Sunday 18 August 2013

The case for a female president

Not long ago Michelle Obama said America is ready for a female president. She is actually more right than you think. Right now is the perfect time for a woman to lead America, and play a leadership role in the world. Women’s rights have been taking a pounding in the United States, on everything from abortion to contraception, and things are as bad as ever for women in the less civilized parts of the world.

Here are three reasons why we could really use a woman at the helm right now.

First, here in America there are a lot of issues that women need fixed, in no particular order…

Rape: Instead of slut-shaming rape victims, and punishing them, and protecting rapists who happen to be athletes and entertainers, and pretending that rape isn’t really rape, how about we actually treat rape as a crime and punish the criminals?

Voting rights: Women’s voting rights are under attack in many quarters around the globe, and U.S. conservatives are eagerly attacking the rights of liberal groups such as blacks and students to vote, so watch for them to go after women’s voting rights here too. One issue is that a third of women don’t have valid ID due to name changes from marriage or divorce. Conservatives would love to see voter-identification rules that make it harder for the ladies to vote.

Equal pay:  Enough said.

Supporting the Violence Against Women Act: Conservatives were fighting VAWA because the bill didn’t do enough to be mean and shitty to gays, lesbians and immigrants. Time to grow up, boys, thank you.

CEDAW:  The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women is a UN treaty codifying a bill of rights for women. Almost every nation on earth ratified it. Among the few exceptions: Iran, Somalia, Sudan….and the United States. We’re actually in bed with the ayatollahs on this.

Policemen: can we stop them from probing women’s vaginas on the side of the road for the fun of it?

Poverty: It hits women and their kids more than men, so sometime soon can the conservatives stop holding a hundred votes to repeal Obamacare and ban abortion, and pass some jobs bills instead, so we can get the economy going? And until the economy gets fixed, stop trying to destroy the social safety net? Most of the people getting welfare are white moms who need a couple months’ help until they find work, if they’re not working already. That includes services for the homeless – also a lot of moms with kids.

Prostitution: Stop prosecuting the girls and go after the johns and especially the pimps and traffickers.

Sexual harassment: Anyone who thinks we’ve finally got people taking it seriously should check out that sleazebag politician in San Diego.

Enablers of abuse: Trafficking and sexual slavery thrive in part because of American sex tourists and military personnel deployed overseas. And by the way, can we also make sure our troops don’t rape any more prisoners the way they did in Iraq? Also places like Houston and California are major conduits for human trafficking, wherein people – a lot of girls -- are exploited for sex and on farms.

Services and support: Conservatives seem to take perverse glee in stomping all over the services women need – clinics, Planned Parenthood, child care etc. And of course misogynists around the globe are doing likewise: female nurses threatened in Pakistan, women’s advocates killed in Iraq; the Iraqi minister for women’s affairs finally quit because they wouldn’t even give her the money to do her job.

Reproductive freedom: The troglodytes are hard at work, even today, trying to take away Roe v Wade and the right to contraception, and slut-shaming women who seek birth control and have sex on their own terms, or even wear clothes which express their sexuality. Also, there are a lot of domestic abusers who try to either force pregnancy overtly, or sabotage the birth control, or refuse to wear condoms – ten million women must put up with this in the U.S. alone. Ironically domestic abusers are also known to go ballistic and beat their wives when they do get pregnant. Other examples of men seeking to control reproduction can be found all around the world: girls pressured into surrendering their futures to matchmakers, girls mutilated by clitoral circumcision to inhibit desire, Afghan politicians arguing about whether it’s okay to legalize marital rape.

Female politicians: It’s time we stopped accepting the boorish behavior of conservative politicians, and I can’t think of a better place to start than by demanding that female politicians be treated with the same respect that their male counterparts. Conservative hate-mongers take special delight in truly appalling attacks on women in power, from Hillary Clinton to Nancy Pelosi to Wendy Davis and Mitch McConnell’s new opponent in the Kentucky Senate race. Sheer intimidation, which often begins even before the female candidate announces her run, possibly an attempt to bully her out of the race. There’s a difference between rough politics and this nonsense.

I’m sure that some of you know all this already; the main intent is to inform those who have managed to get through their lives without knowing that the female half of their world is being treated like this.

The second area in which a female president could provide world leadership, is fighting the effort to treat women as commodities. Around the world, girls are used, bought and sold, often by their own families, as commodities, just as farm families trade for sheep and goats. Again, this is mostly aimed at the people who have never taken a look at how people are treated beyond our borders.

First problem: forced marriage, girls forced to marry against their will. This is particularly prevalent in Africa, and southern and eastern Asia. There is a lot in South Africa. Along the Afghan-Pakistan border families sell their girls to settle feuds (just as European kingdoms used to do). Sunni Muslims allow fathers and grandfathers to force girls to marry, and Hanafi Muslims say any male relative can do it, although the girl can seek annulment when she comes of age (if she can even do so safely). Forced marriage is also used by girls captured in war. Bride-kidnapping is epidemic in the Eastern Hemisphere, especially in the former Soviet States, and a lot of rape goes along with it; the girls are seen as property, a commodity. In some less-civilized regions twenty percent of all married women were forced to marry their husbands.

In more civilized countries the girls can go to court or church for an annulment if they can manage it, but even in places like the U.S. and UK a girl can be sent by force back to a country such as Pakistan, so she can be forced to marry a man who can then apply for citizenship back west.

In the UK there is now a wave of Pakistani girls who are being taken to Pakistan on summer “holiday” where they are forced to marry a stranger, on pain of honor killing if they refuse; one victim was two years old. It happens in Afghanistan and  Bangladesh too. It’s gotten so bad that a British charity is telling these girls to stick a spoon in their underwear, to set off the metal detectors at the airport: then she can tell the arresting authorities she is being kidnapped, and get help. The authorities are more likely to help if they see the tell-tale signs, like one-way tickets.

And in any country, “civilized” or not, pregnancy can lead to shotgun weddings, particularly in areas where access to women’s services and welfare barely exist. Forced marriage leads to abuse, powerlessness, rape, STDs, poor health.

In addition to forced marriage, there is a lot of arranged marriage: girls “voluntarily” give up the power to choose their mates, and rely on marriage brokers and marriage markets. Online marriage markets are catching on, particularly in India. In Japan it is big business, involving everything from matchmakers to detectives investigating the families of the intended. But the red thread running through it all is the idea that the girl isn’t choosing her own partner.

Next problem, child brides. Very young girls marrying due to pregnancy, captivity in war, displaced persons, slavery, fear of waiting too long to marry, parental fear that waiting too long will lead to immoral behavior, tribalism, feudal alliances.   In Afghanistan girls of nine and ten are sold to old men to pay off debts; in Africa a very young girl will actually fetch more money; Mormons pursue the practice under the table. Marriage at such an early age increases the certainty that the girl will be dominated all her life, and childbirth at such an early stage risks serious health problems – including death in the less developed areas.

Next, dowries and bride prices. Sometimes a bride’s family demands money for their girl, particularly if the girl is expected to work and produce (unpaid of course) for the groom’s family; other times the bridal family pays the groom’s family, if the girl is seen as a “useless mouth” to feed. In Afghanistan, money and goods can go both ways, in addition to the transfer of the girl from one family to the other. As is often the case, it is worst on the Indian subcontinent: in thousands of cases the groom’s family tortures and abuses the new bride in order to extort more dowry money from the bride’s family – many of these girls have committed suicide to escape their fate. They’re called dowry deaths. But in all these cases the girls are treated as merely one of a list of commodities to be exchanged by the families.

Sometimes girls are bought and sold outright. Selling girls is common in China and India; some interpretations of Islamic law allow women to buy their own freedom from their husbands.

Other times a girl’s marriage is used as a legal tool to achieve something else. Girls marry so that someone else can gain citizenship or hide their homosexuality; in China a poor girl can be sold as a laborer to a rich family, after which she gets to marry the rich son. Mail-order brides trade sexual servitude for financial support and citizenship, a concept which is closer to traditional marriage than we might be comfortable with.

And of course women around the world are sold to pay debts, for slave labor and sweatshops, and/or sold into prostitution. Every year 50,000 women and children are brought against their will into the United States for sexual exploitation. Saudi Arabia has serious problems with the trafficking, enslavement and sexual exploitation of women and girls; girls from Africa and Asia are regularly enslaved. Saudis who reside abroad can take female slaves with them; one 17-year-old girl was held four years in Colorado and raped regularly.

The underlying problem, obviously, is that the people who run these societies only see the value in girls, if they can exploit them for profit or some other gain. Otherwise, female fetuses aborted, female babies killed or abandoned. Once we fight for the idea that girls have value independent of their reproductive tools or their capacity for exploitation, the first steps toward global revolution can be taken.

The third thing is to set women free, around the world.

Just as America has extremists who picket and blow up abortion clinics, and wave homophobic signs at military funerals, and vigilantes who terrorize gay bars, our less enlightened foreign counterparts have their own bigoted thugs, the Iranian mullahs, the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, the Taliban and Pashtun hardliners along the Afghan-Pakistan border, extremists threatening Iraqi women. Their aim in every case is to terrorize women in public, into obeying whatever rigid code they espouse. The Saudi religious police, charged with roaming the streets with sticks to beat disobedient women, prevented fourteen girls from fleeing a burning school because they were not veiled properly; they all died.

Women and girls are fighting around the world for equality and justice on voting rights, divorce, parental rights, child support, property ownership, contracts, inheritance, domestic violence and rape. Women around the world must fight to be free of surveillance, and the right to testify in court and face their accusers.

In countries all over the world, and especially in Muslim countries, women are told that without a man’s supervision they can’t leave the house, can’t eat in restaurants because men are there, can’t use the internet or television without supervision, open a bank account, enter a hotel, enter a car, or travel. One Saudi girl was killed for chatting on Facebook.

For women in many countries, the workplace is enemy territory. They are told they can’t hold public office, work for equal pay, have a baby without getting fired, put their kids in day care, work as a teacher or doctor, serve in the army. In Pakistan a female provincial welfare minister was murdered because the killer felt that women shouldn’t work. In Saudi Arabia, women comprise only five percent of the Saudi workforce, the lowest rate in the world; an effort to open up more jobs for women was fought by the religious police and the government. Saudi women cannot work in a coed workplace, work without their husband’s permission, or teach boys over ten.

Around the world women get static for the way they dress. In Muslim countries women without burqas and veils have been killed or disfigured with acid. Even in America girls can expect scrutiny as to what they wear to school for fear of “inflaming” the boys, and they find people judging their clothes all their lives. Our girls aren’t obsessed with their looks for no reason – the attitude is taught to them.

Thousands of women and girls die each year in honor killings for refusing an arranged marriage, or choosing a man their father doesn’t like, or the “crime” of being raped, or dressing in a manner her father doesn’t like, or seeking a divorce, or fleeing an abusive home, or being accused of adultery. Even a perceived possibility of “sin” can get a girl killed. Men who kill women accused of adultery – often on no evidence – can go free in almost any jurisdiction in the world under the concept of “crime of passion”.

The misogynists who rule the less pleasant quarters of the world have found ingenious ways to torment women. Acid attacks to burn and scar their faces, whipping, burning alive, burying alive, house arrest for no reason. One rape victim was given ninety lashes because she ended up in a car with a man. One punishment which has roots in our own Bible is stoning: a woman she is buried in dirt up to her neck, and men throw one rock after another at her head, until her skull is crushed, or she bleeds to death, or chokes on her own blood.

What particularly attracts the ire of primitive males is girls who want to go to school. A recent study proved that a key factor for the success of a community is the point at which girls are given then chance to learn to read, up to the fifth-grade level: once they reach that level, they can take care of themselves and their families, they can learn, they can work, they can be independent. This is a terrifying prospect for a third-world man who has little control over his environment, except his wife and daughters. So girls’ schools are closed or firebombed, students are attacked or disfigured with acid, noses and ears cut off. The Saudis begrudgingly allow girls to go to school – but not in the same room with boys.

All of this gets worse, of course, in wartime. Women and girls become collateral damage in bombings and shellings, they are raped, they are kidnapped, they are forced into prostitution. It still goes on in every war despite the UN, the Geneva Accords, all of it.

Contrariwise, as a side benefit, anything that helps the women of the world is also likely to help children. Children across the globe are exploited as laborers, soldiers, drug mules, beggars, prostitutes. Child labor is huge in Africa. In the Mekong a third of the prostitutes are children; there are a million child prostitutes in India. Even in New York there are two thousand sexually exploited children. Some of the luckier children, if you want to look at it that way, are kidnapped, “laundered”, and then sold to adoption agencies. A separate issue is pedophilia, and it isn’t just in the Catholic church and the Independent Fundamental Baptists.

Every community and every country that treats women and girls with respect does better in every way. So find an organization in your area that is fighting one of these battles, and join the fight. And if a woman runs for president, say in 2016, give her a look. Can’t imagine who that would be…

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