Saturday, February 1, 2014

Women’s Empowerment: Rhetoric and the Misogyny Factor

Image: PRI
India’s chief guest at the 65th Republic Day Parade, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a definitive statement about women just days before at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He said that a nation cannot shine until its women shone. U.S. President Barak Obama at the annual State of the Union address said that unequal wages for women was an “embarrassment”, and the comment went viral.

Among all the rhetoric that’s been put forth with respect to women and women’s rights, Australian actress Cate Blanchett’s objection to the sweep of the “glam cam” at the Golden Globes’ red carpet caught my attention. According to an online report, she mentioned that she’d been reading The Misogyny Factor by Anne Summers and became aware of entrenched attitudes that objectified the female sex while giving the males a free pass. She pointed out that while the paparazzi made a big deal of what the female actors wore on the red carpet, they concentrated on the male actors’ performance and opinions. The name of the book stuck in my mind and was brought to the fore when I heard of the horrific gang-rape of a tribal girl in rural West Bengal, India, by thirteen neighbours and acquaintances on the orders of her village council (Khap panchayat). All because she dared to have a relationship with a man from a different community and her family didn’t have the resources to pay the 50,000-rupees fine they imposed. The fact that this violation was “state” sanctioned – the village council gave the order and council head was one of the rapists – especially in a state with a female Chief Minister, recalled for me the systematic use of rape as a weapon in wars across the world.

Despite public outcry, marches, and protests the backlash against women through the use of sexual violence has been growing unchecked. Pervasive misogyny has made war zones out of women’s bodies and psyches, something that spills over into peacetime, and in developed nations alike. I was appalled to read that 22 million women, i.e., one in five women, have been raped or sexually assaulted in the United States, half of them before the age of 18, according to the U.S. report “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call for Action.” With growing reports of gang rapes across India and sexual harassment at its highest offices including the Supreme Court and the office of a path-breaking magazine, it is self-evident that misogyny is universal and the backlash against “the independent woman” is ubiquitous. The enduring detrimental effect of rape or sexual assault on intellect and development as pointed by Naomi Wolf, author of Vagina: A New Biography, makes each rape unquestionably a repression of the development of half the human race.

Political leaders, both nationally and internationally, are making statements supporting women’s empowerment but we need more than just rhetoric. As the taboo is slowly being reduced more women are reporting rape and speaking out. We are becoming aware of how prevalent this violation is in the so-called safest cities and institutions (e.g., schools, colleges, churches, and workplaces).

India has a tradition that believes that the guest is God (Athitidevo Bhava, the tagline of India’s Ministry of Tourism) but where was this value, when a lost, lone tourist – a middle-aged Danish woman – was brutally gang-raped in the very heart of bustling New Delhi? The ingrained misogyny seems more the norm than attributing godliness to our country’s guests. The need for radical gender sensitization and re-education is essential:  Society needs to unlearn misogyny.

Part II of this article follows with my take on how misogyny can be unlearned borrowed heavily from Anne Summers’ book and politically correct parenting guides for the twenty-first century.

Raakhee Suryaprakash has a Master’s degree in International Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry but her passion remains writing and researching things that change the world for the better. Her work has been widely published both in print and online media. Raakhee Suryaprakash is in the process of launching a social enterprise SUNSHINE MILLENNIUM that aims to help India's off-grid rural areas achieve the Millennium Development Goals by setting up of solar-powered millennium development centres maintained by local stakeholders and funded by corporate social responsibility programmes and government schemes.