Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Rape and Its Consequences

During one year I had three friends come to me and tell me about their rapes. The circumstance were all quite different but the result was the same - shame, fear and on-going and long lasting consequences. The one obvious similarity with all three was that it was not just about sexual gratification (if it was that at all). It was about power and control. Those who ended up having abortions (only recently made legal and still with a stigma attached to them) then had to deal with the on-going guilt and trauma from having made the only decision they could.

These women were fortunate in that they were living in a country that recognised sexual assault could be life-shattering and had put in place non-judgemental ways to help the victimised survive. Sadly, none of their rapists were ever punished. Why? Because these rapes were never reported to the police. The rapists had too much power over their targets. They feared ostracism, disbelief and slut shaming. If you hadn't gone out with him this would never have happened. You had been drinking. Your dress was too short or too tight. You must have encouraged him. You were alone with him. What did you expect? These women were respectively a victim of date rape in a relative's house, a gang rape at a party and incest but they still felt these societal pressures and feared their judgement.

I've met other rape survivors since then who have shared their stories with me. They are all horrific. It doesn't matter if the victim is beaten to a pulp, unconscious or is terrified into submission, the result is similar - long-lasting emotional and, all too often, physical damage.

Because rape can lead to pregnancy inevitably the issue of abortion comes up. First a disclaimer: the only circumstances in which I could see myself agreeing to an abortion are rape, if my life was threatened by the pregnancy or if the foetus had died or was non-viable but that is for me. No-one else. It's not for me to judge or enforce my views on anyone else.

Having said that, a zygote is not a person - nor is a blastocyst - and any woman who chooses to abort has every right to do so. To suggest that anyone decides on an abortion without considerable thought is simply ridiculous. While you or I may not agree with their reasons does not mean they have not thought about it. They have and they have made their choice and I, for one, see no reason to judge them nor to have the government or anyone else do so.

But the pro-lifers cry, it's a baby. Well, no. It isn't. It's a non-viable collection of cells and it remains non-viable for months. The specious argument that the 'life' the woman is carrying has rights over hers is appalling. Quite apart from having to carry a constant reminder of the attack with her, pregnancy is not a risk-free process. Even if we discount all the discomforts of pregnancy (they are many and varied but endured willingly if the child is wanted - although after seven months with my head in the toilet I was beginning to wonder) there are so many things that can go wrong from minor to life-threatening. Women still die in child-birth and to decide to abort is not an unreasonable response.

What made me think about this was a blog post by US author, John Scalzi. In his Fan Letter to Certain Conservative Politicians (and writing from the point of view of the rapist) he addresses the reality of rape and its consequences. Scalzi's post and the comments that follow are shocking and triggering for rape and sexual assault victims but they are also compelling. I recommend it and, because he keeps such a tight rein on moderating comments, don't be afraid to venture there either - but be warned some of the shared experiences are heart-wrenching. The discussion is US focussed but much of what is said is relevant to other countries. He has also written a follow up post explaining how the post came about in this form.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Malala Yousafzai - a Heroine For Our Times

On October 9 this year Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl from the Swat Valley who had recently turned fifteen, was travelling home from school in a school bus which was stopped by Taliban gunmen.  They singled her out and shot her twice, once in the head and once in the neck. Miraculously she was not killed but her injuries were severe and she was rushed to hospital in a critical condition. After a decompressive craniectomy to relieve pressure from swelling in the brain and clinging to life in an induced coma, on October 15 she was air-lifted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham in the UK for further treatment and rehabilitation. She is showing signs of improvement and, although the full after effects of her injuries won't be fully clear for up to a year, she seems to be recovering well.

And what were the terrible crimes for which the Taliban decided a schoolgirl should be executed? She, with the support and encouragement of her father, had been campaigning for girls to be allowed to be educated. She started as a twelve year old, writing a blog for the BBC about life in the Swat Valley and the effect the Taliban were having there, in particular, on the closure of girls' schools. Brave and intelligent, she had become more and more prominent as she fought for the right to an education. The Taliban have tried to justify their action on the basis of religion but there has been a massive outcry from Islamic leaders denying that neither it nor many other Taliban claims are truly based on Islam.

The truth is the Taliban are religious fundamentalists and, no matter what their faith, such people are potentially dangerous. They know they are right and, in their view, that permits or, more accurately, demands that they enforce their beliefs on everyone else. It's not a matter of "This is what I believe and I think you're wrong so I will try to educate you to my way of thinking." for fundamentalists. For them it's "You must believe in what I believe and, if you don't, I will force you to. "

Scary stuff. I'm sure Malala and her family knew there were risks and it speaks volumes that she and they refused to let themselves be beaten down. The Taliban may have lost more than they gained by this action. I hope so. We should all salute a brave girl for fighting for her rights.

Best wishes, Malala. You are an inspiration and a true role model.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia Speaks Out on Sexism and Misogygny

I've been watching the speech given by Julia Gillard in the Federal Parliament again in the light of the what has been said about it in the media since. As she spoke it gave me an extraordinary feeling to see at last someone giving vent to feelings about issues that have been bothering me for some considerable time.

I'm old enough to have been required - as an adult woman with a permanent and well paid job - to have a guarantor before I could borrow money from a bank. I have been employed in work places where the senior position was always occupied by a man, often a man with fewer qualifications and less ability than the women working under him, and where women were not permitted to apply. In several of these situations the man in question did little or nothing while the women under him did all the work unacknowledged.  (In one case a supervisor spent almost all his time for a year working on his Master's thesis while his female underlings did all the work.) I have been questioned by potential employers as a young, married woman as to whether I intended to children. I wanted to study law but, while I could have completed my degree, at the time I would not have been able to practise because no law practices would accept a woman as an articled clerk (The only exception to this was if you had the good fortune to be part of a family of lawyers with their own practice. At the time there was only one woman lawyer practising in my home city which shows how rare this was.) I could tell you more but I'm sure you get the gist.

Some of the most egregious abuses may be gone but that doesn't mean there are not battles still to be fought and, I hope, won. It seems to me too that that there has been more sexism and misogyny creeping in over the past few years. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because younger women haven't had the sort of experiences my generation had. Maybe they think that they have achieved equality and that it will stay that way. It would be nice if that was true. Maybe they don't realise that the only way to retain rights is to continually scrutinise what is happening in government and in society and make their opinions known so they don't bother. I hope they realise before it is too late. I would hate to think the world the next generation of young women inherit is one where these hard won rights are slowly eroded until they are lost forever.

That's one of the reasons why it was so gratifying to see Julia Gillard bring these issues of misogyny and sexism into the open. As a woman she must be aware that whenever we call people on this sort of behaviour we're told we're too sensitive or to get a sense of humour so it was risky but I'm delighted that she did it. Ever since she became Prime Minister she has been under attack about things which have nothing to do with her ability or lack of it. She is criticised for being unmarried and living with her partner. She is criticised for her dress sense, even her body shape. She is criticised for having no children. Her voice is criticised. Reporters call her by her first name instead by her title. In my memory I cannot remember any male Prime Minister being criticised for any of these things or treated so disrespectfully. It seems an inescapable fact that this disrespect is purely because she is a woman. By all means talk about the things the government has got wrong but judge them on what those things are and  not the gender of the leader of that government.

The attacks on the Prime Minister are not the only places where sexism and misogyny raise their heads - and for the record, I do know what misogyny means and I'm sure the Prime Minister does too. Those who are waving dictionaries around saying "It's all wrong. Misogyny is a hatred of women and insert name of choice is married or works with women so they can't be misogynists" don't get it. These people may not outright hate all women but they act and talk as if they do. To my mind if you denigrate, insult and belittle the female gender in a way that is directly related to the fact that they are women you are behaving like a misogynist. As Julia Gillard said in her speech the answer is to change the behaviour.

This does not mean there isn't sexism at work too and when I saw what the predominately male political and other commentators had to say about the Prime Minister's speech the next day I was astounded. It was as if I had entered an alternative universe where this exposé had never taken place. All the parts that had resonated with me so loudly were being written off as unimportant as if these things are not obvious to the majority of women every day of their lives. It's interesting too that the speech had by last evening over 1,500,000 hits on the internet and belatedly some of the commentary is becoming more unbiased now it is obvious it has struck a chord not only here but overseas as well.

The strongest part of Julia Gillard's speech for me was that she quoted actual instances which showed the sexism and misogynistic behaviour she was complaining about. Anyone who follows politics could come up with more examples - I certainly could - but these are quite enough to be going on with. It's simple enough to discredit generalisations but facts on the public record are less easy to ignore.

I think there are things this government could have handled better but this ... this was gold and if it results in a change in the behaviour of public figures - and even better their thinking - it will have done its job.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Words Can Hurt

In all the fuss about inappropriate comments going on at the moment, along with with those critical and demanding action - various kinds, some of which is reasonable and some not - there is a scattering of those whose comments, letters to the editor etc can be summarised as "They're only words. Get over it.". 

The thing is words are powerful. They can inspire, they can harm, they can teach and they can destroy. This is why we should be careful about our words. Just look at the demagogues who preach that another religion, another race, another belief system is wrong and then look at what can result from it. Do you think the Nazi death camps would have happened if Hitler had not been such a charismatic speaker? I doubt it. Somehow his words wound their way into the psyche of people who were so convinced that they were right they managed to take over a whole country and from there attempt to take over a continent. What about the men who destroyed the twin towers in New York, those who committed the Bali bombings or the bombings that took place in London in 2005? Words were what made these things happen. Words full of hate that sounded to these folk as reasonable excuses to justify what they did. There could have been other words used, ones that might have resolved the situation without blood shed but they were not heard. They were shouted down and drowned out - by loud voices and the words they used.

Over and over we hear name calling and labelling and it doesn't seem much. But increment by increment it worms its way into people's thoughts and, if they don't think and analyse what they hear, it becomes accepted as truth - and from those originally apparently nothing words real harm can come.

This is why we have racial vilification laws, why we teach our children in kindergarten not to say hurtful things and why we have laws about verbal bullying and harassment.

Words can be dangerous and they can be healing but never doubt that they have power and the harm that can be done by them can be incalculable.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Wise Words from Peter M. Ball

Peter is one of my Clarion South mates and a wonderfully gifted writer. He's been answering questions on writing on his blog recently. His latest post is called Everything I Know About Writing in 1069 Words or Less and all I can say is that it is the best summary of how to plot I've read in a long time. Apparently I'm not the only one who feels like this. Angela Slatter has linked to it on her blog too saying she intends to print it out and put it above her desk. I'll be doing the same.

While you're visiting his blog have a delve around. There's a lot more of interest too.