Last fall, Passport noted that more sex-change surgeries are performed in Iran than in any other country except Thailand. Ayatollah Khomeini approved them for "diagnosed transsexuals" 25 years ago, and today the Iranian government will pay up to half the cost for those in financial need. Former FP researcher David Francis wrote, "In a country that shuns homosexuality, this makes perverse sense, as after a sex-change operation, one technically isn't attracted to one's own sex and therefore isn't gay."
Now, Iranian-born, American-raised, director Tanaz Eshaghian has made a provocative documentary, Be Like Others, about young Iranian men who undergo sex-change surgery. It premiered earlier this year at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. Check out some clips here, including one of a 20-year-old man who laughingly remarks, "It's so difficult," in reference to wearing a head scarf outside.
USAToday's "OnDeadline" blog finds some choice morsels from newly released transcripts of Henry Kissinger's 1973 meeting with Mao:
You know, China is a very poor country," Mao is quoted as saying during the exchange. "We don't have much. What we have in excess is women. So if you want them we can give a few of those to you, some tens of thousands."
The Chinese leader drew laughter when he returned to the proposition a few minutes later. "Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you 10 million." he said, adding: "We have too many women ... They give birth to children and our children are too many."
It's not clear whether Mao is at all serious -- he was a pretty crazy dude, after all -- but Kissinger's response is precious:
It is such a novel proposition, we will have to study it.
Now, it's Greece's turn, and it may be the most fascinating one yet. Here's the story: A young woman slept with the general secretary of the culture ministry in the hopes of obtaining a permanent job (judging by his photo, left, that had to be the only reason). When he didn't follow through, she recorded her encounters with him on a DVD, allegedly to blackmail him, and ended up taking it to the press. Most journalists wouldn't work with her, but a copy of the DVD somehow found its way to the prime minister's office. Once the official being blackmailed got wind of this, he resigned and jumped from his balcony in a suicide attempt. He's now in the hospital recovering, but the scandal has penetrated Greek society deeper than anyone anticipated.
The Greek government tried to spin this as "a sex scandal blown out of proportion," but the public just isn't buying it. The tape submitted to prosecutors as evidence was found to have been edited, raising suspicions the government is hiding something, possibly revelations about graft and corruption. The culture ministry official, whose finances and other possibly shady deals are now under investigation, had controlled significant amounts of EU and Greek funds and had close ties to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis.
The scandal has sent the government's approval rating below 30 percent, the worst level since it came to power in 2004 -- ironically, on an anti-corruption platform. With the ministry official's resignation, the ruling party is down to 151 seats out of 300, a bare majority.
While corruption has been a huge topic of discussion, others see an opportunity to shed light on
You study, you work hard and still you have to let someone grab your butt to rise."
A couple years ago, FP published an article about an Iranian magazine called Zanan ("Women," in Farsi). Written by Haleh Esfandiari of the Wilson Center, who was imprisoned in Tehran for several months last year, "Iranian Women, Please Stand Up" told the tale of Shahla Sherkat, who bravely courted controversy as the founder of a glossy women's magazine that covered topics both political and personal. Esfandiari wrote:
Zanan has run articles on the latest theories of feminism in the West, the unjust treatment of women in Islamic societies, and the significance for Iranians of international conventions on human rights and the rights of women and children. ... Not all articles in Zanan incite such strong reactions. The glossy has [also] published stories about Iran's first woman pilot, its first female cab driver, and the country’s first woman racing car ace.
Despite harassment from government officials, periodic censorship, and budget woes, Sherkat managed to keep the magazine open for 16 years. But last week the government shut down Zanan, this time for good. Iranian authorities, according to an editorial in the New York Times, claim "the magazine was a 'threat to the psychological security of the society' because it showed Iranian women in a 'black light.'"
A "black light"? Give me a break! Zanan was one of the very few media outlets in Iran dedicated to women's issues, and one of the only places where women could actually be heard. Because of numerous run-ins with the government in the past (past contributors to Zanan had been jailed at various times for their writing) Sherkat was always very careful to toe the line with the magazine's editorial content. The shuttering of the magazine is an outrage, it's a tragedy, and most of all, it's a crime against Iranian women. Tehran should realize that by closing down Zanan, it's only displaying its own weakness and fear.
If you're a man in the Banda district of India who beats your wife, demands more dowry, or otherwise mistreats women, you'd better watch out. A posse of vigilante women clad in pink saris may soon come after you, and it's going to be ugly.
The "Gulabi Gang" (Pink Gang) uses sticks (lathis) and cricket bats to "teach erring men a lesson." In one instance, they chased a woman's abusive, alcoholic husband into a sugarcane field and sorely thrashed him. They also go after corrupt government officials. Last year, they stormed a police station after cops refused to register the case of a low-caste man simply because of his social standing.
This area of India, in the state of Uttar Pradesh (the same state from which the late "bandit queen" Phoolan Devi hailed), is notorious for its ill-treatment of women and people of lower castes. Only 24 percent of women can read (compared with 50 percent of men), domestic violence is rampant, and there are just 846 females per 1,000 males (compared with the state's average of 879). Bonded labor (a.k.a. slavery) is common, lower-caste children face open discrimination at school, and government officials are corrupt.
Given these circumstances, a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. Gulabi Gang founder Sampat Pal Devi, who was married off at age 9 and had her first child at 13, says:
Nobody comes to our help in these parts. The officials and police are corrupt and anti-poor. So sometimes we have to take the law into our own hands. At other times, we prefer to shame the wrongdoers. But we're not a gang in the usual sense of the term. We're a gang for justice.
Until the rule of law can be established, it looks like justice will be have to administered via grrrl power.
And here I was thinking that "courting the Cuban-American vote" was just a metaphor. Mitt Romney appears to have taken the phrase rather literally:
On Sunday, in Sweetwater, the Mormon candidate who has been married to the same woman for almost forty years found himself trying to explain the appeal of Florida's sun-soaked fairer sex. "Why are there so many beautiful women here? I haven't figured this out," Romney said, innocently enough. "Cuban American women are gorgeous."
The Telegraph reports that later this year, Saudi Arabia plans to lift its longstanding prohibition on female drivers. It's anyone's guess if this is really going to happen, but the Saudi regime's reason for making the move is revealing:
The move is designed to forestall campaigns for greater freedom by women, which have recently included protesters driving cars through the Islamic state in defiance of a threat of detention and loss of livelihoods. [...]
Saudi women have mounted growing protests. Fouzia al-Ayouni, the country's most prominent women's rights campaigner, has risked arrest by leading convoys of women drivers. "We have broken the barrier of fear," she said. "We want the authorities to know that we're here, that we want to drive, and that many people feel the way we do."
Can't have that kind of uppity behavior! It'll be interesting to see how conservatives in Saudi Arabia react to this trial balloon. Last year, the kingdom's al-Watan newspaper published a letter that said, "Allowing women to drive will only bring sin... The evils it would bring - mixing between the genders, temptations, and tarnishing the reputation of devout Muslim women - outweigh the benefits."
It may be some time before the sin hits the road, though. Even if a royal decree does reverse the ban, there will be plenty of opportunities for conservatives to mount a rear-guard campaign. "Practical hurdles stopping women obtaining licences and insurance must be overcome," the Telegraph notes.
Iran may be an international pariah, but the country is nonetheless eagerly suiting up for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, this year's biggest international event. In the Athens Games of 2004, the Islamic Republic allowed just one woman to compete and won only six medals. This year, nationalistic Iran is investing greater resources in its team and hoping for a stronger performance.
An unlikely boost for Iran's "Go for the Gold in '08" strategy has come from the conservative religious establishment: a "special religious dispensation" that allows more women to compete, as long as they wear the proper attire. Check out Haaretz's translation of an al-Jazeera report here:
Couple this with news that Hamas is recruiting women police officers to serve in Gaza, and you have to wonder what's going on in the region.
While I applaud the spirit of your critique of Anne Applebaum's take on gender apartheid in Saudi Arabia, I'm afraid your rejoinder is wide of the mark. Applebaum is right to criticize the ruling class, but wrong to say that the fate of women there isn't dictated by religion at all. Part of the challenge is to figure out what is religious about gender in Saudi Arabia and why religion gets invoked to justify women's subordinate status. Rather than seeing the issue as one of doctrine, or as the product of the peninsula's tribal past as you suggest, it would be more helpful to see it as political. More specifically, the kingdom's treatment of women has everything to do with the issue of the political, juridical, and legal structures of authority that flow from the basic contract between rulers and the clergy. Women have been thrown under the bus by the kingdom's rulers to the religious scholars who see control over women and women's bodies as one of the last bastions of their spiritual and social power. Islam does not dictate such treatment of women. We know, however, that the tenets of faith become fuzzy when authority and power are at stake.
On the issue of Saudi liberalism, you've parroted the Saudi state about the fault lines that exist in the kingdom and why we (the United States) should support the political status quo there: It is a place where a liberal leadership routinely squares off against a regressive, tribal, and dangerously conservative (religious) populace. The suggestion that the Saudis know what pace of reform the "traffic will bear" is hard to take seriously. Authoritarian states regularly claim to be "reforming," a process that typically leads to a stronger authoritarianism in the end. Saudi Arabia is no exception. Ask any Saudi reformer, including Abdullah al-Hamid who is in jail for promoting reform while Islamic militants are rehabbed and freed from prison, if the state just needs more time and that it will get there.
While there are plenty of Saudis who would be familiar to American liberals as a result of their having studied here, it is more important to recognize that there are also plenty of Saudis educated in their own system that express values and political goals that we should embrace and pursue more seriously. On the matter of gender apartheid, it is also time to take seriously the voices of Saudi women who have their own thoughts to offer about how to improve their fate. They are not hard to find.
Anne Applebaum rightly condemns Saudi Arabia's treatment of women, but I think she misunderstands the political dynamics in the kingdom. Writing about a truly abhorrent case in which a Saudi court ruled that a woman who had been brutally gang raped had to face a punishment of 200 lashes and six months in prison, Applebaum opines:
Thanks to international pressure, the Saudi king has pardoned the woman. And now? In Saudi Arabia women still can't vote, can't drive, can't leave the house without a male relative. No campaign of the kind once directed at South Africa has ever been mounted in their defense.
The comparison of Saudi and South African apartheid, and the different Western attitudes to both, has been made before. Recently the journalist Mona Eltahawy argued that while oil is a factor, the real reason Saudi teams aren't kicked out of the Olympics is that the "Saudis have succeeded in pulling a fast one on the world by claiming their religion is the reason they treat women so badly." Islam, she points out, does take other forms in Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and elsewhere. But Saudi propaganda, plus our own timidity about foreign customs, has blinded us to the fact that the systematic, wholesale Saudi oppression of women isn't dictated by religion at all but rather by the culture of the Saudi ruling class.
If you meet Saudi officials, you soon realize that many of them are actually Western-educated liberals. The oil minister, for instance, went to Lehigh and Stanford. The ambassador to the United States attended Texas and Georgetown. Before 9/11, more than 60,000 Saudis came to the United States each year. That number is now down to around 25,000. Still, in 2006, more than 11,000 visas were issued to incoming Saudi students. Think most of those kids don't absorb American culture and values while they're in college? Many of them go back and become high-ranking officials in Saudi Aramco or the government. They will tell you that widespread, systematic discrimination against women in their country is a tribal issue and has nothing to due with Islam.
Some top leaders, such as Interior Minister Prince Naif bin AbdulAziz, are basically religious fundamentalists. But in general, the "Saudi ruling class" is a relatively liberal group sitting on top of a deeply conservative population. It's an elite that constantly jockeys with the religious establishment for power; sometimes the liberals win, and sometimes they lose. Certainly, Saudi Arabia's reformers move more cautiously than we in the West might like. But they know far better than we do what the traffic will bear. Remember: Before oil was discovered in 1938, Saudi Arabia was largely a land of tribal nomads and subsistence farmers. Just 70 years later, the country is a modernizing state and one of the linchpins of the global economy. This is a lot for any country to absorb. Give the Saudis time. They'll get there.
[Please read editor's note at the end.]
Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, who's currently visiting France, has erected a heated, Bedouin-style tent in which to receive visitors due to his claustrophobia. And it's not just government officials he seeks to meet. On his way to France he said:
I want my tent to be erected near Elysee Palace. I want to meet 200 attractive French women there.
His tent has ended up in the garden of Baron Gustave de Rothschild's former mansion. No word on whether any beauties have showed up.
[NOTE: An astute Passport reader alerted us that the aforementioned quote attributed to Qaddafi may actually come from the French satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné because an International Herald Tribune article attributes a similar statement to Le Canard Enchaîné. The Turkish newspaper Sabah, upon which this blog post was based, attributes the quote to a news program on France's Canal Plus TV channel. Passport attempted to contact Le Canard Enchaîné to verify the veracity of the quote, but the newspaper has not responded to us.]
[NOTE 2 (Dec. 18, 2007): Qaddafi is reported to travel with a posse of 200 female bodyguards called the Amazonian Guard, a few of whose members can be seen in this photo. Thus, Qaddafi may have been requesting 200 bodyguards, not beauties.]
In India, what was supposed to be a promising "e-government" service has been withdrawn after it became misused as a tool for harassing young women.
Last year, the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh started out with an innovative service that was supposed to promote transparency: People could use their mobile phones to text-message a car's license-plate number, and would then receive a message with information about the vehicle, including its date of purchase, the taxes and fees paid on it, and the name, address, and phone number of the owner. The details could assist someone buying a used car or a police officer who quickly needed information about a vehicle involved in an accident, theft, or other crime. (Sounds like it could've also been used to track down someone who cut you off in traffic.)
Instead, it became a way for men to get the contact info of young women drivers and then harass them. The state's Transport Department received a number of complaints from women who were being harassed. Those complaints—along with the fact that the volume of messages sent to the department had jumped "several fold"—caused the texting service to be withdrawn.
The whole story raises questions about how much information should be made publicly available in this day and age. Records of people's births, divorces, house sales, crimes, and, in some cases, even incomes have been publicly available in many places for a long time. But accessing those records usually required a trip to city hall, filling out forms, and paying photocopying and postage fees. Now, in more places around the world, we can access the juicy details of people's lives—such as whether their houses are in foreclosure—all while wearing our pajamas in front of our home computers.
A new study of the effects of gender stereotypes around the world suggests that women in the developing world find it easier to advance professionally than their counterparts in wealthy countries. The survey was prepared by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the 2007 Women's Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville, France. Samuel DiPiazza, global head of PwC, summed up the report's findings:
In some countries such as Germany and Switzerland, there are cultural and social perceptions of women that make advancement much more challenging. Whereas in the developing world, where there is a huge cry for talent, where there is enormous growth, you must be able to adjust to these norms faster."
Elisabeth Kelan of the London Business School agreed with the report's characterization of her home country, Germany:
In Germany, we have the concept of the raven mother, which suggests they abandon their child if they go to work." As a result, less than 16% of German women with children below six work full-time.
Germany's first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, has no children, as another participant at the forum pointed out. This environment contrasts greatly with India's high-tech sector, for instance, in which stereotypes are not as entrenched, the demand for talent is great, and women are having a much easier time advancing into higher ranks. Another finding that seems likely to generate controversy is the report's assertion that China's one-child policy has helped women because girls do not have to compete with their brothers for education and parental recognition. The policy is often criticized by women's rights advocates for inducing parents to abandon, abort, or give baby girls up for adoption.
The report would seem to contradict the modernization theory of development, which holds that developing countries emulate the social norms of more economically advanced countries as they modernize. In this aspect, the new arrivals seem to be leap-frogging the established powers.
A study recently featured in FP showed that rural Indian women who watched satellite TV came to have more liberal attitudes and behaviors. For example, they became less accepting of spousal abuse, their bias in favor of having boys declined, school enrollment among girls increased, and the women were more likely to be able to spend money without a husband's permission.
Now, a similar "TV effect" could be occurring in Saudi Arabia, the only country where women aren't allowed to drive cars. Women's right to drive has now become a growing topic of debate, and Saudi women are saying that this debate stems in part from what women see on satellite TV and read on the Internet.
Not only do they learn about the freedom that women abroad have, but they see depictions of Saudi women themselves living lives of freedom. The country's most popular show, Tash Ma Tash (No Big Deal), a comedy that airs during Ramadan, addresses controversial social issues and shows episodes with Saudi women driving and going to the movies (there are presently no cinemas in Saudi Arabia). Another popular show, Amsha Bint Amash (Amsha, Daughter of Amash), is about a Saudi woman who disguises herself as a man to drive a cab.
On Sept. 23, Saudi Arabia's national day, the League of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia delivered to the king a petition signed by 1,100 women demanding the right to drive cars. The king hasn't yet replied, though.
And the women shouldn't expect an affirmative reply anytime soon. Advocates for women's rights concede that much preparation and public education would be required to ready both women and men for this relatively profound social change. Similarly, the producer of Tash Ma Tash says regarding women driving, "There will be a time [when] we will accept it, so now is the time to get prepared for that."
Too much social change too quickly in any society can backfire and produce a backlash and other destabilizing effects; Saudis must be slowly eased into this new world of liberated women. When it comes to women's rights in Saudi Arabia, slow and steady wins the race.
Saudi women are putting the pedal to the metal this month in efforts to gain the right to drive cars. The newly formed League of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars in Saudi Arabia is putting together a petition demanding that women be allowed to drive automobiles in the Kingdom. The petition will be delivered to King Abdullah on Sept. 23, Saudi Arabia's national day.
Saudi Arabia is the only country that prohibits women from getting behind the wheel. In recent years, reformist efforts have aimed to remove obstacles to women working, but as one Saudi political analyst notes, these efforts won't amount to much if women can't drive.
The text of the petition, along with instructions on how to sign it, originally appeared on the Arabic-language Web site Aafaq. It says, "The [right to free movement] … was enjoyed by our mothers and grandmothers, in complete freedom, through the means of transportation available in their day." It goes on to demand that the king return "that which has been stolen from women: the right to [free] movement through the use of cars, [which are] the means of transportation today."
Sounds fair enough to me. But what're the chances the king will agree?
Back in March, Passport highlighted the achievements of Australia's first Muslim lifeguard contingent and the ability of Muslim women to participate in this lifesaving program thanks to the "burqini"—a two-piece, full-body, lightweight swimsuit designed by Sydney's Aheda Zanetti, a fashion entrepreneur. Now the burqini, and "Splashgear," another brand offering full-length swim gear, has made it to Time's fashion page along with an interesting report about the growing popularity of the swimsuit.
It not just Muslim women who have taken to the burqini, Time reports. Conservative Christians, cancer patients, the elderly and others have found the burqini liberating, and demand for the product has grown in places as distant as Malaysia, South Africa, and the United States. But with its growing popularity, the burqini has also attracted its fair share of critics. Conservative Muslims have denounced the swimsuit as un-Islamic (for revealing curves), while some feminists have decried it as dehumanizing, just like the traditional burqa.
"Clearly you're not considered a full human being if you're mandated to cover yourself head to toe in this tent," says Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the women's rights organization Equality Now.
In spite of these condemnations, the burqini has succeeded in filling a gap in the market, and has been lauded an "export success" (pdf) by Austrade, Australia's international trade promotion body. As Zanetti puts it,
I'm a very small business with a product the whole world wants."
Correction: "Splashgear" was mistakenly referred to as the "scuba equivalent" of the burqini. It is actually a loose-fitting, nylon/lycra surfer rash guard shirt coupled with a polyester swim bottom that are a pants version of the popular men's board shorts. While some Splashgear wearers like to use it for snorkling, it can also be used for regular swimming in pools and the ocean. Apologies for the error.
Conservative Muslim dress codes may be causing vitamin D deficiency in women by limiting their exposure to sunlight, humans' main source for the vitamin, according to new research.
Scientists had previously found high rates of vitamin D deficiency in Arab and East Indian women living in the United Arab Emirates. A follow-up study investigated the effect of vitamin D supplements on 178 UAE women, many of whom covered themselves entirely, faces and hands included, when outside their homes. Only two of the women did not have vitamin D deficiency prior to receiving supplements. The results were published by a team of scientists in the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
One of the researchers concludes, "When sunlight exposure … is limited, much higher dietary intake of vitamin D is needed than currently recommended," particularly for those who breast-feed.
At least one commentator, though, is saying it's not higher doses of vitamin D that are needed, but rather, lower doses of fundamentalism.
"They're drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds," touts the laddie magazine Maxim about its July pictorial of women from the Israeli Defense Forces.
Apparently thrilled that Maxim has decided to engage the crisis in the Middle East in such a thoughtful and substantive fashion, the Israeli consulate in New York decided to throw a party celebrating the magazine's efforts. Tonight, 9:00pm, at the Manhattan nightclub Marquee.
Not everyone, however, is happy about the event. Seems the consulate's formal invitation featured a photo of 2004 Miss Israel Gal Gadot wearing, well, let's just say the 22-year-old was out of uniform.
Back in Jerusalem, female members of Israel's Knesset are furious. "This pornographic campaign sponsored by the Foreign and Tourism Ministries is an outrage," said MK Colette Avital, who was formerly Israel's consul-general to New York. "It's unfortunate that the Israeli consulate chose to emphasize Israel's relevance with a portrait of a half-naked woman, instead of with one of women of substance and accomplishments," adds MK Zahava Gal-On.
The consulate remains unapologetic. They see the country's image slipping among the crucial demographic of New York men aged 18 to 38, explains David Saranga, consul for media and public affairs. "So we thought we'd approach them with an image they'd find appealing," he says.
We'd be more sympathetic ... had we been invited.
In eastern Germany, young women are moving west, while young men are moving right. And that might be good … if you're a neo-Nazi.
Since 1991, 1.5 million former East Germans—about 10 percent of the region's population at the time the Berlin Wall fell—have left. Many of those relocating to the west have been well-educated people under 35 who are seeking better economic opportunities. But now, there's a new wrinkle to the statistics. Around two thirds of those who have abandoned eastern Germany since 1991 have been women, according to a recent study (pdf) by the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. In some regions, the ratio of women to men in the 18-29 age group is less than 82:100.
Young women in eastern Germany tend to be better educated than the young men there, so they have an easier time finding work in the west. But when women migrate, they leave behind an underclass of poorly educated, unemployed, frustrated men who are ripe for recruitment by surging neo-Nazis. In the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, the neo-Nazi party NPD received 7.3 percent of the vote, and the party now has seats in three German state parliaments, all of which are in the east.
And the young men of eastern Germany aren't alone. Testosterone time bombs are ticking around the world, including in the Middle East, China, and India. Somebody had better figure out what to do with all of these angry guys, and fast.
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