News & Politics

The World War on Women

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In Turkey, a conservative Muslim president announces that women who don’t stay home and bear children are “deficient.” In Russia’s Duma, a campaign is afoot to decriminalize domestic violence. In India, the editor of a liberal investigative magazine corners an employee during a glitzy literary gathering, puts his hands under her clothes and penetrates her, then dismisses the whole incident as “drunken banter.” In the Philippines, the new president jokes about having missed his chance to lead a gang-rape.

If the grotesque behavior of the Republican nominee shocks many Americans, for the world watching the campaign from afar it has been a kind of leveler, demonstrating that when it comes to attitudes toward women, the United States is more like anywhere else than perhaps it wanted to believe. “We know this language from politicians,” says Rebecca John, an Indian lawyer based in Delhi who has represented many rape victims.

Misogyny remains everywhere a rich seam that more politicians are mining. Donald Trump is the latest in a growing cast of leaders and political movements worldwide that explicitly or implicitly denigrate women as part of their platform. The former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi was the Western pioneer of this new trend, with his flamboyant blend of sexism, narcissism, and nationalism, not forgetting his à la carte relationship with the truth.

There are now many subspecies of this political type worldwide. They are almost always nationalists, often authoritarian and religious, always populist, but often democratically elected, too. If women thought they could relax a little with the rights they have gained, in many places they are looking at a return to the past. Repeatedly — think of Trump’s bragging about how he couldn’t have assaulted his accusers because they weren’t sufficiently attractive — the new generation of strongmen signal that they are not interested in the norms of modern women’s rights. And the divisive strategy appears to be working.

Take Turkey. Its conservative Muslim president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party are steadily moving to put women in a second-class box, say his critics — effectively halting decades of slow improvement in their rights under his secular predecessors. Now, Erdogan insists, a woman’s role is to stay at home and have “at least three children,” and he labels those who don’t as “deficient” and “denying their femininity.”

Since surviving a coup attempt in July, the Turkish leader and his party have doubled down on this message. Prescriptions about a woman’s role have been tied to wider nationalistic demands to boost population numbers, according to Gulsum Kav, a doctor and co-founder of an activist group that campaigns against domestic violence. And the atmosphere has become increasingly toxic. Some of Erdogan’s supporters have said the wives of any men who backed his ouster should be raped as punishment. They are the “spoils of war,” tweeted one loyalist, though he was later forced to resign from his job at a soccer club.

Move northward to Russia, and President Vladimir Putin (yes, he of the much-discussed Trump bromance). In alliance with the country’s Orthodox Church, the Kremlin’s enforcer has overseen similar changes in the language of government about the need to protect traditional family values. That has been coupled with a concerted effort to squeeze women’s rights, including moves to further restrict access to abortion and dilute legislation on domestic violence.

For an even more rancid version of this noxious mix, head to the Philippines, where Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency this year after a campaign that trumped even Trump. Once Duterte “joked” to a crowd about not having gotten to participate in the rape and murder of an Australian woman in the city he governed, his poll numbers went up.

In India, where I was based as a journalist, the battle over the place of women in society was the dominant theme of my reporting. The recent history there of agitation for women’s rights has been one of relentless disappointment. When a medical student was gang-raped and killed in the capital in 2012, prompting global headlines, the left-leaning government faced national protests. One of the crusading editors who led the criticism was Tarun Tejpal — the man himself charged with assaulting a journalist in an elevator shortly thereafter.

The failures of the left sparked hopes that women would get a better deal from the right-wing prime minister, Narendra Modi, who won in a landslide in 2014. Instead, campaigners say, he and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are presiding over a backlash against greater female emancipation. Sexual violence remains a common weapon in enforcing tradition in India, and Modi’s hardline supporters have whipped up panic about a “Love Jihad” by India’s Muslim minority to marry and convert Hindu women.

However it is enforced, the goal is to “relegate us to the role of homemaker,” says John, the Delhi lawyer. Not that you’ll catch Modi saying anything like this. On the contrary, since he swept to victory with the slogan “Good Days Are Coming,” he has urged Indians to show more respect for women, calling in a recent speech for them to “be treated right.” But what matters just as much in India is what he doesn’t do. Modi has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the misogynistic excesses of his supporters. As a leader who has sold himself as a decisive strongman, that lack of condemnation is read as assent.

Like Modi, the Russian president has been delphic in his statements about women. But in the looking-glass world that Putin’s Kremlin has become infamous for, it has encouraged a misogynistic mindset even as it claims to be defending the female population. Under the conservative banner of “family values,” the government and its Orthodox allies have redefined the rights of women, according to Dr. Vikki Turbine, a specialist on Russia at Glasgow University. “Their rights are framed in terms of their right to have more children, or their right to be paid not to have an abortion.”

This redefinition shades quickly into a more direct attack on women’s rights in favor of “families.” “Should a family member go to prison for a slap?” asked Yelena Mizulina, a conservative senator in Russia’s parliament, when she introduced a bill that would make it easier for men to beat their wives with impunity. The chair of the Duma’s Committee on Family, Women, and Children, Mizulina previously authored Russia’s notorious “anti–gay propaganda” law.

Much like LGBT rights, in fact, universal human rights are portrayed in Russia and India as a Western Trojan horse. The idea that human rights are a Western construct has been a cornerstone of Vladimir Putin’s philosophy. Substitute “liberal” for “Western” here, and you start getting something akin to Trump. The basic message is that the niceties of women’s rights and universal rights are a tool of distant elites. Far from decrying these attitudes, the public in many countries, as at Trump’s rallies, has come to embrace them.

In India, voters have made clear they don’t much care even if their politicians are accused of serious sex crimes. Several years ago, I interviewed an Indian politician, Manoj Kumar Paras, who had been indicted for taking part in a rape (six years later, in typical Indian fashion, the case is still pending). He claimed the charge had been fabricated by his opponents. But his real argument was that the voters had in effect acquitted him. Everyone in his constituency knew about the rape charge, Paras said. “They could see through it, and that’s why I won by thirty thousand votes.”

Modi himself faced serious questions about his past before he became prime minister. He is accused of turning a blind eye to communal riots that broke out in his home state of Gujarat when he was in charge, which claimed the lives of at least a thousand people, most of them Muslims, including hundreds of women who were raped and butchered.

For some voters the willingness to accept violence — against Muslims, against women, against foes of the state — in the service of nationalism is part of Modi’s appeal. I followed Modi’s campaign closely, and looking back it had echoes of the Republican challenger’s revivalist message. It was in effect a promise to “Make India Great Again.” And the Indian prime minister has the same kind of fanatical admirers, with almost twice as many followers on Twitter.

In Turkey, the link between nationalism, violence, and the eclipse of women’s rights is even more direct. Kav, the doctor and Erdogan critic, has no qualms about comparing Erdogan’s ideology to its very dark models. “Like Hitler or Mussolini,” says Kav, “he wants the population increased so he has more soldiers and more cheap labor.”

A dismissive misogyny has become so commonplace on the international stage that when aired in anything but the ugliest terms it barely elicits comment. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, gave a sharp sense of Kremlin attitudes in a recent interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Invited to comment on Trump’s “pussy” remark, he ducked the opportunity to condemn it, instead joking that “there are so many pussies in your presidential campaign that I prefer not to comment.”

Watching the video clip, Amanpour’s giggling reaction was just as disturbing as the smirk on Lavrov’s face. Here was one of America’s best-known journalists collapsing into laughter at a joke that effectively legitimized a U.S. presidential candidate’s boast of getting away with assaulting women. The steady patter of comments has inured even journalists to their meaning.

Meanwhile, for their intended audience, they gain power from constant repetition. From Istanbul to Gujarat, Moscow to Illinois, this is old-style dog-whistle politics in a globalized world. The mix changes with each strongman leader, but not the overall strategy. Like a graphic equalizer, they vary the balance of misogyny or racism, nationalism or fear, but it’s still the same treacherous tune.

Andrew North is a journalist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. Follow him on Twitter @NorthAndrew.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Gulsum Kav, the Turkish activist and doctor.

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