The Longest War

When I heard about the 2015 death of the courageous journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts, it was concurrent with the release of her book The War on Women in 2016. I was happy to find a copy of the book in a Karachi supermarket late last fall, and I snapped it up immediately. I’ve just finished reading it, and my head is spinning with the implications of everything I’ve read in this culmination of Roberts’ 30 year long career as a world journalist who exposed many crimes against women during her travels around the globe.

Eminent BBC journalist Lyse Doucet writes in her conclusion to the book “Everyone knows this is a long war.” As a feminist who has written about the war on women in South Asia, it was gratifying to know I wasn’t the only one who framed gender oppression as an all-out war against half the world’s population.  Reading Roberts’ account of egregious crimes against women in four continents (North America, Australia and Antarctica don’t feature in the book) has only reaffirmed my belief that this is indeed a systematic and deliberate war designed to keep women oppressed, inferior, and on their knees literally and figuratively vis-a-vis men.

We feminists are often accused of “hating men.” We are at pains to explain that this isn’t the case; feminists want equal rights for women and the ending of any and all traditions and customs and laws and practices that cement women’s place as inferior in any and all circumstances. We reject the idea that God or religion has deemed women to be inferior to men, no matter what scripture may say — or how men interpret scripture to suit their power systems. We reject the idea that women should be considered “different but equal” because of biology, chemistry, or DNA. It didn’t work for racists and it isn’t going to work for misogynists either.

Feminists are also accused of being angry, more than what society deems normal or natural for a woman. Women are supposed to be nice, pleasant, sweet, and accommodating. Never demanding, and certainly never angry. But how can I not be angry after everything I’ve read in this book, or seen in the world around me? Women shot and killed for the slightest pretext. Girl children locked up and beaten by their rich employers. Women groped in mass molestations in Bengaluru. All this just in the first week of 2017.

Roberts divides her book into chapters set in different countries or regions and writes about the conditions for women in each country. They are as follows:

  1. Female genital mutilation, or FGM, in Gambia and the UK, following the story of Maimouna, who ran away because she didn’t want to perform FGM anymore.
  2. The women disappeared in Argentina’s dirty wars: many of whom were beaten, raped, drugged, and dropped from airplanes
  3. Unwed mothers in Ireland locked up in church-supported laundries, separated by force from their children and made to work in inhuman conditions
  4. The absolute negation of women and their rights in Saudi Arabia
  5. The beatings, sexual assaults and rapes of women activists in revolutionary Egypt’s Tahir Square
  6. Sex trafficking from Russian and former Soviet republics to the brothels of Amsterdam, Istanbul, and beyond…
  7. …and the patronage of these brothels and other trafficked women by UN peacekeepers in Sarajevo and elsewhere
  8. Forced marriages in the Kashmiri community where British women are kidnapped and raped under the guise of marriage in order to gain British citizenship for poor cousins
  9. Honor killings in Pakistan and Jordan
  10. The absolute negation of women and girls, female foeticide, and their rape and assaults in India
  11. The use of rape as a weapon of war in Bosnia and the DRC
  12. An unfinished chapter on the pay gap for women in the UK

By the time I finished the book, particularly the eleventh chapter, I was incandescent with rage. It is never easy to live on this earth as a woman and know that there are people who think you’re inferior just because of your gender. But to see this put into action, to see patriarchy and misogyny visited in the most disgusting and ugly ways on women and girls regardless of who they are or where they come from, is to realize the scope of the hostility, and the importance of the task to bring it into awareness so that it can be redressed.

After reading about Congolese soldiers who put their guns in women’s vaginas, who laugh as they rape, about Easter European traffickers who rape women before selling them, about Gambian women who proclaim proudly they are the best cutters in the village, about the Irish priest who raped the woman who ran away from the Magdalene Laundry, about the way Egyptian generals called women activists whores and allowed their soldiers to treat them as such, about Pakistani parents who put bullets in their daughters’ bodies, about all of these things, you need to be made of stone or dead to not feel fury.

Roberts’s rage, too, is palpable throughout the entire book, but her anger is cabled to her professionalism, her intrepidness as a journalist, and a cool analysis of the situations and people who perpetuate them. And glorious warmth and compassion towards the women she interviews; she never presents them as objects of pity, but as figures of courage, just for having endured what they have. She teaches us that as women, anger is a vital and necessary weapon in this war. Another one is certainty; a third and fourth are rectitude and courage.

The book is a wealth of facts and information which I’ll be able to put to good use in my writing. Roberts supports each and every assertion with notes and a bibliography, with figures that are easily checked and facts that are easily documented. She has done the entire world of feminism, and feminist-oriented journalism and writing, a great service by writing this book. I recommend it highly to any woman doing this work, and to any man who wants to fight on our side.

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