by Fitri Bintang Timur
Since 1977, the United Nations has commemorated March 8 as International Women’s Day. This year, the UN has made “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women” as its theme.
This denotes a call for guaranteed equal rights and protection as it has been often neglected or, worse still in several places in the world, not recognized in the first place.
Aside from the day-to-day realities of human trafficking, impoverishment and forced prostitution, of which women are the primary victims, last year saw a succession of horrific assaults that illustrated the lack of security for women.
These acts of violence included an assassination attempt against Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai, who advocated for education for girls; a fatal gang rape in New Delhi against a young physiotherapy intern, Jyoti Singh Pandey; and sexual assaults (actually, sexual terrorism) directed toward women demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
Some of you may not be familiar with the term “sexual terrorism”. It is a relatively new technique used by organized mobs in Egypt that aim to injure, undermine and humiliate female protesters.
One woman demonstrator was dragged and separated from her group, and then encircled by dozens of men who tore at her clothes, beat her and forced their hands onto her body.
It was a non-state version of the beating and tearing of clothes of “the girl with a blue bra”, where the perpetrators were Egyptian military forces.
The lady herself is an activist but due to that assault, she does not want her name to be revealed because of the shame she feels.
The first testimonial of a sexual terrorism assault was made public by CBS News journalist Lara Logan as she endured the bitter experience when covering a demonstration in Tahrir Square.
This horrifying behavior has become increasingly widespread, culminating in attacks against more than 24 women attending a rally in the square in January to mark two years since the revolution. The UN issued a statement conveying its deep concern, following which solidarity gatherings against sexual terrorism were held in Amman, Copenhagen, London, Melbourne and Washington DC.
International attention is difficult to cultivate as formal reports on assaults against women are few and are often perceived as incidental; due in large part to the reluctance by security officials to file reports.
And when there are lots of reports — such as the rape statistics in Congo that, according to Amnesty International, total more than 40,000 cases with around 2,000 new cases every year — experts and officials still tend to blame the situations in the areas concerned.
So, what of the “missing women of Asia”, where selective abortions are carried out in the relatively stable and growing economy of China? According to Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen (2010), the number of missing women in China is around 50 million.
If this figure is added to the practice of selective malnutrition in North Africa and West and South Asia, the total increases to 100 million missing women.
However, we should take heart from the fact that at least efforts were made to raise this issue.
Solidarity gatherings are one way to raise awareness; creating websites and making phone applications and donations to empower women are other ways. Many new sites were launched and Facebook groups formed after the India gang rape tragedy.
One of them is called “Pepper the Pig”, where women can buy or ask for donations of pepper spray (400 rupees or US$7 for one bottle). This “good intention” of providing a tools for empowerment was followed by Indian nationalist party Shiv Sena, which donated more traditional means for women to protect themselves: chili powder and 3-inch blades.
Residing in a country that bans pepper spray or carrying offensive objects such as switch-blades, I couldn’t help but think about how the philanthropists will feel when their protection tools become weapons of harm?
After talking to a woman that teaches self-defense, I learned that showing a weapon in the case of a robbery might encourage the thief to become more violent.
The best way is to throw your wallet as far as you can in one direction and then run the opposite way. However, there is still no easy training for women on how to mitigate sexual assault.
The typical advice I get from society around me is, “do not go out alone”. I’ve even heard this from my mother, and she probably got the same answer from her mother. If I believe what she tells me, I will perpetuate the fear that’s lingered for three generations of my family, and perhaps I would pass it on to my daughter.
I might even call it security. Yes, pseudo-security where I lost my right to go out; and, if I were in Egypt, I would lose my political right to protest and my concerns would not be heard.
These efforts to provide security for women are so far imperfect. They are flawed because of three things. First, they focus on protecting women individually while the positioning of women as easy targets is done systematically.
Women are weakened by their difficulties to gain access to higher education, as families and states are not prepared to invest in women the same way they do for men. The largest provider of scholarships in the US is the Miss America beauty contest; isn’t this ironic?
Second, women’s empowerment has not been undertaken wholeheartedly. This can be seen from the global rhetoric of equality when, in fact, just as in the early days of black emancipation in the US when African-Americans were forbidden from using the same public toilets as white people, many positions remain barred to women, and if a position is open to both sexes, the salary is not comparable.
For example, let us take access for women in the armed forces and security forces. Women are still perceived as a threat for military cohesion and integrity, which is used to maintain exclusivity of the boys’ club.
Not surprising then, that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should have referred to women as “teases” when addressing the young men enrolling at the Military Academy in Magelang, Central Java, last July, even though he stated that he respected women during last year’s Mother’s Day.
Third, the effort to provide security for women has been one-sided given the lack, at the same time, of telling men not to assault, rape, abuse, undermine, catcall or take advantage of women under the pretext of destiny (kodrat).
The fallacy of defining a good wife as one that stays with her abusive husband results, often, in a dead wife; look no further than the recent case in Cawang, East Jakarta, in which a woman was killed and her body mutilated by her husband.
Gloria Steinem (2012) cited US statistics showing that the number of women killed by lovers or husbands far outweighed the number of women killed fighting the enemy in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Therefore, we can only conclude that installing security should start in the home, by giving equal love, rights and investment to both our daughters and sons.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School for International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
Published in Jakarta Post, 11 March 2013
We Can Do It in Burqa poster courtesy of Suzie of Arabia
Egypt woman protester photo courtesy of yorkwellness blogspot