Monday, March 23, 2009

More On Being a Male Feminist

This blog is quickly becoming a an extended feminist rant, but so be it.  I wrote the article below for an Egyptian magazine, but I don't know if or when it'll ever see the light of day.

My friend Francesco has a tendency to bellow various and sundry catchphrases that he has coined over the years:  he does so loudly, frequently, seemingly unprompted, and for no particular purpose that I can ascertain.  Among his favourites is the phrase “a little bit of feminism”.  Francesco’s general tendencies towards the Neanderthal-esque in other aspects of his life lead me to believe that he does not intend this as a rallying cry for the emancipation of women.  Instead, with his somewhat tenuous grasp of the English language, I suspect Francesco understands “feminism” to mean “lesbianism.”

He certainly wouldn’t be the only one.  When I taught English literature to first-year university students in Canada, feminist theory was to be introduced only after what eventually became a ritualistic recitation of caveats: No, feminists were not angry man-hating lesbians.  More worryingly still: No, feminism was not obsolete simply because women could now vote.  Finally: No, feminism is not applicable only “over there” (read: far-off places where people always seem to be at war and women always seem to be veiled).  I would end my spiel with the assertion that, differing interpretations notwithstanding, feminism at its essence boiled down to a belief in the equality of the sexes.  “Given such a definition,” I would tell them, “I would hope all of us would define ourselves as feminists…I certainly do.”

What invariably ensued was silence; a tense, uncomfortable silence broken only by an awkward giggle from the back of the class.  It may simply be because as a male I lacked the biological accoutrements traditionally considered necessary in order to join the ranks of feminists.  I did not meet the “member”ship criteria, if you will.  Whatever the reason, students in my overwhelmingly female classes not only showed a distinct aversion to identifying as feminists themselves, but also met my self-identification as such with a combination of scepticism, discomfort, and amusement.

For too many, the term “male feminist” is an oxymoron.  No doubt, there was a time during the evolution of the feminist movement when, in the face of an oppressively ubiquitous patriarchy, women-only spaces were necessary.  Thanks in large part to the gains made by the various feminist movements around the globe, men have come to be seen not only as welcome, but necessary allies in the sometimes seemingly quixotic quest to stamp out the systematic and systemic discrimination against more than one half of the world’s population by the other half. 

Perhaps it’s too easy to pick on Cairo as a case in point.  The sexual harassment which has reached pandemic proportions in this city has been well-publicized of late, but ­– with few exceptions – to no noticeable effect.  As is frequently observed, it is no small irony that the very same men who ostensibly hold the honour of their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters in such high regard, have no compunction about violating that of others.  Of course the reasons for this sort of behaviour – poverty, unemployment, urban anonymity, sexual frustration, a sense of emasculation, etc. – are manifold, but none constitute excuses.               

If, therefore, men are the problem – as we unfortunately so frequently seem to be – then only through the active engagement of men can solutions reasonably be expected to be reached.  Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the notion of male feminism gaining more traction is a curious zero-sum-game mindset which pervades the less enlightened of the male sex: seen through this retrograde lens, to be pro-woman is somehow, by definition, to be anti-man.  That which is good for women can only chip away at the privileges which men now enjoy.  It may be true that women’s liberation will require some concessions on the part of men, but if that is the case, then they are concessions of advantages men did not deserve in the first place.   

No one, least of all me, is saying that this will come soon or easily; the relinquishing of privilege for the sake of greater egalitarianism never does.  However, slavery ended only through the agitation of both black and white abolitionists, just as the advances made by the American civil rights movement were brought about thanks to the combined efforts of black and white activists.  So too will the pernicious patriarchy which afflicts us, both men and women, be defeated only when more men make a genuine call for “a little bit of feminism.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Egyptian Women Fight Back

I have in the past advocated the arming of all Egyptian women with pepper spray (currently illegal in Egypt) in order to deter would-be sexual harassers who have become a blight upon this country.  I can't take credit for the self-defence initiative reported in this BBC News article, but it's a step in the right direction.  Instead of the inocuous "restraint" technique mentioned in the article, however, can I propose the teaching somewhat more offensive Jason Bourne or Steven Segal type moves, preferably rendering the attackers' cojones vestigial?  This would have the added effect of controlling Egypt's ballooning population by sterilizing men who, quite frankly, have no business procreating in the first place. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Academia and its Discontents

This troubling New York Times article has been making the rounds lately among my predominantly humanities graduate student crowd.

None of us got into academia to get rich, but we all thought that we'd at least have a job.  We slogged through seemingly endless years of study, classes and essays.  We struggled through exams, comps, vivas...all to demonstrate to the powers that be that we are worthy.  And throughout the sleepless nights spent hunched over books or illuminated by the glow of a computer screen, fuelled by a concoction of espresso, ephedrine, and Red Bull, there was, at the very far end of the tunnel a dim, barely visible light towards which we slowly inched our way: Tenure.  

You see, academia is not unlike fraternities on a much larger, long-term, and more sadistic scale.  Academia's hazing rituals can last well over a decade, and include such perversities as marking towering piles of papers written by barely-literate first years or producing reams of research from which one's supervisor will pluck a single fact, figure or sentence to be used in his/her forthcoming publication (acknowledgement not guaranteed).  One does this while earning barely more than the minimum wage, burdened with tuition fees and past student debt, and subsisting almost entirely on ramen noodles.  Why you ask?  Because once we get past all that, once we get in, we're in for life.

Tenure is the ultimate in job security.  Barring gross misconduct (and even then), the tenured professor can not be fired.  The logic behind this, historically, has been that once an academic has established his/her credentials and abilities, he/she should be free to pursue research without fear of harassment from the institution.  Such an arrangement would have spared Socrates a rather nasty bout of hemlock poisoning.  And so, the US Supreme Court notwithstanding, academia remains one of the very last bastions of the job security afforded by what is essentially a life appointment. 

And now the NYT is telling me that it's all for naught?!  Am I to understand that my two undergraduate degrees and two Master's degrees (in lieu of any practical life skills, I prefer to obtain degrees in pairs) aren't worth the paper they're printed on?  That the nearly 1/4 of my life thus far spent in institutions of higher education engaging in all the aformentioned inane and perverse hoop-jumping has been wasted?  That my months of agonizing over writing the perfect doctoral research proposal would have been better spent in some sort of "gainful employment"?  Nay I say to that!  

Look, NYT, I know you're on the brink of bankruptcy, but just because you're going down doesn't mean you have to take us all down with you.  Sure, there's nothing you'd like more than for a mass exodus of disheartened graduate students to read your article, give up and drop out, thus flooding the job market and providing you with a source of cheap labour which you - having done your research so well into grad student habits - know you can abuse without hearing a peep of complaint (grad students prefer to voice their complaints in innocuous twitter tweets).  I'm on to you, but I won't play your game.  If I don't find a job after completing my PhD, I'll just do another one.  Degrees come best in pairs anyway. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

WebMD: Fuelling Hypochondria since 2005

I've been having some pretty brutal headaches as of late.  Not having a great deal of confidence in Egypt's ailing healthcare system (pun intended), I consulted the next best thing: WebMD.  My friend, Mindgrapes, has already blogged about her own experiences with WebMD here.  Like me, she entered her symptoms into the androgynous, Ken Doll-like model.  However, while she came up with 20 possible diseases for what I could have told her was probably a simple case of RSI from her incessant chatting/procrastinating, I came up with only one.  On the human model I indicated the head as the location of the problem.  Under symptoms I selected "Headache (worst ever)" (seriously, that's an option).  The diagnosis?  Brain Aneurysm.  

Given that I'm still alive and not paralyzed on either side of my body, I'm starting to doubt WebMD's diagnosis skills.  On the upside, there's a great niche market for Egyptian doctors.  Slogan: "We're marginally better than an inanimate website."