Bintou, a play by Koffi Kwahulé

Gender plays a very important role in this play. SPOILER ALERT! It’s about FGM (female genital mutilation). Bintou, the main character, is a leader of the gang called the “Wild Dogs”, living with her mother and ever absent father. The story details her rebellious existence, and results in the climactic mutilation of her genitals by a woman trained in such things, and her subsequent death. This all takes place in a ghetto, from what I can discern, in a Western country.

Gender touches many aspects of this story by the very nature of it’s subject matter. For the purpose of my brief analysis, gender will be taken to mean the socialized binary between male and female. A female character existing in a sexist culture, outside of the norms expected of her will create conflict. Bintou does this in several ways.

The first indication of conflicts about her gender is her interactions with her Uncle Drissa. A story told by Bintou tells of him assaulting her. He talks to her about how the way she dresses will attract sick people on the streets, and how she should wear a bra. His close attention to her clothing shows two things. The first is that Bintou exists in a society that victim blames. What she wears is used to shift the blame of sexual assault back onto her, as though she were asking for it. Furthermore, the dynamics between an unscrupulous and predatory uncle and his thirteen year old niece show a distinct power imbalance. Bintou uses her switchblade to chase him off the first time, but further in the play he strikes her, and forces her to remove her clothes for the mutilation to take place. In a patriarchal society, women are often forced to either go along with the will of their oppressors, or defend themselves through drastic means.

Secondly, Bintou’s leadership of her gang shows a female in power, but who possesses masculine traits. This is often how women get positions of power in a patriarchal society. Bintou is street-hardened, and merciless, a complex character who doesn’t wear panties and thrills at the killing of a man staring at her by one of her Wild Dogs. She asserts power through her sexuality – a powerful sedative of male force. She doesn’t wear panties, and often her gang members speak of seeing between her legs under her short skirts. They are eager to please, competing with the member who killed the man staring at her for her affections. The men she reigns over do not question her, despite being older. Her boyfriend is white, arguably holding even more privilege over the black gang members, and still he submits to her whims, which I found very interesting. She exists outside the world she lives in, acting as she pleases, and this is attractive to her gang members. Her outspoken and charismatic character evokes masculinity, yet she is still intriguing in a sexual way through her laid-backness, and her young body. The complexity of her character is reflected in her traditionally female vulnerability, and her masculine outspokenness and power.

Thirdly, the obvious gendered aspect of this story is the attempt to curb Bintou’s lustfulness through female genital mutilation. The kind of FGM depicted in the story is the removal of the clitoris, performed by an “expert”. Bintou’s uncle pays to have her kidnapped, and then have her held down while she is cut by her own switchblade. This act reflects more on the unnamed society that her family comes from, than on Bintou herself. She is subject to the demonizing of female sexuality, and it kills her.

FGM is an interesting issue, in that it is argued in the feminist context frequently from both sides. This story shows a heinous act done to a girl who is barely a teenager because her parents find her to be out of control. There is no question that this is a violation of her human rights. It is also done to a Western black girl, not someone submersed in an African culture that promotes the virtues of FGM. But many feminists argue that stopping societies from performing FGM is a form of colonialism. Many girls wish to have the operation done as they will otherwise not be able to find a husband, or will be outcasts. Simply outlawing FGM is not enough, it requires a change of society’s mindset and views surrounding it. To our Western eyes, the gut reaction is disgust and repulsion, and classing the society’s committing FGM as savages. Arguments have been made to request a thoughtful approach to FGM, rather than one built on emotion. There is no question that it is bad for girls and women, but the society must change the root cause rather than simply changing the legality of the process.

Though this play was remarkably hard to read (the part depicting Bintou’s mutilation made me feel dizzy), it was an interesting look at the demise of a woman who tried to exist outside of her the patriarchal constructs surrounding how she should act. It perhaps serves as a cautionary tale for the girls who aren’t angelic, the girls who are foul-mouthed and evil, the girls who don’t wear panties and who rule men. Eventually people tire of the “trouble”, of the stretching of their gendered categories, and they lash out. Society cannot handle a woman like Bintou, and so she was killed.

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A Comment on Ottawa’s Attitude towards the LGBTQ Community, from the Perspective of an Ally

Last night, I attended an event at Babylon called “Zombie Strippers”. This annual Halloween show is put on by Rockalily Burlesque, a sex-positive group established in Ottawa in 2006. The event was pretty much what it sounds like: burlesque performers doing halloween themed performances, preceded by a band and sponsored by some local business, such as Auntie Loo’s (why yes, I did eat two of her delicious vegan cupcakes!) and Venus Envy (a really great women-positive sex shop). All proceeds from the cupcakes or merchandise sold at the show (including some fancy sequinned pasties) went to Pink Triangle Services. PTS is a great community organization around Ottawa that offers counselling, parenting help, and lots of other programs touching topics like creating safe spaces, or queer health. All this said, with all this positivity surrounding sex, identity and individuality, I overheard a few comments that really made me sick.

Situation #1: One dude looks around the room, and lists off all the costumes he sees that are slutty to his friend. Problematic on SO many levels. For one thing, you came to a burlesque performance… did you not expect to see women dressed in skimpy outfits? Another thing, who the hell gave him the right to sit on his patriarchal high horse and judge each and every woman in the vicinity? Prime example of a raging virgin/whore complex.

Situation #2: The harsh judging of an LGBTQ man who did a hula hooping routine. Claiming he didn’t have a talent, speculation on his sexual preferences and just plain old laughing at him abounded from the men behind me. The same goes for any performer who didn’t fit conventional beauty standards, although for this example I found them particularly vocal.

Situation #3: My shorter friend and I asked if we could squeeze in at the front. The man beside us said there was no room for him to move, but he would let us go in front of him since he can see over our heads. There was a condition, though: he had to be able to put his drinks on the banister, and reach for them every now and then when he wanted a sip. But ladies, beware! His hand has a mind of it’s own! Yes, he told us that. My friend and I laughed politely, as women are wont to do, and I stood their awkwardly wondering if she heard what he said, and if I should have done something differently. But at the risk of causing a scene? Maybe not.

Yes, my feminist buzz kill side is showing. All these things seem like common, minor, perhaps “faux pas”s. Or maybe to some people, they aren’t even a problem. But they reflect the need for events like Zombie Strippers, or organizations like PTS. They show a culture in Ottawa that fosters misogyny and discrimination. I look forward to the next show the lovely ladies and men of Rockalily will be putting on, and keep on working Ottawa! We can always think critically about what happens around us, and try to be as inclusive as possible. Ottawa’s awesome LGBTQ community is part of what makes it a wonderful city to live in.

Women on Waves in Morocco & Abortion

The issue I’d like to address in this blog post is the recent news featuring the Dutch organization that has sailed a ship off the coast of Morocco offering abortions, and a hotline regarding abortion information. A general news article on the story can be found here:

Dutch group offering abortions on boat escorted from Moroccan harbour

I’ll sum up this gist of the story, using a few sources including the link provided above. In Morocco, abortion and the distribution of information regarding abortion is illegal. The exception (which is described as “rare” in the article) is if a woman’s life is threatened. The Dutch organization called Women on Waves used a boat with an abortion hotline written on the side to hand out informational fliers to bystanders. The group claims that the boat was fully equipped to provide safe abortions to women who wanted them. Furthermore, they planned to show women how to safely abort using an inducement drug, as well as discuss abortion in Morocco. The abortion services were considered safe up to six and a half weeks of pregnancy (source).

Naturally, many protestors were present. Some protestors stated that the Dutch group did not provide services in line with their Moroccan values. In addition to this, abortions are illegal in Morocco, and prohibited in Islam. However, Rebecca Gomberts, the group’s leader states that they were invited by a youth group called Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms, implying that some people in Morocco are receptive to Women on Waves’ message. The health ministry stated that the ship would not be allowed into harbour, and the marina was closed. But the group had feared this response, and had parked their vessel a few days earlier. They sailed out of the port, but were escorted out of the marina, as the ministry stated they were not authorized to provide these services to Moroccans (sourcesourcesource).

So, what exactly is Women on Waves’ message? Their website provides this description of their core message:

Women on Waves aims to prevent unsafe abortions and empower women to exercise their human rights to physical and mental autonomy. We trust that women can do a medical abortion themselves and make sure that women have access to medical abortion and information through innovative strategies. But ultimately it is about giving women the tools to resist repressive cultures and laws.

The group has also been on various other missions to Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Poland. The Moroccan expedition is the first attempt to provide their services in a Muslim country. They attempt to provide safe abortions where they are illegal. They also do art projects, provide safe abortion hotlines, as well as projects within their native Netherlands. They possess a license under Dutch law to provide abortions aboard their mobile facility, but only within a 25 km radius of the Stotervaart Hospital for first trimester abortions. Because abortions by pill up to 6.5 weeks are not regulated in the Netherlands, the group can provide these with no regulations.

From a liberal legal standpoint, what Women on Waves is doing is wrong on all levels. They’re exercising complete disregard for state sovereignty, the cornerstone of liberal international law. Without state sovereignty, the entire system is toppled. Although, this is more of an ideal than a reality. One has to look no further than the United States’ international relations to realize that sovereignty may be enshrined in words, but not in actions.

When looking at this from a critical legal studies perspective, one approach would be to look at how well the Moroccan law fits Moroccan society. Judging by the articles on the case, citizens are generally happy with the law prohibiting abortion. They do not wish for a change, despite the fact that a minority of people do wish for discussion regarding the abortion laws in their country. Women who can afford it do go for abortions in other countries, though other poor women have unsafe abortions in their home country.

From a liberal feminist perspective, the law prohibiting abortions in Morocco, as well as the information regarding abortions is inherently wrong. It denies women rights that they inherently possess regarding the use of their bodies. Feminism is nearly always pro-choice, and it is my believe that the label feminism automatically means pro-choice.

But because of my (not so well-hidden) feminist standpoint, can I argue that what Women on Waves is doing is “right”? Not necessarily. I do believe that providing this sort of triage is a very useful service to scared women in Morocco, who would like to terminate their pregnancy, but are faced with risk with every option. I also believe that Moroccan women should be able to abort if they so choose. But how relevant are my views to these women? Am I another white, upper-middle class, straight, able-bodied feminist, imposing her opinion on a situation she doesn’t truly understand? In short, yes.

Things can be ideologically right without being suitable for the place or time. Nothing is always 100% right for every situation. I applaud these Dutch women for their convictions, their initiative, and their reaching out to women without their same privilege. Missions such as this may be the first step in educating the society, and providing the ground for social change, leading to legal change in Morocco. But women in Morocco have to want this in order for the change to take place. They have to believe abortion should be legal and available. At the current time, every article on the subject is very clear that most people in Morocco are not in favour of a pro-abortion law.

Although women such as myself are firmly convinced that EVERY woman should have access to abortions, this isn’t always the right or available choice. It’s easy to have a gut reaction to an issue such as the Women on Waves mission to Morocco, especially as someone who holds women’s right issues near to their heart. But it’s useful to remind ourselves that there are many social, legal, and political barriers at play, which must be taken into consideration when finding a fit for Moroccan society. Hopefully ultimately women will experience full control over their bodies, but in the mean time, we must be creative in how we approach the issue of abortion in Morocco and other countries.

A Case Against Human Rights

As you may be able to guess from my last post, I approach issues from a very ideological standpoint. As a disclaimer at the beginning of this post, I would like to state that I do not expect policy makers to take the same view as I do, it just isn’t realistic. I do not think that my views could be adopted by states and put into action effectively right now. These are more hopeful musings, a critique of how things are, thoughts spoken aloud. My goal is not to prove the wrongness of the way things are done, but to question them, and to engage others in a thoughtful discussion. Enjoy!

As a student in a few feminist international politics courses in my fourth year, I was no stranger to critiques to the liberal approach to politics. In terms of feminism, liberalism is often critiqued as the “add women and stir theory”. No structural overhaul is required, as if more women take part in various institutions, their views will automatically be reflected in those institutions.

Now, I’m no radical militant feminist (haha….ha), but this didn’t quite click with me. Structurally, our society places women at an automatic disadvantage. For example, adding women to higher ranking jobs seems like a good idea at first. But women who make it to these positions generally embody traditionally male traits. That is wonderful for them, but what about the women who chose to have babies, but would also like a career? It seems as though society should be a little more accommodating to the gender that’s carrying the species’ young, especially when women have so much to offer! So yes, you can add women to high ranking jobs. But this will not guarantee women’s interests being represented. Women who reach such positions embody traditionally male traits, hence, women who would like to hold such positions but are structurally prevented from getting there are excluded either way. As a woman who potentially would like to have a child without forfeiting her career, this seems like a pretty bad deal.

After that brief explanation, I move to liberalism’s crowning glory on the global stage. It’s highest achievement, the most widely accepted standard of goodness that the modern world has: human rights. It’s used by organizations such as the UN to measure a state’s treatment of it’s people, despite an uncritical look at where these rules come from. Being that human rights standards stem from the ideals of a patriarchal, Western society, they of course reflect these values. For my purposes today, I will focus on the patriarchal aspect rather than the Western bias.

The best example of the inherent bias of human rights is the issue of healthcare. Although it is generally accepted that everyone should get equal healthcare, this is approached from a formal equality point of view. Yes, everyone should get vaccinations, emergency care, AIDS medication, etc. But, because everyone doesn’t require maternal care, birth control, or abortions, they’re often not considered under this umbrella statement. Despite the statement that everyone is entitled to equal healthcare, the outcome is not equal. Major gaps in necessary care are left for women when human rights are approached from a patriarchal perspective.

I struggle to explain this well. In terms of substantive equality, it recognizes that not everyone starts from the same level. So if women are to be equal, they require maternal healthcare and other services. Even though men do not require this sort of care, it doesn’t mean that it should be excluded from the human rights platform. It’s a necessary service to humanity.

Because it mainly focuses on the direct benefit to needs possessed by every member of humanity, human rights is not the most powerful tool for feminism. You could argue for the indirect benefit for everyone of women-specific healthcare, but there are many arguments within the human rights framework against this. For example, where do we stop? The slippery slope argument is popular because it wonders where we draw the line as to necessary services. If we give women this… then what will other “special interest groups” ask for next? Furthermore, when approaching things from a liberal, formal equality point of view, it’s near impossible to understand a feminist argument, as everyone appears to be starting from the same place. I would wonder if feminists can change the concept of human rights enough so that it still serves the vision of liberals, while also being inclusive of women’s needs? Is there any point in using human rights to achieve equality for women?

Although human rights seems on the surface to be a model to govern by, I don’t think that it’s as effective as it comes across. It glosses over structural inequalities, and not exclusively those felt by women. Let me know your thoughts on this, and perhaps some potential solutions! I’d love to hear them, and thanks for reading another long-winded, rant-y post.