Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Film Analysis #2: "No Woman No Cry" & "It's a Girl"

“No Woman No Cry” was a well-done documentary on the dangers of maternity around the world. It’s not just a third-world problem, either; it’s also a needless problem in the U.S., though for very different reasons.

One thing that really struck me from this film is that in Tanzania (and other poor countries in Africa), if you can get to the right healthcare, the care is usually free. In the United States, though healthcare is prolific and readily available to just about everyone, it is far from free.

Watching Janet suffer silently left me in awe. Her lips said she was hurting and that it felt like labour pains, but her face was stoic and calm. If I’d passed her on the dirt road between the hospital and her village I would never have guessed she was about to have her baby and was fighting excruciating pain. Though admittedly the only woman I’ve ever watched give birth in real life is myself (and even then I wasn’t really “watching,” per se), I would guess this is a cultural thing. American women are encouraged to grunt, moan, yell, scream, chant, pant, and make other noises to a) distract themselves from the pain of childbirth and b) relax the muscles that need to relax and allow the other parts of the body to do their thing.

I was also shocked by the stark emptiness of the hospital room Janet was in. They have nothing but a bed and yet this is where she desperately wants to give birth.

The amount of physical touch between nurse and patient was interesting. The nurse rubbed her hand on the woman’s face, touched her shoulder, tousled her hair, nipped her cheek with her finger. It was a very tender and caring scene to me. That would never happen in the U.S. Nurses are to be kind and caring and friendly, but never intimate or assuming a closeness that isn’t there.

In the United States, lack of access to hospitals, clinics, doctors, and medicine is not the problem, nor is poor sanitation, limited technology, or lack of knowledge. 1 in 5 women of reproductive age in America has no insurance. And this is one of the major problems affecting maternal mortality in this country today.

Contrasting what I know from giving birth to two children thus far in my life and what I learned of Tanzanian culture in this film was interesting. I have access to so much that those women do not have. I can walk into any hospital nearby and be given a sterilized, starched bed and access to nearly any machine or technology or drug I could need. It may cost me an arm and a leg, but I have the access.

The women in Tanzania have to walk five miles in the desert sun to get to the nearest clinic—not hospital—and there’s a very low chance there will even be a doctor there. One OB quoted in the film said that at one point he was the only obstetrician for an entire population of several million people.

One thing that fascinated me about the stories of the women in Bangladesh is the intense feeling of shame for a woman if she cannot give birth. Girl or boy is not as important as whether or not the woman can conceive at all.

Also, maternity is a family affair in this country. When the woman (I don’t recall her name) went to get an ultrasound to determine her baby’s gestation status, she didn’t just go alone, with a friend, with her mother, or with her husband. An entire crew of her family (and friends?) went with her. Even the small children came along.

I go to OB appointments alone most of the time, only taking my husband when there’s a significant test being done like the gender ultrasound, or if there’s a concern. This is not a cultural thing but a preference and one based on economic convenience and necessity at that (he works an hourly job and time is money). And I am comfortable with this. Considering the idea of my entire (extended?) family coming with me to an ultrasound is awkward and uncomfortable to me. And that could be caused by both culture and personality.

The doctor also expected her “people” to be able to tell him when her last period was. Likely the only person who can tell my doctor that about me will be my husband.

Interestingly, although I felt the doctor was abrupt, harsh, demanding, demeaning, and rude, I also felt that the health educator (the protagonist, if you will, in this story) was a bit too hard on the woman, as well. “Why did you even try to do it at home? What kind of people are you? How do you think we feel?” It was a complete guilt trip for her to have made the decision she made, which is firmly rooted in a culture in which she was raised deeply entrenched.

The story of the man whose wife died in childbirth was heart wrenching. Imagining my husband left with my daughters and me never holding or knowing my children…and them never knowing me…was a painful vision. And to think that it happened in this country is a bit frightening. It could happen to anyone. It almost happened to my mother when she gave birth to me. That father could have been my father. His son’s story mine. My life could have been very, very different. And medicine has come a long way in 31 years.

One woman interviewed said, “There’s an assumption in third world countries that if we build a clinic, the people will use it.” That’s not necessarily true because from this film I determined that the shame in asking for medical assistance is so great, that many women opt to take their chances alone and at home with inexperienced help than bear the shame of going to the hospital where experts could save their life and the life of their baby. This fact makes me sad, and yet…what can we do?

It’s about education. Education for the medical staff on how to properly handle a childbirth and a newborn. Education for women on pregnancy and childbirth and what a healthcare system can and does do. Education for men and women on the care women need while pregnant and giving birth. And education alone can’t fight the problem; there has to be a shift in culture.

This was also the issue in “It’s a Girl!” that I watched as my second film. This documentary focuses solely on India and China and the extremely high rates of gendercide, feticide, and infanticide due to cultural value systems that are highly skewed in favour of males.

One thing that struck me about the situation in India is that the gender issue is not just about gender; it’s also about class. A poor family cannot afford to feed a large family. So boys are fed well, and the girls are not. If a boy gets sick the family will find a way to get medicine for him. If a girl gets sick and they cannot afford medical care, they will allow her to suffer and even die. This is not necessarily a direct result of gender preference, but it’s a bit of a circular cycle, in which gender preference leads families to take better care of male children, and the higher value placed on male children is evident from the beginning and therefore continues the cycle of devaluing females, causing/reinforcing gender preference.

In addition, if a family is wealthy it expects to receive as dowry expensive cars such as Mercedes and other high-value items. However, this also means that they are expected to pay that in dowry should they have a daughter to wed. Therefore greed plays a major role in gendercide, since families view dowry as an easy way to get even richer—gain property, money, and expensive items. Having only boys means they get more and more and never have to give.

I was absolutely shocked at the ability of the Indian women to explain how they kill their female babies…while smiling. They talk about pouring acid on the baby’s face to suffocate her, strangling her, feeding her poison, putting a wet cloth over her face so she can’t breathe—and through all of this explanation they are smiling as though talking about how they made a beautiful cake for their child’s birthday on Sunday or went for a walk in the park last night with their lover.

They. Are. Murderers.

And they stand there explaining why it was necessary and how they don’t feel any guilt at all.

In China, families are intensely prosecuted by law if they go against the policy stating that city-dwellers have only one child and rural families have no more than two. A spy system is put in place and held there by the government, so you never know who will report you if you are illegally pregnant, which means fines, imprisonment, forced abortion, and/or forced sterilization.

On average, 1,500 abortions are performed every hour in China. Many are forced, even up to the last month of pregnancy.

As a result of this required and strictly enforced policy, gender preference is extremely evident in the
culture. Men now outnumber women in China by 37 million. This means finding a woman to marry is incredibly difficult and has resulted in extreme prostitution markets, child bride kidnappings, and child abductions as men seek to satisfy their physical desires and families seek to find wives for their sons.

We all know about China’s one-child policy, and most western countries believe this to be an abhorrence. However, as one interviewee pointed out in this documentary, “Raising the birth limit to two won’t solve the problem. Women who come from cultures where they are treated as equals to men need to stand up for their sisters because they cannot do it themselves.”

This leads me to question…whose worldview is right? Who’s to say that the western view on equal rights and treatment of men and women is the “right” way to see things? Who decides that killing female children is wrong and valuing both genders equally is right? How can we even approach the issue with such vastly different worldviews and expect to convince anyone of anything that goes against their centuries-old cultural norms? What would our reaction be here in the U.S. if a group of “educators” from India came over and started telling us that placing equal value on male and female children was wrong and desiring only male children was right? Would we listen willingly and nod our heads and consider the arguments and make thoughtful decisions to change our culture? Doubtful.

So how does one solve this? It’s a major problem—admittedly, from my own worldview—and I don’t see how education or argumentation is going to change anything. Culture is difficult to shift—in any direction—specially on major issues such as gendercide and value systems.

Another interviewee said, “When we put up pictures of little girls and say, ‘save the girl child,’ who are we talking to? No one is listening. We need to turn the mirror around and take a good hard look into our own psyche and moral conscience. As a nation (India) we have a need for examination, shame, and change, to confront it within ourselves. Unless we do that, nothing is going to change. There needs to be an assumption of responsibility. This is something we have allowed to go horribly wrong and we’re each responsible for it.”

I think she’s right. It has to come from within, this change. We as Americans can’t do it. The British can’t do it. The Germans can’t do it. The Australians can’t do it. The South Africans can’t do it. Even the Canadians can’t do it. It has to be an internal push for internal change. And it will take an extremely long time. And, unfortunately, a lot more deaths.

Watching these films as a mother was probably a different experience than that of others watching them. The first was simply a treatise on the childbirth experience in general, but the second was more difficult as it dealt with devaluing females. I have two girls. It goes without saying that I value them very much—they are special to me and their father, and we would never ever in a million years wish they were boys instead.

It was very difficult for me as the mother of girls to hear the stories of the girl babies in India being murdered by their own mothers minutes after their birth, simply because they didn’t have a penis.

I cried as I listened to the stories about unwanted daughters in China—the fact that there is a very fast-growing population of illegal children (mostly female) in China who technically—legally—don’t exist. They can’t go to school, receive healthcare, travel by plane, hold a job, get married, or leave the country. Many of them are abandoned or neglected/abused simply because they are girls and therefore a burden on their parents.

I sobbed as the sorrowful mother shared her story about having to leave her three daughters with different family members while she and her husband fled to a location 1,000 miles away in order to avoid penalties from the government for having more than their allotted number of children. They try to visit their daughters once a year. If they have enough money saved. “I miss my children very much,” said the mother. The oldest daughter came on the screen and said, “I want my mother to come home. I don’t want her to work anymore. I miss her.” It broke my heart.

My heart skipped a beat when I learned that women in China not only have to have a pregnancy permit to conceive, but they also must have a birth permit to actually give birth to the child.

A pregnancy permit does not guarantee a birth permit.

Just let that sink in.

Needless to say these films were very enlightening and I’m glad I watched them, though parts of them were painful to see. I am very fortunate to live in a country where I am equally valued (though even that, in our western culture, is debatable on a very different level), where I can get pregnant when and how I so choose, and can give birth to as many babies as I wish, without interference from the government.

I felt they were both well-done though the first (“No Woman No Cry”) was very obviously done by someone with a bit less experience, or at least an extremely different style than the maker of the second (“It’s a Girl!”). They are both high quality and very informative, with contemporary information and touching stories.

Now to find answers to my questions and figure out whether or not documentaries like these can and do make any difference in the world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Reflection Paper #2: Dowry, Women in Tech, and the Anatomically Correct Oscar

Disclaimer: I know this is long, but I tend to get verbose when I'm passionate. I hope you can bear with me and that I'm able to be interesting enough to keep your attention to the end!

Since the last time we wrote a reflection paper I've found myself focusing a lot on the gender issues over the other two (race and class). Though those have played a role in my in-class comments and thought processes, they have taken a back burner recently to the gender issues that seem to be permeating much of my mind lately.

Following my presentation/discussion leadership on the topic in class, I received some additional commentary from some American friends of mine who live in India. Their take on the dowry system and the role of women in their area was interesting, so I wanted to include it in my blog, since I didn't have it in time to share it during my presentation.

Note: My friends live in a middle-class rural area, so their experience is going to be different that that of others in different areas.

Indians do not generally take an opinion on their roles. Role is something related to duty, which is very important to them spiritually. So a woman's role is hers because she was born a woman, which is because the gods decided she would be a woman, which is related to karma, past life, etc. So there's not a lot of internal freedom for forging a new role in life, although probably a city-dweller would disagree with me on that. Here is a saying about the ideal woman:

"Works hard (as a slave), Gives smart advice (like a minister),
Feeds and cares (like a mother), Is a sex-goddess in bed (like the apsara Rambha),
Is beautiful (like goddess lakshmi), Is forgiving (like mother earth),
These are the ideal qualities (and duties) of a wife."

This is still very much perpetuated as a good thing. If people see [my husband] doing dishes or putting up our laundry, I get scolded. 

The value of women is a changing thing. It used to be that people didn't want to have baby girls. It is still extremely important to have a boy, since the boy will eventually perform an important ceremony for his parents upon their death. But now people area happy to have girls. They see girls as being intelligent and caring. 

An interesting aspect of this is that women are generally, societally and in ancient writings, thought of as being more responsible...meaning that if a woman and man have sex out of wedlock, the girl is responsible but the boy isn't. This has contributed to the "rape culture" you probably hear about in India. Boys aren't taught that they can control themselves and a lot of their stories show that women are seductive tricksters. There is also a lot of violent pornography, which contributes to this problem as well. 

Women try to encourage each other to dress modestly and stay together, and occasionally blame others for being victims as a way to encourage others to protect themselves. Gossip is a way their culture reinforces values. 

Dowry is very important. In fact, I was just talking to a woman today about her daughter's dowry. She was telling me, eyes aglow, about all the lovely things they would gift to their daughter and her new family. Beautiful dishes, a washing machine so that she would have a little rest from her work, etc. 

On the part of the bride, a lot is spent on dowry, and it is thought of as a gift both to the daughter and the new family she is joining. It is meant to bless her and them. I have never heard of it being thought of as a negative thing, except in news articles about people in other areas of the country, with the throwing of acid thing. 

Also, it's not just the bride's parents who provide the dowry. All the bride's relatives help by giving gifts of clothing, jewelry and money to the bride, groom, and various important people in the groom's family's life. 

In fact, my friend mentioned that one of their local friends had a daughter getting married soon, and my friend and her husband would be expected to provide part of the dowry. It should be interesting for them to explain their position on the system and concept of dowry when it is something that is so entrenched in the local culture.

I was so glad to have this additional information from someone who is on the inside. It really does seem to be dependent upon class and geographic area of the country as to what is expected and what is accepted in terms of dowry. I also found it intriguing that my friend pointed out that women don't think to question their role because it was assigned to them by the gods and therefore their duty to fulfill their assigned role.

What if Christian women viewed their roles the same way? What if we lived our lives as though we were assigned the role of womanhood by God and quietly and happily fulfill that role? Well, the answer to that is complicated because the real debate is not whether women should accept their roles in life, but rather what, in fact, IS a woman's "role?" I think in Indian culture(s) it is much more well-defined than it is in western cultures, which is, I believe, part of the problem when attempting to resolve gender issues here in America (and other western places).

Throughout the discussions on the development of gender identity in children, the sections on how parents play a part in creating and maintaining gender stereotypes have really bothered me. Since I only have female children it is frustrating to me to be unable to say, "No, I don't do that." However, I have a hard time believing that I would treat male children any differently as far as language. Wood Chapter 7 says that parents tend to praise girls for being "helpers" and boys for being "independent." It's awkward to tell a child, "Oh, good job being independent!" so I don't say that to my girls...however, I don't think I would say it to a boy, either. I think if my (currently nonexistent) son were to help me set the table before dinner I would thank him for being a good helper. Is this wrong? Should I be focusing more on telling my children they are doing a good job thinking for themselves and taking initiative? This chapter really put a spotlight on the language I choose for my children--and also made me hope all the more that this next baby is a boy so I can put all of these interesting tidbits to the test!

In Erenly's notes for chapter 7 she posed a discussion question about male privilege, directing us to Steve's comment on page 175. I read Steve's comment and it made me frustrated and, at the end, kind of angry.

His worldview is very obviously traditional: The woman typically stays home and takes care of the children and the home while the man is the breadwinner. He says, "I have to get a job and make money; a woman can do that, but she doesn't have to." In most cases for most families in America right now, that is an outright laughable statement. Most households cannot possibly survive on only one income, and the woman is required to earn a living alongside her husband. For a majority of women in America, having a job is not a choice--it is a necessity.

Also, his perspective is skewed in favour of women to make his point. What if I rephrased his statement as though a woman had said it?

"I am sick of hearing about 'female privilege.' Where is it? That's what I'd like to know. I'm expected to sit there and let my date pay for dinner, a movie, or whatever we do as though I can't take care of myself; he has the advantage over me from having covered my cost. I'm not expected to be able to pay a cover charge to get into a bar; men apparently just have more money in their pockets so they pay the fee. If the draft comes back, all the men will have the privilege of serving their country while the women have to volunteer themselves, like we're some sort of weak animal who can't possibly be expected to hold a gun or drive a tank. People just assume a man has a job and does well for himself and his family; women are assumed to stay home and be mothers rather than have a career--and if we choose the latter we have to work three times as hard to get it as a man. So tell me where female privilege is in all of this."

That certainly changes the perspective of the statement, doesn't it?

Recently I read a couple of articles about women in the land of technology and was very surprised to learn through an NPR article that the original computer programmers who started the process toward what we know as computing and programming today were women. One main reason for this is interesting: In the 1930s and 40s men were more interested in putting together the physical pieces of a machine rather than dealing with the language behind making the machine function. Programming was considered "women's work."

In contrast, today I read an article on Fortune Magazine's website about why women leave tech careers. The title caught my attention, especially since I work in education (and we talk about who chooses what major and why frequently): "Why Women Leave Tech: It's the culture, not because 'math is hard.'" The article talks about a research project done with over 700 women who chose technology-related careers and are no longer in the field. An overwhelming majority cited becoming a mother as a major factor in their decision. Many women discovered that their line of work was not conducive to maintaining a family, as their male-dominated employment culture was extremely non-understanding of the situation in which a working mother finds herself--especially if she chooses to nurse.

I have always been told and believed that girls just aren't into the sciences as much as boys are. As I've aged I chalked that "fact" up to the idea that girls are more into communicating, talking, exchanging feelings, and making people feel good, whereas boys tend to be more interested in blowing things up, dissecting things, and figuring out how things work. In my line of work we constantly talk about gender and race disparities in various disciplines: Asians are known to be excellent musicians, mathematicians, and engineers; engineers are almost never female; nurses are almost never male; etc. So a lot of effort is put into recruiting these specific groups of people into the areas in which they are underrepresented. We tout our female engineering students. We brag about our male nurses. Though, to be perfectly candid, we never SAY that's what we're doing. But in marketing materials for a nursing program you'll almost ALWAYS see a male nurse in the group photo. In a PR article for a magazine you'll find attempts at demonstrating female student interest in the sciences on a regular basis.

These articles put into perspective the concept of societally shaped perceptions of gender roles and expectations. Women are no less capable of solving (and programming!) complicated algorithms than Asians are of being a television news anchor or men are of starting an IV and holding an elderly woman's hand while she falls asleep in her hospital bed. It's all about what society tells us we are supposed to do because we have or do not have certain body parts. (As a side note--why don't boys play flute? And why do so few girls choose brass instruments? Why don't Asians play viola?)

I took a look at guerrillagirls.com and was at first quite put off because their site is so horribly designed and difficult to navigate. There isn't an "about us" section or a "contact us" section, so I had to hunt a bit to figure out what exactly they do and who they are. After a bit of browsing a reference to their anatomically correct Oscar caught my attention, especially since we had a bit of a discussion about this topic in class recently. I thought several in the class would find this interesting; here are some stats they use in their story:

  • No woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director--and only two have ever been nominated.
  • 94% of the writing awards in the Oscars have gone to men.
  • Only 3% of all acting awards--lead and supporting--have gone to people of colour.
  • 96% of films are directed by males.
  • No woman has ever won an Oscar for cinematography or sound.
  • Even 85% of makeup awards have gone to men.
There are more stats about race issues in Hollywood, so click the link for those numbers. They were very interesting, too.

I also highly recommend checking out genderads.com; it has a collection of over 4,000 ads that depict the way gender is used to sell products and services in various ways. I see it on a minor level when I browse magazines or (unfortunately) happen to see television commercials, but they've dug deeper--even including ads from as far back as the 1950s. It will be both eye-opening and maddening, to tell the truth. And prepare yourself for a good hour or more browsing their collection and contemplating their discussion questions. (They even have links on how to use their site in the classroom, which I absolutely love. Definitely well-thought-out project and a well-designed site.)

I think I've blathered enough with my thoughts on things we've discussed in recent class periods, so I'll end here. I'm really grateful for the things this class has taught me and the new thought roads I have to explore, especially as a parent raising the next generation. It's really put a whole new perspective on how I speak to my children, the language I use when referring to individuals, and how I view media reports and gender stereotypes. While I've always had these issues percolating in the back of my mind, this class has really brought these issues to the forefront and given me new ideas to consider, and I love that. I hope I never stop seeing more, even when this class ends.