Imagine that you live in a country with a caste system which prevents you from rising above the circumstances of your birth.
Imagine that you live in a country where your clothing could be cited as justification for your abduction and torture.
Imagine that you live in a country through which you cannot travel freely and without fear.
Imagine that you live in a country where prejudice against your people is so ingrained that you accept it without question, and even support it.
This is my country. This is womanhood.
As a woman in the “first world” in the 21st century, I can expect to earn less than my husband, even if I work as hard or harder than he. If I am a single mother, I will struggle to keep my children alive.
As a woman, I am constantly mindful of what I wear, because clothing offers at least a veneer of protection. I know that if I am raped while wearing a miniskirt and heels, my clothing can and will be held against me in a court of law.
As a woman, I cannot go wherever I want, when I want, because that could be interpreted as “asking for it.”
As a woman, I have bought into the system with decades of fear, self-loathing, and shame. I have bought the magazines. I have refused the chocolate cake. I have jumped at every noise when I’m home alone and laced my keys through my fingers as I crossed a dark parking lot.
In my country, we learn shame early and subtly, in countless insidious ways. We learn fear, too. It is in the air we breathe. It permeates us, and so does the sexism we will struggle with in one way or another for the rest of our lives.
I am twelve. I am at a fair with my mom. We ride the ferris wheel. I don’t remember it now. What I remember is my mom’s face, later, as she tells me that the carnie said we could ride for free, if we let him ride with us. I know what the “I’m-about-to-barf-just-talking-about-this” face means. What I don’t realize is that I will see it later, again and again. On my sister’s face as she tells me how a family friend always creeped her out. On my coworker’s face as she tells me that my boss has quit because she was gang-raped in a bathroom over spring break. On the same coworker’s face as she tells me about the man who assaulted her at a deserted rest stop one night, and how her husband is uncomfortable being married to a woman who wasn’t a virgin at their wedding.
I am in seventh grade. I am in a critical thinking class for “gifted” students. I don’t remember much of it, except that we studied tabloids and we ate a lot of Fiddle Faddle. And that I wished the earth would open up and swallow me when one of the “cool” boys told me I needed to start shaving my legs.
I am in college. I am walking back to my dorm room late at night after a cast party. A guy I sort of know is lounging outside my dorm. He walks up to me. I think he’s been drinking. He grabs my hand and starts pulling me. A male friend appears. He has been walking his sister home, because his mom made him promise to keep her safe. My friend is about to pass by. I ask him not to leave. Drunk guy lets go. I am safe. For now.
I am grown up. I am at a networking event. It’s raining, so a friend of my boss gives her and me a ride to our cars. My boss has told me how much she likes this man, what a great guy he is. He makes rape jokes the entire time. I think it takes two minutes for him to drive us to the parking lot. I don’t remember, though, because it feels like two years. I am glad I am riding in the back seat, as the physical barrier between us enables me to avoid assault charges.
I am married with two kids. I am walking downtown. It’s spring, and my eyes and heart are full of the beauty of the world. A van stops beside me and a guy calls, “Hey!” I think he needs directions, so I pause. He jerks his thumb at the guy driving and says, “He says he LUVS you, the way you walk across that street.” I smile instinctively because I’m supposed to be polite, and then hate myself for smiling. The van doesn’t have windows. I step back. I need to get home safely so that I can raise two boys into men who will never, never yell at a woman on the street.
All the people in my country have these stories. Hundreds of stories. Thousands. Times when our hearts beat faster with shame and indignation and disgust and fear. Many of us have far worse stories. Times when we barely escaped, or didn’t. These stories remind us of the poisonous myth of our homeland–that we are bodies, commodities, things.
Sometimes we escape, but we never go unscathed. There is a connection between a gang rape in India and my female friends’ posts about how they struggle constantly with self-esteem. There is a connection between how I feel when I am alone in a parking lot at night, and how I feel when I see scantily-clad women plastered all over pages that friends have “liked” on Facebook.
The newsfeeds are flooding with a thousand stories on the Steubenville rape case. I want to vomit and cry and scream. The sixteen-year-old victim and I inhabit the same contested territory. I imagine that she, like I, was told to follow her dreams, told that she lived in a free country, told that parties are fun and that it’s a good thing to get boys’ attention.
Exploiting women is not just the business of criminals and delinquents. It’s BIG business. If we’re convinced we’re not good enough in our natural state, and that we’ll be lonely forever as a result, then we’ll spend big money altering our diets, lifestyles, and appearances. We’ll voluntarily commit acts of violence against our own bodies.
And those times when we don’t escape, we will internalize all the shame that should have been felt by someone else, even though we would never be embarrassed to call the police if someone stole our car. Even though we would never be ashamed to tell our parents if the next-door neighbor punched us in the stomach. Because if the car got stolen, it wasn’t because it looked “too sexy.” Because if our stomach got punched, no one would accuse us of throwing it at somebody’s fist.
In light of crimes against women, it may not seem like a big deal that models are skinny, that porn stars have big boobs, that “pretty” women stand a better chance of getting hired. But these realities make the people in my country uneasy. We waver back and forth on a tedious continuum between “This feels really icky” and “I don’t want people to think I’m a hater.”
The problem is this: to objectify someone is to make her an object. An object is not a person. An object is a thing. An object has no rights, no dreams, no voice. Violence committed against an object is not the same as violence committed against a human being. Every time we objectify women, we lessen the severity of crimes against them, and we end up in a twisted scenario in which rape and abuse are technically illegal, even as we tacitly acknowledge that “boys will be boys.”
In my country, two boys raped a sixteen-year-old girl and the media lamented the boys’ lost futures. In my country, men on a bus gang-raped and murdered a woman whose name was silenced because rape brings shame not to the perpetrators, but to the victim. This kind of thing happens to at least one in five of the people in my country. It’s a dangerous place, and we are in peril from the moment we’re born. I’m just waiting for some defense lawyer to argue, “She was asking for it, your honor, by wearing her ovaries to that party.”