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Ruby Zogopoulos 2016

Gender Equality: a growing religion

The following is an article written by Helen Szohe, Oxfam Australia CEO.


Take the blinders from your vision, 
take the padding from your ears, 
and confess you've heard me crying, 
and admit you've seen my tears.

                                    Maya Angelou  - ‘Equality’


With the centenary of ANZAC day having just passed, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the misconceptions that have been propagated and entrenched into our national narrative.  We tell ourselves that our troops fought to maintain the values that underpin our western democracy: justice and egalitarianism.  But the ANZAC myth itself represents a profound distortion of these ideals, as the rhetoric that glorifies heroes, namely ‘our boys’, edits out of the history books the voice of women.  Such omissions propagated each year at national commemorations by Government figures and further relayed by the media, maintain that men are the only primary victims of war.  Indeed, we must not be tempted to regard this as a mere ‘episode in history’ because ‘the shadow…is there’, haunting us.  This lie continues to hide the ongoing devastating effects wars around the world are having on women as they are ‘consigned to a life of silence’ and suffering.  But we must ‘assume the burden of their stories’.


Despite the horrors of war, it continues to be romanticised in Western rhetoric as part of the hero’s journey: we picture brave young men fighting for their freedom, fighting for their lives and fighting for their civil rights, when in reality, women are often denies these.  We only think of young men as the casualties of war, where the weapons they face are military arms.  But rarely do we hear about women as victims, where physical and sexual assault are used as weapons against them: submitted to rape, prostitution and trafficking.  Anthony Beevor, a military historian, reocrds that rape has been present in war since the ancient times, used as a tool of war to humiliate and terrorise.  In what the West recalls as one of its greatest triumphs, the narrative of WWI edits out the story of women who in the aftermath of taking Berlin, were brutally raped.  Beevor uncovered stories of women who had been silenced under cries of ‘victory’, many gang raped, some as young as 8, or as old as 80.  But the national consciousness recalls only our triumph over the looming fascist state, dismissing these victims as nothing more than collateral damage.  Whilst women were abducted, imprisoned, and sexually assaulted and mutilated by occupying forces, the Australian myth of WWII only focuses on male prisoners of war.  These men came back as heroes and saviours of the Western world, while these women suffered in silence.  On days of national commemoration, only ‘the voice of man’ is remembered, as the stifled cries of women remain barely a footnote in many of our history books.  


These horrendous crimes however have not ceased; failing to listen to the stories of the past has tragically seen these atrocities repeated, and again, in the western world, we have closed our eyes and ears to the truth.  In 2014, Boko Haram – an extremist Islamic group, kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Nigeria.  Our own efforts to seek justice for these girls were nothing short of symbolic and superficial: angered facebook posts, and emotive tweets were a catalyst for the campaign, Bring Back Our Girls, that received not international aide or funding.  Now, 2 years later 219 girls are yet to be found.  Stories from those who escaped tell us that these young girls, some as young as 8, are forcibly married, and subjected to rape and other sexual violence.  But the stories of captives who escaped, however devastating, have been rewritten to negate the horrors these young women endured. 


Returning to their villages, their identities have been stripped from them, instead given the dehumanising label of ‘Boko Haram wives’ or annoba (epidemics).  They are now constructed as terrorists – indoctrinated by the extremists who kidnapped them – or the ones forcibly impregnated are said to carry ‘bad blood’.  The stories of palpable pain and irreparable trauma these women carry are being doctored and rewritten so that they are now exiled from their own communities, and left irreparably traumatised.  The outpouring of contrived outrage, showy protests, and hashtags that swept across the Western media when these women were first taken, is yet to translate into meaningful help for these girls.  A report by UNICEF published this year found that whilst the international community agreed that survivors needed healthcare, counselling and help reintegrating into their communities, the aide fell woefully short given the breadth and depth of the women and girls’ needs.  The failure of global community to support these women, sees them further stigmatised and marginalised, as the voice of these women remains suppressed by our unwillingness to listen.


This is not the only instance in which we stood idle, while the stories of vulnerable women are authored by a hegemonic masculine discourse.  Women from all around the world are subjected to genital mutilation, a barbaric and torturous procedure that causes continuous healthcare problems throughout a girl's life.  UNICEF estimates that 30 countries still follow this practice, where it is extremely prevalent: 98% of women in Somalia, 91% in Egypt and 89% in Sierra Leone.  As shocking as these statistics are, ‘they give the truth…not the substance of the truth’.  That is, they present the Western world with a dehumanised perception of the issue: statistics do not reveal the individual stories of the 200 million women being subjected to this abhorrent torture.  In India’s Muslim community, Dawoodi Bohra, genital mutilation is systematic, yet these women’s accounts are never heard, as the victims are not allowed to speak about what they endured, merely left to suffer silently.  Girls as young as 7 are told that this procedure will deter them from any kind of sexual intercourse, forbidden by teachings of the Quran.  Young women grow up thinking they are dirty, ugly and unfeminine – all labels and perceptions that have been authored by the men who perpetrate this atrocity, which are then internalised by the female victims. The religious head of the sect has remained silent, as he ignores the cries for support, complicit in this continued abuse. 


But in spite of their subjugation, a small group of women in India are now fighting against this violation, speaking out about their own experiences.  In a determination to not let their stories be narrated by male figures who lay claim to their personal and cultural identity, a petition was launched by Bohra women calling for the criminalisation of genital mutilation in India.  As this group has started to gain momentum, more and more women are coming to tell their stories.  Their actions are testament to the power of the spoken word to reclaim ones truth and in turn, freedom.  Indeed, these women have become ‘the author of [their] own story’.


These stories are the brutal reality of war: whether they be victims of external conflict, or a war waged by ones own community, women’s stories continue to reside in the shadows of distorted narratives about men’s heroism and bravery.  We do not want to hear these truths, and choose to ignore them because living in a world shaped and authored by those in power is seen to be easier.  This year, Hillary Clinton stated that women are the secondary victims of war as they lose husbands, sons and brother.  Her assertion, whilst undoubtedly poignant, is equally indicative of the Western world's own naivety to the horrors women continue to endure as the primary victims of war. Women do not just loose family, but instead are seen as just another weapon of war: they are tortured, discriminated against, and killed in the name of conflict. It is time we realise this truth and understand the suffering of these women and girls that in turning our backs on, we become complicit to.  The Western ideal of egalitarianism blinds us to the perversions of justice perpetrated worldwide.  As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu stated ‘the truth is not always beautiful’ but it must be confronted: ‘the world is full of stories’ and those of the past and present must be heard or else the ‘wholeness and beauty [of humanity] are forever undone’. 


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