This week has had me thinking a lot about violence against women. Last Wednesday I attended a screening of Saving Face, the Oscar award winning documentary co-directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, that brings to light the unconscionable practice of acid burning and earlier this week I read the cover story in the newest issue of Foreign Policy Magazine- ‘Why do they hate us?’, an exploration of violence against women in the Arab world by Mona Eltahawy. While mostly unrelated, I think both pieces do a remarkable job of presenting the true dichotomy that arises amongst the ‘victims’ of gender based violence; On the one side, you have women who refuse to take the abuse silently and almost become stronger because of it, and on the other, you have women, like Rukhsana in Saving Face, who bravely (and rather silently) endure their suffering, not necessarily believing in their own ability to conquer the burdens they face.
Both pieces really got me thinking about the strength a woman must possess to overcome the prejudices placed upon her, and how in many unfortunate situations, she must also overcome actual physical and emotional assaults on the basis of her gender. In recent months I have become all too familiar with gender based discrimination. To clarify, by no means do I mean to compare my own experiences to those presented by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Mona Eltahawy, but rather I’d like to make the point that violence and discrimination in some level persist in all regions. This unfortunate reality is not limited to a group or isolated to a region.
I’ve been reading several though-provoking rebuttals to Mona Eltahawy’s article in Foreign Policy. Her critics argue that her tactics are sensationalist and that her article is only helping to perpetuate negative Western stereotypes about Arab men. And though I can see their point, as Eltahwy makes it clear that she believes this is a problem inherent in the region, I must depart with her argument, and that of her critics here. Violence against woman is not restricted to the Arab world, nor the Western world, or any place in between. On the last page of the article, Eltahawy references the Egyptian officers performing ‘virginity checks’ on female activists. Is this really that much different than the demeaning practice of underwear checks for women working in the maquiladoras in Guatemala? This treatment of women as second class citizens has been endemic throughout history and across all continents. So we as women hoping to help make a change need to stop looking at these issues solely through specific cultural or religious lenses.
Yes, it is certainly true that some cultures/religions have higher incidences of such abuses, but we should not be fooled into thinking that culture is the singular cause. That would not in any way help to explain why throughout history, be it in the US, Australia, or England, women were silenced and degraded until the point that they united and fought for equal rights. Eltahawy says the revolutions in the Arab world will mean nothing without inclusion of gender reforms. True, but before casting judgement on the success of the Arab Spring in bringing about gender reform, let us in the Western world, and specifically us Americans, not forget how many decades passed between our own revolution and the women’s rights movement. Ruling men did not just decide to start granting women rights, rather, previous generations of women fought vigorously and passionately for the ‘equality’ that we enjoy now. Woman across the world have always had to fight for the inalienable right of equality. And yet, even equality doesn’t always bring a freedom from violence. Women are still abused at a much higher rate than men even in countries that enjoy relative parity between sexes.
So jumping off my soapbox for a moment, what really prompted my indignation here (in addition, obviously, to reading about the abuses against women) was reading how many Arab women were offended by the Foreign Policy article, believing that it cast Arabs and particularly Arab men in an unfavorable light. Shouldn’t these women have been more upset about what is happening to our sisters? Eltahawy’s focus was the Arab male dominated institutions that oppress women (violence in many cases being a tool of oppression). Just as the focus of many articles by writers like Lucy Stone in the Women’s Journal in the 1870s would have focused on oppressive American male dominated institutions.
Acknowledging then that this problem of violence against women is universal and that at some stage in history most women were deprived of basic rights, in order to make a change we need to stop getting so bogged down in cultural rhetoric and instead work together (men and women alike) to bring about reform, fight to build equality, and ultimately work to educate people so we can bring about an end to violence against women.