eyes on the U.S.

American Politics' Fifty Shades Of Sexism

Elizabeth Warren is vying for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts
Elizabeth Warren is vying for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts
Corine Lesnes

WASHINGTON - As Mitt Romney would say, it's a particularly well-stuffed "binder full of women." The 2012 vintage of candidates for public office is one of the best -- at least in terms of quantity. More women are running for Congress this year than ever before. The newspapers are comparing it to the 1992 so-called "Year-of-the-Woman," when the number of women in the Senate doubled.

That election was just after the Anita Hill affair. The young lawyer had leveled accusations of sexual harassment against Judge Clarence Thomas, nominated to the Supreme Court by the first President George Bush.

The Senate hearings, in which the young black woman had to face 14 white men, were watched by millions of people. One of them was Patty Murray, a mother from Seattle, who was horrified at the questions directed at Hill, as well as the fact that there were no women on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Today, Patty Murray is the fourth-ranked Democrat in the Senate.

Do Americans currently feel that women are "in danger?" The number of candidates this year has leaped to a level not seen since 1992. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers (CAWP), out of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs this year, there are 18 women candidates, and 163 women are running for the House of Representatives, where there are 435 seats.

According to the CAWP’s director, Debbie Walsh, the same factors exist today as in 1992. It is the first vote since redistricting, which encourages new candidacies, and there is a climate that “underscores the need for women’s voices in policymaking." Wars, deficits, budget cuts in education and health-- women want to be heard.

The Democrats have made a bit more progress toward parity than Republicans have. Twelve of the 18 female Senate candidates are Democrats, as well as 116 of the 163 female candidates for the House. In three senatorial elections, in California, New York, and Hawaii, both candidates are women. The same is true of 11 House races.

Erotic novels, favorite designers

All this has not happened without a few cases of foot-in-the-mouth. During a debate in New York between the two Senate candidates, there was a question about the book Fifty Shades of Grey, the erotic novel by E.L. James that has already sold 40 million copies, but which no one will ever cop to reading. "Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?" asked Liz Benjamin, the debate moderator. There were bursts of laughter and sounds of disapproval from the audience. Wendy Long, who had been holding her hands clasped, tightened them a bit more. "No," she answered, with a polite, embarrassed smile.

Long did not show the same quick thinking as Hillary Clinton. When a moderator recently asked her which designers she preferred, the Secretary of State answered, incredulous, "What designers of clothes? Would you ever ask a man that question?" The male moderator took less than two seconds to admit, “Probably not.”

Long’s Democratic opponent at the New York debate responded that she had not read the bestseller either. "Neither have I," the moderator felt obliged to say. Miss Long, who is fiercely anti-abortion, said later that she didn’t think the question was sexist. Barack Obama himself had already been asked the same question, though less directly: "Do you know the name of the controversial erotic novel that's on millions of women's bedside tables?" he was asked in May on "The View." "No," he answered cautiously. "But I'll ask Michelle when I get home."

Away from the lights and cameras of the elections, American women face a bleak reality on the political front. The 2012 Year-of-the-Woman, hides dire statistics. The U.S. ranks 94th worldwide in the number of women in national legislature. There are only 17 women in the Senate, and they hold only 17 % of the 435 seats in the House. Men also have 80 % of the seats in state legislatures. Six of the 50 governors are women, but after Nov. 6 there could be only one left.

The year 2010 was favorable to candidates who were fairly well known, but it was bad for the overall numbers of women, which dropped for the first time since 1992. Linda McMahon, who was beaten in 2010, reappeared this year in Connecticut's senate race. She no longer campaigns on her success at the head of World Wrestling Entertainment, but on its bankruptcy. And this time she may well be elected.

Among registered voters, there are 8.6 million more women than men, and their participation rate is also higher. Since 1992, that gap has been growing, especially among young people. All this gives women "massive electoral power," says Karen Beckwith, professor at the University of Cleveland in Ohio. Women have traditionally voted for the Democrats.

Why are there so few women in office? There has been little progress since 1992, although female income has gone up by 60%. One explanation comes from the She Should Run association, "dedicated to dramatically increasing the number of women in public leadership by eliminating and overcoming barriers to success."

The organization believes that women do not give enough money to election campaigns - only 26 % of the total political contributions in 2010. Indeed, it is a well-known fact of American democracy that you have to pay if you want to be heard.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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