconceiving who they considered themselves to be...

It's worth underscoring the novelty of Canaday's approach. Much recent LGBT history, following in the footsteps of historian George Chauncey's pioneering book Gay New York, has been resolutely local...a focus on the state also allows Canaday to go further in linking the politics of sexuality to those of gender and race. On the one hand, she suggests how state administration of sexuality both resembled and differed from its management of gender and racial categories. On the other hand, she is attentive to the intersections, analyzing, for example, how the treatment of queer immigrants by federal authorities varied according to the immigrants' race or national origin, and considering how the attempts to drum lesbians out of the military accelerated precisely as women began making stronger claims for inclusion in the institution...

A crucial question to ask, however, is, What impact did all of this policing have on those who were not caught directly in its web? After all, most gay people (or people who engaged in homosexual behaviors) never brushed against it, and many of those who could have been trapped were never even spotted by military, immigration or welfare authorities...

What were the ripple effects of state action? Canaday argues, plausibly enough, that what is "individually devastating" can also be "broadly powerful"--that policies about immigration, military service and welfare eligibility sent clear messages that permeated the whole society. Yet she misses opportunities to prove the point or analyze this saturation in any detail...

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Taking stock of US feminism: the perils of identity politics

Excellent review of Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, from Ariel Levy, in The New Yorker. Excerpts follow, all emphases are mine.

At the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968, feminists threw items symbolic of women's oppression into a Freedom Trash Can, including copies of Playboy, girdles, high heels, bras and corsets. No bras were burned.

Bra burning—the most famous habit of women’s libbers—caused a fair amount of consternation back in the seventies, and the smoke has lingered...So it may be worth noting that it never actually happened.

It’s as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false-memory syndrome...We tend to imagine the fifties and the early sixties, for example, as a time when most American women were housewives. “In reality, however, by 1960 there were as many women working as there had been at the peak of World War II, and the vast majority of them were married,” Collins writes...

There are political consequences to remembering things that never happened and forgetting things that did. If what you mainly know about modern feminism is that its proponents immolated their underwear, you might well arrive at the conclusion that feminists are “obnoxious,” as Leslie Sanchez does in her new book, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hillary and the Shaping of the New American Woman” (Palgrave; $25)...

One sign of our cultural memory disorder is that you can describe a female governor of a state as “traditional” and not get laughed at...Conservative career women are eager to describe themselves in those terms. “I don’t like labels, but, if there’s a label for me, it would be ‘traditional,’ and I’m very proud to be traditional,’’ Cindy McCain told voters when her husband was running for President. Since 2000, she has been the chairman of Hensley & Company, one of the largest distributors of beer in this country, with annual revenues exceeding three hundred million dollars.

Neither she nor Sarah Palin is, of course, a traditional woman. In a traditional family, a wife and mother does not pursue success outside her own home...Unquestioned male authority is the basis of traditional marriage, and that is why the zealots of an earlier and more disruptive time wanted to scrap it.

Feminists have long been criticized for telling women that they could have it all. But conservatives have done us one better: apparently, you can have it all and be traditional, too...All of this raises a question: why has feminism, which managed to win so many battles—the notion of a woman with a career has become perfectly unexceptionable—remained anathema to millions of women who are the beneficiaries of its success?

Once, it was easy to say what feminism was. Its aim was to win full citizenship for women, starting with suffrage, an issue that began amassing support in the United States in the eighteen-forties. More than a century later, Betty Friedan was working in that tradition when, in 1966, she co-founded the National Organization for Women, whose goal was to obtain legislative protections for women and insure employment parity. Like the suffragists, Friedan was devoted to a politics of equality.

Here’s another detail we’ve forgotten: historically, it was the Republican Party that was more amenable to women’s rights...

By the late sixties and early seventies, of course, things had changed. The argument had moved from civic equality to personal liberation: feminists started talking about orgasms as well as ambitions...The radicals taking over feminism, many of whom were active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements, wanted to overthrow patriarchy, which would require transforming almost every aspect of society: child rearing, entertainment, housework, academics, romance, business, art, politics, sex.

Some of that happened and some of it didn’t. By the early seventies, the Supreme Court had granted legal protection to birth control and abortion. But the politics of equality—forget liberation—swiftly ran into resistance. Catholic and Protestant conservatives found a common threat: the destruction of the traditional family...The Republican Bob McDonnell, who won last week’s race to become governor of Virginia, described the peril in a master’s thesis he wrote in the nineteen-eighties: “A dynamic new trend of working women and feminists”—women who have sought “to increase their family income, or for some women, to break their perceived stereotypical role bonds and seek workplace equality and individual self-actualization”—is “ultimately detrimental to the family.”

In the run-up to the election, McDonnell scrambled to distance himself from the thesis. But he was telling a particular truth that liberals and conservatives have different reasons for evading: if the father works and the mother works, nobody is left to watch the kids. In societies where these families constitute the majority, either government acknowledges the situation and helps provide child care (as many European countries do) or child care becomes a luxury affordable for the affluent, and a major problem for everyone else.

Social movements, like armies, define themselves by their conquests, not by their defeats. Feminism failed to make child care available to all, let alone bring about the total reconfiguration of the family that revolutionary feminists had envisaged, and that would have changed this country on a cellular level. Like so many other ideals of the sixties and seventies, the state-backed egalitarian family has gone from seeming—to both political parties—practical and inevitable to seeming utterly beyond the pale. The easier victories involved representation, or at least symbolic representation. For all the backlash against Roe v. Wade, the movement had steady success in getting women into the government and the private-sector workforce. The contours of mainstream feminism started to change accordingly. A politics of liberation was largely supplanted by a politics of identity.

But, if feminism becomes a politics of identity, it can safely be drained of ideology. Identity politics isn’t much concerned with abstract ideals, like justice. It’s a version of the old spoils system: align yourself with other members of a group—Irish, Italian, women, or whatever—and try to get a bigger slice of the resources that are being allocated. If a demand for revolution is tamed into a simple insistence on representation, then one woman is as good as another. You could have, in a sense, feminism without feminists...

Revolutions are supposed to devour their young; in the case of feminism, it has been the other way around. [Leslie] Sanchez says that she speaks for many women who are happy to live and work in a reformed and comparatively fair America but dislike the movement responsible for this transformation...

But though Sanchez and her sisters (thirty-seven per cent of women describe themselves as conservative, and three out of four women abjure the label “feminist”) may not like rowdy revolutionary posturing, we live in a country that has been reshaped by the women’s movement, in which the traditional family is increasingly obsolete. As of September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than sixty per cent of American women aged twenty and over were working or seeking work, and, according to the Shriver Report, women are either the primary or the co-breadwinner in two-thirds of American families. For many of them, this isn’t an exercise in empowerment; it’s about making a living and, for working mothers in particular, often a hard living.

Feminism as an identity politics has enjoyed real victories. It matters that women serve on the Supreme Court, that they make decisions in business, government, academia, and the media. But a preoccupation with representation suggests that feminism has lost its larger ambitions.

We’ve come a long way in the past forty years; there’s no “maybe” about it. The trouble is that the journey hasn’t always been in the intended direction. These days, we can only dream about a federal program insuring that women with school-age children have affordable child care. If such a thing seems beyond the realm of possibility, though, that’s another sign of our false-memory syndrome. In the early seventies, we very nearly got it.

In 1971, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Walter Mondale, came up with legislation that would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country. Tuition would be on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program would be available to everyone but participation was required of no one. Both houses of Congress passed the bill.

Nobody remembers this, because, later that year, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act...

So close. And now so far. The amazing journey of American women is easier to take pride in if you banish thoughts about the roads not taken. When you consider all those women struggling to earn a paycheck while rearing their children, and start to imagine what might have been, it’s enough to make you want to burn something.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Hijras: legal recognition, India and Pakistan

Rather amazing.


India's Election Commission has given eunuchs an independent identity by letting them choose their gender as "other" on ballot forms.

Read more here. (BBC, Nov. 13)

And Pakistan.

Pakistan's Supreme Court says eunuchs must be allowed to identify themselves as a distinct gender in order to ensure their rights.

BBC, Dec. 23. More here.

Comment on this from Kebabfest here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Evolutionary Psychology Critiqued: William Deresiewicz

From a review in The Nation of a field I never knew existed, until reading this piece: literary Darwinism. After you read the review you will realize that you can continue to ignore this rather silly strand of literary studies. But the introduction to the review does a nice job of critiquing the broader field of evolutionary psychology, upon which literary Darwinism is based. Excerpts follow:

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp... The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters--gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure--that it's no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal...Equip yourself with a few basic concepts--natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice--and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up...

the problem lies less in the field's goals than in its claims. Much of its opposition is misguided and out-of-date... those who reject the notion of human psychology as a product of evolution (that is, of nature rather than culture) would undoubtedly recoil at the idea that human physiology is
not a product of evolution. The only alternative is creationism...Surely no one would dispute that there is a universal bee nature or dog nature or chimpanzee nature. Why not then acknowledge, at least in principle, a universal human nature, however various its elaborations in culture?

The question is, What does it consist of, how did it arise and can we discover it? Here is where evolutionary psychology falls down. EP claims that the human mind evolved in the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which Homo sapiens emerged on the African savanna. EP seeks to identify apparently innate and cross-culturally universal aspects of human behavior (like speech), then tries to construct scenarios to explain why such behaviors would have been adaptive--would have promoted individual or collective survival and reproduction--in the Pleistocene environment. This all sounds reasonable until you discover that: (1) we don't actually know what the Pleistocene environment looked like; (2) we don't know how our Pleistocene ancestors lived; and (3) we now believe that evolution might happen a lot faster than we used to think, so much of our psychology may not be a product of the Pleistocene at all but of the 10,000 years since the emergence of civilization. There are other problems with the stories that EP likes to make up about how we got to be the way we are. They still have no support in genetics. If something's not genetic, it's not evolved. Also, not all behaviors (or physiological structures) are the result of selection pressures. Some are byproducts of other capacities, as literacy clearly is. Some are the result of functional shifts (insects' wings, for example, seem to have developed at first to regulate heat). Finally, there are some deeply ingrained human behaviors that seem very hard to justify in adaptive terms.