LETTERS FROM A WAR ZONE
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with the people one's surrounded by. What
kind of humbug, in a city of rapists, holds out
for the dignity of womanhood?
--John Gardner, Shadows
It's hard to fight liberals. They slip and slide. Jimmy Carter had a human rights dimension to his foreign policy so that South Africa was held accountable for its racism. Countries that systematically segregate women, like Saudi Arabia, had nothing to fear from this human rights president. Now that Reagan's support of apartheid is Amerikan foreign policy, people may think the points made in this essay are glib or cheap. I hate apartheid, in South Africa and in Saudi Arabia, on the basis of race or on the basis of sex. Do women matter or not? Is there a single standard of human rights that includes women or not?Sometimes I cannot believe the world I live in. Usually I go along, believing. As a feminist and a writer, I study rape, pornography, wife-beating. I see the abused bodies of women, in life and in newspapers. I meet, in life and in books, the torn minds, the locked-in victims. I grieve, I rage, but through it all, I believe. This ability to believe comes, no doubt, from hearing as a child the desperate memories of those, some in my own family, who survived Nazi concentration camps and Russian pogroms. Being a Jew, one learns to believe in the reality of cruelty and one learns to recognize indifference to human suffering as a fact.
Sometimes though, my credulity is strained. The fact that women, after over half a century of struggle, apparently will not have equal rights under the law in this country is difficult to believe, especially on those grotesque days when Mr Carter makes impassioned statements on the importance of human rights elsewhere. Disbelief leads me to wonder why the plight of male dissidents in Russia overtakes Mr Carter's not very empathetic imagination when women in this country are in mental institutions or lobotomized or simply beaten to death or nearly to death by men who do not like the way they have done the laundry or prepared dinner. And on days when this sanctimonious president makes certain that poor women will not have access to life-saving abortion, and tells us without embarrassment that "life is unfair," my disbelief verges on raw anguish. I ask myself why the pervasive sexual tyranny in this country--the tyranny of men over women, with its symptomatic expression in economic deprivation and legal discrimination--is not, at least, on the list of human rights violations that Mr Carter keeps on the tip of his forked tongue.
But mostly, inability to believe surfaces on days when Mr Carter and his cronies--and yes, I must admit, especially Andrew Young--discuss our good friend, Saudi Arabia. That is, their good friend, Saudi Arabia. I hear on newscasts that Mr Carter was enchanted by Saudi Arabia, that he had a wonderful time. I remember that Mrs Carter used the back door. I remember that the use of contraceptives in Saudi Arabia is a capital crime. I remember that in Saudi Arabia, women are a despised and imprisoned caste, denied all civil rights, sold into marriage, imprisoned as sexual and domestic servants in harems. I remember that in Saudi Arabia women are forced to breed babies, who had better be boys, until they die.
Disbelief increases in intensity as I think about South Africa, where suddenly the United States is on the side of the angels. Like most of my generation of the proud and notorious sixties, a considerable part of my life has been spent organizing against apartheid, there and here. The connections have always been palpable. The ruthless economic and sexual interests of the exploiters have always been clear. The contemptuous racism of the two vile systems has hurt my heart and given me good reason to think "democracy" a psychotic lie. Slowly activists have forced our government, stubborn in its support of pure evil, to acknowledge in its foreign policy that racist systems of social organization are abhorrent and intolerable. The shallowness of this new commitment is evident in the almost comical slogan that supposedly articulates the aspirations of the despised: One Man, One Vote. Amerikan foreign policy has finally caught up, just barely, with the human rights imperatives of the early nineteenth century, rendered reactionary if not obsolete by the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.
Seductive mirages of progress notwithstanding, nowhere in the world is apartheid practiced with more cruelty and finality than in Saudi Arabia. Of course, it is women who are locked in and kept out, exiled to invisibility and abject powerlessness within their own country. It is women who are degraded systematically from birth to early death, utterly and totally and without exception deprived of freedom. It is women who are sold into marriage or concubinage, often before puberty; killed if their hymens are not intact on the wedding night; kept confined, ignorant, pregnant, poor, without choice or recourse. It is women who are raped and beaten with full sanction of the law. It is women who cannot own property or work for a living or determine in any way the circumstances of their own lives. It is women who are subject to a despotism that knows no restraint. Women locked out and locked in. Mr Carter, enchanted with his good friends, the Saudis. Mr Carter, a sincere advocate of human rights. Sometimes even a feminist with a realistic knowledge of male hypocrisy and a strong stomach cannot believe the world she lives in.
"A Feminist Looks at Saudi Arabia," copyright © 1978 by Andrea Dworkin. All rights reserved.
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