Escaping Christian Patriarchy

Ophelia of Butterflies and Wheels has been writing some excellent posts lately about the abuse and oppression of women in Christian communities. One of them led me to an outstanding blog titled Love, Joy, Feminism. Its author, Libby Anne, grew up in an incredibly strict and fundamentalist Christian home that practiced a way of life she calls "Christian Patriarchy" (some might also refer to it as the Quiverfull movement). She and all her (twelve!) siblings were homeschooled, indoctrinated with religion from their earliest years, taught that women's role in life is to obey men and that women must give up their dreams and ambitions to better subordinate themselves to their future husbands.

Despite the endless chores and incessant hard work, despite the perpetual religious indoctrination, despite the beatings doled out as discipline, Libby Anne's childhood wasn't miserable. On the contrary, she remembers it as a blissfully happy time. She genuinely wanted to be a good, submissive daughter, and took pleasure in fulfilling her parents' expectations. She was excited about the idea of her father selecting a husband for her, which she viewed as a romantic fantasy, and she couldn't wait to become a housewife and devote the rest of her life to serving her husband and having as many children as possible for Jesus' right-wing cause. One could, of course, argue that this was the happiness of enforced ignorance; she was happy in this way of life because she had nothing to compare it to, because she literally wasn't aware that there were any other ways to live.

How did she escape this? Despite all they believed about Christian patriarchy, her parents also valued education, and they allowed her to go to college. While she was there, she met people who didn't follow the script, people who led happy, fulfilled lives despite not hewing to the strict rules she grew up with, which she'd always been taught was impossible. She also found herself defending her religious beliefs for the first time, and she kept encountering arguments she'd never heard before, arguments that could punch holes in the beliefs she'd grown up learning as absolute truth. Eventually, the worldview she'd been taught crumbled, and despite intense emotional pressure and guilt-tripping by her parents, she found the courage and the honesty to walk away. (See also her longer account of her deconversion.)

One thing I noticed while reading these posts is the startling number of similarities there are between the Christian patriarchy and the Islamic one: women kept isolated at home, forbidden to work, get an education or travel without male approval. (Libby Anne's parents were unusual in letting her go to college; here's another post by an escapee who didn't, and now laments her inability to support herself.) They're taught that their only role in life is to serve and obey men, treated as property to be passed off from father, to husband, and sometimes to son - this happens in fundamentalist Christian communities as well as Islamic ones.

Another observation, readily apparent, is how absolutely consumed by fear these people's lives are. Parents who follow the teachings of Christian patriarchy are, necessarily, terrified of letting their children come into contact with any idea that doesn't conform with what they've been taught - which is why they go to such extreme lengths to isolate themselves. Despite biblical verses like the Great Commission, we're increasingly seeing believers like Libby Anne's parents conceding the battleground of ideas, propagating their beliefs only by reproducing and not even attempting to convince outsiders. As society becomes more secular and atheism becomes more influential, we're going to see more of this sort of thing: fundamentalists retreating into these isolated, closed-off bubbles and locking the door behind them.

This is just what Daniel Dennett is talking about when he writes in Breaking the Spell that any faith which has to "hoodwink — or blindfold — [its] children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, [that] faith ought to go extinct." But that's easier said than done, and it creates a dilemma for us. How can we effectively evangelize for atheism and teach ideals of human freedom and liberty to those inside these communities? How can we reach people when their entire upbringing is organized to deny them contact with the outside world? I don't have a good answer for this, but I'm open to suggestions.

September 13, 2011, 5:39 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink9 comments

A Not At All Relevant to Elevatorgate Post

I first saw this on Google+ and, given the flame wars that have roiled atheism lately, I thought it was worth sharing. Who knows but that it may help some people to see these issues presented in a different context.

You may have heard of Wil Wheaton (and if you don't, and you consider yourself a geek, you have some explaining to do). Well, the other day, he posted this:

When I was a Teen Idol, and I traveled to New York for publicity all the time, it was fairly common for a handful of super weird people to hang out all day in front of my hotel, or in the lobby of my hotel, so they could pounce on me whenever I tried to enter or leave, and demand as many autographs as they could. It was really creepy and awful, and I always hated it. It was more than a little scary. I mean, who in the world spends an entire day sitting in one place waiting for someone? Oh, I know: crazy people.

...When we walked out of the SyFy party on Saturday night, a pack of people -- probably 12 or 15, I'd guess -- appeared out of nowhere, and surrounded me. They shoved pictures into my face, thrust pens at me, and made it so that I couldn't even move. They separated me from my friends and my son, and, quite frankly, terrified me.

Let's stop for a second and think about this: in what kind of world is it acceptable to surround a person you do not know, separate them from the people they are with, and essentially trap them? Maybe in crazy entitled psycho world, but not the world I live in.

I certainly hope the parallels are sufficiently clear. Stalking a person and waiting until they're in a semi-private or private setting, rather than approaching them during the public event they were just attending? Check. Trapping them in a situation they can't easily escape so that you can force your attention on them, regardless of what they may think about it? Check. And acting like a pack of braying, entitled jackasses when that person responds poorly? Yep, we've got that too:

A woman stormed up next to me and said, "If you don't sign these things for me, I'm going to tell Twitter what an asshole you really are."

Do you think we'll hear the usual excuses in this situation? "Hey, those people couldn't have known their idol wouldn't like them stalking him and waiting for him outside his hotel to demand autographs. Some stars would probably have welcomed it! They had the absolute right to talk to him, and if he didn't want to interact with them, all he had to do was say so. How would ordinary people ever meet their favorite celebrities if we declare in advance that they're never allowed to talk to them under any circumstances?" Do these rationalizations still sound plausible when transplanted to a different context? Would anyone care to defend the behavior of the people Wheaton talks about in his post?

What this shows is that the problem of That Guy-ism isn't restricted to sexual situations, or even to men. (Turns out people of every stripe don't like being stalked, cornered and harassed by creepy strangers! Who would have guessed?) But in a group like the atheist community, which has a significant imbalance of men over women, most manifestations of this problem are inevitably going to be gender-based.

If we're ever going to correct this situation, we need to make sure every atheist knows some basic rules of etiquette: don't treat others in ways that display a sense of entitlement, don't stalk or harass them, don't corner them and force your attention on them in situations where it's not likely to be welcomed, and above all, when people make reasonable requests not to be treated a certain way, don't make excuses, don't argue, just listen to them! This message really shouldn't be difficult, much less inspire the amount of resistance it has, but I intend to keep repeating it until it sinks in.

July 27, 2011, 5:34 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink277 comments

Islamic Sexism and the Sense of Entitlement

Does this remind anyone of anything?

On Jan. 16, Warda was nearly raped. It happened in early afternoon, in the heart of central Cairo, in an elevator.

A man with short black hair entered, Warda recalled. "We didn't really look at each other; I was reading some messages on my phone," she said. The elevator, big enough for four people, stopped suddenly, and the lights went out. The electricity was cut, nothing unusual in some neighborhoods of Cairo. They called for the bawab - the caretaker - but no one answered.

"Then I felt the hand of the man in my pants. I asked him to stop, but he said I better shut up or he would take his knives out," she said, fighting back tears. He opened his pants and pressed himself against her for what felt like hours, she said. Luckily, the lights came back on. "He stopped and let go of me. I just didn't want to look into his face."

As I've written about before, for women in the Middle East, pervasive, aggressive sexual harassment is a fact of life. My esteemed co-author, Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy, wrote about her own encounter with it during a legal internship in Morocco:

I was shocked from the moment the plane landed at the reaction I elicited. I had never felt so sexualized and objectified. It was a suffocating and overwhelming deluge of incessant, aggressive, unwanted male attention. Taxi drivers tried to kidnap me. Soldiers harassed me. Strange men tried to lure me into their shops, their homes, their beds. I was baffled at the rudeness of these men who felt absolutely no compunction in trying to touch and grab me.

Another quote from the Times article:

Heba Habib, a law student from Cairo, said she "couldn't take it" anymore. "Every day, dirty comments, the grabbing when you ride on the bus."

Once, she said, a cab driver started recounting his sexual fantasies. "I was so ashamed and tried to overcome it by laughing," the 22-year-old said, flicking her long dark hair behind her left ear. "When I got out of the car and wanted to pay him, I saw that his pants were down and he had been masturbating."

She threw his fare on the seat and left. "You feel every day less and less like a human being."

The idea that women ought to be sexually available to any man who desires them is heavily entrenched in these societies. It's the end result of a longstanding cultural and religious tradition that treats them as objects rather than people. (A piece of fruit doesn't object to being eaten. Why should a woman object to being assaulted, groped or catcalled?) Even in Egypt, in the aftermath of a democratic revolution where women played a major leadership role, it's too much to expect that this will change overnight.

I mention this because the atheist blogosphere has spent the last few days blowing up over a prominent male atheist who asserted that Western feminists have nothing to complain about, that the most they have to put up with is creepy advances and undesired attention, versus the vicious sexism that women suffer in the Islamic world. Well, I've got news for anyone who thinks that: These aren't different problems; they're different manifestations of the same problem.

These are points on a spectrum, to be sure. It's perfectly clear that women in Morocco or Egypt, in general, are subjected to more and worse sexual harassment than women in America. But what I saw so often in the aftermath of that blowup is the attitude that a man is entitled to solicit a woman's attention wherever, whenever, and in whatever manner he chooses, and if that makes her feel annoyed or upset or harassed or afraid for her safety, too bad, because his desire to hit on her trumps any desire she has not to be hit on. And that's the same attitude that motivates street harassers in the Middle East and that underlies so many of the other injustices inflicted on women in that region.

The most common complaint I've heard from men in response to this is that they can't be "mind-readers", that they can never know in advance whether a woman would welcome their attention. Well, here's a novel suggestion: If you want to know what women like or don't like, ask them. In the aftermath of the elevator incident, many women explained in great detail just why that situation would have made them uncomfortable. And, in general, that pattern holds: if you want to know the best ways to approach women, go and ask some women! It won't make you telepathic, it's true, but I guarantee that what you learn will come in handy in social situations. I suspect that what some of these men really mean is not that they can't imagine how a woman would feel, but that they don't want to make the effort to learn.

I said that harassment of women in the Middle East and creepy, unwelcome advances on women in the West are manifestations of the same problem, the same sense of entitlement, and they have the same solution as well. Men need to stop taking the attitude that they should be able to do what they please as long as they don't actually assault or rape anyone. If you make advances on a woman and she feels harassed, you are in the wrong, and you need to stop, take a step back, and evaluate what you can do differently. Where sexism and harassment have the sanction of religion, this consciousness-raising is going to be a long and difficult process, but skeptics and rationalists don't have even that much excuse.

July 8, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink130 comments

The Last Thing I'll Ever Say About Elevatorgate

Or rather, the last thing I'll quote, because there were two comments on Friendly Atheist that sum up the matter perfectly:


Misogyny shows not because of a guy being unaware that the circumstances in which he is asking people out are creepy. But the misogyny shows when people quickly jump into trying to make it look like doing that is fine. The correct non-misogynist reaction to this is "oh, I didn't stop to think about this before, but I think that you may be right and doing that is not a good idea. I will try to consider this before asking women in our community out". Rather than "big deal! You are wrong, this does not matter. I am a man and I will ask you out in any situation I find convenient. All you can do about it is say no. The new information I just heard about that it may actually be uncomfortable for you is irrelevant to me."


I don't attend atheist conferences, because everything I've heard indicates that I can expect to be hit on by strangers all weekend, and that doesn't sound like any fun at all to me.

I'm reading all these arguments full of men defending why it's harmless for them to hit on women at conferences, and they apparently don't understand why a woman might not want to spend her weekend that way.

So I stay home. Because that isn't my idea of a good time. In fact, it sounds just awful.

Now, you're a man. If men make unwanted passes at women all weekend, that doesn't affect your ability to enjoy the conference at all. Unless, of course, you have any female friends whose good time you care about. Or unless it bothers you that these conferences will remain mostly male for the foreseeable future. But if neither of those things bother you, then you have luxury of not caring about the kind of experiences women have at atheist gatherings.

That must be nice. I don't have that luxury. Since I'm female, I don't get to decide that I don't care about the kind of experiences women have at atheist gatherings.

But what I've learned from this 'controversy' is that, if I were to go to such a gathering, I'd be surrounded by mostly men, some of whom will make clumsy passes at me, and most of whom will think that's okay, and if I even mention that this is unpleasant for me, I might become the target of a maelstrom of male anger.

If you're trying to make atheism an all-male endeavor, you're doing great.

And to forestall the inevitable onslaught of misunderstanding: No one whatsoever is saying that it's wrong under all circumstances for a man to talk to a woman he doesn't know. There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to hit on women. It's not that hard to tell which is which. Make an effort to learn the difference. That's what this is about; that's all this has ever been about. And now, I think, it's long past time to move on to other topics.

July 4, 2011, 10:15 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink27 comments

Atheists, Don't Be That Guy

When it comes to demolishing irrational beliefs, the atheist community has done a brilliant job. But when it comes to rooting out sexism in our own ranks, we have a long way left to go.

Witness the blowup that took place at a conference in Dublin last month, where Rebecca Watson of Skepchick gave a talk about the religious right's war on women... and then, that same night, was propositioned by a stranger who cornered her in an elevator at 4 AM. (See her recap and these two third-party accounts).

This attracted the predictable crop of apologists who asserted loudly, not just that Rebecca was wrong to be frightened or upset by this, but that she was wrong to publicly disagree with the people who asserted that there was nothing wrong with this man's behavior. But what really made my jaw drop was that Richard Dawkins, or at least someone claiming to be Richard Dawkins [EDIT: It was confirmed that this was actually Dawkins —Ebonmuse], showed up on PZ's site and made the following astonishingly obtuse and ignorant comments:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and... yawn... don't tell me yet again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and you can't leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you'll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Similarly, Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator.

I'm guessing that Richard Dawkins (if this was truly him) has never lived in an environment where larger, stronger men are constantly offering him chewing gum, and getting aggressive and even violent if he declines. The uncomfortable reality is that we live in a society where sexual harassment and sexual violence against women is accepted and condoned to a far greater extent than any remotely comparable violence against men. Men who fail to grasp this and act as if women are being unreasonable to fear it are just flaunting their own ignorance. Take this classic demonstration in which men and women were both asked what they do to avoid sexual harassment every day, which brought forth a torrent of responses from the women while the men stood there in befuddlement:

For many males, public space is either something they feel an entitlement over, or something that is neutral and to be simply travelled through. For almost all women... public space is loaded with threat that must be managed.

The man who propositioned Rebecca Watson, whatever his individual intentions, can't be separated from this societal background. Maybe he was just too shy to approach her in public; maybe his intentions were entirely innocent. But that doesn't matter. We want women involved in the skeptical movement, and if they feel harassed or creeped out or uncomfortable, they won't be. It does us no good whatsoever to say, "You're wrong to take offense at this, so you should just overlook it." That won't get them to drop their objection; it will just make them stop showing up. Worse, it will only cement women's impression of atheist men as a bunch of rude, clueless know-it-alls who don't care about the effect of their behavior on others.

Let me tell you a story that wasn't about sex, but that has a similar take-away. I was at the Freedom from Religion Foundation's convention in Madison last October, where I met up with a friend (hi, Linda!), who was telling me about the correspondence she'd been having with Annie Laurie Gaylor about bringing some of the FFRF's billboards to her area. She also told me, much to my amusement, that she'd heard about a student who'd plagiarized one of my essays for the FFRF's college scholarship competition. (I'm flattered by that, in a weird way, but really - do you think you'll get away with plagiarizing something that's so easy to Google?)

Annie Laurie walked by our table while we were discussing this, and Linda said I should ask her about it. I politely demurred and said I didn't want to intrude on her time. But almost as soon as I'd said it, an elderly man got in her way and buttonholed her. "I've been wanting to talk to you," he announced without preamble. "I have a theory about the origin of religion that I think you should talk about more often. Have you heard of hypnosis—?"

"I'm sorry," she interrupted, "but I'm very busy" - which was absolutely true, and a lot politer than I would have been under the circumstances - and made a quick exit.

"You see," I said, "that's why I didn't want to go up and talk to her - because I didn't want to be that guy."

Atheist men, here's my message to you: Don't be that guy.

Being a rude, conversation-dominating boor is bad enough in any context, but in a sexual context, demonstrating your own lack of concern for others' desires is especially intimidating and frightening. There are plenty of ways to flirt, banter and chat that are friendly and non-threatening. (I did get to speak to Annie Laurie later in the conference, during a book signing when she was standing around and chatting with convention-goers.) But following women around, cornering them in private, or continuing to bother them when they're with a group that you're not part of, or after they've clearly expressed disinterest - we ought to know better than to do things like this, and I'm dismayed and angry that so many atheists apparently still don't.

July 2, 2011, 12:46 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink97 comments

Religion Is Dangerous to Women

Last week, the legal news service TrustLaw released a poll of the most dangerous countries for women. Based on a survey of 213 experts on women's issues from around the world, the poll ranked countries on the basis of six categories: health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to health care and other resources, and human trafficking. Summing these factors up, the top five worst countries to be female are Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India (!) and Somalia.

Although this poll was an important effort, I found its methodology to be frustratingly opaque (it would have been nice to see the runners-up), and certainly questionable in some respects. For instance, India's willingness to be transparent about crimes like human trafficking, female infanticide and dowry violence probably earned it a worse ranking than countries that cover up the extent of their problems. Personally, I was amazed that Saudi Arabia didn't make the top five - if religious and cultural factors that oppress women are being considered, how much worse could you get than a country whose every female inhabitant is legally enslaved and imprisoned in her home?

Still, this is a valuable reminder of how dangerous it is to be a woman, even today - and not just in anarchic failed states like Somalia, or war zones like Congo or Afghanistan, but in allegedly modern, democratic countries. In tribal societies governed by village councils, when two families quarrel, the gang rape of a woman belonging to one family by the men of the other is often considered a legitimate means of settling the dispute. In some cultures, if women spurn men's advances or defy arranged marriages, they may have acid poured on their face or have their noses and ears cut off, if they're not murdered outright by male relatives seeking to cleanse their family honor from the shame of a disobedient female. (This isn't limited to Third World slums; it almost happened to an actress from the Harry Potter movies.) And there are millions of women subjected to human trafficking - which is an antiseptic phrase for what it really means: women abducted or sold into slavery and forced to be prostitutes, usually with "persuasion" in the form of drugs or beatings.

But these headline-grabbing acts of violence, shocking as they are, tend to overshadow a more mundane, yet more deadly, reality of everyday discrimination and neglect that takes a constant toll. In poverty-stricken regions lacking access to modern medical care, death in childbirth is still a routine occurrence. In cultures where women are considered less valuable, daughters may be starved or denied medical care because their parents don't want to spend the money to take good care of them. Lack of education, lack of literacy, lack of legal protections, and lack of any control over finances also conspire, in countless subtle ways, to degrade and shorten women's lives.

I recount this litany of horrors not to plunge you into despair, but to emphasize how far the world still is from true gender equality. Over the last hundred years, the feminist movement has made enormous strides, but even those great achievements are just the first step in a long journey that still remains to be walked. Therefore, let no one deceive you by saying that the battle for equality has been won, that feminism as a movement has outlived its usefulness. It's still an urgent cause for all people of conscience and reason to support.

And here's something the TrustLaw survey didn't dwell on: in nearly all cases, especially among the worst offenders, misogyny and violence are rooted in religious beliefs about the lesser worth of women. Ever since the first Jewish scribe wrote that menstruating women are unclean, ever since the first Christian priest preached that it was women who brought sin into the world, ever since the first Muslim imams preached polygamy and the veil, religion has been used as a weapon to keep women in subjection. (These are just the examples from Western religions; there are just as many from eastern belief systems like Hinduism.)

By contrast, in which country does religion make the status of women better? I doubt there are any that can make that claim, which is why the spread of atheism has the potential to be a huge boon for feminism - and vice versa. As I've speculated in the past, the misogyny of religion is probably rooted in religious leaders recognizing that controlling reproduction is the key to perpetuating their own beliefs, which means that the success of the atheist movement and of the feminist movement are inextricably linked. By defending both godlessness and women's rights, we can fight the brutality of patriarchal faith on two fronts.

June 22, 2011, 5:53 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments

Saudi Arabian Women Hit the Road

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolute monarchy in cooperation with the vicious and medieval Wahhabist clerics, has some of the most oppressive and primitive laws in the world when it comes to the rights of women. Saudi women are forbidden to appear in public without a face-covering veil and a full-body shroud; they're forbidden to travel, get an education or even leave their house without the permission of a male guardian; and they're forbidden to mingle with unrelated men in public or in private, an unsubtle form of gender apartheid. Beaches, parks, restaurants, businesses and homes all have physically separate entrances for men and women and sex-segregated areas within to comply with these laws.

In her book Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes about her childhood, part of which she spent in Saudi Arabia when her father was in exile from Somalia; one of the most searing passages was when she wrote about how, at night, she could hear the screams of women in neighboring houses who were being beaten by their husbands. And then there's the infamous 2002 incident where the Saudi religious police, the mutaween, forced schoolgirls back into a burning building because they weren't properly dressed and veiled to appear in public.

But out of all these laws, the one that seems most pointless, even by Saudi Arabia's own sharia-based standard, is the one that forbids women from driving. That's why I was encouraged to hear that a few brave women are planning to defy it:

Manal and 10 other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver's licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn't a protest, she said.

"I'm doing it because I'm frustrated, angry and mad," Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. "It's 2011 and we're still discussing this insignificant right for women."

...The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he's joined the effort because "these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government."

"They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned," al-Yacoub said.

I'd hoped that the democratic revolution sweeping the Middle East would have spread to Saudi Arabia next, but so far, that hasn't happened. This is trivial in comparison, but in a country as oppressive and benighted as this, even a tiny glimmer of resistance is an achievement worth noticing. The protest itself probably won't accomplish anything, but far more important is the recognition among Saudi women that they're being denied freedoms that are theirs by right. That's a spark that's ignited revolutions in other countries, and if it lands on dry tinder, it can happen again - and when it comes to human rights, what place is drier than Saudi Arabia?

The reporter who wrote this article felt the need to contact one of Saudi Arabia's human-hating theocratic clerics for comment, who obliged by describing the evils that will happen if this protest succeeds:

The plan is "against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law," al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes "more harm than good" to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren't related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.

"Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will," al-Nujaimi said.

The Wahhabist complaint boils down to this: "If women demand that we stop oppressing them, we may have to stop oppressing them!" It should be no surprise that this is the best reasoning they can come up with to justify centuries of religious bigotry and misogyny.

On a related note, here's an e-mail I'm still thinking about:

Hello, my name is [omitted] and I am a Internet marketing professional. I had done a Google search under the keyword burqa store and had run across your website I see that you are not listed on the first page of Google for your particular search.

...I didn't send this email out to very many people but I do favor your website because I can see your website monetizing the targeted website traffic for the keyword burqa store can deliver.

I have to admit, I'd never have imagined that the target demographic for burqa buyers has such a large overlap with the readership of Daylight Atheism. I guess that's why we have Internet marketing professionals!

May 16, 2011, 12:42 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink18 comments

India's Daughters Are Missing

I feel bad writing about so much terrible news for women so close to Mother's Day. On the other hand, what better time is there to emphasize just how much still has to be done in the global fight for women's rights?

Despite all the outrages against women committed by the religious right in America, at least here there's a baseline belief in women's equality (even if our society often falls far short of its aspirations). More fundamental problems still linger in the developing world, such as in India, where the pernicious custom of dowry persists despite repeated attempts to stamp it out. In many cases, the family of the groom expects payments large enough to beggar the bride's family. In the worst cases, dowry has become not just a one-time payment but a limitless stream of demands from the groom's family, with the bride essentially held hostage: if her parents refuse to pay, she may be beaten or murdered by her own in-laws. And India's growing economic prosperity has worsened this trend rather than mitigated it, leading to ever more exorbitant demands made of middle-class families - cars, electronics, gold jewelry, flat-screen TVs.

Given the huge cost of having a daughter in this sexist environment, it's no surprise that millions of Indian families strongly prefer to have sons. But they've expressed that preference in an awful way: expectant parents will go for a test to find out the sex of the fetus and get an abortion if it's female. (Some women are forced or bullied into this by their husbands, but others go along willingly.) In other instances, especially among the poorest families, girls are mistreated or neglected in the not-so-subtle hope that they'll die of disease or hunger, whereas the same parents would spare no expense to preserve the life of a boy. The epidemic of sex-selective abortion has led to severely skewed gender ratios - in some areas, as low as 825 girls to every 1,000 boys. Michelle Goldberg writes in The Means of Reproduction that the Sikhs, an allegedly peaceful religious sect, have some of the highest rates of sex-selective abortion in the world.

I'm strongly pro-choice, and I believe that, if performed before the fetus' brain develops to the point where consciousness is possible, abortion doesn't harm any person. (This, of course, doesn't apply to women who deliberately starve their daughters or neglect to provide them with needed medical care.) So who exactly is harmed by women who abort female fetuses? Is there any injury done to anyone that would justify banning this?

I think the epidemic of sex-selective abortion is like pollution - an act which is perceived to benefit the actor, but imposes a greater cost which all of society has to bear collectively. And in this instance, the cost is that a severe imbalance of men over women is bad for societal stability. It's bad for human happiness, making it harder for people to fall in love and start families. It's especially bad for women, as it will doubtless lead to more jealousy (and therefore more violence against women), more sex trafficking, and more rape. Some policy analysts even fear it will lead to more wars, as demagogic politicians appeal to the frustration of angry, unmarriageable young men.

This is Prisoner's Dilemma logic: in a sexist society which imposes heavy costs for having girls, it makes more sense for any individual woman to want a son than a daughter, but when everyone follows that logic, all of society suffers. India's somewhat draconian solution has been to ban tests that allow parents to find out the sex of a fetus, but that restriction is easily evaded with the help of unscrupulous doctors, and still doesn't address the problem of parents starving and mistreating daughters once they're born.

This almost seems like a problem that should take care of itself. One would think that the sheer force of supply and demand would kick in at some point, giving women and their families the leverage to refuse to pay dowry, but that hasn't happened yet. The prejudices against women must be incredibly strong, for these demands not to budge even in the face of scarcity. Nevertheless, from a purely economic perspective, there has to be an equilibrium point at which the rarity of women, which increases their bargaining power, balances and then overcomes the misogyny which decreases their bargaining power. But the gender imbalance will have to be even more severe for that to happen, and vast harm may be done in the meantime. There's strong reason to take action earlier, but is there anything that can be done, short of banning fetal sex-determination testing, which is a serious infringement on human liberty in its own right?

Some parts of India have tried paying for girls' education or meals, but it hasn't helped enough. I might suggest something a little more direct: outright cash payments for having girls, dispensed over several years contingent on the child being alive and healthy. This would be similar to proven-effective anti-poverty programs like Mexico's Oportunidades, which pay cash to the very poor to incentivize good behavior. The payments may not even need to be that large for this to work - thanks to the human bias toward hyperbolic discounting, a small payment in the present might easily be judged to outweigh a larger (but less certain) cost in the future.

This is only my suggestion, and it might not work in practice. But regardless, this is a problem that everyone, including people in the West, should be thinking about and discussing. With their growing economic power, India (and China, which also has this problem) are going to play a major role in shaping the future of humanity over the next several decades. If archaic and destructive sexist attitudes about the value of women come along for the ride, we'll all be much worse off for it. A huge part of calling ourselves a rational civilization is recognizing the equal worth and value of all human beings, and defeating the vicious prejudices - whether they manifest as religion, culture, or whatever else - that hold back any part of humanity and prevent them from making their full contribution to the welfare and happiness of the species.

May 9, 2011, 1:31 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments

Words Worth Reading: The Mother's Day Proclamation

As you probably already know, today is Mother's Day. But I learned something very interesting about the holiday from a sermon today at the Unitarian Universalist church my wife and I attend, and I'd like to share it with you.

Given how rampantly commercial Mother's Day has become, you might be forgiven for assuming, as I did, that it was dreamed up by the jewelry and greeting-card companies. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Although the holiday did become commercialized soon after it was established, so much so that one of its creators spent the rest of her life protesting it, it was originally created for a very different reason.

In response to the bloodshed of the American Civil War, Mother's Day was first conceived of as an explicitly pacifist holiday by the radical American feminist, abolitionist, and social activist Julia Ward Howe. Howe's Mother's Day Proclamation, written in 1870, expressed her belief that women had a political responsibility to shape the society they lived in by opposing all war and violence. It's an amazing piece of writing, and if you can overlook the biblical quote added as window dressing, it's still well worth a read:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

May 8, 2011, 1:39 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink9 comments

The Republican Party Still Hates Women

This week, the House of Representatives voted for HR 3, one of the most vicious and horrendous anti-choice bills ever conceived. This bill revokes all federal tax credits for any health insurance plan that includes abortion coverage - in effect, it raises taxes on private employers who offer insurance to their employees that covers abortion, and even on individuals who purchase health insurance that covers abortion. Republicans, normally fanatic in their anti-tax stance, seem to have no problem with this tax increase. It also codifies the "conscience clause" exception which would arguably allow a doctor or a hospital to let a miscarrying woman die on the waiting room floor rather than perform a lifesaving abortion.

Like most of the other deranged bills passed by the House in this Congress, this one will be blocked in the Senate and has no realistic chance of passage. Nevertheless, it's another chilling glimpse into how far Republicans are willing to go to strip away the rights of women - like the horrible South Dakota bill which requires women seeking abortion to reveal their identities to an evangelical Christian church and then sit through a mandatory session of proselytizing.

The Republican agenda, pursued to the point of obsession, is to load abortion down with increasingly complicated and burdensome restrictions until it's out of the reach of nearly all women. If you ask when it will be restricted enough to satisfy them, the real answer is never, because their real goal is to outlaw abortion, and if they can't do that, their fallback position is to pile up more and more restrictions until it's impossible in practice even if it's theoretically legal. For pro-choice voters, it feels like we're fighting a constant rearguard action, always trying to prevent ground from being lost rather than making gains of our own - for instance, when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, there was no serious effort to repeal the awful Hyde Amendment.

Part of the reason, I think, is that there are too many liberals who treat this as a dispassionate political question - or worse, still assume good faith on the part of the Republicans pushing these policies - and therefore, aren't as vehement in their opposition as they should be. For example, here's Nicholas Kristof, who I usually find very insightful but who has a persistent blind spot of treating his ideological enemies as if they want the same things as him:

"With the best of intentions, pro-life conservatives have taken some positions in reproductive health that actually hurt those whom they are trying to help... liberals and conservatives should be able to agree on steps that prevent unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the frequency of abortion." [Half the Sky, p.134]

He also describes New Jersey representative Chris Smith, the lead sponsor of HR 3, as "a good man who genuinely care[s]" about women (p.133).

What Kristof doesn't get is that Republicans don't care about reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies. For them, this isn't about outcomes. (They're Kantians, not utilitarians, in that respect.) What matters is to them that they use the law to set forth their vision of an ideal society, and in their ideal society, there are no abortions. What would actually happen to women - forced birth, death from complications of pregnancy, inescapable poverty - is something about which they have no concern. And what's even more disturbing is that, in their ideal society, there's not just no abortion but no contraception.

This isn't widely known, because anti-choice forces are well aware that it would be electoral poison to say so outright. Instead, they've been trying to introduce it gradually, a little at a time, gradually getting voters used to the idea. (See this excellent column by Gail Collins.) We've already seen the contours of their strategy. If they succeed in making abortion unavailable, the next step will be the birth control pill and other hormonal contraception, which conservatives have always wanted to ban based on the junk-science belief that it's equivalent to abortion because it prevents implantation of a fertilized egg (there's no evidence to support this). If they succeed at this, the next step will be IUDs, which will undoubtedly come in for the same treatment. Even I can't guess how they'll demonize condoms or surgical sterilization as equivalent to abortion, but if we reach that point, there's no doubt that they would.

The essential step in stopping this is recognizing the whole sweep of the Republican strategy, which entails recognizing that their endless assaults on choice aren't good-faith disagreements or efforts to protect their own conscience, but attempts to impose a draconian forced-birth policy on all women. If we can see this, and get other people to see this, we'll be able to bring the same passion to the fight that conservatives bring to it.

May 6, 2011, 6:01 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink79 comments

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