Archive for the ‘Mothers’ Category

This is a somewhat scattered Mother’s Day post. To start off, I’d like to say thank you, Kristof:

By United Nations estimates, 215 million women worldwide have an “unmet need” for family planning, meaning they don’t want to become pregnant but are not using effective contraception. The Guttmacher Institute, a widely respected research organization, estimates that if all the unmet need for contraception were met, the result would be 94,000 fewer women dying of pregnancy complications each year, and almost 25 million fewer abortions each year.

Read the rest of his column about how family planning could save lives across the globe and why we need to press our government for it here–it’s a lesson we should all be thinking about this Mother’s Day.

And, while you’re at it, instead of buying your mother, grandmother, step-mother, or any other kind of female maternal figure in your life flowers, chocolates, or a card, consider making a donation in her name instead. The Mother’s Day Movement was created last year after a group of women decided that the $14 billion that Americans spent on Mother’s Day flowers, cards, and meals could be better spent–they started a campaign to raise money for a charity that improves the lives of women and children. This year, they are raising money for Shining Hope for Communities, an organization that runs a community center, health clinic, and school for girls in Nairobi, Kenya. If this organization doesn’t strike your fancy, Kristof (in another column) gives some suggestions for many other organizations that help women, like The Fistula Foundation, an organization that helps women suffering from obstetric fistulas, a horrible condition that begins at birth that causes women to leak out waste, here. This year, my sister and I decided together to celebrate our mother (in addition to talking to her and expressing our love) by doing something to help women around the world–she’s always taught us to care about other people, especially women in suffering, and we knew she’d appreciate it a lot more than flowers.

And finally, Happy Mother’s Day! I hope that whether you live near, with, or halfway across the world from your mother/maternal figure (my current situation), you find a way to say thanks for all she does for you.


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I’ve been meaning to watch if for a while, and this weekend I finally made time to watch MTV’s “No Easy Decision” special. Famous for the shows “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant,” on December 28th MTV aired “No Easy Decision” (at 11:30 PM) to portray one of the alternatives to teen pregnancy: abortion. I’ve never watched “Teen Mom” or “16 and Pregnant,” but from what I’ve seen of MTV, I was initially expecting the show to be bad and melodramatic. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be incredibly moving, informative, and pragmatic–and I would encourage everyone to watch it.

“No Easy Decision” is about 30 minutes long. The first five minutes introduce us to Markai Durham, a teenager previously featured on “16 and Pregnant” after giving birth to her daughter Zakaria. Pregnant again after missing her shot of Depo-Provera, she and her boyfriend James weigh their options–having another baby and struggling to raise, feed, and take care of two children, or having an abortion, something that they both are hesitant to do. (When someone suggests adoption, Markai immediately responds that she’d be too in love with the child by the time it was born to give it up–something that many people overlook when they push adoption on women with unwanted pregnancies.) After consulting with a women’s clinic (we watch the phone conversation, listening to the friendly and informative woman on the other end of the phone and watching Markai cry) and a close friend, and numerous tearful conversations with James, the two decide that having an abortion is the decision that would make most sense for them, Zakaria, and their unborn child.

Abortion is not portrayed as an easy thing to do. After the procedure, Markai struggles with her decision, wondering what it would be like to have another child. She and Mark go out to dinner, and she talks about how the counselor and argue after Mark refers to the unborn child (which Markai refers to as a bunch of cells) as a “thing”–she feels sensitive and defensive about her decision. Markai tells the camera that choosing abortion was the “toughest decision ever,” and that she wouldn’t choose it as a first option for anyone, but that “it’s not the right time” because she’d have to sacrifice so much of her life, Mark’s life, and her daughter’s life in order to raise another child. In a follow-up interview, Markai says that she feels sadness, but not regret.

The show concludes with an interview with three women–Markai, Natalia, and Katie–about how they feel after having abortions. I thought it was amazing to hear the three women’s stories because they were all so different–it showed how abortion doesn’t simply apply to one type of woman. Katie got pregnant the summer before her senior year in college (she had bad reactions to her birth control, and didn’t know that throwing up her pill meant she was not protected), two weeks before her 18-year old sister gave birth to her son. She chose to get an abortion after seeing how much her sister had to deal with during her pregnancy, and realizing that she did not want to go through the same. Natalia had an abortion at 17 after discovering she was pregnant. I found her story particularly moving because she had to go to court, alone, in order to get an abortion–she did not want to tell her parents, and because she lived in one of the 35 states that require parental consent, she had to plead in front of a judge in order to waive the requirement, something that she (similar to many girls) found to be necessary but emotionally trying. Her only assistance in paying for the abortion came from her ex-boyfriend; in order to pay the $750 dollars that her abortion was to cost, she sold back her high school prom ticket. That struck a chord with me, as a girl about to go to prom, because it was so raw and real–a girl my age had to go through that whole ordeal alone. All three of the girl’s stories were different, but they seemed to agree on the idea that their decisions were “parenting decisions”–that they made their decisions not just thinking about what kind of life they wanted for themselves, but also what kind of life they want for their children.

As Lynn Harris of Salon writes, one of the best things about the show is that in addition to everything else, it includes medically accurate information about abortion procedures and the challenge of finding the right birth control method. It also makes it clear that abortion is not a rare, dangerous procedure: Dr. Drew, the host, explains that about 750,000 girls in the U.S. get pregnant every year, and that nearly a third of those teen pregnancies end in abortion. He says that abortion is “among the safest, most common medical procedures in the US” and cites an oft-ignored figure, the fact that 1/3 of all women in America will have an abortion at one point their lives.

At a time when few television shows are willing to openly discuss or portray abortion, MTV’s “No Easy Decision” is an incredibly important and engaging addition. The show made me cry, not just because the girls’ stories were moving, but because stories like theirs are so rarely told. Abortion can be and is the right choice for many women, and needs to be treated as such–bringing an unwanted child into this world is not good for the parents, the child, or society.

PS: If you want to show support for the three women who shared their stories (something many, many women are afraid to do), go to 16 and Loved, created by Exhale, and share your thoughts.

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In my English class in school, we’re currently reading Interpreter of Maladies, a collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. The first is about a couple and the growing distance between them after the wife gives birth to a stillborn child. It’s beautiful, and incredibly sad, and I, as I am prone to do, began to cry as I read the husband’s confession that while his wife was asleep, he had held his son in the hospital, something his wife had never gotten or expected him to do, and that pained them both immensely.

When I told my English class the next day that I had cried during that passage, everyone laughed–I’m known to cry a lot. And then one of my friends, joking, asked me how I could care so much about a dead baby if I’m so pro-choice–and I realized it’s something worth talking about because many people see the two as mutually exclusive, even if not my friend.

When I heard his question, I immediately thought of this quote that I had read in a pamphlet created by the National Abortion Rights Action League called Why I Provide Abortions by Dr. Liz Karlin. She said “Women have abortions because they have a sense of what it is to be a good mother.” To me, that quote really strikes a chord in that it exemplifies how an abortion is not simply a selfish act on the part of the woman, but an act based on her idea that she is not ready to be the mother, and does not want to bring a child into the world without the kind of mother he or she deserves. A woman who has an abortion knows that the baby she would have would becoming at the wrong time or in the wrong place or from the wrong person, and does not feel right about giving life to something under those conditions.

And yet hearing about a dead baby makes me cry. Why? Because babies that are wanted are beautiful things–they light up a couple’s life, provide infinite fulfillment (and fights and struggles and other tasks of parenthood), and, simply, bring life to this world. The loss of a wanted baby is, to me, one of the saddest things in the world, as it is a loss of a being who, before even being born has been the object of so much love, care, and attention–it is tragic, and deserves to be cried about.

I guess what the dichotomy comes down to for me is my faith in trusting women to decide for themselves if they’re ready to be mothers or not. Women who get abortions don’t take take the decision lightly, as they shouldn’t–but it’s important that they, as women, be able to make the decision based on where they see, or don’t see, parenthood fitting into their lives. An unwanted baby is a tragic thing, too.

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For a while now I’ve been struggling to figure out what I want to say and formulate a post about this:

And I’m still not completely sure what to say. On the one hand, the video is beautiful, in that special wow, there really could be hope in this world way and terribly sad in the wow, there are so many girls out there living lives that they should not be living way. When I first saw the video I had to watch it a couple of times to actually think about it. And then I was curious, so I looked up the website of The Girl Effect. They have a fact sheet with some interesting and relevant facts, such as the fact that “an extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent. An extra year of secondary school: 15 to 25 percent” and that “out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70 percent are girls.” The statistics clearly show that there is a gap between what I (and many people in Western society) believe girls deserve and what they are getting.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to change a society, and this video is, to say the least, quite the oversimplification. How can you give a girl independence in a society that is structured around her dependence? How can you make a society pay attention to girls when for thousands of years it has not? The answer: slowly. That’s where my hesitation is–not in the ideas behind The Girl Effect, but in the idea that everything is going to be easy. If you read “Girls Count: An Investment and Global Action Agenda,” you’ll see that the people at the Center for Global Development have some very logical and seemingly important ideas, like increasing access to secondary education for girls, working to get laws passed that fight discrimination against women, and getting girls official identification so that there is an official record of what happens to them.

I read these ideas and immediately said to myself, yes, of course these need to happen. And I still think they need to happen–but sadly, I’m just a little skeptical. NGOs like the World Bank have been for years and continue to build schools for girls, and what happens? Some girls get to go to school; in many cases, thousands upon thousands of girls get to go to school. But there still remain thousands and thousands who don’t. If a law gets passed that encourages equality, a law gets passed–but it is still up to the government, police, and other officials to enforce the law, and many times corruption inhibits that from happening. This is not to say that efforts should not be made–I think they should. However, I think it’s important to remember that even though the small pieces themselves may seem simple to achieve, it is much more difficult to change an entire society. The Western world functions very differently than other cultures, and changing a society’s mores and expectations takes time. It took, and is still taking, time for women to be seen as equal in America, and that time applies in the same way, if not more, when talking about changing foreign cultures and their perceptions of gender equality.

So watch the video, share the video, and talk to people about it. It raises a lot of issues, from the idea of the imposition of Western values onto other cultures to the debate about the efficacy of micro-finance initiatives. And hopefully, slowly, girls across the world will get the opportunities they deserve–from education to not having to have a child at age 14–and be able to live up to their full potential.

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The Other Mama Grizzlies

I’m assuming a lot of people have seen this: It’s a video that Sarah Palin created about “Mama Grizzlies” who are “banding together” and leading a new movement that is changing America. What exactly they are doing is not particularly clear, but these women are clearly very united and very passionate about helping to shape this country. Right. It’s a good thing that all the women who are passionate about changing the country—common- sense conservative women—are mothers, and that their motherhood has taught them how to rebuild a country.

Well, yesterday a video came out that serves as a kind of response to Palin’s, and I wanted to point it out: In addition to being witty and extremely funny, it also raises some serious issues: the fact that Sarah Palin does not support a woman’s right to choose, that she wants to cut unemployment benefits, and that she vehemently opposed healthcare reform.  The video is important because it is a reminder of just how many women Sarah Palin does not represent—that just because Palin is a woman and a mother does not mean that she has the support of all women or all mothers, or that she has any particular special knowledge about leading a country from being a woman or a mother. Or that she even has the best interest of women and mothers at heart. Although it is very strategic of Palin to emphasize that she and the candidates that she supports are women, and to paint it as if consequently all women should support her, there is more to a candidate than his or her gender: politicians should be elected based on their ideas and opinions, not their sex. If a woman candidate happens to be particularly interested in reproductive rights and education because she is a woman or a mother, then all the more reason to support her, but if she supports policies that would actually harm women (as a I believe she does) then her gender should play no role in the decision of choosing who to vote for.

Watch the video, share it with your friends, and then go out and vote for candidates in November—not because they are “Mama Grizzlies” but because they support policies that will benefit you, your family, and this country as a whole. Don’t be afraid that the grizzly bears will rise on their hind legs and come get you.

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Name: Sophia Henriquez

Age: 16

Place of Birth: New York City

Neighborhood: New York City

Denomination: Reform

Race: Caucasian

Ethnicity: Hispanic

Sexuality: Heterosexual

Profession: Student

“So, who are you interviewing next?”

“Sophia Henriquez from Peer Leadership,” I answered.

“But I thought your project was about Jewish feminism,” my mom replied, her face scrunching into a contortion of confusion that accompanies assumptions proven incorrect.

My mother is not the only one who responded like this when I mentioned that Sophia was my next interviewee. With a common Hispanic last name and a self-identified Latina, she is not the most likely Jew and that makes her a fighter for her religious identity, someone who goes the extra mile to prove to people that she is, in fact, Jewish not in spite of but in conjunction with her last name.

Sophia is not only Jewish, but Christian as well. She has grown up embracing diversity. After going to camp with her when we were younger, we have reunited in the Peer Leadership classroom, a place where high school juniors and seniors are taught to acknowledge differences and use them to construct individual identity. I knew she would be an ideal candidate for this project when she said during a lesson on family identity that what she loves most are the traditions her family has created, traditions that stem from a fusion of practices generally thought to run parallel, but to never intersect. This is precisely the beauty of the Henriquez interfaith and interracial household: it proves that this intersection is possible and that Judaism has a place in it.

I meet Sophia in the Senior Inquiry classroom. There are teachers bickering in the background and the din makes her assert her responses just like she asserts her unique and occasionally unaccepted identity. As with many young Jewish women, the first example that comes to mind when I ask Sophia to describe her religious upbringing is her Bat Mitzvah. The least genetically Jewish of all the women in her immediate family, she and her sister were actually the first ones to have Bat Mitzvahs.

She describes her mother’s influence, “My mom wasn’t a force on [my sister and I having Bat Mitzvahs] because she didn’t have one herself and neither did my grandmother so it was very individual for my sister and I because it was always a question of where we belonged.”

Sophia is a representative of what happens when you choose religion and religious practices. She puts choice back into religion and tradition. She took the initiative in having a Bat Mitzvah. This initiation is the most mature step to take in a ceremony that has the intention of a coming of age.

Just as she defined her desire to have a Bat Mitzvah, she defines other rituals on her own terms. Flexibility with Judaism is vital for this reform Jew from Stuyvesant Town. Her take on religion is beautiful and modern, containing elements of acceptance and comfort. As someone who is a part of two religions, she is able to take Judaism into a greater context.


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I literally just put down On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition and I felt an overwhelming urge to blog about it. I’ve been reading it for the past week or two, and it’s completely unique from any other piece of Jewish feminist literature I have read. Unlike a lot of pieces I have read, Blu Greenberg, the author, is not willing to simply write off Halacha as outdated and sexist and replace it with newer ideas without reason, but is also unwilling to give up on the idea that equality for men and women is an inherent Jewish value. I’m probably going to write a couple of posts on various topics that she writes about because there is just so much to say.

For this first post, I want to write about what Greenberg has to say about women’s exemption from positive time-bound commandments, and the implication of that exemption on their observance of Judaism and role in the community, specifically with prayer. She explains that there is a principle in Judaism that every commandment that must be preformed within a specific time frame is not binding on women, such as daytime commandments or commandments that must be performed at a certain hour. There is no rationale mentioned for this exemption in the Talmud, but many scholars have tried to explain the meaning of the exemption. She cites several theories.

The first, a fourteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are in the subservient position, women should not be bound to commandments at a specific time because it might prevent them from serving their husbands. The second, a nineteenth century theory, says that because in the sex-hierarchy women are actually superior to men, they do not need to observe the commandments because they have a special fervor and love for God that men do not have because of their special role, raising a family. The third is a thirteenth century theory that says that like children and slaves, women do not have the mental control to observe the commandments, and the fourth is a twentieth century theory that says that women do not need the commandments because they are naturally more in tune to the passing of time because of their biological clocks, and do not need the commandments to remind them of it like men do. The fifth and final one is a twentieth century theory created by Saul Berman. He says that the commandments from which women are exempted are mainly ones that would lead them into the public eye: lack of status in a Minyan, not being allowed to be called to the Torah, not being allowed to be witnesses in Jewish courts, etc. If you mix all these theories together, the reason for the exemption probably has to do with a desire for women to be able to perform their domestic duties, as well as desire for women to maintain their roles inside the home and outside of the public eye.

She then goes onto explain how because for years women have not been obligated to pray in a Minyan (a group of at least ten) because of this exemption, doing so has become a mainly male thing. While personal prayer is seen as an important thing, praying in a larger group is regarded in Judaism as the better option—people are encouraged to pray in a Minyan rather than by themselves, to the point where there are certain prayers that can only be said in a Minyan. And women, because they are not required, end up losing out on that. She says,

And what about the spiral effect of release? Without actually assuming full and equal responsibility, will it ever be possible to have full and equal access—especially in a system that defines access in terms of responsibility? Can a woman ever hope to qualify for religious leadership if she has not met equal tests as a layperson? Indeed, is there not an inseverable link between release and restrain, between unaccountability and public invisibility, between ascribed junior status and reduced self-esteem? If we have learned anything at all from feminism, is it not that rights and responsibilities must come together?

I find that quote to be really powerful, because it counters the argument that women should not complain about being exempted from commandments because they can take their own initiative and perform them. It is not as simple as that—exempting an entire sex from something sends a message, whether that message is that these women are not full members of the community, or that they are incapable of fixed responsibility.

I will end this incredibly long post with Greenberg’s suggestion for dealing with the issue of exemption. She suggests that the exemption from time-bound commandment for all women be lifted, and instead only be relevant for women who are raising children (lasting until perhaps Bar/Bat Mitzvah age). She believes that doing so will encourage women to pray throughout their entire lives and turn to prayer as a means of expression, while also making a statement about “the holiness of raising a family,” exhibited by the fact that it can take precedent over other commandments. She also believes that in the long run, women will have to be included in a Minyan in order for them to be seen as full members of a community; she does not criticize the Mechitzah (division between the two sexes), but rather believes that women should be entrusted with the same responsibility that men are, the responsibility to show up for a Minyan and pray.

I love the fact that she ends this chapter, a chapter called “Women and Liturgy,” with an idea for the future but also with an emphasis on the power of Jewish law, Halacha, to influence people’s lives. She describes Halacha as a powerful, beautiful thing, one that binds Jews to laws and customs, but also to an ancient history and tradition. She describes it as a dynamic, fluid system of law that should naturally adapt to include women—she does not try to over-criticize Halacha, but rather work together with it to show how Judaism’s moral code calls for an inclusion of women. And although I personally may not be as observant as Greenberg or in agreement with all of her views, I think that something that we should all strive for is to look at Jewish feminism as a way of bettering Judaism, not as a way of tearing it apart.

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