Behind the Veil

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Women and their head coverings have been much in the news lately. There have been alternating praise and criticism for Melania and Ivanka Trump, for instance, for their sartorial choices on their recent Mideast trip with the president.

Some found hypocrisy in the fact that the women refused to wear a hijab when in Saudi Arabia but were practically covered head to toe in black to meet the pope. Others cheered their spunk and refusal to bow to a hated Islamist ideology. Similar decisions to cover or not cover their heads have been the subject of criticism for other First Ladies, such as Michelle Obama.

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To all of this I have to ask, what’s the big deal? I am far more disturbed by the fact that President Trump said nothing about the dreadful state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia than whether the First Lady was making a pointed political statement by allowing her hair to be seen. On the other hand, such criticism might be seen as hypocritical coming from a man who does not seem to hold women in particularly high regard. Still, it’s all relative, and I hope that at least privately the president put pressure on Saudi Arabia to advance the rights of women as a condition for continuing to arm them to the teeth.

What I find most disturbing about the recent brouhaha over headwear for women is that society persists in judging every single thing about a woman’s choices, right down to her clothing and hair. It’s the 21st Century, and yet we’re still focused on women as ornaments, somehow not fully human. No one mused philosophically about what the color of Donald Trump’s tie or the cut of his suit might indicate about his beliefs or intentions.

Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do so for myriad reasons, most of them religious. Why that choice should be denigrated and looked upon as political is beyond me. The primary purpose in covering one’s head and chest seems to be modesty. What devout Christian would have a problem with women being modest? Yet because of terrorism and the need to demonize those who oppose us, Americans have taken a hostile stance against Muslim women in hijab.

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Years ago, there was a great TV series called Jack and Bobby. It was about two young brothers, one of whom would one day become the president of the United States. The boys’ mother, played by Christine Lahti, is a college professor, and she has a hostile exchange with a female student who wears the hijab. In a memorable scene, Lahti’s character attacks the woman for allowing herself to be controlled by a male-dominated culture. The young woman throws back her belief that American women are the ones being controlled by men’s need to see them as perfect physical specimens whose looks are constantly on display.

That exchange gave me pause back in the Nineties, and it sticks with me to this day. Women of all cultures should be free to dress and speak and act in whatever way they choose. And it should be their character, intelligence, and personal inner qualities that are focused on, not their clothing, their hair, their modesty, or the lack thereof.

The real veil women are often required to hide behind is the metaphorical one imposed by a society that still does not see them as equal to men. Until we address that reality, what a woman does or does not wear on her head makes very little difference at all.

Young Women Need Feminism

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Kathrine Switzer made history in 1967 when she participated as a registered runner in the Boston Marathon. Despite rules barring women from competing, Switzer signed up and managed to run the entire marathon, despite an official physically trying to drag her out of the race. Fifty years later, Switzer jubilantly ran in this year’s Boston Marathon, leading a group of 100 women runners.

After the race, Switzer was quoted as saying,  “If young women today take for granted the fact that they can compete like men in the sport of running, that’s fantastic. That’s what we wanted when we began working for acceptance.” (amightygirl.com) I’m not so sure I agree with her.

I think it’s a problem that young women today don’t realize how many rights women gained only through the activism and struggle of their forebears. It has been less than 100 years since women won the right to vote in America. Even in more recent history, women were discriminated against in the workplace and barred from many rights that today’s woman takes for granted.

In the 1960s, for instance, women could be refused a credit card, and married women had to have their husbands co-sign to obtain one. Married women were also listed on passports as simply the wife of a man. Most of the Ivy League schools barred women from admittance until the late Sixties and beyond. And only married women with menstrual difficulties were allowed to purchase contraception in the early Sixties.

Even as women began entering the workplace in greater numbers, they faced widespread harassment and discrimination. In the 1960s, women earned approximately 60% of what men earned, largely due to the occupations that were open to women, but also because men were looked at as the breadwinners and therefore in need of greater compensation. This was quite overt, as evidenced in the comedy The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which Mary’s boss quite clearly states that she is being paid less because she is a woman.

Aside from salary issues, women were subject to sexist and discriminatory policies at work. For example, a woman could be fired because she became pregnant. Flight attendants in the 60s (called “stewardesses”) were subject to height, weight, and attractiveness qualifications. And stewardesses could be fired for getting married. After all, the predominantly male clientele on flights wanted unrestricted access to attractive single women whom they could sexually harass with abandon.

This week Fox News icon Bill O’Reilly was forced to resign under allegations of sexual harassment, following his old boss, Roger Ailes, who also left the media giant amid such accusations.

Back when I was a young working college student, there was no such concept as “sexual harassment.” Women were routinely subjected to unwanted comments and advances from co-workers. I remember being forced to kiss my boss – on the lips! – on my last day of work at an insurance agency. There was no recourse available to women until Gloria Steinem’s exposé of the Playboy enterprise brought to light the rampant victimization of women in the workplace.

Today many of the rights women take for granted are imperiled by a conservative movement that wants to relegate women to their past restrictive roles as wives and mothers. Particularly in the area of reproductive rights, legislation is intruding upon the rights of women to obtain contraception and other medical care of their choosing. And as indicated by many recent high profile instances of sexual harassment and domestic violence, as well as the current pay gap of 20% between men and women (aauw.org), women still need to fight for our rights, not take them for granted.

Many young women today dislike the term “feminism,” seeing it as a pejorative term for a ball-busting hater of men. What they need to realize is that without feminism, they would not be enjoying the freedoms and rights they enjoy today. And without continued feminism, those rights may slip away in the future.

Glimmers of Hope

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ct-jewish-cemetery-vandalized-20170222Lisa See’s memoir On Gold Mountain describes the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After the law passed prohibiting Chinese nationals from obtaining visas to come to America, racist hatred of the Chinese escalated into terrible violence against Chinese immigrants. That history so closely parallels Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban that it is scary. Even before the president instituted a ban against travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries, indeed immediately following his election, verbal and physical attacks against Muslims increased. Trump’s angry rhetoric about non-whites also awoke latent anti-Semitism in this country.

Yet with all these unwelcome developments since November 8, 2016, I see some glimmers of hope. First of all, the courts immediately struck down Trump’s initial ban, and I have hope that they may see his latest attempt as equally unconstitutional. The Administration has hidden behind vague and unspecified threats to American security in order to justify the ban. Perhaps the cooler heads of the judiciary will see through such tactics.

I have also noticed that Americans are standing up to the hateful racism that has become more overt since the November election. For instance,  when an airline passenger asked a Pakistani couple, “That’s not a bomb in your bag, is it?,” nearby passengers alerted the flight attendant and the racist man was booted off the flight. As he and his female companion gathered their belongings, passengers jeered, “This is not Trump’s America!” and “Goodbye, racists!”

Those “up-standers” were not unique. As a white male terrorist shot and killed two men of Middle Eastern descent at a bar, another white man came to their defense, getting shot himself. Thankfully, this up-stander is recovering from the gunshot wound.

Similarly, when the headstones at a Jewish cemetery were desecrated and knocked over, Muslim groups collected funds to repair the damage, and people of many religions and ethnicities gathered to do the work. People have also been taking it upon themselves to remove Nazi and anti-Semitic graffiti from subways and other public spaces. Such actions make me hopeful and remind me that the vast majority of Americans are decent, well-meaning people who will not stand by while others are subject to hatred.

Even in Republican states, lawmakers are showing some reluctance to further the divisive agenda of Donald Trump. Although Trump rescinded the executive order regarding transgender bathroom use in schools, proposed state anti-transgender bills have been facing intense backlash. These states are learning the lesson of North Carolina, which has lost quite a bit of revenue since passing its famous “bathroom bill.” Numerous sports organizations and other groups are refusing to hold events in the state until that bill is revoked. Once you hit them in the pocketbook, even the most conservative Republicans may yield to public opinion.

Finally, I recently read an article about white extremist “recovery” programs such as Life After Hate. Run by former white supremacists, Life After Hate seeks to help extremists leave behind their abhorrent ideology and find belonging with others who had learned to channel their anger into hatred of the “other.”

To be sure, we need to remain vigilant about attempts to undermine civil liberties in our country. We need to keep standing up for those who are attacked because of their race, religion, or gender. We need to remember our history and vow to do better than our predecessors at championing tolerance. Let’s not slide back but move forward proudly and compassionately to show the world that the greatness of America resides, not in our power or military might, but in our hearts and minds.

 

 

March in Like a Lion

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I have seen them called ReSISTERS. They are gathering across the country and even around the world. Many of them will be donning knitted pink “pussyhats” or “Nasty Woman” t-shirts. They are women from all different walks of life, ethnicities, and religions. Some are men! They are marching in solidarity against our newly elected president, Donald Trump and his politics of hate.

The Women’s March on Washington is expected to be one of the biggest demonstrations in our history. Here in Chicago, the venue for the march has changed as the number of women participating has grown.

Critics will say that marching does little to change the direction of government or the country. I disagree. The famed civil rights marches of the Fifties and Sixties helped abolish discriminatory Jim Crow laws and policies that kept blacks down. Protests against the Vietnam War turned the tide on our involvement in that terrible conflict. Now women are gathering to say, “No. We will not just ‘get over it.'” President Trump needs to know we have the numbers and the will to resist policies that discriminate and divide. He needs to see that he cannot broadcast his deep disrespect for women without consequence.

I know a number of women who will be marching in Washington, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Some are relatives; some are friends. Even a young Chicago bride-to-be decided to have her bachelorette party at the Washington march, according to the Chicago Tribune. I admire the commitment these women have made to be heard and seen and to let those in power know that half the U.S. population will not tolerate an assault on their rights.

To me it’s sad that 240 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, we still have not seen a woman become president of the United States. The equality for all enshrined in that document and in our Constitution still seems like a dream to be grasped for many marginalized groups. But the women’s marches taking place today give me hope that Americans will continue to demand just treatment for all people.

My hope and prayer is that the marches will take place peacefully, that marchers will return home safely, and that their actions today reignite the women’s movement in our country.

 

 

 

Title IX Triumphs

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This past weekend, I traveled with my teenage daughter and her team to an out of town soccer tournament. Watching 22 girls battle for possession of a black and white ball on a gigantic field fills me with awe. I admire their strength, agility, physicality, and fierce determination as they run, kick, head, juggle, and sometimes wipe out.

Such scenes were not so common when I was a young girl growing up in the 1960s and 70s.  Not many girls I knew played team sports such as basketball or soccer or competed in cross country, tennis or track and field. Title IX changed all that.

In 1972, an important Education Amendment was made to the Higher Education Act of 1965. That amendment is known as Title IX. Title IX mandated that:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Although not limited only to women’s participation in sports, Title IX was intended to ensure the “fair and equal treatment of the sexes in all areas, including athletics.” (“This Day in History: Jun 23,” history.com) The result was a huge increase in the number of high school and college women participating in sports. Since 1972, the number of high school girls engaged in athletics has increased from 295,000 to 2.6 million. For college women, that number increased from 30,000 to 150,000. (“Title IX,” wikipedia) Title IX has become so associated with women’s sports that there is now a retailer selling women’s athletic wear under that name.

My daughter’s participation in sports has been invaluable to her physical development and her psychological well-being. She has learned the importance of strength and assertiveness, the values of being part of a team, and the benefits of healthy competition – all of which will stand her in good stead as she goes on to college and career.

In our culture, the premium placed on attractiveness and femininity for women has exacted a heavy price on the self-esteem of many young girls. For my own part, even though I have always valued academic achievement and being smart, I have never been wholly comfortable in my own skin. Not having been encouraged to practice the fitness activities and healthy eating required by athletics, I have struggled with a love/hate relationship with my body.

Title IX has meant far more for women than merely having access to athletic opportunities, of course. Experts believe the law led directly to increased numbers of women attending college and completing degrees, for instance. While Title IX has not eliminated gender discrimination in society, its insistence upon equity in public education has had far-reaching consequences for the way women see possibilities for their personal development and participation in the wider society beyond school.

For my part, I see in Title IX the opportunity for my daughter to fulfill her potential both on and off the soccer field or basketball court. And each time she takes the field in soccer or mans the court in basketball, I am thrilled to say, “You go, girl!”

Backwards and in High Heels

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Looking back, I should have realized Hillary Clinton would not be elected president when so many Americans were convinced she should be in the big house, not the White House. With the media focused so relentlessly on Email-gate (or as I like to call it, Much Ado About Nothing), there was little coverage of Hillary’s ideas, experience, or accomplishments.

Despite the fact that during all three debates Clinton made Trump look like an unstable idiot, she could not get past people’s expectations for how a high profile woman should conduct herself. She  was called loud and shrill, mocked for her fashion style, and vilified for the indiscretions of her husband. Trump, whose attacks on a variety of women would make a sailor blush, called her a “nasty woman.”

Hillary Clinton has more political experience than most recent presidential candidates. And while the attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi was widely blamed on her by Republicans, her tenure as Secretary of State was marked by the location and killing of Osama bin Laden, an Iran nuclear agreement that vastly diminishes Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon, and significant movement toward addressing the world problem of climate change. Many experts agree that it was Clinton’s hard line with Iran that brought them to the negotiating table.

To be sure, Clinton’s many years in the public eye have made her an easy target. The sex scandals during Bill Clinton’s presidency somehow tarnished Hillary in a way no man would be harmed by a wife’s infidelity. Yet Hillary soldiered on. But somehow her continuing efforts to effect change through government were looked upon as a craven grasping for power instead of the desire to serve.

I am deeply concerned by a Trump presidency coupled with total domination of both Congressional houses by Republicans. But I am also disappointed that by 2016 the glass ceiling for the presidency still has not been shattered. That ceiling is beginning to seem as if it is made of plexiglass.

I continue to admire Hillary Clinton and hope she can personally enjoy her many achievements over the years. May she be proud of the fact that she proved herself capable of accomplishing what many a man might attempt, but doing it “backwards and in high heels.”

 

False Equivalency

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Lately Clinton supporters have been accused of overusing the idea of “false equivalency” to describe what they say are the ludicrous comparisons between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Obviously, tossing back criticism of oneself by saying the other guy is worse is a time-honored tradition in political campaigns and on playgrounds.

However, there is one case of false equivalency that Donald Trump has been using that makes my blood boil. When an audio tape was leaked last week of Donald Trump lewdly describing his casual sexual assault of women to Billy Bush, even the many Republican apologists for Trump were appalled. So what did Trump do? Apologize and show remorse for such a callous disregard for half the U.S. population?

No. The Donald went on the offensive by bringing up Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadillos and the rape accusation that was leveled at him back in the 1970s. Even assuming the accusation (for which Clinton has not been prosecuted) were true, how is it relevant to Hillary Clinton’s campaign?

The conservative argument has long been that Hillary went out of her way to discredit and vilify these women. I would like to know just how Donald Trump would handle it if his wife’s infidelities were broadcast 24/7 and became part of a federal investigation. I doubt he would offer sympathy or succor to the men who had slept with his wife.

To trot out Bill Clinton’s infidelities as a cudgel against Hillary is the height of hypocrisy. Donald Trump himself cheated on his wife Ivanka before dumping her and marrying Marla Maples. And doing so highlights what Trump does best: deflect from his own massive deficiencies by distracting the public with decades-old stories about the Clintons.

The facts are not in dispute. Donald Trump has said numerous demeaning, sexist, and insulting things against women, not just in the past, but during this campaign. Now we catch him on tape admitting to sexually touching women against their will. Trump will never say “I’m sorry.” But we may be sorry if we elect this poor excuse for a man president.