Miss Guided

Recently I’ve been thinking – and talking – a lot about how women are portrayed in the media.  I’ve also been thinking about how women are seen in society – and in, particular, how they see themselves.

Yesterday I watched the aptly titled, MissRepresentation, a documentary that explores the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in America in particular, and the role the media plays in this. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth watching.

There is no denying that women used to be seen as possessions for the convenience and entertainment of men.

There is no denying that that is possibly even more the case than ever.

Women are increasingly packaged as sex objects and everything is now sold to everybody, using women’s bodies.

I am not suggesting that women are to blame for this phenomenon.  I don’t think it’s caused by hormones or cattiness or any of the other rubbish accusations designed to disempower women.

But I am suggesting that women stop supporting it.

Stop believing the illusion that tells you that being thinner, younger-looking, compliant and presented like a sex-object will make you happier.  It won’t.  It can’t.  And when you aren’t happier even though you are complying it isn’t your fault – you’ve been sold a big, fat lie.  Even if you have to wrestle with yourself until you retrain your psyche – do it – that might actually make you happy.

Don’t buy the handbags or the magazines or perfume or clothes that are advertised by women portrayed as objects of sexual fantasies or with distorted, unnatural body-images.

Don’t watch the films or TV shows that reinforce the stereotypes.

Do watch the films and TV shows that don’t.  One of the interviewees in the movie (a man) makes the point that in the cinema of the 1940s and ’50s, women could get to play real people in movies – bitches, saints, moms, murderers, adventurers – not so nowadays, shockingly.

Stop believing that you have to be like a man – or be liked by a man – in order to make a success of your life.  Let’s face it, men are not any happier than women and have, largely, made a very unfriendly, unhelpful, unsafe and unsatisfying world for themselves as well as women.

Don’t get me wrong – men need to get on board with this boycott as well.

But women – come on – let’s stop waiting for the men to come along – maybe they’re not the early adopters they think they are?

How about we just stop supporting the system and stop accepting the stereotypes and stop conforming to the ‘way things are’ and try to create a new way for things to be – a way that is good for everyone, not just women (let’s not make the same mistakes as men).

Worst case scenario, if it all blows up in our pretty little botoxed faces we can always go back to what we have now…

Gender Neutrality

In 1993, the constitution of India was amended to stipulate that one third of positions as village chief were to be reserved for women. These positions were randomly allocated. The results were not always as positive as one might hope – often even the women complained about the female leaders.  However, there was one very significant outcome – follow-up research suggests that once a village has had one female leader the bias against female chiefs disappears and their candidacy and actions are judged by gender neutral standards. (1)

The same would seem to be true in Ireland – having had two consecutive female presidents – both of whom did a marvellous job – the electorate has moved into a very gender neutral place and we now have a male president. The expectation is that he will bring to the job many of the same characteristics of care, community development, human rights protection etc., that Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese made the trademark of their presidencies.  Michael D. Higgins was elected because he is who he is – nothing to do with his gender – and this is due at least in part to us being used to female presidents in Ireland.

If gender neutrality is achieved in political and public life by simply adding women (properly) to the mix – what other emergent advantages might equality – gender and racial and social – bring to all our societies?

Photograph – 11th November 2011 – Inauguration of President Michael D Higgins at Dublin Castle. (The former Presidents Robinson and McAleese, are dressed in red)

(1) Nick Kristoff and Sheryl Woo Dunn, Half the Sky pp 217-18


We are all convinced that our conception of beauty is natural. We think we like what we like, nobody teaches us what to like, either people are beautiful or they aren’t.

But is that really the case?

P.S. All of these girls look absolutely beautiful to me.

Rwandan Women Build a Future

What most of us know about Rwanda – other than the fact that it is a small country in central Africa – is that in 1994 there was an horrific genocide where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered in 100 days.

Few of us know that since then Rwanda has more women in its parliament – 56% – than any other country in world.  Or that Rwanda is a leading force in peacemaking, agriculture, healthcare, education and communications.  Or even that nowadays, Rwanda has a fibre-optic network connecting its cities to its remote areas.

After the genocide, 70% of the population of Rwanda was female and many laws that discriminated against women had to be changed.  Laws were passed to address the discrimination against women and jobs previously the preserve of men became open to women.  Women also began to take a role in the judicial system and this had very profound effects.  Very important changes have been made in laws governing sexual violence, marital rape, labour, property, inheritance and education.

There are still problems in Rwanda.  There are many scars from the “War,” as it is known, many lives altered forever.  Most of the population is rural and life for rural women is not as significantly altered as for their urban sisters – but it is changing even there. Interestingly, Rwanda is not only a better place for women since the society has become more equal, it is a better place for everyone as it is also benefitting from steady economic development.

In the aftermath of the genocide, many women who had been imprisoned in rape camps were not only traumatised they were stigmatised because they had HIV and babies as a result of their rapes.  But they overcame even these obstacles because, as one woman describes it,  “Since all of us had suffered from this, we were able to support each other.  That is what saved us.” . . .(1)

For the most part, men have not had too much to say about the changes in the law but according to Evarist Kalish MP, a member of the Liberal party and the chair of parliament’s human rights committee, many men recognise that women may provide the best leadership.

“More than men, women are the victims of the war. They have different priorities to those of men. They have more concern about issues related to violence in general, and gender-based violence in particular. Women have faced discrimination so they want to put a stop to discrimination. All of this will contribute to preventing another genocide.” (2)


(1) Rwanda: Defying History, by Anne-Christine d’Adesky, June, 14, 2011. http://worldpulse.com/magazine/articles/rwanda-defying-history

(2) Chris McGreal – The Guardian, 17/12/2008,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/dec/17/rwanda-women-politics-human-rights

Let’s Dance

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.  – Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s easy to believe in war and injustice

in greed and corruption

in hatred and prejudice and violence.

It’s harder to believe in equity and justice and unity and peace.

But once upon a time…

Slavery was the norm – nobody thought it unreasonable that one human being own another.

Everybody believed women were inferior to men.

White people were genuinely thought to be superior to everyone else.

Appendicitis was usually a death sentence…

The thought of human beings flying was ludicrous and nobody had ever dreamed people all over the world could communicate almost instantaneously…

All change happens because at the very, very start someone believes it is possible.

We see what we believe so if we believe something is possible then we will search and search until we find the way to make it a reality – for better or worse.

So – while peace, love, understanding, equity, and justice might not be that easy to envisage, the first step in attaining any of those things is to believe they are attainable.  Strain your ears until you hear the music and then – dance…


American Psycho?

In his book, The Protest Psychosis, psychiatrist Jonathan Metzl examines the incidence and diagnosis of schizophrenia in the United States.

Up until the 1950s most patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were women who were unwilling, or unable, to look after homes and families or were seen as an embarrassment to their husbands.

However, since the 1950s, schizophrenia is disproportionately diagnosed in young, African-American men.

Or as Metzl says, it has changed from being, …a disease of white docility to one of “Negro” hostility…(1)

Metzl makes a case for a link between clinical changes in the understanding of schizophrenia during the 1960s and 70s and the rising civil rights movement in America.

During this time, schizophrenia changed from being,  …a disease that was nurtured to one that was feared. (2)  One where, …in its worst moments, (the medical establishment) treated aspirations for liberation and civil rights as symptoms of mental illness. (3)

The lenses we use to view the world can profoundly influence our understanding of even material facts.

We see what we believe.

We see things as we are – not as they are. (Thanks to Spirit Lights the Way for that one)




Related articles

(1) Jonathan M. Metzl, The Protest Psychosis, p.11
(2) ibid
(3) ibid
Photograph: Woman’s face, Accession Number: 1978:0213:0003Maker: Silberstein, L., Dr.  – Date: ca. 1915

Girl Power

Camfed – Campaign for Female Education – has discovered that poverty is the main obstacle to the education of girls.

Research shows that the consequences of not educating girls are not only felt by the individual girls but by the entire society.

If you educate a girl she’ll:

  • Earn up to 25 percent more and reinvest 90 percent in her family.
  • Be three times less likely to become HIV-positive.
  • Have fewer, healthier children who are 40 percent more likely to live past the age of five.

So it appears that if you educate girls then you not improve the quality of their lives but, it seems, you also improve the quality of everybody’s life.

Investing in girls and women is likely to prevent inter-generational cycles of poverty and yield high economic and societal returns – Ban K-Moon, United Nations Secretary General.

If we want a functional, happy, healthy world we need to find ways to unleash more girl power it seems…


Related articles

Blood-lines of action – Butterfly Effects for Change


Before 2004, life in Basti Mahran was extremely difficult for everyone but especially for the Hindu minority. Hindu girls were routinely raped by Muslim men, cattle that belonged to the Hindu villagers were slaughtered and attacks on all Hindus were widespread – all of the time.

And then a very ill young Muslim mother arrived at the local clinic.  She had lost a lot of blood in childbirth and needed a transfusion.  The doctors were helpless, they didn’t have any O-negative blood – until a local Hindu man with the same blood-type stepped forward and offered to give his blood to save this young woman’s life.

“I was afraid, for sure. But it was the right thing to do,” says Bachu Ram, the blood donor. (1)

In spite of his selfless gesture, Ram knew there would be objections to a Hindu giving blood to a Muslim.  And he was right. Word spread about his offer and before very long a group of Muslims charged the clinic to find and kill Ram.  The group was led by Mahar Abdul Latif.

Latif hated Hindus.  For three years in the 1990s he had belonged to an extremist group who patrolled the mountains in Kashmir, killing all Hindus who crossed their path.  Latif had previously tried to force the doctors at the clinic to have separate facilities for Muslims and Hindus, so that Muslims were never touched with the same instruments that had been used to treat Hindus.

As Latif and his gang approached the clinic they were stopped by a doctor who told them that Ram was this young woman’s only chance.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Latif says. “I remember thinking that here we were refusing to even shake hands with the Hindus and he was willing to give us his blood. It was a marvelous thing he did. It was the turning point of my life.” (2)

Next morning, Latif visited Ram’s home to thank him.  This was another seemingly small event but it is said that it was the very first time that a Muslim visited a Hindu home in Basti Mahran so the impact of this gesture was soon felt. In a short time, word of Ram’s generosity and Latif’s remorse spread and everything in the village began to change.

The women began to talk to each other, the rapes and attacks stopped and a huge shed was built to house all the local cattle.

“That was a big deal,” Ram says. “Before, you would not see the cows near each other at all. A Muslim would not have touched the milk from a cow owned by Hindus.” (3)

Nowadays everything in Basti Mahran has changed. In the past, everybody hated the members of the other community, now they not only like each other, they actively support each other even in their religious practice.  It is commonplace today for Hindus to attend Muslim celebrations and vice versa.  Latif and other local Muslims contributed time and money last year to refurbish a local Hindu temple and everybody, generally, makes efforts to help each other.

This change has turned out to be of just as much benefit to the Muslim community as to the Hindu locals, as now that they have stopped fighting each other they are using their collective energy to promote the common good.

Women from both communities have joined forces in their cotton selling businesses and nowadays are earning four times what they earned when they were selling separately.  Last year the village successfully lobbied the government to build power lines and they now have twelve hours electricity a day where previously they had none.  Now they are lobbying for new roads and water supply.

“We’ve been so wrong about the Hindus,” Latif says, watching his 7-year-old son Osama play alongside Ram’s 11-year-old boy Sindhal Ram. “The biggest surprise has been that they are just like us. They want to live their lives the same way we do.” (4)

It takes great courage to give, to accept and to forgive.  The people of Basti Mahran showed this courage and are, literally, an example to us all.

The video below is from the Toronto Star and gives a great overview of this amazing story.

TheStar Gift of blood ends Pakistani town’s bloody history.


(1) Rick Westhead, Gift of blood end Pakistani town’s bloody history 


(2) ibid

(3) ibid

(4) ibid

Photograph from the same article.

Snide and Prejudiced.

The Sneetches and Other Stories

Probably the best story ever written about the danger of prejudice is The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss.  In this story the star belly Sneetches look down on the plain belly Sneetches and the message is clear – if you have a star on your belly you are a superior Sneetch.

And then…along comes Sylvester McMonkey McBean – The Fix-it-Up Chappie.  This entrepreneur has a machine that will put stars on bellies – and so the plain belly Sneetches – overjoyed to be able to elevate themselves socially – pay him to put stars on their bellies.

Now everyone has stars on their bellies.  But the original Star-Belly Sneetches are having none of it. So, McMonkey McBean offers them a solution – he also has a Star-Off machine – “I’ll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches and all it will cost is ten dollars eaches.“.

So they have their stars removed and then so do the others and on and on it goes as they vie with one another to be the best.  A terrible confusion ensues while stars are put on bellies and taken off bellies –

They kept paying money,

They kept running through,

Until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew,

Whether this one was that one or that one was this one

Or which one was what one…or what one was who. (1)

Eventually the Sneetches spend all their money and Sylvester McMonkey McBean leaves – rich and laughing at the foolish Sneetches.

But expensive as it was, the Sneetches learn their lesson and finally realise the truth,

Sneetches are Sneetches and no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.  

Proving that not only do our prejudices make us mean and ridiculous they also make us vulnerable as we invest in proving the fantasy to ourselves and everyone else.