February 2009

I’m on a science-y roll with all the exams I’m taking. My previous post on female reproduction reminded me of another persistent problem I have with sexism in math and science – specifically the hypothesis that women might have something “innate” about them that makes them less apt in math and science careers.

I grew in a middle class but highly educated household in Bangladesh. I seemed to be a smart kid (!) and everyone encouraged me to aspire to intellectual career options. I had never heard that girls may have anything “innate” about them that makes them less mathematical. In all my grades, the top scorers across all subjects were girls, and often the same ones. Doing well in the math and sciences is something I associated with studying hard in general, not an “innate” interest. Now of course some people might have more trouble than others in certain disciplines, but not so much that a creative teacher couldn’t explain concepts to them. And of course there are people in Bangladesh who believe girls’ brains are not made for the sciences or that girls are dumb in general. But among educated people the understanding was more that both girls and boys who seem smart should be encouraged towards math and sciences since that’s where the money is. And even though patriarchal families prefer women not be careerists, they recognize that it’s a cultural requirement, not lack of intelligence.

It’s only in America, in college as I picked up on some evolutionary psychology that I heard some scientists really thought women were worse at math than men, and many women internalized it. To me the comment is not so much a scientific hypothesis as it is a patriarchal hypothesis. Let’s see where this hypothesis stems from – women are underrepresented in the sciences, and hence, along with some social factors, there could be a biological difference between men and women. Well which fields are women not underrepresented in? Nurses, secretaries and sex work. I’m not sure women are the majority among celebrity chefs and restaurant chefs, even though cooking is a traditional job for women. And if indeed women are more “verbal,” “emotional” or “literary,” then why is the literature we study, at least in English, dominated by men? So think about it, when you’re saying women are worse than men in the sciences, you’re really saying women are worse than men in everything. Or as a feminist sees it, women were kept out of the public sphere for a long time and have only made gains in some areas that society thinks is more womanly, like nursing, secretarial work, modeling, some interior decoration, etc. Some other areas have been harder to break into because not all women are willing to deal with the added misogyny of a male dominated workplace.

Another point to note – representation in math and science careers does not require an interest in math and science. Interest makes it much fun, of course, but the interest of money can also make good engineers or doctors. I don’t think the majority of men in math and science based professions are geniuses. I think they’re mediocre, and yet have made a decision to pursue a job that they understand well enough to make money. Yet, when women are mediocre in the math and sciences, they’re made to feel that it’s because they’re women, and not because they’re like the mediocre men. If a man isn’t a great computer programmer, it’s because he’s not the best in his field, if a woman is a mediocre programmer, it’s because of her womanly brain. And it is attitudes like this that keep women out of male dominated fields, unless they’re in the minority of men and women who have a burning desire for one career.

Even if a person doesn’t have an “innate” interest in something, practice makes perfect. How did I get into medicine? Around  6th grade when I realized my face and fat disqualified me from being a Bollywood actress, I decided to focus more on academics. That and my parents being South Asian acted like the world would freeze if I made a 95 on a math exam (as opposed to 100). Now I’m not condoning strict parenting, I’m just saying that our brains and bodies are shaped by the way we use them. The more we use our brains, the better our memories are. The more we use a certain part of the brain, the more active it gets. So in cultures where girls are not actively encouraged to break stereotypes, it’s plausible that their brains are being shaped by stereotypes. And as adults, when brains or bodies are not as plastic, it’s harder and harder to change. Judith Butler has written quite a lot about this plasticity and culture. She’s pointed out how social discussions seem to come to a halt when “biology” is mentioned because there’s a sense in Western science that biology is destiny. But biology itself is constructed, as is every level of an experiment of biology, from how we define the variables, to how we ask the question, to how we interpret the answers.

So am I saying that there’s absolutely no possibility of a link between genetic and phenotypical femaleness and less interest in math? No, but I don’t even see any basis of making such a connection. And in a patriarchal society where girls already have an uphill battle in being involved in the public sphere, it’s detrimental to perpetuate stereotypes by calling them “innate.” It’s probably worse to say “a woman can’t do this” than saying “a woman shouldn’t do this.” That’s Sexism OS XII. – vidyarthi

Not much to say here except that I’m can’t really fathom the situation. I can understand the anger of poorly paid BDR troops over corruption among upper level officers but I don’t realize how the situation got out of control. As I understand it, the mutineers didn’t plan on a violent attack but were ready to use violence. I can’t imagine what the family members of the murdered are going through. I can’t imagine what it’s like for the parents of the student killed from a stray bullet. Weapons definitely played a crucial role in the disaster. Weapons make it just that much easier for anger or aggression (justified or not) to get out of hand. This is what I’m concerned about when I want gun control. I understand that people have the right to defend themselves, but the risk of increased violence is just not worth that right. The more guns there are in the market, the more they end up in the hands of the wrong people, or the more likely it is that people use them without thinking. Of course gun control wouldn’t prevent a mutiny among armed soldiers, but I see this incident as an example of what could happen in a a society with lax laws about violence.

I feel guilty sitting thousands of miles away from Bangladesh writing superficially about a conflict I can’t even fathom. I pray for the victim’s families and I pray for the mutineers’ families since they’d have even more economic worries if their breadwinner is jailed.

Anyone link this mutiny with the general desperation many people are facing in this economic crisis? I don’t think it’s isolated. I think we need to think about better economic systems now. Coincidentally I just watched a lecture by Richard Wolff on www.mediaed.org. It was interesting to say the least. – vidyarthi

I just took a Histology (study of body tissues) test today and while I didn’t study enough to remember some important things we were being tested on, I didn’t forget a certain comment in the female reproduction lecture that was patriarchal.

Here’s how human female reproduction works: genetic females (without developmental anomalies) have about 6-7 million eggs as a 5 month old fetus. By birth, it has reduced to 400,000. Of those, many more die till puberty begins and once puberty begins, a group of eggs compete every month for ovulation and while the winner is ready to be fertilized, the rest die – every month, until menopause. Our lecturer had a comment in the slide saying scientists didn’t know the reason for such “wholesale wastage.” The comment isn’t uncommon. Medical anthropologist Emily Martin wrote convincing theses on the patriarchal language used in science textbooks, that often refer to female reproduction as “wastage,” or the sperm that fertilizes an egg as “victorious.” These aren’t neutral terms. These are patriarchal (perhaps unconscious) interpretations of  biological observations. What exactly makes the sperm “victorious?” Reactions between many sperm and the membrane of one egg start breaking down that egg membrane, and perhaps one sperm gets in by chance, perhaps there’s no victory at all. Similarly, the death of so many eggs in a female capable of reproduction can be considered “fine tuning,” instead of “wastage.” Surely the emergence of dominant eggs could be a great example of survival of the fittest. And why is the term “wastage” not applied to male reproduction, when 20 million sperm per mL of semen is required for a decent chance at fertilization? It seems that non-feminist scientists subconsciously or consciously use negative connotations when describing aspects of female physiology – connotations that are picked up from the larger misogynistic culture, like that of women being wasteful.

So while we may not know the precise reason female egg production is so choosy, this feminist scientist hypothesizes that it is to ensure that the best genes and the best mitochondrial DNA possible at any given month is used to make an offspring. – vidyarthi

Here’s another insightful commentary on Slumdog Millionaire by someone who knows more about Slumdogs than me, or the filmmakers. Sengupta points out that while India’s upper class is offended by the movie for the wrong reasons, the film is problematic in that it does not portray the humanity of the slums of Mumbai.

Sobia on Muslimah Media Watch covered the topic very well. Here’s her article.

Sigh. I thought Barbie set up white blonde plastic surguried beauty ideals, well now Desi girls have something more to be insecure about. The whole problem over the doll creators confusing Desis, Muslims, Arabs and God knows what not has been covered by Sobia. I just wanted to add my frustrations about perpetuating a light-skinned beauty ideal among ethnicities where the majority are dark skinned. Perhaps Unilever, maker of Fair and Lovely fairness cream gets a share of the sales from these dolls. – vidyarthi

Desi feminists have to talk about Slumdog Millionaire. How can we let the movie go without some critical analysis, or what some might call overanalyzing. Well, a little overanalyzing never hurt anyone.

So here goes…I saw a little ad for the movie in one of those sidebars that pop up while you’re web surfing. At first I thought it was a fluke, and then I thought it was a Bollywood flick that had enough money to advertise itself in web ads. Then I read a review for it on PlanetBollywood, and though the reviewer gave the movie a 10/10, I thought the movie sounded cheezy and didn’t give much thought. Well, then the movie one an Oscar, and I finally watched it. I liked it. It was entertaining. But did I think it was Oscar-worthy? No. After reading and pondering over another analysis by Samhita on Feministing, I gathered my own thoughts.

My reaction to this movie was the same one as I had watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, reading Huckleberry Finn, and reading Lajja by Bangladeshi feminist author Taslima Nasrin – I couldn’t believe the hoop-la over each one. At a Feminist Theory class in college, we actually discussed on why this might be the case. These works are just superficial enough to broach complicated topics and reach to a wide audience. I got bent out of shape while writing a paper on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, because every time I wrote about the problematic stereotypes and oversimplifications of the movie, I found myself coming up with contradicting explanations. There are so many cliched things about Slumdog Millionaire – honest male protagonist, weak and innocent heroine, fantastical yet remotely plausible plot, and of course, love. There were also glitches in the movie that I don’t think fit the Oscar model – like when Jamal speaks in English with American tourists at the Taj Mahal. When Indians are speaking to each other in English (in the movie), you can think that in real life they’d be talking in Hindi, but when it’s Jamal with tourists, how’d they really be communicating in the real world? Yet as I think about the problems in the movie, I can also think of other explanations. For example Latika was such a weakling in the movie that it perpetuated the stereotype of women, and specifically Indian women, yet there are young women in both India and America who are trapped in situations and need help to get out. And while the story of undying love is sappy, cheezy, and mythical, it was refreshing to see a cute love story when there have been so many cynical, frat boy, stupid or sleazy movies like Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin, He’s Just not that into You, The Ugly Truth, Miss March, Sex Drive, and Seth Rogen movies in general. 

There have been other related criticisms on Feministing that I won’t repeat here. Those include not giving enough credit to the Co-Director who is an Indian woman, modifying Latika’s role from a powerful one in the book to a helpless one in the movie, how having a British Co-Director and Production gave the movie privilege to be publicized, etc. Those are valid criticisms because there have been other Indian or Indian themed movies in the past like Lagaan, Water, and The Namesake that haven’t been nearly as popular, let alone win an Oscar, even in the foreign film category. The one that came close to being popular among Americans was Devdas and that’s another cliched, stereotypical and plain annoying adaptation of a much more complicated book. Now what does that say about mainstream American and Indian audiences?

I think Slumdog Millionaire was created for a mainstream American audience. I know, I know, a lot of Indians loved the movie and are celebrating the eight Oscars. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t created to appeal to mass America, with the unusual backdrop of Indian slums which makes it kind of Oscarish. I think there were other Oscar worthy movies for this year. For me, Slumdog joins the list of interesting, enjoyable, entertaining but not critical stuff like Sex and the City. They are necessary, even to feminist discussions.

Now I’m going to drink to A. R. Rahman’s Oscar win. The musician deserved it. – vidyarthi


This cartoon drawn by Grant Woolard was published in The Cavalier Daily, an independent UVA newspaper in Sept. 2007. Why discuss this now? Because recently a friend told me how she found the cartoon funny, and without seeing it I found the concept really distasteful. Today I decided to actually look the cartoon up… lo and behold it’s even more disgusting than I thought. Why write about it in a Desi blog, you ask? Because the South Asian countries also have a majority poor population, many of them without food, and I think this cartoon, while using Ethiopians, is an insult to all people of colour.

Firstly, it’s extremely distasteful for a privileged person to make fun of exploited people’s oppression. The very idea of a food fight is privileged because one has to have enough food to waste to fight with it. If you have food to waste, why make fun of people who don’t? Secondly, the cartoon just repeats a stereotype of Ethiopians not having food. While some, even many, Ethiopians might not have food, many Ethiopians do have food, and I’m tired of the third world not having food images. And lastly, what the hell is up with the loincloths? Has the cartoonists ever seen real Ethiopians? There might be some specific tribes in specific countries (not limited to the African continent) who wear loincloths, but I don’t think the cartoonist is knowledgeable enough to know their identities. To portray Ethiopians as not wearing clothes is factually incorrect and perpetuates colonial stereotypes.

While web surfing, I came across Woolard’s defense of his cartoon. You can read it here. He laments the fact that nobody inquired about what he wanted to convey by the distasteful cartoon. From his explanation, it seems that he’s very concerned about the food inequalities of the world. So it’s possible that he’s a good person but a bad cartoonist. Either that or he’s a good cartoonist but a racist person. If he really wanted to draw attention to food inequalities, why not draw the food wastage in America as the cause of Ethiopia’s food shortage? Why not draw McDonald’s, or make caricatures of Americans as gluttons (which I don’t agree with but I’m trying to make a point)? As he pointed out in his own defense, Ireland also experienced a potato famine. Why not draw that? Why colored people? And all the excuses in the world cannot defend to me drawing Ethiopians wearing loincloth. This is more than just a small issue to me. I’m from Bangladesh and a girl in high school here asked me if people run around naked in my country like she heard. What the hell!! Bangladesh is so conservative that modesty often includes covering hair!!

And while the author’s views are important in structuralist analysis, reader’s views are also important in post-structuralist analysis. The author shouldn’t have been oblivious to what reactions his work might provoke in readers. I don’t think it’s always wrong to make satiric cartoons, especially if they’re against despotic rulers or groups. But who is Woolard offending here? He’s offending the very people who’ve historically been exploited and still face racism. Many privileged people seem to find this cartoon funny. It’s minorities and sensible allies who objected to it. What’s the humor in offending victims?

Finally, there was additional controversy over this cartoon when Woolard was fired from the newspaper, even though the board had agreed to publish the cartoon. I agree that Woolard was unfairly fired. I think Woolard and the whole board of Cav Daily should’ve resigned. – vidyarthi

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