From Theory to Praxis: Realizing My Own Privilege and Ignorances

Even before this class, I always felt like I was actively engaged in topics that have to do with gender and sexuality, that goes from reproductive rights to third world feminism to trans* people’s rights. However, this GSS has made me realize that I need to look even deeper into the issues that I thought I was familiar with. I also learned that I have so much more learning to do and that there are still a variety of issues that I am not familiar with and do not even know about.

More specifically, something that struck me that I learned about in class is when we learned about same-sex sexuality. When I thought out sexuality before, it was very much what I had learned growing up in a liberal American environment, that there was heterosexual and homosexual, and everything in between and that was it. However, in this class I realized that this definition was actually pretty narrow and that even defining anything that is “same-sex” as homosexual might be inaccurate. As we learned about same-sex practices from around the world, I came to realize just how narrow my worldview and thinking was. I leaned that despite the fact that I believed I was a relatively informed person, I still had a long ways to go and that I might not ever learn or understand as much as I want to given the privileges I have by living in the United States.

Also in this class, I became more aware of my own identity, especially because of the discussions we had regarding intersectionality. I’m a woman. I’m from the Middle East. I’m a refugee. I’m from a Muslim and Jewish background. However, I always knew these things about myself. What I really came to realize in this class is my position as an American. Despite parts of my identity that work against me in American society, I still have a certain privilege living in the U.S. and calling myself American. I’m able to vote. I’m able to criticize my government. I’m able to (mostly) dress the way I want to, and so many other countless privileges that I have. Before, I knew I had these privileges, however it did not hit me until we discussed black feminism and third world feminism. I realized I could make certain choices for myself that others cannot even make a choice about themselves. I’m glad that I came to realize my own privileges and that one can have both privileges and factors that work against them.

Lastly, I hope to take what I learned in GSS and apply it many events in my life in the coming future. Specifically, I hope to apply what I learned in GSS to my perspective trip to Jordan this summer. When I’m there, my goal is to learn and become more proficient at Arabic and to also learn more about Arab culture. At the same time, I want to keep in mind that despite my cultural background, that I am still an American that is visiting a place that is very different from where I grew up. I need to be prepared to realize that my concept of what gender, gender roles, sexuality, and more broadly, culture, are in Jordan might be completely different than what I imagined. I will apply what I learned in GSS by knowing that everything is not as it seems (from America). Because I’ll be in an environment that allows me to see that, I can have a more comprehensive view on certain issues like women’s rights in the Muslim world.

Between Women: The Diversity of Same-Sex Relationships of Women in Victorian England

Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England by Sharon Marcus is a convincing, captivating, and original analysis that uncovers the importance and significance of the relationships between women in typical Victorian life. Marcus discusses how not many women in Victorian England had sexual relationships with each other or lived together in long-standing relationships like marriages. However, she also examines how women in Victorian England were involved in close and intimate relationships, which people at the time “believed cultivated the feminine virtues of sympathy and altruism”—that often had an element of objectification and closeness and affection (in a sexual manner). Marcus’s assertion that female bonds were “not only tolerated but promoted as necessary elements of middle-class femininity” (259) proposes an essential counteracting to the domineering opinions today that people in Victorian England saw all same-sex relationships as disgraceful and appalling.

Marcus goes on to argue that the wishes and needs of women at the time were motivated by consumerism and capitalism, and their friendships were recognized, reinforced, and strengthened by their “families, societies, and churches.” As she explains across a sequence of close readings, same-sex relationships and intimacy occurred in tandem and agreement with and even often promoted heterosexual relationships. Therefore, of course the people around women would support these same-sex relationships because these relationships in turn promoted heterosexual relationships, which led to reproduction and other societal expectations of women at the time.

Marcus goes on to support that images of women in the media at the time did not turn women into submissive and passive people, but on the contrary, represented the “erotic appetite for femininity” of women at that period. The appeal for femininity and fulfilling the ideals and expectations of being a woman in Victorian England drove women to this “erotic appetite. ” Marcus also showed how the relationships between women were a vital and central element of femininity through the analysis of literature, memoirs, letters, and more, and her immense collection of evidence further proves her argument.

When exploring the array of different types of female friendships, she focuses on how in many cases, female friendships just meant regular friendships, and how other times it meant lesbian relationships. Marcus goes on to describe how when same-sex “female marriages” were formed, that to her, they were not the controversial topic that same-sex relationships are today or that people thought they were. Even though these marriages were not legally formed, they were acknowledged in more wide scale social groups. Marcus also writes about a different sort of same-sex relationship between women and that is the relationships between mothers and daughters, and daughters with their dolls that were depicted in illustrations, and how these images had deceptive masochistic and sadistic insinuations and implications.

Sharon Marcus is the Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her area of study is 19th-century British and French literature, specifically, she focuses on “performance studies, theater, and the novel; literary theory; gender and sexuality studies.” (Columbia U. Website) She is the author of Apartment Stories: City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London (University of California Press, 1999) and also won the Perkins Prize for best study of narrative for Between Women, along with several other awards for this book. Her essays have appeared in The Blackwell Companion to Comparative Literature, The Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, and more. Marcus has also written for The Boston Globe, The Chronicle Review, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times Book Review. Marcus was also the recipient of Fulbright, Woodrow Wilson, and ACLS fellowships, and a Columbia Distinguished Faculty Award. In 2014, Marcus was appointed Dean of Humanities at Columbia University.

In conclusion, Between Women by Sharon Marcus is a persuasive and unique examination that unearths the meaning and substance of the interactions between women in standard Victorian life. Very few women in Victorian England had sexual or long-lasting relationships like marriages. Marcus discusses how women in Victorian England were often involved in close and intimate relationships, which they thought encouraged the feminine features of compassion and selflessness. Her claim that female relationships were not only allowed but encouraged and endorsed as necessary for conventional femininity suggests an fundamental response to the widespread opinion that the people in Victorian England saw all same-sex relationships (no matter the degree of sex or sexuality played in the relationship) as outrageous and horrifying.

The Intersection of Sex and Power in Afghanistan

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan is a documentary by Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi about the tradition of bacha bazi in Afghanistan. Bacha bazi, which means, “playing with boys” in Persian, is a long-standing tradition of child prostitution and sexual slavery in Afghanistan. Many times, these boys have to dress in women’s clothing, dancing and sing at parties for men, and then are sold to the highest bidder for the night. These are young boys no older than 15 years old (usually poor and/or orphans) that are sold to rich and influential men who keep them for prestige and as status symbols. The practice is illegal under Afghan law. However, the corrupt law enforcement does not implement it, and many times they do it themselves. In this documentary, Najibullah Quraishi researches bacha bazi first-hand by talking with the boys and their owners. At the same time, Quraishi is detailing and recording how authorities in Afghanistan are accountable for preventing these crimes, but are occasionally culpable in the practice. This documentary was created because he practice of bacha bazi is largely overlooked in the West. This short film is a way to shed light on a horrible and ancient tradition and to expose it to the West.

This documentary not only sheds the light on the boys who are prostituted, it also exposes the men who participate in it and the culture surrounding the practice. In the first few scenes of the documentary, Quraishi meets Dastager, a prominent leader in the bacha bazi business in the Takhar province of Afghanistan. Dastager introduces Quraishi to “one of his favorite dancing boys,” 15-year old Imam. Dastager continues on to dress Imam himself and say, “You’ll really make me want to lose control.” After Imam dances and sings for the other men, Quraishi sits down and talks with Dastager. With no shame, Dastager admits that he has had 2,000-3,000 boys work with him over the years. Quraishi precedes to ask Dastager if he has ever had sex with this boys; Dastager answers by saying no but immediately smiles afterward, indicating that he actually does. This scene shows how this practice is somewhat of an open secret in Afghanistan. Even when this practice is denied, everyone knows it is happening, but it is ignored. In many situations, people will not look at Dastager and think that he is doing something wrong. Instead, they would look at the boys he has raped, and say that they are the lowly and powerful ones. These boys are then looked down on and ostracized by their communities. This attitude in Afghanistan shows why the practice of bacha bazi has persisted for this long. People look down on these young boys (because they are looked at as poor and dishonored because they let the rape happen), and the men are not punished for their abuse, so they know they can continue doing it. These little boys are victim shamed and the blame is put on them.

Furthermore, a common thread throughout this documentary is class. Many of the boys who are sold into this sexual slavery are poor and/or orphans. About 13 minutes into the documentary, Dastagar tells Quraishi the kinds of boys he is looking for. Dastagar explains that he wants an attractive boy that is around 12 or 13 years old who is poor and has nothing. The practice of bacha bazi is perpetuated by poor families who sell their sons and by men who exploit the weaknesses of the poor in their communities. Many of the young boys who enter this world do not know anything about it, and the men who buy them take advantage of that.

Additionally, about halfway through the documentary, Quraishi interviews a police chief in Takhar province. The chief precedes to say that anyone who is caught practicing bacha bazi is prosecuted no matter what class they are because it is illegal in Afghanistan. However, in the next scene, Quraishi’s cameras catch two high-ranking police officials in an illegal bacha bazi party. They were simply watching and chatting with their friends at the party. The corruption of the police is an enormous issue in the preventing of bacha bazi because these are the people that are supposed to be stopping it. Instead, many of them not only look the other way when they know bacha bazi is happening, they also participate in it and consciously commit sexual abuse.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan not only sheds light on what is happening to many young boys in Afghanistan, but it also portrays why this ancient practice has persisted for so long. Simply informing the West of what is happening is not going to change this practice. In Afghanistan, the society condones this form of sexual abuse and slavery of young boys. Not only do people turn a blind eye to this horrendous practice, but they also blame the boy who is being sexually abused. They look down on the abused and then praise and admire the abuser. Also, the men who own these businesses exploit poor families and orphaned children who feel like they have no other choice, and prostitute the young boys. This perpetuates the bacha bazi practice because in a way, the boys are “willingly” selling themselves. Moreover, there is no one to enforce anti-bacha bazi laws because the police themselves are overlooking it and even practicing bacha bazi themselves.

Getting rid of the tradition of bacha bazi is not going to be easy. There are certain societal changes that need to happen, like no more victim blaming, giving more choices and freedoms to the poor in the country, and changing the culture and attitude of the police. This is not something that can be done over night. It will take a lot of money, time, and progression. Bacha bazi is banned in Afghanistan; however, this step is not the only one that needed to happen. The first step is that the men who are committing these crimes need to be held accountable and most are never punished for what they do. I think that if they are, it will show other Afghans that this practice is not okay and it will start to be stigmatized (for the better).

Also, I think there needs to be a huge shift of attitude towards feminism, sex, power, and sexuality. In many situations in Afghanistan, sex is looked as another form of attaining power. This is why many women are abused, sheltered by their husbands, and raped (marital rape too), and why these young boys are raped. Women have another set of societal standards that they have to meet. However, we never talk about the set of standards that men have to meet in Afghan society, which I think contributes in large part to the vicious cycle of abuse. If a man is not married and does not have kids by a certain age, he is looked at as impotent and powerless. If he does not beat his wife when she talks back or does not do what he says, he is looked at as weak. These practices go back to the idea that women are lesser and inferior to men and that men always need to have the most power. If you look at bacha bazi, it makes sense then. These little boys are not seen as men yet, they are just another way for “actual men” to prove their power and superiority. These boys are almost seen as women: weak and inferior.