Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Girl on Fire

Here is a story I read this morning in the Huffington Post: An eleven year old child in India was set on fire by two men who tried to rape her. When she resisted, they threw kerosene on her and set her alight. She died of her wounds with 70% of her body having suffered critical burns. One of the men that did this to her has been arrested, the other is still at large.

This story has literally broken my heart today. When I saw the headline, first my stomach clenched and then I could feel an actual physical pain in my chest. But there were no tears in my eyes this time. Sometimes you're just too stunned to even cry.

I posted the story on Twitter and predictably a sarcastic tweet came from someone who I assume was Pakistani: "Greater India". I saw tons of those kinds of comments after the rape and murder of the Delhi bus victim as well, comments that cast aspersions on India's attempts to rise above its poverty and pull ahead of everyone else in the region economically and socially. "So this is Shining India! Look how India treats its women! And they dare lecture us!" was the general tone of the comments.

Well, I didn't post this morning's story to point the finger at India, but to show that all over the world, women are paying with their lives in their fight for liberation. I could point to equally horrific examples in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan of how women are beaten, starved, tortured, raped, and murdered. It's as if everyone in these countries is in a competition to see how badly they can treat their women citizens. But this is a competition that nobody can win.

Instead of competition, we need solidarity. We need to open our eyes to the discrimination that all South Asian women face, whether their backgrounds are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, or areligious. We need to realize that patriarchy has twisted itself into every culture and every creed. We can talk until we're blue in the face about how "Islam gave women its rights" or "In Sikh culture women are equally strong as men" or "Hindusim reveres women, look at our goddesses". We're talking about theory, not practice. In theory, we're all saints. In practice, we all fail.

I was thinking very hard about why in Pakistan there is no law for women to cover themselves in a specific way, as there is in Afghanistan, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. I found the answer when I read Shireen Al-Feki's comprehensive study of sex and gender in the Middle East, Sex and the Citadel. The answer is that as in many patriarchal societies and countries, in Pakistan, instead of having to pass a law that all women will cover their heads, for example, the state devolves its authority to decide how women should dress and live their lives to the patriarchal representative in each family - the father, husband, brother, son, and the women who also throw their lot in with these men - mothers, mother in laws, sister in laws.

These representatives of state authority within the four walls of the home are the ones who enforce dress codes, telling women they will be raped or molested if they don't dress appropriately, they will be seen as women of loose character and low morals, warning them that they will shame the family and bring dishonor to everyone. Various systems are used to reinforce these teachings: Islam, tribalism, conservative mores, etc. And dress codes are only the tip of the iceberg: where a woman should go, what she should do with her life, who she should marry, when she should enter or exit the house. There is no limit to how society places restrictions on women. I'm surprised that even breathing is allowed in this kind of environment.

The result is a long-standing and complex uber-system of patriarchy that keeps South Asian women in their "place" as defined by men; that allows them limited freedoms within the accepted limits of that patriarchy. But the underlying value is this: that women have been put on earth not to express their own autonomy, but to serve men. Defy this underlying value, and you've broken the biggest rule of the patriarchy.

Disobey this rule, and you will find yourself burning to death like that poor eleven year old girl in India.  And nobody will remember your name or even think that your death was anything out of the ordinary.

And they ask me why I'm so angry.

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