Nora Connor in Guernica

It has been more than a decade since the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, conflicts that have raised complex questions about women’s roles in combat, the effects of military life on women soldiers, and the ongoing struggles of veterans returning home from war. Filmmaker and freelance journalist Nora Connor, who is currently teaching a workshop at BCRW on building a journalistic career, writes about the complex relationship forged between herself as a journalist and one of the subjects of a documentary she produced about substance abuse among returning military veterans. In her account of the lasting connection she made with “Sophie,” a helicopter pilot-veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Connor writes,

After all the work and all the struggles, she was on, she was the one who knew what she was doing, she was the one others would and could rely on. She was making me feel… unwomanly. My own opinions about the specifics of the Iraq war were very far away. I asked something silly, like “What kind of gun is that?” It really got her started. She was a total gearhead.

I realized that this was the essence of what I liked about Sophie. Even though she spoke with passion about combat missions, machine guns, and helicopters—things I would never know with my own hands, much as I faithfully tried to keep pace and take notes—I recognized the love of a thing done well and to its fullest. I could not identify with her particular dreams, but I respected the commitment and the fury with which she pursued them.

The entire article, “Learning to Fly,” appears in a recent issue of Guernica: A Magazine of Art and Politics.

Elizabeth Castelli is the Chair of the Religion Department at Barnard, a member of the BCRW Advisory Board, and the former Acting Director of BCRW.


Muslim Women, Activism, and New Media in Kenya

As a college sophomore and member of technology-educated Generation Y, I tend to believe myself worthy of the title “tech-savvy.” I imagine, in true Millennial style, that I have a pretty strong grasp on media technologies and their potential. Ousseina Alidou‘s conversation on Muslim Women, Activism, and the New Media in Kenya on November 14, brought me down a notch. I understood the ways in which our (American or Western) thoughts could use social media to reach and aide activists on a global scale, but I had spent much less thought on the ways in which social media could not only provide a pre-made discourse for global voices, but also allow them to construct their own. In her lecture and conversation on the topic, Dr. Alidou introduced the role of social media in the development of an alternative modern discourse for the self-representation of Muslim women within both secular and Islamic spheres.

Four young women gathered around a laptop

Of course social media facilitates discourse, that’s what it was created for, after all. We needn’t look very far to see social media’s organizing potential. Only look back to the eruption of the Arab Spring revolutions, and the demonstrations and protests organized through tweets and Facebook posts. Or heck, how many events were you invited to today on Facebook? On small and large scales, social media provides powerful tools to be reckoned with.

Alidou explained that Muslim women tend to bear the brunt of the generally negative imagery of Sub-Saharan Africa. You know the stereotype–the “oppressed Muslim woman,” reduced to only her religion and her sex. Alidou described how African Muslim women can undo this stereotyping by producing an alternative self-representation in various domains, creating “an alternative vision of their reality” that articulates their own stand on their status within their religious and secular communities. Social media and other media technologies provide Muslim women of that silenced part of Africa, the Sub-Saharan region, a voice that may speak louder than the existing victimizing and state-controlled discourses. Rather than executing humanitarian activism from within a defined “legitimate”–and often limiting–mold, Muslim women can forge their own activism.

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Exceptional Conversations about Sexuality

CatalystCon is a three-day conference founded by Dee Dennis with workshops and panels that foster dialogue surrounding all aspects of sexuality and sex-positivity. Its mission is to “spark communication in sexuality, acceptance & activism”, with the belief that knowledge comes first and foremost before activism. Participants, both speakers and attendees, include “sex educators, sexologists, sex workers, writers, activists, and anyone with a passion for creating change.” The conference will be held from March 15-17, 2013, in Washington, D.C and includes sessions that promise to be practical, political, and educational. A few examples include:

  • How to Be an Ally to Sex Workers in Theory and Practice
  • The Online Activist: Ready, Set, TWEET!
  • Slut Shaming in Sex Positive Communities

Registration is open now here, with early bird specials for those who register before Dec. 15. Students also receive a $10 discount, but have to be 18+ to attend.



CATCALLED logo (sketch of letters on top on buildings at street level)

Street harassment is the biggest unlegislated form of violence against women in the world. There is almost no legal recourse against street harassment in public places—a type of harassment that 98 percent of women will face at least once, according to the Harvard Law Review. Part of the reason it’s so hard to legislate against is because it’s so prevalent. Another reason is because the damage it causes is largely invisible.

I have taken self-defense classes, dressed differently, altered my hair and makeup, and changed my habits to avoid street harassment, because street harassment makes me wish I’d never been born. It is the most disempowering experience that I deal with on a regular basis, one that threatens me because of my appearance, vilifies me for my choices, alienates me from my community, and singles me out, over and over again, merely because I am female and in public.

This summer I grew tired of staying silent about street harassment. I along with several talented people created and developed CATCALLED, a project where 11 women anonymously documented their experiences with harassment for two weeks straight. They wrote throughout the summer in New York, and we just launched their day-to-day journals to demonstrate the ubiquitous effect of catcalling. Not just each individual incident, but the prevailing emotional toll, which can last hours, days, months, even years. Our entries are primarily reflective, and often weave in narratives about the participants’ histories, traditions, relationships, and goals.

For example, Participant 1 writes about her experience with her trans* partner in her neighborhood, the Bronx:

We attempt to walk like friends if we’re anywhere outside of lower Manhattan, but when it comes down to it, men notice my partner, with his short hair and men’s clothes and breasts and hairy legs, and they lose their shit. They see a pair of dykes and out come the slurs and glares. The movement of their bodies into our personal space in order to scare us. The balled up fists and spats on the floor. It leaves me angry and full of anxiety, and sometimes feeling a little bit helpless, but I refuse to go back into the closet in order to feed the egos of the insecure, ignorant cowards we call men in our society. I won’t play straight again in my life for anyone.

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