Virginity for Sale

Well well well . . . It was only a matter of time!

Last summer, I blogged about a case in France in which a young engineer had divorced his new wife because she was not a virgin on their wedding night. How did he find out? She failed to bleed properly from her vagina when they consumated their marriage on that auspicious night.

The case brought up all kinds of issues dealing with religion, sexual and reproductive freedom, and gender roles—particularly within some Muslim communities in which virginity is a prequisite for women’s marriageability. The case also brought up the issue of hymen reconstruction surgery, a procedure that restores the hymen and essentially gives women their virginity back, thereby allowing them a degree of sexual freedom without the risk of being stigmatized as unworthy of marriage.

A Chinese company, it seems, went one step further. Bypassing the surgical option, Gigimo offers an “artificial hymen,” designed to be inserted into the vagina prior to intercourse. According to the Huffington Post, the product “leaks a blood-like substance when . . . broken.” On Gigimo’s Web site, the artificial hymen is described as easy to use, non-toxic, painless, and hypo-allergenic—although a 2008 piece in Salon called attention to potential side effects.

At first blush, the artificial hymen might seem like a win-win situation for everyone. Husbands would be able to present a bloody sheet to their guests on the night of the wedding; women would be able to enjoy premarital sexual freedom without having to worry about a wedding-night divorce; and families would be assured that they had chosen good spouses for their children (IBN Live reported back in 2008 that Muslim women in Britain were already using the product to “fake their virginity”). Alas! Nothing is ever so rosy in the world of sex and marriage. Although having been around for a while, the artificial hymen is now making international headlines because conservative Egyptian lawmakers are seeking to ban its importation and sale in their country.

This case can be seen as an illustration of the ongoing tensions between tradition vs. modernity, men vs. women, religion vs. secularity, and the impact of science and technology on them all. Take, for instance, the role of culture: culture creates a need—in this case for virgin wives—which demands that women’s hymens be intact on their wedding nights. On the other hand, how does culture address those women who choose to exercise the right to decide when, with whom, and under what circumstances to have sex? Similar questions could be raised about the relationship between religiously mandated women’s roles and the expectations of—to say nothing of the demands on—modern women. In other words, how do traditional sexual and reproductive values play out in a modern society in which women may find them outdated and overly restrictive?

This line of argument, however, misses the point. The sad reality is that many, many women in Egypt and elsewhere do not have much—if any—say about when, where, how, and with whom they lose their virginity. This latter group has to answer twice: the first time for the actual loss of their virginity; the second time when they get married. Whether in the form of a reconstructed hymen or an artificial one, technology could have been a saving grace that spared these women the stigma of having lost their virginity before marriage and thus being rendered unfit to marry. In other words, the artificial hymen—while not restoring to these women the dignity they may have lost along with their virginity—might have given them a chance to leave the past behind (assuming, of course, they had any say in whom they married).

But alas! There are too many ifs and if-onlys when it comes to questions of sex and what women do with their bodies. Besides, the artificial hymen would have, at best, been of use to only the minority of women who could afford its $30 price tag. If the ban goes into effect, however, even they will have to do without its salvation. Instead, they will have no choice but to live with the consequences of decisions they made ages ago or—even worse—spend the rest of their lives having to answer for events over which they may have had no control.

Just Another Day in the Land of Hopes and Dreams

Something strange happened today. Something that very seldom happens to me. And when it does, it happens gradually and almost imperceptibly. Subconsciously even. Today, I felt a shift in my perspective. A small, subtle shift. But a shift nonetheless.

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to tutor immigrants at a community center not far from where I live. All the immigrants are getting ready for the naturalization interview, their penultimate step towards US citizenship. This community center provides free English-language lessons, lessons that will hopefully help them pass their interviews and become US citizens.

Today was my first time with this group. I’ve taught English to immigrants many times before, so the experience itself was nothing new. There was the familiar excitement of meeting new people, learning where they are from and what brought them to the US. There was the camaraderie borne of communion, of sharing my own story, telling of my own experiences as an immigrant, an outsider.

It was a small class, with about a dozen or so students, all roughly middle-aged. Each volunteer was assigned a small group of two or three students. I was matched up with Ferdinand and Isabella (not their real names). The routine was pretty simple. No need for materials or a lesson plan. They had their citizenship booklets and workbooks full of US history and various writing exercises. We would work from those.

After introductions and the customary initial awkwardness, Ferdinand and Isabella seemed to loosen up. I started out with basic questions: what have you been working on in the class? Is there anything particular you’d like to work on? Both wanted to practise speaking. So we moved on to questions about them. Both are from a small Central American country. Both are divorced with children. Ferdinand has four from two previous wives. Isabella has two from her previous husband. They live in Europe. Isabella used to live in Europe with her sons but they’re grown now. I also learned that she and Ferdinand are married: he for the third time and she for the second.

Moving on to the more structured part of the lesson, I asked them both to write down a list of five things they liked about their country of birth. They talked about the weather (Isabella likes it hot), the food, the people, and the beach. Ferdinand said he likes the colors of the flag. I asked him what it was about the flag that he liked and he replied that as a kid in school, he’d have to look at the flag and pledge loyalty to it—just like in the US. Then he went to say that in his country of birth, you were allowed to look at the flag and maybe touch it. But you could not tear it or set fire to it. If you did, the army would take you away and . . . he made one hand into a fist and pounded it into the open palm of the other. Sometimes, a gesture speaks louder than words.

For the next part of the lesson, I had them ask each other questions about what they liked about the US. Isabella likes that there are people of many different nationalities. Ferdinand likes Atlantic City. And New York. He also likes the freedom, because he believes people should be able to express themselves without being pounded by the army. Isabella also likes that there are many opportunities here to have a good life. And she revealed that she would like to own a beauty salon someday. Ferdinand talked about how becoming a citizen would improve his chances of getting a better job. We continued to converse in this vein . . . while a realization slowly formed in my mind.

At several points in the hour-long lesson, I was deeply moved by this middle-aged couple, so different in so many ways yet so united in their belief in the potential of this country. He had come to the US as a young man in the ’70s but had chosen to return home, only to come back to the US six years ago. She had left her birth country at 15 and spent the better part of two decades in Europe, before making her way to the US. They had both lived elsewhere but had chosen to make the US their home.

And that’s when it hit me. This country’s strength, I realized, lies not in what it is, or even claims to be—lord knows, it falls far short of many of those claims. Rather, it lies in people like Ferdinand and Isabella, ordinary people whose desire for a better life gives them the strength to hope, the courage to follow their dreams wherever they may lead, and the determination to do whatever it takes to make them come true.

Gates Case has Everything to do With Racism, Which is Probably why it Won’t go Away.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' Wednesday, July 22, 2009 in New York.  (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. participates in a panel on CNN's live show 'Moment of Truth: Countdown to Black in America 2,' Wednesday, July 22, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The ink had barely dried on Henry Louis Gates’ arrest record before people were falling over themselves to debate whether or not the arrest had anyhing to do with race. Even President Obama was asked to weigh in at a White House press conference. But at least one person involved in the scandal—the eminent Harvard professor himself—believes race was a factor.* In fact, expressing this opinion to Officer Crowley is what got him arrested.

Somewhere in this mess is Lucia Whalen, the 911 caller who’s been accused of racism for mentioning to the dispatcher that the suspects were Black. The recently released 911 tape provides some vindication—some vindication because, while she does not specifically use the word “Black,” she does tell the dispatcher that one of the suspects looked “kind of Hispanic.” Kind of Hispanic? What exactly does kind of Hispanic look like anyway? Because pictures of Gates’ accomplice have been hard to come by, it’s safe to assume Gates—with his mocha skin—was very likely the Hispanic-looking one. But it doesn’t matter because in Boston—which doesn’t exactly have a great reputation for racial inclusivity—“kind of Hispanic” translates into “not White,” which pretty much answers the dispatcher’s question about the suspects’ race.

If race was not a factor, why then does a suspect’s skin color matter in the first place? Wouldn’t “what are they wearing?” be just as good for identifying suspects? After all, the police are perfectly capable of identifying suspects by their clothes, hairstyles, or physical features, no? Gates, for example, has a very recognizable limp. So again, if race didn’t play a role, why was it so important to the dispatcher?

But wait! Just when things couldn’t seem more cut and dry, genetics throws a spanner into the works. In an ironic twist, professor Gates has traced part of his genetic ancestry to an Irish warlord! Even more astonishing is the fact that Officer Crowley, who maintains that his decision to arrest Gates had nothing to do with race, is descended from the same warlord!!! This means that Professor Gates and Officer Crowley are related!!!

So the question becomes: if not for racism, how on earth could Officer Crowley and Professor Gates end up in the confrontation that splashed their photos all over the national press and got them invited to the White House for beers with the President? On the one hand you have Crowley, a White police officer, a symbol of law and order in his community. On the other hand, you have Gates, a Black man and a renowned Harvard professor—albeit surprisingly unknown and unrecognizable to Crowley. On the 911 tape, Crowley tells the dispatcher, “I have an ID of a Henry Louis Gates.” Apparently, he had no idea who this “gentleman” even was! So again, how did Gates become a burglary suspect in his own home? More importantly, how did these two men—who share DNA!—wind up on opposite ends of the racial binary, one presumed to be an upstanding, fairminded citizen and the other so easily mistaken for a burglar? It seems pretty cut and dry.

According to Officer Crowley, Gates was “uncooperative”—as anyone with any dignity or self-respect would have been in that situation—so the handcuffs had to come out. But giving a police officer a piece of your mind because he basically accused you of burglarizing your own home is not disorderly conduct, it’s freedom of expression. Expecting any person to grin and bear such indignity and humiliation is not only unfair and insenstive, it borders on tyranny. Isn’t protection from the caprices of an overbearing executive one of the foundational principles of the Constitiution, a document with which Professor Gates is no doubt familiar? Luckily, Cambridge PD sympathized with the professor and dropped the charges. That should have been enough vindication.

But not for everyone. In nearby Boston, Officer Justin Barrett was so incensed by a local columnist’s defense of Gates that he wrote her an email in which he called the professor a “banana-eating jungle monkey”! Even more troubling is Barrett’s assertion:

I am not a racist, but I am prejudice [sic] towards people who are stupid.

Apparently, Officer Barrett, despite his dislike of stupid people, is incapable of recognizing racism. He goes on to conclude that Professor Gates “has indeed transcended back to a bumbling jungle monkey,” and adds that, had he been in Officer Crowley’s place, he would have pepper-sprayed the professor in the face.

So we’re back to the same question: on what foundation did Barrett’s letter rest, riddled as it was with “frequent grammatical and spelling errors”? This barely literate man, despite having been an English teacher, does not even know the meaning of transcend—to rise above, to move onwards and upwards—or that it has a positive connotation (the word he was looking for is “regressed”). Yet for some reason, he confidently and mercilessly denigrates an acclaimed Harvard professor! In fact, this incident defies logic and can only be understood as an irrational emotional response born of prejudice and ignorance. Kinda like . . . racism?

But, lest anyone get the impression that this case is all about race and nothing else, it’s only fair to point out that Officer Barrett also had a few choice words for the columnist, Yvonne Abraham:

Barrett, who identified himself as a veteran . . . also took issue with Abraham’s journalistic ability, calling her ‘a hot little bird with minimal experience in a harsh field,’ as well as ‘an infidel.’ The rambling e-mail also suggested that she ‘should serve me coffee and donuts on Sunday morning,’ later returning to that line of thought with, ‘I like a warm cruller and hot Panamanian, black. No sugar.’

Good to see that Officer Barrett is well-rounded in his prejudice. After all, his sentiments give the impression that having been born with a penis—kinda like having been born with  the right skin color—entitles him to insult and dismiss a professional journalist for no reason other than that she was born with the wrong genitals. Oh, and he disagrees with her on the Gates issue.

The only good that might come out of this episode is that Officer Barrett will be removed from the police force, prompting a huge collective sigh of relief from “infidels,” “hot little birds,” and “jungle monkeys” all over the Boston area. In the meantime, I gotta cancel my subscription to Ms. Magazine and tear up my NAACP membership card. I won’t be needing those anymore!

*Considering Professor Gates has written books on the question of race and racism in America, I’m going to have to assume he knows what he’s talking about and agree with him.

R.I.P. Michael Jackson.

I’ve neglected T’ings ‘n Times for far too long and somehow, I thought my “comeback” post would be something of a masterpiece. Instead, here I am writing a quick, short post about Michael Jackson’s untimely death.

There’s not too much I can say. Is there a word for immense surprise mixed with sadness and disbelief? In German, maybe? I know the Germans have all kinds of words for ideas and emotions that cannot be conveyed in English.

It never occurred to me that one day, I’d have to live in a world without MJ. He’s always been there. Everywhere. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t know of him. I can’t even remember when I learned who Michael Jackson was, it was so long ago. It would be like trying to remember my first words.

Even in Freetown in the ’80s, Michael Jackson was everywhere. Everyone knew his music. His picture was everywhere: on walls, on the sides of poda-poda minibuses, on barbershop signs . . .. It was as if he had always been around. And, despite his well-publicized fall[s] from grace, I suppose in many ways always will be.

Rest in peace, MJ.

This Is Mexico . . ..

I’ve been in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico for four days now, and have only now had the time and ability to write a short post. I had intended to write a cheerful and upbeat post about how great Puerto Vallarta is, but made the mistake of checking my email first.

In my inbox were emails from several people who had sent me links to the latest news on the verdict in the Luis Ramirez case, which I’d blogged about since Ramirez, a Mexican, was beaten to death in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. On a July night last year, he was walking home with a teenaged girl when he encountered a group of teenaged boys in a park. Words were exchanged—not a few of them racist insults hurled in Ramirez’s direction—and the situation escalated into an all-out fistfight that ended with Luis Ramirex laying on the ground unconscious and foaming at the mouth. He died in hospital two days later from severe head injuries sustained during the fight.

The jury was tasked with, among other things, sorting out who exactly delivered the blow that killed Luis, since at least three of the teens fought with him directly. They found the accused not guilty of all but the least serious charge: simple assault. I understand that sometimes, people make mistakes. But some mistakes are more serious than others. For example, someone might make the mistake of drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car. If they make it home safely, fine. But if they accidentally run over a pedestrian and kill him, they do not get off simply because they made a mistake. Yet here we have a case in which a human being’s life was taken by people using their fists and feet as weapons, yet they got off scott free.

So, as I sit here watching the orange sun set over a glassy bay, I find myself writing a very different post from the one I had intended. I wanted to write about how amazing Puerto Vallarta is. Every single person I have met here has been nothing but wonderful: warm, hospitable, generous, and good-humored. It was everywhere around me, once I left the taxi-and-package-tour-hustle-and-bustle of the airport. This was what I had planned to write about . . . before I checked my email. Now, the kindness and warmth of the Mexicans I’ve met stands out even more starkly when viewed against the backdrop of the Luis Ramirez case: I cannot imagine a situation in which six Mexican teenagers would find cause to make a disparaging remark towards me or any of the people I’m here with, let alone attack any of us so viciously as to leave us brain-damaged and dying in a park.

I know I’m here as a tourist and that tourist dollars are the lifeblood of the local economy. But I’m also here as a foreigner. I look physically different from every single Mexican I’ve seen, and my Spanish is far from good enough to allow me to pass. Yet nobody has yelled a racial slur in my direction, and nobody has told me—out of contempt or frustration—to learn Spanish. And, while I’m sure Puerto Vallarta has its share of crime both petty and violent, I haven’t found myself in a situation in which I’m made to feel uncomfortable or threatened because of my skin color, hair texture, or non-flueny in the local language.

After all, despite the obvious benefits tourists bring to the towns along Mexico’s coasts, there is more than enough reason for Mexicans to be hostile towards me. I’m a foreigner, a tourist, and an American. There is a long history of tension between our two countries, and I’m sure some tourists and foreigners comport themselves in a less-than-decent way with the locals. But none of this has been enough—in my admittedly limited time in Mexico—to cause the locals to treat me with suspicion, scorn, resentment, or outright hostility. When I attempt to communicate in my piss-poor Spanish, they listen patiently, correct me when I ask for correction and, when I eventually give up and ask if they speak English, graciously switch to fluent or near-perfect English.

I imagine that, had the teenagers who were found not guilty of beating Luis Ramirez to death ever found themselves in Mexico, they would have met the same reception as me and my fellow travelers. I imagine that Brian Scully too—the one who made the comment that started the fight and who yelled racial epithets while his friends were beating Luis Ramirez—would have been treated with nothing but kindness, warmth, and good humor.

Tragically, the reception Luis Ramirez got in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania was markedly different from the one I am getting from his compatriots in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. In fact, his experience could not have been more different, a difference made even more grotesque by the fact that his attackers were ultimately found to be not responsible for his death.

Luis Ramirez’s Killers About to Stand Trial

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

Derrick Donchak (top), Brandon Piekarsky (middle), and Colin Walsh (bottom), have been charged in the beating death of Luis Ramirez in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Ramirez died two days later from head injuries sustained during the attack.

The Republican Herald reports that jury selection in the trial of Derek Donchak, Colin Walsh, and Brandon Piekarsky will begin on April 22, with the trial itself set to start on April 27.

Last summer, the three accused attacked Luis Ramirez after they ran into him and a young woman in a park. The woman turned out to be the younger sister of Ramirez’s fiancee, whom he was walking home. Donchak, Walsh, and Piekarsky had—according to witness testimony—been drinking malt liquor in the woods near the park.

The ensuing attack left Luis Ramirez unconscious and foaming at the mouth. One question that will hopefully be answered by the trial is whether it was Colin Walsh or Brandon Piekarsky who delivered the fatal blow. Walsh’s sucker punch knocked Ramirez down and left him unconscious on the ground, where he lay when Brandon Piekarsky delivered a final kick to his head. The unconscious Ramirez was transferred to hospital, where he died two days later. 

Elsewhere, it is being reported that Colin Walsh has agreed to testify against his co-accused. There is also some confusion about whether or not the charges against him will be/have been dropped in exchange for his cooperation. Hopefully more information will come out about the details of the various plea arrangements.

The announcement that justice will be done in the Luis Ramirez beating-death case comes as good news for supporters of the rule of law. And, as anti-immigrant rhetoric is ratcheted up and anti-immigrant hate crimes continue to increase, it is important that those who are found to have committed hate crimes are punished according to the law.

The law does not require anyone to like anyone else, but it does state explicitly that a person may not physically assault or kill another person. Hopefully justice will be done.

What Would Jesus Give Up For Lent?

Jesus being tempted with wealth and power, which he spurns.

Duccio's rendition of the temptation of Jesus. Not sure why the Devil's portrayed with black skin but, whatever. You gotta pick your battles.

It’s Lent again and, if you’re Christian, you’re probably giving up something you like. Or perhaps you thought about giving something up, but decided against it: Either way, thoughts of sacrifice must have crossed your mind. And, while I can’t speak for myself—I am not a Christian—I certainly know many Christians who are giving up everything from chocolote to alcohol to sex.

Once upon a time, Christians were only asked to make sacrifices in the real world but this year, at least one Italian cleric has asked Catholics to make sacrifices in the virtual world as well. According to the BBC , the Archbishop of Modena wants young people to give up texting and social networking sites (like Facebook) in order to  “cleanse themselves from the virtual world and get back into touch with themselves.” Other Italian Archbishops have asked people to give up mineral water or to recycle more (I’m not quite sure how recycling is a fitting “sacrifice” for Lent, except that maybe not recycling is a luxury that would be hard to surrender).

All this got me thinking: People are giving up all this stuff for Lent but what would Jesus give up?

The question (like the title of this post) is purely rhetorical because we have a good idea of what Jesus would give up (if we take the Gospels at their word, anyway). In Christian tradition, Lent commemorates the 40 days and nights Jesus spent in the desert. According to three of the Gospels (Matthew, Luke, and Mark), Jesus was driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit after John the Baptist . . . um . . . baptised him. He ate nothing while in the desert and, at the end of 40 days, was quite hungry. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, he was visited by Satan (or the slanderer, depending on the translation) who tempted him with food, wealth, and power. Here’s how Mark, the least verbose on the subject of Christ’s temptation, put it:

At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

The other two Evangelists go into greater detail, listing the actual temptations. First, Jesus was tempted with food:

The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”

Next, he was tempted with wealth:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”

Finally, the Devil tempted Jesus with power:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”

In the end, Jesus triumphed over the Devil and resisted his temptations, which leads to another, bigger question: If Jesus Christ, the spiritual founder of the the Christian religion, endured 40 days of hunger in the desert, at the end of which he rejected both basic needs (food) and luxuries (wealth and power), how is it that modern Christians have to give up so little for Lent? I mean, don’t get me wrong, texting is an essential part of many modern Christians’ lives, but is giving that up really in keeping with the spirit of sacrifice? Could the Vatican not demand a greater sacrifice from the congregations it instructs to emulate Christ? Frankly, it’s a little demeaning to the memory of Christ’s ordeal in the desert that today, people who claim to be memorializing his suffering, have the option of giving up something as trivial as chocolate.

Ultimately, what we choose to “sacrifice” says as much about the modern world we inhabit as it does about the gap between how we live and how the majority of the rest of the planet lives. Most people on this planet have never owned a cell phone, let alone a computer. Every day, millions of people wake up hungry and go to bed thirsty. Millions have no access to clean, pipe-borne water. And uncounted numbers of women and girls have no say in when, where, how, or with whom they have sex. For them, giving up sex is impossible. Likewise, for most of the rest of the people on this planet, giving up texting or chocolate or mineral water is not even an option. These are luxuries they have no choice but to do without—day after day after day.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. At least one of those Italian Archbishops asked that people recycle more. Recycling is certainly a good start. Maybe next year he’ll ask his worshippers to oppose war or not beat their wives. Hopefully more and more religious leaders will ask people to not only give up things they enjoy but also to take up things they may not enjoy but which are beneficial to the rest of the human family. Maybe one day, a courageous Archbishop somewhere will order his congregants to never take a human life. After all, war and wifebeating (like most of our world’s ills) are intimately linked to wealth and power. Most importantly, lest we forget, these two temptations make up exactly two thirds of the temptations Jesus resisted in the desert.

Today, what are we to make of this story, which teaches us that 2000 years ago, a lone man starving himself in the desert knew that, in order to prepare for his mission, he needed to make some sacrifices? After all, his mission was no small feat: He had taken on no less a challenge than the salvation of the world! Of the three temptations, Jesus rejected one for only 40 days, but the other two he rejected for ever. He gave up food for just 40 days and nights, but he resumed eating once he returned from the desert. The bigger temptations, wealth and power, he gave up for ever—if the Gospels are to be taken literally, he did not pursue them for the rest of his life.

So when Lent rolls around next year, what will you give up?