The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat51h6WIJ7DNL
Ed. Caroline M. Grant and Lisa Catherine Harper
Boston: Roost Books, 2013, pp255

I begin this review with a confession: I live in Brooklyn, the east coast outpost of the current “foodie” movement. I live in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, have a plot in my local community garden, and shop at farmers’ markets. I try to cook seasonally appropriate meals, bake without refined sugars, and eat a lot of kale. I am white, of middle-class origin, and (very) over-educated.

Why do I tell you all this? I begin with this description because the majority of the stories in The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage are told from a specific location. It is an urban place, one full of farmers’ markets and locally-grown produce, of cage free hens and grass fed beef, of organic baby food and school cafeterias with yogurt bars (yeah, I was floored by that last one, too).

It is also a place where food is central to our lives. Indeed, few things in life are more personal and, as such, many of the stories in the collection exude such lovingness in their descriptions that I was extremely moved – and hungry! (In this sense, the fact that each short essay is accompanied by a recipe is a lovely feature.) I was particularly touched by Aleksandra Crapanzano’s essay on how appealing to the memories of food’s pleasures was way to forge a deep and meaningful relationship with her husband’s great-aunt. Elrena Evans offers an honest and brave reflection on coping with her young daughter’s “selective eating” after her own struggles with an eating disorder. Karen Valby’s essay on her mother’s struggle with manic-depression and the resulting chronic hunger of her childhood, reminds us not to assume that all suburban households are bastions of food abundance. Deborah Copaken Kogan and Paul Kogan, in the essay from which the title of the book was taken, offer a poignant reflection of how, over the course of a long-term relationship, gathering around food comes to symbolize much more than sustenance.

The book is divided into three sections, reflected in the title itself: food, family, and learning to eat.  That said, many of the essays cover all of the themes rather beautifully, and the thematic breaks seem to exist more for the sake of readability (though the last section – “learning to eat” is more highly focused than other sections on authors’ children). The essays themselves are all of a quite readable length, particularly for someone used to the essays in academic tomes. I found myself passing through several essays in quick succession. On the wittiness spectrum, I particularly enjoyed Jen Larsen’s piece “Food Hater,” Lisa McNamara’s “Pie-Eyed,” Melissa Clark’s “Rachel Ray Saved My Life,” and Phyllis Grant’s “Recipe.”

It is disappointing, however,that the collection is lacking in diversity of perspectives. The edited volume features only two people of color and one openly-gay author. In a land where one father decries his children’s lack of taste for foie gras and another describes PTA fights over food choices with dismissive hilarity (though I did deeply enjoy Edward Lewine’s essay) – what of parents in schools in which the majority of students receive food assistance and there are no yogurt bars in the cafeteria? Including the perspectives of people speaking from multiple locations would have deeply enriched the collection. As it stands, The Cassoulet Saved our Marriage  will most resonate with those located in the privileged places described at the start of this review, including, of course, my own beloved neighborhood in Brooklyn.

In the final chapter, author Thomas Peele recounts several meetings with San Franciscan chef Dennis Leary. Here, Peele describes Leary’s approach to food as one in which “[f]ood … is not an end to itself. It’s a beginning, a starting place.” And so I hope it is with this collection – a starting place from which other collections that cover the diverse experience of and perspectives on food will spring.

Gwendolyn Beetham is an independent scholar living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently manages the column “The Academic Feminist” at and is a regular contributor at the University of Venus. She has a PhD from the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics. Follow her on twitter @gwendolynb

Iran WomenA few years ago (ok may more than a few) Gil Scott Heron said the revolution would not be televised and Tracey Chapman, when talking about the revolution, thought it would whisper, not ‘tweet’. Iranian women and men are risking their lives to protest for their rights and their voices will be heard, televised, and ‘tweeted’.

If you’re like us, you’ve spent the past couple of weeks glued to your computer, watching the historic Iranian election – and its aftermath – unfold. For us, what’s been important are not only the changes in Iranian society that the post-election protests signal, but women’s role in these protests (dare we say revolution) and what this election means for Iranian women.

On June 20th a young woman and her father took to the streets demanding to be heard, not knowing that hers would echo across the globe. When they named their daughter, her parents probably could not fathom how well her name suited her; Neda in Farsi means the voice or the call. Neda and thousands of women are taking to the streets and demanding equal rights. Dana Goldstein, of the Daily Beast, stresses that the underreported part of what is unfolding in Iran is women’s involvement in the protests.

Feminist politics are not new to Iran. According to Manilee Bagheritari, an independent gender consultant of Iranian descent, the feminist movement, or rather the ongoing three-decades old wave, is divided by two different approaches; the secular feminists (e.g. Shirin Ebadi) and Islamic feminists (though they might not prefer the label). What is important is that the two groups both demand that the state first ratify and second harmonize its laws with those of the international human rights instruments, namely the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

According to Haideh Moghissi, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at York University and founder of the Iranian National Union of Women (and author of one of my favorite books, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis), although the Iranian women’s movement has a robust and long history, “at no time has the political influence of women and women’s issues been so profoundly visible as at present.” Prior to the election and women’s visible presence in the post-election demonstrations, women’s organizations came together to demand change from presidential candidates. The coalition, which included 35 women’s and social justice groups and 600 activists and intellectuals made two major demands

“under the banner of ‘women’s coalition movement’ (jonbesh-e Hamgerai’i)…
1) Joining the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW); 2) A constitutional amendment to eliminate discriminatory articles that deprive women of equal rights with men.”

The blog Vital Voices has the following breakdown of the positions taken on these issues by Ahmadinejad and opposition candidate Mousavi:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

* Ahmadinejad changed the name of the government organization the “Centre for Women’s Participation” to the “Centre for Women and Family Affairs”.
* Ahmadinejad proposed a new law that would reintroduce a man’s right to divorce his wife without informing her. In addition, men would no longer be required to pay alimony. In response, women’s groups have initiated the Million Signatures campaign against these measures.
* Ahmadinejad’s administration opposes the ratification of CEDAW…
* Ahmadinejad implemented the Social Safety program, which monitors women’s clothing, requires the permission from a father or husband for a woman to attend school, and applies quotas limiting the number of women allowed to attend universities.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi

* Mousavi pledged to disband the “Morality Police” that monitor women’s clothing in accordance with traditional Islamic dress.
* Mousavi vowed to support legal measures to end violence and discrimination against women.
* Mousavi has sounded support for the ratification of CEDAW.
* Mousavi promised to appoint female ministries and other high offices, if elected.

Zahra Rahnavard, wife of reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, addressed crowds earlier this month saying, “Thirty-four million women demand to have female cabinet ministers, 34 million women demand to be eligible to run for president, 34 million women want the civil law to be revised, 34 million women want the family law revised.”

What is truly beautiful about these protests is that men and women are protesting for human rights, which most seem to realize are incomplete without women’s rights. These protests feel like the modern day Middle Eastern manifestation of the French Revolution’s call for Liberté, Egalite and Fraternité…in this case a Fraternité that encompasses both brotherhood and sisterhood.

Quick round-up of links on women’s involvement in the post-election protests and demonstrations. Please feel free to add more in comments:

Iran and the Women Question

Iran’s Women’s Revolution

In Iran, “Pretty” is Sometimes the Protest

Who was really cheated in Iran’s vote? Women.

Protests in the Wake of Iran’s Election

The Women Protesting in Iran

You can also get up-to-the-minute info on Twitter by searching #iranelection

We wrote a posted called “The Face of Domestic Violence” back in Februrary and wanted to offer this update:

We applaud Rihanna for having the courage to stand up for herself and the courts ensuring that justice was served. Hopefully Chris Brown can take this moment and grow from this, knowing that laying his hands on anyone especially a woman is absolutely unacceptable.

servicesTravels and graduations behind us, we’re back! This month foremost on our minds is the issue of budget cuts. How many times will history have to repeat itself before we get it right?

What do cuts in services for disabled and vulnerable people, shoddy food regulation practices that are making people in some states very sick, the recent rise in crime and simultaneous reductions in police resources, and even Nebraska’s inability to provide adequate services for troubled children and their families have in common?

Answer: These recent phenomena can be traced in some part to the reduction in social services that is common in national, state, and local budgets when trying to prevent the onset of a deep fiscal crisis. While these phenomena are all deeply troubling, even more troubling is the fact that there is historic evidence that such cuts do not work and, in many cases, actually have the opposite effect. That is, when the state no longer pays for things like health care, education, and even local security, there are extremely negative consequences for everyday people, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, the disabled, and children, who depend on such services for daily survival.

In the 1980s, the world saw the effect of these policies writ large in the international arena, with so-called “Structural Adjustment Plans”, or plans put in place by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which laid out various conditions that had to be met by countries in order to get a loan from both establishments. Most of these conditions involved the opening of markets, “free” trade conditions, and extreme reductions in state provisions of social services like health care and education; it was argued that such services should instead be privatized. In short, the prevailing sentiment was this: let the markets take over and we’ll see what happens.

What happened was that structural adjustment plans had disastrous effects, particularly in many parts of Latin America (where the period of heavy structural adjustment has led many to refer to the 1980s as the “lost decade”) and Africa (where 34 countries implemented some form of a structural adjustment plan in the 1980s). Further, women were the ones to bear the brunt of many of the negative effects of these policies. According to Dzodzi Tsikata of the Third World Network, this is because such policies “assume the unlimited availability of women’s unpaid labour and time and… have tended to see women as a resource to be tapped to promote the efficiency of free market policies and to deal with the short-fall in access to social services.” In many instances, this leads to an increase in women’s working burdens and social responsibilities. In other words, women are expected to shoulder the majority of the burden of reductions in state provided services. And this phenomenon is not limited to developing countries (and surely not when the developing countries in question are following the economic prescriptions of their Western donors and lenders) – critics in the US have also argued that domestic budget cuts have a disproportionate effect on women and children.

The USA’s neighbor up north hasn’t done much better. Kathleen Lahley, a Law professor at Queen’s University in Canada outlined in her gender analysis of the 2009 budget, key ways in which the Canadian government has missed the mark. Not only does her analysis make for good reading, it also demonstrates how women in Canada will not directly benefit as much as men will from the $64 billion in spending and tax cuts. Gender equity requirements have not been included in the spending programs – the result is a gender-skewed stimulus.

With so much evidence on the negative effects of cuts to social services, one wonders why this model is still pursued in such a fashion and, further, whether there are any movements (policy or otherwise) to reverse the ongoing trend, particularly as global leaders consider changes to international economic frameworks in light of the recent crisis.

As we can see, leaders in North America don’t seem to be the fastest learners, but what about the rest of the world? The World Bank and the IMF? In 2007 Elaine Zuckerman, a former World Bank economist, challenged the Bretton Woods institutions to improve their track record of short-changing women. For all intents and purposes, it seems that World Bank President, Robert Zoellick, is trying to rise to the challenge. At last month’s G20 meeting in London, he spoke of the Bank’s plan to develop a Vulnerability Framework. The fund would provide support infrastructure, agriculture, small- to medium- size businesses and micro-finance. Past lessons may just be paving the way to a more gender-balanced future for the World Bank. This plan would benefit not only men through infrastructure jobs, but also women who are heavily involved in agriculture, are the majority of small business owners, and represent 85% of the poorest 93 million clients of Microfinance Institutions. This effort would require a contribution of 0.7% of more “developed” countries’ stimulus packages. Maybe this is their way of making up for the gaping holes left at home through budget cuts…nice but gender equality should happen at home too.

Who would have thought that the G20 would bring us even more good news?! We were a bit skeptical at first; the official documents that come out of these meetings rarely mention gender equality. Oh, we of little faith! The G20 countries pledged to support the World Bank’s Vulnerability Framework AND addressed the human dimension to the crisis and the pledge to “build a fair and family-friendly labour market for both women and men.” Steps in the right direction. Let’s hope this will manifest itself in thoughtful gender-conscious budget cuts across the board. The entire Official Communique can be seen here.

Finally, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called for a “new starting point” in hemispheric relations at the recent Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago (the country that gave you Blogger TAB 🙂 ). While much attention has been given to Presidents Obama, Castro and Chavez, we recommend you take a look at President Fernandez’s speech, which was in our opinion one of the, if not the, best (though we haven’t been able to find any links to it). Further, the Summit’s Declaration of Commitment’s preamble Point 6 is calypso music to our ears: “We recognize the importance of considering the differentiated needs of women and men in promoting and ensuring the integration of the gender perspective as a cross cutting issue in national and hemispheric policies, plans and programmes to be implemented in the political, economic labour, social and cultural spheres…’’

At the very least, countries globally have demonstrated a rhetorical commitment to gender-balanced recovery and development. It remains to be seen how these plans will be put into action. Judging from past experiences, the best way to ensure that these rhetorical commitments are implemented in practice is through the work of gender researchers, advocates and practitioners, who must hold governments and international organizations accountable for the commitments that they make in these international forums. So, please, join us in reminding local, state, and national leaders to stick to their commitments to build a more gender-inclusive world. Let the fiscal crisis be used as an opportunity to strengthen gender equitable programs – not an excuse to cut much-needed services for women, men, and children.

Image Credit

Busy month for the Global Exchangers!

This month we’ve been extra busy at the Global Exchange – Tonni’s finishing up at ESADE and Gwen took off for fieldwork in the Dominican Republic and Haiti – so we’ve only had time to compile a roundup of interesting links to studies and articles that we’ve recently come across. Please feel free to leave additional links in comments!

ActionAid recently released a report on the rise of “corrective” rape of lesbians in South Africa.

AWID has a really cool project that highlights 10 case studies from around the world where women mobilized to make a difference.

The folks over at Gender Action just came out with a report that provides a much-needed analysis of the gender dimensions of post-conflict reconstruction.

Along these lines, UN-INSTRAW are doing some amazing things as part of their Gender, Peace & Security project, including a project on <a href="gendering security sector reform in Haiti (more on this from Gwen in the future).

Following the headlines on the G20 meetings in London, check out this Q&A with Rosa Lizarde of Global Call to Action Against Poverty’s (GCAP) Feminist Taskforce on the implications of the G20 meeting for women. (These are the same people who have coordinated the incredible Poverty Hearings and Women’s Tribunals – one of which Gwen was lucky enough to attend in New York last fall.)

And finally, for those interested in issues of translation, please consider answering the Call for Book Reviews for the Graduate Journal for Social Science’s special edition Lost (and Found) in Translation.

See you at the end of April!

Gwen & Tonni

The 53rd Commission on the Status of Women meetings began this week at UN Headquarters in New York and will run until the 13th of March. This year, the theme of the CSW is “The equal sharing of responsibilities between women and men, including caregiving in the context of HIV/AIDS.”

During this year’s events, I will have the privilege of working with the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development’s (UNRISD) Gender and Development Programme. The Gender and Development Programme at UNRISD has been working on the Political and Social Economy of Care as one of its main research themes for several years now. [One of my favorite gender and development researchers, Maxine Molyneux, wrote the first paper in the series, titled Mothers at the Service of the State.] As part of the project, UNRISD led gender experts from around the world in an exploration of care issues, with research conducted in eight countries drawn from four different regions. Within its comparative approach, the project focused on the gender composition and dynamics of the multiple institutions of care – households and families, states, markets, and the not-for-profit sector – and their effects on poverty and social rights of citizenship. The implications of this research in tracking who gets paid for care work, who does not, who does the bulk of unpaid care work, and how this work contributes to overall economic growth is of great importance – particularly in the context of the current global economic crisis, as government programs are scaled-back and unpaid care work becomes more prominent.

In conjunction with the CSW, UNRISD is hosting a conference to present its findings from this project. The Political and Social Economy of Care is free and open to the public, and will take place in the James Room (Barnard Hall 418) at Barnard College in New York City on Friday, March 6, 2009 from 9 am to 6 pm. Speakers at the conference will address the distinct economic, social and political conditions under which care is provided in developing countries, reflecting on a diverse range of country experiences that span Latin America, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and considering wider themes that emerge from comparative analyses, including comparisons with more developed countries. The conference will begin with keynote addresses delivered by two leading feminist thinkers — Joan Tronto and Elizabeth Jelin. Other experts in the area, including Shahra Razavi, Nancy Folbre (whose books Family Time and The Invisible Heart are classics on care from a feminist economic perspective), Rosalind Petchesky, and Kate Bedford, will also share their insights on the ethics and politics of care in an increasingly unequal world.

Please feel free to post any questions about the event in comments. You can also contact me at

Hope to see you there!

We had different plans for this month’s blog, but it has become impossible not to comment on what transpired on the night before the Grammy’s.

Tonni: Thanks to the wonder of technology I was receiving live Grammy commentary via a three-way conversation with friends in the States when my girlfriend mentioned that Chris Brown was missing. Apparently so was ‘our girl’ Rihanna- ‘our girl’ ‘cause she’s a fellow ‘Caribeana’ and regardless of her vocal abilities we’re proud and protective. There are many problems with what happened next but what I find repulsive is how the gory details are unfolding in the media. Unlike Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory, try as I might I couldn’t escape TMZ’s trademarked photo. It was everywhere, displaying a young woman battered, bruised, and completely and totally vulnerable.

Gwen: As a survivor of violence myself, it will not come as a shock that, like Tonni, I was saddened, outraged and generally overwhelmed by the coverage of Rihanna’s struggle with domestic violence. We felt that highlighting Rihanna’s ordeal could help us capture the fact that domestic violence is directly related to the systematic oppression of women around the world, regardless of race, class, ethnicity and fame. In short, domestic violence can happen to anyone, including celebrities. Further, the coverage of domestic violence in popular media outlets shows the shortcomings of current methods in dealing with the structural nature of violence against women.

The Big Picture
According to Amnesty International’s Stop Violence Against Women program, without exception, a woman’s greatest risk of violence is from someone she knows. Amnesty International classifies domestic violence as a human rights abuse, rightly arguing that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the inadmissibility of discrimination and proclaims that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the declaration, without distinction of any kind, including distinction based on sex. When women are subjected to domestic violence and the State does not protect them against this violence, whether due to inefficient or ineffective laws and policies, then the State should be held responsible for the abuse.

In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the groundbreaking World Health Organization Multi-country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence Against Women, presenting data collected from over 24,000 women from 15 sites in 10 countries in various regions of the world. Shockingly – or not, depending on your point-of-view – in most places, between 11 and 21 percent of women reported being hit by a partner with his fist. In most countries, the percentage of women who have experienced severe physical violence in their lifetime fell between 13% and 26%, with research concluding that if women had ever experienced partner violence, the chances were high that, at some point, an act of severe violence would occur. Sadly, in all countries, the researcher was frequently the first person that the abused woman had ever told about their partner’s physical violence (not surprising considering that Domestic Violence is one of the most-underreported crimes).

In the United States, Amnesty International reports that a woman is battered every 15 minutes. According to the recently-released National Network to End Domestic Violence report, Domestic Violence Counts 2008: A 24-hour census of domestic violence shelter and services across the United States, over 60,799 survivors were being served by emergency shelters or temporary housing programs in the United States and territories in one day. And this survey only covered 78% of identified domestic violence programs and, of course, does not track the countless number of women who either do not report violence, or who have not sought refuge in one of these programs.

Domestic Violence in the Media
“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
Edward R. Murrow

Unfortunately we weren’t able to find binding laws to protect domestic victims’ privacy from the media. (If your State/Country has one please let us know). In the USA, there is a tug of war between the freedom of speech and the press and the right to privacy. Interestingly, the right to privacy isn’t written into the US constitution (as is often assumed), but freedom of the press and speech are clearly outlined. This is one of the first times that a case like this is being tried not in the “mainstream press,” but primarily in the blogs. Blogs have become such a force that a “reputable” paper such as the LA Times felt it necessary to shirk journalistic convention (we prefer the word integrity) and reveal a domestic violence victim’s name, because she was famous and thus ‘fair game’. As perverse as it sounds, it was clear that if they didn’t reveal the name, it would be only a matter of time before someone else would. The official source of celebrity sludge, TMZ, then trumped the LA Times by releasing the picture of a battered Rihanna. Then in a horrifying development, legitimate media sources (including countless television news broadcasts, the so-called progressive blog Huffington Post, not to mention the less-than-reputable New York Post) jumped on the bandwagon and plastered the picture in news casts, on websites and even (in the case of the Post) on the front page of their newspapers. (Feministing blogger Jessica Valenti best sums up our feelings on the subject in this clip.) Even staff at Bossip (the black-gossip blog that gives some of us folks of color scoop on the celebrities that don’t normally make the TMZ cut) who seem to be staunch supporters of Rihanna, posted a story that alleged that ‘Breezy’, as they like to call Chris Brown, beat Rihanna because she gave him an STI.

Nancy Berns identifies three main frames of domestic violence in the media in her book Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence, Media and the Social Problem. The frames are 1) victim empowerment, 2) women are equally or more violent, 3) and social justice. Her argument is that the voices that construct the reality of domestic violence for the public blame the victim and individualize the problem. She gave him an STI! She started the fight! He’s a good kid who wouldn’t do anything like that unless provoked! She should have fought back! Caribbean women fight back! More than ten years ago the Inter-American Development Bank held a conference on domestic violence and participants concluded that, through careful reporting, the media could raise public awareness about such violence and help build consensus. This has not been the case with the ‘Chrihanna’ situation, as some outlets have characterized it.

We get that she is a public figure and that appears to imply everything in her life is fair game. We get that she may now become the poster child for domestic violence and that her trauma has brought domestic violence center-stage of the public psyche. (Hey, despite the revelations about racism in the LAPD that were revealed through the Rodney King ordeal, King himself may not have appreciated watching the video of his brutalization over and over again.) Nevertheless, we think that there needs to be a better way. There must be some kind of journalistic standard to which all media sources comply. Which sane starlet would go to the police now if brutalized? How many young women will remain silent about a crime that is already grossly underreported? We can and must rein in some of the wonders of technology.

What we all can do

If you’re upset about the media coverage of Rihanna’s case (or other VAW cases), why not write your local newspaper/television station/radio station telling them that violence against women is NOT an entertainment story. Tell them it is NOT okay to post photos of domestic violence survivors without their permission. We should recognize that violence against women is a structural problem, and one that should be reported accurately and not sensationally. You can even use some of the numbers in this article.

We recognize that there are times when the world of research gets too esoteric. In providing you with the facts here, we hope that they pulsate with you, with survivors of domestic violence, with their friends and loved ones, and anyone who has questioned what on earth is next after emotional and/or physical abuse. The tabloid blogs and the news media have sensationalized this story to the point that we forget that there are two human beings behind it. For us, this is a story of a twenty-one year old young woman—someone’s daughter, sister, niece, friend—who was brutalized by someone she loved and trusted. Do let the woman dictate the role she wants to play in the fight against domestic violence.

Taking off our inaugural ball gowns (woo-hoo Obama!) and picking up our pens, this week’s Global Exchange will take a look at religious faith and feminism.

The inauguration is a good place to start for an examination of religion, since we don’t have to tell you that our pal religion – and the controversy surrounding it – was on full display during the festivities. President Obama’s selection of Pastor Rick Warren to conduct the inaugural invocation set off a firestorm of protest from the left, and particularly gay-rights and women’s rights organizations, for his recent support of the gay marriage ban in California (as well as previous positions on divorce and abortion, among other issues).

On the progressive side, Bishop Gene Robinson, the “first openly gay, non-celibate priest to be ordained a bishop in a major Christian denomination,” and enemy of the religious right, was chosen to give the opening prayer at the We Are One concert held on Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial (the controversy continued when HBO decided not to include Bishop Robinson’s prayer in their official coverage of the event).  Reverend Sharon Watkins was selected by the President to be the first woman to lead the national prayer service on the day after the inauguration.  And who can forget the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery’s inaugural benediction?  For our purposes, this obsession with, and prevalence of, religion during the inauguration provides a perfect inroad to explore the historically complex relationship between women’s rights and religion.

Traditionally, women’s rights and many aspects of organized religions have had a strained relationship.  However, women have not been the “passive followers” that some interpretations of religions would have them be, and in fact, women play an important role in many religious traditions (think Virgin Mary, Esther, A’isha).  Today, through actions such as taking a stand against religious fundamentalisms, criticizing Pastor Rick Warren’s position on domestic violence and divorce, and coming together across faiths to denounce the violence in Israel and Gaza, women continue to ensure that their voices – voices for peace, justice, and equality – are an essential part of religious and political values.

The list of women’s grievances in terms of inequitable treatment in organized religious practices is long, and varies according to religious tradition, culture, state policy, and community structures, among other factors.  But let’s take, for example, the issue of women’s leadership roles.  Of the world’s leading religions, Catholicism and Islam still hesitate to allow women leaders (although there is discussion among Muslims on the parameters for female imams).  Yet, in spite of the lack of space for women’s leadership in some religions, research has linked economic development to religious belief.  For example, recent research has found that a key stimulant to economic growth is the belief in hell.  Not as surprisingly (at least to us) women’s human rights are also key to economic growth.

One has to hope, then, that the incarnation of religion for the majority of people (according to a 2005 Cambridge University survey 88% of people worldwide believe in a God of some type ) around the globe is based on progressive ideals of equality and social justice.   International Agencies recognize that key faith/religion stakeholders need to be involved in economic development planning. The question is how has the religion/development debate expanded to include women’s rights and gender equality?

In 1998 the former World Bank head James Wolfenson and the then Archbishop of Canterbury Carey formed the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD).  The current head is Katherine Marshall and our findings shows that, while sparse, gender has been addressed in their research and at their conferences.  The WFDD marks a growing trend, as more and more faith organizations contribute to international development and peace initiatives.  Gender needs to share the spotlight with religion and faith on the international development stage – it is imperative to truly equitable growth.  Women’s organizations globally recognize this, its time for International Organizations to do the same. (We wonder, of course, why the organizations that have the most resources are always a few steps behind? … but the historical gender bias inherent in these organizations is a story for another day!)

The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has in many ways “mainstreamed” religion, paying attention to how it affects all aspects of women’s lives.  Outside of UNIFEM’s good work, NGOs globally have taken the lead in addressing gender, religion, and development.  The international women’s organization AWID has a key initiative focused on “Resisting and Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms.” Their recent report, titled Ten Myths about Religious Fundamentalisms, is a collaborative effort by activists globally that find many similarities in the (often negative) effects of fundamentalists’ teachings on women, and encourages readers to hold fundamentalists accountable for their words and actions.

For its own part, the women’s movement in the United States (which prides itself on a tradition of separation of church and state, however rhetorical) has had a historically strained relationship with organized religions.   Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, notes that the disagreement within feminist movements in this country dates as far back as the first suffragist movement in the 1840s. Smeal recounts the fact that

Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that the feminist movement should take [religion] on forthrightly–that it should be dealt with–that you could not ignore this institution that was teaching woman’s subjugation. In fact, she spent a great deal of her life writing a women’s bible, and Susan B. Anthony felt that this was too much–that feminists had taken on so many opponents that they didn’t need one more opponent.

Stanton’s work to reconcile women’s rights and faith is reminiscent of today’s work by organizations such as Helen LaKelly Hunts’ Sister Fund, which aims to “challenge society’s perverted applications of scripture that would exclude or demean women.”  Organizations such as JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance) and Women Living Under Muslim Laws work towards similar goals by developing gender-sensitive curriculum for religious schools and reinterpreting religious texts and laws to be more gender equitable.  The Sister Fund supports many of these types of initiatives, and also runs a Faith and Feminism website (together with Faith in Public Life and the Women, Faith and Development Alliance) which seeks to open a dialogue between secular feminists and feminists of faith who are working towards social justice goals.

DC-based policy organization IWPR is also committed to opening such a dialogue.  IWPR’s Politics, Religion, and Women’s Public Vision research and outreach program is “committed to promoting a vision for U.S. policies and practice rooted in women’s public vision and values.” Through research, the program has found that religious women activists are deeply committed to a set of moral values that must be brought into public discussions on religion, morality and politics and, importantly, into the women’s movement itself.  IWPR drafted a Women’s Vision and Values for Public Life out of the program’s research findings, and the Vision is worth taking a look at in full (they even have a comments section).  And because we are such fans of their vision of equality and individual worth, balanced power, family and community (and because there were certainly echoes of all of these values in President Obama’s inaugural address), we are going to close this months’ Global Exchange with the opening of that Vision:

Women’s full integration into public life is essential to building a truly democratic society, creating a more caring culture, and improving the lives of women, their families, and all communities. We call on leaders in politics, the economy, society, and religion to promote practices that empower women of all backgrounds and advance their equality and well-being in public and family life. We call for policies that embody the values of caring and consideration for humanity and support practices that encourage cooperative models of public life.

Amen to that.

[1] Zuckerman, Phil. “Atheism: Contemporary Rates and Patterns “, chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2006). Ed. Michael Martin, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK

We’ve been marinating on 2008; what an incredible year! Turbulent, exciting and really most of our wishes seemed to be granted in one fell swoop with the outcome of the US election.

There was China’s Olympic moment of glory, the first female Mayor in Egypt and of course the highs and lows of the U.S. election and then the same sex marriage Proposition in California. For all the leaps forward there is still more to be done for gender equality globally. Next year we want more inclusion! We wanted to share our top 5 wishes en route to inclusion. Enjoy and add your own in comments.

Our Top 5:

5. Darfur. Iraq. Afghanistan. This is the 21st Century and it’s about time human beings find an alternative means of negotiation… We are simply tired of war. As previously reported Darfur has resulted in more than 2.5 million people having been displaced in Darfur (with up to 300,000 dead); tens of thousands of them are women and children. It is no surprise that women’s rights fade when confronted by war.

4. International organizations have claimed an understanding of the importance of adopting a gendered lens. So, it’s unacceptable that the World Bank hasn’t fit gender equality into its approach in its 2009 World Development Report, subtitled “Reshaping Economic Geography.” This year’s report doesn’t include even a misguided or incomplete take on gender inequities, or the gender differentials in economic growth, despite nearly three decades of work on the topic by feminist economists, geographers, and other researchers in the field of gender and development. “Gender” is literally mentioned once in the 17 chapters of the report, a brief reference on page 93 to the gender gap in literacy rates in Egypt. Given that this is a report which purports to examine the unbalanced nature of economic growth in development, it is rather unfathomable that there is no reference to the gendered nature of this (im)balance, even more so given the 30-odd years of work by gender and development researchers, academics and activists on the topic. This omission brings to mind a quote from the recently published Gender Myths and Feminist Fables, in which editors Andrea Cornwall, Elizabeth Harrison and Ann Whitehead remark, “… power relations within development ensure that feminist thought remains thoroughly marginal. It is seen as perfectly respectable to be an expert on poverty without having read any feminist work on poverty and to regard it as the responsibility of gender experts to convince the mainstream of its relevance.”

3. Since the U.S. has proved that anything in politics is possible, it’s time for the rest of the world to showcase its political potential and prowess! It’s more than just quantity its quality. There is a long list of women in politics who we could really do without. Some of us are still waiting for Condi to emerge from the Dark Side…What we need are men and women in politics who will deliver on the promise of gender equality.

Eva Habil is not only Egypt’s first female mayor, she remembers a more equitable Egypt where she was able to travel on her own before witnessing her country and culture co-opted by a more conservative regime. It will be exciting to see how her memories of a more equitable Egypt will affect the way she governs. President-elect Obama’s cabinet has only five women but includes men who are strong supporters of equity and women’s rights. If the National Review complains that Eric Holder (AG to be) is “He is convinced justice in America needs to be “established” rather than enforced; he’s excited about hate crimes and enthusiastic about the constitutionally dubious Violence Against Women Act”, he’s A-Ok in our books! So we part ways with Bonnie Erbe on this one, there are more pressing matters on which we will take President-elect Obama to task.

Quality is better than quantity but numbers do help: Sometimes, the more women the better. The incoming Rwandan Parliament will be the first in the world to have women in the majority. A whopping 56%! This is one development indicator in which Africa is leading the way. In the New Year we wish for this to be less the exception and more the norm.

2. Gay marriage, please! Actually, no more ‘please’, this time we demand it. Newsweek’s article in support of gay marriage did a great job of using scripture in support of inclusion. Thus far only Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and South Africa have nationalized same-sex marriage. Equality is equality.

And for numero uno…

1. Global Financial and Environmental Sustainability! We already spoke of the effects of the financial crisis on women before; it’s time for women and minorities to be more included in the global economy. Increased productivity means the entire workforce is engaged. Stateside, President-elect Obama has indicated that Mary Shapiro is his choice to head the SEC. Maybe a woman can whip the financial situation in the States into a more inclusive shape. If anything, the financial crisis, the war and all that wasn’t great about the last few years has led us to an exciting new understanding of our world, our relationship with it, and with one another. Change isn’t always easy but the journey is never dull. Our wish is that wherever we end up, it is more inclusive.

Next year we’ll explore the effects of renewable energy on women…a more equitable source of energy perhaps. Until then very happy wishes for a fabulous new year!

-Gwendolyn Beetham and Tonni Ann Brodber

We’re back to regale with tales of research from the international hinterland. The global economic crisis has been making front-page news for weeks now. And while we’ve heard lots about the bankers and the automakers, the gendered impacts of these shifts, especially internationally, are little reported. This week, we take a look at these impacts in the context of the phenomena of remittances.

Remittance is a big word that describes a simple concept critical to the economic viability of many countries. The term ‘remittance’ refers to the transfer of money from one country to the other by immigrant (or migrant) workers who leave their home country (usually in the Global South) to work in a higher-paid arena (usually in the Global North). Although difficult to exactly measure, remittances now account for the second largest source of external funding for developing countries. The Migration and Remittances Team at the World Bank estimates that flows to developing countries will reach $238 billion in 2008. Interestingly, with the rapid economic development of some developing countries, especially the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), the flow of remittances is increasingly between developing countries. Information from the US Census Bureau shows that remittances between developing countries was 17% in 2008.

Why is this important to women? Remittances are a direct product of migration, one of the most highly gendered social processes. According to UNFPA, in 2006 95 million migrants were women, approximately half of all international migrants worldwide. Whether women are being left behind with the children, making decisions on how to spend the money that men (or children or other family members) send from abroad, or whether they leave behind children with extended family members in the hopes that they can create better lives for themselves and their families from a distance, women are at the maelstrom of movement.

UN-INSTRAW has been working on a fantastic project on Gender and Remittances since 2003. So far, they have looked at the patterns of migration and remittances by women between the Dominican Republic and Spain and the US, the Philippines and Italy, Guatemala and the US, Columbia and Morocco and Spain, SADC and Lesotho and South Africa, Albania and Greece, and Senegal and France. Key concerns of these projects are not only the recognition of the shear number of women migrants and the amount of money being sent back, but these monetary flows are then gendered both at the household and community level. In many countries, community development projects have been started with remittance money. INSTRAW, and others using a gender perspective, seeks to ensure that such money benefits both men and women, as well as is inclusive of issues specific to age, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion.

Why does the gendered nature of remittance patterns matter in the context of the current global economic crisis? Well, according to The Economist, “plunging commodity prices and reduced foreign demand will hurt quite a few African economies; foreign investment, remittances and foreign aid will all shrink.” However, in spite of much doom and gloom in the current financial forecast, there is hope.

Remittances are one of the least volatile sources of foreign exchange in developing countries. They may slow but they never stop. They will continue as long as migration continues. Not only are they sometimes the sole source of income for many families – they are often seed funds for entrepreneurs. Two amazing young women from Mexico recognize the importance and the effect of remittances in their communities and have mobilized women in the community and the diaspora to exploit the full potential of these funds, as well as to ensure that the funds are used in a way that benefits both men and women.

Image Credit.