I feel a strong, emotional connection with Kat and Maria, best friends who are just beginning their fifth year of medical school in Northern England. They are very grounded in their femininity, very earthy, compassionate and capable. Both of them are strikingly beautiful, although quite different, like the sisters Rose-White and Rose-Red. Kat has pale, milky skin, light blue eyes, and long, waving golden hair. Maria has olive skin, large, luminous dark eyes, and long, thick, black hair. Kate is delicate, somewhat nervous, and compulsive, while Maria is steady and athletic. They are both skilled, intelligent, strong and able to bring about the good that they seek.
They remind me of best friends in my family history. My grandmother, Solveig Kristoffersen immigrated from Oslo, Norway to Rosebud, Alberta, Canada, and went to nursing school with Hilda Hanson. Solveig later worked as a nurse in British Columbia and California, while Hilda became a midwife and eventually opened her own obstetrical clinic in the tiny farming town where she was born. Solveig married Hilda’s quiet brother, Alfred at a double wedding with Hilda and her beloved.
Observing Kat and Maria at the beginning of their careers has given me a lot to think about. I’ve been asking myself where my zeal for scholarship disappeared to. When I was 23, as they are now, I was living in cold-water flat with a poorly functioning coal oven at the top of a pre-war building in Hamburg, and applying to graduate school in Comparative Literature. I got accepted at Columbia U, Washington U and Berkeley. Washington U even offered me a scholarship. I chose Cal because I was so homesick. I should have gone to St. Louis. At Berkeley I suffered a catastrophe that set me back. One of my professors, who was and still is very famous both for his scholarship and his habit of sleeping with his students, raped me and then threatened to destroy my career if I told anyone about it.
Yes, it was rape. He pushed himself on me and I said no. He said, “you American women say no when you mean yes” and then did what he wanted to. I deadened my mind. I was 23 years old and taking a course with him. I wrote a crap paper on Pride and Prejudice. He gave me an A.
I dropped out of graduate school for 8 years, during which time I wrote legislation and speeches for a U.S. Congresswoman, and became the Assistant Director of Government Affairs and Director of State Affairs at New York University, taught part-time at Vassar College, got married, and had a baby. I returned to graduate school when my son was 2, whizzed through the program and got a job my first time out on the market.
My marriage did not survive my academic career, and my academic career did not survive my separation from my son. I became so depressed living apart from him that I could not focus fully on my work, even though I spent all my time doing it. My manuscript is about 600 pages long. Much of it is quite good. I loved writing it but could not figure out how to finish it, nor could I see the point of publishing it, other than to jump through the hoop I had to clear to get tenure. No one would read it. It no longer seemed to be a means to effect positive change in the world.
I left the university and started to volunteer full-time as a legal advocate for women whose boyfriends, husbands, and fathers routinely demean and beat them up. Now I’m trying to get a women’s center going in Nepal. It’s not quite the glamorous life I had imagined. I fantasized about saving Nepali girls from the clutches of slave-traders and pimps, policing the borders and invading illegal orphanages to rescue forgotten children.
Yet every morning I help little girls who used to be slaves get ready for school. They greet me at the gate of the orphanage, kiss and clutch my hands and pull me into play with them.
And don’t forget that the GOP and all the others who want to kill Planned Parenthood are against Planning For Parenthood. They don’t want us to be able to plan our pregnancies. They want to force us to bear unwanted pregnancies; they want to keep us poor, and unfree, and oppressed. Here’s what one woman is doing to make a difference.
I have begun volunteering my time and skills at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh in their legal advocacy program. The work is challenging, fascinating, and compelling. Working here I feel the same exhilaration that I have when leading discussion on feminist topics in the university classroom. This is the work I want to do. In many ways it is more satisfying than teaching, because I know that everything I do or say will immediately affect another person’s life. This factor also makes the work daunting and pleasantly challenging.
In the classroom, I teach women and men to think critically about the formation and practice of gender in the world. I ask them to consider the structures and institutions that have shaped their identities and their choices in the world: their families, their churches, their schools, their governments, their workplaces.
As a legal advocate, I work to support women who have suffered intimate partner violence and taken the first step to protect themselves and her children. I guide each woman through the confusing and intimidating legal system. I urge her to make her own choices, after thinking critically about her options and their consequences. Obviously, the woman sitting and weeping across from me with blackened eyes and broken facial bones neither needs nor deserves a lecture on gender and prejudice. What she needs is my support, my compassion, and my discretion. I have to set aside my own prejudices and cultural expectations, and respect her as the person who best knows what will keep her safe, and what she really wants. (Note: I am not yet fully trained in this job, and therefore am only describing the position as I understand it after observing other advocates in action.)
So, here’s how I see the parallel, the similarity, between what I do in the classroom and in the anterooms of the court: in both places I am trying to get people to think for themselves and to understand that they have choices about how they live in the world. Of course, when teaching people to think about gender and sexuality as social constructs, identities created and enforced over a long period of time, I am asking them to consider themselves on an abstract and esoteric level. When I am working with women as a legal advocate, I am teaching them to think about the court system, the laws pertaining to their situation, and the consequences of their and their abusers’ actions, so I am working on a much more concrete, practical level. But in both situations my single, driving goal is to enable each individual to speak and choose for herself. In both situations I am working to support the subjectivity, the active agency, of another person.
Although I will not bring up the topic of gender as an abstract concept when I’m working with a woman who has been beaten, stalked, harassed, raped, stabbed, assaulted, or threatened by an abuser, she will often raise questions about sexual prejudice and common myths about how men and women are supposed to behave. She will often say, “I don’t have to take this,” or “he thinks he has the right to control me,” or she will name some of the common insults that men hurl at women in order to demean and manipulate them. One doesn’t need a college education, or even a high school degree, to understand that when men physically or emotionally abuse women, they are acting out of contempt for women.
Obviously, intimate partner violence is not limited to heterosexual couples, nor is the male partner in a heterosexual relationship always the aggressor, but men commit the overwhelming percentage of intimate partner violence incidents against women. As the Pennsylvania Coalition of Domestic Violence states,
Domestic violence can happen to people of all racial, economic, educational, religious backgrounds and in heterosexual and same gender relationships. While both men and women may be victims of domestic violence, research shows that the overwhelming majority of adult victims are women and that domestic violence is a major cause of injury to women.
The underlying cause of intimate partner violence–and victims’ greatest enemy–is masculinism, the wholly arbitrary and erroneous belief that male beings are inherently superior to female beings and that, therefore, men justly have greater political, social, economic, legal, spiritual and psychological rights than women.
Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to vote or drive, women in this country enjoy many of the same privileges that men do. What we often forget is that women had to fight hard for these rights. We still have not managed to elect a woman to the Executive branch, and very few State governors are female. The GOP is currently waging a “war on women” and seem to care more about shutting down funding for programs that provide medical care, food, shelter and education primarily to poor women than about any other political agenda. A right-wing, mostly Christian minority has recently had great success in rolling back women’s hard-won right to sovereignty over their own bodies. These “forced-birthers” want to force women to bear children against their will, even if pregnancy will kill them, and have introduced legislation to make the murder of an abortion provider a justifiable homicide. As Amanda Marcotte notes, “It’s hard to overstate how much Republican energy is invested in bringing the uteruses of America under right-wing control.”
Moreover, we too often forget that our male-dominated legislature still actively opposes adding this language to the Constitution of the United States of America:
Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
Yes, that is the entire text of the Equal Rights Amendment. Finding it hard to believe that we have still failed to pass this protection against sex discrimination? Consider this also unbelievable fact: every 30 seconds, a man batters a woman in the United States. See if you can figure out the connection.
The Mis-representation of Women in the Media, Or, Insidious Violence Against Human Beings Gendered Feminine is the subject of today’s rant, and it is prompted by Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s documentary, Miss Representation:
We’ve seen many of these images before, of course, but not while thinking about them as Newsome allows us to. She skillfully juxatposes the pornographic male gaze with a more honest look at actual women and girls. Seeing these images out of context, away from the narratives that lull us to sleep, or encourage us to buy products, or vote the way particular corporate interests direct us to think about ourselves as women or men, allows us to understand how they damage us.
Distorted and insulting portraits of women as sex objects for men to use, deride, revile, and torment with abandon express the fantasies of adolescent porn addicts. Sut Jhally makes a similar point in his compelling Dreamsworlds 3: Sex and Power in Music Video. These phantasms of the misogynist mind do real harm because they seep into the collective unconscious and register there as accurate, acceptable, even laudable. That is why we see eleven year-olds vamping up in sexy outfits and heavy makeup and housewives taking up pole-dancing, or imagining that such activities are appropriate and authentic means of self-expression, even artistry, and that dressing and behaving like slaves will garner them genuine love, affection, companionship.
These perverted images do not directly rape women, but they do a symbolic violence that is as devastating and long-lasting as rape, and this symbolic violence, this grotesque representation of women as sex-starved sluts desperate for male attention, or as “bitches” or “dykes” when they refuse to defer to men and stand up for themselves, leads to actual, physical violence. This symbolic violence encourages men to rape and to brutalize women, and then trivializes these horrific crimes.
Media symbols of degraded femininity do real violence not only because they broadcast a particularly narrow and misogynist message, but also because they reinforce the underlying patriarchal structure of our society. They reiterate the male/female dichotomies that organize our culture and guide the way that we learn to understand ourselves narrowly as masculine or feminine, rational or irrational, subject or object, light or dark, good or bad.
As my favorite Spinster Aunt at I Blame the Patriarchy notes, femininity is not inherent or natural, but rather a way of being that is acquired, developed, within a patriarchal and heterosexist culture:
That’s right. Femininity is not a natural expression of femaleness. It is not an hereditary, hormone-based fascination for fashion, submissiveness, mani-peddies, baby-soft skin, or catfighting. It is not a fun-loving lifestyle choice. Femininity is a rigid system of behaviors imposed on us by the Global Accords Governing the Fair Use of Women as a means to control, subjugate, and marginalize us, entirely at our expense, for the benefit of the male-controlled megatheocorporatocracy.
While some people believe that
the practice of femininity is but one facet of an exciting smorgasbord…of lifestyle choices available to today’s busy autonomous gal-on-the-go. They feel that “choosing” feminine conduct is an act of feminist rebellion, on the grounds that the choicing is entirely the chooser’s own personal idea. They aver that femininity can be an expression of a woman’s personal personality, and that it is “fun.” It is irrelevant, apparently, that femininity just happens to align precisely with the pornified desires, yucky fetishes, and vulgar business interests of the entire dudely culture of domination.
…It’s so much easier to go with the flow and comfy up with the familiar old gender stereotypes than it is to come to grips with the fact that our woman-hating world order enforces femininity with a rigorous system of hollow, joyless rewards and uncompromising, murderous punishments, and that the enforcement of feminine behavior is a global humanitarian crisis.
Twisty has it right. The enforcement of feminine behavior–feminine as defined by the media who pander to adolescent porn-addled male fantasies, which the media reinforces and sustains in order to perpetuate itself–is a global humanitarian crisis because women constitute more than 50 per cent of the global population and women across the world have been under siege for thousands of years, since patriarchy was invented.
Feel like watching another video? Check out this great ad by the Dove Self-Esteem fund:
Feel better now? No? The director is sending an message, but also shows us how the media assaults us in order to manipulate us! It blasts away at us every day all the time. Actual men assault actual women every day, all the time, too. Officially estimated, men rape women and girls every 15 seconds in this country, and 1 in 4 women has been or will be sexually violated in her lifetime. But when you consider the whole picture of Intimate Partner Violence, it is no overstatement to say that every single second of every single day multiple men demean, insult, harass, beat, rape, and assault women or girls they know.
I volunteer at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, which is one of the oldest and best-respected institutions of its kind. Please consider supporting them. They need your help very much.
Because of the economic crisis in this country, battering has increased at the very same time that funding for crisis shelters has dried up. The GOP’s war on women and disingenuous and foolish campaign to slash federal money for all agencies that offer support, medical assistance, and psychological care for women (Planned Parenthood, WIC and Head Start are all under attack) will make the situation worse. This is not to say that poor people commit domestic violence at higher rates than the rich. Men of every station, race, income level, and education batter and abuse women with impunity in this country. The media, which makes billions of dollars portraying women in disturbingly demeaned and perverted roles, encourages this criminal abuse.
Speak out. Represent yourself, in all your complex gender-bending beauty.
A new study, reported by the New York Times, dramatically challenges the prevailing, Darwinian understanding of human social development. Not “natural selection” but cooperative behavior influenced the structure of early human societies. This view has profound feminist implications because it contradicts Darwin’s assumption that early human societies formed around dominant men competing with other men for women.
Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago. The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path.
Anthropologists have assumed until now that hunter-gatherer bands consist of people fairly closely related to one another, much as chimpanzee groups do, and that kinship is a main motive for cooperation within the group. Natural selection, which usually promotes only selfish behavior, can reward this kind of cooperative behavior, called kin selection, because relatives contain many of the same genes.
A team of anthropologists led by Kim S. Hill of Arizona State University and Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri analyzed data from 32 living hunter-gatherer peoples and found that the members of a band are not highly related. Fewer than 10 per cent of people in a typical band are close relatives…
Darwin did not assert that human beings split off from chimps, but rather that we are “descended from some ape-like creature,” (Origin of Species, Penguin, 658). More than 30 million years ago, our ancestors belonged to the same group that included the lines that would develop into Gibbons, Orangutans, Gorillas, Bonobos, and Chimps. We are genetically far closer to Bonobos and Chimps than we are to Gibbons, Orangutans and Gorillas. Modern-day Chimps and Bonobos are more closely related to one another than modern day humans are to either group, although we are significantly closer genetically to Bonobos than we are to Chimps. There is very little reason to assume that contemporary chimpanzee behavior and social structure offer us a portrait of ancient human societies, but this has not stopped mainstream scientists–nearly all of them men–from doing it.
Scientists are not immune to the gendered assumptions that dominate the cultures in which they acquire their knowledge, as feminist scholars such as Emily Martin, Donna Harraway, and Londa Schiebinger have repeatedly demonstrated. The assumption that early human societies resembled contemporary chimpanzee societies, which are dominated by males who remain in the group and fight with males of outlying groups for mates, has helped to codify the erroneous but deeply entrenched belief that male domination is “natural” and intrinsic to the species.
Evolutionary biologists who base their assumptions about human nature on chimpanzee societies have reinforced Charles Darwin’s sexist theory of natural selection, which states that men did the majority of the work in the early struggle for survival in the wild. According to Darwin, ancient (he says “savage”) men were far smarter than women:
The chief distinction in the intellectual power of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman–whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of senses and hands. (Origin of Species, 629)
Darwin offers absolutely no evidence for this argument other than the specious theory of natural selection, which postulates that the “strongest and boldest men” fought with one another for “wives” and got to pass on their genes, and that
the characters gained will have been transmitted more fully to the male than to the female offspring…Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman (Origin of Species, 630-31)
This unscientific assumption is part and parcel of Darwin’s fantastic belief that men are primarily responsible for survival, i.e., that they furnished food and shelter while women sat around nursing their babies or staring stupidly at their feet. This view of ancient human society has been completely debunked by studies of ancient and modern hunter-gathering societies, which show that women most likely invented tools for cutting, weaving, cooking, fire-burning, and food gathering. Women are also most likely the ones who invented and perfected traps for small game, which could be set around the dwelling area. The myth of the cave man hunting down the Mammoth so that mamma and the kids could eat is nothing more than a myth, since archaeologists such as Margaret Conkey and Joan Gero, have shown that hunter-gatherer societies subsist largely on gathered nuts, roots, foliage, fruit, and fish, and that game was a rare addition to a mostly vegetarian diet. [Indeed, even that most unscientific of unscientific documents that lend credence to the fantasy of original patriarchy suggests that human beings originally eschewed meat: Genesis 1:29-30.] So there is actually much more archaeological and anthropological evidence that women and men contributed equally to survival.
This latest anthropological study corroborates the view that, for 90 per cent of the time that human beings have been human beings–100,000 years, we lived in hunter-gathering groups of diverse and distantly related men and women who shared power and work equally. Instead of assuming that contemporary chimpanzee society illustrates ancient human society, it studies contemporary hunter-gatherers for evidence of how our ancestors lived and developed. The Darwinian myth imagines that humans banded around dominant males who selected their kin through fighting, and that humans, like chimpanzees, cooperate with one another in the group but are largely hostile to out-lying groups. (This story never made sense to me, since I could never understand how human beings could survive and develop complex cultures through war-mongering, which is essentially suicidal.) What Kim Hill, Robert Walker and their associates have suggested makes is far more believable. Contemporary hunter-gatherers, both male and female move around from tribe to tribe. Moreover, as primatologist Bernard Chapais has shown, the pair bond between a human female and male allowed people to recognize their relatives, which is something that chimps cannot do very well. Family members that disperse to neighboring bands would recognize and cooperate with one another, instead of fighting with one another, as chimps do.
Cooperation, not competition, is key to survival and development. As the NYT reports,
Hunter-gatherers probably lived as tribes split into many small bands of 30 or so people. Group selection could possibly act at the level of the tribe, Dr. Hill said, meaning that tribes with highly cooperative members would prevail over those that were less cohesive. …
A hunter-gatherer, because of cooperation between bands, may interact with a thousand individuals in his tribe. Because humans are unusually adept at social learning, including copying useful activities from others, a large social network is particularly effective at spreading and accumulating knowledge.
While this study in particular does not speculate about power-sharing between men and women in ancient human societies, it corroborates the argument that male domination of women is a relatively recent development in human history. The oldest Neolithic cities that we have unearthed, in Catal Höyük and Asikli, indicate that thousands of people lived together without any centralized architecture and no division of labor. They were sedentary but not necessarily agricultural, and they traded with distant cities. Figurines of voluptuous female bodies have prompted some scholars to maintain that the societies that lived in these cities 6,000 and 7,000 years B.C.E. were matriarchal, but Gerda Lerner and other feminists have made a much more convincing argument for an egalitarian civilization.
Though you have done nothing shameful, they will want you to be ashamed. They will want you to kneel and weep and say you should have been like them. And once you say you are ashamed, reading the page they hold out to you, then such light as you have made in your history will leave you. They will no longer need to pursue you. You will pursue them, begging forgiveness. They will not forgive you. There is no power against them. It is only candor that is aloof from them, only an inward clarity, unashamed, that they cannot reach. Be ready. When their light has picked you out and their questions are asked, say to them: "I am not ashamed." A sure horizon will come around you. The heron will begin his evening flight from the hilltop. From "Do Not Be Ashamed" by Wendell Barry
When I was 17 years old I decided to have sex with my first serious boyfriend, who was very nice Catholic boy at my public high school. He was sweet and we were in love. My parents, a doctor and the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, were really cool and had been quite open with me about reproduction and sex since I was about 3, but I still didn’t want them to know. It wasn’t really their business. I was going to have sex and I knew the consequences. I didn’t want to get pregnant and I didn’t want to contract a disease, so we were going to use contraception. We did what lots of my peers did. We went down to Planned Parenthood for free contraception, which we got after going through some mandatory sex education classes. We had to wait about a week, I guess, in order to get started. We waited. We protected ourselves most of the time. But we were in love and heat and so we slipped once or twice.
My mother was the one who figured it out. I had been throwing up in the mornings for a couple of days, and she announced, in a matter-of-fact and slightly disgusted voice: “you’re pregnant.” Of course I was going to have an abortion. My parents were certainly not going to let me have a baby, and I knew I wasn’t ready. I had taken care of my sister since she was born and had a very good grasp of how much work, money, and commitment was involved, and I knew I wasn’t old enough to take it on by myself. Being pregnant felt a lot like being infected with a horrible disease. I was sick and wanted the source of the nausea out, fast. I didn’t think I had a “baby” inside of me. I knew very well that, at about six weeks, what was growing was a mass of cells about 1/6 of an inch long and presently much more like an insect or a worm than a human being.
My parents were Seventh-Day Adventists from a medical family who themselves had come from pragmatic farm folk. An abortion of a human fetus in the first trimester was not a lot different from the abortion of an unwanted litter of kittens: regrettable and sad, but necessary. Unfortunate, not tragic. My parents made me and my boyfriend pay for the procedure to teach us to be more careful in the future.
I was, for the most part. But I was also extremely fertile, I guess, because I got pregnant again, at college, with my second serious boyfriend. That time, I recognized the symptoms all by myself and escaped the serious disapproval and lectures that would have come from my mother and father. They would not have berated me for having sex, or for having to get another abortion, but rather for being careless and stupid. They didn’t need to scold me about this, because I had already internalized them well enough to lambast myself. I felt that I had been reckless, irresponsible, and foolish, not just with my own life but also with life itself, with the potential life growing within me. I did not choose lightly or cavalierly, but also did not think that I had been immoral or that it terminating it was anything like murder. I had been thinking a lot about infanticide, ironically, since I was currently reading all of Euripides and had become especially enthralled with Medea. I toyed romantically and self-destructively with the idea of myself as a Medea but never really believed my own hype.
My problem was that I was broke. I had the luxury of attending school full-time without having to take a job for expenses, but my parents sent me only the bare minimum that I needed for books, pens, paper, and food. So I had to figure out a way to pay for the abortion without having to tell my parents. I was really, really lucky. My scientifically minded, pro-choice Republicans parents would have excoriated me for my idiocy and made me feel a lot worse than I already did, but they weren’t going to disown me or treat me as a pariah, as many much more conservative parents would have done. Also, in California during the early 1980s it was still possible to get a state-funded abortion if you could prove that you had financial need. I did. The State paid and I went on with my life. I found the procedure somewhat grisly, and emotionally exhausting and very, very sad, but I really didn’t think I had done anything particularly evil. It would have been far worse to give birth to a child and release him or her into the uncertain fate of adoption, or try to take care of a kid that I resented and wasn’t mature or economically steady enough to support in a positive and wholesome environment.
I’m really lucky. No one shamed me. No monsters stood outside the clinic and screamed names at me. No judge forced me to develop a fertilized egg that I didn’t want in my body. No one wrote nasty letters or emails to me. No one denounced me. No one made me feel bad about myself for taking what I knew was the most responsible and ethical decision for me at the time. No one threatened to kill me or the doctor who performed the operation.
The next time I got pregnant I meant to. I got really sick again–but it was, as a dear friend and ob-gyn told me, “a good sick.” I did not enjoy being pregnant. I felt invaded by an alien life form. I had been invaded by an alien life form, albeit one who shared some of my genes. But I choose to bring it to term, and I was very lucky that he turned out to be healthy and beautiful and himself. I was ready for him–although it still seemed too soon.
If you have had an abortion, please do not feel ashamed. You have done nothing wrong. Do not listen to those who would take your light away.
Christian extremists have not quite taken hold of the country, but they pose an emergent, lethal threat to women, men, and children in the United States of America. They do not constitute the majority of Americans, who largely trust women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. Nevertheless, a vocal and fiercely religious minority have gained ground in state and federal legislatures and in right-wing media conglomerates such as Fox News and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, which host women-haters and homophobes on a regular basis. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe that contraception is good for society, and most think that in most circumstances abortion should be legal. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes contraception, and a variety of evangelical Protestant organizations have helped to elect politicians now in national and state offices. The legislation that these Christian extremists support would severely harm women, girls, children and men by preventing them from receiving vital STD screenings, routine gynecological care, contraception, and information about safe sex. They also present dangerous precedents for legalizing excessive government intrusion into private life. They would allow the State to regulate human bodies as it has never done before and force women to remain pregnant, even if the pregnancy would kill them. Consider the most recent legislation that candidates supported by Christian extremists have proposed or passed in Congress:
- The Pence amendment: the continuing resolution on the national budget, which was passed by the House, includes an amendment that would eliminate all funding for Title X family planning, even though none of this money funds abortions. The Congresswomen and men who voted for this resolution officially declared their opposition to programs that currently provide poor women with gynecological care, pap smears, HIV and other STD testing, cancer screenings, contraception and information about safe sexual practices.
- H.R. 358, also known as the “Let Women Die Act,” sponsored by right-winger Joe Pitts (R-PA) and 137 other Representatives, encourages emergency rooms to let women die rather than perform abortions that would save their lives, urges providers to refuse to offer training or referrals related to abortion, and, most infamously, redefines rape in such a way that would exclude most sexual attacks.
- H.R. 3, introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and 209 co-sponsors, would require the IRS to monitor and impose tax burdens on Americans whose PRIVATE insurance covers abortion. As NOW observes: “ In testifying in favor of this bill in committee, a representative from the Catholic bishops proudly supported revoking abortion rights even in cases of rape. You read that right — and isn’t that rich, coming from the very men who have consistently protected sexually abusive priests?”
- H.R. 217, sponsored by Christian extremist Mike Pence (R-IN) and 168 other Representatives, is another version of the Pence amendment. It may die in Committee, but it will live and become law the U.S. Catholic Bishops and other Protestant groups have their way.
Recent action promoted by Christian extremists in the State legislatures
- South Dakota: Be grateful if you don’t live in South Dakota, where Christian extremists tried to legalize the assassination of abortion providers and have shut down all but one abortion clinic. On Tuesday the House passed a bill (49-19) that would force women who go to this last refuge to endure “counseling” designed to discourage them from having an abortion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is agonizing enough for most women who must make it, but South Dakota extremists want to make choice even more unpleasant for women by imposing a 72-hour waiting period between the time that they meet with their doctors and have an abortion. If this bill passes, State will incur approximately $1 million in legal costs defending it in court.
- Nebraska: The Christian extremists nextdoor have introduced a bill nearly identical to the one that stalled in South Dakota, defining the murder of anyone who supports abortion a “justifiable homicide.” State Senator and devout Protestant Mark Christensen, who opposes abortion in all circumstances, including rape, introduced this legislation, L.B. 232, this week. Melissa Grant of Planned Parenthood told the Nebraska State Judiciary Committee that this bill “authorizes and protects vigilantes, and that’s something that’s unprecedented in our society.”
- Virginia: A state Senate bill introduced today would effectively close 17 of the 21 abortion clinics in Virginia by redefining all facilities that provide first-trimester procedures “hospitals” and subject them to a slew of cumbersome and unnecessary regulations. These providers are already subject to state regulations but this bill would impose burdensome stipulations that similar medical providers in the state do not have to meet. This legislation is likely to pass.
- Pennsylvania: The State of Pennsylvania unfairly requires teens under the age of 18 to get their parents’ consent before having an abortion. If they are unable or afraid to get their parent’s consent, they can bypass the regulation by going through the courts. The legislation does not grant the judge to force a teen to remain pregnant against her will, but a recently elected Allegheny State Judge thinks it does. Judge Philip Ignelzi recently ruled that a girl just shy of her 18th birthday may not have an abortion, even though abortion is still legal in this country. We must not underestimate the great psychological and physical burden that this judge has just imposed on a young woman in our supposedly free country.
- Georgia: Woman-hating State Representative Bobby Franklin (R), who wants all rape victims to be called “accusers,” introduced legislation that would not only label all abortions “fetal murder” but require the police to investigate every miscarriage as a potential homicide. Hospitals would be required to keep records on and investigate every single spontaneous death. A Uterus Police? What’s next? A regulatory apparatus to test the daily flow of women having their periods to insure that they haven’t unwittingly discharged “baby” parts, also known as fertilized eggs or zygotes?
- Florida: Republican candidate for Mayor of Jacksonville and devout Baptist Mike Hogan confessed, in a Catholic Church in Mandarin that he would not bomb an abortion clinic ”but it may cross my mind.” The congregation applauded.
We do not yet force women to veil themselves from head to toe, prohibit them from reading, or exclude them from public office, but if Christian extremists who seek to impose their private, religious views on the rest of us get their way, we could soon find ourselves living in a society not unlike the Republic of Gilead imagined in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale Amanda Marcotte, who thinks a lot like I do, already made this rather obvious and somewhat overblown point. Nevertheless it is worth remembering that bad things happen to people who refuse to speak out against injustice. As Offred (Of Fred) recalls in Atwood’s important 1986 novel:
We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance. You have to work at it. Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it. There were stories in the newspapers, of course, corpses in ditches or the woods, bludgeoned to death or mutilated, interfered with, as they used to say, but they were about other women, and the men who did such things were other men. None of then were the men we knew. The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others. How awful, we would say, and they were, but they were awful without being believable. They were too melodramatic, they had a dimension that was not the dimension of our lives (Anchor, 1998: 56-57).
The debate over abortion has much to do with religion, but it shouldn’t. On one side there are the pro-choice people, who may be Christians or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or atheists, but who do not want to impose their beliefs on other people. They think women have the right to make their own decisions about their reproduction. On the other side are the extremists who are eager–desperate, even–to impose their religious views on everyone else. They do not trust women to make their own ethical choices. Curiously, these very same “forced-birthers” also very often claim to be against the expansion of government and for a fiscal responsibility. Yet they can’t stop themselves from introducing obviously unconstitutional legislation that would grossly broaden the State’s powers and that wastes everyone’s time and taxpayers’ money in the legal system. This legislation is not only irresponsible, as Rep. Jackie Speiers (D-CA) reminded Chris Smith and other Christian extremists who would have put her in jail for having a late-abortion of a fetus that her uterus had already rejected. ”What does this have to do with reducing the deficit?” she asked. ”Nothing at all.” This legislation is not only sponsored by ignorant, bigoted men and women who have nothing but contempt for the black “babies” they claim to be saving, as Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) pointed out during the same floor debate. Moore thundered:
I just want to tell you what it’s like not to have planned parenthood. … You have to give your kids ramen noodles at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry. You have to give them mayonnaise sandwiches. They get very few fruits and vegetables because they’re expensive. It subjects children to low educational attainment because of the ravages of poverty.
Feminist bloggers save my sanity. And their brilliant arguments against the latest spate of women-hating legislation deserve your attention. I’m going to be posting a series of notes that call your attention to some of the best feminist responses to the political efforts of the religious right in Congress:
Consider this: Republicans and other Forced-Birthers have been complaining about recent efforts to require health insurance to cover birth control. You can read about the “robust controversy” in the New York Times, if you like, or you can read Echidne of the Snakes, who notes
The conservatives are very much opposed to contraception, at least in women’s hands. Different groups in the conservative base have different reasons for opposing full coverage of contraceptives. The traditional“stay-out-of-my-wallet” people don’t want to pay for anything which might benefit some “other” group.
Sometimes that is taken to extremes, as was the case with the Republican politician who couldn’t understand why he would have to pay higher insurance premia so that pregnancy care could be covered. He can’t, after all, get pregnant himself! And was presumably born through some sort of amoebic cell division himself.
That covering contraceptives fully might actually save tax-payers money in the long-run is the possible counter-argument to all this. Or I guess we could argue that prostate care shouldn’t be covered by women’s premia, that those of us who don’t drive should not have our insurance premia raised by the care of drivers who got into car accidents, that those of us who don’t ski should not be expected to cover the cost of downhill skiing accidents and so on. The whole insurance system unravels if go thataway.
Thanks to William Gay. His touchdown in the last game cinched a tense, drawn-out conflict. The cornerback also tops the list of Rising Sports Stars to watch in February, 2011.
When Mr. Gay was eight years old, his stepfather murdered his mother. Although his grief and rage might have driven him to despair, his inner strength–the quality that makes him truly manly, and great, saw him through.
Watch and listen to his amazing story here, and here:
“I feel I am born again,” Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi told an American reporter, who bumped in to her in Tahrir Square. The 80-year old woman along with thousands of other peaceful demonstrators, was planning to spend the night in the square. Like everything else she has done, this was a brave and bold decision. Mubarak’s monsters, the secret police, were then roaming the streets with nail-studded boards, hunting photographers, journalists, and human rights activists, and beating anyone who tried to make it into the Square.
Dr. Sadaawi, a fierce feminist, novelist, medical doctor, psychiatrist, has faced down imprisonment, death threats, attempts to strip her of her nationality, and the persecution of her family, all in the name of liberty for all human beings. For nearly half a century she has campaigned against female genital circumcision– genital circumcision (a bloody practice in which a girl’s clitoris and inner labia are sliced off with a knife, often without painkillers). Because she spoke out against this barbaric practice, and published a non-fiction book, Women and Sex, in 1972, that mentioned it, the Egyptian Ministry of Health fired her from her position as Director of Public Health. The government charged her with crimes against the state and jailed her for three months in 1981. Death threats in 1993 forced her to flee her country. She returned to Cairo in 2009. Since then, officials frightened by her thoughts on religion have attempted, unsuccessfully, to strip her of her nationality and forcibly to dissolve her marriage.
She has long advocated the separation of church and state, arguing that religious beliefs oppress women and impede democracy. She founded the Global Solidarity for Secular Society out of her conviction, which I share, that religion should be separate from all public education and laws. In an interview with The Guardian, she explained,
I am very critical of all religions…We, as women, are oppressed by all these religions.…
There is a backlash against feminism all over the world today because of the revival of religions…We have had a global and religious fundamentalist movement.
And what does feminism mean for her?
For me feminism includes everything…It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.
One of the most remarkable things about the phenomenon taking place in Egypt right now–and across the Arab world–is that the movement has no clear leaders. What drives it is not a set of rules, or laws, or religious commands, but rather a something much deeper and more humane than this, something deeply human, the longing to be free, to be able to live peaceably with one another, to embrace, to love, to work, to eat, to walk, to be alive in the world without dictators, or oppressive rules that crush the spirit, without barbarism. The people, men, women, old, young, have come together to celebrate the beauty of their connection to one another as Egyptians, yes, but also as human beings, each one of whom has an inherent right to dignity, to liberty, and to think for one’s self.
When asked, in 2009, why she continued to write and speak out so controversially, in spite of the persecution and the violence that has been her reward, Dr. Saadawi said,
I cannot stop. There is no way back.
The people of Egypt are calling for their freedom. There is no way back. The will die for their liberty. How can we not support them?
She was a German erotic actor who died in her sixth breast enlargement surgery, at the age of 23:
She went under the knife for the last time at the Alster Clinic and was having 800g (28oz) of silicon injected into each breast. But her heart stopped beating during the operation. She suffered brain damage and was put into an induced coma.The tabloid’s headline read: “The senseless death of Big Brother star Cora shocks the whole of Germany. ”(Her) frail, 48kg (106lb) body struggled against death for 224 hours. She lost. Cora is dead. …Her previous five operations were reportedly done at a private clinic in Poland which refused to admit her for a sixth time.
I kept going over those weight numbers, the amount of silicone to be injected into her and her body weight. Then I started thinking about the widespread impact of heterosexual pron on what women’s breasts should look like and how we now regard artificial breasts as really the natural ones, how seeing a very thin woman with very large breasts on television now looks normal, in the sense of averages. Porn has also affected the shaving of the pubic hair.
If it has done all that, surely it must have had some impact on general interpretations of sexuality and on the roles women and men take in sex?
I think that the cultural turn towards increasingly artificial bodies would indeed affect sexual habits and roles.
Women who are willing to alter their bodies dramatically are likely to engage in degrading and humiliating acts that do not sensually stimulate themselves, but, rather, their partners. Of course, being able to excite their partners would theoretically also get them off. Presumably, they would be more stimulated by partners who fit the roles that they have learned to find exciting–wealthy, powerful, dominant. These are the very men for whom they are mutating their bodies, after all, the men for whom they (think they) live, presumably.
Or would it be more accurate to say that these women live entirely in the Gaze, permanently disconnected from themselves as subjects, and utterly and only aware of themselves as objects?
I think that porn alters the mind and sexual experience because the culture has prepared the mind to alter. We are all subject to deep and long patterns of dominant-submissive behavior that are not at all “natural” in the sense of being permanent and unalterable.
In other words, it has not always been this way. We have been humanoid, Homo Sapiens, upright, intelligent, and communal, for approximately 100,000 years. Only about 10,000 years ago did human males begin to figure out how to dominate human females. Human females learned how to cope with that arbitrary and unnatural situation in various and often freakish ways.
Sexual desire is very malleable, easily manipulated–we know this.
But at what point does the subject who is experiencing sex as an object, and nothing but an object, utterly lose herself (or himself)? At what point does the long-objectified self break down completely, in severe depression, catastrophic phobias, or addictions, or bizarre, disfiguring and self-destructive behaviors?
Coralin Berger seems to have broken down in the last sort of way. We can imagine that she at one time had a sense of herself as a person, a girl, a young woman, before she became obsessed with her body, or, rather obsessed with the notion of herself as a body, a body that needed, in her eyes, continually to be improved.
We can speculate about the forces that influenced the way that she came to think of herself. They are the forces that influence all of us: the family, the church, the schools, the juridical system, the economy. There is also the increasing power of the media that manipulates our sense of ourselves as women, as men (for some good examples, check out About Face and the film Generation M). Each one of us resists these forces to the best of our abilities.
My question is: at what point do these forces drive us completely insane? At what point does the self who struggles to think independently break down so completely that there is nothing left but a shell, thin, brittle, and driven to the operating table for the sixth and final fix?
Yes, yes, it’s all very wonderful (and I sincerely mean this) that Tawakul Karman has been released from prison. And I admire and respect her call for greater freedoms of expression and for her leadership of Women Journalists for Change. It’s hard to stand up to a government that forces women–look at them–to shroud themselves from head to toe. Look, it’s currently the fad in academic feminist circles to defend the veil and to stand up for it, which is kind of weird.
Obviously, women, all women, everywhere, ought to have the freedom to wear a veil if they want to, and I can understand the sense of freedom that one might have while walking around anonymously in public.
But the problem is that there we are not talking about women making the choice to wear the veil, but rather about a culture in which women who choose to take the veil off are made to feel like sluts. Imposing the veil on women is an ancient way of manipulating and controlling women in public.
Are the women in the photo above, Tawakul Karman’s supporters, wearing the veil to dodge police cameras or for cultural reasons? Either way, they are wearing it out of fear, fear of what would happen to them were they to show their faces and bodies in the world. Are women are wearing the veil because they “choose” to, or because they fear what will happen to them if they don’t? Karman shed her veil. Her followers may not have the luxury to do the same.
Just so you know where I stand, I think that the idiot-brained American bigots who have shamed Muslim women and girls in this country for wearing the veil are uncivilized barbarians and assholes who ought to be fined, jailed, and made to do long and tedious hours of community service for their crimes. And the French! The French have always been stupidly self-centered about their culture. If a woman wants to drape herself in black, let her. If she likes to cover her hair, so be it! We don’t go after Orthodox Jews who cover their hair with wigs. Why harrass Muslim women? Let people be as they wish to be, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone. And no one is hurt by my neighbor’s headscarf.
In response to more than 5,000 protesters, many of them women, Yemeni authorities released activist Tawakul Karman yesterday, but quickly arrested lawyer and human rights activist Khaled Al-Anesi, who had been defending Karman. Al-Anesi was arrested as he tried to reach the attorney general to explain why Karman’s arrest was illegal. Security forces rushed him and carried him, along with a number of other human rights activists, to prison.
Both Al-Anesi and Karman are reported to be in good spirits and hopeful for political change. Speaking at a rally after her release, Karman said,
We will continue our struggle until regime change happens in our happy country. We will defend order in our country, we will defend the system, the constitution, the law. The Jasmine Revolution will continue until the entire regime goes.
Karman is pressing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has dominated Yemeni politics for more than 30 years, to step down. Parliament has recently considered changing the rules of terms limits, which would allow Saleh to appoint himself president for life.
More than 1000 civilians protested the crackdown on freedom of expression outside the office of the general prosecutor. Among the protesters was Naif al-Qanes, a leader in JMP and the chairman of the political administration in The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. He was beaten and arrested this morning. [Source: Hood].
Where these protests for greater freedom of expression in Yemen will lead is hard to say. Saleh is clearly concerned, if not frightened by the civil unrest and the outrage that his government’s arrest of Karman has sparked. This morning’s New York Times reports that President Saleh, perhaps in response to these civil protests, has raised military salaries and cut taxes in half. A “Jasmine Revolution” that would bring about greater civil liberties and a more democratic government would certainly be a good thing, especially if such a government were able to rid itself of Al Qaeda in the region. The current administration in Yemen makes a show of cooperating with the US, but has not so far managed to rout the group out.
Yemen is a poor country governed by tribal powers and characterized by powerful, traditional cultural patterns. It is an unlikely spot for the blossoming of calls for greater civil rights, freedom of expression, and greater civil liberties for women by women. Tawakul Karman has blossomed here, and inspired thousands of women to follow her. She leads an organization called “Women Journalists without Chains” in a society in which women are frequently silenced and shut away.
To say this is not to argue that American women, many of whom voluntarily enslave themselves to men for economic or emotional reasons, are significantly more enlightened. Nevertheless the educational, political and economic freedoms for women are much greater in this country than they are currently in Yemen or many other Muslim countries. That American women fail to make use of these freedoms is quite another problem for a later discussion.
We are talking about Yemen. We are talking about a culture in which women are expected to remain silent and in which we see women speaking out and calling for greater freedom of expression. This is important. I am writing about it because I am hopeful and because I admire this activist. I remain troubled by her affiliation with Islah, an apparently fundamentalist party that would subject the country to a narrower, Muslim (Shariah) rule of law. I worry that the rise of this party could set women back. But for now, this woman is not stepping back.
When she got pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, the father of the child said he would have her beaten until she miscarried. Terrified, she hid from him. She eventually went back and stayed with him after the baby, a girl, was born. She stayed for years, even after he began to hit her. She was smart, educated, and never thought that she’d become one of “those women.” How did she join the substantial numbers of women in our country–one in every four–who have suffered domestic violence?
He was wealthy and powerful. She was 20 and just out of school and landed a job working as his secretary. He quickly became the center of her world. He isolated her from her friends and family. He owned the car she drove and the house she lived in. He was her boss. During the beginning of their relationship, she thought that his demands on her time were an expression of his love for her. She did not recognize the patterns of emotional and financial abuse closing around her.
When their daughter was born, Patty wanted to file with the court to ensure that he would support the child. He talked her out of it. He needed to control the situation completely. She believed him when he said he would take care of her and her child, but her fear grew.
Four years later, the little girl discovered her father strangling her mother. ”Daddy!” she screamed. He threw her mother onto a cement floor, knocking her out.
When their daughter began telling people in the neighborhood that her daddy hit her mommy, Patty tried to hush her. She was afraid of what he would do to her if he found out. But then she realized that she didn’t want her daughter to grow up thinking that it was normal and acceptable for men to treat women this way. She enrolled in counseling sessions at the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh. With the help of their legal services team, she began the long fight for her freedom.
He fired her. He took the car. He took the house. She faced homeless and poverty, but she refused to live in fear any longer. Patty found a job at a church, and later took another position in a law firm. Thanks to her determination and the support she received from the Women’s Center and Shelter, she extricated herself from her abuser, and eventually bought her own house and her own car.
Why didn’t Patty leave earlier? It’s simple. He had terrified her. Thank goodness she found help for herself. Thank goodness for the fantastic people at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh.
Domestic abusers like Patty’s boss and partner terrorize and erode their victims’ self-confidence in many ways without bruising their bodies.
- They isolate them from friends and family by pretending to care for them more than anyone else ever could.
- They threaten to withdraw their affection from the woman who has no other support system.
- They dominate their lives by controlling their finances, by setting themselves up as the sole source of income, the sole source of food, shelter, and clothing.
- They treat their victims like children, encouraging them to think that they are helpless or too stupid to take care of themselves.
- They react jealously whenever their victim shows the slightest interest in other human beings, particularly other men.
- They demand that their victims demonstrate their devotion continuously, with greater and greater displays of affection.
- They belittle their victims through allegedly harmless “jokes,” negative innuendos, and put-downs.
- They deliberately manipulate their victims with guilt trips in order to keep them under their thumbs.
The most telling sign of an abusive relationship is fear of your partner. If you find yourself walking on eggshells, worrying that the slightest mishap will set your partner off into a rage, the chances are that your relationship is abusive.
If you believe that you are in an abusive relationship, please do not hesitate to reach out for help. Immediately call the WC&S 24-hour hotline: 412-687-8005. Someone will help you.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233
What is happening in Yemen and why should we care? Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week. She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her. He has no idea where she is. “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”
Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah. She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.
With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,
she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.
Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights. She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular. She has also advocated taking off the veil. In a recent interview by WJC, she said:
I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.
Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation. In that same interview, she stated,
I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.
Will we hear from Tawakul again? Probably not, unless the international community speaks out. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women dissidents.
On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down. They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province. [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:
The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights
These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable. But will they be heard? What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?
What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years. A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations. Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.
I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen. The official name of this political party is “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen, “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: "Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party", cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].
Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women. Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion. Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa. A similar, tragic transformation took place in Iran.
To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women. Clearly, they are not. My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.
For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government. There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.
I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it. And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion. And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people. I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.
It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.
So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy. The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman. Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution. We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government. We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.