City of Widows by Haifa Zangana

City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance
by Haifa Zangana
Seven Stories Press

Contrary to the cliché, ignorance is not bliss; it breeds destruction and despair—a fact that is amply proved in Iraqi journalist Haifa Zangana’s incisive look at women in Iraq, City of Widows: An Iraqi Woman’s Account of War and Resistance.

Zangana, who is now based in London, and whose analysis regularly appears in numerous publications in the UK, was imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib for her political activities during Saddam Hussein’s reign. In this slim volume, she covers the rise of the modern Iraqi state, life under Hussein, the years of sanctions and occupation, and the status of women throughout. The fact that Zangana can offer so much enlightenment in so few pages is less a testament to her wisdom or writing than to the gaping void that is what most Americans know about Iraq—even now, almost five years after invading it.

To understand Iraq in the present, Zangana explains, one must take a look at the past and the foundation upon which Iraqi society was built. To that end, she outlines the evolution of modern Iraqi society from the Ottoman Empire through British colonialism to the rise of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party and into the present day.

Iraq was and is a society based on tradition, but, until recently, it was also relatively secular. Due to the efforts—often made at great personal risk—of many activists and artists, Iraq eventually adopted one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab world, guaranteeing equality for all individuals, and for women, the right to inherit property and the right to divorce, among other provisions. Zangana also notes that, in contrast to common Western perceptions of women’s status in Arab and Muslim societies, in Iraq, the education of women (among the upper classes anyway) was seen as a critical part of its advancement as a nation.

Unfortunately, much of the civil infrastructure that maintained Iraq’s secular balance was destroyed during the current occupation, and now religious fundamentalist groups have grown in strength, often through collaboration with the occupation, and have begun exerting their restrictive codes of behavior upon women throughout Iraq.

The book’s title reflects the plight of women in today’s Iraq. According to one report cited, each day 90 women become widows. Zangana recounts many of the horror stories of the occupation, like the rape and murder by U.S. soldiers of 14-year-old A’beer Qassim Hamza al-Janaby, whose family was also murdered and their bodies burned in an attempt to cover up the terrible crime. In discussing various aspects of the occupation—such as how deadly it’s been for media professionals as well as Iraqi citizens—she reveals how women’s experiences in particular have been buried and misunderstood.

The author lays a large part of that confusion at the feet of those she calls “imperialist feminists.” Leading up to the invasion, the Bush administration adopted sudden concern for the plight of Iraqi women as one of its reasons for wanting to “liberate” the country. To convey this idea to the U.S. media, several U.S.-funded Iraqi women’s organizations were founded, staffed largely by Iraqi exiles and Iraqi-Americans. Their job was to convince the U.S. public that Iraqi women were desperate for “regime change”; after the invasion, their role was to promote democracy. Funding for these NGOs came from the U.S. State Department, but also from conservative U.S. think tanks like Lynne Cheney’s Independent Women’s Forum. Zangana calls out these NGOs as tools of U.S. foreign policy, completely divorced from Iraqi women’s real concerns under occupation—feeding their children, keeping their families safe, etc.—not learning how to vote. She notes that several of the Iraqi women involved in these NGOs have gone on to serve in the post-invasion Iraqi government while rarely speaking out about the atrocities the occupation has caused.

In the final section of the book, Zangana examines Iraqi resistance to the occupation. Reminding readers that armed resistance against occupation is a right enshrined by international law, she shows how difficult it’s been for peaceful political resistance to develop during the last four years, with leaders having to go into exile and occupation forces practicing collective punishment in areas where even nonviolent anti-occupation activity has taken place. She contrasts homegrown women’s organizations, like Iraqi Women’s Will and Knowledge for Women in Iraqi Society, with the imported, “depoliticized” NGOs funded by the U.S. These independent groups have been active in protesting the occupation and human rights abuses, and providing financial, occupational, medical, and educational support.

City of Widows is a somewhat disjointed read, but only because there is so much to tell, and Zangana attempts to do it in so few pages. Though it may feel wrong for Americans to ask anything of an Iraqi at this point, Zangana’s readers will feel compelled to ask for more. —Susan Chenelle

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Bitch Magazine.

Taking on the Big Boys by Ellen Bravo

Taking on the Big Boys: Or Why Feminism Is Good for Families, Business, and the Nation
by Ellen Bravo
The Feminist Press

Protections like anti-discrimination laws, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the right to a sexual-harassment-free workplace seem like such sensible, necessary, no-brainers. So we often forget that it takes individuals like Ellen Bravo, and organizations like 9to5, the National Association of Working Women (which Bravo directed, and which inspired the 1980 film), to fight for and secure those protections.

After more than 30 years of educating people about equality in the workplace, Bravo’s still pissed off, and with good reason: “The majority of women in the United States earn less than $25,000 a year. The average woman loses nearly half a million dollars over her lifetime because of pay inequities. Cameroon, Brazil and India offer better maternity leave than we do. The percentage of female executives is down and the percentage of kids in poverty has gone back up. And feminists like me are the ones with a bad reputation?”

As Taking on the Big Boys makes clear, feminism’s “bad reputation” is due in large part to the titular baddies—the interests that go to great lengths to maintain such social and economic inequities. The Big Boys are the privileged and powerful few who exploit women, workers, minorities, immigrants, and so on, in order to maintain the status quo. Not all men are Big Boys—in fact, most aren’t—and not all Big Boys are men.

Bravo’s definition of feminism goes beyond the dictionary’s: “Feminism is a system of beliefs, laws, and practices that fully values women and work associated with women in order to help all people reach their potential.” That definition is manifest throughout the book, and is noteworthy in that by highlighting the value of “work associated with women” (or any exploited group), it brings consideration of race and class front and center.

One of the most valuable elements of this book its identification and illustration of the Big Boys’ tactics: minimize, trivialize, patronize, demonize, catastrophize, and compartmentalize. In each chapter of the book, Bravo demonstrates how these strategies are used not only to resist particular reforms, but also to sustain the many myths about women in the workplace. (Women are opting out of the rat race! Women like the flexibility of part-time/temp work!) She also shows how, in her many battles with the Big Boys, anticipating such tactics helped her counter them.

If there’s one weakness in the book, it’s that Bravo doesn’t offer more explicit examples of how reforms she’s fought for directly benefited the bottom line (e.g., X reform saved X company X amount of money), which of course is what really grabs the Big Boys’ attention. However, she does point to studies showing how workers who have a better work-life balance are more productive; and she points out that family-friendly policies benefit society as a whole through savings on social services. Such examples offer those engaging in similar struggles tips on where to look for such beneficial trade-offs. But inevitably, part of winning these battles is getting businesses to look at the bigger picture and or by simply shaming them into doing the right thing.

Bravo’s book makes it abundantly clear that feminism is indeed good for everyone. While she explicitly orients the policies she has fought for as part of a feminist vision, it’s not clear that when such battles are won, feminism gets the credit (although we know it gets the blame). Taking on the Big Boys is not only an enormously valuable resource for anyone wanting to contribute toward a better world, but a powerful and much-needed shot at combating the demonization of the F-word. This is a book to take into battle. —Susan Chenelle

Originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of Bitch Magazine.

Dahlia Season: Stories & A Novella by Myriam Gurba

Review by Susan Chenelle

Warning: Myriam Gurba’s sensual, precise prose is addictive. The four short stories that open Dahlia Season seduce and hit hard: In “White Girl” and “Primera Comuni—n,” Gurba’s protagonists find that reaching across dangerous boundaries can sometimes lead to earth-shattering love and healing. “Just Drift” follows a Latino teenager through a school day that begins with the goal of delivering the perfect flan as a bribe to his English teacher, and ends with him helping his girlfriend end her pregnancy.

Like most teenagers, Desiree Garcia, the heroine of the book’s titular novella, is obsessed with figuring herself out. However, it’s not being an artistic, lesbian goth that troubles her—let her parents worry about that—it’s her compulsive physical and mental tics she doesn’t get. Like her creator, Desiree has grown up with undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette’s syndrome. Dahlia Season follows her through her family’s attempts to “de-weirdoize” her and her own to diagnose and accept herself. This collection lavishes love, recognition and respect on anyone with Tourette’s or other behavior disorders; it also kicks down relief and acceptance for the parts in all of us that twitch or misbehave. —Susan Chenelle

Originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of Bitch Magazine.

Communities Without Borders by David Bacon

Published in the January 10, 2007, issue of The Indypendent.

What Women Really Want by Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway with Catherine Whitney

What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live
by Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway with Catherine Whitney
Free Press

Review by Susan Chenelle

Just after the 2004 presidential election, Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway, pollsters from opposite ends of the political spectrum, joined forces to conduct a new poll with a special purpose: to demonstrate how “a not-so-silent majority of women—from seniors to boomers to Generations X and Y—confront the singular challenge of recasting the nation in their image…shaking the culture to its core.”

It’s a commendable goal, but the authors get off to a rocky start by defining eight highly questionable “archetypes,” which they contend represent “the faces of American women.” These range from “Feminist Champion” and “Multicutural Maverick” to “Religious Crusader” and “Senior Survivor.” Many women will find it difficult to identify with any of these simplistic profiles, as the authors offer no indication of how they were teased out of the poll data, nor any criteria by which women were categorized. Instead, they offer puzzling statements like “You might find [the Multicultural Maverick] at the health club, coffee bar, or bistro, hanging out with friends, at a family barbecue, or attending and Earth Day concert”—without explaining why or how certain women are likely to exhibit any of the aforementioned very common behaviors. (Doesn’t the Senior Survivor also like going to the health club?)

While the authors highlight some very real concerns facing American women, such as lack of healthcare and having to tend to young children and aging parents simultaneously, there’s no question that their methodology is flawed. The substance of the book consists of responses to two polls, conducted over nine nights in early 2005, surveying a grand total of 1,604 women and 400 men. Furthermore, the two polls had entirely different sets of questions, and only a fraction of those polled (200 women) were asked all nine of the questions that comprise the heart of the book’s analysis.

Lake and Conway do demonstrate that very different women are making similar choices, and that those trends are causing significant shifts in our society—such as the increasing acceptance of more flexible work schedules and alternative career arcs. But they fail to offer any evidence that these convergences somehow erode the very real differences between them, due to factors like race and class, as well as perspectives on things like abortion, welfare, or same-sex marriage. And because the authors are pollsters and not sociologists or journalists, they don’t seek out or discuss any initiatives in which women organize across social divides toward common goals. Nor do they attempt to acknowledge the economic or political basis for divisions between women, the ones that result in what they somewhat condescendingly describe as the “underclass.” They insist that their poll sampling was demographically representative of the country’s population as whole, and they do make occasional efforts to address the realities of poor and minority women—particularly when it comes to healthcare issues—but overall the book’s perspective is skewed toward the concerns of and choices available to white, relatively affluent women.

It’s in the final chapter of the book—on women and politics—that its real audience is revealed, and it’s a disconcerting twist. Reversing the feminist mantra that “the personal is political,” the authors contend that, for women, “politics is personal.” Again, Lake and Conway can’t go too deep because they’re trying to keep things bipartisan, but they’re happy to reassure politicians that women don’t vote solely on abortion, and instead place priority on the “HERS agenda”; health, education, retirement, and security. Directly addressing their intended audience, they advise, “Women’s broad support of the HERS agenda creates a niche market for politicians. Speak to women in their language, and they may follow you to the ballot box.”

As the back-cover quotes from the likes of Jack Kemp and Governor Janet Napolitano of Arizona might intimate, What Women Really Want is really just a handbook for politicians and marketing professionals. Highlighting the common goals women are striving for, it disingenuously tries to pretend that how we get there doesn’t matter: Just put the right buzzwords in your ads, and women will vote for you. —Susan Chenelle

Originally published in the Anniversary 2006 issue of Bitch Magazine.

I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight by Margaret Cho

Review by Susan Chenelle

Comedian Margaret Cho is someone you want on your side. In her new book of writings culled from her blog, she declares her fierce devotion to anyone and everyone who’s ever been marginalized or made to feel bad about themselves for being gay, for being a woman, for not being white, and for speaking up. She addresses everything from current events—particularly the injustices committed by the Bush administration—to body image to the people she loves. Some of the most endearing pieces are those in which she’s a fan herself, sending open mash notes to Richard Pryor or sharing the story of how she met David Bowie. The book captures everything people read blogs for: the immediacy, the strong voice and personality, the quasi-intimacy. However, it also exhibits the shortcomings of committing a blog to paper: Entries are often short and reactive to a particular topic of the day, and don’t always stand up well on their own or connect coherently with other selections in a chapter. But everyone should read the chapter on feminism, in which she unequivocally declares, “Feminism is nonnegotiable. If you’re not a feminist, you do not deserve to live.” —Susan Chenelle

Originally published in the Anniversary 2006 issue of Bitch Magazine.

Webs of Power: Notes From the Global Uprising by Starhawk

Review by Susan Chenelle

We need more women like Starhawk. In November 1999, she was incarcerated for five days following the protests in Seattle. Since then, this Pagan activist, teacher, thinker, and visionary has dedicated herself to the global justice movement, traveling to Quebec City, Washington, DC, Genoa, Porto Alegre, and back again. Of equal importance, she has been doing what her fans have appreciated for more than 30 years, writing, continuously, posting columns to her website and other forums, from within the besieged activist headquarters in Genoa to the ruins of Jenin in Palestine. Webs of Power collects these eloquent reflections and astute analyses, beginning with Seattle, continuing through the struggles since and looking toward the future.

In the first half of the book, “Actions,” she shows what it means to confront the awesome political and economic forces intent on enforcing global corporate hegemony at the expense of the freedom, health, peace, and survival of peoples across the globe. Her opening essay, “How We Really Shut Down the WTO,” not only outlines the principles and methods of decentralized, democratic direct action, but also vividly expresses what happens when you place yourself within a mass struggle and what you need to do to survive. But Webs of Power is far more than a collection of reports from the battlefront. In subsequent essays, like “Hermana Cristina’s Well,” Starhawk gets behind the activist lingo and illustrates what “globalization” means, how it impacts the daily lives of ordinary people and what ordinary people around the world are doing about it.

For those involved in the global justice movement, the most compelling and provocative parts of Starhawk’s book are those in the second section, “Visions,” in which she addresses intra-movement conflicts and concerns, such as the quarrel over direct action vs. non-violence, or “diversity of tactics.” Where most activist-writers have become bogged down on one side or the other of this debate, she thinks beyond this dichotomy and backs up her philosophical discourses with examples where potentially destructive situations were diffused by listening and seeking constructive compromises that respected all parties’ mutual and divergent interests. In this section, she also delivers one of the most cogent analyses of the history of the left in America to be found anywhere, as well as a sharp-minded look at gender and sexuality during the Civil Rights movement.

Whether or not one embraces Paganism or magic ritual, few will disagree that, facing such challenges from within and without, the survival and progress of the global justice movement will require, if not a manifest sense of spirituality, then a great deal of deep thinking, insight, and wisdom. Weaving principle, action, politics, and spirituality together, Starhawk calls for a new political language, one that eschews jargon and all its historical baggage for clarity and makes the vital connections between all forms of repression and exploitation. Starhawk’s own eloquence demonstrates what that language might be like. Such a revitalized discourse would not only mediate or eliminate the conflicts that so often arise around ideology within the movement but also speak to those alienated by such bickering and elitist rhetoric.

Webs of Power is an important guide for those participating in the global justice movement, and an excellent primer for readers looking for a way to become involved and informed. In a time when the Bush administration is hell-bent on making war wherever and whenever possible and/or profitable, shredding international treaties left and right, and throwing up missile defense shields that don’t work, when 15 million people are starving in southern Africa thanks to the IMF and first-world greed, when states and cities across the U.S., following the federal government’s lead, are fending off huge budget deficits by cutting jobs, education, health care, and other critical services like fire departments, instead of rescinding one or two tiny corporate welfare loopholes or tax breaks, this book is, as Alice Walker says in her endorsement, “a must and soonest read.”

Originally published in the March/April 2003 issue of Clamor Magazine.