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.

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This is only my first article on the issue of marriage. As I started putting my thoughts together I realized I have so many that I ‘d have to do a series of articles rather than one. I don’t know when I’ll do the next ones, but at least this is a start. Before I go on, I’d like to post some other articles that have made me think:

1) AnjuGandhi, 2) Chrysalis, and 3) The Marriage-Go-Round

I don’t really care about a marriage legally or spiritually. I mean, I wish to find a partner in life, but there’s nothing specifically about the wedding/social declaration that entices me. Furthermore, I realize I’m basking in the glory of heterosexist privilege, while many people don’t have the right yet to the economic and communal benefits of marriage that straight people take for granted. I hope to mitigate that by supporting gay marriage, or really any kind of marriage.

Going back to why I bother with marriage when I don’t care for it individually – I have a big fat South Asian family that is my social support. It’s not worth it to alienate them with a radical move they won’t even care for. Perhaps it’s more “radical” to create a different kind of marriage for myself, one that challenges harmful traditions and presents a happy alternative.

One day while lamenting about the patriarchy-drenched Bengali Hindu weddings and whether I’d be a hypocrite for taking part in it, my good friend told me the solution was Arya Samaj wedding. Apparently these weddings are spiritual, egalitarian and simple. When I googled Arya Samaj weddings though, I read otherwise. The Kanyadaan ritual, the one I most object to, is an important part of not only Arya Samaj weddings, but Vedic weddings in general. Was Hinduism at its very core is so sexist??? So much for all those times that Hinduism defenders told me sexism was in the “culture” not the “religion.” I used to think naively that the Vedas were above the nasty patriarchy of its times.

Next, I googled whether Hindu weddings could take place without Kanyadaan. Only one relevant post came up, and it was Anju’s. She, like me, exclaimed how unjust it was to donate your daughters as if they’re property. One blogger, Chrysalis, disagreed, and you can read her post on the link above. Basically, Chrysalis believes that “donation” is the wrong word for Kanyadaan, though she doesn’t provide an alternative. To her, Kanyadaan is not about inequality but valuing the woman even more than a man. Such a “gift” to a family is therefore spiritually magnanimous, not sexist. She seems to say women have an intrinsic ability to form communities, and she herself “took pity” upon her husband who wasn’t good with PR, and decided to move to his family to help him out. When someone pointed out that it’s different for women who are worse at PR than their husband, Chrysalis suggested reversing the roles to ghar jamai. Well, that sounds reasonable enough to me. In extended families, one spouse has to move in with another and if both have the equal opportunity to choose, that’s great! I disagree though that women are better equipped to do it than men. That’s simply a cultural construction, and we need to make both men and women good at community building rather than shoving the responsibility down women’s throats.

What I don’t get then, is why isn’t Putradaan a part of Vedic weddings? It seems like even when taking a ghar jamai the bride is still donated to the groom first. It’s this ritual that I have a big problem with. Whether Hindu weddings are equal or not is irrelevant for now; I’m annoyed at the pervasiveness of daughter donation, especially as women are becoming more and more independent. I don’t agree with Chrysalis that “donation” is the wrong word for Kanyadaan. Daan is donation, or giving.  You could give money, land, food, animals, services, and women. When women are put in the same category as the others, but men aren’t, what else does it imply but that women are property, not human beings? Valuable property, perhaps, since women bear children and raise them, but property nonetheless. And if indeed Kanyadaan is about joining of families, rather than property donation, why does the woman have to take her husband’s family titles? Shouldn’t there be creation of a new joint family title?Donating daughters is supposed to be good karma for her parents. Why do the groom’s parents not get the same opportunity? And if as Chrysalis implies, women are inherently valuable, are we saying that men are not valuable???? Boy, some men are going to be offended!

This raising of women on a pedestal is just as sexist as treating women like sub-humans. Both of these ideas don’t recognize women as being HUMAN. I think this dichotomy is the basis of many mistreatment of women. We are told that we are Goddesses, intrinsically valuable or something, and therefore expected to live as Goddesses. When we inevitably fail to live as Goddesses, because we’re fully human, not less, not more, we’re treated as disposable property. If any woman feels empowered by having these beliefs, and uses such re-interpretations of Kanyadaan to promote women’s rights, more power to her. But for me, this ritual signifies something totally different, on top of the fact that I don’t see a spiritual necessity for it. I don’t think this was a ritual God created. I think this was a ritual men made, based on their views of women’s worth, not women’s own views. They were kind enough to emphasize equality and understanding between families, but it’s a man-made, patriarchal tradition nonetheless.

Kanyadaan as it is traditionally practiced, is a part of the Hindu patriarchal culture that denies women the right to inherit property. It entrusts a woman’s care on her husband, rather than herself. Maybe this system was still egalitarian in Satya Yuga, but that day is long gone, and it was a mythical utopia to begin with. We aren’t perfect. As many women know very well, no matter how noble and beautiful Kanyadaan seems, we simply can’t blindly trust a man to make us his equal partner in Dharma, Karma, Artha, and we simply can’t live up to this compassionate Godliness ourselves. Both men and women need practical recourse in marriage. In Hindu societies, Kanyadaan has led people to think that it’s not worth investing in daughters, as they’ll leave the family anyways. And who can blame them? As long as we don’t change this system of giving away daughters to a man’s family, parents won’t invest in their daughters. Some people may say that things equal out when parents give away their daughter and bring home a bride for their son. But what about parents without sons? They have no choice but to live alone? Most importantly, why can’t we think of a system beyond gender roles? Gender roles will inevitably lead to one gender’s inequality, and we have to think of a freer system that accepts each person’s uniqueness.

So what have I decided about my wedding rituals? Weddings are nothing more than a social affair, and if my family wants to fulfill their elaborate social roles in a Bengali wedding, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with most of the rituals, though I’m sure more would come up when I learn the significance of each. But, NO KANYADAAN. I’m a fully capable woman who takes care of herself. My parents don’t need to entrust me to another man, and frankly, no parent owns their kids. No person owns another. I just don’t believe in Kanyadaan, sindoor wearing, or shakha pala wearing all the time. I might wear it on a day when I feel like it, but other than that these things have no spiritual significance for me, so I shouldn’t be required to do them. I think it’s completely possible and realistic to have a spiritual wedding where the bride and groom give themselves to each other and their families, if spirituality is important to them, that is.

Coming up soon, a rant about sexist Hindu men!

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