Category Archives: Sofie Ejdrup Larsen

Gender fluidity is the new black

Jens Dresling
BY WINNING THIS year’s Eurovision Song Contest Conchita Wurst did not only put gender at the top of the agenda. The triumph of the 25-year-old Austrian drag act makes way for a – for some – new concept; gender fluidity.

Social anthropologists along with sociologists and other scholars doing research on gender have for years argued that gender should be perceived as a spectrum rather than a static category.

According to the Executive Director of Gender Spectrum, Stephanie Hill, it is necessary to distinguish between sex and gender. While sex is biological and includes physical attributions, gender is the complex interrelationship between one’s physical traits and one’s internal sense of self as male, female, both or neither as well as one’s outward presentations and behavior related to that perception. In short, gender is a social spectrum and thus way more complicated than the category of the biological sex.

Wurst’s real name is Tom Neuwirth. When Tom puts on eyelashes and wick he becomes his female persona and is referred to as “she”. In other words, Wurst is a clue to what gender fluidity might look like in practice.

While Putin and his administration continue to express homophobic views and put forward anti-gay policies, it seems like Europe is moving in a more liberal direction, making way for a broader understanding of gender and identity. 

Collecting the trophy on stage Wurst said: “This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are — we are unity and we are unstoppable.”

After her victory Wurst told reporters that she felt Europe had taken a stand by voting her the winner. No doubt her triumph shows progress in liberal attitudes among Europeans. Wurst added that she hopes gay, lesbian, bi and transgender people around the world are getting stronger in their fight for human rights.

While Putin and his administration continue to express homophobic views and put forward anti-gay policies, it seems like Europe is moving in a more liberal direction, making way for a broader understanding of gender and identity.

Now, let us celebrate the triumph of Wurst. A triumph of tolerance.

 

By Sofie Ejdrup Larsen
Photo Credit Jens Dresling

Strikes end, exploitation continues, workers rise

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Yue Yuen factory workers’ strike is identified by media and commentators as one of the biggest workers movements that took place in China in recent years. Cherie Chan explains the significance of the strike and its impact on the Chinese labour movement.

Last month, an estimated 40,000 factory workers in Dongguan – a city in Guangong Province of China – went on strike against Yue Yuen shoe factory, a supplier to many international brands of sport shoes such as Nike and Adidas. Striking workers complained that the Taiwanese-owned factory underpaid their pension contributions and social insurance. Workers also claimed that Yue Yuen treated them as temporary employees instead of permanent employees to evade a large amount of contributions it is obliged to pay for them.

 

Ineffective law enforcement

According to Labour Law in China, employers are obliged to pay for 11% of workers’ total salary as contribution for their social insurance, which

exploitation and inequality persists

exploitation and inequality persists

covers five areas including retirement pension, medical insurance, work-injury insurance, unemployment insurance and maternity insurance. A lot of factories in China, however, do not comply with the regulations. A Hong Kong based newspaper, Wen Wei Po reported that Yue Yuen have been applying temporary employment terms to pay for workers’ social insurance, as a result the contributions workers received from the company is 10 times less than what they are entitled to.

 

Yue Yuen Company is only one of the many foreign invested factories that underpay and abuse Chinese workers. Exploitation of Chinese labour first gained international attention in 2010, when 14 employees committed suicide in the Taiwanese-owned factory Foxconn, which is the largest electronics manufacture with customers including Apple, Dell and HP. Facing international pressure for the commitment of workers rights, Foxconn promised to raise workers salaries and improve their living conditions in the company’s residence, in order to reclaim the company’s image.

 

Lack of independent labour unions

Unlike many other western countries, Chinese workers have no representative labour unions to rely on. It is illegal to form any independent labour

unions in China, therefore the only authority workers can seek help from is labour unions managed and controlled by the government. Members of these official labour unions are not elected by workers, and they tend to forsake workers’ rights and collude with business owners in order to attract foreign investment. Worse still, local authorities and police often defend manufacturers’ interest for the sake of maintaining social stability. They thus repress any forms of workers movement by using arms and forces. The labour group, Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) reported that in Yue Yuen workers’ strike, the local authority engaged with the company by sending several hundred police to suppress the strike. CLB reported that around ten protestors were arrested during the strike. Four workers were also beaten up by local police.

 

According to a report conducted by China Labour Bulletin (CLB), a Hong Kong based NGO that promotes the rights of workers in China, 1,171 workers strikes and protests took place between June 2011 and December 2013. The number is obtained from official media coverage, so the actual number is possibly higher.

 

Suppression against labour rights groups by authority

workers unite (weibo)

workers unite (weibo)

The significant upsurge of Chinese workers’ movements in recent years unveils the dark side behind the prosperity of this economic giant, which was

hard hit by global economic crisis. Due to a decreasing demand for consumer goods, many manufacturers have to lower the cost of production to maintain profits. Some have to relocate their factories to places with lower labour cost such as Cambodia and Bangladesh. Some cannot survive through the economic downturn and succumb to closure. These failed manufacture often underpay workers an adequate amount of compensation and some even flee their factories without paying. Meanwhile, the remaining ones use legal loopholes as a way to lower the labour cost.

The lack of effective and independent labour unions encouraged the formation of non-government labour rights group, such as Chungfeng Labour Dispute Service, which provided legal assistance to the Yue Yuen striking workers. The government, however, uses various means to crack down these non-governmental rights groups. It is reported that Lin Dong and Zhang Zhiru, members of Chungfeng Labour Dispute Service and labour rights advocates, were detained by police during Yue Yuen strike.

According to the official announcement by Yue Yuen factory, the strike has already been settled last week and most workers resumed work after the company has promised to reimburse workers all the amount of underpaid insurance by 2015. However, media have suspected that the strike was ceased forcibly by police force instead of being settled with comprise between the two sides.

 

The rise of awareness of labour rights

Though being suppressed by the local authority, Yue Yuen workers’ strike exemplifies an increasing workers unity in China. According to media report, the number of worker participants increased from 1,000 on 5 April to over 40,000 within a week. The scale and efficiency of the movement is remarkable, considering that it was not organized by any effective labour unions. According to CWI, workers made use of social messaging groups to communicate and exchange information about the movement. Despite of censorship that hinders coverage of the movement by traditional media, labour groups and activists reported the stories by using the Chinese social media and platforms such as Weibo.

It is still uncertain whether workers in Yue Yuen factory would be able to get back their promised pensions and insurance. However, the strike is a successful labour movement as it has gained international media coverage and demonstrated a rising labour power. It is a heads-up to both Chinese labour, foreign-invested manufacture and the Chinese government.

Beijing should recognize that suppression is no longer an effective way to settle labour disputes in China. Foreign-invested manufacture, on the other hand, should establish efficient dialogues with workers and respect workers’ rights, which is the basic business ethics they should comply with.

Photos: Sofie Ejdrup Larsen, and Weibo.com

Israel: An Army of Kids

During the last 60 years of conflicts and wars, the Israeli military has gained a significant position in Israeli society. As Sofie Ejdrup Larsen explores many Israelis have come to perceive the military as an inevitable part of their youth.

In November 2012, the conflict broke out between Israel and Hamas once more. For about a week rockets were fired, bombs were dropped, and as a result more than 150 civilians lost their lives.

This time, the violence was triggered by an increased number of rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas into southern Israel, killing 3 Israelis. In response, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched ‘Operation Pillar of Defence’ attacking Gaza in an air offensive and killing Hamas militant chief, Ahmen al-Jabaar. This only lead to further attacks; Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were, for the first time in more than 20 years, targets of Hamas’ rockets. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to this with more aggression, calling in 30.000 soldiers from the reserve force in a ground offensive. A few days later, as the Hamas continued firing rockets into Israeli territory, an additional 45.000 soldiers were demanded to the borders of Gaza. An Israeli invasion of Gaza was alarmingly close to becoming a reality.

Called to the front
It was about this time I got a disturbing message from my Israeli friend, Ori: He had been called to the front. Like any other citizen of Israel, Ori had to serve in the military for three years after graduating from high school. As a soldier in the Engineering Corps he specialized in bombs and mines; disarming, planting, detonating etc. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, known as ‘the Gaza War’, he was stationed in Gaza for some weeks. Back then, the Gaza War was sparked off by rockets fired from Gaza into Israel. The IDF answered with attacks on targets in Gaza; the Palestinian militant groups continued firing rockets; the Israeli forces increased their attacks, and so on. Sounds familiar? After three weeks of this, the madness finally came to an end. Under international pressure, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire and  Hamas followed suit shortly after.

Today, four years after he finished his military service, Ori is 25 years old and studies Geometry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, southern Israel. A few days before the IDF called him in, he and I had been writing back and forth on Facebook, since I wanted to know whether he was alright. Raised in Ashdod and currently living in Beersheba, Ori is quite used to the rockets. Both cities are relatively close to Gaza and especially Ashdod is often a target of Hamas. When I asked him how he was doing, he replied: “I am ok, chilling at the bomb shelter and having a beer… All will be good if I don’t get called to the reserves…” He described how quiet the university campus had become since the rocket fire had increased and called Beersheba a ‘ghost town’. Friday morning the 16 November, a very short message from Ori was in my inbox; “They called. Wish me luck.”

‘Doing One’s Duty’
I met Ori last year while carrying out a fieldwork in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Four other anthropology students and I travelled around the country for a month doing interviews, visiting military bases, and recording a short ethnographic film. All of this in the attempt of understanding how young Israelis combine ‘being young’, while serving in the military for several years – most of them in their teens.

After graduating from high school, all 18-year old, Jewish citizens must enter the IDF, unless they are occupied with fulltime religious studies. Women serve for two years and men for three years. After this, all men and some women become part of the reserve troops and are called in for training 3-5 weeks a year until they turn 55. This is why the IDF could suddenly phoned Ori, demanding him to get to the border of Gaza immediately.

Since everybody has to do it, doing one’s military service is generally perceived as a ‘collective duty’ by the Israelis and has become a more or less integrated part of most people’s lives. Like one of our informants, a soldier in the Marine Corps, stated: “I feel like it’s my turn to watch over the other’s backs. They did it for me then, now it’s my turn. I can defend myself with my gun, but how are the old people gonna defend themselves?”.

The institution of the IDF is characterized by a complex hierarchy. Most posts of higher rank are possessed by soldiers serving their military service selected to do a ‘commander course’. This way, a 19-year old can have the rank of a commander and be responsible for platoons of as many as 200 people. Above the commanders are the officers; soldiers that have chosen to serve an additional year, often in their early 20’s. One of Ori’s flatmates put it this way: “Your officer and commander is one year older than you. The army, you can say, is run by kids”.

Creating a nation 

Due to the massive immigration of Jews from all over the world throughout the last century, the population of Israel is characterized by a large amount of heterogeneity. In the army everyone wears the same uniform and obeys the same rules, no matter what social background one has. This way, social and cultural differences are less obvious and instead a feeling of equality is created. The IDF helps integrate different groups of people and to some extend ‘shapes’ them. Surveys show that most people leave the military more right-wing than they were before entering.

In short, the military is deeply rooted in the Israeli society and understood as an integrated part of life and self-conception for the majority of the Israelis. It functions to homogenize a highly multi-cultural population , ‘shapes’ the Israeli youth, generation after generation, and by doing this transforms the people of Israel into one nation with a common mission: Protecting Israeli citizens and preserving the Israeli state.

Truce
Last November, truce negotiations took place in Cairo. In the presence of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, representatives from Palestine and Israel finally talked in diplomatic ways and decided on ceasefire. An actual war was once again averted and Ori has returned home to Beersheba to continue his studies. At least for now.

After more than 60 years of fighting, peace seems like a utopian dream for both Israelis and Palestinians. With the support of the radical, orthodox Jewish minority, Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government continue the aggressive military strategy launched by Ben-Gurion back in the 1930’s.

An army of kids is indeed convenient in times of war.

When Women Buy Love

When speaking about prostitution, women are usually perceived as the victims and men as the buyers. However, the relations between European women and local men in West Africa are challenging this common assumption. Sofie Ejrup Larsen translates from Copenhagen’s Uniavisen for Pandeia

‘True’, ‘real love’ and ‘magic’: often those were the words European women used when describing their intimate relations to local men in Gambia. As a part of a research on women’s use of ‘sex tourism’ in the developing countries, as Marie Bruvik Heinskou describes in her account of the interviews she conducted for Copenhagen student newspaper Uniavisen.

The Gambian men, on the other hand, used less romantic words. Instead they expressed their wishes to leave Gambia, get rich, and immigrate to Europe by marrying a European woman. According to the men, it was far more easy and pleasant to have sex and romance with a European woman than buying an expensive ticket to one of the already packed boats departing from the capital,Banjul, and facing an uncertain future as an illegal immigrant in Europe.While the men emphasized the instrumental reasons for creating sexual and romantic relations to the European women, the women emphasized the authentic feelings of love.

Love letters via Western Union

This type of intimate relation between women from the global North and men from the global South in Gambia are not unique. Sex tourism is a studied phenomenon that goes on in many other developing countries as well. These intimate relationships open up for new transnational marriages and migration. At the same time, large money-transaction companies such as Western Union are keeping the romantic pot boiling by assisting the monthly money transfers from one part to the other when the couples are apart. The global inequality creates new markets for sexual meetings, migrations and money streams.

These transactions are significant sources of income for poor countries such as Gambia. However, current research tends to primarily focus on women as sex workers and sex migrants. The fact that men use intimacy as an access card to a new world is even more underexposed, as is the perception of women as ‘prostitution customers’.

Traditionally in sociological theory it is often assumed that the economic superior become the powerful part in transactional sexual relationships.

However an increasing number of sociologists are challenging this assumption. Still the question about ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’ is more complicated. The terms limit the understanding of what is really going on; this is both normatively and also in relation to the gendered narratives which men and women respectively use when trying to explain what is happening. In response to this, the international research on the topic has developed the notion ‘transactional sexual relation’ during the recent years. The notion of ‘transactionality’ is used as a more empiric, accurate term and a less theoretical, predetermined term than ‘prostitution’ and ‘sex work’, since the emphasis is on the fact that both parts of the relationship have the ability to act, though in a shifting relationship of dominance.

‘Our love is not like everybody else’s’

Desire, gender and economy is interlinked in unclear ways and it is not constructive to force a one-sided perspective that only focuses on hierarch and dichotomy; where one part is suppressed. Furthermore, the relations are emotional. A Swedish woman explained:

“Our love is not like everybody else’s. Our love is real love. A lot of men here [in Gambia] get money from their women. My boyfriend has never asked me of anything. All that I give him comes from my heart.”

And as a Gambian man explained:

“Feelings are feelings, there is no difference. If I touch your body, you will get a feeling and it is the same feeling, if you touched my body.”

The statements above indicate that the relations between the European women and Gambian men demand emotional involvement from both sides. Also, the money is part of a bodily practice. It comes, so to say, from ‘the heart’. In any case, ‘the heart’ becomes a metaphor for that part of the relationship which indicates the material and economic exchange – it becomes a sort of ‘charity’.

This way, the economy is transformed from being merely a ‘transaction’ to being a significant factor in a romantic process. The money, the things, the food are indicators of ‘the real’. This turns around the assumption commonly used when interpreting intimacy mixed with money. In spite of the men’s more goal-oriented economic intentions with the relationship and the women’s more direct sexual desire for the men, none of the parties can deny feelings of care and loyalty. This bond would normally be defined as ‘sex tourism’. This is often overlooked when men from the North travel as ‘sex tourists’ to the South. Perhaps this is because the narratives, the stories we expect of the sexes, of men and women, is embedded in the way we research the field of gender and sexuality.

However, the gender as a meta-principle for an analysis of the phenomenon seems to have less validity than other ‘principles’. For both Nordic men and women as customers, the ‘paid-for romance’ is characterized the same way: short sexual/intimate relationships, sustained by material goods (e.g. shoes, mobile phones, food or similar) or money. Also, the prize is often not decided beforehand and in some cases the relationship continues long distance with regular economic transactions.

Hence the question of whether the relationships are authentic or instrumental is not spot on. This is in spite of the Western understanding that legitimate intimate relationships are based on ‘authenticity’. The way the European women are so politically correct in speaking about their relationship is challenged in the encounter with different cultural understandings.

Towards a constructive debate 

Combining love and money is considered legitimate in large parts of Africa. For instance, a common marriage tradition involves dowry. However, the exploitation aspect and global inequality is not irrelevant. But the scope of focus must be on the exploitation of migrants: migrants doing a wide range of work and not just ‘sex work’. This would benefit the debate. If we absolutely have to use the term ‘trafficking’, it must be understood in a broader way in relation to both men and women and many ways of working. This would help illustrate the links between migration, work, power, and exchange. This way, neither sexuality nor intimacy is demonised. Thus we can focus on the actual challenges in the global market economy. Economic crisis and poverty, social commitment and solidarity, environment and Human Rights – these are just a few of the pressuring issues that make people want to travel transnationally.

Original article written by Marie Bruvik Heinskou