Paging through the December 28th Austin American Statesman, I skimmed headlines until I was stopped on page A-7. Catching my attention was “Israeli girl’s plight highlights religious extremism” headlining the story of an 8 year-old American immigrant, sporting a pony tail and eyeglasses, who was spat upon as she walked to school by Ultra orthodox Jewish extremists. They would yell and call her a “whore” for dressing immodestly, even though she wore the standard dress for mainstream Jewish religious schools, a dress with long sleeves and skirt. She sobbed on her way to school. “They were scary,” she said. “They don’t want us to go to school.”
As I finished that horrific story, my eyes wandered upwards to the “World Digest” section where I read that an Egyptian court had banned ‘virginity testing’ of detainees.” I discovered that the Egyptian military had put female detainees through virginity tests so that it could defend itself from accusations of rape. The purpose of the tests was “to prove that they weren’t virgins in the first place.” Obviously, once a woman is determined not to be a virgin, she could not prove that she was raped while in custody, in essence, separating those who could not be raped with impunity from those who could be.
After that discouraging report, the next digested world news was headlined “Somalia women face growing rape dangers.” In Somalia, I read, the Islamic militant group al-Shabab is seizing women and girls as spoils of war, gang raping and abusing them. Other armed men are also preying on women and girls. In the past two months, from Mogadishu alone, the UN has received more than 2,500 reports of gender-based violence.
If the newspaper layout editor was seeking to make the point that women are under siege by placing these articles all on the same page, he/she was preaching to the choir. Yes, indeed, there is a war on women and we are not winning. Even in this country we experience blips of progress, only to see them chipped away by legislators and judges who would steer us back into our “proper” female roles, living at the mercy of our biology and the male libido.
My hopes for women being treated as citizens with equal rights have been strapped in on a long roller coaster ride since those heady days in my 20s when I thought American women had achieved equality in the courts and congress with Roe v. Wade and decisions and legislation preventing gender discrimination. But it didn’t take too many years before the backlash started and the ride began its downward trajectory.
It’s small consolation to consider that American women have it better than women in many other cultures. Although we can freely wear Western clothes without being spit upon, drive cars, and aren’t subjected to virginity checks, those indignities might be better than losing our reproductive rights as Congress, state legislatures, and courts become the guardians of our wombs and force us to be baby makers. Why did our society allow us to grow up believing in a destiny that included educations, careers, and equality in all ways to our male counterparts, in addition to being mothers when and if the time and partner was right? Instead, in 2012 we are confronted with the daily display of men-who-would-be-president (or some other elected office) who advocate that women should make babies no matter how the seed was planted, e.g., by knife to the throat or advantage-taking of a minor child. If this isn’t an exercise in controlling women, it must be a strange womb fetish because these babies aren’t valued much once they depart the womb.
If this isn’t an exercise in controlling women, it must be a strange womb fetish because these babies aren’t valued much once they depart the womb. And as a mechanism to control women, these officials and their pep squads seem to be aiming at the wrong demographic. Maybe those conservative men just get all flustered thinking of vaginas and uteruses, because the women who are most threatening to their control agenda are those who can afford both birth control and abortions, as hard as they try to make them. Instead, they wage war to cripple (or preferably, dismantle) Planned Parenthood, often the only refuge for low-income women.
But, maybe I judge too soon. Maybe those Republicans running for the presidential nomination have figured that womb-control via abortion rights doesn’t hit the right target, so they’ve come out against a better tool: outlaw contraception!! Wow! That would hit where it hurts! But would the sexual revolution that was birthed by “the pill” go back into the box? I have to wonder whether American men would be happy living in a country of chaste females, waiting to wear wedding rings before sex.
Perhaps this prospect could be the hook to entice our 20-something male population (50% of that undependable voting demographic) into guaranteed participation in the political process. I’m willing to try anything to stop this onward march against women’s rights. Wouldn’t it be the height of irony if our freedom from reproductive fascism were achieved by enlisting the forces of our youngest, most libidinous male citizens?
Fortunately, women can still vote, too, and for that I am eternally grateful to those women in the late 1800s and early 1900s who fought the fight to obtain that right. In that regard, the movie Iron Jawed Angels starring Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor, should be required viewing. This movie tells the story of Alice Paul and Lucy Burns who put their lives on the line to fight for American women’s right to vote. While picketing for women’s suffrage, they are arrested on the trumped-up charge of “obstructing traffic,” even though their picket line is on the sidewalk. Refusing to pay a fine for a crime they didn’t commit, the women were sentenced to sixty days in a Virginia women’s prison. Insisting they were political prisoners, Burns demanded the warden respect their rights, only to be cuffed with her arms above her cell door. In solidarity and defiance, the other suffragettes assumed the same painful posture. Thrown into solitary confinement for breaking a window for fresh air, Paul went on a hunger strike, and returned to the prison’s general population the other detained suffragettes follow her example. The warden began force-feeding them, but never broke them.
Every American should see this depiction of feeding by force. I had often heard of the process, but I had never seen how it was accomplished and I will never think of it in the same way again. More importantly, since seeing this movie, I have never cast a ballot without recalling what these brave and passionate women experienced so that I could vote for the people who govern my life.
And as we select our leaders in this election year, let’s not lay down and enjoy it. Instead, reject any candidate who would continue to imprison us in our biology and restrict us from the scientific advances of the last century that prevent unwanted pregnancies. It is not a far step from imprisoning women and sticking funnels down their throats to supporting a return to the old days of back alley abortions and requiring women to carry the children of their rapists. Furthermore, we can’t pretend that forcing women to hear pre-abortion lectures and view sonograms is not a part of that goal.