ashwednesday: (Ticktock)
Tonight I watched the BBC documentary This World: Stolen Brides, written and presented by Lucy Ash, a respected reporter with a background in covering Russian politics, warzones and women's issues. This programme was on the topic of forced marriages in Chechnya, a region with a complex and violence-ridden history, now struggling to recover after the Second Chechen War. Bride kidnapping has a long tradition in Chechnya, but it has seen a marked revival in recent years, with some estimating that up to 1 in 5 marriages begins with the kidnapping of the bride. Typically a young man and his friends snatch a woman off the street. They will then contact her family to negotiate for her hand. The marriage is usually agreed to, both to preserve the woman's honour and to prevent the need for a blood feud in a country where family honour is prized and where every man seems to have access to a gun. The narrative of the episode moved between the story of Zulikhan, a young woman snatched off the street and married a week later to a man she had met on only three occasions, and interviews with mullahs, human rights activists and ordinary Chechens.

I finished the programme feeling profoundly unsettled by what I had seen. There was a great deal to unpack from the footage, far more than could actually be analysed in the programme (though Lucy Ash gave a useful introduction to isues, she reported rather than analysed - which I think was probably more helpful in this context; it let the footage speak for itself). I sat in the bath, wondering why exactly it had upset me so profoundly. I see terrible things on the news every day, after all. Part of it, of course, was that there was a personal story there. Journalists know that a personal story is worth a hundred nameless casualties, and it would have been a stony-hearted person who wasn't moved by Zulikhan, a university student who suddenly had her career prospects and even her location taken from her as she was displaced through marriage to a near-stranger who moved them to remote Kazakhstan. Clearly bright and capable, Zulikhan had the air of a woman making the best of a bad situation; she liked her new mother-in-law (who enrolled her in a local university), and she described her marriage as "fate", but she had little to say about Bogdan, her new husband. Bogdan, meanwhile, was dismissive when asked if he thought his wife was upset about being snatched. Women, he said, just cried because they didn't want to leave home, but really they wanted to be married.

It would be easy to have gone away from the programme - with its men shooting guns in the air from the wedding cortege, mullahs exorcising women of demons that made them unhappy in their marriages, and grim statistics on women forced into prostitution and human rights activists murdered - thinking that Chechnya is an oppressive nation dominated by cruel, religious-fanatic men who are systematically crushing women's rights. Which in many ways is actually a fair assessment, but it's also a glib one.

One of the issues I have as a researcher on masculinities is the way so many people invoke the word "patriarchy" without actually understanding what it means. And before you ask, no, I don't know what it means either. I may have written a thesis on fatherhood, but I think I've only begun to understand what patriarchy really is. What this programme brought into sharp relief for me was the complex ways in which patriarchal constructs can shape, promote, and oppress. The people of Chechnya are victims of grotesque and repeated abuses of privilege. In 1944 the entire Chechen population was deported by the Russians. Half a million people were exiled to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and allowed to return only in 1957. Unsurprisingly, the ensuing years have seen continued bloody struggles with Russia. An increasingly radicalised Chechen population has in recent years moved away from seeking a western-style democracy independent of Russia and moved toward the ideal of a powerful Islamic state fighting for Caucasian independence - at almost any cost. The war with Russia is supposedly over, but violence is endemic, the unemployment rate stands at a third of the population, and a Médecins Sans Frontières survey in 2007 found that an astonishing 77% of respondents showed evidence of psychological trauma as a result of the war.

It is perhaps not surprising that in a nation that has been systematically brutalised and humiliated by a more powerful enemy that its citizens should seek ways of self-empowerment. It's all very well if we at home, comfortable in our privileges of peacetime and education, think it would be better if people sought productive ways to empower themselves. For many Chechen men, growing up with the expectation that their lives may be cut short by violence, ambitions stymied by economic stagnation and political corruption, an act such as bride-stealing may seem to them an exertion of personal choice and of vigorous masculinity. Patriarchal constructs tell men that they are not really men if they are not demonstrating their masculinity, if they do not prove their manliness. And of course the constructs of patriarchy involve not only the domination of women by men, but the domination of men by more powerful men. This isn't, by the way, all about gender; patriarchy's a lot more complex than that, and maybe sometime I'll have time to get into that. But for now - Chechen men have lived for decades as the whipping boys of their own government and of the policies of an autocratic and powerful neighbour. Is it surprising that a radical and conservative version of Islam which allows men to marry more than one woman, that allows men to make women cover their heads, that encourages men to take back their nation's independence, that neatly gives the blame for their problems to Russia and to the population's moral laxity. In many societies, patriarchal constructs subtly instil the notion that the household is a microcosm of society, and so the man who controls his household is a man who can take his proper place in a social hierarchy.

I couldn't warm to Bogdan, who seemed to have little interest in his new wife, and who did seem like the kind of cold misogynist you might expect. But Lucy Ash spoke to his father on Bogdan's wedding day. The father was visibly relieved; most people, he said, got married at eighteen or nineteen, but then the war came... And now Bogdan was thirty. There was in what he said a sense of an anxiety that went beyond a typical parental desire for a child to settle down and start a family. There is a sense in Chechnya of there being very little time; lives are borrowed, not owned, and this attitude makes snatching a wife - a custom that seems better suited to a more ancient time, not to a society with glossy billboards and a busy TV industry - make more sense. "I didn't want to wait," said Bogdan, and whilst his dismissive attitude toward his wife's ambitions was repulsive, it was easier to understand his anxiety to be married when an old man started speaking at the wedding reception. He discussed how he and his family were deported, how he saw his siblings die - a tiny fraction of the horrifying one-third of all deportees who died during transport or shortly thereafter. He talked about how women knelt down in front of Russians so that the fighting would stop, and how they were mowed down. Everything that the Chechen people have has been scraped together, fought for, stolen, wrung out. They are simultaneously absolutely certain of their right to be Chechen and absolutely uncertain of anything else that governs their own lives. They are fiercely proud of their race and nation; they are afraid of their government, of the future, of the shadow of Moscow.

"It's the law of our grandfathers," one man said about bride-snatching. "We have to respect our Chechen traditions." "Tradition" is often a useful cloak for abuse, and you may rightly sniff at men using dubious "history" to justify the abuse of women's rights - but in a society with an uncertain future and a distressing and bloody recent past and present, the concept of "tradition" is something to cling fast to. Whether or not it actually does anyone any good.
ashwednesday: blossoms (Spring has sprung)
Interesting article on a man who chose to take his wife's surname when he married.

I never suspected that as a man I had been given an extra portion of power in the global allotment.

I did it because any form of power comes with duties. I'm obliged to take responsibility for my power, to learn its effects - even unintentional ones - to see what it does to others when I'm not watching, to use it in the best way possible. Sometimes to relinquish it.

So far the name change hasn't cost me more than a few hours of paperwork, some explanations to public officials and a few strained conversations with brittle relatives who think I've joined a matrilineal cult. I still feel like myself. My identity remains intact. Marriage will demand larger sacrifices than this, I expect.

I have no strong feelings on way or another about women taking their husbands' names. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, and I think that assuming it's an old fashioned harking-back to a woman becoming a man's "property" is a facile reading of the historical context. I would not think any woman who doesn't take on her husband's name is failing as a feminist, and nor would I think her husband was trying to lay some kind of archaic claim to her. However, Neufeld's act, and the popular reaction to it, does say interesting things about how hardwired our sense of - hm, what can we call it? - "patriarchal propriety" is. If Neufeld's gesture was shaking his fist in the face of male oppressors omgz I would probably not be interested. What is interesting about his decision is that it seems to be based on him coming to terms with the existence of male privilege, and is, in my opinion, a relatively graceful way of addressing it.

If I marry, which I hope I do, I won't be changing my surname - the idea of it is strange to me - and I wouldn't expect, or even want, my husband to change his. But it's always fascinating to see how people negotiate the terms of their new identities as married people.
ashwednesday: (Academic at work)
Why must British people complain so much when the weather gets warm?! Especially since they complain a lot when the weather sucks. It seems to be part of the British condition to be constantly bemoaning the weather. I myself enjoy the fact that the weather is over 20C. Admittedly over the weekend the grey skies and humidity of approaching 100% made the warmth quite uncomfortable, but the skies are fairly clear today. As someone who finds English winters pretty depressing - it's not the cold, but the lack of light - I am glad for dry, warm days with daylight from 4am to 10pm! I must soak up the Vitamin D while I can. But at least the "heatwave" does give the BBC an opportunity to wheel out an article about how we can defend ourselves from the sun, accompanied, appropriately, by pictures of Africa and the Mediterranean.

In more sensible health news, ovarian cancer remains worryingly difficult to spot. As someone with PCOS, I am apparently at slightly higher risk of this form of cancer, so it's something I'm interested in. Unfortunately symptoms of ovarian cancer are non-specific and can be mistaken for many things, so it's often not diagnosed until very late. Only 30% of women diagnosed with it are alive after five years, which is a sobering statistic. Breast cancer has a far better survival rate, perhaps partly because it has a far higher profile. No one talks about ovarian cancer. That needs to change.

And since I'm apparently doing some kind of health round up, here is a ridiculous article that claims overweight celebs make "dangerous weight gain appear normal". Yes, the vast swathes of fat celebrities all over British TV are encouraging us to eat more! Very few overweight people appear in the public eye. The increased rates of obesity are a result of poor diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, not celebrities apparently making fat "cool". This sort of article just underlines the notion that if you're fat you should apologise for it. I am certainly not a fat activist; medical evidence strongly suggests that being very overweight shortens life expectancy, contributes to health problems, and reduces quality of life. However, unhealthy weight varies from person to person - and the kneejerk reaction against fat in the media has nothing to do with health, and everything to do with appearance. You can be a token fat person on TV, so everyone can see how marvellously accepting your producers are. Or you can be one of hundreds of skinny people. If you have larger than average breasts, you get to be "curvy" and to be heralded as some kind of realistic model of femininity. (Apparently Nigella Lawson, a size 8, is "curvy" for this reason.) If you're "curvy", you'll get to give lots of interviews to magazines where you're encouraged to say how much you like being a down to earth example of a healthy body shape. If you're one of the rare fat people, you will be expected to make humorous remarks defending your body size - but you'll also be expected six months down the line to lose a lot of weight and to talk about how much better you feel, ideally on some sort of Fat Camp TV show. If you're very thin, expect that magazines will frequently post candid photographs of whenever you lose or gain weight. You will be criticised for the former, and you will be "congratulated" on the latter, but in tones that suggest that really your photo is there to make people feel glad that the skinny bitch has bloated up. If you're a woman who doesn't fall into any of these categories, well, you won't be on TV, will you? So no worries there, then.

I close with a picture of Crystal Renn, one of only a very small number of women who are famous for being plus size models. She looks fabulously high fashion, even though her thighs aren't fabulously thin. The sad thing is that this is seen as a notable fact.

ashwednesday: Marilyn Monroe (Happiness)
[personal profile] snakey showed me this link to a "feminist cookie" project. Whilst the food porn fan in me can't help wishing they were a little more elegant in their execution, the concept is pretty fun. The creator explains:
"we talk about feminist cookies all the time, that idea that sometimes people expect to be rewarded for doing the the things that, really, when examined, come down to meeting the minimum standards of decent behavior anyway. but some times a metaphorical cookie is not enough--so I made a batch of real ones."

In other news, I've changed my layout. I'm liking this new style - very different to what I have over on eljay, but it seems to fit with the style of what I'm trying to do with this journal.


ashwednesday: ocean (Default)

January 2013

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