Custom Against Women

(The following is a revised excerpt from Parenti’s newest book, THE CULTURE STRUGGLE)

If we uncritically immerse ourselves in the cultural context of any society, seeing it only as it sees itself, then we are embracing the self-serving illusions it has of itself. Perceiving a society “purely on its own terms” usually means seeing it through the eyes of dominant groups that exercise a preponderant influence in shaping its beliefs and practices. Furthermore, the dominant culture frequently rests on standards that are not shared by everyone within the society itself. So we come upon a key question: whose culture is it anyway? Too often what passes for the established culture of a society is the exclusive preserve of the privileged, a weapon used against more vulnerable elements.

This is seen no more clearly than in the wrongdoing perpetrated against women. A United Nations report found that prejudice and violence against women “remain firmly rooted in cultures around the world.”

In many countries, including the United States, women endure discrimination in wages, occupational training, and job promotion. According to a New York Times report (6/18/04), in sub-Saharan Africa women cannot inherit or own land-even though they cultivate it and grow 80 percent of the continent’s food.

It is no secret that women are still denied control over their own reproductive activity. Throughout the world about eighty million pregnancies a year are thought to be unwanted or ill-timed. And some twenty million unsafe illegal abortions are performed annually, resulting in the deaths of some 78,000 women yearly, with millions more sustaining serious injury.

In China and other Asian countries where daughters are seen as a liability, millions of infant females are missing, having been aborted or killed at birth or done in by neglect and underfeeding.

An estimated hundred million girls in Africa and the Middle East have been genitally mutilated by clitoridectomy (excision of the clitoris) or infibulation (excision of the clitoris, labia minor, and inner walls of the labia majora, with the vulva sewed almost completely shut, allowing an opening about the circumference of a pencil).

The purpose of such mutilation is to drastically diminish a woman’s capacity for sexual pleasure, insuring that she remains her husband’s compliant possession. Some girls perish in the excision process (usually performed by an older female with no medical training). Long term consequences of infibulation include obstructed menstrual flow, chronic infection, hurtful coitus, and complicated childbirth.

In much of the Middle East, women have no right to drive cars or appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative. They have no right to initiate divorce proceedings but can be divorced at the husband’s will.

In Latin American and Islamic countries, men sometimes go unpunished for defending their “honor” by killing their allegedly unfaithful wives or girlfriends. In fundamentalist Islamic Iran, the law explicitly allows for the execution of adulterous women by stoning, burning, or being thrown off a cliff.

In countries such as Bangladesh and India, women are murdered so that husbands can remarry for a better dowry. An average of five women a day are burned in dowry-related disputes in India, and many more cases go unreported. In Bihar, India, women found guilty of witchcraft are still burned to death. In modern-day Ghana, there exist prison camps for females accused of being witches. In contrast, male fetish priests in Ghana have free reign with their magic practices. These priests often procure young girls from poor families that are said to owe an ancestral debt to the priest’s forebears. The girls serve as the priests’ sex slaves. The ones who manage to escape are not taken back by their fearful families. To survive, they must either return to the priest shrine or go to town and become prostitutes.

Millions of young females drawn from all parts of the world are pressed into sexual slavery, in what amounts to an estimated $7 billion annual business. More than a million girls and boys, many as young as five and six, are conscripted into prostitution in Asia, and perhaps an equal number in the rest of the world.

Pedophiles from the United States and other countries fuel the Asian traffic. Enjoying anonymity and impunity abroad, these “sex tourists” are inclined to treat their acts of child rape as legal and culturally acceptable. In Afghanistan under the Taliban, women were captives in their own homes, prohibited from seeking medical attention, working, or going to school. The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan was hailed by President Bush Jr. as a liberation of Afghani women.

In fact, most of that country remains under the control of warlords who oppose any move toward female emancipation. And the plight of rural women has become yet more desperate. Scores of young women have attempted self-immolation to escape family abuse and unwanted marriages. “During the Taliban we were living in a graveyard, but we were secure,” opined one female activist. “Now women are easy marks for rapists and armed marauders.” In Iraq we find a similar pattern: the plight of women worsening because of a U.S. invasion. Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath Party created a despotic regime (fully backed by Washington during its most murderous period). But the Baathists did allow Iraqi women rights that were unparalleled in the Gulf region. Women could attend university, travel unaccompanied, and work alongside men in various professions. They could choose whom to marry or refrain from getting married.

But with the growing insurgency against the U.S. occupation, females are now targeted by the ascendant Islamic extremists. Clerics have imposed new restrictions on them. Women are forced to wear the traditional head covering, and girls spend most of their days indoors confined to domestic chores.

Most Iraqi women are now deprived of public education. Often the only thing left to read is the Koran. Many women fear they will never regain the freedom they enjoyed under the previous regime. As one Iraqi feminist noted, “The condition of women has been deteriorating. . . . This current situation, this fundamentalism, is not even traditional. It is desperate and reactionary.” For all the dramatic advances made by women in the United States, they too endure daunting victimization. Tens of thousands of them either turn to prostitution because of economic need or are forced into it by a male exploiter–and kept there by acts of violence and intimidation.

An estimated three out of four women in the USA are victims of a violent crime sometime during their lifetime. Every day, four women are murdered by men to whom they have been close. Murder is the second leading cause of death among young American women.

In the USA domestic violence is the leading cause of injury among females of reproductive age. An estimated three million women are battered each year by their husbands or male partners, often repeatedly.

Statistically, a woman’s home is her most dangerous place–if she has a man in it.

Battered women usually lack the financial means to escape, especially if they have children. When they try, their male assailants are likely to come after them and inflict still worse retribution. Police usually are of little help. Arrest is the least frequent response to domestic violence. In most states, domestic beatings are classified as a misdemeanor.

Women who kill their longtime male abusers in desperate acts of self-defense usually end up serving lengthy prison sentences. In recent times, women’s organizations have had some success in providing havens for battered women and pressuring public authorities to move against male violence.

To conclude, those who demand respect for their culture may have a legitimate claim or they may really be seeking license to oppress the more vulnerable elements within their society.

There may be practices in any culture, including our own, that are not worthy of respect. And there are basic rights that transcend all cultures, as even governments acknowledge when they outlaw certain horrific customs and sign international accords in support of human rights. ______________

Michael Parenti’s recent books include Superpatriotism (City Lights), The Assassination of Julius Caesar (New Press), and most recently, The Culture Struggle (Seven Stories Press). For more information visit: www.michaelparenti.org.

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