September 28, 2010
The Drum ABC

Feminism is failing in the global war against women

Traditional, cultural practices that assert male authority will always disadvantage women. (Reuters: Ahmad Masood )

In a chilling ABC radio interview last week, a young Palestinian man calmly described how he repeatedly smashed his sister’s head against the wall until he killed her.

Khaled Mahmood explained this was an “honour” killing, as his sister had shamed the family by sleeping with a man of her choice. She had to be obliterated. It seems the police agreed. No charges were laid.

In some parts of the world, not only do fathers, brothers and husbands own a woman’s body, they own her virtue. Their identity and manliness is embedded in it.

This, of course, is an impossible burden for any woman to carry.

Afghan teenager Aishia learned that last year, when she was pinned down as her husband cut off her nose and ears, because she tried to escape his family’s abuse. Seventeen-year-old Dua Khalil learned it too, just before she was stoned to death in northern Iraq three years ago, for having a boyfriend. Bangladeshi woman Fozilitun Nessa also learned it, when her face was doused in acid because she refused a marriage proposal.

For the hundreds of thousands of women killed, maimed, or savagely beaten for expressing their free will, “honour” doesn’t come into it. Nor does a fair trial. As Iranian mother Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani knows too well. She’s on death row, facing execution by stoning for having sex with a man who wasn’t her husband.

There is a totalising ideology on the march across the world, and it’s anti-women. This is not about religion, piety or virtue. Rather it’s about misogyny and a global war against women. It’s about the rights and freedoms of women. The ownership and control over women’s bodies has become the chief battleground.

World events and the rise of neo-fundamentalism in the 80s and 90s, by young men eager to revive and restore old practices, have made feminism more important than ever. And yet feminism has lost its voice.

We don’t know how to respond to the horrors of infallible patriarchal control. In our failure to act and strenuously resist this global push back against women’s liberty and free agency, feminism is at a point of moral crisis.

Has feminism failed? Numbers have improved, legal structures and new frameworks have been erected. The scaffolding is there – for some of us. But for a growing number of the world’s women, their freedoms are at serious risk. And feminism remains deathly silent.

Right now, at a time when we need a massive feminist surge to fight back rising anti-woman sentiment, we’re sitting on our hands. Is this not our business too? Why do feminist responsibilities stop at the border?

Somali born feminist, Aayan Hirsi Ali, speaks of the West’s “misguided politeness” in opting to say nothing and do nothing about the abhorrent abuses and treatment of women and girls, that are excused as cultural custom or religious rites.

Honour killings, female genital mutilation, acid attacks, forced marriages, and sexual slavery are among the so-called ‘cultural’ practices she has in mind when Hirsi Ali calls on Western feminists to “take on the plight of Muslim women and make it their own cause”.

However, indignity, debasement and gender apartheid extend beyond fundamentalism. Ignorance is perhaps the greatest tool of control used against women. There are 62 million primary school age girls around the world who don’t go to school. Some 520 million women can’t read.

More than half a million women die each year – around one per minute – from treatable reproductive complications, and a lack of priority.

It is inconceivable to me that someone can pick up a newborn baby girl and in disgust throw it into a “slops pail”, uttering the words “useless thing”. Chinese writer Xinran Xue described this scene recently when writing about “Gendercide” and the world’s missing 100 million baby girls. At least being chucked in the bin is a quick death. Other baby girls are slowly starved, or simply abandoned, for one single reason – they are female.

What is it about girls and women that make them so utterly dispensable?

In our own backyard, the Pacific region, some of the rates of maternal death are among the worst in the world. Papua New Guinea is only surpassed by Afghanistan and yet this scandal of female neglect rates no mention here. Picture Fiji, Vanuatu, or the Solomn Islands, and we think of holidays. What we choose not to see are skyrocketing teenage pregnancies and extremely high rates of violence against women. Sixty per cent of Pacific nations have no laws against domestic violence. Which is perhaps why 73 per cent of women in the Solomons think it’s OK for a husband to beat his wife. Last year Vanuatu’s traditional chiefs challenged a 2008 law passed to protect women form domestic violence, saying it “contradicted Vanuatu’s custom”.

Traditional, cultural practices that assert male authority will always disadvantage women. So why do we kow-tow to them? Why are we so ready to adopt a lazy, cultural-relativist position?

Has feminism failed? Perhaps not for you and I. But you know what?

It’s not just about us.

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by journalist and social commentator Virginia Haussegger last Wednesday in the IQ2 Debate “Feminism has failed”, at the Melbourne Town Hall.

(To watch ABC TV broadcast of the debate click here). (To read comments on this column click here)

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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