Women We Read This Week

Rafia Zakaria’s “The War, The Women, and the Vaccine” on Warscapes

If you don’t know Rafia Zakaria yet, you should. She writes from Pakistan, from the front lines of U.S. wars–not the televised ones, the glorified ones starring SEALS and the CIA, but the ones taking place in kitchens and bedrooms, where women and children wait in the searing heat for medical care that will no longer arrive. In this piece Zakaria covers a consequence of Bin Laden’s capture of which few Americans are aware, collateral damage lost in the Zero Dark Thirty narrative of the ultimate bad guy defeated by a powerful American woman: Pakistan’s lady health workers, responsible for distributing the country’s polio vaccine, are being attacked and killed, and the country’s polio program has been shut down. Remember that detail from the thrilling story of the Bin Laden killing? The spy-movie bit about how a lady health worker working for the CIA snuck into the hidden corners of the Bin Laden home to get the DNA that would prove Bin Laden’s whereabouts? Yes, that clever little plot: that put the lady health workers, and the very women and children that American rhetoric so often purports to be fighting for, directly in the crossfire of the war. Polio in Pakistan was near eradication; since Bin Laden’s death, 56 new cases have been reported.

Zakaria makes the brilliant move here of highlighting the irony that Zero Dark Thirty featured a feminist hero, “a good model for the new American woman, a catcher of sinister terrorists.” It never featured the female health worker who risked her life for the CIA, and the American viewers who championed Maya were never informed about the death of an essential, progressive women-run health program for Pakistan’s poorest women and children. This was, after all, not the point: the point was to prevent visible damage, the taking of American lives. And both the movie and the Bin Laden killing were highly successful:

With [Bin Laden’s] killing, something had been achieved. The bad man had been killed, and the next chapter, authored by a shifting pendulum of greater American self-absorption and a disinterest in the affairs of other nations, could now begin.

Laina Richards’ “Tiny Birthday” on 40 towns

This piece is full of careful, heartbreaking little details – the Tootsie Pop wedged between the bananas, the grief-muted exchanges between waiting parents, a hand the size of a nickel. It is one you read with your heart clenched in both empathy and fear; the prose is soft, respectful, elegant, and honest, and doesn’t need to resort to sentimentality to make us care, deeply.

“I would think for a little while that the baby girl, sitting up in her mother’s lap, wide-eyed and alert, was the smallest baby I’ve ever seen, until another mother walked in carrying what looked like a bundle of baby’s clothes. It would take us all a moment before someone whispered, ‘that’s a baby.’”

Richards takes us inside David’s House, where families whose children are receiving care at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital can take up temporary residence. The narrative follows Sarah, the mother of a baby born at 24 weeks and 3 days, as she waits for her son to be released. With admirable subtlety that underscores the intense emotion of this place, Richards explores both the grief and the hope of those making their way through this liminal period away from home. Sarah

Anna Minard’s“When Domestic Violence Becomes a Mass Shooting” in the Stranger

In this piece Minard takes on the incredibly complex issue of domestic violence fatalities and their effects on the greater community. She doesn’t explore the immeasurable effects of trauma but rather the tangible, quantifiable way in which “private” violence seeps into a community–when domestic violence turns into a mass shooting. I pay particular attention to the issue of domestic violence fatalities, as two close family friends were victims, but I admittedly had not heard of the phenomenon. Minard signals that I’m not alone in my ignorance; despite several high-profile incidents and a researched correlation between domestic violence and other types of violent crime, the issue doesn’t gain much attention. By teasing apart some of the reasons and root causes, Minard reveals how domestic violence, still so often considered a personal matter that only affects women, actually has repercussions on greater communities and society at large.

And in case anyone was in need of further proof that this is an important issue that needs more awareness-raising, just look to the misogyny in the comments section. Lauren

Kalpana Narayanan’s “Aviator on the Prowl” in the Boston Review

This story, deep down nitty gritty, is about suicide, but the life-blood of the piece, what gives it force, are the intricate descriptions of food. Not only do I love this story, but I want to eat a nine course meal with the author, one that involves hard and messy foods (crabs, lobsters, snails). Narayanan uses food in ways that are beautiful, grotesque and brutal, strange markers that punctuate a story about loss. The piece is full of small, sharp moments: violence that springs out of a situation involving a bulb of garlic, an almost sexual encounter on top of a box of soft-shell crabs, the desperation of dying crawfish clinging to the edge of a bowl. For me, this piece brings together so well the complexity of violence and the threat of violence, and the ways in which food reminds us of loss, helps us cope with our own empty spaces and provides us with a few unexpected moments of pure joy. Alice

Jill Lepore’s “The Prism,” in The New Yorker

“An extraordinary fuss about eavesdropping started in the spring of 1844,” begins Lepore‘s labyrinthine article, “when Giuseppe Mazzini, and Italian exile in London, became convinced that the British government was opening his mail.” It turns out, they were opening his mail. In fact, it was an organization called the Secret Department of the Post Office. While the events were unfolding, the New York Tribune was watching the case closely, and called the Secret Department’s move “a barbarian breach of honor and decency.” Two months after the affair began, the Secret Department of the Post Office was abolished. “What replaced it,” Lepore writes, “in the long run, was even sneakier: better-kept secrets.”

Lepore chooses to begin with this anecdote because it showcases a point in history where the use of secrecy led to individuals demanding rights for privacy. It’s a piece that examines the relationship between these two: secrecy and privacy. Lepore waxes theologically for a moment, saying that in “the beginning of life,” there was only mystery. Mystery lead to knowledge, which led to understanding. Only once mysteries are understood are they able to be kept secret. Only once secrets are revealed do we need privacy.

“The defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets,” Lepore writes. “In other words, the case for privacy always comes too late.” If this sounds like a heady trip of an article–it is. It seems at first to be a philosophical bender, but it’s really a historical account–from Christian theology, to the Reformation, to the theories of Jeremy Bentham, to the recent N.S.A scandals–of how secrecy and privacy, and the way we define both of those, have evolved in governments, the press, and in individuals’ lives.

The occasion for “The Prism,” is, of course, the recent N.S.A surveillance scandals and the Ed Snowden case, but little is said directly about these current events. “A measure of the distance between the Mazzini affair and the N.S.A. scandal is their wholly different understandings of the nature of the public eye.” As for people now, Lepore says, “There is no longer a public self, even a rhetorical one. There are only lots of people protecting their privacy, while watching themselves, and one another, refracted, endlessly, through a prism of absurd design.” Amanda


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *