icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Everything is about the status of women

I see that Attorney General Pam Bondi is calling attention to the thousands of rape kits that have been waiting for testing in Florida crime labs. These kits provide evidence that is crucial to successful prosecution of rapists, especially semen and its DNA. Such cases, however, appear to be less than a priority for law enforcement: according to reporter Anna Phillips of the Tampa Bay Times, Bondi “acknowledged how little state officials know about the accumulation of rape kits. She could not say how many there are in Florida or how long it might take to complete their testing.” At the same time, the sub-heading of the story quoted the attorney general admitting, “there are thousands.”

Why? How did we let this get so far off the track? The answer, as always, is that The Guys In Charge have priorities that outrank women’s health and lives. Governor Rick Scott is proud to proclaim a strong current revenue stream, yet the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) “has been hit with a series of budget cuts.” The governor leads other Republicans in his sneering attitude toward state workers, too, with the result that FDLE has an employee turnover rate of 44% annually. Perhaps he should try running government like a business – a business that does not run a revolving door in which experienced scientists leave for higher salaries elsewhere. It takes courage for so-called bureaucrats to go to the newspapers about their problems, and I salute FDLE’s PR guy who said that the labs “are never fully staffed.”

How in any way does this make sense? Such budget foolishness allows violent criminals to rape again and again; it encourages them to laugh at both their victims and the law. And where are the feminists who should be protesting this? Where is STOP RAPE, an organization that some of my friends founded back in the 1970s? Those women now are senior citizens, but where is the next generation? We empowered them in so many ways, both politically and economically, and yet they appear to feel comfortable voting for guys who see a profitable bottom line as the only goal in life. Government is not a business, and saving revenue should not be its goal. That goal should be justice.

A final word on this. Awful though the situation is, with “several hundred” untested kits in the evidence rooms of the Hillsborough sheriff’s office alone, I reluctantly acknowledge that the situation is better than it once was. I lobbied on this issue back in the 1970s, when professional criminologists invented rape kits that would meet the scientific standards demanded in a courtroom, and back then, a victim had to pay for the evidence gathering herself. Unlike any other crime, the victim was twice victimized. She had to go to Tampa General, the only place where a kit was available, and pay $145 for it.

When I tried to talk to a North Florida senator about this, he responded with the most appalling chauvinism that I’ve encountered in my long life. Entirely dismissive of my concern that rapists went free because women couldn’t afford to pay for what should be a law enforcement expense, he insisted that the cost would be too high. If the tests were free, he averred, women would go get them for the thrill. Yes. He said that. And decades later, we still have way too many men in government who know nothing about women.

* * *

While Hubby was busy with a meeting last weekend, I took the opportunity to watch the four-hour-plus film, Lawrence of Arabia. I had seen it when I was young, when it swept the Academy Awards in 1962. It introduced celebrities such as Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif -- and has, in fact, an all-male cast. So why did I watch an excessively long movie that has no woman in any speaking role? Because, especially in the context of the civil war going on in Syria, I wanted to remind myself of the state of the Middle East less than a century ago.

The protagonist is T. E. Lawrence, a real guy of British birth; he was fluent in Arabic and began traversing the Middle East in 1911, doing cartography and archeology. The movie is set during World War I (1914-1918), when Germany asserted itself as far south as Turkey. In response, Brits based in Egypt tried to stir up Arabs against the Turkish-German alliance. Lawrence led this effort, working out of Cairo – and I wonder vaguely now if he happened to meet Ruth Bryan Owen; she nursed in Cairo then and a decade later, in 1928, would be Florida’s first congresswoman.

The saga of T. E. Lawrence’s transformation to an Arab has inspired dozens of books and a couple of movies beyond the famous one. My point here, though, is neither biographical nor cinematic. It is about prejudice, and it comes from the only scene that I remember from my first viewing. It is near the beginning, when the Bedouin who guides Lawrence across a desert is shot because (with Lawrence’s encouragement), the thirsty man drinks water from a well that Bedouins are not allowed to use. It’s shocking – and yet, anyone remember drinking fountains right here in Tampa that were for whites only?

It’s important that we “civilized” people put Third World conflict in the context of our own not-so-distant past, when prejudice routinely allowed people to be killed merely because of the color of their skin. And it’s important to remember that less than a century ago, the grandparents of today’s Syrians and Iranians and Saudis and others really did live in tents. Granted, some were luxurious tents with splendid walls and floors of Oriental carpets (no credit to the women who doubtless made them). Their horses and camels were similarly adorned (and men rode, while women and children walked). But unlike today’s oil rich Middle East, not even the most affluent had electricity or cars or any conveniences that were common in Europe and America. They certainly had no air conditioning to shield them from horrific heat and sand storms. These nomadic peoples risked their lives every time they moved into the wilderness, with no resources of trees or edible plants or water. No wonder they became hardened, even to each other.

So two takeaways: One, we should be patient with these newcomers to modernization, and we should be very careful about taking the side of one tribe over another. The only role that we should play is that which Germany has surprised the world by doing: taking in civil war refugees and welcoming families who walk hundreds of miles to safety.

Second, although I doubt that the 1962 scriptwriters had any feminist intent, the film nonetheless makes an important point with its invisibility for women. None was shown with a full face, although the occasional shapely leg appeared in a nighttime tent. Another scene showed class divisions as a tribe moved between their oasis homes. Riding their swift thoroughbred horses, upper-class men went first, while poor people walked at the rear. Between them were the warriors’ wives and concubines – but unseen. They were behind the veils of tiny tents unsteadily mounted on camels.

Everything is about the status of women. Everything. When a society allows women complete visibility and open strength – as now is the case with Germany’s Angela Merkel – the historical pattern predicts peace and prosperity. When women are neither seen nor heard, there will be war and poverty.

* * *

We had a bumper crop of guavas this year, so I’m going to take a guava pie to my friend Lula Dovi. You probably know Lu, too, as at nearly 93, she still writes “Tracks,” her occasional column for La Gaceta. The pie is a thank you for her second book of poetry, More Seasonings. Lu is a superlative inspiration for me, and her poems are worthy of publication anywhere. Her Tampa ancestors go back to the 1840s and she was born in Seminole Heights, but lived much of her life elsewhere. She returned as a pioneer in Carrollwood, where she lives alone and still drives where she wants to go. That’s implicit in the two poems I’ll share with you.

Mighty Spider

A tiny mite of a spider

has stretched again his tensile might

around my sideview mirror,

webbed a mighty bug-catcher

wherein his supper sits.

Such symmetry, a geometric form

innately spun for strength against

a blast of 40 miles-per-hour.

I am loath to banish his fourth mobile home.

I Am an Intruder

It’s their neighborhood –

I feel it on Nebraska Avenue

at night

dark clothing on dark skins

bicycles daring right-of-way

make me leery, wary of the light

side street of mobile homes

dollar stores mixed with Laundromats

small bars, lots of churches

and for sure one damn gun shop!

My guilt is on me like a rash.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author