This past Monday night, I sat in an auditorium at Millsaps College packed with students—mostly female, but many males as well—and watched the documentary "Half the Sky." It is the powerful film version of a book by the same name by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife and fellow journalist Sheryl WuDunn.
"Half the Sky" is about the severe problems women face around the world. It is chilling, covering routine violence spanning from the sex trafficking and gang rape of toddlers in Cambodia to the routine rape of young women in Sierra Leone. Then, to add insult to horror, the victims are dispelled from their homes because they're the ones who shamed their families—not the rapist (who is often a member of the family or a pastor or such).
"Half the Sky" also explains the cycles of despair and poverty that often continues in the women's children and grandchildren, and not just the females.
The images of, for instance, the teen girl whose eye had been gouged out by the man who owned her in a brothel are horrifying—and makes an American realize that we complain about the wrong things so often (or as one student put it afterward, "we complain about having to get up for an 8 o'clock class." The film makes it clear that we Americans must be more engaged in what is happening to women around the globe (and sometimes as a result of globalization when it comes to sweatshops and working conditions).
But here's the thing. I may live in a very different world than the teen girl raped by her pastor in Sierra Leone, but there are disturbing parallels that tell us that the state of women everywhere needs serious work. As I've written about in the recent past, like that teen, I was raped by someone with perceived stature. I was held down. And I believe—probably rightly—that no one would (a) believe me or (b) do something about it.
Why? Because there is a horrific double standard right here in the United States: Men often get the wink-wink "boys will be boys" response while women are blamed for what we wear or, you know, for just being women. We are often presumed to be the guilty one until we're proved innocent—when we're actually the victims of violence and disrespect.
Like in Sierra Leone, my rapist got away with it. Tragically, her father forced her and her mother out of the home because she tried to do something about it and made her rape public. Think for a moment about the men who blame the proverbial "ho" for their despicable anti-women talk or videos right here in Jackson for a parallel. How many young men (and women) are taught that women ask for rape with their actions and their dress? Or by dancing at a club?
The talk at Millsaps wasn't all about horrors against women and girls outside the United States. Carol Penick of The Women's Fund stood up before and after the film and talked about the fact that Mississippi is routinely found to be the worst state in the United States to be a woman. Why? Because of our poverty; our antiquated laws about sexual assault, divorce and stalking (which are slowly improving thanks to amazing women's advocates); our inadequate public-education system; our teen pregnancy rates; our poor systems of sex education; our lack of early childhood education; and more.
But the reason they're not considered priorities by state officials comes down to one thing: attitudes. We live in a state where few women are elected to public office and where very few women actually have public voices on issues that matter. For example, on The Clarion-Ledger's website front page you see a whole bunch of male blogger faces and no women; likewise, when is the last time you've seen a woman in pretty much any state media other than the JFP write about serious political and policy issues?
Most lawmakers at the state capitol don't take women's concerns seriously at all--and that includes members of both parties. They don't want to lose a vote of some old white guy because they dare speak up about an issue that will help women and children (and thus everyone) because they might be conceived as too "liberal."
Just look at the last legislative term. Mississippi voters (especially women of both parties) spoke loud and clear last fall by rejecting "personhood" by a resounding margin. We came together over an effort (led by mostly men) that treated women like expendable second-class citizens. They tried to tell women that we cannot have an abortion even if our lives are in danger or if we're a 13-year-old girl raped by our daddy.
Oh, and we can't have any kind of hormonal birth control, either.
Women saw through that effort to control our health and our decisions. But the Legislature came back into session and, once again, used our rights as a political toy, trying to close the state's only abortion clinic (although saying little about abortions performed in private doctor's clinics on women who can afford them).
Then this mess of a presidential election kicked in full force and, for some reason, many conservative men felt like they had permission to really let the women-hate fly in their efforts to pass laws to control all sorts of things we can do. They even want to allow our employers to tell us whether or not our insurance is welcome to pay
Ronni Mott's cover package this issue lists many of these ridiculous quotes, showing how far backward we've gone from a time when being for or against abortion was the biggest issue. Now, it's about whether or not women should use birth control—and whether or not a particular politician thinks rape is "forcible" enough to actually qualify as rape.
The good news is that, like last fall, women can find our voices. Even if we disagree on some issues, we can come together to demand that our needs are taken seriously—and to demand respect, and apologies, from men who behave like cavemen. It is vital that women find our voices and use them—and develop the kind of strength that doesn't make us easy to shout down or take for granted. That's where our attitudes come into play: We have to show that we will not take a war on women lying down.
As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says in the film: We are fighting "deep cultural stereotypes about the worth of women." Many men will continue to see us as lesser than them, or even as slaves and concubines, if we allow them to. Instead, we must invest in girls and women: failure to do so amounts to "planned poverty," as the film teaches.
The good news at Millsaps Monday night was that the film contained much hope. In each of the segments, we met grown women and teens who were rising to meet horrendous challenges. They were inspirational in how they were facing violence and poverty, determined to make something of themselves and change the cycle. And they were doing it with the help of other strong women spreading love and joy.
After the film, students reacted with shock and determination. Sara del Castillo sat near the front in a Kappa Delta sweatshirt, her hair in a topknot. "We must generate our own army of people," she suggested.
She's right. It's time for women, and men who love and respect us, to raise our own army. We must fight a war for women.