One of my loooong replies to a discussion on Feministing. It was a discussion I started on a skit on SNL that made fun of Tiger Woods’s saga, but also wound up making fun of violence against men – not funny. Just thought I’d share my thoughts:

from reading the various insights and experiences shared so far, it seems like domestic violence against men brings up some important issues:

1) statistics are confusing because there are many important things they might not explain. many men might report experiencing some sort of violence from their wives, but often it is minor and doesn’t fit the cycle of abuse (which is not to say that it’s not important). i remember that in college a survey reported that ~30% of male students experienced “sexual harassment” from women, while the vast majority of female college students did too. but the study also showed that the quality of harassment was different. for example, many male students thought of sexual comments of notes as harassment, but were not intimidated or even bothered by it. on the other hand, harassment experienced by many female students were more predatory, and had a bigger affect on them. so i suspect it’s the same case with domestic violence, where men as a group have the power of the system, and it victimizes women as a group.

2) there’s a notion that because men are generally physically stronger than women, that violence can’t happen to them. that highlights the important point that domestic violence isn’t about strength, it’s more about the intention behind it. just like men are expected to defend themselves, so can women defend themselves, although the attacker’s physical strength can be overpowering. the common theme between male and female DV victims is that they felt they deserved punishment, or that they should do better to avoid beatings, or they can’t leave their partner, etc. and again, because we live in a patriarchal society, women are victimized more.

“Both genders need to be taught the signs of an abuser NOT just to avoid them but to be able to recognize those signs in themselves.” – Phenicks

that is so true! all of us have a tendency to take advantage of, use, abuse, or just not care about those who’re less powerful than us. women often direct their violence and abuse (even sexual abuse) towards children. i’ve experienced this growing up in bangladesh where many people consider it okay to beat children to “discipline” them, just like many consider it okay to beat women. there are news stories of women torturing and even killing their domestic servants, especially if they’re child servants. within the family, parents often beat their children inhumanely in the name of discipline.

this is also why many feminists are environmental activists and animal rights activists, because both men and women justify superiority over animals. not many justify torture of animals, but still many women don’t recognize the abusive premise of animal industries.

the reason feminists mainly focus on violence and rape against women is that in a patriarchal society, violence is considered natural for men, and often justified against women. thus, it’s a woman’s fault for making her husband angry, or it’s a woman’s fault for arousing a man who raped her. non-feminists don’t realize that rape happens because men feel justified to use women’s bodies, or use rape to “discipline” or “teach a lesson,” or simply, just use it for their own pleasure.

i think when we see abuse from women against men or other women, it seems either horrifying or funny because it’s so “unnatural” for women. for feminists, this is an opportunity to point out that abuse and violence result from a sense of entitlement, not because it’s a male characteristic. and it’s because of patriarchy that more men feel entitled about women than vice versa.

DV shelters and sexual support organizations often perpetuate this stereotype about men while trying to help victims. but that doesn’t help change society, and also ignores abuse in non-heterosexual settings. as feminists, we should raise awareness about it, amongst ourselves and others at such opportunities.

As we all know, recent recommendations about mammograms and Pap smears have caused some confusion among both women and doctors. I can understand at a time when we’re discussing cutting costs in healthcare and setting up death panels to kill old people, guidelines to reduce screenings can cause suspicion. Nonetheless, I was surprised that the discussions on my favorite blog (yes, even more than my own!) Feministing generally perpetuated that suspicion/outrage. I expected that feminists would be more skeptical of American healthcare and skeptical of the original mammograms guidelines to be so struck by the changes.

You can read more about the science behind the new guidelines here, and I’m sure in many other blogs. The whole point of revising the once-a-year mammogram rule is that it leads to a lot of over-treatment. Of course, screening too little would be under-treatment. Evidence based guidelines are always trying to find the happy medium, and yearly mammograms are not that happy medium. One author I read complained that the new guideline was not based on new studies, but faults of older studies that lead to the yearly mammogram rule. But if the yearly mammogram rule was based on flawed studies, isn’t that enough reason to question the guideline, especially when it leads to over treatment? A poster on Feministing had asked “how could reduced screening ever be a good thing?” Well, you have to consider the invasiveness and cost of the screening. X-ray imaging, which has more risks, and MRIs which are expensive, are done less often. On the other hand, self breast exams can and should be done more often. I wish the authors of the guideline had done a better job of explaining the reasoning. Instead of highlighting that yearly mammograms lead to unnecessary anxiety, which understandably made women mad, they should’ve made it more clear that previous guidelines were not based on the best evidence, and the risks of over treatment are greater than the benefits of frequent invasive screening. They should’ve also emphasized the importance of breast exams, by self and doctor. It would be useful to know other countries’ policies on this too.

I expected feminists to think about the above reasoning intuitively, given the context of women and healthcare. So I was surprised to see the notion that a right was being taken away, rather than questioning whether yearly mammograms were the best thing to do in the first place. Are we so naive to believe that existing healthcare practices on women’s issues are always in the best interests of women? Haven’t we discussed before that sometimes profit motives of pharmaceutical and biotech companies can interfere with evidence based medicine, and over-pathologize certain issues like PMS and reduced interest in sex,¬†to create a market for drugs? And who can forget “designer vaginas?” Feminist theorists have pointed out that because we have historically considered the male body as the norm, many female bodily processes have seemed inherently pathological. While access to birth control is definitely a positive thing for women, some feminists have also noted the sexism in the drive to regulating women’s fertility with drugs and devices, as opposed to researching birth control on men. For social reasons, women’s bodies are more tampered with on the aspects where women are different from men. In America especially, where healthcare practices are heavily influenced by profit and inequality of access, we tend to have widespread use of technological and pharmacological interventions on women’s bodies, from interventions during labor, C-sections, hysterectomies, pills for PMS, PMDD, etc, etc. It’s not that such high use of gadgetry is unsafe, but it’s not based on scientific recommendations or medical indications either. In countries with more socialized healthcare, cost-effectiveness is always an issue, so the necessity of pills and surgeries are under more scrutiny. I’m not saying that previous mammogram guidelines were based on biotech companies wanting to make more money. I’m saying that given the context of American healthcare, guidelines for less use of gadgets is likely to be a good thing, as the norm for us is usually overuse and waste. Has our widespread use of invasive medical procedures led to much better outcomes for American women? Not really.

I realize that the mammogram issue is different for two reasons, 1) it’s not really in the realm of reproductive health where inequality is clearer, and 2) it’s because of feminist activism that breast cancer awareness and prevention has become such important issues in the first place. Once upon a time, breast cancer research was actually being done on men (!), who comprise a small minority of breast cancer patients. It has been a huge success of feminist activists to shed light on a disease that affected and killed women (for the most part). Breast cancer awareness, screening, and treatment have saved many women’s lives.

But as feminist activism changes society, feminists have to deal with new issues of a new society. Nowadays, breast cancer awareness is so commercialized that merchandise is ubiquitous. Community posts on Feministing have pointed out the sexism in using breast cancer campaign slogans like “Save the Tatas.” It seems now that feminists have legitimized the threat of breast cancer, the interest in the issue is becoming a little sensational. After all, it is about boobies, not non-sexual things like cardiovascular diseases (which kills more women than breast cancer) or colon cancer. So I think we feminists need to take a step back from the notion that fewer mammograms mean that the scientists don’t care about women dying from breast cancer. It just means that as far as we know, fewer mammograms will reduce over-treatment yet not reduce survival rates. This is also an opportunity to think about how breast cancer isn’t women’s only health issue. Let’s start focusing some effort on cardiovascular health, which is also an area where we need more women-specific research.

I got to the party fashionably late. Sita Sings the Blues is a retelling of the Ramayana through Nina Paley’s eyes. It’s recent, but been around for some time. Thanks to Paley and sponsors for making the animated film available to many. It is cute and witty, and the animation – beautiful. I caught some minor flaws, like ignoring the fact that Kaikeyi was a warrior queen who saved Dasaratha’s life, and missing certain details like Surpanakha enticing Laxmana or Ravana dressing up as a sage to fool Sita, but that’s cool. You can read some other discussions on it here and here.

As usual, conservative folks got their panties in a bunch over the supposed irreverence of the film. I take hurt sentiments seriously, and many feminists have protested misogynistic literature themselves, but I don’t agree with the premise of the conservatives when they criticize literary works. You can get a glimpse of their attitudes (read the comments) over another retelling of the Ramayana¬†here.

Sita Sings the Blues is hardly irreverent, especially considering that the Ramayana is an epic with many versions. How absurd would it be if the Greeks got crazy over retellings of the Iliad and Odyssey. Conservative Hindus have this absurd attitude where they despise Muslims for their frenzy and fatwas against Salman Rushdie or Theo van Gogh, then they themselves set a similar example whenever an Indian epic is retold. And God forbid the retelling be from a feminist point of view, then suddenly it hurts the sentiments of the Hindus, never mind that the Indian epics are literature already retold thousands of times, and they aren’t even central tenets of Hindu spirituality!! Hindu epics and even stories of deities are acted out in Hindi drama serials all the time, yet they don’t cause a fiasco because they repeat the same patriarchal bullshit of mainstream versions of the stories.

One of the complaints against this animation is the clothing of Sita, although it’s not unusual for Hindu deities and epic characters to be scantily clad, since clothing of the ancient times were different. It’s only in modern conservative depictions that women wear long sleeve blouses and covering saris; there’s more evidence for a freer clothing style back in the day, rather than what we wear today. Anyone who gets offended by Nina Paley’s or any other feminist’s retelling of Ramayana needs to think whether the Ashvamedha Yagna that Dasaratha performs in Valmiki’s Ramayana is offensive or not. Surely, you don’t think that forcing Kausalya to have sex with a horse and Dasaratha offering his other wives to Brahmins for sex is less offensive than Sita showing some cleavage???

The whole fiasco over sentiments is based on the faulty premise of equating literature with “absolute truth.” We forget that these epics are filled with myths and imaginations that reflect the creativity, or perhaps ulterior motives, of its authors. The better approach is to acknowledge that these epics are after all just text, with readers creating the meaning behind them. To use a Hindu cliche, you have to recognize and extract the spirit of the text as a lotus is “pure” even among the murky water it grows in.

That being said, I now feel inspired to create my own meaning of the Ramayana, though I suspect many other women have found this meaning before me. Whenever I think of controversial literature, I think about my Feminist Theory class in college where we discussed Spike Lee’s Huckleberry Finn. Too bad the script has not become a movie yet, but the premise of the script is to use the original text by Mark Twain, only to give it a whole new meaning by telling it from Jim’s point of view. Here, Jim is not the helpless superstitious slave as Tom Swayer sees him, but he’s a very intelligent person who’s acting comical to survive amongst hostile white people. It also reminds me of Shehrazade of Arabian Nights, who tells stories to delay, and eventually prevent what would have been her inevitable death. These characters could have been quite strong only if you think of them that way.

That would be a refreshing way to view Sita, Rama or Ravana, without changing the story or the text of the Ramayana. Whereas conservative misogynists have used Sita’s character to teach women to be oppressed, feminists can easily point out that Sita gains nothing from her unconditional love, thus rejecting the need for it altogether. Rama gains nothing either. It’s fascinating to think about how a supposed villain like Ravana was actually honorable towards Sita while supposedly honorable Rama did not fulfill his duties as Sita’s husband. I think, ultimately the Ramayana teaches the fallacy of good vs. evil in the material world and questions what we think of as truth and reality. I think Sita provides the most compelling proof for Hindu women that marriage, husband, children, and unconditional love of the material world does not hold the key to happiness. You can remain as “pure” and virginal as you want to, it ain’t gonna satisfy your man if his priorities are elsewhere. The earlier you realize it, the less suffering you’ll go through. I think Jessica Valenti would find Ramayana to be a big Purity Myth! Above all, epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata are full of contradictions, because as Sri Sri Ravi Shankar points out, truth is contradictory. If Self-realization and God-realization were so easy, we would’ve all been happy.

Here’s a final bone for you to chew on: Ramayana is actually one of three encounters between Vishnu and his two guards in heaven, Jay and Vijay. Jay and Vijay had angered Vishnu so he gave them a choice of being born seven times as Vishnu’s friend, or being born three times, with short lives, as Vishnu’s enemies, as a lesson for their sins. In one of those three lives, Jay and Vijay were Ravana and Kumbhakarna. So there you go, all this hoop-la about a story that was a mere play between Vishnu and his guards. Indeed, the world is a theater!


Compare “Man arrested on charges of murdering and decapitating his wife,” to “The founder of an upstate New York TV station aimed at countering Muslim stereotypes has been arrested on suspicion of killing his wife, who was beheaded, authorities said,” which was the way CNN put it.

I admit, it’s ironic that the man who wanted to counter stereotypes of Muslims himself was a perpetrator of domestic violence. But then again, he’s not representative of Muslim men any more than George Bush is of white men. We don’t call white men idiots because of George Bush…but I digress.

Second note of interest is the use of the word “beheading” instead of “decapitation.” This is after quite some time that I saw the word “beheading.” The last time I saw it was about the beheading of an American contractor by a violent insurgent group in Iraq. Is it “beheading” when a Muslim does it and “decapitation” when anyone else does it? The use of the word beheading almost implies that it was some ritualistic murder rather than a murder where the method was decapitation.

The mainstream media isn’t very sensitive to many issues, and often sensationalizes stories based on what will sell to the public. But what bothered me is the discussion of this story on a feminist blog, where commenters who claim to be “feminists” say things like “Islam could be a cause for this domestic violence case,” or “shouldn’t be ruled out as a cause.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Even if this guy himself said Islam is the cause for murder, Islam is not the cause of the murder, anymore than Christianity is the reason the Santa shooter killed people. One person’s misogynistic interpretation of Islam does not make Islam misogynistic! Feminist Muslims have different interpretations of some of the same verses that other people cite for misogyny and feminist Muslims use Islam as an example of progress where patriarchal Muslims will use it to stop progress. Now we could use this story to highlight how domestic violence isn’t taken seriously until someone ends up murdered, and even then not taken seriously sometimes. We could use this story to stress the need for DV shelters and the need for law enforcement to be more serious about it. Instead some of us having to defend Islam because some other ignorant people are arguing that Islam could have something to do with the murder. It’s not that Islam has nothing to do with the murder; the problem is that what is the point in saying that? Christianity could have something to do with a murder by a Christian person. Heck, Christians had a lot to do with colonization and exploitation of third world countries. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with Christianity, there’s just something wrong with some Christians.

The final point I want to make is that feminists (presumably white) who think they’re being knowledgeable and critical in examining the “role” of Islam in this case are actually being very counterproductive. This is the issue many minority feminists have with white feminists. I think they forget that when they’re criticizing Islam or South Asian cultures as if they have something inherently wrong with them, they’re insulting and alienating the very feminists who could build solidarity with them. Such ignorant criticism forces minority feminists to defend their cultures (because there are many good things about the cultures) and be less vocal about the problems in their communities. There is a big difference between criticizing something from within and criticizing something from outside. When you’re criticizing from within, you have a stake in improving the community. When you’re criticizing from outside, you don’t even understand the community. That doesn’t mean American white feminists can’t criticize domestic violence in minority communities from within; it means that in order to be effective, they have to listen to the minority feminists on what they actually need.

P.S. Since I already made my final point, this is an afterthought. Mostly I’ve talked about American white feminists and Islamophobia. But I know from experience that non-Muslim South Asians can also be Islamophobic. Here’s my two cents on why that’s detrimental. You might think it’s ok now to agree with Western Islamophobes, but remember, ignorant people don’t understand the other South Asian religions either, so good luck explaining why Hinduism is not an inherently misogynistic religion. – vidyarthi