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Tag Archives: women’s rights

Firstly, let’s get this out of the way: am I a feminist? Damn straight I am. By what definition? This one:

There are just two pieces of dogma in my understanding of feminism:

1. Society deals with gender in a way that harms women

2. This is a problem that must be corrected

You’ll notice that they have nothing to do with: men, race, class, liberty, religion, teleology, biology, consumerism, violence, sex, or shoes. This is deliberate.

Next, this picture.


The thing is: maybe they shouldn’t. This is a manifestation of what some researchers call benevolent sexism. It’s characterized by the belief that “women are pure, moral, pedestal-worthy objects of men’s adoration, protection, and provision. People who endorse benevolent sexism feel positively toward women, but only when women conform to highly traditional ideals about “how women should be.” [See this post]

Moreover, “Benevolent sexism motivates chivalrous acts that many women may welcome, such as a man’s offer to lift heavy boxes or install the new computer. While the path to benevolent sexism may be paved with good intentions, it reinforces the assumption that men possess greater competence than women, whom benevolent sexists view as wonderful, but weak and fragile.”

In other words, this could actually be the complete picture.

I’m not saying this is established fact, but it’s very much worth thinking about. Read more here and here.

In any case, please don’t interpret the above as my being against affirmative action for women. In fact, I think placing women in leadership roles (even if they don’t “win” those roles in competition with men) can create very beneficial results for entire societies. This experiment strongly supports that idea.


Today I want to talk about rape. More specifically, I want to talk about certain reactions to rape that seem to be prevalent in our society. I’ll start by addressing the issue of blame/responsibility. You’ve all heard the comments: “It’s her fault for being out that late, and dressed like that, too” – that sort of thing. How are we to interpret such statements? What exactly does it mean when you place the blame for a crime on the victim of the crime?


Deconstructing the Blame for Rape
Let’s look at it this way – the act of rape is something we as a society disapprove of. We are so averse to rapes that we ascribe to them the status of criminal acts. This means that we have decided that after an act of rape occurs, someone involved in the rape must be punished. Thankfully, though, the vast majority of people who “blame” women for rapes do not mean that after the rape has occurred, it is against the woman that criminal proceedings should be initiated. The few exceptions to this would probably consist entirely of Taliban-style religious fundamentalists. Since I am no miracle-monger, I shall make no efforts to try to change the beliefs of this set of people.

There is another way to “blame” a woman for being raped, though – by placing what I’ll call primary causal responsibility upon her, rather than on the rapist. Causal responsibility is different from criminal responsibility in that the person with causal responsibility does not automatically qualify for punishment. However, that person is the one whose actions caused the rape to occur.

Once we’ve made the distinction between causal and criminal responsibility, those borderline-misogynistic comments start to make a little more sense: what (most) people mean when they blame women for being raped is that they believe that the rape occurred primarily because of the women’s actions. If those women had acted differently – if only they had been a bit more prudent in their sartorial choices for instance, the distasteful act of rape would have been avoided.

This is ridiculous, but unfortunately, it seems that it is not obviously ridiculous, since so many people feel this way. Hence, I feel the need to go into some detail in trying to explain why it is ridiculous.


Debates over Causal Responsibility Encourage Rapists
But before doing that, let’s acknowledge that, while not nearly as bad as placing criminal responsibility on women, placing causal responsibility for rape on them also results in extremely undesirable consequences. It does so in at least three ways.

1. You’re Letting Rapists Go Free
Firstly, it results in half-hearted pursuit of punishment for the rapist. The police officers refuse to acknowledge that a rape has occurred (“She obviously wanted something like that to happen”), the judge feels that “under the circumstances, the man’s actions were somewhat understandable”, and so on. Amidst all the obsessing about what the victim did or did not do, people lose sight of the perpetrator, the rapist, who deserves to be punished.

Now, anyone with a modicum of common sense will realize that severe punishments for rapists would go a long way towards drastically reducing the occurrence of rape; and conversely, that lackadaisical prosecution of rapists is no way to deal with the problem. To reiterate, my point is this: regardless of who or what causes the crime, swift and severe punishment of the perpetrators is one of the best ways to reduce further occurrences; and that tends not to happen when people are more concerned about the victim’s behaviour than the criminal’s.

2. You’re Providing Justification for Rape
The second reason why we should not be assigning causal responsibility for rape to women is that by doing so, we provide moral justification for rape to the sort of mind that contemplates rape. Please read that last sentence again, because I think it’s really, really important.

Assertions such as “Women in skirts get raped”, or “Women who go out alone get raped”, are likely to become self-fulfilling through their influence on the minds of would-be rapists. They are a way of encouraging rapists, and justifying their actions.

Presumably, there comes a moment in which a potential rapist must decide whether he should actually go through with rape or not. At such a moment, a refrain such as “Women in skirts get raped” would act as a confidence booster, a way for the potential rapist to tell himself that this woman deserves to be raped; that it is natural, inevitable, and not his fault.

We cannot let people think that way. We must not make it ever seem that there are circumstances in which it is natural for a woman to be raped.

3. You’re Hindering Efforts to Prevent Rape
The third pernicious effect of placing causal responsibility for rapes upon women is that that it misdirects efforts to prevent rape. Although there is some overlap, prevention and punishment are, of course, separate issues. When a society comes to believe that things like the length of a woman’s skirt are the primary causes of rape, its knee-jerk reaction will usually be to curtail the freedoms of women in one way or another, as a means to prevent rape. Such moves are undesirable in and of themselves, but in this case, I believe that they are made worse by the fact that they are not the best way to prevent rape.

This is because, as I mentioned earlier, it is ridiculous to believe that a woman’s actions/ behaviour/ speech/ appearance could be the real cause of rape. Let me return to that point now.


The Primary Cause of Rape
Rape is not new, and it was never restricted to any one population or region. Rape occurred before the words “Westernization” or “modernization” made any sense, it occurred before the Internet and TV and co-educational schooling. I suppose it even occurred before the invention of chow mein.

To put it in the terms of an experimentalist: If effect Y (rape) occurs both in the presence of and in the absence of treatment X (e.g. short skirts), then treatment X cannot possibly be the primary cause of effect Y.

The one thing that is common to every rape, everywhere, that has ever occurred is a man who has decided to gain sexual gratification through coercion of another human being (be it another man, woman or child). Rape cannot occur without this one ingredient. This is the cause of rape.

Let’s repeat that, in bold:

Rape is caused by men who decide to gain sexual gratification through coercion of another human being.

In order to prevent rape, it is this primary cause that we must aim at, rather than at various (and varying) contingent circumstances. We must reduce men’s willingness/ability to use coercion to gain sexual gratification.


Rape and Women’s Rights
That brings me to my next point: I’m tired of the whole “let’s imprison the victims – that’ll keep them safe!” mentality that rears up every time the occurrence of rape comes into the limelight. It is men’s behaviour that must be changed if we want to prevent rape, so if we have to enact restrictive laws, they should be targeted at men (the perpetrators), rather than women (the victims). Isn’t that common sense?

Are men unable to restrain their sexual desires when they catch sight of a woman on the street? If so, it is much more sensible (and fairer) to force men to wear blinkers than it is to force women to wear burkas. Forcing women to change the way they dress while not simultaneously imposing any restrictions on men is like saying to the men: “We trust you to act responsibly… even though you’re the culprits here, as you’ve proved time and time again.” Like I said, it’s crazy.

Your daughters are not the problem – keep your sons locked up if they’re a danger to society. Hell, if that’s what it takes, put them in chastity belts.

Anyway, this has turned into a bit of a rant. I’ll stop here.

Before the Taliban, Afghanistan was a pretty “normal” country, not the lawless wasteland many people describe it as today.

Today I’d like to share this fascinating and evocative photograph, taken in 1972 in Kabul. That’s right, Kabul, Afghanistan. There was a time when the sight of three young women  dressed in skirts and shirts, unaccompanied by any male relatives, would not have been unusual on the streets of the major cities of Afghanistan. Before the Taliban, there was a small, but significant minority of women in professions as varied medicine, research, and teaching. In fact, when the Taliban effectively put all the women in the country under house arrest, there was a crisis in education throughout the country because before then, the majority of teachers were women.

The Taliban era itself was, of course, unmitigated madness, but unfortunately, even after their deposition, their ideology and their influence has not receded. In March 2012, the country’s president, Hamid Karzai endorsed a “code of conduct” that he says is based on Islamic Sharia law [source]. Among the rules:

…women should not travel without a male guardian and should not mingle with strange men in places such as schools, markets and offices. Beating one’s wife is prohibited only if there is no “sharia-compliant reason,” …

Furthermore, it is apparently the official position of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that “women are secondary to men” [source].

What’s heartbreaking about all this is that the naive moral-relativistic cliche that Afghanistan “is and always has been a lawless land; it’s customs and traditions are its own and can never be changed” is patently false. Afghanistan has not always been a “broken 13th century county“. In the 60s and 70s,

“… there was a tradition of law and order, and a government capable of undertaking large national infrastructure projects, like building hydropower stations and roads, albeit with outside help. Ordinary people had a sense of hope, a belief that education could open opportunities for all, a conviction that a bright future lay ahead.”

Returning to the photograph above, it saddens me to note that I know it will elicit negative reactions from many Muslims. It saddens me further to note that I am not talking about extremists or fundamentalists, but moderate Muslims of the sort that you are likely to meet if you live anywhere with a significant Muslim population. Their response can be summarized as follows: “What’s so great about women dressing in Western clothing? I wouldn’t want my daughter dressing like that. At least in this respect, the Taliban did something  good for that country.”

I’d like to explain my position to them. Firstly, I do not believe any style of clothing is really any better than any other style; and yes, I am aware that hundreds of thousands of women around the world choose to wear burqas in public. The point is not that women in skirts are inherently, automatically, better off than women in burqas. The point is that the women in that picture almost certainly chose to dress the way they did – they weren’t forced to dress that way. Even if we make the unrealistic assumption that “societal pressures” drove them to adhere to Western tastes, we can ask what the penalty would have been for any single woman to opt out – to choose to wear a burqa in those social circumstances. Almost certainly, it would not have involved being beaten, flogged, raped, stoned, shot, or having acid flung in her face. So not only did women in Afghanistan have more freedom in the 70s, they were also less surrounded by threats of grievous bodily harm.

Of course, one could ask, “Why should we give people the freedom to flout their religious obligations?” Well, those are deep and murky waters, and I choose to wade no further into them for now than to say – thank God for the separation of religion and governance.