Food for Thought
Living (In) Human Lives
Scanning the newspaper headlines these days invariably involves encountering a series of unpleasant news items. But if the news in general is bad, the news with regard to the situation of women in many places is even worse. In our own scenario, stories about the disturbingly varied forms of violence perpetrated on women are depressingly familiar. And contrary to popular mythology, the scourge of domestic violence in particular cuts across class barriers and income differentials quite effortlessly. Terrible as these stories of rape, abduction, wife beating and murder are to read, they cannot be properly understood without examining the underlying social structures and attitudes that underpin and reinforce such behaviour.
A recent global survey of experts by Thomson Reuters attempted to identify the five worst countries in which to be born a woman today, based on variables such as female infanticide and foeticide, sex trafficking, forced marriage, so-called "honour killings", maternal mortality rates and so on. Unsurprisingly, high levels of violence against women appeared to be a common factor in almost all of the countries featuring in the "Top Five". It was probably no surprise to anyone that Afghanistan appears at the top of the list, with the Democratic Republic of Congo in hot pursuit. Pakistan takes third place - and shockingly, India fourth - with Somalia tailing in the fifth spot.
Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that India (which most people might not expect to see classified with the other countries on this list) appears so near the top is related to the strong degree of 'son preference' existing there. This is common to most countries in the region, but in India has led to an estimated "50 million girls thought to be 'missing' over the past century due to female infanticide and foeticide," according to the UN population fund. To dispose so mercilessly of babies and foetuses for the 'crime' of belonging to the wrong sex surely provides the ultimate proof of how little value is placed on the lives of girls and women in this region. And that these statistics should come from India, feted for being the largest democracy of the world - and soon to be an economic super-power - is beyond shameful. It is an utter disgrace.
But examples of female foeticide, so-called "honour killings" and the trafficking and enslavement of women are merely the most extreme forms of gender violence. Negative attitudes towards girls and women percolate through many layers of society, and often take more insidious and widely accepted forms. For example, the common question that is raised in Bangladesh when allegations of wife beating are brought against someone is: what did she do to deserve it? In the vast majority of cases, she didn't "do" anything, and in no case can such violence be justified. The fact that we, as a society, can even ask such a question gives away the fact that many people believe that women should have no agency or capacity to make decisions for themselves; that they should be content to live at the mercy of others, to be obedient and accept whatever brutality is visited upon them in silence. And never underestimate the importance of silence - it is what allows the perpetuation of the cycle of falsehoods, and sustains the illusion that everything is as it should be.
Not that these attitudes are limited to southern Asia or sub-Saharan Africa; once again, it is often a question of degree that marks the difference in different parts of the world. I was appalled to read about the recent launch of the "Obedient Wife Club" in (undeniably developed) Malaysia as one such example. The club's aim is to provide its female membership with hints and tips about how to "entertain" their husbands, in order to prevent them from straying - this, mind you, in a scenario where one third of the women are already in polygamous relationships! The club's founder goes as far as to say that women should be like prostitutes in bed in order to please their men. That is in addition, of course, to maintaining their household properly and always obeying their husbands. Supposedly the result of this will be to curb social ills like divorce and domestic violence. However ridiculous and insulting this premise may seem to many of us, there are probably even more people out there to whom some version of this idea is acceptable, if not downright desirable.
On the other side of the world, similarly regressive views can be found with relative ease. For example, the Quiverfull movement in the US has been thriving in the Southern and Sunbelt States since 1985. Women belonging to this community are encouraged to accept as many children as they are given, as a means of demonstrating their radical faith, and in order to vanquish their enemies by outnumbering them! Quiverfull women commonly give birth to a dozen or more children, a situation made even more challenging by the movement's emphasis on natural - even unassisted -- home births.
Unlike traditionally large Catholic and Mormon families, the Quiverfull conviction does not follow from any official doctrine; it is implemented through fairly strict segregation of communities from the mainstream, and home schooling for children so that they are not "influenced" by the wider world. Women are encouraged to reject modern society in exchange for the principles of submissive wifehood and prolific childbearing.
Not surprisingly, ex-members denounced the lifestyle as one of continuous labour and near-constant exhaustion resulting from the cycle of pregnancy, childbirth and the care of large numbers of small children. There is no question about what is expected from women, and how straitjacketed their lives become in attempting to live up to these expectations. Sitting in Bangladesh, which is hailed as a success story precisely for its success in bringing population growth under control, it seems unthinkable that communities living in the US today should be trying to do the opposite.
On the other hand, the example of comments from the mayor of Mus, an Eastern province of Turkey, will have a distinct resonance to those living in Bangladesh. In an area of the country where BBC reports that six so-called "honour killings" have taken place in the last two months, the authorities' lack of sympathy or understanding for women is personified in the mayor's comments. Informed that high employment in the city of Mus had resulted in men spilling out of the overcrowded teahouses in the area to verbally harass female passersby, the mayor recently told representatives of the Women's Centre that women should not walk around, they should simply sit in their homes; the implication being that that is the best way for women to be safe from harassment of any kind. Of course, that begs the question of how the women reported to be victims of domestic violence - which stands as high as 70 percent, according to a recent survey in the area - are supposed to "be safe" even when they do follow the mayor's ridiculous instructions! But then, I don't suppose he cares about that. Or them.