Here are some stories, reflections, quotes and experiences I’ve had which have caused me to reflect on the state of women abroad and in America. Since learning what a feminist is, namely someone who believes in the equality of men and women, I’ve identified as one and since opened my eyes to a world of sexism, misogyny and discrimination. My bones are chilled and my heart is heavy.
Feminism is believing that men and women are equal (see Emma Watson’s lovely U.N. speech on the subject here). The problem worldwide is not necessarily the black-and-white idea that men and women are not equal. It’s not as simple as women know they are oppressed and are trying to break free. There’s a barrier of culture, tradition and expectation that makes the idea of equally valuing human female life revolutionary. (See female feticide rates in India or in China or just the contrast in male vs. female literacy rates by country).
Human trafficking is just one of the many abuses against women worldwide, and often starts out less dramatically than in Taken. Women are simply sold by family members or lured to foreign countries by the prospect of jobs such as working as maids, but are instead forced into brothels where they are beaten for resisting (when that doesn’t work, perpetrators will get girls addicted to drugs). Often this takes place in countries where they do not speak the language, where they are not allowed to leave their dwelling, and where no one helps them because prostitution is so stigmatized.
More offensive, degrading practices towards women:
- Kidnapping and raping a woman who refuses to marry you to strip her of her honor in Ethiopia
- Exchanging a bride for her younger sister when her hymen doesn’t break on her wedding in Afghanistan (My source here is actually my aesthetician is from Afghanistan and knows somebody who this happened to!)
- Moral police in Iran taking you to court for being seen in public without a male relative to chaperone,
- Publically stoning a 13 or 14-year old girl to death for refusing to marry a Shabab commander in Somalia
- A husband killing his wife in Pakistan so he could marry another woman
- Acid attacks permanently scarring women’s faces in Colombia, sometimes simply for breaking off a relationship
Meena is an Indian kidnapped and trafficked into a brothel at 8- or 9-years old in Bihar, India profiled by Kristof and WuDunn. She was beaten into submission before spending years in the brothel, where she had two children that the owners had taken as hostages so that Meena couldn’t leave. Even though police officers were frequent customers and serviced for free, Meena took a chance and ran away to a police station hoping that they might take mercy on her. The officers sent her back.
My Firsthand Experiences
Seven years before I became aware of feminism, I went to Egypt with my family to visit family. I was 12. I didn’t know about culturally appropriate dress or the expected role of a woman in conservative Middle Eastern countries. I noticed women staring, but at that time I couldn’t make sense of why they would cover themselves up in this hot weather. I knew it was for religious purposes, but having grown up secularly I saw no reason to dress so modestly.
It was a busy marketplace in Cairo, filled with jewelry vendors and children selling trinkets and toys. The humidity turned my straightened hair curly again. My attire of a tank top and Soffe shorts was weather-appropriate.
A man grabbed my behind. Among the rushing, the crowds, and all the veiled faces, it was impossible to even know which direction to look. I was too stunned to act so I just stopped and looked at all the possible perpetrators… I noticed one man who was walking just a little bit too fast. Had I even been sure, I had no idea how to act.
I wish I did. I wish I knew what I know now. The appropriate action would have been to shame that man: to yell, to point, to express my disgust in anger so such acts aren’t “allowed” to happen. But I was too shocked, too surprised, too taken off-guard, too unsure if I felt what I think I really just felt.
I wish I knew Gabrielle then: my roommate in India. When she was groped at a crowded Indian festival she turned around and immediately punched him in the face. She describes his shocked and unexpected face as priceless. (I wish I saw it.) It’s the official protocol for more moments I hope I never find myself in.
I did, however, get to witness Gabrielle in action on another occasion. We once went out to ice cream Hauz Khas in Delhi, India when a man with a group of friends passed us and pinched her behind. My friend, knowing exactly what to do, immediately yelled “Hey! What the hell was that?! Don’t touch me, you—” “Sorry,” the man turned around smiling with his hands on his ears. (In India it is common to place your hands on your ears when apologizing).
Smiling. Flirtatiously. Smirking as if he knew she didn’t really mean what she said. Even though she was yelling, she really welcomed the invasion of privacy, the implication that she was not a person enough to decide who makes choices about her body.
But more terrible than watching it happen to someone else is watching it happen to yourself. First, at the school I worked at in Bisada, India, when a group of (mostly male) students gathered around me and I yelled “SPACE” as I usually did when they started to overcrowd me; instead of the gradual dispersal of the crowd I felt a prod in my behind. And instead of reporting to the principal immediately, I yelled angrily at the mysterious student and hoped for it to die down because of course who wants their butt to be the subject of school news and a possible suspension? And of course I “let” the group of boys gather around me and I didn’t act quickly or sternly enough to control their behavior. A full-fledged feminist for three years at that point, I still managed to become my own victim in a classic victim-blaming scenario. Here, too, the desire to maintain privacy and forget embarrassing situations was strong. (And it was something that used to infuriate me in the past: reading about women’s stories of rape or sexual violence, I always wished, above all, that they took action against their perpetrators who deserved punishment or public shaming). I did take action, but after the school expelled the student they retracted the expulsion when he threatened the school with gang violence. By this point, the whole school knew about the incident. And another generation of students were taught that violating a woman was not a serious matter, for some simple threatening could get you out of any real trouble.
In India, parents didn’t consistently rejoice for their daughters the way they rejoice for sons. I saw this firsthand in Bisada, a rural village about a 45-minute motorbike ride away from Delhi. One of our teachers left school to take care of her “second child.” In attending the celebration of her birth, I learned that Anju ma’am had not actually given birth to her child, but had taken her sister’s daughter because her sister didn’t want to keep the girl. They had a pre-arranged agreement that only if a boy were born would the sister keep the baby.
By the time this baby shower happened, the gender selection wasn’t even shocking to me. I saw it everyday in the classroom. My school had students from kindergarten to 10th grade, and as the class got higher (and fees became more expensive), you saw less and less females. All of the students who could “afford” cell phones happened to be males. Families spent more on males because they were simply worth more in their eyes. Girls weren’t worth the extra tuition, the extra milk, the cost of an extra vaccine…
Girls were valued too little to be trusted with decisions like who they should marry or what, or who, happens to their bodies. Females needed to be taught a lesson for going out late with a man who is not family, as five men “taught” Jyoti Singh in December of 2012.
The Most Recent, Well-Documented & Publicized Atrocious Rape in India
Jyoti was a medical student from a poor village. She was a harbinger of hope for the impoverished family, working diligently so that she could support them one day. Early on and contrary to Indian tradition, she told her parents to put the fees saved for her wedding towards her tuition instead.
Before she was able to practice physiotherapy however, she was sexually violated and brutalized when she went to see Life of Pi with a male friend of hers. In what is now known as the infamous 2012 Delhi gang rape, five men took turns raping Jyoti and pulling out her intestines before she died days later in a Singaporean hospital.
I watched Leslee Udwin interview these men and their lawyers in her BBC documentary India’s Daughter when it came out in March 2015. I had just returned from India at this point. Outraged and impassioned by the film, I could not even discuss it with my friends in Delhi. They were unable to watch it because the Indian government banned it because it could “threaten public order.”
Horrible India’s Daughter Quotes
“[Rape’s] just like that kind of action. Beat him. Put his hand forcefully inside.” – M. L Sharma, one of the rapists’ defense lawyers.
“If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” – AP Singh, another of the rapists’ defense lawyers.
“A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” — Mukesh, one of the convicted rapists.
Short American Rant
Whether you live in India or any other country in the world, don’t take girls for granted. In America, we still have an unacceptable gender pay gap, and abysmal rates of reporting rape and convicting rapists. Need I remind readers that a six-term member of Congress, Todd Akin, argued that women that were raped had a mechanism for somehow blocking the unwanted pregnancy? Or the Steubenville case, in which two teenage football players raped an unconscious young woman, posted the video on social media, and then pleaded the girl not to press charges so that his football career would not be damaged. Most recently, adult film star Stoya accused James Deen of raping her despite her clearly telling him “no, stop, [and] used my safeword.” In a refreshingly positive light, the porn industry quickly believed the accusations and dropped him as a performer. From that same article, I like this segment, helping us to understand what kind of women are often victimized and why:
Part of the reason that rape is hard to prove is that sexist fairytales about what constitutes consent infect judges and juries just as much as the general public. Of the many myths about sexual violence, the most pernicious is that women routinely lie about it. That’s not true; the rates of false reporting for rape and sexual assault are estimated to be around the same as rates of false reporting for any other crime – the current figure is anywhere between 0.2% and 8%. Men are actually more likely to be victims of rape themselves than they are to be falsely accused of it.
Rapists rely on these myths, often targeting women and girls who they know will be too scared to come forward, or who will not be believed. That means women of color, young girls, and sex workers. Former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is currently on trial for allegedly stalking and raping 13 black women and girls, some of whom had previous arrest records for sex work. Serial rapists target the young, the vulnerable and sex workers, knowing how hard it is even for women deemed ‘respectable’ to be taken seriously.
But Most Importantly, Hope Lies in the Proles…
Change starts with you. Believing someone who has confided in you, or gone public wither story, is something small you can do to make this world a more gender-equal and less hostile place to be a woman.
- Be an informed citizen. Make sure all your friends know about what a terrible problem gender inequality is, especially in the developing world but also in America. Change cannot happen before awareness does. This includes pressuring, or pressurizing as they say in India, politicians to care more about these issues. As Kristof wrote in Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunities for Women Worldwide, “When India feels that the West cares as much about slavery as it does about pirated DVDs, it will dispatch people to the borders to stop traffickers.” Let’s make sure our government knows we care about women’s rights and safety because the U.S. government isn’t doing enough and won’t until we all demand it. (Namely: that guard telling Nicholas Kristof that he prioritizes trafficked DVDs over women because American companies have a larger stake in pirated cinema). The CARE Action Network (www.can.care.org), can assist you in “speaking out, educating policy makers, and underscoring that the public wants against poverty and injustice.”
- Know that your words matter. They are important and shape culture. Sexist language makes sexism more real. Don’t say “you hit like a girl” or “don’t be a girl.” Think about why women “lose” their virginity yet men “take” someone’s virginity. Anything which demeans, degrades or dehumanize women makes it easier to devalue or violate them.
- Laugh so you don’t cry. Watch John Oliver covering women’s issues here or here.
Suggestions from Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn, taken from Half the Sky – all of which can be done in the next four minutes:
- Open an account and www.globalgiving.org and support a grassroots project that focuses on education (which allows a woman better job opportunities, rather than only sex work and the stigma or sexually transmitted diseases that comes with it) or www.kiva.org, where you can support women to start their own business and earn an income independently, again without having to resort to brothel work.
- Sponsor a girl or a woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service. You can exchange letters with your sponsors and even visit them, as Kristof & WuDunn have in the Philippines, Sudan, and the Dominican Republic.
- Sign up for e-mail updates on www.womensnews.org or www.worldpulse.com, which distribute information about abuses of women and sometimes advise actions that readers can take to help these women.
Sarah is a lover of words, foreign films and gastronomic delights. She currently resides in New Jersey, where she is making the most of her gap year before continuing her education. Follow her on Twitter.