Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Mini blueberry bagels


Flushed with success from my bagel baking on Saturday, I decided to have another go on Sunday. This time I made blueberry bagels (draining the very last of last summer's blueberries from our freezer) and I decided to make them mini.

I had to alter the recipe a bit in order to get them to work and so I thought that I would share it with you here (partly so that I don't lose it myself), because it must be said that they were utterly delicious!

Ingredients
• 3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
• 1 & 1/3 cups warm water
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 4.5 cups plain flour
• 1 tablespoon sea salt
• 2/3 cup of fresh or frozen blueberries
• Extra sugar for topping (optional)
• Vegetable oil (for bowl)
• Plastic wrap (or some clean plastic bags)

Preparation time: Just over four hours. (Most of this is for rising, so you can be doing other things)
Baking time: About 14 minutes.

Method
Whisk together the yeast and water for a few minutes and leave it to stand for a few minutes.

Mix yeast & water together with remaining in the bread machine on pizza dough setting (or in a mixer with a dough hook for about 20 minutes; or by hand if you are cool and old school).

Remove dough and knead on a lightly floured surfaced for about 1 minute (until a slightly tacky -- but not sticky -- dough forms). Continue to knead dough for about 5 more minutes (adding small amounts of flour if necessary to make it not sticky) -- then transfer to a lightly oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap (make it a bit big so that you can use it for another purpose later).

Let rise in a warm place for 2 hours (until doubled in bulk).

Divide dough into 20 equal pieces (each should weigh about 50 grams). Cover with a clean damp kitchen towel and leave it to rest for about 20 minutes.

Heavily grease two baking sheets with oil and set aside.

With lightly oiled hands (or floured hands if the blueberries have made the mixture a tad sticky), roll each piece of dough into a log. Then turn the log into a little ring, sticking the two ends together with a little bit of water and some rolling.

Place the bagels on a lightly floured chopping board (about 1 inch apart) and cover with that piece of oiled plastic wrap from earlier in the process, and let rest in a warm place for about 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 260 C.

Fill a large stockpot (the wider the better) with water and bring to a boil.

Gently drop bagels into the water (as many as will comfortably fit without touching each other – I did four at a time and found that was enough to keep me busy with all the turning etc). After 30 seconds, use a slotted spoon to gently flip the bagels over -- simmer for yet another 30 seconds.

Then, using the slotted spoon again, remove the bagels from the water and try to drain as much water off them as possible before placing onto the greased baking sheets about 1 inch apart (I found that each baking sheet held 10 mini bagels quite well). Top them with sugar if you are feeling decadent while they are still wet (I did this while each successive batch were getting their first 30 seconds of boiling).

Immediately place sheets in the oven. Bake for 5 minutes and then flip the bagels over (before they stick), rotate the sheets and reduce the temperature to 175 C. Bake for another 4-5 minutes (or until starting to brown) and then rotate again if your oven is uneven in temperature (like mine). Bake for another 4 minutes or so (but turn off the temperature at this point, unless they are still looking a little pasty).

Transfer bagels to wire rack to cool or just leave them briefly and start eating them straight out of the oven.

They’ll keep well for a few days in a cotton bag, but store in the freezer for any longer than that.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Fun Bags?!?

News.com.au are reporting that a sub-editor of a British baby magazine, Katheryn Blundell (who they have oddly described as a 'baby expert') recently wrote an article in which she describes breastfeeding as "creepy," stating that she chose to formula feed her baby because she wanted to keep her "fun bags" in shape.

Let me just trot out the disclaimer here and say that I truly do support freedom of choice for women in relation to how they feed their babies. However, calling breastfeeding "creepy" and highlighting the importance of breasts as sexual objects in a mainstream parenting magazine goes well beyond making a personal choice. It actively contributes to the culture of shaming women who choose to breastfeed their babies (or would like to) and it contributes to the narrative that men have the right to expect that breasts be kept for their sexual enjoyment only.

Just look at some of the comments attached to the article:
Matt of Brisbane Posted at 10:33 AM Today: "As a man I support this woman's decision to keep her fun bags in tit top shape."

Mark of Potts Point Posted at 10:46 AM Today: "At last, someone with common sense. "Fun bags" should be for everyone, not just the babies!"
And the result? Well the result in Britain is that only 1 in 100 British women breastfeed their babies for 6 months. Just one percent! I find that really sad. Imagine how this contributes to a vicious cycle in which breastfeeding is framed as a fringe activity, and imagine the pressure that would follow for women to "choose" not to do it in such an environment.

It is not only babies that benefit from breastfeeding. Breastfeeding produces powerful hormones that for most women increase their sense of well-being - providing a valuable boost in the sleep-deprived haze of new motherhood. They also promote bonding with your baby, which is not only positive for the baby, but can again make the intensity of the demands on your time (and body) feel so much easier to deal with.

Taking a more global perspective, creating a culture in which breastfeeding is seen as 'primitive' and formula feeding is seen as modern and desirable is extremely problematic. In many many countries the water supply is simply not safe enough to feed babies formula without risking their health and, what's more, having to pay for formula (when the free breastmilk runs out due to lack of use) means that many poor families will have to go without food and medical treatment for the rest of the family. However, women in these countries do turn to formula due to the deliberately manufactured belief that it is healthier for their babies, because it is the 'modern' thing to do.

If you don't think that Blundell's comments could contribute to this manufactured belief then read this comment:
Alicia Browne of NSW Posted at 10:43 AM Today: "I bottle fed my boys from day 1 & 100% support bottle feeding. Both boys couldn't be any healthier & I will be bottle feeding any future children I have. Not only do I support bottle feeding but I also promote it. I would also like to say to all those "breast is best" supporters, your narrowminded ideas are prehistoric & are dying out (might be why you feel you have to scream so loudly about it & force your ancient & uninfomred views on other people)."
Thanks Alicia.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Perpetual Child

It occurred to me today that in many ways I have not grown up. What I mean by this is that I have failed to adopt many of the behaviours that I used to associate with being a grown-up (woman) and I really can’t see that changing. Let me give you a few examples:

1. I don’t wear make-up.

Now, of course, this could be a very grown-up feminist thing for me to do – to consciously choose not to play into female beauty stereotypes, etc. However, I have to be honest and admit that this doesn’t play a huge role in the fact that I don’t wear make-up. The truth of the matter is that I just feel silly putting it on and, well, I’m really quite lazy about personal presentation (I rarely brush my hair, for example).

When I was in high school I use to wear a star-shaped sparkly sticker on my face and glitter around my eyes. I did it for fun. It made me happy. If make-up made me feel the same way I’d totally wear it, but the fact is that it doesn’t. Take away the glitter and it’s just boring.

I bought some make-up for my wedding (a lip-liner, an eye-liner and some mascara) and after I’d put it on I really didn’t look any different. What’s the point? (I totally should have worn glitter).

2. I don’t wear high heels. I don’t even own any.

Again, this could be a very grown-up feminist thing for me to do (see above), but again the truth is far more boring. I can’t see the point of high heels. They are uncomfortable and I am quite happy with my height (which is very short, for the record). I don’t feel the need to pretend that I am taller.

Of course, there is also the sad truth that I cannot walk in high heels. I tried one memorable Law Ball while I was an undergrad at Uni and the result was quite embarrassing. Added to this is the fact that I have enough trouble finding any shoes in Australia to fit my tiny size 5 feet that I have no reason to add to my burden by trying to find superfluous shoes.

I was informed by many a person that my wedding dress was the kind of dress that (apparently) had to be worn with high heels. My response? I wore sparkly green slippers. Yes I did. (I told you that I am a child).

3. I hate wine and beer. Honestly they both taste like crap to me (unless the wine has sparkles in it, then I like it – seeing a theme yet?).

I used to think that my taste buds would mature one day and I would enjoy the taste of these drinks, but this simply has not happened. I really can’t stand them. I think wine tastes like vinegar. Fortunately, P isn’t much of a drinker and I have realised that I really don’t care. Wine is bloody expensive and I am quite glad not to have something else to spend my money on.

4. I still laugh at toilet humour – every single time.

This makes it basically impossible for me to raise my daughter to behave appropriately. I have been forced to leave this for P because, well, I am a child.

5. I like to go to bed before 9pm.

For the past three years I have gone to bed with Lily. Rarely has this been much of a burden. I like to sleep and I like to get up early.

6. My emotions are extremely easily manipulated my media.

I cry during Kleenex commercials because the puppy is so soft. I cannot watch scary movies because I get too scared (and have nightmares). I sob inconsolably during sad movies and television programs. It is quite pathetic really.

The odd thing is that my mother has never really been a typical adult (woman) either. She has never worn make-up or high heels (though probably for more ideologically sound reasons than me) and she is impulsive and has a child-like enthusiasm for life that has always amused me. I used to introduce her to people as ‘my mother the teenager’. So I wonder why I thought that I would grow up to be more ‘mature’? Where did I get these crazy ideas from?

How about you? Are you surprised by the kind of adult you have become? Has your idea of ‘being an adult’ changed now that you are one?

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Bagels!

We made bagels! From scratch. How cool is that?

I developed a love of bagels while living in the States as a teenager. When I first got back to Canberra there was absolutely nowhere that you could buy bagels here. Sometimes a cafe would purport to sell bagel sandwiches and each and every time they would turn out to be bread rolls with holes in the middle. So disappointing.

Over the last few years my bagel cravings have been well satisfied by the bagels from That Bagel Place, who sell their wares at the Farmers Markets on Saturdays. However, they aren't cheap (they are over $1 each) and, when I saw this post over a Angry Chicken, I though hey making our own would be heaps cheaper and also very cool.

As it turns out they are ridiculously easy. I used this recipe - as recommended by Amy - although I used a combination of plain wholemeal and plain flour rather than bread flour 'cause that's what we had on hand. Also, they took less time in our oven than the recipe suggests, so I'd recommend just playing by ear the first time and checking them regularly after the first 5 minutes.

I should also add that Australian baking paper is a lot thinner than US parchment paper and you'd be better off just greasing your baking sheets really well. Otherwise you might end up having to pick the paper off the bottom of your bagels like us...

So, Australia finally has a woman for PM

Yay.

I really want to feel happy about this and, I must admit, on some level I do. It really is nice to know that no matter what happens now Australia will have had a woman at the top – and one that doesn’t fit all the typical patriarchal requirements too. Deveny is right; no matter what else, it is nice to know that it is possible.

But, honestly, I feel deeply ambivalent about this. So much of the how’s and why’s worry me and I am really not particularly impressed with Gillard herself.
First the how’s and why’s: to me this very sudden change of leadership was motivated by all the wrong principles. It was personality-poll-driven; it was Murdoch media-driven; it was big mining-driven; and it was partly driven by the NSW Labor Right. I’m worried about the implications of all of these motivating factors for the future of Australian politics. I do not think that any of them represent an enrichment of our democracy.

Next to Gillard herself: I am comforted by the fact that she has a progressive left-wing background. However, during her time in Parliament it is not these progressive values that seem to have been reflected in her behaviour. Her statements on asylum seekers are nothing short of appalling. While I never liked the substance of the ETS, I don’t see anything positive about the fact the she was part of the team that advocated for it to be shelved. And, the way that she dealt with the MySchools negotiations was unimpressive. She was unnecessarily confrontational and unyielding in her so-called ‘negotiations’ with the Teachers' Union and never appeared to actually listen to their perfectly valid concerns. This doesn’t give me a lot of faith in her so-called ‘consultative-style’ that everyone is saying will contrast with Rudd’s admittedly non-consultative approach.

All that said: I will be so very happy to be proven wrong. I’d love for things to improve.

At the end of the day, however, this isn’t my win (so to speak). I am not a supporter of the Labor party and thus their internal affairs are less connected to me than they might be for many others. My main concern in the upcoming election is how well the Greens go. I want a viable, truly progressive, third party alternative for Lily. I’ve given up on the other lot, and a change of leadership hasn’t made any difference to the way I feel.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Half-arsed feminism

Did you see this article in the Australian last weekend? (I must confess that I didn’t. I saw a link to it on Rachel Power’s blog.) It’s an interview with French Academic Elisabeth Badinter, author of “Conflict: The Woman and the Mother.”

Badinter argues that a new “idealised concept of motherhood that elevates concepts of masochism and female sacrifice to unforeseen levels […] is making women across the world feel horribly guilty […and] threatening the gains of decades of feminist struggle for sexual equality”. She blames breastfeeding for keeping women tied down; co-sleeping for depriving couples of their romantic relationship, and especially their sex life; and an excessive focus on healthy natural pregnancies for an emerging tyranny of controlling the bodies and behaviours of pregnant women.

As a solution to this problem Badinter champions what she describes as a ‘nonchalant’ or ‘mediocre’ approach to pregnancy and motherhood; arguing that there should be no pressure on mothers not to smoke and drink during pregnancy; to breastfeed their babies instead of giving them formula, or to avoid placing young children in the care of others in order to resume their intellectual and social lives (and, in this context, she specifically mentions nannies and state-provided childcare, because “Of course men are deficient”).

Now, here’s where it gets tricky…

I must state upfront that I agree with Badinter’s argument that this current obsession with forcing women to live up to the ideal of the ‘perfect mother’ is regressive and is setting women back a long way in terms of our ongoing struggle for equality. I loathe the repeated attempts to control the bodies of pregnant women, to guilt trip mothers who choose not to breastfeed their babies, or to make women who make use of childcare feel inadequate. However (and there had to be a however, didn’t there?), I really think that Badinter is being fundamentally lazy in her analysis of both the roots of the problem and the solution. She is succumbing to what I call “half-arsed feminist analysis.”

Feminism, at its core, is a critique of patriarchy. It is a critique of a social system that is completely designed around the needs of men (or, at least, some types of men…). The most obvious problem with a social system that is completely designed around the needs of men is that women are going to come off second-best. Our needs are necessarily going to be sacrificed in order to ensure that men get priority.

Where I think that Badinter gets it completely wrong is that in her analysis it is the children – the babies, in fact – that are cast into the role of ‘tyrants’. Now let’s be honest here: if any group under a patriarchal social system comes of worse than women it is children. Children are not the powerful group under patriarchy. In fact, it would be very difficult to imagine any social system that could really allocate such a level of agency and power to babies. They are, after-all, incredibly vulnerable and powerless by nature. This being the case, it is absurd to attempt to solve the problem of women’s subjugation by downgrading the status of children. To do so is the equivalent of victims finding someone weaker than themselves to pick on in order to make them feel better. It might work, but it is fundamentally wrong. It is also a half-arsed solution to the real problem and the bullying will still continue.

A truly feminist approach to the problem of patriarchy is to tackle the system itself. The fundamental problem is the fact that our social system is designed around the needs and priorities of men (not women, and certainly not children). Therefore, any real, lasting solution can only come from actually challenging the way that the social system is organised. The only lasting (and morally responsible) solution has to come from fundamentally reorganising society.

Now, of course, this is not a simple task and it is not one that will be completed quickly. It has and will continue to take many generations. In the meantime it is quite true that women will continue to suffer from inequality – that is fundamental to the design of patriarchy. Part of the result of this is that when women have children they will be inadequately supported. Many will find it difficult to breastfeed those children while continuing to engage in the world in a way that feels fulfilling and rewarding. Many will find it challenging to provide the kind of family-based nurturing care that babies need in order to really thrive while still maintaining their own sense of identity and still striving to fulfill their own dreams.

This is absolutely unfair and absolutely should change. However, it is not the fault of children and a lasting solution should not involve their sacrifice. A lasting solution should involve reorganising society so that the needs of children can be met without such overwhelming sacrifices from their mothers.

What about those mothers who are caught up in the present arrangement? What about those mothers who are faced with the current reality and want a faster (albeit temporary) solution to their own challenges with pregnancy or motherhood? Well, personally, it is here I do have to agree to a limited extent with Badinter. I do think that these women should be given the latitude to work out their own solutions to these issues. I don’t see why they should have to be martyrs to the cause. It is not their fault that society is arranged the way that it is and they shouldn't be made to feel guilty for not being willing to shoulder all of the burden that it currently places on women (and, especially, mothers).

Let’s not pretend that this is a real solution though. Let’s not pretend that babies and children aren’t currently the sacrificial lambs in this struggle. Most importantly, let’s not lose sight of the real solution by letting patriarchy off the hook and conveniently casting society’s most vulnerable members into the role of ‘tyrants’.

That’s just dishonest. And it’s lazy.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

When the sun came out




Winter has truly arrived in Canberra and yesterday was cold. The sky was gray all day and we had several period of the kind of drizzle that leaves you feeling chilled to the bone. Last night, after a day of preschool outside (they do 'Wednesdays in the garden') Lily declared herself to be "bitterly cold" and crawled into bed just to get warm.

Today, however, the sun came back out. The sky is blue and, despite all the leaves we have lost and the general sense of botanical hibernation, the garden seemed full of life. Hopefully we can have some more of this action on the weekend!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The vessel

When I was a child my mother was heavily involved in the anti-nuclear campaign that was very strong within the Australian Peace Movement at the time (the 1980s). One story from those years that has always stuck with me was the experiences of another woman in the movement who decided to try to form a strategic alliance with the pro-life (ie anti-abortion) movement.

A number of people in the anti-nuclear movement had expressed concern that perhaps these people were not the best allies, but this woman believed that, given the overwhelming threat to human life and the very survival of the planet posed by the nuclear arms race, it was worth making bridges wherever you could. I can understand where she was coming from.

Anyway, what do you think happened when this woman approached several pro-life groups about joining the anti-nuclear campaign?

They weren't interested. Not remotely.

The woman in question was understandably surprised. These people put themselves out as being so overwhelmingly concerned with the sanctity of human life that they were campaigning (often violently) for the state to force women to carry to term unwanted (and in some cases dangerous) pregnancies. It was understandable that this woman would think that these same people would be natural allies in the anti-nuclear movement. How many more lives are threatened by nuclear weapons (particularly when you place yourself back in the 1980s into the context of the Cold War)?

Through the course of her conversations with these people it dawned on this woman (who was really very well intentioned, but perhaps a little naive) that the people in the pro-life movement (particularly the central organisers) were far less concerned about the sanctity of human life than they were about controlling women's bodies. It was control rather than life that was at the core of their cause.

It strikes me that this overwhelming concern with controlling women's bodies is an incredibly pervasive one and one that underlies so very many issues that crop up for women in public policy debates. This is particularly so when those women are 'mothers', but it also applies very strongly to the bodies of young women. Look at the politics of female beauty, the politics of female sexuality, the blaming of rape victims (for placing their female bodies in vulnerable situations), and the politics of breastfeeding, just to name a handful.

Over the weekend I attended a baby shower and several of us pregnant women chose to have a bit of champagne while toasting the woman in question. It naturally led to a discussion of the issue of drinking while pregnant. We discussed the complete lack of evidence for the claims that tiny amounts of alcohol cause harm to the unborn child (thanks Blue Milk for the link), and how frustrating it is that despite this fact so many people feel entitled to police the behaviour of pregnant women in relation to their consumption of not only alcohol but also any foods that might in some way pose a risk (soft cheese, fatty foods, caffeine, etc).

This conversation (and others that I have had like it over the last few weeks - everyone in my life is pregnant right now for some reason!) was still in my mind when I saw an ABC news report yesterday entitled, "Mums-to-be ignoring booze rules." The article cites the shocking fact that,
The results reveal that 90 per cent of respondents think alcohol should be avoided while pregnant, however a third of all women surveyed admitted to consuming at least one drink while pregnant or breastfeeding.
One drink while pregnant or breastfeeding! Call in the police.

Then I made the mistake of reading the comments... The litany of mother-blame and the blatant entitlement to control women's bodies that is expressed in those comments is disturbing, but oh so very familiar. Honestly, by the time I'd finished reading through it all I felt too exhausted to blog about it. I am so over this.

But here I am anyway. Maybe someone will read this and bite their tongue next time they want to tell a pregnant woman that she shouldn't put something in her month. Guess what? It's her body! It is not a baby vessel that is collectively owned by society. And, guess what else? She is a grown adult that is perfectly capable of making informed decisions about what she does with her body.

Yes, there are issues when you stray further down the continuum into substance abuse etc and this does create real tensions between the rights of unborn children and their mothers. However, until the over-all focus of this debate is free from the overriding agenda of controlling women's bodies I don't think that we can have a sensible conversation about those more extreme (and frankly very rare) instances.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Taking responsibility

[Warning: really long post ahead.]

Blue Milk (yes, I do read other blogs, sorry for being repetitive) wrote a great post the other day on the dangerous language of victim blaming that is so evident in media reporting of rape cases. In response to her post some guy decided to chirp in with a helpful 'distinction' between blame and responsibility - arguing that while victims should shoulder none of the blame, some of them ought to bear some of the responsibility for rape. You know, if they drank too much or whatever...

In response Blue Milk wrote another post in which she tried to explain why this was so very unhelpful, particularly given the fact that our culture already places far too much responsibility on women in terms of expecting them to ensure that they protect themselves against rape. It was a great post – ultimately concluding with the statement: “Rape stops when rapists stop raping.”

However, disturbingly, the guy in question didn't appear to get the point at all, because he came back (over and over again) in the comments with that same line about distinguishing between 'blame' and 'responsibility' and with the argument that responsibility can be accorded to victims of many crimes when they fail to behave in a responsible manner...

I read through the comments this morning and felt compelled to add another, but then it got ridiculously long and so I thought that it might make more sense to post it over here. Excuse the slightly tangential nature though. You see this guy’s comments and the all-too-common attitude that they represent made me think about the way in which this gendered double-standard of ‘taking responsibility’ plays out in the courts and how much it disadvantages women both in their roles as victims and even in their occasional role as the perpetrators of violent crimes. And in the interests of moving away from the issue of rape for a moment in order to take a broader perspective (and to demonstrate how this attitude permeates more than just the issue of sexual assault) I thought that I would highlight the example of homicide.

Under the common law serious crimes, including physical assault (or battery), rape and murder, a perpetrator's level of responsibility for the crime can be diminished where the victim is found to be partly responsible. This can happen when the perpetrator successfully makes use of the laws of provocation and self-defence (or diminished responsibility).

Unsurprisingly, when you know anything about our culture and our legal system, these laws have historically been developed only to take into account the responses of ‘the reasonable man’ (which should actually read ‘reasonable white man’) - meaning that they are designed around scenarios like a man being provoked into a fight or forced to physically defend themselves in the heat of the moment. They have traditionally failed to take into account the very different experience of women who are usually not physically capable of defending themselves in a one-on-one fight with a man, etc.*

The impact of these laws on women has been incredibly unjust. As just one of many possible examples, let me explain how this has affected women who have found themselves trapped in domestic violence situations.

In the early 1990s Patricia Easteal did an amazing study called "Killing the Beloved" [pdf link here] in which she researched a large number of cases in which one partner of a heterosexual couple had killed the other. In the overwhelming majority of these cases their had been an existing situation of domestic violence. In almost every single one of these cases the man had been violent towards the woman, while occasionally this violence had been reciprocated.

Where the man had gone on to kill his female partner (and this represented over 80% of the cases), it was often because he had caught her in the act of trying to leave the relationship or he was furious with her for having left him (combined this made up around 25% of the cases). In other cases it was simply an escalation of his previous violence.

"The vast majority of male perpetrator killings were preceded by histories of physical and emotional violence. The latter was exemplified in the ownership-type of jealousy which was acted out in some of the relationships and through the final act. Both physical and psychological battering did not usually cease in these cases when the couple separated; in fact at least the latter appeared to become greater."

In many cases the man was able to successfully use the law of provocation to diminish his responsibility for having killed his female partner (either in the charge classification stage or during sentencing). Here are a few examples of some of these cases:

1. In Easteal’s ‘Project case number 32’ the male perpetrator killed his ex-partner due to his jealousy over her new relationship. He saw her and her partner together, went inside, got a rifle out of the safe, and shot both her and her partner. He was able to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter by relying on the law of provocation. The words of the judge in this case highlight the absurdity of distinguishing between blame and responsibility: "Provocation in this case is relevant to the state of mind and the lack of control by the accused rather than any blameworthiness of the victim."

2. In Easteal’s ‘Project case number 25’ Fred killed his ex-wife Maria during a custody dispute. Fred was allowed to plead guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter (rather than murder) because he was 'provoked' by Maria - both because he was jealous than she had found another partner and because she had requested greater access to their daughter. It's worth noting that Maria was from the Philippines (where Fred had travelled to 'get a wife'). In analysing the sentencing remarks, Easteal notes: "The victim came across in the judge's comments as a manipulative person from another country who had harmed a naive Australian male."

3. In Easteal’s ‘Project case number 72 Tim killed his partner Samantha "by placing a rifle under her chin and pulling the trigger." (She was on the phone and he thought that she was making a drug deal.) His sentence was reduced to take into account the fact that he had been ‘provoked’ into murder by the fact that his partner was a drug addict.

"The defence of the prisoner was that he was provoked by Samantha's drug addiction. The judge expressed his agreement that the deceased had been heavily addicted to drugs, 'The prisoner said that living with a junkie was hell'."

Easteal concluded: "Once again the character of the victim appeared to play a role in the judge's decision making. She had been a drug addict, not a 'virtuous' and 'good' woman."

4. In Easteal’s ‘Project case number 59’ the male perpetrator killed his partner (who was 8-months pregnant) by stabbing her 39 times. He was able to plead to the lesser charge of manslaughter rather than murder because he had been 'provoked' by the victim telling him that their 2-year old child had been fathered by another man. (Just as an aside: he also killed the 2-year old child.)

5. In Easteal’s ‘Project case number 64’ the male perpetrator killed his partner by stabbing her 12 times. He was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter because he had been 'provoked' by his partner's infidelity. The judge commented:

"It was your wife who pursued him and that pursuit culminated in a brief adulterous encounter. I accept and I find that you were angry and humiliated by this."

He went on to describe the defendant's character and background as “impeccable, with an honourable and distinguished career in the army.”

In looking at the sentencing remarks, Easteal concludes that overall:

"although a few males were found guilty of murder in situations where their wife or estranged wife had been less than the cultural ideal of female virtue, overall, the nature of the victim did mitigate the sentence. Throughout the remarks, there was a clear indication of just what that ideal involves or more accurately, what it is not. Leaving one's husband, having an affair, not taking care of the child(ren), nagging one's husband, lack of appreciation for the husband's work on behalf of the family were all not manifested by the ideal woman. Thus, one of the few consistencies in sentencing and/or determining whether to allow the defendant to plead down to manslaughter was the nature of the victim and her degree of compatibility with societal norms.” [emphasis added by me]

This is the result when you try to accord some of the 'responsibility' to the victim of a crime. The result is that the perpetrator is accorded a diminished level of responsibility because some of it has been transferred to the victim. Now the commenter on Blue Milk’s post (and people who share his attitude) might think that they are not making a legal argument. They might think that they are just arguing for an ethical standpoint or for 'common sense'. The fact is that the law is entirely shaped by the attitudes of society (particularly its most powerful members - white middle class guys like the commenter in question), especially when these crimes are tried under the jury system.

Attitudes that accord some of the responsibility to the victim are the reason that victims get put on trial in rape cases and the reason that so many rapists receive relatively low sentences. They are also fundamentally sexist, no matter how much these people claim that they also hold men partly responsible when they act in a way that makes them more likely to be a victim of crime. Considering the relative positions of men and women in terms of their basic levels of vulnerability to crime, it stands to reason that it is impossible to be remotely equal when you try to dish out responsibility for someone allowing themselves to become vulnerable to crime. Furthermore, when you analyse the criteria being used to judge people's relative levels of responsibility, you realise that it is a criteria that is completely based on the 'male norm'. For men, it takes an awful lot to stray from this norm into 'irresponsible' territory, whereas for women it is virtually impossible to live up to the standards imposed. In order for female victims to be considered blameless they have to act in accordance with society's idea of the ideal woman. And even then they are far from safe.

Our culture already accords far too much responsibility to female victims for crimes that are committed against them. By and large the main action that made them vulnerable to those crimes was the 'irresponsibility' of remaining female within our patriarchal culture. At first blush it might seem reasonable to point out that there are some actions that women can take in order to reduce their risk of being raped (or, less tactfully) that some rape victims should bear some of the responsibility for their crime. However, the fact is that these comments and the attitudes that underlie them are contributing to the culture of holding women responsible for the completely unacceptable behaviour of men, and in doing so they are directly contributing to diminishing the responsibility that is accorded to those men who commit crimes against women

----

Just to emphasize the incredibly gendered dimension of societal attitudes around victim blaming, what do you think happened in those cases where the female partner had killed her violent male partner?

Easteal found, "Females who kill their partner usually do so to stop a long, and frequently escalating pattern of violent conduct against themselves and in some cases their children." In many case she killed him because she believed that it was her only option for survival. You may ask, why didn't she just leave? But please re-read the section above where it documents the fact that many female victims are killed by their partners precisely because they were trying to leave or had left. This is a well-founded fear of many victims of domestic violence.

"The female offender homicides were also almost all preceded by the victimisation of the women in their homes and were generally precipitated by the victims at (or near) the time of the killing."

Additionally, you might argue that these women should have used to the law rather than 'taking it into their own hands'. However, in an overwhelming number of the cases described above (where the female was killed by their violent partner) they had attempted to use the law to protect them (either by obtaining an AVO or reporting previous incidences to police, etc) and in all of those cases the law had utterly failed to protect them from their partners or ex-partners. (And then there are all the other well-documented reasons why it is so difficult for victims of domestic violence to leave the relationship, including issues of economic dependence, fear of losing custody of children, lack of social support, family pressure and the impact of ‘battered women’s syndrome’, etc.)

Now, you'd think in these situations that the female perpetrators would be able to successfully use the law of self-defence or provocation. After all many of them had a well-founded fear of being killed by their partners (and in some cases they had just found out that their violent partners had been raping their children), and surely being regularly subjected to verbal and physical assault ought to qualify as provocation (especially if nagging does!). Umm... no, that's where you'd be wrong.

Here are just a couple of samples of what the judiciary think about this argument:

“What has been made clear in all of them [prior cases] is that matrimonial discord, even violent discord such as was exhibited regularly in the present case, can never be an excuse for the victim to take the life of the aggressor.”

---

“It has been made very clear by the courts that the taking of a human life, even within the context of domestic violence, will not be viewed with leniency. Not even extreme domestic discord can ever be an excuse for the victim to take the law into her own hands and to extinguish the life of the aggressor.”

In almost every case the female perpetrators were not able to successfully rely on either the law of provocation or self-defence because these laws only apply when you act in the heat of the moment. For provocation your blood needs to be boiling (so to speak) and for self-defence you need to act while under direct physical attack.

This makes sense for men. If another man provokes you, or they are attacking you, then you are capable of fighting back on the spot. However, if you are a female, then frequently you will be at a serious physical disadvantage. Fighting back on the spot is likely to get you killed (see above). So, the only viable option available to you is to continue to put up with the abuse (and, in many cases, wait to be killed yourself) or to plan your attack more carefully. You need to attack while your violent partner (who has, perhaps, threatened to kill you if you try to leave, etc.) is facing the other way, sleeping, or passed out drunk. Or you have to poison him. However, if you do any of these things then you are 'acting in cold blood' and therefore are less likely to be successful in using the laws of provocation or self-defence to diminish your responsibility for the crime of homicide.

Self-defence is particularly difficult for a woman to argue successfully:

"Both in the US and Australia, there are three components of the self-defence law that may be problematic for battered women who kill: requirements that the threat was imminent, the responding amount of force equivalent, and the obligation to retreat or try to escape from an attack. The perception of imminence and severity of the assault plus the individual's perception of how much force is requisite to counter it must all be reasonable."

Additionally, any successful use of the law provocation to reduce your charge from murder to manslaughter may actually lead to a woman receiving a longer sentence, as it will be concluded that it strengthened their intention to kill.

Take for example the case of Judy who had experienced years of severe violence from her partner, Nathan, and eventually killed him by grabbing a rifle, closing her eyes and shooting:

"Judy had been anally raped a number of times by Nathan and thought he was about to do so again. Further, he had threatened, according to the judge's remark, 'that she would not leave the house alive if it was the last thing that he did'"

Judy was still charged with murder, found guilty of manslaughter, and received a custodial sentence of 2.5-3.3 years.

Or take Sue's case, where the judge found:

"There was therefore clear evidence of cumulative provocation in the face of prolonged physical and emotional abuse and of immediate provocation arising out of the events of the night before the killing during which she was struck over the head, abused, locked in a cupboard . . . urinated upon . . ."

However:

"The taking of human life is the most serious of all crimes . . . on the other hand it is quite impossible to overlook the extreme violence inflicted and the fact that both an axe and knife were used on the deceased while he was lying in bed."

Sue received a minimum custodial sentence of 5 years.

*[I should note here that this situation has been partly ameliorated over the last 15 years and a good deal of the reason for this has been the impact of Easteal’s study.

Friday, 4 June 2010

In the eye of the beholder (breastfeeding)

This morning Blue Milk tweeted a link to a post by Heather at the mommypotamus which deals with extended breastfeeding and some of the myths that surround it (primarily in the West). It's a good post and worth a read (including the comments). Heather was responding to some concerns raised by a friend of hers around the issue of her breastfeeding her toddler. She devotes this particular post to just one of these myths:
"Extended breastfeeding could cause homosexuality."
You know, I thought that I'd been exposed to a fair bit of the hysteria around extended breastfeeding, but I have never even heard this particular brand of crazytalk before. (Maybe my own family situation can partly explain this gap in my exposure.) Anyway, I felt compelled to deal with a few of the underlying assumptions behind this particular concern, because they have been buzzing around my head all morning:

Obviously the first assumption contained in this particular myth is that there is something wrong will your child growing up to become gay (or being gay and growing up to express their 'gayness,' etc). My first instinct here would be to say: Why? What on earth could possibly be wrong with your child being gay? What are you afraid of?

I can imagine that some people would argue that they are concerned that their child would be exposed to discrimination if they were to gay and that this is why they hope that their children will stick with the heterosexual 'norm.' I wonder if those same people would argue that black people should avoid breeding so that their children don't suffer from racism? Perhaps people should also avoid having girl-children so that their children don't suffer from sexism? Wouldn't it be more productive to try to fight discrimination so that our children don't have to be exposed to it? Also, isn't it more realistic to do our best to raise them to be resilient enough to deal with the inevitable ignorance and bigotry that they might encounter?

Of course, I know that other people are concerned about their children becoming gay because they think that there is something wrong or unnatural with homosexuality. Frankly, however, I have nothing to say to those people on the topic except that they have some serious issues to deal with and I would rather not share them.

The second assumption contained in this myth is the idea that breasts are primarily sexual objects. Yet again I find myself with the impulsive first instinct to simply cry out WTF? Are people honestly so incredibly ignorant of basic biology to believe that mammary glands evolved for the pleasure of the male (and, for those accepting of homosexuality, female) gaze? Do they really believe that we have managed to successfully continue as a species by virtue of the attractiveness or soft touch of female breasts? Infant mammals need to suckle on their mother's milk (through her nipples!) in order to live. This is one of our defining characteristics as mammals - hence the name "mammary glands". The relative attractiveness of these glands to adult members of the species has a fairly minimal to irrelevant impact on species survival.

OK, so yes in making this argument I have to contend with those people who believe that we are somehow markedly different from 'animals'; who think that humans and animals are actually separate groups rather than one being a subset of another - because we have evolved 'beyond' other animals and are now able to do things differently.

First, I disagree with the idea that just because we can now survive without something natural by substituting it for something human-made means that we ought to - that this is somehow a positive progression. An overwhelming amount of our supposed 'progress' has only served to make us more unhealthy and unhappy and has ultimately threatened the survival of not only our own species but every other species on this planet. I have absolutely no faith in the supposed superiority of our shift away from nature.

Second, even if you think that our capacity to move away from our dependence on nature and on our biological instincts is something that should be fostered, it does not follow that these practices are no longer 'natural'. They remain natural, you are just arguing for the superiority of something that is completely unnatural.

Another concern that I have for the assumption that breasts are primarily sexual objects is that this view is completely and utterly constructed by patriarchy. (Leaving aside lesbian relationships, because that is a separate topic and shouldn't confuse this one) Who wins when part of a woman's body is defined in terms of how much it pleases (or pleasures?) a man? Not women that is for bloody sure! Essentially this view is premised on the idea of men owning women's bodies.

I believe that one of the big reasons that extended breastfeeding (and, in fact, all breastfeeding in public) is viewed with such suspicion and hysteria is that it is an act of direct rejection of this claim of ownership. When a woman breastfeeds her child (particularly in public) many people are constructing or receiving the message:
"My breasts do not belong to men, they are mine and I will use them in a manner that is directly threatening to your desire to see them as sexual objects. I will use them to nurture and nourish my child and to increase a non-sexual bond from which you are excluded."
Or, if they view the child as a sexual being* (particularly once the breastfeeding child gets older than 12-months or so), they may alternatively be constructing the message as:
"Although my breasts are primarily sexual objects, I am excluding men from owning them because they belong solely to my child who is taking their own incestuous pleasure from them."
Of course, I'm not arguing that many women are deliberately sending out these messages (I highly doubt that any woman has ever deliberately sent out the second one!) or that many people are actually conscious of constructing it in such a way, but I do think that this is what happens. Why else would people view such a natural and healthy act as somehow suspect and disturbing?

It would be so nice if we could just laugh at these ridiculous attitudes. Sadly, we can't be so complacent. You see there are serious impacts of people having these crazy ideas. The most obvious is that many women will wean their babies before they are ready because of the incredible societal pressure to do so and to take up their anointed role as sexualised yummy mummies. This is unfair on both women and babies who could both benefit significantly from continuing their breastfeeding relationship until it concluded naturally due to the pressure-free preference of one or both parties.

It also means that many women who do breastfeed have to constantly suffer from a lack of societal support for what can be an exhausting and time consuming job. They are seen as misguided in their decision to do it and, perhaps, self-indulgent, and so many people feel entitled to deny them social support for what they are doing, by not:
  • creating better leave entitlements so that mothers can spend more time breastfeeding their babies,
  • creating safe and comfortable spaces in workplaces where mothers could breastfeed or express,
  • creating childcare arrangement in or close to workplaces so that breastfeeding could continue easily after a mother has gone back to work,
  • creating welcoming and comfortable places in public where mothers can breastfeed their babies,
  • providing support to breastfeeding mothers such as a cooked meal, or helping hand or even a glass of water,
  • you get the idea...
However, that doesn't even touch on the most serious risks that are posed by these dangerous attitudes. The assumption that breastfeeding is a sexual act can also lead to women being ejected from public places or off plane flights for simply feeding their babies. Far worse, it can also lead to women having their children removed from their care and being criminalised and incarcerated. As Heather mentions in her post this exact scenario took place in 2002 in Dallas Texas. In that case a couple had their children summarily removed by authorities after a photo lab developed a photo of their 12-month-old breastfeeding and reported it to authorities. The couple were then arrested on criminal charges of "sexual performance of a minor." They were then found guilty based on no other evidence than the photo in question. In 2002!

This is why these ideas of not just crazytalk; they are downright dangerous.

*And, of course, this particularly attitude leads naturally into a discussion of the sexualisation of children, but that is quite evidently a post for another day at this stage...

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