The latest uprising comes in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, which inspired many women from across the world to share their own accounts of harassment and abuse with the hashtag #MeToo. Overnight, the movement reverberated throughout the world, threatening abusers of power, discriminatory traditions and unjust institutional practices.
That being said, there is a widely injudicious misconception that abuse against women means only physical or verbal attacks. That is dangerously incorrect. Abuse against women takes many shapes, including physical, verbal, emotional, social and legislative. We may be slightly more aware of the verbal and emotional injustices that women endure on a daily basis, but seldom do we examine where other forms of exploitation and discrimination may occur.
Abuse, simply put, is to hurt. It is the misuse of power to assault, violate, subjugate, control and repress.
Abuse against women can occur in any society and at any income level. It happens in all races and religions. It is experienced directly and consequentially. From the rape and murder of the eight-year-old Zainab Ansari in Pakistan, to the rampant sexual harassment professional women face in Los Angeles.
One form of abuse against women is child marriage and the laws that still allow it. In India for example, the marriageable age for a girl is 18, but in rural communities the law is routinely disregarded. In other countries a minimum age is not specified.
Not long ago, many countries had long-established laws that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. Only recently, civil society and increasing public awareness have challenged the norm in countries like Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, resulting in these laws being repealed. However, they still exist in places like Iraq, Kuwait and Libya.
Another form of sexual abuse is harassment in the cyber world. According to UN Women, “one in 10 women in the European Union report having experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15.” This includes receiving unwanted, offensive and sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or offensive, inappropriate advances on social networking sites.
Empowering women and guaranteeing equal rights requires continued efforts, including confronting the deeply rooted gender-based discrimination that results from social practices, patriarchal attitudes and legal frameworks.
Asma I. Abdulmalik
Meanwhile, millions of girls experience violence in school every year. Although both girls and boys face abuse and violence in school, the experience differs and girls are at far greater risk of sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation. Older students in universities also experience inappropriate sexual misconduct from peers or superiors. Victims constantly face the fear of retribution or retaliation by those in powerful positions.
We may only think of it as being unjust, but wage disparity is an institutional form of abuse, hurting women for decades. In the EU, for example, women earn the equivalent of 84c for every dollar earned by men. In the US, that figure is 80.5c, according to the Census Bureau. The gap is even higher for American women of color. However, change is possible. On Jan. 1, 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal to pay men more than women for doing the same job.
Generational preconceptions of a woman’s role as a housewife only, whose sole purpose is to bear children, cook and clean, are a manifestation of abuse. We are, of course, not referring to the stay-at-home mothers and wives who choose to dedicate their lives to loving and nurturing their families, rather the women who have been deprived of basic opportunities and who have been denied any liberties. We are referring to the women who have no say in choosing the men they marry, or those that endure verbal and physical abuse from a male figure in their family. We are challenging the beliefs of family honor and honor killings, of sexual purity and virginity, the ideologies of male entitlement, be it social or sexual, and the weak legal sanctions that perpetuate these practices.
Just as abuse is multifaceted, so are the methods of combating it. Empowering women and guaranteeing equal rights requires continued effort — this includes confronting the deeply rooted gender-based discrimination that results from social practices and patriarchal attitudes. It also includes challenging long-standing legal frameworks that have stood against women.
Indeed, as Oprah Winfrey said at the Golden Globes, “a new day is on the horizon… And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women” and, I believe, a lot of great men standing by their side.
• Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues.