There are the little things, always, of course. Like the news that bic has released a new ballpoint pen range “For her”, for example. It is – because I know your pretty little heads were wondering – extra-slim for our teensy hands and comes with a pink or purple casing, though the ink inside is black because…well, I’m not quite sure why.
Presumably because the entire research, development and marketing departments had a collective stroke and thought they were taking part in series six of Mad Men. Or there’s the news of the vagina-tightening cream – marketed with an ad that has gone viral on Youtube using the slogan “Makes you feel like a virgin again” – going on sale in India for the first time. Such unguents are already available in the US and elsewhere, allowing some to paint its advent in India as progress, rather than a retrograde step affirming the ancient, globally-held in varying degrees and persistently damaging belief that women should have no sexual experience before they marry so that their husbands can have the right and pleasure of deflowering them.
And then there are the big things. Like Republican congressman Todd Akin explaining his anti-abortion stand even for cases of rape or incest on the grounds that if a woman experiences “legitimate rape” her body “has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” and therefore rarely becomes pregnant as a result. His “apology” for the remark explained that he had meant “forcible rape”, which did indeed make things clearer, if not quite in the way he intended. Along with the rallying of various high-profile Republicans to his defence, this sorry saga made clearer the fact that a belief in ‘real’ (ie by a stranger, or perhaps of a virgin – one of those real ones, not one of those duping men with creams of course) rape and other/lesser non-rapes (of anyone not chased down a dark alley by a very strong man with a knife) is still rife.
There was the return to the headlines of Julian Assange, who is still wanted in Sweden to face allegations from two women of sexual molestation and rape. Now claiming asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London, he claims to be avoiding extradition to the US where they also have a few questions for him about the whole Wikileaks thing. George Galloway, Respect MP for Bradford West, took to the airwaves to denounce the two women as part of a political conspiracy – and then went a stage further, avowing that even if the woman did wake up to find Assange having sex with her after they had had intercourse earlier, “it might be really sordid and bad sexual etiquette, but whatever else it is, it is not rape… not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion.” Meanwhile, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan was busy publicly naming one of the women involved during a discussion on Newsnight.
Our bodies are still being patronised and regulated
And in Arizona they passed a law deeming a woman pregnant two weeks before she conceives, thereby limiting the amount of time available to her to have a termination if needed or wanted. they also deleted the former right Arizona women had to abort outside the (now reduced) legal time limit in order to “protect the woman’s life or health”. That’s another piece knocked off the block of abortion rights at which Republicans are determinedly chipping away.
So, what does all this tell us? It tells us that in the UK and the US, women and their bodies are still being patronised, regulated, demonised and policed to an extent that is truly frightening. And this is in countries where we are lucky enough to have rights to lose. We could fill the rest of the magazine with a list of the dangers, sufferings and indignities inflicted on the female populations of less affluent, less developed and more troubled countries (human rights organisations estimate that over 40% of women in South Africa, for example, will be raped in their lifetimes) and barely scratch the surface.
The last few weeks have been a salutary reminder of the saying that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. For younger women especially, it is hard to remember that we have had some of our most important rights for so short a time – and to appreciate how hard and how fast they have come under direct and effective attack. We need to keep watching, keep talking and keep fighting.
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