Share, Listen, Think

Part Two: Is Feminism Still the F-Word?

In Life in Society on April 10, 2012 at 9:20 pm

Answer: Yes, because systems of oppression still exist.

By Bekah McNeel

Here’s an underdog for you: An androgynous victim-turned-vigilante whose ideas of retribution are merciless and often gory. Lisbeth Salander is the anti-heroine of the book Men Who Hate Women, also titled The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. We cheer for her because we know how wounded she is, and the book makes little mystery of her oddity being the manifestation of the psychological effects of violence.

It’s tempting to see this violence as a modern perversion brought on by media violence, the sexual revolution, and video games. It’s tempting to hearken back to a sweeter time when a woman could go for a walk at night without fear, back before people were evil. But the heart of oppression is more native to our species. It’s more basic.

When asked about motive behind domestic abuse, men’s answers included anger, fear, insecurity, frustration, and other emotions triggered by desires for power, sex, or control.

(CNN Living, “Men Tell Oprah Why they Beat the Women they Love”, http://articles.cnn.com/2009-04-02/living/o.why.men.abuse.women_1_christy-abuse-sir?_s=PM:LIVING., accessed 3/30/12)

Abuse happens in cycles and abuse happens collectively. It happens to random strangers and to cherished spouses. There is no one answer as to what makes men want to beat or oppress women as a people group or as individuals.

Here is a concise list of disturbing facts lifted from the Oxfam Canada website:

16 Facts about Gender-Based Violence

1.     Around the world, as many as 1 in every 3 women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way – most often by someone she knows, including by her husband or another male family member.

2.     Women are more susceptible to violence during times of emergencies or crisis due to increased insecurity.

3.     1 in 5 women will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

4.     About 1 in 4 women are abused during pregnancy, which puts both mother and child at risk.

5.     Laws that promote gender equality are often not applied.

6.     At least 130 million women have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation/cutting.

7.     ‘Honour’ Killings take the lives of 1000s of young women every year, mainly in Western Asia, North Africa and parts of South Asia.

8.     At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are ‘missing’ from various populations as a result of sex-selective abortions or neglect.

9.     Over half a million women continue to die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes.

10.  Rates of HIV infection among women are rapidly increasing.

11.  More often than not, perpetrators of gender-based violence go unpunished.

12.  Worldwide, women are twice as likely as men to be illiterate, limiting their ability to demand their rights and protection.

13.  Early marriage can have serious harmful consequences including, denial of education, health problems, and premature pregnancies, which cause higher rates of maternal and infant mortality. The power imbalance also means that young brides are unable to negotiate condom use or protest when their husbands engage in extra-marital sexual relations.

14.  Violence against women represents a drain on the economically productive workforce.

15.  Each year, an estimated 800,000 people are trafficked across borders 80 percent of them women and girls. Most of them end up trapped in the commercial sex trade.

16.  Gender-based violence also serves by intention or effect to perpetuate male power and control. It is sustained by a culture of silence and denial of the seriousness of the health consequences of abuse.

(http://oxfam.ca/what-we-do/themes-and-issues/womens-equality/16-facts-about-gender-based-violence, accessed on 03/30/12)

For further exploration of these and other statistics, readers may visit the below sites:

International Justice Mission http://www.ijm.org/sites/default/files/resources/Factsheet-Gender-Based-Violence.pdf

United Nations Women’s Development Fund http://progress.unwomen.org/

National Organization for Women http://www.now.org/issues/violence/stats.html

Photo by Kent Bartlett

Feminism is still “the F-word” in systems where it threatens a broken status quo. No one would say that a woman fighting for equal pay is in the same straits as a young girl trapped in the sex trade, but there is some solidarity there. Any system, even a family system, that says that women are inherently less valuable, capable or dignified than men is a system that makes way for abuse. Any system that sees education, health care, and legal rights as strictly belonging to men is a system that fosters oppression. A woman’s health and welfare in this world should not be dependent on the good will of the men around her.

I’m not saying men are evil. I’m not saying women are virtuous. We are all human and prone to abuse each other in large or small ways. Which is why we have to plan for the failure of our own virtue. We have to plan boundaries, structures, and accountability to keep us safe from each other. We cannot assume that we are incorruptible. This is not a new idea. This is why the United States has a Constitution. It’s not perfect, and it’s malleable. Some of the changes to it have come from surges of conscience that propelled us forward and made us better. Like the 14th and 19th amendments, which recognized that unless these people were citizens, they would be vulnerable and unprotected.

Around the world, women are without rights. I’m not talking about the choice to wear a hijab, or stay home to raise children. I am talking about the women who do not have that choice. Women for whom what they wear, say, and do is all limited and mandated by a system designed to control them. Not in the way that we all have to obey laws. Not in the way that we all have to submit to systems for the good of the whole. There are systems that deny women basic human agency. (For that matter, there are systems that deny whole people groups basic human agency … another essay for another day.)

If there are mandates that apply only to women, then that begs an explanation which may contain the DNA of oppression. If the explanation is that women are less capable, valuable or dignified, then a door is open to the stripping of their rights. The dehumanization process can begin with a simple statement about what women are “better suited” to do. So we must be very careful with our choices and how we explain them. We who have choices owe that much to the women who do not.

There are systems that need more than redefining and explaining. In another lesser-known novel, A Walk Across the Sun, by Corban Addison, economic systems built around supply and demand keep sex trade the booming industry that it is. Furthermore it brings women into a world of violence, where they then play an integral role in continuing their own oppression and the oppression of others, whether as brothel madams or teenage “mean girls” critiquing each other’s body shape and hair style.

This can happen on small scales too: women who are abused become abusers. The men who are abusing them were often abused themselves. Inside a system of oppression, there is rarely a simple dichotomy between perpetrator and victim. Inside the system of oppression, whether it is economic, social, or domestic, almost everyone needs rescue on some level.

The rescue begins by acknowledging that the brokenness is real and that it is closer than we realize. There are enemies to violence and oppression: justice, empowerment, and a place to heal. In so far as feminism is promoting these things for women who are denied them, it will always be “the f-word” to systems of oppression.

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  1. An interesting and important companion article: “Men are Victims of Domestic Violence Too” — http://christiancounseling.com/content/men-are-victims-of-domestic-violence-too

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