Monthly Archives: February 2015

Brief History of Western Influence in the Middle East

The 16 countries of the Middle East were part of the huge Ottoman Empire that ruled for 400 years. The Oghuz Turks founded their empire in 1453 with the conquest of Constantinople—the capital, later called Istanbul. The Turkish-speaking Sultan was the head of Muslims, called a Caliphate, and head of the imperial harem. Christians were second-class citizens. During its peak in the 16th and 17th centuries, the empire controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North African and the Horn of Africa. It dissolved after World War 1 when it sided with the Germans. The British (Iraq and Palestine), and French (Syria and Lebanon) moved in to fill the vacuum, partitioning parts of the Middle East between them. The boundaries weren’t based on logical geographical but rather arbitrary lines, not a good foundation for stability. Ibn Saud created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. In 1948 Israel was established, resulting in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, followed by many others.

The US attempted to control the region for the oil, opposed by anti-western regimes in the 1950s and 60s with ideologies of secular Arab socialism. The US competed with the Soviet Union for influence until its dissolution in 1991. With the loss of the Six-Day War with Israel in 1967, militant Muslims tried to assert Arab power and Arab nationalism replaced state socialism in Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq. Shia clerics took control of Iran while the Wahhabi sect of Islam controls Saudi Arabia. Post-Islamism developed as an alternative to undemocratic Islamist movements, such as the Ennhada Party in Tunisia. Since the Persian Gulf War in 1990, the US maintains a permanent military establishment in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. Its influence is not progressive, supporting dictators like Hosni Mubarak–few Middle Eastern countries are democracies. Turkey and Israel are the most prominent exceptions, recently joined by Tunisia.

A major influence on the Middle East was the discovery of world’s largest oil reserves in Persia in 1908, in Arabia in 1938, and then other Persian Gulf states, plus Libya and Algeria. Oil revenue is controlled by kings and emirs who use it to consolidate their power and inhibit any expansion of the secular democratic model created by Kemal Atatürk in Turkey. Colonial rule discouraged autonomous development and literacy rates in the Middle East remained lower than other developing countries—half the women were illiterate in 1995.[i] A Tunisian activist put the cause of the Arab Spring under one umbrella, “the struggle of the whole south under colonialism.” Another Tunisian mentioned their goal to end “savage capitalism.” Minor protests occurred in Lebanon, Mauitania, Saudi Arabia and the Sudan with little impact except the tens of thousands political prisoners held in deplorably crowded conditions.[ii] The government was also able to keep the lid on lively protests in Iran.

[i] Henry, 2006.

[ii] Alastair Sloan, “Who are the ‘Political Prisoners’ in Saudi and Iran?”, Middle East Monitor, Aril 30, 2014.

Russian Feminists vs. Putin and the Church


Why is Putin so Macho? Valerie Sperling Explains subdues a Siberian tiger! Putin flies a jet fighter! Putin defeats opponents in martial arts! Putin fishes and rides horseback — shirtless!

As Russian President Vladimir Putin consolidated power during his first three terms in office, the media regularly painted him as a macho superhero. The purpose of these displays is to represent Putin as a strong, decisive leader who can be counted upon to solve challenging problems with a convincing mixture of cool levelheadedness and the credible threat to use force as needed. He is portrayed as a masculine leader who is re-masculinizing Russia, after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union.

But “masculinity” is not only about what men do. A male politician’s “manly” image can also be enhanced by portrayals of attractive young women’s support for him. And Putin’s image makers have embraced this tactic.

In 2010, as a gift for Putin’s birthday, twelve female students and alumni of Moscow State University’s prestigious journalism department published a calendar featuring photos of themselves in lingerie, each woman suggesting herself as a potential lover for Putin. “You put the forest fires out, but I’m still burning,” smiled a student illustrating the month of March. In a similar vein, in 2011, an all-female group called “Putin’s Army” announced an “I’ll Rip [it] for Putin” contest via an Internet video clip that ended with a cleavage-boasting young woman ripping open her tank top to demonstrate her dedication to Putin.

That same month, a bikini car wash took place in Moscow in Putin’s honor, where scantily-clad young women from the “I really do like Putin” group volunteered to wash Russian-made cars for free. It appears that Putin’s Army and the “I really do like Putin” group may not have been spontaneous manifestations of support for Putin. Kremlin-sponsored youth group, Nashi, reportedly funded Putin’s Army along with a range of other pro-Putin web projects, according to emails allegedly hacked by a group calling itself the Russian arm of Anonymous. Unsurprisingly, this has not been confirmed by the Kremlin.

In 2011, Putin’s Army continued its activity by filming a video for Putin’s birthday. Promising that their birthday gift would be “the sweetest,” a handful of women wearing only underpants and white button-down shirts were shown baking their idol a chocolate birthday cake (decorated with a heart) while squirting whipped cream into their mouths.

In early October 2012, the United Russia party’s youth wing, Young Guard, produced a video featuring attractive young women mimicking a variety of Putin’s “manly” exploits. The video upheld Putin’s image as a highly desirable man from the standpoint of the women, who grew giddy at the prospect of seeing him in person.

“A male politician’s ‘manly’ image can also be enhanced by portrayals of attractive young women’s support for him.”


The latest “spontaneous” outpouring of love for Putin from a female fan appeared on YouTube in late January 2015 in the form of a new song by Mashani, a Russian female singer from Novosibirsk. The catchy pop tune, “My Putin” (Moi Putin), lauds Putin for his fearless ability to face the “war that threatens on all fronts” and for his willingness to “challenge” those who stand in the way of his goals. In the music video, a tall slender woman with ribbons in her long hair wears a tricolor dress patterned after the Russian flag and proclaims her delight that Putin has taken Crimea, and — more surprisingly — that he’s going to “revive the Union.”

She is also shown in a blue-and-yellow dress — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — looking alarmed and sad, trapped inside a bombed-out brick building, seeking help from Putin. The chorus, which she sings in the guise of both “Ukraine” and “Russia,” in her different outfits, brings together Putin’s machismo in foreign policy and his appeal as a man. Her lyrics:

You’re Putin.
I want to be with you.
I’m calling after you.
My Putin, my dear Putin,
Take me with you.

Such examples show how female sexuality has been used in the service of male political authority in Putin’s Russia. Pro-Kremlin activists have mobilized female sexuality in various ways to show Putin’s desirability both as a man and as a state leader.

Another means of mobilizing gender stereotypes in politics is to undermine opponents by questioning their manliness. In one such instance, in 2011, a pro-Putin youth group named “Stal'” (Steel) went out in Moscow with a petition asking people to have the prosecutor’s office investigate charges that the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov had been raped while serving a 15-day jail sentence for participating in an opposition rally. The group had no evidence that such abuse occurred. With this rather unsubtle example of political sleight-of-hand, Stal’ in effect “accused” Nemtsov of being the victim of sexual abuse and thus of being insufficiently “masculine” to fend off attackers (or perhaps, even being a willing participant in gay male sex).

“Putin is portrayed as a masculine leader who is re-masculinizing Russia, after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union.”


Putin also used homophobia to confront the masses of protestors who flooded Moscow’s streets objecting to widespread fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011. During Putin’s annual call-in TV show in 2011, Putin jested that he thought the protestors’ white ribbons (which stood for clean elections) looked like condoms and that perhaps the vast crowd of protestors were actually AIDS activists. His remarks were intended to paint the protestors as gay, thereby rendering them objects of ridicule in the context of Russian state-sponsored homophobia.

Similar tactics appear in foreign policy when gender-related imprecations are lobbed against world leaders. Putin, for example, used homophobic terms to dismiss Georgia’s Rose Revolution (a democratizing effort in 2003), when he responded to a reporter’s question about Georgia by saying, “A rose revolution — next they’ll come up with a light blue one!” In Russian, “light blue” is slang for “gay male.” Putin’s ally in that conflict, the president of South Ossetia, likewise remarked about Georgia’s president, “Saakashvili is far from having democratic values — not to speak of male ones — he doesn’t have any of those at all.”

An emblematic example of this approach of putting down the “masculinity” of your foreign opponents appeared in the Twittersphere in 2014. Just after the U.S. imposed a new round of sanctions on Russia, and in the wake of the shooting down of Flight MH-17 in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted out a pair of photos side by side. One showed Putin holding and petting a leopard, while the other depicted Barack Obama holding and cuddling a white poodle. The caption read, “We have different values and different allies.”

“When ‘masculinity’ is at stake at home or abroad, especially in armed conflicts, we had all best be aware of it before urging our politicians on to victory over the other team.”


Such tactics are by no means unique to Russia. Interviewed on Fox News in March 2014, Sarah Palin compared Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin in gendered terms. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” she said. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” Palin went on to condemn Obama for his “weak leadership” and inability to understand “peace through strength.” In so doing, Palin was criticizing the President by questioning his manliness in conjunction with his policy choices.

When political actors wield gender norms this way, they are wrangling over the ownership and attribution of masculinity and femininity, and over the masculine strength and power of leaders. Painting a male leader as being “feminine” — that is, as being insufficiently strong and insufficiently “masculine” — undermines his authority in a way that’s easy for people raised on sexist and homophobic stereotypes, as most of us are, to grasp.

Tough, “manly” leaders are typically perceived as being best able to handle a crisis. And this paves the way for the escalation of conflicts, like the one in Ukraine. It enables the macho dictum that “You don’t back down” to prevail. When ‘masculinity’ is at stake at home or abroad, especially in armed conflicts, we had all best be aware of it before urging our politicians on to victory over the other team.

Sexism Increasing in China

Leta Hong Fincher maintains that sexism in China has gotten worse in a retreat from gender equality espoused by the Communist Party when Chairman Mao said “Women hold up half the sky.” She observes that most Chinese believe that men belong outside and women inside the home.[1] However, a woman’s movement exists in the form of feminists who organize unregistered grassroots women’s rights groups.[2] Registered groups such as the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing can’t work on their own but must work in alignment with the All-China’s Women’s Federation (established in 1949).

Some of the underground leaderless groups use performance art to make their statements to cloak the political content, such as “Li Maizi” and other radical lesbian feminist university students and friends who organized a performance in Beijing in 2012. They wore white wedding gowns splattered with red paint to protest domestic violence and carried posters saying “Violence is right beside you. Why are you silent?” They posted photos on their Weibo pages where Li Maizi has thousands of followers, although she said the people who comment on Weibo are mostly men. Like FEMEN and SlutWalk demonstrators, they used their bare torsos, in this case, splashed with red paint to collect 10,000 signatures to lobby for legislation to penalize domestic violence. In the “Bald Sisters” campaign they shaved their heads in a variety of cities to protest quotas giving men an advantage in university admission ”to protect the national interest,” now that women score higher on entrance exams.

Hong Fincher noted that many of the most committed feminists are lesbians, which used to be considered a mental illness and a “hooligan crime.” Some feminists occupied men’s toilets to advocate more public toilets for women. “Occupy men’s toilets” was blocked on the main social media site Sina Weibo and bloggers sites frequently get hacked. Police pressure university administrators, employers, landlords and family members to pressure activists to be silent and often invite them to drink tea, meaning be interrogated by police. Although women villagers also organize against corrupt officials, activists complained that western media ignores them.

Another step backward is the campaign to get women to value getting married and having a child above career advancement, to avoid being the dreaded “leftover women” who are still single in their late 20s. Employers are allowed to openly discriminate, as in their ads stating that only men or attractive young women should apply. Women are encouraged by government agencies such as the Women’s Federation to not be too picky in their choice of a husband, although there’s a shortage of marriage-age women. Single men are called “bare branches” and are often poor and uneducated. The government believes “harmonious society” depends on harmonious family as the state is obsessed with maintaining stability when hundreds of thousands of protests occur each year. The Party is also worried about the surplus of men caused by the one-child policy. A Xinha News editorial reposted on the Women’s Federation website encouraged women whose husbands were having an affair, a common issue, to “Try changing your hairstyle or your fashion.”[3] They also said there are three genders in China: men, women, and women with Ph.D.” In 2013, the Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily disparaged “leftover women” because “single, highly educated and well-paid as they may be, they are the ones who are left behind.”[4] Local branches of the Women’s Federation arrange matchmaking events for “high-quality” women who will produce quality children. Hong Fincher doesn’t paint a hopeful picture for Chinese women.

[1] Leta Hong Fincher. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Zed Books, 2014, p. 38.

[2] Leta Hong Fincher. Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China. Zed Books, 2014, Chapter 6.

[3] Ibid, p. 20.

[4] Ibid., p. 41.

Cubans Aim to Create A New Consciousness

Cuba’s socialism is a sharp contrast to US capitalism. When I traveled there on an educational tour with my son, the only ads we saw were political ones, like posters of Che Guevara. Blogger Yoani Sanchez relates how the Castro government aimed to create a new person, non-competitve, thinking about the good of the proletariat, as in Russia and China during their earlier periods of efforts to apply Marxist-Leninist ideals, and Scandinavia today. She blogged,


For Cubans of my generation, longing for success was a terrible ideological deviation—not only longing to stand out personally, but professionally and economically. We were raised to be humble, and if we received any kind of recognition, we were taught to emphasize that we could not have achieved it without the help of our comrades. . . . Competitiveness was punished with accusations very difficult to expunge from our dossiers, accusations such as “self-sufficient” or “immodest.” Success must be—or seen to be—shared, the fruit of everyone’s labors under the wise direction of the Party. . . . We hid material possessions to show that we were all children of a self-sacrificing proletariat, and that we detested the bourgeoisie.[i]


Without the ads’ emphasis on model’s touched up bodies, women were comfortable with their bodies, ample women showing off their curves in spandex pants. We rented a very simple apartment from a family in Havana. They told us that Americans have a lot more possessions than they do (my son traded T-shirts with a Cuban boy and saw that he only owned a couple of shirts), but they take time to enjoy family, dancing, music, and the beach. Every town we went to had a Music House supported by the government with wonderful salsa dancers—my dance lessons paid off. The negative side is the lack of freedom of speech with political prisoners in jail and limits on entrepreneurship. We saw our unlicensed taxi driver get questioned by the police for his illegal business. The police also asked for the residency papers of a young man with dreadlocks who came up to talk to my son to try to sell him marijuana.

Few Cubans have access to the Internet. Yoani Sanchez is the best known opposition blogger. In May 2014 she launched an independent news outlet with other journalists, which was quickly hacked by authorities directing Cubans to a page criticizing her. She blogged, “How can a citizen protect himself from a State that has the police, the courts, the Rapid Response Brigades, the mass media. . . .?” She compiled her blogs in Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today (2011).[ii] Most Cubans can’t afford the $4.50 an hour charge to use Internet at a café. Viewers outside of Cuba can read the blogs: Sanchez has more than 600,000 Twitter followers. Journalist and blogger Sandra Abd’Allah-Alvarez Ramirez is a black feminist who reported, “There are voices of feminist women, but not a feminist movement.” As elsewhere, “There is a lot of ignorance around the word ‘feminism’… Even women who defend women’s rights… tend to say “I am not a feminist’ nor would they talk about a movement.”[iii] She attended a concert where a young rapper criticized female subordination but later said, “It’s not like I’m a feminist.”

[i] Yoani Sanchez. Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth About Cuba Today. Melville House, 2009

[ii] English language blog:

The news page with other journalists:

[iii] Carolina Drake, “On Social Media, Cubans Speak Up for Feminism and Racial Justice,” Bitch Media, April 8, 2014.

Charges of US Government Involvement in Recent Uprisings

Some accuse the CIA of being behind many of the recent uprisings by training and funding young leaders. It’s well known that the CIA manipulated regime change around the world; perhaps the best known is the Pinochet coup in Chile[i] and recent USAID efforts to destabilize Cuba with a Twitter-like program. The most recent accusation is that the CIA was involved in an attempted coup against Venezuelan socialist President Madero in 2015. Author Frances Stonor Saunders charged in Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Lectures that the CIA funded the non-communist left since the late 60 through pass-through organizations: the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute, the US Institute of Peace, the Ford Foundation, The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). WikkiLeaks showed that CANVAS was working for Stratfor to destabilize Venezuela.

Charges were made that anti-communist Gene Sharp’s widely used materials on non-violent overthrow are partly funded by the US government, a charge he denies. His Albert Einstein Institute states on the website, “From Dictatorship to Democracy was first published in Burma in 1993. It has since been translated into at least 34 other languages and was used by the campaigns of Serbia’s Otpor, Georgia’s Kmara, Ukraine’s Pora, Kyrgyzstan’s KelKel and Belarus’ Zubr.” Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian governments also used his writings during the breakup of the USSR. Lithuanian Defense Minister Audrius Butkevicius was quoted on the website; “I would rather have this book [Civilian Based Defense] than the nuclear bomb. The Albert Einstein Institution is housed in Sharp’s Boston home, with a small annual budget, and only one assistant– evidence given by those who dismiss changes of working for the CIA.[ii] However, his board of directors has links to the US military or pass-through foundations and he has received funding from CIA-linked foundations and the Defense Department, according to Dr. Stuart Jeanne Bramhall, author of a free ebook 21st Century Revolution.[iii] She next traced CIA involvement in the Arab Spring, pointing to evidence in L’Arabesque Americaine by Ahmed Bensaada, 2011.[iv]

[i] Peeter Kornbluh, “CIA Acknowleddges Ties to Pinochet’s Repression,” The National Security Archive, September 19, 2000.

[ii] Stephen Zunes, “Attacks on Gene Sharp and Albert Einstein Institute Unwarranted,” Huff Post Politics, February 21, 2015.

[iii] Stuart Jeanne Bramhall, “Why the CIA Funds Nonviolence Training,” Dissent Voice, March 13, 2012.

[iv] Stuart Jeanne Bramhall, “The CIA Role in the Arab Spring,” blog, January 18, 2014.

Pussy Riot Sings Against Global Police Violence

Russian punk band Pussy Riot’s first first song and video in English was called “I Can’t Breathe” in reference to the choking death of Eric Garner by a New York City policeman.[i] They wore Russian police uniforms as they gradually were buried to show that police violence is a global problem and that police themselves can be oppressed, as when Russian police are pressured to give false evidence in court. They said the lack of freedom in Russia is a “terrible situation” but they have no plans to leave Moscow.

[i] Jethro Mullen, “Pussy Riot Dedicated New Song ‘I Can’t Breathe’ to Eric Garner,” CNN, February 19, 2015.