We Are All Sonali
~ Soraya Chemaly
Why is it so hard for some people to understand that women’s bodies are their own?
This is what Eve Ensler calls a #ReasonToRise:
Today 27-year-old Sonali Mukherjee will have surgery to help reconstruct her face. It melted nine years ago, leaving a painful mask in its place, after three young men poured acid on her while she slept. This was their response to her fending off their relentless sexual advances as she made her way to school every morning. In India the ubiquitous harassment that women face is called, in a “family-friendly” euphemism, “eve baiting.”
Today’s surgery will be the first of many, involving eye operations and hair and ear transplants, that will take place over years at a hospital in New Dehli. What do we need to know about Sonali? That she was studying sociology? That she was a happy 17-year-old? What she was wearing when she slept? Or that’s she’s now petitioned her government to either help her find justice or give her the right to euthanasia?
For six of the past nine years, her assailants have been free. Sonali and her family, bankrupted paying for her care, had to move villages after they were threatened by the men when they returned. She has, over the years, persistently appealed to the Indian justice system for medical assistance and stricter penalties for assailants, and a fund has been established to help cover the enormous expense of her medical care. This woman, with whom I have been in touch through mutual friends, is, remarkably, a bright, brave, and determined and dignified person. To hear her petition (she is essentially asking for help raising roughly $30,000 or the right to die) watch this video, or join the Friends of Sonali Facebook page and send her a note to help buoy her spirits in the hospital.
Sonali is why GOP spokesman Jay Townsend’s comment, “Let’s hurl some acid at those female Democratic Senators,” was not just inappropriate but inhumane.
She isn’t alone, however. In Columbia, where there were at least 150 acid-throwing incidents last year, women like 51-year-old Consuela Cordoba wear masks every day of their lives. In England model Katie Piper was doused in acid after a rejected ex-boyfriend hired someone to attack her. In Afganistan schoolgirls are habitually subjected to acid throwing and poisoning. In Uganda 25-year-old Regina Nannono is one of an increasing number of women attacked by ex-spouses, romantic rivals, and competitors trying to change property inheritances; most of the victims are women. In Pakistan 10-year-old Zaib Aslam thought someone had lit her face on fire when men on motorcycles threw acid on her face as she waited with her mother at a bus stop. Many simply cannot go on living. In Rome last year, after 38 grueling surgeries, 33-year-old Fakhra Younas finally committed suicide, 10 years after she was assaulted in this way. These are only a handful of readily available examples.
Not “our” problem? In that case, let’s consider “our” version of acid throwing, say, lighting women on fire.
In Maryland Yvette Cade had gasoline poured on her and was lit on fire by her estranged husband. In Florida Naomie Breton was lit on fire at a gas station in what the newspaper termed a “dispute” with the father of her child. She was then charged astronomical towing fees, which she refused to pay (shocking!). In Cleveland Tiffany Lawson, 31, threw her 18-month-old son out of a second-story window into the arms of a stranger and then threw herself out behind him, after her boyfriend threw lighter fluid on her and lit her on fire. In Detroit 22-year-old LaTonya Bowman, three weeks short of delivering a baby, was kidnapped by the baby’s father, lit on fire, and then, just for good measure, shot in the back. She survived and gave birth. In St. Louis last June, a man lit his 36-year-old girlfriend on fire. In Seattle an unnamed 17-year-old girl died — her house was set on fire, so the man accused, a boyfriend, took a less direct route. Clearly all these women weren’t subservient enough.
How can I say “we are all Sonali” when what she and these other girls and women have experienced are extreme and terrifying injustices? I can say it because women all over the world are not in possession of themselves. And we have the right to be.
There are people who agree, and those who do not. Some of them are U.S. legislators (some with close ties to the mail-order bride business, for example).
What women experience as victims of abuse, or when they’re seized and forced to undergo surgery against their wills, or even when they hear a vice-presidential candidate say publicly, without widespread and uniform condemnation, that rape is just another “method of conception,” is someone else (or the state) claiming ownership of their bodies and existences. Usually that someone else is a man they know. The abuse and rape of women is oblivious to social status, education, race, nationality, ethnicity, or anything else. What Sonali asked for when she resisted her harassers every day, and what was denied to her when they attacked her, was the right to be female and in control of her own body. Men wanted to control her and wanted access to her body. Indeed, they felt that this access and control were their birthright. Her culture, the men and women in it, supporting the notion that her body was somehow public property, allowed this to happen. When she did not comply, they punished her severely. They invaded her privacy. They violated her bodily integrity. They ignored her autonomy, and they damaged her body horrifically. They denied her her agency. Does this sound familiar yet?
What do Sonali and these other women have to do with you or me, sitting at these computers, probably relatively safe and sound?
Well, maybe it depends on how aware you are of the prevalence of violence and its threat in the lives of women; whether you think we, collectively, should care about people other than ourselves; and what you think the role of government should be in seeking justice. Apparently, a lot of what I believe flies in the face of a longstanding frontier ethos of individual destiny and the making of the traditional, successful American man. This mentality hasn’t gone so well for women in America — or in the rest of the world. I think women’s freedom — bodily, reproductive, economic — requires government intervention to offset pervasive, traditional biases that prop up and perpetuate corrupt structures, violence, and abuse.
When the right to privacy was extended to women, men whose authority this undermined switched their focus to “family privacy.” Abortion was the nominal catalyst, but in reality it was just the proxy du jour. The family is often the place where incursions against women’s rights have their strongest breeding ground. And the public sphere, we keep getting told, is just the private, family sphere writ large.
“The family’s right to privacy” is a specific code for certain male heads-of-households’ exercise of traditionally held privileges of male domination that allow the violation of the human rights of the women and girls they are intimate with. It doesn’t matter where in the world the girls and women are. This family, in which a man made his young children videotape 51 minutes of his verbal and physical abuse of his wife, had a right to privacy. It’s a family privacy that many women suffer for in similar ways. Our inability to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, because of the right’s homophobia, sexism, and racism, is a national shame with international consequences.
I know that many will say that these egregious examples do not represent all men. That’s certainly true. I also know that it’s irrelevant given the reality that one third of the world’s women are subjected to violence of this sort, more than 1 billion women. In addition, there are those, especially in this country, who question these numbers. Their claims are regularly debunked. Besides, 1 billion is an awful lot of lying women.
If you doubt what I am arguing, particularly as it pertains to the United States, consider this map of 34 states (the number is now 31) that have failed to pass laws that deny rapists the right to visitation and custody, against their rape victims’ will, to children born as a result of the rape that caused the pregnancy. By not passing these laws two thirds of our states effectively ensure paternal rapists’ rights. Who gives rapists rights, even by default? This is an illustration of the degree to which we live unconsciously with state-sanctioned support of the rights of men, especially fathers, over those of women. By any measure of justice this map should not exist. This is as Handmaiden’s Tale as you get. If there has ever been a map of male domination and the legislative subjugation of women, this is it. Just ask Shauna Prewitt what having the man who raped and inseminated you against your will then gaining legal access to your child feels like. She became a lawyer, and her recent CNN appearance caused a firestorm because of it. Conversations like Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, Tom Smith’s likening rape babies to “out-of-wedlock babies,” Paul Ryan’s reference to rape as just another “method of conception,” and other similar fantasies all reflect a fundamental denial of women’s bodily autonomy and rights.
Women also have the right to have the state protect their rights rather than perpetuate the privilege that results in the denial of their rights. That means changes conserve-atives don’t like.
For men, the ability to be successful and pursue their individual destinies in traditional ways might require the government to be small and go away. This tenacious idea has meant that women’s rights were subsumed. For individual women, in order to offset systematized sexism, misogyny, and violence (most of which takes place at the hands of individual men in a domestic context), it may mean that government has to intercede in new and different ways. That’s why patriarchy hates real democracy, because equality for women gets in the way of individual men’s exercise of long-held power and privilege. All these things come together, as usual, over women’s bodies, which, until relatively recently, were entirely subject to laws based entirely on male norms and male supremacy.
The state of India, in collusion with Sonali’s assailants, has largely stood by and allowed multiple injustices to occur. It has failed to protect Sonali and other women like her and to adequately protect their rights under the law. In Sonali’s case her bodily involvement in the stripping of her rights is clear. In the U.S. risks to women’s bodily integrity are obscured and less obvious to most people, but similar situations occur to women all over the country.
Next time you are at a party, look around and remember:
- More than half of school-age girls experience sexual harassment.
- Sixty-nine percent of American women surveyed report that they do not look people in the eye when they walk in public streets, in order to avoid harassment.
- Between 85 and 99 percent of all women experience varying degrees of street harassment.
- One in four women in the U.S. experiences violence at the hands of a partner in her lifetime.
- One in five women is a survivor of sexual assault and rape.
This is why I can say “we are all Sonali.”
“Violence against women crosses boundaries regardless of nationality, ethnicity, culture, class or economic status. With 1 in 3 women affected, it may well be the biggest human rights atrocity of the 21st century,” explains Regina Yau, founder of The Pixel Project, and organization dedicated to raising awareness and fighting against violence against women worldwide, “If you can reduce gender-based violence by even 50 percent across the world, imagine the human potential that could be released: girls can have a fighting chance to be healthy and to go to school, and women can start their own businesses and earn money to feed their families and get out of poverty.”
Clearly we both think we have an obligation to others. Many think we have none. This is a defining issue in the U.S. election in November. Individual rights and the limited role of government vs. societal good and the involvement of government. What is going on here in the United States is a social contract debate about women’s bodies and who controls them. Just like the debate going on in India. And Columbia. And Afghanistan. And Pakistan. And Uganda. And England.
If we have slipped so far in our commitment to protect the rights of at least half of our population, how can we possible expect to lead the rest of the world in anything? Women’s rights in the United States affect women everywhere.
- Eve Ensler founded V-Day to raise awareness and end violence against women and girls, and has organized One Billion Rising.
- No More is dedicated to raising awareness and eliminating the shame associated with being a victim, male or female, of domestic violence and sexual assault.
- The Pixel Project is a global effort to raise awareness and end violence against women.
- The Half the Sky Movement, based on the book and documentary of the same name, seeks to change oppression into opportunity for girls and women.
- In the U.S. make sure you representatives support the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act when it goes to the U.S. Senate later this year.
- Acid Survivors Trust International
- Men Against Violence Against Women
- Bell Bajao
- Men Stopping Violence
- Say No Unite to end violence against women
- Men Can Stop Rape
- UN Women
- RAINN Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network
- Stop Street Harassment
- Guided To Safety