Gender Matters offers feminist approaches to a diverse range of discussions on intersectional, transnational, and community issues. Contributors include UB students, faculty, and staff, as well as greater Buffalo community members, whose perspectives enrich our collective feminist engagement with education, research, and lived realities.
The Gender Institute welcomes new potential authors. Those interested should contact the blog manager, Surabhi Pant at email@example.com.
Revealing Dress Codes
by Victoria W. Wolcott
Digital Humanities Project - "19th Century Medical Women": A Reflection
by Lawrence Lorraine Mullen
"A Powerful Vine: My Memories of Isabel Marcus" by Barbara J. Bono
“Big Questions: Then and Now” - by Kari Winter
October 10, 2022: Rallying for Change in Iran by Carine Mardorossian
October 3, 2022: Zān, Zendegī, Azadī / Woman, Life, Freedom by Faegheh Hajhosseini
September 27, 2022: Women, Life, Freedom: For Iran, for all women by Lina AbiRafeh
Together with the UB's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, the Gender Institute co-sponsored an event at the Westin Hotel where around 40 professors and leaders in obstetrics and gynecology gathered to discuss the Medical and Legal Impact of Dobbs, the case that the Supreme Court used to overturn Roe V. Wade in June.
Gender Institute's Co-sponsored Event: September 16, 2022
Production Assistance from Omar Brown, Office of Media Services, University at Buffalo Libraries.
Carrie Tirado Bramen, Director of the Gender Institute, and a Professor of English gave introductory remarks and introduced the two keynote speakers - Allison Brashear, Dean UB Jacobs School, and Lucinda Finley, Professor, UB Law School.
Allison Brashear, Vice President for Health Sciences, and Dean, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences – spoke on the “The impact of Dobbs on training a new generation of doctors: A Dean's Perspective.”
Lucinda Finley, Frank G. Raichle Professor of Trial and Appellate Advocacy, UB Law school – spoke on the legal fallout of the Dobbs decision and what medical clinicians need to know.
May 16, 2022: Oral Histories: Zoroastrian Migration Stories by Sharmeen Mehri
September 27, 2023
I like John Fetterman. I like his politics and I deeply respect his openness about his struggles with mental and physical illness following his stroke. As for his dress, a diversity of personal styles in the Senate, as in any institution, should be welcome. And I agree with most commentators that Senators’ attire pales in importance to the pressing issues of our time, including an imminent shutdown of the federal government. But missing from the debates about the Senate’s new dress code is the role gender and race may have played in Chuck Schumer’s decision to give the green light for Senators to enter the chamber in casual attire, including hoodies.
Contrast this relatively rapid change to the decades-long struggle women have waged to wear comfortable clothing on the Senate floor. Until Barbara Mikulski and Carol Mosely-Braun’s Pantsuit Rebellion of 1993 there was an unwritten but fully enforced rule that female Senators and staff were forbidden from wearing pants. Senate doorkeepers had the power to turn away female staffers and lawmakers who they felt were insufficiently formal for the august body. Female representatives who went to work in pants stashed dresses in their offices in case they were called to the Senate floor and had to make a quick change. The 1993 rebellion was successful as the doorkeepers allowed pant suited women to pass onto the Senate floor, but they drew the line at sleeveless dresses and open-toed shoes. It was not until 2017, under the leadership of Paul Ryan, that women were granted to right to display their shoulders and toes.
John Fetterman, like Mikulski and Mosely-Braun, has sought comfort over outdated mores. He arguably is also signaling solidarity with the small-town Pennsylvanians he represents. Indeed, Fetterman’s hoodies could be read as the championing of a working-class everyman. This white masculine working-class figure, romanticized by both liberals and populists alike, is at the center of our current political moment. It is the symbol of what the historian Robert Self refers to as “breadwinner liberalism,” the post-war ideal of a male breadwinner earning a union wage robust enough to support his traditional family. The male breadwinner epitomizes the idea of the dignity of labor, including the kind of manual labor that necessitates a more casual clothing style.
Despite the challenges of feminism to this patriarchal model we still see this ideal figure in the privileging of male-dominated working-class jobs over female-dominated labor. To take one example, those who recommend that young people eschew a college education point to the dignity and economic benefits of non-college degree jobs such as electrician or plumber. In contrast, I have never heard a pundit extoll the benefits of working in childcare or as an aid in a nursing home over a college degree. In a similar vein, the fate of Biden’s two major legislative initiatives reflects this bias toward male-dominated employment. “Build Back Better” sought to create a universal preschool system and a major investment in childcare, which would benefit female workers disproportionately. But it was the “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” that successfully passed Congress. This law funded major infrastructure projects that disproportionately benefitted the male-dominated construction industry.
It is telling that Fetterman’s working man’s attire is not one easily replicated by female Senators. Would Schumer have reacted in the same way if confronted by women wearing nurse’s scrubs or custodial uniforms? In the end the dress code may be inconsequential, but the championing of Fetterman’s hoodies reveals a gender bias that continues to harm women.
Victoria W. Wolcott is a Professor of History and Director of UB's Gender Institute. Her current research investigates the life and work of a Black pacifist and athlete during the cold war. This will culminate in a microhistory tentatively titled, The Embodied Resistance of Eroseanna Robinson: Athleticism and Activism in the Cold War Era. She is also editing and contributing to a collection of interdisciplinary essays on utopianism for SUNY Press’s “Humanities to the Rescue” series, Utopian Imaginings: Saving the Future in the Present.
May 24, 2023
“My husband’s name is Adam J. B. but I use my own name Dr. Louise D. Benzing on account of my degree + too because do not see why I should lose my identity entirely” – Dr. Louse Downer Benzing to Dr. Frances Proctor Ames (1914)
I became acquainted with the University Archive’s Frances Proctor Ames collection by chance, partially due to my own interest in recovering the biographies and writings of nineteenth-century women, but also partially due to a conference presentation organized by the Recovery Hub for American Women Writers at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers’ tri-annual conference in 2021. Recovery Hub associated researchers and faculty encouraged attendees to look at their home institution’s holdings and to expand what it meant to be a ‘writer’ beyond traditional poetry and prose. The Frances Proctor Ames collection presented such an opportunity. Dr. Proctor Ames, one of the University at Buffalo Medical College’s early women graduates, worked and resided in Western New York for nearly the entirety of her life—specifically practicing what has historically been referred to as ‘women’s healthcare,’ with a particular focus on supporting pregnant women and mothers. Proctor Ames’ experiences as medical practitioner, but also as a mother and wife are always interwoven. It seems that to me that to her work was always focused on the care of women first and foremost—to provide gynecological and obstetric care by a woman for other women.
Proctor Ames’ quiet, yet dedicated commitment to women’s health is illuminated thoughtfully—yet often quite directly—by the out-spoken, tenacious woman that the Collection’s name conceals—Dr. Louise Downer Benzing. Proctor Ames and Downer Benzing were roommates during their time at the University at Buffalo Medical College, graduating a year or so apart. While Proctor Ames meticulously balanced her medical work with domestic obligations, Downer Benzing traveled across the region as a single, career-driven woman employed as a staff physician at a number of institutions, and eventually serving as an associate mentor newly established Women’s Physician's League in the 1910s. Throughout their 40-year friendship, the two shared medical advice and news of engagements, births, travels with family members, and employment opportunities. While their careers veer off in drastically different directions after medical school, it is above all else obvious to any reader that their devotion to one another is representative of a kinship network for female physicians that simply did not yet exist yet in 1880s.
The creation of 19th Century Medical Women: Tracing Frances Proctor Ames & Louise Downer Benzing through Western New York itself bares an uncanny similarity to the women it honors. Assisted by University Archive and Robert L. Brown History of Medicine staff, this digital humanities project is the product of two humanities graduate students—myself, and Allie Fuller, and nearly two years of unfunded labor. Due to its status as being spearheaded by graduate students, the project was not eligible for financial support from the University, and was completed while its two researchers undertook coursework, completed qualifying exams, and completed thesis and dissertation research. Proctor Ames and Downer Benzing’s own difficulties in achieving financial security parallel our own. Downer Benzing writes repeatedly of the search to secure a livable salary in the 1890s as a resident physician—turning down a position at a private women’s hospital in Cambridge because her employment would have been entirely uncompensated. I make this point to illuminate the labor of women’s recovery work—specifically by other marginalized academics—as a support network of its own kind.
Lawrence Lorraine Mullen is a PhD candidate, GA in the Academic and Professional Writing Program, and TA in the History department. They received a B.A. in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Temple University and M.F.A. in Creative Writing with a concentration in Poetry from Arcadia University. Their research interests broadly include nineteenth-century American studies and Gothic literature, with their dissertation triangulating mid-nineteenth century architectural blueprints and American house pattern books, haunted house narratives, and theories of domesticity and domestic space. They were a 2022 Historic Hudson Valley Women's History Summer Research Fellow.
Barbara J. Bono's tribute to Isabel Marcus was first published in Buffalo Law Review under the section "Symposium: Remembering Isabel Marcus", in their January 2023 edition, Vol. 71, No. 1.
“Sobbing and breathless, I ran until the crowd thinned out. I was close to the dormitory. I went to my room and lay still for half an hour. I recalled scenes from my own graduate school days in Berkeley in the sixties. Running from the police and the National Guard, a wet bandana across my nose and mouth to ward off the tear gas, was a different experience. Perhaps because it was my own turf and I could communicate with the people around me. Perhaps because I did not assume that the occupiers would use live ammunition. On later reflection it was this latter point that was so crucial. Were I a person of color in the United States I might not have made the same assumptions.”
—Isabel Marcus, Report from China, CLS (1989)
This vivid account of how our UB Law School colleague, the late Isabel Marcus, experienced the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests fuses a lifetime of social justice struggles and concerns: an activist since her law school days at Berkeley, a scholar of and a fighter for women’s rights and reproductive freedom, a fearless traveler in central and eastern Europe, and here, into the heart of Chinese student protests.
I was privileged to know Isabel in intertwined personal and professional ways. When my husband, Professor Jim Bono, and myself first came to Buffalo in 1984 she had arrived just two years previously from the University of Texas at Austin. But she had already made her Parkside home distinctively her own, enrolling her two children in city public schools, furnishing the sweeping downstairs with books, protest posters, gorgeous Eurasian textiles from her travels, and Breuer chairs and, several years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, making it a refugee for visiting Polish scholars. Getting ready to downsize as her children went off to college, she sold the house to us, and we followed her lead in calming the colors, renovating the kitchen, punching up the wall art, spreading out the books, cultivating the garden, welcoming visitors, and sending our older son to City Honors.
Isabel was among an interdisciplinary group of powerful second-wave feminist scholars at UB—Liz Kennedy of Women’s Studies, Claire Kahane of English, Carolyn Korsmeyer of Philosophy, Ellen DuBois and Liz Weston of History, Carol Zemel of Art History, Ruth Meyerowitz of American Studies, Lois Weis of Education, Pat Shelley of Social Work, Diane Bennett and Lucinda Finley of Law, Regina Grol of Polish Studies—who welcomed me warmly into their reading and discussion circles. She traveled with many of them behind the former Iron Curtain to establish joint programs at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and to visit the Holocaust sites of their parents’ generation. She took every opportunity she could to travel and to teach abroad—in Poland, Romania, Macedonia, Russia, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Slovakia, Georgia, China, India, Pakistan, and Thailand—pioneering the understanding of domestic violence as a form of terrorism, and opening a rich avenue for students and faculty from Eastern Europe to come here to study at UB.
At first Isabel moved to a lovely row house on Mariner Street in Allentown, where she continued to reserve a charming upstairs apartment for visiting scholars. But soon she took the aerie penthouse apartment on the northwest corner of the Campanile overlooking downtown, where the elevator rose right into the rooms and she could leave for her travels with a turn of the key. Many of us visited her there in all weather, in summer enjoying her terrace, in winter reveling in the warmth of her hospitality and the still-gorgeous view. She was an intellectual homemaker: always welcoming, always rigorous.
In 1997 the UB Graduate Group for Feminist Studies and a long-standing group of activist women from the Medical School and sciences combined, under the partial impetus of the 1996 “President’s Task Force of Women at UB,” to form the UB Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender (IREWG, or informally the Gender Institute), and Isabel, together with Peggy Acara from the Medical School, became one of its first Co-Directors. Under their leadership the Institute built out a strong base of campus-wide involvement as well as support for the academic Program in Women’s Studies and sponsored, in addition to graduate student and faculty development events, an annual campus-wide fall “Gender Week” and a city-based spring “International Women’s Film Festival.” Isabel delighted in the breadth, variety, and vigor of this programming, which brought international figures like Native American activist and American Vice-Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke to campus. I chaired “Gender Week” for a number of years, and one particularly vivid example from that time was the semester when Isabel and I worked with noted local theater practitioner Darleen Pickering Hummert and her activist troupe at Theatre for Change to write, cast, and direct a play on the threat of sexual harassment in the college workplace, “A Matter of Respect,” which we put on for several well-attended performances at the Katharine Cornell Theater at the UB North Campus. From 2003 to 2006 I succeeded Isabel as Co-Director of the Gender Institute. It was a sign of her sustaining kindness that she gave me a basket of self-care items—a notebook, gift cards, fragrance, lotion—and threw a party for me going into the challenge; but it is a testimony to her activist and intellectual legacy that we continued her initiatives strongly and under a succession of strong Directors have expanded the Gender Institute’s reach and influence so that it continues to thrive today.
Isabel was a breast cancer survivor, but the illness barely slowed her down. When the Gender Institute threw her a party a couple of years ago she appeared in her signature black leather jacket, looking tough and fit, and pre-COVID she resumed her travels. It was a shock to learn that Alzheimer’s had stricken her rapidly and that her devoted children had moved her to memory care in California, where many of us wrote to her but she declined rapidly. I still live in her house, and so I still think of her every day. One of the things she did there was plant three trumpeter vines along the ugly chain link fence on one side of the yard. I’ve fostered and spliced those trumpeter vines so that they now hide the fence and are covered with orange blossoms throughout the summer. But in the winter they are bare, and their trunks are now as thick and twisted as the power salute on the Habermas poster Isabel hung on our dining room wall. I think of her when I see them— I salute her.
Barbara J. Bono - Associate Professor Emerita, UB Departments of English and Global Gender and Sexuality Studies; former Co-Director, UB Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender (2003-2006).
October 28, 2022
Below is Kari Winter’s contribution to the 50th Anniversary of Women’s Studies celebration that took place on 28th and 29th of October, 2022.
Why were you drawn to Women's Studies?
Kari: Although the society, church and family I grew up in were patriarchal and patrifocal, I was surrounded by women and girls I loved and admired, including my mother, sister, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and friends. I also loved the forms of work and community traditionally associated with women, especially foodways, gardening and child care.
My father, who as a preacher was a wordsmith and storyteller, and my mother, who was an avid reader, did not allow us to watch tv, so my sister, brother and I became voracious readers. I was taught to read at the age of four by a woman named Lillian, who suffered from MS and was confined to a wheelchair. Her life companion and caretaker was a woman named Delinda. No one questioned the nature of their bond; both women were esteemed as exemplary women. Lillian kindly, patiently taught me how to spell and read long before I started kindergarten. She was the first of countless wonderful teachers who expanded and enriched my life.
Around this time a black musician and storyteller named Robert Sadler began visiting our church every few months. He would play the piano and sing until the spirit came down and the congregation stood up to dance. Then he would share his story of growing up in Jim Crow South Carolina in conditions that were slavery by another name. He made an indelible impression on me.
By the time I was in second grade (at Fern Hill Elementary School in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Minneapolis where three-fourths of my classmates were Jewish; Fern Hill later became an Orthodox Torah Academy, and years later when I returned to St. Louis Park I approached a Reform rabbi named Norman Cohen to embark on a year of study in preparation for conversion to Judaism. I said, “Rabbi Cohen, I would like to convert to Judaism. The only problem is I don’t believe in God.” He replied, “That’s okay; neither do I.”)
But back to my story—by the time I was in second grade, I’d developed a habit of looking for authors I liked and then reading down the library shelf of their books until I hit one that I did not like. Among my first loves were Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott and Nancy Drew. How lucky I was to grow up during the human age of libraries. I hope libraries will live forever.
By the time I was fifteen I was in love with Charlotte Bronte and Emily Dickinson.
In short, I was drawn to Women’s Studies because I love women, and I love women’s writing.
When I started college at Indiana University in 1977, I benefitted from a wave of new feminist faculty in the academy. During my first semester, for example, I took an honors seminar on “Women in Politics and Society” with a young political science professor named Marjorie Hershey. My good fortune continued in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where I entered an English department transformed by the trinity of Toni McNaron, Madelon Sprengnether and Shirley Garner. Feminist and lesbian studies were central to our milieu in the 1980s.
What were the questions that you originally wanted to answer?
Kari: Long before the term “intersectional” was applied to feminism—I would say even in the eighteenth century—women were searching for and/or working against ways to address the interlocking systems of oppression that diminish and devastate human lives. Much of my research focuses on African American literature, history and culture, but I am interested in the entire complex of intersectional issues. I believe that both racism and misogyny provide blueprints for how totalitarianism and fascism work.
How have those questions changed for you over time?
Kari: The questions that motivate me have remained intractable and indeed have deepened as my understanding has grown of the extent to which the processes of enslavement, colonialism, and misogyny have persisted and indeed are surging in the 21st century. Patriarchy, racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other social toxins still constitute major threats to the world, and in the meantime the economic violence and exploitation enabled by capitalism have created the most severe economic inequalities in world history which, through promoting climate change, are threatening the viability of life on earth.
What are the most pressing questions for the discipline of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies going forward?
Kari: We urgently need to create forms/platforms of storytelling that can outwit, outmaneuver and outreach the bad actors and the surveillance technologies that are invading our minds and propagating disinformation in unprecedented ways.
We need to build resilience in ourselves and our students. When I see videos of rightwing militias undergoing physical training and mental indoctrination, my blood pressure rises, and I wonder how to cultivate the physical and spiritual strength we will need to survive the dark days ahead. I do not know, but I think a crucial part of our resilience comes from our connections to and conversations with each other.
Our perennial challenge is to forge alliances while finding ways to constructively explore our differences and disagreements. To discuss our differences without hostility.
Although he is not a feminist, I will give the last word today to Salman Rushdie. I was in graduate school when the Ayatollah issued the fatwa against him in 1987, and I was at the Chautauqua Institution when he was horrifically attacked in August 2022. One of Salman Rushdie’s most powerful observations is: “The argument itself is freedom.”
Kari J. Winter is a Professor of American Studies in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo, and has served as the Director of the UB Gender Institute (2011-17) and Executive Director of the UB Humanities Institute (interim, 2017-18). Her books include The American Dreams of John B. Prentis, Slave Trader (Race in the Atlantic World series, U of Georgia P, 2011), The Blind African Slave: or, Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace (scholarly edition of long-lost 1810 slave narrative; Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography series, 2005), and Subjects of Slavery, Agents of Change: Women and Power in Gothic Novels and Slave Narratives, 1790-1865 (U of Georgia P, 1992, 1995, 2010). She is currently writing a screenplay about slavery and freedom in early New England focused on the life of Jeffrey Brace (ca. 1742-1827).
October 10, 2022
Others more qualified than I have reported about the mass protests that have erupted and spread all over Iran following Mahsa Amini’s murder by the country’s “morality” police. The 22 year old was detained for defying the country’s strict dress codes by failing to fully cover her hair. Three days later, she was dead. Images of the vibrant young woman before her arrest have been circulating on social media, juxtaposed with pictures of her intubated and lifeless body in the hospital bed in which she succumbed to her injuries after a coma. In response to the uprisings and the global coverage, the Iranian government denied the allegations of brutality to which her co-detainees had testified, launching a violent crackdown that has so far resulted in the killing of over 80 people. An internet blackout was imposed.
The protests are ongoing at the time of this writing, in the first few days of October 2022. Yet, while the revolt and demonstrations have not subsided, they are already recorded in Wikipedia as squarely in the past, as History:
Amini's death resulted in a series of large-scale protests across the country which garnered international attention, including a statement from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, putting a focus on violence against women in Iran. Several leaders, organizations, and celebrities around the world condemned the incident and expressed solidarity with the protesters.
The events are documented, shelved, put away in the finite past as an objective rather than lived and continuing reality. A temporality that is recorded as a linear, measurable, completed event, is—in Joshua St Pierre’s words, nothing more than a “straight-masculine” time.
Such a framing of Iran’s revolt is ironic at a time when Iranian women are once more not just symbols of victimization but also agents of change and activism.
This is, after all, the country in which, at the end of the seventies, Iranian women who had not worn the scarf in their lifetime and whose secular form of Islam ill-prepared us to think they ever would, took on the veil and started wearing it, in opposition to the Shah’s regime. (The Shah’s father had banned the wearing of the veil in public in the 1930s. Forcible removals of the tchador had ensued). But when on March 7, 1979, Khomeini announced that all women must wear hijab, tens of thousands of unveiled women marched in protest the very next day —on International Women’s Day.
The veil in Iran has never been the veil the West imagines it to be.
I grew up in Iran in the seventies. At no point did I ever equate, consciously or unconsciously, the veiled or unveiled Iranian woman with passivity or internalized oppression, not then, not now, not any more than I believe a Western housewife in a skirt to be bereft of agency. Matriarchal families are so integrated in the fabric of Iranian culture that they elude social commentary. The notion that the West is synonymous with women’s freedom is even more of a farce now, especially in light of the Dobbs decision in the US. Religious fundamentalism takes many forms, and women’s bodies are policed and regulated in Western and nonWestern countries alike. Not even higher education, once the bastion of “academic freedom,” is impervious to it: at the University of Idaho, staff are banned from even mentioning abortion, now that it is illegal in the state. Other institutions are not as explicit, but various administrators’ “strategic” decisions to compromise on what does or does not constitute academic freedom often has Orwellian overtones. What should cause outrage is merely met with a cautious tergiversation, including by faculty and other stakeholders.
We have a lot to learn from our Iranian sisters. Somehow it is when I arrived in the West that I first started to feel sorry for women.
Today, Iranian women are risking their lives to rise against the Islamist regime and its so-called “morality” police. They are cutting their hair in public and burning their headscarves, in defiance and anger. 16-year old Nika Shakarami paid for it with her life, disappearing on 20 September, after publicly removing and burning her headscarf and being followed by security forces. She too was taken, her story eerily repeating Mahsa’s. And predictably, the government delivered another cover-up story, to appease the media and obscure the evidence of another merciless killing, while Western governments state that they will impose sanctions on Iran’s “Morality police” as if the latter could somehow be neatly extracted from the state without being deemed representative of its machinery of violence.
I wonder how Nika’s story will appear online, on Wikipedia and in news sources, whether it will be linked to Mahsa’s, whether hers too will immediately get stored in a past tense, another past, put behind us at the precise moment when Iranian activists are asking us to make their struggle present, and relate it to a better future. I wonder if the solidarity we fail to echo through our impervious and objective temporalities will ever transcend the limitations of our mediatized empathy. I wonder if our contained and fragmented documentation of women’s tragedies elsewhere can ever live up to the demands of our feminist conscience here.
The call for solidarity Iranian feminists sent over the airwaves in the aftermaths of Mahsa’s killing was no typical call for help. It asked not for a military intervention or economic sanctions, but for our attention. Iranian activists are asking the world to take notice and “be our voice.” After all, we live in times when speaking up and revolt are being silenced in real time, when lives only come to matter when they are no more. The living no longer mobilize us. It is the dead who get us to pay attention. For a short while.
In 2007, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis finally succeeded in challenging mainstream and rampant representations of Iranians as either oppressed or fundamentalist. The women of Iran have taken up the same mantel, and are paying for it with their lives. May we be able to be their voices and recognize the ways in which their stories resonate with ours. May we find the same courage and stand up to tyranny, in all its garbs. May we too be brave.
Carine M Mardorossian is professor of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies and English, and she specializes in feminist studies, Caribbean and postcolonial studies, and creative nonfiction. She is the author of Framing the Rape Victim: Gender and Agency Reconsidered (2014) and her most recent co-authored book Death is but a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End (with Christopher Kerr, MD, Penguin 2020), shows the centrality of the humanities to fields of specialized knowledge like medicine. She is completing a manuscript on Caribbean literature and the environment entitled Creolized Ecologies, and is writing a feminist treatise on Toxic Femininity.
September 27, 2022
This piece was written together with Rebecca O’Keeffe and Maryam from Iran *last name withheld for her own safety.
Mahsa Amini was 22. Her name is now well known. She is the fire that ignited a feminist revolution in Iran. Amini was killed by the so-called Morality Police for improperly wearing her hijab, the head covering mandated by so-called cultural and religious interpretation.
(Not so different from the religious interpretations and legal restrictions that deny an American woman her right to her own body, to use just one example. Let’s be clear: this fight isn’t just about “other women, over there.” It’s all around us. Just because our heads aren’t covered doesn’t mean our eyes aren’t covered…)
This garment has become the symbol of oppression in Iran and a way to ‘justify’ discrimination against women. And yet, shouldn’t all women have the choice whether or not to cover? Ideally yes, but…
The Morality Police arrested Amini on September 13 for wearing her headscarf too loosely. She was severely beaten in police custody and subsequently died from her injuries three days later.
The next day brave women took to the streets, burning their hijabs, openly defining religious clerics, and cutting their hair — a feminist revolution.
Her death sparked widespread protests, and a feminist call to action:
Women! Life! Freedom!
Zan! Zandegi! Azadi!
زن، زندگی ، آزادی
This is a fight for freedom, for rights, for choice, for bodily integrity, for autonomy. That is what feminism stands for. No one, no country, nowhere should ever tell women what to do with their own bodies and their own lives, including how to dress, and whether to cover or not. NO COUNTRY.
Just like the rest of the world, I was watching the news in awe and admiration. But while I cheer, I also fear. Will they succeed? What will be the repercussions if they do — or don’t?
On Friday September 23, an email landed in my inbox:
Hello Dr. AbiRafeh,
Hi, I’m Maryam. I live in Germany but have been in contact with my family and friends in Iran. Do you know what happened to a girl in Iran? I’m sure you know a 22 year old girl was killed for what she was wearing. The government has been killing the people who are in the streets and shouting “women, life, freedom” please be their voice. You have been working for women rights for many years, please be with Iranian women and help the world hear their voices louder.
We exchanged messages to get a sense of the situation — especially given the communications blackout imposed by the government. Maryam confirmed:
After Mahsa’s death millions of people all around Iran are in the streets saying the slogan “women, life, freedom “ and the police are killing and beating them. A lot of women disappeared during these days and nobody knows where they are and a lot of women have been arrested.
She added, urgently:
Please watch this video of what they are doing to women.
We asked how we could help.
We just need the world to hear our voice because the dictator government always says women are free in Iran and the Hijab is their choice and is not mandatory but the world should know they are liars, they are monsters who have been oppressing women for 43 years. We can not do anything without men’s permission, we cannot choose what to wear, where to go, and what to do.
She continued to say:
My mother-in-law is in hospital because of what happened to her during the protests.
Maryam’s mother-in-law is no stranger to the harsh rule of the Islamic Republic. Her son was arrested in 1999 a few days after the student-led protests in Tehran. Three months after his arrest, the family received a phone call from him but have not heard anything since — they still do not know if he is alive or dead.
Such is the fate for many — those who are brave enough to challenge the authoritarian regime and demand basic human dignity and rights.
A little bit of history… because context is important.
The Iranian Revolution in 1979 toppled a monarchy. In that historic moment, people’s hopes for change were high. Unfortunately, the result was the Islamic Republic — an even more oppressive regime. This new Islamic Republic sought to restrict and control the population in the name of sovereignty. In the decades since, corrupt autocratic governance coupled with externally-imposed sanctions have resulted in a precarious economy with high poverty rates, widespread unemployment, turbulent political relations, restricted opportunities, gross human rights abuses, and international isolation.
And rampant violations of women’s rights.
Women have suffered most under this regime, reduced to second class citizens and stripped of all rights. The age of marriage for girls was reduced from 18 to nine, movement was restricted, and women were forced to wear the hijab and adhere to Islamic dress code.
Gender segregation in public places such as schools and public transport was attempted too, but women resisted. So while segregation and female only spaces are observed in many places, institutionalization of segregation has not happened thanks to resistance and criticism from civil society.
In fact, women in Iran have always been actively resisting.
Whatever marginal gains women have achieved in education, politics, and the workplace have all been a result of women’s resistance.
And today again, women have been leading the protests — despite grave risk.
The repressive regime is known to arbitrarily arrest, savagely beat, torture, and disappear dissenters. And this time is no different, with authorities brutally retaliating — especially against women. The death toll is rising, extreme violence is being meted out, and internet restrictions are curbing communication. They are also attempting to hijack the narrative with counter protests in support of the government.
On Sunday 25 we got another update:
They killed Hadis Najafi with 6 bullets in Karaj city.
Najafi, seen here on her way to a demonstration speaking about hope for a better future, was in her early 20s.
Other young women murdered include Ghazale Chelavi, Hananeh Kia, Minu Majidi, and Mahsa Mogoi — who was only 18.
Men too have been protesting and supporting women. One man, visibly injured and bloodied, said:
My body is full of those pellet bullets. I am here to claim the rights of the next generation… We want justice, we want gender equality.
However, they are not immune to the state’s brutality either. Erfan Rezai, Zakaria Khial, Mohammad Farmani, Abdallah Mahmoudpour, Rouzbeh Khademian, Milan Haghighi, and Javad Heidari, were all murdered.
A video emerged of Heidari’s sister cutting her hair on his coffin, protesting his killing. Everyone is suffering.
And that’s not all. At least 76 people have been killed since unrest broke out, but it is likely much higher — and rising.
And countless have been arrested, held in inhumane conditions, subjected to beatings.
This isn’t stopping anytime soon.
On Monday September 26, Maryam sent this:
Today the police arrested my sister. The situation is awful, they are trying to find everybody.
We reached out to some other contacts in Iran. Those who were able to reply safely, did so. One woman wrote:
I’m still alive. Sad moments remain in Iran.
These people have asked to remain anonymous. They must delete the messages after sending — or they put their lives at risk. The government is tracking down everyone who speaks out.
Usually every time they suppress the demonstrations, they start arresting people from their homes months later, and then the rapes, whippings, and tortures of the prisoners start again. They are the biggest liars in the world because they always try to show that everything is fine inside Iran. Just yesterday, the villa of Iran’s most famous football player Ali Karimi was seized by the government because of his support for the people’s demonstrations.
Another woman wrote:
I am so happy that the world is watching us and hearing our voices now. It means a lot to me to get a message like this from you.
I couldn’t take part in the protests so, I don’t have any fresh information from the field. All I know is from the news which is spread around the world. All I know is that women lead the protests, some people got killed during the protests. People protest in many cities, they’re vast.
While Iranians have always protested, and various incidents throughout the years have sparked mass demonstrations, women are saying that this time feels different.
In the words of one:
People are hopeful that something might change from now on. We are sad and angry. We want to live a normal life just like any other human being. It’s very simple. Wish they could hear us.
I just want to imagine a life in Iran where we are sitting at the beach with our bikinis and drinking beer. Something this simple. A normal life…
Women, life, freedom.
Another women echoed this sentiment:
Iran is in trouble, I hope freedom for all.
We are tired of all the past years of dictatorship…Wish us freedom.
So what can we do?
Listen to — and amplify — Iranian voices. They are not silent — but they are silenced.
Read what they say, and share their voices — especially as Iranian voices are being restricted. Let’s not let their cause fall victim to news cycles and social amnesia.
And check out this list of further readings for those who want to know more.
On Tuesday September 27, Maryam wrote:
Thank you for listening to me these few days because I am far from Iran, these messages helped me a lot to feel that I am the voice of the people.
We stand with everyone everywhere actively resisting patriarchy and fighting for freedom — for women, and for all.
Sisters in Iran, we’re with you. Fight on.
The essay originally appeared in Medium.com.
Lina AbiRafeh is a Global women's rights expert, humanitarian aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories.
October 3, 2022
Sep 16, 2022: “Morality Police” in Iran killed 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for not wearing a “proper hijab.”
Sep 18, 2022: Thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest Mahsa’s death.
Sep 19, 2022: Iranian actresses and activists removed their hijab to protest police brutality
Sep 19 2022: President Raeesi said in an interview with CBS that women in Iran wear hijab by choice, as a spontaneous act.
Sep 19, 2022: Protests escalated all around the country with the slogan: Zān, Zendegī, Azadī (Woman, Life, Freedom)
Sep 20, 2022: President Raeesi traveled to the US for the UNGA, where he spoke about human rights.
Sep 20, 2022: Protests escalated further: Zān, Zendegī, Azadī
Sept 22, 2022: The Iranian actresses and activists who removed their hijab were arrested.
Sep 22, 2022: More people were arrested. The government shut down the internet. In New York City, Raeesi refused to give an interview to Christiane Amanpour, a CNN international anchor, because she refused to wear the hijab.
Sep 23-28, 2022: Protests surged even more: Zān, Zendegī, Azadī.
Sep 28, 2022: A young singer, Shervin Hajipour, sang a song titled “Because of..,” a combination of people’s tweets about the reasons for these protests.
Sep 29, 2022: Protests continued to intensify: Zān, Zendegī, Azadī.
Sep 29, 2022: Shervin’s song was deleted from Instagram, and he was arrested.
Sep 29-Oct 2, 2022: Protests continued to spread and grow: Zān, Zendegī, Azadī.
This list can be continued endlessly with police brutality and Iranian bravery. In the above 200 words of objective journaling, you can understand what has been happening in Iran these past weeks.
On September 16th, Iran's "morality police" killed Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old girl who had traveled with her brother from Saqqez, a city west of Iran, to Tehran, the capital. At first, she was arrested for "violating the hijab law." Her brother pleaded with the police, saying, "We are foreigners here. We do not know what we should do. Please!” Regardless, the police arrested Mahsa and suggested her brother go to the morality police station to find out what to do next. Her brother arrived there just in time to see the ambulance carrying Mahsa’s body to the hospital. The police said she had a sudden heart failure at the station, but the eyewitnesses claimed she was beaten and that her head hit the side of a police car. Despite all these narratives and the medical evidence, the police, like always, denied their brutality and announced other reasons for her death. Sadly, Mahsa died after two days in a coma due to cerebral hemorrhage and stroke.
The compulsory hijab has been practiced in Iran for 44 years now, a law that violates not only women's rights but also human rights. The philosophy of the "morality police" is to walk the streets and compel women to wear headscarves and more modest clothing in public. If the women refuse, they are arrested, taken to the police station, threatened, and forced to sign a commitment that they will not repeat this “villainous act.” As these forces have become increasingly strict over the past few years, women's protests have increased, demanding liberation and justice.
Mahsa, however, was not even a protester. She had just come to Tehran for a short trip when she was killed. An innocent 22-year-old girl was killed by police forces simply because she was a woman. You might think that seeing such brutality and injustice for so many years would get you used to it, but that is not true. Brutality and injustice will always be unbearable, and every new atrocity will raise questions about humanity and freedom. Mahsa's murder has shocked not only Iranians but the entire world.
It's been 16 days since Mahsa's killing, and protests against government brutality are growing not only across Iran, but all around the world with protestors standing in solidarity with Iranians. In a symbolic act of resistance, women are burning their headscarves and cutting their hair to show that they are standing up against years of oppression. Their photographs and videos are all over the internet, and you can read sorrow, pain, rage, and hatred on their faces. The meaningful slogan that is reverberating all over is Zān, Zendegī, Azadī (Woman, Life, Liberty). Unfortunately, the government’s response to these protests for basic human rights has not been peaceful, and with the internet shutdown, it is hard to get precise news of the going-on in Iran.
One of my friends recently asked me what we should do as Iranians living abroad, and as people who are still able to “speak up.” The question came from the guilt you often feel about being free to speak your mind, while your own people suffer in their country. We, the Iranian people, are filled with rage and hatred. As my friend told me, she has not even been able to cry, just wandering aimlessly with no connection to her family and friends back in Iran. I have been the same way, I replied, because rage and anger are stronger emotions than sorrow and sadness. We may not be weeping and mourning at this time, but our fists are in the air. We want to raise our voices; we want to stand in solidarity with our sisters back in Iran and fight alongside them.
This happens again and again: A body, a woman's body, threatens the state. Now all her sisters have arisen to bury her body, and along with her body, all the oppression they have suffered in the last 44 years. As Antigone said, there is no return; WE follow death alive. No matter that the Iranian state has not said anything, they have felt the danger. At the moment that I write these words, the state has kept ignoring us in their news and speeches. The Supreme Leader, who is the head of state and the highest political and religious authority of the Islamic Republic of Iran, has said nothing about all these protests. The only reaction of the President is the statement saying, “Iran must deal decisively with those who oppose the country's security and tranquility.” This decisiveness has meant more arrests, more beatings, more killings.
Yet there is something different this time around: the movement is uniquely feminine. There have been many protests during the last 44 years in Iran over inflation, oppression, unpaid wages, and fraudulent elections, among other issues. But this time, the protest is not for a better life, but for “life,” or let me say for “bare life.” Women are the protagonists here; however, surprisingly for a traditional society like Iran, men were with them in the streets from day one. Žižek’s response to the movement is apt:
Zān, Zendegī, Azadī is very different from MeToo in Western countries: it mobilizes millions of ordinary women, and it is directly linked to the struggle of all, men included – there is no anti-masculine tendency in it, as is often the case with the Western feminism. Women and men are together in it; the enemy is religious fundamentalism supported by state terror.
Men who participate in Zān, Zendegī, Azadī know well that the struggle for women’s rights is also the struggle for their own freedom: the oppression of women is not a special case. It is the moment in which the oppression that permeates the entire society is most visible.
I am writing these words on a dark night on 2nd October, when earlier in Tehran, at Sharif University, many Iranian students were surrounded on campus by police forces. Many of them have now been arrested or injured (or even killed?), but no one knows what exactly is going on there. All we have are some horrifying videos of police cruelty, some scared voices and texts from students asking for help from inside the campus, and many worried parents and friends. Kant once argued for the progressive development of human reason and rationality. Now, in 2022, on a very gloomy Sunday, at a coffee shop in Buffalo, I want to question this claim of the great Kant by bringing to the surface all this inhumanity against people fighting for their basic human rights.
Don’t forget that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Don’t forget that if we stay silent against this injustice, we are condoning it. Don’t forget that freedom, justice, and equality are the demands of every human being. Don’t forget her name: Mahsa Amini!
 The reference is to Antigone.
 The best university for natural sciences and engineering in Iran.
 Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View (1784). Translation by Lewis White Beck. From Immanuel Kant, “On History,” The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1963.
 Martin Luther King
Fae Hajhosseini, is a 4th year PhD Candidate in the department of Comparative Literature at UB. Currently, she is writing her dissertation on the comparative study of the concept of the "secret" in modern continental philosophy, and Persian mysticism.
June 3, 2022
With great sadness, we at the Gender Institute mourn the passing of one of our co-founders, Dr. Isabel Marcus, on October 31, 2021. Dr. Marcus first came to UB in 1982, where she focused on labor and family law, shifting to women’s rights, gender equality, and international human rights in later years. She was a strong activist, especially for women’s rights. In 1997, building on years of planning and dedication by the Graduate Group for Feminist Studies at UB, Dr. Marcus co-founded the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender. Together, Dr. Marcus and her co-director Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Acara built a legacy of emphasizing feminist scholarship with an interdisciplinary focus, providing a space for activists, educators, and scholars to pursue and present their passions. Throughout her lifetime, Dr. Marcus continued to promote women’s rights and gender equality, in the US and abroad, and her legacy continues in the work of the Gender Institute today.
At the memorial service hosted by the UB Law School on May 11, 2022, our current Gender Institute director, Dr. Carrie Bramen, as well as one of our past directors, Dr. Barbara Bono, spoke on Dr. Marcus’ legacy:
Carrie Tirado Bramen, Director of the UB Gender Institute and Professor of English, UB
Thank you, Dean Abramovsky.
I am Carrie Tirado Bramen, Director of the UB Gender Institute and professor of English. I am grateful to Lisa Mueller for all the work that she did behind the scenes to make today’s event possible and I would like to thank the Law School for reaching out to the Gender Institute to collaborate on today’s memorial.
For those of you who do not know, Isabel Marcus was the first co-director of the Gender Institute, or as it was known then (and is still known officially today)—as the Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender—when it was founded in 1997. She co-directed the Institute with Peggy Arcara, Professor of Pharmacology and Therapeutics in the UB School of Medicine, until 2003.
I want to say at the outset that it’s a real privilege to serve as director of the Gender Institute and to carry on the legacy of feminist leadership at UB, which Isabel Marcus and Peggy Arcara inaugurated twenty-five years ago. The Gender Institute continues to be the only Institute in the entire SUNY system devoted to research on women, gender, and sexuality from a broadly interdisciplinary, intersectional, and international perspective.
Inspired in part by her own graduate work at UC Berkeley in African Studies and later with her Fulbright and other fellowships to Eastern Europe, Isabel played an important role in making sure that the Gender Institute had an international scope from the beginning. To honor this global tradition, Professor Kari Winter, my predecessor as Director, created over ten years ago the Isabel S. Marcus International Research Fellowship, which has funded doctoral research on a range of topics from care work among migrant women workers in Lebanon to contemporary coalition-building between Kurdish and Turkish women. Our most recent recipient of this award, Victoria Nachreiner from the Department of History, is with us today and will speak about her upcoming research in Africa this summer.
When I mentioned this award and the legacy of Isabel Marcus to our new Vice-Provost for International Education, Dr. Nojin Kwak, he immediately doubled this fellowship and made a multi-year commitment to co-sponsor it. Isabel would have been delighted with this collaboration because she was the 2012 recipient of UB’s Award for Contributions to International Education. I am also grateful to those, including many colleagues, who have generously donated to this fellowship.
But Isabel Marcus contributed far more to the Gender Institute than either fellowship in her honor or awards can describe. Isabel was a true original, a force of nature who was fearlessly and unapologetically herself, at a time when women had to conform to an impossible standard of Leave-it-to-Beaver perfection, a WASP ideal that no woman could attain. I always enjoyed listening to Isabel tell stories. She was one of the great storytellers—I remember hanging out in her beautiful apartment having tea for three hours listening to stories, such as the excitement surrounding the English translation in the 1950s of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex—and how the undergraduates at Barnard read and debated this book until late into the night. The same was true a few years later with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which created another cultural earthquake among women of her generation.
Her gift for storytelling was just one of the many ways that Isabel created community wherever she went. She drew people to her. I remember when I was first hired at UB and came to visit campus in 1994. There was a reception on a cold January evening in Claire Kahane’s home on Norwood Avenue—a house crowded with people. And who was there to greet me and to welcome me to UB? Isabel, of course. I was not in her department, not in her School, or her field, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that a junior colleague had arrived and she was going to be there to welcome me on a cold winter’s night.
That is one reason among many why the retirement luncheon we had for Isabel in October of 2019 was so special. Working with Michael Boucai and Judith Olin in the Law School, we hosted a luncheon that drew friends and colleagues from all over; it was a reunion of sorts of that same feminist community that greeted me in 1994.
And I just want to conclude by talking briefly about my last collaboration with Isabel, because it is one that we need to remember today more than ever. I attended a luncheon downtown that Karen King had organized and I found myself seated next to Isabel and Senator Gillibrand—as well as one of the keynote speakers at the event Dr. Jamila Perritt. Dr. Perritt, a Washington, DC-based doctor who is currently President of Physicians for Reproductive Health, spoke powerfully on the meaning of reproductive justice. And Isabel suggested during lunch that we bring her back to Buffalo as a speaker at the Gender Institute. I thought it was a great idea. And so a few months later in February 2018, the Gender Institute held a full-day symposium on reproductive justice—featuring Dr. Perritt, as well as Dr. Katharine Morrison, and activists from Planned Parenthood and other organizations in WNY. The event marked the 20th anniversary of Dr. Slepian’s murder in Amherst, NY. And Isabel gave the concluding remarks.
As we all know, it looks as if Roe v Wade is about to be overturned and if Isabel were here with us today—and I very much wish she were—I know where she would be: on the frontlines fighting for justice and encouraging others to do the same. May her memory be a blessing and an inspiration as the struggle continues.
Dr. Barbara Bono, former Gender Institute Director
My husband, historian and feminist Jim Bono, and I came to UB and to Buffalo in 1984. We bought our Parkside home from Isabel. She had been there only two years after her time teaching at the University of Texas, Austin. Now she was downsizing in anticipation of her two children going to college.
Isabel had only had time to half-colonize this huge three-story Parkside home, to convert its mid-century avocado and mustard palette to dramatic and subtle mauves, greys, reds, and whites, and to plant three trumpeter vines on the side fence.
I remember her elegant Breuer Wassily chairs and grey silk sectional; her gorgeous middle eastern red and black textiles and weavings, derived from her already-extensive human rights travel abroad; and her startling Habermas poster with its raised fist.
But she had done nothing with the dining room, and one of her daughter’s several boyfriends had left the kitchen wainscotting only half-stripped! Besides the home, which has been our great delight, she left us the couch and the recipe for an awful diet consisting of cabbage soup and bananas, but guaranteed to lose you twenty pounds in two weeks!
She had also already made the house a refuge for Polish scholars breaching the Iron Curtain to work in the United States. And she continued that practice in the upstairs apartment of her much smaller but equally elegant Allentown home.
She was one of an interdisciplinary group of feminist scholars—mostly my age or a bit older—who welcomed us to the city and read, published, taught, and traveled together—Ellen Dubois, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Liz Lapovsky Kennedy, Liz Weston, Regina Grol, Ruth Meyerwicz, Lois Weis, Lucinda Finley, Claire Kahane, Carol Zemel, Diane Bennett, Pat Shelley—many of whom who went on a pioneering trip to Jagiellonian University and the sites of the Polish concentration camps well before the Berlin Wall came down.
Isabel herself always travelled to eastern Europe and the high Caucasus to teach and advance the causes of feminism and women’s rights, helping establish and strengthen that wonderful tradition of our many graduate students from there, and she finally bought her condominium on the top floor of the Campanelle so that she could look out over all of Buffalo and also simply lock the door and go abroad at any time.
She encouraged the Graduate Feminist Research Group, and together with Peggy Arcara of Pharmacology became the first Co-Director of the University-wide Institute for Research and Education on Women (IREWG, or the Gender Institute) when it was first established in 1997, even while concurrently Chairing the beleaguered Department of Women’s Studies.
By then I was tenured and a Gender Institute Executive Committee member, and together we established an annual campus-wide fall Gender Week which annually coordinated gender-themed activities from most of the academic units. Besides getting the all-male Buffalo Chips acapella group to open the festivities in the Student Union and staging, among many other events, a two-day teach-in and poetry reading in the cavernous Clemens 120, we brought distinguished keynoters such as Dr. Sandra Morgan, Director of the Global Center for Women and Justice; local novelist Connie Porter, author of the Addie books in the “American Girl” series; and native American political and ecological activist and Green Party nominee for Vice President of the United States Winona LaDuke. For Gender Week Isabel and I also wrote a play, “A Matter of Respect,” dramatizing the problem of sexual harassment in colleges and Universities, with noted local actor Phil Knoezer playing the slick harasser, which we put on in Katherine Cornell Theatre with help from Darleen Pickering Hummert and the Theatre for Social Change.
In 2003 Isabel asked me to succeed her as Co-Director of the Gender Institute and didn’t just offer me counsel and advice, but also a basket of notebooks, soaps, lotions, and other soothing self-care items. A small tough woman, you’ll all remember her feisty style, which featured black pants and tight red and black leather jackets.
Isabel never ceased to work and advocate, even though she had a severe struggle with breast cancer, and resumed her travel as soon as she could. It was a great shock to learn that she needed memory care near the end of her incredibly productive and worthy life, but a great blessing to know that her children were there for her.
In these days of horrors in the middle east and eastern Europe and systemic threats to women’s rights here in the United States, we miss her more and more. My trumpeter vines, now grown to a fifty-foot long, seven-foot-high fence, with trunks and branches larger than my arms, remind me daily of her knotty strength.
May 16, 2022
Gender Matters Episode 14
May 16, 2022
Produced by Surabhi Pant
Special Production Assistance from Omar Brown,
Office of Media Services, University at Buffalo Libraries
Theme music: Liturgy of the Street by Shane Ivers
On this episode, guest Sameera Abbas and host Surabhi Pant discuss how literature serves as a tool in understanding the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism in South Asia, with a focus on Pakistan. Sameera discusses the mechanism through which women's labor is rendered precarious in South Asia. How has linguistic preference shaped Sameera's academic work, and how the lives of women in Afghanistan shapes the lives of women across the western border of Pakistan.
Sameera Abbas is a PhD candidate and a Fulbright fellow in the Department of Comparative literature at University at Buffalo. She is currently on sabbatical leave from her position as a teaching faculty in the Department of English and Applied Linguistics at University of Peshawar where she has taught different literary and linguistic courses from 2008-2018. Sameera is working on exploring the configurations of female labor in Pakistani literary and cultural representations and how women’s labor in the subcontinent has been shaped by colonial and capitalist interests. She is interested in investigating if and how the local literatures and cultural specimens of the pre-partition India and post partition Pakistan have been co-opted by the colonial and capitalist projects to create and sustain the hierarchies of gender and class.
May 16, 2022
Oral histories represent living and lived histories. At the very least, they are a transformational process in which interviewees remember and dialogue about their subjective historical knowledge. During these last four months, as an Archival Creators fellow for the South Asian American Digital Archive, I collected oral history interviews and archival objects from South Asian American Zoroastrians who’ve migrated to the United States in the past fifty years. My main goals for documenting these stories are academic as well as personal interest in migration stories: I have also shared them here. One of the question this project asks is how minority religions are shaped by gender in transcultural contexts. In 1965, after many migration quotas were abolished, the number of South Asian-born migrants increased, which contributed to Zoroastrian mass migrations (most Zoroastrians in the sub-continent identify as Parsis, a population of Persian origin). They left behind their “home” countries and settled down throughout North America and the Global North for economic opportunity and security reasons.
In specific, I interviewed mostly female Zoroastrians from ages thirty to eighty who shared memories of their childhood homes in Pakistan and India, during and after the 1947 Partition, and their journeys to the U.S. They now reside in various states across America and have deepened their community ties by participating and volunteering their time during community gatherings, such as Nowruz celebrations or teaching children at Sunday school. They are writers, artists, journalists, professors, retired, priestesses, and they all have a story to tell. Some of the themes I’d like to highlight from the stories of Zoroastrian South Asian women are about interfaith marriages, female priests in religious ceremonies, and a growing number of LGBTQ Zoroastrians openly talking about their experience of coming out.
Growing up in a Zoroastrian community in Karachi, Pakistan, intermarriage and even conversion was “looked down upon,” especially by orthodox Zoroastrians. However, the interviewees I’ve conversed with turn away from this orthodoxy and share memorable stories of their wedding ceremonies instead. There is an increase in numbers of inter-faith marriages in the Zoroastrian community, as my small pool of interviewees will demonstrate, many who’ve married in the United States have a non-Zoroastrian spouse. For older generations, it may be a concern regarding the dwindling population, but for others it is an adaptation of traditions, particularly in relation to the marriage ceremony and the infusion of Zoroastrian traditions with the cultural identities of their spouses in America. Two of Parsi women highlighted their marriage ceremony as quite a memorable and meaningful moment in their lives, where Zoroastrian priests conducted the ceremony and translated the Avestan prayers into English for them, their spouses, and their wedding guests; in this practice, they even felt more connected to what the prayers meant to them and their Zoroastrian families.
Some of the interviewees shared that they found it easier to accept and adapt these rituals in the United States rather than their home countries, especially those from Pakistan. One interviewee shared their experience of coming out to family members and their local Zoroastrian community in Texas. It was such a delight to hear their memories of being accepted for their sexual orientation and for community members to join in their marriage celebrations. Another story I’d like to highlight is of an Indian woman who migrated to New York and is now a Mobedyar, Zoroastrian priestess, who amongst all male priests offered prayers during the Nowruz celebrations at the Dar-e-Mehr, Zoroastrian temple. The certificate to be a Mobedyar does not define her priesthood. Since many years of her migrating to the U.S., the interviewee has performed Zoroastrian ceremonies prayers at home and at the community centers.
In the process of collecting these recordings, I saw myself reflected in many of the stories of the interviewees’ first days in America. I learned a lot from paying attention to their experiences of working, parenting, and actively being involved in community outreach. At the end of most interviews, the interviewees tended to apologize for talking too long and for sharing unnecessary details of their lives. I reminded them what they share is so special, not only for me, but for future Zoroastrian communities, especially women and those who do not abide by strict traditions upheld by orthodox groups. Their stories will provide current and future generations with a social and cultural history to connect with and to lean on. This is an ongoing collaborative project; one that takes into account its community members and their active participation in the authorship, editing, and collection of archival objects that represent their stories. I plan to continue this project in the near future as there are many more stories to tell. More importantly, I hope to incorporate oral histories into the courses I teach at UB as a way to investigate the social role of oral storytelling and their impact upon community building and healing.
Sharmeen Mehri (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a third year Ph.D. international student from Pakistan in the English department at the University at Buffalo, with interests in post-colonialism, critical archival studies and Global Anglophone literature. Her current project is funded by The Archival Creators Fellowship Program, which is made possible with grants from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Her project will seek to examine and preserve the migration experiences of Zoroastrian South Asians to the United States.
May 9, 2022
Gender Matters Episode 13
May 9, 2022
Produced by Surabhi Pant
Special Production Assistance from Omar Brown,
Office of Media Services, University at Buffalo Libraries
Theme music: Liturgy of the Street by Shane Ivers
On this episode, host Surabhi Pant speaks with Dr. Karen King, Erie County Commissioner of Public Advocacy, Katie Kicinski, doctoral candidate in Global Gender and Sexuality Studies, and their students.
Dr. King and Kicinski discuss their collaboration on a Women's Studies Internship between the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women and the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies. The internship provides students the opportunity to develop public policy briefs related to women and gender in Erie County., this year's theme being - Child Care Costs & Caregiving. We talk about the description of the course for future students, the challenges of bringing theory to public policy, the bridge between between public service and academia, and making positive change through policy. Our conversation with students is about their experiences in this internship course.
The internship is available for advanced undergraduate and Master's students through GGS 496/GGS 560 and is open to non-GGSS majors who are interested in gender and public policy.
Dr. Karen King - is the Commissioner of Public Advocacy for Erie County and the Executive Director of the Erie County Commission the Status of Women. The Commission works to provide resources to the women and girls of Erie County, to ensure that they participate fully in matters that have an impact on their lives, and toward the elimination of all gender based discrimination as well as the promotion of women’s economic, societal and political empowerment.
Dr. King has served as an adjunct graduate faculty member in the Higher Education Student Affairs Administration Program at Buffalo State College and in the Graduate School of Education at the University at Buffalo. Additionally, she has developed and taught courses and conducted numerous workshops on popular media culture, social justice advocacy, multicultural competency, privilege, gender, race and class. Dr. King’s research interests include examining the role gender, race, class, and popular culture play in informing women’s and girl’s identity development and access to opportunity.
She serves on the New York State Council for Women and Girls, the Board of the Family Justice Center, the Executive Committee of the University at Buffalo Gender Institute, The Minority, Women Business Enterprise Utilization Advisory Board Members, and the County of Erie and City of Buffalo Joint Certification Committee.
Katie Kicinski - is a PhD candidate in the Global Gender Studies department at the University at Buffalo where her research is focused on contraceptive autonomy and understanding women’s health care experiences and access to preferred methods. She has been working in the field of health education/health promotion for over 11 years as a health engagement program manager for a local health maintenance organization, as well as an adjunct faculty member in the Health Promotion Department at Daemen College and School of Education and Human Services at Canisius College.
Katie also serves as a Section Councilor for the Sexual and Reproductive Health unit of the American Public Health Association which focuses on ensuring that reproductive justice is supported by public health through maintaining and updating reproductive policies and representing the sexual and reproductive health section to other areas within the American Public Health Association.
In addition to pursuing her doctorate, Katie also has a certification as a Health Education Specialist (CHES) in addition to her BS in Health Care Studies-Community Health from Daemen College and a Masters of Public Health from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Forthcoming in Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy.
January 26, 2022
Mithy Sanyal did not embark on writing Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo so as to provide a historical account of the development of sexual violence. Rather, this is a book, the author explains, “about what we talk about when we talk about rape” (2). By “we,” she first means all of us, whose inherited narratives of femininity and masculinity have normalized sexual violence for much of its history, but also, secondly, feminists, who, in challenging the “rape myths” through which rape appeared on the public agenda, went on to allegedly create myths of their own making. Rape, she concludes, is “a topic where nothing is self-evident” (2), and she sets out to show us why.
This book seeks to turn on its head much of what we thought we knew about rape, mostly in relation to the role gender plays in its perpetuation. As such, Sanyal’s approach evokes Michel Foucault’s controversial call for the decriminalization of rape as a sexual crime. Foucault was concerned that defining rape as a sexual crime would maintain sexuality as a core feature of people’s identities in a context where the social was already unduly saturated with the sexual. According to the philosopher, since the nineteenth century, people had been so preoccupied with checking, controlling, confessing, and managing sex and sexuality that all kinds of other inequities had gone unaddressed as a result of this obsession. He saw the singling out of rape as a sexual crime as a “ruse of power.
For Sanyal, the same potentially detrimental outcome is true of many responses to rape today, including feminist ones. The author seems primarily invested in highlighting the contradictions that have arisen from feminist anti-rape discourse’s determination to expose sexual violence and the responses to it. For instance, she points out that discussing sexual violence in relation to a violated femininity itself ironically reproduces stereotypes of gender, namely of men as aggressors and women as victims. According to world statistics, men are 150 percent more likely to become victims of violent crimes than women. So why aren’t men then warned, Sanyal asks, about being potential victims of violence? Why isn’t manhood associated with vulnerability in the same way rape statistics associate victimization with women? Her (implicit) answer to these questions: because anti-rape discourse is a seamless and unaware extension of the stereotype of women as weak and powerless rather than a genuinely oppositional movement.
Sometimes, contradictions are less contradictory than they first appear. One of the reasons why male violence has not led to a discussion of masculinity as vulnerable may simply be because violence aimed at men is predominantly perpetuated by men, not women. Therefore, it would be difficult to see vulnerability as a defining aspect of the experience of hegemonic masculinity since it cuts across the gender line. That social commentators may want to be careful not to reproduce stereotypes of femininity or masculinity in their responses to sexual violence should not come to mean that the power relations those stereotypes and constructions continue to enact can be evacuated through a wishful denial of their effectivity.
According to Sanyal, feminist representations of the crime of rape inevitably reproduce the idea that women are its passive victims and men the inevitable aggressors: “Rape is the most gendered of all crimes. It’s also the crime that genders us the most” (8)… the discourse around rape still genders us by teaching us how many genders there are, (namely) two—victims and perpetrators—as well as how to act according to our gender and how the genders interact. Rape is by no means the only source of gender information, but nowhere else do we gender so relentlessly” (129). It is unclear why she identifies “victims” and “perpetrators” as “genders” here, since those are neither gendered identities nor character traits but outcomes of actions and events. To Sanyal, and it is again unclear why, rape in anti-rape discourse is “always something only men do to only women” (132). This is confusing all the more so since the vulnerability of children including boys to sexual violence has been part and parcel of feminist and anti-rape discourse for much longer than the absence of its mention in this book suggests.
Sanyal’s account of “how we talk about rape” (2) spans from Lucretia—whose legendary rape and suicide was said to be the downfall of the last Roman king—to Tarzan, the Roman Polanski case, Title IX and its impact on American campuses, and finally second-wave feminism and #metoo (which, she observes, did not lead to male victims coming forward, a gap for which she seems to fault feminism’s monopoly of anti-rape discourse rather than statistics or the stereotypes of masculinity that would discourage men from speaking out). Sanyal further traces the persistence of stereotypes of femininity as devoid of sexual agency and of masculinity as “fueled by phallic fire” (11) in Ovid and Aristotle, Byron, Darwin and the Victorian sexologist treatises by Kraft-Ebbing and Ellis. She finally concludes by placing feminist anti-rape discourse in the same lineage as these problematic and canonical representations. In other words, that would mean that the women’s movement that set out to resist “rape culture” has somehow ironically, inadvertently, and repeatedly fallen into the trap of reproducing the very same assumptions of female passivity and male aggression it originally set out to contest.
For Sanyal, the statistics that show that 90% of incidences of rape are perpetuated by men and 90% of victims are women are, remarkably, part of this same problem of reification. She then works to debunk the numbers by citing anecdotal evidence and relies on anecdotes and specific studies in which women are shown to be the aggressors (of other women), and men the victims (of other men). For instance, she argues that the statistics of male victimization increase exponentially, going from 10% to 38% depending on definitions of rape as penetrative or not (125). But that women can be aggressors too (as per Laura Stemple’s study of prison inmates) or that men are the victims of violent crime including sexual crimes (perpetuated mostly by men) does not undo or cancel out the previous statistics under scrutiny: the awareness that male-on-male rape exists in addition to male-on-female rapes only reinforces the reality of an aggressive form of hegemonic masculinity; it certainly does not debunk it. Similarly, that female-on-female assault does occur (Sanyal’s example here is of incidences of rape in women’s prison) does not diminish but rather adds to the rate of female victims; nor does it absolve hegemonic masculinity of accountability or cancel out the number of rapes perpetuated by men. It does show, however, that some women too—although not as often and presumably not the same women as those who are victimized—can and do internalize hierarchical assumptions about masculinity and femininity, that in turn make some of them identify with and support a sexist or racist structure at the expense of a subordinated form of otherness. To give another parallel example, that there are women holding governmental offices does not undermine the fact that leadership in politics remains predominantly a male affair, nor does it mean that in bemoaning the statistical imbalance, we would be implying that women are weak or to blame for the prevailing and continuing inequity.
It is not a pre-existing vulnerability (of femininity) that sets the stage for women’s or men’s rape. It is rape and “rape culture,” the entitlement of a particular form of toxic and normative masculinity that is sometimes ventriloquized across sexual difference that creates the condition of vulnerability that may or may not be felt at a psychological level by the actors involved. In other words, the vulnerability that derives from the act of rape needs to be distinguished from any form of psychological vulnerability that may or may not precede it and that may or may not result from it. It is the act of rape itself, not how women or individuals react to it or fail to do so that defines the form of finite vulnerability rape produces, one not to be confused with passivity. To refrain from discussing the statistical reality of women as victims of rape in fear of reproducing stereotypes of femininity as passive assumes an inherent acquiescence to a stereotypical understanding of femininity to begin with, not to mention that it subordinates a legal understanding of victimization to a psychologized one. The fudging of different instances of vulnerabilities itself is what defines anti-feminist arguments that seek to make feminism more accountable for rape culture than patriarchal legacies themselves. Similarly, that women can be aggressive may be, to some, the revelation Sanyal wants it to be, but it will surprise no feminist who has long taken the lessons of gender as construction to heart.
Some time spent volunteering at a rape crisis center would have reassured Sanyal that male victims of rape have long been recognized, supported and provided services in the feminist movement. Their existence neither undermines the reality of a structural and subordinate femininity nor the reality of a hegemonic, white, normative, structural masculinity from which men and women both suffer. The awareness that men are victims of rape has led to alliance, not division. It is striking to note that Sanyal discusses men as victims to defend “men, masculinity, and myths” as if masculinity had not long been broken down into its different manifestations and permutations (as toxic masculinity, hegemonic, nonhegemonic, black, normative, nonnormative, trans or queer masculinity, etc.). Sanyal’s triumphant assertion that “If femininity isn’t a biological constant, neither is masculinity” will leave any feminist reading her book deeply puzzled: we would think that by now, the confusion of either masculinity or femininity with the biological had long been debunked and settled.
There is, in Sanyal’s approach, a slippage between rape and the response to it (however flawed the latter may be), as if the two were communicative vessels. Representation and its effects have indeed to be weighed carefully in terms of the inadvertent messages they may carry and reinforce. But to promote such careful consideration is a far cry from claiming that those representations create the reality they set out to address. Why doesn’t masculinity get associated with vulnerability when men are 150 percent more likely to become victims of violent crimes than women? Again, because in cases of vulnerable masculinity, the culprit is predominantly the same aggressive masculinity whose existence Sanyal’s question aims to challenge, a form of masculinity that is ironically often violent precisely due to its own perceived and resented sense of vulnerability. The problem is not one of feminists declining to view men as vulnerable but of an assumed superiority or resentful vulnerability being played out through the act of rape.
In other words, despite Sanyal’s formulation, vulnerability is not the opposite of aggression, far from it; it sometimes causes the latter. The role gender difference plays in the rape script is true of the sexual violence women experience but also of the forms of violence and vulnerability men encounter, predominantly in the hands of other men. In other words, instead of trying to undo the workings of the gendered binary in relation to rape by reframing its effectivity as a function of discourse rather than of its actual workings, it would behoove her to undo it in relation to a potential imagined futurity rather than a backward-looking and revisionist finger-pointing.
Let us remember, for instance, and before proclaiming that the vulnerability of masculinity has been obscured by feminists eager to cause rather than solve the rape problem, that to black feminists, as well as black mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, black masculinity has never not been a vulnerable form of masculinity. Sanyal’s questioning of a monolithic masculinity’s association with aggression (in the name of some putative sense of fairness) amounts to a denial of white masculinity’s violent and murderous history in relation to blackness. Indeed, any mention of an unspecified form of masculinity inevitably evokes its white and heteronormative configuration in history. Neither does the fact that white femininity was called upon to be complicitous with the criminalization of blackness absolve white masculinity of the aggression it has carried out in white women’s name. As Angela Davis explains in her masterful Women, Race & Class, the first wave of lynchings after the Civil War did not follow from accusations of rape perpetuated by black men against white women (there were simply none!) but rather, from made-up stories about black male rapists that were used to make lynching more acceptable after the murders of black men were met with outrage and horror by white neighbors. Yes, while it is true that white women often failed to stand up to the atrocities that would be committed in their name throughout the history of the imbrication or race and rape, it is nonetheless white masculinity that needs to be held accountable first and foremost. The assumption that the feminist association of masculinity with aggression is based on a mere rhetorical sleight of hand designed to put female victimization over that of its male victims is simply beyond the pale. So is the assumption that the effects of feminist anti-rape discourse could be as detrimental if not more so than those of white masculinist aggression.
It is also a logical fallacy to claim that when feminists speak against the victimization of women, their consciousness raising necessarily implies women’s passivity or lack of sexual agency. In fact, the very same feminists that Sanyal (like her source, Katie Roiphe) is blaming for (inadvertently or emphatically) reproducing stereotypes of femininity very openly defended and upheld women’s sexual agency by fighting for the establishment of a “rape shield law.” The law ensured that women’s prior sexual history could no longer be used in court as evidence that a rape did not occur. Feminists wanted to make sure that the victim’s sexual activity with one or more men could not be cited as a reason to dismiss the crime, that “yes to one did not mean yes to all.” For Sanyal to conclude that in exposing the gendered nature of rape, feminists necessarily reproduce stereotypes of female vulnerability is as absurd as claiming that disallowing any mention of the victim’s previous sexual history in court detracts from women’s sexual agency. Not everything means what Sanyal and so-called feminists like Roiphe want their statistics to mean, and in this case in particular, the book’s critique of feminist anti-rape struggles as complicit with--and duplicative of--the very mindset that has supported “rape culture” throughout history is wrong-headed at best and misogynistic at worst.
Sanyal seems to assume that any attack on the paternalism and self-entitlement of toxic masculinity or of its role in perpetuating the subordination of otherness perpetuates a restrictive view of what women can do. Instead, I argue that such a claim amounts to reproducing a form of binary thinking: it assumes that a critique of toxic masculinity cannot take place without reproducing a finite set of psychologized assumptions about the women who are subjected to forms of violence. As for Sanyal’s protracted need to defend masculinity as potentially vulnerable, its rationale simply escapes this reviewer. Men as vulnerable, yes, of course, but “masculinity” as a monolithic category that requires our understanding, no, just no. The form of normative masculinity that grounds rape culture is necessarily aggressive, via the enactment of the act of rape itself, whether there is a pre-existing sense of power or belligerence, or an absence thereof. In fact, a debilitating or internalized sense of vulnerability rather than an aggressive temperament may itself be a motivator for the form of aggression the rape act stages. A form of masculinity that requires the repeated re-enactment of rape in culture is necessarily one that is vulnerable, in a terrorized form that cannot think of its existence outside of the subordination of otherness through which it defines itself. This is the norm of masculinity that far from needing a defense would have to be supplanted by nonnormative forms of masculine interdependency and selfhood. So why spend such inordinate amounts of energy and fact-twisting insights to reframe normative masculinity as less toxic than it truly is?
Sanyal’s discussion of Title IX on campuses is particularly telling in this respect. Following Laura Kipnis, she argues that the accused are often treated unfairly because the standard of proof demanded by the Department of Education in Title IX cases is very low, the accusation itself often functioning as the only evidence required to prove an offense. As a result, she argues that Title IX legislation and its implementation have actually increased a sense of insecurity on campus, not the opposite. But perhaps most importantly, she emphasizes that “the premise on which most Title IX investigations are conducted doesn’t break at all with the gender scripts of women as passive recipients of men’s violent desires. As a result, they are paternalistic toward women in the name of “protecting them” (105).
Different statistics will necessarily throw a different light on Kipnis’s assessment of Title IX as unfair to the accused. Indeed, the 2014 Senate report released by Senator Claire McCaskill showed that more than 40 percent of U.S colleges and universities had not conducted a single sexual assault investigation in the past five years and more than 20% of schools had not investigated all of the sexual assault incidents they had reported to the Department of Education. In 22 percent of schools, the athletic department was given oversight for sexual violence cases involving student athletes—something that in Senator McCaskill’s words identified as “borderline outrageous.” What is more, a Huffington Post investigation found that fewer than one third of campus sexual assault cases ended in expulsion for the perpetrators. According to the Rape and Incest National Network (RAINN), factoring in unreported rapes, only about 3% of rapists ever serve a day in prison. Certainly, these statistics do not disprove the point that Title IX may indeed have been misused in the ways Kipnis relates in her book (as are bullying and academic freedom policies sometimes), but they are meant to question the assumption that such misappropriation is necessarily due to the strict adherence to--rather than dismissal of--the feminist principles that led to the establishment of Title IX.
Here are some truths that could maybe stop the endless feminist bashing that has stalled the anti-rape movement since the 1990s (and which I see Sanyal’s book as partly reproducing): Not all men are rapists, but all rapists have a sense of entitlement that relies on the subordination of otherness and that is most prominently represented and modeled (consciously or unconsciously) by the “ideal,” white, normative masculinity in relation to which other identities define themselves; this is a form of entitlement and subjugation that ideologies of (white, able-bodied) masculinity vs femininity have historically and relentlessly produced, reproduced, normalized and modeled through action as well as representation. Whether the victim is a woman, a child, or another man, closeness and familiarity to them only seem to increase this sense of entitlement. What is more, such entitlement is often overlaid with a form of displacement whereby people process their insecurities through, sometimes, the re-enactment of the rape script as a conscious or unconscious answer to their shaken or terrorized sense of self. Yes, women can be violent too, no doubt in an attempt to appropriate the same model of social domination and belonging that has been normalized by masculinity’s unreachable “ideal.” And absolutely, women rape victims are not weak or passive any more than are the American soldiers whose heroism President Trump once questioned on account of the fact that they had died rather than conquered. Similarly, women should not be expected to be strong so as to deserve not to get raped. Last but not least, male rapists can and often do act out of a vulnerability they resent so much that they try and rape, beat, and insult their way out of it (consciously or unconsciously).
It is one thing to argue, as Foucault did, that our anti-violent, rhetorical, and legal response to a gendered crime should not perpetuate the association of sex with identity which has saturated all discourses of the social in modernity. It is quite another to accuse feminists of shooting themselves in the foot by calling rape “rape” (whether it is by adopting legal or moral definitions of it). Foucault is right that the recognition of violence should ideally not reify sex as our core identity, but as controversial as his 1977 intervention became, it did not argue for the withdrawal of a legal response to rape tout court; rather, he called for the criminalization of violence outside of its link to sex (because to Foucault, treating sexual identity as an essence was a debilitating feature of modernity). Today, we should know better than to assume that his theoretical and therefore speculative point about the evacuation of sex from legal sentencing would remove sex from court proceedings altogether, or guarantee that the awareness of its presence through testimony would not attenuate the recognition of the severity of the harm or damage inflicted. Unfortunately, the sexual nature of the crime is exactly why rape often fails to be recognized as an offense in culture, let along in the legal arena, especially in the absence of a feminist or legal recognition that the presence of sex does not and should not evacuate the evidence of violence.
Maybe, just maybe, social commentators could stop trying to locate in feminist discourse the key to the societal woes it has been trying to address. Yes, some white feminists have used language infelicitously, and others have been downright racist. But no, feminism as a movement cannot be folded into the long lineage of sexist and racist thought that has accompanied the history of rape in this country, simply because doing so sells books.
Davis, Angela. Women, Race & Class. Vintage Books, 1983.
Kingkade, Tyler. “Fewer than One-third of Campus Sexual Assault Cases Result in Expulsion.” Huffington Post, 29 September 2014. Updated 6 December 2017, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/campus-sexual-assault_n_5888742.
Sanyal, Mithu. Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. Verso, 2019.
Carine M Mardorossian is professor of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies and English, and she specializes in feminist studies, Caribbean and postcolonial studies, and creative nonfiction. She is the author of Framing the Rape Victim: Gender and Agency Reconsidered (2014) and her most recent co-authored book Death is but a Dream: Finding Hope and Meaning at Life’s End (with Christopher Kerr, MD, Penguin 2020), shows the centrality of the humanities to fields of specialized knowledge like medicine. She is completing a manuscript on Caribbean literature and the environment entitled Creolized Ecologies, and is writing a feminist treatise on Toxic Femininity.