In the case of the systemic oppression of women in other countries and cultures, we, the public, have only ourselves to blame.
Today, December 10, marks International Human Rights Day, first declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 in the aftermath of a war that took millions of lives, and perpetrated a system of racism and genocide whose legacy still hangs thick around us. Four days earlier was Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, December 6, which marked the 20th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, when Marc Lépine murdered 14 women in Montreal in 1989. That day was the horrific manifestation of a broader misogyny that, while much resisted in Canada by the late ‘80s, was still an undercurrent flowing through our society.
These official days of recognition and remembrance should serve too as opportunities to stimulate action. Yet, the pace of real change has been lethargic and the reality remains that violence against women and the international movement for women’s human rights are found nowhere near front and centre of our everyday concerns, our everyday conversations, or in what we demand from our leaders.
From 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban imposed their bizarre and cruel collection of edicts designed to stifle the life out of Afghan women and girls, the western world barely noticed. The destruction of the age-old Buddha statues of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan in 2001, merited louder outcry than when women, dragged by their hair and buried to their waists, were stoned to death in Kabul’s sports stadium, accused of adultery or prostitution. Canadians were mildly intrigued by photos of burqa-clad women who looked like blue ghosts haunting the destroyed streets of Kabul during those years, but there were no protests of thousands in the streets demanding that girls’ schools be reopened, that women be allowed to work, to leave their homes without a male guardian, or to speak aloud again.
The small feminist community of the western world, joined by an equally small number of ordinary people who were outraged, at both the Taliban’s cruelty and at the world’s silence, were witnessing a horror so extreme they dubbed it “gender-cide” or “gender apartheid.” But a much larger number of people said: Well, that’s their culture and we musn’t interfere. Cultural relativism had gone mainstream. As Nick Cohen recently wrote,
For all the qualifications, the stubborn fact remains that mainstream opinion does not consider the oppression of women a pressing concern when it is done in the name of culture or religion.… The misogyny they generate does not move hearts or stir passions.
In matters of social justice – climate change, health-care reform, child protection – we usually, rightfully, start by accusing our governments of a lack of will, of inaction, of breaking promises. We can also place blame on the media, on the stories and causes it values and doesn’t value. But in this case, in the case of the systemic oppression of women in other countries and cultures, we, the public, have only ourselves to blame.
It was ordinary people, in Canada and around the world, who stood up to South Africa’s apartheid and demanded boycotts, and the loudness of their collective voices contributed to the regime’s unpopularity and its eventual downfall. We have not yet stood up for women outside our borders. We have not yet universally condemned the governments that make the denial of women’s human rights official policy.
Unlike apartheid, systemic gender oppression is not a crime against humanity under international law. We are still living inside the tragedy of women’s inequality, losing out on all we might have gained as a planet had we spoken out against the twisted and nonsensical practice of allowing cultures and religions to treat women as inferior beings, preventing half the population from being contributing, active, agents of their societies. Instead, we have allowed men to act out their perversions by keeping women in sexual submission under the guise of faith, and helped excuse the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and other countries out of the inconvenience of reforming laws and practices that facilitate the torture, rape, captivity, mental illness, and deaths of women and girls.
The backwardness and inhumanity of oppressing women has not been acknowledged for what it is, because we, in our privileged and free society, have yet to call it for what it is. In fact, we have not only failed to speak out loud enough or en masse, some have even defended the gender inequities that still characterize the world in the 21st century. During the discussion period of a dialogue event on Canada’s role in Afghanistan post-2011 recently held in Vancouver, I listened to a seemingly educated, mentally fit man say, in his support for the Taliban’s involvement in a new government in Afghanistan, “Look, we can’t tell them how to treat their women, okay?” The only person (other than myself) in the room who seemed at all perplexed by this statement was the sole Afghan woman in attendance.
The comment is, sadly, not uncommon. Ophelia Benson, author of *Why Truth Matters*, fighter of fashionable nonsense, and diehard proponent of critical thinking, captures the irony of who it is that often propagates culturally relativist stances when it comes to women:
I am so sick of smug prosperous safe comfortable pale men urinating all over progress, liberalism, and enlightenment while desperate threatened terrified women would weep scalding tears of joy and deliverance to get just a taste of some. I am so sick of safe prosperous men who are never, ever going to be grabbed on the street and whipped, or shot in the back, or locked up in their houses, or married off to some abusive bully, going on and on and on and on about how much they hate progress, liberalism, and enlightenment.
As Jimmy Carter writes, “it is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population.” Carter was prompted to leave the Southern Baptist Church, after 60 years, when the church’s convention continued to insist on women’s subservience to their husbands, and their prohibition from serving as deacons, pastors, or chaplains in the military.
We, the ordinary people of the world, need to likewise reject ideologies and practices that are an affront to the basic elements of what it means to be a human, anywhere in the world, in any culture – and we need to do it loudly and with vigor. When the bodies, lives, and dignity of women and girls are under fire, for the simple fact they are female, we need to take offense, and to do it with the same fury we have shown in the face of other global injustices. We have made change happen before; we can do it again.