The issue with saying women “here” have it better than women “there.”
Here’s an idea: If you hear about a horrific injustice perpetrated against girls and women, try not to use that story as a weapon to silence other women who are fighting their own battles against violence and discrimination.
This is all the rage. Take this tweet last week from media pundit Tom Bevan which read: “Real war on women: Pregnant Pakistani woman stoned to death by own family for marrying the man she loved.”
When a South Korean ferry capsizes and hundreds die do you see media pundits tweeting that the victims of boat crashes in the U.S. should stop talking and take a hard look at what a really terrible disaster looks like? When prisoners in Egypt die, do they say to those raped or shackled while giving birth in U.S. jails, “See, those prisoners over there have it really bad”? When members of the LGTBQ community in Russia are brutally assaulted, do you hear people say to those here, “Now those people, they have something to complain about”?
But, women? Well, everyone’s an expert on exactly what level of misogyny and violence is acceptable. Within hours of Bevan’s tweet, journalist David Frum shared the sad and enraging news about two Dalit girls, gang-raped, who hanged themselves from a tree: “The next time somebody talks about ‘misogyny in American society,’ forward them this.”
What are we, 6?
I checked back almost two months in the timelines of these two writers, and there was very little prior mention of international women’s rights. And yet, in the past two weeks since we’ve been talking about misogyny in America, there’s been a whole lot of interest in women abroad.
They are not alone, however. This is a “stock” formulation, a knee-jerk response for many people, especially conservatives. On the surface, it’s reasonable right? I have heard endless commentary to the effect of, “Thank god my daughter is here,” “here” is better than many places—for some people more than others. There are people suffering far more violence and social ills elsewhere, always, and we should think about that. But, it’s immediately insulting because it implies that those protesting violence and talking about sexism in the United States (and the rest of the developed world) are too stupid to understand that there is a spectrum of violence.
The statement ignores entirely the glaring fact that the spectrum we live with, globally, is one where women are subject to gender-based violence. There is nowhere that this is not true. Everywhere, we face the political, legislative, and legal regulation of our bodies and reproduction in ways men don’t and we live, daily, with the real and abiding costs of avoiding or living with violence perpetrated almost exclusively by men. Many men apparently still doubt this, even after millions of women tell them that it’s true.
Last week this commentary was more visible because in the days since Elliot Rodger’s killing spree the trending of #YesAllWomen catalyzed unprecedented media conversations about gender and misogyny. Quick as a flash the Misogynistic Theory of Women’s Relative Rights made its rote appearance: Women “here” are so much “better off” than women “over there.” Pick your “here,” “better,” and “over there.”
Women are not in a competition for female human rights.
The implication is that we, “here,” are supposed to be comforted that two girls were raped and hanged themselves in India. Do more men in India, per capita, throw acid on women than men in the United States douse them in gas and light them on fire? Every woman on a South African women’s soccer team has been raped, isn’t it better that on our national team chances are only two or three? I don’t understand why anyone thinks this is a “reasonable” and “balanced” thing to suggest. What is the point of this equation other than to put on display the sexist notion that women’s safety and rights are relative and contingent on other women’s lack of safety and rights? What is it about the notion of non-negotiable rights, human rights, for women, that is so hard to understand?
In case it’s not clear, this is what that way of phrasing says to the people who work to end this violence:
- Women’s rights are a zero sum game played by women only, apparently outside of the scope of human rights.
- Your concerns, “here,” are trivial.
- We treat “our” women better than “they” treat “their” women. You are “lucky.” We could be doing this to you here.
- There is a just-right goldilocks temperature for global gender-based violence and the cultural subordination of women. Really. I’ll decide what it is.
- I am hugely privileged and have no real idea what I am talking about, but feel I have the authority to speak.
- Stop talking. Stop talking. Stop talking. (Actually, “Stop whining” is more the suggestion of the “I’ll show them what’s really bad.”)
When a person shares “So there!” sentiments like these about two girls who hanged themselves rather than live with the shame of having been gang-raped, it erases the lives and deaths of people like Amanda Todd, Audre Potts, Raetah Parsons, Cherise Morales, Jessica Laney, Carolina Picchio and, more recently, Chris Martinez, Veronika Weiss, Katie Cooper, Cheng Yuan Hong, George Chen, and Weihan Wang. These deaths, and more every day, are directly related to systemic misogyny. Misogyny that we can see, feel, understand, and deconstruct if we choose.
This comparison echoes another backlash trope that talking about violence is victim-wallowing. George Will, a man who actually, publicly put the words “sexual assault” and “privileged” together to come up with “’Victimhood: A Coveted Status.” I imagine he hasn’t had much personal or professional experience with being on the receiving end of low-status-related, gender-based violence, sexual or domestic assault. His reasoning is at least three intellectual and academic cycles removed from understandings of “victim.”
I’m going with Martha Nussbaum who explains, complaint is “better than silent intimidation, and the right to complain does not turn women into pathetic victims—any more than the right to complain when someone steals a wallet turns men into pathetic victims.”
I have to think that some of this response is just a distancing from horror or a sigh of entitled relief. But it still implies that the statement of “over there” pain is publicly harmless, when it is not. Comparing women’s security and freedom in this way does nothing useful or helpful at all. Instead, it demonstrates an inability to consider privilege and power when it comes to matters involving women.
It’s also not just a matter of private conversations, tweets, or even public exchanges between individuals, either, but happens in our media as well. When something horrific happens to a girl or a woman in the United States, mainstream media become super interested in horrors being experienced elsewhere. Go ahead, set up your own Google alerts and then watch the media everyday to see when interest spikes. I have a very dismal alert for “gang-rape” and have for a long time. At one point, it was so overwhelming that I simply stopped looking. Most of the news items were coming from India, where the population is three times ours, and the virulence of the misogyny amplified to outrageous levels. I haven’t see prominent journalists tweeting about those stories every day for the past year. It’s amazing the faux outrage and distorted logic that result when people refuse to take the denigration of women as a class at face value.
Please, in earnest, try and resist comparing the plight of women. It is sufficient to say, “This thing that happened is inhumane. What can we do?”
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.