Although the initial incident occurred some two weeks ago, it is finally picking up 'steam' in the world's coverage. Some 234 young women, ages 16, 17 and 18, were kidnapped from their boarding school dorms in the middle of the night by terrorist thugs and shipped off into the forest in Nigeria and except for a few who escaped, have not been heard from since.
Word reaching the outside world indicates these young women have been sold for $12 to Boko Haram terrorists (definition of Boko Haram: western education is sinful) in what evokes medieval practices and attitudes. The Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan is under growing pressure to find and release the young women and to punish the perpetrators of this heinous crime.
It seems that there are conflicting multiple groups seeking in some cases an Islamic state in the north eastern part of Nigeria, and some seeking a state that enforces the Ten Commandments, both of which groups obviously are using extreme measures to attempt to accomplish their 'religious' or moral convictions through complete control.
George Brown, former Prime Minster of Great Britain, now the point man for the United Nations on the education of young women, has offered UK help in finding and retrieving the young women. Women in Nigeria have taken to the streets of Abuja, the capital city, to protest government inaction, especially since one government official has kept the Nigerian security forces informed on a near-daily basis of movements on the ground by those holding these young women, yet the forces seem paralysed an ineffectual to recover these abductees.
Many observers point to the real problem in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, as anarchy. Some point out that, for decades since independence from Britain, the presidency has shifted from a Christian occupant to a Muslim occupant of the office, and that both communities have lived in harmony, for the most part.
Now, however, things have changed dramatically. And the 'weapon' or target of choice of those seeking to impose their will through violence seems to be the education of women. Women, in the minds of the terrorists are not supposed to achieve an education, but rather are supposed to get married, have children and stay at home. Naturally in the course of pursuing such a for the west demented goal, schools, mosques, churches are being blown up, and yesterday in Abuja, a car bomb exploded raising the bar on violence and civil instability.
The question of the place, status, meaning and identity of women in the twenty-first century has become one of the defining issues of the planet's social, political and economic spheres. In the west, issues of pay equity, work balance, and sexual assault dominate the headlines. Colleges, the military and increasingly workplaces are experiencing a spike in sexual assaults. Just yesterday, the Obama administration's Justice Department issued a report that pointed a finger at some 55 colleges and universities in the United States that are not conforming to the letter and the spirit of Title Nine, which requires full investigation of all complaints of sexual assault. The U.S. military is reporting a significant spike in reports of incidents of sexual assault, whether that data indicates a rise in the actual occurrence or more likely a rise in the reporting of those incidents. And while the Taliban and terrorist groups like Boko Haram obviously have a very different attitude and approach to the question of the role, meaning purpose and future of women in their society from the attitude and approach in the west generally there is clearly an underlying and not so secret power struggle between men and women going on in many quarters. The Canadian media is today filled with calls for a public inquiry into the issue of missing aboriginal women, numbering by some estimates into the thousands, in unsolved mysteries considered by many to be crimes. Who knows where such an inquiry would lead, and the government appears very reluctant to acquiesce to the demands for one.
The front cover of The Atlantic this week pictures two U.S. media women, Claire Shipman and Katy Kay, representing ABC news and the BBC respectively, who have investigated what they call a lack of confidence among American women, compared to men, although both genders, from their research perform at an approximately equal level. American women do not ask for a raise in pay as frequently as do men; and women settle for considerably less than do their mail counterparts at the end of salary negotiations. The authors and their scholar sources attribute some of this to the "compliant" attitude of school girls. "If life were a continuing school yard, women would rule the world!" were the observations of one of the academics interviewed by Shipman and Kay.
Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, was on the forefront of the political wave's attempt to make 'women's issues' integral to and inseparable from foreign policy issues, while she held that office. Naturally, that kind of high profile for women would have deeply disturbed the cavemen-like attitudes of groups like the Taliban and Boko Haram, and most likely recruits to AlQaeda as well. Only yesterday, the very troubled mayor of Toronto was reported to be making sexually offensive comments in a bar about one of his female opponents in the upcoming election for Mayor.
Misogyny has elements of racism and bigotry within it; yet, it seems to have an even deeper and more nefarious and less easily ameliorated through education component, like the 'precipitate' in E.J. Pratt's celebrated poem, The Truant. Although public discussion and debate of issues of gender relations have increased in the last few decades, so too has the advertising industry's reliance on objectification of women's bodies as a vehicle to sell products of all types to market sectors of all economic ranges. Paralleling this development, the entertainment industry has made billions, perhaps even trillions, trumpeting all nuances of sexuality in song, drama, movie and video, to the point that the presentation of what some call pornography has become a regular component of television programming. And, what is worse, men are calling the shots, while women enact the 'scripts'.
Boys and girls, at a younger age than previously believed, are engaging in sexual activity, if reports from sociologists are to be believed. The time period of adolescence seems to have collapsed, if indications of 'adult' behaviour and fashion and interest are a window of evidence. Movements from the Christian 'right' to promote abstinence among the young have had only minimal effect. The availability of condoms, and the urge to 'express yourself' through the exercise of some of the most powerful emotions in one of the most high-risk activities of human life, linked to the data that in some quarters children are born to single mothers at a rate never before witnessed, linked also to the narrow and misguided perceptions among some young males that they are unwilling or unable to compete with the growing mass of educated young women, and you have a sexual cocktail that is highly explosive, to be somewhat understated.
However, given all of the components of that 'cocktail' there are still many options to a more healthy pursuit of both respect and equality between the genders, omitting violence and fascism and complete domination by men of women, irrespective of the theological or ideological premises of the culture.
I listened as a middle-aged woman responded to a question about the condition of her husband, following an accident in which his truck, jacked up to permit his replacing a broken spring, fell off the jack and partially pinned him. "He has some pain, but he is very stubborn, you know," she said, and then quickly uttered, "So are women!"
And the thought that, only if and when men and women together talk about and pursue their individual and reciprocal respect, while being able to smile at the idiosyncrasies of each gender, without a heavy dose of 'God' as a fixed standard as their fear of being sinful and evil, will these issues of gender equality and respect become less violent and less abusive.
It is very difficult for many men to witness the data that most university graduate programs see a majority of female students, as do most undergraduate programs in North America. And it is very difficult for many women to understand why that would be a problem for men. The stereotypes of sex and gender wrap a restrictive binding around all discussions about sex and gender equality. "All men want...." is one of the most common reductionisms thrown at men; while "women want complete control"...is one of the more common reductionisms thrown at women. As Shipman and Kay note, while women seem to lack confidence, men suffer the opposite affliction: too much confidence, by comparison.
And, to some, the differences are reason enough for the competition.
Yet, what if it were not a competition, but rather a collaboration, between men and women, in their conversations and in their partnerships, including their marriages, to discover both the strengths and the fears and weaknesses of each person, in a spirit of harmony and security and safety, not of condemnation and power over, but of a determination to celebrate both strengths and vulnerabilities of each, and together to pursue the adventure of adjusting to the realities, in love and in humility, that each finds irritating in the other? What if?....Is that a prospect to simple for consideration in a world gone mad over complexity and competition?
Have we turned the bedroom and the kitchen table into just another chapter of the competition that engenders business, education, and social climbing? Have we so emasculated men, with their own complicity in their insufferable victimhood, that it will take centuries to evolve into something like real equality and real confidence, and not just bravado as its surrogate? Have we so empowered the aspirations of women, as a hedge against what some women call the subjugation of women throughout the centuries, that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater? Can history really be discerned as the deliberate subjugation of women, for which men will have to pay for the ensuing centuries? Are we really so myopic and so frightened that we see any maturation of either gender as a threat to our status and power? Are we so narrow in our comprehension of what constitutes a purposeful and healthy life that we cannot embrace the flowering of both genders as a gift for the other? Are we so fixated on the balance sheet method of defining the world, that gains made by one segment of the population must be met with losses by another? Have we so reduced the definition of both masculinity and femininity to function and lost the essence of what it means to be a human being, never mind the biological and genetic similarities and differences?
Are we so fixated on the microscopic and the anal that we have lost both sight and appreciation of and for the wholeness of the other, because we have permitted society and culture to define us as function?
It may sound trite and somewhat nostalgic to ask questions that point to the advantages of vulnerability and weakness and insecurity and fear. However, it is in those questions and in those explorations that we do indeed find insight, golden insight and 'aha' moments, that disclose previously hidden truths that have been either too painful to discover and acknowledge or too audacious for our humble indoctrinations from our own spiritual foundation and formation.
Religion may attempt to provide missing courage and strength in our admittedly fragile existence; however, when it is used as a weapon against another, regardless of the other's gender, education, status or power(including powerlessness) it is a seriously flawed deployment of that religion, in the name of whatever deity we espouse and worship.
We have many miles to go into the forest of our own unknowing, into the darknesses of our own nights in order to discern our relationships with each other and with a deity worthy of our adoration. So too, will that deity be only too willing and eager to accompany us on that pilgrimage into the deep recesses of our profound humility, at the expense of our paralyzing hubris, in our pursuit of even a remote approximation of the fullest expression of love in all of its many forms and joys.