From the March-April 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Terry Moon
Violence against women is vast. The worst of it includes rape, torture and murder—sometimes all three in one onslaught. Physical and economic violence have been exacerbated worldwide in the era of COVID-19. Under the pandemic, women’s share of the burden is worse than men’s—from unemployment to higher incidence of violence. This includes: female genital mutilation/cutting; being brutalized by those who say they love you; forced pregnancy; child marriage; being singled out in times of war where violence against women is both considered a soldier’s “right” and is ordered from above as a way to break the back of resistance; so-called “honor” killings; and assaulting, groping, insulting, and cat-calling women for daring to walk down a street, ride a subway or a bike—in short, for participating in the world.
COVID-19 has revealed how criminally inadequate is the thinking regarding domestic abuse. When lockdowns began there had been no planning for victims of domestic violence, now locked in with their abusers. The number experiencing domestic violence, overwhelmingly women, exploded. The added beatings and murders—which are continuing—are devastating. Examples of increases in violence include Lebanon, 54%, and in Tunisia, a fivefold increase. In one large Chinese province violence “more than tripled.” The Catalan region in Spain had a 20% rise. In Latin America: “violence in Colombia spiked
94%; Paraguay experienced a 35% jump; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, calls spiked 48%.”
In Mexico the increase was 60%, which translates to almost 1,000 women murdered in the first three months of 2020. At the same time Mexico’s “Leftist” president cut funding for women’s shelters and declared most calls to domestic violence hotlines “fake.” Studies by the UN Population Fund and Johns Hopkins University among others “assume a 20% increase in violence during an average three-month lockdown in all 193 UN member states….Researchers expect 15 million additional cases of domestic violence for every three months
that lockdown is extended.”
Here in the U.S., because the Trump Administration had no interest in tracking the rising incidents of domestic violence, there are no nationwide statistics, unlike in other countries, although we do know that in 2018 more than a million women were abused, with women of color more affected than white women. Since the pandemic, states report rises from 10% to over 30%. This is just the tip of the iceberg as the pandemic has made it extremely difficult for women to access hotlines or leave their homes to get help.
EVERYTHING CHANGES YET REMAINS THE SAME
Domestic abuse used to be something no one talked about, but the Women’s Liberation Movement has, from its beginning in the mid-1960s, brought violence against women out of the closet and into the open in all its hideous manifestations. Yet it has been unable to stop it. Sexism, like racism, is systemic to almost every culture worldwide. Let’s look at just two examples—although there are thousands—where violence has been called out, made clear, protested against, yet remains.
In April 2020, 20-year-old Army Specialist Vanessa Guillén went missing from Fort Hood in Texas. It wasn’t until three months later on July 5, 2020, that her beaten, dismembered, burned and buried body was found. Guillén’s murderer, Spec. Aaron Robinson, who worked in a building near where Guillén worked, killed himself when confronted by the police. The crime here isn’t only the brutal murder of Guillén, the crime is also that it should never have happened.
The struggle against sexual assault and harassment in the military has been going on for over 30 years. Hundreds have died and tens of thousands more have been assaulted and harassed, many with their lives ruined. Why? Because the military has refused to let go of their power and insists that commanders, not military prosecutors, have the right to decide which sexual assault crimes to try. In 2013 Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand tried to legislate taking power out of the chain of command but was
stymied by her Senate “colleagues.” Her measure was the first—ever—to offer at least a partial solution to military rape and abuse. Even eight years ago in 2013, there had been over 20 years of pontificating from the military touting their clearly meaningless “zero tolerance” for sexual assault.
The military is to blame for the murders, harassment and rapes they studiously ignored for decades. And it is our rape culture, the concept that women are less than, not fully human, are asking for it, deserve it, etc., etc., that is the current fueling the tidal wave of never-ending rape and abuse. Together it means that the struggle is not just about legislative stopgaps, it’s about the needed deep changes to society as a whole—it means a revolution thorough enough to transform human relationships.
INDIA: OFTEN RAPE MEANS DEATH
In 2013 Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old medical student in India, was brutally raped. A metal rod was jammed with such force into her vagina that it reached to her diaphragm, destroyed her intestines and ultimately killed her. The demonstrations that followed were massive and even spread beyond India to Nepal. It isn’t that Indian women haven’t been brutally raped before, but this rape at that time and the demonstrations that followed were thought to portend change. They have not.
On Sept. 14, 2020, a 19-year-old Dalit woman working in her family’s field in Hathras was kidnapped by a group of upper-caste men. In unfathomable brutality they cut out her tongue, severed her spinal cord, put a rope around her neck and dragged her. The brutality didn’t end even after she died on Sept. 29. When her body arrived at Uttar Pradesh the next day, the police seized it from the family by force and cremated it at 3:00 A.M. without allowing them to be present and then denied to the media that she had suffered multiple rapes.
Again, huge demonstrations of Dalits and others followed. But then, On Sept. 30 in Balrampur, a 22-year-old woman—also Dalit—was raped by two men and died of her injuries; and four more rapes were documented in the next 60 days. In fact, at least 10 Dalit women a day are raped in India, a part of the 90+ rapes reported each day. In February 2021, a 20-year-old woman patient in a Manjhanpur hospital, also in Uttar Pradesh, was gang-raped by her doctor and others, and then, after she reported it to her parents, murdered. It turns out that the rape of women in their hospital beds is not a rare occurrence.
For years now, demonstrations against rape in India have drawn hundreds of thousands of people and they have been frequent. And yet rapes continue in huge numbers and hideous brutality. They continue because sexism and misogyny are ingrained in every aspect of society—the police, the village councils, the family unit, the schools, the government.
There are plenty of laws in India that, if enforced, could at least put a dent in the out of control rate of rapes. They are not. In this so-called “biggest democracy,” women are second-class citizens and Dalit women are on the bottom rung. After these highly publicized rapes, the Dalit Human Rights Defenders Network wrote a passionate letter to Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister. Most of their seven suggestions for how things must change were to implement laws that already exist.
NOTHING WILL STOP WOMEN FROM FIGHTING BACK
More and more women have been fighting this violence in ever more creative ways. The worldwide Women’s Marches that started after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 involved millions and have continued. Since 2017, in a country where honor killings are rife, the Aurat (Woman) March in Pakistan annually raises the issue of ending violence against women. Its manifesto issued in 2019 began by demanding “the right to autonomy and decision-making over our bodies.”
Ni Una Menos (“Not one [woman] less”) has spread across Latin America. It has a huge membership and played a major role in winning abortion rights in Argentina, where it was founded. Ni Una Menos states they were “born out of being fed up with sexist violence, which has its cruelest moment in femicide.” #MeToo, started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman in the U.S., has spread across the globe because ending sexist abuse is a worldwide demand. These movements are international, are many and are huge. This is new.
It is not only international organizations that show women’s creativity and determination to create a world where violence against women is a thing of the past. A few examples—and there are thousands—will have to suffice.
Women are becoming fed up with the donothing obstructionist policies of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who sees feminism as his enemy, denies the high rate of femicide, and recently backed Félix Salgado as governor for the Mexican state of Guerrero. Salgado raped at least two young women in the style of Harvey Weinstein. As feminist Viridiana Rios wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times: “I am a Mexican woman, and I agree with Mr. López Obrador, on many points. Like him, I believe that predatory political and economic elites have enriched themselves at the expense of the rest of us. But unlike Mr. López Obrador, I know that even if wealth is redistributed, the abuse and inequalities suffered by women will remain. Women should not tolerate this lie the president continues to espouse.”
Even before that, since women knew that they can no longer turn to the government for help, they took over the building housing the National Commission of Human Rights. They replaced the name on the building with a banner reading “Occupy! House of refuge. Ni Una Menos, Mexico. Black Bloc.” They transformed the huge building into a shelter for women fleeing violence, covering the walls with the names of victims.
In the Gaza Strip, where violence against women is increasing and 11 women have been murdered since the year began, women created five media campaigns in two months aimed at fighting that violence. Not only do women tell their story of abuse online, which in itself is powerful and can shame an abuser and warn others against him, but they go further: the batterer is contacted, as are legal authorities. The women are followed up by the Women’s Affairs Center, which gives them legal and psychological support.
On Feb. 12, in Kathmandu, Nepal, hundreds of women protested against a proposed law that would require women to get permission from their “families” (read “men”) to travel to Africa or the Middle East. Not coincidentally, the demonstration was part of a women’s march against rape and other violence. The executive director of Women Lead Nepal spoke to the marchers about the thingification of women: “What is extremely dangerous is the thought process behind it. The very fact that a policymaker is thinking about drafting this law restricting the movement of adult girls and women tells us how deep-rooted the patriarchal mindset is.”
This is only a snapshot of women’s creative activism. More can be seen on page 2 in “Women WorldWide”; on page 1 as Burmese women’s novel response to state repression is expressed in the Editorial “Masses resist Burma’s murderous coup”; or in a young working woman’s response to the pandemic on page 3 (See March-April 2021 N&L). Women’s revolt is endless.
REVOLT REACHES FOR A REVOLUTION IN PERMANENCE
Since the revolt is ceaseless, and since women’s struggle for full freedom has advanced to the stage where we now have huge international organizations as well as continuous local uprisings, why is it that rape and violence against women not only persist but seem to get worse, and how can we change that reality?
The history of revolutions points a direction. We can go back to the Paris Commune and see how during the revolt itself reality was transformed so that women not only were equals in almost every aspect of that revolution, working the barricades with the men, they also transformed aspects of society like education and production.
But we don’t have to go back to 1871 for examples. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, which showed us how age-old misogynist relationships between men, women, and children could change in an instant. Be it Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Syria, women made sure they were speakers and leaders. They transformed human relationships by creating new ones on the spot: in Egypt’s Tahrir Square; in Yemen’s Change Square and by coming out in the thousands when Yemen’s President Saleh accused women protesters of being against Islam. In Syria, despite Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to murder thousands in the street, 2,000 women and children blocked roads, shouting, “We will not be humiliated.”
Real democracy, equality and new human relations were created in the squares. As Salma El Tarzi, a 33-year-old Egyptian filmmaker, said at the time: “When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line, that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now. The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt.”
It may seem in moments of revolution that these fundamental changes happen in the blink of an eye, but always they have been preceded by decades of struggle. We have had those decades, we need to consider that to change systematic sexism, racism, and a capitalism that consigns workers to poverty and desperation, a revolution is a necessity. No one knows better than women that it would have to be what Karl Marx called for, a “revolution in permanence,” because women have never become free from only the first act of revolution. Revolution in permanence needs to become our goal.
This year’s International Women’s Day will show that even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, women will continue to deepen our fight for full freedom and new human relationships.