Our Visible Spectrum Is One in Which Some of Us Are Simply More Expensive Than Others

05/08/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2014
  • Soraya Chemaly Feminist, writer, and satirist (not always in that order)

It's been three weeks since almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were abducted from their boarding school by the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly as "Western education is sinful." While shockingly audacious in its scope, this abduction is not the first, and it won't be the last.  Schools are a prime target for the group.  In February of this year, they burned down a boy's school, killing 59 boys trapped inside.

It's fair to say that human beings object to being exploited, abused, sold, raped and killed. When they are educated, however, they are more likely to say so.  Educated girls learn about justice and apply it to themselves.  They learn about autonomy and understand that they have it. They demand fairness within their families. They make their own authority and reject corrupt ones. They yell from hilltops that they are not other people's property to be used as currency and traded as assets. They take possession of their own bodies and reproduction. They refuse to hide the reality of pervasive violence and demand that it end. They fight for other girls and women.  They radically alter culture. What a nightmare for some people.

As Wil Gaffney eloquently explained recently in Religious Dispatches, if you want to make sure that this doesn't happen, regardless of the basis for enslavement, "forced illiteracy is key."

However, Boko Haram is not killing the girls as it did the boys. The girls are being used as sex slaves, or, as some of our press insists, employing euphemisms I really wish would disappear forever, "child brides" in "forced marriages." If you have been following this story, how many times have you heard this expression:  "They are being sold for as little as $12"? Would people feel better or understand more if they were sold for more? What kind of question is that?

As a leader of the terrorist group said, laughing, "There is a market for humans. ... I sell women." Human trafficking is not limited by race, ethnicity or religion. It is estimated that more than 20 million people are trafficked for labor or sex annually. Girls and women make up 76 percent of trafficked people, and while roughly 66 percent of prosecuted or convicted traffickers are men, women participate in this crime in higher numbers than in others. Seventy-nine percent of the global human trafficking trade is for sexual exploitation. When you take into account war and our historic denial of the role that sexualized violence and trafficking play in it, these numbers represent a fraction of reality. There are not now, nor have there ever been, "just wars" for women.

Selling these girls isn't just about money or rape, however. It has the double benefit of making them examples. Keeping girls and women uneducated and in fear, using them as the embodiment of society's honor, is how misogyny reproduces itself.

Where do you draw the line on how much suppression of the humanity of girls is allowable, or on how you define and recognize gender-based violence? Our red lines are nowhere near where they should be. Pandemic violence against women cannot be separated from our ideas about educating girls or artificially bound by borders. We cannot pretend not to be complicit, if only insofar as we willfully choose to deny the defining role they play in geopolitics.

Today, almost half of girls who remain out of school can be found in sub-Saharan Africa.  However, most girls in the world are now, legally and technically, able to pursue education, and globally, the gap between educating girls and boys is shrinking fast.

However, because we are girls and women, everywhere we still live with manifold informal constraints and prohibitions that are socially and legally acceptable. These are buttressed by sanctioned gender-based violence punctuated by explicitly anti-feminist brutality that occurs as if to remind us not to get too comfortable.

In the U.S. we occasionally hear from religious conservatives who still believe educating girls is probably a waste of time, undoubtedly injurious to boys and part of an evil feminist plot to destroy the family and the authority of fathers. You may laugh at statements like this from men like televangelists and sexist, racist shock jocks, but it's important to remember how many millions of people nod their heads at the basic ideas. Last year the Catholic website FixTheFamily shared "6 Reasons (+2) to NOT Send Your Daughter to College," which had its viral 15 minutes.  Homeschooling is also interesting. Between 1999 and 2009 the number of homeschooled girls increased at a faster rate than that of boys, and by 2009 girls made up 58 percent of children being educated in homes. That difference seems to have dropped in the most recent 2012 study, but the number of homeschooled girls remains slightly higher. Persistent mainstream socialization undermines girls' education every day.

Islam is an Abrahamic faith and shares foundational ideas with other Abrahamic faiths.  Every single day, conservative religious leaders function in tandem, horizontally across faiths, in ways that substantively suppress girls' and women's rights.  Religious ideas about complementary gender roles, coupled with prohibitions against women clerics in most major faiths, are directly related to historic prohibitions on not educating girls and women at all.  Everyone pretends that all-male leadership of religions is somehow not important, that it's a matter of private faith and has no spillover effect on identity, culture, rights and power.  At best this is willful blindness, at worst a willful lie.

The global impact is daily violations of human rights and grinding, exacerbated poverty that degrades girls' and women's abilities to seek and leverage education. It also contributes to their vulnerability to trafficking, since poverty and ill health are significant factors in who gets bought and sold. That the ideas promulgated by these men (that they are all men is not actually the fault of feminism, by the way) have legitimate moral authority is a dangerous perversion. Human ethics are informed by experience; therefore, the ethics of all-male-led religious organizations will always remain fatally flawed, and their conclusions fatally unjust.

In the "women's-rights-are-relative" global terms that people like, the dangers that women in the U.S. face because doctors and patients have to work around Catholic hospital prohibitions are relatively "benign."  Internationally, Catholic and Christian evangelical beliefs inappropriately inserted into global health policy result in the unnecessary maiming and deaths of tens of thousands of girls and women seeking reproductive and maternal health care. Every so often people sit up when they hear, say, a story of bishops who excommunicate not rapists but doctors and mothers who save girls by safely aborting rape pregnancies that would kill them. But then the story drifts out of consciousness.

However, as is very evident, religion and politics, whether you live in Nigeria or the U.S.,  are indivisible. While all-male religious corporations -- Catholic, evangelical, Jewish, Islamic -- work with other practically all-male organizations, such as most of the world's governments, to negotiate "acceptable compromises," women and children like the girls in Nigeria, in need of timely, safe, sometimes life-saving help, suffer. You cannot simultaneously strive for women's equality in one sphere of public life and leadership and support women's inequality in another. Well, you can, but it won't work.

Boko Haram has no monopoly on targeting educated girls, of course.  The first example that comes to mind is the catalytic shooting of Malala Yousafzai and her classmates, while on their way to school.   The throwing of acid on schoolgirls in Afghanistan and is not far behind.  Syrian schoolgirls in refugee camps are kept out of schools because of the pervasive risk of sexual assault. While the purpose of the assaults might not be to suppress literacy, the effect of them is.

Societal change and insecurity bring out the worst in unstable people whose mentalities have been shaped by entitlements to violent misogyny. That is timeless and has nothing to do with skin color, nationality or religious belief.  It's not so long since the same response to social change and women's literacy was seen in Europe's "witch" burning.  Women, barred from being clerics, were excluding from going to school, studying or practicing medicine, which became a primary source of status and authority in society.  Publicly immolating the defiant, dangerous or wise ones, often women using their senses to make medical decisions (you know, science), was a powerful disincentive to others.

The idea that educated girls threaten the power of men or symbolically emasculate them likewise knows no borders.  In 2006 a truck driver walked into an Amish schoolhouse, "ordered the 15 boys in the room to leave, along with several adults, and demanded that the 11 girls line up facing the blackboard." He tied the girls' legs together and shot them.   In 1989 a man walked into an engineering class in a Montreal school and -- yelling, "I hate feminists!" -- shot 28 people, killing 14 women.  He only shot men who interfered.  In 2013 Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik killed 77 people, 69 of them teenage students.  Anti-feminism was an essential aspect of his manifesto, although that information often got buried in his wider ranting. He was concerned that feminism would "deny the intrinsic worth of native Christian European heterosexual males." He wrote that "the fate of European civilisation depends on European men steadfastly resisting Politically Correct feminism." Among the 62 mass shootings documented by Mother Jones in the United States, it is notable that more than 10 percent took place in schools, where educated women, often teaching others, aggregate and compete with men as equals.

Ignoring this history when we discuss Nigeria leaves a distinctly bad aftertaste, namely that "we" are so much better off and should we be grateful that girls and women "here" -- wherever that may be -- are not being taken from schools or sold as sex slaves by religious fanatics.  But that is an error and a willful looking away from how the rejection of modernity continues to require violent resistance to women's education -- everywhere.

I know -- horrors! -- I created a slippery slope, a spectrum where we coexist with radical Islamic terrorists denounced even by the likes of al-Qaeda. I am not suggesting that we compare the lives of girls in Cincinnati -- though that is maybe not the best example, given Arial Castro's 10-year enslavement (and denial of education) of three girls and a rape-born child -- with the lives of those in the hands of Boko Haram.

I am suggesting that our spectrum is one in which there is nowhere where girls and women are not for sale.  Some of us, depending on where we live and what we look like, are simply considered more valuable and expensive than others.

Think in terms of light.  All we are capable of seeing is a world where, end to end, violence rules and girls and women are not in possession of themselves.  The invisible part of the spectrum is where the unleashed potential of women's full humanity is.  It is also a place where boys don't have empathy broken out of them by culture, where being a man is not defined by violent power.  The spectrum I am describing, the one we share with Boko Haram, is a fully legitimate one.  There is nowhere where we are respected as equally, normatively human.  Nowhere.

In general, I loathe the men/women binary, because of course there are complicit women, and most men do not act with malice. But we are governed by men and don't know what a world where genuine parity would look like. That women, systemically deprived of direct access to God, power, safety and resources in equal measure, participate in these systems should surprise no one. It is central to the definition of misogyny that they do.

The truth is that certain adults are clearly scared witless by girls. It's a great irony that, also everywhere, comparing a man to a little girl is the easiest way to suggest he's weak and a coward.  Girls like those in Nigeria, who walk into schools knowing the dangers they face, are the bravest people I know. Don't forget them, even if they eventually make it home. That's all they are thinking about.

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