Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It happens every minute of every day. Women and girls somewhere in the world are humiliated, raped, beaten, sold into sex slavery, genitally mutilated, blinded, set on fire, and murdered. They are victims of the most vicious animals on planet Earth – not the four-legged kind but men -- male specimens of our species Homo sapiens. But neither Homo nor sapiens applies to such men. Police know about these crimes. Government officials know about these crimes but the criminals are rarely arrested or prosecuted. All too often, assaults on women are not taken seriously. They are excused as “family matters” or “honor killings”. But what kind of honor resides in killing a woman?

Atrocities committed against women seem to be cropping up more frequently on the news these days. Just today, a Muslim man in Buffalo, New York, confessed to beheading his wife in what is apparently an “honor killing.” She had filed for divorce and had an order of protection that removed him from their home as of February 6, 2009. This past Sunday (February 15, 2009), the CBS television program, 60 MINUTES, aired a report on Pakistan that mentioned the Taliban recently blew up five girls’ schools. On Saturday night, February 14th -- ironically Valentine’s Day -- ABC World News featured a story about young women in Pakistan whose faces are disfigured by acid thrown by men – spurned suitors, husbands, or other disgruntled males. The scarred faces of these once beautiful women are haunting reminders that the most pervasive, destructive, yet undeclared world war is that waged against women. Yet no country raises an army to combat the terrorism that women have endured for centuries. There is no “coalition of the willing” to protect women. The question is, Why not? Why no international force to protect mothers, daughters, wives, sisters, grandmothers, children? Why?

The ugly fact is that no other species treats its females with such cruelty. In her 1981 book, The Woman That Never Evolved, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy wrote: “ . . . women in so many human societies occupy a position that is far worse than that of females in all but a few species of non-human primates.” What is going on? Why do some human males have such a feeble sense of masculinity that they believe their manhood depends on raping or beating up women? Why do young women in some countries bear the burden of a concept of family honor based on their chastity? It’s a fragile sense of honor that resides in an intact hymen!

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I have to say right now that this is not a tract against men in general. I do not hate men. There are intelligent, tender, compassionate, creative, liberated, wonderful, supportive men who treat each other and women as full human beings. I am married to one such man and my son and son-in-law are among many others. The men who mistreat women also mistreat each other and the planet. The only foreign policy they understand is war. They construct economies based on weapons and violence. They seem beset by a madness that hates all life, including their own. In their suicidal frenzy, they act to destroy life for everyone and everything around them. Even the basic animal survival instinct seems to have left them.

I suspect that the worldwide battle to control women rages as a sub-text of all other wars. This is not the proverbial “battle of the sexes”. It is a savage war, powered by attitudes that females are less than human and deserve mistreatment. A Pakistani woman interviewed on the ABC News report was asked whether women are considered second-class citizens in her country. She replied, “We are not even citizens. We are commodities.”

In some countries, women are treated worse than farm animals. Recently I was reading about The Carter Center's “latrine revolution” in Ethiopia. The goal of this project is to fight trachoma, a crippling disease spread by flies that breed in human waste. But the project has an unexpected benefit for women. Without a latrine, people are forced to use the fields and woods as toilets. However, custom requires that women hold in their natural urge to relieve themselves until night so no one can see them. Latrines give women freedom to carry out basic bodily functions. Not surprisingly, women are now activist leaders of the latrine project and a latrine has become a status symbol in Ethiopia.

In many countries, groups of courageous women are protesting and speaking out, demanding justice, sometimes at great risk to their lives. But this is not just a women’s issue. Violence against women diminishes all of us. Everyone who cares for our common humanity needs to speak out and demand international action because the war against women is the most long-lasting and destructive ever waged in human history.

Rape has long been an instrument of war. A GOOGLE search for “rape + war” turns up 5,160,000 hits. One need only read recent accounts of the tens of thousands of women raped by soldiers in Bosnia, Congo, Darfur, East Timor, Haiti, and Rwanda. In Congo and Darfur, rape by soldiers has increased to the point where it is considered the “norm” and nothing is done to stop it.

Rape, genital mutilation, burning, and murder are the most extreme forms of gender terrorism. But there are other daily humiliations and restrictions that women, particularly those living under religious fundamentalist regimes, endure.

I am reading Iranian author Azar Nafisi's 2003 memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, about the literature group for women that she held in her home so they could take off their veils and freely discuss books forbidden by the Islamic fundamentalist regime. The intellectual deprivation was just one of the government’s attempts to subjugate women. Expelled from her university post in Tehran in 1997 for refusing to wear the veil, Nafisi, who is now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, describes the separate entrance women university students in Tehran were forced to use and the “morality police” patrolling the streets on the lookout for the least exposure of female skin.

Throughout the world, the restrictions and humiliations forced on women take many forms: denial of education, laws against owning property, job discrimination, punishment for listening to music, wearing Western clothes, driving, or going outside the home unless covered from head to foot and accompanied by a male family member.

Nor are such anti-woman actions confined to developing countries or Islamic regimes. Under Communist rule, Romania banned birth control and abortion. The result was unwanted children, many of whom were abandoned or sold by desperate parents overburdened by more children than they could afford. In the United States today, Christian fundamentalist groups are trying to outlaw reproductive choice and make women’s bodies property of the state. They even try to prevent pharmacists from filling doctors’ prescriptions for birth control. It’s as if birth should be punishment for having sex. Notably there are no organized protests against Viagra or other erection-promoting drugs. Male potency drugs are advertised on prime time television but there are no such advertisements for condoms or birth-control pills! “If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” said an anonymous taxi driver, quoted years ago by author Gloria Steinem.

It’s easy to forget that it was only in 1920 – less than a century ago – that the U.S. constitution was amended to allow women to vote. It was only on January 27, 2009, that President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act granting equal pay for equal work. Oh yes, we’ve come a long way, but the operative term is “long”. From the time this case was first filed, it took ten years to end this particular form of job discrimination against women.

Yes, Western women are much better off and enjoy many more liberties than our sisters in Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and a score of other countries. But one can never let down her guard. There is still a lot of work to do in extending human rights to women throughout the world. In the United States, maintaining the rights women have achieved continues to require vigilance because there are too many reactionary forces that would return women to the Middle Ages. Thankfully, we now have a President who respects and supports full equality for women.

Educated women and supportive men are the best -- and only -- hope for improving living conditions for all people and prosecuting the mad animals that wage the most brutal gender war in all of nature.


vallie said...

When in discussion about minorities and the struggle here in the U.S. I always remember to include the larger world canvas where women have endured unrelenting brutality and dehumanization for thousands of years. Human nature is mystifying, incomprehensible, and still we have hope.

GaryGromet said...

I often think that American women have only themselves to blame for their mistreatment by men. You speak up, but most won't. Even the most influential American women do not speak as candidly as you. Nor do the richest women. Why is that?