Women's Rights: As the World Turns

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, March 29, 1999 | Go to article overview

Women's Rights: As the World Turns


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


Does it seem to you that feminism this past year was just one long gargle over the meaning of Monica? That the biggest women's issue was whether oral sex is sex? That too much time, energy and money were given over to PR stunts like the White House Project, which invited people to envision a passel of female worthies-including the antifeminist, antichoice, fundamentalist-friendly Elizabeth Dole-as potential presidential candidates? (By too much time, energy and money, I mean a second, an erg and a penny.)

There have been times this past year when it felt to me as if everything were going backward: From now on, life would consist of an endless right-wing TV talk show, in which professional virgin Wendy Shalit and faux stay-at-home mom Danielle Crittenden would give dating tips to restlessly single Laura Ingraham ("Leopard-print miniskirts? Scary! No wonder guys don't call back"). How different the fight for women's equality seems when you consider the rest of the world, as I just did in honor of International Women's Day, March 8.

The struggle in the United States may seem stymied-as if the big shakeup of the seventies were settling into a new, improved, but still sexist, status quo-but abroad all sorts of things are happening, awful and hopeful. We tend to hear more about the former: You probably know about the Italian judge who ruled that women wearing blue jeans can't be raped because it takes two to pull them off- sparking a protest by jeans-wearing female MPs. But did you know that in India the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that mothers, not just fathers, are the legal guardians of their children? Besides rectifying a major insult to women, this ruling has important implications for divorcing women seeking custody and child support. The same court ruled in January that sexual harassment violates women's rights and need not involve actual touching-a particularly interesting verdict, given that sexual harassment, along with legal abortion, is often seen as the obsession of a handful of US feminists.

And speaking of abortion, recently two countries, Poland and El Salvador, made abortion harder to get. El Salvador, indeed, is now one of the only countries to enact in law the official position of the Catholic Church and the platform of the US Republican Party, both of which reject abortion even to save the mother's life. But eight countries-Albania, South Africa, Seychelles, Guyana, Germany, Portugal, Cambodia and Burkina Faso-liberalized their abortion laws. And before you write those letters pointing out that Cambodian and Salvadoran women have bigger problems than abortion, consider that in Nepal, a desperately poor country where abortion is illegal, there are women, including rape victims, serving twenty years in prison for having abortions. Poor women have always needed liberal abortion laws the most, because they are the ones who seek the back alleys or who self-abort, and they are also the ones targeted by the police.

These positive changes-Senegal, Togo and three other African countries have banned clitoridectomy; Spain's Basque region pays battered women a "salary" to encourage them to leave their abusers-flicker like candles in a darkening room. …

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