Archive for March, 2008

On Reproductive Rights, McCain Looks to Coburn – So Who is He?

March 25, 2008

It’s one thing to have staunch beliefs about sex, contraception, Christianity, abortion, and the global AIDS crisis. It’s quite another to be a prominent U.S. Presidential candidate, for the second time in your life, and have given little thought to your stance on policies regarding these issues.

Evidence of the dearth of consideration McCain expends on global HIV and family planning surfaced last March when a New York Times reporter stumped the candidate with questions about basic reproductive rights and the restrictions of the global gag rule.

Here’s the transcript from a NY Times Caucus post on the incident.

(Weaver is John Weaver, his senior adviser, and Brian is Mr. Jones, his press secretary):

Reporter: “Should U.S. taxpayer money go to places like Africa to fund contraception to prevent AIDS?”

Mr. McCain: “Well I think it’s a combination. The guy I really respect on this is Dr. Coburn. He believes – and I was just reading the thing he wrote– that you should do what you can to encourage abstinence where there is going to be sexual activity. Where that doesn’t succeed, than he thinks that we should employ contraceptives as well. But I agree with him that the first priority is on abstinence. I look to people like Dr. Coburn. I’m not very wise on it.”

(Mr. McCain turns to take a question on Iraq, but a moment later looks back to the reporter who asked him about AIDS.)

Mr. McCain: “I haven’t thought about it. Before I give you an answer, let me think about. Let me think about it a little bit because I never got a question about it before. I don’t know if I would use taxpayers’ money for it.”

Q: “What about grants for sex education in the United States? Should they include instructions about using contraceptives? Or should it be Bush’s policy, which is just abstinence?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “Ahhh. I think I support the president’s policy.”

Q: “So no contraception, no counseling on contraception. Just abstinence. Do you think contraceptives help stop the spread of HIV?”

Mr. McCain: (Long pause) “You’ve stumped me.”

Q: “I mean, I think you’d probably agree it probably does help stop it?”

Mr. McCain: (Laughs) “Are we on the Straight Talk express? I’m not informed enough on it. Let me find out. You know, I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it on the past. I have to find out what my position was. Brian, would you find out what my position is on contraception – I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it.”

Q: “But you would agree that condoms do stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Would you say: ‘No, we’re not going to distribute them,’ knowing that?”

Mr. McCain: (Twelve-second pause) “Get me Coburn’s thing, ask Weaver to get me Coburn’s paper that he just gave me in the last couple of days. I’ve never gotten into these issues before.”

This went on for a few more moments until a reporter from the Chicago Tribune broke in and asked Mr. McCain about the weight of a pig that he saw at the Iowa State Fair last year.

I haven’t thought about it. I’ve never gotten into these issues before. I’m not informed enough about it. I’m sure I’ve taken a position on it in the past. I have to find out what that position was.

And the kicker? The guy I really respect on this is Dr. Coburn.

Let’s forgo the obvious critique of “I need to look up what I once told people I believe in because I can’t think this through for myself and don’t generally concern myself with these things.” Any ignorance or ill-preparedness or plain poor memory to be analyzed from the exchange pales in comparison to what a little bit of research revealed.

Let’s take a look at the revered Dr. Coburn.

Tom Coburn is a Republican Senator from Oklahoma, and he’s not a subtle guy. During more than three years in the Senate he has spoken out against both sex education and contraception (which didn’t prevent Bush from appointing him co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS). A 2007 article on his government-sponsored website likens sex ed to pornography.

He is a self-proclaimed unwavering defender of the sanctity of “life”. That being said, he believes unequivocally that anyone performing an abortion should be put to death by the state.

Coburn’s Chief of Staff is Michael Schwartz. During the 2007 conference entitled “Confronting the Judicial War on Faith” Schwartz distinguished himself with a speech in which he advocated

“the mass impeachment of judges” and denounced the Supreme Court for giving Americans “the right to commit buggery.”

In the 80’s Schwartz was a founding member of Operation Rescue, the vigilante “pro-life” group that has advocated militant tactics. In 1993 the group distributed “wanted” posters for abortion provider Dr. David Gunn. Later that year an Operation Rescue member shot and killed Dr. Gunn during a protest. The group has been implicated in various acts of violence over the years from vandalism and arson, to stalking, assault, and bombings. Although the violence has quieted since the turn of the millennium, it’s worthwhile to note that in 1999 the Catholic pro-life organization American Life League created the Pro-Life Proclamation Against Violence. Operation Rescue was one of the few anti-abortion groups to refuse to sign it.



“The Voices of Innocents Caught in War” CNN addresses suffering of women in Iraq

March 19, 2008

CNN posted an article today by correspondent Awar Damon on the strength of Iraqi women in the face of nearly paralyzing hardship. She begins the piece with the sentence:

The pain here is choking — it’s a dark, suffocating sorrow.

Bombs, kidnapping, torture. The stories are so numerous they masquerade as normalcy in a country whose past five years have seen little but successive and overlapping turns of oppression, anarchy, occupation, and war. The CNN piece pays close attention to four women. One woman lost her husband when he was abducted, tortured and killed. When she retrieved his body the following day, she discovered his eyes had been gouged out.

In another case, Nahla’s husband was a doctor. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, determined to help rebuild his country, he returned to Iraq with Nahla and their six year old autistic son. Soon after, he was killed by a roadside bomb. She describes her husband’s flesh as melted and his charred body melded with those who died around him.

Although her 8-year old son lives outside the city for his own safety, a pediatrician named Dr. Eaman remains in Baghdad by choice. She wants to do her part to re-establish the city she recalls from before the war. She misses her son but will not be swayed from her mission.

Yanar left a tranquil life in Canada to move to Iraq with her 9-year old child. In 2003 she founded The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI). It’s the only organization of its kind and has since developed Iraq’s first women’s shelter and an activist newspaper called Al Mousawat (Equality). She changes her address often because of constant death threats. She explains her decision to uproot her life and return to her country of origin:

What brings me here, it is that everybody that I love, all the people that I love have been crushed…This cannot happen, should not happen, cannot be allowed to happen.

This weekend CNN aired Damon’s searing documentary, On Deadly Ground: The Women of Iraq. Click for the full transcript.

For more information, see my earlier post “It Wasn’t Supposed to be this Way” The Plight of Women & Children in Occupied Iraq

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” The Plight of Women & Children in Occupied Iraq

March 19, 2008

It’s been five years today since the United States invaded Iraq. There is much speculation about the success and failure of the war, the contractors, the casualties, the stability of the Iraqi government, consequent foreign views of the U.S., inadequate troop supplies, shameful lack of support for the mentally and physically wounded troops returning home, whether we should have ever gone to war to begin with, and how the hell we’re going to get out.

Having acknowledged those issues, I’m going to talk about something else. What were the lives of non-combative Iraqis like before U.S. occupation and what are their lives like now? Not soldiers, not religious extremists, not government officials, but the ordinary Iraqis struggling within the daily mine-field living of a conflict zone with multiple warring sides using base guerrilla tactics.

Before I continue I just want to say this:

I recognize that the period following the fall of one form of government and its replacement by another is, quite literally, revolutionary. Throughout history, all cases of this are paired with periods of social and political unrest, instability, and hardship.

However, the Iraqi people didn’t instigate this revolution. Indeed, they couldn’t have. But they never asked for our involvement and it wasn’t for their suffering that we went in. The U.S. invaded Iraq for its own reasons, none of which were later substantiated. After five years of mismanaged occupation, we’ve taken a country weighted with severe oppression and injustice and replaced it with a battlefield of warring religious, political and tribal factions, starvation and disease, and near anarchic instability in which every day is a lottery to see who will walk into the streets and make it home alive.

As in most wars and regions of conflict, it is mostly women and children who fall to the bottom of a deep pool of suffering.

Life Under Saddam

There is no disputing that life during Hussein’s quarter-century police state was a nightmare of cruelty and corruption. Your ethnicity and/or behavior could easily earn you a middle-ages style punishment (with the exception of the modern chemical warfare unleashed in repeated ethnic cleansing efforts against the Kurds.)

If you spoke out against Hussein’s regime you, and possibly your family members, were imprisoned, tortured, or killed. Political gathering of any sort was forbidden to the public, except for occasion to exult the government.

Police stations included basement torture chambers, and the crime of theft could lead to amputation, branding or death. Any woman suspected of prostitution, proof being unnecessary, was beheaded and her head placed on a pike and displayed with a sign reading “For the Honor of Iraq.”

There are tales of further insanity, of course. But for the bulk of Iraqi’s, what I’ve just described were the prominent sources of danger.

And yet, although women’s rights began to deteriorate during the final years of Hussein’s reign, until the early-1990’s urban Iraqi women were widely considered among the most liberated in the middle east. Women had careers, drove automobiles, and as of 1987 75% of Iraqi women were literate.

Following World War I, Britain colonized several regions into the country of Iraq, which they ruled for fifteen years. Many British laws remained in place through the 1990’s including equal inheritance rights, equal rights in seeking divorce, restrictions against polygamy, and a legal marrying age of 18.

In 1970 Saddam Hussein drafted a constitution that granted women the right to attend school, own property, vote, and run for office.

None of this diminishes the atrocities of Hussein’s reign, but it does set a contrast for what was to come.

“It Wasn’t Supposed to be Like This.”

Although many returned joyously to Iraq following the fall of Hussein, most were quickly disillusioned. Today, the rules have changed and for women, they have not improved. An ineffective government, appointed by the U.S., allows religious extremists to create and enforce informal laws throughout their varying regions of dominance. Sunni and Shias alike dictate new and severe requirements for women.

Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi who grew up during the final two decades of Saddam’s regime, and at age 23 founded Women for Women International, describes the differences in her country since 2003. As quoted in a recent article in Ms. Magazine:

“The violence during Saddam’s time was … committed by the government, Saddam’s family, people in power. Now the violence is … being committed by everyone around you.”

Many areas of Iraq are ruled with Sharia-inspired laws reminiscent of the Taliban. Women must remain cloaked in full burqua, genders must remain segregated in public, singing and dancing are prohibited. Women’s hair salons, one of the few (although marginally) accepted professions for a woman, are often bombed and many are abandoned, or taken underground.

Additionally, in the generally lawless state of warring factions, carjacking, kidnapping, and rape are common. As they are exceptional targets, women avoid the streets and few if any still risk driving.

Since 2003, more than 2,000 honor killings have been reported.

According to Yanar Mohammed, founder of the The Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI),

We used to have a government that was almost secular. It had one dictator. “Now we have almost 60 dictators—Islamists who think of women as forces of evil. This is what is called the democratization of Iraq.

Although she gets repeated death threats, and many of her colleagues have fled the country, Yanar Mohammed stays in order to run the few women’s shelters available to protect abused women and those targeted for honor killings.

The international human rights organization MADRE, who once warned that religious fundamentalists would benefit most from a U.S. invasion in Iraq, explains in its 2007 report Promising Democracy, Imposing Theocracy: Gender-Based Violence and the U.S. War on Iraq,

Often, the first salvo in a war for theocracy is a systematic attack on women and minorities who represent or demand an alternative or competing vision for society.

The MADRE report also documents how pleas for help from women’s groups were ignored by the U.S.

During the first year of US occupation, Iraqi women’s organizations appealed directly to [US Director of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance Paul] Bremer, demanding that the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that he headed train and dispatch security guards to help prevent violence against women and that the CPA prosecute crimes against women. These demands were ignored.

Under Bremer, the US refused to honor a series of demands by women’s organizations, including calls to create a women’s ministry; appoint women to the drafting committee of Iraq’s interim constitution; guarantee that 40 percent of US appointees to Iraq’s new government were women; pass laws codifying women’s rights and criminalizing domestic violence; and uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which mandates that women be included at all levels of decision–making in situations of peacemaking and post–war reconstruction.

In 2003, Iraqi men and women risked their lives to come forward and vote on a new constitution. Overwhelmingly they voted to replace the government established by the U.S. in favor of the United Iraqi Alliance, which in addition to offering Iraqis the resources to rebuild homes and the promise to utilize the nation’s oil wealth for economic development projects, called for an immediate “withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq.”

The new government however, has been unable to deliver on its promises and has additionally shown itself to condone and even encourage women’s oppression.

Although Iraqi law now states that women must hold 25% of the seats in Parliament, according to a recent NPR piece, activist Amira Al Khabi (ph) says

These women members of Parliament are ghosts. They say nothing. The party has fooled the people. They say “Look, we’ve given women a role,” when they have no role at all. It’s pure propaganda.

According to Ms. Al Khabi, members of Parliament recently expressed approval that nearly 100 women were tortured and killed in Basra (mostly by strangulation or beheading) because they had been wearing makeup or dressed in a manner considered too “western.”

29 year-old journalist Khalzar Abdul Amir received a note at her office. It read, “Quit or die.” She took the note as a declaration that it was legal to kill her. She fled to Kurdistan for a while, before returning to Iraq to help support her family. Echoing the sentiment of American and Iraqi citizens alike, she tells herself over and over

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Add to this the other sufferings of combat zones – a dearth of electricity, water, food, and jobs – where any attempt to leave your home to procure any of these scarcities risks your life – and you have an idea of a civilian’s life in modern day Iraq. Many Iraqi women have submitted themselves to prostitution in order to feed their families.

In 2005 alone, the country endured over 1,000 roadside bomb attacks – that’s more than three per day. More than 1 million Iraqi’s have died since the invasion began. 2 million have fled Iraq and another 2 million have abandoned their homes to hide in less volatile areas of the country.

Earlier this month Women for Women International released Stronger Women, Stronger Nations, a comprehensive report on the state of women’s lives in post-invasion Iraq. The report addresses the atrocities and suffering endured under Saddam Hussein, and compares it with the lives of non-combatants under U.S. occupation.

During a ten-day fact-finding mission the organization found:

  • [E]xtremists from both communities increasingly mounted attacks on one another in the form of car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and torture, hit-and-run raids, and [although malice between Sunnis and Shias during Hussein’s reign was minimal] increasingly larger instances of deliberate ethnic cleansing against towns and neighborhoods occupied by civilians from the other sect.
  • Even in those parts of Iraq where there is little sectarian violence, a pervasive state of lawlessness remains. Even in ethnically or religiously homogeneous cities and towns, the government typically provides little security or policing presence. This allows the militias, in conjunction with a wide variety of organized crime rings, to assume authority in these areas, and while they may keep outright violence low, they indulge in all manner of criminal behavior against the local population. Theft, extortion, kidnapping, and the threat of random violence are ubiquitous problems for most Iraqis.
  • 88.8% of respondents expressed a great deal of concern that they or someone living in their households would become a victim of violence.
  • 67.9% of respondents stated that their ability to walk down the street as they please has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion.
  • 63.9% of respondents stated that violence against women is increasing. When asked why, respondents most commonly said that there is less respect for women’s rights than before, that women are thought of as possessions, and that the economy has gotten worse.

Then & Now

Further Reading:

Hidden victims of a brutal conflict: Iraq’s women – A month-long investigation by The Observer reveals the terrible reality of life after Saddam.

Letter from Baghdad – A Democracy of Killings and Bombings – Yanar Mohammed

Iraqi Women Hit Hard by Occupation

Listen to a panel with Yanar Mohammed and other global rights leaders – courtesy of Ms. Magazine.

Stolen Away The abduction and forced prostitution of Iraqi women and girls. Time Magazine feature.

Slightly off-topic but very relevant – Five Years and Counting: The Unmitigated Disaster is Working Dahr Jamail for IPS News.

How You Can Help:

Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq Join the letter-writing campaign to amend the Iraqi constitution, or donate money. Donations go toward human and women’s rights training, democracy training for Iraqi women, and sewing machines distributed to help women gain economic self-sufficiency while working safely from their homes.

MADRE gives you lots of ways get involved. You can donate, purchase stuff through their web store, buy books or movies through giveline, volunteer, host a speaker, and more…

“Should I deny my head, my heart, and my soul?” – Transgender Commentary in the Media

March 16, 2008

Art from TransThriveIn the New York Times Magazine today I found a surprisingly sympathetic story about a transmale college student struggling to find his place on campus and in life. Alissa Quart, author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers, and Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child, follows Rey, a female-to-male transgender youth as he struggles to fit in at his all-female college.

At first I was puzzled why someone identifying as male would choose all-female Smith University. The article explains

On the face of it, it’s not surprising that students like Rey would choose to attend a women’s college. Same-sex colleges have always been test beds for transformations among American women. Set up as places where women could flourish without men, colleges like Barnard, Wellesley, Smith and Mount Holyoke have always had dual personalities, serving both as finishing schools and as incubators of American feminism…

The schools that decided to remain single-sex in the 1970s, when many colleges around the country went coed, represented a significant and even controversial challenge to liberal ideas about gender equality. And in refashioning their identities for the time, many became loci for the interrogation of gender roles. It was, after all, at all-female schools that many young women first began to question the very notion of femininity.


Indeed, as one transmale student I spoke to at Wellesley pointed out, women’s colleges are uniquely suited to transgender students. “There’s no safer place for transmen to be than a women’s college because there’s no actual physical threat to us,” he told me, adding, “I have more in common with women because of that shared experience than I do with men.”

Yet, things didn’t go smoothly for Rey in ways I didn’t expect. In his first semester, Rey’s two straight female roommates didn’t feel comfortable rooming with someone identifying as male.

At Mount Holyoke College two alumni wrote an angry letter about their own school’s admission of transmales. In their opinion:

Trans students were simply “men seeking to take advantage of Mount Holyoke’s liberal and accepting atmosphere.”

Simply men? Really? Not diseased females? Not sick human beings? Not unnatural, or ungodly, or just plain weird? Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the mainstream media is addressing the issue for what it is and recognizing that a person’s identity, not their anatomy, defines that person’s gender. It is, as far as this article is concerned, unquestioned.

Am I too used to the uproars about transkids and bathroom usage? Or the righteous denial of rights to the transgender community in last year’s Employment Non-Discrimination Act? Or are we simply looking at a very liberal sub-sect and angry comments and letters will pour into the Times tomorrow?

It would be heartening if female-only schools admitted transfemales, but the article (which strangely neglects to so much as mention male-to-female transitions) suggests this is not the case by stating Smith’s policy to accept “legal” females only.

Quart is careful to widen the accepted “born in wrong body” lens and look at transgender issues more broadly. Each person is unique and how and why someone transitions involves a range of personal and complex choices, the reactions to which vary even within the trans community.

For many people gender is found somewhere along a male-female continuum and without the black and white clarity of a “check-M/check-F” decision. Quart examines the personal and unique nature of a trans-person’s choice to use hormones, seek top and/or bottom surgery, renounce his or her pre-transition identity…or not to do so. Different actions apply to different people. Rey, for example, embraces his former female self. For him, who he was is an important part of who he is and who he will become. Rey used hormone therapy and eventually had top surgery, however he found bottom surgery unnecessary. Others elect to have no surgery at all and simply use manner and style to project their gender identity. Still others reject the need to specify a gender at all, eschewing labels and brandishing individuality in their stead.

…[T]oday many students who identify as trans are seeking not simply to change their sex but to create an identity outside or between established genders — they may refuse to use any gender pronouns whatsoever or take a gender-neutral name but never modify their bodies chemically or surgically. These students are also considered part of the trans community, though they are known as either gender nonconforming or genderqueer rather than transmen or transmale.

To discover if my surprise at the nature of this piece was warranted, or if I’ve just had my head in highly prejudiced circles lately, I poked around the web a bit. I discovered that in April 20/20 did a pretty extensive piece on transgender kids, including a six-year old boy who firmly, and with the support of doctors and parents, identifies as female. The comment board for the online article of this piece displays an astonishing 239 posts of (mostly) supportive and compassionate voices.

In 2005, the Sundance Channel (not exactly a conservative haven, sure) broadcast a 7-part documentary series on trans-teens called Transgeneration, which unfortunately I totally missed. I also realized something I’d taken for granted. High schools and colleges that had gay and lesbian student unions a decade ago now have, seemingly without exception, LGBT organizations.

Even Christianity Today, “a magazine of evangelical conviction,” recently published an almost (but not quite) balanced article on transgender issues. Early in the piece it tells the story of a Baptist minister who, in mid-life, realized he was transgender and made the operative switch to male. He explains

Should I deny my head, heart, and soul to live according to what others think of my body? I cannot do that and live a life of Christian integrity…This is something that’s in you from the womb.

The article points to the recent calls for expanded civil rights for transgenders in the face of both discrimination and violence. It also cites Jimmy Creech, executive director of Faith in America, an organization whose mission includes, “the emancipation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from bigotry disguised as religious truth.”

Religion has been used in history to discriminate against various groups of people by justifying slavery, denying women the right to vote, and persecuting religious minorities. Today it is being used to persecute lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people.

Yet, it follows up with a full page on the views of Warren Throckmorton, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, who believes

Whether mentioned in Scripture or not, the transgender movement clashes with traditional Christian theology that teaches the only God-given expression of human sexuality is between a man and woman who are married.

And, sadly yet predictably

Even if science does determine differentiation in the brain at birth, even if there are prenatal influences, we can’t set aside teachings of the Bible because of research findings.

The article then relates the tale of a post-op woman who was graciously accepted by Calvary Assembly of God in Orlando, Florida – pointedly adding that the church even allowed the woman to do volunteer maintenance work. After an unspecified amount of time the unnamed woman came to a church official in tears. After religious counseling she “eventually realized that God didn’t make creative mistakes and […] resumed a male identity.”

Unfortunately, although it does touch upon one more successful transition, the rest of the piece veers sharply toward the right with quotes from the Family Research Council,

The pressure for acceptance is ultimately a challenge to the authority of Scripture and a violation of natural law.

And Concerned Women for America:

The transgender lobby is following the example of the homosexual lobby in that they are co-opting the language of the civil rights movement in order to push their own radical and wacky agenda.

It ends with Jerry Leach, director of Reality Resources, an organization in Kentucky that describes itself as, “an international ministry to those afflicted with gender identity confusion, homosexuality, and sexual addiction.”

At one time Leach, hours before his reassignment surgery, (the desire for which he attributes to his mother forcing him to wear dresses as a child) heard God telling him to “stop his covert, double life.”

“God planned for me to be a man before I had ever been created. There was not a woman inside my body longing to be expressed.”

The author of the article, John W. Kennedy, expresses an opinion in the final paragraph of the five-page piece. He concludes:

The challenge before conservative evangelicals is persuading transgendered people, their families, and faith-based advocates that gender identity disorder is not beyond the reach of God’s grace, compassionate church-based care, and professional help.

The entire thing is worth a read. It’s eerily fascinating how even those condemning transgender issues as unnatural and sinful try very hard to regard the poor trannie souls with compassion. Love the sinner hate the sin… They see transgenders as sick, lost lambs needing those who know better to do God’s work and return them to the fold.

So, was I right to be surprised at the tone and scope of the Times article? Well, yes. Other than what I’ve described, I found very little mainstream coverage of these issues. However, I also didn’t find nearly as much ignorance and hate as I’d expected. What I did find was an amazing number of local and national organizations, support groups, and advocacy efforts.

Such as…


Human Rights Watch: Offers resources dealing with legislation, coming out, and employer information.

The Transgender Law and Policy Institute: Litigation, discrimination and hate crime laws, and university & employer policies.

Transkids Purple Rainbow: Dedicated to funding research and education about transgender issues to build a brighter future for all TransKids.”

Family Equality Council: Blog. “love. justice. family. equality.”

Gay & Lesbian task Force – Transgender Issues: A lot of great activism including the civil rights, homelessness, and pending legislation. Check out its chart documenting the time between the passage of legislation based on sexual orientation and the passage of identical laws based on gender expression. (Hint: It ain’t quick.)