Thursday, October 16, 2008

I. The Right To Go Out

This is the first post on a new series about the reasons why I am a feminist. My aim is to look at the lives of women on earth from a newly-fresh point of view, forgetting all those years of study and all those policies and soundbites and keywords. Instead, I want to go back to the very basics, to pretend that I have just landed on this planet and that I know nothing about humans except that they are usually divided into men and women, boys and girls.

Why am I doing this? Because I have learned that those very basics have become so obscured that many men and women no longer see them at all, no longer regard sexism a problem and no longer think that misogyny is a serious matter. I learned this during many recent discussions about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, about sexism and racism in politics and about the post-feminist era we supposedly now inhabit.

In one of those discussions this was said:

Which is why, if I had to choose simply on this basis and no other, I'd rather see a black man in the White House than a woman.

Women don't get stopped in their cars by cops just because they are women.

The reference here is to racial profiling, and it is a serious problem. So is religious profiling of Muslims or those who are suspected of being Muslims or Arabs. It's not my intention to downplay the particular problems of racial, religious or even gender-based (read: male) police profiling. But I was dumbstruck by this comment, just dumbstruck, because my first reaction was that women would be a lot less likely to be out driving their cars in the first place, especially alone or late at night. My second reaction was the realization that people mostly don't see that female fear of the outside as a civil rights issue or a human rights issue. It's just How Things Are.

Yet the difference in our ability to go out, alone and fairly safely, is highly dependent on whether we are men or women. In some societies women are not allowed to go out alone at all, but only in the company of a male relative. In other societies women may be allowed to go the stores and such on their own but cannot travel abroad without their husband's permission. In many societies women who go out alone are regarded as prostitutes or fair game for any sexual molester. In most societies women who go out alone at night are at greater risk than men who go out alone, because women have to deal not only with the risk of getting mugged but also with the risk of getting raped. They are seen as prey. So women adjust to this, accommodate themselves to this, stay at home and agree to live lesser lives because of their sex.

I have never met a woman who isn't aware of this difference, who isn't used to carefully mapping out routes to new places, who isn't cautious about going anywhere at night on her own. But despite this and all those take-back-the-night marches the idea that women should somehow have the right to go out alone and not be at any greater risk than anyone else is -- what? A stupid idea? Impossibly idealistic?

Whatever it is it is also a human rights issue. But for some reason we have lost sight of that and other similar issues I will cover in this series.