Sign of the crimes against women

Ros Coward

Those who thought “violence against women” was an archaic feminist concern had better think again. In the 1990s, concern about this violence has undergone a quantum leap. It is no longer a local issue of refuges: violence against women has become a global issue.

In July, for the first time, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) has included in its annual Progress of Nations report a specific section on violence against women.

Along with the usual economic and quality of life indicators, progress is now also defined according to the degree of protection women have against discrimination and violence. This is a remarkable change: it asserts that progress is an illusion if half the population don’t share in it and, more radically, it suggests that violence against women is undermining nations’ health and stability.

The shift began in 1991 when Roxanna Carrillo, a Peruvian, now director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (Unifem), prepared a research paper for the Human Rights Commission. She concluded that “violence against women was a very fundamental obstacle to women’s access to development”.

Three years later, the UN accepted violence against women as a human rights issue. By the time of the Beijing conference, calls to end “violence against women” were uncontroversial, agreed on by every single region.

Now, the Inter American Development Bank has a project on the cost of violence against women, and the World Bank includes in its annual assessment of the gross national product working time lost to violence against women.

The feminist rhetoric being used is staggeringly bold. There is a new category, “gender crime”, bringing together practices such as bride burning, dowry crimes, domestic beatings and genital mutilation which have been examined in isolation. The change is particularly significant because no one seems to be worrying any more about accusations of cultural imperialism. Previously, the fear of judging other cultures sometimes halted feminist criticism of attacks on women in other countries.

Worries about being judgmental have some foundation. In the United Kingdom, Asian activists have warned that coverage of sensational crimes often merges with racist stereotypes of Asian men as brutes and Asian women their doe-like victims.

Nasreen Rehman from the Runnymede Trust, an independent think-tank on race relations, says that gender inequalities are often used as a stick to beat Islamic cultures.

So alarm bells ring when it becomes clear that the Unicef report, too, is mainly focused on south Asia where a litany of crimes seems to justify talk of gender crimes’ “missing millions”.

A recent study of amniocentesis at a large Bombay hospital found that 95,5% of foetuses identified as female were aborted. Across India, 11 259 dowry-related murders have been officially registered in the past three years; only a tiny percentage of the killers are brought to justice. In Bangladesh, it has been claimed that more women die from bride burning (burning the wife with her deceased husband) than in pregnancy.

Many Asian feminists now think reticence about these crimes constitutes another sort of racism.

“We’re not talking about a little slap on the wrist here,” Unifem’s Carrillo points out. “We are talking about killings and beatings. These are fundamental human rights abuses and for that, I don’t accept any excuses.”

Debates about female genital mutilation have long been cast in terms of this conflict between universal human rights and ancient traditions. But here, too, cultural relativism has lost ground; “genital mutilation” has now completely replaced the neutral words clitoridectomy and female circumcision.

The genealogy of the debate’s move away from mud-slinging and mutual recriminations of racism is pretty obvious. American feminism has infiltrated the upper echelons of the UN, while an increasing number of high-profile Third World campaigners, such as Pakistan’s Asma Jehangir, have publicly spoken out about women’s rights, inspiring Western women with a sense of a shared agenda.

Gung-ho universalising has real problems, however. Charlotte Bunch, director of the rather ominously named Centre for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the United States, has produced Unicef’s report.

She writes purple passages worthy of Andrea Dworkin: “Opening the door on the subject of violence against the world’s females is like standing at the threshold of an immense dark chamber vibrating with collective anguish.”

Such claims of universal suffering inevitably pose the question: why? Is this timeless male brutality that, without Western-style economic equality, necessarily exercises itself? And when Bunch talks of “epidemics of violence”, is the real agenda fear of Muslim fundamentalism?

Some links are productive. Connections exist between assaults on women in ethnic wars such as Bosnia and Rwanda, and the codes of family honour that produce atrocities in Latin America (where if a rapist offers to marry his victim, he will not be charged) or in Pakistan. All view women’s bodies as vessels of family honour.

In ethnic wars, men defile the enemy by defiling women. In South America or Pakistan, women are constrained to uphold honour and brutally punished if they waver. Both versions reveal how catastrophic machismo attitudes are for women’s lives.

But other links proposed are frankly absurd – for example, the idea that anorexia is the West’s equivalent to bride burning. Normative ideas about gender, however coercive, are not the same as physical brutality. To think this dilutes the seriousness of the other crimes and undermines the opportunity to look with a new clear-sightedness at violence against women. It would be a shame if wilder ideas got in the way – there is some very challenging stuff here.

For instance, if we do accept gender crimes as human rights violations, should we accept refugees who claim they are victims of gender persecution? And – here’s one for the holiday season – if gender crimes are akin to the excesses of South Africa’s apartheid, should we not boycott some of these exotic destinations?

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