Why there's finally cause for celebration this International Women's Day
International Women’s Day usually feels like a quaint — or even hypocritical — 24-hour attempt to try to make up for a year’s worth of outrages against women. But this year it feels different. We are nearing a tipping point.
Yes, conditions are still horrific for women in many, if not most, places across the globe. I know because I collect data on violence against women and related issues as part of my ongoing research on the WomanStats Project. Every day I open my inbox to find a new pit of grief, such as the recent story of three little sisters in India, ages 6, 9, and 11, raped and drowned at the bottom of a well. The saying, "What fresh hell is this?" could only have been coined by a woman.
But the case of India is instructive. On most scales of gender-based violence, such as WomanStats’ physical security index, India ranks as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. And the country’s highly abnormal sex ratio favoring males indicates that the value placed on the life of a woman in India is one of the lowest worldwide. On broader indices, such as the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index examining educational attainment, political representation, health, and the economic status of women, India ranks an embarrassing 105th out of 135 countries.
But lately the stories don’t end there. In the case of the three little girls in India, the local police officer in charge has been suspended and replaced because he did not act swiftly enough. This is highly unusual, as local police are typically only removed for acts of commission, not acts of omission. What has clearly tipped the scales was the public reaction to the ghastly gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi this past December — thousands took to the streets, even shutting down roads — and a belated realization by public authorities that what was once tolerable is now intolerable. In February, the new political reality solidified, with the Indian government implementing a new set of laws that not only permit the death penalty if a rape victim dies, but also criminalize certain offenses against women that had always occupied a gray area where authorities could effectively overlook them with impunity. What were previously perceived as lesser offenses — voyeurism, stalking, acid attacks, and even the trafficking of women — are finally to be considered real crimes against women. (The measures are still awaiting ratification in the Indian Parliament, though they went into effect last month.)
The important change here is that public opinion seems to be shaping a consensus that Indian authorities must be held accountable for condoning impunity for these crimes. A commission established by the Indian government in the aftermath of December’s rape has urged that police officers be arrested if they do not investigate crimes against women and that soldiers finally be subject to criminal penalties if they rape women, as they often do in east India. The commission’s report concluded, "The nation has to account for the tears of millions of women." The fact that the wink-and-nod collusion between male government representatives and male perpetrators is increasingly seen as unacceptable does not simply mean the Indian government is becoming more enlightened. It means public opinion is tangibly shifting against the impunity and the collusion. The wind has changed.
Indonesia is not India, but there are serious issues concerning women’s rights in that country nonetheless. For example, Indonesia does not recognize marital rape as a crime, and the mail-order bride industry thrives in that country. The oil-rich Aceh province in the country’s north implemented sharia law in 2009, and seemingly every month some new restriction on women is being put into place. For example, women now are forbidden from "straddling" a motorbike; they must ride side-saddle, which means, in essence, that they cannot drive motorcycles at all. Men are allowed up to four wives under Indonesian law if their first wife agrees, but even without his wife’s assent a man knows he can find a religious figure to perform the marriage secretly anyway. Or they can be married for only an hour if they wish. Wink, wink.
But consider this: A few months ago, an Indonesian judge took a second, teenage wife. Unremarkable. The judge then divorced the girl four days later by text message. Nod, nod. But then something extraordinary happened. After public outrage, with thousands of protesters in the streets, the Supreme Court recommended the judge’s dismissal and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono formally dismissed him in a rare move, saying, "Don’t take this matter lightly. I want this problem handled swiftly and comprehensively." This, too, is unprecedented, especially given concerns about the president’s commitments to human rights in the past.
Harassment of women in public spaces has always been outrageous in Egypt, a country ranked in the worst category for women’s physical security in the WomanStats scale. In one recent study, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had been sexually harassed in public. Sexual violence against women in public spaces is rising to even higher levels now in Cairo, and the assaults are no longer just groping but savage beatings and rapes.
But the outrage against this treatment also seems to be growing. Women have marched by the hundreds carrying knives and clubs, and bearing signs that threaten to cut off the hands of their attackers. And Egyptian women do not stand alone: New groups like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard feature scores of men in bright vests who defend women against would-be gropers, rapists, and even killers. Not only do the men physically interpose themselves, but they challenge the attackers by asking: How can you call yourself a Muslim? That’s a very good question, and one that men don’t ask enough of male perpetrators in a largely religious society.
Even in the United States, we’re seeing incremental progress for the protection of women from violence. After last fall’s election, women make up a record 19 percent of the U.S. Congress. Smirk if you will, but that figure is already translating into legislative attention to women’s issues: One of the first bills President Barack Obama signed into law this year was the "Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act," which makes it a crime to knowingly transport a girl outside the country to be cut. This law is needed because families often take girls on "vacations" back to their homelands — countries where female genital mutilation is permitted or common — to undergo the practice. And just this week the president signed into law an expanded version of the Violence Against Women Act. Slowly but surely we are filling the holes in our own legal framework that have long provided impunity for those who would hurt and exploit women.
Do we have a long way to go? Yes. Although they are accumulating worldwide, and in some of the most unlikely places, so far these signs of hope remain singular cases. I still expect my inbox will contain horrifying accounts every morning. At the WomanStats Project, we rank countries based on the level of physical security women experience, as indicated by rates of violence perpetrated against them, and since we began coding the data in 2001 no country has ever scored in the best rank — indicating that violence levels are low and the country strictly enforces a comprehensive legal code criminalizing such violence. Some scholars have questioned why we even have a scale point for security, since it remains a null set. This International Women’s Day, heartened by evidence of a tipping point in sight, I’d venture to say that we have it because one day — perhaps sooner than any of us dreamed — we will need it.