Sunday, February 19, 2017


There are three of them: Eike Batista of Brazil, François Fillon of France and of course Donald Trump for the whole world. At first sight, they don’t look like hot calendar guys as they are all past middle age. Physically, they could not be more different. Batista (known as Eike in Brazil) dons a shaved skull; Fillon proudly displays bushy eyebrows and the Donald’s inscrutable comb over hairdo now has a life of its own.

The three come from worlds apart, but scratching the surface one can find many common traits among them. They have oversized egos, yearn for recognition and display obsessive self-aggrandizement bordering on fantasy. They see themselves on a messianic mission to restore their respective nation’s pride. They share the same foes: media and judges. They blame the first for disclosing their shortcomings or too closely scrutinizing their business, and the second for blocking their whims and pet projects. This love-hate relationship with the traditional media stems from being both media creations and media targets. Lastly, they believe that their big shot status gives them divine rights to be above the law and to act like modern carpetbaggers.

They run their large families like small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs) in a very paternalistic fashion. They like their wives sexy, exotic and immigrants; they dote on them for looking pretty and keeping their mouths shut. Machismo is their common trait, either bourgeois patriarchy or nouveau riche crude misogyny. Their brood is less docile and far less discreet, happy to splash daddy’s money or benefits from his social and political privileges. They live in mansions, ostentatiously or discreetly.

Coincidentally, they all believe that they can deal with President Putin of Russia.

Eike Batista (60) may not be a household name outside Brazil, but he is a favorite of business magazines. His, is a riches to rags story. He is the brash and flamboyant guy who lost US$ 34.5 billion in 2013 when his mostly oil conglomerate went burst. He makes the Guinness book of record for suffering the largest and quickest corporate collapse of all time. A year before, according to Forbes magazine, he was the seventh richest man in the world and the richest Brazilian with a lavish lifestyle to match. He liked to be photographed with his Lamborghini and Porsche parked in his living room. In January, he flew to New York City, allegedly to avoid arrest but decided to return. Now, his hair shaved courtesy of the jail barber, he is sharing a cell with common criminals in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He stands accused of paying US$ 16.5 million in bribes to a former governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, who is also in jail. For good measure, he is also charged with money laundering and insider trading. His cozy relationship with corrupt politicians explains his meteoric rise and abysmal fall. Nonetheless, he blames his incompetent directors for the collapse of his empire.

Eike vows to make a comeback, no longer peddling speculative oil deals but promoting instead a generic version of Viagra, a tooth paste to regenerate enamel and a miraculous capillary treatment for which he will be the perfect poster boy.
François Fillon (62) needs help but not from miraculous capillary treatment. Actually, some female journalists got under his skin by implying that he needed epilation. Fillon is a professional politician continuously elected since age of 26. In November 2016, unexpectedly and by an impressive margin, he won the primaries of the center right party, Les Républicains. His Trumpism “light” and his aura of integrity carried him to victory over his opponents. He became the blue-eyed boy of the media and his path to the French presidency seemed assured, until his Mr. Clean image was shattered by disclosures made by the nosy satirical weekly newspaper, le Canard enchainé[1]. The Canard claimed that Fillon had paid his British-born wife Penelope and two of his kids with parliament funds to do no measureable work. An under-the-radar-political wife, Penelope lived in the family’s 12th century chateau in the countryside and received close to a million euros in salary for two decades.

The hiring of family members to provide MP assistance is legal in France, but increasingly controversial. To be paid at taxpayers’ expense for doing no work is still illegal in France!
A financial prosecutor is investigating and the scandal is a boon to the media. With his poll figures nosediving, candidate Fillon has become an embarrassment to his party. He intends to fight on, and repeatedly blames lynching by the media lynching for his falling from grace. He also denunciates the judicial investigation as politically motivated. Fillon’s defense is seen out of sync with the current French mood; people have no tolerance with nepotism and the impudent use of the parliament budget for family benefit. Populist movements consistently blame the privileged political elite for all the country’s problems.

Finally, Donald Trump (70), America’s 45th president is the oversized January calendar boy. An obsessive twitter, he is every day on the front page of the world’s news media. If Twitter is the Trumpism mouthpiece, the White House is morphing into a Kardashian-type casino where everything is for sale or negotiable. America continues to be controlled by a perverse and hypocrite moneyed elite. Wikibea-carioca is too unassuming to compete for hype, hysteria and alternative facts. Eike crashed, Fillon is crashing and Trump? Stay tuned.

Vanity of vanities, all is vanity


[1] “Canard” means duck in French or newspaper in slang. “Enchainé” means chained up. The satirical newspaper is left leaning, but has disclosed scandals affected both right and left wing politicians.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brazil is not for beginners

The phrase is attributed to bossa nova singer and composer Tom Jobim. It implies that the country is not only soccer, samba and beaches which his famous song A Garota de Ipanema (The Girl From Ipanema) is about. Brazil is intrigues, dramas and also fascination.

In Brazil, the year started with a real carnage, a drug related carnage in several of the country’s hellish jails. Some 100 inmates may have lost their lives in atrocious conditions. Scores of headless bodies were dumped over the prison walls and body parts are still to be collected. Riots are common in overcrowded jails, but this year they spread out of control and were particularly gruesome. As long as gang wars take place within prison walls, Brazilians are not very concerned: a dead gang member is better than a live one, goes the saying. Gang factions are fighting over supply and territory.

Corruption and neglect have resulted in the government’s loss of control in several jails which are de facto run by the gangs themselves. They recruit members among the new comers, and run their business from the relative tranquility of their cells. Petty delinquents commonly wait for their trials in jail; conscripted into gangs, expandable, many die before having their day in court. Brazilians are certainly ashamed, but there is no sympathy for the reason that 15 policemen have been killed by gangs since the beginning of the year in Rio. I am honestly shocked by the situation, but since the government is powerless to regain full control, I think some drug use should be decriminalized.

If 2016 was the year of the zica virus, 2017 may be the year of yellow fever. So far, 32 people and scores of monkeys have died in the state of Minas Gerais. Again, the culprit is Aedes aegypti, a multi-task mosquito which spreads nuisances such as dengue, chikungunya and zica. Aedes is an old resident of Brazil; originally from Africa it came on board the ships bringing slaves in the 16th century. Fortunately, a vaccine exists against yellow fever and recent research indicates that it is good for ever with no need for a booster every 10 years. Carnival revelers should not worry, as long as Aedes does not get out of control, the World Health Organization will not issue a travel warning to Brazil.

One thing is sure, no one will be bitten by mosquitoes sitting in the Maracanā stadium because it is locked up. The iconic soccer stadium has fallen in a state of abandonment, “the broken legacy of the World Cup and the Olympic Games”[1]. Maracanā is the collateral victim of a tug of war between the bankrupt state of Rio de Janeiro and the management company embroiled in the Petrobras corruption scandal.

This year carnival revelers won’t be able to enjoy the chic B&Bs and trendy restaurants which had cropped up in Rio’s hillside favelas. With gang wars resuming in previously pacified favelas, business crumbled and several have closed down. This year again, the hedonistic carnival season will be less than exuberant as the recession lingers.

The once seventh-richest-man in the world (2012, Forbes), Elke Batista is now an Interpol fugitive. After losing his multibillion-dollar fortune, he is wanted for allegedly paying US$ 16 million in bribes to the jailed former governor of Rio de Janeiro. According to several tabloids, Batista has taken residence in a Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan.
Happier times: Elke Batista and Sergio Cabral, former governor of Rio

In spite of the gloomy situation, it is fascinating to watch Brazilian reveling; as the Guardian newspaper wrote[2] “austerity does not come naturally to Brazilians.” Brazil has become a cliché. In the 30s, Viennese-born novelist Stephen Zweig described Brazil as the land of the future; naysayers think it always will be. In the 60s, a grumpy General de Gaulle claimed that Brazil was not a serious country. Brazilians do not care as they believe the local proverb that God is Brazilian. For me, Brazil is the land of soap opera, spirited with farfetched twist and turns and happy endings.

[1] The Sun. January 10, 2017.
[2] January 12, 2012.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2017: Fasten Your Seat Belt

This is my last blog of 2016, the 14th of the year. My blogs are written to entertain my friends and stimulate my intellect. Conveniently, inspiration comes a little more than once a month. I like to share attention-grabbing tidbits, and endeavor to give a new spin to better known facts and information. My blog’s topics are eclectic at best, but Brazil, my primary residence is a bottomless source of inspiration. Blogging is an unpretentious therapeutic exercise started six years ago out of boredom and curiosity. Sadly, my blog mentor has passed away, but I like to think that I continue blogging as a tribute to his memory. Blogging is first and foremost a vehicle to stay in touch with my friends.
My blogs are dispatched to some 30 friends and acquaintances. I have no way of knowing if they are read and clip_image001 . I obviously appreciate receiving comments. Most are posted anonymously, and keep me guessing. At the same time, I understand that the innocuousness of some of the blogs doesn’t deserve any reaction from my busy friends.
In Brazil, 2016 is ending the way it started, enmeshed in the jumbo Lava Jato (car wash) corruption scandal. Car Wash is the most stimulating and probably the longest Brazilian telenovela (soap opera). But contrary to soap operas, Car Wash gets better as it progresses. Since I wrote the Tropical Marie Antoinette blog in November, two Marie Antoinette reincarnations are now in jail: Sergio Cabral, the former governor of Rio de Janeiro and his jewel-obsessed wife. For good measure, another ex-governor of Rio de Janeiro was also dispatched to jail: he stands accused of vote buying.
Brazilian male prostitutes are world famous. The highest concentration of them is found in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital where congressmen and senators have been falling over themselves to trade their favors to the highest bidder, mainly construction companies. Odebretch, Latin America largest construction conglomerate not only bribed politicians to win contracts but it paid lawmakers from all sides of the aisle to pass legislations favoring the company’s interests. The kick-back money (US$ 599 million according to the investigation) was mainly used to illicitly finance their election campaigns and occasionally line their pockets. Michel Temer, Brazil unpopular substitute president (after Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment), is also on Odebretch’s beneficiary list.
All the juicy tidbits came out in the wash, namely through the hundreds of testimonies for plea bargains tycoons and executives have signed. Bribing was so institutionalized that Odebretch set up a special division to handle it. It is estimated that during the last decade, the company paid US$ 30 million in bribes to Petrobras executives, the state-owned oil company at the center of the Lava Jato probe. Lawmakers received even more. For expediency sake, Odebretch purchased a bank in a fiscal heaven solely dedicated to its money laundering activities. Brazilian conglomerates exported their bribery expertise to Latin America and Africa. This business extension was allegedly orchestrated by former president Lula da Silva.
Schell shocked by the result of the American presidential election, I wrote a short blog titled The Fox In The Chicken Coop. As I suggested, Donald Trump has selected men (mostly rich men) to head departments they wanted to dismantle in their previous lives. The president-elect could just as well have selected thieves as bank tellers! I also hinted that Trump will run the White House like a casino. He regards himself as deal-maker-in-chief; his cabinet picks have a combined wealth of US$ 14.5 billion (WSJ), more a Fortune 500 club than a cabinet. A Trump administration will certainly expose clashes of egos, expect some rough and tumble like his real estate business. For a start, autocrat Putin who openly bet on Trump and helped him win may soon ask for a pay back. As the bloodshed in Syria indicates, Putin takes no prisoner and the bromance may end before it starts. I have no crystal ball, and your guess is as good as mine, so fasten your seat belts. The world is probably in for a rough ride.
I don’t mean to be a party pooper, so enjoy the holidays, and start the New Year with optimism. I plan to keep blogging and promise to write shorter blogs. Last but not least, I would like to thank my friend Caryl who, during all these years, has had the patience to edit my writing, even when the subject was of no interest to her or she did not agree with my comments. The red pencil has been replaced by computer track change: however new editing technology does not make the exercise less time-consuming.
Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to all.
P.S. Cartoon freely copied from O Globo newspaper.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A yellow hair fox in the chicken coop


America has done the unthinkable, electing a man who may run the White House like a casino. Hillary Clinton was the common sense candidate, but democracy is not a logical game. Shell shocked, the media carried out an exhaustive soul searching to explain the cause of this unexpected and against nature election and figure out why their projections were so wrong. Let bygones be bygones. At 70, Donald Trump will become the 45th and oldest president of the United States[1]. He is also the strangest and most oddball of the lot, even by US presidents’ standards.

Trump was elected because a sizeable segment of the American people, mostly living in the flyover states is fed up with the Washington establishment, which is regarded as out of touch, uncaring, and doing nothing for them. In other words, being a political novice was Trump’s comparative advantage. Ironically, to compensate for his lack of political savoir-faire, Trump is now busy recruiting a team of Washington insiders.

If Trump is not the first oddball to move into the White House, he is first real estate tycoon and billionaire to do so. As a brash, ostentatious and tasteless billionaire, one wonders whether he and his extended family will enjoy the quaint coziness of their new abode.

At this stage, only a fortune teller with a crystal ball can tell what the future holds for America and the world. For clues, one can look at some former unconventional American presidents and consider experiences from other countries which were once run by billionaires.

The Trump election brings to mind the case of John Tyler, the 10th American president better known as His Accidency. Unaligned with any political party, his moving into the White House was an accident of sort due to the death of the incumbent, William Harrison after only one month. Lawmakers wanted a new election. Historians consider him in low esteem and his legacy insignificant. He is mainly remembered for escaping an impeachment and having a veto overridden; the first overridden veto of any American president. His claims to fame are his 15 children and the annexation of Texas in 1845. Ironically, His Accidency is responsible for the first Latino migration into America.

Warren Harding is also seen as one of the worse US presidents. Before entering politics at his wife’s urging, the 29th US president was a wealthy newspaper publisher. The Republican candidate won the election in a landslide promising to roll back the progressive legislations of his predecessor; he favored pro-business policies and a limit to immigration. He launched a tax cut program which benefitted the richest segment of the population, and imposed protective tariffs on imports. His presidency was tainted by corruption in his cabinet and by his extramarital affairs. He was a consummate poker player and in one night lost the White House china set. His presidency (1921-23) was cut short by a fatal heart attack.

Chile, Italy and Ukraine have experience in billionaire leaders.

Chile elected Sebastián Piñera (net worth US$ 2.5bn, 2016) in 2010 for a four year term. Piñera comes from a patrician family and Huayna Capac, the last Inca emperor, is one of his ancestors. The soccer club, airline and television tycoon made his fortune in the credit card business. Before taking office he sold his stocks and placed the rest of his business in a blind trust. His term started inauspiciously with a 6.9 earthquake shaking his inauguration ceremony. In 2012, the Economist, the British weekly labeled him an “inept president.” He was famous for his lapses and gaffes. In the United States, he is remembered as the guy who sat down at Barack Obama’s desk in the Oval Office. Apparently the first person to do so. Actually, Piñera could offer Trump his unique expertise in mine rescue. Trump wants to revive the West Virginia run-down coal industry and coal mining is notoriously accident-prone. Piñera is the man who stood on the spotlight while 33 miners were pulled alive to the surface after spending 70 days trapped underground in October 2010.

In 2014, Ukraine elected Petro Poroshenko, the Chocolate King (net worth US$ 1.3bn, 2014) as its president. Pro-western Poroshenko promised to resist further Russian aggression after Putin snatched Crimea and supported the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine. Putin closed Roshen confectionery factory in Russia and seized its assets. Trump’s bromance with Putin doesn’t augur well for the Ukrainian leader who will certainly be persona non grata in Washington. To aggravate his case, Poroshenco visited Hillary during the campaign. To break the ice, Poroshenco phoned Trump and invited him to visit Ukraine, a greenfield country for luxury hotels.

The third billionaire is Silvio Berlusconi (80 and asset valued at US$ 5.9bn, Forbes, 2016), the on and off Italian prime minister during the period 1994-2011. After Trump’s surprise election, the disgraced former prime minister claimed that they are both cut from the same cloth. There is some truth is this statement as both are consummate salesmen, narcissists with oversized egos, bullies, gaffe prone misogynists and have tacky tastes in everything from women to buildings. Finally, both used their wealth to force the doors of politics without having any formed ideology. The media plaid a critical role in both men’s ascent to power. Berlusconi depended on the support of his media conglomerate, while Trump’s victory stems from the relentless and counter-productive bashing from the media establishment. Under Berlusconi’s leadership Italy became a reality television show. Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s anti Establishment party was more a vehicle for political permanence than political ideology. At the end, Berlusconi lost popular support because he could not deliver on his job creation promises, and Italians got tired of his scandalous lifestyle (remember the infamous bunga parties) and the corruption surrounding his business. There was no fire wall between public goods and Berlusconi’s business interest.

A Berlusconi clone has become the president of a respected democracy relishing its own Brexit moment.

Trump may have outfoxed Hillary, but the chicken usually come home to roost.

P.S. These fellows do not deserve any additional promotion, no pictures.

[1] Actually there are only 44 presidents, as Grover Cleveland was twice elected for nonconsecutive terms.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Tropical Marie Antoinette

In the confined and shameless world of Brazilian politico-corporate corruption, it is more Versailles than Greenwich, Connecticut! With more trips to Rue Montaigne than to Wall Street, the loot is spent ostentatiously rather than invested with discretion. Last week a Brazilian newspaper ran an article entitled Fashion Week in Curitiba. Curitiba is the small capital of the small state of Paraná in southern Brazil. Since March 2014, the city’s claim to fame is not fashion, but Lava-jato, the Car Wash police investigation of the billion dollar corruption probe at state oil company Petrobras. It is the biggest graft and money laundering investigation ever held in Brazil. Curitiba is the seat of the investigation, and the city jails have become a social hub for jailed construction tycoons, crooked politicians and their respective lawyers and families.
Claudia Cruz, the 48 year old wife of Eduardo Cunha[1] the former speaker of the lower house, visited her jailed husband dressed in Chanel. What else could she wear? There is only couture in her closets. Cunha is an Evangelical Christian and a leader among his peers. He is also the most reviled and wicked Brazilian politician, the poster boy of greed and hypocrisy. The family’s life style is more Kardashian than evangelical austerity. Cunha is accused of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes from contractors involved in Petrobras operations and squirreling his loot in offshore bank accounts. The police believes that he has between US$ 13 and 20 million hidden away in several foreign bank accounts. The Swiss government has already identified US$ 5 million.
Between 2008 and 2014, Claudia Cruz is suspected of having spent over US$ 1 million in clothing, hotels and restaurants in Paris, New York City and Miami. She spent US$ 60,000 on tennis lessons in Miami. A day in Paris does not come cheap either: US$ 10.000 is an average. These figures came to light after the police tallied her credit cards charges. Her splurging in couture fashion did not pay off, as she never made it to the best dressed list. Because many bank accounts are under her name, she may soon have to leave her couture in her closet and switch to a prison uniform.
                                                         Seen on the Curitiba catwalk
The Marie Antoinette’s lifestyle of the Cunhas is not uncommon among Brazilian political families. The former governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Sergio Cabral, who coincidentally is from the same party as Cunha, also made headlines with his extravagant lifestyle. If his spending pattern was similar, his paying methods were different. He did not charge on his own credit cards but that of his corporate friend Fernando Cavendish. Alternatively, he charged the state. In 2014, Cabral resigned as governor to run for the Senate, but dropped his bid when it was disclosed, among other failings, that he had used a state helicopter to commute to his beach house, carry his kids and nanny to school and dogs to the vet.

                                                           Happy Times in 2012. 
Governor Cabral (left), Elke Batista (the guy who lost US$ 35 billion in less than 365 days) and president Dilma Rousseff (impeached) 
Now, the anti-corruption judges are catching up with him. Cavendish, his former friend is in jail, and has agreed to a plea bargain. Cabral and his wife, Adriana Ancelmo loved luxury junkets to Paris and Monaco, all expenses paid for by Cavendish’s construction firm. The firm, which is appropriately named DELTA became the governor’s private travel agency. In return, Cavendish received juicy state contracts at inflated costs. During the “friendship”, the Cabrals indulged in luxury hotels, such as Hotel de Paris in Monaco (standard room rate €500.00), restaurants like the Louis XV (three Michelin stars) and gifts. One particular gift attracted the investigators’ attention: In 2009, Cavendish gave Adriana Ancelmo a Van Cleef & Arpels diamond ring as a birthday present. The price tag was €220,000.00! When Cavendish was investigated, the friendship ended and the gift was returned. Cabral claims that he never knew the value of the ring.
Fortunately, for Cunha and Cabral there is no guillotine in Brazil.

[1] Rio de Janeiro is his political base. He has been given many derogatory nicknames; my favorite is Xicun Cunha, pronounced like chikungunya.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Olympe and Mary, 18th Century Feminist Trailblazers

“So you have found love in Paris”, Olympe de Gouges greeted English war correspondent  Mary Wollstonecraft in her apartment in early 1793. Mary blushed, did not respond instead asking if Olympe was afraid of the guillotine.
Olympe did not answer the question but told Mary that she was happy to welcome her. She added that “France is at war with itself. The reign of Terror is destroying our new-found equality and the dictatorship of radical Jacobins is wiping out the freedom given to women by the revolution. Mary, beware, everybody can be reported as an enemy of Robespierre and his clique of blood thirty fanatics. Mobs are murdering people without trial and others are sent to the guillotine”.
Mary replied “I am concerned but not afraid. Do you know how is Théroigne de Méricourt doing? I heard that she had been seriously beaten by a mob of revolutionary women.”
Olympe answered “She is in the hospital with a bad head injury. Can you imagine that she was stripped naked by a gang of brainless, illiterate and vulgar women! They didn’t even understood that Théroigne was encouraging them to fight for their rights and be able to bear arms like the sans-culottes, their men folks. No, they didn’t understand. Equal rights for women are inconceivable and irrelevant to them! Mary, how right you are to encourage women’s education. Educated women can be independent and play a meaningful role in society.”
Mary replied “I am only able to do this because my book A Vindication of the Rights of Women has just been published. It has made me famous in England; now I am able to support myself and my two sisters.”
“Mary, you are a role model. I understand that in England, wives have even less rights than in France! Are they not at their husband’s mercy, their property? I also heard that their children are regarded as the father’s property. I wish you luck in your mission.” Returning to the fate of Théroigne, Olympe asked Mary when she had met her.
“Some time ago,” replied Mary. “I am very impressed by her dashing allure: she was dressed in a man’s riding habit with a large feathered hat. I listened to her haranguing a group of women patriots trying to convince them to form revolutionary clubs. She is a former actress and knows how to speak.”
Olympe arose and voiced her anger at the Jacobins who had started the bloody Terror. Louis XVI, the French king, has been guillotined at the end of January 1792, a mistake according to her. France was now at war with neighboring nations, and their rulers were trying to stop the trans-border spreading of revolutionary propaganda. On the defensive, the Jacobins were now targeting women, stripping them of their previous social gains; divorce and inherence had in particular been rescinded. A gag rule has been imposed, and women like her were prevented from involving themselves in politics.
“What are you planning to do?” asked Mary.
“I will sharpen my pen, and fight to the bitter end for the right to free speech,” replied Olympe. She looked at Mary and again asked her about her Parisian romance. This time Mary could not escape. At 33, she qualified as a spinster. She had nonetheless attracted the attention of Gilbert Imlay, an American in Paris who used his American Revolution credentials to launch a business in revolutionary France. His involvement in the American Revolution fascinated Mary, and she had fallen madly in love to the point of irrationality.
“We are soul mates”, said Mary. She did not want to admit that she was emotionally hooked on her American lover. “We are free to love each other without getting into a marriage contract. It is a match of equals.”
Olympe wished her happiness, but warned that “love goes hand in hand with pregnancies; this is our lot, and babies are our responsibility. Beware of men, many are weak and won’t feel guilty in abandoning an independent woman if she does not need their financial protection.”
They parted, promising to meet again to exchange views on the evolution of the revolution.
 maryw       olympe
This is a fictional meeting, the fruit of this blogger’s imagination. In topsy-turvy Paris, during the Terror, Mary Wollstonecraft knew of Olympe de Gouges but never had the opportunity to meet her.
In 1791, Olympe de Gouges, the abolitionist, feminist playwright and political activist wrote the famous declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. She had famously declared that “if woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”
Unrepentant and true to her ideas, she wrote pamphlets against the Terror until the guillotine chopped her head off on November 3, 1793. She was 45 year old. Portrayed as a virago by her executioners, she was the only woman executed for sedition (her political writings) during the revolution. Because of her gender, her avant garde views were either dismissed or received with hostility. She qualifies as the first feminist martyr.
If de Gouges were a man, she would have been buried in the pantheon of national heroes, but as a woman she remained shunned by 19th century male historians. They could not accept that such progressive and equalitarian ideas sprouted from the head of a petite bourgeoise from a small town in France. De Gouges’ body of work was overlooked during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Finally, she is getting the recognition she deserves.
The same can be said about Wollstonecraft’s legacy. Her journalistic and philosophical works were discredited by the Victorian elite. In a way, she had her bad judgment to blame for the onslaught against her ideas and writings. The disclosure of her foolish, hysterical behavior and lack of self-esteem, during her liaison with Imlay damaged her reputation for a long period. Mary spent three years in revolutionary France, and wrote An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution (published in 1794). To protect her from the reach of the blood-thirsty Terror, Imlay had registered her as his wife. In 18th century, sex meant pregnancy, and Mary had an illegitimate daughter with Imlay. Mary, who had promoted women independence in peaceful England, discovered maternal bliss and longed for domesticity in troubled France. Back in England, Imlay, always in search of adventures both sexual and commercial, abandoned nagging “wife” Mary, leaving her emotionally devastated, suicidal and her freethinker reputation in tatters. Her craving for domestic dependency brought her intellectual downfall and she was branded as a hypocrite by her peers.
Finally, Wollstonecraft married William Godwin, a freethinker like her. She died in 1797 at the age of 38 soon after having delivered her second daughter Mary Shelley who made a name for herself as the author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft lacked Olympe de Gouges’ emotional strength and strong judgement; however her psychological shortcomings do not diminish her contribution to women’s empowerment.
References: Gordon, Charlotte. Romantic Outlaws. Random House, 2015. A biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley.

Monday, September 5, 2016

My home-made burkini

Since August 15, 2016 the New York Times and many other English-speaking newspapers have been fascinated with the burkini, a swimsuit worn by some conservative Muslim women which covers the whole body. Some French cities had banned the burkini from their beaches. Soon, the burkini story was all over the international news which condemned the ban as bigoted. The Times was the most persistent of the lot in pursuing the burkini issue; it carried daily articles, editorials, op-eds or letters on the subject. Furthermore, the Times encouraged the French to be more tolerant towards conservative Muslim women’s religious beachwear.

On August 26, the Council of State, a French top administrative court, reversed the ban taken by one city on the grounds that a burkini was not a risk to public order and infringed on personal freedom. To heed the Times’ call for tolerance, I decided to try wearing a burkini. I checked the burkini website to choose a model. It is essentially a wetsuit with a tunic to cover the crotch area and a hood. The Burkini is actually a registered trade mark from an Australian firm and was designed by a Lebanese-born woman there. The range of models is large. Each size comes in two styles: slim or modest fit. To me, the slim fit seems like to follow Islamic modesty guidelines to a lesser degree. They are colorful and made of synthetic fiber. Prices range between US$ 60 (for sale items) and US$ 90. A bargain compared with the price of a bikini, which needs much less material. As I couldn’t get one before the end of summer, I decided to make my own burkini (see photo below). 

DSC_0559 (1)
Actually, I was outfitted like many Muslim women in France who swim fully dressed. Since I had a choice, I quickly reverted to western type swimwear as my burkini dragged me under the water. I have tried wet suits and hated them, so I suppose it was not a surprise that I did not like wet burkinis either.

The recent deadly terrorist attacks committed by radical Islamists, many of them French-born, have shaken French self-esteem. People are increasingly concerned and irked by the overt dressing of conservative Muslims which is viewed as both ostentatious and culturally provocative. French people are realistic and know that it is illegal, unfeasible and ridiculous to fine women because they want to swim in the sea fully dressed. However, a majority of people are of the view that the burkini is another sign of goading from a religious and activist community which takes advantage of the freedom provided by a democratic state. After the hijab, the burkini is the new Trojan horse of political Islam to erode the liberal social system of western society. The majority of French people fear a fifth column ready to Islamize secular France.

Since 1905, after having defanged the lay power of the Catholic Church, France has been strictly secular or “laïc”. Twenty first century politicians are not ready to compromise with provocation from an imported religion which compels its faithful to occupy both private and public sphere. The state offensive against Islamic behavior and clothing can be seen as a repeat of the 19th century crusade against the modus operandi of the Catholic Church. French presidents do not swear on the bible, and “in God we trust” is not written on banknotes. Although, during the 20th century France integrated hundreds of thousands of destitute European migrants, the country does not qualify as a country of immigrants. The French now find frustrating that people who choose to live in France, and are often regarded as milking the social security system[1], show little desire to melt in.

It is estimated that 7.7 million Muslims live in metropolitan France, about 11 percent of the population. This is only a rough estimate because, as indicated above the French government does not collect ethnically-based statistics. If a large proportion has blended in, many are living in ethnic ghettos under the influence of conservative imams dispatched from the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the Times[2] quoted a Norwegian terrorist expert, Thomas Hegghammer, who said that the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said. Over the last twenty years In France, the dominant Catholic faith has become more liberal, but Islam has become much more conservative and intolerant, and as a result the cultural gulf between communities just got wider.

The burkini controversy led to lively debates in the French media, political circles and among friends. If the majority agree that the ban is illegal, unfeasible and counterproductive (why to ban the burkini when the hijab is authorized in public places?) the pro and con of the use of the burkini and its explicit religious undertone brought arguments which cut across the left-right ideological division. Two groups were notably disagreeing among themselves: the imams and the feminists! The more open-minded imams support the use of the burkini, for example, to allow mothers to looks after their children on the beach. Others argue that Islamic dressing should be more discreet and conform to the national fashion norms. Conversely, conservative imams condemned the burkini as indecent, stating that both pious men and women should stay away from the perversion of the beach, where people cavort nearly naked.

The divergence of view among French feminists was more subtle. All agree that women should be free to wear whatever they wish, but for left-leaning feminists, the ban is a humiliation and the burkini, albeit an obvious religious garment, give Muslim women a new freedom and empowerment. Other feminists, and I am in this group, regard Muslim societies as blatantly patriarchal, medieval and misogynist, whereby women are second-class citizens and as such, have to conform to male diktats. Muslim men should also dress modestly, but they do not and get away with it. They control women’s bodies, and as a result, women are de facto instrument of a male-dominated religious activism. Western women have fought hard to gain their equality status and are still battling machismo which also aims at “instrumentalizing” women’s bodies. State institutions should help newcomers to attain the same level of social freedom. Muslim women should be taught to decide for themselves. In Iran, dress codes are enforced by the religious police, but it is not the role of the French police.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Autumn will empty French beaches, but the burkini controversy will not die down. The presidential election is taking place in 2017, the concept of laïcité is central to the French state; tempering with it will be political suicide for any candidate. The government is working with the French Council of the Muslim Faith in order to work out solutions and calm the tempers on both sides. Women should be free to choose their wardrobe without having to conform to anyone.

The media’s attention span is notoriously short, and the burkini controversy will fade away. Always in search of stimulating topics, the media in general, and the Times in particular could expose the media bias against female politicians and its negative impact on their empowerment.

[1] May be a perception. Many anti-immigration parties have peddled this information. Hard to know, as racial and ethnic censuses and statistics have been banned by the French government since 1978. For egalitarian sake, it is forbidden to collect data on racial and ethnic groups. [2] Saudis and Extremism: “Both the Arsonists and the Firefighters” by Scott Shane, August 26, 2016.