From India to Egypt to U.S., women fighting for freedom

March 17, 2013

From the March-April 2013 issue of News & Letters

by Terry Moon

Two recent events have shown the deep and seemingly intractable worldwide oppression of women and, at the same time, revealed women’s militancy and determination to change their oppressive reality. First was the vicious gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey at the end of the year on a Delhi, India, bus. This was followed by mob sexual attacks on 25 women in Tahrir Square, Cario, Egypt, on Jan. 25 at the demonstrations and protests marking the second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak.

It is not only that these were savage attacks on women in public spaces, it is that they brought to the surface the simmering decades-long anger of women whose lives have been circumscribed–and many destroyed–by male violence. This is a violence that is savagely brutal and unforgiving–one that ranges from disfiguring and blinding acid attacks to 300 men mobbing a woman in Tahrir Square and attacking her so savagely that she had to have a hysterectomy. It is a violence that has nothing to do with desire and everything to do with power.


That women’s simmering anger has now boiled over into rage and a determination to transform these inhuman relationships was seen clearly in three recent events. First were the huge and sustained demonstrations in India, where thousands of women and men poured into the streets for weeks on end demanding deep changes not only in the laws, but in society and actual human relationships (see “Rape protests in India,” Jan.-Feb. 2013 News & Letters).

Tellingly, the reaction by the state and others has been to confine women even more. Curfews for students in many campus dorms have now been made earlier and college women must get permission to go out with friends and provide details of the friends they are going out with. An Indian state ordered women to stop working after 6:00 PM, while another ordered girls to wear overcoats. One of the routinely oppressive and sexist all-male informal village councils, this one in Haryana, suggested that girls be married off sooner and not be allowed to use cell phones.

The reason of Indian women is evident in their critique of the government’s response to its hastily called JS Verma Committee’s report that recommended changes to India’s anti-rape laws. While Indian women’s liberation groups were pleased that the new laws would criminalize voyeurism, stalking, disrobing women and acid attacks, they vigorously oppose the death penalty as punishment for rape where the woman dies or is seriously injured. Introducing the death penalty is rightly seen as a retrogressive move.

Furthermore, the government’s own commission proposed recognizing marital rape and holding commanding officers accountable for rapes by their subordinates in the armed forces. These recommendations the government did not accept. This is disturbing, as it continues the practice of giving soldiers a green light to rape as they have historically done and are still doing, for example in Kashmir. Indian women have made it clear that they see rape and sexual abuse embedded in their society as a way to keep women down. As Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said of the new restrictions on women, “I don’t think that all the reaction was due to fear of sexual violence. The reaction is also to the assertion of freedom. When a woman starts demanding freedom and rights, that’s where the discomfort begins.”


The second recent event is women’s–and men’s–response to the mob attacks on women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. First women and men created organizations to physically protect women in the Square. One such group is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (Opantish). They track and document the attacks and try to intervene and take the women to safe houses or hospitals. They are pressuring groups who call for demonstrations to make sure the area is secure for women; and they make the point that to fail to do so reflects an attitude of indifference or worse to women’s oppression.

Opantish states, “These attacks aim to exclude women from public life and punish them for participating in political activism and demonstrations.” They stress that ignoring the dangers women face “in the ongoing struggle for justice…jeopardizes not only women’s participation but the very success of the revolution.”

Another response to the mob attacks was taken by The Uprising of Women in the Arab World (see “Women WorldWide,” Nov.-Dec. 2012 News & Letters), who called for protests on Feb. 12 at Egyptian Embassies around the world. They began as a Facebook group but have made the leap into the physical world. Demonstrations were held around the world, including in Brussels, Belgium; Morocco; several cities in Egypt; Tunisia; Sudan; Yemen; Jaffa, Gaza and Ramallah in Palestine; the USA; Italy; Hungary; Germany; Canada; and Russia. Women used the demonstrations to show solidarity with all Arab women’s rights, not just Egyptian, and as a way to critique their own societies. Many took advantage of the day to show the suffering of Syrian women.


The third event was the One Billion Rising action on Valentine’s Day. This was conceived by Eve Ensler, author of “The Vagina Monologues.” The name comes from the fact that one in every three women in the world, that’s one billion, will be beaten or raped during her lifetime. One Billion Rising called on people to strike and dance to call attention to violence against women. The call to dance was inspiring. As a 25-year-old woman in India said, “Dance allows you to express emotions–outrage, anger, hope–that sometimes words don’t allow you to.” One Billion Rising spread like wildfire through India. Tens of thousands joined rallies and dance events there. Women saw it, as one said, “as a new struggle for freedom.” In Mumbai alone, more than 1,000 people came together to take a pledge to respect women.

In Somalia, more than 300 women gathered in Mogadishu. About 600 people danced and sang in one of at least five events in Egypt. In Indonesia, where a high court judge had recently joked that women might enjoy rape, there were many One Billion Rising actions across the islands. There were 40 events in New York City, several in Turkey and Germany; and 1,500 danced in Iceland. Women organized flash mobs in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; in City of Joy in Congo; and in Bangladesh 1,000 acid attack survivors took part in rallies across the country.

Women also danced in Tunisia. The recent assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid shows the ruling Islamist party Ennahda’s complete unwillingness to rein in hard-line Islamist Salafists. Belaid’s murder was preceded by attacks on women and others, as homegrown reactionaries try to destroy Tunisia’s family code, one of the most progressive in the Arab world.

Tunisian women are adamant that they will move forward, not back. Their spirit and determination to create something new were expressed passionately by a woman in low-cut jeans and a sweater who got up on top of a car and faced a large group of young Islamist men harassing her to wear the hijab. She yelled at them fearlessly: “This is Tunisia, a country with a 3,000-year-old history. As for you, you are mere outsiders and bloody descendants from the deserts of Saudi Arabia, destined to be on the sidelines of history. Tunisia will never become another Afghanistan!”


In the U.S. too, women are facing that worldwide oppression, and here too they are fighting back–continuing the 50-year struggle for women’s liberation. Their biggest battle is in reproductive rights, with state legislatures coming up with one inhuman law after another–some 1,100 bills sought to limit abortion rights and 135 passed in 36 states in 2012. Now, Texas has a new law that makes it mandatory to display an ultrasound to women who have decided on abortion. Even if a woman averts her eyes, the doctor must give a verbal description of the fetus.

North Dakota and a slew of other states are trying to pass so-called “heartbeat” bills that would ban abortion as early as six weeks, before most women even know they are pregnant. Right-wingers in Mississippi successfully forced all abortion clinics in the state to close. Indiana introduced a bill that would require women to endure two expensive, invasive, and completely unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds before and after having a medication abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy. And there is a push in all 50 states to pass so-called “personhood” measures declaring a fertilized egg a human being, which could ban all abortion and could outlaw common forms of birth control and in vitro fertilization. It also puts a woman who has a spontaneous abortion in legal limbo.

There is as well the Catholic hierarchy’s well-funded attack on birth control that tries to strip away women’s freedom under the guise of religious freedom. Birth control is both a means to control fertility and healthcare because women’s health cannot possibly be separated from women’s sexuality and pregnancy. To impose a religious ban on insurance funding for needed medical devices and medication is tantamount to the Catholic hierarchy imposing a fatwa on birth control.

While women in India work to stop their army from raping women under occupation, U.S. women are fighting against the rape of women soldiers by their so-called comrades in arms. Sexual assault on military women is estimated to be 22,000 a year. Nothing the military has done–and they have only done something because of the huge outcry women have already made–has put a dent in the number of attacks. As long as women have to report rapes to superiors who control their jobs, promotions, and in the military their very lives, rape in the military will thrive. Military rape and abuse remains a “silent epidemic.” To break that silence, women have started the “I Am One” campaign that documents the personal experience of women survivors and puts them on the web.


Another sign of the War on Women is how Republicans took the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) hostage, first holding it up for over a year, then trying to gut it instead of passing it. The House Republicans’ version, which was rejected by the Democrats, completely eliminated any protection for LGBT people. It grudgingly granted tribal courts some authority needed to prosecute non-Native American men who rape or abuse Native women on reservations. But, always mindful of white rights over all others, the Republican version granted those prosecuted the right to move their cases to a federal court. Furthermore, in a stunning act of racism, those found guilty by an Indian court of battering and/or raping Native American women on Indian land could only receive a maximum sentence of one year! That racism and xenophobia extended to immigrants and trafficking victims, some of the most brutalized women in the world. It would have limited conditions under which undocumented women could have legal status while their claims were investigated.

Nevertheless, 138 Republicans voted against passing the VAWA. The only reason it was eventually passed by the others is women’s anger, expressed in the November election with a 10% gender gap that returned President Obama to office and kept a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. It would have elected a Democratic House majority as well except for successful Republican gerrymandering that gave short shrift to women, Latinos/as and Blacks.


Violence against women is, tragically, an international phenomenon and women worldwide are fighting it. While the form of the demonstrations may differ, the content is strikingly the same as women in each country articulate that violence stems from their own cultures. They reject the idea that it is women who should change their behavior or dress more modestly, drink less, stay hidden, stay veiled, wear this or that, stay in at night–the list never ends. Rather, women are demanding that men must change, that their entire societies must be transformed.

Women have–explicitly–positioned themselves at the center of the struggle, raising questions about the needed totality of any revolution. It must include all segments of society.

That women, globally, are challenging very basic aspects of their societies–and this is true in both developing and developed nations–is new. What shines through so luminously in countries like Egypt and Tunisia and is also evident in the U.S., is that the struggle is about new, really human relationships, and that it is a revolutionary struggle.

Today, women’s liberation has shown itself to be the heart–the driving force–of all genuine revolution. Any separation opens the door to counter-revolution. The ongoing struggles for freedom make clear that nothing short of a banner of new human relationships, from Man/Woman to labor, is needed.

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