Fighting for Women who Fight Back

This last week Time magazine published as its cover photo a picture of a mutilated Afghan woman: as punishment for running away from abusive in-laws, her ears and nose had been sliced off by her husband on the order of the local Taliban judge. The woman, Aisha, is only 18. The photo sported the caption “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan.”

This is a somewhat disingenuous argument given the staggering complexity the military and geopolitical situation in Afghanistan, but it is one that I admit to have made myself, and often. The Taliban are without a doubt some of the most evil men on the planet, and I shudder at the idea of leaving the women of Afghanistan forever in their hands. But as the Afghan debate putters on, two thoughts have come to me to quiet this particular line of reasoning. First, barring politically impossible solutions like airlifting the country’s entire female population to asylum in the West, there is increasingly little that the United States and the world can do make Afghanistan a stable, liveable place for anyone. And second, inexcusable institutionalised cruelty against women is not unique to Afghanistan. It is a global phenomenon.

In Afghanistan girls are splashed with acid to scare them away from attending school. In Pakistan women are buried alive by the dozen for daring to want to choose their own husbands. In Africa female genital mutilation continues apace amid international outcry. In Saudi Arabia intellectuals argue seriously about how thick a rod may be used when beating a disobedient wife. In China female infanticide is an epidemic. And here in India honour killings are a terrifyingly reality in both Hindu and Muslim communities, despite the law and significant affirmative-action measures being passed to empower women.

East/West. Developed/Developing. Secular/Religious. No, with women more than half the population, the division that matters most is between the feminist and the misogynist.

Thankfully, here in India at least, some women are fighting back — most spectacularly by forming violent vigilante gangs to rough up men who abuse or take advantage of the fairer sex. The most notable of these groups is the gulabis in Uttar Pradesh, whose 20,000 plus members wear bright pink saris and carry intimidating bamboo sticks. When a member finds herself threatened, the gulabis gather to scare the perpetrator straight. Sometimes they mobilise for more dramatic operations, such as in 2008 when the gulabis stormed a power station where workers were demanding sexual favours to turn the lights back on.

Often their simple presence and sheer numbers is enough to make the bad guys think twice, and the more the gulabi organisation grows the more the authorities attempt to bring their feisty commander, Sampat Pal Devi, into politics. In this respect, however, the gulabis are the exception, not the rule. For many of India’s female gangs, escalation means more violence, not more legitimacy. In 2004 hundreds of women gathered to hack to death a serial rapist who had escaped conviction. I must admit: there is a certain grim appeal to rebellions of this sort. In situations of extreme injustice the lynch mob can feel so right.

As titillating as it is, however, vigilantism is never sustainable. Inevitably groups like this go from beating up violent drunks to beating up anyone who drinks. From there warlordism is just an elegant dance step away. And more to the point, vigilantism shouldn’t be necessary.

A better model might be the one gaining momentum in Bangladesh. There gadget-wielding “info-ladies” bicycle around the countryside, collaborating with a call centre in Dhaka to diagnose skin diseases or identify crop-killing pests, advising better, science-based solutions to a variety of agricultural, domestic and health problems that often afflict the nation’s rural poor. This puts them in a perfect position to, say, advise women on what legal recourse they can take against abusive husbands: most men, even in the misogynistic religious establishment, don’t dare cross these keepers of such essential knowledge.

There are lots of ways to fight back, with sticks or with smarts. As hesitant as I am to support any movement that uses violence, I admire the gulabi for refusing to accept sexist an misogynist traditions and instead mobilising for their own empowerment. These are the women who can wrest a society from the small-minded conventions of abusive men. And if we want to make the world safe for girls like Aisha, these are the women we have to fight for and with — starting by making those bamboo sticks obsolete.

If women had the support of strong institutions, if they had wealth and education and freedom of movement, if they had careers and political influence — well, then the developing world wouldn’t need groups like the gulabi and their less scrupulous sister gangs. And if the women of the developing world had all these things, not only would they be safer but the rest of us would be more prosperous as well. Holding down half your population is never a smart, and countries that deny women education, legal equality and opportunity for social advancement can never compete in the global economy.

Despite the obvious economic advantages and the — in my mind anyway — equally obvious moral imperative, there will still be those that oppose feminist reform of the developing world. Many cling to the familiar traditions and mores of old cultures, but there is no virtue in traditions of oppression. Many see utopia in the revival of more rigourous ancient ways, but in practice their only policy is ruin. These movements — including the Taliban — must not be tolerated.

Even if geopolitical circumstances drive America to withdraw its military from Afghanistan, we should redouble our efforts to bring an end to misogynistic societies. It is, quite simply, the right thing to do.

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