This post is cross-posted at JWA

It’s an exciting, scary, and revolutionary time in Egypt right now. In spite of our opinions on the political implications of the anti-Mubarak and pro-Mubarak protests, I think we can all appreciate the large amount of Egyptian female revolutionaries with roles in the spotlight. I read an interesting article on this in the New York Times today that described the surprisingly large involvement of women in the protests in Egypt.

In particular, the article talked about a woman named Asmaa Mahfouz. Mahfouz is part of the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of young people who use the internet to organize people against Mubarak and his rule. She posted a video online a few weeks ago holding a sign that declared that she would protest against Mubarak, and that in order to have hope, people must take a strong and visible stance. Her video was seen as bold, both for its complete lack of anonymity, something that is not particularly prevalent in online activism (Mahfouz made popular something that Amr Ezz, another founder of the April 6 Movement calls “visual blogging”), and because she was a woman. In Egypt, women traditionally are expected to not take on radical and inflammatory roles, and her doing so was quite the big deal. But both elements of surprise seemed to work out for her–in response to her video, dozens of people posted videos with signs of their own, promising to go out and protest in the massive January 25 protests.

Despite her efforts, men still make up the majority of protesters–something that is not surprising in such a traditional country. However, one thing that I found interesting was this quote from Ezz in the article, explaining why men, perhaps even more than women, were motivated by Mahfouz: “The fact that a woman was able to do this made the men feel challenged, and they wanted to do the same.” According to Ezz, because men were so uncomfortable with seeing a woman in a prominent role, they felt the need to assert their authority once again by dedicating themselves to the movement: essentially, sexism, or at least traditionally repressive gender roles, helped Mahfouz’s message to affect men. The idea seems a little backwards and weird, but if true, has helped Mahfouz’s video to be quite effective.

Even though the protests are majority male, many women are participating. Women march down the streets with men and even lead groups of protesters. The aforementioned article highlights Mariam Soliman, a 28-year-old woman who led a group of both men and women in chants against Mubarak. Asked about her role, she responded:

“I am an Egyptian woman, a regular woman rejecting injustice and corruption in my country…women have to go down and participate and demand their rights, or is it going to be the men who fight for our rights?”

I find this quote to be very powerful, and something that women across the world can relate to–even if we’re not dealing with revolution, it’s important to remember that if we don’t speak up for things we believe in, we cannot expect anyone else to. Being a woman does not make us any less affected by national and international issues. I admire the female Egyptian protesters for taking the fate of their country into their own hands, even when it goes against much of what has been expected of them throughout their lives. We can’t be sure that this will affect gender roles after all of the turmoil has passed, as a lot of what happens will depend on what kind of government is in place. However, at least for now, women in Egypt are taking on new, exciting, and important roles, and it’s certainly something to celebrate.

I saw this Youtube video a few weeks ago, and was shocked that I’d never seen it before (because it’s funny and great):

The video is called “The Bechdel Test for Women in Movies” and was created by FeministFrequency. It describes a test for all movies with three simple qualifications:

  1. Is there more than one woman in the movie who has a name?
  2. Do the women talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

It then goes on to show a long list of movies that do not pass the test—and I was amazed at just how many there were, and how none of these movies are known to be particularly misogynistic. Milk? The Princess Bride? WALL·E?

It’s a funny video—the star is sassy and sarcastic—but it’s also a very depressing video. When I think about movies I’ve seen recently like Inception or The Social Network, it becomes clear just how male-centric these movies really are—the women, even independent and dynamic female characters, end up serving as props in a male-dominated plot-line. The women are not the center focus, but rather (sometimes interesting, sometimes not) sidenotes.

I think that this lack of female-centered content stems from the fact that most big-name Hollywood directors today are men. Every director nominated for a Golden Globethis year is male, fewer than 10 percent of all movies are directed by women, rarely are woman consistently hired by big movie production houses, and a woman has never won an Oscar for best director (Ed: until last year, when Katheryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker); these facts do not justify the fact that so many movies are solely focused on either male/male or male/female interactions, but they do help to explain it.

The thing is, though, that women went to the movies more than men in 2009. Women clearly are a market for films, and yet are not exactly treated as one—but still seem to be returning to the movies over and over again. Why is this? In an interview, Manohla Dargis, a NYT film critic, said:

There’s a reason that women go to movies like Mamma Mia. It’s a terrible movie . . . but women are starved for representation of themselves. I go back to Spike Lee and She’s Gotta Have It. I remember going to see it at the Quad in New York, surrounded by a black audience. People are starved for representations of themselves.

What she says makes a lot of sense to me—and further explains why the movie industry is caught in a self-perpetuating cycle. Men make movies about men because that’s what they know, and succeed at doing well with the few movies they make about women because women see those movies en masse. Even if movies about women aren’t quality films, the succeed because women are willing to see them. Isn’t that depressing?

So, what can we do about this? Vote with your pocket, I suppose: see movies that have women in them, but not simply because they have women—demand quality movies about women, movies that portray women as complex characters in the same way that movies portray men. And hope that the industry recognizes women as the large and powerful movie-going audience that we are.

Blog for Choice Day 2011!

Today is Blog for Choice Day 2011!

What does that mean, you ask? Every year, on the the Friday before the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, NARAL Pro-Choice America organizes Blog for Choice Day in order to get people thinking and talking about reproductive rights in America today.

This year’s discussion question is: Given the anti-choice gains in the states and Congress, are you concerned about choice in 2011?

Now, it’s been a long day–my last day of high school ever–and I’m not feeling up to answering this question in its entirety. However, I would like to bring up two bills that are currently in Congress, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” and the “Protect Life Act,” which, in addition to imposing a permanent, blanket prohibition on any and all federal spending for abortion care (currently there are restrictions, but they are for specific programs and must be renewed every year), would essentially take away all federal tax credits for healthcare plans that include abortion, even those that are medically necessary.

The proposed restrictions will make healthcare companies question whether they should include abortion in their policies (currently 87% of companies, a very large proportion, do) and make it extremely difficult for poor women to get abortions. If a woman’s healthcare plan will not help her to pay for a $750 dollar abortion, she may be forced to make unreasonable sacrifices to pay for it, or be unable to get an abortion at all. I find this idea to be scary–and so do many other people.

So, on Blog for Choice Day 2011, remember the importance of access to abortion. Even though a ban on abortion may not be on the horizon, there is a chance that through healthcare restrictions abortion access will be extremely limited–something that we and our congresspeople should work to try to prevent.

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.

Debbie Friedman died yesterday at age 59 after years of suffering from multiple sclerosis. For those of you who have not heard of her, she is a Jewish singer/songwriter, famous for writing Jewish folk/rock music that has become popular in many Conservative and Reform synagogues and schools. The above link is a really nice obituary, if you’re interested.

One thing that Debbie Friedman is famous for is her use of gender-sensitive language. In the song L’chi Lach she uses the female command “L’chi Lach” instead of “Lech Lecha,” the command that is found in the Torah, to show that Sarah was commanded to make the same journey that Abraham made.

It’s a beautiful song, I think–and one that is a welcome addition to the plethora of male-centered Judaica that we have today.

From “Not by Might” to her rendition of “Misheberach,” I’ve heard and learned so many of Debbie Friedman’s songs since I was a little girl: her music has been a huge presence in my repertoire of Jewish music. Although it’s a tragedy that she died at such a young age and after so much suffering, I know that her legacy will live on in the memories and voices of the Jewish community.

Rethinking Beauty Pageants?

This post is cross-posted at JWA

I’ll admit it–the first (and usually only) thing I think of when someone mentions the Miss America competition is the movie Miss Congeniality and a group of starving, not particularly bright, but beautiful women. But after reading this article about Loren Galler Rabinowitz in The Forward I’ve begun to rethink that reaction. Rabinowitz is a former competitive ice skater, Harvard graduate, classically trained pianist, poet (she wrote a book of poems for her senior thesis under the tutelage of Jorie Graham), and Miss Massachusetts 2010. She’s also Jewish. At first I was surprised that someone so smart and talented would want to enter a beauty pageant, but after reading about the positive effect being Miss Massachusetts has had on her life, I realized that maybe I should rethink my stance on beauty pageants.

She decided to enter the pageant world after graduating from Harvard in the hopes of earning a scholarship for medical school. She won $8,000 after winning the title of Miss Massachusetts, and is currently competing for the $50,000 that Miss America receives–certainly nothing to scoff at. After winning Miss Massachusetts, she spent the year coaching young ice skaters, tutoring children in math and writing, and using her position as Miss Massachusetts to raise awareness of issues at charity events. She’s been promoting the Children’s Miracle Network, which raises money for children’s medical treatment across the globe, as well as trying to work against childhood hunger. Wearing her tiara has the power to make people listen to what she has to say, and I respect her for using that power to say a lot of important things.

Impressed by Rabinowitz, I was curious about what one actually does to become Miss Massachusetts. According to the Miss Massachusetts website, contestants are judged based on an interview (to judge her “poise, charm, self-confidence and her ability to communicate,” as well as the “substance” of her answers), a swimsuit competition (for “beauty of face, figure, physical fitness, and the confidence”) and and an evening gown competition (for “overall appearance, self-confidence, sense of style and the beauty she brings to the gown of her choice”). I found this list to be pretty disappointing–after getting so excited about Rabinowitz and her achievements, I was surprised to see something like “beauty of face” on the list of judging points. Rabinowitz is beautiful, as are her former competitors, but there is clearly so much more to her than simply her beauty, and I find it sad that two out of the three judgment categories are physical judgments. It verges on demeaning, if you ask me.

That being said, I don’t think that how she became Miss Massachusetts should take away from the fact that she has been using her position for good, and that even before she became Miss Massachusetts, she was a successful and accomplished woman. However, I’m still not thrilled about the idea of a competition rooted in judgment of women’s bodies–there’s a long history of underweight and excessively thin pageant winners in this country, and even though contestants are supposedly judged on “fitness,” walking around in a bathing suit seems to me to really be a measure of how thin someone is. Not the healthiest selection process.

So, I wish Rabinowitz all the best in the Miss America competition, and hope that she succeeds in all of her endeavors, including medical school. But I also hope that people will think critically about the Miss America Pageant. It has the potential to empower women like Rabinowitz by giving them a podium from which to speak about and raise awareness of issues that matter. If the goal of the Miss Massachusetts’ competition is truly “To open doors and provide career and educational opportunities” to women, and to help them to “grow personally,” I believe that its selection process should reflect those values more than it currently does. A good leader should have poise and grace, but there are better ways to assess those assets than judging how well someone walks around in a bikini.

PS: Did I mention she’s 5’2.5″? Just a fun fact for all of us short people out there.

Culture Shock and the IDF

I’m very excited to be writing this post from a couch in my grandparents’ apartment in Israel–I’m visiting over winter break.

The last time I visited Israel was a year and a half ago. When I arrived here a week ago, I soon realized how much had changed within my family now that three of my cousins are in the army. They’ve been in the army since earlier this year, but before I arrived I didn’t quite grasp what that meant and how much it changes things. My grandfather is turning 80 this weekend (the reason for my family’s visit), and one of my cousins simply won’t be able to come to our party because he isn’t allowed to leave his base this weekend. The only communication I’ve had with him since being here was a quick phone-call. Another cousin is training to be a pilot, and while I will get to see him at the party, I have yet to see or hear from him during our entire visit here. The more my family misses the absent cousins, the more it seems we do nothing but talk about them and the work they’re doing.

What I’ve found strangest is seeing people my age prepare for the army right now. As I’ve been working on applying to college and thinking about what I want to do with my life, they’ve been going through testing to see how they’ll be serving their country for the next few years. Even though I know quite a few people going into the army here, it still surprises me that I’ll be starting college at least two or three years before them–and that while I’m spending time thinking about myself and trying to have a “college experience”, they’ll be learning to think less about themselves and instead to think about their unit and the goals of a group.

In America, I feel like I’m constantly being told that I’ll figure everything out in college–that I’ll make my best friends, discover a career path, and somehow manage to explore a million different new things. While I’m not sure all of that will happen (I hope it does), I do know that for many Americans, college is a chance to live away from your parents, feed yourself, and begin to get a taste of what independence feels like. But in Israel, you don’t live alone after high school–you live and work with a group of people all the time. Even the most raucous and rambunctious teenagers are forced to learn discipline. And, instead of trying to go as far away from home as possible (what? never!), many Israelis my age look forward to coming home every other weekend and getting a chance to take a break from their tiring work.

This trip has been kind of a reality check for me. I know America and Israel are very different countries with very different security needs and capabilities, and that at least in the foreseeable future, there won’t be a draft in America, so I’ll never have the experience of being required to serve my country. But I do think there’s something I can learn from the way Israelis look at serving in the army. I’ve talked to quite a few people about their impending draft and asked them why they didn’t just say they were crazy, get out of the draft, and go to college–and they looked at me like I was crazy. They told me that they want to serve because they know that Israeli soldiers, both fighters and those who do administrative work, allow Israel to flourish and prosper as it does–that without them, Israel could not be the what it is today. Even though to me giving up two or three years of my life seems like a burden, to many Israelis it is not just a duty, but something they look forward to.

That, I think, is what I want to remember as I head towards college. During senior year, I’ve often fallen into the habit of stressing so much about my college essays and potential acceptances that I forget to think about other people. I can only imagine what it will be like when I don’t have my family around me to yell at me and keep me somewhat grounded. And so, when that happens, I hope to think about my cousins and friend serving their country in Israel, and remember that there’s an entire world out there of needs and responsibilities that are bigger than myself–and that even though my needs may seem incredibly pressing, I need to take time to think about other people and my community as a whole.