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Voices / Column

Cry out like Cassandra

Films shine spotlight on worldwide crimes against women

Dummerston

Whenever I become downhearted over man’s inhumanity to man, I recognize that man’s inhumanity to women is even more frightening.

Take, for example, the 2009 documentary Africa Rising, by award-winning filmmaker Paula Heredia, which will be shown in the upcoming Women’s Film Festival.

This is an anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) film. (Yes, female genital mutilation is so common that there’s an acronym. There’s also a pro-FGM movement, as well as a movement against male circumcision.) This film left me in awe of the brave women of Central Africa who are mounting a growing grassroots campaign against the practice.     

Yet, every single day, approximately 6,000 girls are subjected to FGM, according to this film. Why in the name of all that’s holy would mothers, aunts, and grandmothers mutilate their daughters?

Well, many of them believe the practice is required by the Bible or the Koran. (It isn’t.) Others believe it is the way a girl matures into a woman. (Nope.) Others believe that if the clitoris isn’t cut off, it will grow into a penis. (Not a chance.)

Once you listen to the many voices in this film, however, you learn that it’s basically men who desire FGM to keep their women from being promiscuous. And FGM probably does that, since it kills many young girls right off the bat, makes sex painful for the majority of those who live, and allows childbirth to sometimes rip them apart.

* * *

But genital mutilation is not the only crime against women practiced in this world.

Sexual slavery has become a worldwide problem. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, this was a $5 billion-to-$9 billion industry in 2004, and the figures are now much, much higher. About 80 percent of the people affected are women, and up to 50 percent are minors.

If you think this is a problem only in Cambodia, Thailand, and the countries once behind the former Iron Curtain, think again.

According to Time, “Two men were arrested last year for an ad on Craigslist’s Miami board advertising sex with a 14-year-old girl as a ‘Super Bowl Special’” in Miami for Super Bowl week last year.

Also damaging to the freedom of women are the many ultraconservative Muslim religious laws and cultural mores that prevent a woman from walking uncovered in the street, driving a car, getting an education, living on her own, and/or having a free sexual life without living in fear of being stoned.

* * *

In America, Sharia law may be just what the right-wing Republicans are after, now that they’ve embarked on their own war to keep women barefoot, pregnant, and chained to a kitchen stove.

In January, for example, House Republicans tried to redefine “rape” as  “forcible rape” (as opposed to consensual rape?), thus ruling out federal abortion assistance in statutory rape and other forms of forced intercourse.

A public outcry forced that ugly definition back into the closet — for now — but things didn’t end there. You can find remarkable examples of human cruelty and insanity in statehouses across the nation.     

“A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of ‘justifiable homicide’ to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus — a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions,” Mother Jones reported.

Under an avalanche of pressure, state representative Phil Jensen, who wrote this crazy legislation, backtracked considerably.

“This simply is to bring consistency to South Dakota statute as it relates to justifiable homicide,” Jensen told Mother Jones. “If you look at the code, these codes are dealing with illegal acts. Now, abortion is a legal act. So this has got nothing to do with abortion."

Mother Jones is now indicating that Jensen may be willing to change his bill, but several other states are considering the same measure.

And believe it or not, the Georgia House of Representatives is currently considering a bill that would make women who miscarry into felons if they cannot prove that there was “no human involvement whatsoever in the causation” of their miscarriage.

Miscarriage is a family tragedy, not a place for government intervention. What part of “keep your laws off my body” do they not understand?

* * *

It’s been almost 100 years since Margaret Sanger began promoting family planning and was persecuted for it. Her teachings — that each woman should be “the absolute mistress of her own body” — underlie the work of Planned Parenthood. Now the House Republicans are trying wipe Planned Parenthood out of existence — or at least out of the federal budget.

“Republicans voted to let more women die from breast cancer, cervical cancer and AIDS,” wrote Ruth Marcus in The Washington Post about the defunding attempt. “How’s that? The family planning programs also provide cancer screening and HIV counseling to millions of low-income and uninsured people.

“Let’s be clear about one thing,” she continued. “Almost none of this money went for abortions.”

What’s going on here? Why is all this abuse, contempt, hatred, and domination directed against one half of the population on this earth?

I’m sure sages through the ages have meditated on this question. Could it be fear of the unknown, like those old wives’ tales about vagina dentata, vaginas with teeth?

Can it be a fear of sex itself? Sex, after all, is a winding and wandering path. You never know, when you embark on it, where it will take you. You have to be open to adventure and uncertainty.

Can it be only about power and domination? About passing down property? About the vulnerability of the penis? Take a look at pre-Columbian pottery — in most of the pots depicting males, the penises, being the parts that stick out the most, have broken off over time.

Back in the sixties, I heard a story — it may certainly be apocryphal, as well as metaphorical — that in ancient times, women ruled and were worshiped because they could produce life. (Because of the nine months between cause and effect, society hadn’t yet figured out the male part in this procedure.)  And women came to use their power brutally.

Once the full process of procreation was understood, might became right, and the males took over. According to this myth, what’s going on now may be something like worldwide retribution.

Men, in general, are bigger and stronger than women. Women, in general, can have babies. It seems that in terms of power, we should balance each other out. We should even be seen as useful to each other.

Doesn’t it seem like women are in an endless struggle for equality and respect?

In her poem Responsibility, the late writer and political activist Grace Paley  — a film about her life is also in this year’s Women’s Film Festival — writes, “There is no freedom without fear and bravery.”

She ends this way: “It is also the responsibility of the poet to be a woman, to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #90 (Wednesday, March 2, 2011).

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• Africa Rising website

 

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