Under the Black Blanket

Anti-Sexual Harassment Graffiti reading: No To...

Anti-Sexual Harassment Graffiti reading: No Touching allowed: Castration Awaits You (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sex harassment and rape is one way to keep women at home, out of the public square, per the dictates of Hassan al Banna et al, one of the intellectual lights of the Brotherhood.  They put this Dutch journalist in the hospital, apparently.  Story here.
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sky.jpegWe used to watch this international news network, Skynews, all the time in the cafes of Italy and tabacs of France. They interviewed me about the Amanda Knox case recently, and I picked up a fan from the Ukraine, very humbling. Here's the link.
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womanbaby.jpegWelcome to the Revolution!
With an out of control population boom, not enough resources to feed all the little mouths, does the new Muslim Brotherhood regime promote contraception? No, because the bro's think that stuff is western feminist alien colonization.
Like their should-be allies in the American right's anti-choice Taliban, they think women should be breeders and nothing more.
This is exactly what the Egyptian progressive women I met last year were worried about.  Here's the not surprising story in the New York times.

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lash.jpegA judge in Jeddah rewarded a woman seeking alimony in Saudi Arabia jail-time and lashes instead.

The woman, a mother of two whose husband abandoned her, is penniless and lives on charity. The judge  found her at fault for having married a foreigner. The comment thread from, I guess, other Saudis, on whether she had committed some infraction of shariah law and was therefore "haram," reveals the crazily casual misogyny that infects the minds of even the well-meaning.

Read the full story here.
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Cairo - Islamic district - Al Azhar Mosque and...

Cairo - Islamic district - Al Azhar Mosque and University.JPG (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beneath the arched, soaring, pale yellow ceiling of a room in the maze of Al Azhar University, past the wall of black-and-white portraits of imams dating to the 12th century, Heba Zakaria, age 32, sits across from a blackboard scrawled with the email address topmedia4u@gmail.com. (English is still the lingua franca of the Internet.) Zakaria is a member of the ascendant ruling party in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. She is one of the new generation of postrevolutionary, politically active, religious Egyptians using social media, cell phones, and other ostensibly liberating technologies--tools that just may end up tamping down intellectual freedom and women's rights. When I asked to meet with members of the Muslim Brotherhood's new media outreach team, their spokesman sent me to her.
Read the rest of the story at Discover.
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Bible (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

In the news, two apparently unrelated stories:

The first is that Baywatch "babe" Donna D'Errico got badly bruised climbing Mount Ararat looking for Noah's Ark. The second is a leaked document of Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu's first-strike plan for Iran.

Many people have a hard time seeing the connection between a Hollywood TV bunny looking for proof of God on a hilltop in Turkey and Israeli national security state calmly planning to trigger World War 3.

Look again.

After a month visiting Biblical sites in the Middle East, the connection between God and conflict in the Middle East becomes inescapable. Israel is filled with sites holy to all three major religions, and religious Jews regard the entire nation as a sacred site. It's not just a country with a flag, and a bureaucracy, and a budget, it's actually God's country. It's the spiritual made real.

This belief illuminates and inspires all manner of odd behavior, from settlers periodically trying to take back the Dome of the Rock from the Muslims in Old Jerusalem, to thousands of amateur archaeologists sifting through rubble cast off from the Temple Mount/Al Aqsa mosque plaza, hoping to find some bits of proof that Solomon's Temple lies beneath that, bits that could be used to take it and all of Jerusalem back for modern-day Israel -- as the Bible commands.

Israel religious-nationalist politicians' sense of entitlement, inherent in plans for unilateral pre-emptive bombing, always provokes an "end of days" resignation among Americans. That passivity is just one end of a spectrum related to belief in the "history" contained in the Bible.

On the other end of the spectrum, one finds people like World of Bible Ministries "archaeologist" Randall Price taking money from donors to search for Noah's Ark, and it's not cheap. One also finds documentary filmmakers and writers cashing in handsomely. One of them was backed by no less a Hollywood patriarch than James Cameron. The producers have claimed to find things like Christ's DNA in a Jerusalem cave, or the actual nails that nailed the Messiah top the cross, or John the Baptist's Cave. They "find" them and then as reliably as the Little Drummer Boy tooting through every Rite Aid on the day after Thanksgiving, they get their "new evidence" in front of millions of Americans around Easter-time on Discovery Channel or National Geographic TV.

For the same reason that James Cameron would back such a documentary -- gulled and moneyed blind American faith in Biblical truth -- our government will tacitly go along with many of Israel's craziest, maddest schemes.

Many of the Bible stories and characters in them -- Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, Moses, Solomon -- have no historical basis. The more archaeologists dig and the more historians search, the less certain they are of almost every aspect of the Bible, from Exodus to the conquest of the Promised Land to the existence of a grand ancient Israeli empire.

Certainly the real reasons behind Israel's preemptive strike plans have more to do with modern geopolitics than with the Bible. And the production of pseudo-science to sell believers on the historicity of the Bible, what one archaeologist had called "archaeo-porn" -- has more to do with money than faith.

But many among us -- from Christians in America to religious nationalists in Israel -- persist in reading the Bible, a document written in the 7th century BCE by a small group of priests in the desert, as a blueprint for God's plan for the Middle East, giving politicians like Netanyahu cover, and enriching charlatans who hawk proof of the Bible on TV and in print.

On many trips to Israel over the years, I have visited Megiddo, the site of the Biblical Armageddon -- the war to end all wars that will usher in the return of the Messiah. Busloads of Holy Land tourists -- many of them American Christians -- are driven onto this site every day, led by preachers waving the Bible, some pointing in the direction of Iran and quoting scripture about the forces of darkness and the end times, some even calculating the billions of cubic feet in the Biblical reference to rivers of blood filling the plains below at the end of days.

The site is actually one of the most fruitful and important archaeological excavations in the region, with 30 cities dating millennia on top of each other, yielding a wealth of actual information to modernity about the waves of poly-ethnic settlement in the area before and during the Biblical years, as well as the battles between the global powers of antiquity -- Egypt, Babylon, Assyria -- waged on this strategic spot.

The archaeologists who dig at the site every summer sometimes overhear the Holy Land guides spinning their Bible yarns, and they laugh at them, but no one bothers to correct them. Archaeologists and historians unfortunately don't engage much with misguided popular notions. Those who have challenged the very commercially lucrative Biblical versions of history are promptly sued or otherwise cowed into silence.

So a Baywatch beauty climbs the big hill looking for Noah's Ark and falls flat on her pretty face. And Bibi plans a Biblical-style wreaking of vengeance on the ancient force of darkness over God's mountains to the east.

I haven't been to Iran, but we already know the mullahs there are finding their own prophet-stamped encouragement for bellicosity.

Meanwhile, the godless rest of us can only stand and wait.

Or maybe we are supposed to ask God to help us.

Read the comments at Huffingtonpost.
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hpost logo.jpegI write today of a natural disaster threatening to do more harm to our future as a democracy than al Qaeda or the Red Threat before that.

We've seen alarming intimations of it for a few decades, but nobody bothered to act. We were all too busy rearranging ourselves around the new wealth gap, falling out of the Disappearing Middle Class into the crater without a net, or, if among the one percent, preoccupied with hiring the best landscaper for the helicopter pad in the back forty.

Now, perhaps, it is simply too late.

I'm talking about the apocalypse of the Republican mind.

Biology? Fallopian tubes do not release eggs to rapist sperm.

Economics? Automatic improvement when rich people pay no taxes.

Criminal science? Guns don't kill people, people kill people, tactical weapons on demand.

Planetary science? Climate change not happening, or if so, God-caused, not anthropogenic.

World geography? Flat.

There was a time within memory when those of us on the left could actually find a smart right-winger with whom to debate. There was William Buckley and his spawn over at the National Review. But they have ceded the podium to the likes of of Akin, Ryan, Bachmann, Karl Rove's astro-turf right-wing populists. And more will follow as Rove disperses the pallets of anti-tax bucks rolling in on the Citizens United ruling.

Rest of the story here
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Muslim woman in Yemen.

Muslim woman in Yemen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Out of Egypt, news of the latest advance in women's rights: a television station "run by" fully veiled women. By "run by" we mean, of course, operated by a man, with women fronting for him. And by fully veiled, we mean, the "niqab" - a barbaric costume anywhere, but especially in desert heat, intended to utterly negate the female form and face.
The show, inaugurated in time for Ramadan 2012,  is the brainchild of an Islamist broadcast entrepreneur named Ahmed Abdallah, as part of his pan-Islamist satellite network Ummah TV.  "I am broadcasting a new era for women who wear niqab, for a new kind of woman," he crowed to reporters.

Read the entire story of this groundbreaking Islamist feminist advance here at CNN's site, with video.

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English: The sarcophagus lid of Queen Sitdjehu...

English: The sarcophagus lid of Queen Sitdjehuti in the Staatliches Museum Ägyptischer Kunst. (Munich, Germany) Sitdjehuti was the daughter of king Senakhtenre and the wife of pharaoh Seqenenre Tao II from Egypt's 17th dynasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That rarest of birds, an Egyptian female judge, is at the center of a controversy about how the military colluded with the judiciary to keep control over the reins of power even as the Muslim Brotherhood was winning the popular vote.

Judge Tahani el Gebali told the New York Times that she had direct contact with the military rulers, advising them not to cede power without a Constitution in place. That's what's known as ex parte contact in the United States courts. I don't know enough about Egyptian law (or what remains of it in post-revolutionary times) to say whether ex parte contact is against the rules. In the U.S., it is.

El Gebali, like every other woman in Egypt, has very good reasons to work for a strong secular government and against the theocracy that the Brotherhood wants to install.

"I knew the elections would bring a majority from the movements of political Islam," Judge Gebali told the Times here last week. According to the Times, she said she sent the ruling generals a memo urging them to put off any votes. "Democracy isn't only about casting votes; it's about building a democratic infrastructure. We put the cart in front of the horse," she said.

The notion that 66 percent literate Egypt was not ready for direct democracy is hardly controversial, I heard many people saying that in Egypt when I was there. But for a judge, and a female judge at that, to admit that to a major Western newspaper is astounding.

And of course, the Judge is trying to erase it.

A few days ago, el Gebali told state-run newspaper Al-Ahram here that she hadn't given any interviews to the American paper.

Gebali said that she would sue the American newspaper, claiming that it had not in fact interviewed her for the story.

Unfortunately for Gebali, the notion that a Times reporter would fabricate an entire interview is about as credible as the idea that a Muslim Brother would give any woman real power in politics, or for that matter, anywhere.

Bonus for reading this far: the Arabic word for crazy is majnoon.

Moses with the Ten Commandments

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Update from Sharm el Sheik, a silvery beach town of casinos and unnatural fields of water-sucking grass, underutilized resorts and a McDonalds without the bacon deluxe cheeseburger.

Sharm means Shame in Arabic, and there is much of it to go around.

The palace where Mubarak retreated after he was deposed, before he went on trial, is just up the beach.

Here is where British and Russian and even Israeli tourists used to swarm and get sunburned and, some, too drunk to remember the Arabic for thank you, let alone the local rules about what sunbathing women ought to keep covered.

Here is where I saw my first - and second and third and fourth - burkini, the hooded wetsuit that honorable women don while snorkeling or slathering sunscreen on their righteous men, the sight of whose hairy naked flesh apparently doesn't offend God.

Here is where waiters who have long kept their conservative religious views under wraps now glower when a woman orders a drink, or outright refuse to fetch it.

Here is where a man on a flight from Cairo to Luxor started screaming at the Egyptair steward when he saw a foreign man and woman kiss on the plane.

Working with a documentary crew on sites in the Old Testament stories, we accomplished a Bataan Death March by train and car in two days across a swath Egypt. We retraced Moses' path from the colossal columns of the Ramesseum in Luxor, built by the pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled Egypt during the Exodus. We walked beside the reeds along the Nile, where the baby Moses was supposedly put into a basket by his mother, and then boarded a sticky night train north to steaming garbage-choked Cairo. Tracing the path of the Exodus, we then drove east on the old Pharoah's Road to Suez then south into the waste of the Sinai, aiming for Mount Sinai, the 7,200 foot peak and one of the desert mounts where God supposedly handed down the 10 Commandments.(Scholars think any of twenty mountains in the Middle East could have been the one in the Bible.)

During our own 40 hours of wandering the Sinai en route to climbing Mount Moses as it's sometimes called, we were hassled and obfuscated by skittery soldiers instructed to curfew Cairo at 7 p.m., to close petrol stations, to halt and turn back cars on unsecured desert roads that they say might, or might not, now be infested with gun-running, tourist-kidnapping Bedouins or other thugs taking advantage of the national political crisis.

This latest chapter of the Arab Spring opens beneath the searing sky of an Egyptian late June, in the sort of incapacitating heat that makes even the most efficient lose track of time, abandon goals and dispense with logic.

"There will be war in this country," predicted one of our party the night before the Islamic Brother Morsi was announced winner of the election. The speaker was an Egyptian tour guide who regularly must navigate his way through roadblocks set up by groups of uniformed men who would rather pass the buck up the cellphone daisy chain on requests for passage than be the last man to wave on a carload of westerners to meet its fate in some bloody international incident.

The modern-day pharaoh Mubarak might be dead, or he might be on life support, or he might just be malingering in a military hospital. All options are equally possible. The permutations of conspiracy-thinking are infinite.

As the military plays its winning hand - an elaborate patient plot to kill the revolution by degrees before dropping the axe - everyone expected riots in the streets in Cairo.

A death-struggle between extreme believers and secular kleptocrats passes for politics, while average Egyptians can only sigh and store up fuel, cash and food, waiting for calmer days. There is no constitution.

The Bible says that three millennia ago, Moses led his people out of Egypt, through epic wilderness and toward the Promised Land.

Moses never arrived, but he did get a glimpse of the goal from the peak of yet another God-loving desert mountain in Jordan called Mount Nebo, with its view of Jerusalem, arid hills of ancient Canaan and beyond that, the cool Euro promise of Mediterranean Sea.

"I have been to the top of the mountain," Martin Luther King said the night before he was assassinated in Memphis (another Biblical name, resurrected in far-off Tennessee). In that same speech, he said he no longer felt longevity was the chief aim of a human life.

The template for all stories about casting off oppression originated right here.

But there is neither Moses nor MLK, in Egypt, today.

mona.jpegBrave writer Mona Eltahawy - who had her arms broken and was sexually assaulted by male soldiers  in Egypt - has written a super-important article for Foreign Policy, criticizing the rampant misogyny inside the Islamist movement.
The backlash started immediately, and she's being attacked by Islamist supporters, and their women. You can read both her article and the barrage of responses right here.
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A friend in Cairo sent me these amazing photographs, documenting the effects of the Muslim Brotherhood on the heads of women enrolled at Cairo University.
The first photo is from the early 1960s.
The second is from the 1990s.

Those are the daughters and maybe even granddaughters of the liberated (or, as the Muslim Brotherhood would have it, infected with Western ideology) women.



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Women in Egypt are not looking likely to benefit from their revolution.

On Monday, the Egyptian judges hearing Samira Ibrahim's case against the military for "virginity testing" young women in prison acquitted the military doctor she accused. They let Ahmed Abdel go, because of what they called "contradictory statements" from witnesses.

The fact that there were any witnesses at all was astounding in the first place. Women do not speak of sexual assault in the honor cultures, for fear of being shunned or worse.

From the coverage:

Ibrahim has paid a heavy price for being the first to speak out and become the representative of the victims of the sexual assault. "I sacrificed my job and now my reputation and the Egyptian media has forsaken me, there was some support before and now that is gone. There's no one standing by me and that is a catastrophe," she said.

"These violations have always occurred against us [Egyptian women] and many people are frustrated and depressed because of the verdict yesterday," she added

Read the interveiw with Ibrahim in the Guardian.

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The November 1999 public execution of Zarmeena...

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The Taliban and their friends have blown up 80 schools, mostly girls' schools, in the Khyber region. Only the regional press pays attention anymore.
Today's news tidbit from the misogynist abyss.

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The messages on Tahrir Square

Image via Wikipedia

Feminist scholars are starting to weigh in on the fate of women in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. A particularly good article is this one by Sherine Hafez in the American Ethnologist, out today.  Hafez interviewed women in Egypt, describes their deep involvement in the revolution and their systematic, and sometimes violently imposed, exclusion from involvement since. Her explanation, classical women's studies, is that men, long dominated and "emasculated" by the kleptocratic dictatorship, need to differentiate themselves from women, and need for those women to be weaker than they are, in order to feel empowered themselves.

From the article:

It was the strength of conviction in this rebirth that made the events that took place in Tahrir on International Women's Day so incredible. Whereas rates of street harassment of women are close to 90 percent in Egypt, not a single known case of harassment was reported from Tahrir Square during the days of the uprising. Yet, only a few days after the revolution, women were being harassed in Tahrir, the scene of liberation.

Despite the rebirth of the idea of "ibn al balad," one alarming fact after another pointed to the marginalization of women from political participation. The exclusion of women from the "Egyptian Spring" after Mubarak's resignation led many to question the uprising itself. As one woman activist succinctly put it, "It is simple, this revolution means nothing to me if women's rights are not honored!" One indicator of women's exclusion was the name of the very first people's group to take initiative for opening negotiations with the SMC: the Council of Wise Men.10 Although this name raised a red flag for various observers with feminist inclinations, many argued that the council did not represent youth either. In fact, the name implied that the council was a level-headed group that arose in response to chaos that, perhaps, less-than-sage personalities had initiated. The speed with which events unfolded the first few weeks of the uprising and in the weeks that followed it seemed to catch women off-guard; before they knew it, they found that they were out of the running. Women were excluded from the committee on constitutional reform and were left out of the constitutional changes that were put in place by the committee.
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ape.jpegYemeni Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, the first Arab woman - and the youngest -  to win the Nobel, has an intriguing explanation for why women should keep their heads covered. According to comments she made to a journalist this week, the head covering is a major evolutionary advance, now differentiating women from the apes.
"Man in the early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I'm wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It's the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times."
Putting aside the question of whether Islam - or any of the major religions - accepts that humanity evolved from apes, is it really a good idea for a Nobel Peace Prize winner to be insinuating that uncovered women are backward savages?
The Muslim Times story link is here.
Thanks for Gwendolen Cates for the tip.
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King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz in 2002

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STOP, in the name of love!

Today, on Mideastposts.com, a writer named Abu Muhammed, describing himself as an "American Muslim in exile," writes about why Saudi women should not be allowed to drive.

It seems that unaccompanied women in Saudi are subject to relentless harassment, not just from religious police, but from all those hormonally challenged poor young men who can't have sex until they are in their 30s and have accumulated enough money to buy a wife.

Abu helpfully includes in his article a short video of a woman, walking with a small boy, through the gauntlet.

Better to stay home, than to train those young men to treat women like people, I guess.

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vealCalf2W-1.jpgHuman Rights Watch reports today that the wise men of Riyadh have banned their small group of women athletes - who play soccer behind walls to keep the male gaze from being irreparably inflamed by the sight of their bare legs and arms - from the Olympics in London. This despite the fact that the IOC threatened to ban the Kingdom's male athletes from participating if the women were kept home. It remains to be seen whether the IOC will have the courage of its convictions on this one.

The aptest metaphor for Saudi treatment of women - forced permanent childhood under male "guardianship", the prohibition on driving, the sickening black blanket, the enforced weakness on every front, especially the ban on physical activity and certainly public sports  - can be summed up in VEAL CALVES, like the white one behind bars pictured here. Like veal, they are imprisoned, kept in the dark and denied physical exercise, to enhance and accentuate their softness. Actually, the French word "moelleux" maybe better captures what these men are after in their females -- powerless, supine, pliant as a rare meat. 

The story here:

Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia, which announced three months ago it would permit women to participate in the Games, is now barring female athletes from joining the Saudi team, Bikya Masr reported Friday.

The organization said Saudi Arabia is violating the Olympic Charter by engaging in gender discrimination and called on the International Olympic Committee to bar Saudi Arabia from the Olympics unless it allows female athletes to participate.

"Human Rights Watch urges the International Olympic Committee to uphold the values of the Olympic Charter and condition Saudi Arabia's participation in the London 2012 Olympics on the country taking steps to end discrimination against women in sports," the group said in a statement.

Read more: http://www.upi.com/Sports_News/2012/02/17/Saudi-women-banned-from-London-Olympics/UPI-69481329509173/#ixzz1mkTaktBL

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images.jpgDarryl Issa's all-male House panel today, discussing the contraceptive oversight rule, refused to hear a word from women, preferring instead to listen to men who think "liberty" means denying women access to birth control on insurance plans like the one Georgetown University law school offers its female students.

With the Congressional Mullahs, a man's "liberty" to serve God as he sees fit means a woman's forced and unwanted pregnancy, I guess.  The woman-loathing jihadis don't really have to come over here and try to install Sharia law, with religious panderers like Issa in charge.

From Politico's reportage:

Rep. Carolyn Maloney pressed Issa to allow Sandra Fluke, a law student from Georgetown University, to testify about the impact of the new requirement that most health plans offer contraceptive coverage with no co-pay. Issa shot back that Fluke was rejected because she was "not found to be appropriate or qualified" to testify about religious liberty. He said liberty, not contraception, was the topic of the hearing.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0212/72971.html#ixzz1mafWKID4
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Coat of Arms of Saudi Arabia

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According to a factoid in Deborah Scroggins new book, Wanted Women, Saudis spent $75 billion between 1970 and 2001 spreading Wahhabism in the Muslim world. Here, today, video of a Saudi sheik urging the execution of a 23-year-old jounralist who tweeted about Muhammad the Prophet.
What is the solution?
We must all drive everywhere, turn up the heat, and pour oil on our heads, to speed the depletion of the resources financing this Medieval movement.

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Segregated Iraqi women waiting to vote in elec...

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We rarely hear about the fate of Iraqi women after the war, just as we don't hear much about the rest of the wreckage left behind by War Criminal W's great folly in our name.  The American-led Operation Enduring Freedom is over, and what endures is a new tyranny, with religious rather than secular underpoinnings.

Iraq has already executed 65 people in 2012, and it's barely a month in.

From a report by the Canada-based Global Research:

Drawing on stereotypes regarding the position of women in Arab and Muslim societies, US and British officials have defended the occupation regime in Iraq by suggesting its positive effects for women's emancipation. These claims not only ignored the considerable advancements in women's education and employment made during the first twenty years of Baa'thist rule; they also cover up the particularly detrimental impact of US-UN-imposed sanctions on Iraqi women during the 1990s. Similarly, these stereotypes distract attention from the further deterioration of women's rights and access to education and employment under the religious fundamentalist occupation regime. Drawing on a comprehensive statistical survey, Dr.Souad Al Azzawi showed that the deteriorating security situation drove Iraqi women out of work. At least 85% of educated women are unemployed.[25][26]
In spite of reports of a decline in violence in Iraq as a whole, nearly 60% of women surveyed (Oxfam 2009) said that security and safety remained their most pressing concern. The survey importantly illustrated that the ripples of conflict have washed over almost every aspect of many women's lives - and those of their families.[27]
"Eight years after the US invasion, life in Iraq is actually getting worse for women and minorities, while journalists and detainees face significant rights violations," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, on 21 February 2011. "The women and girls of Iraq have borne the biggest brunt of this conflict and resulting insecurity," Stork said. "For Iraqi women, who enjoyed some of the highest levels of rights protection and social participation in the region before 1991, this has been an enormously bitter pill to swallow."[28]
Hundreds of women have been targeted and killed as professionals or for their public role in Iraq. In the medical profession alone, many have fled or abandoned their work, triggering a brain drain and crippling the health system. And there are now two million widows, most of them without financial means or government support.
While both men and women are kidnapped, the trauma of the abduction for many women does not end with the release. The shame associated with the event is a lasting stigma. Such incidents are probably underreported by families for the same reason.[29]
And it's not getting better.  A report, released in August 2011 by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and your Office, noted that women's rights in some ways deteriorated in 2010 and children continue to suffer from violence and armed conflict.[30]
U.S.-led coalition forces showed higher rates of indiscriminate killing of women and children than insurgents, a study has found in 2011.[31]
Read it all here.
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Samira Ibrahim - سميرة ابراهيم

Samira Ibrahim - سميرة ابراهيم (Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim)

Female prison wardens called to testify in Samira Ibrahim's suit against the military for "virginity testing" her and other women, this week denied that they had ever witnessed the practice.
Here's the story on their "see no evil" testimony.
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The world has devised many means of controlling and abusing girls and women, from black blankets over heads, to forced marriages and honor killings, but possibly the most sickening of all practices is Female Genital Mutilation or FGM, which is committed on helpless children and approved by their parents, especially their mothers, who themselves were sliced open and de-sexed as children.

Yesterday was the day the UN designated for international condemnation of the practice. In the British Parliament a female member (naturally) stood up and decried the fact that tens of thousands of British girls, children of immigrants, are still mutilated every year. That story is here.

Lately I've been reading the works of Egyptian writer and feminst Nawal el Sadawy, and will be quoting her in places later, but here she eloquently recalls her own excision ceremony in an interview with The Independent here.

From the article:

At the age of six, in the summer of 1937, Nawal El Saadawi was pinned down by four women in her home in Egypt. A midwife, holding a sharpened razor blade, pulled out her clitoris and cut it off. "Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed," she wrote in her first autobiography, A Daughter of Isis.

"I lay in a pool of blood. After a few days, the bleeding stopped, and the daya [midwife] peered between my thighs and said, 'All is well. The wound has healed, thanks be to God.' But the pain was there, like an abscess in my flesh."
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English: A political cartoons by Carlos Latuff...

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Courage in Action:

As Manal al-Sharif told us in Cairo last month, she and other women have now challenged Saudi authorities to prove that forbidding women from driving is in fact "a custom" and not a law, by suing to get their drivers' licenses. A court accepted the case and you can
read the whole story here at the Wall Street Journal today.

From the story:

RIYADH--A court in Saudi Arabia agreed to hear the first lawsuits by Saudi women challenging the kingdom's de facto ban on women driving, a lawyer for one of the women said.

Enlarge Image

Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Saudi women wait for their drivers at a Riyadh mall in September.

The legal push is a shift by activists after years of simply appealing to Saudi leaders for permission to drive and, more rarely, taking to the roads in small numbers to test enforcement.

Since mid-2011, the limited push to win women the right to drive has been one of the few fronts in a country largely bypassed by the Arab Spring activist movements of the past year.

The lawsuits, one of them by Manal al-Sharif, who founded small movement last year called Women2Drive, risk a backlash from the public and officials in the conservative kingdom.
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backpage ad.jpgNick Kristof has an excellent article today on the pimping of girls on the web using a Village Voice advertising service called Backpage. A sample of its wares today is the ad for Bunnygirls, above.
We often hear men and women allied with the religious fundies talk about how women in the west are treated badly too. And it is certainly true. This is just another point on the global spectrum of man's inability to think of "woman" as a human being.

From the story:

Backpage suggests that it is battling censors and prudes. In fact, what drives it seems to be greed. In their letter, the attorneys general said that Backpage earns more than $22 million annually from prostitution advertising.

On Backpage, the pimps claim adult ages for the girls they market, but (Brooklyn prosecutor) Hersh scoffs. "I see 19," she said, "and I immediately think 13."

"I'm not seeing a lot of cases where there's not coercion," she added. "The average age where a girl is forced into prostitution is 12 to 14. And most of these 16- or 17 year-olds are being run by pretty vicious pimps."
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I finally met Samira Ibrahim on a dusty highway outside a walled military court in suburban Cairo this week, where she was appearing in a court case she brought against the Egyptian army for performing a "virginity test" on her while she was in their custody. Ibrahim is a short, fierce young woman in a bright headscarf and blue jeans, avidly texting on her Nokia. From Sohag, a midsized town in upper Egypt, she sued the army because, after being arrested in Tahrir Square last March, she was fingered by a man in uniform, in an open room with soldiers standing around with cellphone cameras.

I interviewed Samira Ibrahim and other women in Egypt about what I think is the single most revolutionary act they've undertaken, speaking about sexual violence.

Read the full story at The Daily Beast here.
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Letter to Cairo

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"In Egypt, the women love to sing and dance. And the men are submissive to authority." - An advance scout's message to the caliph in the tenth century, before the caliph invaded.

In its thousands of years as a hive of human life, Cairo has had many nicknames, but one is The City Victorious.

It remains one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world, teeming with people who generally live and let live. In spite of the great daily challenges of living in unsettled, post-revolutionary, the Cairenes I met were uniformly friendly and welcoming. I didn't even get as much of the notorious street sexual harassment everyone was talking about. In any case, I was insensible to it, because I don't know the nasty words.

A day before I was supposed to leave the city, I met a group of women around my age, who had organized themselves to meet me via twitter. We met at a coffee place in Zamalek, and they and the venue could have been in New York (global monoculture alert).

Their concerns were the same as those of any woman in the U.S.: fair treatment at work and on the streets, child care, husbands. But, they tend to the chores of modern life in a city challenged by civil breakdown. I think living in New York is "stressful." We don't know what that word means.

They talked about politics more than we do, but they have just had a revolution.

And, yes, they are concerned about the religious government's limits on women and culture. But they also have a lot of energy and hope and a great sense of humor.

On an average day, Cairenes can encounter rampaging thugs (in the pay of some power or other) a gas shortage that an oilman told me is caused by looters at fuel depots in Alexandria siphoning off fuel and replacing it with water, which the authorities didn't notice until it was too late. Hundreds of cars lined up around fuel stations through the night last week.

Traffic is unbelievable. People have got used to two-hour one-way commutes over distances that a man on a bicycle - should he be foolish enough to dare - could take 20 minutes.

If the religious parties care about the country, they will forget about their culture war and provide food, jobs and civil services.

I don't think I am imposing my western mores to observe that there's an advantage to any society in trash pickup and streetlights and sidewalks that goes beyond "Orientalism" (you can see me being accused of this here at Slate).

Example: We had to scamper through lane after lane of beltway traffic to get from the Ramses Hilton on the Nile over to Tahrir Square, because there is no other way to get there. People just step out into the stream of cars and hope for the best. My advisor in this game, the young wit, translator and swimming champ Hassan el Naggar, showed me how it's done. "Don't run," he advised, as vans and cars aimed straight for us.. "Don't show fear. That encourages them."

Even with the crazy traffic, shortages, hardship and sword-wielding bandits , Cairo is beautiful.

The infrastructure of Cairo is Istanbul and Paris thrown together - graceful arches, 19th Century ironwork, angled streets pocked with surprising lanes and covered alleys and unexpected parquet courtyards where at any given moment one of the city's cats is padding by. The building pictured above is typical: houses a restaurant in Zamalek, but is filled with mysterious doors and stairways and hallways leading who knows where.

Cairo's buildings have a grace and human scale obscured at street level by hideous advertisements for Toshiba and Xerox and Nokia and Vodafone. The visual sewer of capitalism has gushed over everything, unchecked, baiting the hunger for newer and better and faster.

If someone bothered to take down the signs, the old grandeur that's still there - the balustrades and terraces and iron grillwork in downtown Cairo would put Paris' Blvd. St Germain to shame.

Besides the infrastructure, this vital, vibrant city, the ancient "mother" of the ages, remains a city of ideas and people that Mahfouz celebrated , and is inherently tolerant and joyful.

It would be a terrible tragedy if the new religious parties tried to extinguish that spirit and replace it with the somber, male-dominated Utopian ideal that the parties' funders in the Gulf States prefer.

For the sake of the Cairenes I met, including those in the religious parties who were kind enough to give me the time, and for the ancient City Victorious, may they let Egypt be Egypt.

For Hassan and Fadel and Wassin and May and Shamiaa and Lana and Fatima and Chah and Nada and the Big Pharaoh the rest of you.... Shukran,

riche.jpegTonight, we returned to Cafe Riche, pictured left, a downtown Cairo bistro where Naguib Mahfouz once drank coffee every morning at 8 a.m. It's walking distance from Tahrir Square, and the last time we tried to go there, Sunday afternoon, a gang of men with swords was rampaging through the streets and deterred us.
Cafe Riche is one of those watering holes of the imagination, where spies and intellectuals and artists and movie stars used to congregate, in the days of Ray Bans and black and white photography. And maybe they still do.
Among the regulars there tonight, in the fog of Marlboro smoke, was a lawyer who likes to go on t.v.  and argue with the Islamists, a journalist, an engineer missing a hand, a very dessicated looking "famous movie star". They were  talking about how the last time the Ireligious parties were in Parliament, in the 1990s, and again in '05, they went straight for the jugular vein of Egyptian intellectual life, filing what are called "hisba" lawsuits, which are like citizens arrests in which the accuser charges that a person is breaking some precept of religious law. Usually the targets have been writers, poets and moderate Muslims, the most notorious was a moderate Muslim philosopher Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, who, after being charged under the hisba system, was legally reclassified as an atheist, and forcibly divorced from his wife (in Egypt non Muslims and Muslims cannot marry). He self- exiled to Holland and later died, obit here.
One of the lawyers said he expected that during the next two years all the free thinkers in Cairo will be picked off and hisba'ed.
As we were chatting over our tea and wine and cigarettes, the laconic blue-robed, Ottoman-costumed waiters all suddenly dashed out the front door and started yanking down the metal shutters to protect the beautiful old street-front glass walls from a rampaging band of knife, gun and rock wielding thugs. Thus trapped inside, with occasional explosions and shouts reaching us from beyond the walls, we nattered on about the imminent death of free speech in Egypt,
Outside, the marauders (about two dozen teens rumored to be paid) attacked the small group of tentdwellers who have been in Tahrir Square, throwing molotov cocktails and burning them to ashes. My young translator had run out to join the scene and returned to Cafe Riche with blood on his pants, very worried about what his mother was going to say when she saw the evidence of his brush with danger. He had helped flag down a taxi and force the driver to take a bleeding man in the street to a hospital. Tahrir was still smoking as we left and all the tents are gone.
So it goes in Egypt tonight.
Minnie Mouse

Image via Wikipedia

I've been running around Cairo and only now saw that the funny picture of Mickey and Minnie Mouse I found on Google images and used to illustrate my adventures here was at one time Tweeted by the second wealthiest man in Egypt, Naguib Sawiris.
And for that Tweet, Naguib is being tried, in court, for blasphemy.
The story in the BBC here.
So, here's Minnie, back on the streets, naked and exposed, the little western minx.
I hope I can black out the picture below before the Inquisitors come around.
Or not.
It's the Gordian knot that's confounded U.S. Presidents for a generation, but the path to peace in the Middle East is finally clear.
The Islamists who now control 70 percent of Egypt's newly "free" nation and their bitter enemies just to the East, the Israeli Orthodox, share a fundamental lifestyle igoal: they need women to disappear so they can focus on God.
The New York Times has a story today on the Israeli "woman problem" and you can read it here.
Common ground between bitter enemies, a bit of good news in grim times.
There might not be enough fabric in the world right now to swaddle and mummify the women the Islamists and their counterparts in Israel would like to erase, but the Chinese textile industry should be up to the task.

samira.jpegThe sick obsession with controlling women and baby-making is a bottomless well of weirdness.
In Egypt, and other nations, Indonesia and Turkey among them, certainly the Gulf States, doctors or midwives are sometimes asked to perform "virginity tests" to ensure that a man is getting a bride untouched by a previous male appendage.
I'm still working out why this is such a problem for them. I assume they are chiefly concerned about being unfavorably compared with a rival, which is also the basis for the mandated swaddling of female bodies in public.
Yesterday, a very modern young Egyptian man explained it to me quite succinctly. He said that women aren't supposed to show their bodies to any other man after marriage, and that the niqab - the full black covering - is a pretty good way to ensure that. He said he wouldn't make his own wife wear one, but wouldn't object if she wanted to. He's in his early twenties. So much for progress in the next generation.
As Simone de Beauvoir wrote: "No one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility."
One would think this strategy died in the Middle Ages, or at least after the birth control pill. But no.
The practice actually has a long history over many nations. British writer Eylam Atakav pulled together some recent examples of virginity testing in Indonesia, Turkey and in various modern films, here.
American University Cairo historian Khaled Fahmy, writes here that the archives of Egypt are filled with results of these "tests" going back a century or so.
A very brave 25-year-old named Samira Ibrahim, from a small-town, was dragged away from Tahrir Square and taken to prison, where military police subjected her, along with uncounted other young female protesters, to one of these pseudo-scientific ordeals.
She sued the Egyptian military and won. No one else had the guts to stand up and talk about what happened, not just because of the sense of humiliation that inhibit sex crime victims anywhere, but because over here, in the honor cultures, "deflowered" virgins de facto dishonor their families and can be shunned or even killed by their own fathers or brothers.
I hope to talk to her - and her father - before I leave.
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mickey.jpegI'm in Cairo this week, interviewing feminists and Islamists, whose post-revolutionary aims are on a collision course. Many of the men have shaved off their mukhabarat mustaches (so 20th century) and are busy growing out the long chin whiskers of their heroes, the holy ancients.

Cab drivers carry flash drives of the Koran and ask young Egyptian men to recite the holy lines with them as they careen through insane traffic.

It was great to sip a beer in a room full of them last night, glowering at me.

To be a visiting western female in Cairo right now is a bit like being an African visiting pre-civil rights America. You really have to think about how much skin you're showing.

More on these adventures as time permits.

Meanwhile, over in Israel, the ultra-orthodox are running a conference this week on advances in gynecological medicine, for men only. The story here. (Thanks to Candace Dempsey for alerting me to this one.)
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From Egypt, encouraging word that rural women went after young Salafist religious vigilantes with a taste of their own medicine, beating them with sticks when they came to harass - Saudi and Iranian style - women at a beauty salon. Al Arabiya has the story :

"A group of ultra-conservative Salafis got more than they bargained for after bursting into a beauty salon in the Egyptian town of Benha in an attempt to enforce "God's law" on the women inside reported the online newspaper, Bikya Masr.

The women were told to stop what they were doing or face physical punishment from the group.

But instead of complying out of fear, or calling for help, the women took matters into their own hands by striking back.

They beat and whipped the vigilante gang "with their own canes before kicking them out to the street in front of an astonished crowd of onlookers," Egyptian online newspaper, Bikya Masr, reported."

In Israel, meanwhile, women convened a flashmob to protest the Haredim and videotaped it, here.
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"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." -Pat Robertson
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wedding.jpegI came across this article today, about an unnamed Egyptian woman on her way to marrying her sixth wealthy husband, when she was arrested. Her first husband was 80 years old, and with her bridal money, she'd bought a luxury apartment building.
Who knows if it's true, it's from the Egyptian Arabic language daily paper Alanba, which could be Cairo's equivalent of the National Enquirer.
But let's think about this for one minute: it's okay in Utah, Egypt, and various African and Islamic countries, for a man to have many wives.
But let a woman try that, and ...get arrested!

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blue burk.jpegThe young Pakistani-British writer Nadeem Aslam produced a haunting, evocative book about Afghanistan called The Wasted Vigil which deservedly won awards and accolades in 2008. In it he evokes both the war-ravaged land's original beauty - perfume factories, night-blooming jasmine, orchards - and its horrors - Soviet butterfly bombs maiming children, madrassas hatching hundreds of baby suicide bombers monthly.

A theme running through all of Aslam's work (more on fine display in a story he wrote for Granta's Pakistan issue, very much worth buying here) is the situation of women under the jihadists.

This passage below caught my eye. In it, one of the book's protagonists, Zameen, pregnant with an AWOL and dead Russian soldier's child, spends seven of her gestating months as a refugee picking her way toward relative safety in Pakistan. Somewhere on the road, she finally lies down.

"She gave birth prematurely inside the blue tepee of a burka, planting a long stick in the earth and draping the cloak over it, opening it wider and weighing down the edges with rocks. If the tree above had been shorter she would have detached its long thorns to pin the hem to the ground. Smoke from the candle escaped through the embroidered eye-grille and disappeared into the dead branches of the tree. At that stage of her travel there were no adults with her, only three children who remained on the other side of the tent that night, falling asleep as the darkness increased. She had found one of them a month ago, wandering half-mad through the wilderness ... ."

Memorable images: Thorns, smoke, dead trees, half-mad refugee children, and premature baby, not long for this world, born in the dirt under the blue rag.

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Oh, Afghanistan

The stories of the things that happen to women in Afghanistan are so disgusting it's almost impossible to look at them. 
Here's one about Sahur Gul, the 15 year old force-married to a man who decided he could pimp her out, to bring his family some funds. She resisted, so they locked her in a basement and tortured her.
It's not that this doesn't happen in the rest of the world. It's that in Afghanistan, it's quasi-legal.
From the article:
"The Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women was passed in August 2009 and had raised hopes among women's rights activists that Afghan women would get to fight back against abuses that had been ignored under Taliban rule. The law criminalized many abuses for the first time, including domestic violence, child marriage, driving a woman to resort to suicide and the selling and buying of women.
Yet the report found only a small percentage of reported crimes against women are pursued by the Afghan government."
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An Egyptian court yesterday ruled that Egypt's ban on television anchors in "hijab" (head scarves), a regulation in place since the dawn of the television age - should be sacked.
The case was filed several years ago by a television anchorwoman who wanted to keep her covering on. The court fined the Minister of Information 20,000 Egyptian Pounds and said the scarf "conserves her dignity."
The full story is at BikyaMasr.

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Raymond Ibrahim has an excellent history of how the covering of women was strategically re-instituted in Egypt, beginning in the 1950s, as part of a long and concerted effort by the Muslim Brotherhood.  This speaks to the centrality of the treatment of women to the Islamist cause. And how far they had already come in 2011.

 Nasser told of how back in 1953 he wanted to cooperate with the Muslim Brotherhood, and met with its leader.

According to Nasser, the very first demand of the Brotherhood leader was for the hijab to return to Egypt, "for every woman walking in the street to wear a headscarf."

The audience erupted in laughter at this, then, ludicrous demand; one person hollered "Let him wear it!" eliciting more laughter and applause."

No one laughs now. Read the rest of the article here.

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The New York Times has an interesting piece today on the brazen misogyny of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel. The story follows the travails of an 8 year old girl, daughter of American immigrants, hounded in suburban Jerusalem for not wearing what they deem to be the proper coverings.
Must be something in the water over there.
The picture that goes with it is worth a thousand words. Except the sign they are holding is in Hebrew. Translated, it reads: "Women are asked not to linger in this area."
Nice guys. They will get along well with the Brotherhood across the border.

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Last night I had interesting exchange with a smart NYC high school senior, who challenged me on the notion: if you think women don't mind walking around with black blankets over their heads in 120 degree heat, then you need to re-examine whether you think women are like you, that is, human.

English: Human Rights logo: "FREE AS A MA...

Image via Wikipedia

I said the treatment of women is a human rights issue, not a "cultural" issue.

And this very smart young man called me out on this.

He said, well, do you think a global "monoculture" is a good idea? And should we "police" these cultures?

I had never heard the term "monoculture" before, must be a concept that entered the high school history/sociology classes since I graduated, but I get it: What would the world be like if every culture in the world was the same? Like eradicating fermented yak milk, blowfish sushi, Peruvian flautists, colorful Indonesian textiles, Irish jigs, Ukrainian folk dance .... .

What would be the point of bringing cameras on adventure travel, right?

I also never suggested "policing" to bring universal human rights to women. I'm just suggesting that women have them.

Because we all DO agree that if a society practices slavery, or the systematic discrimination against (or murder of) an ethnic group that includes men, then that behavior is best discouraged, if not policed. No one has suggested recently that the eradication of those behaviors has produced a monoculture.

Would global cultures be less vibrant if women had universal human rights?

Are we losing cultural value when societies stop forcing women to cover their flesh for fear of inciting male lust and God's displeasure. Do we risk becoming a monoculture when women are no longer being denied education, the right to drive, the right to choose when and whom to have sex with or marry, the right to divorce, and run for public office?

I am almost getting why our right wing idiots complain about morally relativistic teacher/philosophers. Almost, but ... not yet. I believe in tolerance and debate and not making judgments about people who are different than I am.

But I do think that kid was wrong.


"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." --- Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1792

"A century ago, normal female activity, especially the kind that would lead women into power, was classified as ugly and sick. If a woman read too much, her uterus would 'atrophy.' If she kept on reading, her reproductive system would collapse and, according to the medical commentary of the day, 'we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid'...Participation in modernity, education and employment was portrayed as making Victorian women ill...Victorians protested women's higher education by fervidly imagining the damage it would do to their reproductive organs...and it was taken for granted that 'the education of women would sterilize them' and make them sexually unattractive: 'When a women displays scientific interest, then there is something out of order in her sexuality.'" --- Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 1991

Saudi officials say they are considering a law that will force women with attractive eyes to cover their faces completely in public places. Sheikh Motlab al Nabet, a spokesperson for Saudi Arabia's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, said the proposal for the law has already been undergoing formal discussions. The committee says the law will authorize the government to prevent women from revealing "tempting" eyes in public. -- -- Various news accounts, November, 2011.

Egypt: Gizeh

Image by Brooklyn Museum via Flickr

In Egypt, they call the sphinx of Giza the Abu Hol, or the Father of Terror.
The real father of terror for women walking around outside in Egypt - and in other countries in the region - is fear of rape.
Rape fear is an extremely efficient mind-weapon against all women, especially effective in the Middle East, not just because rape is a violent and terrible act, but because  "honor" societies put female modesty at the center of family reputations.
Raped women are variously shunned, executed, forced to marry their attackers.
In Egypt, when journalists like Lara Logan or Mona Eltahawy are sexually assaulted, the men in charge are broadcasting a reminder message to the larger Egyptian  female population: stay home where you belong.
Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahaway has talked bout being assaulted inside the Ministry of Interior. She says only dual citizenship saved her from worse treatment.

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Could a woman in a blue bra be the female Mohamed Bouazizi?
Complicated, because the army's stripping and beating two days ago of a female protestor in Cairo iis really about modesty, which is the Islamists' all-purpose excuse for misogynistic bullshit, but still, the women marching in the streets of Cairo showed some serious (covered) spine.
The Egyptian military's piggish pseudo-scientific "virginity tests" on female protesters didn't get  women out in the streets, nor did the abuse heaped upon women in Tahrir Square on the occasion of International Women's Day last spring.
But the army's stripping and kicking of a covered women brought out thousands of women, in numbers not seen since the early 1900s, when Egyptians rallied against colonialism.
Echoes of that today in public, anti-American comments from Fayza Aboul Naga, minister of planning and international cooperation, saying Egyptian women don't need HRC, or any other foreign voices to demand their rights  for them.
Writing for CNN, American Isobel Coleman: "It remains to be seen whether these new humiliations for Egyptian women will lead to significant changes. But given the country's deep-seated patriarchy, women in Egypt should not take their rights for granted."

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One of the problems with American policy vis a vis women and the Islamists is how few American politicians have been willing to step forward and criticize what's going on.
After three female Secretaries of State, official American policy on the Saudi ban on female drivers remains not only intact but barely criticized. When a petition went around Congress supporting the women who want to drive, an embarrassingly small number of our elected officials recognize this as a human rights violation, and only 14 members signed it. All were ... female.
So it's heartening to see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has begun to speak out publicly, not just about Egyptian military abuse of female protesters as she did in Georgetown yesterday but also about equally misogynistic behavior over in Israel, where the Haredim (extreme Orthodox) treat their females like baby-producing cattle and make them sit in separate buses. 
Speaking in Washington last week, HRC called out the Israelis on that, and compared the treatment to the Rosa Parks situation in the US civil rights battle.
I also must say, it's great to see her meeting with those Saudi princes in secular venues, without what Oriana Fallaci called "the dirty medieval rag" over her head.
More of the same, going forward, we hope. 
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draculas bride.jpeg

For the next couple of months, I'll be going in an out of the Middle East, working on a project about women in the wake of the Arab Spring.
While women participated in the revolts, their rights hang in the balance as Islamic fundamentalists win elections and try to install theocracies.
Under the worst of these already existing regimes, women are barred from education (Taliban), forbidden from driving (Saudi Arabia), and forced into marriages by family decree to which disobedience inspires legally sanctioned honor killings.

I'll be reading texts and traveling, and filing some of my thoughts and findings here, Under the Black Blanket.

The Black Blanket is a Rorschach test about what we think about women in general. If you think mothers don't mind handing off their daughters to marry Uncle Fester in Afghanistan, or if you think they don't feel sick wearing black blankets over their heads in 120 degree desert heat, then you don't think they are very much like you -- that is, human.

What do you see when you look at that picture?
A vampire, a giant bat, a modest woman, a freak? A quaint Oriental cultural phenomenon?    Does she like it under there?
Does she believe she's being modest and that God likes her better for it?
Does she feel subversive?
What's she wearing underneath, anyway?
Is she afraid her husband or dad or brother or the religious police will beat her with sticks if she takes it off?
Is she hiding the bruises?
Is she having a bad hair day?


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Image via Wikipedia

We never met Jose Pimentel, recently removed from our shared neighborhood in upper Manhattan to a terrorist holding cell downtown. But we might have passed him on the street, up by the bodega, because he looks a lot like the other young men hanging out on the corners of Broadway with cellphones palmed, waiting, waiting, waiting for the unemployed Dominican version of Godot.

His saga started unfolding on t.v. Sunday night when Mayor Bloomberg, apparently interrupting an afternoon of antique-book collecting, clad in a Thanksgiving-orange cashmere sweater, took to the podium to announce that a "lone wolf" "home-grown" Islamist terrorist had been a mere hour away from finishing a pipe bomb with which he planned to start blowing up local Post Offices.

Gauging from the address of the apartment he shared with his mom, Pimentel would have had in sights our local post office at 158th Street, a worm-colored fluorescent cave we've gotten to know much too well over the years, waiting for surly attendants to decide when the line of Dominican grandmothers on walkers and canes waiting for checks looked close enough to collapse for them to get back behind their bomb-proof plastic windows and start selling stamps.

Our initial reaction was: hey, why didn't the NYPD wait until Pimentel had tested his device on the post office at 158th Street? .

(Note to NYPD: joke! Read on before putting my name on that list.)

Monday morning brought the predictable Fox news headline "Usama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki may be dead, but their message continues to inspire terror."

The police had been surveilling the 27-year-old "lone wolf" for the last two years, using wiretaps and informants, tracking his escalating radical Islamist ravings and waiting, waiting, waiting until he finally went to the Dollar Store and bought the makings of his pipe bomb.

Soon as he was arrested, though, like so many NY Post cover-worthy, home-grown terror cases in in recent years, the plot thickened with stories of dubious informants behaving in ways that give public defenders excellent entrapment defenses. Today, TPM reports that an NYPD informant even smoked pot with Pimentel, apparently relaxing him enough to share his evil plans and talk about wanting to perform a self-circumcision to become more fully Muslim. All of which is on tape.

Then it emerged that the FBI was reportedly so unimpressed by Pimentel's threat level that they declined to join the city police in their investigation, let alone show up at the Sunday night press conference.

Which all begs the question: how much money might taxpayers have been saved with a referral to a mental health agency here? I can think of half a dozen other things the NYPD could be doing in Hamilton Heights on any given night than smoking dope with a self-circumciser.

Pimentel's arrest for planning to hit local post offices with pipe bombs is timely, though, since it coincides with the engineered implosion of not just one post office, but possibly the entire USPS, reeling from a slo-mo neutron bomb lobbed by the radical right.

Tonight, with Pimentel safely in prison, community organizers and union leaders rallied in Harlem, trying to save one of the thousands of neighborhood and small town post offices scheduled for extinction thanks to a radically anti-government Congress. Conservatives hate the USPS because it employs a lot of federal workers, whom the radical business class deems akin to welfare recipients. So their minions in Congress passed a law in 2006 requiring the Post office to pay its retirees health benefits 75 years into the future. (Cue the video of chortling Grover Norquist-red-tie-wearing David-Brooks-look-alike GOP geeks here).

The Postal service will probably soon have to shutter 15,000 offices and lay off tens of thousands of workers, according to Postmaster Patrick Donahue speaking to Time. Donahue conceded those radical measures would save no more than 2 percent of the national deficit, but the USPS is always low-hanging fruit for the right. The latest payment on that massive, health plan payoff debt was due Nov. 18, two days before the 158th Street post office was saved from terrorist Jose Pimentel's dooby-ious terror pipe dream.

For more on our dying postal service, www.savethepostoffice.com.


Choppers securing the Hudson for today's 9/11 commemoration jolted us awake at dawn.

I'm among those who won't be participating in the ceremonies downtown. For one, I have no interest in sharing any part of my city with President Bush, whose multi-trillion-dollar, needless folly of a war with Iraq did more damage to our nation than anything the jihadis achieved on that horrid morning ten years ago.

I'm also not sure what purpose is served by this ten-year anniversary memorial. I would prefer to let the dead rest in peace, and let their families and friends mourn them well. And to contemplate the Christian notion that turning the other cheek is sometimes the best way to deal with savagery.

Last year, I spent some time in the Italian city of Otranto, a pretty Adriatic town and site of an infamous 15th Century beheading massacre in the long and bloody skirmish between Islam and Christianity. Otranto was also the setting for an 18th Century publishing phenomenon, the first novel in the psychological horror genre we now call gothic .

The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole, describes the supernatural punishment meted out to a usurping Italian feudal prince in a haunted castle packed with what we now consider standard fright stock - secret doors, gloomy tunnels linking castle and monastery, haunted suits of armor, portraits of ancestors jumping out of their frames. These images were so fresh and shocking at the time that Walpole's little book became an instant best-seller.

Walpole had never set foot in Otranto, although he had traveled through Italy as part of the Grand Tour of the Continent that all moneyed Englishmen undertook. He based his tale on accounts from friends who dallied there, and picked up lore that survives today.

"Local history is filled with blood and darkness," Otranto guide Francesco Calignano told me. Locals believe a headless horseman still appears near a martyr's sanctuary on hot August nights, a shade of one of the beheaded brave Christians who refused to bow before the invading Turks in 1481.

Otranto's blood and darkness is rooted in memories of a 600-year-old massacre. The town was once a beachhead for Byzantium in Europe, an embarkation point for Crusaders, and later a prime target for Turkish invaders. The Cathedral of Otranto reflects this multicultural past, and is a World Heritage site for its complex mosaic floor depicting scenes from every human myth and legend known to the world circa 1100 A.D.: pagan pantheon, India's Ganesh and yogi culture, Jewish Kabbalah's tree of life, Confucianism, Buddhism, Puss in Boots, the Old and New Testament prophets and King Arthur and the Grail.

But rather than celebrate that multicultural past, the Otrantans take their obsession with the memory of victimhood to macabre levels. Beyond the tile floor, off to the side, 800 skulls of victims beheaded by the Turks line the walls behind glass. Bits of their preserved flesh are stored in a locked drawer beneath the skulls, which is opened once a year in August, and the contents paraded through the streets.

A deserted street called via 800 martiri, leads up a hill to a sanctuary, commemorating the victims of the Turks. The real Castle of Otranto, built by the Aragonese who eventually repelled the Turks, is a photogenic, perfectly preserved, white fortress, with turrets and gunwales and surrounded by a waterless moat and accessible only by drawbridge.

Modern-day Otranto is a white-cobbled tourist attraction in summer, but during the other ten months of the year it is an unpopulated, somber, haunted, dead place. Silent white alleys surround the castle and cathedral, glowing in moonlight beneath the hilltop sanctuary, carefully tended by monks and dedicated to the memory of the 800 martyrs. Otranto's obsession with its 600-year-old victimization presents a cautionary tale about what New York might be in six centuries if tragedy - and not our glorious, universal spirit - became the city's binding legend.

Logo of Agent Provocateur

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Prato, Italy --- I saw something pretty sad yesterday.

Prato, a Tuscan town known since medieval times for its textiles, is a battleground for a fight over what "Made in Italy" really means, since the textile factories here are now mostly Chinese-owned, and the workers in them are Chinese immigrants, about half of whom are "clandestini" or illegally in Italy.

As in the U.S., during "the crisis" outsiders and immigrants rather than bankers and bosses are getting the blame, and its no different over here.
Yesterday, the local cops invited us on what they call here a  "blitz" - a flash police action against one of the illegal sweatshops.

Here's what we saw: Down a ramp beneath an otherwise ordinary looking apartment building on a a quiet leafy street, a sweltering parking garage had been converted into an illegal factory/dormitory for about 50 people. The police stormed in at the breakfast hour, and a plate of egg was still sitting on a table in a makeshift kitchen, a four foot high hobbit cave with a plastic-sheeted ceiling carved out of a corner of the garage.
Children's toys and tiny sandals lay around everywhere amid heaps of thread spools, and plastic sacks of white cloth and lace - the raw materials of the ladies' blouses that the men and women who were being kicked out had been sewing by the thousands, to send to America and Europe for the fall.

The owner or operator was nowhere in sight, and the workers were drifting around, throwing their meager possessions into garbage bags and preparing to move out. Some of them talked a little bit to us. They were living and working in an airless cement and gypsum hole, having arrived from the agricultural provinces of China in the last five years, or months, seeking European success. They get paid about 500 euros a month, some of which they must pay back to whoever rents them their beds and employs them at the machines.

These men and women, in their twenties and thirties, were being rendered homeless but no one cried. Apparently they get raided like this regularly and carry their trash bags of belongings to a new cave, to sew some more clothes.

 A woman drifted by in a beautiful, transparent white negligee, hugely pregnant, long black hair in a ponytail, stoic, oblivious to us and the cops. Her little shift looked expensive, looked like an Agent Provocateur piece, out of place in the cave except for the fact that these "slaves of luxury" as the Italians call them, actually make many of the designer items - Gucci, Prada, D & G - selling for hundreds and thousands of dollars on Fifth Avenue.

I will be writing more about all of this next month in Businessweek, a publication owned by our Mayor Bloomberg. Yes, observing human casualties of global capitalism at the behest of one of the world's most successful financiers is what we used to call irony, I think.
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A poster with twelve species of flowers or clu...

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Midsummer rolls around every year provoking an urge I am unaware of for the other eleven months. That is, to get out and "garden."

I use that word cautiously because the only thing my green space has in common with other people's plots under the same name is that it is also, mainly green. It is also dangerously green, and cannot be entered without a biohazard suit for the poison ivy. I don't have a BH suit (it has been on my Christmas wish-list, along with a flybot, for some years). I make do with a post-gardening scrub-down of Tecnu, a probably also hazardous trademarked industrial solvent and the only thing that stands between me and four weeks of nasty, itching rash.

Around about mid-July is when our friends' and neighbors' plots are blooming with colorful flowers whose names I only know from Victorian poetry, and proliferations of neat little shoots that will eventually produce vegetables they can eat and, in some cases, give away to us because their horticultural efforts were so successful.

Now we notice the results of those hours in March or January or May (when do they do all this work?) when our friends and neighbors kneeled over their projects, backs aching, hands callousing, fingernails crammed with dirt, while we read the paper, lolled on our backs, flicked the remote.

Driven by shame and envy in equal parts, with the year more than half over, I dove in yesterday and started pulling up weeds, trying to locate and not tear out the flowers I transplanted last year around this time.

I couldn't actually begin this weeding process until the flowers bloomed, because I couldn't tell the flowers from the weeds.

With a noseful of gnats, and a wagon-load of ripped-out pricker bushes and probably poison ivy that I left in plain view and will not dispose of for a while because without it, there would be scant evidence of my efforts, I can now see that at the top of the rise by the side door, there's a patch of surviving red bee balm. There are a few orange day lilies and hostas too.


Back in the hammock, if I tilt my head and squint just right, my little piece of paradise has some petals in it.

I know there's a lazy little pig or chicken parable that I should be remembering here. But I prefer the long, somnolent view. In deep time, I, this house and this hill are dust and rock. For the record, on July 16, 2011, for a day, it and its inhabitant produced some flowers.


Official Sex

Italian porn-star, singer, and politician Ilon...

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I won't pile on top of the esteemed gentleman from Brooklyn-Queens today, much as he might enjoy it. But he has posed - make that hoisted to half-mast - some sexual-politics issues that deserve airing at least as much as those gray boxer briefs.

A former (male) editor of mine poked up with one of these questions on Facebook this morning, in a rather put-upon, man-victim tone: Would a woman in politics, sending "dirty pictures" to younger men, catch this kind of grief?

The implied suggestion was that a sexting woman in politics would have suffered no pain, maybe even got some gain from it.

We can only hope our daughters will still be grandmothers on the day that a U.S. Congresswoman is caught sending boob and crotch pictures to boy-fans, or, for that matter, a female Presidential candidate pays an aide to take the rap for her pregnancy with a male videographer, or a female President gets impeached for seducing a teenage intern in the Oval office.

We should welcome the day such scandals land on the kitchen table with the morning coffee.

Not that women aren't doing all these things right now. It takes two to sex-skype. But no woman who would leave the second button undone on a blouse can get elected dog catcher in America. Most Americans don't trust a red-blooded, obviously sex-having woman to do anything public besides field bucket of semen jokes in a Judd Apatow movie.

Europeans think we're silly about this stuff. Anyone who has traveled knows how they sniff at American prudishness. And to some extent, they are right. Sexy and apparently sexual females can run for office in some European countries. France actually considered Segolene Royal, who could step out in a bikini at 50, and still run as a barely (pun intended) viable Presidential candidate a few years back.

In Italy, randy Knights of Viagra grand master Silvio Berlusconi has done his best to give female sexuality its proper and prominent place in national politics. During his reign, hundreds of hotties have entered Parliament with no higher qualification than that they could maneuver Rome's paving stones in stilettos. Romanian-born porn star Ilona Staller, Jeff Koons' ex, got elected to the Italian Parliament under the nom de plume Cicciolina, and made a name for herself giving speeches with one breast exposed.

That's progress of a sort.

The elevation of sexual women in those countries, though, is merely a facet of the DSK-BHL brand of ooh-la-la, thank heaven for little girls (and maids), cherchez la femme sexism in France, and in Italy, of the dirty dreams of gropers interested not in females with political power, but in exercising their own fading power over the females around them.

Any American woman who has spent any time at all outside the borders of the Land of the Free sooner or later recognizes that America, for all is flaws, is a shining beacon of women's rights to the rest of the world, Europe included. To the Euros, our sexual harassment laws seem ridiculous, the ruination of good men like Spitzer, Edwards, Clinton, et al over sex is simply mystifying. In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, it's unthinkable.

If the diverting parade of American political men crashing and burning their careers over sex indicates anything about us, maybe it's that the male appendage could be on its way to becoming the kind of liability in politics that legendary period-induced mood swings used to pose for female candidates for higher office.

Brian Williams at the Vanity Fair celebration ...

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Not long ago, our 11-year-old son took a look at Brian Williams delivering the Nightly News. His first reaction was, "What's wrong with his eyebrows?"
    Until that moment, I'd spent more time focused on the chaos Brian was describing - Misurata, Cairo, nuclear meltdown in Japan, tsunami, flood, war - all the ghastly events that prompted us to start flicking on the Nightly News in the first place.
    Gazing at the eyebrows, I realized my son had a point. They are frozen in a state of permanent perturbation. I have no idea whether the effect is Botox-induced or natural, but his eyebrows are certainly what make Brian the ideal messenger for our anguished generation's moment in time, our Walter Cronkite.
    There's just so much to worry about, and Brian's eyebrows not only telegraph that fact to us, but seem to absorb it as well. There's enough consternation in those eyebrows to soak up our own, so that we can better focus on the advertisements for things we are starting to need like laxatives, cholesterol medicine and, well, not yet, but inevitably, adult diapers.
    We will be watching Brian tonight to see whether he reports that tomorrow the world will end. And if so, will Brian be among the elect, or left behind to remain and watch it happen with us?
    Somehow, I think Brian remains with us. He's worried too.
    A footnote to the nigh-ness of the end: About a week ago, working on a story for publication next fall (and because I don't have enough doomsday images firing off in my head), I attended the Planetary Defense Conference in Bucharest, a gathering of physicists and astronomers and mathematicians and nuclear bomb makers from the world over, studying how to avert this sort of collective ending to our species' story.
    Lots of big asteroids are whizzing around us, and some of them are big enough to render us as extinct as our prehistoric large reptilian friends. The good thing is, we've reached the stage in our collective intelligence where we can see them coming, tens and hundreds of years off.
    The men and women in Bucharest unanimously agreed that we are not under imminent threat of an asteroid doomsday. They have identified 90 percent of the killer asteroids and none aiming for us anytime soon.
    But the Conference keynote speaker was "transhumanist" Anders Sandburg, a fellow at Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, reported that he and his colleagues have a running pool in their office, gauging the likelihood of complete human extinction in the next 100 years. As of last week, he said, they had pegged the possibility of full extinction at 12 percent.
    We take comfort in those still-longish odds, but when all else fails, we still have Brian's eyebrows.
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Articles in the New York Times today and in the New Yorker this week confirm a fact of life I've suspected for a while. In our "p.c." world, misogyny, unlike racism or gay-bashing, is in fact the last allowable taboo.
The Times piece today, Section A, page 22, for those with the dead-tree Friday issue on hand, on pervasive sexual harassment of college women at Yale, is at least a step in the right direction, because it's being acknowledged. The U.S. Department of Civil Rights is investigating a complaint filed by 16 women and recent graduates, alleging a range of acts against women over seven years. Among the anecdotes, frat boys marching through campus shouting "No means Yes!" and ranking incoming freshman girls with online scales where guys post the number of drinks they would have to consume before they would "do" the girl in the photo.
Oh, those dreamy Yale men!
In the New Yorker, Tad Friend's piece on what Hollywood deems a "funny" woman - i.e., almost none, unless she's willing to work it like a a 13-year old boy's dream porn star first - suggests that while women have made gains in employment and getting men to share child care 9n recent decades, our generation has also experienced a serious regression in terms of female roles in pop culture. Besides Tina Fey ... what woman is allowed to make you laugh, without either playing the bimbo getting humiliated sexually, or, more typically, playing the role of the straight, dutiful woman to the funny, transgressive guy?
Oh, and don't forget those female bodies being found on the beaches in the New York and Atlantic City areas, killed and tossed like trash into the bushes by some maniac who really hates women.
All part of the same spectrum, I think
Neither of these articles are linkable, thanks to their pay-walls. But they are worth a look.
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April, 4, 1968, RIP.

I do remember where I was when I first heard the name, Martin Luther King, but he was already gone.

It was a warm spring afternoon in San Francisco. I  was in second grade, playing at a friend's house. Suddenly her mother burst into alarming sobs, much like the alarming sobs of my own mother four years before, on another dark day in the 1960s.

Halfway across the continent, a man whose birthday would be celebrated by my children decades later, had been shot dead.

On this warm rainy spring day in New York, we can still listen to the amazing, last speech that MLK delivered the night before he died, to striking workers in Memphis.

It's uncanny, moving, and worth hearing. He seemed to know his time was up. 

From the final few lines:

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."

Whether you believe in an afterlife, as he apparently did, or not, the lesson of MLK is that our time here is limited and should be put to its best purpose, every day.

"Longevity," he said, "has its place." There were - and still are -  other, more important goals than long life, ease and comfort, for people with the courage and conviction to defy bigotry and savagery.


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Lancaster Buggy.jpg

I spent some of my formative years on a farm in southwestern Michigan in a stretch of America inhabited by the Amish. On summer nights fat June bugs banged against the screens, and horses' hooves clattered by on the paved road as the simple people in black rode home from their Wednesday night church meetings. An Amish farmer worked the fields behind our house. We used to play on the great metal plows he hooked up to horses.

Sometimes they would invite us to their candle-lit houses, where we played Scrabble with make-up free women in bonnets and hook-and-eye fastened homemade dresses who fed us homemade pie and fresh-churned ice cream. Needless to say, we waited to get home before using the bathroom, avoiding their outhouses at all costs.

My Chernobyl

Official Portrait of President Ronald Reagan

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Ma-Ma-Ma-My Chernobyl!

With apologies to The Knack, that's the song that's been going through my head ever since the night, about two weeks ago now, when a dinner guest informed me that the fumes emanating from the Japanese reactors are produced by some substance so deadly that "a golfball size chunk of it could wipe out the East Coast."

Is it true? Who knows?

But if and when invisible death starts falling on us, here, half  a world away from the source but under the same jet stream, I will mark the beginning of my own sickness to that moment, as a surge of panic ripped through my stomach.

Afterward, I couldn't eat for three days. I couldn't chew up my food, much less could I swallow it. My family and friends thought I was over-reacting, but I couldn't help it.I'm better now, but while thus afflicted, I tried to remember how I had survived the last big meltdown.

It was 1985. I was a 25-year-old nihilist marooned in Central Illinois, in my first job as a journalist, covering the shenanigans of the Illinois Statehouse.
I don't remember panicking at all.

What I do remember was that fallout billowing from the USSR just seemed like further confirmation of  the end of the world that I would surely witness during the era of doddering cowboy actor Ronald Reagan's hand on the red nuclear button.

Did fallout fall on me then? Who cared? I had a bad boyfriend and I smoked like a chimney and drank too much. And signs of the end were all around us.

One sultry afternoon that in my memory coincides with Chernobyl's meltdown,  I was lying in the sun alongside some dingy apartment I then rented, and thinking, the sun's rays seemed unusually hot, and the sky a sicklier yellow than was even normal in sickly summer Midwest. Suddenly, I heard a little thud and saw, not far from my head, a tiny dead squirrel fetus, and then another. And another. They were falling out of a nearby tree.

I'm not making this up.  Probably they just died of natural causes, or the squirrel mother was aborting for other good reasons (bad boyfriend, Ronnie, nihilism).

The same reasons I had not to bear children.
I went inside, sunburned, and tried to forget about it.

Twenty-five years on, Fukushima 1,2,3,4,5,and 6 terrify me.

Somewhere between Chernobyl and now, I cast off my nihilism, probably around the cradles of my children, my precious investment in the human race and the un-despoiled planet's future.

Sometime in the last 25 years, I succumbed to an illusion of safety that I now share with my fat and happy generation.

The "me" of half a lifetime ago would never believe it, but it was a lot easier to give up nihilism then, than it is to welcome it back now.

I took Walter Kirn's book about going to Princeton, "Lost in the Meritocracy," and Andre Dubus's "We Don't Live Here anymore" with me to the islands last week, and got through them both, with pleasure and annoyance, the gratifying poles of sentiment in my reading these days.

Mr. Kirn I brought along because our 11-year-old was recently vaulted into the oligarchic path with a scholarship to a tony private school, and we aren't sure what it's likely to do to this sweet-kind child to associate with the spawn of sharp-elbowed Type A's.
Walter's book was cautionary, as he reports that he had a nervous breakdown about halfway through Princeton, but that could as easily have had to do with the copious drug intake (shrooms, coke and other sniffable, swallowable, smoke-able substances, familiar to all of us who went to college in the same decade.)
4361310730_f7816f431b_s.jpgI'm a fan of this band. Wish this was my day job.

File:Obama signing health care-20100323.jpeg
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Yesterday morning I amused myself twittering about how the House Republicans would prefer the sick to die homeless in tents. At about the same time, a crowing blast-emailed press release landed in my inbox, cheering the Republicans. It was from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based free market think tank funded by corporations and wealthy individuals including one of the Koch brothers. Heartland has staked free market positions on all matters, including claiming global warming and secondhand smoke cancer are based on junk science.  

I decided to respond to the email, and Heartland's communications director, Jim Lakely, author of the press release, kindly replied. By the end of the day, we had produced a rather civil conversation between a supporter of socialized medicine (yours truly) and Jim and his team of free market health care gurus.