Ignoring the Voice of the People

The massive protests that followed the inauguration should have reminded Donald Trump that he is a minority president with a slim-to-none popular mandate, as Michael Winship describes.

By Michael Winship

“Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.” On Sunday morning, that came flying out from the Twitter account of @realDonaldTrump, raising the question, “What have you done with the real, @realDonaldTrump?”

It sure didn’t sound like the troll we’ve come to know. A couple of days in, maybe the awesomeness of becoming the leader of the free world had penetrated his roiling psyche and settled him down. Nah. Clearly, he hadn’t written it. Because just two hours before, in a tone far more like the narcissistic whine we’re used to, the Trump account tweeted, “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.”

Not voting? Celebs? That sound you heard was my cognitive dissonance alarm hitting DEFCON 1. In both instances, the bad and not-quite-as-bad Trump personas were writing about Saturday’s worldwide protests, women’s marches in more than 500 cities in the United States — at least 3.7 million Americans — and more than another hundred demonstrations internationally, from London and Paris to that handful of hearty souls who displayed their protest signs in Antarctica.

There were half a million people in Washington, DC, just the day after the less-than-superb turnout for Donald Trump’s inauguration and some 400,000 here in New York City, if not more. According to Sarah Frostenson at Vox, “Political scientists say they think we may have witnessed the largest day of demonstrations in American history.”

I have been at many, many protest marches in my life, going back to the big anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the late ’60s and ’70s, and I have never experienced anything like what happened this weekend. We arrived at our designated stepping off point on Saturday at 11:30 a.m., right on time, but the block was so packed it already had been penned off.

A marshal suggested we move up to the next street above and work our way back down to where we were supposed to be but it was impossible and in the process I managed to get separated from my girlfriend Pat and another friend — too much of a crowd between us to get back to one another; a situation complicated by a dying cellphone.

And so there I stood, alone in the crowd, waiting for something to happen, soaking in the excitement and anticipation everyone shared at being there, enjoying the collegiality, reading the hundreds of signs, from the woman carrying a 5×7 card with the words, “A tiny sign for a tiny man” to the guy not far from me whose placard read, “A woman made this sign for me.”

Apparently, our numbers were so unexpected it took a while for the organizers and police to figure out what to do with us all, so it was 2:30 p.m. or so before we finally began to move, slowly swinging south onto Second Avenue on the east side of Manhattan. This wasn’t so much a march as a slow group shuffle; there were so many people crowded onto the street we could only move a little bit at a time, like an escaped chain gang bound at the ankles.

We worked our way down to 42nd Street and then west. I was tempted to peel off at Grand Central Station and head home — the hour already was late — but I was determined to make it all the way to the end, to reach Fifth Avenue and 56th Street and summit at Trump Tower.

By the time we made our way onto Fifth Avenue the sun was going down but we kept moving, singing, chanting, cheering. A 6-year-old girl, perched on a grown-up’s shoulders, urged us on: “We are the popular vote! This is what democracy looks like!” she shouted and we echoed everything she said. This was her personal favorite: “Donald Duck for president!”

We got to a block from Trump’s gilded pleasure dome and then were turned away by parade marshals and police. We could get no closer; barriers blockaded the way. Amicably, the protesters broke up, walking east and west on the cross streets, many filling the bars and restaurants, others crowding into the subway stations, headed home.

Shrugging Off Protests

White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to shrug off the significance of what happened on our streets Saturday. Referring to the Washington march, he said, “There were people who came to the Mall, as they do all the time, sometimes in smaller numbers.” Ho-hum, he seemed to say.

“A lot of these people were there to protest an issue of concern to them and not against anything,” Spicer said, personifying the self-deception that believes the lie. Sorry, Sean — Saturday was a stunning affirmation of defiance, a rebuke and warning that resistance has just begun, yet only if we have the patience and grit to keep it moving forward.

I’ve told this story here before, but the lesson remains: In the wake of the murder of protesting students at Kent State and Jackson State in 1970, the big antiwar demonstrations that followed and the nationwide student strike that shut down hundreds of colleges and universities, the idea was not just to demonstrate but to mobilize and continue to work toward an end to the Vietnam War.

Once the dramatic marches had come to an end, all too many simply took advantage of an early end to the semester and headed for the beach. Little was accomplished and the war continued for another five years. Those of us who wanted to keep the peace work going — the stated intention of the strike — were met with diffidence at best and at worst, outright apathy and resentment.

“Thank you for understanding that sometimes we must put our bodies where our beliefs are,” Gloria Steinem said at Saturday’s rally in Washington. “Pressing ‘send’ is not enough.” She’s right, but marching won’t be enough either as we go up against a committed band of zealots determined to end all remaining vestiges of the New Deal and the Great Society and to further enrich the wealth of the 1 percent — especially, of course, themselves.

“This is the upside of the downside,” Steinem said on Saturday. “This is an outpouring of energy, and true democracy like I have never seen in my very long life. It is wide in age, it is deep in diversity, and remember, the Constitution does not begin with ‘I the president,’ it begins with ‘we the people.’”

The work must take place at every level, from local on up: organizing, keeping yourself informed, sending letters and emails, making phone calls, attending town meetings, running for office or working for the candidates who best represent your interests.

And this, perhaps above all: confront your member of Congress. Don’t let him or her off the hook. Make sure your representative doesn’t sell you out to the Big Interests, or deceive you with empty rhetoric. If they do – throw the rascals out.

There is no time to lose. With each day, a cornice of our republic crumbles and the body of democracy struggles to keep itself from stumbling and falling into the abyss. No joke. 

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story originally appeared at http://billmoyers.com/story/great-joyful-march-not-enough/]

Struggling for Women’s Sports Equality

Exclusive: The huge crowds watching the U.S. women’s soccer team win the World Cup marked a moment of hope for Americans who lament the gross disparity between the support for men’s and women’s sports, but it’s still an uphill struggle for anything close to parity, as Chelsea Gilmour explains.

By Chelsea Gilmour

This year’s Women’s World Cup Final between the U.S. and Japan, which the U.S. team won 5-2, drew a record-breaking American audience for soccer, with an average total viewership of 25.4 million on Fox. And that wasn’t just record-breaking for women’s soccer.

More U.S. viewers tuned into the game than any other men’s or women’s soccer event, including last year’s celebrated men’s match between the U.S. and Portugal during the World Cup in Brazil, broadcast on ESPN, which drew 18.7 million.

Potential reasons why this year’s women’s cup matches may have attracted so many viewers include the location in Canada (which has similar time zones to the U.S.), the fact that the match aired on Sunday evening for Americans on the East Coast (a popular time to watch sports), and the likelihood that the game will be star-player Abby Wambach’s last World Cup appearance (she has scored more international goals than any player, male or female, in soccer history).

But, perhaps most importantly, the enthusiasm of Americans for a women’s team playing a game that is not considered a major U.S. sports suggests a growing respect for women in sports (as well as a greater appreciation for the game of soccer). The World Cup victory was followed by the team receiving a ticker-tape parade in New York City on Friday with crowds estimated in the tens of thousands and drawing significant coverage on U.S. cable news channels. Commentators noted the large number of young women and girls in the crowd.

On Saturday, the attention of the sports world again focused on an American female athlete, tennis star Serena Williams, who won the Wimbledon championship, marking her fourth consecutive Grand Slam title, known popularly as the “Serena Slam,” named in her honor after she accomplished this historic feat 12 years ago.

Yet, despite this growing respect, female athletes are paid a fraction of what their male counterparts make, both in salaries and advertising fees. For instance, the U.S. women’s team will split $2 million for winning the Cup, while last year the U.S. men’s team split $8 million for losing it. Typically, the explanation is that women’s soccer attracts fewer viewers then men’s soccer. But, clearly that wasn’t the case for last Sunday’s final.

Another explanation for the pay discrepancy is that, in the world of corporate sponsorship, women’s sports simply don’t translate into the name recognition of men’s sports and thus companies are less willing to pay large amounts to advertise with female athletes. The Women’s World Cup brought in $17 million in sponsors this year, compared to $529 million in sponsors for last year’s men’s World Cup, according to the Wall Street Journal.

On an individual level, the same holds true. According to an ad industry survey of the 75 highest-paid athlete endorsers in 2014, the first woman on the list at number 11 with $22 million was Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova. By contrast, golfer Tiger Woods, at number 1, earned $55 million. The next woman on the list was Li Na, a former Chinese tennis player, at number 15 with $18 million, followed by Serena Williams at 22 with $11 million.

While the list of the top sports endorsers is dotted with a number of male soccer stars, the list has no women soccer players. So, with a lack of both team and individual sponsorships, professional women’s soccer teams in the U.S. struggle to survive year after year. Two women’s soccer leagues have failed and the current one is beset by low attendance, only about 4,400 fans a game, according to CBS News.

An Inviting Market

Yet, as Shane Ferro of Business Insider wrote, based on last Sunday’s viewership, there is clearly a market for women’s soccer, but sponsors and fans alike have not sufficiently bought in. And the only way to fix that is to pay more attention to female sports year-round. Ferro pointed out, “you, dear reader, can do only one thing and it’s not complaining about prize money on social media. If you want to fix the income disparity in women’s sports, go buy a jersey or tickets for a game.”

Which brings us to the curious reality of female sports coverage in general. As the Washington Post noted, “About 40 percent of American athletes are female, yet only 4 percent of media coverage goes to female sports, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.”

And the trend isn’t getting better: “A 2010 study of ESPN’s SportsCenter and three network affiliates in Los Angeles found that only 1.5 percent of national and local airtime was devoted to covering women’s sports, the lowest in two decades of research.”

So, what do female soccer players need to get recognition? First, they should NOT follow the advice of outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who once suggested they might wear shorter shorts. The female soccer teams could, however, build on the excitement from the World Cup by marketing some of the stars from the U.S. team. Some of that marketing could target “alternative” audiences, rather than the traditional male-dominated viewership of sports shows.

First, let’s look at the fan base for women’s soccer in the U.S. and the time needed to gain traction. The Boston Globe pointed out, “female preteens and teenagers [are] often the default fan for women’s professional teams.” Many of these fans are likely soccer players themselves, who see the professional players as role models. This is a good start, but not enough to bring in the revenue or team loyalty needed for the teams to survive.

For real money to come in, there should be a much broader base of support and an increase in the sale of team paraphernalia. Besides marketing to different audiences, this can be achieved over the long run by those same preteen and teenage fans who will share their team loyalties with their eventual children, just as parents have done for generations with established male sports teams.

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told fans during Friday’s ticker-tape parade, “Young women who watched that game will grow up to tell their daughters and tell their sons.”

One reason that men’s teams have such a strong foothold is team tradition and loyalty. The Boston Globe explained, “Fans forget how long men’s leagues struggled before they broke through and became billion-dollar enterprises with worldwide followings. [Former NBA commissioner David] Stern points out that the NBA was founded in 1946, played to half-empty arenas for more than a decade, and, until the early 1980s, saw the Finals broadcast on tape delay.”

Men’s teams have therefore had the opportunity to grow their fan base over the years through family tradition. Parents take their children to a sports game for their hometown team and those children, after they grow up, take their children to see the same team (or, if they’ve moved, they may at least follow the team from a distance). In so doing, a family establishes a relationship with that team, almost like a second family. Following the team is a way for the family, across generations, to relate to one another.

So, just as loyalty to men’s teams is handed down, women’s teams need time to build the same momentum. In “passing the mantle,” the family will have forged an emotional connection to the team, akin to maintaining a family tradition, rather than just watching a game or team as a passing sports spectacle. The team is then solidified as part of a fan’s personal/familial identity, thereby ensuring the teams survival through that commitment.

Finding Fans

Unfortunately, building that sort of connection to a team takes a long time (generations even), so for the immediate future, women’s soccer teams may have to look to marketing to so-called “alternative” audiences, especially the twenty- and thirty-something crowd.

As the Boston Globe explained, citing Joanna Lohman, former midfielder for the Boston Breakers women’s soccer league (and currently playing for the Washington Spirit), “She understands that the [default fan base of preteen and teenage] girls and their parents lead busy lives filled with millions of distractions and other sports. So, she adds, that’s all the more reason to recruit twenty- and thirtysomethings, who grew up with soccer and might have a more developed understanding of the game[.]”

Many of these twenty- and thirty-somethings are also having children, making at least a start on that generational team loyalty building.

Meanwhile, some of the major male sports are expanding their marketing to women. The National Football League, for instance, began in 2009 to endorse National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October by decorating stadiums in pink, selling pink NFL gear, and encouraging players to accessorize their uniforms in pink. Pink, of course, is the color associated with breast cancer, as popularized by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the pink ribbon.

Today, women are the fastest growing base of support (and income) for the NFL, making up an estimated 45 percent of the more than 150 million American football fans, according to the Washington Post. “Women, and the companies who depend on them, helped NFL revenue top a record $9.5 billion [in 2013], and Nielsen data shows women have grown to represent more than a third of the league’s average viewership.”

While it may be an easier transition to acquire female fans for male sports than male fans for female sports, it isn’t impossible. A frequently heard assessment of why female sports don’t have as large a following as their male counterparts is that, as the Boston Globe puts it, “fans [get] stuck on the fact that female athletes aren’t as fast, strong, or physical as their male counterparts.” This may be true for sports like football and, to a lesser extent, basketball, but for women’s soccer, these factors are less important and may even favor the women.

For instance, female soccer players are more likely to play through injury and are less likely to fake being hurt, whereas male soccer players are notorious for flopping and whining about their opponents not getting a yellow or a red card.

According to a study done by a team headed by Daryl Rosenbaum, a sports medicine physician who works with the U.S. Soccer Federation and the soccer program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, after analyzing videos of male and female soccer tournaments, his “research indicates that apparent injury incidents for women are much less frequent than for men, occurring at a rate of 5.74 per match as compared to 11.26 per men’s match. The proportion of apparent injuries that were classified as ‘definite’ was nearly twice as high for women, 13.7 percent, as compared to 7.2 percent for men.”

Which means men are twice as likely to fake an injury during play, thereby slowing the pace of the game with their pleas for the referees to punish opponents.

“Look how often women pop right back up when they run into someone,” Rosenbaum said. “They continue through contact, and we found they are more likely to just keep playing.”

A More Appealing Game

Another reason physical disparities between the sexes may work to women’s advantage in soccer is the quality of play. Because women are generally smaller and therefore have a smaller lung capacity, they cannot run as quickly for as long as men can. This leads to less “explosive” play and a more methodical game, which is easier for fans to follow.

As Emily Sohn explained for Discovery, “Even better for reluctant American viewers, women’s soccer games have the potential to be higher scoring than men’s matches. Because of their smaller size, there is more space on the field for women to work with, giving them more options to attack. And with smaller athletes trying to defend a goal designed for men, women strikers have that much more room to shoot for.”

This was evident during last Sunday’s Final high-scoring game. For sports fans in the United States, the opportunity to see a higher scoring soccer game could be a real draw.

Despite the currently precarious position of the National Women’s Soccer League, Friday’s ticker-tape parade in New York City in honor of the Women’s World Cup champions provided the national women’s team a chance to celebrate their victory and a chance for fans young and old to celebrate their role models.

Amy Stainton, a former Monmouth teammate of U.S. team captain Christie Rampone, brought her husband and two daughters to the event. “‘There were a lot of times in the parade today when I actually wasn’t watching the parade, and I was watching them,’ [Stainton] said, motioning to her daughters, who wore matching team apparel. ‘To have role models, people to aspire to, that’s something as a parent you always want to give your children,’” according to The New York Times.

Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, asked the City Hall crowd at Friday’s parade to extend its enthusiasm to domestic leagues: “Go out and be a fan. Watch those games on television,” he said.

Mayor de Blasio noted that the Friday celebration was the first time a women’s sports team received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, saying “It’s about time, isn’t it?”

The Washington Post reported, “More than 19 million girls played basketball, soccer and volleyball [in 2013], according to the National Sporting Goods Association, and girls’ participation in sports has grown an average of 50 percent a year over the last half-decade.”

The trend is heading in the right direction for women’s inclusion in the mainstream athletic world, if only the women’s sports leagues in America can survive long enough to benefit from the changing attitudes.

Chelsea Gilmour is an assistant editor at Consortiumnews.com. She has previously published “The Mystery of the Civil War’s Camp Casey” and Jeb Bushs Tangled Past.

Libyan Women Losing Rights

When rebels challenged Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the West and its media adopted a “good-guy/bad-guy” dichotomy, hyping dubious claims about Gaddafi and ignoring troubling extremism among the rebels. Now, the new Libya is clamping down on women’s rights, says Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

On Dec. 3, BBC News reported on the plight of Libyan activist Magdulien Abaida, who played an important part in developing a positive image of last year’s Libyan revolt among European audiences and helped arrange material aid for the rebel forces.

She did this against the backdrop of Western governments describing the rebellion as one that sought “democratic rights” for the Libyan people. Upon the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the U.S. State Department issued a statement applauding the rebel victory as a “milestone” in the country’s “democratic transition.” This matched Ms. Abaida’s expectations. Unfortunately, her subsequent experience belied the optimism.

With the rebel victory in October 2011, Abaida  returned to Libya to help with the “democratic transition” and promote her particular cause of women’s rights. However, what she found in her homeland was chaos. The tribalism that underlies social organization in Libya had come to the fore.

According to Amnesty International, that tribalism is reflected in the activities of  “armed militias … acting completely out of control. … There are hundreds of them across the country, arresting people without warrant, detaining them incommunicado, and torturing them. … This is all happening while the government is unwilling or unable to rein the militias in.”

Abaida adds that “during the revolution everyone was united, all were working together.” That, of course, was when many of the tribes had a common enemy the Gaddafi regime. Now the common enemy is gone.

As it turned out, Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorship had served for 41 years as a center of gravity a center that kept the centrifugal tribal forces in check. The National Transitional Council (NTC), which took over after the defeat of the regime and the parliamentary elections that followed, were supposed to fill the void, but proved insufficient to the task. Ms. Abaida and her cause have become victims of that failure.

Upon her return to Libya, she advocated for gender equality to be incorporated into any new Libyan constitution. She never had a chance. The tribes are tied to traditions that are strongly patriarchal. Also, the chaotic nature of post-revolution Libyan politics allowed free play to extremist Islamic forces that saw gender equality as a Western perversion.

In October 2011, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who was a prominent face for the revolution and a leader of the NTC gave his first public speech after Gaddafi’s fall to propose making it easier for men to have more than one wife. For Ms Abaida this was a “big shock. … We wanted more rights, not to destroy the rights of half of society.”

Worse was yet to come. When Abaida came to Benghazi in the summer of 2012 to attend a conference on the status of women in the new Libya, she was twice abducted by an extremist militia that saw her and the conference as anti-Islamic.

During her abduction she was pointedly told that she could be killed and “nobody would know.” But they did not kill her. They just beat her up and turned her loose. She was left with the strong impression that, if she stayed politically active in Libya, she would indeed die and no one would know.

Rush to Judgment

Was what happened to Ms Abaida’s predictable? Or, to put it more broadly, could those Western leaders who spent billions of taxpayer dollars assisting in the “liberation” of Libya have predicted, with reasonably high probability, that victory for the rebels would result in political breakdown and the empowerment of extremist groups such as the one that kidnapped and assaulted Magdulien Abaida?

I think that the answer to this is yes. Indeed, I suspect that the prediction was actually made yet ignored by the powers that be.

U.S. intelligence services such as the CIA, and their equivalents in other countries, have middle-level professionals who know a great deal about almost every country in the world. They know the languages, read the local newspapers, listen to the radio and television stations, and have other sources of information that come through diplomatic and private channels.

When it comes to Libya, it is beyond doubt that the relevant intelligence workers knew the nature of this society and the divergent tribal forces that had been so long kept in check by the Gaddafi dictatorship. It is also beyond doubt that, at this country-specific level,  operatives in these intelligence agencies knew and were reporting about the relative strengths and weaknesses of extremist religious elements held in check by the regime.

The normal routine is to pass such intelligence up a hierarchical bureaucratic channel. The information deemed important enough is then packaged into daily updated reports that end up, in the case of the U.S., with the president and his national security staff.  Again, in the face of a serious rebellion against Gaddafi, it is more than reasonable to assume such information did get that far.

Yet, it would seem that such information caused no serious second thoughts about quickly jumping into the fray and backing the rebellion. Even with the historic consequences of our having armed al-Qaeda and similar groups during the Afghan-Soviet war, it does not appear that anyone in authority stopped long enough to ask if the U.S. might risk repeating this mistake in Libya.

Instead, Washington and its allies rallied NATO, rammed through a UN resolution that allowed intervention and, in short order, was aiding and abetting the rebellion. One of the ways it did this was in supplying an almost unlimited amount of weapons to rebel forces through a conduit set up by Qatar.

No one paid attention to just whom the Qataris were giving the guns to. Sure enough, some of them were given to al-Qaeda-like elements.

Thus, the move to get involved in Libya occurred very quickly. The allure of destroying Muammar Gaddafi, who had for so long been the bête noire of the U.S. (though for the past few years he had reversed policy and cooperated with the West), must have been just too strong.

Even Italy, which had found the Gaddafi government a dependable economic partner and secure source of affordable oil, dropped its support of the regime without much protest. In the rush to judgment, the question of who might gain power afterwards was, apparently, left to the middle echelon intelligence agents to worry about.

Now Gaddafi is gone, murdered to the acclaim of Hillary Clinton, and the tribal warlords and their militias have largely taken his place. The central government in Libya is weak and, under the present conditions, has little real chance of reining them in.

The aggressive extremists have our guns, as well as Gaddafi’s, and some of them are probably migrating to Syria to carry on their battle. As for Magdulien Abaida, she is too afraid to return to the land she tried so diligently to help.

As intelligence agencies go, the CIA and its like are fairly good at collecting information, analyzing it, and rendering reasoned judgments as to its meaning. (They can be, of course, utterly evil when it comes to killing and torturing, but that is not the “mission” I am presently speaking of).

Usually, the advice rendered by the middle-level folks who do the analyzing and reporting errs on the side of caution. The problem is the political leaders all too often ignore the intelligence reports when they don’t fit with their political goals.

Those goals reflect ideological and electoral concerns as well as the need to appear to be acting in strong and determined ways more assertive protectors of “freedom” than their competitors in the opposition party. This works to make presidents and prime ministers prone to opportunism and short-sightedness.

Thus, the rush to judgment in Iraq, in Libya and maybe soon in Iran. In the end, Washington has repeatedly proven that Mark Twain was wrong when he asserted “all you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.”

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

The Backlash against Women’s Rights

Religious fundamentalism Islamic, Judaic and Christian is pushing back against progress toward equal rights for women. The fundamentalists want to restore patriarchal dominance and are gaining ground in the Muslim world, Israel and the United States inside the Republican Party, notes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

People often take things for granted, like the concept of progress. My students all assume that progress is continuous, indeed, inevitable.

Mostly they conceive of progress in terms of technology: smart phones and computers of every sort. However, there is also a sense that there is a steady and inevitable movement toward the realization of social ideals. Whether they are conservatives, liberals or libertarians, they all assume that the kind of world they want to live in is the kind of world that will evolve.  

That is also true for the feminists in my classes. They know that they have to fight for gender equality and they are willing to do so. Yet they also assume the betterment of women’s conditions will be continuous and that victory for their cause is inevitable.

In terms of their own local communities, they are sure that conditions for women today are better than they were in their grandmothers‘ day and that conditions will be better still for their own granddaughters. They can’t imagine things going backward.

But they may be in for a shock. It is reasonable to conclude that conditions for women, not only in places far away, but right here at home are deteriorating. That they will continue to do so is not inevitable, but it is certainly possible.

Let’s take a look at the trends. We will start with the ones manifesting themselves abroad and end with the ones here in the U.S.

Most of my feminist students see the Middle East as a central battleground for women’s rights. Of course, they define those rights in terms of Western secular culture and ideals and have a hard time suspending that point of view long enough to consider women’s rights from the standpoint of Muslim cultural ideals. Nonetheless, trends in the Middle East do not bode well for women’s status even in terms of Islamic precepts.

Middle East Trends

Last week authorities in Saudi Arabia refused entry to over 1,000 Nigerian Muslim women who had arrived for the annual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The Saudi Ministry of Pilgrimage claimed the women were not accompanied by “male guardians” as required by Saudi law.

Actually, the women were accompanied by “male escorts,” but the Saudis had segregated the Nigerians, male from female, and then claimed the women were unescorted. When their mistake was pointed out to the Saudi officials, they refused to listen. I seriously doubt that Prophet Mohammad would have reacted this way.


Perhaps an American feminist would just dismiss this as Saudi backwardness. After all, we are talking about a country that refuses to let its women drive cars, which is a ban that cannot easily be drawn from the Quran or Hadith, the central books of Islamic law that date from the second half of the first millennium, long before cars were invented.

Perhaps feminists feel that, over time, outside pressure will bring the Saudis around to conform to Western standards of gender relations. Yet it is quite possible that influence could flow the other way.

For instance, in early October it was reported that IKEA, the Swedish furniture company with worldwide sales, purged the company’s Saudi catalogue of pictures of females. They just airbrushed them out.

The Swedes generally pride themselves on their equitable gender relations, but obviously some of their business executives are quite willing to accommodate Saudi standards when money is to be made. And, we all know that money, rather than feminist ideals, makes the world go round.

Then there is Iran. An American feminist would again dismiss Iran as a backward place when it comes to women’s rights. But, despite the chadors (under which one can often find designer clothes), this is a Western propaganda image that does not tell an accurate story.

Upon the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, most women’s rights were expanded. They had open access to the job market and earned the same wages as men for the job they held. They also had open access to the country’s universities including those courses of study usually considered male preserves.

Today, women make up more than 60 percent of those enrolled in institutions of higher learning, and women engineers, scientists, doctors, architects and the like are common. That is progress by any standard, east or west.

Yet, progress is not necessarily continuous. In September 2012,  it was reported that 36 Iranian universities have prohibited women from registering for courses in a range of subjects from chemistry and mathematics to education and business.

Apparently, this was a measure demanded by powerful conservative factions who feel that women have become too “active in society” and should “return to the home.” It remains to be seen if this change is long-term.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are countries with Islamic governments, but within the Middle East the challenge to gender equality is not just a product of a conservative Muslim outlook. Thus we can move on to Israel.


According to a recently released report of the Israel Women’s Network, women have made little or no progress over the last decade: “Discrimination against women in this country is spread across all sectors of society and culture.” Twenty percent of Israeli women live in poverty (it is even worse for children and the elderly). This is so even though Israeli women tend to be better educated than men.

In the last few years, the Israeli problem of gender discrimination has been illustrated by the “back of the bus” scandal occurring in Israeli cities. Orthodox Jewish communities in Israel often impose gender segregation and, as those communities expand out from their traditional urban enclaves, they insist that secular Israelis conform to their standards rather than the other way around.

Thus, busses running routes that go through both Orthodox and secular communities often try to get women to restrict themselves to the back of the vehicle.

Here is how Mickey Gitzen, the director of Be Free Israel, an NGO promoting religious pluralism, explains the situation, “It’s a slippery slope. What starts with women boarding the bus in the back because of modesty can turn Israeli society into a segregated society in which women don’t have a place in public life.” How very Saudi of the Israeli Orthodox!

Struggles in the U.S.

That is there and not here in the progressive U.S.A. Really? Consider the following:

Conservative Christians make up more than 20 percent of the voting public in the United States. Their influence  runs deep in the Republican Party, as can be seen by the statements of many of the recent contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. And, among the lines pushed by this conservative Christian element is an exceedingly patriarchal view of the role of women.

The American Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson runs a TV program called the 700 Club with a daily average audience of one million viewers. Here is what Robertson is telling his audience about the role of women:

I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. The husband is the head of the wife and that is the way it is, period.”

In an Alternet interview with author Kathryn Joyce, who has researched and written on the subject of conservative Christian views of women, she makes the following points:

1. There is a growing movement among conservative Christians that preach that women should be married homemakers and that each must have “as many children as God will give you.” They see the God-given structure of human society as patriarchy.

2. This point of view has been endorsed by Christian leaders whose long-range goal is to so powerfully influence the U.S. government that they will be able to frame patriarchal precepts into law.

3. For these Christian conservatives the major enemy, the “root of the problem,” is feminism and all those who assert a woman’s right to control her own fertility.

Some of these sentiments can be found in the Republican Party’s national platform. According to Jill Filipovic writing in the Guardian UK, “the entire Republican social platform is structured around the idea of the traditional family where men are in the public sphere as breadwinners and heads of households, and women stay in private, taking care of children and serving as helpmates to their husbands.”

If this Christian conservative sentiment has captured the outlook of one of the nation’s two major political parties, you know it must not stop there. A New York Times report recently asserted that there is widespread social anxiety among American men caused by the confusion of gender roles that has allegedly come with growing gender equality in the U.S.

The report said that this development has brought about a backlash: “The masculine mystique is institutionalized in work structures” and both men and women who try to challenged this are “often penalized.”

You might have noticed how the attitudes toward women of Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists are quite similar. Each has fixated on the feminist drive for greater gender equality as a threat to their patriarchal concept of social life.

But, as the New York Times piece suggests, the problem is by no means restricted to those who describe themselves as religious conservatives. It is a society-wide, worldwide happening.

In the end, it is much harder to realize social progress rather than technical progress. For the latter, all you have to do is the research necessary to master elements of nature. These elements might take a lot of work to get at, but they do not consciously fight back.

To achieve the former, however, you must go up against vested interests that do fight back. That is why progress in society is hardly ever continuous and never inevitable.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.

‘War on Women’ Breaches Global Norms

Republican bills taking aim at women’s reproductive freedoms have raised alarms about a “war on women,” a development that is shaking up the American political scene. But some of the legislation also is putting the U.S. outside the bounds of international norms, as Nat Parry reports.

By Nat Parry

A barrage of recent legislative initiatives spearheaded by Republicans on the national and state levels collectively dubbed the “war on women” by Democrats and women’s advocacy groups threaten to roll back U.S. commitments on the international level on gender equality and human rights.

With Campaign 2012 in full swing, the controversies of this war on women have found their way to the top of the national discussion, with other domestic problems such as the economy seemingly taking a back seat this election year.

The battles have been fueled by outrageous statements by prominent Republicans such as Rush Limbaugh calling a defender of birth control access a “slut” and “prostitute,” as well as some rather absurd legislation being adopted, such as the recently signed Virginia law requiring women to submit to a medically unnecessary ultrasound before getting an abortion.

At a demonstration at the Virginia State Capitol protesting the ultrasound law earlier this month, 31 women’s rights advocates were arrested, prompting a rebuke of the police by State Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, D-Richmond, who called the arrests “just the latest example of government overreach that we’ve seen in recent weeks.”

“The men and women who marched on Capitol Square have a right to peacefully protest without the threat that they will be arrested for exercising that right,” McQuinn said in a news release. “At several recent women’s rights events, there has been an overabundance of police presence.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has waded into the fight with provocative statements about ending the Planned Parenthood program, which provides preventive health care for about five million women a year. According to Planned Parenthood, 76 percent of their clients have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

The program has received federal funding since 1970, when President Richard Nixon signed into law the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act, which increased funding for family planning and maternal health care. In signing the law, Nixon said that “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.”

At the time, the legislation enjoyed bipartisan support from liberals, who saw contraception access as increasing families’ control over their lives, and conservatives, who saw it as a way to keep people off welfare.

Now, however, national Republican leaders such as Mitt Romney flippantly declare that they would end the program. “Planned Parenthood, we’re going to get rid of that,” Romney said in an interview on Tuesday.

But eliminating maternal health care for low-income women would push the United States further from the developed world’s standards for maternal health, and may even constitute a breach of international law.

The relevant legal framework providing for the rights of women include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees political equality between men and women, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

While the U.S. is a full state party to the ICCPR, it is only a signatory to the CEDAW and the ICESR, one of only a few countries around the world that have failed to ratify these treaties.

As article 12 of the CEDAW reads:

“1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.

“2. Notwithstanding the provisions of paragraph I of this article, States Parties shall ensure to women appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.”

Besides contravening international norms, eliminating programs such as Planned Parenthood would also likely have a disastrous impact on women’s health in the United States, which already ranks near the bottom of the developed world in terms of maternal mortality.

According to recent UN data, maternal health in the U.S. has declined significantly over recent years, with maternal mortality rates increasing from 6.6 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006.

From 2009 to 2010, the U.S. ranking on maternal mortality fell from 41st to 50th in the world. Women in the United States face a higher risk of maternal death than nearly all European countries, as well as Canada and several countries in Asia and the Middle East.

A recent Amnesty International report documents the challenges that women in the U.S. face in obtaining the services they need, and exposes multiple failures in the health care system, including: language barriers to care; lack of information about maternal care and family planning options; lack of active participation in care protocols; inadequate postpartum care; and a lack of accountability and oversight.

If Republicans have their way in eliminating existing programs for maternal health such as Planned Parenthood, all of these problems documented by Amnesty International will likely be exacerbated.

The war on women, however, is not limited to assaults on maternal health. While much of the debate has focused on GOP efforts to impede women’s access to prenatal care and abortions, the controversies also include largely partisan disputes over protection against gender-based violence.

The Violence Against Women Act, which was adopted overwhelmingly in 1994 and renewed easily in 2000 and 2005, has suddenly become a partisan issue this year. On Feb. 2, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation reauthorizing VAWA on a party-line vote of 10-8. The legislation received no GOP support among committee members, which was, according to Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the first time VAWA legislation did not receive bipartisan support out of committee.

Republicans objected to language in the bill that would extend protections against violence to undocumented immigrants and LGBT victims of domestic violence, as well as allowing Native American authorities to prosecute some non-native offenders.

These extended safeguards, however, are widely seen as vital to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society, who tend to lack even the most basic legal protections and access to justice, and could help bring the U.S. into compliance with UN recommendations.

As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women documented in a report last year, U.S. policies concerning domestic violence, sexual assault in the military and treatment of women in detention fall far short of adequately protecting victims.

The report pointed to “a lack of legally binding federal provisions providing substantive protection against or prevention of acts of violence against women. This lack of substantive protective legislation, combined with inadequate implementation of some laws, policies and programmes, has resulted in the continued prevalence of violence against women and the discriminatory treatment of victims, with a particularly detrimental impact on poor, minority and immigrant women.”

To remedy this situation, the UN official offered several recommendations, including:

“(a) Explore more uniform remedies for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Expanding federal causes of action under VAWA, where possible, would mitigate current discrimination, and increase uniformity and accountability at the state and local levels.

“(b) Review and more effectively address the disproportionate impact that violence has on poor, minority, and immigrant women.

“(c) Re-evaluate existing mechanisms at federal, state, local and tribal levels for protecting victims and punishing offenders, given that calls for help often do not result in either arrests or successful prosecutions.

“(d) Establish meaningful standards for enforcement of protection orders and impose consequences for a failure to enforce.

“(e) Initiate local and national dialogues with relevant stakeholders to consider the effectiveness, in theory and application, of expedited proceedings, mandatory arrest policies, mandatory prosecution policies, and batterer’s programs.”

The Special Rapporteur also recommended strengthening legal safeguards to prevent discrimination against victims in housing and employment, pervasive sexual harassment and assault of women in the military, violence against women in prison and the lack of enforcement of orders of protection.

Although the proposed changes to VAWA would go a long way in addressing some of these outstanding concerns, the bill faces the threat of a Republican filibuster in the Senate which could kill the legislation.

As Huffington Post reports, “the bill has five Republican co-sponsors, but would need at least seven GOP votes to get to the 60 needed to break a filibuster and pass the Senate.”

While such a level of support seems achievable in the upper chamber, final passage would still be a difficult challenge for the Democrats, considering the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans, who have made clear their agenda of waging war on women, and rolling back international standards on women’s rights.

So far, the Republican-controlled House has taken no action on companion legislation to the Senate’s version of VAWA.

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This story appeared previously at http://compliancecampaign.wordpress.com/]

Founders’ Secular Vision for America

The dispute over requiring church-run hospitals and schools to cover birth control for female employees has stirred up longstanding confusion over what the First Amendment does and doesn’t do. Some on the Christian Right insist that it means religious doctrine can trump secular law, but Rev. Howard Bess says that’s a misunderstanding.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

I begin with a statement that I have written over and over again: The United States is a secular nation in which religion is practiced freely. Our nation was perceived and molded by men of differing religious opinions. In their wisdom they wrote founding documents that both preserved and excluded religion. The U.S. Constitution is as thoroughly secular as a document can be.

No religious document was given authority by our founding documents. Not the Bible, not the Koran, not the Book of Mormon is allowed into our courtrooms as documents with authority over our public affairs. The Ten Commandments have no more authority over the laws of our nation than “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Indeed, in U.S. history, the rights of people often have been established over the protests of religious leaders. For instance, during those horrible years that ended with the abolition of slavery, preachers across the South were pounding their pulpits and quoting the Bible in support of slavery.

In the end, it was a secular nation that ended slavery in America. Though many Abolitionists also were motivated by strong religious beliefs about the evils of slavery, the final word on slavery was an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

During the struggles for equal rights for women, once again the opposition often was led by religious authorities quoting the Bible. Ultimately, the struggle was won by a secular nation that established equality for women through legislation and through court rulings that applied constitutional requirements for equal protection under the law to women.

In my years as a minister, two additional human rights issues have been dominant in the public square. The first is the civil rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons. For nearly 40 years, I have been involved in the struggle for full acceptance of gay persons in our churches and full rights of gay persons in the affairs of our nation.

Because of my involvement in the struggle for gay acceptance, I was shunned by a local ministerial fellowship, the church that I pastored was “disfellowshipped” by the American Baptist Churches of Alaska, and I was forced into early retirement. Again, religious leaders, citing the Bible, objected to full legal rights for gays.

Nevertheless, the struggle for gay rights has moved slowly but surely forward in the courts and in the nation’s political process. The recent repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing gay persons to serve in the U.S. military is a milestone almost as significant as the Stonewall Riot in 1969, which marked the start of the modern gay rights movement.

Just as with the issues of slavery and equality for women, opposition to the rights for gay persons has centered in churches. Ministers have pounded their pulpits and made their pronouncements against gay rights by quoting irrelevant passages from the Bible. Once again, churches are being dragged toward the moral standard of fair treatment for all by a secular nation. It is the secular U.S. Constitution that will bring justice to our gay citizens.

The second human rights issue of my ministerial years is the right to end a flawed or unwanted pregnancy. Does a woman have the legal right to choose to end a pregnancy or does that decision lie with government and governmental agencies?

Catholic and conservative Protestant churches have insisted that unborn life is sacred from the moment of conception and that a woman’s desires should have no bearing on the matter. However, under the secular Constitution, the government has no power to declare anything “sacred,” including an unborn child.

Instead, in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Supreme Court balanced two competing rights, the privacy rights of a woman to control her own body against the viability of a fetus with the state’s authority to protect unborn life growing in the later trimesters of a pregnancy as viability increased. The court’s reasoning was secular weighing competing rights not religious.

Yet, many politicians and institutions have sought to deny this constitutionally protected right to women. Fifteen years ago, I and others filed suit against our local hospital when the hospital refused an abortion to a woman who requested those services. We quickly were able to obtain a temporary injunction against the hospital, which was forced to offer abortion services. Eventually the case ended up before the Alaska Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

The local hospital still operates under a permanent injunction that forces them to offer abortion services. But the process was not easy. There were protest marches and pickets. The local newspaper carried an abundance of stories and opinion columns.

Once again in a civil rights issue the opposition centered on people of deep religious convictions. The air was full of Bible quotes and theological pronouncements. The majority of the community’s religious leaders were part of the anti-abortion protests. A smaller number were discreetly quiet.

But we again learned that we were dealing with a human rights issue in a thoroughly secular setting. The religious rhetoric was loud but had no legal standing. The issues in the abortion case were argued in civil courts, not in religious tribunals.

Over and over again, political candidates run on platforms of opposition to abortion. In many cases, it is a vote-getter among strongly religious believers. In reality, however, candidates who run on an anti-abortion platform should know that under the laws of our nation the abortion issue is secular. We are regularly reminded by political candidates that the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, but they often leave out the fact that it is a secular document.

Yet, while insisting that the U.S. government remain neutral on issues of religion, the secular U.S. Constitution also guarantees religious freedom for everyone. Baptists, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Muslims, Jews, Lutherans and every other religious group are free to believe and practice their Faith.

All are free to express their opinions about abortion (or slavery or the role of women or gay rights), but none of their religious opinions have legal standing in our uniquely secular nation. The rule of law, not religion, is at the heart of our nation.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.