Tuesday, March 19, 2013

An Aberrant Aperture, or, if you prefer, An Incongruous Interlude

Ice Cream and Inequality: The African "Middle Class"

While I continue to contemplate feminist sex (read: I'm procrastinating), I decided to do something different and write a profile of a middle class Guinean family.

In 2011, The African Development Bank issued a report that categorized one third of Africa's billion people as "middle class". Now, for a little perspective, they defined "middle class" as families making between $2 and $20 a day. This large range is necessary in part because of the wide variations in economic prosperity across the African continent. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a terrible indicator of wealth or even economic productivity, especially for the "less developed" world, because it does not incorporate the informal economy, inequality, nor, perhaps most importantly, distinguish between resource income (such as oil revenues, for which the profits are concentrated in the hands of a few) and agriculture/service/manufacturing sectors.  However, to illustrate Africa's economic diversity, note the following GDPs per capita:

  • South Africa- $8,070
  • Côte d'Ivoire- $1,195
  • Guinea- $498

(It's $48,112 in the US, by the way; All data 2011, World Bank.)

Skipping hastily over the two-dozen economic debates about how to interpret this data, the bottom line is that some African countries have a lot more rich or middle class people than others, as is illustrated on the second page of this excellent report on the rise of the African middle class.

Since critique of everything is the only way to go, I'll remark here that the narrative of the rising middle class and "Africa Rising" (thank you, The Economist, and TIME) is a lionization of capitalist values. Just like the ongoing Western obsession with India and China's economies, the focus is not on the increasing inequality, persistent deficits in social and political liberties, ongoing human rights abuses or impunity of governments, nor the environmental, health, and social challenges of massive urbanization. African countries are getting richer, African people have more money, and the Western world is very excited that all these people are going to buy things. I am not saying that the growth of the Indian, Chinese, or various African economies is a myth nor negative. What I needed to express is that it is a flawed narrative, and that one must recognize that it is a narrative that places monetary wealth and capacity to consume as the ideal or goal of development; which it most certainly, unequivocally, should not be. 

Perhaps this has come off as too negative for the introduction to a post which in fact is meant to celebrate the middle class in an African country. Of course, I am willing to stifle my critiques for the purposes of appreciating that at least Africa is not being painted as war-torn, starving, nor disease-ridden by "Africa Rising", though I can't help but protest the continued generalization of 54 countries across a incomprehensibly diverse continent. There is a very important point, which is relevant in Africa as much as in China or the United States: ownership of a cellphone, color TV, refrigerator, or even motor vehicle do NOT give you political rights, access to health care, gender parity, racial or ethnic equality, nor the guarantee of social mobility and financial security for your children. 

Guinea is not a country with a blossoming middle class like its neighbor Senegal, for example. The majority of this country's 10 million people still practice subsistence farming, less than half of Guinean women are literate, despite a very low HIV/AIDS prevalence rate (less than 2%) live-expectancy is 54 years, more than 90% Guinean women have undergone female genital mutilation, and the main source of economic growth in Guinea at the moment is the foreign-controlled mining industry. With Guinea also undergoing a fractured and yet-to-be successful democratic transition, there is a lot of fodder for pessimism.

Conakry, Guinea
About a ten minute walk from my apartment in Conakry there is a little shop that sells soft-serve ice cream. I was drawn to the hand-painted sign with an ice cream cone like a bee to honey while walking around my neighborhood. I have since become a regular, and have spent quite a bit of time talking to the family that owns the shop. I'll change names for the sake of privacy, but I thought it would do those less familiar with the "African middle class" phenomenon some good to know about them.

Mariama is the owner of the shop. Her name is painted on the sign outside, and she is always the one conversing with customers. She is well educated, she speaks perfect French, decent English, and the three major local languages: Soussou, Pular, and Malinke. She and her husband, Alpha, rent the shop and a small house behind it, where they live with their daughter and son. I've never asked what the rent is, but based on my knowledge of housing costs here, I'd wager it's about $150 dollars a month. Before you think that's low, note that the average salary of a security guard in Conakry is approximately $200 a year.

Mariama and Alpha both keep up with global affairs. We've discussed Guinean, Malian, EU, and American politics. Alpha stayed up to listen to the 2012 US presidential election results on the radio, and the next day he told me he hoped President Obama would do more for Africa in his second term. Mariama has tried to convince me to cook more by explaining (what she considers) simple recipes to me, and when I sit on the front stoop of the shop in the evenings, I talk to their 13 year old daughter, Hadia about what she is learning in school, the Rhianna songs that she likes to dance to, and, of course, how much we love ice cream. When I'm laughing or chatting with them, I don't feel like there is some huge class divide. But there is.

With a salary that is less than half the American average, I'm among the richest people in this country. I went to university and graduate school, I own a car in the States, and I spent over $2000 to come home over the winter break. Mariama and her family have a small generator to keep goods refrigerated, an air-conditioner in their bedroom, and, of course, an ice cream making machine, but they can't afford a car, nor the costs of traveling out of the capital to visit family more than once or twice a year. Mariama, Alpha, and Hadia have cell phones (their son is too young for one), and Alpha has an email address that he checks occasionally from an internet cafe down the road, but they do not have health insurance (yes, it exists here in Guinea, and is quite good if you have it!) and are worried about their financial future.

Hadia is in the top of her seventh grade class and she spends hours every night doing her homework, but Mariama has told me she doubts they'll be able to save enough money to help either her or her brother pay university fees, so she really is hoping Hadia gets a scholarship. The Guinean students I teach at an international school here are certainly not all rich; many are on scholarships, but there is no conceivable way that Alpha and Mariama could afford (even reduced) tuition at my school for either of their children.

Soccer Match in Cotonou, Benin
The African middle class is very diverse, both within countries and across the continent. They own small plots of land and build their own houses, usually on the outskirts of cities, or they rent places for $50-$300 a month; they run small businesses or work salaried jobs; they send their children to school and follow current events; they go to soccer (football) games and concerts of local artists; sometimes they own cars, generators, and TVs, and sometimes they don't. The middle class may be growing, but what they are not is anywhere near the economic, social, or political position of the "middle class" in the Western world. In fact, "an elite of about 100,000 Africans had a collective net worth of 60% of the continent's gross domestic product in 2008", which even manages to make the gaping inequality of Americans that the OWS movement highlighted seem a little less evil. To make matters worse, with the exception of South Africa and Egypt, most African countries have very limited manufacturing sectors, so even the consumption that has arisen from the wealthy or middle class does little to initiate a cycle of economic growth, because most of what they buy is imported. Read past the titles of the articles and you'll find the picture not as rosy as it first seemed.

Mariama and Alpha consider themselves very lucky in their situation, and they've both worked hard for what they've accomplished. They are nothing like the negative image of impoverished Africans that was once (and perhaps among some still is) so common in the West. They harbor no religious or ethnic prejudices, they don't have a dozen children then can't afford to feed, they are not suffering, and they don't beg for charity. They are neither very rich nor very poor, and therefore are middle class. So, the next time you hear about Africa Rising, make sure you take a moment to smile about the prospect of millions of people being lifted out of poverty (none too soon) and the nascent beginnings of a bright future for middle class Africans like Mariama, but also remember that distinction as "middle class" is not the equivalent of human dignity, and that the great majority of the world cannot even begin to access the privileged position that most people reading this blog (and certainly its author) hold.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Framing and Re-Framing Feminist Sex, Part I

Picture via http://www.feministfightback.org.uk/

What is, in theory, feminist sex? 

Feminist sex is egalitarian sex, because the term "feminism" is actually a synonym for "egalitarian". For women, feminist sex is sex when, where, and with whomever she chooses, so long as it is consensual. So, should a woman choose to wait until marriage and have sex only for the purposes of procreation, as long as it is the woman's choice and not something imposed upon her by her family or society, she is having feminist sex. If a woman chooses to have multiple sexual partners in non-monogamous relationships, as long as it is her choice and she is not doing it because her society has imposed a standard by which women must have a lot of non-monogamous sex to be respected or valuable, she is having feminist sex. If a woman pushes or bullies a man into having sex with her when he is not comfortable with it, that is not feminist sex, that is rape. (Let's remember that, for the moment, we are in the realm of theory, with the assumption of agency of individuals.) 

Feminist sex is sex-positive, because sex-positivity promotes no legal or social prohibitions on consensual sexual behavior, but it is also grounded in main-stream moral values, because it empowers women to take control of their own sexual behaviors and practices based on how they feel or what they feel is right. Feminist sex is about masturbation and orgasm, about abstinence and procreation, about bi-sexual, homosexual, or trans-sexual encounters, about heterosexuality, about marriage and other partnerships, and everything in between

Why then, does feminist sex need to be framed and/or re-framed?

It seems to me that many people, including women, have the perception that feminism promotes promiscuity and liberal sexuality and rejects monogamy and chastity as products of oppression of and weakness on the part of women, OR that feminism involves some kind of rejection of men and sex with men as not just unnecessary for pleasure, but also enfeebling for women. The idea for this post has been swirling around in my head for a while, but the impetus for actually writing it came from a hash tag that was trending on Twitter this week. “#TellAFeministThankYou” may have been begun by some well-meaning person, but by the time I became aware of it, a vast number of tweets using the hash tag were anti-feminist vitriol and ignorance.

Since including pictures of tweets appears to be something I do, here are some examples.

(Also, these people have thousands of followers combined, and are only a small drop in the sea of these types of tweets.)

How is this possible? What massive message failure has feminism made? 

I am certainly not the first to deplore the fact that much of popular media and even education in the United States (and, let’s be honest, the world) has elected to simply movements, ideas, and issues into sound-byte-friendly generalizations, but the problem is not just that, as mentioned in my previous post, people are capable of greater understanding than is oft expected, but that subtlety and nuance need not be complicated nor esoteric; many simple concepts are mischaracterized under the guise of simplification to serve a political purpose.

News about feminism lately has seemed to consist of Slut Walks, topless Femen, and Sandra Fluke's desire for free birth control so she can have state-sponsored sex (that last one to be read with the utmost facetious ire). All of these are examples of women fighting for control of their bodies, against sexual violence enacted on women, and for reproductive rights. Slut Walks are not supporting the idea of women having non-monogamous sex or dressing provocatively. The activists of Femen may be topless, but their purpose is to oppose the commodification and objectification of the female body and sexuality. Sandra Fluke was actually talking about access to birth control as a health issue, and there was nothing in her statement to Congress that promoted non-monogamous or extramarital sex. But that is not the message that was transmitted.

A hypothetical young woman, whether she be Iranian, Salvadorian, Ivorian, or North Carolinian, could hear these stories and perceive feminists telling her she should be proud to be a "slut", her qualms against baring her breasts are part of her oppression, and that she should take birth control. Without thorough inquiry into these issues, or with only a cursory understanding, a woman might feel that feminism requires a liberal sexuality that, in reality, most women in the world (including the West, and including non-religious women) do not identify with.

Allow me to provide some framing.

Feminism is not chiefly a movement that seeks to a. elevate women above men, b. encourage women to adopt male-gendered attitudes and roles, or c. force women to work outside the home, forgo marriage or children, be aggressive, and engage in sex outside of marriage or monogamous relationships. That said, feminism is also NOT a monolith, but is in fact very diverse with factions and debates within its ideological community.

For example, after what is known as "Second Wave" or  "Radical" feminism of Europe and the US mid-20th century, when feminism was perceived as limiting women's freedom by forcing a new concept of female identity that rejected traditional roles on women, feminists altered their message to one of choice and acceptance of difference among women. This new feminism, with strong currents of equality to choose one's gender-identity and behavior (no matter what your sex), is known as "Third Wave" feminism.

Far from unified, however, Third Wave feminist advocates have continued to debate points of both theory and practice, and no such debate is as significant as the critique of Western feminism by women of the developing world. The most prominent contributor to the "Third World" feminist conversation is Chandra Mohanty. Mohanty called attention to the lack of relevance Western feminism has for the less economically developed societies of the world, and the imperialism that is present in rich Western women seeing themselves as a promoting "civilization" by forcing Western cultural values on what they see as a uniform "other" of non-Western women. Feminists around the world have responded to Mohanty's and others' critiques by bringing consideration and critique of culture itself into the fold.

Culture is such a dangerous topic, because it is neither uniform within society nor particularly clear in its delineation. Culture is always constructed, sometimes purposefully for an intent that serves the producers, and yet culture can command people’s hearts entirely. In the context of women’s rights, culture is used to defend practices such as the promotion of a certain body-type or demeanor in the United States, of domestic violence and female genital mutilation in Guinea, and of son-preference in India. It begs the question, can culture be wrong? And, if so, can culture be changed from the outside? An Iranian woman dare not tell a French woman that she should not get breast-implants and a Slovenian woman dare not tell a Zambian woman that she should use birth control.  Can any woman tell any other woman that they way that she behaves sexually or practices (or not) sex is wrong?!?

Where does one draw the line between "right" cultural practices and "wrong" ones? Are we capable of critiquing our own culture effectively? Is cultural critique inherently imperialist?

While I do not even begin to think I have the answers to these popular philosophical inquiries (and I will address a post on the very subject later), in part II of this post, I will attempt to metaphorically wrap my head around how culture can be reconciled with feminist sex, therefore re-framing feminist sex to address these cultural concerns. 

...To be continued! 

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Mess that is Mali

Mali is a mess; that has been the headline for months. The mess, however, is more than just that extremist militants have expanded their power and conquered cities in the north of the country while a military coup has collapsed over twenty years of democratic rule and brought the government in Bamako to a standstill. The mess is one of both ideological quagmire and ineffectual practical proposals. 

Ideologically, there are the dueling forces of humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights and the ever-present specter of Françafrique and neocolonialism. Practically, there are a whole bunch of bad options, with no viable possibility truly providing a solution that leads to peace, unity, and democracy in Mali.

Now, after nearly a year of inaction on anyone’s part but extremist militants, the French government has begun airstrikes to weaken strongholds in the north, while ECOWAS troops from Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Senegal, and Burkina Faso prepare for a ground invasion. For those who have been following the situation in Mali and understand the history of French military excursions in Africa, the feelings surrounding these developments are far from simple.

For those of you not familiar with what is going on, some background. (If you are, skip down several paragraphs.)

Mali is a one of the poorest countries in the world, and is a former French colony in West Africa. While prior to colonialism, several great empires encompassed southern and central Mali (and neighboring countries) the north-east of Mali is very much in the Sahara desert, and has never hosted a centralized or even unified political entity. There are many ethnic groups and peoples in northern Mali, among which are the Tuaregs, traditionally nomadic herders, traders, and craftsmen, who have been Islamic since the 9th century. 

There are tensions between the Tuareg peoples and other ethnic groups in the north with the Malian government in Bamako, the capital in the south, and there have been numerous Tuareg and other rebellions in the north since Malian independence from France in 1960. (Before you ask, no, this is not a Muslim v. Christian thing like people simplify the conflicts in Nigeria or Sudan to be, because, in the first place, the southern part of Mali is Muslim too.) In 2006, the most recent agreement was made between the Tuaregs and Bamako, in theory offering north eastern Mali some autonomy. In practice, the southern government has never truly controlled the north.

The catalyst for the current iteration of the conflict was the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, which sent an influx of advanced weaponry and fighters into the hands of two particular groups, Al Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM), which has long operated in northern Mali, and in the last decade has become infamous for kidnapping westerners, and Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group. AQIM co-opted other groups, including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) into their rapid take-over of many northern and central Malian towns (such as the famed Timbuktu) over the past year, which gave them a façade of legitimacy which has since dissolved.

I must note here that I have a major problem labeling AQIM and Ansar Dine “Islamist” groups, as the media has so oft done, because as a resident in a Muslim country, the teacher of mostly Muslim students, and someone who has studied Islam, there is nothing Islamic about what these people advocate or do. They are extremist militants, and just like every other group in history that has claimed to act in the name of a religion while grotesquely perverting everything that religion stands for, they should not be given the pleasure or respect of being labeled what they misrepresent.

In April of last year (2012), there was a military coup in Bamako during which the democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) was ousted. The stated reason for the coup was the military’s dissatisfaction with the lack of resources the government had provided for the military campaign in the north.

So why is Mali all of a sudden in the news? On January 11th, a French military campaign began bombing targets in the north in order to weaken the extremist militants in preparation for an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led ground invasion. The French government claims the mission is one of national security and humanitarian interests, and is not a continuation of Françafrique, which is a policy of French political, economic, military, and ideological influence in Africa that has manifested in everything from Francophone African leaders receiving their educations in France, former French colonies maintaining colonial-style trade patterns with the “mother country”, France propping up dictators across Africa as long as those dictators adhere to French interests, and France further extending its social, cultural, and political hegemony over Francophone Africa in recent decades through media control and the (more than) occasional military campaign (See, most recently, Cote d’Ivoire (2011) and Chad(2010)).

Alright, so back to why this is not such a simple story of the West swooping in to stop those radical terrorists and save the poor, weak citizens of a less-developed country…

On the one hand, these extremists have been terrorizing the populations they have conquered, imposing medieval laws, cutting off limbs, blatantly abusing human rights, and are ultimately causing a massive humanitarian crisis. There is no reasonable narrative in which AQIM and Ansar Dine (the two groups primarily responsible for the military take-over of towns and land from Timbuktu to as far south as Konna, dangerously close to the capital, Bamako) are "good guys" or "freedom fighters" for the state of Azawad, whose actual advocates were co-opted by these extremists for their ideologically vacant cause. The government in Bamako, of little legitimacy as it may be, did ask the French for assistance, as the Malian army has proved to be completely incapable of driving out these extremist militants. It is not wrong that so many in Africa and abroad are cheering the French and ECOWAS intervention in the name of humanitarianism. A post from a Malian on Twitter on January 12 read:

Translation: “My neighbor, an old Malian soldier of WWII, says that he is proud to have fought the Germans to defend France. He is very affected/emotional today.”

It all seems very sweet. Another tweet read:

And while I, as a former and perhaps continuing student of political science am all too aware, two tweets does not constitute a sample upon which any conclusions can be made, I would like to simply enter these as evidence to a phenomenon that, should one choose to find ample evidence from social and news media, would become readily apparent.

However, to see this simply as "France, in this operation, does not pursue any interest other than saving a friendly country," as French President Holland said in a statement announcing the action, is to be blind to France's role in the region and naive with regard to international relations.

One may rightly accuse any ideological inquiry as being privileged and ignorant of the conditions on the ground, in which real people are actually suffering and dying as a result of the cruel policies of the extremist militants in northern Mali, and yet ideology is what fuels so many players' actions, and a critique of the ideological could potentially lead to a more long-term solution to the very real violence that any practical solution would only ameliorate momentarily.

Mali is barely viable as a state. The southern government has never had real control of the territory north of Timbuktu- not in the pre-colonial imperial era, not during French colonialism, not during the post-colonial dictatorship, and not during the recent democratic era. In terms of state penetration of society and capacity to dictate law and policy, the government has had, at best, a loose agreement with the north. ATT's government, prior to the 2012 coup, had granted some autonomy to the region for this very reason.

Therefore, should the combination of French airstrikes and ECOWAS ground troops succeed in driving out the militants who currently occupy northern Mali, the liberation of Gao and Timbuktu will likely be sustainable, but there will be nothing in this military campaign that actually solves the weak or non-existent state situation in the northern region, especially considering it will not be Malian troops themselves that conquer the territory. That land and those people will continue to lack a sense of loyalty to Bamako, economic prospects, or political voice, and the conditions that enabled an influx of arms from the fallen Libyan regime to fuel a full-scale rebellion in the region and the empowerment of extremist militants will continue to exist.

So the French airstrikes and ECOWAS troops save some lives (while causing a hell of a lot of casualties and refugees in the process) and maybe, just maybe, even train Malian troops and provide some funding so that any gains will not immediately be lost. What then? The very fact that the French were called on to intervene, as they have many times across Africa, is a testament to the continued dependency of Mali on France.

And so we come to the debate on Françafrique, which is where I might actually have something different to contribute than can be found on every single news outlet’s website.

Françafrique is not dead, but neither has it been static. If Françafrique is defined as, simply, French economic, political, and cultural intervention in Africa for the preservation of its hegemony in the region, it continues in full force, though not in the flagrant way it did in the past. What changed? The values and norms of the French people and the international community are no longer such that obvious public support of villainous dictators (as was the case with Zaire’s Mobutu, Cote d’Ivoire’s Houphouet Boigny, and Chad’s Habré, to name a few) is considered “socially acceptable”. While support of undemocratic or violent regimes or actors may continue, it does so much more discretely, and often with a well constructed veil of pretext. 

One of the reasons why Françafrique has been prematurely buried is that it has often been simplified into military or economic terms (even though French economic interests still overwhelm Francophone Africa, despite all the talk of China’s takeover of the continent; look at any data of trade balances for the region for confirmation). Françafrique is the manifestation of dependency theory in Francophone Africa. Dependency theory, an international relations explanatory construct of the Marxist variety, contends that elites in the developed world co-opt elites in the developing world to form a system in which the majority of the people of the developing countries are working in industries tailored for the economic needs of said developed countries, thus continuing the colonial system, while the developing countries’ elites are able to stay in power through the support of elites in the developed world, all the while helping to exploit their own people.

Here, let me draw you a diagram:

 Maybe that helps.

This is still the case, though less so with the entrance of other players, except that there was ALWAYS another element to the Françafrique model- one that the less-established international relations school of neo-Gramscian theory accounts for quite accurately. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who, during the early 20th century, wrote a great deal about the power of ideas and hegemony. Neo-Gramscians have taken his work and applied it to how ideas and ideology develop hegemonic status and can be movers in the international system. One of the many relevant aspects of neo-Gramscian theory to Françafrique is the element of ideological cooptation that must occur. The people who are being exploited and oppressed must somehow buy into the idea of French superiority, in this case, for the hegemonic regime of French culture, political, and economic power to continue.

Do the people in Francophone Africa, generally, buy it? You bet they do, or, at least, more than you’d imagine. Having lived and traveled across West Africa in particular for years, it has always astonished me how many people, especially those less educated, still suffer from the “colonized-complex” that African leaders and intellectuals from Sekou Touré (the first president of Guinea, and a really atrocious leader if not a gifted orator) to Frantz Fanon spoke about sixty years ago. The number of people that actually seem to believe they are inferior to the French (or British, or Americans) in some way makes me ill. (In less circumstantial evidence, the Afrobarometer survey in 2011 showed overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards France in Francophone Africa and immigration to France from its former colonies has been steadily increasing.) But what are they supposed to think, when, in Francophone countries, most of the high quality products, the military rescues, the media, the election planning, and the revered cultural and social phenomena come from France?!?

Also, France desires the continuation of its hegemony in Africa, not because it is absolutely dependent upon economic ties, not because instability or violence in African states is a major threat to its national security, and not simply out of the goodness of its huge heart, but because it must maintain a position of power on the world stage to feed the ego of nationalism. Again, for some Gramsci, the French state is not completely separate but is thoroughly entwined with its people and their desires, and the interests of French civil society and the state are not ones of mere economic or political arithmetic, but ones completely infused with ideology.

When NATO intervened in the Libyan conflict, there were some that hailed the prevention of slaughter in Benghazi and the swifter end of a bloody conflict, and others who decried the violation of sovereignty and neoimperial actions that, were the country in question not in the developing world, would be unheard of. I felt both. Now, with the French intervention in Mali, just as with the French intervention in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, I feel equally torn. This is the continuation of a constantly evolving Françafrique system, and will not only fail to fix the underlying problems in Mali and the Saharan states (that’s a whole other issue of state viability), but will perpetuate Françafrique through continued dependency on France and views of France as savior rather than partner. However, a real humanitarian crisis is ongoing in Mali, and, if one believes in some idea of the moral good (as I do), it is good for these extremist militants to be defeated, and would be bad for them to expand or even continue their terrorist acts on the Malian people.

This is not an easy position, just as neither is the congruent conundrum of Syria, or of any international intervention by the developed world into the developing. I guess I just wish there were a bit more acknowledgement of the complexity in the nightly news…such as this article from the BBC endeavors to do, but in an American society where most people don’t know where Mali is and are perhaps likely to believe that the “Islamists” the French are fighting are typical Muslims, complexity is probably just too much to ask for.

A few of the articles on the current situation that I've read:

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