Sociology of Abortion Politics

Women protesting, with a sign that reads "My body. My choice."

This week, on 11 May 2017, a bill two-years-in-the-making to decriminalise abortion in the state of New South Wales, Australia, was defeated 14 to 25, meaning abortion remains a crime under the Criminal Act. Greens MP and Spokesperson for the Status of Women, Dr Mehreen Faruqi MLC, who led the campaign to decriminalise said: “This bill was not about promoting or not promoting abortion. It was about choice.”

Another separate bill to establish 150 metre safe zones to protect abortion clinics has been introduced by Labor MP Penny Sharpe. This bill works to eliminate harassment and intimidation by anti-choice lobbyists who film and degrade women who walk into clinics.

In NSW, women can access abortions only with their doctor’s consent that there are “reasonable grounds” for the abortion, linked to physical and mental danger. Otherwise abortion is punishable by five years in jail.

This law has been in place since the 1970s, but stems back to 1900. Counter to national myths of our egalitarianism, abortion laws unearth how gender inequality is maintained by White, conservative Christian patriarchal ideology that seeks to control women’s autonomy. Sociological studies show how medical professionals have long been at the vanguard of change, by shifting understandings of abortion from moral arguments, to a medical choice.

Christian lobby groups, who hold strong political power, push back against medical and community views, using emotional imagery to influence abortion laws. This has proven effective over time, and continues to hold back progress in New South Wales (and Queensland, another conservative stronghold). Despite this recent set-back, momentum towards progressive change continues. A better sociological understanding of religiously conservative ideology and tactics may hold the key towards the next legal breakthrough.

 

Continue reading Sociology of Abortion Politics

Women’s March Sydney

On the 21 of January 2017, I joined up to 10,000 Sydney-siders at the Women’s March, and 2.5 million people globally. I initially had reservations about the March. As I recounted last week, the march started as an idea by a woman activist in Hawaii and it was soon taken over by White women from Pantsuit Nation, a group that has no commitment to anti-racism.  Bob Bland, a White woman from Washington, wanted to rectify the direction of the event and soon invited three women of colour to shape the Washington March: Tamika Mallory; Linda Sarsour; and Carmen Perez. The Women’s March Washington had a special focus on intersectionality; addressing how gender inequality is impacted by racism and other forms of discrimination such as homophobia, transphobia, ableism (the discrimination of people with disabilities), and more. The Washington March was the model for the other local and international marches. As more White women became involved in discussions at the national and international levels, this mission was drowned out. Women of colour were made to feel excluded from planning groups whenever the issue of intersectionality was raised.

So when the Sydney March was announced I first felt trepidation. As the final line up of speakers was announced, it became clearer that the Sydney organisers were making the event more consciously supportive of intersectionality. The organisers regularly focused their social media posts on inclusion, thereby reaffirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion. There were some limitations as I’ll discuss later. For example, transgender women seemed to lack representation amongst speakers at the event and best practice for the inclusion of women with disabilities may have been improved.

For me, the big draw card was Aboriginal activist, Jenny Munro, who has dedicated her life to advancing the human rights of Aboriginal people. Her activism and life’s work has a strong focus on Aboriginal sovereignty, children and housing. She leads the Redfern Tent Embassy and is a living legend. She did not disappoint; but I’ll get to that!

The day led to many useful discussions on diversity and how to disrupt patriarchy. I shared highlights of my day on Twitter and I bring these to you in this post as well as additional photos and video I wasn’t able to share on the day. The quotes are not strictly verbatim – treat them more as field notes to flesh out my visual sociology. I will also address the ongoing global conversations about the Women’s Marches and in particular, the critiques about the exclusion of women of colour, transgender women, sex workers and women with disabilities from various overseas events, with a focus on the USA. I’ll draw some qualified lessons on intersectionality from the USA to Australia and I wrap up with a discussion of why intersectionality is important.

This one minute video includes some of the footage I shot at the Sydney Women’s March and draws out the key lessons on intersectionality.

(Click to jump down to the video transcript.)

Continue reading Women’s March Sydney

Intersectionality and the Women’s March

This is the first of a two-part reflection on the global Women’s March that occurred on 21 January 2017. This discussion expands on a post first published on 10 January, eleven days prior to the global protests. It reflects the tensions between the initial goal of the Women’s March in Washington, which aimed to be inclusive of intersectionality, and the White women who wanted to attend the March, but objected to this aim.

Despite many positive outcomes, the issues discussed here that centre on Whiteness continued to affect the attendance, experience and discussions of the marches after the event. This post examines the attitudes of White women as discussed in an article by The New York Times, which reflect the broader dissent expressed by White women who continue to oppose intersectional conversations about the Women’s March.

The issues here remain relevant not simply as women around the world reflect on the racism and exclusion they faced at the marches, but also because one of the co-organisers, Linda Sarsour, is currently facing racist backlash only days after the event.

The second part to this discussion is forthcoming and it will be a visual reflection of my attendance at the Sydney March.

We support the advocacy and resistance movements that reflect our multiple and intersecting identities. We call on all defenders of human rights to join us
Women’s March organisers: Tamika Mallory; Linda Sarsour; Bob Bland [holding a baby]; and Carmen Perez
Continue reading Intersectionality and the Women’s March

The Gender Pay Gap and Race

Actress Natalie Portman is the latest White woman celebrity to talk about the gender pay gap in ways that demonstrate tunnel vision on the intersections between racism and gender inequity. From Patricia Arquette’s highly misguided attempt to discuss the wage disparity during her 2015 Oscars speech, to Jennifer Lawrence’s essay calling for equal pay, White actresses have a very skewed view of the inequities faced by “women” in the entertainment industry and in everyday life.

What does the gender pay gap look like when viewed through the intersections of gender, race and other social categories? What do we learn about mainstream feminism’s vision for equal pay, when we become more conscious of Whiteness and White privilege?

Continue reading The Gender Pay Gap and Race

Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

Kim Webster, University of Melbourne and Zuleyka Zevallos, Swinburne University of Technology

Barely a week passes without a media report of the suffering or tragic death of a woman at the hands of a partner. Typically, these accounts focus on the individuals involved. While important, in isolation, such a focus can belie the fact intimate partner violence is a wider social problem, obscuring both the factors contributing to it and opportunities to prevent it.

A study being launched today by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety confirms the serious impacts of intimate partner violence. The analysis, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, provides estimates of the impact of intimate partner violence on women’s health.

Data from the Personal Safety Survey, Australia’s most reliable violence prevalence survey, was used as a key input.

Since the age of 15, one in four women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by a partner. This includes violence perpetrated by a live-in partner as well as boyfriends, girlfriends or dates. This is based on a definition of violence, used by the Personal Safety Survey, which includes physical and sexual assault, as well as face-to-face threats the victim believed were likely and able to be carried out.

When emotional abuse by a live-in partner is included, (defined as controlling behaviours aimed at causing fear or emotional harm), it is estimated one in three women have experienced violence or abuse by an intimate partner. Continue reading Study confirms intimate partner violence leading health risk factor for women

Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality at Work

Sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman popularised the theory of “doing gender.” This theory sees that gender identity is something we do – it is a performance and an achievement that people put a lot of work into, rather than some innate biological state of being. People do gender by the way they dress, the way they talk, the way they move their bodies, the types of leisure activities they engage in their spare time, through their division of labour at home, at work and in every other context. Doing gender takes work: you need to learn what’s expected of you as a “man” or as a “woman.”

Early knowledge on doing gender comes from childhood socialisation. Subsequent life experiences teach us, often through trial and error, what the norms and expectations are for masculinity and femininity in different social settings, such as at work.

West and Zimmerman argued that, since gender is something we learn to do, and doing gender leads to inequality, it is possible to undo gender inequality, by doing gender in alternative ways that do not punish femininities. The doing/undoing of gender has been an ongoing focus of gender studies, most recently focused on transgender people. I will discuss recent scholarship about how transgender people do gender at work, with a focus on the experiences of transgender women. Social scientists are preoccupied with the idea that transgender people are in a special position to “undo” gender. I want to explore why viewing transgender experiences in this way contributes to the Othering of transgender people, by amplifying their difference as a solution to gender inequality. Society can absolutely undo gender, but part of this means addressing the inequalities transgender people experience. This is something that mainstream feminism has yet to fully embrace.

Transgender Women's Experiences of Gender Inequality
Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality. Photo: Purple Sherbet, CC 2.0, via Flickr. Adapted by The Other Sociologist

Continue reading Transgender Women’s Experiences of Gender Inequality at Work

Beyond Boycotts: Gender, Globalisation and Garment Factories in Bangladesh

Photo: Weronika via Flickr CC 2.0
Photo: Weronika via Flickr CC 2.0

In Bangladesh, four million people work in textile factories. Their work accounts for 80% of their country’s annual exports. Yet they work in extremely dangerous conditions. It’s been a year since 1,100 workers died in two incidents of fire and structural collapse in April 2013. My post explores this tragedy through a sociological lens, looking at empirical studies of the local working conditions and social reality in which garment workers live. These tragedies are an ugly reminder of the unequal economic relations that sustain globalisation. One of the visceral Western response to these tragedies may be to cry for a boycott of these companies. Sociological research shows that the resolution is much less tidy. The story behind this is not simply about corporate greed. It is a tale about gender inequality and the social costs of economic mobility. Let’s start by remembering the 2013 tragedy. Continue reading Beyond Boycotts: Gender, Globalisation and Garment Factories in Bangladesh

Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People

 

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

Sociology and anthropology have long used the experiences of “third sex” cultures, such as the Native American Two Spirit people, to teach students about the social construction of sex and gender. In many cultures around the world, people are allowed to live their lives beyond conventional binaries; they need not adhere to the biological sex they were born into. These people are usually revered and there are special circumstances where individuals are allowed to shift their gender position. These groups, including the Two Spirit people, are used as examples in the sociology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) issues. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this practice, demonstrating that social scientists are applying Western concepts to misappropriate the Two Spirit phenomena.

My post gives a broad overview of the social science concepts of gender and sexuality. I then discuss the spirituality, gender and sexuality of Two Spirit people as well as the history and culture that informs their social position. Let me put my analysis in context: I am not Native American nor am I a transgender person. I identify as a *cis-woman of colour (*that is, my biological and gender identity align). As a sociologist who has researched, published on and taught gender and sexuality courses, I seek to explore how Western social scientists, queer theorists and other social activists have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience to highlight social causes.

I propose that social science needs to move forward from our dominant understandings of the Two Spirit experience. My aim is to start a conversation about how we might expand sociological understandings of gender and sexuality using this case study. How do we best communicate the social construction of gender and sexuality to students and to the public? I argue academics and activists need to be mindful that, even with the best of intentions, misappropriation of cultural traditions of minority groups is dangerous. This perpetuates historical practices that have silenced Indigenous experiences. There are better ways to appreciate and form solidarity with Other cultures. This begins by listening to the way minorities speak about their own experiences, rather than projecting our seemingly-progressive perspective onto Others.

I begin by giving a background on what inspired this post as an example of public sociology. Public sociology describes how we produce sociology for mass audiences outside academia. My focus here is on how we use sociology in the classroom and in social media. It is vital to the longevity of our discipline that sociologists explain our key concepts to general audiences. At the same time, I see it important that we publicly own up to, and invite a public discussion about, the changing dynamics of power which influence social theories. We also need to take responsibility for the way we teach and publicly discuss social science ideas. This means being more critical about the ways in which social science ideas are produced and disseminated, especially via social media.

We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers
We-Wah, a Zuni Berdache, from New Mexico, who was born biologically male but lived as a Two Spirit woman. via Chicago Whispers

Continue reading Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People

From “Anti-Rape Underwear” in India to Sexual Harassment in Australia: Social Complicity in “Rape Culture”

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD.

Trigger Warning: Rape.

A couple of weeks a go, a new, so-called “anti-rape” underwear device got quite a bit of international attention. It was invented by a team of Indian students, including two women. The device was designed to give rapists an electric shock. It is also reportedly equipped with a GPS tracking device to alert the women’s parents and police that she is being assaulted. The underlying attitudes that led these engineers to make this device are representative of the problem of rape not just in India, but in other parts of the world. Rape and harassment are not seen as public issues that require social intervention, but rather these are perceived as personal problems that individual women must navigate and manage in their day-today lives. In Australia, women’s public safety is also positioned as a personal issue. Both the Jill Meagher case and the public sexual harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard exemplify that women are ultimately forced to fend for themselves, while society does little to acknowledge rape culture as a societal responsibility.

Via Larry and Fly
Via Won’t Stop Til We Surrender

Continue reading From “Anti-Rape Underwear” in India to Sexual Harassment in Australia: Social Complicity in “Rape Culture”

What The Sociology of Shoes Says About Gender Inequality

17th Century Persian Men's Shoe. Via BBC
17th Century Persian Men’s Shoe. Via BBC

By Zuleyka Zevallos

High heel shoes were once a status symbol for powerful men, from horse riding soldiers in 16th Century Persia, to European aristocrats in the 17th Century. Since the Enlightenment period, heels became associated with “irrational” fashion and pornography, and so “impractical” shoes became a symbol of femininity. What changed? Today’s post examines how history and fashion trends related to high heels help us to see how gender is a performance that entrenches inequality. Continue reading What The Sociology of Shoes Says About Gender Inequality