Showing posts with label women. Show all posts
Showing posts with label women. Show all posts

Friday, February 9

Invisible

 

Two women, an actress and a film director, make a pact to keep a secret about a brutal sexual assault from years earlier in Hollywood. Val recognized one man, a studio CEO, but not the other. The arrest of the CEO more than 25 years later in Invisible Woman, a page turner by Katia Lief, triggers pain for the victims and panic for the unnamed rapist.

The secret goes undiscussed by the two women and erodes the friendship. “Val wanted to forget what had happened, so they avoided talking about it. It was like trying to dance around an open pit – nearly impossible. Eventually the calls stopped.” 

Joni, an occasional screenwriter who abandoned her directing career, is trapped in an unpleasant marriage masked by an oversized and gawdy home. She drinks to vanquish unhappy memories. Val, more content, teaches school. “They’d started off in the same place, young and hungry, but only Joni had gone on to a degree of real success and … what? Not fame – it was her husband who was famous now. Riches maybe.” Val’s memories are more vivid than Joni's, wonders how Joni could possibly be happy. 

News of the arrest prompts Joni to reflect on her past and recognize her life is a mess, “the gluey sensation of having lost track of Val and time and herself, of having become invisible.” Family photos once signaled a full life, but then Joni noticed that “somewhere along the line, the grin and bear it smile worn by the women of her mother’s generation had found its way onto her face.” She considers reaching out to Val and offering support, but is uncertain: “Of not knowing how far she should go to find her old friend – or if she should leave her alone in what she hoped (but doubted was a comfortable obscurity.”   

Joni finds Val on Facebook and the two women arrange a meeting at a restaurant near Joni’s Brooklyn home. But Val is viciously attacked beforehand, sent to the hospital in a coma. Waiting, Joni drinks herself into an angry, vulnerable stupor and is later retrieved by her controlling husband who pays the housekeeper and dog walker to keep tabs on his unstable wife. 

Continuing to drink, Joni rashly breaks free from a miserable marriage. The price is another secret, another mean memory, the loss of career, family and perhaps her self-delusion. Joni only becomes more invisible.

Thursday, July 20

Predator or prey

 












Elinor De Witt in The White Lady by Jacqueline Winspear lives a quiet life, retired after volunteering for the resistance effort in Belgium during World War I and returning to spy for Britain during World War II. Her father leaves the family to join the war effort in the first war, and Elinor makes a silent vow that “she, her mother and sister would do all they could to arm themselves against their obvious weakness; the vulnerability of being female.” After realizing the father has perished at the front, the mother befriends a member of the resistance and allows Elinor and her older sister to observe German train movements and even sabotage the tracks.

Elinor, though younger, is more serious, agreeing to weapon training after the recruiter convinces her that a citizen can either be predator or prey. Elinor soon recognizes that “being a predator filled her with as much fear as being prey,” and the recruiter points out that such fear could keep her safe. Elinor views herself as “a predator who understood what it was to be prey” and armed “with that knowledge, she knew she would survive…” 

After World War I, the three women head to Britain where Elinor excels at her studies and wins admission to Cambridge. Her mother rejects that plan and urges her to remain close in London. The young woman’s curiosity and drive to learn are not vanquished so easily. Elinor masters multiple languages and, feeling distant from her less academically oriented mother and sister, moves to France to work as a teacher.  

Hitler’s rise spurs fears in France, and Elinor returns to Britain, teaching at the boarding school where she often struggled with teachers, including the woman who went on to become headmistress. The older woman viewed Elinor’s behavior as demonstrating resolve and resilience rather than disrespect: “our women in the making will need such qualities to see them through.”

The headmistress points out the tumultuous years of war have been hard on the young, “giving rise to an element of doubt, of unknowing that can in turn lead to undesirable words, thoughts and actions.” She warns, foreshadowing, that “Some of our pupils are the daughters of bankrupt men – and women – and I don’t’ mean bankrupt only in a financial sense…. The years after the war changed our society, and that is reflected in the attitudes and behaviors…”

Elinor is expected to set an example and support high standards that will “become the backbone of everything they do in life. Every. Single. Decision.” The headmistress concludes, “I have found that when one remains true to one’s established values, life’s squalls, storms and doldrums become easier to navigate.” 

Elinor leaves her teaching post to work as an intelligence officer in Belgium, hoping that such values will protect her and villagers who have joined the resistance. Some colleagues, though, are in league with men in the pursuit of power. They betray their country not by cooperating with Nazis, but by prioritizing their careers, adjusting war plans to support a competing group of spies without alerting the full team.

The team barely escapes after a partner orders Elinor to shoot a small child threatening to reveal the position. Elinor refuses, and subsequently endures a month in a mental hospital. She is intelligent enough to cooperate, later awarded with a comfortable cottage in a quiet village.    

Elinor learns the full story about her last day as a spy after mob family attacks a brother, her neighbor. Jim yearns to escape his criminal past, but the family has friends in high places, the same men who betrayed the Belgium villagers. Elinor befriends the mobster’s widowed sister to gather evidence that might end the harassment. 

Protagonists or antagonists – police, spies or mobsters – err by underestimating the capabilities of women. 

Wednesday, August 31

Progress

Many appreciated Fear of Beauty, published in January 2013, because of the novel's hopeful message about characters in the midst of  a war against religious fanatics who imposed senseless rules and controls, often targeting women with prohibitions on employment, education and family planning.

But even in the darkest moments, the human spirit can persevere. Women use the available setting and tools at hand to satisfy the natural human yearning to learn and grow and improve.

So it's gratifying to read an article about women organizing small village farm unions in Afghanistan and diversifying crops, a development foreshadowed by Sofi's furtive work in Fear of Beauty. 

"The unions, in updating age-old agricultural traditions, have helped ensure a more reliable and diverse food supply in an often famine-struck region. In the process, the women who run the groups are finding new status and empowerment," explains Mujib Mashal for the New York Times, who describes farms adding cauliflower, tomatoes, beans, all kinds of vegetables in addition to wheat and potatoes. Such diversification boosts both economies and nutrition.  "The unions have put the women of Bamian on the front line of a critical struggle: the effort to shape a sustainable Afghan economy, away from dependence on foreign aid."
 
Foreign aid and the dangers of hidden agendas and over-dependence are also explored in Allure of Deceit.  

The article's descriptions of Afghanistan are reminiscent of those in both novels - from the narrow and winding roads against treacherous mountainsides as well as the descriptions of support and lessons on new techniques from the Afghanistan Ministry of Agriculture, so similar to the novel's stories about the Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Do check out the article - the story is inspiring, and the photos will bring a rush of memories about fictional Laashekoh.  

Photo of Afghan village, courtesy of US Air Force, Master Sgt. Michael O'Connor,  and Wikimedia Commons.








Tuesday, February 9

Stoic

Pundits suggest that the Clinton campaign is perplexed by millennials' support for Bernie Sanders. The reasons are not so perplexing for this observer whose fiction, especially Allure of Deceit, explores women's rights, demographics, the generational divide, worries of mothers for their sons, in addition to the warped incentives of charities that strive to boost select groups.

Sanders has captured a key millennial concern - inequality - and he deplores inequality of opportunity as much as inequality of income.

The young may expect Sanders to make worthy appointments and might wonder about nepotism in a Clinton administration, and not just the influence of big donations and speaking fees from Wall Street. There might be concerns, say, about a role for Chelsea Clinton versus Elizabeth Warren in a Clinton administration, whereas the perception is that Sanders would not hesitate to appoint Warren to a cabinet position.

Along the same lines, Sanders seems as though he could work well with Hillary, but young voters can't be sure that the Hillary would be willing to work with Sanders.

The biggest problem may be Hillary's stoic attitude - that she has had to put up with much and she may expect young voters to be patient and do the same - and leaders who expect voters to fall in line with expert opinions.

Clinton's hold over the 2016 democratic nomination was described as inevitable. But too many democrats did not want to be denied the opportunity to listen and choose. Too many in leadership positions, on both the democrat and republican sides, assumed that they could select a winning candidate in advance and impose that on unsuspecting voters.

But voters have their own opinions. The young, the women, all voter can surprise.


Clinton's eager supporters have made a huge miscalculation by chiding young women's support for Sanders - by suggesting that Clinton is entitled and destined to become the first woman president of the United States. Scoldings by Gloria Steinem ("When you're young, you're thinking 'Where are the boys?' The boys are with Bernie") and Madeleine Albright (Young women have to support Hillary Clinton... and just remember, there's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other") were cringe-worthy moments that are particularly damaging for the Clinton campaign, as described by Robin Abearian for the Los Angeles Times.

Parents, politicians, teachers have lectured the young time and time again, warning of economic chaos and hell, metaphorical and otherwise, if certain paths are selected or traveled too quickly. Marriage equality is just one example. 

Many young people are weary of polarization between the parties, sexes, races, religions and more. Their world is a crowded place - they must navigate among 330 million Americans and 7.4 billion people in the world versus the 200 million in the United States and 3.6 billion of the world in 1969 when Hillary graduated from college. Yes, the world's population has doubled in a lifetime, and the country is more diverse.  The young want to and must get along. Most voters would prefer that candidates in both parties cooperate within the party and across-the-aisle, coalescing around a few reasonable positions to solve big pressing challenges and get some some work done for the country.

Photo of two campaign supporters assisting an elderly voter, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and the State Library of New South Wales. 

Tuesday, November 11

Life imitates art

Authorities arrested 13 people in a Greater Manchester trafficking ring run by a gang, reports the BBC News. A 20-year-old woman from Slovakia was tricked into thinking she was traveling to visit a sister:

"She was met by a man who claimed to be her sister's friend and was taken to an address in Failsworth, Oldham before being sold to another man. In July, she was married under Sharia law in Rochdale. The woman was later taken to hospital for an appointment by a woman who acted as an interpreter and told staff she wanted an abortion."

An interpreter at the hospital uncovered the plot. Some gangs suggest that a pregnant wife is useful for securing immigration status in the UK.

Imagine the vulnerability of young women in a country where the CIA World Factbook reports the overall literacy rate is 28 percent,  12.6 percent for women; where the child labor rate is 25 percent; where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 24; the unemployment rate is estimated as high as 35 percent; and one third of the population lives below the poverty line.  Imagine a land where there is one physician for every 5000 people, one nurse or midwife for every 10,000 and one hospital bed for every 2000 people, as reported by the World Bank, with rates much lower for rural areas. The rates for Afghanistan are but a fraction of what's available in the developed nations like the United Kingdom.

Allure of Deceit is set in Afghanistan. No one should suggest that the tale of a sham abortion that haunts one caregiver, ruining the lives of many, is unrealistic.

Photo by Todd Huffman and from Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license. He writes: "A woman in conservative parts of the country without male support can do nothing but beg to survive."

Tuesday, August 27

Legacy

The Linda Norgrove Foundation, based in Scotland, will partner with Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan to develop literacy programs for girls and women and expand the Afghan library network.

"Some 840 women will receive literacy classes and more than 20,000 people are expected to use the community libraries being set up by Afghanistan Reads, a community literacy project supported by the Norgrove Foundation," reports David Ross for HeraldScotland.com.

USAID has contributed funds for the programs. Norgrove, an aidworker in Afghanistan, was kidnapped and later killed during a failed rescue attempt.

John Norgrove, her father, maintains that education is "fundamental to the future of Afghanistan." 

Photo of Afghan girl reading from a comic book distributed by Afghan soldiers, courtesy of  US Sgt. Daniel P. Shook and Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 18

Women readers

Women led 58 percent of book spending in 2012, reports Bowker as reported by GalleyCat. Bowker also points out that ebook sales continue to take a larger share of the market, 44 percent in 2012: "The growth of ebooks varies widely among the different publishing categories with their deepest penetration focused in fiction, particularly in the mystery/detective, romance, and science fiction categories, where ebooks accounted for more than 20 percent of 2012 spending."

Sisters in Crime monitors reviews for authors' gender: "Coverage of women writers’ mysteries still lags in traditional newspapers, where fewer mysteries are reviewed, but is stronger in traditional pre-publication review sources and in born-digital book review blogs and websites, which publish three to four times as many reviews as the newspapers monitored."

Women do relish reading - but many will discontinue subscribing to and reading newspapers and magazines if they perceive coverage is imbalanced and unfair.

Woman With a Book, portrait by Istv├ín Nagy; photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Monday, August 5

Age discrimination

Afghanistan's success hinges on success for its citizens - all citizens. That is the rationale behind directing foreign aid toward women, as suggested by the July 18 announcement from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) on a new $200 million program.

Yet there's a catch to the Promoting Gender Equality in National Priority Programs: "The five-year plan, called Promote, is expected to increase economic, social, and political participation of women between the ages of 18 and 30 through education, job training, microfinance and credit for female entrepreneurs, and training for policymaking."

The purpose of an age limit for the USAID program is unclear and could contribute to uneven development in a country where resentment already runs high.

Meanwhile, US laws protect USAID employees and contract employees from age or gender discrimination, as outlined in Promote's request for proposals. Likewise, assessment criteria for funding programs, such as those of the United Nations, often encourage inclusiveness. Despite laws and protections, discrimination, particularly age discrimination, can go unchecked and unreported even in the United States because of lack of awareness about laws or embarrassment.

Age discrimination is linked with gender discrimination, suggests the UN Women Coordination Division in its report Between Gender and Aging:

"Inequalities in income, education, and employment across the life cycle expose many women to poverty in old age," the executive summary notes. "As the status of women in many societies is linked to having a husband, widows are particularly vulnerable to poverty." The UN report goes on to report that "older women have not benefited equally from the progress that has made in tackling violence and abuse, often failing to be accounted for in both gender and ageing research and policies" – and suggests that "concerns over the situation of older women have largely been ignored."

To counter the challenges for older women, the UN Women Coordination Division recommends a lifelong approach to education, support for empowerment and priority for "the needs of rural older women in public policy."

The design of USAID's Promote program focused on young, urban women counters these recommendations from the UN Women Coordination Division and could add to Afghan divisions. Granted, 68 percent of the Afghan population is under the age of 25, yet 77 percent live in rural areas. The 365-page request for proposals from USAID vaguely connects youth with education by explaining that the Promote program will "invest in opportunities that enable educated women (i.e, women between 18 and 30 years of age who have at least a secondary education) to enter and advance into decision-making positions in Afghanistan's public, private and civil society sectors."

The request stresses an expectation that selected participants will "work towards ensuring the welfare, rights and opportunities for all Afghan women." To its credit, the USAID request for proposals suggests a program risk is failure to garner support of male family and community members and it seeks to ensure that "skills and knowledge imparted to beneficiary organizations and their staff are sustained and replicated/ disseminated to others."

That is not enough. USAID coordinators should know that many applicants already self-select in not pursuing jobs and other opportunities. Coordinators could have emphasized diversity, eliminating age, gender and urban requirements – and ensured welfare, rights and opportunities for all Afghans. The criteria could have been left at attainment of a secondary education – thus targeting men and women of all ages who support fair policies and women’s rights.

Donors should be commended for targeting vulnerable groups that have been historically neglected, yet program exclusions should be crafted with great care based on sound research and good reasons. World Bank research in Afghanistan suggests that development programs mandating female participation can increase mobility and income for women, but may “not change female roles in family decision-making or attitudes toward the general role of women in society.” And a study cited in the USAID request for proposals notes that “the Afghan culture places a considerable emphasis on respecting elders because of their knowledge, wisdom, and experience, which explains why older transformational leaders are usually more successful in influencing the Afghan population.”

Expanding the pool of applications can add to an organization’s workload and costs, yet exclusion without good reason can neglect individuals of great talent, including the Afghan men who support women's rights and are also essential for the national stability. To ensure social cohesion, USAID should revise the conditions and open the program to more applicants.

Photo of entrepreneur at women's bazaar, arranged to allow women to sell handicrafts to NATO troops, courtesy of Maj. Meritt Phillips, US Army, and Wikimedia Commons. The woman's age is unknown, but if she's under 30 she's out of luck for the new USAID program.

Sunday, March 17

Dry areas

 Researchers with the Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas studied gender roles in rural Afghanistan and found that women participate less than men do. Women are more likely to participate in livestock-related activities than raising crops.

Srinivas Tavva and five other researchers conducted interviews on participation in seven villages from Nangarhar Province and seven in Baghlan Province. "Age, social stigmas, poverty and shortage of labour influence the gender division of labour, decision-making ability and participation in Afghanistan's farm and non-farm activities."

We must wonder if this is especially true of dry areas. "Dry areas cover 41% of the world’s land area and are home to one-third of the global population," notes the ICARDA site. "About 16% of this population lives in chronic poverty, particularly in marginal rainfed areas. The dry areas are challenged by rapid population growth, frequent droughts, high climatic variability, land degradation and desertification, and widespread poverty."

In Fear of Beauty and its imaginary village with a more temperate climate, women did most of the work tending diverse crops and boys tended sheep and goats. As we have noted before, there are not many thrillers that focus on farming. The plot would have been impossible without women's participation in everyday farming tasks. As shown by the photo from USAID, the scenario of women doing farmwork is feasible. And the photo, with no location noted, does not appear to be a dry area.

And Olivier De Schutter confirms the feasibility of Laashekoh, too, with an opinion essay, "The Feminization of Farming," in The New York Times. The UN special rapporteur on the right to food explains that more men are migrating from rural to urban areas, leaving women behind to run farming operations, too often as unpaid work. The essay also points to work being done in Bangladesh, as represented by Mita, the aid worker in Fear of Beauty. The novel strives to represent globalization's many conflicts in a tiny and imaginary village of Afghanistan.

De Schutter concludes: "Recognizing the burden that the feminization of global farming places on women requires us to overturn longstanding gender norms that have kept women down even as they feed more and more of the world."

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and USAID.





Thursday, February 28

Interview

Great questions from Jordan Rich of CBS Boston, WBZ 1030 - about Afghanistan, the troops returning home and their accomplishments, and women's rights.

Note: I was thrown off by the first question, "Why did you go there?" Of course, he meant why did I choose to write about Afghanistan - a long story that includes a list of many chance encounters. Before our call, he had already asked if I had actually traveled there and he knew the answer was no.

Wednesday, February 27

First step

For those who think that the imagined village of Laashekoh cannot be real, consider this description from Jennifer Glasse of Al Jazeera:

"Saira Shakeeb Sadat wants her district, Khwaja Dukoh, to change. Surrounded by mud walls, the dusty hamlet in the remote northern Afghan province of Jawzjan is home to about 5,000 families. The isolation means security is good here, but little aid has reached the town....

"'There are a lot of limitations for working women everywhere in the world but especially in Afghanistan, where there are cultural restrictions,' she says. 'The only thing I have learned from the limitations of women in our society, is that if we have a goal and have self-confidence, we can get things done and fight those limitations...'  She believes that one of the key steps in battling those confines is education."
 

The women of Afghanistan are strong and ready to work on improving their communities.

Photo of Afghans building school in Herat, courtesy of  the US Agency for International Development and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, January 9

Not so fast ...

"The past decade has opened the minds of Afghan women about the importance of democracy, liberty, education, and being active participants in the processes of national politics and decision making," writes Massouda Jalal, former Minister of Women in Afghanistan, for the On Faith section of the Washington Post. 

But as the US prepares to leave Afghanistan, she warns that Taliban-style violence against women is on the rise. "If the United States and our international allies would leave us, they should first ensure that women’s voice in national decision making is strong enough to make a difference," she contends.

The US and Afghanistan cannot afford to abandon investments in a foundation of human rights - and allow a decade of investment go to waste.

The US announced its plans to withdraw well in advance, and that may draw more attention from US citizens and international journalists to Afghanistan and its politics. The globe will condemn every atrocity.

Tuesday, January 1

Weak

Men who fear independent women are weak, no question about it. "Attacks on women in Afghanistan show the weakness of militants and aim to create panic in society, officials say," reports Najibullah in Kabul for Al-Shorfa. Two women serving as the women's affairs director for Laghman Province have been assassinated, one five months after the other.

"Condemnation has grown stronger in the wake of Najia and Hanifa's assassinations," the article concludes. "Not only is killing an innocent woman considered the greatest shame in Afghan culture, but Islam prohibits it, said Khalilullah, an Afghan citizen."

US women service members regularly meet with Afghan women, advising on humanitarian and security programs.

Photo of 2007 meeting in northern Laghman courtesy of Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein, US Air Force and Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, November 10

Force

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Morra Aarons-Mele points out in a free market, equipped with social media, "women with opinions are a force to be reckoned with." She points out that women dominate every social-media market and "Women are influencing each other's decisions through non-stop conversations on social media."

Thursday, October 18

Binders

"The American people may not have a binder full of women at the moment, but we have a binder with two resumes in it," Virginia Hefferman writes for Yahoo News. "And, as we do every four years, we get to decide who gets hired."

I must admit, the comment on "binders full of women" during the presidential debate only caught my attention as hyperbole.

But subsequent analysis of the comment  - and the entire debate - has been adept, exposing corporate executives' desire for desperate and marginalized groups of employees willing to work long hours for less than a fair wage.

Government can help some, but individuals must refuse to play the game. Walk away from the binders and the labels.

Photo courtesy of The Writing Range. 

Wednesday, August 22

Legitimate concerns

"[W]women, particularly the most vulnerable, have difficulty abandoning religion. They’re less likely to become nonbelievers, because the church, mosque, synagogue and other religious communities promise security that their families might not provide." And so I wrote as a guest for the Washington Post's "In Faith" blog. The blog addresses views on faith and their impact on the news.

The essay is intended as a gentle warning for religious leaders who resist women's interpretations, participation or concerns, and I conclude, "Religions need women more than women need religion." Women are among the most devout in many faiths, and their numbers are currently low among the growing number who count themselves as nonbelievers, agnostics or theists who choose not to practice. But that could change quickly in an era of globalization as alternatives become quickly apparent to all.

One commenter noted that religion was not behind the comment.

I admit to being torn. The vast majority of US Catholic women use contraceptives, and yet the church defies those members and goes as far as to try and impose its restrictions on non-members. Many politicians rely on their religious beliefs for guidance in making policy, and some would deny abortions to rape victims and the women's perceptions of these crimes.

But I also agree that religion can't be blamed, that individual interpretations are also responsible. Religion is a guide to thinking about the world. As a guide, it's a tool, like the internet or the pen, and as I've written before, like conversations or globalization. Any tool can be used by individuals for good or other purposes.

Unfortunately too many religions don't offer an even playing field for their female adherents. And some religions don't let women on the field at all.

Photo of uneven playing field, courtesy of Jorchr and Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, January 14

Culture force

Afghanis may have a better idea of the complete role of US special operation forces than many Americans do. And it's not just about tracking down culprits like Osama bin Laden.

Reporting for the Tampa, Tribune, Howard Altman quotes Air Force Maj. Ge. David J. Scott:  "[T]he larger role of special operators – on average older, better educated and better trained than general purpose troops – is in 'non-kinetic' missions like disaster relief, civil affairs, winning the hearts and minds at the village level and foreign internal defense, all designed to work 'by, with and through host governments.'"

Women soldiers can volunteer to join the Cultural Support Program:  "to serve as enablers supporting Army special-operations combat forces in and around secured objective areas....  training will primarily focus on basic human behavior, Islamic and Afghan cultures, women and their role in Afghanistan, and tribalism."

A year's commitment is required.

Photo, US Department of Defense