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States that Abuse Women

Nina Shea

In his March 3 New York Times column, entitled “When States Abuse Women,“ Nicholas Kristof condemns a new Texas law because it requires women who seek abortions in the state, first, to have an ultra-sound exam, be told the risks associated with abortion, receive a list of counseling agencies, and wait for at least 24 hours. Kristof denounces these requirements as “state-sanctioned abuse and humiliation.” He quotes Texas abortionist Dr. Curtis Boyd, saying: “The state of Texas is waging war on women and their families.”

To put this overheated and irresponsible rhetoric into perspective, it’s worth a quick review of some states that actually do abuse women:

China, where Kristof was once based as a foreign correspondent, has a state-mandated “one child” policy, now in its 31st year. Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.) has presided over many hearings on it and describes the policy as follows:

The price for failing to conform to this system is staggering. A Chinese woman who becomes pregnant without a permit will be put under mind-bending pressure to abort. She knows that “out-of-plan” illegal children are denied education, health-care, and marriage, and that fines for bearing a child without a birth permit can be 10 times the average annual income of two parents, and those families that can’t or won’t pay are jailed, or their homes smashed in, or their young child is killed. If the brave woman still refuses to submit, she may be held in a punishment cell, or, if she flees, her relatives may be held and, very often, beaten. Group punishments will be used to socially ostracize herher colleagues and neighbors will be denied birth permits. If the woman is by some miracle still able to resist this pressure, she may be physically dragged to the operating table and forced to undergo an abortion.

A Chinese woman, Chai Ling, testified in Congress, in September 2011, that: 

It is an insidious policy causing the society to immediately demand an abortion for any woman without a birth permit, married or not. To refuse would be illegal, but most unmarried women like me don’t even dare to ask and certainly don’t tell others about it, but silently suffer in a country with the highest female-suicide rate in the world, 500 women a day, every day.

North Korea has a policy of horrific persecution of all those who have been deported back to North Korea after having fled to China, where they are suspected of having converted to Christianity. But women face a particular ordeal. As Hudson Senior Fellow Melanie Kirkpatrick writes: 

North Koreans who are suspected of having met Christians, South Koreans or Americans while in China are executed or shipped off to the gulag, where conditions are so severe and food so scarce that imprisonment is in effect a death sentence. The rest of the returnees are sent to other prisons, where conditions are little better. Pregnant women are forced to undergo abortions, even in their third trimester, for the crime of carrying ‘Chinese seed.’

Saudi Arabia denies women freedom and equality under the law in both the personal and public spheres. Women are required to have male guardians whose permission is necessary for traveling outside the home even for emergency hospital visits. The state dictates their appearance with dress codes that enshroud them in anonymous black robes from head to toe. Apart from lingerie stores, they are barred from retail jobs and most service work. Under a code unique to Saudi Arabia, they are also banned from driving. They cannot mingle with unrelated men. A special police force,mutaween, patrols streets, shopping malls, and other places to enforce such laws; themutaween captured rare international attention in 2002 when, during a fire at a girls’ school in Mecca, they caused the death of 15 girls by pushing them back into the blazing building because, in their panic, the girls had run out without their veils. Women’s testimony in court is weighed less than men’s and they are treated unequally by law in family matters, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Women are also at risk of being charged with putting spells on men under laws against witchcraft, a capital crime. A Sudanese woman was beheaded in December for sorcery.

Iran’s legal system concerning women shares many of the features of Saudi Arabia’s. Women are subject to state-enforced dress codes and sequestration laws. Their testimony in court is weighed less than men’s. They are disadvantaged under family laws. Also, according to the penal code, four male witnesses or a combination of three male and two female witnesses are required for a rape conviction; if a woman brings a rape accusation but fails to meet the burden of proof, she is subject to 80 lashes. The law permits a man to kill his adulterous wife and women convicted of adultery can be sentenced to stoning. Protesting for women’s rights is harshly punished. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist, was summoned to Evin Prison in 2010 where she was promptly arrested and detained on charges of “propaganda against the state,” “a conspiracy to disturb order,” and cooperation with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shin Ebadi’s Defenders of Human Rights Center. After she went on a 70-day hunger strike to protest her treatment, including solitary confinement, she was also charged with “not wearing the hijab [headcovering]” and “not observing Islamic standards of conduct.” In 2011, the State Department reported that she remained in solitary confinement and that her interrogators reportedly told her they controlled the length of her sentence, which would be at least ten years.

Pakistan does not mandate dress or other restrictions for women to the extent seen in Saudi Arabia or Iran. But it does apply Islamic laws that treat women unequally in the sharia courts and in family matters. A frequent problem for Christian women in Punjab, the largest province, according to Father Khalid Rashid Asi, general vicar of the Catholic diocese of Faisalabad, stems from that country’s persistent practice of forcing rape victims to marry their rapists, a situation that becomes compounded by forcible conversion to Islam; the criminal justice system fails to protect such women and girls. A well-documented case that illustrates the problem occurred on December 24, 2010, as recorded by the Asian Human Rights Commission and reported by the British Pakistani Christian Association. Anna, a 12-year-old Christian girl, was visited by a Muslim friend at her home in Lahore and invited to do some last minute Christmas shopping with her. Instead, when she got into the friend’s car she was abducted by the friend’s relatives. She was taken to a house in another city where she was held for eight months and repeatedly raped and beaten, in order to convert her to Islam. Her family did not know what had happened to her; her father Arif Masih filed a complaint with police but they took no action. In September 2011, Anna managed to escape and run to a bus station where she called her frantic family who drove to retrieve her. Her kidnappers then petitioned police for her return, asserting that she had converted to Islam and was now married to one of her rapists. The police told the family it would be better to hand over Anna to the rapist, since he was now her husband and they would face a criminal case if they refused. Appalled at the suggestion and terrified that their daughter would be again taken, the family has gone into hiding.

Afghanistan also treats women unequally under the law and shares many features of gender discrimination and restriction found in the laws of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Those calling for greater women’s rights can be harshly punished for the crime of blasphemy against Islam. For example, Shia scholar Ali Mohaqeq Nasab, editor of Haqooq-i-Zen magazine, was imprisoned by the government for publishing “un-Islamic” articles that criticized stoning as a punishment for adultery. Afghanistan also applies, in some areas, tribal law that gives women few rights. Three weeks ago the New York Times detailed one particularly abusive tribal law that is said to be “pervasive” in Pashtun areas, aptly named “baad.” It is the abduction, lifelong enslavement and rape of a girl who was 8 years old in the Times‘s story by a family in compensation for a wrong committed by the girl’s relatives.

Kristof should know better since he’s written extensively about real “state abuse” of women in many countries throughout the world. Misrepresenting Texas’s abortion law does a disservice to the girls and women who are in fact abused by their states.

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