Sunday 27 February 2011

Why women still need to unite

When I was about five, I was in a children's choir, and one of the causes we raised money for was the Romanian orphans. This was the mid to late eighties. I put my Christmas money in a little white envelope for them and labelled it, in shaky capitals, "For the Romanian orphans, as pocket money". When my parents explained that they were starving, I wanted to send them chocolate biscuits. My parents told me those would probably make them ill.

Years and years later, I now know why it was Romanian orphans in particular - it was because of the persecution of their mothers' bodies, reducing women to livestock, or fields to be ploughed, and these children were born to mothers who couldn't afford to raise them. Abortion was illegal until a woman was over forty-two or had five children already. Women were inspected at their workplaces to see if they were pregnant. Men or women over twenty-five who remained childless were heavily taxed, and I don't doubt made to suffer in other ways as well.

One of the things I remember clearly from Lionel Shriver's haunting novel "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is his mother Eva's disgust at society's attitude to her pregnancy. Suddenly, she felt, she was no longer her own mistress or regarded as such - suddenly, even strangers felt that they had some kind of corporate ownership of her "bump". She was not trusted to care for her baby properly. Her husband in particular, the man she loved, thought he could lay down the law about what she should and should not do. The assumption was not that "society will intervene if you behave carelessly", but "society assumes you do behave carelessly and will therefore intervene constantly and on autopilot". She couldn't even have a quick dance around a room without being read a lecture. I was younger then and thought she was being overly grumpy. Now I only have to look around on the Internet to see how right she was.

Even when someone writes "I don't think the woman's choice alone matters, because there are two people involved", meaning to sound a bit fair on both sides, an alarm bell rings for me. Of course there are two people involved, but it seems to be all too easily assumed these days that the woman herself is incapable - or not a good enough person - to make a decision that would also be good for the baby. It's assumed that the two are automatically in conflict, and therefore everybody's job to leap to the defense of the baby against the woman - in other words, try to take control, when it's her who has to bring the child to birth and then be its mother. I can't think of anything better designed to drive a wedge between a mother and her baby - a bond that biology dictates should be as strong as anything - or at the very least destroy a mother's confidence when she is already at her most vulnerable.

It always surprises me that the cycle of oestrus is supposed to be "primitive", and that the human ability to conceive at any time, regardless of wishes or ability to care for the offspring, is something so advanced and wonderful. In the cases of most animals, I don't know if "wanting" to conceive or not has a meaning the way it does for us, but why do humans conceive so readily when they don't always want to? It seems like a silly mistake of evolution to me, and one that causes untold grief.

If these kind of issues interest you, I recommend you follow @antitheistangie on Twitter. She endures daily threats of murder, rape, the harming of the child she already has, etc. etc. etc. because she has dared - for the sake of other women - to make public the fact that she had an abortion for a variety of what to a Western European like me seem to be very sensible reasons. As far as I know, none of her harrassers are ever even reprimanded, much less brought to justice.

I hope it's clear from other entries on this blog how much I adore children - what I hate is the orders from above how their mothers should raise them, which so frequently run contrary to both the mother's interests and the child's. In this country, women are forbidden as far as is possible to stay at home and look after the kids if that's what they want to do. In America, it seems to be the opposite. Let me take you through a sad life for a woman under the Republicans' plans.

Let's say she's single, and in or aiming at a career, probably planning to have a family when the right partner comes along. And let's say that before she is ready to support a family, she is raped. However, the law has redefined rape. If she is forcibly drugged, or tied down and unable to fight back, that means the rape is her fault and she is not allowed an abortion. (This would also be also the case in, for example, family incest, where the victim is too young or too disempowered to fight.) Furthermore, she would be considered "the accuser", not "the victim" in this crime.

Since all health care has to be paid for, this woman's employer would be punished by the state if her health insurance covered abortion. She might scrape together every penny she has to pay for it herself, but the doctor who would perform the abortion is murdered and the murderer is let off by state law. She might try another place, but the hospital would be quite within its rights to turn her down.

If she miscarries, she could face the death pentalty - even if the baby wasn't properly formed, which often occurs in pregnancies, miscarriage being the usual natural result - unless she could somehow prove that she herself had no hand in the miscarriage. (How any woman could prove this, especially while doubtless sick and weak and also quite possibly grieving, I don't know).

If she bears the child, she has no means of support. She is not supposed to work, and childcare is withdrawn, because she should be at home with the child - but she will not receive any aid or even food. The program Head Start which would be the way she would have got her child into preschool has been terminated. Doubtless it is considered her own fault she was raped, too. In such circumstances the child is horrifically disadvantaged, probably in terms of social stigma as well as economically. Once a perfectly capable, productive lady, she and her child are both condemned by a string of laws to a cycle of difficulty and unhappiness.

All because the law-makers wanted control over this woman's body.

To be fair, these are a variety of proposed state laws I've detailed, rather than laws already in place for one state - but once these get a hold anywhere, would they start spreading? When I read what I could of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" (I never finished it, I'm afraid), I didn't believe for one minute that freedom could really be lost with such ease and totality. Now I'm reading up on these laws, it seems much more plausible.

Freedom doesn't mean "yeah, let's coldly have lots of abortions". It means, for starters, having access to education, family planning, and contraceptives so you don't need one in the first place (though contraceptives do sometimes fail). To assume that everyone worth anything will stay celibate is not realistic, and excusing rapists from responsibility makes it an even more ridiculous assumption. It means having enough education and confidence to make the best decisions for your offspring, and to be allowed to carry them out.

This is a momentous time for women right now - not just because the Republicans are trying to implement increasingly loony hate-filled laws against them (fortunately the redfining rape one got - hopefully - kicked out), but because of the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. Did you see the photos of the Egyptian girls mending the pavements in Tahrir Square? Here are three interviews with young women who found themselves amidst the revolutions, and their hopes for how things will turn out. Women played a part in the revolutions; I cannot hope more strongly that women will continue to play a part in the future of their countries.

Apparently, the horrible case of Lara Logan - who was attacked and gang raped during the Egyptian revolution, and saved by a group of guards and women - is being used as a platform to suggest that women shouldn't be journalists in potentially violent areas. This is rubbish - it sacrifices the woman and all her potential whilst limply accepting that violence is inevitable. (Although it would be a great moment to say "We shouldn't go to war because some people would get killed" - sadly I don't think Logan's detractors, or anyone else who accepts violence, will buy into that one.) Surely it is equally horrible for a man or for a woman to be attacked as she was. If any person gets attacked, that is awful. But it's something we have to speak up and challenge, not run away from. Although I know nothing about Logan and would not dream to speak for her, I imagine that most journalists in such areas feel that the risk of attack is worth it for the sake of informing the world of important events.

To say that she should not go to Egypt is to say, "Violence towards women is inevitable - solution: keep the women at home." (Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin suffered precisely the same thing - she was frequently turned down from working at observatories because she would be alone in them at night, which apparently wasn't safe for a woman. Being "assaulted by blacks" was apparently the greatest risk, neatly using racism to absolve the sexists of responsibility!)

What is needed is a culture change to make violence less acceptable. That of course is far harder. But I think men too would benefit.

I'm talking a lot about women's rights in this blog post and hope that my male readers don't feel it's in any way to their exclusion. We women are physically weaker and able to bear children, which means we can be preyed on and controlled and abused in ways that men cannot, so we do need some specific laws to protect us. But also, a society which does that to its women will, by definition, have to do it to men too, in case any men disagree that women should go through this. Doubtless such a man would be punished as some kind of sissy or collaborator. (Of course it can work the reverse way - that in a free society, a man might howl at and denounce women's rights, but he's usually just laughed at rather than for example beaten up or jailed.)

Here in the UK, some of the greatest champions of women's rights I know are men. There's nothing odd about that. I'm as pale white as you can get, but I'll get as upset as anyone else when I see racism taking place, for example. A society that welcomes everyone is far more pleasant and constructive than one which reviles non-whites. I think the same can be said of sexism. "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are."

Any population which penalises and degrades some of its citizens - for their race, or religion, or colour, or for their sex or fertility - is wasting a part of its potential, as well as tying up all its citizens into a system of injustice and unhappiness. Therefore, no matter how good your intentions in wanting to protect all babies, threatening and punishing and controlling their mothers will, to say the least, backfire. And these things need to be stopped.


Anonymous said...

Just had a conversation with a friend about "moral relativism". Although I agree with you on condemning poor policy in other countries it is worth remember that it is better to get our own house in order before lecturing other cultures.

Most notably a country like Saudi Arabia that treats women appallingly should be excluded from trade with us. Freedom from oil driven vehicles for example shouldn't just be about green policy but ethical policy meaning that we no longer trade with or deal with scum dictatorships like the House of Saud. Until women in Saudi Arabia have drivers licenses and the right to the vote we should stop paying any money on loans to the Saudi's. The spin off benefit on this is that they don't get their money back to sustain them; we can spend the money saved on repayments on investing in green technology.

Ethical foreign policy and trade policy is the best place to start. Sadly I'm typing about that on my Chinese made computer. However small steps maybe?

Alice said...

I actually did start to write about what happens in the UK but it seemed petty by comparison and made the post too long! Besides, keeping quiet when we see injustice is just what allows injustice to spread - rather like why I get upset when I see racism despite being white myself. I hope I'm "inspiring" rather than "lecturing"....

As for the trade thing, though, I quite agree - it drives me particularly insane when politicians condemn some brutal dictators while cuddling up to others and spending British money on propping up their rotten regimes. It makes us all culpable by default.

Angie Jackson said...

Thanks for the plug, Alice. Just one minor correction: The redefinition of rape (in US Bill HR3) would affect a woman's ability to pay for & obtain an abortion, but would not make her legal status for getting an abortion any different. (The fuckers can't overturn Roe v Wade so they just want to make getting an abortion as inconvenient, horrible, and impossible for poor women to obtain as they can.)

Alice said...

Ah, right - thanks Angie! Glad you popped along too.

Alice said...

Update: horrific story of a 13 year old using a pencil to self-abort, because she did not have access to legal help. (Zealots claim it's a "victory" because Planned Parenthood would have encouraged her rapist to continue, and that she had a legal right to abortion anyway - neither claim is true.)

Besides the horrible story, pay close attention to the statistics of the three countries where abortion is a) completely illegal, b) becoming increasingly illegalised, and c) more readily available.

Alice said...

Another series of cases of women locked up or denied abortion on random people's whims

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