Why have so many stopped fighting for women’s rights? We fight for “human” rights and discuss them as if they were a natural element of being human; groups lobby and defend, almost diabolically and with much vitriol, the rights of “animals” (species that are not human). Yet women’s rights, that better half of our species, remain a neglected element of secular discourse. It surprises me that so few of those who consider themselves secular humanists do anything concerning this important issue. This does not mean that many secular humanists do not think it important but there is a great divide between simply thinking it important and doing something to make it so. Not only do I think it important, I believe in my lifetime the liberation of woman, all over the world, for all time, is the single most important goal that we must defend, increase and enhance. The other goals which many of us long for, freedom of speech, lack of coercion, and so on, all are part of, and tributaries within, this pathway. By fighting for women, we fight for free speech and liberty; by defending their rights, we defend human rights; by finding the cause for their oppression we cease the cycle of violence and poverty within families around the world. Reports have suggested that a decrease in women’s freedom correlates to an increase in religious fanaticism. This does not mean that once women are free, all over the world, religious dogmatism, backward political regimes and patriarchal bullying will be banished from the earth; but there is little debate that the fight in itself will lead to a greater amount of freedom, more happiness and will result in woman no longer being the fodder for the religious wrath of backward mullahs and reverends.
According to estimates, which have more than likely increased, 70 percent of the two billion poor are women; two thirds of illiterate adults are women; employment rates for women are declining after increasing (yes, of course, the world wars are now over). At the same time many women are forced into veils and burqas, burnt for merely looking at men, stoned to death or buried alive for adultery, forced into sex, pregnancy and delivering HIV-infected children because they were raped, but if they were to report it, they would either be raped again, executed, exiled from their village or town or family. While this happens, the fashion industry booms with make-up and high-heels and plastic models and girls as thin as the paper they are pictured on, presenting us with yet another contrast to whether women really are in control of their bodies even in supposedly liberated societies. That is an issue unto itself, which I am not focused on, but it certainly should give us pause considering the areas we are dealing with. Modern writers, in the secular West, tell women to go back to the kitchen, obey the husband, be a mother, tie an umbilical cord around the house and hang themselves from it. “Feminine is good,” says women’s rights author, Nikki van der Gaag, “feminism is bad.” A lot of feminist views, philosophy and political goals truly deserve scorn, since they replace one tyranny with another; are subject to faith-based, dogmatic adherence rather than calculated sex equality. The vengeful world of patriarchal accident has given birth to a malicious view toward its women. As this highlights, the malicious desire is one of control – but I do not wish to instil Orwellian fears in big governments and little men.
Pulitzer-prize winning journalists, Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife Sheryl Wudunn, have released a book bringing all these fears to the forefront of discussion. Entitled Half the Sky, the book primarily focuses on the successes, horrors and tribulations of women in impossible situations in places where democracy is either unheard of or hated, and where secularism is scorned or prevented. Whilst I am critical of the blind obedience that is Oprah’s Book Club (basically a list of books that Oprah Winfrey – or her cohorts – read or liked), I am glad at least that the subject matter got Winfrey’s attention enough to earn Kristof and Wudunn a place on her show. Such platforms allow the message of women’s rights a greater reach. This is what matters: taking action to at least highlight the plight of women, globally. There are those who are still not aware that although Western women have the vote, are able to have proper jobs, etc., not all women do. More people must realise that the first and worst to suffer from backward bullying and religious fanaticism are most often women and children. It is such an obvious statement but the more it is reiterated, the greater chance we have for getting people into gear, then to change lanes: from passive realisation into full-throttle passion for women's freedom.
Consider the situation with regards to HIV/AIDS in my home continent of Africa. There are many reasons why HIV/AIDS is worse here than elsewhere: A combination of bad health policies and lack of resources, regimes that have not lost their hold on despotism, backward combinations of superstition and overzealous missionaries, and so on, all affect what ought to be done to help them. Add to this that women in Africa are breeding machines, scorned if their production facilities do not work, and we have a system that is designed to destroy a woman’s future, control, and autonomy. This must change: by giving women their bodies, minds and futures back, we are able to help far more people. As AC Grayling has said, summarising similar views on the plight of poorer countries: “If the world is to have a future, it rests in the hands of women”. Because in their hands, lies the happiness of their families, and therefore, of more people.
As many commentators have stated, one of the characteristics of a country that is not controlled by a tyrant or despot is free-speech. I think, however, we must also consider the freedom of women to be equally important. It is no accident that highly-controlled, anti-liberal, highly religious countries not only have blasphemy laws, but give no freedom to their women. Indeed, I think countries like Iraq and Saudi Arabia do not so much limit women’s freedom as deny them personhood. By this I mean they are denied the same freedoms, recognition, aspirations, duties, goals, dreams, and so on, that are found in their husbands or fathers. Many might reply and say that the men themselves prisoners; then, all the more reason we need to focus on change. Once again, though our primary goal is to better the lives of women, our reasons are for the betterment of all.
Awareness is the beginning of change. Anger is the beginning of amelioration. We must take charge of these situations, as individuals, and do what we are able to help the better half of our species.
We can do this in many ways: spreading the message, constantly, consistently and with clarity. We can better our knowledge into the plight of women, whether in our own societies, or more importantly in those places that do not welcome gender equality. There are groups, such as UNIFEM and Relief Society, which need volunteers, campaigners, and managers. From our positions within secular democracies, we tend to ignore our voices which have the potential to echo out across international zones. Our voices can create tiny cracks in foundations long since fossilised into tradition. However, I do not think we will ever completely liberate our entire species, or even the better half. But even a few lives saved, even a few lives bettered, is worth anything we choose to do. Apathy is no longer a choice. If you have a voice, use it. We must begin to help the better half of our species; because, in that way, we help our species as a whole.
PS: I obtained my stats from various sources, but please email me if you have updated facts that show my mistakes.