This is a guest post by Soraya Chemaly. Soraya Chemaly writes about the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Fem2.0, The Feminist Wire, BitchFlicks and Alternet, among other media. She has appeared as a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Sirius XM progressive radio, and is a frequent HuffPost Live Panelist. Follow her on Twitter at @schemaly.
This week a Taliban hit squad in Pakistan targeted and shot Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year old who was fighting for the right of girls to be educated. I cried at the inhumanity on and off all day when I heard. Maybe she should have just dressed the part and saved her life. I’m not being flip. I wish with all my heart that she didn’t have to be shot in the head to become a “global icon” for the plight of girls. But the plight of girls is the plight of the world. That’s what people need to come to terms with.
What would you think when I say that if a country dedicates itself to reducing its rates of violence against girls and women it also lowers its propensity for engaging in military conflict? What if rape and domestic violence and all these “women’s issues” and “social issues” are integrally part of “manly” “national security” ones?
This is common sense, but apparently that’s irrelevant. Which is why I am so glad that now it’s also legitimately documented in a quiet but powerfully provocative book, Sex and World Peace. Why the authors’ findings should be provocative is beyond me but I am glad they are finally being talked about.
If you take one idea away from the year 2012 this should be it: The very best indicator and predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not wealth, military expenditures or religion; the best predictor is how well its girls and women are treated. There is a direct relationship between the treatment of women in everyday life – in homes, on streets, at schools and work – and a nation’s propensity for engaging in war. And before you start making exceptions for, say, the U.S., think about this: Democracies with high levels of violence against women are as insecure and unstable as non-democracies. It turns out that the security of girls and women is the measure of the security of the state they live in. In very few countries do we have a clear and culturally evident equality in the equal value of boys and girls.
Consider the simplest fact that everywhere, when you want to humiliate a boy or a “real man” you accuse him of being a “girl.” If the US, if he’s a rookie football player, you give him a little girl’s backpack to show him his “place” or, if he’s an Iraqi prisoner, you make him wear girls’ underwear to demonstrate your complete power over his body. In Afghanistan, cross-dressed dancing boys are “invisible victims” of rape. It’s a shaming tool and a cheap weapon. If you’re a boy – you understand your intrinsic superior value. If you’re a girl or a woman it’s a slap in the face every time you see it or hear it. Most of us brush it off and go about our business. But it wears away in your brain nonetheless. How can it not? It really is everywhere a subtle, backhanded reminder that your way of being is a way to denigrate and insult others.
The linguistic and actual subjugation of girls is a ubiquitous cultural meme that feeds a real and deadly harm. And, it turns out, has everything to do with war. I imagine however that most people aren’t considering what all of this has to do with our likelihood of going to war. Some of our political leaders certainly haven’t.
By now, you might know that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month in the US. But, domestic violence is one aspect of multi-dimensional assaults that one in three women in the world experience everyday: street harassment, rape, child marriage, female infanticide, spousal murder and more. Borders and nationality are irrelevant in the big picture of the epidemiology of this violence. Any careful consumption of news reveals a daily litany of horrors – France, Eygpt, Afghanistan, the US, South Africa, India, Congo, Brazil, Morocco, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Syria, the U.S.. Everything from small indignities to big ones, from public executions to private ones. You get the point. One third of all women is more than one billion women. It’s why you should rise up on February 14th 2013 in support of Eve Ensler’s V-Day #onebillionrising movement. When the word “women” isn’t even mentioned in a US presidential debate on “domestic policy” you know we’re in trouble. Imaging that anyone with power is going to talk about “girls” in the context of international security and diplomacy is laughable. But, that doesn’t make it right.
Sex and World Peace was written by Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett. Their findings are derived from more than 10 years of study. During this time, this group of multi-disciplinary researchers created the Womanstats Project and Database, the most comprehensive aggregation of data regarding the status of girls and women in the world. The database, which contains more than 130,000 datapoints, includes more than 375 variables for 175 countries, all of which have populations of at least 200,000 people.
The authors analyzed a broad spectrum of behaviors to rank women’s status. They looked at domestic violence, maternal mortality, rape, and women’s political participation, physical security and rated them on a scale of 0 (best) to 4 (worst). Not one nation rated a 0. The US, for women’s physical security, came in at 2 (the world average is 3.4).
In addition to granular empirical analysis, the authors mapped these data to illustrate the distribution of violence against women geographically and to graphically illustrate the scope of the issues. The maps are fascinating and can be found here. The authors acknowledge that, while empirically sound, substantive and certainly provocative, their findings are preliminary and further analysis, within the context of conventional explanations,must take place before they are considered authoritative.
What could possibly be at the root of these findings? Well, it is interesting to consider the idea that war is a function of how we treat people who we understand to be different from us. I wrote about this idea and book earlier this year for Women Under Siege. This independent project, started by Gloria Steinem and directed by Lauren Wolfe, documents how rape and other forms of sexualized violence have been and continue to be used as tools in genocide and conflict. Their most recent study charts the use of rape as a tool of terror in Syria. In that piece, I explained that idea, of difference, this way:
Gender is the fundamental construct for how a society understands difference. Regardless of which state we are talking about, tolerance for domestic violences, street harassment, rape and restrictions on women’s reproductive freedoms are among several indicators of gender inequality rooted in such difference. These behaviors correlate to state security in multiple dimensions. In the simplest terms, states in which women are subjected to violence and uncontested male rule at home, where they are not allowed equal freedoms and rights to bodily integrity, privacy, and equal protection under the law, are those most likely to engage in violence as nations, the authors report.
I understand that there are many other intersectional factors that make up “difference” and how we define what is “other” in culture, e.g. race, class, sexual identity, religion – but, as Shirley Chisholm said, “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: It’s a girl.” The exact same thing happens to boys – only with a radically polarized set of stereotypes. The first and most profound difference, globally, remains gender.
Please think hard about what this means. Then talk about it! Then share it! Blog, Tumble, Tweet, Like whatever. It’s a big idea with daily relevance and real and powerful consequences: Microaggression against girls and women in private, in neighborhoods, in communities is integrally connected to macroaggressive national behavior. The greater the polarization of gender in a household, the higher tolerance there is for violence and oppression and the greater the violence experienced by women and girls in those households the greater the likelihood of militarization and national violence.
All over the world, societies are experiencing cultural and political backlash against fifty years of dissolving gender polarity. Our presidential election is providing two very stark options from this perspective. For the first time in decades, the Republican Party continues its evisceration of the the Violence Against Women Act, while simultaneously and repeatedly making rape apologist statements and enacting violence through legislation. This party proudly embraces a traditional, conservative, primacy of the father, “privacy of the family” worldview. It is also no coincidence that the Republican Party is also mightily invested in the idea of a strong military. Men are men. Women are women. Men are violent. Women aren’t. Conservative men and women both hold this view. Regardless of nation, women’s inequality is maintained most effectively through adherence to this very complementary, gender hierarchical world view. The family is where girls and women, and boys, are most often isolated and victimized. On the other hand, the Democratic Party, does not. That party at least more actively seeks to find ways for women to live strong, independent lives, free from violence and to allow men and women to define for themselves the nature of their families.
What we do in this country has implications for everyone. This is why I want to cry or shake someone (gasp, a woman with a violent thought!) when opinion writers like Kathleen Parker write sentences like “How about we ditch the gender nonsense and declare this the year of the American?” When you consider the perpetuation and tolerance for this type of culture as a result of Republican obstructionism and “fiscal” conservativism it’s simply shameful. A willful, self-serving blindness, provincial in its considerations.
It goes without saying, although I am saying it, that boys and men are oppressed and hurt by violence as well. In some parts of the world, their masculinity is perverted so that there is barely any humanity left. Boys are held to destructive standards of masculinity that not only perpetuate violence but also mean that when boys are preyed upon, sexually especially, a debilitating faux-ignorance and deafening silence has been the cultural response. There are healthy masculinity alternatives to what Gloria Steinem so accurately described as a “cult of masculinity.” How else do you describe a culture that makes a man kill his three daughters by putting a poisonous snake in their bed because he finally has a son? Or gives rapists, rape being just “another method of conception,” rights of custody?
But the fact that violence is essential to patriarchal culture doesn’t mean this is the only way we can exist. And, I know, war is not going anywhere anytime soon. But, it’s far easier to decide to treat little boys and girls equally in a home than to say we will stop fighting wars because they are evil. I just don’t understand why as a society, we wouldn’t eliminate, and as systematically as possible, the violence that girls and women face every day. If in a few generations we find a more peaceful world, then what’s the harm?