On January 21, the day of the Women’s Marches, I saw a post on facebook questioning why women were marching in the first place. I immediately felt driven to respond, except I didn’t really have an answer beyond my well practiced battle cry for equality. But even though I stand for equality, I didn’t actually know enough about women’s rights to contribute to the conversation. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, free from the struggles women faced in earlier generations. I’m currently in a healthy, happy heterosexual long term relationship. I don’t have children, so I don’t have direct experience with maternity or childcare issues. I’m a small business owner, so I don’t have workplace issues about being in competition with men, nor do I experience the outrage of unequal pay for equal work. My day-to-day life is disconnected from the struggles many women face, which consequently left me feeling fairly ignorant about the issue.
However, when it comes to women’s issues outside the United States, those are much less obscure. Cultural oppressions, gender mutilation, sex-slavery, dowry deaths, gender-cide, they all leave me horrified. And when I previously considered women’s rights issues in America, meaning I can vote, I can wear whatever I want, I can marry whomever I want, and I have control over my own body…although that might soon change, well – I guess I thought they paled in comparison.
But then I did some digging. In fact, I spent the last week getting lost in the beautiful and tragic rabbit hole of Women’s Rights, watching documentary after documentary and reading essay after essay. And for those of you out there who are also in the dark, for those of you who’d like to join me in the peeling back of our privilege in an effort to open our eyes and see the women’s rights issue more clearly, one way into the conversation is the topic of “Human Rights” and what exactly that means.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was accepted by the United Nations in 1948, and it includes 30 different and specific articles outlining the scope of human rights, with one clear predominate theme: No one belongs to anyone, we are all equal in dignity and in rights, and everyone has a right to their own existence. Now, there are numerous lenses through which women’s rights can be viewed, and numerous branches to be explored and discussed, but as I considered women in America, it was the “right to existence” and the “right to dignity” that caught my attention. On the surface it appears that American women do, in fact, have the right to both dignity and existence; we aren’t forced to wear Burkas nor are we burned to death for producing only girl babies. But if we set our freedoms aside, we still live in a paradigm where women are objectified everywhere we turn, from the advertising in media to the entertainment industry, from the porn industry to the rhetoric of our current Commander-in-Chief. This objectification dehumanizes the person, taking away the complexity of the human being and instead presenting women as sexual objects to be had, acquired, rejected….and, as of late, grabbed. Objectification assigns the value of a woman to her appearance, and this oppressive message starts infiltrating the female psyche when women are just little girls. But this isn’t news. We know this, yet somehow it’s become such a normal part of life that we’ve ended up cooperating with the oppression. We don’t know any other way. We buy the magazines. We read the gossip. We inject our faces. We enlarge our breasts. We diet incessantly…
And we judge.
We continue to assess each other based on how we look. We’re told that our appearance is everything, and whether we acknowledge it or not, this message shapes not only how we see ourselves in the world but how we see and treat each other. And, as harmless as this may seem to some, it is this exact type of objectification that also threatens the lives, or existence, of women every single day.
How? Rape. Domestic Violence. Murder.
If objectification is the first step towards violence, and if our society continues to send both subtle and blatant messages objectifying women, and if we participate whether we know it or not, then we create a climate ripe for sexual violence. In fact, we already have one. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women will be raped in her lifetime, and 1 in 10 women will be raped by their intimate partner. And then there’s domestic violence. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a woman is beaten every 9 seconds, and at least 3 women are murdered every day by a current or former male partner. If you ask a rape victim or a victim of domestic violence if she still has her “right to dignity”….well, I think her answer may well be “no”, at least until she works very hard to restore it.
Furthermore, if we think about the graphic pornography available to our youth at any given moment, the stakes feel higher than ever. Psychologists are concerned that young boys exposed to pornography will lose their ability to form healthy relationships. Where does that leave our society in 10 years? 20 years?
We’ve certainly come a long way, and many modern policies reflect great changes brought forth by the tenacious efforts of brave women who punched through barriers and broke molds. We must support these efforts and improve upon the current policies in place, but something more is required: we, both women and men, need to change our thinking. How do we expect to get equal rights when we’re not seen as equal people? How do we expect to be treated with equality and respect when we continue to objectify ourselves and each other, even when the objectifications seem subtle and insignificant? Women need to be lifted up and out of the sexual context and celebrated for their humanity, their integrity, their intelligence, their tireless efforts, their kindness, and their good-works. Until we can all can change our thinking about how women fit into society, no legislation can protect women from the threats to their existence.
It’s true that our day-to-day lives can often feel exhausting and burdensome, and that’s my honest reason for my own lack of awareness, but we cannot afford to be passive about this. So what do we do? We talk about the issues. We seek information. We remove the long list of words in the same family as “bitch,” “whore,” and “slut,” from our lexicon, and we take a stand against those words when we hear them used by others. We question our own patterns of thinking and the motivations for our behaviors, and we encourage others to do the same We strengthen our voices. We share our stories. We become compassionately curious about the stories of others. We support women doing great things. We support women doing brave things. We support women.
But most importantly, we become aware.
And with your awareness, and my awareness, we make small steps toward social change…. and there’s a good chance we all be marching next year.
And lastly, if you’re a women who loves your choice of domestic family life, then you can march in celebration of your freedom to choose it.
Oh, and one more thing, while you were reading this essay, at least 30 woman have been beaten and at least 3 women have been raped.
*Photo borrowed from Beyond the Surface.
If you want need a little guidance, check out these documentaries: It’s A Girl, Miss Representation, Half the Sky, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, and Beyond the Surface. There are so many more inspiring films on the subject, but these can get you started. xo