Women fight for freedom against growing retrogression

Lead article from the new March-April 2014 issue of News & Letters:

Women fight for freedom against growing retrogression

by Terry Moon

While experiences in the squares of the Arab Spring, in Turkey’s Gezi Park, in the streets of Spain and Greece, and in the U.S. Occupy Movements have revealed moments of what new human relations between women and men could look like, those moments of hope and exhilaration have been followed by devastating reaction and retrogression.

An example of that retrogression–counter-revolution, stepping on the heels of revolution and often emanating from within it–reared its hideous face in Egypt, where Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi squandered his election by refusing to represent the hopes of the revolution. Sexual harassment, which was almost non-existent during the occupation of the squares, is back with a vengeance.

The Egyptian army under General Sisi never stopped harassing women and is continuing to conduct so-called “virginity tests” on activists even though he vowed not to do so. The military is raping and beating women in the streets and jails who participate in revolutionary protests.

Afghan women demonstrate on Feb. 13 in Kabul showing their opposition to violence against women. They chant: "Justice! Justice!" and "No more violence! Photo by Afghan Women's Network, www.afghanwomensnetwork.org.

Afghan women demonstrate on Feb. 13 in Kabul showing their opposition to violence against women. They chant: “Justice! Justice!” and “No more violence! Photo by Afghan Women’s Network, http://www.afghanwomensnetwork.org.

WAR IS UBIQUITOUS

Along with counter-revolution, what else has made women’s never-ending struggle for freedom more difficult is war–and it is everywhere. A 32-month war has ravaged the lives of women from the Nuba Mountains, where the last two months of 2013 were particularly brutal. Sudanese government militias have forced thousands to flee their homes. They are running from killings, arbitrary arrests and mass rapes. In Lebanon, discrimination, rape, harassment, and child marriages are increasing rapidly. In Burma (Myanmar) a new report by the Women’s League of Burma (WLB) revealed the Army’s systematic rape of women and girls. Particularly horrifying is that many of the women and girls–some as young as eight years old–die from internal injuries. Most of the cases are perpetrated by high-ranking Burmese military officials, and are linked to the military offensive against the Kachin and Shan ethnic minorities.

AMERICA’S WARS SHATTER WOMEN

Many of us can remember the justification made by the Bush administration for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Laura Bush was trotted out in 2001 to make the appeal: “They (the Taliban) must be stopped. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” There is no question that the reign of terror imposed by the Taliban involved horrendous attacks on women’s freedom and their very lives. Yet after a 14-year war and thousands of deaths, not only are the Taliban not gone, but President Hamid Karzai wants to negotiate a “peace” with them. There is not a shred of doubt that the limited rights that women have gained would be his first chip on the bargaining table. Indeed, the destruction of Afghan women’s hard-won rights is already happening:

  • Heather Barr, the senior Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, wrote in The New York Times on a draft law that would reintroduce execution by stoning for adultery. The law was prepared by Afghan government officials.
  • A new element that was introduced into the Afghan Criminal Procedure Code–only omitted because of a huge national and international outcry–would have banned relatives from appearing as witnesses in court, thus giving a green light to domestic violence and child abuse. This in a country where reports of abuse rose by 28% in 2013 over 2012, but prosecutions rose by only 2%.
  • Abuses against women have greatly increased. Sima Samar, chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said, “The brutality of the cases is really bad. Cutting the nose, lips and ears. Committing public rape.” Suraya Pakzad, who runs women’s shelters, said, “Killing women in Afghanistan is an easy thing. There’s no punishment.”
  • Severe malnutrition among Afghan children has increased 50% or more since 2012. Doctors Without Borders reports that the hospital in the capital of Helmand province is admitting 200 starving children a month–four times more than it did in 2012.

WOMEN COPE WITH AN IRAQ IN SHAMBLES

The situation is no better for women in Iraq. The U.S. left the country in shambles. In 2013 more than 7,800 civilians were killed–the deadliest year since 2008–and nearly 18,000 Iraqi civilians were injured. Now 28% of Iraqi families–9.5 million individuals–live in poverty. That poverty, the lack of laws against human trafficking, and the breakdown in government and infrastructure caused by continuous war have made Iraq “a hotbed of human trafficking and smuggling from all over the world,” according to a 2013 U.S. State Dept. report. Despite this new reality Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has no interest in promoting anti-trafficking legislation as he pursues an increasingly deadly sectarian path to maintaining power.

SYRIA: WHERE ‘NEVER AGAIN’ IS HAPPENING

Taking place before the eyes of the world, if they only choose to see, is an inhuman war against Syria’s civilian population. Assad is bombing, shooting, gassing, and starving a civilian population into oblivion. The suffering is monstrous. Women and children not only are being murdered by the regime but are experiencing new levels of misery and degradation, whether in an increasingly violent Syria or as refugees.

Estimates of Syrian dead are as high as 140,000. The Oxford Research Group estimates that by the “end of August 2013, 11,420 children aged 17 years and younger had been recorded killed in the Syrian conflict.…” Children not only are killed by bombs, gas and starvation, but are singled out by snipers as well.

What’s happening in Syria has been described as “a massive rape crisis” and is not separate from the murders. As Lauren Wolfe reported in The Atlantic, a Syrian Army soldier confessed that he was ordered “‘to rape teenage girls in Homs.'” He went on to say: “The girls would generally be shot when everyone had finished. They wanted it to be known in the neighborhoods that the girls had been raped, but they didn’t want the girls to survive and be able to identify them later.” Wolfe writes: “Long used as a weapon against prisoners in Syria as in much of the world, rape appears to be utilized during this conflict in horrifying and soul-crushing, creative ways.”

Rape also happens in the refugee camps along with the selling of young Syrian women, often to much older men. Syrian women and children constitute 70% of the over 429,000 refugees in Jordan. The Star interviewed Um Majed, who, for a price, would find “husbands” for Syrian girls whose families needed money to pay bills and a husband to keep their daughters “safe.”

Syrians are forbidden to work in Jordan without expensive permits and affidavits from employers, thus putting refugees in a terrible bind. Um Majed told The Star, “I have ten families looking for grooms. Their girls are between 12 and 21. The grooms are always in their 40s, 50s or 70s. They want beautiful girls, the younger the better. The Saudis usually ask for 12-year-olds.”

Yet another misery inflicted on the women of Syria is that perpetrated by extremist Islamists flooding the country in hopes of creating a fundamentalist theocratic state. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has taken over the Syrian province of Raqqa and immediately went after women’s freedom. They demanded women wear gloves and a complete body covering (abaya); women must not raise their voices in the street or be outside without a male guardian and cannot attend school. ISIS initiated patrols to punish women violating their rules and extended punishment to the women’s relatives. Women and girls who resisted were sometimes blocked from using public transportation, accessing education and even buying bread. Women resisted by wearing the coverings but not in the form required by ISIS, by refusing to go outside, and by leaving the area for Turkey.

THE WAR ON WOMEN IN THE U.S.

The war on women in the U.S. is not being fought with bullets, although 46 American women are shot dead each month by current or former intimate partners. Rather, this war aims to control women’s reproductive rights, to impoverish them, to punish women for being poor, uneducated, Black or brown.

Whether it was the sequester, the cutting of food stamps, cutting back unemployment benefits or refusing to raise the minimum wage–all these actions impact women more severely.

Almost half of the 1.7 million people who will lose $90/month in food stamp benefits because of cuts passed in the Farm Bill are children, and two-thirds of the adults in the program are women, many of them heads of households. The new cuts come on the heels of an $11/month cut in food stamps for 48 million Americans, including 22 million children, that went into effect in November. The result is more mothers skipping meals and more children going hungry.

Women will be hard hit by Congress’s refusal to extend unemployment benefits or to raise the minimum wage. Those looking for work outnumber job openings by almost three to one, and long-term unemployment among unemployed adult women has risen from 29.3% in June 2009 to 39.3% in Dec. 2013. Women of color are affected even more, as half of all Black children in the U.S. live with a single mother and minimum wage jobs are disproportionately held by women of color.

The most ideological attack on U.S. women is on their reproductive liberty, including the right to abortion and birth control. While it makes no sense to attack birth control at the same time as abortion, these attacks are not rational but fanatical and misogynistic.

In the last three years, 200 measures were proposed in 30 states. All of them would make life for women worse. These laws: elevate a fetus’s status above the woman carrying it; ban abortions after 20 weeks, ignoring that women who abort later do so because of problem pregnancies or difficulty raising the money for an abortion; ban medication abortions, for no medically justifiable reason. In Texas, women go to Mexico to buy misoprostol used in medication abortions. If they can’t get it there, they buy the pills at flea markets or on the internet. States have over-regulated clinics out of existence and banned insurance coverage for abortions, placing another burden on poor women.

The challenge by anti-abortion fanatics to states’ laws that provide a buffer zone to keep them a few feet away from clinic doors will be decided in March by a Supreme Court whose right-wing majority may very well strike them down. (See “Court, fanatics besiege clinics,” page 2.) South Dakota legislators introduced a bill that would declare performing an abortion a felony with a life sentence for the doctor.

Many states have instituted days-long waiting periods, forcing women to make several trips to clinics, missing work and paying extra for daycare and gas. All this is on top of mandatory, unnecessary ultrasounds, lying scripts doctors are forced to read to women, laws forbidding doctors from telling women of problems the fetus has; the list goes on and on.

The absurdity of the three-day mandatory waiting period that Missouri legislators want to pass was revealed by a university student who told lawmakers she’d wait 72 hours before testifying against waiting periods because, as she said, “I would like you to be able to trust in my opinions.” Dina van der Zalm continued, “Since this bill…makes the assumption that women are not capable of making difficult decisions without the aid of politicians requiring additional time–an additional three days–to really think it through, then I can only assume that you’re not going to legitimately listen [to] or value the opinions I would like to state today.”

THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES

That women have experienced such retrogression on so many fronts this past year does not mean that they have no agency. The backlash against us is so ferocious precisely because women persist as force and Reason of revolution.

In Spain, tens of thousands have been marching against proposed restrictive abortion legislation that would only allow abortion in cases of rape and serious health risks to the mother or fetus, where now it is available on demand in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. The marches started in December when police viciously attacked a pro-choice demonstration of about 500. Then they not only grew in numbers but spread beyond Madrid to 30 other cities in Spain and internationally to France, Italy, Belgium and the U.S. To Spanish women, this is not a question of rights, but of freedom.

In the U.S., demonstrations have stopped some right-wing attacks. Outrage forced Louisiana health officials to rescind proposed rules that would have closed all five clinics in the state. Under the banner “We Won’t Go Back,” hundreds of women in Ohio marched on the state capitol in October demanding the repeal of laws that, among other things, defunded Planned Parenthood, imposed a gag order on rape crisis centers forbidding them to refer women to organizations offering abortion, and forced women to undergo a mandatory, unnecessary ultrasound. Anger and disgust from women also spurred the Virginia Senate to pass a bill to repeal that state’s requirement that women who want abortions undergo an invasive ultrasound.

Everyone remembers Texas Senator Wendy Davis’s 11-hour filibuster trying to block anti-abortion legislation. What can’t be forgotten is that she was standing on the shoulders of thousands of women and men who had stormed and packed the statehouse. They had been organizing for months and continue to do so.

In February, over 100 Afghan women marched in Kabul against violence against women, chanting, “No more Violence” and “Justice! Justice!” A spokeswoman for the Afghan Women’s Network demanded that women “have an active role in important historic developments, in the peaceful transfer of political power.” The rally was aimed at stopping the law that would have barred people from testifying against their relatives. Afghan women are determined that their rights will not be bargained away when U.S. troops leave.

Women in Syria fight back by refusing to comply with ISIS and other groups’ fundamentalist, inhuman demands. Some pick up the gun to fight Assad; others organize to care for the sick and wounded, and try to find food; many try to get the word out, to get some kind of reaction from the world at large; and many more resist by being determined to live, to continue to exist and for their children to survive.

What is clear is that women, their struggles and their thoughts, are at the heart of revolutionary change. They show that revolution must be total from the start, and that it must persist after the overthrow of the existing government until every segment of society is free.

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