Liberia: The Next Step

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Courtesy US Army Africa

Since the ousting of former President Charles Taylor in 2003, the Republic of Liberia has democratically elected a new administration in 2005, whereupon Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been elected President. Although President Johnson Sirleaf faces severe challenges in rebuilding the country, including the reconciliation and reintegration of ex-combatants of the recent conflict into the Liberian society. In Liberia, up to 500,000 people were internally displaced during the country’s 14-year civil war.

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Courtesy Juan Freire

We must first examine the conditions in which individuals are living within their IDP camps, and see if there are any important cultural gender restrictions that have been over-looked, such as the location of men to women within the camps. If there are specific cultural gender restrictions, then humanitarian aid workers must adhere to these restrictions during IDP camp construction.

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Courtesy DFID – UK Department for International Development

One of the most important issues that must be addressed in the rehabilitation of Liberia, is the sexual assault and rape that women and young girls encountered throughout the country’s civil-war. According to Mary-Wynne Ashford’s The Impact of War on Women, systematic mass rape is used as a tool for ethnic cleansing and humiliation of the enemy. Necessary medical and psychiatric tools must be made available to provide treatment to those living with sexual abuse.

Accounts of severe psychiatric trauma, specifically PTSD, were noted in The World Health Organization’s Sexual Gender-Based Violence and Health Facility Needs Assessment recorded September 9-29, 2005. One woman’s account states: “I was forced to watch them open a pregnant woman stomachs and the baby taken out, butchered and cooked. They forced me to share the meat with them.” Another woman remembers: “The boys who raped me were very small that they couldn’t carry their guns. They raped me during one week. I am twice their mother. I feel ashamed to disclose what happened to me. I also feel that they laid a curse on me.”

Women and girls who suffer from the traumas of rape must receive both physical medical attention and psychiatric medical attention. I also suggest that the UN train and/or recruit female psychologists who specialize in rape and sexual assault, to work as humanitarian aids with the women recovering in Liberia.

I suggest female psychologists specifically because often times, women who suffer from rape, might feel less inclined to share their experiences with a therapist who is of the same gender as their attacker. Also, it might be culturally unacceptable for a woman in Liberia to be alone with a man other than her husband, even a psychiatrist.

Here, I note the importance of language and offer that our UN humanitarian aid workers be properly trained in the languages of Liberia, where in which over 30 languages are spoken.

The physical damage of those women effected by rape and sexual abuse demands proper medical care in the form of STD testing and treatment. According to the same account from the World Health Organization, many women complain of abnormal menstrual cycles, abdominal pain, infertility, and sores in around and their genitals – 8.4% are experiencing symptoms of vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), 1.9% vaginal bleeding, 1.5% uterine prolapse and 1.3% bloody stools.

Humanitarian Aid Workers in Liberia must be well-trained in the language, culture and medical knowledge necessary to help aid the country’s rehabilitation process and any soliciting or abuse made against refugees must be held accountable. When helping to restore a country, you are helping to restore an individual’s and country’s humanity and the rehabilitation of Liberia must be treated with attentive care.

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In and Out of the Blogosphere

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Courtesy digitalrob70

Over the recent years, blogging has become a tool for marginalized individuals who wish to connect and identify with those similar, as well as utilize the blogosphere as a space to promote advocacy and change. The speed with which the internet can reach individuals and gather information is unlike any tool we have worked with in the past. But has the internet been able to democratize and promote advocacy in the public sphere? Are we collectively moving as fast as the internet and recognizing cyberspace as a legitimate space for advocacy and change?

In her work The Reality of Virtual Reality: The Internet and Gender Equality Advocacy in Latin America, author Elisabeth Jay Friedman examines ways in which the internet can democratize gender equality advocacy in Latin America. Friedman explores the lived experiences of those individuals utilizing the internet to promote social change and illustrates the importance of both boundaries and structure to determine the effects the internet has on advocacy communities. “The term boundaries refers to questions of inclusion and autonomy in civil society. Structure means the ways advocacy gets done: the forms of organization along with the strategies employed in them” (Friedman, 4).

The internet can enhance the way gender advocates work because it promotes a nonhierarchical form of interaction. Queer and trans groups within the LGBTQ community have employed such strategies to advocate for inclusion and advocacy. As Friedman notes, a lesbian feminist group in Mexico City (Lesbians in Collective) distributes information to 150 contacts via a free account. With little to no mainstream media outlets, these groups which Friedman points out are free to advance goals for gender equality and transformation.

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Courtesy Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

But what of the groups who fall into an even smaller marginalized group? If larger demographics, like feminist organizations, struggle to gain equality what does that say for groups consisting of intersex and trans individuals? And how are they using the internet to advocate for change? In her work The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough, Anne Fausto-Sterling explores the complications encountered within Intersex groups. Fausto-Sterling, upon exploring the concept and the history of Intersex individuals, simultaneously imparts knowledge and awareness concerning this issue.

Fausto-Sterling shares stories of advocacy passed on through individuals who have tried to radicalize the medical industry by speaking out against the concept of a two-sex society, shedding light on both the psychological and physical, surgical effects of a two-gendered system. Fausto-Sterling writes: if the state and the legal system have an interest in maintaining a two-party sexual system, they are in defiance of nature.

Another individual who has sought to radicalize the gender system is Kate Bornstein, a transsexual person who underwent a male-to-female sex change in 1986. Kate dedicates herself to educating others about what she feels is the inherent oppression of a binary gender system which forces individuals to conform to one of only two gender options. As an trans advocate in the blogosphere, Kate uses her blog to impart knowledge, promote her lesbian feminist writings, and connect with a demographic of marginalized individuals.

It is important here to acknowledge the intersections of both the social and medical worlds when advocacting for change amongst marginalized groups. For to gain medical advances (especially for trans and intersex individuals) we must first recognize these individuals within the social sphere. Through blogging and the use of the internet in general strides are being made in the battle for equality. But no matter how fast the cyber world moves, time is needed to counteract generations spent in social oppression.

Where there is hope, there is a market.

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Courtesy of ejhogbin

Over the years, obesity has entered our social dialogue through a variety of filters ranging from television segments to Lap-Band advertisements and promotions. Often the two worlds collide and we see celebrities and Reality TV Celebs endorse radial weight loss procedures.

In her work Happy Re-birthday: Weight Loss Surgery and the ‘New Me’, author Karen Throsby notes how the recent fascination with obesity has affected the steady increase in weight loss surgeries. Throsby states that weight loss surgery is seen as a last resort to those individuals who have battled with their weight over the years. And although weight loss surgery is incredibly invasive and dangerous, individuals still opt to go under to loss weight.

Throsby notes the discourse of “the new me” is a familiar trope that we often see within the narratives of normative bodily transformations. When we analyze these narratives within the context of weight loss surgeries, we notice that transformative procedures are often marketed with these “new me” values. And where there is hope, there is a market.

Recently, Lauren Manzo – the daughter of The Real Housewives of New Jersey star Caroline Manzo, underwent surgery to get the Lap-Band. Manzo had previously tried methods like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig to lose the weight, but decided on the Lap-Band because she felt as though she was in a “very unhealthy” place in her life. Manzo, of course, is noting her emotional health as well as her physical health in this statement. To her, the Lap-Band was not “an easy fix” but a solution to get to a happier, healthier Lauren Manzo.

Stories similar to Lauren’s pop up all over the ‘fatosphere’ – an online community of fat bloggers and designated fat activists. In her work ‘A beautiful show of strength’: Weight loss and the fat activist self’ author Zoë C. Meleo-Erwin notes the conflicts that arise between fat activists and patients undergoing weight loss surgery. Meleo-Erwin explores the experiences of these two groups and claim they can be understood through the lens of biopower as well as through Foucault’s theory of governmentality.

Concepts of a “healthy” body and an obesity-driven health crisis are more controlled by societal influence (cultural and political) than by physical health. Again we see this in extreme regimentation plans practiced through obese people who are trying and lose weight “naturally”. For any other person, these extreme limitations would be considered dangerous, and might just warrant an eating disorder. But if you are obese, somehow you lose a little bit of personhood to the epidemic of obesity. Your body is a warning and ignites moral panic. And although fat activists are fighting to restructuralize this notion of obesity and fatness, they face the omnipresent opponent created within our society through biopower.

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Courtesy of Tobyotter

And so our country has capitalized on this epidemic – providing us with a bevy of surgical procedures, Reality TV opportunities, diets, and diet pills. It is important here to recognize the different behaviors society displays towards “fat” women versus “fat” men and how a familiar trope of the ideal feminine body is called into play.

Make Me Over

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Courtesy of jbcurio

Our society is “addict” happy. The increasing medicalization of addiction welcomes new ways to treat, address and/or ignore addictions and we, as a society, have been trained to recognize addiction at the drop of a flask, can’t we? We sure do label individuals and addicts all the time so we must be experts. Right?

What do you think of when you think of an addict? A person who has hit the dreaded rock bottom? Rebecca Tiger addresses this notion of addiction within the context of celebrity Lindsay Lohan and her public struggles with addiction in the article They Tried to Make Her Go to Rehab. Tiger notes: “While the U.S. increasingly medicalizes addiction, searching for pharmaceutical cures, it simultaneously criminalizes drug use, leading to a system in which some addicts are managed by both rehabilitative and punitive measures, treatment and incarceration, in an effort to achieve the goal of sobriety.” It seems as though everyone has their own theory on how Lindsay Lohan can obtain sobriety, or at least they offer suggestions and/or opinions on how she should be “handled” as an addict.

Just this month on Perez Hilton, Lindsay was tagged in yet another blog post regarding a potential intervention. The twenty-two comments from readers that followed this post ranged from statements like, “she doesn’t want help, it’s obvious she’s using and partying, same old, same old, as always. She looks awful, her face is the face of a hard-core drug user. I say leave her alone. Eventually she’ll OD and that’ll be that” to calling Lohan a “wasted piece of DNA”.

These comments are a great example of biopower and how it is embodied within a society to establish control over an individual – in this case, the “addict” Lindsay Lohan. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen addresses similar examples of biopower in his work Monster Theory. Cohen states, “The monster is continually linked to forbidden practices in order to normalize and to enforce” (Cohen, 16). Biopower roots itself with the body and society uses the monster as a living example, even citing dead monsters like Amy Weinhouse or Whitney Houston to police the body against drug and alcohol abuse.

Celebrities offer ways in which identity of the self has been transformed through the cultural economy of entertainment. Society can police these figures openly, either on blogs or in other public spheres, while policing themselves through their own knowledge concerning addiction. This is a wonderful example of governmentality and it explains how we partake in social control. It is important to question who or what is influencing this authority.  Furthermore, it is especially important to acknowledge intersections of gender and race to see how society criticizes a gendered expectation. Examine the similar antics of Charlie Sheen in which blog comments read, “The guy is a crazy but who can stop him when he makes a mill per episode?” The fall of a women under the influence of addiction feeds into a familiar trope of feminism regarding wasted feminine potential.

Don’t Tell My (Feminist) Mama

One of the most controversial clashes in feminism today surrounds sex work. Within the film Live Nude Girls Unite! we are introduced to the strippers of the Lusty Lady Theatre in San Francisco and see how these workers unionized what was to become the first and only unionized Strip Club in the United States. One major plot twist in this documentary, was that the film’s director (Julia Query) was the daughter of Dr. Joyce Wallace – a feminist and advocate for prostitutes’ rights. Although Query was comfortable with her position as a stripper both in her personal life and in her life as a comedian, she was hesitant to reveal her line of work to her mother.

This got me to thinking about sex work, the sex industry, and the much heated debate over whether or not “the oldest profession” or any work that is associated with it, is controversial even through a feminist lens. Where Live Nude Girls Unite! succeeds in addressing this controversy, is in addressing poor management and poor working conditionings.

Under poor management, these women, like any other group of non-union employees are subjected to unfair wages, lack of sick days, lack of medical care and a number of other grievances concerning privacy, race, and gender. In her work Feminism and Antiracism, International Struggles for Justice author (and exotic dancer) Sibhan Brooks illuminates the struggles she faced as a Black stripper during her time at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. Brooks states that acts of racism were impending upon her livelihood and (literally) her self-worth.

In an interview with Indiewire, Query says, “Sex work is not sex. It’s work.” She chose to omit the story of how she came to work in the sex industry to avoid essentialist stigma. “Women who work in the industry can sometimes feel different from women who don’t. You get the feeling that the reason I do this is because I’m ‘this kind of woman’ and ‘I’m different from other woman’ as opposed to feeling like I do this as a job choice that was made for various reasons.”

It seems that sex work is often confused with sexual exploitation. Often times, as authors like Catharine MacKinnon note, women are subjected to inequality, abuse, and exploitation through sex work. Of course this happens when women are forced into the industry against their will or are coerced. Sex work needs to be a choice, and a positive choice at that, made by no one other than the women seeking employment. The lack of unionization in the sex work industry only furthers the social stigma surrounding the field.

As Query states, she can differentiate between sex and work. The women of the Lusty Lady Theatre took action towards fighting back against exploitation (2-way mirrors in peep show booths, inequality, racism, unfair wages) to claim agency over their bodies and their work. Perhaps we need to investigate the working conditions for women in the sex industry and advocate for equality and fair treatment within the work place. Because whether or not you’re stripping or waiting tables, any job where a woman relies on tips to pay her rent subjects her to exploitation and harassment.

Reality TV and the Harmful Effects of Display

Reality TV exploded as a pop-culture phenomenon around 1999-2000 with shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Before this we had The Real World. Today, the influx in Reality TV and Reality TV Celebrities has blurred the lines between “average” person and celebrity.

In his work Reality TV: More Mirror Than Window author Richard Breyer notes the increased sense of democracy we see within the world of Reality Television. A consistent cycle of nobodies morphing into American Idols or Bachelorettes inspires similar unknown individuals. They, too, can achieve celebrity status in America! This allows audience members to connect deeper with the so-called characters they see on Reality TV shows because they feel as though there is a similar authentic connection shared.

The importance placed on authenticity can be noted in Paradox and the Consumption of Authenticity through Reality Television. Authors Randall L. Rose and Stacy L. Wood site that authenticity is what connects audiences so intimately to these reality series. Even though authenticity is desired and the companies who produce these Reality TV shows promote authenticity within their programing, consumers of Reality TV delight in the mash-up of the factitious and the spontaneous lives of these people on Reality TV series. Rose and Wood refer to this obsession as a “postmodern paradox”.

Our society is faced with a modern dilemma surrounding the reality of Reality Television.

But what of the harmful effects involved for these individuals who find their lives consistently on display in either social media or broadcast media? In the film We Live in Public created by Josh Harris,we see the harmful effects continuous surveillance has on individuals. After experimenting on strangers, Harris created We Live in Public with his girlfriend and they subjected themselves and their relationship to same digital surveillance. Their relationship crumbled in front of an online community.

Extending into the world of Reality Television, we see similar effects of surveillance on reality celebrities. After the Reality Show Newlyweds, couple Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson divorced, even after their wedding was televised publicly. Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries experienced a multimillion dollar wedding on E! Entertainment Television only to be divorced days later.

This authenticity can have a harmful effect on society’s perception concerning what is or what is not “authentically” acceptable. The infamously violent characters Sammi and Ronnie on MTV’s Reality Show, The Jersey Shore became so violent towards one another that MTV posted domestic violence PSA’s after the episodes. Regardless of the PSA’s the footage was still aired and the violence was seen. Social damage had been done.

These issues are considered feminist issues, because this authenticity affects our society simply because it is deemed “real”. On the opposite side of this spectrum, we can argue that these “real” characters on Reality TV shows have become characters of themselves and thus are not held accountable for their actions. Case and point the violence between Sammi and Ronnie. Or the feminine ideology surrounding the weddings and honeymoon bliss of bombshells Jessica Simpson and Kim Kardashian. Who’s reality is this?

Here’s Looking at You

Social Media has undeniably changed us both individually and as a society by providing a platform for exploitation. Music sensations blossom out of YouTube posts (Justin Bieber) or MySpace homepages (Lily Allen).

Beyond the world of celebrity, social media also provides a collective space with democratizing potential. In their work, New Media and Internet Activism: From the ‘Battle of Seattle’ to Blogging, Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner note how social media can be utilized by a diverse spectrum of people to construct new social and political relations and to further educate and inform others. For example, Iranian Pro-Feminist Blogs demonstrate just how effective social media can be in a feminist society when one is socially restricted by their body and culture.

Whether or not you consider yourself to be an exhibitionist, you are socially “off the radar” if not a member of social media society. This “spectrum of people”, although diversified, is still flawed considering the privilege that comes with social media. Not only are capable computers a privilege but so is the time and education one must have to connect through social media. Although this digital platform can serve as a form of escapism form the female body and social restrictions, it can further isolate women from society if they lack the resources to connect.

Social media is so intertwined with embodiment and visual media that we must ask whether or not we want to escape our bodies online when so much of social media culture condones exploitation. But this exploitation can have potential harmful secondary social ramifications. Think back to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” music video on YouTube.

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The extremities to which we release our personal selves through social media allows us to be at the control of everybody by everybody. Within this digital framework we are monitored by the omniopticon which, according to Nathan Jurgenson in Surveillance and Society, is “a democratization of the gaze that has come into reality with the rise of social network sites” (Jurgenson 377). Jurgenson is noting the power of surveillance witnessed in the documentary We Live in Public about the life of internet mogul Josh Harris and his how he used social media surveillance to tamper with the human condition. Harris offered free food, lodging, drink, fun (etc.) to subjects interested in partaking in his bunker experiment, but stated that the footage was his – “that we own.”

So who “owns” us in the world of social media? In their work Surveillance Creep in the Genetic Age, authors Dorothy Nelkin and Lori Andrews conceptualize the harmful effects of DNA banking and surveillance within the military. One can easily make the connection between this DNA surveillance and the surveillance of our online identities. Photos uploaded onto Facebook, are essentially owned by Facebook. Where are all those Twitter posts stored? Credit card numbers?

Can we really escape our bodies (or our mistakes) when every personal update is broadcasted and stored? Or are we reaching an age where the digital self and the physical self are so intimately intertwined that they are one in the same?