At the Women Deliver conference earlier this month, I met Nigerian Senator Iyabo Obasanjo Bello, daughter of a former Nigerian President and holder of the health portfolio in the Senate. She and I talked again at the two-day NCRW-US Committee for UNIFEM sponsored conference on gender-based violence.
She told me the following story:
Nigerian Senator and former governor of Zamfara State Ahmed Sani Yerima, 49, recently married the 13-year-old daughter of his Egyptian driver. A large sum of money exchanged hands. In Zamfara State, Yerima had instituted shari’a law. Two years ago the Senator also married a 15-year-old. Child marriage is listed as one form of gender-based violence on the website of the United Nations Population Fund.
It is illegal both in Nigeria and in Egypt to marry a girl under the age of 18. The Senator was called in for questioning by Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP). The marriage also contravenes the 2003 Child Rights Act.
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Mma Wokocha, head of Nigeria’s Women’s Medical Association: “This very evil act should not be seen to be perpetrated by one of our distinguished legislators.” Theresa Odogwu, President of Soroptimist International of Nigeria wrote that this put the young woman at great risk of maternal mortality or morbidity including vesico-vaginal fistula. “The girl-child has no power within the marital relationship to resist her husband and demand respect for her reproductive health rights. Early marriage is capable of terminating the girl’s education, thereby denying her right to achieve her individual potential and realising her aspirations.” Thirty members of Soroptimists marched on the Lagos State House of Assembly in protest.
As for Senator Yerima, he says he was only following in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammed who, he said, married a nine-year-old girl. In Islam, he stated, the age of a bride is not relevant when the issue of marriage is involved.
And there you have it, pedophilia disguised as religion and marriage. I also call this terrorism because at 13, if this had happened to me, I would have been terrified.
Child marriage is one of the greatest evils on the planet. Religions have always excused great evils. I cry for all past and future victims.
In We Were Feminists Once, Andi Zeisler argues that a 2014 Beyoncé performance signaled feminism's "arrival" as a mainstream movement. But, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.
Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Emma Watson are feminists. So is Miss Piggy from the Muppets. Chanel’s 2014 runway show flaunted feminist imagery, and even Katy Perry’s signature perfume is feminist.
Something has happened to feminism.
“It was hot,” Andi Zeisler writes in the introduction to her new book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. “And, perhaps most important, it was sellable.”
It’s the moment Zeisler, one of the founders of Bitch magazine, has been fighting for for 20 years: the tipping point. Feminism has arrived.
“I always believed that the realm of media and popular culture was where feminism would truly change hearts and minds,” Zeisler writes. “Theoretically, this was exactly the breakthrough my cofounders and I had always hoped to see.”
But as you may have guessed from the subtitle, there’s a catch. Like the wealth promised by President Ronald Reagan, the gender equality promised by feminist imagery in pop culture and the market has not trickled down.
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As we celebrate the increasing number of female TV showrunners and writers, Senate Republicans have twice unanimously voted against an act designed to close the gendered wage gap. As our tabloid magazines documented every blessed step of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, an anti-discrimination ballot measure in Houston, Texas was defeated thanks largely to TV ads that painted transgender women as child predators, warning, “Any man at any time could enter a women’s bathroom simply by claiming to be a woman.” As we excitedly binge-watch a Netflix series about life and love in a women’s prison, dozens of black women have died in police custody in recent years, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.
In this deeply researched account, Zeisler charts the co-optation of feminism and women’s empowerment over the decades, and shows how this process reached a peak in 2014. In 1929, Lucky Strikes cigarettes were cast as “torches of freedom,” a co-optation echoed in perhaps my favorite of Zeisler’s examples: the 1970 billing of the Liberated Wool Sweater as the “embodiment of the new freedom.” In 1998, First USA offered a Mastercard celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. But while corporations and popular culture have always tried to sell their ideas of what women want, Zeisler identifies 2014 as The Year It Happened.
It was Beyoncé. On stage at the MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé sampled Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and posed in front of the bright, white, glowing word: “FEMINIST.” In a 2014 Bitchpost after Beyoncé’s performance that presaged some of the ideas in her new book, Zeisler wrote that the performance “positioned feminism as Beyoncé’s official brand.” While its impact was undeniable, Zeisler wrote that “the branding of feminism as an attractive product for consumption is very different than the work of feminism as a progressive movement.”
To be clear, Zeisler’s book doesn’t diss Beyoncé; it draws a distinction between what she calls “marketplace feminism”—the “mainstream, celebrity, consumer embrace of feminism,” which is often about selling us something—and the less visible work feminists (including Beyoncé) do every day to advance gender justice. In fact, the best part about Zeisler’s writing on pop culture is that she doesn’t hate it; she’s a connoisseur, which makes her the most entertaining, well-informed of critics.
She applies an almost encyclopedic knowledge of film, television, music, and advertising to reveal the funhouse-mirrorlike results of mainstream culture’s co-optation of radical ideas. Take what pop culture did to the punk movement Riot Grrrl, with its out-of-bounds, anti-capitalist, “girls to the front!” ethos: “The phrase ‘Girl Power’ was harvested from Riot Grrrl zines and re-emerged, a marketplace-feminist Frankenstein’s monster, in the juggernaut of the Spice Girls.” And what happens when even consumer products like underwear can become feminist? An “uncanny valley,” filled with objects that kind of look feminist: “In the uncanny valley, those granny panties are feminist because they say so on the butt.”
In one of the book’s strongest sections, Zeisler unpacks how even feminist ideas like choice and empowerment have been co-opted to sell damaging mythologies, like poverty as an individual, not a societal failing, or the notion that women make choices about work and family in a vacuum. Zeisler writes that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, “shifted the language of bodily rights from demands to choices.” After that, “the advent of neoliberalism did the rest, normalizing the self-focus and singularity made ever more possible by a booming free market. The parlance of the marketplace became the default way to talk about almost all choices made by women.”
So what happens when neoliberalism—with its ethos of privatization, deregulation, and individualism—co-opts feminism? You end up with figureheads like Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose “lean-in” feminism masks the failings of capitalism by implying that women who fail to break through systemic barriers simply aren’t leaning hard enough. As Zeisler notes, the neoliberal approach to feminism obscures racism, classism, and other barriers that “make grabbing status-quo balls almost impossible for anyone other than the people who are already in closest proximity to them.”
By tackling the false promises of “marketplace feminism,” Zeisler has provided a much-needed counterpoint to Sandberg’s classist vision. Her critique of this exclusive iteration of feminism—and its cozy ties to the corporate powers that be—reaches its peak during her description of the 2014 MAKERS Conference, a corporate-sponsored, invitation-only event attended by Sandberg, Martha Stewart, actress Geena Davis, and more, or what Zeisler sums up as a gathering of “very elite women patting other very elite women on the back for their individual achievements in highly rarefied fields.”
What Zeisler calls “marketplace feminism” could, at times, have simply been called “capitalist feminism” or maybe just capitalism. Its co-optation of social movements is hardly new or unique to feminism. But in an email to Rewire, Zeisler said she coined “marketplace feminism” as a more specific term, “because of the way it invokes picking and choosing, taking on the parts of an ideology or practice that appeal to you and ignoring those that don’t.” In co-opting feminism, pop culture and the market have taken the sellable and left the “thorny, unsexy realities” behind.
Still, Zeisler misses an opportunity to fully articulate an alternative to “marketplace feminism,” perhaps one that encompasses its logical counterpoint: socialism, another idea that’s arguably having its Beyoncé moment right now. For many on the Left, watching Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticize capitalism on a national debate stage has been akin—and bear with me here—to what happened at the VMAs in 2014, albeit … well, not nearly as … hot. The number of young women identifying with socialist principles suggests many potential readers would appreciate an explicit discussion of alternatives to capitalist feminism—beyond equal pay, what about basic income?—but Zeisler largely avoids this conversation, instead alluding more broadly to the need for a “post-marketplace-feminism world.”
In the end, the book’s greatest weakness is that it sidelines today’s grassroots feminist and intersectional social movements, many of which oppose capitalism. While she acknowledges organizations like Know Your IX and the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Zeisler’s only explicit mention of Black Lives Matter is to cite the hashtag as a branded entity, lumped in with “Barack Obama’s presidential campaign” and “one-for-one TOMS shoes.” (“By a branded entity, I don’t mean that #BLM is actively selling a product,” Zeisler wrote, when I asked her about this in an email, “but that it has leaders and language and imagery that are associated with it, and the words have become shorthand for something that people feel deeply invested in.”) Yet, it feels like an oversight of one of this generation’s most defining social movements. #BlackLivesMatter caught fire like a brand, but it was created by women of color, not by tobacco or shoe companies. It’s a surprising blind spot for a book that reckons with how “marketplace feminism” can obscure racial and economic injustice.
Zeisler ultimately falls into her own trap, focusing too much on the very things on which, she suggests, we are too focused. In critiquing the fixation on celebrity spokespeople, she writes: “It’s as though feminists are becoming part of a celebrity movement, rather than celebrities joining up with a feminist one.” But the opposite is true: Celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Lena Dunham, and Miley Cyrus are responding to a movement that has pushed some feminist ideas into the mainstream. That doesn’t mean feminism has been bought. Beyond the rarefied MAKERS Conference, feminists are protesting on behalf of women killed by police and against anti-transgender legislation. The feminists I know watch Beyoncé’s “Formation” video on repeat, but they don’t think the battle’s over because Beyoncé tipped her hat.
I learned a lot from Zeisler’s witty, well-informed prose, and it was refreshing to read a feminist book so openly critical of capitalism. But in the end, I just can’t buy the idea that feminism has been sold. Maybe it’s because I was there on March 2, as thousands of feminists gathered outside the Supreme Court while it heard the most significant abortion case in a generation. People who had had abortions told their stories, on their own terms, and so did abortion providers. That was feminism—not defined by Sheryl Sandberg or even by Beyoncé.
The Zika virus, its potential link to microcephaly and other complications, and the inadequate government responses to it so far all bring into sharper focus the threats girls and women already face in the country.
The arrival of the Zika virus is not the only threat to young women’s health and human rights in El Salvador. The virus, its potential link to microcephaly and other complications, and the inadequate government responses to it so far all bring into sharper focus the grave situation girls and women already face in the country. Such danger, highlighted in both government reports and the work of activists on the ground, includes sexual violence, a lack of access to medical care, and gang activity.
El Salvador’s health ministry recently recommended that because of the virus, women contemplating pregnancies should take measures to postpone their pregnancies for at least two years. However, as Rewire reported, feminists responded that the recommendation is inadequate. It does not address the realities in El Salvador, they said, a country where 31 percent of all pregnancies registered with the El Salvador Ministry of Health in 2014 occurred among girls and women ages 10 to 19. Because of a number of societal restrictions, many of these girls may not have a choice in whether to put off pregnancy.
A November 2015 report from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Salvadoran Ministry of Health (MINSAL) gives the most up-to-date details so far about this large segment of the population, especially where issues of relationships, pregnancies, and reproductive rights are concerned. Although the report was released before news of Zika became widely recognized, it describes interconnected systems of coercion and abuse any strategies to address the virus must take into account.
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The UNFPA and MINSAL report stemmed from two stark figures in a National Health Survey in 2014: One out of every three women ages 20 to 49 in the survey had a pregnancy before the age of 18. One out of four lived in a relationship with a man, married or unmarried, before the age of 18.
These numbers, notes Minister of Health Violeta Menjívar in the 2015 report’s introduction, reflect the environment young women must often navigate in El Salvador:
The relationships as well as the early pregnancies are the result of circumstances beyond the control of the girl and the adolescent, and they impede her from making key decisions about her life adequately. The situation of violence in the family and in the society places girls and adolescents in situations in which their rights are violated. The relationships and pregnancies before age 17 are a product of the social violence that they suffer daily, and which is not taken on as such by the society or the State.
Using interviews with girls between the ages of 10 and 17 who had a live birth in 2012 at a Ministry of Health facility, the authors of the 2015 report attempted to flesh out the stories behind those statistics. The majority of the relationships, it found, were “not among peers,” meaning an age difference of three years or less. Rather, two-thirds of the girls had a male partner at least four years older at the time they gave birth, and 18 percent had a partner at least 10 years older.
This, the report states, creates “very unequal power” in the relationships, which leaves the girls and young women with “very little margin with which to make decisions about their lives.”
The study recognizes the problematic and conflicting laws in the country that criminalize some of these relationships but legalize others. For unmarried individuals, for example, any sexual relation with a minor younger than 15 years old is a crime. But there are still laws in effect in the penal code, it says, that “permit marriage under the condition that the girl or adolescent is pregnant or [they] have children in common, and there exists the express permission of the parents or guardians.”
The study also shows that “one of every ten relationships was formalized through marriage, including some with girls ages 10 to 12.”
The report also highlighted the inadequate medical services many of the girls received. In the case of the 10-to-12-year-old group, 20 percent had no postpartum care, even though, as the report says, they are the most vulnerable to obstetric complications. Half the girls and young women who gave birth in 2012 were not using contraceptives at the time of the study in 2015. By that time, 29 percent had already had a second pregnancy or were pregnant.
Girls and adolescents with histories of sexual violence, as self-reported in the interviews, comprised 37 percent of the interviewees overall, but two-thirds of girls ages 10 to 12 in 2012. One out of five of the girls who were 10 to 12 years old in 2012 had their first sexual relation with a family member, which constitutes the crime of aggravated sexual aggression. Though the report did not discuss individuals’ experience with the justice system, feminist groups that collect data on violence against women say that few police reports are ever filed of crimes like these—and if they are, there is rarely any follow-up.
“Sexual aggressions committed against girls and adolescents take place in an environment of social permissiveness around assaults, abuse and deception, fed by neglect, violence and poverty,” wrote Menjívar in her introduction.
“The fact that a girl of 10, 11 or 12 years of age is pregnant or finds herself in a relationship, that she leaves school, that she does not have access to services to protect her, et cetera, should be considered a national priority especially, when the persons who should protect them, and the institutions that should guarantee their rights, permit that these rights be violated,” she continued.
Right now, local health educators say that combating this problem is not a national government priority—and their own community-based work reinforces the report’s conclusions. Zuleyma Lovo, psychology student and leader from the activist group Jóvenes Voceras y Voceros en Derechos Sexuales y Reproductivos, gave workshops in rural communities and in middle schools on sexual and reproductive health—until increasing gang violence caused the program to be suspended in late 2015.
In an interview with Rewire, she affirmed the frequent incidents of violence and sexual abuse among the students she knew, and the many young girls who lived with older men:
At the school we asked for anonymous written comments, and in addition to questions about our talks, the girls would tell us about the physical, sexual, and emotional violence they experienced at home. Many think they can escape it by leaving home and living with a man, almost always a man who is older. But, the same dynamics repeat themselves, the violence, the abuse, the control.
This coercion extends to the control of pregnancy planning. “The men decide whether or not the women can use contraceptives. The men almost never agree to use condoms,” she said.
“Then the Ministry of Health arrives and tells women to abstain or to keep from getting pregnant,” she added.
This is not the only situation, advocates say, in which adolescents have difficulty accessing contraceptives. Lovo, and Noel Gonzalez, health educator and national director of Voceros y Voceras, described the difficulties the young people they serve face when attempting to obtain birth control available at no cost from local health centers operated by the government. Such clinics are the providers for the majority of poor people, both urban and rural; those who can pay for private pharmacies tend to have more options.
Gonzalez explained that the centers are directed to offer “youth-friendly” services, but that is rarely the case. Frequently, Gonzalez said, the young people he’s interacted with are met with “judgmental, prejudice-laden treatment and a lack of confidentiality” from the time they walk in the door. When young people do request contraceptives, he said, they are often told, “You’re too young. It won’t matter. You’re just going to get pregnant, anyway.” As a result, Gonzalez said, “many never go back.”
Clinics, Gonzalez said, often have limited supplies of certain kinds of birth control. “They only have the three-month injections, which have more side effects for young women,” noted Gonzalez. In its 2014 reportOn the Brink of Death: Violence Against Women and the Abortion Ban in El Salvador, Amnesty International found that “these clinics have … been associated with provision of fewer options and poorer levels of service for young women including denial of services and discriminatory treatment.”
And if that contraception fails, Lovo noted, women have few options: Abortion is 100 percent illegal in all cases in El Salvador. “Pregnant women who are abused or whose partners deserted them might be considering interrupting their pregnancies, but they are afraid to talk about it because of the strong religious biases against abortion,” she said.
All this is worsened, Lovo explained, by the threat of gang violence, which shut down her project in 2015. “They murdered a woman leader in one community, and we can’t go back there,” she said.
Gangs claim territories, which makes access to some health clinics a dangerous matter. Gonzalez elaborated, “The gangs stop you and ask you for your [identification], and if you live in the area of a rival gang, they won’t let you into their area. That can be where the clinic is.” A young person with the resources can take a bus to a distant clinic, but most don’t have that option.
Working as a health promoter is also dangerous: Some, Gonzalez said, have been murdered by gangs as they move from one community to another. He also explained that gangs kidnap or threaten to kidnap young women from their families and rape them, which has caused families to relocate within the country or to leave the country in order to protect their daughters. Some health clinics are reluctant to report rapes when women come to them for fear of reprisals from gangs.
Violence and poverty work together to curtail school attendance, including access to sexual education. Rates of students who leave their school out of fear have doubled in the past five years. In some cases, schools have closed as families flee to other regions of the country or leave the country altogether. Lovo noted that independently run sexual education programs such as hers have been effective but small, and limited by safety concerns.
Various projects and programs to improve matters have been written at the ministerial level and partially implemented, but have not met their goals. A proposed law on sex education in the schools has stalled in various committees.
The potential risks and impacts of the Zika virus interact with and exacerbate the chronic dangers of being young and female in El Salvador. Any efforts to deal with Zika need to recognize those contexts, and to work on making the country safer for girls and women beyond the threat of the virus alone.