The last working week of the year, has been a cherry on top of a difficult but exhilarating 2018.
It started with me getting a whole raft of new responsibilities packaged as a new role.
I continued to commute weekly to Amsterdam for the second year in a row, I learned a new programming language, pulled countless all-nighters, implemented my first deep learning algorithms, despaired, mentored people in my team, suffered from recurring bouts of imposter syndrome, found and fixed bugs, felt guilty for falling short on my motherly duties, configured GPU machines, pushed myself, had doubts, deployed cutting-edge solutions on platforms that are too new to be stable or offer guidelines, had more doubts, lead and delivered three projects, lost hair, and one day at a time earned the respect of everyone I’ve worked with in an-all-male tech industry.
It finished with me partying with my team in Amsterdam to celebrate a successful delivery on week 51!
I’m proud of us! And for one who seldom boasts here it goes: I’m proud, damn proud, for representing an endangered species which is women in highly technical positions in the tech industry and on February 20th, 2019 I’ll be at @STEMWomenLondon to find more crazy driven women to represent!
Today marks my paternal aunt’s chellom, the 40th day after her passing. This day in Persian culture has enormous significance. People generally conclude a long period of mourning by holding a wake to honour the memory of a deceased loved one. I had never known my Ammeh’s accurate age until after her passing. Through some arithmetical gymnastics my father and I were able to deduce that she must have been no older than 15 when she was married off and probably in the range of 15 to 16 when she gave birth to her first child. Her eldest daughter, my cousin, and my father’s niece, childhood friend, and playmate is only a year younger than my father and only 15 years younger than her mother, my aunt.
At a time, when people in my generation and those who are younger capture every memorable and non-memorable moment on their smart phones, from weekends away to weekends out on the town, from dinner parties at home to dinners in posh restaurants, to every stylish outfit in between, I found it very unsettling that her life is almost undocumented. There are no letters, no journal entries, and very few pictures. The fact that my aunt and millions of women like her in many parts of the world leave very little behind to mark their time on this earth, their lives, dreams, and aspirations makes them the epitome of mortal.
So, I started to dig a bit. I talked to my father. I talked to my cousin, her youngest daughter, whom I love very much, to find out a bit more. At face value, my aunt’s life is that of an ordinary house-wife and mother in a dusty provincial town. Yet what’s remarkable is that she contributed six highly skilled daughters to the work-force. Among all the names that I draw inspiration from in the struggle for equality, I never realized, until after her passing that my aunt’s contribution to female equality has not been insignificant. Even though she herself was denied access to higher education unlike her six brothers, she gave to the world, a young army of working women, several teachers, a doctor, and a social worker, several of whom were socially and politically active during the 1979 revolution. Her greatest legacy is the six women that she leaves behind. Each one university educated, and each one earning her way through life.
My Ammeh, like my father and the rest of their family, is fascinating in that she was down-to-earth and practical. I don’t recall ever hearing grand goals, inspirational speeches, or fist-to-the-sky proclamations. Yet her pragmatic and utilitarian approach to life, a formula of hard work, commitment to family, and obsession with education paved the way to equity for the females in her inner circle. Despite not ever having expressed grand visions on female equality she’s the embodiment of “deeds not words”. And although it makes me sad that we know so little from her life, she leaves behind the ultimate gift of proof, a further validation that empowering girls to have access to education and employment opportunities is the most effective form of achieving equality. This, to me, is worthier than any individualistic pursuit of self-documentation and a good lesson to uphold for the next generation.
International Women’s Day 2018 is the culmination of one whole year of incredible awakening of the suppressed majority around the globe. It is an emotional day of strikes across Spain – the first “feminist” day of action of such monumental scale trending on Twitter as #HaciaLaHuelgaFeminista. It is a day of demonstrations around the world, from Madrid to Milan, from Istanbul to Islamabad, from Kiev to Kabul, from Manila to Seoul women are marching for equal rights. It is a day in which Khamenei the supreme leader of Iran makes a statement about the “insignificance” of protests against the mandatory hijab. Yet it is also the day that the first woman who publicly removed her white veil and held it as a banner of protest standing tall on power box on Revolution Street in Tehran is handed a draconian prison sentence for this “insignificant” act. It is a day in which the French Daily La Liberation is charging male buyers 50 cents more than the normal 2€ price to highlight the pay gap and a day in which the New York Times has launched Overlooked an effort to write obituaries for influential women who didn’t receive them upon their death. It is also the day where I am honoured to be featured in my former PhD institute‘s, Women’s Day success stories. I feel very proud for having persevered and thrived in life sciences research and now technology, arguably an even more male-dominated sector. Today is also a day where my 2.5 year old is getting her first balancing bicycle as a IWD present so she has the vehicle to go places very early on. Happy International Women Day. We have made amazing strides over the past year so let’s keep on pushing. Grit pays off!
It’s becoming a tired formula. Every few months, a notable man praised and admired for his contribution to comedy, cinema, sports, art, science, politics, the left, the right, some movement or sector or industry, is brought down by allegations of sexism, very often sexual harassment, or even at times sexual assault. It usually transpires that the famous man in question had been transgressing quite blatantly for years, often decades, and getting away with it, before his public fall from grace.
Setting aside the sexual vices of two of the most powerful men in the world, namely Bill Clinton while president and Donald Trump just before he became president for the simple reason that neither man experienced any real fall from grace or significant decrease in power or prestige, let us just focus on show biz over the past two years. Just over the last two years alone, we’ve had Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and now Harvey Weinstein. Each time one of these stories have broken out, other public figures and former associates have reacted invariably with shock and horror, shock and devastation, shock and dismay; the story has been covered incessantly and around the clock by media outlets, then eventually forgotten, and finally after the passage of an acceptable time interval the sexual predator has been rehabilitated into society – these days the medium of podcast being the favourite means.
I follow these stories closely, but I have yet to read a good analysis on the cultural contexts that make these cases so prevalent. These men are not the rogue exceptions in an otherwise perfect show biz. They are the embodiment of a culture centred around sexual exploitation of women – sometimes in the name the lofty ideal of art but often simply for more trivial reasons like profit or power. These artists, the overwhelming majority of whom are men, have their own perspective on what makes beautiful art which is often impossibly beautiful women taking off their clothes. These men, running practically every aspect of the film and TV industry, in turn have monopoly on how they shape our cultural norms of what is acceptable. For far too long western societies have continued to tolerate whatever is fed to them as art or entertainment because doing otherwise indicates ignorance and lack of sophistication.
I have always wondered why films – big-budget studio flicks and art-house titles alike – are so rife with naked women and ever more imaginative sex scenes. This fact is seldom scrutinised by film critics, promoters, or film festival jurors. Nor is its necessity ever questioned. Every once in a while, when a director goes too far, as was the case with Blue Is The Warmest Colour, and a debate erupts around the merits of a 10-minute unsimulated sex scene, in the end the majority of film critics who are other men side with the director. They insisted they like the scene not because they are ‘lecherous voyeurs’ but because it adds something to the narrative. Yet there was a divide in opinion along gender lines. Female film pundits as well as the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, Julie Maroh, overwhelmingly disagreed. I loved Blue Is The Warmest Colour. The tragic end, the class difference, the underlying melancholic mood of the film. It brought tears to my eyes but I would have loved it just the same had the 10-minute sex scene been three minutes long only.
In every other instance, whenever the topic of the anti-feminist portrayal of the female form in films is broached, directors and critics, defend that particular representation of sexuality in that particular story as absolutely essential to the narrative. However, even if we buy into the premise that sex and sexuality are such inherently important aspects of life and love and that they are crucial tools in depicting relationship dynamics of the characters in a story, that still does not explain the disproportionate display of female nudity compared to male nudity. I’ve watched a fair number of films in my life-time. Yet I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed full frontal nudity involving male actors. Somehow male actors can deliver a powerful performance without putting their junk on display.
It is absolutely possible to tell a compelling story, depict pain, sadness, hope, injustice, love, even desire without exposing your actresses’ breasts. Female nudity is so ubiquitous in movies, that back at the Oscars of 2013, host Seth MacFarlane, did a whole sing and dance number We Saw Your Boobs in which he reeled off the names of a whole raft of actresses along with the movie(s) in which they were shot topless, as those actresses sat in the audience and looked on in visible discomfort. Interestingly, after the ceremony there was a swift backlash to the musical routine which was deemed offensive but there were no questions raised around the almost inevitable requirement that leading actresses take their clothes off in order “to do their work”. No one ever pointed out that these actresses’ work should entail acting not stripping and certainly not so frequently.
Lacking fur, feathers, scales, or fangs, humans have evolved dozens of facial muscles – 43 to be exact – to signal the whole spectrum of emotions to their surroundings. Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, aggression, disgust, contempt, jealousy, even desire can all the expressed on this universal canvas across multiple cultures and languages with zero help from the breasts or genitals. Intonation, body language, and most importantly verbal expression all combined can help elevate a performance to award-contending heights. Story telling on the big or the small screen really shouldn’t involve forcing your female actors have random unrealistic sexual encounters. Shakespeare, the greatest story-teller in the English language did quite well without R-rated material. Yet, many modern adaptations of his plays as well as his life story as depicted by Steve Madden in Shakespeare in Love, included topless females. There was really no need for us to see Gwyneth Paltrow’s boobs, no reason whatsoever, except that perhaps we’ve come to expect it.
Last year a video resurfaced of a 2013 interview with Bernardo Bertolucci at Cinémathèque Française discussing the infamous sodomisation of 19-year-old Maria Schneider’s character in The Last Tango in Paris by 40-year-old Marlon Brando with butter as lubricant. In the interview Bertolucci asserts that he “wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress” and although not informing the actress ahead of the shoot was “horrible” he doesn’t regret directing the scene as he did. When you watch the film today or say his other controversial number, Dreamers, they both seem kitsch and badly aged. The dialogues are cringe-worthy. Yet Bernardo Bertolucci, and other gross abusers of women like Woody Allen (alleged to have sexually abused his own daughter), Roman Polanski (who jumped bail and fled to Europe after having been charged with statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1977), have been placed on a pedestal right below God, because they make art. Polanski got a standing ovation in 2003, when he won an Oscar for The Pianist. Allen despite not having made a decent film in over 20 years (his best films of the last two decades Blue Jasmine and Matchpoint are “sordid but overrated”) enjoys an undeserved level of admiration and prestige.
So where do we go from here. There are signs of hope. Although the overabundance of superfluous nudity and sex in movies has not been explicitly questioned to date, as the old dinosaurs of filmmaking die or retire we are seeing a bigger sample of new female-led fiction on the big as well as the small screen. Female artists, writers, producers, and directors who are ignoring the old and tired Hollywood conventions dictated by the male gaze and producing far better results and profits. A movement has also started whereby women fight for and support each others’ fight for more opportunities. I look forward to the time when we have diversity not only in casting but also in artistic decision making. I think that will have a positive impact on our wider culture and alleviate many of the problems working women face not just in film and TV but other industries.
There is still 12 minutes left before International Women’s Day ends. After that I will have to make it seem like my aim has been to write for an audience in the west of Greenwich Mean Time all along. This post is important to me because 2017 has been a turbulent year for women’s social and political movements. Hillary Clinton failed to become the first female president in the US despite more than half of eligible voters being women. The man who did win the highest office in the US and arguably the world though is a misogynist surrounded by an army of other misogynists and wife batterers. Organised feminism, now well into her fifties, is struggling to reproduce. I have written about this before but despite re-galvanised enthusiasm, as evident by marches on January 25th around the globe, and a we-can-still-do-it attitude, modern feminism has failed to materialise into actual votes for candidates that put women’s issues at the centre of their platform. As an example, in the London mayoral elections in 2016, Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party won a meagre 2% of the votes, less than Greens, less than UKIP.
I will not pretend to know the complete history of feminism as a social and political movement or its theory and philosophical intricacies. I still cannot concisely give a definition of intersectional feminism because I still struggle to grasp its full meaning and intention. And I do not claim to speak for everyone. Yet, as a woman of colour I find the bickering over equal racial representation misplaced. There was much controversy around the Women’s March on Washington DC on January 25th. On the Facebook page of the march, there was much talk, nay contention, over skin colour, ethnicity, and religion. It is sad to see that over fifty years after the start of the second wave of feminist advocacy, instead of coming together as one unified force to fight the patriarchal forces who reinforce systematic racism and gender inequality, we turn on each other with catch words like “privilege”, “intersectionality”, and “white middle-class feminism”. Whenever women’s fight for their rights have had to go head-to-head against that of any other marginalised group, the priorities of that other group have prevailed. That is why white working class women voted to make America great again instead of voting for paid maternity leave or control over their reproductive rights. That is why Latinas in many places in the US voted for Trump’s anti-abortion stance instead of voting against his anti-immigration platform. For feminism to survive and make an impact it will have to be empower women with the promise of racial equality, religious tolerance, economic growth, and whatever else is a priority in communities in which women live. Otherwise it will continue to take the backseat to other causes.
When I was a growing up in Iran, a favourite past-time was watching boot-legged Betamax video cassettes of Hollywood films, Turkish soap operas, and British comedy shows. I distinctly remember The Benny Hill Show as a recurring features. Benny Hill played the character of an old jolly slap-sticky comic whose act largely revolved around chasing very young, very attractive women and accidentally undressing them or otherwise engaging in sexually inappropriate behaviour bordering what we call assault these days. I don’t mean to judge poor Mr. Hill based on our modern sensibilities and standards. Yet you can’t note that The Benny Hill Show was an international hit in the 80’s! An international hit! The average person found the show not offensive but hilarious. Just in my lifetime alone, we’ve come far in the West. Back then few families even contemplated how this type of comedy might impact their children’s perception of gender roles or acceptable behaviour. Even in the nineties when I was a teenager in Canada spending idle hours watching The Comedy Network, fat chick jokes were the standard stock of most stand-up comedians.
Growing up, there was an undeniable dearth of women comedians in the English speaking world. Women were not deemed funny. In the past decade however, there has been an explosion of female comedians on the scene. The likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Schumer have created their own shows, penned best-selling memoirs, and made films. In short they have created a space for a female perspective on big issues like rape culture, body dysmorphia, violent pornography, equal representation, and the tiring over-obsession with “having it all”. Among these disruptive pioneers, I personally have a special soft spot for Samatha Bee, not least because she is an alumnus of the Daily Show and a mentee of Jon Stewart, the father of all political satirists on TV. Sam Bee has created an interesting format for late night TV (thankfully available on her YouTube channel for us expats but also international audiences). Devoid of guests, stiff suits, and big desks as a permanent fixture in the middle of the stage, the show has a fast-paced high-action feel to it. She goes on long monologues, often tirades on one or two specific topics per show. Sam Bee is the best kind of comedian! The angry type. Her segments are a mix of righteous indignation, razer-sharp analysis, and investigative journalism. She has been critiqued for her “empty vitriol”. But her millions of viewers seem to disagree week after week. Given that her topics are often lady-relevant ones, I think I am not the only women out there who gets strong satisfaction from seeing her express our frustrations so well and so passionately. It is her passion and anger that make her segments all the more authentic. When covering the Orlando shooting Sam said “Is it okay if, instead of making jokes, I just scream for seven minutes until we cut to commercial?” showing that her primary objective is not telling jokes but doing satire. I’ve never been a fan of aloof dead-pan comedy. That why I never fully got into the new the Daily Show with Trevor Noah or the Late Night with Seth Meyers. So for me and over 2 million other viewers, having Sam Bee on TV to vent our frustrations is a gift.
It is amazing that in my lifetime alone we have TV comedy shows have transformed beyond recognition. That is not to say that sexism or even violence cloaked as humour doesn’t exist, but at least it doesn’t go unchecked. Now I am only awaiting Jessica Williams to have her own show to be truly content with the cadre of female comics we have on our airways.
My feminist writing has grinded to a halt for the past half a year due to challenges of maintaining – as cliché as it sounds – a good work-life balance. Last Monday, however, I managed to escape work and child care duties to attend a Guardian Masterclass entitled “Understanding the History of Feminism”. I don’t intend to dwell upon the actual workshop too much except to say it was not as rigorous as I had hoped. I had taken the class to improve my understanding of feminist theory and the movement’s history but we ended up spending most of our time engaging in group discussion rehashing experiences of every day sexism that are familiar to most women and by no means shocking or even surprising.
Although peeved at the time, the exercise proved fruitful in the end since in my group – in the context of affirmative action – we talked about the complete absence of female role models in a multitude of industries and how one single person with influence can inspire a whole generation of women to pursue a female unfriendly career path. As an example I mentioned female comedians and noted the explosion of female comics on the scene in the last several years with the likes of Mindy Kaling, Tina Fay, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham, Samantha Bee, and Jessica Williams creating shows and writing memoirs. The talk inevitably turned to the responsibility of these influential figures in the wider society in perpetuating stereotypes and moulding values including the racism controversy around Amy Schumer’s Tweet about street harassment. I was unaware of this story but the basic gist of it is that in response to a Tweet by Paulo dos Santos saying “Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, et. al. refuse 2C that misogyny among men of color, while hideously prevalent, is no more so than among white men.” Amy shoots back with “how would you know? Statistically who is hollerin at you in the street more pa?” before deleting it shortly afterwards.
I am not going to beat Amy Schumer’s drum. She may genuinely be a racist. I won’t argue against that. Before Amy Schumer became the Amy Schumer of today, I found her stand-up routine’s racist material, very offensive not to mention unfunny. Schumer has responded to critics by arguing that she plays a character in her stand-up routine, a blonde bimbo who says stupid things and holds stupid opinions. Yet her jokes around blacks and Hispanics were not made at her own expense. Rather they perpetrated overworked stereotypes. They were lazy, tired jokes. More predictable than provocative. Yet, I believe that as a social commentator and a woman, even a racist one, Amy Schumer should still be able to tell her story, to share her observation, and to state her statistic – albeit a crude one – on street harassment and cat calling without being silenced. The catcallers of Amy Schumer’s world may really be a small sample of our society with a statistically overrepresented number of Hispanic migrant workers just like the workplace sexual harassers of Gretchen Carlson, Andrea Tantaros may be white corporate America.
Of course making racist jokes in the first place strips Schumer of credibility to comment on the racial breakdown of cat callers. But I take her comments from a different angle. I take her Tweet to be an expression of range or at least of irritation at yet another man telling women how it is. The “how would you know?” epitomises that feeling. This may appear naïve but to my knowledge no one has attempted to critique Schumer’s credibility or whether or not she suffers from bias – subconscious or otherwise – in tweeting this. The label was simply used as a trump card to shut her up. Go after her for her lazy material, for her offensive jokes. But not for stating she’s been target of street harassment by one group of men more than others.