Thursday, 13 August 2015

Rant about the Power of Stories

I must have been about 12 years old when my mum told me about the nightmare that my brother K, who was 8 at the time, had had the previous night.
I was surprised by this. Not because of the content of the dream, or how it had affected K or mum, but by the FACT that my brother HAD DREAMS. He was a PERSON, not just a little kid who could be a nuisance to me.
Let’s just say I was not the most socially or emotionally precocious child …
I was reminded of this incident some months ago when reading about a grassroots awareness campaign that an NGO was running in some rural Indian village aimed at improving the rights of women.* The program was simple: organising workshops for men, during which they were taught how and why to treat women better. But the level was startling to someone living in my comfortable western, urban, educated bubble. One man, interviewed after completing the workshop, was proudly explaining how he had learnt that he should treat his wife and mother better, because they were people too and had their own thoughts and feelings.
While I’m hoping that all of you (men) reading will know that your wives and mothers have their own thoughts and feelings, why is it still that men have stories and experiences and women have women’s stories and experiences? And men are only interested in the stories and experiences of the default kind?
This was bothering me, so I did a test with one of the most casually comfortable male feminists I know, my partner F.** (This means that everything I say from now on has been scientifically proven.) I asked F to name his 5 favourite movies and 5 favourite authors. He named Lord of the Rings, Pride, The Jungle Book, Matrix and Dinner for One (movies) and Daniel Kehlmann, Herman Melville, Erich Maria Remarque, Ronald Dworkin and Karl May (authors).***
This tallies with statistics. Men read books written by men. Women read more books written by women, but because women read more than men in general, in the end this still means that 50% of male authors’ readership is female (while only 20% of female authors’ readership is male).**** I had a quick look at my own reading journal (yes, I keep a reading journal, shut up) and it appears that since the start of 2014 I’ve read 15 books written by men (42%) and 21 books written by women (58%). Granted, a book written by a man is not necessarily about men and a book written by a woman is not necessarily about women, but I am willing to state that the gender of the author (just like other attributes, such as race, nationality, class) does mean something in considering what the stories are that these authors write.
Same goes for movies. Women go to see more movies than men do (source). Here my facts are admittedly more vague and impressionistic, but let’s see if you agree. Women go to see all kinds of movies, including ones that focus on the stories of men (this follows from the stats – as there are many more women who go to the movies than there are movies about women, they must be also watching the stories of men). But I find it hard to even imagine a man going with his bros to see movies about women. This applies across the spectrum, from rom-coms to buddy road trips (Thelma & Louise) to serious drama (think last year’s Still Alice) and even war movies (which are almost by definition about men, but one exception comes to mind, the 2008 Les Femmes de l’Ombre, which is about four French (women) commandoes sent to rescue a captured geologist). If men go to see such movies, it is because their wives/girlfriends drag them there.
Why is that? Why do men not even consider women’s stories interesting enough to watch on screen (or read)? I get it that the most popular movie genre is a white hetero dude saving the world, but why ONLY this story, over and over again? And I don’t only mean douchebags who complain that the role given to Charlize Theron in the latest Mad Max ruins the whole action movie genre (really), but men in general?
I can only pose the question, I think, inviting everyone to provide their thoughts, and to consciously examine their own entertainment consumption habits. I will also continue to drag F to see movies that do not star white hetero dudes and suggest he read good books written by women. If any of you other smart dudes out there want to broaden your horizons and find awesome authors that happen to be women, I am happy to give tips and recommendations!
Because this stuff matters. Media and culture are key to better understanding which is key to better empathizing which is key to better accepting.
Love and peace.

*I read this in a paper article which I can no longer locate, which means that I can neither give the source nor even the name of the NGO. Bad me.
**He recently ran a ½ marathon wearing a “this is what a feminist looks like” T-shirt, without even mentioning it to me. It was a campaign tee for a Palestinian LGBT organisation. I was so proud of him.
***F told me that apparently info on favourite movies and authors is very personal, so for the sake of fairness, my favourite authors are Terry Pratchett, Margaret Atwood, Sofi Oksanen, Mika Waltari and Chimamanda Ngoci Adichie. I've mentioned my favourite movies in another rant.
****Admittedly this is only one study, but done by GoodReads based on the data their members reported, so quite a comprehensive look at avid readers. The Guardian did some good simple analysis on the numbers.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Rant Insulting Charlie

(Hi! I'm back!)
Religious nutjobs storm the offices of a French cartoon magazine spraying bullets and fear and all of a sudden we all turn into Charlie.
I was hoping, as we all were, that ultimately something good would come out of the atrocity, like happened in Norway after the Utøya massacre four years ago when the nation came together, confirmed its liberal values and became the most admirable country on earth. There were encouraging signs with the unity marches (I was on the other side of the globe at the time, but there was a Je suis Charlie demonstration even in Auckland) and the awesome cover of the 14 Jan edition of Charlie Hebdo (and the fact that so many news outlets reprinted the cover with full knowledge that this will be considered a provocation by religious nutjobs).
What bothers me is that we are all so keen to be Charlie without much thought for what Charlie really is or was.
Freedom of expression is such a nice concept in theory. It is also nice when we are using it ourselves or someone is using it to criticise something we also see as a problem. But it is distinctly less nice when it is used to insult and offend us.
David Brooks at New York Times wrote a pertinent column pointing out that Charlie Hebdo would have failed in the United States and in Finland Helsingin Sanomat went further by noting that many of its cartoons would have been illegal. Charlie Hebdo was indeed in the business of dishing out insults in all directions, being a quintessential iconoclast.
Should we be protected from being insulted? Germans and Swiss seem to think so. Both countries have decided that to hell with the freedom of expression, the right not to be insulted is more important and protected by the CRIMINALISATION of insults.
Other countries are more restrained and only restrict certain types of insults. The legal systems I know best, namely English and Finnish, still contain blasphemy laws. The thinking appears to be that while our feelings in general are not worthy of protection, our religious feelings are somehow different and more important. The belief in the concept of “holy” is not just an everyday feeling, it is different, indeed holy in itself. Insulting it is worthy of punishment.
The European Court of Human Rights has been of no help, upholding the conviction of a neo-nazi for disseminating anti-Semitic materials* and a ban on a vulgar movie including Christian imagery.**
Herein lies, in my humble opinion, the problem. How can we condemn religious nutjobs for taking the law into their own hands and dishing out punishment for an act that our societies themselves consider unlawful and deserving of punishment? Isn’t that hypocritical? If we want to say, like some religious authorities do, that what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists did was unacceptable, but that the right punishment was not a bullet in the head, then at least that is honest criticism. If we want to go further, and say that we are Charlie, thereby indicating that we endorse the right to freedom of expression to the extent of insulting everything and everybody, including things we hold dear,*** then we must look in the mirror and repeal the laws that restrict that freedom, whether blasphemy laws, general laws criminalising insults, or vague terrorism laws.
So far that appears to have happened only in Iceland, the smart little country that abolished its blasphemy law after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. France, by contrast, seems to be going in the opposite direction. Some of you will have heard about Dieudonné’s conviction for his thoughtless “Charlie Coulibaly” facebook comment, but more alarmingly I read in my Amnesty magazine that in total 117 people were charged in the two weeks following the attacks under France’s laws that criminalise “praising terrorism”, many of them summarily condemned. Calling the attack “France’s 9/11” appears to have been accurate in perhaps more ways than intended.
This is sad and counterproductive. Locking up islamists when they say hurtful things only furthers their sense of victimisation. If we really are for freedom of expression, we must be for all of it, including insults, and for everyone, including Muslims. When I see that happening, I will be able to conclude that freedom won and the bullets of those religious nutjobs really did hit their own foot.

*Kühnen v. Germany, App No. 12194/86 (1988).
**Wingrove v. United Kingdom, App No. 17419/90 (1996).
***Chapeau here for the French President François Hollande, for standing up so firmly for a magazine that dished out pretty outrageous insults at him.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Rant about Leaving a Murderous Terrorist Organisation

I have several heroes (don’t we all), and I’ve referred to a few of them in my rants.  The recent discussions about Western youth becoming radicalised and joining murderous terrorist organisations like ISIS has several times reminded me of the wise words of one of my heroes: the economist, social scientist and all around genius Amartya Sen.

In 2006, when the Iraqi war was already going seriously pear-shaped, prisoners were being tortured in Guantanamo and elsewhere and tensions between Western countries and islamists were consequently at an all time high, Professor Sen wrote an insightful book called Identity and Violence. 

The book resonates incredibly well today.  If I grossly oversimplify its central message, it is that we all have multiple identities.  I will use myself as an example to illustrate:  I am, among other things, a friend, a partner, a daughter, a sister, a humanist, a feminist, an environmentalist, a lawyer, a hockey player, a Finn, a vegetarian, a Linkin Park fan, a reader, and left-handed.  All of these identifies have a role to play in shaping my life.  I can also bet that if I continue the list for a little while longer, there will not be a person left on this planet with whom I will not find an identity in common.

This is the key, according to Sen, to understanding (and perhaps assisting in de-radicalising) the young extremist.  Because nobody is “just” a jihadist.  A person who takes their religion very seriously will see this identity influence more aspects of their life than someone like me, but it will never, ever, become their sole identity.  We are all still the children of our parents, friends to those we like and while religion might influence what we eat, read or listen to, those interests in food, books and music still exist and shape us independently of the underlying religion. 

Religious fervour tends to lead to tunnel vision, in which all the rest of our identities become obscured, but this does not mean that those other identities are not there.  Maybe they can be teased out by non-confrontational techniques – in other words, discussion.  As I said, there will not be a person in the world with whom I will not share at least one identity, usually many.  When you have something in common with someone, you have something to talk about.  And when someone is talking about something, they are remembering that part of their identity and engaging with it.

This is an idea of how to get an obsessive radical to obsess a little less.  It is not going to help in dealing with the aftermath of someone having committed atrocities.  That is what criminal law, prosecutors, courts and the police are there for.

I try to also think of it as a good reminder when I am talking to someone with whom I appear to have very little to talk about.  There will always be that shared bit of identity there somewhere.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Rant about Joining a Murderous Terrorist Organisation

I rarely rant about current affairs.  That is for people with more flexible schedules, and nimble minds.  I take time to think my rants through and then to write them.  I’m hoping the topics are not going to be moot a week from posting them.
But at the same time I feel that we are seeing something quite unprecedented here, so it would look odd in perspective, if somebody looked at these ten years down the line, and got the impression that I was ranting about pandas, heels and washing machines, as if there wasn’t a massive war going on, a war which scores of my countrymen (and some countrywomen) were joining.
In this day and age that post-dates Enlightenment by about 250 years, European kids are running off to fight the good fight, not for any noble humanitarian reasons, but in order to force a brutal religious dictatorship on people and off with their heads if they don’t conform.
There seems to be a certain amount of head scratching going on among people of just about every colour and creed in Europe.  We don’t understand why this is happening.  The parents and friends of these facebook-jihadists don’t understand why this is happening.
I actually find it quite easy to understand. 
It is happening because these people are young and because they are confused.  ISIS responds to their twin need of absolute certainty at a time when everything is uncertain and for adventure that just doesn’t get satisfied by playing video games.
Don’t you remember when you were young?  There are all kinds of confusing ideas going on in your head.  Your body is doing funny things.  You are supposed to start behaving like a grown up, having a life plan, deciding what you want to do with your life.  We all thought on some level that we were going to be special when we were kids.  We were going to have a purpose and make a difference.  We were going to change the world.  Now it was dawning on us that we probably weren’t.  Being a lawyer or a lab technician was not the master plan we had vaguely imagined as kids.  The adult that we were becoming was bound to disappoint everyone, but most of all the kid we had so recently been.
Add to that the confusion of living at the intersection of two cultures, which are both pulling you in different directions.  There is simply no way of satisfying everyone around you, the needs and wishes of your parents are diametrically opposed to those of (some of your) friends.
This is when someone comes and tells you that he has all the answers.  No need to make difficult choices, no need to feel inadequate and confused.  The answers are all there, in the holy book.  You are special, you have a mission from god.  You are god’s soldier.  You just have to follow the rules and orders.
But there is more.  You don’t just want certainty and a purpose.  You want adventure.  Boys will be boys, they say.  Boys drive too fast and they commit petty crime.  But that is all a bit lame, all a bit childish.  You get told that you get to go and BLOW SHIT UP.  And you can be absolutely certain that this is happening for a good cause.  Not just a good cause, but the only cause there is.  God’s cause.
Alas, a full circle.  It all comes together beautifully.  God is the answer to your need for certainty as well as to your need for adventure.
Now I don’t know how many of them are disappointed or scared or regretful when they arrive in Syria and reality kicks in.  I understand that the westerners hang out among themselves, so that will probably make it easier.  But I don’t know what happens to these people.  Chopping off someone’s head or taking part in gang rape is presumably a bit more difficult to grow out of than shoplifting.
So I don’t know much.  But I think I know why this is happening. 
I also have an idea (not THE idea, just AN idea) how this could be tackled.  I’ll get back to that in my next rant.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Rant about How Mobile Phones Will Save the World

I may have just found the most effective environmental innovation of the century.  It’s called “pay as you go”.
We humans are lazy and indulgent.  We are comfort-seeking and prefer to close our eyes from all the inconvenient stuff, as that might make us feel guilty or even get off our fat bottoms and do something about it, heaven forbid.  Better not to notice, to silence that little nagging voice in our heads and think that the “climate change sceptics” might have a point,* and oh well, what could I do anyway.
But the one thing that motivates us is money.  Not money in general, OUR money.  We don’t want to spend too much of it, and we want to make more of it.  No human being in the history of the world has ever had too much money.
Our decisions are made based on a tug-of-war between our financial prudence (called also “stinginess” in less flattering terms) and our laziness.  Calculating the most efficient and cheap way can’t be too complicated or we give up.  So something that saves us money is only worth it if it is easy for us to understand how and why and how much it saves.
Enter pay as you go. 
Take the most obvious example, mobile phones.  Most of us have a contract that charges us a certain basic amount per month, and this includes often a number of calls, text messages and data transfer.  We like to kid ourselves into thinking that we got a good deal by telling everyone how many “free” minutes or “free” text messages we get with our phone deal, when of course the real answer is “zero”.  Those minutes and SMSs are not free but included in our contract, and probably we don’t even use them all, meaning that we end up paying for supposedly “free” stuff we don’t use.
I also had one of these contracts.  I congratulated myself on a good deal and sometimes called people just to use all my “free” minutes.  But then I went to Namibia and got a pay-as-you-go phone, which I fed with vouchers I bought from street vendors.  If I had to reload more than once a week, I felt I was spending too much money and began paying attention to my phone habits.  Yet my average weekly voucher was NAM 20, which amounts to about € 1.50.  Hand on your heart: how many of you, with your great phone deals, pay less than € 6 per month?
This could be rolled out to all kinds of stuff.  We also had pay-as-you-go electricity in Namibia, where we fed vouchers to the machine, which then ticked down the amounts at an alarming rate.  Apart from my refusal to let go of the heater that I carried around the house (I did get used to the cold at some point and stopped doing that…), it made us VERY conscious of the consumption of electricity.  Similarly, the washing machine in our building was fitted with a card system while we were away, and I can assure you that we pay much more attention to filling the machine up properly and reducing the number of loads we wash now that we see every time exactly how much it is costing us.**
So every house and every flat should move to pay-as-you-go electricity.  Could the same be done with gas and water?  I don’t see why not.  In a way cars already do this, but maybe the measuring could be done more explicitly, so that behind your wheel the meter is not telling you how much petrol you have left, but how much money you have just spent driving.  Same with restaurants.  My new favourite restaurant is a buffet where you pay by the weight of the food.  Makes you MUCH more conscious of how much stuff you're piling on your plate and thus reduces waste. 

I bet several other ideas have already popped to your heads while you’ve been reading.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how the world will be saved.  Or do you disagree?
*They do not.  Don’t be stupid.
**An arm and a leg, that’s how much.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The One You've Been Waiting for: Rant against Marriage (aka "How to Piss Off Most of Your Friends")

Many of you, my dear friends, are married. 
I am not. 
People in Namibia were hardly subtle about their view on this state of affairs.  A common comment from colleagues at the LAC, for example: “You’re not married”, looking at my hand and the glaring absence of the tell-tale ring.  “You must get married.  Soon.”
Now you’re thinking “sure, but Namibia is a banana republic, this is not how we civilized people think”. WRONG.  Here is, just as a taster,* the Supreme Court of Canada:
[The] ultimate raison d’être [of marriage] is firmly anchored in the biological and social realities that heterosexual couples have the unique ability to procreate, that most children are the product of these relationships, and that they are generally cared for and nurtured by those who live in that relationship.  In this sense, marriage is by nature heterosexual.  It would be possible to legally define marriage to include homosexual couples, but this would not change the biological and social realities that underlie the traditional marriage.”**
Ah, the good old “traditional marriage”.  What the HELL is that?  The “traditional marriage” is about ownership of land and movable property, such as women.  Marriage was the social construct that permitted men to police the sexual conduct of women and in this way try to ensure that the son who would inherit the land was in fact the product of their loins.  

And WHEN did this lovely “traditional marriage” exist? Well, it was prescribed in the Marriage Act of Switzerland UNTIL 1988 that wives had a legal obligation to obey their husbands.***  Nice. 
So the marriage that most of you have entered into, and which is based legally nowadays on the equality of spouses but apparently still tied to popping babies (or at least the theoretical possibility of doing so), and therefore not available to homosexuals, is a fleeting concoction of a few decades.  Before then marriage was something quite different.  Some of this “traditional” stuff still remains.  How many of you ladies were “given away” by your fathers as part of the ceremony?  The symbolism of THAT particular gesture is hardly subtle.
When I make these points in discussion, everyone (married) gets defensive and tells me that all this is nonsense and meaningless to THEIR very special relationship, which they are entitled to define for themselves.  Sure, everyone is indeed entitled to define their relationship as they wish.  But they are not entitled to define their “marriage” as they wish.  You see, the society has made a huge deal of ensuring that homosexuals CANNOT define their very special relationship as a marriage.  So once a (hetero) couple has decided that “marriage” is the relationship they wish to have, they are plunging into a structure that is predefined by law and society.  “[T]he words ‘I do’ bring the most intense private and voluntary commitment into the most public, law-governed and state-regulated domain.”****
Until the institution of marriage changes, becomes truly equal and keeps its nose out of my procreative designs, the society can keep its stinking marriage.  I indeed define my own relationship (well, F has a bit of a say as well…), and “marriage” is a definition I want to steer well clear of.*****
Now PLEASE tell me you were provoked enough to leave some comments.  Rebel! Protest! Tell me that my views suck and you never want to hear them again!
*You REALLY don’t want to get me started on the comments that were made during the debates in the Finnish Parliament when the Marriage Equality Bill was being debated.  It is remarkable how unashamedly regressive supposedly modern people can get when they oppose the human rights of others, but just don’t want to say that this is what they are doing.
**Egan v. Canada, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 513, p. 536 (La Forest, J.).
***A good short introduction to the development of the law on marriage in Switzerland is provided in Baddeley “Le droit de la famille, un droit en constante evolution”, in Chappuis,Foëx and Thévenoz, Le législateur et le droit privé : Colloque en l'honneur du professeur Gilles Petitpierre. (Genève, Schulthess, 2006) pp. 39-56.  Amusing in a painful way.
****Minister of Home Affairs and Another v Fourie and Another (CCT 60/04) [2005] ZACC 19; 2006 (3) BCLR 355 (CC); 2006 (1) SA 524 (CC) (1 December 2005) (Sachs J).
*****Cue in smugness from friends from countries such as Canada (which changed its mind quite quickly after the Egan decision quoted above), France and the UK, where an equal marriage is of course already the reality.  I hereby raise an imaginary toast to C in Canada and T in England on their recent engagements to enter into an equal marriage!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rant in Defence of Nasty People

For them marriage outside one’s own caste is punishable by death, and too much contact with non-believers is in general polluting, and to be discouraged.  Only men can become chiefs and once they do, they may take several wives.  They believe they are descended only from Adam, not Eve, with her undesirable feminine ways.
If I had been the head of marketing at the murderous terrorist organisation ISIS (an interesting thought experiment…), the above would have featured quite heavily in my recent propaganda.
You see, this is from the Wikipedia description of the Yadizis, the people that ISIS has been genociding in Northern Iraq in recent months and for whom we have all been feeling very sorry as a result.*  Would we have been feeling quite so sorry for them, if we had known that they are not necessarily the nicest people on earth themselves, but have some practices and beliefs that we feminists actually find quite objectionable?
I really hope the answer for everyone is “yes”. 
As I mentioned in my post about LGBT rights some weeks ago, human rights are for everyone, not just nice people.  This is why I don’t get the reaction of the islamophobic trolls that fill the comments sections of any news involving Muslims, for example.  They think that if only they educated me about the fact that women are discriminated against by their menfolk in the Gaza strip, I would – as a feminist – accept the Israeli bombing of them.  How silly.  I’m well aware of some problematic aspects of Islam, and I’m happy to have a conversation about anyone on the Gaza strip about them, but PLEASE STOP BOMBING THEM FIRST.  I am also happy to have this conversation with any Muslim in Finland or Switzerland, but PLEASE STOP DISCRIMINATING AGAINST THEM FIRST. 
In short, someone not being herself or himself an angel is no reason not to grant her or him the same rights as everyone else.  And I should not have to pretend that they are an angel in order to convince everyone that their rights merit protection.
This hit me quite hard last week, when I received some torture campaign material from Amnesty.  Torture is wrong; I hope all of us agree.  So why do they have to only include nice people among their list of examples of torture victims?  One is described as a father and a husband, another as a prisoner of consciousness.  Who cares?  They should not be tortured whether they are saints or terrorists.
As the well-known saying goes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”**  That should hold true for every right, and for every person.***
*Although not doing much else than feeling sorry but that is another story.
**Often misattributed to Voltaire, but actually the phrase is apparently from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, his biographer.  A woman’s wise words being attributed incorrectly to a man, how surprising.
***Well, maybe not quite the death part, but you get the general sentiment.