May 20, 2009—I have been meaning to write about the plight of women around the world since reading Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns a couple of months ago. In that powerful novel, we follow the lives of two Afghan women who struggle to survive through the 1979 Soviet invasion, the subsequent civil war, and finally the rule of the Taliban. 

The novel makes one feel, viscerally, the injustice that permeates societies in which women are not recognized as full human beings with inalienable rights. Why are women still treated like chattel in so many parts of the world? Even in the most advanced, most civilized nations on the planet, where women actually often get preferential treatment, are there some respects in which the liberation of women remains an unfinished revolution?

The Taliban—Worse than the Soviets

It is not easy for a regime to make occupation by the former USSR look good by comparison. (Just ask the East Germans, who suffered under the Soviet-backed Stasi secret police for four decades.) And yet, making people long for the good old days of the Soviet occupation is just what the Taliban did when they took over in Afghanistan. Especially for women, life was actually better when the Soviets were around. They could go to school. They could leave the house unaccompanied by a man. They could choose whether or not to reveal their faces in public, whether or not to bare their arms or ankles.
All of that ended, and violently, when the Taliban came to power and imposed their version of Sharia law. According to the depiction in Hosseini’s novel (widely corroborated in sundry media accounts), women were forbidden from working or going to school, and were required to wear the burqa and be accompanied by a male relative whenever they left their houses. Those who violated these edicts were routinely beaten by the Taliban, and a husband could beat his wife at his discretion, as she was essentially considered his property.
In 2001, NATO forces invaded Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, and they drove the Taliban from power. But seven and a half years later, the war rages on, and the Taliban continue their misogynistic practices. Their latest efforts include terrorizing girls who dare to seek out an education by filling schools with poison gas . There have been three such incidents recently, with hundreds of children requiring hospital care as a result.

The War on Female Sexuality

The Taliban are probably the most misogynistic people on the planet, but they are hardly alone in abusing women. To take just one measure, the World Health Organization estimates that 100 to 140 million girls and women in the world today have been the victims of female genital mutilation (FGM). The practice, which includes any procedures that “intentionally alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons” is particularly prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, with the African nations of Guinea, Egypt, Mali, Ethiopia, and Sudan leading the pack.
The WHO attribute the practice to a mix of cultural, religious, and social factors, but there is obviously an emphasis on reducing a woman’s ability to enjoy sex. The purpose is to keep women virgins before marriage, and to keep them from straying thereafter. In addition to the direct harm of limiting the victim’s sexual pleasure for life, the procedure can entail a plethora of complications, from severe pain and excessive bleeding to bacterial infections. It can also lead to many long-term problems including recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, and increased risk of childhood complications.

Closer to Home

The abuse of women by the Taliban and by societies that practice FGM is simply barbaric. It rightly shocks our sensibilities and deserves denunciation in no uncertain terms. There is no widespread practice in advanced, civilized countries that comes close to comparing with the atrocities described above. But are there some respects in which women’s rights are not fully secure even here at home?
For the first time since 1995 , a majority (51 percent) of Americans now label themselves “pro-life.”
I am not referring to calls for “equal pay for equal work” or to women’s underrepresentation in certain fields. Men and women are different, on average, and will always be attracted to different kinds of work in different proportions. No amount of “progressive” education will change that. (It is a travesty of justice that then-Harvard President Dr. Lawrence Summers was practically lynched for saying as much a few years back.) As for enduring salary differences between the sexes, much of it is due to women choosing to work less than men or to interrupt their careers for child-bearing and child-rearing. As Thomas Sowell concludes after examining the relevant statistics on the issue in his recent book Economic Facts and Fallacies, “comparing never-married women and men who are past child-bearing years and who both work full-time in the twenty-first century shows women of this description earning more than men of the same description.” (Emphasis in original.) Thanks to decades of affirmative action preferential hiring, women can actually look forward to beating out more-qualified male peers for jobs and promotions in realms like academia. This actually has the perverse effect of undermining the credibility of women who are the most qualified for their jobs.
And yet, the revolution to secure the rights of women remains incomplete even in the most developed nations because of sustained opposition to abortion rights. The right to decide when or if to bear children is secured, as a last resort, by the right to terminate an accidental or unwanted pregnancy. But for the first time since 1995 when Gallup started asking the question, a majority (51 percent) of Americans now label themselves “pro-life.”
President Obama attracted vocal anti-abortion protesters when he gave the commencement address at Notre Dame University this past Sunday. I do not want to caricature their position, but those who would drastically limit women’s access to safe, legal abortions are standing in the way of full equality. In the name of protecting unborn embryos, they are ready to force a woman who becomes pregnant to feed and house a growing life-form for nine months. But life is a gift we get from our parents, not an entitlement we have as soon as sperm meets egg and attaches to fallopian tube. There may be a case for restricting later term abortions, especially once the fetus can survive outside the womb, but a society that enforces pregnancy is one that is not yet entirely clear on the concept of human rights.

These Are Early Days

The human race has come a long way in a relatively short time. It has been only a few centuries since the Enlightenment began the process of freeing Man from the stifling authorities of Church and State; a mere two hundred years and change since the American Founding Fathers proclaimed the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; less than a hundred years since the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution secured the vote for American women.
In other words, these are early days. Human liberty itself is a relatively young concept, having existed for the blink of an eye in terms of human history and prehistory. Having only crawled out of the jungle relatively recently, it should come as no surprise that some of us, to varying degrees, still cling to pre-civilized ways. It is not the tribal, mystical, violent, and controlling aspects of human society that require special explanation, for these held sway for tens of thousands of years. It is modernity that is strange from a wider point of view—strange and wonderful—and we owe our freer, more rational, less violent, better world to the thinkers of the past few hundred years who stood against the tide of history to celebrate reason and liberty and life on Earth.

This is not to sanction complacency, nor to excuse wrongdoing, but rather an attempt to gain a little perspective. Instead of being discouraged by the evil we see in the world, we should be encouraged by how much we have already accomplished in so short a time. It is just that the revolution is incomplete, even where it has achieved the most. As David Kelley wrote in the Spring 2009 issue of The New Individualist , “If freedom is to survive and flourish, we need a fourth revolution, a moral revolution, that establishes the right of the individual to live for himself.” No one and nothing, whether self-appointed religious authority or unborn embryo, has a moral claim on another man’s or woman’s life. This single thought has the power to free the world.

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