Friday, January 04, 2008

Why I heart Kim Gandy

People sometimes think I'm a Debbie Downer for not being a cheerful, Fun Feminist. They think feminists "go looking" for things to be angry about. They're wrong. All you have to do is open your damn eyes, look past your front door, and you'll SEE all the things there are to be angry about, to be sad about, to be righteously indignant about. Kim Gandy ties it all up in a neat package for you here.

A Maddening Reminder

Below the Belt: A Biweekly Column by NOW President Kim Gandy

January 4, 2008

Sadly, the year 2007 ended with a maddening reminder that violence is a popular tool of oppression. From the most powerful leaders in the world, to the tyrant next door, those who aim to exploit, control and silence others predictably turn to aggression and brutality.

On Dec. 27, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, robbed the world of a charismatic and dedicated advocate for democracy in the Middle East. The news was horrific, but hardly surprising given the numerous death threats Bhutto had received over the years.

In 1988 Prime Minister Bhutto became the first woman democratically elected to lead a modern Muslim nation, and repeatedly put her life on the line to advance democracy in a volatile country. Bhutto knew the risk that came with returning to Pakistan to run for a third term, but she refused to let that threat stand in her way. She was prepared to pay the ultimate price for freedom, and she did.

Bhutto's murder dominated the news for days, but millions of women across the globe are killed, raped, beaten and mutilated every year without any public pause.

According to Amnesty International, more than 15,000 women are sold into sexual slavery in China annually. Six thousand women are genitally mutilated each day in North Africa. In Bangladesh, hundreds of women are horribly disfigured when spurned husbands or suitors burn them with acid. More than 7,000 women in India are murdered by their families and in-laws in disputes over dowries per year. Even here in the U.S., an average of three women are murdered every day by husbands or boyfriends, and an estimated one million to three million women are abused by them.

In the conflict-ravaged region of Darfur, in western Sudan, as many as 400,000 innocent people have been killed and more than 2.5 million driven from their homes. Rape and sexual violence have been used to terrorize and displace rural communities. Even after fleeing Darfur, women and girls in refugee camps continue to be raped and assaulted by civilians or militia members.

The brutalization of women in war zones and the appropriation of their bodies as "spoils of war" are common practices that have persisted for centuries. The United States condemns the use of these tactics, but at the same time our female service members fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are being raped by the same commanders and comrades they trusted to fight beside them. They are reluctant or afraid to report these crimes, and the added trauma is taking its toll, as reported in USA Today this week.

This report comes on the heels of a story of gender-based crime and punishment that sparked considerable media interest. In 2006, a 19-year-old woman in Saudi Arabia brought charges against seven men for gang-rape. In addition to the punishments handed down to the perpetrators, the judge sentenced the young woman herself to 90 lashes for being alone in a car with a man who was not a relative of hers just before the attack.

Even a country like Saudi Arabia, a strong ally of the Bush administration, treats women residents like second-class citizens. Justice in Saudi Arabia is administered by a system of religious courts following a strict interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive and must get a male relative's permission before having surgery, going to college, seeking a job or accepting a marriage proposal.

The case of "the Girl from Qatif" (as she came to be known) attracted worldwide attention for its outrageous injustice. Last year, a Saudi court more than doubled the young woman's penalty to 200 lashes and six months in jail. According to Arab News, the court said the woman's punishment was increased because of "her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media."

After even greater condemnation from the world community, King Abdullah eventually granted the woman a pardon in December. However, this incident served as a reminder that patriarchy continues to exist in its most extreme forms, sanction by governments that are not accustomed to being challenged.

Some conservatives argue that discrimination and violence against women in the Middle East should be reason enough for feminists to support the U.S. right-wing's agenda of invading Islamic countries and installing Bush-style "democracy" as in Iraq.

But the Bush administration is not on a mission to do the women of the world any favors. Just look at how women have suffered in Iraq, and at the deteriorating conditions for women in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is making a comeback.

Obviously the reliance on brute force to keep women from overstepping proscribed boundaries is not limited to convenient interpretations of Islam. Violence and misogyny transcend territory, language, ethnicity, culture, politics, religion -- you name it. The desire to dominate, combined with sexism, fuels violence against women in every corner of the world.

In 2006, the United Nations released a report officially classifying violence against women as a human rights violation, increasing pressure on nation-states in the UN to intensify and improve systems in place for handling violence against women. Calling violence against women "unacceptable," the report goals included: surveying the pervasiveness of violence against women around the world; reminding UN states of the importance of this issue; finding better, more effective ways to combat violence against women; and increasing accountability of UN states for violations of women's human rights.

Responding to and preventing violence will be most effective when the U.S. and all societies across the globe are willing to acknowledge and address its root causes. Our current president lacks credibility on this issue because he is a bully himself, someone who resorts to violence to get his way, a man who laughed at the impending execution of a woman in the state he governed. Let's face it, Bush just doesn't get it.

This nation needs a leader who can speak with authority on this subject. Someone who can influence other countries to join us in eradicating violence, hatred and discrimination of all kinds. Someone who will shine a light on this issue and set a bold example for the world. Someone who believes that women's rights are human rights. I hope that we will end 2008 with a newly elected president who can do just that.

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