When it comes to women’s rights, we tend to think that progress is inevitable. We are wrong.


During the past 60 years the world has seen an unprecedented expansion of civil and human rights. In many regions of the globe we have seen great increases in women’s rights, in the rights of racial minorities, in the rights of LGBT individuals, and in the rights of people with disabilities. In the wake of this huge wave of social progressiveness, it can be easy for us to get complacent. To think that rights, once earned, can never be taken away.

Unfortunately, that’s just naïve.

The past 60 years have also seen numerous military coups, countless massacres, and an epidemic of rape during wartime that continues at this very moment. Many of these atrocities are perpetrated by governments against their own people. This, despite all of our extremely well-intentioned pledges of “Never again” and “Not on our watch!” But, tragically, horribly, genocide has happened again. And again. And again. A country can move from democracy to totalitarianism very, very quickly. And human and civil rights can disappear overnight.

We must never be complacent about maintaining our rights. About ensuring the ability of each of us to be full members of the human family. Because when we begin to take our rights for granted, we risk waking up one day to find them seriously eroded. And we will be left scratching our heads and wondering just what the hell happened to the freedoms we once enjoyed.

Think that women’s rights are inviolable? That they will never be turned back?

Think again. History is full of examples where that is exactly what happened.

From miniskirts to burkas. When I first heard about the recent horrific attempted assassination of Malala Youafzai, a 15 year-old girl who advocates for the rights of girls to attend school in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, I felt totally disgusted. Nauseated. And filled with despair. Because in some parts of the world that is exactly the price that a girl will have to pay merely for wanting to attend school: that the patriarchy’s fascist shock troops (in this case, in the form of the Taliban) will shoot her in the head.

As I think about Youafzai and pray for her survival and recovery, I also think of a woman I knew years ago, who is also Pashtun. Although she is nearly two generations older than Malala Youafzai, the life this woman had in nearby Afghanistan was far, far more modern than anything Youafzai experiences. Forty years ago my friend was a teenager in Kabul. She would often recall her experiences there with a gleam in her eye.

“Oh, Kabul in the 1970s was such a wonderful, wonderful place! Not like it is today. No, in the 1970s I was a school girl. And I wore make up! High heels! Miniskirts! And I would flirt with the boys at school and kiss them sometimes! So much has changed since then...” Her voice would trail off.

(Of course, reasonable people can disagree as to whether high heels and miniskirts signify freedom for women. But for my friend, they did. And they did far more than any burka ever could!)

This woman’s family had been rather well-off in Kabul. She had life options. (Like getting out when it all went to hell.) But the city itself at that time was also a place of options. In fact, for backpackers travelling overland through Asia in the 1970s, Kabul was one of the “Three K’s” on the “hippie trail” – Kabul, Kathmandu and Kuta. It was by all accounts a pretty amazing place.

Since that time Kabul has faced over 35 years of war. And, according to a recent Al Jazeera documentary, Kabul will again stand at the edge of an abyss when the U.S. pulls out its regular troops in the next couple of years. The Taliban are still nearby. They are still strong. And they still despise women’s rights. Life is not good for women in Taliban-controlled areas. And it could well get much worse.

The Swat Valley itself was not always violent. Of course, the Swat Valley that Youafzai calls home is not a big city like Kabul. No doubt throughout much of Kabul’s recent history (at least until the terrible wars) it was far more cosmopolitan than Swat. But Swat itself has not always been a violent place. It was not always controlled by armed men engaged in a violent struggle to impose their misogynist social and religious views upon all they survey. In fact, the Swat valley has known centuries of peace and prosperity. And it is thought by many to be the place where Tantric Buddhism first emerged.

And when it comes to women, Tantric Buddhism is very celebratory. Laksminkara, one of the founding mothers of the philosophy, once said: "One must not denigrate women/In whatever social class they are born/For they are Lady Perfection and Wisdom/Embodied in the phenomenal realm.” (in Shaw, 1994)

Swat was once a place of great peace. A center of deep contemplation and religious thought. Where it was taught that women are godly and must be venerated. Where women could become great spiritual leaders.

But now it is a place where young girls are shot for merely wanting to attend school. Where patriarchal religious doctrine is enforced with a Kalashnikov.

In North America, too, women’s worlds have fallen apart. In repeated instances throughout human history, on nearly every continent, peaceful, freedom-loving societies have been crushed by militarist, patriarchal forces. From within and from without. At times not only has “progress” ground to a halt, it has actually been reversed. And women have often borne the greatest brunt of these changes.

During the conquest of the Native Peoples of North America, Native women lost their social equality. In many cases, the societies that were being conquered by Europeans had been far more progressive toward women than were the conquerors. Many of these cultures were matrilineal, and women had full rights to property, and the right to initiate divorce. The children that a woman gave birth to remained as part of her clan, and they gained their social standing though their mother, not through their father.

Another “curiosity” that numerous early European observers remarked upon was the absence of rape in many Native societies – even during warfare between Native nations. Female prisoners of war, the visitors noted, were spared the horror of rape – unlike back home in Europe, where “rape and pillage” was just seen as a “natural” part of conquest. You do harm to women -- you dishonor them -- when you rape them. Unlike the Europeans, many Native cultures understood that rape was unacceptable, even in wartime.

(By contrast, during the clearing of Native peoples off the land by Caucasian soldiers and settlers, rape became a common weapon to use against Native women.)

Now, centuries after the first European colonizers arrived in North America, Native women have yet to regain the rights that they enjoyed in many traditional societies. In fact, women of any race here have yet to attain the sort of equality that women in many North American Native societies traditionally experienced.

“History” does not equal “progress.”

Women are still losing their rights. While many conservatives refuse to acknowledge it, there is a new assault on women’s rights these days. Especially when it comes to women’s reproductive control over their own bodies. In the USA, various state governments are working tirelessly to come up with ever-more invasive and pernicious legal requirements that are designed to thwart a woman’s ability to get an abortion. These attempts to limit women’s access to reproductive choice even include trying to establish laws that require a woman to submit to a totally unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasound before obtaining an abortion.

This is sexual assault by government fiat.

Want an abortion? these laws are saying. Fine, but we’re gonna stick our little magic wand up your vagina first. Why? Because we can. And it’s the best way we can think of to make your choice as brutal and as painful as possible.

This is not about the rights of “the unborn.” This is about power. This is about patriarchal government inserting itself – literally! – into the women’s bodies. This is about punishing women for their choices.

And it’s really fucking creepy.

Other requirements that have already been enacted in some jurisdictions include the rule that an ultrasound video screen must be faced toward the woman who is seeking an abortion as the doctor “narrates” what is to be seen there. Just in case the decision to have an abortion wasn’t already tough enough, women in those states are now to be forced to actually see the embryo before it is removed. These paternalistic policies, offensively named things like “The Women’s Right to Know Act,” would be far better called “An Act to Ensure the State’s Right to Further Traumatize and Shame Women Who Have Made the Difficult Decision to End a Pregnancy.”

Do the patriarchs who draw up these inane/insane laws really think that women make the choice to get an abortion lightly? (If so, that stance makes me wonder just how much these people truly understand about either women or abortion.)

Many of these laws are on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court can rule on their constitutionality….

…Which brings us directly to the fact that at least two of the judges on the Court are due to retire soon. The next U.S. President will get to nominate at least two new judges. And the Republican candidate for President, Mitt Romney, has stated that he thinks that the very case that established abortion rights in the United States – Roe v. Wade – should be overturned. This election season has featured the strongest anti-abortion language in a generation. (And some of the serious contenders for the Republican nomination for President were actually opposed to women even using birth control!)

We risk seeing our reproductive rights disappear right before our eyes.

And not just in the U.S. Up here in Canada folks tend to pride themselves on being more progressive than the Americans south of the border. But the anti-abortion forces are rallying here as well. Just the other day a bill was introduced in Parliament in Ottawa to open the debate about just when the Criminal Code should assert that life begins. (The point here was to try to establish the notion that life begins at conception. And then, of course, abortion becomes murder.) The bill failed, but you know who was among those who voted for it? Rona Ambrose. The Minister of State for the Status of Women!

When it comes to government attempts to control women’s rights, this shit gets positively Orwellian!

The left: also not necessarily your friend. Right now the Democratic Party in the USA is firmly in the “pro-choice” camp. They know their stance is a real vote getter, and some polls show a “gender gap” in candidate support of up to 20 points! 20 points!

(I guess a lot of men just don’t care all that much about reproductive freedom. But I have a new name for guys who don’t think that reproductive freedom is all that important. I like to call them Daddy.)

But even the political left is an uncertain ally to women. And when it comes to the left’s betrayal of feminist goals, I can think of no better (?) example than Daniel Ortega, the current President of Nicaragua. He is the former leader of the Sandinistas, who in the 1980s helped to overthrow a right-wing regime. But Ortega has made the shift from revolutionary to woman-controlling (but still socialist!) patriarch, and he fully supports that country’s law that bans all abortions, no exceptions.

Any abortion in Nicaragua promises a prison term for both the woman and for her doctor.

In the first year of the ban, Human Rights Watch documented the deaths of at least 80 women from illegal abortions.

There are only five other countries in the world that ban all abortions. (One of those countries happens to be Vatican City).

A poll conducted in 2006 found that nearly 70% of Nicaraguans support the right of a woman to get an abortion in order to save her own life. But even those procedures are illegal in Ortega’s so-called democracy.

¡Viva la revolución!

So what’s a guy to do? Is it that the forces of history are destined to obliterate any progressive gains we make? Is it all for naught?

No! I don’t believe that! I believe that we can always reach higher. That we can always resist the forces that seek to control us. That we can fight back. And within that struggle we can forge powerful connections with others who are also working for equality and justice. We must be vigilant, and we must understand that until full equality is achieved, there is still a hell of a lot of work to be done. (And we must always remember to find joy in the task at hand.)

As for us men, working for justice for women can get a little tricky. Because, as Gloria Steinem once wrote: “Power can be taken but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment itself.” So we men cannot through ourselves empower women. But what we can do is help to create a context where women are able to take hold of the power to which they are entitled. And we can do that through:

Treating the women in our lives with the utmost respect. So that for all of the sexist bullshit that they have to face out in the world, at least they won’t have to deal with it coming from us as well.

Raising our daughters to be strong and to feel that they deserve the best that life has to offer in terms of living conditions. Working conditions. Future life partners.

Supporting feminist women’s political and social leadership. We need to vote for woman-friendly politicians (both male and female). And then we need to hold them accountable for their pledges. Keep them humble. Keep them on task. Because the trappings of patriarchal power can be tempting indeed. Politicians need to know that the people are watching them. And that we will always choose the candidate who best meets our society’s needs. And you best meet the needs of society when you meet the needs of its women!

In their excellent analysis of the link between female representation in politics and the enactment of pro-woman legislation, Htun and Piscopo (2010) write:

The connection between women’s presence [in government] and their empowerment depends not only on having a “critical mass” in political office but also on the social beliefs and institutional arrangements that structure their opportunities to act effectively. Policies have changed when domestic and international actors worked together to hold political leaders—male and female—accountable for advancing women’s rights.


We need to elect feminist and feminist-allied politicians. And then we need to help them stay that way.

The rights of women are never guaranteed. But we can never let them disappear without a fight!