by Farah Ghuznavi. This post was originally published in the Star Weekend Magazine, Bangladesh. Reposted with permission.
Scanning the newspaper headlines these days invariably involves encountering a series of unpleasant news items. But if the news in general is bad, the news with regard to the situation of women in many places is even worse. In our own scenario, stories about the disturbingly varied forms of violence perpetrated on women are depressingly familiar. And contrary to popular mythology, the scourge of domestic violence in particular cuts across class barriers and income differentials quite effortlessly. Terrible as these stories of rape, abduction, wife beating and murder are to read, they cannot be properly understood without examining the underlying social structures and attitudes that underpin and reinforce such behaviour.
A recent global survey of experts by Thomson Reuters attempted to identify the five worst countries in which to be born a woman today, based on variables such as female infanticide and foeticide, sex trafficking, forced marriage, so-called “honour killings”, maternal mortality rates and so on.
Unsurprisingly, high levels of violence against women appeared to be a common factor in almost all of the countries featuring in the “Top Five”. It was probably no surprise to anyone that Afghanistan appears at the top of the list, with the Democratic Republic of Congo in hot pursuit. Pakistan takes third place – and shockingly, India fourth – with Somalia tailing in the fifth spot.
Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that India (which most people might not expect to see classified with the other countries on this list) appears so near the top is related to the strong degree of ‘son preference’ existing there. This is common to most countries in the region, but in India has led to an estimated “50 million girls thought to be ‘missing’ over the past century due to female infanticide and foeticide,” according to the UN population fund.
To dispose so mercilessly of babies and foetuses for the ‘crime’ of belonging to the wrong sex surely provides the ultimate proof of how little value is placed on the lives of girls and women in this region. And that these statistics should come from India, feted for being the largest democracy of the world – and soon to be an economic super-power – is beyond shameful. It is an utter disgrace.
But examples of female foeticide, so-called “honour killings” and the trafficking and enslavement of women are merely the most extreme forms of gender violence. Negative attitudes towards girls and women percolate through many layers of society, and often take more insidious and widely accepted forms. For example, the common question that is raised in Bangladesh when allegations of wife beating are brought against someone is: what did she do to deserve it? In the vast majority of cases, she didn’t “do” anything, and in no case can such violence be justified.
The fact that we, as a society, can even ask such a question gives away the fact that many people believe that women should have no agency or capacity to make decisions for themselves; that they should be content to live at the mercy of others, to be obedient and accept whatever brutality is visited upon them in silence. And never underestimate the importance of silence – it is what allows the perpetuation of the cycle of falsehoods, and sustains the illusion that everything is as it should be. Read more