Yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham called on his fellow senators to support military action in Iraq because of abuses against women there. Sounds noble, right? Yeah, not so much.
"I don’t want to hear any more ‘war about women’ stories unless you address Iraq and Syria,” Graham said on the Senate floor, advocating for military action to push back the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. He went on: “You want to see a war on women, I’ll show you one.”
How problematic are such statements? Oh let us count the ways! Put simply: In one fell swoop, Graham succeeded in objectifying Iraqi women by reducing them to political bargaining chips while simultaneously denigrating American women by invalidating our violence and concerns. But on the bright side, he’s providing an outlet for us to examine some important issues?
First and foremost, Graham is right about the brutality and devastation facing Syrian and Iraqi women: It’s unthinkably terrible. Rapes and suicides borne of rape-related shame have been reported. Likewise with kidnappings and forced marriages. Then there’s the utter misery of life under fundamentalist ISIS rule, where one can be stoned to death for committing adultery and women are required to be covered from head to toe when they go out in public—though, ideally, they should just stay home. Indubitably the crisis in Iraq and Syria is chock full of unconscionable human rights tragedies and violations. And this indeed demands focus and attention.
BUT. But. Graham’s jab at the U.S. “war on women” and comment that he doesn’t want to hear “any more about it” until ISIS is dealt with, falls in line with a deeply problematic, misogynist trope that serves no woman—in any country. The suggestion is that the injustices that American women face aren’t valid or worth taking into account because "worse" shit is going down in the Middle East. Huh? What kind of logic is that?
Sadly, one that’s been employed a lot recently, as noted by Soraya Chemaly in her excellent piece "Newsflash: Women Are Not in a Competition for Human Rights." As conversation about women’s issues heats up in the wake of the Elliot Rodger shooting and the barrage of sexual assault scandals at U.S. universities, a number of men have begun weighing in on, according to Chemaly, “exactly what level of misogyny and violence is acceptable.” She points to, among others, a tweet by prominent pundit Tom Bevan that read: “Real war on women: Pregnant Pakistani woman stoned to death by own family for marrying the man she loved.” Senior editor at the Atlantic David Frum added a tweet of a similar vein just hours later in which, when sharing a link relaying the news of an acid attack honor killing in Pakistan, he said: “The next time somebody talks about ‘misogyny in American society’ forward them this.”
What’s the implicit message from such tweets and statements? Roughly: Look around and shut up, American women, you’ve got nothing to complain about. The Blaze news article on Graham’s statement underscores the point in its headline: “GOP Senator says ISIS is Waging a True ‘War on Women’ in Iraq.” Ah, glad we're getting all this insight into what a true or real war on women looks like. Thanks for the tips, brahs! We were confused.
But really, why does violence against women have to exist on a spectrum where only some of it is “true” or worth “hearing about” (and what's up with arguing that violence has value insofar as it's used as a bargaining chip for war)? And who the hell gets to delineate such lines, anyway? Should American women be content and counting our lucky stars because the wearing of the niqab is not enforced here?
Yes, Graham, There is an American 'War on Women'
In America, yes America, 50% of women will experience physical violence in their lifetimes. A quarter of women will be sexually assaulted—while 97% of rapists will go unpunished. All the while, the legitimacy of our rapes is in constant question and our access to reproductive resources is being increasingly restricted by a government overwhelmingly comprised of men. But we're not supposed to talk about any of that—despite ya know, the First Amendment—because girls in Pakistan are being killed?
Are empathy, compassion, concern and attention zero-sum games? Is it too much to ask that women everywhere be able to live secure, healthy lives—or at least to speak up in our desire for them? Just because soul-crushing things are happening to our female brethren in the Middle East—and, indeed, all over the world—doesn’t mean that our concerns and struggles in the U.S. are invalid. Or that we don’t have the same damn rights to advocate for them as men. But thanks for the implicit admonishment, Senator Graham.