What I’m Reading…

Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.

  • and some criticism of  Eltahawy’s piece since its publication.

Sex and the Secret Service

The Secret Service announced yesterday the retirement and resignation of three employees connected to the prostitution scandal last week in Cartagena, Columbia. Twenty-one Secret Service employees and military personnel are suspected of visiting strip clubs and prostitutes on April 11, two days before President Obama was scheduled to arrive at an international summit.

Although the men’s conduct violates the agency’s ethical and personal conduct rules, prostitution is legal and regulated in Cartagena. According to The Washington Post, all 21 Secret Service and military personnel are suspected of having women in their rooms at the Hotel Caribe on April 11. The only reason that the news broke at all last week is that one of the men was in a dispute over pay with one of the women, who stayed in the hotel room past the 7a.m. curfew. Hotel staff and Columbian police reported the incident to the U.S. Embassy, and here we are a week later, worrying about whether or not this incident compromised President Obama’s security, if these sex workers could have been spies, and speculating about the culture at the Secret Service agency. A CNN article flirted with the idea and wishful thinking that having more women agents in the Secret Service would change the agency’s macho culture.

Clearly, the behavior of the men involved in the scandal was never meant to get out. It leaves us wondering if these men had engaged in prostitution before Cartagena, and if so, for how long? The news that men who are sworn to serve and protect our President and nation buy sex from women abroad should not be surprising. For feminists who study international politics, there is a sexual politics that underlines and reinforces unequal relations between nations. For example, feminist international relations scholars have long studied and written about the prostitution that occurs around U.S. military bases in South Korea. (Check out Cynthia Enloe’s seminal work, Bananas, Beaches and Bases).

Prostitution may appear to be inconsequential and irrelevant to the workings of international relations, but it’s not. The commercial sexual transaction that happens between American men (whether they’re soldiers or federal employees) and local sex workers reinforces unequal power relations between nations and is often essential to the more powerful state’s military readiness and operations. Individual relationships across international borders that rely on social hierarchies of sex, race, gender and class also construct and influence international relations as much as the actions and decisions of nation states. The international becomes personal when looking at international relations through a feminist lens. In an interview with The New York Times, the woman at the center of the dispute (who identified herself as an escort), told the reporter that she had no idea that the presumably rich American man who invited her back to his hotel room was a part of President Obama’s security detail:

“They never told me they were with Obama,” she said, addressing published reports that some agents may have openly boasted to prostitutes that they were there protecting the president. “They were very discreet.”

What’s important about this personal, individual relationship between a man and a woman is not simply the commodification of sex and the agency’s embarrassment of having the news splashed across 24-hour news cycle, but the sexual politics of international relations. This scandal is not confined to the fleeting actions of one man and one woman, but rather it speaks to a larger pattern of gendered relations within an international system that has real political consequences.

As the prostitution scandal continues to intensify with rumors of more resignations coming in the next few days, the reason why the Secret Service employees and military personnel were in Cartagena has been overshadowed. Leaders throughout the Western hemisphere attended the sixth Summit of the Americas to discuss important anti-drug, monetary and trade policies – the stuff of international relations that defines the relationship between our country and our neighbors. Instead of wondering if the scandal compromised our national security, let’s talk about the ways sexual politics and gender underpin our own international politics and reinforce our standing in the international system.

Silence for Shaima, Justice for Trayvon

Florida special prosecutor Angela B. Corey announced during a press conference Wednesday that the state of Florida is charging George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. It’s about time. Zimmerman, who is expected to plead not guilty, faces a maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted.

Since the 17 year-old’s murder in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, the public outcry for justice for Trayvon and outrage that Zimmerman had not been arrested (until this week) has only intensified. Marches and rallies across the country have galvanized college students, parents of all colors and religious leaders, who call on others to denounce the racism in our country that makes a black teen wearing a hoodie and carrying candy “suspicious” and “up to no good” in the eyes of an armed neighborhood watchman.

The intense media coverage of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the public outpouring of anger and grief that it has generated has made me think about the relative invisibility in the media and public consciousness of another murder that involves race, gender, religion and nationality – the killing of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant, wife and mother of five children.

Alawadi died March 24, three days after she was brutally and violently beaten with a tire iron in her home in El Cajon, California. Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter Fatima found her unconscious with a note that said, “go back to your country, you terrorist.” According to police, the family found a similar note earlier in March and didn’t report the incident. Investigators thought the murder was a hate crime because of Alawadi was Muslim and wore a hijab. Soon after her death made news, her name was linked with Trayvon Martin’s in marches and rallies for justice and many people wore hijabs under their hoodies. Those seeking justice for Alawadi created a Facebook page in her honor, “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which currently has more than 16,000 supporters. On Wednesday, college students across the country held a “National Day of Action for Shaima and Trayvon” and many more women wore hijabs in solidarity over the Easter weekend.

The circumstances surrounding Alawadi’s death are now emerging in media reports that claim that Alawadi was planning to divorce her husband and move to Texas. Police found court paperwork to file for divorce when searching Alawadi’s Ford Explorer, and court records also indicate that Fatima was distraught over an impending arranged marriage to her cousin. Although these circumstances surrounding Alawadi’s death complicates what we think was a hate crime, it doesn’t make her murder any less important or diminish the sense of urgency in finding her killer, just as the victim-blaming of Trayvon Martin wasn’t an acceptable reason not to arrest George Zimmerman sooner rather than later.

Shaima Alawadi and Trayvon Martin may have more similarities in their deaths than they did in life. Alawadi, a 32 year-old female, Iraqi immigrant, and Trayvon, a 17 year-old African-American male, occupied very different social positions in life, but they shared a dilemma that scholar Melissa Harris-Perry describes as, “What It’s Like to Be a Problem.” Harris-Perry states that Trayvon Martin was guilty of being black in presumably restricted public space. Teasing this idea out, Harris-Perry writes that being black in America is a constant awareness of being a problem to others, especially in public spaces. The violent policing of black bodies – whether it’s Jim Crow laws, curfews, stop and frisk laws or by others like George Zimmerman – is consistent throughout America’s racial history, according to Harris-Perry.

Looking beyond the black maleness of the problem that Harris-Perry correctly identifies, the violent policing of immigrant, black, Muslim, Asian, white, Latina, gay/lesbian/transgendered women’s bodies also occur, in public and private ways. One only has to look back at the murder of Tyra, a 25 year-old transgendered woman who was found dead in an abandoned home in Baltimore last year, or remember that veiled Muslim women in the decade since 9/11 have endured public insults as they go about their daily lives.

Shaima Alawadi’s murder is indicative of this. As a Muslim woman clearly identified by her hijab and who was from a country that the U.S. invaded and occupied for nearly 8 years, Shaima Alawadi and many women like her are seen as problematic as terrorists, radicals and oppressed, helpless victims who are prone to the whims of their supposedly terrorist radical husbands. Yet they remain invisible in our national dialogue and narrative about racial justice, equality and violence against women. The lack of intense media scrutiny and national pleas to find Shaima Alwadi’s killer illustrates this invisibility of violence against women. These women embody a racialized and gendered problem in America for those who use Islamophobic insults or physical violence to control them. If Alawadi’s murder is to be seen as a hate crime, then the note left next to her unconscious, beaten body – “go back to your country, you terrorist” – illustrates this.

The lack of intense national scrutiny compared to Trayvon Martin’s murder is perhaps a result of Shaima Alawadi’s beating and eventual death as an event that happened within the home, a private, domestic sphere that has always been associated with a woman’s place. Unlike Trayvon Martin’s murder, which happened outside his home in a semi-public area of his father’s private neighborhood. Add the alleged marital problems Alawadi was having with her husband, claims of her daughter’s unwanted, impending marriage, her own religious and cultural background and the situation surrounding Alawadi’s murder reads as a private, domestic affair (i.e., don’t interfere with other people’s business behind closed doors).

The narrative of Trayvon Martin’s murder reminds us of the worst of our historical and cultural struggle for racial equality as a nation. It’s touched a deep nerve and it’s also a stark reminder that we don’t live in a post-racial world after the election of President Barack Obama. The narrative of Shaima Alawadi’s murder is messier, complicated and less linear in motive and reason. But it underscores a need in our social justice movements (racial, gendered, faith-based, immigrant rights) that we take seriously the violence that occurs to the most marginalized and invisible in our society and incorporate them into our national narrative for equality. They deserve nothing less.


Ha! So great. From Texts from Hillary, on Tumblr.

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Many thanks to the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC for posting this piece I wrote for Rhyme et Reason on their Facebook page!

Rhyme et Reason

Here at Rhyme et Reason, we like our TV shows: Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Dance Moms, Ringer, and Real Housewives come to mind. So, I’m going to add a few more shows to the list that I’ve recently started obsessing over and I think are worthy of watching on Sundays. (Feel free to disagree, dear reader, and comment below!) Get your remotes ready!


Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC  (a.k.a. #Nerdland)

Melissa Harris-Perry is breaking all sorts of barriers on cable TV where mostly white male pundits, journalists and politicians dominate weekend political talk shows, and I love every minute of MHP. A tenured political science professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, Harris-Perry is the first black woman/scholar/feminist to solo-host a major news and politics show on a major network like MSNBC.

The result is two hours of intelligent, respectful and nuanced discussions on a range of topics from the…

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