Thursday, June 24, 2010

Genital cutting in the news this month

Genitals have been on my mind a lot these past few months. Below are two stunning articles that emphasize the unfortunate misalignment in the discourse around genital cutting of boys versus genital cutting of girls. In an article from Friday, 18 June 2010, the headline reads "Circumcisions kill 20 boys in South Africa." This cutting has killed and disfigured boys, but we approach it with benign language. Why don't we speak out for these boys the way we speak out for girls who have been subjected to genital cutting? It's all mutilation in my book, and while a gendered approach permits important insights into social issues, we must avoid becoming blinded by gender bias.

Meanwhile, I want to draw your attention to the on-going gender mutilation that is occurring in the US. This article draws attention to the grisly, homophobic practices of Dr. Dix Poppas. Hilarious, unfortunate names aside, these baby girls' genitals are subject to the capricious, aesthetic bias of certain medical practitioners hacking away willy nilly at newborns' vulvae like some kind of postmodern Michelangelo. Abominable.

I've previously written about genital cutting here and here.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hijabblogs (Thank you Bitch Magazine, Issue 45)

We all know the stereotypes: Muslim women are oppressed. Headscarves demean and subjugate women. And so on...

But who among us really knows anything beyond these superficial, over-simplified, politically appealing but substantively empty notions? Well, here are some voyeuristic reading suggestions for you, courtesy of Bitch Magazine.

These blogs seek to “explain and demystify Muslim dress codes for novice muhajiba (wearers of the hijab) and curious outsiders.” By the way, these are not burqas (something worn in Afghanistan that covers the entire body, hiding the eyes and obscuring vision almost entirely) and not niqabs (where only the eyes are visible, giving the wearer the appearance of a ninja).

Gawk on dear readers...

Stylish Muslimah (“The Muslim Vogue”)
Hijabi Couture
Hijabs High (in the style of The Satorialist)
We Love Hijab (plus-size and type of ‘What Not to Wear’)

Boys' literacy

While spending this year in Morocco (September 2009 to September 2010), part of my time here is dedicated to working on my dissertation. I am rounding up the 4th year of the International Studies doctoral program at Old Dominion University. This fourth year is also a first year of sorts. On 16 September 2009 I successfully defended my PhD comprehensive exams, a brutal 2-day (8 hours per day) writing exam (without notes or resources other than what I’ve learned and prepared between the 3-year period between matriculation and satisfying class/lecture requirements) followed by an oral defense. I am now ABD—all but dissertation—and dissertating full time instead of attending lectures full time. As an ABD, my dissertation is on my mind at all times, even when I am relaxing, which for me often includes reading or watching something inextricably connected to my research interests.

My dissertation topic is the role of illiterate women in political change. I am specifically looking and illiterate women’s agency in developing states, and Morocco is one of my chosen country studies. When my thoughtful aunt forwarded me the most recent issues of my favorite women’s magazine—Bitch—I read them with interest, finding particular inspiration from an article about boys’ literacy. I offer up here some [superficial but thoughtful] insights and critical commentary.

Jeffrey Wilhelm, coauthor of the male literacy study Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys: Literacy in the Lives of Young Men, declares that, “[i]t’s understood that boys, in general, struggle with literacy.” I wonder, is this universally true? Or only true in the US/North America/developed countries? Is there an implication for Morocco?

Later the author concludes that, “boys aren’t (as is sometimes claimed) reading worse than before, but they are reading consistently worse than girls.” In Morocco, where women’s illiteracy is consistently much higher than men’s (except in Western Sahara…but that point deserves its own special focus), what can we learn from the case of Morocco from how/what boys read compared to girls, including how boys and girls are taught differently about literacy, its function in their lives, and how they perceive literacy as benefiting or fitting into their lives as citizens, activists, and everyday folks?

According to Jon Scieszka, founder of Guys Read, a literacy program for boys, “there [is] hardly any research on the connection between gender and reading.” This is my chance to fill that gap, while integrating an international perspective, an Arab perspective, an African perspective, and perhaps even an Islamic perspective.

“Scieszka’s theory is that because boys develop at a different rate than girls, many of them simply aren’t ready for reading—‘the very abstract task of learning to make literary sense of combinations of 26 different squiggles on a page’—when it’s first taught in school.” In the case of Morocco, public primary and elementary education is lamentable, and thus an issue that requires analysis and deconstruction in its own right. Nonetheless, this hypothesis (not so much a theory), inspires critical analysis of the pedagogical approach to boys’ and girls’ education in Morocco. Is it a given in Morocco that boys develop at a different rate than girls? What are the value judgments assigned to or accompanying perceptions about differential rates of learning between the sexes? Or does a separate understanding altogether exist in the Moroccan approach to pedagogy and sex? Is there a particular approach anyhow?

The author asserts that reading preferences are largely socialized, a point that seems fairly obvious, certainly to anyone who would be reading Bitch magazine.

More insightfully, the author declares that feminists should be at the forefront of [innovative] literacy approaches, especially prepared to approach them critically. “After all, if boys are having problems with reading, that negatively affects how the men they become see both themselves and women. When we read, we see from other perspectives—including other perspectives on gender.”

Is this true? Or is this simply reinforcing the status quo notion that readers are more intellectually adept or are intellectually superior to non-readers…where do language, diglossia, linguistic prestige, etc. fit in?

The author continues that, “[t]he uncommonly honest accounts of men’s and women’s experiences that can be found in literature make the gender construct seem a cartoon of human experience, and offer boys the chance to transcend simplistic, dehumanizing notions of masculinity and femininity. For boys to access these accounts, though, they first have to want to—they first have to make sense of those squiggles on the page.”

This is laying a LOT of responsibility on literacy, not to mention assuming that literacy sine qua non provides enlightenment. I am not convinced. What do you think?

Jonathan Frochtwajg. “Paper Boys.” Bitch Magazine. Winter 2009. Issue no. 45. Page 11.