Monday, December 20, 2010

in support and solidarity with victims of sexual violence.

*this is the first blog post ever in which I have not posted a picture for you to look at, because I can't think of anything to use that would adequately express my disgust.

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So, being in Siberia-land with slightly sketchy internet and a local newspaper that is well, rather local, I am often a few days late to what’s happening in the rest of the world these days. However, one of the blogs I always make a point of visiting when I have time, and a good connection, is This wondrous compendium of feminist blogging was created by the inimitable Sady Doyle, who for reasons I shall get to in a moment, deserves an amazing amount of praise for what she’s doing right now. More on that later.

If you haven’t heard, basically some stuff’s been happening over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been reading a lot over the past few days getting caught up, from many sources. The aforementioned Sady Doyle has already written it all, unpacked the whole situation very thoroughly and thoughtfully, so if you are not clear on the lies and offences committed by members of various media organizations, Keith Olbermann, and Michael Moore, I suggest you read her well-researched timeline post full of links that dissects said quotes, with various sources given. But first...

What went down:

Basically, there is this thing called WikiLeaks (see Google for more information), of which a man called Julian Assange was the director. WikiLeaks, in short, is an organization that publishes classified or private documents that it gets from news leaks and anonymous sources, because they are all about bringing oppression to light and giving people access to information that governments and other people in power are withholding. So, it's about freedom of speech. Some people thing he is doing good things, others think he is doing more harm than good. This isn't the debate I'm interested in now.

Recently, at the end of November, WikiLeaks began releasing a number of American diplomatic cables, including many that are confidential and secret. This made the American government less than pleased, and many right-wing Americans very, very unhappy. Thus, the US government launched an investigation into Assange.

Now, this past August, two different Swedish women in two different cities brought forth allegations that Assange had raped and molested them. Assange denied these things. At first the case, to my understanding, was put aside for a bit, but then reopened.

When this all broke a couple of weeks ago, a few things happened. One thing is that Assange and his supporters got angry, and began accusing the women of trying to damage his character, and that the whole thing was a plot against him, concocted by right-wingers/the CIA, etc. to punish him for WikiLeaks.

This is when things got really awful. This is when some men who call themselves "liberals", "progressives", people who allegedly care about women's rights, did some really, really abhorrent things. Some men took information from the cases of the Swedish women, and told some lies, which they have refused to acknowledge and apologize for. For example:

Keith Olbermann, an American political commentator and writer, then went on Twitter and posted a link that named and thus endangered the Swedish women (who are now receiving death threats from Assange's supporters). Michael Moore, you know, that dude who is infamously dedicated to exposing oppression and sticking up for the suffering, then decided to laugh about the whole thing, state that this is nothing but a smear against Assange by those who oppose WikiLeaks, and post $20 000 in bail for Assange after the U.K. took him into custody regarding the rape cases.

Here is a thorough and reputable summary of what Assange is up for, if my attempts at a concise summary are not coming through.

Neither Keith Olbermann or Michael Moore has retracted or apologized for these statements. Moore continues to Tweet about Assange, but refuses to engage. (If you want to know more about exactly what he said, or are concerned that he is being misrepresented, here are some highlights.) And therefore, Sady Doyle and her supporters have started a Twitter tag, #MooreandMe, to put pressure on Moore, and to spread awareness of what is going on.

This is the post by Sady Doyle that made me cry, that has made me seethe with anger since I read it. She's being incredibly dedicated and brave, whilst putting herself, another survivor of harassment and assault, at risk. This is why I urge you to support her, spread this information and contribute to this campaign.

These women in Sweden, like many others, have everything to lose, especially against such a powerful person. They are not bringing up charges like this for fun. In a climate in which women are shamed and dismissed for reporting sexual violence, they are risking a lot.

PART TWO. Letter to Michael Moore

I am just sickened by this. I am annoyed by the irresponsible reporting, but absolutely far beyond disgusted by the hypocrisy of Moore, and reckless stupidity of men who just run around posting and publicizing the names of the women accusing Assange of rape. How can they possibly think this is okay? These women are now receiving death threats from Assange’s supporters. How can Michael Moore laugh in the face of all this?

It hurts my brain to see that these apparently well-educated, “progressive” thinkers cannot wrap their privileged little brains around the simple fact that:

a) supporting freedom of speech, herein represented by WikiLeaks; and

b) listening to women who have been victimized and taking their experiences seriously

ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Also, an individual can do a good thing, like promote government transparency and accountability, and also do a horrible thing. Doing one good thing does not mean that we should give them a free pass on the horrible one. I like freedom of speech. I also like taking people who have suffered seriously. Especially when these people are usually told incessantly that their assaults were their fault, and are thus further shamed into silence. This is just one of the many things I am sick of keeping my mouth shut about, sick of biting my tongue until it bleeds.

Right now, the so-called “progressive” left, dominated by the voices of men, is doing all sorts of things that it simply should not do. Things that are disrespectful, and dangerous, & just generally abhorrent. They are contributing to the rape culture we are living in and I will not put up with this.

Keith Olbermann, in response to the "frenzy" of people tweeting at him and asking for an apology and redaction, has shut down his Twitter. And then of course, as mentioned, there's Michael Moore. I have been a little bit disturbed in the past by his general inability to see the shades of grey in any situation, & his tendency to sensationalize, but now I have simply had it with him.

This is a draft of my letter to him (it will be edited before being sent, this is just what I am wanting to say in my head). This is a letter of which he will be receiving a variation of each day until he does what the supporters of #MooreandMe are asking.

So, Mister Moore, your friend Obermann has left Twitter, and dismissed us as a bunch of hysterics. He’s taken his things and gone home with his fingers shoved up his years. But you are different, right? You are constantly calling on people to stand up to those in power in the name of those who are voiceless and defenceless. You are asking us to show our support for the downtrodden, for those who are ignored and forgotten in times of crisis. Where are you now, when all these women and men, both cis- and trans-, who have suffered, and continue to suffer from the aftermath of sexual violence, need your support?

Yes, maybe "WikiLeaks has saved lives", as you Tweeted (Dec. 14th, 9:33pm) but right now, you are helping to ruin the lives of the two women who have brought forth this case, and by refusing to acknowledge the women and men, cis- and trans-, who have suffered sexual violence, you are contributing to the shaming that is an inherent part of rape culture.

You asked once us all in “My Action Plan: 15 Things Any American Can Do Right Now” in regard to making a change in leadership, to: “Get creative. Think outside the politics-as-usual box. BE SUBVERSIVE! Think of that local action no one else has tried. Behave as if your life depended on it. Be bold! Try doing something with reckless abandon. It may just liberate you and your community and your nation.”

Well, we are doing something. Listen to us. I urge you to pay attention to #MooreandMe and what its supporters would like you to acknowledge and understand.

I want to remind you that you can be in support of the right to freedom of speech, this right that Assange is apparently upholding with his work in creating WikiLeaks AND (yes! it’s really true) you can take a stand against rape and sexual violence. You can denounce these things for what they are – crimes. I’m sure that many times in your career you’ve been frustrated by people who won’t take you seriously. Well, guess what. That’s how most people feel after they’ve been sexually assaulted. That they mean nothing, that they are irrelevant, that their traumas can simply be ignored.

You are an extraordinarily rich man, Mister Moore. If you can afford $20 000 to help spring an alleged rapist, you can afford another $20 000 to help people who have suffered or are at risk for suffering by people like him. At the very least, acknowledge us and apologize. Admit your mistakes, and follow your own advice. As I said, we are not going to let this go.


Finally, if you are a close friend of mine who is reading this and were intending to give me something for Christmas, please don’t worry about that. Instead, I encourage you with all my heart to do two things: get informed on this issue right now, and spread the word about #MooreandMe. On Twitter, on Facebook, via email, through any medium whatsoever.

Write a letter to Mister Moore. (, or he has a handy form on his website here.) Send him a reminder of his hypocrisy, tell him you are disappointed with his refusal to acknowledge those who are suffering, and with his refusal to apologize to those he has hurt, and to make the effort to learn a little more about why his “progressiveness” is so very regressive. Tell him that he needs to acknowledge the existence of not only the issue, but the PEOPLE affected by it. Remind him that people are not going to back down on this issue.

And please donate something, any money you can spare, to a charity that helps rape survivors and works to combat sexual violence, or to Sady and those at in honour of rape survivors everywhere, and the work everyone is doing to not let this issue drop and be swept aside. Far too many women I know have had to deal with rape and assault, and I want to honour their survival, I want to support them and those organizations that also provide support.

(If you're looking for something local in Edmonton to support, there's the Sexual Assault Centre at the University of Alberta.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

babushkas, baba yaga, ivan bilibin, etc.

Ivan Bilibin's Vasilisa Carries a Flaming Skull...

I miss my grandmother, my baba. As of the end of November, she's been gone 5 years now, and I still miss her so much, still wish I could be coming home to her this winter to tell her what I've been up to, to show her pictures and tell her stories, to bring her beautiful silver Sakha jewelery and sing songs with her after we finish dinner. I know I will always miss her, but I've been thinking of her especially often lately. Meeting Sakha ebeler (grannies) here -- especially a friend's ebe, who reminds me of my own babusya -- fills me with such a longing.

I've also been thinking about grannies in fairytales and mythology... grannies often play important roles in Sakha tales, & grandmothers in general here are especially revered. The Sakha often do not refer to places by name, rather, in deference and respect they call them 'ebe', or 'ehe'. Rivers, lakes, and places on the land are ebe, grandmother; bears and fires are ehe. If you catch a fish in a lake, that's not a 'fish', or balyk, that's a gift from ebe. And snowy owls, those are khaar ebe, snow grandmothers...

Being in Russia--even though I am in the far East, the non-Slavic part-- has also led me to re-read the fairytales illustrated by Ivan Bilibin (see Vasilisa up there). They are intricate and breathtaking, and just... right, I always feel that sort of rightness and satisfaction when I look at them, as if this is exactly the way something is supposed to be. (I also feel that when I look at the illustrations of Tin Can Forest) They strike some deep aesthetic sensibility in me that never fails to comfort and delight me. Look at them!

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Ivan Bilibin's Baba Yaga in her Mortar and Pestle

But grandmothers! Baba Yaga. The grandmother of all the grandmothers. Sometimes (especially in contemporary retellings) she is portrayed as malignant (a child-devouring, cranky old hag), but at her root, she is neither good nor evil. She's not concerned with such things; she simply is. She helps those who need help, even if that 'help' isn't what they're expecting; she gives you what you need, what you've got coming to you, whether you like it or not.

She dwells on her chicken-legged hut, & flies around in her mortar and pestle... These accoutrements are often said to betray her mixed Slavic-Ugric (Western Siberian, from the Mansi and Khanty people) roots, as huts on similar stilts are used from Eastern Europe to beyond the Urals as storehouses, homes for wooden ancestral idols, and cremation chambers. Often depicted as pointy and bony, with her own avian limbs, she is sometimes seen as the bird-mistress (esp. of magpies!), and an intermediary between worlds. Flying about in a mortar also links her to shamans who travel between the worlds; in many Ukrainian stories I've heard she dwells in a dark wood on the other side of a river of fire (the underworld) but flies up to the treetops to see what's happening, thereby reaching the world of the living. She is associated with both birthing and dying, and she spins (like any good baba!) and weaves lives and fates together; she's an ancestor, warrior, adviser, provider, and caretaker of her forest, She protects those she favours, and is basically not someone you might want to mess with.

Sometimes people have to travel to the underworld for her assistance; this is where my favourite tale comes in. I knew the story first as 'Vasylyna the Wise', but it's also called 'Vasylysa the Beautiful'.Anyway, for a number of reasons, I prefer the 'wise'; so few heroines are ever described as wise or clever, but they are always vaguely referred to as lovely, beautiful, etc. I resent this, and so would Baba Yaga, who is not so concerned with appearances (in fact, in the brilliant book by Dubravka Ugresic 'Baba Yaga Laid an Egg', Baba Yaga is the antithesis of all the sad old women fretting about aging) so my Vasylyna is Wise. Mudra. And here is her story, with illustrations by Bilibin. (please substitute 'beautiful' with 'wise' throughout).

It's not a perfect story, and not how I first heard it, because in it Baba Yaga is pretty crochety and threatening in it, as opposed to simply strict and ambiguous. However, besides including the illustrations of Ivan Bilibin (go & look at more of his pictures!), I like it for the role of the doll Vasilisa's mother gives to her at her death, the doll Vasilisa feeds (much like the treatment of idols in Siberia). Thus, her wisdom comes to her from her ancestors, the spirit of her mother who is always with her, & gives her the bravery and intuition to seek out Baba Yaga (who in this story is pretty cranky, but that's to be expected from the popular tellings). Baba Yaga gets snarky and unfriendly, but Vasilisa persists through her trials and gains knowledge. & there is really nothing better than the illustration of Vasilisa carrying a skull-lantern--the knowledge she earned in Baba Yaga's service--through the forest and using this light (given to her by her mother and Baba Yaga) against her detractors. Baba Yaga and Vasylysa are tough, resilient ladies, & the skull lantern is a potent image for me, one that I come back to in my thoughts especially when dealing with difficult people, especially those of the misogynist variety. Baba Yaga wouldn't put up with that shit, & neither would my own babusya, who is pretty much the toughest person I've known.

Ivan Bilibin's Vasilisa Enters the Forest, Sees the White Rider

Looking at the portrayal of Baba Yaga in the newer tales (as in the last hundred or so years -- not ancient!) as cranky and awful, I am reminded about a difficult truth that I have been noticing in contemporary Ukrainian and Russian society. In short, it seems sometimes as if women are not fully respected unless they are mothers; women who do not have children are seen as extraordinarily pitiful and incomplete even more so than in other countries I've lived in, and a woman who does not want children tends to be seen as particularly suspect, and potentially unstable. So yes, Baba Yaga is a babushka, but she is childless. Thus, she cannot quite be trusted! Also, she's kind of homely. Strike two! Therefore, she must be evil. Sigh.

As thus as a (quite contentedly) homely woman who (very, very happily) intends not to breed, Baba Yaga is especially my friend.