Men still don’t get it, do they?
I’ve been following (from afar) the discussion that has been taking place about the misogyny in the disbelieving community, and the frequent, troubling use of epthets directed at women bloggers which imply that they are nothing more than bitches, slags, and dismissible by synecdoche as though they were simply female body parts (and we all know what parts these are), and therefore of less value than men. Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson and others have tried very hard to convince us that it’s really unacceptable in any context to treat women this way, and yet the abuse goes on. And this, despite the fact that, for disbelievers, surely one of the most salient aspects of the religions is that they are misogynistic, refuse to give women leadership roles, and treat them (broadly speaking) as mere appendages of men to be used as and when men can find a use for them. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be in that position, but when the Prime Minister of Australia has to get up in the House of Representatives and excoriate the leader of the opposition for his misogyny, it is clear that there is something deeply amiss with the way men in general regard women. Here’s Prime Minister Gillard’s speech:
As I say, the fact that Prime Minister Gillard felt she had to say this speaks volumes for the attitude towards women of many men. (I know that this is all wrapped up with the matter of the Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper, and his crude comments about women, but it is still apt and powerful, and is not, I think, compromised in the way that Michelle Grattan suggests in her article, “Misogyny war has no winner” in the Brisbane Times.)
This should come as no surprise to us. Here in Canada, we have the spectacle of male Members of Parliament dreaming up bills that will bring the question of abortion back to political life, without any consideration at all being given to the women who are at the centre of their attempts to get their religious beliefs embedded in law. In England, the story about the abuse of young girls in BBC studios by Jimmy Saville continues to unfold in a distressing way — abuse that went on for years, but was simply ignored. And yet, for all that, we are surprised when the Taliban shoot a girl in the head for going public about her desire to learn. Why should this surprise us? When will we ever get it? What does it take to see misogyny as all of a piece? Dressing women in bags is one way of erasing them from public life. Another way, as Prime Minister Gillard says, is to speak of them in demeaning terms, simply assuming that women are of lesser importance or significance, whose words do not have the same weight, the same importance, as the same words spoken by men.
Today, as I notice from a number of newspaper reports, is the “Day of the Girl.” I’m not altogether sure what this means, but at least it should mean that we all stopped and thought again about how we treat girls and women, and how girls and women are so often encouraged to treat themselves, and stopped disadvantaging them from the start by the kinds of misogynistic stereotypes that so many men seem to have of them, stereotypes which allow them to be treated in contemptuous ways, to be called contemptuous names, and to be dismissed as not worthy of attention. I recall reading the first chapters of Ophelia Benson’s and Jeremy Stangroom’s Does God Hate Women?, and being brought face to face with a kind of virulent hatred of women that was so searing that I found it hard to read. I was reminded of the experience anew when the news came in of a 14-year-old girl (Malala Yousufzai) being shot in the head by the Taliban because she went public with her desire to learn. (And yet these are the people, with whom, after over ten years of war, we are negotiating terms of peace! Does it make sense to make peace with people who shoot little girls in the head for wanting to learn? It doesn’t make sense to me. If we haven’t been able to achieve more than this after all the killing and destruction, what were we doing there in the first place?)
You have to be simply astonishingly committed to learning to do what Malala did. But it’s the inner self-confidence, or sense of self that she must have, to do such a thing, to fly in the face of centuries of tradition, that really resonates, and hopefully will keep on resonating down the years. The same goes for young women like Jessica Ahlquist, who stood up, and did not flinch, when faced by religious bigots who simply took it for granted that they had the right to foist their beliefs on others, and who was threatened with murder (in the US of all places!) because she wanted the Lord’s Prayer taken down from its place of prominence in her school. It just goes to show that it really wasn’t the prayer itself that was important. No one, surely, could use that prayer sincerely and then threaten someone with murder! [I stand corrected on this. Please note Comment #1 below. It was not the Lord's Prayer but a banner of the "School Prayer," expressing, as Eamon says, mostly noble ideals, all of them violated by Ms. Ahlquist's detractors.] But you have to see these things together. You have to see what Prime Minister Gillard is up against in the Australian House of Representatives with what Malala is up against in Pakistan, and what Jessica faced in her native Rhode Island, because they’re fighting the same thing, the presumptive right of men to rule and to tell women what they may and may not do.
Lately, I’ve written a few posts on abortion, because male politicians in both Britain and Canada have taken it upon themselves to reopen the abortion question. In Britain it was started by a woman (Maria Miller, Minister for Women and Equalities, of all people!), but then, predictably, to nail his conservative Christian colours to the mast, was intensified by a man, Jeremy Hunt, who wants the limit lowered to 12 weeks instead of 24. In Canada there is no law governing abortion — which seems appropriate to me. Women’s lives are their own. They don’t belong to the state. In Britain abortion is legal up to the end of the second trimester of pregnancy. If you read the Church of England’s take on the abortion law, its intended purpose was to allow for abortion in situations of extreme emergency only. And since that’s not the way it’s used, or was, from the start, likely to have been used, and abortions are more common than this interpretation would predict, the church makes the argument that a law governing assisted dying would go down the same slippery slope. And that’s just stupid. If they didn’t know, they should have known, that women have abortions for all sorts of reasons, and have been doing so since the beginning of time, whether it is legal or illegal. Women will not put their lives on hold because just because the law says they must. They will make decisions about their own lives. The same is becoming increasingly true of people in unrelenting suffering. And the church’s pretence that their position is based on respect for life is contemptible. It’s based squarely on religious beliefs about God’s role in creation (and, in particular, the creation of “man”). Since God is the creator, life in the womb is sacred, and life, no matter how miserable, is holy, and belongs to God alone. It’s patriarchy, all over again.
So, Richard Dawkins’ response to Rebecca Watson’s concern about her being accosted in an elevator late at night is far more apt than he seemed to think. He thought he was putting the issue in proper perspective by saying, “See, here are women who are really suffering. You had no reason to respond as you did to an invitation in a hotel elevator late at night.” Here’s what Dawkins said (as quoted by Watson):
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .
And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.
Watson, or Skep Chick, put this under the heading
The Privilege Delusion
But the point is just the same. It’s the assumption of male privilege, the bland assumption that women need to know their place, and should simply accept that being “invited” to a man’s room for coffee late at night on an elevator, an enclosed space with no exit, is nothing to be concerned about. For some reason, Dawkins’ imagination simply didn’t run that far, that a woman being accosted in this way in those circumstances has a right to feel threatened, however faint that feeling might be; and that men don’t have the right, in those circumstances, to suppose that such an invitation would be considered welcome and unthreatening. Just listen, if you will, to Julia Gillard again. She speaks of being offended, but she was being threatened. She was being called a bitch, and she knows what that means. It means, as Watson pointed out, that assumptions can be made about you, assumptions that lead to the kinds of threats that were made to Watson, that she should be raped, tortured and killed. And pretending that this isn’t a problem is due to a serious lack of imagination.
So, since this is the Day of the Girl, perhaps we need to give a lot more thought to the way that girls and women are thought about and routinely treated. As I say, I have followed Ophelia Benson’s discussion of these issues over the last few months. I have very seldom commented. It’s hard to know what to say. What do you say, when the whole structure of things is so out of joint? When women can be dismissed with a word of contempt, often, as I say, by synecdoche, by making a part of the body signify the whole significance of women, or by reducing them to female animals, bitches, as was done to Julia Gillard. That speech of hers, it is said, has gone viral. Well, it should go pandemic. It’s time to address these issues forcefully and without delay. And, let me tell you, the story is not a pretty one. Patriarchal assumptions are deeply embedded in our traditions, traditions, almost all of which, I remind you, are religious. Pornography, besides playing to our animality, is a religious spinoff. It almost always puts women in their place, by making them sexually omniovorous. No doubt there are evolutionary explanations for patriarchal tendencies and for the patriarchal ordering of societies, but they cannot be allowed to be excuses. Dawkins said — in terms that are called into question by those who declare free will to be simply an illusion — that we have the ability rise above the selfish replicators. I think we do, but it’s not going to be done if it is not done consciously and with forethought. It is time we stopped buttressing religious assumptions about women. Every religion second lists women — every single one. Some of them are slowly making a difference, but the difference they are making is very small, and it is very slow. The big religions — every one of them — place women in second place. Islam is one of the worst, but the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches are all misogynistic, and so are most of the fundamentalist, evangelical sects, springing up like poisonous mushrooms all around. Their gods hate women with a vengeance, because their gods are the creations of men. This should not be a problem for unbelievers, secular humanists, atheists, or what you will. We say that we can be good without god. Well, let’s do it.