The Silver Lining to the #MeToo Movement

Would that it did not happen. Would that millions – no billions – of women did not face some sort of sexual harassment or discrimination or molesting on a daily basis around the world. If only it did not involve power, and women feeling threatened for their jobs or their lives. But unfortunately, this has been a part of women’s lives probably since the beginning of time, and we are in a period where so much of this sexual harassment has come to the forefront, starting with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. It was quite disturbing to see how many of my friends had posted “MeToo” on their Facebook pages, friends from all around the world. So the scale of this problem is immense and acute. But as with any bad or traumatic situation, is there something positive that can come of it? I think so. Here are some thoughts on the silver lining to the #MeToo movement and the spate of cases of sexual harassment that we have been hearing about so much lately.

-It cuts across class and all social differences. Everyone from multimillionaire Gwyneth Paltrow to a waitress at Denny’s can relate. It affects athletes (as we have seen in the Larry Nassar cases), young journalists (think Charlie Rose), seasoned professionals, and women of all colors. Therefore, we see the universality of the issue.

-It normalizes the experience of sexual harassment. Notice that I did not say it normalizes sexual harassment. What this means is that women do not need to feel alone in what they have suffered. One of the most difficult things for any victim of an abusive situation is feeling alone and isolated. Certainly nothing can take away our individual sufferings. But there is some healing that comes when we see we are not alone.

-It brings feminism back to its core values of gender equality and non-discrimination of women. In the recent decades, I feel that feminism has often gotten ridiculous, focusing on dissecting words (i.e. herstory instead of history, which if you know its Latin roots has nothing to do with gender), radical feminism, academic feminism, an obsession with sexuality and sex practices, and everything that is extreme, esoteric, and individualistic. Now that we see the widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment, we have to step back and ask ourselves questions about relations between men and women, and how women are treated as a whole in a society. It makes feminism accessible to everyone, not just someone who’s white and upper middle-class in an Ivy League school, or someone funky and pierced and tattooed in San Francisco. Therefore,

-It has a collective impact and makes institutions rethink policies. As above, since feminism in the recent decades focused so much on individualism, we are looking at women’s issues as a whole now and what kinds of programs and policies and rules will benefit the majority of women, and hopefully all women.

-It gets men involved with the discussion. I will say that there are and can be indeed gray areas in terms of male behavior toward women, and a range of behaviors that women will accept. (For example, some women may feel flattered when men comment on their body, but it can depend on whom, and some women may feel extremely harassed by such behavior.) However, men need to be aware of their own actions and behavior, the possibility that they will be misread, informed about respecting healthy boundaries and limits, and calling out other men who do not respect women and abuse their power. Many men are simply not aware of the power that they hold, that they are abusing it, or simply not aware of how women may feel inferior in certain situations. We cannot have a discussion about women without men. This was the great fault of radical feminism, not including men. Not all men are abusers or harassers. Many men are allies and supporters, friends and lovers.

-It has an impact on men who behave badly. They are getting forced from their jobs, positions of power, and most importantly, urged to seek treatment. While we have to be careful not to conduct a witch hunt and immediately oust men without hearing the full story and their side of the story (history is rife with examples of those accused being put to death or punishment very hastily), there are countless cases of multiple women coming forth with evidence against men, or even individual women who have proof. Women need to be believed when they come forward with a report of harassment. Institutions need to trust in them, rather than covering up, as Michigan State so sickeningly did with Larry Nassar. Consider the Stanford rapist case with Brock Turner and Judge Aaron Persky. After his lenient sentencing of the rapist, people protested and eventually voters in California recalled the judge. This was a successful move by the people and the law. We mustn’t have knee-jerk reactions to things. But we have to understand cyclical behavior in men, the abuse of power, and be aware of the existence of predators.

-Women do not have to feel guilty for their sexuality and sensuality. A woman has a right to be beautiful in whatever way she sees fit, be it high hemlines or a hijab. We need to take the onus off of women for the predatory behavior of men. This is not to say women should not be wise; I am still an advocate of young college women not getting drunk and going off with men at parties or otherwise, and believe in personal responsibility. There is some truth to what Camille Paglia has long said. But a woman should not feel that she does not have the right to express herself just because some creepy man will make comments or make her uncomfortable. Female sexuality holds tremendous power, and that is a universal truth. Men should not punish women or make them and feel comfortable for that power.

In Belated Honor of International Women’s Day

This is to honor all the women in the world – the nearly 4 billion of us. Simone de Beauvoir’s moniker of “the second sex” still sadly holds true today. Women suffer from poverty, gender discrimination, lack of access to appropriate healthcare, lack of resources for their children, domestic violence – the list goes on. And one must simply ask, Why? Why are women the recipients of so much negativity when they do so much? Women in developing countries especially face a heavy burden, being assigned tasks such as fetching water from miles away, being married off too young before they can finish their education, cruel stigmas such as being “impure” during menstruation, not to mention female genital mutilation and other horrors. We have seen the example of the unspeakable violence committed against the teenaged Malala Yousafzai – but also how she rose up against it, fought for her life and the lives of other girls and young women, and won a Nobel Peace Prize along the way.

In developed and moderately developed countries, we still see problems such as salary discrepancies, lack of maternity leave, a glass ceiling for women in the higher echelons of the work world, and unrealistic body images. Across the world, we see a common denominator of sexual harassment and women not being treated as equals, period.

We live in turbulent times when it comes to being a woman. The #MeToo movement, the president of the most powerful country in the world a serious misogynist and cheater, pay inequality, the ill-treatment of women in Silicon Valley, school kidnappings in Nigeria – the list goes on. But it is also exciting, because the discussion and changes that are coming out of these turbulent issues with women and gender are leading us toward progress. Serena Williams fighting back about her post-pregnancy seeding in the tennis world, women trying to gain more elected positions, Hollywood becoming more inclusive (thanks, Frances McDormand) are just some examples of how women are fighting back and trying to take their power. We have borne the consequences of the American feminist movement from the 60s and 70s, which focused too heavily on the body and the physical (which are important, but it became the main goal) rather than collective needs of women as a whole and actual policies that benefit women. I feel we are finally coming back to an inclusive feminist movement that addresses the basic needs of every woman, regardless of her age, class, or orientation.

In this process, as I have always advocated, we need male allies. Feminism cannot be feminism without men, and men cannot have any sort of movement without women; a gender studies perspective is a better way of framing the discussion rather than just feminism. Men are not all the enemy, and sometimes some women contribute to the problem as well. Equality, of course, may not take the same shape in every culture. Men and women are not the same, despite what many feminists believe, but this does not advocate putting women in a subordinate position to men. We need to ask ourselves what women’s’ needs are, financially, biologically, emotionally, and build our society and policies around that.

There seems to be a big gap or leap from how girls are raised to be strong and independent in childhood, but then suffer once they hit adulthood. Disney and all the image makers have been very conscientious as of late as to what messages they are sending to girls and young women; however, the images of women in positive role models seem to decline once they hit their 20s. We have to ask what structural factors are working against women. In earlier waves of feminism, such as that from the 60s and 70s, there seems to have been a bias against motherhood and women’s reproductive cycles, a denial of biology as Camille Paglia might say. This forced women to fit into a very male-oriented social paradigm. But we see now this does not work. We need to take into account women’s biology, and women need to take ownership of their reproductive power whether or not they have children. We need to encourage women to feel there is nothing wrong with getting married or being a mother, that a lifetime romantic relationship is indeed valuable and something that needs work.

As we are making structural changes in society, we also need to make our own efforts on an individual level. Too many women – even educated, independent women – do not empower themselves. This can be as simple as calling out bad behavior on a man’s part, or not enabling it. It can also be as simple as taking ownership of one’s femininity, something that is often taboo to say in educated circles. We are not men, so why shouldn’t we enjoy not being men?!

At the bottom of it all, it is still very hard to be an intelligent woman. A woman with a brain is alternately mocked, put down, lauded, a source of puzzlement, and more. Too many women of letters have struggled to make themselves heard and to be respected for what they know, or they have struggled with their womanhood while trying to develop a career in a man’s world. While it is not always possible for a woman to “have it all,” it is possible for a woman to “be it all”: she can embrace all aspects of herself and not see them in opposition to each other. This multi-faceted complexity we possess is the most precious thing about being a woman, and who would want it any other way?

Me Too: It’s Not Just Sexual Harassment

I am very delighted that the Me Too movement has brought sexual harassment out into the public sphere. I am glad that women no longer have to feel isolated and ashamed of what has happened to them. While this doesn’t minimize or eliminate the suffering of what women have endured, there is a comfort in feeling solidarity with other women, and knowing that bringing this issue out into the open is the first step in healing. And it’s not just women – there are men who have been sexually harassed too, as we have seen with the Kevin Spacey situation, and men we know in our daily lives. The Catholic Church has had a horrifying number of incidents conducted against men as well. Nobody’s body should be violated, and those who have suffered – such as the victims of Larry Nassar – have also suffered at the hands by those who enabled him as well as those who did not believe the victims. Thankfully, Lou Ann Simon chose to resign from MSU.

But I would like to address harassment against women in a more subtle manner that perhaps even affects us all, and more pervasively. And it is the issue of emotional harassment. This psychological form of mistreatment can run from microaggressions or a single hurtful comment all the way to actual abuse. At its extreme, we can see its effects in the form of manipulation by narcissists. (Think: Commander-in-Chief.) Single women endure this in the form of men they date who ghost, stonewall, blow hot and cold, and play games. Married or partnered women in serious relationships can feel stuck and in negative patterns with a mate who refuses to grow or listen. At the workplace or in professional settings, women’s ideas and contributions are sometimes ignored, or women are interrupted and not allowed to speak first. They are not taken seriously.

What do we do?

Culture is changing for young girls, thankfully. Disney has picked up on the empowerment of women, and their heroines are now better role models. There has been much done in terms of awareness and opportunities for girls and young women in STEM fields, though certainly more needs to be done. Colleges implement – and constantly have to revise – policy related to sexual behavior and the treatment of women. All of these things are extremely positive and necessary.

I would like to argue that more needs to be done in terms of mental health and cultural shifts in attitudes toward the behavior between men and women. This was a failure of the feminist revolution in my opinion, for it focused heavily on sexual activity and individual rights, rather than addressing and improving the relations between genders. Men got off the hook. Men got lazy. And worst of all – some of them even got disempowered.

This is not the fault of women; rather, it was a failure on the part of our culture to create a wider dialogue. When men saw women becoming stronger, they didn’t step up and talk about how they could be a part of the solution. They didn’t talk about what their reactions were, both positive and negative. And to be fair, some women did not allow men into the dialogue, given the painful history of mistreatment. Some of them became excessively faultfinding and created the belief that man was the enemy. The angry feminist stereotype exists for a reason, and sadly, it is what often still persists.

Some of this male resentment, I believe, has found its way out and this may be why men act out and sexually or emotionally harass women. Unfortunately, the Internet has become a great tool for angry men who are trolls. Men are not given the tools to address their feelings. Granted, men cannot, do not, and (for biological reasons) probably should not express their emotions in the same manner as women. But when we live in a culture that does not value mental health, for any gender, men are going to be even less likely to deal with their emotions in a constructive manner. When our country does not support measures for reproductive health, reproductive rights, maternity AND paternity leave, children’s health, and just overall health and well-being, how can we expect things to be healthy between men and women?

We need to develop mindfulness in our culture. Many great teachers and mental health professionals, Buddhist and otherwise, have made great strides in educating the public. When we are not at peace with ourselves, this will reflect in our relations with others, regardless of their gender. Our culture focuses so heavily on the external that it leaves very little room for internal reflection. This is probably the most toxic aspect of American culture.

Getting people to unplug from their devices, get off social media, and communicate directly with people is a first step. Allowing time for activities that encourage inner reflection and awareness is the next step. Developing a daily practice of mindfulness is, then, what must naturally follow, to integrate that into one’s life. This has to include people becoming aware of others’ negative behavior and not enabling it, and speaking up against it, or protecting people from it. Working on the reduction of guns and firearms is an external element that is a must, for it is a deadly combination to have an angry person who is not mindful and a weapon. We also need public funds for mental health.

And ultimately, I think we need to remind ourselves of that fundamental, natural human joy of men and women interacting with each other. Our culture has lost that very basic pleasure where man likes a woman because she is a woman, and a woman likes a man because he is a man. There is something very beautiful about it at the bottom of it all, it’s the oldest story in human nature, and we mustn’t forget that. That love has been the basis of so much art and culture for millennia, and will continue to be so.

The True Meaning of Misogyny

(This post is dedicated to the memory of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani social media star and feminist)

So much gets thrown around these days in terms of what the word misogyny means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines misogyny as “a hatred of women,” from the Greek misein to hate and gyne woman. Our own cultural connotations of this word in American society vary greatly. Is a man staring at an attractive woman on the street and example of misogyny? Or only when he makes a comment? Is the fact that we do not really encounter a female Mozart when studying European culture and music a sign of misogyny? I would argue that we have to be careful, when defining misogyny, not to negate or deny certain things that are naturally or even inherently masculine, certain things that may be harmless. Also, a male acting in traditionally masculine ways is not necessarily being misogynistic. I, like many women, love chivalry and find it charming when a man opens a door for me, whereas other women may find it demeaning. We need to distinguish between superficial misogyny and genuine, deep-rooted misogyny.

In the first example, a man staring on the street may be acting simply out of his own biology and own masculine nature; while it may be uncomfortable to some women, we have to be careful not to label this as misogynistic in all cases. Same for opening a door –a man may see himself as being a gentleman and doing his duty and a chivalric way. In the second example, we are dealing with a more complex situation. Indeed, our history books and curricula have often neglected women entirely, or minimized their contributions. (Hence the presence of this blog, and its title that seeks to honor women in cultural positions). And needless to say, in earlier centuries, women were not educated to the same level as men, if at all, and female Mozarts may have existed but were instead expected to do needlepoint and then be married off at age 16. But we cannot use our modern standards to evaluate the Canon and earlier eras; to do so would simply be ridiculous and anachronistic. I frequently take issue with modern politically correct scholarship and interpretations of earlier works and time periods, for it shows a deep ignorance of history and a certain shallow Americanism. Sometimes I even have to laugh when the whole issue of calling a woman a “girl” becomes a subject for debate, because some of the most old-fashioned men who call a woman a girl might be the ones who treat her with the most respect as opposed to the politically correct men who call a woman a woman but whose behavior is not respectful.

What, then, does misogyny mean? Because we can’t deny it exists, and on some level, we deal with it every day in America.

I would argue that true misogyny means denying things that are at the very unique essence of what it means to be a woman, things that are particular to our gender. Misogyny, at its deepest, means a denial of female emotion and female energy.

-Interpersonally, probably the worst example of misogyny is a man’s inability to accept and understand a woman’s emotions in a romantic context. Labeling women as “crazy,” or fearing that “she’s going to go out of control” are all ways in which the fundamental nature of a woman, to be emotional in a way that a man cannot be, is quashed and destroyed. Women are taught logic and rational thinking; men are seldom taught how to understand women’s emotions (though we have to understand that biologically there may be a limit to what they can comprehend). But the point is that this imbalance leads to a lot of anger and hostility in relationships. These days, with social media, it is easier for men to hide behind a screen rather than hear, see, and feel what his woman is experiencing.
These days, it seems that the more educated and professional the man is, the less he is able to deal with a woman’s emotions, and would not hesitate to end a relationship. Whereas a less educated man might be able to cope better, perhaps by going out for a beer with his friends and accepting he said something stupid and go back home, accepting to a certain degree that there are certain gender traits and one must accept them.

-Many women may criticize the above, but that proves the next point: women are not allowed to be women in all aspects of life. In order to do well in their careers, too many women have been forced to adopt masculine ways and to stifle their femininity. This is especially prominent in certain fields, such as finance, law, STEM fields, even academia. In order to get ahead, a woman has to play the game. And when our culture dictates that work life consumes most of our day, it becomes difficult for women to relax into their femininity when they are not at work. This has made gender roles difficult for both genders, and many men complain about masculine, controlling women. This is a legitimate complaint, but its origins come from a male-dominated society that has pushed women to be this way.

-Misogyny is patriarchy gone extreme. Notice that I did not say misogyny is patriarchy, but qualified it with an adjective phrase. As an anthropologist by undergraduate training, I can say that there are certain aspects of a patriarchal society that could be beneficial to women–a male who is a provider, who will stay in a relationship, who will be a responsible father, and who will allow a woman to be her feminine self. It can provide a sort of social safety net. However, in too many countries and cultures, including America, this patriarchy can push women into unwanted or undesirable marriages, motherhood, deny them an adequate education or work opportunities, and worst of all, result in domestic violence. The latter is the most tragic example of men trying to maintain their power and values at all costs, but sometimes the cost is death.

-So much is discussed about abortion rights — something that indeed must be kept safe and legal – and birth control, but what about birth rights? If only a woman can give birth, and is capable of that magical creative act, why does our society fundamentally not support that? This is not a liberal-conservative debate, but simply one that asks to honor a woman’s ability to reproduce. Why do so many women opt to have abortions? The first reason is that the birth control has failed (again, a failure of effective birth control for women, and a lack of birth control for men), and so a woman has an unwanted pregnancy. But another reason is that she is not in a culture that supports her pregnancy. Financially, America is a very difficult place to raise a child. Many women may not wish to embrace motherhood, and that is an equally valid choice. But for others, they may want to but find themselves torn between earning a living, pursuing a career that will lead to her earning a living, or abandoned by the man who made her pregnant. Where is the support for these women who want to keep the child?

-And let us not forget the pathetic joke of maternity leave: a Forbes article from April 2016 presents the grim situation of how the U.S. is the worst in terms of maternity leave of developed countries. Twelve weeks of unpaid leave – if you and your workplace meet the criteria – is inhumane. We can’t even think about paternity leave until we get better maternity leave, which is a shame.

-Pressuring women to look a certain way – even unfeminine – in the workplace. Must a female attorney who clerks for a Supreme Court or federal judge be condemned to a lifetime of navy and black suits? Is an investment banker any less qualified if she wears shoes with stripes? Or if a woman wears a pink dress to give a speech when she is running for office, is she relegated to being “cute”? The problem should not be placed on women and their sartorial choices, but on the men who cannot understand them.

These are just some examples of everyday misogyny and a deep lack of appreciation for the female and feminine energy. What many men fail to recognize is that to deny the feminine externally is to also deny the feminine inside them. While men are not wired to be women – thank goodness – and it can be physiologically harmful for them to process emotion at the same level as women, they still need to accept that we all have our masculine and feminine elements within us. In turn, women need to relax into their feminine sides and accept certain elements of masculinity, however unpleasant or strange they may seem. Feminism cannot work without understanding men.

To conclude with a classic joke– isn’t it the ultimate misogyny when a man doesn’t understand that the woman is always right?!