Is the March 19 murder of Farkhunda by a mob of men who beat her to death with stones and sticks, ran her over with a car, threw her body on the banks of the Kabul River and lit it on fire, a turning point for women in Afghanistan? Some are saying it is.
Farkhunda was a 27-year-old woman who was studying religion and thought she had a right to criticize mullahs selling good luck charms at a religious shrine in central Kabul. But then one mullah started screaming that she was an infidel and had burned the Koran. Even though Farkhunda had been at the shrine for hours castigating the trinket sellers as un-Islamic, the lynch mob believed the mullah and turned on her with inhuman fury.
Her death was captured by cell phones and projected on social media. The impact was profound. Nargis Azaryun, a youth activist and member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), expressed what many felt when she checked her facebook page that morning: “The first sentences I read about the incident left me in shock: ‘Today we killed a woman who burned the Koran. Allah Akbar.’… I cried for hours, thinking how helpless she was when they were kicking her. She kept screaming and saying, ‘I haven’t burned the Koran,’ but no one was listening to her….The police did not help her because everyone believed that she deserved to die, deserved to be burned to death….”
Because Farkhunda’s death was broadcast all over social media, because it was so horrific and because there was such an outcry—for once, instead of taking the man’s word as the unchallenged truth—her murder was investigated and she was declared “completely innocent.”
AFGHAN WOMEN STAND TALL
Then women did something unprecedented: they went to Farkhunda’s family and asked if they could carry her coffin, this in a country where women are often banned from attending funerals. The women who made this move were activists, belonging to groups like WLUML, Solidarity Party, Women for Women International-Afghanistan; others held professional jobs in the city or university.
There is no question that they were aware of what happened in Turkey in February at the funeral of 19-year-old student Özgecan Aslan, who was savagely sexually assaulted and murdered. Over 5,000 came to her funeral where women refused the Imam’s orders to step to the back of the crowd. Instead women stepped forward to carry Aslan’s coffin and bury her, vowing: “No other man’s hands would touch her again.” (See “From Turkey to USA, women as force & reason fight inhumanity,” March-April 2015 N&L.)
In Afghanistan at the burial the women chanted: “We want justice!” and “We are all Farkhunda!” A member of WLUML said that at Farkhunda’s funeral, “For the first time in Afghanistan we stood tall to say that no man will touch her burnt body’s coffin.”
It didn’t end there. On March 24 thousands of demonstrators marched on Afghanistan’s Supreme Court demanding justice for Farkhunda, the second protest in as many days. Organizers estimated that 3,000 marched—one of the largest demonstrations ever in Kabul. Demonstrators shouted, “Justice for Farkhunda” and “Down with ignorance.” Afghans in other countries have demonstrated too.
At the March 24 demonstration, the head of the Afghanistan Women’s Council, Fatana Gailani, expressed the hope that Farkhunda’s death would be a catalyst for change. Others thought the response to her death had brought people together who were sickened by the inhumanity of her attackers. Is this the beginning of a better life for Afghan women?
WOMEN AS FORCE AND REASON
If Farkhunda had burned the Koran, would there have been an outcry? When it was thought she had, the police stood by and watched her murder. A spokesman for them said that the killing of “an unbeliever” was justified. What of the women who are jailed for years for running away from home to avoid a forced marriage or those who die from honor killings? Who carries their coffins or demonstrates in the streets shouting for justice for them?
It means something that these women stood tall in Kabul. They took matters into their own hands and revealed their creativity through action, which is the way that genuine change comes about.
Azaryun made this clear, saying: “I picked up [Farkhunda’s coffin] because I wanted to tell the women in this country that if we want to achieve anything we should sit up and do what we want to do. Do it like a woman. And if we stick together, we break taboos. We proved it yesterday. No one could stop us yesterday from being by Farkhunda’s side because we were together and supporters of each other.”
From the moment that the Oscar Pistorius case began unfolding, with the news, the morning after Valentine’s Day last year, that he had shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, there was the small redeeming hope that it could be a teachable moment. The entire world seemed intensely focused on the story. In part, that was because of Pistorius’s celebrity and the physical challenges he overcame—he was born without fibulas, and his feet were amputated below the knee when he was an infant—and the images of Steenkamp, a smiling law-school graduate and model. He claimed that he had mistaken Steenkamp for a burglar, shooting her multiple times through a bathroom door. But, while one man was on trial for murdering his girlfriend, what many believed would be on trial was the horrific epidemic of domestic violence in South Africa and all over the world, including in this country. Even as Pistorius’s trial wound to a close—he was foundguilty of culpable homicide, a charge akin to manslaughter, though he was acquitted of murder—another story involving an athlete was unfolding in the United States: the release of a video showing Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punching his fiancée at the time, now his wife.
Of course, it’s a coincidence that these two cases are in the public eye at the same moment, thousands of miles apart. No, Ray Rice did not kill his fiancée; he knocked her out cold. But, in this country, as in South Africa, the abuse and, yes, the murder of women is beyond horrendous, and most cases go unpunished or, unless the accused is a big guy with big bucks and a big rep, unnoticed. (And many times even then.) Since the Rice revelations, more women in the U.S. have talked publicly about having been abused by their partner—the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft were the labels for many wrenching stories this week. Many had suffered in silence, not speaking about what was happening to them or pursuing justice in the courts. Often—and this is especially true in South Africa, where the justice system and government services to assist women are inadequate, at best—just going to the authorities doesn’t protect women.
In South Africa, according to the civil-society organization Sonke Gender Justice, three women are killed by an “intimate partner” (the term includes current and former relationships) every day. It happens with such frequency that it has a name: “intimate-partner femicide.” There is also, in South Africa, the scourge of “corrective rape,” in which men believe that raping lesbians and gay men will “cure” them of their sexual orientation. (I wrote about this crisis for The New Yorker.) And yet there are few prosecutions.
In South Africa, many are so frustrated with the lack of justice, especially the rape victims—and, even more, gay rape victims—that they don’t even bother to report abuse.
But the domestic abuse and murder of women is not limited to a single place, whether South Africa or a hotel-casino in Atlantic City. The World Health Organization calls violence against women “a global health problem,” with its most recent statistics showing that thirty-five per cent of women worldwide have been victims of domestic violence, and thirty-eight per cent of murders of women were committed by an intimate partner. Sonke’s executive director, Dean Peacock, said, “Multiple surveys carried out in nearly all regions of the world have found that the strongest factors associated with men’s use of violence against women are social norms that support men’s collective dominance over women.” Peacock added, “Children’s exposure to violence in the home, alcohol abuse, and easy access to guns all contribute to the unsafe environment women and children find themselves in.”
Those social norms take many forms. Recently, the jihadist onslaught in various parts of the world, which aims to put women back in positions of servitude, has played its part, including in the now almost forgotten abduction of more than two hundred schoolgirls in northern Nigeria. Most are still missing.
One question will be whether the mixed official response in the Pistorius and Rice cases advances any meaningful steps being taken to deal effectively with domestic violence and the murder of women. For many, the Pistorius verdict was a disappointment; though he has still been convicted of a serious crime, with the possibility of up to fifteen years in prison, he escaped the most serious consequences. (“This verdict is not justice for Reeva,” her mother, June Steenkamp,said on Friday.) Before the video came out, Rice had only been suspended for two games, even though it was known that he had knocked his fiancée unconscious; he has now been cut from the team and suspended indefinitely. Just how teachable is this Pistorius-Rice moment, at home and globally? There is hope in there, in the sharing of stories and difficult conversations. There is also a long way to go.
Roger’s note: A US invasion of your country to bring prosperity and democracy is a gift that keeps giving. Iraqi security forces, trained by Americans, have learned to treat women the way that we do in order to earn their confidence and respect. Of course Iraq continues to be plagued by sectarian violence and the destruction of their infrastructure, which for some reason that no one can understand, has not been reconstructed despite the lucrative contracts given on a no-bid basis to American corporations. A real mystery.
Many analysts believe that Iraqi women were better off under Saddam (as brutal as his regime was in other respects). This report tends to support that conclusion.
The report estimates that over 1,100 women are detained, often without a warrant, in Iraqi prisons or detention facilities. Frequently, the women are arrested not for their won alleged actions but for those of a male relative.
Sexual abuse during interrogations of women is so common that Um Aqil, an employee at a women’s prison facility, told HRW, “[W]e expect that they’ve been raped by police on the way to the prison.”
On top of rape, many arrested women are subjected to electric shocks, beatings, burnings, being hung upside down and foot whipping (falaqa). Following the torture the women may be forced to sign a blank confession paper or one that they are unable to read.
In the video below published by HRW, one woman reveals her story of abuse:
The report authors write that the failed criminal justice system revealed in the report shows that “Prime Minister al-Maliki’s government has so far failed to eliminate many of the abusive practices that Saddam Hussein institutionalized and United States-led Coalition Forces continued.”
“The abuses of women we documented are in many ways at the heart of the current crisis in Iraq,” adds Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement from the organization. “These abuses have caused a deep-seated anger and lack of trust between Iraq’s diverse communities and security forces, and all Iraqis are paying the price.”
Despite all his dictatorial and excessive practices, during the regime of Saddam Hussein, many women played important roles in all facets of Iraqi society (except in the fundamentalist religious groups).
Also religious sectarianism became muted and people of different religions intermingled, lived together and inter-married frequently creating new Iraqi citizens who recognized the nation, rather than a tribe or sect as their central organizing principle.
It is ironic (and instructive) that only after it became apparent that his allies in the West were going to terminate Saddam Hussein did he revert to the worst forms of tribalism and adopted the language of religious fundamentalism.
The lesson is simple and obvious: despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, the nation of Iraq was internally strengthening as a nation and eventually the Iraqi people would have ended the dictatorship in their own ways.
Of course the West could not allow that because it would be a threat to the hegemony of Israel (the forward operations base for US/EURO governments and corporations0 and the control of Iraqi oil.
And of course Iraqi women and children pay the highest costs for the Western-created insanity.
one Big Mistake there tom. It was not the West that could not allow that, it was what your President called the “Coalition of the Willing”. It consisted of the U.S., the Brits, the Aussies, Spain and a couple of other bit players. It did not include Canada, France, Germany, Belgium, Scandinavian countries and a host of others. Iraq invasion was NOT sanctioned by the U.N. or NATO. Don’t get confused with UN, NATO sanctioned mission to go after you might remember who in Afghanistan. Too many Americans forget this.
With his Iraq lies and decision, Bush brought world support for reprisal against Bin Ladden for 9-11 attacks to majority of world identifying U.S. as biggest threat there is to world peace. A distinction the U.S. still holds. Other than lining the pockets of his Corporate friends, creating the world’s biggest private run army (Blackwater), making a mockery of international law and human rights, and destroying democracy everywhere, etc. U.S. public voted him back into Office for a 2nd term and today let’s him sleep in peace making more money on the rubber chicken circuit.
The terrible dictator was one of the friends of G.H.W.Bush for 8 years until he refused an order. Bush enticed him to invade Kuwait then told him to get his butt out, ..if you remember the headlines in the paper. The reason being Bush expected Kuwait to be thankful to him, he intended to bring down the Kuwait monarcy, and have the right to put in the oil pipe line… It backfired.
The reason Bush Sr. did all he could to have his son made president, to illegally invade Iraq out of revenge.
Yes I read Riverbend’s book some years back and she said women could wear makeup and dresses, hold civil servant jobs, did not have to cover their heads, and could tell the religious fruitcakes who stopped them on the street to eff off and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.
Now of course…not.
Iraq was better off than before the illegal invasion, and in fact the Middle East has become worse off. Our troops are sent not knowing they are not freeing people but giving the oil companies the freedom to contol the resourses of other countries. …and the innocent suffer.
I read the official military history of SOG…special operations group…a program designed to infiltrate spys and saboteurs into North Vietnam. The incompetent manner in which the program was run by US Special Forces resulted in 100% of the participating South Vietnamese recruits being killed or captured (and then killed). Upon hearing of the miserable performance of the program one ranking general said we might as well skip all the training, save a few bucks, take them out back and shoot them ourselves. This is what it means to be a “friend” of the US. Much better to be our enemy…at least then one has a fighting chance. Those we “care” about are on the short end of the stick. Look at what a wonderful job we have done in Iraq. I think we surpassed the number of Iraqis killed by Saddam long ago. Our own govt. kills more Americans through various policies than the 911 terrorists could ever dream of.
The best way towards religious fundamentalism is to suppress and destroy all the more advanced and complex ideologies by force. This is a direct result of Western persecution of every even remotely left-wing movement and unifying ideology, especially Communism. It is possible – and even easy – to destroy the more complex stuff. It is almost impossible to destroy religion.
good comments below. the only thing to add is an action plan.
the reasons are obvious. only the plan remains to be implemented.
the longer the status quo has to improve their machinery of suppression and their technology of spying the more difficult the change will be. talk is cheap. time for everybody, all at once,
to work together to “throw the bums out”. no more 2 party system.
vote 3rd / 4th parties if possible or don’t vote and tell anyone who will listen why.
“The Iraq war provides a good example. Until November 2000, no OPEC country had dared to violate the US dollar-pricing rule, and while the US dollar remained the strongest currency in the world there was also little reason to challenge the system. But in late 2000, France and a few other EU members convinced Saddam Hussein to defy the petrodollar process and sell Iraq’s oil for food in euros, not dollars.”
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Roger’s note: compare the work of this courageous, community minded physician and citizen with that of the hate-mongering, murderous, hypocritical and patriarchal anti-choice activists who call them selves right to life.
Ann Kristin Neuhaus, photo by Clarke Davis
by Clarke Davis
Ann Kristin Neuhaus has lost her license to practice medicine, but she is still engaged in the work of making people healthy on the community level.
Neuhaus, 55, fell victim to Operation Rescue and the anti-abortion political winds that blow in Kansas. She is the last link to Dr. George Tiller, the late-term abortion doctor of Wichita who was murdered one Sunday morning in his church.
The rural Nortonville woman’s license has been revoked by the state Board of Healing Arts but that action has been appealed and is now in the judicial system.
Neuhaus doesn’t know the outcome yet—it may be a couple more months—but she believes the judge will base his decision on the law and not on some political agenda.
As an associate to Tiller, her job was to render a second opinion on late-term abortions as required by state law. The law requires a Kansas physician for the second opinion and since 99 percent of the patients were outside of Kansas and from all parts of the world, he relied on Neuhaus.
No patient ever brought a complaint, but she was charged with “documentation inefficiencies” through the regulatory agency.
In other words a couple of papers weren’t signed or t’s failed to get crossed and i’s dotted.
“I was even accused of not having seen one of the patients, which was ridiculous,” she said.
Tiller’s abortion clinic and his murder have been national news and now the Neuhaus story has national circulation. The Nation and The Huffington Post have done stories on human rights issues and reproductive health and have brought sufficient recognition to her that people want to help and have established an online fund to help in her struggle.
A $93,000 goal was set on indiegogo.com and late last week the amount of donations was nearing $60,000. The Neuhaus story can be found at this location along with links to most all of the news coverage that she has received.
Why that amount? That’s the amount of the bill she was sent after losing her license by the regulatory agency. She is being required to pay for her own prosecution, of which most of the cost came with the state bringing in an expert witness from Washington, D.C., to testify.
The matter is now in the court system and that could be overturned on appeal. Nevertheless, Neuhaus and her husband, Mike Caddell, are struggling financially and trying to hang onto their rural home and 10-acre farm. Her lawyers are working pro bono.
Tiller had been brought up on charges as well, most of which had been thrown out of court and a jury quickly found him not guilty of the remainder. A month later the assassin’s bullet killed him.
Late-term abortions are fewer than 1 percent of the total number of those performed, Neuhaus said. Often it’s a child and of those 12 and under, it’s almost always a case of incest.
Neuhaus has moved on in her professional life. She went back to school to acquire a master’s degree in public health and is now employed as a research instructor at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Department of Family Medicine.
“I’m working on six or seven different projects involving community health,” she said.
One is the development of an informational kiosk made available in medical clinics that tend to serve the poor. This is to help them educate themselves on the importance of a colonoscopy for cancer screening.
“We spend time on the Indian reservations in this area,” she said.
This is for the purpose of doing health screenings, dealing with diabetes on the community level, and checking on the general environment for all aspects of health care.
“Do they have access to good food?” she asked. “That’s something rural and urban people often have in common is the lack of access to good nutritious food.”
Her department works through the churches in the African-American communities. She noted that sometimes people are disenfranchised and fatalistic about health care and they don’t need to be.
If she could be a benevolent dictator for 10 years, Neuhaus said she would end obesity and the health problems that come with it. There would be no junk food, plenty of bicycle trails, and opportunities for people to grow healthy food.
“There are many social detriments to health that are often overlooked,” she said. She noted that crime and stress and financial difficulties add up to lots of health problems when the community is not healthy.
She said it does not help to have a preachy attitude from the affluent looking down and addressing them as “you people,” an attitude that is not helpful and lacks understanding.
Even in her years of private practice, Neuhaus was serving mostly those who could not afford health care and insurance. She credits her stepfather with shaping her opinions of the world and caring for others.
Her mother divorced when she was 5 years old and married a man in the foreign service. She lived in a number of European countries and at one point was schooled with the children of ambassadors from nations around the world.
Her stepfather took her to the Dachau concentration camp at the age of 5 and showed her the ovens used by the Nazis to burn corpses. His father had worked alongside Oskar Shindler in saving Jews from the Nazi terror.
“I never experienced prejudice or hate until I was 13 and living in southwest Kansas,” she said.
There were black people and Mexicans in Hugoton and she never could understand the racist attitudes she encountered.
“None of it ever made sense,” she said.
The generosity of people across the country donating to her cause is also overwhelming for Neuhaus.
“What people have done is over the moon,” she said.
Neuhaus and her husband intend to stay in their rural Jefferson County home where they are raising their son, Tristan, a junior at Jefferson County North High School.
The old house needs some paint and sometimes the well runs dry, but it’s home. It’s home for the three of them along with three horses, a goat, some chickens, and several dogs and cats.
With the donations of money they hope to preserve their rural home so it will be there for future generations.
ROGER’S NOTE: HILLARY CLINTON IS A HAWKISH NEO-CON IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING, AND I WOULD NEVER SUPPORT HER PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN. NEVERTHELESS, JUST AS WITH THE RACISM FOCUSED ON NEO-CON IS SHEEP’S CLOTHING OBAMA, THE MISOGYNIST ATTACKS ON CLINTON ARE DESPICABLE, JUST ANOTHER EXAMPLE OF HOW DISGUSTING IS THE REPUBLICAN KOCH BROTHER FUNDED AND INSPIRED TEA PARTY MOVEMENT. BUT THIS SHOULD NOT TAKE ONE IOTA AWAY FROM OUR OPPOSITION TO THE OBAMA/CLINTON MILITARIST AND IMPERIALIST FOREIGN POLICY.
With a 12-point gap nationwide among women voters in 2012 elections, Republicans had vowed to “rebuild the party from the ground up” at this weekend’s California GOP convention. The grotesque anti-Hillary buttons caught by a San Francisco reporter – which were said to be both very popular and eventually, mysteriously removed – tell another, oblivious tale. Memo to GOP, especially those in thrall to the Tea Party: You can’t trash people and their rights and then expect them to vote for you. The buttons underneath these (commie=liberal, really) were almost as bad.
Roger’s note: I have nothing to add to this excellent article, except to say that this sentence made my day: “Perhaps most appallingly, President Obama took time from spying on one half of the world and bombing the other half to state that her resignation was “the right decision.”
When the news spread through Washington this weekend that the unwavering, pioneering journalist Helen Thomas had died, there must have been a collective sigh of relief throughout the halls of Washington.
Portrait of Helen Thomas by Robert Shetterly. (Credit: AmericansWhoTelltheTruth.org)
News articles and obituaries are obligatorily mentioning her retirement over political remarks about Palestine and Israel. They all will and should celebrate her trail-blazing career as a journalist and author. And now that she has died, it has become politically correct to re-embrace her, because now Helen is safe. She will not be asking the uncomfortable questions anymore, questions that made lying politicians squirm, as they stared dumbfounded back at her, always surprised at freedom of the press in action, at a woman who did not know her place.
But in Helen’s final years, there was little celebration of her career and her courage, as former friends, coworkers and many in Washington jumped on the bandwagon resolutely condemning her for comments made in a hit piece that took brief comments out of context. Perhaps most appallingly, President Obama took time from spying on one half of the world and bombing the other half to state that her resignation was “the right decision.”
In a world where politicians like George Bush, Dick Cheney and Rahm Emmanuel are celebrated for their reputations for expletive laden tirades, can we really pretend that Helen’s comments were so shocking or offensive that they were worthy of forced retirement? In a world where we hear the daily drivel from presidents promoting wars of madness with lies and straight faces, how did we let such vitriol rain down on her?
Helen Thomas did more to challenge the war from the back row of the White House press corps (where she was relegated for three years after criticizing George Bush in 2003) than any embedded journalist did on the front lines who lay in bed with the military in Iraq. She stood for a journalistic integrity that was not welcome in an all-encompassing corporate-media-beltway complex.
In the beginning of her career, she was fired for going on strike with her colleagues at the Washington Daily News. She faced decades of abuse for being opinionated, not backing down, and because she was a woman. In later years, it was shocking to see how George W. Bush and Barack Obama addressed her, ageism in presidential clothing, as if she was a child to be tolerated but dismissed and chuckled at, a minor nuisance who did not know her place, a relic that they just needed to pander to for a minute, so they could get back to the Big Lie.
Helen Thomas was ambushed for being Anti-Zionist, but as Ralph Nader wrote following the incident in 2010,
the evisceration was launched by two pro-Israeli war hawks, Ari Fleischer and Lanny Davis. Fleischer was George W. Bush’s press secretary who bridled under Helen Thomas’ questioning regarding the horrors of the Bush-Cheney war crimes and illegal torture. His job was not to answer this uppity woman but to deflect, avoid and cover up for his bosses.
Davis was the designated defender whenever Clinton got into hot water. As journalist Paul Jay pointed out, he is now a Washington lobbyist whose clients include the cruel corporate junta that overthrew the elected president of Honduras.
If one followed her career, especially in the last decade, Thomas had upset the status quo repeatedly by asking about the deaths of civilians in America’s wars, the unholy alliance with Israel, their unspoken of nuclear arsenal, and the way we hide the face of war. Powerful people wanted her silenced and used a 30 second video snippet to try and erase 7 decades of integrity and public service.
August 4th should be a day we celebrate only Helen Thomas, not Barack Obama, for weak hearted men who launch distant wars should be relegated to the dustbins of history, and fearless women who challenge empire and live a life unintimidated should be honored.
So you can imagine how honored we were when in the fall of 2010, we were invited to meet at length with Helen. Mutual friends had put us in touch and she welcomed us to join her at her home. She graciously received us, and spoke for hours about a dizzying array of topics. Her mind was incredibly sharp, having absorbed a number of daily papers that day, and numerous books on current events were neatly stacked, bookmarked and referenced throughout our conversation. Incredibly open to any question, ( Who was the best president? “It would have been Lyndon Johnson, if it wasn’t for the Vietnam War. His War on Poverty was an incredible achievement. But the Vietnam war haunted him.”)
Helen was the consummate journalist even in her own living room, peppering us both with questions, unflinchingly taking it all in. She moved seamlessly from talking about her Detroit childhood to her trip to China on Air Force One with Richard Nixon, always seeing the interconnectedness of the past and how it influences the present. When asked about our work in the Middle East, we hesitated at first to answer fully about what we witnessed during the ongoing Israeli occupation, and the Iraq wars. She appeared so very concerned about the experiences of children in these places, and was visibly troubled by what she knew. Helen was so clearly empathetic to the plight of children, those living in refugee camps, those incarcerated, those who are suffering, that it seemed unfair to burden her further with eyewitness accounts after all she had recently been through. But her curiosity and questions were no match for us, and like always, Helen asked the questions she wanted.
A few nights later, over tea—then apple martinis and a full course dinner—Helen continued her line of questioning. She was very interested in the work of the organization we work with, The Middle East Children’s Alliance, and pledged to speak in San Francisco at a benefit for humanitarian aid for children in Palestine. Unfortunately, Helen’s physical health soon deteriorated further, preventing her from making the 3000-mile flight. But the time we spent with Helen Thomas stayed with us, and we were troubled that she was never able to come speak at an event, because we wanted to see her celebrated by the thousands of people we knew who respected her, loved her and were horrified by how she had been treated and forced into exile; even by some close friends and MECA supporters.
Two years later, immediately after the “Operation Pillar of Defense”—the eight day bombing of Gaza by Israel where 158 Palestinians were killed, 30 of them children—we crossed the Erez crossing from Israel into Gaza City. A week after we arrived, we were out late in the early morning hours conversing with journalists and other internationals. The topic of the Arab Spring and the role of social media were hot topics of discussion. A young Palestinian journalist, recently returned to report on Gaza after completing studies in London, stated to us that she wanted to be the next Helen Thomas.
Another journalist responded to her by saying, “Oh, you mean because of her comments on Palestine.”
“No, that is not why. There are two things that will change the world,” she said, “Media and women: and I am both. “
This is Helen Thomas’ legacy. This is proof that the uncomfortable questions will continue to be asked. That is what Helen wanted. Accountability of the powerful, a fearless press in search of the truth.
That is why we think August 4th should be declared Helen Thomas Day, a birth date she shares with Barack Obama. But August 4th should be a day we celebrate only Helen Thomas, not Barack Obama, for weak hearted men who launch distant wars should be relegated to the dustbins of history, and fearless women who challenge empire and live a life unintimidated should be honored.
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Barbara Lubin is a lifelong peace, justice and disability rights activist. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a non-profit organization which since 1988, has been working for the rights and the well being of children in the Middle East.
Danny Muller has worked with the Middle East Children’s Alliance since they were jointly breaking the economic sanctions against Iraq with Voices in the Wilderness in the 1990’s. He has worked with MECA in Iraq and Palestine. He is a war tax resister and war abolitionist.
Today, U.S. District Court Judge Edward R. Korman heard arguments regarding the Obama administration’s Motion to Stay his Order from April 5, 2013, requiring that emergency contraception be made available without age and point-of-sale restrictions. Over a two-hour period, Judge Korman made it clear that the government’s position was unjustifiable. Calling the government’s conduct a “charade” the Judge condemned the “political influence” that has caused a “total and complete corruption of the administrative process.”
“As Judge Korman made clear today, the administration’s tactics affect all women but have the greatest negative impact on poor women, young women and African American women, as well as immigrant women. This is politics at its worst and the administration should be ashamed of its duplicitous conduct,” stated Andrea Costello, Senior Staff Attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and counsel for the plaintiffs in the litigation.
“President Obama sought to sacrifice the reproductive rights of women of all ages at the altar of his political strategy,” stated Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund. “He wants to placate the political right wing at the expense of the health needs and reproductive rights of women. It is as plain as day that the Obama administration has used deception and distraction as a tactic to avoid complying with the Court Order to make the Morning After Pill available without age restriction or identification barriers.”
The Court indicated that it would issue a ruling on the government’s motion by the end of the week.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) represents the plaintiffs, grassroots feminists activists with National Women’s Liberation (NWL) and 15-year-old Anaya Kelly in Tummino v. Hamburg. The lawsuit was filed along with the Center for Reproductive Rights and Southern Legal Counsel against the Food and Drug administration and Health and Human Services.
On April 5, the Court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor that there was no scientific basis for the Obama administration to continue to restrict access to emergency contraception. Judge Korman ordered that it be made available to women and girls “without a prescription and without point-of-sale or age restrictions within thirty days.” The Court found that the FDA had improperly restricted this safe and effective contraceptive after “political interference” from the White House, and had done so against the medical and scientific evidence recommending the drug be made readily available.
Instead of complying with the Court’s Order, the government announced last Tuesday that it would force all women and girls to present government-issued ID to store clerks in order to obtain emergency contraceptives, and that it would continue to deprive over-the-counter access to young teenagers. The next day, Wednesday, the government announced it was appealing the decision and that it was seeking a stay of the order pending appeal.
Once, as a reporter, I covered wars, conflicts, civil wars, and even a genocide in places like Vietnam, Angola, Eritrea, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, keeping away from official briefings and listening to the people who were living the war. In the years since the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, I’ve done the same thing without ever leaving home.
In the last decade, I didn’t travel to distant refugee camps in Pakistan or destroyed villages in Afghanistan, nor did I spend time in besieged cities like Iraq’s Fallujah or Libya’s Misrata. I stayed in Great Britain. There, my government, in close conjunction with Washington, was pursuing its own version of what, whether anyone cared to say it or not, was essentially a war against Islam. Somehow, by a series of chance events, I found myself inside it, spending time with families transformed into enemies.
I hadn’t planned to write about the war on terror, but driven by curiosity about lives most of us never see and a few lucky coincidences, I stumbled into a world of Muslim women in London, Manchester, and Birmingham. Some of them were British, others from Arab and African countries, but their husbands or sons had been swept up in Washington’s war. Some were in Guantanamo, some were among the dozen Muslim foreigners who did not know each other, and who were surprised to find themselves imprisoned together in Britain on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda. Later, some of these families would find themselves under house arrest.
In the process, I came to know women and children who were living in almost complete isolation and with the stigma of a supposed link to terrorism. They had few friends, and were cut off from the wider world. Those with a husband under house arrest were allowed no visitors who had not been vetted for “security,” nor could they have computers, even for their children to do their homework. Other lonely women had husbands or sons who had sometimes spent a decade or more in prison without charges in the United Kingdom, and were fighting deportation or extradition.
Gradually, they came to accept me into their isolated lives and talked to me about their children, their mothers, their childhoods — but seldom, at first, about the grim situations of their husbands, which seemed too intimate, too raw, too frightening, too unknowable to be put into words.
In the early years, it was a steep learning curve for me, spending time in homes where faith was the primary reality, Allah was constantly invoked, English was a second language, and privacy and reticence were givens. Facebook culture had not come to most of these families. The reticence faded over the years, especially when the children were not there, or in the face of the kind of desolation that came from a failed court appeal to lift the restrictions on their lives, an unexpected police raid on the house, a husband’s suicide attempt, or the coming of a new torture report from Washington’s then-expanding global gulag of black sites and, of course, Guantanamo.
In these years, I met some of their husbands and sons as well. The first was a British man from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg. He had been held for three years in Washington’s notorious offshore prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, only to be released without charges. When he came home, through his lawyer, he asked me to help write his memoir, the first to come out of Guantanamo. We worked long months on Enemy Combatant. It was hard for him to relive his nightmare days and nights in American custody in Kandahar and in the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and then those limbo years in Cuba. It was even harder for him to visit the women whose absent husbands he had known in prison and who, unlike him, were still there.
Was My Husband Tortured?
In these homes he visited, there was always one great unspoken question: Was my husband or son tortured? It was the single question no one could bear to ask a survivor of that nightmare, even for reassurance. When working on his book, I deliberately left the chapter on his experiences in American hands in Bagram prison for last, as I sensed how difficult it would be for both of us to speak about the worst of the torture I knew he had experienced.
Through Moazzam, I met other men who had been swept up in the post-9/11 dragnet for Muslims in Great Britain, refugees who sought him out as an Arabic speaker and a British citizen to help them negotiate Britain’s newly hostile atmosphere in the post-9/11 years. Soon, I began to visit some of their wives, too.
In time, I found myself deep inside a world of civilian women who were being warred upon (after a fashion) in my own country, which was how I came upon a locked-down hospital ward with a man determined to starve himself to death unless he was given refugee documents to leave Britain, children who cried in terror in response to a knock on the door, wives faced with a husband changed beyond words by prison.
I found myself deep inside a world of civilian women who were being warred upon (after a fashion) in my own country, which was how I came upon a locked-down hospital ward with a man determined to starve himself to death, children who cried in terror in response to a knock on the door, wives faced with a husband changed beyond words by prison.
I was halfway through working on Moazzam’s book when London was struck by our 9/11, which we call 7/7. The July 7, 2005, suicide bombings, in three parts of the London underground and a bus, killed 52 civilians and injured more than 700. The four bombers were all young British men between 18 and 30, two of them married with children, and one of them a mentor at a primary school. In video statements left behind they described themselves as “soldiers” whose aim was to force the British government to pull its troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Just three weeks later, there were four more coordinated bomb attacks on the London subway system. (All failed to detonate.) The four men responsible, longterm British residents originally from the Horn of Africa, were captured, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. In this way, the whole country was traumatised in 2005, and that particularly includes the various strands of the Muslim community in Great Britain.
The British security services quickly returned to a post-9/11 stance on overdrive. The same MI5 intelligence agents who had interrogated Moazzam while he was in U.S. custody asked to meet him again to get his thoughts on who might be behind the attacks. However, three years in U.S. custody and five months at home occupied with his family and his book had not made him a likely source of information on current strains of thought in the British Muslim community.
At the same time, the dozen foreign Muslim refugees detained in the aftermath of 9/11 and held without trial for two years before being released on the orders of the House of Lords were rearrested. In the summer of 2005, the government prepared to deport them to countries they had originally fled as refugees.
All of them had been made anonymous by court order and in legal documents were referred to as Mr. G, Mr. U, and so on. This was no doubt intended to safeguard their privacy, but in a sense it also condemned them. It made them faceless, inhuman, and their families experienced it just that way. “They even took my husband’s name away, why?” one wife asked me.
The women I was meeting in these years were mostly from this small group, as well as the relatives of a handful of British residents — Arabs — who were not initially returned from Guantanamo with the nine British citizens that the Americans finally released without charges in 2004 and 2005.
Perhaps no one in the country was, in the end, more terrorised than them, thanks to the various terror plots by British nationals that followed. And they were right to be fearful. The pressure on them was overwhelming. Some of them simply gave up and went home voluntarily because they could not bear house arrest, though they risked being sent to prison in their native lands; others went through years of house arrest and court appeals against deportation, all of which continues to this day.
Among the plots that unnerved them were one in 2006 against transatlantic aircraft, for which a total of 12 Britons were jailed for life in 2009, and the 2007 attempt to blow up a London nightclub and Glasgow International Airport, in which one bomber died and the second was jailed for 32 years. In the post-9/11 decade, 237 people were convicted of terror-related offences in Britain.
Though all of this was going on, much of it remained remote from the world of the refugee women I came to know who, in the larger world, were mainly preoccupied with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that, with Palestinian developments, filled their TV screens tuned only to Arabic stations.
These women did not tend to dwell on their own private nightmares, but for anyone in their company there was no mistaking them: a wife prevented from taking her baby into the hospital to visit her hunger-striking husband and get him to eat before he starved to death; another, with several small children, turned back from a prison visit, despite a long journey, because her husband was being punished that day; children whose toys were taken in a police raid and never given back; midnight visits from a private security company to check on a man already electronically tagged.
These women did not tend to dwell on their own private nightmares: a wife prevented from taking her baby into the hospital to visit her hunger-striking husband and get him to eat before he starved to death; another turned back from a prison visit because her husband was being punished that day; children whose toys were taken in a police raid and never given back; midnight visits from a private security company to check on a man already electronically tagged.
Here was the texture of a hidden war of continual harassment against a largely helpless population. This was how some of the most vulnerable people in British society — often already traumatised refugees and torture survivors — were made permanent scapegoats for our post-9/11, and then post-7/7 fears.
So powerful is the stigma of “terrorism” today that, in the name of “our security,” whether in Great Britain or the United States, just about anything now goes, and ever fewer people ask questions about what that “anything” might actually be. Here in London, repeated attempts to get influential religious or political figures simply to visit one of these officially locked-down families and see these lives for themselves have failed. In the present political climate, such a personal, fact-finding visit proved to be anything but a priority for such people.
A Legal System of Secret Evidence, House Arrest, and Financial Sanctions
Against this captive population, in such an anything-goes atmosphere, all sorts of experimental perversions of the legal system were tried out. As a result, the British system of post-9/11 justice contains many features which should frighten us all but are completely unfamiliar to the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom.
Key aspects for the families I have been concerned with include the use of secret evidence in cases involving deportation, bail conditions, and imprisonment without trial. In addition, most of their cases have been heard in a special court known as the Special Immigration Appeals Commission or SIAC, which is housed in an anonymous basement set of rooms in central London.
One of SIAC’s innovative features is the use of “special advocates,” senior barristers who have security clearance to see secret evidence on behalf of their clients, but without being allowed to disclose it or discuss it, even with the client or his or her own lawyer. The resignation on principle of a highly respected barrister, Ian Macdonald, as a special advocate in November 2004 exposed this process to the public for the first time — but almost no one took any interest.
And a sense of the injustice in this arcane system was never sufficiently sparked by such voices, which found little echo in the media. Nor was there a wide audience for reports from ateam of top psychiatrists about the devastating psychological impact on the men and their families of indefinite detention without trial, and of a house-arrest system framed by “control orders” that allow the government to place restrictions of almost any sort on the lives of those it designates.
An even less noted aspect of the anti-terror legal system brought into existence after 9/11 was the financial sanctions that could freeze the assets of designated individuals. First ordered by the United Nations, the financial-sanctions regime was consolidated here through a European Union list of designated people. The few lawyers who specialized in this area were scathing about the draconian measures involved and the utter lack of transparency when it came to which governments had put which names on which list.
The effect on the listed families was draconian. Marriages collapsed under the strain. The listed men were barred from working and only allowed £10 a week for personal expenses. Their wives — often from conservative cultures where all dealings with the outside world had been left to husbands — suddenly were the families’ faces to the world, responsible for everything from shopping to accounting monthly to the government’s Home Office for every item the family purchased, right down to a bottle of milk or a pencil for a child. It was humiliating for the men, who lost their family role overnight, and exhausting and frustrating for the women, while in some cases the rest of their families shunned them because of the taint of alleged terrorism. Almost no one except specialist lawyers even knew that such financial sanctions existed in Britain.
In the country’s High Court, the first judicial challenge to the financial-sanctions regime was brought in 2008 by five British Muslim men known only as G, K, A, M, and Q. In response, Justice Andrew Collins said he found it “totally unacceptable” that, to take an especially absurd example, a man should have to get a license for legal advice about the sanctions from the very body that was imposing them. The man in question had waited three months for a “basic expense” license permitting funds for food and rent, and six months for a license to obtain legal advice about the situation he found himself in.
In a related case before the judicial committee of the House of Lords, Justice Leonard Hoffman expressed incredulity at the “meanness and squalor” of a regime that “monitored who had what for lunch.” More recently, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court endorsed the comments of Lord Justice Stephen Sedley who described those subject to the regime as being akin to “prisoners of the state.”
Among senior lawyers concerned about this hidden world of punishment was Ben Emmerson, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism. He devoted one of his official U.N. reports to the financial sanctions issue. His recommendations included significantly more transparency from governments who put people on such a list, the explicit exclusion of evidence obtained by torture, and the obligation of governments to give reasons when they refuse to remove individuals from the list. Of course, no one who mattered was paying the slightest attention.
Against ideological governments obsessed by terrorism on both sides of the Atlantic and a culture numbed by violent anti-terrorist tales like “24” and Zero Dark Thirty, such complicated and technical initiatives on behalf of individuals who have been given the tag, implicitly if not explicitly, of “terrorist” stand little chance of getting attention.
“Each Time It’s Worse”
Nearly a decade ago, at the New York opening night of Guantanamo: Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, the play Gillian Slovo and I wrote using only the words of the relatives of prisoners in that jail, their lawyers, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, an elderly man approached Moazzam Begg’s father and me. He introduced himself as a former foreign policy adviser to President John Kennedy. “It could never have happened in our time,” he said.
When the Global War on Terror was still relatively new, it was common for audiences to react similarly and with shock to a play in which fathers and brothers describe their bewilderment over the way their relation had disappeared into the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay. In the years since, we have become numb to the destruction of lives, livelihoods, futures, childhoods, legal systems, and trust by Washington’s and London’s never-ending war on terror.
In that time, I have seen children grow from toddlers to teenagers locked inside this particular war machine. What they say today should startle us out of such numbness. Here, for instance, are the words of two teenagers, a girl and a boy whose fathers had been imprisoned or under house arrest in Britain for 10 years and whose lives in those same years were filled with indignities and humiliations:
“People seem to think that we get used to things being how they are for us, so we don’t feel the injustices so much now. They are quite wrong: it was painful the first time, more painful the second, even more so the third. In fact, each time it’s worse, if you can believe that. There isn’t a limit on how much pain you can feel.”
The boy added this:
“There is never one day when I feel safe. It can be the authorities, it can be ordinary people, they can do something bad for us. Only like now when we are all in the house together can I stop worrying about my mum and my sisters, and even me, what might happen to us. On the tube [subway], in class at university, people look at my beard. I see them looking and I know they are thinking bad things about me. I would like to be a normal guy who no one looks at. You know, other boys, some of my friends, they cut corners, things like driving without a current license, everyone does it. But I can’t, I can’t ever, ever, take even a small risk. I have to always be cautious, be responsible… for my family.”
These children have been brought up by women who, against all odds, have often preserved their dignity and kept at least a modicum of joy in their families’ lives, and so, however despised, however unnoticed, however locked away, made themselves an inspiration to others. They are not victims to be pitied, but women our societies should embrace.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s response to recent proposals that Washington establish a secret court to oversee the targeting of terrorist suspects for death-by-drone and President Obama’s expanding executive power to kill, speak for the world beyond the West. They offer a different perspective on the war on terror that Washington and Great Britain continue to pursue with no end in sight:
“Do the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as yours? That President Obama can sign off on a decision to kill us with less worry about judicial scrutiny than if the target is an American? Would your Supreme Court really want to tell humankind that we, like the slave Dred Scott in the nineteenth century, are not as human as you are? I cannot believe it. I used to say of apartheid that it dehumanized its perpetrators as much as, if not more than, its victims. Your response as a society to Osama bin Laden and his followers threatens to undermine your moral standards and your humanity.”
Victoria Brittain, journalist and former editor at the Guardian, has authored or co-authored two plays and four books, including Enemy Combatant with Moazzam Begg. Her latest book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013) has just been published.
Artists in San Francisco protesting violence against women. (Photo: Marta Franco/ SFGate)Here in the United States, where there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, and one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, the rape and gruesome murder of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi on December 16th was treated as an exceptional incident. The story of the alleged rape of an unconscious teenager by members of the Steubenville High School football team was still unfolding, and gang rapes aren’t that unusual here either. Take your pick: some of the 20 men who gang-raped an 11-year-old in Cleveland, Texas, were sentenced in November, while the instigator of the gang rape of a 16-year-old in Richmond, California, was sentenced in October, and four men who gang-raped a 15-year-old near New Orleans were sentenced in April, though the six men who gang-raped a 14-year-old in Chicago last fall are still at large. Not that I actually went out looking for incidents: they’re everywhere in the news, though no one adds them up and indicates that there might actually be a pattern.
There is, however, a pattern of violence against women that’s broad and deep and horrific and incessantly overlooked. Occasionally, a case involving a celebrity or lurid details in a particular case get a lot of attention in the media, but such cases are treated as anomalies, while the abundance of incidental news items about violence against women in this country, in other countries, on every continent including Antarctica, constitute a kind of background wallpaper for the news.
If you’d rather talk about bus rapes than gang rapes, there’s the rape of a developmentally disabled woman on a Los Angeles bus in November and the kidnapping of an autistic 16-year-old on the regional transit train system in Oakland, California — she was raped repeatedly by her abductor over two days this winter — and there was a gang rape of multiple women on a bus in Mexico City recently, too. While I was writing this, I read that another female bus-rider was kidnapped in India and gang-raped all night by the bus driver and five of his friends who must have thought what happened in New Delhi was awesome.
We have an abundance of rape and violence against women in this country and on this Earth, though it’s almost never treated as a civil rights or human rights issue, or a crisis, or even a pattern. Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality, but it does have a gender.
Here I want to say one thing: though virtually all the perpetrators of such crimes are men, that doesn’t mean all men are violent. Most are not. In addition, men obviously also suffer violence, largely at the hands of other men, and every violent death, every assault is terrible. But the subject here is the pandemic of violence by men against women, both intimate violence and stranger violence.
What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Gender
There’s so much of it. We could talk about the assault and rape of a 73-year-old in Manhattan’s Central Park last September, or the recent rape of a four-year-old and an 83-year-old in Louisiana, or the New York City policeman who was arrested in October for what appeared to be serious plans to kidnap, rape, cook, and eat a woman, any woman, because the hate wasn’t personal (though maybe it was for the San Diego man who actually killed and cooked his wife in November and the man from New Orleans who killed, dismembered, and cooked his girlfriend in 2005).
Those are all exceptional crimes, but we could also talk about quotidian assaults, because though a rape is reported only every 6.2 minutes in this country, the estimated total is perhaps five times as high. Which means that there may be very nearly a rape a minute in the U.S. It all adds up to tens of millions of rape victims.
Never mind workplace violence, let’s go home. So many men murder their partners and former partners that we have well over 1,000 homicides of that kind a year — meaning that every three years the death toll tops 9/11’s casualties, though no one declares a war on this particular terror. (Another way to put it: the more than 11,766 corpses from domestic-violence homicides since 9/11 exceed the number of deaths of victims on that day and all American soldiers killed in the “war on terror.”) If we talked about crimes like these and why they are so common, we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or male roles, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.
If we talked about crimes like these…we’d have to talk about what kinds of profound change this society, or this nation, or nearly every nation needs. If we talked about it, we’d be talking about masculinity, or maybe patriarchy, and we don’t talk much about that.
Instead, we hear that American men commit murder-suicides — at the rate of about 12 a week — because the economy is bad, though they also do it when the economy is good; or that those men in India murdered the bus-rider because the poor resent the rich, while other rapes in India are explained by how the rich exploit the poor; and then there are those ever-popular explanations: mental problems and intoxicants — and for jocks, head injuries. The latest spin is that lead exposure was responsible for a lot of our violence, except that both genders are exposed and one commits most of the violence. The pandemic of violence always gets explained as anything but gender, anything but what would seem to be the broadest explanatory pattern of all.
Someone wrote a piece about how white men seem to be the ones who commit mass murders in the U.S. and the (mostly hostile) commenters only seemed to notice the white part. It’s rare that anyone says what this medical study does, even if in the driest way possible: “Being male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behavior in several studies, as have exposure to tobacco smoke before birth, having antisocial parents, and belonging to a poor family.”
Still, the pattern is plain as day. We could talk about this as a global problem, looking at the epidemic of assault, harassment, and rape of women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that has taken away the freedom they celebrated during the Arab Spring — and led some men there to form defense teams to help counter it — or the persecution of women in public and private in India from “Eve-teasing” to bride-burning, or “honor killings” in South Asia and the Middle East, or the way that South Africa has become a global rape capital, with an estimated 600,000 rapes last year, or how rape has been used as a tactic and “weapon” of war in Mali, Sudan, and the Congo, as it was in the former Yugoslavia, or the pervasiveness of rape and harassment in Mexico and the femicide in Juarez, or the denial of basic rights for women in Saudi Arabia and the myriad sexual assaults on immigrant domestic workers there, or the way that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in the United States revealed what impunity he and others had in France, and it’s only for lack of space I’m leaving out Britain and Canada and Italy (with its ex-prime minister known for his orgies with the underaged), Argentina and Australia and so many other countries.
Who Has the Right to Kill You?
But maybe you’re tired of statistics, so let’s just talk about a single incident that happened in my city a couple of weeks ago, one of many local incidents in which men assaulted women that made the local papers this month:
“A woman was stabbed after she rebuffed a man’s sexual advances while she walked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood late Monday night, a police spokesman said today. The 33-year-old victim was walking down the street when a stranger approached her and propositioned her, police spokesman Officer Albie Esparza said. When she rejected him, the man became very upset and slashed the victim in the face and stabbed her in the arm, Esparza said.”
The man, in other words, framed the situation as one in which his chosen victim had no rights and liberties, while he had the right to control and punish her. This should remind us that violence is first of all authoritarian. It begins with this premise: I have the right to control you.
Murder is the extreme version of that authoritarianism, where the murderer asserts he has the right to decide whether you live or die, the ultimate means of controlling someone. This may be true even if you are “obedient,” because the desire to control comes out of a rage that obedience can’t assuage. Whatever fears, whatever sense of vulnerability may underlie such behavior, it also comes out of entitlement, the entitlement to inflict suffering and even death on other people. It breeds misery in the perpetrator and the victims.
As for that incident in my city, similar things happen all the time. Many versions of it happened to me when I was younger, sometimes involving death threats and often involving torrents of obscenities: a man approaches a woman with both desire and the furious expectation that the desire will likely be rebuffed. The fury and desire come in a package, all twisted together into something that always threatens to turn eros into thanatos, love into death, sometimes literally.
It’s a system of control. It’s why so many intimate-partner murders are of women who dared to break up with those partners. As a result, it imprisons a lot of women, and though you could say that the attacker on January 7th, or a brutal would-be-rapist near my own neighborhood on January 5th, or another rapist here on January 12th, or the San Franciscan who on January 6th set his girlfriend on fire for refusing to do his laundry, or the guy who was just sentenced to 370 years for some particularly violent rapes in San Francisco in late 2011, were marginal characters, rich, famous, and privileged guys do it, too.
The Japanese vice-consul in San Francisco was charged with 12 felony counts of spousal abuse and assault with a deadly weapon last September, the same month that, in the same town, the ex-girlfriend of Mason Mayer (brother of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer) testified in court: “He ripped out my earrings, tore my eyelashes off, while spitting in my face and telling me how unlovable I am… I was on the ground in the fetal position, and when I tried to move, he squeezed both knees tighter into my sides to restrain me and slapped me.” According to the newspaper, she also testified that “Mayer slammed her head onto the floor repeatedly and pulled out clumps of her hair, telling her that the only way she was leaving the apartment alive was if he drove her to the Golden Gate Bridge ‘where you can jump off or I will push you off.’” Mason Mayer got probation.
This summer, an estranged husband violated his wife’s restraining order against him, shooting her — and six other women — at her spa job in suburban Milwaukee, but since there were only four corpses the crime was largely overlooked in the media in a year with so many more spectacular mass murders in this country (and we still haven’t really talked about the fact that, of 62 mass shootings in the U.S. in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men — and by the way, nearly two thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner).
What’s love got to do with it, asked Tina Turner, whose ex-husband Ike once said, “Yeah I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.” A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. Just to be clear: not nine minutes, but nine seconds. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control, and you don’t want to know about the dentistry needed afterwards. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S.
‘Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.’ “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined,” writes Nicholas D. Kristof, one of the few prominent figures to address the issue regularly.
The Chasm Between Our Worlds
Rape and other acts of violence, up to and including murder, as well as threats of violence, constitute the barrage some men lay down as they attempt to control some women, and fear of that violence limits most women in ways they’ve gotten so used to they hardly notice — and we hardly address. There are exceptions: last summer someone wrote to me to describe a college class in which the students were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment). The chasm between their worlds had briefly and suddenly become visible.
Mostly, however, we don’t talk about it — though a graphic has been circulating on the Internet called Ten Top Tips to End Rape, the kind of thing young women get often enough, but this one had a subversive twist. It offered advice like this: “Carry a whistle! If you are worried you might assault someone ‘by accident’ you can hand it to the person you are with, so they can call for help.” While funny, the piece points out something terrible: the usual guidelines in such situations put the full burden of prevention on potential victims, treating the violence as a given. You explain to me why colleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.
Threats of sexual assault now seem to take place online regularly. In late 2011, British columnist Laurie Penny wrote, “An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the Internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill, and urinate on you. This week, after a particularly ugly slew of threats, I decided to make just a few of those messages public on Twitter, and the response I received was overwhelming. Many could not believe the hate I received, and many more began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation, and abuse.”
Women in the online gaming community have been harassed, threatened, and driven out. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who documented such incidents, received support for her work, but also, in the words of a journalist, “another wave of really aggressive, you know, violent personal threats, her accounts attempted to be hacked. And one man in Ontario took the step of making an online video game where you could punch Anita’s image on the screen. And if you punched it multiple times, bruises and cuts would appear on her image.” The difference between these online gamers and the Taliban men who, last October, tried to murder 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for speaking out about the right of Pakistani women to education is one of degree. Both are trying to silence and punish women for claiming voice, power, and the right to participate. Welcome to Manistan.
The Party for the Protection of the Rights of Rapists
It’s not just public, or private, or online either. It’s also embedded in our political system, and our legal system, which before feminists fought for us didn’t recognize most domestic violence, or sexual harassment and stalking, or date rape, or acquaintance rape, or marital rape, and in cases of rape still often tries the victim rather than the rapist, as though only perfect maidens could be assaulted — or believed.
As we learned in the 2012 election campaign, it’s also embedded in the minds and mouths of our politicians. Remember that spate of crazy pro-rape things Republican men said last summer and fall, starting with Todd Akin’s notorious claim that a woman has ways of preventing pregnancy in cases of rape, a statement he made in order to deny women control over their own bodies. After that, of course, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock claimed that rape pregnancies were “a gift from God,” and just this month, another Republican politician piped up to defend Akin’s comment.
Happily the five publicly pro-rape Republicans in the 2012 campaign all lost their election bids. (Stephen Colbert tried to warn them that women had gotten the vote in 1920.) But it’s not just a matter of the garbage they say (and the price they now pay). Earlier this month, congressional Republicans refused to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, because they objected to the protection it gave immigrants, transgendered women, and Native American women. (Speaking of epidemics, one of three Native American women will be raped, and on the reservations 88% of those rapes are by non-Native men who know tribal governments can’t prosecute them.)
And they’re out to gut reproductive rights — birth control as well as abortion, as they’ve pretty effectively done in many states over the last dozen years. What’s meant by “reproductive rights,” of course, is the right of women to control their own bodies. Didn’t I mention earlier that violence against women is a control issue?
And though rapes are often investigated lackadaisically — there is a backlog of about 400,000 untested rape kits in this country– rapists who impregnate their victims have parental rights in 31 states. Oh, and former vice-presidential candidate and current congressman Paul Ryan (R-Manistan) is reintroducing a bill that would give states the right to ban abortions and might even conceivably allow a rapist to sue his victim for having one.
All the Things That Aren’t to Blame
Of course, women are capable of all sorts of major unpleasantness, and there are violent crimes by women, but the so-called war of the sexes is extraordinarily lopsided when it comes to actual violence. Unlike the last (male) head of the International Monetary Fund, the current (female) head is not going to assault an employee at a luxury hotel; top-ranking female officers in the U.S. military, unlike their male counterparts, are not accused of any sexual assaults; and young female athletes, unlike those male football players in Steubenville, aren’t likely to urinate on unconscious boys, let alone violate them and boast about it in YouTube videos and Twitter feeds.
No female bus riders in India have ganged up to sexually assault a man so badly he dies of his injuries, nor are marauding packs of women terrorizing men in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and there’s just no maternal equivalent to the 11% of rapes that are by fathers or stepfathers. Of the people in prison in the U.S., 93.5% are not women, and though quite a lot of them should not be there in the first place, maybe some of them should because of violence, until we think of a better way to deal with it, and them.
No major female pop star has blown the head off a young man she took home with her, as did Phil Spector. (He is now part of that 93.5% for the shotgun slaying of Lana Clarkson, apparently for refusing his advances.) No female action-movie star has been charged with domestic violence, because Angelina Jolie just isn’t doing what Mel Gibson and Steve McQueen did, and there aren’t any celebrated female movie directors who gave a 13-year-old drugs before sexually assaulting that child, while she kept saying “no,” as did Roman Polanski.
In Memory of Jyoti Singh Pandey
What’s the matter with manhood? There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed. There are lovely and wonderful men out there, and one of the things that’s encouraging in this round of the war against women is how many men I’ve seen who get it, who think it’s their issue too, who stand up for us and with us in everyday life, online and in the marches from New Delhi to San Francisco this winter.
There’s something about how masculinity is imagined, about what’s praised and encouraged, about the way violence is passed on to boys that needs to be addressed.
Increasingly men are becoming good allies — and there always have been some. Kindness and gentleness never had a gender, and neither did empathy. Domestic violence statistics are down significantly from earlier decades (even though they’re still shockingly high), and a lot of men are at work crafting new ideas and ideals about masculinity and power.
Gay men have been good allies of mine for almost four decades. (Apparently same-sex marriage horrifies conservatives because it’s marriage between equals with no inevitable roles.) Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together or slaves together.
There are other things I’d rather write about, but this affects everything else. The lives of half of humanity are still dogged by, drained by, and sometimes ended by this pervasive variety of violence. Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving. Look at it this way: one of the best journalists I know is afraid to walk home at night in our neighborhood. Should she stop working late? How many women have had to stop doing their work, or been stopped from doing it, for similar reasons?
One of the most exciting new political movements on Earth is the Native Canadian indigenous rights movement, with feminist and environmental overtones, called Idle No More. On December 27th, shortly after the movement took off, a Native woman was kidnapped, raped, beaten, and left for dead in Thunder Bay, Ontario, by men whose remarks framed the crime as retaliation against Idle No More. Afterward, she walked four hours through the bitter cold and survived to tell her tale. Her assailants, who have threatened to do it again, are still at large.
The New Delhi rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 23-year-old who was studying physiotherapy so that she could better herself while helping others, and the assault on her male companion (who survived) seem to have triggered the reaction that we have needed for 100, or 1,000, or 5,000 years. May she be to women — and men — worldwide what Emmett Till, murdered by white supremacists in 1955, was to African-Americans and the then-nascent U.S. civil rights movement.
We have far more than 87,000 rapes in this country every year, but each of them is invariably portrayed as an isolated incident. We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain, but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain. In India they did. They said that this is a civil rights issue, it’s a human rights issue, it’s everyone’s problem, it’s not isolated, and it’s never going to be acceptable again. It has to change. It’s your job to change it, and mine, and ours.