Progressive Writers Bloc

Holding Up Half the Sky

Uncle Bill" Warner

Where, exactly is a woman's place, anyway? In pre-revolutionary China, the birth of a daughter was a sad thing. Many newborn baby girls with names like "Little Too Many" wound up being discarded in street corner "baby towers." Yet, China was the source of the saying that "Women hold up half the sky." Women in China today account for almost half the workforce, and have a huge presence in the medical field and teaching. Women's place is in the professions as well as in the rice fields.

You may remember the practice of "suttee" in the India of old where widows were supposed to throw themselves on their husband's funeral pyre, as they had no place in society without reference to their marriage partners. Things have definitely changed for the better since their colonial masters put a stop to that, and today a woman's place might even be in Parliament. Remember Indira Gandhi when she was the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy?

In the former Soviet Union, in those years when Reagan called it the "Evil Empire," women enjoyed an equality never before seen in that part of the world. With the fall of what we liked to call "communism" (really totalitarian socialism), women have been put back "in their place", and the growth of prostitution has been dramatic. "A woman's place is in the brothel?"

70% of the 1.3 billion people in the world living in poverty worldwide are women. Most of the low-paid sweatshop maquiladora "offshore" factories are "manned" by women, for the simple fact that they can be paid less than men to do work like electronic assembly and garment work, and tend to be a more tractable workforce. They will put up with a lot, and can be discarded after their usefulness is over. Their wages are seldom above the poverty level, even by local standards. A woman's place is in the sweatshop from Mexico or the Philippines to the Northern Marianas.

A friend of mine who worked for an American oil company in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, once told me an interesting story about their every-two-week company-paid weekend in Paris. As soon as their plane would leave the ground, the secretaries would go to the rear of the plane and change their cover-all abayas to miniskirts. After a weekend of European partying, they did the reverse number just before landing back in "Saudi". Interesting. Remember, Saudi Arabia, our staunch ally in the Middle East is the place where, a few years back, one of their princesses was stoned to death for having an affair with a commoner. She was buried up to her neck and then a dump truck load of boulders was dropped on her. A woman's place is covered up...

Now back before the attack on Iraq, a few scholars pointed out that Iraq under Saddam was all that was keeping the fundamentalist Shi'ite majority at bay, and that removal of Saddam might prove to be a big mistake. Well, we did it anyway. One of the things the new U.S.-supported Iraqi Governing Council did was to wipe out Saddam's progressive laws which forbade child marriage and "divorce-on-the-spot", and which gave women rights in child custody and property inheritance. There was a huge outcry, and women demonstrated against this reversal of their position in society. A woman's place is in the streets in protest?

Here we are in the year 2004. Women in the U.S. are still paid less than men for equal work, and sexual harassment is the order of the day in many occupations. The VA reports that 90% of the women in the military (an equal opportunity employer) have reported sexual harassment, about 1/3 of which have been rapes. A woman's place is in uniform? behind a receptionist's desk? Out of the workplace altogether and back doing the housewife bit? Are we sure?

According to Amnesty International women's prisons worldwide are lonely places. Inmates, usually incarcerated for political activity, get few visitors and little sympathy. In some places, like Turkey, our good buddy on the Iraqi border, sexual and psychological torture of women prisoners is common. In women's prisons here in the US, sexual harassment and poor medical care have been repeatedly reported by inmates. Many of the women in there have murdered abusive husbands. A woman's place is in jail? More women are in jail that ever before.

By and large, it would seem that women around the world are still exploited and controlled by male-dominated institutions . Progress is not inevitable. Some males in America like to think that "uppity" women who champion equal rights, equal pay, and equal opportunity are "feminazis"... (Rush Limbaugh's term, not mine). As long as women are in prisons, in brothels, in sweatshops, in burkahs, and are abused and exploited, any country which calls itself "free" is kidding itself.

We need more commitment than just "Mother's Day, or "International Women's Day." Men and women of good will need to use what influence they have in the world to call attention to the position of women around the world, and to never accept that this is the way it has to be.

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