| Dan Gill / The New York Times|
Aug 25, 2012 | Shirin Sadeghi
In the American media, the news from Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere generally runs along the same themes: scary, violent and religious nutsos. But isn't it time the US media and the American public agreed that America isn't much different? America has just as many religious fundamentalists and nut jobs, and they are making public statements just as often - if not more often - than the religious fundies elsewhere.
Are we to believe that a fundamentalist in a suit is less scary than a fundamentalist in a beard, even if both are spouting hatred against women?
Missouri Republican Congressman Todd Akin's recent comments about how women can't become pregnant from what he called "legitimate rape" was just the latest in a long line of pronouncements from American leaders with strong religious backgrounds who believe they are an authority on women's needs and health. Akin is no different than the numerous Iranian clerics who've said such ridiculous things as women who have extramarital sex "cause earthquakes," or the Egyptian cleric who first said that a husband and wife cannot be completely naked while having sex. (This was then modified by scholars, and it was agreed that the most important thing is that no one look at the vagina at the scene of the sex act.) Or the fatwa after fatwa about men and women working together, schooling together and all the rest (sounds a lot like segregation, doesn't it America?).
In the early days of the Taliban, before they began their habit of bombing girls' schools, they too, started out with making ridiculous comments about women and sexuality. It's only just escalated to the violence we've become familiar with.
The truth is, Akin and his fellow religious fundamentalist men the world over are very much the same when it comes to women: they know more about women than women do. In their minds, of course. Because none of them know what it's like to have a period or to give birth or to suffer the tragic and deeply disturbing decision to abort a baby. (Many women don't even know what it's like to suffer through a decision about an unwanted baby.) Further, no man knows what it's like to live in a world where women are second-class citizens - although that is a fact even in the most "civilized" and modern countries. None of them know what it's like to work just as hard as a man and not get the job, or not get the promotion, or, certainly, not get the same amount of pay.
Sure, there are a lot of female fundamentalists, too. It is deeply troubling when women take views against women, but at least we cannot accuse them of speaking out of turn, and you'll be hard-pressed to find any woman - even the most conservative and devoutly religious - who shares all the views of a biased man when it comes to women's rights, health care and needs. She would, after all, be speaking against herself.
But no man knows what it is like to be a woman, even though too many of them think they do. And too many of them attain public positions that give them a platform to spout their sexism. It is extraordinary that we don't hear female politicians make the same blanket statements about men, yet it makes a great deal of sense: in the patriarchy of world gender dynamics, a woman should focus on her area of expertise and leave the rest to the men.
Akin, a graduate of the Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri - he has a master of divinity - has gathered along the way, largely due to societal cues, that he is an authority on things that he is not, because he is a man. Like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently spoke on behalf of all the women in the Republican Party when he said that his female colleagues "don't see any evidence" of a war on women, it never struck Akin that he is not qualified to speak for women, particularly when he is attacking their rights.
And he is not the first. It was just this year that Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman said that, "money is more important for men," as he argued against a Wisconsin state equal pay act. In his view of the matter, there is no pay discrimination because women simply don't want to be paid as much as men do, particularly when they are married and more focused on raising kids (as he duly noted). Grothman, a devout Christian, also made headlines this year when he said that "unwanted and mistimed pregnancies" are "a choice" that women make and are not actually accidents.
Incidentally, Grothman has never been married and does not have kids.
Or what about Idaho state senator Chuck Winder, who just this year said that women may not actually know the difference between rape and the normal course of sexual relations in marriage (something Winder believes involves a woman being obligated to have sexual relations with her husband even when she does not want to): "I would hope that when a woman goes into a physician, with a rape issue, that that physician will indeed ask her about perhaps her marriage. Was this pregnancy caused by normal relations in a marriage, or was it truly caused by a rape?" He went on to imply that many women are using rape as an excuse for abortion.
And then there is the totality of what many people are simply referring to as the war on women in America: the attitudes, statements, media bias and campaign platforms that together work to denigrate women and take away their rights simply because of the physical realities of their bodies. The war on women refers, primarily, to the Republican Party - a party largely consisting of devout men whose understanding of religion provides them the context and confidence to make statements and decisions about women's body parts, sexual relations and reproduction, in addition to women's role in society (and in the home), and their right to equality in employment and pay.
A great many of these male politicians allow themselves to address these issues because of their religious qualifications: either they are, in fact, ordained ministers and divinity school graduates, or they are so devout in their religion that they are above reproach when it comes to being pious.
All of the petty statements by these sexist men would amount to just words in the air, except that in America's male-dominated Congress (women hold less than 20 percent of seats in Congress, and state legislatures don't look much more equal either) - just as in the governments of those Middle Eastern and South Asian nations that are vilified in the US media - bill after bill, law after law has been presented, passed and signed that depletes women's rights. American women need just as much protection from their religious fundamentalist men as women anywhere else do - the problem is, not enough of them know it.
Shirin Sadeghi is an independent journalist and Middle East specialist with an emphasis on Iran, Pakistan and the Persian Gulf countries. Her other specialties are minorities in the United States and comparative media analysis. Her broadcast career began as a producer and reporter for the BBC World Service and later as a producer and reporter for Al Jazeera. She has a PhD in Middle Eastern studies. Find Sadeghi on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi.