a tale of two sisters

Christy Turlington-Burns, No Woman No Cry (2010)

Christy Turlington. [Photo by Fortune Live Media]

Stevie ModernFor some, pregnancy can be a death sentence.

Consider for a moment that the number one cause of death for adolescent girls in developing countries today is from pregnancy complications and childbirth, and that in almost all cases, these deaths are preventable.

For Christy Turlington, an American former supermodel, that personal discovery came after serious health issues arose during the birth of her first child. A post-partum haemorage put her in the ‘living’ category of a condition that claims the highest number of deaths among women giving birth worldwide.

What shocked me … was the fact that, of the 358,000 women who die each year, almost all can be saved with adequate medical care. It’s incredible that we know what it takes to save most women’s lives in childbirth, and yet thousands die each year because even the most basic care is out of reach. How can this be?

Turlington-Burns, C. 'No Woman No Cry' [Film Documentary]The answer she says, relies firstly on ‘political will’. Her research in maternal health lead her to produce and direct her own documentary No Woman No Cry.

Since that time, Turlington has been a passionate advocate to save and enhance the lives of mothers around the world.

Every Woman Counts, an organisation she founded, seeks to redress the health of mothers as a modern global priority. Turlington attributes her passion to empathy, what she has called a ‘sisterhood in motherhood’, to develop often simple practical solutions. Through experience working with the CARE organisation, she saw firsthand how significant reductions in maternal mortality can be achieved.

For Turlington’s ‘sister’ Agnes in Tanzania, labor caused both the loss of her baby, and fistula. Fistula, a rupture during childbirth, is an operable condition. Like the estimated two million women the WHO estimates are living with fistula, lack of hospital access meant Agnes was unable to control bodily functions, and remained untreated for ten years. Her condition ostracised her from her community, and lead her to be hounded and labelled as ‘cursed’ by fellow villagers.

Every Mother Counts tells how Agnes instead came to be an educator on fistula to her community in this short 6-minute video segment.

Turlington identifies the cause of avoidably high death rates from pregnancy not only in poverty and restricted healthcare access. Much of the solution she says lies in also identifying root cultural causes and preventing their harmful practice. She blames many maternal fatalities in the developing world on traditional cultures promoting child (and therefore forced) marriage. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 56% of worldwide deaths from pregnancy occur, nearly half of girls are married before the age of 18. The chance of death during childbirth for girls under 15 is five times that of adult women, and twice as likely at this age than girls aged 15-20 years.

Speaking at a recent Trust Women conference, Turlington says,

If we can get girls to be girls as long as possible, then we can delay early marriage and first pregnancies and a lot of the ongoing health implications of those practices.

Consider that: The risk of death is halved in developing countries by ensuring girls ‘remain girls’ beyond 15 years of age. Any future target to reduce maternal death rates, Turlington says, should focus on adolescent girls – these most vulnerable. Pregnancy at an undeveloped age raises terrible health consequences, including fistula and infant death. The World Health Organisation notes obstructed births (where the mother is too young or undeveloped to safely deliver) are responsible for 8% of infant deaths.

Changing the culture of child marriage, and focussing government attention on the social and economic costs of maternal death should form important conditional priorities for wealthy donor countries. Every mother counts. Much of that realisation can be credited to Turlington, who by modern example has shown ‘sisters’ (and brothers) must raise their own voices in making a real difference ♦

If we can recognise our inherent connection to other mothers, we can make saving their lives a priority.

Christy Turlington-Burns

Turlington describes her film motivations in this interview with CARE Pres. Dr. Gayle King. No Woman No Cry (DVD) is available for order here on iTunes.


reforming islam? ida lichter

While ground battles rage in Syria, and with unrest in Libya and Egypt continuing to occupy Western focus, another war beneath the surface of media attention continues to rage within muslim countries closer to home. Outside Middle Eastern centres of conflict, too little attention has been paid to reforms daily fought by Muslim women across the globe for equality and freedom from violence. Into this setting, Ida Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers redraws our attention to the separate bravery of women- both secular and religious- to gain basic individual freedoms. “Many have not been given a significant voice,” writes Lichter,

 There is considerable ignorance of those determined individuals and organisations, particularly in muslim countries, who are dedicated to the reform of gender discrimination by challenging discriminatory laws and ideology, often at great personal risk.

It is their plight western feminists are in danger of betraying through a respect of ‘culture’ above individual rights, says Lichter.

Her prodigious research highlights individual women reformers through concise biographies in the specific settings where the rights to vote, drive, dress, and resist the abuse of religiously sanctioned violence form an often life and death struggle. This approach adds to the scope of literature examining Islam in general and corrects the singular image of a unified Islamic ‘world’. Within this frame, whole regions are shown in the flux of competing forces, women’s lives hinged precariously to the outcomes of political and religious conflict.

Women’s rights, says Lichter, should be made central to our future foreign policy. Current instability threatens even supposedly ‘moderate’ religious countries. Neighbouring Australia, where Lichter lives, Indonesia’s 86% Muslim population comprises the largest Islamic country in the world, with 12.7% of the world’s total identified Muslims.

Prior to 1945, the Dutch colonial government was largely in support of the Indonesian women’s movement, which had emerged in the twentieth century.

Despite being a signatory to UN conventions against gender discrimination at a national level, the process of achieving gender equality in Indonesia has become more difficult since its independence.  With Islamic separatists threatening to break from its power, the national government ceded much of its authority since 2001 through regional autonomy laws, divesting power to local and more traditionally inclined groups. These have tended to frame patriarchal practices through literal interpretations of Islamic scripture. Local sharia by-laws, enforced in 16 of 32 provinces, have restricted women’s economic opportunities, freedom of movement, dress, and roles in public. Qur’anic punishments have surfaced among these regions, most notably in Aceh, which in 2009 legalised stoning ‘adulterers’.

Through its Marriage Law (1975) the government allowed for fatwas (religious legal edicts) to be governed from a local level. The Legal Aid Foundation of the Indonesian Womens Association for Justice records rising levels of polygamy and child marriage in some areas despite official restrictions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites religious encouragement of child marriage and female genital mutilation as main causes of Indonesia’s maternal death rate, among the highest in Southeast Asia.

Alongside reformers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somalia) and Wafa Sultan (Syria),  Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers also chronicles feminists that have fought for equality on a religious footing, such as in Indonesia. Indonesian feminist groups like Rahmina and Musawah have tried to situate their political objectives on religious grounds, in part responding to Islamists’ use of religion to enforce oppression. Rahmina’s director Erdani ascribes the rising influence of Islamists in Indonesia to Saudi funded Wahhabists, who have used regional instability to further political ends.

Part of groups like Rahmina’s attempt to bring about equality through re-readings of Islamic scripture may also be tactical. Indonesia has not been accommodating of secular feminism where it contradicts state-based authority. As Lichter notes, Gerwani, one of Indonesia’s largest women’s groups, was banned for its association with the communist party (PKI). Thousands of its members were raped or killed as part of an anti-communist purge by Suharto’s forces. Rahmina’s own re-focus attempts to debate its contextual interpretations of Islam against equally ‘authentic’ gender-biased religious law.

Re-readings have forcefully critiqued popular Islamic texts, in arguing for women’s representation during the 2001 election of Sukarnoputri, a female head of state, and in advocating for religiously sanctioned domestic violence to be criminalised. Despite its more delicately waged successes in fighting for equality in Indonesia, Rahmina’s approach has also risked further reinforcing the role of religion and its interpretation as a basis for Indonesia’s civil legal structure.

Lichter’s Muslim Women Reformers corrects the impression of silence on the part of reformers throughout the Islamic world, and demonstrates more than ever the need for modern reformers in the West, including governments, to chorus these voices against oppression, and make use through aid and diplomatic efforts the opportunities these reformers represent.

Freedom for women in Muslim countries would unlock the potential of half their populations and provide a resource for social and economic development.

Lichter’s inspiring catalogue of voices should encourage modern reformers aswell as alarm readers to the fragile opportunities for progress now at risk ♦

Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression is available from Prometheus Books. Ida Lichter MD is psychiatrist and frequent columnist for online news-site HuffingtonPost.

the macho paradox: jackson katz

Jackson Katz, Anti-sexist activist, Speaker, Author Filmaker. Photo from Jackson Katz website

Think you’re an innocent bystander? Think again. According to renowned anti-sexist campaigner Jackson Katz, sexism and violence fuels the ‘tough guys’ image that culture projects on men in all cultures. This tough guise leads men to assert themselves on women and weaker males in order to be ‘masculine’.

The dangers of ‘masculinity’ in this form to society should not be underestimated. As Katz notes,

In the US alone, over 85% of people who commit murder are men…90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men, 95% of serious domestic violence is perpetrated by males, and it’s been estimated that nearly 1 in 4 men will use violence against a partner in their lifetime.

Violence is only the most extreme outgrowth of a pervasive culture that projects the aggressive physical dominance of the male, Katz’ research suggests. Learnt early in development by boys through family and community, the ‘tough guise’ of the male is over-represented in all major media forms.

Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help served as the Secretary of the US Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence from 2000-03.  Through co-founding the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (MVP) Katz has become the leading internationally recognised educator in preventing gender violence, especially through his work addressing sporting and religious groups as well as the military. He is also a regular columnist for online news site The Huffington Post.

Katz, J. (2006) The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men hurt Women and How All Men Can Help

The title of his book however, points not only to the perpetrators and victims of violence. The key innovation of Katz’s approach to addressing male violence is in using what he refers to as the ‘bystander approach’. Katz’s lectures, films and book aims to empower you as a bystander to take part in preventing sexism and violence.

This approach gives cause for re-examining the role many of us unwittingly play; tolerating the sexist joke, standing mute in the diminishing of women, not seeking to help defend a male abused because they aren’t perceived as ‘masculine’.  It is also a practical guide to action, a role all can play in becoming  modern activists.

Most believe that in order to intervene in a potentially violent situation, you have to choose between doing nothing, or in physically intervening at personal risk. 

Positively, there are multiple points between these poles: Jackson Katz lists 10 important steps we, and particularly male peers- a powerful influence- can take. They are freely available at jacksonkatz.com and form an important modern resource for helping end culturally sanctioned abuses. Among them; the invocation to NOT be silent when abuse appears likely or indicated, and address the issue either by talking with the abuser or someone empowered to talk with him.

A bystander can also gently and privately ask the victim if there is a way to help.

Men need to read [Katz’s] book. Not only because it will make the world safer for women, but because it will free men to be their true selves.

Eve Ensler, Author, ‘The Vagina Monologues’

Katz asks us to no longer fund sexism by purchasing sexist media (some mens’ magazines for example), and to defend others against sexism, homophobia or discrimination. By “raising the cost” of prejudice and violence, Katz says, we make it that much harder for physical dominance to enforce its culture in your society.♦

The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006) is available from Source Books. The short film Tough Guise (approx. 7 mins) explains the connection between popular culture and male aggression. Jackson Katz’s 10 steps ‘What Men Can Do’ can be found here.

the long backlash: susan faludi

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Susan Faludi’s 1991 ceiling-breaking book Backlash.

With devastating force and intricate research,  Backlash rose to bestseller, demolishing a barrage of news and pop-cultural messages seeking to undercut women’s equality.

Found on TV and in almost every major newspaper, studies and cautionary news items attempted to suggest women had reached it all: workplace equality, reproductive and financial independence. Pedalled alongside: that women were now increasingly unhappy, desperately alone, barren, ‘burnt out’ and frustrated. Hollywood film joined to sell the cultural idea that women were ill-equipped outside traditional household roles.

It took Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to identify these trends as fully and as rivetingly as she has in Backlash, dissecting the sexism, and consequently the flawed messages and data that underpinned the present culture’s cultural onslaught. It’s findings? There simply wasn’t the evidence behind such early-1990’s myths as the great ‘man shortage’ or women’s supposed deficiencies in math. What science would in fact point out: women were happiest either single or postponing marriage, saw greater financial and personal success through education and were healthiest by far pursuing own career goals.

Under cover of science however, new myths undercutting feminist gains continue to be reported by major newspapers and media, demonstrating as ever the vital modern relevance of reading the strategies uncovered by Backlash.

Backlash points to a remaining need for vigilance, research of the culture industry’s dominant claims and misrepresentations, and directs its hard-hitting questions to the roles placed upon both men and women.

We hear the cultural messages all the time, but – Backlash: the Undeclared War on American Women need not be an ‘undeclared’ any longer. Backlash is an effective weapon with which to arm and fight within it ♦

[Susan Faludi is also author of Stiffed, a sensitive narrative on modern masculinity, and The Terror Dream, examining post 9/11 political myths]