Just Words

This morning I was watching the US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that unsurprisingly covered the just a few day earlier published tape revealing Trump’s comments on kissing unwilling women and groping them between their legs. As if his words on the tape weren’t bad enough, showing how he thinks as a star he can do anything to women, but his self-claimed “apology” was even worst.

“Just words”. “Locker room talk”.

I can only imagine how insulting and painful listening to such lame excuses is for rape-victims as it’s already humiliating to every feeling human being.

The world has always belonged to white, privileged  men and admittedly far worse things have been said and done. But one would expect a lot more from a US presidential candidate. Even if the person is Trump. A lot more. How about an honest apology, without excuses?

Fortunately in today’s world such talk is less tolerated. Women have grown more confident and know to demand respect. Many men are also standing up to support women and their drive for equality in all aspects. Social media spreads the word, demands for justice.

What made me truly flip with this so called apology or excuse, was the reference to “just words”. Words hurt. Words cause harm. Words are powerful tools.

I was bullied in school and have now spent over 20 years recovering from that time, from those words. It was “just words”, but they weren’t just words to me. Those words caused pain and misery and self-doubt and keep affecting me still this day. I am living a happy life, know how to appear confident and have built a self-esteem, but those words from 20+ years ago will always haunt me. It’s been a long journey of recovery and self-discovery and I’m proud to be who I am today, of how far I’ve come despite the words that tried to prevent me.

“Just words and locker room talk” takes us back to the same old “boys are boys” excuses that violated women have always had to hear, always had to endure and overcome. Women, and men for that matter, have come a long way in our long hard journey towards equality, and I can’t stand another white privileged male trying to rip all those achievements away and take us back to the beginning.

Words are not just words. And joking about a rape or any form of physical assault is not funny. Not in a locker room, no where. Not ever.

And Trump, you claiming that “no one has more respect for women” than you – that is “just words”, without a meaning, without any content, without any justification behind them. I haven’t seen any action to prove otherwise, either.

 

 

 

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Can Race Matter?

A few months ago I wrote about my bewilderment on Brunei’s immigration asking about my race upon entering the country. That text has since become my most viewed blog posting, raising interest on the question of race, and on its relevance.

I discussed the question with an Indian friend, to whom “race” is a much clearer topic and present in her everyday life. She’s used to replying to it as she has that question posed to her in plenty of occasions. Living in Singapore however, it’s not perceived a discriminating question but a matter of fact. Same as asking for one’s gender or age.

My friend is right about Singapore attempting to positively be a mixed-race nation. All different, all equal, all mixed up. Singapore asks for the race of people moving in to the country, to ensure they have a nice balance and mixture of races within. They developed an Ethnic Integration Policy in 1989, “to promote racial integration and harmony in Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates”

Yet, there’s a clear difference between race and ethnicity. One can only have one race, and is born to it. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is associated with culture and one can have multiple ethnic identities.

Singapore has achieved a population where people identify themselves as ethnic Singaporeans, with multiple races such as Malays, Indians and Chinese. At its best the achievement is appreciation and conservation of different cultural heritages, while being open and accepting of others.

Although asking for one’s race can be meant for good purposes, I’m still torn with it’s negative connotations. In an ideal world everyone would be color-blind what comes to races but the reality is that race just isn’t a neutral topic. When race matters, racism will arise.

I’m supportive of any attempts to preserve cultures and respect and appreciate different ethnic backgrounds for their historical, cultural and identity values. But I can not support categorizing people, and especially not where there might be the slightest connotation for different values for different people. We were not born equal in terms of opportunities and capacities, but all human beings were born with equal value as a human being. No matter their race, ethnicity, gender etc.

I dream of a world where race doesn’t matter. If again asked of mine, I’ll thankfully borrow one from the commentator newmanTheHuman, and write down “Human”.

 

Athletes, who happen to be women

The Rio olympics have raised a lot of social media discussion on sexism and the way women’s achievements are reported and generally spoken of. The media still diminishes the achievements of female athletes – consistently. American Corey Cogdell-Unrein, who won bronze in the trap shooting, was in the press coverage referred to only in relation to her famous husband. Another athlete’s husband-coach was credited by a reporter to be responsible for her performance. Another gold medalist with a world record was a secondary news under a male silver-medalist from the same day.

In the Finnish media, the focus in the past days has been on the woman who’s the only medalist for us so far. A boxer with a story. She had only been training boxing for the fun of it, until at the ripe age of 28 and with 2 kids, her coach awoke her passion and she started taking the sport seriously. Disturbing was to see comments on her story undermining the stunning achievement, and the sarcastic requests to highlight men who are fathers as well. Of course mother and fatherhood are equally important but when talking about athletes, becoming a mother is a completely different challenge than becoming a father. Yet, it seems it’s not clear to all that a woman’s achievement and success story could for once be featured in media, instead of that of a man’s.

And what on earth is all this talk about women athletes hair-dos and make-up? Honestly it’s horrible that female athletes have to compete in their looks as well, as if that was more important than their actual performance. I’ve heard reporters in Rio have been actually having discussions on the gymnastics make-ups?

I’m glad the global sporting event is gaining attention to gender roles and equality, and hope the discussions continue past the games and beyond sports. Because in pretty much every field in life women are still lesser-valued than men.

In my current job, as we organize large international conferences, gender equality is a difficult topic. Namely, when inviting speakers our team wants to achieve full gender balance but struggles event after event in achieving the target. We have a certain level of seniority as a guideline for accepting a speaker, and it’s clearly how there are far fewer women in such roles than there are men. There are of course many brilliant women and excellent public speakers as well, but still too few to easily achieve 50-50 speaker balance from both genders. Only panels where all invited organizations / companies straight-forwardly nominate women are panels where gender equality or women empowerment is being discussed. And these are panels where we desperately want men to speak in.

At least, as Rio reporting failures and the responses to those are showing, world is slowly waking up to this. It’s no longer acceptable and “passable” to diminish women’s achievements or give the credit of their success to the men in their lives. Social media, keep it up. We all have a role to play – it ‘s never a funny joke to be sexist.

 

 

 

What’s My Race?

imageIt was a tough question, in all it’s apparent simplicity. “Race”. That’s what the Brunei immigration authorities wanted to know, in the arrival card.

We were 3 women, with Finnish, Australian and English passports. All of us were first rolling our eyes on this question, then laughing it off, before moving on to philosophizing on the need of the immigration in Brunei to know our race. One of my friends wrote down “white?”. Another wanted to write “I’m not competitive” and hope the joke gets understood. Me, I was just confused and anxious.

Honestly I’m not even sure what my race is. More importantly, why should I know what race I’m of and why should I care? Nationality makes practical sense but race? In an arrival card, even if it’s only for statistical purposes, shouldn’t the nationality suffice? The more I think of this the more questions come up in my head.

I can’t think of one good reason for that question and I’m juggling between being anxious, mad and sad. Classifying people with such definitions means dividing us, because a word as race has automatically a negative connotation to it. It doesn’t indicate an interest to understand one’s background or heritage, but a category one should “belong to”. But people can’t be categorized by qualities which we have no control over. Neither is there any point in dividing people into some invisible boxes and expecting them to fit in.

No one needs to know what race I’m of. Not even me. And I’m not going to ask you for yours because I don’t care. There are many things I’m interested in learning about other people, and there are many things I’m happy to share about me. Race, that’s not one of them.

Panama, Should We Care?

Panama. Besides the Panama Canal, hands up who knew anything about this country before the leakage of the global tax-avoiders? The country in between the South and North America, has really received their 15 minutes of fame this week. Panama papers put Iceland’s PM out of job, shook the trust of law abiding Nordic citizens to their banks (Nordea Bank being exposed to having provided assistance for companies to avoid paying taxes) and shot the spotlight again to FIFA, etc.

Shocking. Rich people are trying to avoid paying taxes. Multinational companies wanting to optimize theirs. Politicians hiding their shareholdings.

Call me cynical but with these news I shrugged my shoulders and continued living my life. I’m a realist. Of course I dream of a perfect world but I’m not living in a bubble. I live in Asia so that might have hardened me further to tolerate corruption – what else can you do? In Southeast Asia half the newspaper coverage goes to corruption stories.

Corruption, so what. Who cares? Recent statistics from Russia revealed that 75% of the population think their government is corrupt and most said there’s nothing to do about it. That’s just the way is.

But it shouldn’t be. We should care and certainly should take action against corruption. Why? Because the world should be more like Robin Hood, take from rich to the poor. Not the other way around.

It’s always the rich who can benefit from these grey areas. An everyday Joe will never have the means to optimize his tax duties, a start-up can’t play around with its HQ locations and business models. Importantly, not only can’t the regular law-abiding people and companies not take use of “grey area” benefits, but they are also the biggest losers in the game. They need the governments to function in a fair way, providing quality education opportunities, healthcare, infrastructure.

Corruption should not be tolerated. The world is not fair but we need to fight for it anyways. I’ll try to remember my own advise next time I’m driving in Vietnam if the traffic cop pulls me over.

 

 

 

 

The Hell in a Paradise

Last friday I came across an article written by Imrana Jalal, originally posted as an ADB blog, about the acceptance of violence against women, by women. In her text she explains how 81% of women in East-Timor believe that husbands have a right to beat their wives. Women, thinking that violence against women is acceptable. That a husband, beating his wife, is not necessarily doing wrong.

I’ve been dwelling on this all weekend long and it still makes me sick in stomach and gets tears in my eyes.

It’s a custom, how things always have been. Husband on East-Timor have always been beating their wives, and daughters are brought up in that environment. Where there’s no alternative model existing, the traditions are not questioned.

Jalal writes about other examples in the Pacific Islands as well, showcasing how small island nations without much influence from outside can develop extremely unequally. Many developed nations also have high violence rates, often domestic too, but what really struck me with the Pacific island statistics was the fact that women find the beatings justified, acceptable.

That can only be changed by education. A new model needs to be introduced – for men to learn non-violent ways of expressing themselves and for women to understand their equal worth. Children need to be taught that violence is never an answer and never acceptable. The understanding of how violence is never acceptable, can’t be taken for granted. It needs to be taught.

I do believe behavioral patterns can be changed and wish the report on these horrifying statistics enables international organizations to introduce education programs in the Pacific Islands. Changing the mindset of people won’t happen overnight but it can be achieved. There certainly is an urgency and need for trying. I hope the next generation won’t grow up in accepting a fist on a face as an argument.

Will We Ever Learn

Over lunch with my Chilean-German and Cambodian colleagues, we started discussing world politics, racism, refugee history and humanism. Not a light lunch. We are all equally shocked, devastated and often at loss with words in talking about the state of the world.

I well remember my first trip to Cambodia, my visit to the dreadful Killing fields and the encounters with the survivors. Being of such recent history, the country’s survival skills have astonished me, the friendliness of the people humbled me. You don’t need to seek out survivors – everyone alive is one. Those many years ago, focusing on the stories of those who didn’t survive, I remember wondering why other countries didn’t interfere, why such disaster was allowed.

In Germany too, the past is still present. It’s present in the silence. Germany has moved on, become unified and a respected European leader. The past is observed with a humble silence, being something too embarrassing to talk about. Quite rightly, people of today want to rub off the weight of their ancestor’s actions and not be associated with something they had no part in.

Chile I’ve only visited once, but the country left a lasting mark. I met nothing but friendly people (one guy came to warn me once that I had been followed so should take caution – I did and never met the person who apparently had an interest in my back bag) despite the massive language barrier (I even struggled finding a loo. I should learn Spanish). Pinochet must have destroyed many families, hearts and hopes, yet a regular traveler encounters nothing but optimism and friendliness.

We didn’t discuss any of the above over the lunch. The past of these countries, and of many others, is so painfully obvious and well-known to us. What’s rather more interesting to discuss, is the fact that we have learned nothing. We as the human kind. We, because we the people of the world are all on the same boat. Which is leaking. And whereas we should all be working together to fix it, we’re rather spending our time on trying to find reasons to not like the person sitting next to us on the bench.

It’s shocking that despite the many genocides, world wars, tyrannies etc that the world has gone through, we keep turning inwards and distancing ourselves from those in need of help. The current refugee wave hitting Europe, is splitting the people into two frontiers. Trump is achieving that in the US on his own. There are those who want to help, and those who spit on the helpers and worst, hit on those needing help.

When I visit a place where nightmares were a reality once, and meet people who survived times which I suffer even reading and hearing about, my first thought is, never again. I don’t understand why such massacres had to happen but I do understand that it can’t be allowed to happen again. Until it does. Time after time I turn my desperate gaze to people and plead them to be shocked and devastated, need them to want to make the madness stop. But more often than not, the response is the opposite. A cold shoulder at best, a direct attack and refusal to help at worst. I’m desperate when I read about attacks against the refugees, be it by individuals or the governing bodies. I’m shocked beyond imagination of the level of social media discussions where “normal people” are mocking and insulting those in need of urgent help. Even children.

Who are we? What kind of people are we if we can’t care for others? What kind of a person would literally kick a desperate person already lying on the ground? I don’t blame anyone for not taking direct action to help, but to actually attack those who already are under an attack? What’s left of humanity if people make entertainment out of people’s despair?

Do educated people in developed countries really require a code of conduct, telling them specifically that when you see someone being bullied, help the victim, don’t join the bullies? If you see someone stumbling and falling, give a hand, and don’t push him further. When someone is starving, give them food and don’t sit down with your pop-corns and amuse yourself watching them die. When a person escapes a war-zone, having experienced torture and fear for the life of the loved ones, open your arms and don’t go burn the shelter they’ve been given. Seriously?

Stop being a bully. Start being a good person. You don’t need to try and save the world, but don’t add to the misery either. We were all born equal, we were all born humans. By spreading love, not hate, the world could still have hope. Humans could win back humanity.