ajnabieh: Sign for a store reading "Hot Chick." (hot chick)
Two quick things, in case you haven't seen them:

1) Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, passed away today. Her work for reforestation and democratic renewal in Kenya has been incredibly important; along with Shirin Ebadi, she's probably my favorite of the recent Nobel Laureates.

I learned about her death today through an email by the president of HWS; it turns out that Prof. Maathai's two children attended HWS, and she is a former awardee of the Blackwell Medal, honoring the first woman doctor in the US, who trained here. Appropriately enough, tomorrow my introduction to comparative world politics students begin talking about what constitutes democracy. I'll be showing them the tribute video that was shown during her award ceremony, to introduce them to her work, and giving them this quote from her speech at the ceremony:

Initially, tree planting was a very benign activity, and nobody bothered us because it was mostly a bunch of women getting together and teaching each other how to plant trees. But it became important also to teach them the other aspect of the linkage that I talked about: the linkage of governance. It's one thing to manage the resource, another to touch governance. Now who is in charge of resources, especially resources like forest, water, soil and land? It's usually the government that’s in charge. The people in power are usually in charge of these resources. And when you talk about managing those resources sustainably, accountably, transparently, sharing these resources equitably, you are stepping on the very big toes of those in power.

When we started talking about the importance of protecting forests and rivers, it meant that we would have to explain to the people in power how the resources were being poorly managed and how sometimes they are privatized by the people who are in charge, and how sometimes you get mismanagement, like illegal logging and cultivation in the forests. We started realizing that it is very important to hold our leaders accountable for the way they manage resources because they are not the owners of the resources; they are custodians. We put them in positions of authority to manage the resources for us because all of us cannot be managers. They are not supposed to privatize them, they are not supposed to own them and they are not supposed to exploit them to enrich themselves all at our expense.

When we started pointing out these problems in the government, that said that we were not doing what we were supposed to be doing. They told us to just plant trees and not worry about what happens to the forest, what happens to the waters. And of course we could not do that because that's part of the second leg, the second pillar, of what I talked about. Sustainable management, good governance. Good governance means you have to hold your leaders accountable, and you cannot hold your leaders accountable if you do not know how these resources are managed. That is when the Greenbelt movement started being seen as a dangerous organization.


2) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has granted women the right to vote in Shura council and municipal elections. Not in the elections happening next week; no no no, in the next round of elections, the ones in 2015.

I've written before about the role of symbolic rights in felt political injustice, and I would argue that the right to vote for an "advisory" body in a monarchical system is something that is definitely symbolic, but also very meaningful. However, I'm also very skeptical. If you know anything about Kuwaiti politics, this move looks very familiar: it's reminiscent of the 1999 emiri decree, which I've argued elsewhere fell not because of misogyny pure and simple, but because of the attendant anti-democratic nature of the decree and its position in parliament/monarchy battles. (I've realized this conference paper isn't online anywhere, but if anyone wants a copy, let me know--it's currently in the article-shop-around phase.) It's worth noting that the time Kuwaiti women got voting rights, and it stuck, it was because of cooperation between legislative and monarchical forces, not because of a top-down imposition. Now, granted, the Saudi Shura council probably isn't strong enough to cancel out a royal decree (the Kuwaiti parliament has substantially stronger rights), but it would not surprise me even a tiny little bit if sometime in the next four years this right disappears.

In any case:

ajnabieh: Happy woman with broom: FIGHT ALL THE OPPRESSIONS; same woman, dejected, "Fight ALL the oppresssions?" (ALL the oppressions?)
I am watching two political struggles going on today. The first is the attempt to get the New York State Senate to pass a bill allowing same-sex marriage. The second is the "Women 2 Drive" protest in Saudi Arabia, where dozens of women who hold international driver's licenses are driving in violation of the law. (Check the Twitter hashtag if you want to see what's going down right now, on 6/17.)

The differences here are obvious and striking. One is about negotiating within a highly fractious electoral public, and mobilizing constituent power for and against a political position that's at the center of ongoing debates. The other is about civil disobedience against an authoritarian government, in the hopes of mustering transnational support for a change in policy. But what I keep coming back to is that both of these struggles are about symbolic rights.

I support both these demands. In fact, I'm spending a lot of my time engaged in the one that's happening in my home state (*ahem*). And I think the Saudi protest is pretty amazing, considering precisely how hard it is to mobilize any action at all in KSA. By calling these "symbolic rights," I'm not trying to diminish the importance of the claim, nor the strength of those making it.

But the centrality of driving to Saudi women's protest is largely about its symbolic value. Of all the injustices that Saudi women cope with--an enforced dress code, highly segregated work opportunities, unequal access to marriage and divorce, etc--driving seems relatively minor by comparison. And yet, it isn't: it's a daily insult to their personhood that, despite being autonomous adults with responsibilities and roles in the world, they have to be driven around like ten year olds going to soccer practice. The symbolic injustice so rankles that it becomes a mobilizing force for change.

I feel similarly about marriage. Frankly, in the world where I am philosopher-king, there would be no state-recognized marriages. 'Marriage' would be a purely social bond, which people could enter into or not enter into as they saw fit, in whatever configurations they felt appropriate. Simultaneously, the state would allow people to formally establish family relationships (among couples raising children, friends collectively supporting each other, siblings caring for an elderly parent, etc) which would provide for legal rights such as hospital visitation, tax benefits for providing unpaid caring work, rights of survivorship, etc. Being 'married' would be one thing. Being a legal unit would be another.

I don't get to be philosopher-king, so that's not how it works. But, even in this world, marriage isn't the battle I would put first of all my queer rights. I'd rather we were fighting harder for non-discrimination legislation, for the inclusion of material on LGBT issues in educational institutions, to make it easier for trans people to legally transition, and for rights to adoption and parenthood. And, frankly, I am married--I've got the white dress and the credit card debt to prove it, and anybody who tries to tell me I'm not is both empirically wrong and a douche of epic proportions, as far as I'm concerned.

And yet, it rankles whenever I look at my "legal docs" file, and realize that I have to have a will, a power of attorney, a health care proxy, and a living will to give my wife the same rights that straight couples get merely for registering their relationship. It rankles when I say "my wife" and people respond "your partner." (No disrespect to the many same-sex and opposite-sex couples I know who use partner; I think it's a good word. It's just not mine.) And, yes, it rankles that if I were an infertile man, my name would be on my son's birth certificate as his father even though he was conceived with donor sperm, but because I'm a woman I had to drop thousands of dollars and collect letters of reference to earn the right to be his legal parent.

The insult to me, and to thousands of queers like and unlike me, is enough that it's worth fighting for. And the massive insult that the Republican caucus can't even decide to bring this to a vote--and that thousands of people are mobilized to condemn my relationship--well, that makes me want to get a big angry sign and go yell at somebody, long and loud.

The deep political insight here is the one that Axel Honneth makes so clearly in his work--that the vast majority of injustices that people experience are injustices based in misrecognition, the sense that something crucial and important about yourself is being disregarded, misinterpreted, or silenced in social interactions. And the more daily one is that disrespect is a key experience of being an oppressed group within a society. Symbolic victories are real, because they undo this disrespect, and counter with the sort of recognition that make societies possible.

So, yes, I'm cheering for the women in Saudi who are driving through the streets, and hoping for their safety. Yes, I'm dropping emails to state senators, bombarding my poor Facebook friends with action links, and endlessly refreshing New York 1's website. Because symbolic rights are rights nonetheless, and we all deserve them.

And you know if the law passes, my ass is getting married. Again.

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Ajnabieh - The Foreigner

March 2016

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