Once in a while in the U.S. we hear about a bill or a law that seems like it must be a joke. For example, in Florida it is illegal for a single woman to parachute or skydive on a Sunday. This week in Montana, a legislator explained that he seriously wants to make it illegal for women to wear yoga pants in public.
These examples might seem silly and inconsequential, but even so, at their core, they speak to very discriminatory ideas about gender, authority and rights that manifest themselves in much more dangerous ways all over the world, including in the United States. Last year in California, an appeals court overturned a rapist's conviction after a judge cited a standing 1872 law stating only married women could legally be raped. Last December, a legislator in Missouri proposed a bill reading, "No abortion shall be performed or induced unless and until the father of the unborn child provides written, notarized consent to the abortion." And, because I promised myself I'd repeat this every single chance I have until it's not true, it is still legal in more than 30 states in the United States for a rapist to sue his rape victim for child visitation and custody if his forcible insemination resulted in a pregnancy.
As ridiculous as these sound to some of us, they were not included in a top 10 list of misogynistic laws compiled in a report released today by women's rights advocacy group Equality Now. The report describes laws maintained by more than 50 governments. Many reflect the institutionalization of men's entitlement to rape or beat wives and to "own" children. Others limit women's movements and ability to work based on what husband's want. Here are the top 10:
1. Saudi Arabia maintains its 1990 Fatwa prohibiting "women's driving of automobiles" as "a source of undeniable vices".
Last week, in a TV talk show, an historian defending this prohibition suggested that foreign female drivers be imported wholesale to avoid the shame that the rape ("not a big deal" for a woman) would bring to the family. Of course, Saudi Arabia is only one of a handful of countries, including The Vatican, where women cannot vote. Saudi women are also, effectively, electronically tagged... if they try to travel out of the country their guardians are automatically contacted.
2. A 2013 Indian act confirmed the legality of marital rape... "Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape."
India has the world's highest number of early marriages and while fewer girls younger than 15 are being married (18.2 percent), the rates for girls ages 15-18 has increased to 29.2 percent. Waiting a year eliminates "rape."
3. In the U.S., a child born outside of marriage can only be granted citizenship in certain cases relating to the father.
For example, when "a blood relationship between the person and the father is established by clear and convincing evidence" or "the father (unless dead) agreed, in writing, to provide financially for the person until they reach age of eighteen. Somehow, I doubt that millennials, for whom out-of-wedlock births are the norm, know that this might be the case where they live.
4. Likewise, Yemen's 1992 act says that a wife "must permit [her husband] to have legitimate intercourse with her when she is fit to do so."
No age limit. Fourteen percent of girls in Yemen are married to adult men before they are 15. Periodically, the news cycle is interrupted by a sad and enraging story about girls and women assaulted, sometimes to death, by their husbands. While efforts are underway to change the legal age of marriage to 18, marital rape is a separate issue. In either case, Yemen is in the process of falling apart as I type.
5. In Malta, a kidnapper "after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution."
This may seem like a strange law to some, however is a real problem in many countries and common in certain cultures.
6. In Nigeria, violence "by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife" is just fine.
It is difficult for some, however, to live in a country where this is true and then move to another where it is not. Two weeks ago, Sahara Reporters' Abidodun Ladepo wrote about multiple cases of Nigerian men killing beating and killing their wives in the U.S. These women are among the three who die each day here at the hands of their spouses.
7. Women in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where during the war an estimated 48 women were raped per hour and where rape, including rape tied to intimate partner violence, continues at horrific rates, "is obliged to live with her husband and follow him wherever he sees fit to reside."
Marital rape is not a punishable offense.
8. In Guinea women are not allowed to have "a separate profession from that of her husband" if he objects.
9. Kenya's 2014 Marriage Act legitimizes polygamy.
"A marriage celebrated under customary law or Islamic law is presumed to be polygamous or potentially polygamous." This law is one thread in a very thick cloth and complicated cloth. Women's rights groups in the country seemed torn. Some applauded the law because polygamy is so widely practice and the law extended vital protections to all wives that were previously denied.
10. A Bahamian act dating from 1991, two years before the last U.S. state outlawed marital rape, defines rape as anyone older than 14 "having sexual intercourse with another person who is not his spouse."
In addition, married Bahamian women cannot pass their nationality to children, with foreign fathers, born outside of the country. This is not true for children born to Bahamian men. It's also easier for men to get citizenship for spouses.
Rape laws, laws governing movement or work or children's nationality are reflections of deeply held and rooted ideas about women being men's property. The common law history of rape laws in particular show that rape was, and in many cases still is, not about a woman's human rights being violated, but about a man -- her father, brother, husband -- having his property stolen. They were never meant to actually protect the raped, but rather defend these property rights. Rape, domestic violence, control of movement -- these are, by many men and the countries they govern, understood as entitlements. Men surveyed in the largest global study of gender-based violence cited "entitlement" as the "primary reason" that they sexually assaulted women.
Women living in countries where they face multiple forms of legal discrimination are rendered exceptionally vulnerable to both spousal and state abuse. If they marry foreigners, or bear their children abroad, they constantly fear deportation of their families if they "get out of line." Because they are women, their families are economically disadvantaged in terms of property ownership and access to financial tools. When women cannot pass nationality on to children or their spouses it also frequently means their families have no access to public services. Their children have no automatic and equal right to be educated in public schools, and their families might not have access to national heath care. If they are in abusive relationships they are much more likely to fear the loss of their children, who can be used to extort and control them. The inability to pass nationality on to male spouses and to children puts women at risk. Combined with other discriminatory laws, it hurts them and their families every day.
Equality Now has, for several years, led a global campaign to end sexism in laws governing nationality. In the wake of the newly released report, they are pursing country-by-country #unsexylaws campaigns, which include opportunities for interested people and organizations to support grass-roots activists.