I titled this “breaking my silence” not because I kept silent about this on purpose. I just never got around to it. After reflection, I regret not getting around to it, so I’m going to say something now, three months later.
Everyone probably remembers the New Year’s attacks on women in Europe that took the news cycle by storm. These attacks raised a big concern: that some refugees who come from very different cultures may carry out violent or sexual acts against women, acts that would be culturally acceptable in their own homeland but are obviously unacceptable to Western beliefs about gender equality.
This heated up the debate on whether Western countries should welcome migrants.
Now, I think people are too quick to broad-brush all refugees. It should be obvious that the majority of migrants are not attacking anyone, and not everyone outside of Western countries comes from a misogynistic culture. However, the concern over those who do is, indeed, a sobering question. But I’m even more concerned with how we choose to approach the larger question of women’s rights around the globe.
When this news story broke, I saw many conversations about how to protect Western values. I agree that we should have a conversation about that—it’s important to preserve what elements of physical, legal, and economic safety the West has managed to build for women. But I was extremely upset to see that most, if not all, of these conversations made no attempt to go beyond that. If we stop at merely protecting ourselves, I fear what that implies about our larger worldview.
Do the people who write these news stories, and the shocked Westerners who share and talk about them, pause to consider that sexual assaults and violent attacks are a daily reality for literally millions of women in various cultures around the globe? Do those writers, and the political advocates who are talking about these reprehensible attacks, plan to tackle the worldwide plight of women? Or do we only care about Western women?
People say this situation proves that we should not attempt a mass-assimilation of people from differing cultures (as if most people from non-Western countries are abusive rapists, which is not the case). This argument suggests we should leave people in the cultures they are familiar with so that they don’t visit their culture’s problems on us.
So then, it’s better to leave rapists and violent misogynists with other women, rather than to try and address misogyny and figure out how to bring egalitarianism to it?
We’ll be satisfied as long as those rapists keep raping other women and not us? And that’s where the conversation will stop?
Do we believe, in some back-alley corner of our subconscious, that there’s less urgency about the rape and abuse of women in other places because, after all, they’re used to it? And that it’s really important to protect ourselves, because our women are more enlightened and so it will hurt us more?
As ugly as that statement sounds, I fear that is the subconscious assumption that drives us. Otherwise, why would we be satisfied to say, “Let’s keep those problems in that culture rather than letting anyone come here.” Why would sending rapists back to “other women” in “other places” be a better approach than trying to bring principles of gender equality to them here and now? If we know men from certain areas are abusive to women, why is it okay to just leave them there to do their abusing and stop the conversation at that?
I have been guilty of putting my heart in that place more than once, I can tell you.
Of course, no one is actually saying that it’s okay for people in other places to rape women. No one wants that to happen. And yet, isn’t it still a problem for us to say that we’d rather build a wall against the problems than engage them? Isn’t that a way of prioritizing the safety of women who are like us and not doing the hard work of recognizing ourselves in women who come from dissimilar backgrounds?
This situation exposes the lie behind the idea that Western women are doing “enough” when we focus on the misogyny of our own culture. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, after all, and we’re learning that in a big way through this situation. Many of us have been complacent about addressing the suffering of women worldwide, and now a global migrant situation is bringing that problem to our door, albeit in a very small way.
Looks like it’s time for us to start caring. The fantasy that we can avoid other people’s problems in an increasingly connected global world is just that—a fantasy.
If you’re outraged about what happened at New Year’s as I am, be outraged that millions of women experience that as the norm in every facet of their society every day, and no one is going to write an angry news piece for them.
It is your problem. It is my problem. And not just because all women share a bond of sisterhood or because it’s hypothetically the ethical thing to care about, but because misogyny is a mighty tide of evil that won’t always stay behind the walls we think it will stay behind.