In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set || First feminist blog on the internet

(No) Fear of Spying

Came across these articles over the weekend, reporting that declassified police-surveillance files on 1970s “Women’s Liberation Groups — Canada” were made public this week. Of course, state surveillance of activists in nations that vociferously proclaim themselves to be “free” is not a thing of the past. Antiwar, bicycling, vegan, environmental, and other communities are being infiltrated and spied on right now in the U.S.

Here’s to hoping we’re all bold and visionary (and fun!) enough to stand with the “sweating, uncombed women …crying sisterhood and dancing” in the face of “at a loss” military police.

KBR Bans Cell Phones and Silences Rape Victims

KBR, the defense contractor doing a lot of heavy lifting in the upholding of our occupation of Iraq, has banned the use of personal cell phones by its employees. KBR and its previous parent company Halliburton are notorious for many things. One of those things is the rape and cover up of rape committed by its male employees against its female employees.

How are the two related? Well, the first and most widely-known woman to come forward with an allegation of rape and cover up is Jamie Leigh Jones. Jones was gang raped by her coworkers, then locked inside of a shipping container for days in order to prevent her from reporting the attack. The Justice Department never brought charges against her assailants, and extremely important evidence in the case was “lost” by KBR. But the relevant part is how Jones escaped: through the use of a cell phone. A “sympathetic guard” loaned the phone to her, which she used to call her father in the United States. Her father subsequently called his congressperson, who ended up securing Jones’ release. If that “sympathetic guard” (you know, the one who didn’t set her free) hadn’t handed her that cell phone, god only knows where Jamie Leigh Jones would be today. But it just might not be alive, let alone acting as a major anti-rape and anti-KBR activist.

So. KBR employee is raped by her coworkers and then kidnapped and held prisoner. Employee secures her release through use of a personal cell phone. KBR doesn’t really give a shit about any of it. Employee makes a lot of noise about the incident, making KBR look really bad, even if not actually impacting the company financially. KBR bans personal cell phone use.

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The Naked Truth: Security vs. Privacy

NPR covered a story about security in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which centered specifically on one woman’s protest against the type of body scanning used: it doesn’t see hair or clothing, but sees the body, (I’m assuming metal) jewelry, and any prospective weapons. The body is rendered essentially naked (pictured here; picture from NPR).

Farah al-Jaberi’s objections (which are shared by other female workers) are mainly to male guards seeing their bodies through the scanner, and the worry that “images of their bodies can be saved and viewed by anyone later.” Al-Jaberi and other women won the right not to go through the scanners, until an incident last June with an American soldier. When al-Jaberi refused to go through the scanner, he verbally abused her, threatened to call the police on her, and pointed a gun in her face. Whoa, not okay. This incident is still being investigated, and currently, authorities have opened a separate gate for women.

First, I want to point out that I hated writer Corey Flintoff’s language. He points to al-Jaberi as a “matron,” which has implications of dowdiness and ageism. I have to wonder if he would have used the word “matron” if she hadn’t been wearing a headscarf and abaya, which he refers to as “drapery.” Just makes me think of window dressings. Judging a woman’s personality and age (and likening her clothes to window dressings) by what she’s wearing? Rude!

I want to focus on the scanner, however. There are plenty of issues here. #1: Just plain creepy. I don’t think anyone wants have their pseudo-naked body looked at on a daily basis by just anybody. This also gets into issues of ownership: we supposedly own our bodies and have “rights” to them: i.e., to keep them private if we want. This scanner removes a person’s right to their body, not only with the scanning itself, but with the possibility of saving one’s image and viewing or distributing it later.
But this issue is complicated by cultural and religious reasons. Many of those scanned are Muslim women, who believe it is not acceptable for men other than their family members or healthcare practitioners to see them in any state of undress, let alone butt-nekkid. This goes for male Muslim workers, as well—unrelated women shouldn’t see their bodies, either. Since Iraq is predominantly a Muslim nation, this becomes a cultural taboo as well.

Issue #2: Why was this scanner being used? Though the article points to the problematic concealment of the headscarf and/or abaya, the guards already search their bags. There are female guards who already pat them down in set-aside booths that are curtained for privacy. And al-Jaberi says that she (and the other women) don’t mind this. So why do they need a scanner that denudes someone?

You know those scanners they have at the airport? The ones that beep if you have metal and don’t beep if you’re okay? Why can’t they use those? Why used this type of scanner?

A person’s body is a complex and private possession. Nakedness has connotations of vulnerability and privacy (the latter being especially true to Muslims), and viewing someone’s nakedness without their acceptance or consent is not only a violation, but also a type of dominance. Maybe the scanner was introduced as a safety measure, but its presence implies dominance over workers: “We (the U.S. government) will look at you naked every day.” Because many of these workers are Iraqi, the dominance implied has political and imperialist overtones.

There is also a tug of war here between security and ownership of one’s body that goes past the “personal freedom vs. national freedom” debate that surrounds a lot of the irritating airline security checks (taking off your shoes, restriction of liquid, etc.) and illegal spying on U.S. citizens. This is more than throwing away your water bottle or having the N.S.A. listen to you chat with your parents. This is about somebody looking at you naked in the interests of “security”.

Would you be okay with that, especially if there are less invasive ways to ensure everyone’s safety? I wouldn’t.