My Ammeh – My Unlikely Feminist Hero

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.

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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.

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International Women’s Day 2018

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!

Sex and Stardom

Sex and Stardom

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.

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Marilyn Monroe by Tom Kelley

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.

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Illustration by Ina Stanimirova
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.

From Benny Hill to Sam Bee

 

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.

Amy’s Cat-callers

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.

Happy International Women’s Day 2016

Today, March 8th, marks International Women’s Day. Amid the frenzy of getting prepared to go back to Canada for the next five weeks where my newborn daughter will get to know her maternal family, I could not possibly overlook this day which I have always tried to celebrate or at least acknowledge in some small way from the time I was old and wise enough to appreciate its significance.

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Of course there have been celebrations, events, protests, and dedications all over the world. The most easily accessible one is probably Google’s Doodle which is dedicated to the global independent initiative “Planet 50-50 by 2030”. In an uplifting video, women across 12 cities including Jane Goodall and Malala Yousafzai complete the sentence “one day I will”.

Here in the UK too, this past Sunday, the charity event “Walk in Her Shoes” attracted a number high profile women’s rights advocates including Helen Pankhurst the great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, Annie Lennox, Bianca Jagger, and Sophie Walker the founder of Women’s Equality Party. During her address to the crowd, Sophie Walker who is also her party’s London mayoral candidate, reiterated the six objectives of WEP, which I covered in a previous post.

But the one dedication, which I found the most heart-warming is by Iranian-American comedian Kambiz Hosseini who inspired by Jon Stewart of the Daily show, has created a satirical news show in Persian called Poletik. In an Instagram post, under a picture of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a highly respected human rights lawyer, Kambiz has captioned humorously (and I’m butchering the phrase a bit in translation): “To the Iranian man and the non-Iranian man…today is International Women’s Day…be a man”. This is a pun that intends to say, “be a good man or be a human”. The post made me smile primarily because any picture of Sotoudeh always makes me smile but also because the mock scolding tone of the caption was very endearing.

Seeing Sotoudeh’s face makes me smile because what she has achieved as a woman, nay as a human being, inspires me beyond words. I am not referring to her noble work as a human rights lawyer but the fact that she is making an impact in her chosen profession with the backing of a loving family. Sotoudeh has come to represent the modern Iranian woman who has achieved gender equality in her personal life and professional aspirations in a patriarchal country. A widely published picture of a hand-cuffed Sotoudeh embracing her husband Reza Khandan after her politically-motivated arrest by the Iranian regime in 2011, has come to symbolise their loving yet equal partnership among Iranians both in Iran and on the diaspora. Her husband certainly deserves half the credit for the respect he has exemplified for Sotoudeh’s work. Throughout her political imprisonment between 2011 and 2013, he continuously defended her work during interviews while being the primary care provider of their two children. A scenario that is not so commonplace in Iran. To be fair it is not very commonplace anywhere in the world.

I wanted to write a post no matter how short to wish all my readers, men and women a happy women’s day because when we finally achieve gender equality throughout the world it will be both men and women who shall equally reap the benefits. But I also wanted to dedicate this to my own little girl. This is her first IWD. She’s only five months old now but I hope she grows up in a world that continues to progress on the path of gender equality and evolves to not impose gender-specific limitations on her and her peers. I hope she will grow up to have equal pay and a fair shot at leadership roles in whatever profession she chooses. But most earnestly, I wish for her to grow up in world that becomes ever more free of violence against and objectification of women. Be it street catcalling, workplace harassment, or cyber-bulling, I hope we succeed in cleansing the world of attitudes that strip our girls of their dignity.

Jian Ghomeshi and the Court of Public Opinion

I have been following the trial of Jian Ghomeshi in the online editions of Toronto newspapers as well as on social media. For the uninitiated, Jian Ghomeshi used to be the famous host of CBC Radio One’s Q, a show he co-created and co-wrote. Ghomeshi’s confidence and charm, his smooth interviewing style, and his radio essays delivered as a soliloquy at the beginning of Q made him and his show very popular. So much so that Q became one of the highest-rated shows in the history of CBC. But in 2014, Ghomeshi, who is Iranian-Canadian, was abruptly fired by CBC and a series of articles printed by the Toronto Star revealed him to be the subject of multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment. Ghomeshi is now on trial for four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance through chocking and faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Although to date 23 women have come forward – for the most part anonymously – only three are testifying under oath.

Reading about the trial is painful as legal experts and commentators believe Ghomeshi will be acquitted. His lawyer, Marie Henein has employed an effective strategy of discrediting and undermining key witnesses by scrutinising their behaviour and actions in the run-up to and in the aftermath of the assaults. She has revealed evidence that at least in two cases the victims pursued a relationship with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults. What is even more painful than reading about these developments is reading the commentary of a handful of Iranian Facebook “friends” rejoicing at this turn of events and lamenting Ghomeshi’s “wrongful” dismissal from CBC.

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Jian Ghomeshi, defence co-counsel Danielle Robitaille, defence lawyer Marie Henein, Justice William Horkins, and a witness. Source: Canadian Press.

 

Firstly, whether or not these women pursued Ghomeshi after the assaults is irrelevant. Let’s not even enter into the psychological complexities with which victims of sexual assault often grapple or how common it is for victims to try and normalise their experience post-trauma. In a society that has laws against marital rape and requires spouses to obtain consent for every sexual encounter one expects that consent must also be obtained before chocking women or breaking their ribs. There is documented proof for the latter offence by the way, which apparently was the very instigator of Ghomeshi’s “wrongful” dismissal by the CBC.

Secondly, for some individual Iranians to rush to Ghomeshi’s defence simply because he identifies as Iranian is nothing but irrational tribalism. Although these individuals make up a minority (the majority of voices have either condemned his actions or remained neutral) I am disappointed to see even a single person defend a sexual predator over a sexual assault victim motivated by something as base and irrelevant in the twenty-first century as nationalism. Sadly, over the past week I’ve encountered not one but several individuals, women no less, who have expressed such views – despite being progressive enough to frequent pro-democracy protests and being active in lofty cultural and literary affairs in the community.

Our legal system has been designed to err on the side of extreme caution. And yes, every man is innocent unless proven otherwise in a court of law. But when a system fails women, specifically victims of assault, time and time again there is cause for outrage. Cases like this one expose a criminal justice system that continues to fail women by judging the victims more harshly for their actions before and after an attack than the perpetrator. It’s quite tragic that in 2016, consistent and highly overlapping testimony of four women among other evidence might not be good enough to get a conviction. Ghomeshi, his defence attorney, the judge, and the public most probably know full well that he is not being framed by 23 women. Yet he will most probably walk unscathed while the victims are depicted as star-stricken fans and “jilted ex-girlfriends” – to quote Ghomeshi himself. They will be and probably are already trolled online, subjected to character assassination, and harmed professionally.

So let us not kid ourselves! Given the overwhelming number of victims who have come forward with very similar stories and given the fact that, statistically speaking, false accusations of sexual assault are exceedingly rare, let us at the very least not exonerate Ghomeshi in the court of public opinion. And most crucially let us not do it in the name of something as stupid as tribalism!

 

Is it me or is it her?

Several weeks after the new Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, took office, the New York Times did a profile on him. The article itself was not momentous or even memorable (it faithfully chronicled Trudeau’s life and rise to power) but what stayed with me was one reader’s comment at the bottom of the article in which Trudeau was described as a privileged member of the elite who had spent his youth snowboarding and smoking pot and his adulthood changing careers. The commentator stated that Trudeau had only gotten elected because of his father’s legacy and his own charisma and went on to say that for most North Americans elections are very much a personality contest. At the time I remember thinking that although cynical, these remarks hold a lot of truth. In both the US and Canadian elections the candidates’ charisma, sense of humour, and ability to inspire are given as much weight – if not more – as their track record, their vision for running the country, and their platforms. This made me think of Hillary Clinton’s second attempt at winning the democratic nomination and my indifference towards it. Is it that I am opposed to her proclaimed convictions or proposed policies? Or is it in fact due to her lacking the ability to inspire?

Hillary Clinton has achieved more in her lifetime than I would ever dream of in three lifetimes. Graduate of the top-ranking women’s college, a Yale-trained lawyer, and the first female senator for New York, Hillary Clinton has spent her life in public service. At the beginning of her career she worked at the Children’s Defence Fund defending adolescents incarcerated in adult prisons. She advocated equal education opportunities for disabled children in the same organisation and continued to champion the rights of families and children after her move from Massachusetts to Arkansas to start a family with Bill Clinton. Back in 1993, long before Obamacare, it was Hillary Clinton who headed a task force to oversee health care reform during the presidency of her husband. When that effort failed due to vociferous opposition from insurance companies and special interests groups, she worked bilaterally with Republicans to provide health care to millions of children. After losing the democratic nomination to Barak Obama in 2008, she set aside a hard-fought campaign and answered his call to service as Secretary of State with utmost loyalty.

One cannot doubt Hillary Clinton’s deep democratic convictions or undermine her life-long dedication to public service. Yet when watching her speak it is hard to get past the composed façade and grasp her passion for social justice or the ideals that have driven her for over forty years. After she released her second memoir in 2013, I watched an interview of hers with Peter Mansbridge on CBC and I remember being incredibly impressed by her answers to questions pertaining to policy and her experiences as Secretary of State. But despite her keen mind, her impressive record, and her detailed platform, she does not resonate with many young people, a significant portion of whom are women. Although there are no polls to quantify it, even in her traditional base of feminist baby-boomers, there is anecdotal evidence of ambivalence. The negative adjectives that I have often come across in articles and opinion pieces are “not authentic” and “robotic”.

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The Daily Show play on a critical question from a young audience member in the last Democratic debate.

Hillary Clinton far from being charismatic is an over cautious politician who relies on hundreds of advisors to inform her every word, every move, and every facial expression. In 2008, during her campaign to win the democratic nomination, after the polls indicated that the public found her soulless she unleashed the famous Hillary cackle. Her politics too are cautious and smack in the centre. She did not get on-board with gay marriage until 2013 after polls showed the majority of Americans support it. Some have argued that this was a calculated change of positions although Clinton herself has claimed it was a personal evolution. Her speeches too are very carefully crafted. She is experienced enough to know that going head-to-head with powerful lobby and special interest groups is an up-hill battle. But next to Bernie Sanders’ revolutionary rhetoric, this type of pragmatism is uninspiring.

But the power to inspire, charisma, and promise of radical change all seem to be the ideals that evoke interest in the younger generations. Charismatic leaders have the ability to mobilise public opinion, to instil in people the aspiration to tackle grand goals. Goals so grand they seem unachievable in one lifetime. Human history is peppered with examples of men and women who have changed its course with their passion and charisma, sometimes delivered in a single momentous speech. Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Keir Hardie, and Martin Luther King Junior all managed to unify a vast number of people under a single banner and to march them toward a common good. Justin Trudeau may be inexperienced for his position but there is nothing he cannot learn from dozens of advisers and experts who surround him. His value lies in having led the Canadian Liberals to victory through his charismatic rhetoric and fresh vision for the country.

In an ideal world we should only have to worry about a candidate’s character, convictions, and proposed platform. However, we do not live in an ideal world and charisma matters in the context of a competitive political landscape. Hillary Clinton is the first woman in history to have a real shot at becoming the leader of the free world. But that in itself is not inspiring if she does not find a way to counter the elation surrounding Bernie Sanders’ call for revolutionary change and the frenzy surrounding Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric.

Until then, I have to admit, I too am ambivalent.

 

 

 

#WeCan

 

Last Thursday I along with two friends attended a 5×15 talk. 5×15 events are literary evenings featuring five speakers each of whom is given 15 minutes to seduce the audience with a compelling story or a ground-breaking idea. That night’s five speakers – Caitlin Moran, Jo Brand, Sandi Toksvig, Catherine Mayer, and Tanya Moodie – spoke to a predominately female audience in a packed Central Hall Westminster about gender equality. The event was a lively one and although we were stuck in the back corner of the balcony where the acoustics were terrible – for the offence of being bang on time as opposed to fifteen minutes early – I found myself laughing out loud the 20% of the time I did manage to hear the jokes. The best line I heard was by my celebrity heroine, the very funny Caitlin Moran, who after talking at length about women’s over-critical inner voices made the proclamation that “we just want to be as dim, fat, deluded, average, happy and secure as men”.

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5×15 webpage announcing WE Party’s event.

But the evening wasn’t only about telling jokes and sharing stories. The goal was to captivate and electrify the assembly into action for something quite big. The group was there to raise money for the first political party in the UK whose raison d’être is realising the promise of gender equality. The Women’s Equality Party (WE) has six (presumably immediate) objectives. These are equal representation in politics, business, and industry; equal pay; equal parenting and caregiving; equal education; equal media treatment; and an end to violence against women.

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Our view from the top back corner of a packed Central Westminster Hall on January 14th, 2016

Since the enfranchisement of women in the UK in 1918 (partial) and 1928 (full), women have won important civil rights. They have had better access to education and employment opportunities. And they have seen their representation in politics and the workforce grow at a steady rate. Yet, we have not witnessed the kind of revolutionary change that the visionaries of the suffrage movement had spoken of. In the aftermath of suffragettes’ victory, numerous disappointed feminist leaders lamented the reality of not being able to make the world anew. These were some of the more radical activists who were so determined of women’s worth that they attributed all evils to male dominance. Early leaders of the movement, the Pankhurst sisters Christabel and Adela, were after such grand goals as protecting children and ending poverty and war. Yet almost a hundred years later we still have not obtained equal representation in lead political roles or even ordinary political roles let alone bringing an end to poverty or war.

Contemporary scholar Jad Adams who has written a global history of votes for women chronicling a 200-year struggle around the world, goes as far as arguing that once conceded, women’s vote “changed nothing” and that “women would vote as their menfolk did and politics would not change by the addition of them to the electoral register.” To me this argument is quite cynical. In Britain alone, only in the decade following the partial enfranchisement of women in 1918, laws equalizing guardianship of children and granting pensions to widows of workers were passed. In the United States the Prohibition of 1919 came to pass with the support of female campaigners and voters who associated alcohol consumption with intensified violence against women. The achievement of votes for women certainly did not make as colossal an impact as early feminists had hoped but it certainly made an impact.

This is where Women’s Equality Party comes in. It may seem brash to start a political party dedicated to the cause of one group but given the fact that this cause impacts 51% of the population there is tremendous optimism that it will succeed. In the past other political parties have done just that. Labour came onto the political stage by advocating for improving labour conditions. While the Green Party started life as a political party in West Germany around a single cause of opposition to nuclear power in 1979. Green Party has matured into a political party with policies on all facets of government and although in the UK parliament there is only single green seat, in the German Bundestag it is currently holding 63 of the 630. WE’s leader Sophie Walker and co-founder Catherine Mayer say they will stand for the London Assembly and Mayoral elections as well as the Scottish Parliament the first being in three months. Time will tell whether they will be successful in proposing policies that can win votes but as Catherine Mayer said during her speech they will be happy if the mainstream political parties just steal their gender balanced policies!

I was not just inspired by Thursday’s event. I was charged. I was empowered. But two days have gone by and I have had time to reflect and reality has set in. And as much as I hate to end on a bleak note I have to say I am not too optimistic that WE will be successful in winning a meaningful number of votes in the immediate future. It’s true that 51% of the British population are women and it is only logical that they would want a political party dedicated to their plight. However, the issue lies in the public’s perception or rather women’s perception of feminists. In my previous life in Canada I encountered numerous younger women in my Iranian community who thought of feminists as – and I am borrowing somebody’s actual description here – “man-eating dykes”. In the Muslim community too Muslim feminists were in the minority at least back in 2010 and I don’t see why anything would have changed since then. I came across numerous young Muslim women who were eager to dissociate themselves from feminists claiming they do not feel they have to fight for feminist causes as Islam has liberated women 1400 ago already. Indeed Islam for its time was quite progressive in allowing women to manage their own money independently and still demand that their husbands pay for their living expenses. Women were also allowed to inherit property and other worldly possessions – a right that women in the UK did not obtain until the 19th century. However, I have often found myself struggling to argue effectively with the notion that women in Islam do not consider obtaining leadership positions a top priority and can be quite contented with their supporting role as wives and mothers – albeit highly educated and working ones. Several years back when Amina Wadud made headlines for being the first female imam to lead prayers in New York, based on my personal experience it was often the Muslim women who made the most vociferous criticisms in condemning this break with orthodoxy.

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My Women’s Equality Party Membership Card

So unless we rebrand feminism as Jo Brand suggested on Thursday night I am not sure how this party will win the widespread support it requires in order to truly shake up the political establishment. But I shall happily pay my £50 annual dues, proudly carry my membership card, and contribute to the cause where I can.