Just Words

I know I’ve been raving on about words even more than usual lately, but that’s because to abuse language is to abuse thought itself, and we are drowning in abuses of thinking. Rethinking refreshes the mind.

Here’s a recent example: A choir master in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region had teenage schoolgirls perform a nude “traditional” performance that then was widely shared on social media. He defended this as a “cultural” tribute to the Xhosa ethnic group, but it drew fury from women. Ironically, South Africa’s new constitution guarantees wide-ranging equality and shows signs of feminist consciousness—although that conflicts with the county’s high rate of sexual assault and violence against women. It also conflicts with the way many in South Africa regard tradition, and sometimes with a sensitivity (certainly understandable) about cultural issues. The choir master was quoted as saying defensively, ”We are proud of our Xhosa tradition.” But Angie Motshekga, the Minister of Basic Education, said that educators “should know better than to expose teenage girls to this form of exploitation. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of your culture and heritage, but there was absolutely no need for these children to perform naked.” The “reed dance” is performed each year in rural societies in Swaziland and in KwaZulu Natal province. It is danced by teenage schoolgirls clad only in small aprons, with their breasts and buttocks completely exposed; it stems from a “tradition” of virgins dancing in hope of being chosen by the chief or king for his harem. A recent report published by the (Angie again!) Ministry of Basic Education noted that schools were grappling with the effects of racism, colonialism, and apartheid, but “little attention has been paid to gender issues. The previous emphasis on ‘Great White Men’ has simply been replaced with ‘Great Black Men.’”

Well, thank god for Minister Motshekga. Her voice echoes that of women from the Zulu ethnic group with whom I met at length when I visited KwaZulu Natal. Some of them had walked for three days to make this meeting, and one, Tozi—who smiled and introduced herself as an “unruly woman,” to applause—said she knew she’d be in trouble when she returned to her village. Although unlike the others she had no husband to fear, the village headman might have incited other men to burn down her hut again or steal her goat in her absence. Still, she felt it was worth it, because she wanted to tell this visitor about a new Zulu tradition that had arisen during the HIV-AIDS epidemic: the lie that if a man was infected, sleeping with a virgin would cure him. “This is killing our young girls,” Tozi said, and she was willing to risk her life to stop it. Another woman at the meeting, Zandile, said, “Zulu or Xhosa, all us women live lives bound by traditions—but whose traditions? Men’s traditions. We have never had a chance to establish our traditions, as women. But at least we can start by stopping—we can stop obeying traditions that are not ours.”

At the time, and today still, the profoundly radical wisdom in those words strikes me as central to the entire global Women’s Movement. Child marriage? Arranged marriage? FGM? Suttee? Sexual slavery? Tradition. Dowry? Battery? Purdah? Literacy (women and girls comprise two thirds of all nonliterate people)? Culture. Prostitution? Male majorities in congresses all over the world? Male heads of state the norm? Religious rituals and rules, damnations, hypocrisies? All cultural, all traditional.

Whose tradition, whose culture? From the Passover seder to the Catholic mass, from foot binding to the casting couch, from the concept of a male god to the concept of patriotism: all patriarchal. If aspects of some traditions and cultures feel meaningful to individual women or evoke their loyalty, that’s fine, and I support their right to observe them. I even support their right to try and reform them (the “feminist seder,” the “Jesus was a feminist” argument, etc.). But let’s not confuse cultures and traditions with anything generic, let’s not assume everyone had an equal say in the practice that formed them.

What if women, and men of conscience as well, were always to put the adjective “patriarchal” before the words “tradition” and “culture”? To start by stopping, which would probably begin with the naming, as usual. Then there might come a day when those who follow us would look back and wonder how we could ever have existed in such bondage, and they might celebrate our process toward freedom from it–which might become a tradition.

Here’s another example. At this moment, thousands (no one can get an accurate number) of children, including infants, are jammed into detention centers now so crowded that Jeff Sessions’ Department of Injustice is moving the kids into tent cities where the average day heat is 96°. They have been forcibly separated from their parents—for which, read “mothers”—with whom they were traveling to the United States, being “smuggled in,” according to Trump and Sessions. Many of these women were and are seeking asylum, so, by U.S. law, they are entitled to a respectful, thorough investigation of their situation by a court before any adjudication is made about their status. But Sessions has de facto nullified that law. Now, if you arrive claiming death and deprivation awaits you in the country from which you are fleeing—before you even have a chance to prove that—you are arrested, and your child is snatched from you and detained elsewhere. Even during the internment of the Japanese American population in virtual concentration camps during World War II—a lasting stain on this country’s history—families were kept intact. This sadistic policy has shocked most American citizens and even managed to disconcert a few Republican congressmen and senators.

Sessions has also changed U.S. practice on the definition of requirements for asylum, making it virtually impossible for asylum-seekers to gain entry by citing credible fears of domestic abuse or gang violence in their countries. In doing so, he reversed an immigration appeals court ruling that had granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who had been sexually, emotionally, and physically abused by her husband. (Indeed, immigration court judges are stepping up to complain that Sessions is usurping their roles.) Few asylum-seekers are granted permanent entry into the United States, anyway. In 2016, for every applicant who succeeded, more than 10 failed. Domestic-violence victims gained eligibility after the 2014 case of a Guatemalan woman who had suffered a decade of marital abuse, including acid burns and punches while pregnant so severe that her baby was born with bruises. Under the Obama administration, more women were permitted to claim credible fears of domestic abuse–but that’s gone now. In his ruling, Sessions wrote that asylum claims pertaining to violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors would not qualify, that claims could no longer include victims of “private violence,” by which he means, basically, violence against women.

Private violence. It’s instructive to remember that just a few years ago, Amnesty International—that supposed beacon of freedom that now defends the rights of johns, pimps, and the sexual exploitation industry—held that same position about “private violence,” and Human Rights Watch shared that attitude. All through the 1970s and 80s we feminists pounded on the doors of A.I., which insisted that since virtually all persecution of women was not done by state actors, that was outside their concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union refused to act against battery, because that would be invading the privacy of the home. It took decades, but the growing pressure from women changed their minds. Why? Because women worldwide live in “the private realm.” We do most of the work in political protest movements, but rarely lead them, so the Putins and Erdogans and Kims don’t go after us the way they do oppositional male leaders. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia is an exception: he seems to feel that it’s reasonable to charge women who want to drive with treason. But that’s rare. So if you restrict asylum to those being persecuted “by the state” you have neatly eliminated women.

Glance back at the above-listed atrocities perpetrated on women, defended as “culture” and/or ”tradition.” Add to that list economic impoverishment (the face of poverty worldwide is a female face), environmental disaster (women are the fuel gatherers and water haulers of the world, and 80 percent of Africa’s farmers are female), and war (women and children constitute 90 percent of refugee and displaced persons populations). All of these, now, are officially considered “personal matters” in the United States of America, “private violence.” In November if not before, we will have to force Trump and Sessions to revoke these morally sickening policies.

As things stand now, what if you’re a Central American woman who has suffered decades of shattered bones from a brutal husband? What if both your sons were forcibly recruited into a drug gang; one of your daughters was abducted by a gang to serve them sexually, the other was kidnapped and sold into sexual trafficking. What if, almost insane with desperation, you flee with your two youngest children, one only four months old, to the land of opportunity and safety. You claim a credible fear of return. But you are shackled, arrested without due process; your children are seized—one from your nursing breast—and taken away while you cry and beg and vomit from shock; you can hear them screaming for you in the next room, you recognize their voices and shout back but can’t get to them, and then you find yourself behind bars unable to learn where they are, waiting in terror to be sent back to your country, terror of being sent back without your kids or with them, sent back to your death. A sign on the wall reads: Welcome to the United States of America 2018. It should read The Personal Is Political.

Culture. Tradition. Private. Whose?