Feminism's new frontline

January 30, 2013

It started with a trip to see the film, Life of Pi, and ended with Jyoti Singh Pandey’s final words on her deathbed in a Singapore hospital: “I am so sorry, mummy.”

The 23 year old physiotherapy student from New Delhi was horrifically injured in a gang rape on board a moving bus. Yet her plight did little to stir politicians or India’s justice system into action until a wave of protest across the country forced the systemic abuses against women into the spotlight. A victory of sorts, but not for Jyoti Singh Pandey.

Similarly, for Malala Yousafzai the outcry surrounding her attack probably did not feel like a triumph. The 14 year-old Pakistani was shot in the head by Taliban assailants on her way home from doing the thing that enraged them most: going to school. Her condition remained critical for days, but male Pakistani commentators, like Syed Fazl-e-Haider from the Dawn newspaper, quickly proclaimed “Malala has won,” highlighting the condemnation towards the attack from secular parts of the population.

Women are not so sure. Former Pakistani MP Amna Buttar said the world needed to start looking at women “through a new lens,” adding that girls need support, instead of “spending their time dodging the bullets of angry men.”

While women’s rights remains a global problem, Pakistani novelist and columnist Bina Shah says that Asian culture in particular must slay a double-headed beast where “honor is linked to women’s bodies, and fear of disgrace becomes an obsession.”

Shortly before the latest gang-rape in Delhi, Indian women’s rights activists were condemning the “medieval institutions” behind a new local government initiative proposing to lower the marriage age for girls as a means of tackling rape. In Afghanistan, the depressing toll of crimes against women and girls continues, with human rights groups in Herat reporting a growing trend of women’s beheadings.

As if a veil has been lifted, commentators are suddenly rubbing their eyes and asking: what in the world is happening to women? And how did half the world’s population—the female half—ever allow it to be this way?

A plethora of women’s groups have sprung up in recent years, aided by changing attitudes and social media. The challenge for ordinary activists is whether they can come together, and implement change. A new movement, One Billion Rising, has already been gaining traction in Asia (and elsewhere around the world) to protest at the one billion women the U.N. estimates will be subjected to violence in their lifetime.

Feminism remains a contentious term, but the women of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan are in no doubt that they are fighting for their lives.

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