“Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress, they want to control how we act, they even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies. Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America needs to set an example for the entire world.” ~ Hillary Clinton
She’s right, you know. Extremists all over the world have moved heaven and earth to control women, and they continue to do so to this day.
We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg here in the United States, where the current crop of rightwing extremists are vowing to push women back to the early 1900’s, when birth control was illegal. Margaret Sanger, who saw her own mother die at the age of 50 after 18 pregnancies in 22 years, took up the cause of contraception and spent years crusading for the right of women to have control over their own bodies and not just serve as walking, talking incubators. She was even arrested and tossed in jail for disseminating information about contraception, which at the time was considered “smut” and outlawed via the 1873 Comstock Act, which “criminalized publication, distribution, and possession of information about or devices or medications for “unlawful abortion or contraception.”
We’ve come a long way since then. Unfortunately, the extremist right is trying to push us back in time to the days when women died by the thousands at the hands of back-alley abortionists. Since abortion is still illegal in many countries world-wide, the WHO (World Health Organization) reports that approximately 68,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, and the number of women suffering from long-term complications from illegal abortions is staggeringly high as well, as many as 7 million women, who end up with sepsis, hemorrhages and internal injuries.
Men controlling women doesn’t stop there. In many Muslim countries, the lives of women are even more restricted and often dangerous or even fatal. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, “honor killings” are becoming more common every day, as these countries sink deeper into the morass of war and chaos. The Taliban, an extremist Islamist political group enforces its strict interpretation of Sharia law, which puts extreme limitations on the rights of women to move freely, to dress, to marry, to receive an education, to drive a car or ride a bicycle. It even prohibits a woman from wearing high heels, because it may “excite” a man. Women may not appear in public without a male relative, and must be fully veiled from head to toe in a restrictive garment called a burqa, which is essentially a very large bag that covers the entire woman, with the exception of a small section of mesh at eye level through which the woman is expected to navigate.
In these countries, another atrocity against women is on the rise: acid attacks, which men in India and Southeast Asia use as a form of revenge on a woman for refusing their sexual advances, proposals of marriage or demands for a dowry. The statistics are alarming: 80% of acid attacks are against women, and 70% of those attacks are carried out on women and girls under the age of 18. In countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, religious fanatics use acid attacks to enforce the strict Islamic dress code for women – if they consider a woman to be improperly dressed or immodest, acid thrown at her face is a method to ensure that women know the penalty for immodest behavior. Acid attacks have also been used against schoolgirls, because these religious fanatics do not believe that women should be educated. These men throw hydrochloric acid or sulphuric acid in the faces of these women and girls, maiming and often blinding or even killing them.
In Africa, the Middle East and even within immigrant communities in Europe, there is in practice an even more extreme form of control over women and girls: genital mutilation, which involves various gruesome surgical procedures such as removing the clitoris, slicing away the inner and outer labia and even sewing shut the vagina as a form of preserving virginity. Often these procedures are performed on girls entering puberty without anesthesia with a pair of scissors or a razor blade on the floor of a dirt hut. (Just a note, a strong stomach is required if you choose to read the article linked above.)
Through our Western eyes, these practices seem incredibly brutal and barbaric – which they are. We American women simply cannot imagine those kind of restrictions placed upon us, but it hasn’t been all that many years since American doctors saw removing a woman’s uterus as a cure for “the vapors” and considered women to be unsuited to the rigors of deciding her own fate or even capable of any profession other than that of a wife and mother. Women did not achieve the right to vote in this country until 1920, less than 100 years ago.
So remember, when you laugh at Rick Santorum decrying the evils of birth control because it’s a “license to do things,” just remember that the rights of women are not a given. The extremists of the anti-abortion movement are doing everything they can to undo Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that gave women the right to a safe and legal abortion, including restrictive state laws that make it difficult, humiliating and expensive for a woman to get a legal abortion. The state of Virginia is a recent example, where a law was signed into effect by Governor Bob McDonnell mandating an unnecessary and expensive ultrasound before a woman can get an abortion. The law, as originally written, demanded that a woman submit to a transvaginal ultrasound before being able to obtain an abortion. A new law mandating such transvaginal penetration has been introduced into the state legislature in Pennsylvania. Fortunately, after an eloquent silent protest in Virginia, the bills have been modified or the vote has been delayed, but several days later, Gov. McDonnell signed a modified version of the bill, which mandates an abdominal ultrasound – again, an unnecessary and expensive hindrance to a woman’s right to obtain an abortion.
And they are not alone. Alarmingly, several states now have such bills in the works. Couple that with the Republican push to enact restrictive voter ID laws, and you start to get a picture of where the extremist right wants to take this country.
So, women, do you think your rights are secure? I don’t. The next time you decide to blow off voting, remember that our rights are only as strong as our commitment to them, and that there are people working hard, right here in America, to take them away from you.