/ 4 January 2009

Don’t be fooled by the ‘little’ woman

Whenever “women and children” are killed — the phrase has recurred in last week’s coverage of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza — we’re meant to be especially horrified.

That assumption has always irked me. Is there anything more acceptable about killing men? By implication, women are cheap shots, fish in barrels because they’re helpless. The set phrase decodes as “women who are effectively children and children”.

Yet slyly, numerous female activists have turned their gender’s reputation for frailty to their advantage. A sharp-tongued, anti-apartheid campaigner who died last week aged 91, Helen Suzman was part of a long tradition of politically courageous women who have cunningly leveraged the homily that it’s sissy to pick on a girl.

Small, well-dressed and, according to Desmond Tutu, “indomitable”, Suzman was a South African MP from 1953 to 1989 and was a rare voice of dissent while the most oppressive of apartheid’s legal infrastructure was drafted. She was sometimes criticised for the complicity of working within the system. Yet only her parliamentary immunity facilitated outspoken views that otherwise would have subjected her to a banning order, which forbade congregating and could entail house arrest. From 1967, she paid regular visits to Robben Island. Nelson Mandela recalls: “She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.” Suzman stood up to formidable prime ministers — Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha — whom she denounced as “bullies”.

Female activists have often used women’s supposed weakness as both weapon and shield. Nearly six feet tall and more physically imposing than the white men in her Ohio audience, the freed slave Sojourner Truth famously twinned women’s rights and abolitionism in her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech of 1851: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman?” The refrain has a droll, mocking quality: if you put women on pedestals, don’t you have to put black women up there too? And I may be a mere woman, but who’d come out on top if we were to arm wrestle?

The Burmese dissenter Aung San Suu Kyi could well have been assassinated by now if she were a man. Delicate, slight and fetching, she makes the perfect poster girl for human rights in Burma. In contrast to Sojourner Truth, whose towering muscularity presented her opponents with the contradictions in their prejudices, Suu Kyi’s very physical vulnerability lends her an invulnerability.

By constraining themselves to her non-violent house arrest, even this ruthless military junta demonstrates a discomfort with being seen to be beating a waif.

Likewise, Rosa Parks got away with sitting at the front of the bus, but a male counterpart might have been bludgeoned senseless.

We women can play stereotypes in addition to our ostensible helplessness. We can capitalise on the role of the mother as the central source of moral authority in the family. With her round, jovial face and generous figure, the Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai brings a maternal heft to her environmental causes and campaign against corruption in Kenya. Women’s traditional (utterly rubbish) association with goodness, innocence and purity can confer the imprimatur of righteousness. Certainly, the fact that women are associated with gentleness and life provides female suicide bombers additional shock value.

Female activists tend to draw a distinctively dismissive condescension from their male opposition. John Vorster ridiculed Helen Suzman for beating her “pretty little pink hands” against apartheid and PW Botha characterised her as “a vicious little cat”. American suffragist Susan B Anthony was derided as an “old maid” who undermined traditional womanhood because she couldn’t herself get a man.

Unfortunately, many a crusader has found no protection in her sex. Unlike Helen Suzman, anti-apartheid activist Ruth First was murdered by a letter bomb, whose return address was almost certainly the South African military. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a Putin critic, was assassinated in her apartment block in 2006. Ten years earlier, the Irish investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, who outed Dublin’s organised crime figures, was shot four times at a traffic light by a thug on a motorcycle alongside her car. Being female may have protected the Iranian Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi from worse fates, but her gender didn’t keep the Iranian police from closing down the offices of her human rights group. It hasn’t kept Ebadi safe from death threats, although her sex may have helped to ensure that, so far, none has been carried out.

The problems with this girl-power strategy are three. First, the gambit only works in paternalistic cultures, since it capitalises on the notion that women are defenceless. The more progressive the prevailing gestalt the less femininity can be exploited. Clare Short’s principled stand against the Iraq war may not have been all that much more unassailable just because she wears a skirt.

Second, women who take risky political positions can generate a halo of untouchability only if the opposition has some scruples, worries about gaining a reputation for tyrannising the weak and can therefore be embarrassed. (Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protests could only have prevailed against an empire that couldn’t stomach mowing down unarmed Indians by the hundreds. Hitler would have had no problem.) Thus Mugabe’s minions have beaten and jailed the members of Women of Zimbabwe Arise without blinking an eye.

Last, the more women such as Suzman show strength, the more they demonstrate they are anything but helpless; the more they prove to be as dangerous politically as any man, the less effective playing the girl card will prove. Success exacts its price. – guardian.co.uk