Seemingly out of the blue, in both East and West, the bodies and rights of women are under assault.
Settled gains in rights, education and culture suddenly appear fragile. Right-wing fanatics have frontally challenged the status of women in public, at home, in workplaces and universities.
Amid a clash of civilisations, a Republican-jihadi alliance has been struck against women’s progress. Despite the fears of party leaders over the loss of public support, this alliance moves from strength to strength. One of its leading members is poised to capture the White House. The Republican Party platform aims to force women to give birth to babies conceived by rape.
Curiously, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current head of al-Qaeda, helps us to begin thinking through what has happened.
In the fall of 2005, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – head of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia – was massacring Iraq’s Shias in the hopes of fomenting a sectarian war. His suicide bombers hit Shia crowds and mosques. His videos showing the beheadings of captives earned him the title of “Sheik of Slaughters”.
Al-Zarqawi’s excesses were alienating Muslims, distracting jihadis from the main fight against the Americans, and costing al-Qaeda public support. Al-Zawahiri, then number two, composed a lengthy letter to al-Zarqawi in the hopes of getting him to change his tactics.
Republican hostility towards women
Al-Zawahiri questioned the attacks on “ordinary Shia”, who may be apostates but were to be forgiven due to their ignorance. He emphasised the need to maintain “popular support from the Muslim masses” in and around Iraq. “We are in a battle,” al-Zawahiri told al-Zarqawi, “and more than half of this battle is taking place in the media.” The Shia could be dealt with after the Americans were expelled and an Islamic caliphate established.
While al-Zawahiri agreed essentially with al-Zarqawi’s politics, he was concerned that to act too openly would harm their cause.
The letter warned al-Zarqawi that the Muslims who loved and supported him would “never find palatable” the videos showing hostages being slaughtered. “Do not be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men… They do not express the general view.”
Al-Zawahiri’s letter might usefully be studied by the Taliban. Most recently, they have accomplished the difficult feat of uniting Westerners and Pakistanis in shared outrage at the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for her advocacy of girls’ education.
At a time when the West is preparing to abandon Afghanistan and everything it has tried to build there, the shooting of Malala serves as a reminder of what the West should be fighting for. Among the few concrete benefits the West has managed to achieve in Afghanistan are gains in rights, education and health for women and girls. Women there now face the prospect of a resurgent Taliban and a renewed civil war.
Yet gains for women are also under threat in the West’s leading power, the US.
Governor Romney might compose his own version of al-Zawahiri’s letter for “zealous” Republican congressional candidates. These include Richard Mourdock, who beat the distinguished and respected Richard Lugar to become the Republican candidate for senator in Indiana. Mourdock believes that women should not be allowed to have abortions after rape because “God intended” them to give birth in such situations.
Then there is the infamous Todd Akin, running for senate in Missouri. He believes that in cases of something he calls “legitimate rape”, women’s bodies have some magical mechanism that prevents them from getting pregnant. Therefore, the US should pass a constitutional amendment that prevents abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother.
Representative Joe Walsh, running for re-election in Illinois, believes that “health of the mother” is just an excuse to have an abortion for any reason at any time.
The depth of Republican hostility towards women was perhaps most in evidence in the Sandra Fluke affair. This Georgetown University law student testified in Congress in favour of mandating that churches, Catholic hospitals and universities and other religious non-profit organisations be required to provide health insurance that includes birth control. Among other things she pointed to the expense for employees and students of buying contraception when it was not included in their insurance.
‘Change the culture’ among students
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh responded to Fluke’s testimony with an extraordinary outburst that combined prurience with women-hating. He interpreted Fluke’s concerns about the cost of contraception to mean that Fluke wanted to be paid to have sex. That “makes her a prostitute”. He went on to say that Fluke was “having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills” and that “it’s amazing she can still walk”.
“The US Department of Justice estimates that for every 2,000 undergraduates, there are approximately 100 ‘forcible sex offences’ a year, including about 18 rapes.”
Limbaugh then made this offer: “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus for you to have sex, we want something for it… We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
What began as an apparently ethically and religiously motivated tirade against publically supported birth control turned into a demand for publically provided pornography. One suspects that Limbaugh’s combination of high-mindedness, misogyny and lasciviousness can be found among many jihadis as well. Such attitudes are the motive forces of the assault on women around the world.
Worryingly, the new women-hating in the US is not limited to the Republican Party but can be found in those citadels of liberalism: the universities. This year, student athletes have been charged with sex crimes at Boston and Temple Universities. Wesleyan University may have tolerated a fraternity where abuse of women was common. A gang rape has been reported at the University of Massachusetts.
In one recent incident a women who was raped at Amherst College dropped out while her alleged rapist graduated with honours. When the woman finally went to seek help from the sexual assault counsellor she was told: “No you can’t change dorms, there are too many students right now. Pressing charges would be useless, he’s about to graduate, there’s not much we can do. Are you SURE it was rape?”
The US Department of Justice estimates that for every 2,000 undergraduates, there are approximately 100 “forcible sex offences” a year, including about 18 rapes. In the Republican mecca that Limbaugh and others want to create, these victims would receive neither contraception nor be allowed to have abortions.
University administrators have responded not with vigorous prosecution of rapists but with calls to “change the culture” among students. University rapists benefit from the fact that campus security and other procedures take precedence over local law enforcement in investigating and handling incidents. Women who report being raped on campus often find themselves in mediation sessions with their alleged rapist and campus counsellors, rather than having their allegations properly investigated by actual police.
Such is the state of affairs for women and their rights in the leading Western power. The culture has indeed changed, much to the lament of feminists everywhere. Al-Zawahiri and Governor Romney need no longer be so concerned about expressing their extremist views.
The rest of us should be very afraid, for our wives and daughters, and for the quality of our civilisation.
Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.