Around 70 percent of Afghanistan’s female prisoners are in jail for running away from home despite the act not being a crime under the law (source). Another absurd prison story from Afghanistan is here.
Some examples. Take the case where A and B have unequal bargaining power. A sells bread in an isolated village where the people don’t have the means to produce their own bread. A overcharges for the bread because B doesn’t have the means or the strength to find another seller. The sale of bread makes B better off, because without bread he would be worse off. Yet A takes unfair advantage of the buyer’s condition. A exploits B, yet B is better off and can decide to accept his exploitation.
Examples of self-inflicted human rights violations are school drop-outs, the undeserving poor, contestants in privacy invading reality shows etc. – to the extent that these people’s actions are really voluntary and based on informed consent, they impose rights violations on themselves.
Stereotype threat means that the threat of stereotypes about your capacity to succeed at something negatively affects your capacity: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task.
These three phenomena converge in the lives of many women in present-day western societies. Few of them are ruthlessly oppressed, few of their rights are grossly violated, and sexist stereotyping has become unfashionable. And yet, it’s arguably the case that many western women show signs of having internalized patriarchal power relations. It wouldn’t be correct to depict these women as unconscious victims who can’t choose for themselves – that would be just as bad as the sexist stereotypes of the past – but there are signs that some of them have been taught to participate in their own oppression and subordination.
How else could we explain the beauty ideal, women modifying their bodies, starving themselves, re-sculpturing their silhouettes and conforming in all possible ways to male expectations and prejudices? It’s like they have internalized the male gaze (in the sense given to that word by Jacques Lacan) and look at themselves the way many men do.
I don’t claim that this internalization of stereotypes is beneficial to women in the sense that some forms of exploitation are beneficial to the exploited, although in some cases that may be true – some women may reap some advantages from conforming to stereotypes. Neither do I claim that the internalization of stereotypes is self-inflicted in the sense of a voluntary act. In most cases we’re probably dealing with some form of indoctrination, and it’s fair to say that women and their bodies are still highly regulated, in a way that’s different from but not unlike the way it is in more traditional societies (for example in some Muslim societies). However, we shouldn’t exclude the possibility that some women do in fact voluntarily accept stereotypes. Again, the view that women are passive victims of indoctrination isn’t much better than or different from the view that women conform to more traditional stereotypes.
- Do we cling to stereotypes even when information about the individual is available? (bakadesuyo.com)
- The patriarchy is dead … but the kyriarchy lives on | Nichi Hodgson (guardian.co.uk)
- The Devil is sexist (greedygoblin.blogspot.com)
- The New Sexism (time.com)
Another sign that human rights are becoming the morality of the world:
However, international law may be no more than window-dressing, at least in this case. In large parts of the world, national law does not conform to the obligation of CEDAW or it’s not enforced when it conforms:
(source, click images to enlarge)
Let’s take an example of a fictional and very specific human rights violation: a Nigerian woman, let’s call her Joy, doesn’t have enough money to buy food and other necessities on a regular and predictable basis, for her and her family. And yes, poverty is a human rights violation, but if you insist you can easily rewrite this post with another example of a rights violation. Then you can also take another country. The choice of Nigeria is purely random, and nothing in this post is supposed to imply that certain rights violations are typical of Nigeria, or any other country for that matter.
Joy’s poverty can be a case of one or several types of rights violations. A first question we need to ask is whether we’re dealing with an act or a rule based rights violation. Joy’s predicament can be the result of her dominant husband, Emmanuel, who doesn’t allow her to work because he’s jealous and afraid that she may be unfaithful when given the occasion, but who also doesn’t bring home enough money himself. However, a more important cause of her poverty may be the predominant social and cultural rules against education and professional work for girls and women.
So we can try to understand whether rights violations are caused by the conduct and actions of individuals, groups, states etc. or rather by systems of rules and institutions in a society. Counterfactuals will be helpful: how would things have been different if someone had acted in another way or if some other rules had been in force?
In the case of act based violations we’ll also need to establish an agent’s intent, his ability to predict and to avert the consequences of his actions, the availability of alternative actions, the cost of alternative actions to the agent etc. It’s not Emmanuel’s intention to force Joy into poverty, but he can be expected to understand the consequences of his actions. There’s also an obvious alternative action available – let Joy work – which won’t impose a large cost on Emmanuel (most women are not unfaithful at work).
In the case of rule based violations as well we’ll need to see whether the rule’s consequences could have been predicted and averted, whether alternative rules are available, feasible, realistic and not too costly, and, if so, whether there is someone who can be held responsible for not implementing and enforcing those alternatives. If Joy’s poverty is the result of cultural rules against education and work for girls and women, then there are alternative rules available, but those may not be feasible in the short term given the cultural nature of the existing rules. However, we can perhaps point the finger at the government for not trying hard enough to impose an alternative rule such as compulsory education for girls or a law against gender discrimination in employment.
This leads us to the following point: both act based and rule based rights violations can be divided into two additional categories or types, call them active and passive types of rights violations. Rights violations may be caused by wrongful acts or by a failure to act. Or they may be caused by the wrong rules or by a failure to impose the right rules. Emmanuel can violate Joy’s rights by forcing her to stay home or by failing to help her find a job. Joy’s government can violate her rights by enforcing the cultural norms against education and work for girls and women, or by failing to enforce rules regarding compulsory education and employment discrimination.
As is clear from the last example, the rules in rule based rights violations can be either moral and cultural rules or legal and institutional rules (or both of course). And legal and institutional rules can be national or international. Joy’s poverty may be caused by national rules such as in the example above, but also by international legal rules such as those regarding trade restrictions (and even by national rules of other countries such as those restricting immigration).
Act based rights violations can of course also be national or international. If Joy’s government is corrupt and allows the country’s national resources to be expropriated by foreign companies that fill the pockets of government officials, then that will be the cause of her poverty.
In the case of national legal rule based violations, the cause of violations may be incidental or structural: the cause may be a single rule or a small set of specific rules (e.g. the enforcement of gender discrimination in education and work), but may also be a general failure of the rules in society. If Nigeria becomes a failed state, then that will be the cause of Joy’s poverty because it’s unlikely that an economy will flourish absent the rule of law and good governance – and if the economy won’t flourish, neither will Joy.
Other possible classifications of rights violations could differentiate between
- vertical and horizontal violations: vertical violations being those inflicted on individuals by a government, international institutions etc.; horizontal violations being those inflicted by individuals or groups on each other (both vertical and horizontal violations can be either rule or act based, caused by wrongful acts/rules or a failure to act/rule, national or international, incidental or structural etc.)
- zero sum violations, positive sum violations, or negative sum violations (Emmanuel or male citizens of Nigeria in general may profit from gender discrimination in the short run – zero sum – but may ultimately also suffer from it – negative sum – because gender discrimination reduces the pool of talent in a society)
- inflicted or self-inflicted violations (Joy may only have herself to blame for her poverty)
- current or transtemporal violations (Joy’s poverty may be the lingering effect of slavery)
In many parts of the world, women face legal restrictions of their property and inheritance rights. Apart from the obvious violation of the equal right to private property, there’s the fact that such legal restrictions form part of and serve to entrench a wider web of gender discrimination. Furthermore, they can impact women’s economic security and prosperity, their ability to obtain loans and credit, their privacy rights etc.
(source, click image to enlarge)
A lot of gender discrimination is informal and cultural, but some of it is still entrenched in legal norms. Often those norms are justified on the basis of a vague narrative about the need to protect women. That’s the case of many laws prohibiting the employment of women in certain sectors of the economy. Such limitations exist in 48 countries. The human rights consequences are numerous:
- These limitations violate the right to work.
- They also make women dependent on the income of their husbands, and this dependence can be used by husbands to entrench other forms of gender discrimination.
- Labor market restrictions force women into marriages they would otherwise not choose, and they probably encourage child marriage.
- Because women live longer, tend to have smaller saving rates and are not allowed to inherit in certain countries, labor market restrictions can result in poverty in old age.
Asking people if they think some types of human rights violations are acceptable is one way to measure levels of respect for human rights. Although not all those who think such violations are acceptable will actually engage in them, it’s clear a certain number of them will; and almost all of them will tolerate violations and fail to report them. Hence, perceptions of acceptability of violations – captured by way of surveys – are a good indication of prevalence of violations, and while they cannot provide exact figures on the numbers of violations, they can yield interesting cross-country comparisons.
Here’s an example about domestic violence:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Domestic violence – which in most cases means men physically harming women (either their wives or daughters) – has a number of human rights implications. It is obviously a violation of the right to bodily integrity, and possibly the right to life. But it also serves to maintain a patriarchal system of gender inequality and discrimination.
Matters are made worse by the reluctance of many governments to interfere in families’ private affairs, perhaps on account of some misunderstood respect for the right to privacy – although the more likely reason is gender prejudice among those who legislate and make policy. For example, most countries have no legislation outlawing marital rape, and those who have often fail to enforce it:
(source, click image to enlarge)
Legislation can apparently make a difference:
Less people think domestic violence is acceptable in countries that have legislation against it. However, it’s not clear which way the causation goes: a widely shared belief that domestic violence is unacceptable can be caused by legislation, but legislation can also be the effect of beliefs. And if less women report domestic violence in countries that have legislation, it may be due to the fact that legislation deters violence, but it may also be the case that countries that have legislation had a prior culture that is less accepting of domestic violence.
By the way, the numbers of women reporting domestic violence isn’t necessarily a better indicator or measurement basis of domestic violence. After all, when domestic violence is widespread, it will deter reporting. So less reporting of domestic violence can paradoxically indicate a higher prevalence.
More posts about problems with human rights measurement are here.
In Chechnya, security forces shoot paintball pellets at women leaving home without a headscarf:
Chechnya’s strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has imposed an Islamic dress code on women, and his feared security forces have used paintball guns, threats and insults against those refusing to obey. …
Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of women who have experienced or witnessed attacks or harassment for their refusal to adhere to the Islamic dress code.
One of the victims, identified as Louiza, told the rights group that she and a friend were attacked while walking down Putin Avenue in Grozny on a hot day last June, wearing skirts a little below the knee, blouses with sleeves a bit above the elbow and no headscarves. Suddenly a car without a license plate pulled up, its side window rolled down and a gun barrel pointed at them.
“I thought the gun was real and when I heard the shots I thought: ‘This is death,’” she recalled in the report. “I felt something hitting me in the chest and was sort of thrown against the wall of a building.
“The sting was awful, as if my breasts were being pierced with a red-hot needle, but I wasn’t fainting or anything and suddenly noticed some strange green splattering on the wall and this huge green stain was also expanding on my blouse.”
The 25-year-old woman said her friend was hit on her legs and stumbled to the ground. Men dressed in the black uniform of Kadyrov’s security forces looked out of the car’s windows, laughing and sneering. …
Threatening leaflets also appeared on the streets of Grozny, warning women that those who fail to wear headscarves could face “more persuasive measures.” …
Kadyrov told local television that he was ready to give awards to the men who carried out the attacks and that the targeted women deserved the treatment. (source)
The human sex ratio is approximately 1:1. In many countries, however, and especially in China and India, there are a lot more men than women. The most important cause of this are social and cultural pressures in favor of boys. It’s estimated that there are about 100 million fewer women and girls than there should be. The term “gendercide” has been coined to explain these “missing women”. Sex selective abortions, maternal mortality resulting from substandard healthcare systems, violence against women and girls and other forms of gender discrimination combine to create this gendercide.
Sex selective abortions in some of the richer states of Northern India are creating ratios of just 300 girls for every 1000 boys. This phenomenon is most common among richer families, who can afford to find out the sex of their fetus and pay for an abortion. In poorer families, the problem tends to be neglect of girls and sometimes infanticide. It’s against the law in India to tell expectant parents the sex of their fetus, but the law is poorly enforced.
In China, the one-child policy is aggravating the effect.
Here are a few maps showing skewed sex ratios (the current world wide sex ratio is 107 boys to 100 girls):
About 6.2% of potential female births are aborted in India because ultrasound reveals the sex. That’s 480,000/year, which is more than the number of girls born in the UK each year. The estimates suggest that Indian families desire two boys and a girl (source). And things seem to be getting worse, as is evident from the sex ratio:
On the same day the country’s [Bulgaria's] defense minister lifted its ban on women serving on submarines, the parliament voted to mothball the country’s only submarine. It’s the thought that counts, I guess. (source)
Using data obtained from the United States Sentencing Commission’s records, we examine whether there exists any gender-based bias in criminal sentencing decisions. … Our results indicate that women receive more lenient sentences even after controlling for circumstances such as the severity of the offense and past criminal history. …
Studies of federal prison sentences consistently find unexplained racial and gender disparities in the length of sentence and in the probability of receiving jail time and departures from the Sentencing Guidelines. These disparities disfavor blacks, Hispanics, and men. A problem with interpreting these studies is that the source of the disparities remains unidentified. The gravest concern is that sentencing disparities are the result of prejudice, but other explanations have not been ruled out. For example, wealth and quality of legal counsel are poorly controlled for and are undoubtedly correlated with race. …
The findings regarding gender in the case of serious offenses are quite striking: the greater the proportion of female judges in a district, the lower the gender disparity for that district. I interpret this as evidence of a paternalistic bias among male judges that favors women. (source)
- Defendant’s gender affects length of sentence (sciencedaily.com)
An “honor killing” gang murdered a married couple in their home when they set fire to the wrong house. Abdullah Mohammed and wife Aysha [not in the image] suffocated after petrol was poured through their letterbox and set alight by the gang of young men. …
Four men were yesterday found guilty of murdering the husband and wife, including 21-year-old gang leader Hisamuddin Ibrahim who had intended to attack a man who was having an affair with his married sister. (source)
- Journalist: Women raped at Abu Ghraib were later ‘honor killed’ (angryindian.blogspot.com)
- Honor killings (thehill.com)
- Editorial: Only Horror in ‘Honor Killings’ (nytimes.com)
You are a woman living alone in a one-room tin shack that you rent in Africa’s second largest slum. Because you live near the equator, it is completely dark by 7:00 every evening. You don’t have electricity, and there are no street lights. In fact, there are no “streets” – just a maze of well-worn dirt paths. The only light outside comes from paraffin lanterns hanging from kiosks.
You need to go to the bathroom, but your landlord has not provided any toilet facilities for you or your neighbors. The nearest pit latrine, which is shared by more than 100 people, is almost half a mile away, and it takes 10 minutes to walk there. The last time you left your house to walk to the latrine at night, a gang of young men grabbed you and threatened to rape you, saying that no nice girl would be out on her own at that hour. You were lucky to escape when nearby residents heard your screams and came to see what was wrong.
There are no police posts in this slum; the closest police station is several miles away in a middle-class neighborhood. You know if those gang members come back for you, there is nowhere to turn for help. So you decide to use a “flying toilet” – a plastic bag that you use, then throw out into the open sewer that runs alongside the alley outside your house.
This is the choice that hundreds of thousands of Kenyan women face every day in Nairobi’s slums. (source)
- Kenya slum violence ‘traps women’ (news.bbc.co.uk)
- Kenyan Women Risk Rape to Get to a Bathroom (abcnews.go.com)
I’ve discussed the role of framing before: the way in which you ask questions in surveys influences the answers you get and therefore modifies the survey results. (See here and here for instance). It happens quite often that polling organizations or media inadvertently or even deliberately frame questions in a way that will seduce people to answer the question in a particular fashion. In fact you can almost frame questions in such a way that you get any answer you want.
However, the questioner may matter just as much as the question.
Consider this fascinating new study, based on surveys in Morocco, which found that the gender of the interviewer and how that interviewer was dressed had a big impact on how respondents answered questions about their views on social policy. …
[T]his paper asks whether and how two observable interviewer characteristics, gender and gendered religious dress (hijab), affect survey responses to gender and non-gender-related questions. [T]he study finds strong evidence of interviewer response effects for both gender-related items, as well as those related to support for democracy and personal religiosity … Interviewer gender and dress affected responses to survey questions pertaining to gender, including support for women in politics and the role of Shari’a in family law, and the effects sometimes depended on the gender of the respondent. For support for gender equality in the public sphere, both male and female respondents reported less progressive attitudes to female interviewers wearing hijab than to other interviewer groups. For support for international standards of gender equality in family law, male respondents reported more liberal views to female interviewers who do not wear hijab, while female respondents reported more liberal views to female respondents, irrespective of dress. (source, source)
Other data indicate that the effect occurs in the U.S. as well. This is potentially a bigger problem than the framing effect since questions are usually public and can be verified by users of the survey results, whereas the nature of the questioner is not known to the users.
- The Nation: Sexism Creeps Up Again For Kagan (npr.org)
- CU’Independent : Sexism [Image] (scaryideas.com)
- Sexism in the Workplace Hurts, New Study Finds (livescience.com)
For nearly two decades, Minnesota native Steve Horner has crusaded against what he considers a monumental injustice: Ladies’ night.
The complaints he filed with Human Rights Departments in several states have earned him at least $6,000 in damages for being denied ladies’ special prices at bars…
[T]he white, balding, bespectacled Horner compared his quest to Rosa Parks’ refusal to go to the back of the bus…
“I believe that to be vigilantly in defense of the constitution, one needs to speak up about these issues,” Horner said in an interview. (source)
Many were stunned when Saudi cleric Sheik Abdel Mohsen Obeikan recently issued a fatwa, or Islamic ruling, calling on women to give breast milk to their male colleagues or men they come into regular contact with so as to avoid illicit mixing between the sexes.
But a group of Saudi women has taken the controversial decree a step further in a new campaign to gain the right to drive in the ultra-conservative kingdom, media reports say.
If they’re not granted the right to drive, the women are threatening to breastfeed their drivers to establish a symbolic maternal bond…
Some Islamic scholars frown on the mixing of unmarried men and women. Islamic tradition, or hadith, stipulates that breastfeeding establishes a maternal bond, even if a woman breastfeeds a child who is not her own.
The current driving ban applies to all women in Saudi Arabia, regardless of their nationality, and it’s been a topic of heated public debate in recent years.
The ban on driving was unofficial at first but was introduced as official legislation after 47 Saudi women drove cars through the streets of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in 1990 in an attempt to challenge authorities.
The incident brought harsh consequences for the women, who were jailed for a day and had their passports confiscated. Many of them were said to have been forced to leave their jobs after the driving protest.
Still, every now and then, reports of Saudi women driving in defiance of the ban emerge in the media. (source)
You can never be too zealous when you have to protect the rights of women:
Oklahoma is poised to become the first state in the nation to ban state judges from relying on Islamic law known as Sharia when deciding cases.
The ban is a cornerstone of a “Save our State” amendment to the Oklahoma constitution that was recently approved by the Legislature. The amendment — which also would forbid judges from using international laws as a basis for decisions — will now be put before Oklahoma’s voters in November. Approval is expected.
Oklahoma has few Muslims – only 30,000 out of a population of 3.7 million. The prospect of sharia being applied there seems remote.
But a chief architect of the measure, Republican State Rep. Rex Duncan, calls the proposed ban a necessary “preemptive strike” against Islamic law coming to the state. (source)
By the way, those are the same Republicans who want US law to be based on the Ten Commandments and want to outlaw such women’s rights as abortion… More about Shari’a (which is of course an abomination, but an unlikely one in the West) and gender discrimination. More human rights nonsense.
Once more on the issue of Muslim headscarves (see here and here for previous posts), because the controversy doesn’t seem to be going away. Belgium, my home country, has the dubious honor of being the first western country outlawing the burqa. Other countries like France seem set to follow, or have already interpreted existing laws on masks or police checks creatively in order to impose fines on women wearing a veil. Forcing Muslim women to show their faces is no longer a fringe xenophobic fantasy.
First of all, and before you get upset that a human rights activist such as me doesn’t take a more outspoken position against the veil, let me stress that I do worry a lot about gender discrimination (as regular readers can attest). I do believe that the veil – especially the complete face and body veil such as the burqa or the niqab – is an expression of a culture in which equal rights for women are – to put it mildly – not a priority. That doesn’t mean that every woman who wears a veil does so because of coercion or discrimination, or because she doesn’t have a right not to. Some do, but others wear it voluntarily, although the degree of “voluntariness” is something that’s always difficult to establish given the subtle effects of social pressure, tradition and education that are often difficult to notice – even for the self. However, it can be argued that also those women who wear the veil in a truly voluntary way – if truly voluntary can be something real, which I hope – contribute to an ideology of female inferiority and make it harder for other women who would like to remove the veil to do so.
Moreover, there can be different motives for wearing the veil voluntarily. Women can believe that this is a requirement of their religion (the Quran only seems to require “modest dress”), and that disregard of such requirements amounts to sin. Or women can decide to wear the veil for strategic reasons. They may believe – correctly I think – that wearing the veil enhances their freedom, for example their freedom of movement. One can argue that this strategic use of the veil isn’t truly voluntary, but that doesn’t make it wrong. I’m personally open to the argument that a prohibition of the veil can result in de facto house arrest for some women: their husbands may decide to force them to stay at home if they aren’t allowed to wear the veil in public. Now you might say that one evil doesn’t excuse another, but there is something called a lesser evil (I’ve made a similar point about sweatshops not so long ago). If wearing the veil allows women to venture outside of the home that is undoubtedly a positive side effect of something that in general may be a moral negative.
What about the arguments in favor of prohibition? Some of them are very weak indeed. It’s not because the veil makes some people uncomfortable that it should be prohibited. It’s not difficult to imagine the horror of the place where everything that makes someone uncomfortable is outlawed. Security risks also aren’t a very strong reason for a general ban, since women can be required to lift their veil in specific circumstances. The argument that modern democracies should be “secular” and that this requires the banning of religious symbols in public is indefensible in view of the human right to freedom of religion.
Some claim that the ban on the burqa is just one of many existing and undisputed restrictions on how people can dress in public: people can’t walk naked in the streets; or wear stockings on their heads inside bank buildings etc. But this confuses types of dress that are not religiously inspired with types that are. Religion does receive special protection in the system of human rights, and this special protection should be recognized if human rights are to be respected. Conflating religious dress with dress in general does not allow you to fully respect human rights. That doesn’t mean that the burqa can’t be banned in specific circumstances where there’s a good reason to do so – in Court rooms, in schools etc. But these exceptions don’t justify banning it altogether. (The justification for a ban in Court rooms is obvious and doesn’t need spelling out. A ban in schools – for both teachers and pupils – is justified on the grounds of the need for adequate education. In addition, there’s a phenomenon of peer pressure in some schools, where girls who wear the veil force others to comply).
How about the argument based on gender equality? That seems a lot stronger at first sight. But isn’t it true that gender equality wouldn’t be advanced a whole lot by a burqa ban? (Maybe a ban would even be bad for gender equality, if it forces women to stay home). And isn’t it also true that other measures in favor of gender equality, such as better education, stricter laws and better enforcement on domestic violence etc., would prove much more effective?
There’s another argument in favor of a ban, and it’s a pretty strong one, although you hardly ever hear it. A democratic community requires a common citizenship and a public space in which people can deliberate freely on their preferred policies. If democracy was just an exercise in voting, it would be compatible with the veil. It would even be compatible with complete solipsism and individuals never meeting each other. But it’s more than that. The burqa and niqab are – to some extent – incompatible with deliberation. One could argue that this only justifies a partial ban, namely a ban in places where deliberation occurs, and when it occurs. Just like the partial ban in Court rooms is justified. The question is of course whether proponents of the veil can accommodate a partial ban. Perhaps their religious belief requires the veil in all circumstances. However, we are allowed to require some level of flexibility of them. Rights often come into conflict with one another (take for example the right to free speech of the journalist wishing to expose the private life of a politician). And that’s the case here: the right to democratic government and the right to religious liberty should be balanced against each other, and maybe the former should take precedence. After all, not everything is justified on the grounds of religious liberty: for example, no one in the West argues that mutilation as a punishment for crime is justified, not even when it is prescribed by a religion.
I’ve discussed the possible causes of terrorism before on this blog. (I don’t think I need to spell out the ways in which terrorism is a human rights issue; beyond the obvious violations of the human rights of the direct victims of terrorism there are serious human rights implications of the so-called ”war on terror“). I looked at unemployment and poverty and lack of education, but found that the evidence isn’t there. I also looked at the influence of radical media (see also here), but most people would say it’s simply religion. I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I found this interesting quote that possibly sheds some light on the motivation of female suicide bombers:
O’Rourke proposes an interesting theory that many female suicide bombers are in fact operating out of very traditional instincts. They want to restore gender norms that they have somehow violated. They are, she writes, “women who realize they have deviated, intentionally or unintentionally, from the gender behavior norms of their society and may feel pressure to reaffirm a connection to it.” They have lost their rightful place by being raped, or divorced, or infertile, or failing to get married, and bombing restores them to a place of honor in their community. Female suicide bombers, for example, tend to be a few years older than their male counterparts, and past marrying age. One failed Palestinian bomber O’Rourke profiles, for example, is 35 and tomboy-ish, maybe even transgendered. When asked what motivated her, she said, “Who would want to marry someone like me?” (source, source, source)
There’s an interesting phenomenon called the stereotype threat, or, in other words, the threat of stereotypes about one’s capacity to succeed at something: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. (Some say that this is a type of confirmation bias, a tendency for people to prefer information that confirms their existing preconceptions – they selectively collect new evidence, interpret evidence in a biased way or selectively recall information from memory. But I’m not convinced).
A typical example of stereotype threat manifests itself when a categorical group is told or shown that their group’s performance is worse than other groups before giving them a test; the test results are often abnormally lower than for control groups. For example, on a mathematics test, if you remind a group of girls that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it is likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have had they not been told. (source)
Here’s another example:
[Irwin] Katz found that Blacks were able to score better on an IQ test, if the test was presented as a test of eye-hand coordination. Blacks also scored higher on an IQ test when they believed the test would be compared to that of other blacks. Katz concluded that his subjects were thoroughly aware of the judgment of intellectual inferiority held by many white Americans. With little expectation of overruling this judgment, their motivation was low, and so were their scores. (source)
Indeed, that could be one explanation of the stereotype threat. Or it could simply be that people score worse because they are anxious about confirming the stereotype, and that this anxiety provokes stress because of the will to do well and prove that the prejudice is wrong. Ironically, they score worse: this anxiety and stress makes them less able to perform at normal levels. Or it could be something more sinister: something like internalization of oppression. People who suffered prejudice for centuries can perhaps convince themselves of their group’s inferiority. When this inferiority is made explicit beforehand, they are reminded of it, and somehow their recollected feelings of inferiority tweak their performance.
So inferior test results – compared to control groups who haven’t been exposed to explicit stereotypes before the test – can be caused by
- a lack of motivation to disprove entrenched and difficult to change prejudices
- stress and anxiety, or
- recollected feelings of inferiority.
Or perhaps something else I’m not thinking of at the moment.
Some say that this is all crap, and an extreme example of the file drawer effect or publication bias: those studies that find positive results are more likely to be published, the others stay in the file drawer. I don’t know. I do think it’s true that whatever the reality of the stereotype threat, talk about it can have perverse effects: differences in test scores are considered to be wholly explained by the threat, and real education discrimination or differences in economic opportunities are removed from the picture. In that way, the stereotype threat functions as a solidifier of prejudice and stereotype, quite the opposite of what was intended.
Assuming the threat is real, Michel Foucault comes to mind. Foucault wrote about power and the different ways it operates. Rather than just force or the threat of force, he found “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving subjugation”. If you can convince people of their own inferiority you don’t have to do anything else. They will take themselves down. Or at least you may be able to convince people that it’s useless to struggle against prejudice because it’s so entrenched that you may as well adapt your behavior and confirm it. Also, Foucault’s claim that “power is everywhere” can be used here: power over people is even in their own minds. For Foucault,
power is not enforcement, but ways of making people by themselves behave in other ways than they else would have done. … Foucault claims belief systems gain momentum (and hence power) as more people come to accept the particular views associated with that belief system as common knowledge. Such belief systems define their figures of authority, such as medical doctors or priests in a church. Within such a belief system—or discourse—ideas crystallize as to what is right and what is wrong, what is normal and what is deviant. Within a particular belief system certain views, thoughts or actions become unthinkable. These ideas, being considered undeniable “truths”, come to define a particular way of seeing the world, and the particular way of life associated with such “truths” becomes normalized. (source)
The stereotype threat is a good example of a system that makes people behave in other ways, and of a belief system (based on prejudice) that becomes common knowledge, even among those targeted by the prejudice. Even they see it as unthinkable that their own inferiority is prejudice rather than knowledge.
The Economist has a front page story this week on “gendercide”, the millions of girls missing in the world, especially in India and China. Perhaps as many as 100 million girls have disappeared in the last decades because of
- selective abortions encouraged by new medical technology (ultrasounds and fertility technology)
- childhood neglect of girls (nutritional, educational neglect and neglect in health care)
- prejudice, preference for male offspring and
- population policies such as the “one child policy” in China.
I’ve written about this several times before (see here, here and here), and even called it a “boomerang human rights violation“: the skewed sex ratios that result from gendercide (in some areas of China, 130 boys are being born for every 100 girls) are coming back to haunt the men that are responsible (although many mothers probably aren’t without fault either). Because of their relative scarcity, women have found an unlikely source of power. They have a competitive advantage in the marriage market, and can demand more in marriage negotiations, or at least be more selective when choosing a mate.
In my view, the word “gendercide” is somewhat overwrought because, contrary to genocide, the word that inspired the neologism of gendercide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women. Femicide would be a better term since it’s obviously only one of two genders that’s targeted, but it still sounds like a government organized campaign of extermination. Gendercide is the result of a combination of causes:
- individual choices based on
- plain prejudice against girls
- cultural and legal traditions, or
- economic incentives that have been formed by historical prejudice.
Perhaps girls still need a dowry, and poor parents may find it difficult to save enough and hence prefer a boy. Or perhaps they prefer a boy because the law of their country or tribe – inspired by age-old prejudice – says that only boys can inherit land or the family business. Again, the parents may prefer a boy for this reason, not because they dislike girls. Or perhaps tradition holds that girls marry off into their husbands families, and parents simply want to be sure to have someone in their home to care for them when they are old (“raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden”, is a Hindu saying).
The consequences of gendercide are mixed. It’s obviously horrible to the girls that are aborted or neglected to death. But, as in the “boomerang” case cited above, gendercide may ultimately empower women. However, the skewed sex ratios also spell trouble: the presence of armies of men who can’t find wives and have children (“bare branches” or “guanggun” they are called in China) may result in more sexual violence, depression, suicide, human trafficking etc. It’s estimated that in 10 years time, one in five young Chinese men won’t be able to find a bride. On the other hand, a shortage of women will encourage immigration, and immigration may help some women escape poverty, and perhaps will also result in more intercultural tolerance.
Economic development won’t stop it. In China and India, the regions with the worst sex ratios are wealthy ones, with educated populations. Even in some population strata in the U.S. sex ratios are skewed. When people escape poverty, fertility rates drop, and when families have fewer children, the need to select for sex only becomes more important in order to realize their son preference. In poor societies with high fertility rates, families are almost destined to have a boy at some point. Female children will suffer relative neglect and may die more often and more rapidly (skewing the sex ratios), but selective abortions aren’t much of a risk: families don’t really feel the need to limit the number of children (on the contrary often, because children are a workforce), and ultrasound technology for sex determination of fetuses isn’t as readily available as in rich countries or regions. When families want few children – as they do in more developed regions – or are forced by the government to limit their number of children (as in China), they will abort female fetuses in pursuit of a son.
Ultimately, only a cultural change will help. The son preference has to die out. Education probably will help, as it always does. Ending pernicious policies such as the one child policy will also help, but then overpopulation hysterics will have to be dealt with. This policy didn’t help stop population growth anyway. Other East Asian countries reduced population pressure as much as China without brutal policies.
Old customs and discriminating laws should also be abolished. Think of the dowry system, or inheritance rights. Stigmatizing abortion, especially sex selective abortion, will also help.
Both straight and gay adoptive parents [in the U.S.] are likely to exhibit racial and sex-based biases when applying to adopt a child, a new study finds. … The authors found that girls are consistently preferred to boys. For non-African-American babies, for example, the probability that a prospective adoptive parent expresses interest in such a baby is 11.5 percent if the baby is a girl and 7.9 percent if the baby is a boy.
Interestingly, in many cultures the preference for biological children runs in the opposite direction, with parents strongly preferring boys instead of girls. The authors suggest that this preference for girls in cases of adoptive children may be because adoptive parents “fear dysfunctional social behavior in adopted children and perceive girls as ‘less risky’ than boys in that respect.”
Additionally, Caucasians and Hispanics are consistently preferred to African-Americans. The probability that a non-African-American baby will attract the interest of an adoptive parent is at least seven times as high as the corresponding probability for an African-American baby. The desire for white babies can be partly, but not fully, explained by the fact that most of the adoptive parents in this data set were white; previous research has found that adoptive parents often want children who look similar to themselves. …
In some ways, gay adoptive parents were more “selective”. Somewhat ironically (at least considering the continued social prejudice against their own family structures), same-sex couples and single women appeared to exhibit even stronger prejudice in favor of girls and against African-American babies than their opposite-sex couple counterparts. (source)
This paper finds that the cost of adopting a black baby needs to be $38,000 lower than the cost of a white baby, in order to make parents indifferent to race. Boys will need to cost $16,000 less than girls (source). The latter point seems to contradict the son preference for live births in many countries (leading even to gendercide).
(source, photo by Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times/October 28, 2009)
Three officers with Aceh province’s civilian morality police allegedly detained a couple, raping the 20-year-old woman. Activists say the charges undermine the patrol’s legitimacy … [The] civilian patrol … enforces Islam’s strict Sharia law in Indonesia’s Aceh province …
“They don’t have the authority to detain people — their role is to give moral advice, that’s it,” said Norma Manalu, director of Aceh’s human rights coalition. “They misused their power.” Aceh’s ”vice and virtue patrol” enforces religious codes across the only province in the nation to employ Sharia, or Islamic law, for its criminal code. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Sharia was introduced in 2002 after the region was granted autonomy as part of efforts to end a decades-long guerrilla war. Supervisors say the Sharia police, formed three years later, consider themselves the community’s public conscience.
In September, Aceh’s provincial parliament passed a law saying that people who commit adultery can be sentenced to death by stoning. The measure, which still must be approved by the governor, has outraged human rights groups here, which say it will be used to unfairly target women.
The Sharia policemen allegedly stopped a couple by the road near a plantation. In an interview, the victim’s father said his daughter’s friend was beaten by the group and the couple was then brought to a nearby Sharia police station. The men later returned while off duty and raped the woman, investigators say. “She was treated like an animal. They suffocated and raped her — it was inhumane,” the victim’s father said. “She’s in deep trauma.”
Marzuki Abdullah, head of the 1,500-member Sharia police force, said the case was not linked to the patrols because any crime the officers might have committed was done while they were off duty.
Activists say the case should bring a review of the patrols. “It’s time for the Sharia police to introspect their institution, role and officers,” Manalu said. “Are they really needed to judge our morality? We don’t have any guarantees that they have a higher moral standard than us.” (source)
The Muslim headscarf is back in the news. First some schools in Belgium decided to ban the headscarves, and then the French government started a discussion about the Burqa. (We should be careful when discussing the “Muslim headscarf” because the concept covers a wide variety of garments, going from the simple veil covering only the hair, over the Niqab leaving only the eyes uncovered, to the Burqa covering the whole body and providing only a grid to see through).
I already expressed my doubts about such bans, and particularly about singling out Muslim women. Why not also Hasidic women wearing wigs, Christians wearing crosses, Sikhs wearing Turbans etc.? It just reeks of islamophobia. It’s true that the Muslim veil, compared to dress codes of other religions or cultures, and especially the less revealing types of veil, can be interpreted as signs of gender discrimination, and even causes of gender discrimination (because wearing a full-body veil inhibits the agency of women and makes them more vulnerable to patriarchical power). However, I fail to see how a simple ban of the veil will result in less discrimination. That would be just “kurieren am Symptomen”. Other, more effective measures are required against gender discrimination, and not only in Muslim society.
On the other hand, the Belgian schools justified their decision by pointing to the fact that many Muslim girls who don’t cover their heads are threatened and pressured by their more pious fellow girl students, as well as by their male Muslim fellow students. So there is a clear dilemma here: banning the scarf means restricting the free choice and the religious liberty of those girls who voluntarily choose to wear it; allowing the scarf means restricting the free choice of those girls not wanting to wear it and allowing the existence of signs and means of gender discrimination. The headscarf ban can be interpreted as either a violation of rights (religious liberty, freedom of choice) or a protection of rights (gender equality, freedom of choice).
There are also those who claim, perhaps not without reason, that young Muslim girls are really not ready to make an informed choice since they may have been indoctrinated from early childhood on. Creating an environment where they can meet girls who don’t cover their head will allow them to make an informed choice. And if such an environment means banning the veil in schools because peer pressure would result in the generalization of the veil, then so be it. The girls who want to wear the veil can still do it outside of school. (More on informed consent here).
The problem here is that it is assumed that girls can’t make an informed choice, and that those who wear the veil are ignorant and indoctrinated and need to be saved and re-educated. Such a view of girls as passive victims of their oppressive religion can itself be an expression of gender discrimination. And even if it’s not, it signals that women are inferior and hence helps to solidify what it intends to destroy. (Hat tip to Eva Declercq)
Regular readers of this blog know that we strongly believe in the importance of accurate data and numbers on human rights violations. This is perhaps even more the case for the rights violation that is called ”poverty”: one can assume that, to some extent, poverty can be tackled more efficiently with adequate government policy, compared to other types of rights violations which perhaps are relatively more dependent on cultural and religious factors that are resistent to government intervention. (Which doesn’t mean poverty can’t have cultural causes, or that the cultural causes of other types of rights violations have to be accepted fatalistically). And adequate government policy depends on good statistics.
Regular readers also know that we believe that the importance of human rights statistics is matched by their lack of quality. One example of this is the often quoted but baseless claim that 70% of the world’s poor are women. This is a number that seems to have come from nowhere yet it has taken on a life of its own. The reason is probably that it has some intuitive appeal. Theoretically, the claim that being female places someone at a greater risk of being poor is convincing. Gender discrimination – which is a deceptively neutral term meaning discrimination of one gender only - is a widespread problem and it’s highly probable that women who suffer discrimination are more likely to be poor and to remain poor. They
- receive less education
- receive lower wages
- cannot freely choose their jobs in some countries
- have less inheritance rights than men in some countries
- perform the bulk of the household tasks making it relatively hard to accumulate income
- are responsible for the household income (men are often culturally allowed to escape into leisure and get away from the burdens of poverty)
- suffer disproportionately from some types of violence
- and face very specific health risks related to procreation.
All these problems faced by women who suffer discrimination make it more likely that they are relatively more burdened by poverty, compared to men who usually don’t suffer these types of discrimination.
Moreover, when young women begin to enjoy better education and employment we often see that the discriminatory features of the family structures and patriarchal systems in which they live make fresh appeals to their newly found human capital. As a result, their improved capabilities only serve to push them more into poverty. Poverty, after all, isn’t merely a question of sufficient income and capabilities, but is also determined by the availability of choice, opportunities and leisure.
So it’s obvious that men and women are poor for different reasons, and that some of the reasons that make women poor make them relatively more poor compared to men.
This is the intuitive case, but it appears that it’s very difficult to back this up with hard numbers. The “70%” claim is unlikely to be correct, but if we agree that discrimination skews the distribution, then how much? And how much of it is compensated by factors that skew the distribution towards male poverty (e.g. male participation in wars). The problem is that poverty data are usually available only for households in aggregate and aren’t broken down by individuals, sex, age etc. So it’s currently impossible to say: “this household is poor, and the female parent/child is more poor than the male parent/child”. In addition, even in households that aren’t poor according to standard measures, the women inside these households may well be poor. Women is non-poor households may be unable to access the household’s income or wealth because of discrimination.
Given the problems of the current poverty measurement system, I think it’s utopian to expect improvements in the system that will allow us to adequately measure female poverty and test the hypothesis of the feminization of poverty.
More posts in this series are here.
Equal political representation and an equal share of women in parliaments and the executives is obviously a human rights issue. In a representative democracy, one can reasonably expect to have a parliament that is roughly representative of the population in general: poor people should have their representatives or delegates just like rich people, women just like men, minorities just like majorities. This “representativity” or “representativeness” isn’t an absolute requirement. One can have a democracy without it. The people, after all, may decide that their views are best represented by an all-male, all-white body of parliamentarians for example.
However, it seems statistically unlikely that this would be their decision in each consecutive election in each democratic country. Imbalances in the demographics of parliament that persist over time and space are probably not the result of the choices of voters but of other factors, such as discrimination, unequal opportunities etc. If that’s the case, we are dealing with an imperfect democracy because democracy means equal influence and an equal chance to get elected (art. 21 of the Universal Declaration and art. 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
And that seems to be the case. Some people, therefore, propose “pink quotas” which impose minimum numbers of female representatives (something like affirmative action or positive discrimination). I’ll discuss the desirability of such quotas another time.
Here’s a video of the event (not very clear I’m afraid):
And this is Emily:
We usually distinguish between three different origins of human rights violations:
- The state. States commit rights violations for different reasons. Rulers may believe that such violations are necessary in order to maintain power, undermine or destroy the opposition, and impose some world view or economic organization of society. Or they may think that some types of violations are necessary evils when faced with certain risks. For example, torture or indefinite detention can appear to be a reasonable price to pay in order to reduce the risk of terrorism. States can also violate human rights unintentionally: lawmakers can draft a legal system that unnecessarily encroaches on private freedom (e.g. the “nanny state“). And, finally, a state can violate rights, not – as in the previous cases – by doing something it shouldn’t do, but by failing to do what it should do: a state that doesn’t provide an efficient judiciary or police force will be unable to protect the rights of its citizens and will be an accessory to rights violations.
- Selfishness. In the case of economic human rights – such as the right not to suffer poverty – it’s often greed, lack of compassion or generosity, or the absence of sufficient and adequate aid and intervention that causes rights violations. Selfishness can cause both individuals and states to violate rights. States, for example, can uphold international trade structure or protectionist legal systems that favor the local economy at the expense of relatively poor exporters elsewhere.
- Culture. Some say that certain elements of cultures and religions lead to practices that violate human rights. And then usually we get a mention of Islam, Shari’a, muslim misogyny etc. Here as well, we see that both states and individuals can use culture as a reason to violate rights.
Oil production reduces the number of women in the labor force, which in turn reduces their political influence. As a result, oil-producing states are left with atypically strong patriarchal norms, laws, and political institutions. I support this argument with global data on oil production, female work patterns, and female political representation, and by comparing oil-rich Algeria to oil-poor Morocco and Tunisia. Michael Ross
Oil production and export crowd out other exports, and hence artificially restrict the manufacturing sector. Compared to oil production, manufacturing uses relatively large numbers of low wage workers, which is why manufacturing has always and everywhere been a booster for female labor participation. Female labor participation in turn has always and everywhere promoted female political representation and women’s rights. The paper shows that, in the Middle East, countries without much oil (like Morocco and Tunisia) do relatively well on gender equality, compared to oil-rich countries. The same is true when comparing oil-poor and oil-rich countries outside the Middle East.
If that’s correct, then it’s still cultural and religious practices and beliefs that cause gender discrimination, but these beliefs are themselves caused by or at least promoted by economic fundamentals. Sounds quite Marxian to me (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong!).
We usually see human rights violations are zero-sum: a rights violation is a harm inflicted by one person on another, for the benefit of the former. I mentioned before that this isn’t always the correct way of viewing rights violations, but it’s adequate in most cases. One case in which it’s only superficially adequate is what I would call the boomerang human rights violation: you think that violating someone’s rights may produce some benefit for you, and it does so initially, but the actual and final results mean that you become worse off.
There’s the obvious and uninteresting example of the dictator using extreme oppression and causing revolt, but here are some other, more intriguing examples. The first one has to do with the right to work.
Gene Marks is … a small business owner (he sells customer relationship management tools), who is attempting to speak to other small business owners, all of whom, presumably, are also delighted that the potential hiring pool is so chock full of talent desperate to be exploited right now.
But one wonders who exactly is supposed to purchase all those products and services from the small businesses of the world, if unemployment creeps up to the 10 percent mark or higher? High unemployment means low consumer demand. Which usually means small businesses end up going out of business, or at the very least, laying off more employees, who push the unemployment rate even higher. And so on. (source)
If, as a “capitalist” (i.e. employer), you want to take advantage of unemployment – or the risk of unemployment – to put downward pressure on wages and workers benefits – and thereby violate workers’ rights (a fair wage is a human right, as are favorable working conditions) – you’ll end up shooting yourself in the foot because neither hard working laborers who don’t earn a lot nor the unemployed will consume many of your products or services. I can see the appeal of the statement that generous unemployment benefits discourage people from finding a job, but such benefits do have advantages that go beyond the mere self-interest of the direct beneficiaries.
An ideal policy … would allow people to collect unemployment insurance indefinitely, and let the unemployed borrow or save money. This way, unemployment insurance would not merely be a financial band-aid letting people take risks on the job market and endure some jobless spells, but a critical source of “liquidity,” allowing the unemployed to keep spending reasonable amounts of money — which in turn helps create demand, something sorely lacking from the economy at the moment. (source)
And here’s another example, related to gender discrimination. In many countries, there’s a son preference: male offspring is considered more valuable than female offspring, for reasons to do with gender discrimination and social, cultural or religious views regarding the proper role of women in society. One of the consequences is the “missing girls” phenomenon. The sex ratios in many countries – India and China stand out - are out of balance. Some estimates say that 90 million women are “missing” worldwide. In somewhat overwrought rhetoric this is called gendercide.* Girls are often aborted in selective abortions (a one child policy can make this even more widespread), and young girls are often prejudiced against when it comes to nutrition and health care resulting in higher mortality rates.
The son preference and the missing girls phenomenon have their roots mainly in cultural beliefs, but economic considerations also play a role. Some professions are open only to men; girls marry “into” other families and hence can’t continue the family business; there’s the dowry problem etc. However, these economic considerations don’t stand on their own and are often the result of discriminatory cultural beliefs.
When we accept that gender discrimination and the will to sustain patriarchy is the cause of the son preference and the missing girls phenomenon, then we are dealing with a human rights violation. And also this rights violation can come back to haunt those responsible for it.
A societal preference for boys here has become an unlikely source of power for Indian women. The abortion of female fetuses in favor of sons — an illegal but widespread practice — means there are more eligible bachelors than potential brides, allowing women and their parents to be more selective when arranging a match. (source)
Rather than cementing patriarchy, the son preference and the resulting unbalanced sex ratios give women more bargaining power.
These and other boomerang rights violations are variants of what I’ve called self-inflicted rights violations: people violate other people’s rights, and in so doing they ultimately violate their own rights. I guess I msut be attracted to self-destructive and self-defeating behavior.
* The word is overwrought in my view because, contrary to genocide, there’s no centralized plan to exterminate women.
Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work (art. 23 of the Universal Declaration). So unequal pay is a human rights issue, and is probably an indication of a deeper kind of discrimination. However, unequal pay is an indication of wage discrimination, not proof. If men and women, on average receive unequal pay, it’s only discrimination if they perform equal work, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Female animalization is the depiction of women as animals, or as hybrid human-animals. It’s in fact a subgenre of female objectification, which is itself a subgenre of dehumanization (see also here). Depicting a woman as an animal means taking away her human characteristics and can lead to gender discrimination. It’s easier to deny the rights of an animal than the rights of an individual human being.
And of course there’s this infamous example of Michelle Obama’s face turned into a monkey face:
Some time ago, this image was the first to appear when people googled for images of Michelle Obama. Because of this Google issued this statement:
Sometimes Google search results from the Internet can include disturbing content, even from innocuous queries. We assure you that the views expressed by such sites are not in any way endorsed by Google.
Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. A site’s ranking in Google’s search results relies heavily on computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query.
The beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google, as well as the opinions of the general public, do not determine or impact our search results. Individual citizens and public interest groups do periodically urge us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search results. Although Google reserves the right to address such requests individually, Google views the integrity of our search results as an extremely important priority. Accordingly, we do not remove a page from our search results simply because its content is unpopular or because we receive complaints concerning it. We will, however, remove pages from our results if we believe the page (or its site) violates our Webmaster Guidelines, if we believe we are required to do so by law, or at the request of the webmaster who is responsible for the page.
We apologize if you’ve had an upsetting experience using Google. We hope you understand our position regarding offensive results.
The Google Team
At this point, I should probably mention that men as well can be animalized, and have been to great political effect throughout history. Here’s one example:
More examples featuring hated outgroups here.
More on advertising.
(this example is in fact also a case of objectification)
(an unusual example of sexism targeting males)
(Thanks to Eva Declercq for unwittingly suggesting this topic).
The politics of the body, or “body politics”, is a concept, originally used by early feminists I believe, to describe government policies or laws and cultural or social practices used by society to regulate and control the human body. Feminists focus on the female body but the case can be made that society controls both the female and the male body, obviously not always in the same way. The concept is also used to describe the opposite: the struggle against the social and political powers that try to control the body and the act of reclaiming bodily self-control, or corporal self-determination. Body politics has therefore a positive and a negative meaning: it’s both subordination and emancipation.
Corporal self-determination is obviously an important value. People should, in general, be able to do with their body what they want, free from interference by the state, by individuals or by groups in society.
Here are some examples of body politics:
Whether or not you believe that abortion should be allowed, you have to accept that legal prohibition and moral dissuasion of abortion are examples of body politics. In both cases, women who want an abortion lose their power to decide autonomously what to do with their bodies; society imposes rules on what individuals are allowed to do with their bodies; and power – legal or moral – is used to enforce these rules. You may believe that these rules are necessary in order to protect an overriding value that trumps the value of self-determination, in this case probably the value of the life of the unborn infant, or perhaps even the right to self-determination of the unborn infant. But you can’t dispute that you engage in body politics.
Similarly, legislation or social taboos prohibiting the free trade of organs (see also here) impose restrictions on the things people can do with their bodies. However, the analogy with abortion isn’t perfect, because proponents of restrictions can arguably claim that the sale of organs isn’t an expression of self-determination but of the lack of it: it’s typically poor people who are driven to the extreme of organ sale as a means to stay alive, while the richer you are the easier it is to get an abortion. Organ sale is then not an expression of the freedom to do with your body what you like, without paternalistic interference, but an expression of necessity and lack of freedom. Whatever the merits of this argument, restrictions on organ trade are clearly an example of body politics.
Capital punishment, corporal punishment, imprisonment
The state uses power in order to enforce or enact criminal punishment, and this is often power directed against the body of the convicted criminal and eliminating the criminal’s corporal self-determination (see here and here). There’s also the quasi-institutional practice of prison rape.
Sex trafficking and slavery, sexual violence, arranged marriages
Cultural norms regarding the acceptability of sexual violence (e.g. rape as a form of punishment, or female genital mutilation), of arranged marriages (which can be labeled a form of sexual violence), of the sale of children or wives for the purpose of prostitution are also examples of body politics. The women and children in question obviously lose their corporal self-determination.
Gender discrimination, the inferior treatment of women, and the imposition of gender roles, whether legally sanctioned or not, are other examples, although with a twist. Gender discrimination can remove the power of corporal self-determination of the women who fall victim to it – e.g. in the case of gender discrimination as expressed in sexual violence or in rules restricting the freedom of movement of women. But it doesn’t have to. For example, gender discrimination in wages (the wage gap) doesn’t affect corporal self-determination.
The body politics inherent in gender discrimination is more evident in the origins of discrimination than in the results. Gender roles, which often result in gender discrimination, are based on certain convictions regarding the physical inferiority of women (e.g. their lack of physical strength), or on the belief that the female body is made for specific tasks, and is perhaps even better than the male body for these tasks.
Likewise, rules that discriminate against women and restrict the things they can do, are generally based on dubious theories regarding the nature of the female body. Women are said to promote carnal lust, and their equal participation in life would have disrupting and destructive consequences.
Similarly, legislation or social taboos against homosexual relationships remove corporal self-determination and are based on certain beliefs about the nature of the human body.
Clearly, this isn’t a complete list of all possible cases of body politics, but it can serve the purpose of illustration (other examples could include rules prohibiting interracial marriage, bestiality taboos, legislation against assisted suicide etc.). What is also clear is that every case isn’t equally detrimental for self-determination. Some cases can even be justifiable from a liberal perspective. Self-determination, after all, isn’t the only value, and neither is it a value that necessarily trumps other values.
Perhaps it’s useful to put these examples of body politics in a drawing:
I mentioned some positive developments for gender equality in the U.S. in two previous posts (here and here). Particularly hopeful is the increasing level of education of women: they now earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees, 59% of master’s and 50% of doctorates. There’s also the increasing participation of women in the labor market. And this is no longer just marginal participation. Working women who are part of married couples produce almost half of family income:
within married-couple families, the typical working wife now brings home 42.2 percent of her household’s earnings. (source)
One in four mothers is now a so-called co-breadwinner mother: a mother taking care of minor children, in a married relationship, who brings home at least 25% of a family’s income (this was only 16% in 1967).
Almost 40% of mothers are breadwinner mothers: these include, obviously, working single mothers, but also working married mothers who earn as much as or more than their husbands (this was 12% in 1967).
Black wives and wives in families in the bottom income quintile are most likely to earn as much as their husbands. (source)
For a look at the many areas where progress should still be made, go here.
Female objectification (male objectification also exists, but is much less common) occurs when you regard or treat a woman as a thing or an object, separate from her personal and human attributes or characteristics. It’s often but not always sexual objectification, the reduction of an individual to a sexual object or instrument with no other purpose than the sexual gratification of male subjects. Sexual objectification and female objectification in general are tools of gender discrimination. It’s easier to deny the rights of an object than the rights of an individual human being. Objectification is a concept that’s closely linked to dehumanization (see also here).
Here are a few examples of objectification:
Here’s another version:
And yet another version:
National parliaments can be bicameral or unicameral. This map covers the single chamber in unicameral parliaments and the lower chamber in bicameral parliaments. It does not cover the upper chamber of bicameral parliaments. Seats are usually won by members in general parliamentary elections. Seats may also be filled by nomination, appointment, indirect election, rotation of members and by-election. Seats refer to the number of parliamentary mandates, or the number of members of parliament.
And this is the detail for the U.S.:
Parliament is obviously just one part of government. How about gender equality in other parts?
(source, click on the image to enlarge)
Read more about the reasons why this is a human rights issue.
(source, click to enlarge)
Libertarians traditionally adopt a negative kind of freedom, and, more precisely, limited negative freedom: they believe that individuals should be free from interference by the government. They seldom accept that individuals can be coerced by private and social constructs, such as tradition, the family, gender roles, cultural racism etc. Here’s a rather long but exceptionally well-written quote that makes this point:
I am disturbed by an inverse form of state worship I encounter among my fellow [libertarian] skeptics of government power. This is the belief that the only liberty worth caring about is liberty reclaimed from the state; that social pathologies such as patriarchy and nationalism are not the proper concerns of the individualist; that the fight for freedom stops where the reach of government ends. … [L]ibertarians for whom individualism is important cannot avoid discussions of culture, conformism, and social structure. Not every threat to liberty is backed by a government gun. … [W]hen a libertarian claims that his philosophy has no cultural content — has nothing to say, for instance, about society’s acceptance of gays and lesbians — he is engaging in a kind of cultural politics that welcomes the paternalism of the mob while balking at that of the state. …
To take a very basic example, at mid-century 5.5 percent of Americans entering medical school happened to have female bodies. This number may well have reflected women’s limited interest in pursuing medicine as a career. But that level of interest also reflected a particular view of women in positions of authority, a certain range of social spaces that girls could imagine themselves inhabiting. Norms that positioned women as wives and mothers obviously functioned as constraints on identity formation. None of this has much to do with limited government, but it has everything to do with individuals struggling to assert themselves against a collective. …
Libertarians will agree that laws requiring racial segregation and prohibiting victimless, though controversial, sexual practices are contrary to their creed. But if the constraints on freedom of association suddenly become social rather than bureaucratic [or legal] — if the neighborhood decides it does not want black residents, or the extended family decides it cannot tolerate gay sons — we do not experience a net expansion of freedom. Kerry Howley (source)
In other words, libertarians are stuck in the first part of the following equation:
Liberty = Freedom From the State + Freedom From Social Pressure + Equality of Opportunity
But there is also a tendency to go no further than the second part. Many accept that society can restrict the freedom of individuals, but don’t grant the same powers to inequality of opportunity. As I stated in two previous posts (here and here), it makes sense to view freedom more positively as the possession of resources and capabilities that are necessary to make a really free choice between alternatives and opportunities. The freedom of those without certain resources and capabilities (such as education, health and a basic income) is futile because they can’t exercise their freedom, not because they are actively interfered with by the state or by their social environment, but because they can’t choose between opportunities. Someone who’s left alone by her government, and who isn’t pressured by her family, tradition or society, may still lack freedom because she doesn’t have a basic income or education necessary to make choices and realize these choices. Amartya Sen has pioneered this view. Hence the importance of helping people to develop their capabilities, e.g. anti-poverty programs, investments in education and healthcare etc. Of course, it’s precisely such programs that often horrify libertarians…
We can now take the equation depicting the components of liberty, and plot this against the main political ideologies:
This is of course a gross simplification, but if you wanted to explain human political ideology to Martians, that’s probably how you could start:
- Libertarians focus on freedom against the state; freedom against social pressure isn’t very interesting or at least not a priority; equalizing opportunities, resources and capabilities is harmful because it empowers the state and violates property rights.
- Conservatives agree with libertarians on the first and last part of the equation, but preserve the right to use social pressure to impose their – often Christian – ideology (e.g. same-sex marriage), sometimes even with the help of the state (in which case the freedom from the state isn’t important anymore).
- Liberals think all three parts of the equation are important but sometimes struggle to find the right balance. So-called “big spending liberals” may accept a large state apparatus.
- Socialists focus on the last two parts, often at the expense of the first. State intervention is believed to be highly beneficial, without substantial risks to individual freedom.
Read other posts in this series.