Rule by Rape. The chapter begins with South African medical technician Sonette Elhers, who invented Rapex. Rapex is a device inserted into the vagina like a tampon, with barbs that clench down on the penis of a man who violates a woman. The need for Rapex reflects, the authors write, commonplace violence against women worldwide. They stress that, “women aged fifteen through forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.” Intimate partners perpetrate violence that seriously impacts women’s health.
The authors’ inclusion of Rapex supports the argument that rape direly needs to be addressed—the cause is so urgent, it compelled a mechanical invention to make women safer. Rapex, however, doesn’t address the deep cultural problem that leads to rape: misogyny. Further, the authors explain that it is often the people to whom a woman is closest, a husband or boyfriend, who inflicts the most brutal and frequent abuse, which shatters the myth of male protectors.
Violence against women is also subject to technological innovation, the authors report. For instance, since the first documented case in 1967, the use of acid as a weapon, splashed in the face and melting the skin, has grown. In Kenya, for instance, the threat of such violence forms unique obstacles for women to gain political power, since rape literally could ruin a woman’s image. The authors write that, “a culture of sexual predation,” more than individual men, is usually the root problem.
It may be counterintuitive to readers that modern innovations can be tools for misogynistic purposes, but just as torture instruments were developed across eras, new tools to suppress women are emerging. The problem of rape is ultimately rooted in cultural ethics. Given that fact, punishing specific perpetrators might be a temporary solution, but wouldn’t address the core problem.
The authors introduce Woinshet Zebene, an Ethiopian girl. She was raised in a rural culture in which a man, when rejected by a woman, commonly recruits friends to kidnap her, then rapes her, which effectively obligates her to marry him, since she’ll struggle to find another husband. Ethiopian law prevents a rapist from being prosecuted if he marries the woman he raped. Teenaged Woinshet was victim to the violence this custom encourages.
The perverse system to which Woinshet is subjected is another example of rape used as a tool of power. In this case, raping a woman becomes a way to assert ownership over her, cutting off her options due to limitations for women who are considered impure.
In their hut outside the capital Addis Ababa, Woinshet and her father tell the authors the story. Stealing a goat, they explain, is a grave transgression, but kidnapping a woman is not. With “quiet dignity,” Woinshet describes being seized, at thirteen, from her hut one night by a group of men. For two days, Aberew Jemma and his friends raped and beat Woinshet.
Much like the Indian intelligence officer’s disregard for trafficked girls at the beginning of chapter 2, the ethos in Woinshet’s village is that women are worth less than a commodity such as livestock. While Woinshet describes her harrowing story, the authors’ description of her “quiet dignity,” is a poignant reminder of how brave and resilient a girl must be to survive such brutality. Rather than solely present Woinshet as a victim, the author’s also capture her strength, and in doing so even more powerfully indict a world that would seek to oppress her.
After Woinshet escaped from her kidnappers, her father rejected the idea of her marrying Aberew. They decided to report the rape as a crime, and Woinshet walked miles to a bus stop, waited two days and took a grueling journey to have a pelvic exam. Village elders urged the Zebene family to settle the dispute and agree to marriage, but they refused. Afraid of prosecution, Aberew kidnapped Woinshet again, and resumed the rapes. While trying to escape, Aberew recaptured her and, incredibly, took her to court, where Woinshet pleaded to be returned home. But, the official sided with her rapist.
In Woinshet’s saga, not only her rapist and kidnappers, but also authority figures in her village and the government deny her right to a life free of violence. In cultures such as Woinshet’s, corruption isn’t the only reason violence toward women persists unpunished. Rather, endemic misogyny makes authorities condone abuse.
The authors report that Woinshet didn’t want to marry anyone so young, but wanted to stay in school, despite accusations that she had broken tradition by refusing her rapist. She fled from the compound where Aberew had imprisoned her, to the local jail, where she was placed in a cell for protection, while her rapist went free. After resistance from the police and judges, a judge finally sentenced Aberew to ten years in prison, but he was soon released. Fearing for her life, Woinshet fled to Addis Ababa to live with her father.
It is noteworthy that Woinshet actively wanted to pursue an education, a testament that not only elders or outsiders want education for girls, but girls themselves often want it, too. Woinshet continued to struggle not just against her abusers, but against authorities who found her plight unworthy of intervention.
“Woinshet found support in an unlikely corner,” the authors write: Americans wrote angry letters objecting to the Ethiopian legal code that rapists cannot be prosecuted for victims they marry. The Americans belonged to Equality Now, which gave Woinshet moral support and funding for school. Equality Now brought enough negative attention to Ethiopia to spur the law to change.
It was outsiders who finally intervened in Woinshet’s situation, evidence that noisy objection to abuse, from half way across the world, can in fact effect change.
However, a change in law doesn’t entail a change in culture. Kristof and WuDunn think some Westerners put too much energy toward changing laws. Constitutional amendments passed after the Civil War did less to empower African Americans, they argue, than the civil rights movement did. They cite the leader of the growing Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, who says cultural change starts with education, not just laws. Woinshet is now in high school, they report, and planning to go to law school.
Maintaining their realist perspective, the authors imply that expecting new laws to inherently effect change is to view causal relationships too simplistically. Historically, in the United States as well as developing countries, laws have needed shoves from grassroots movements to actually enact the intended—or purportedly intended—results of the law.
The authors claim that the reasons behind epidemic violence against women can be boiled down to sexism and misogyny. They ask rhetorically, “How else to explain why so many more witches were burned than wizards? Why is acid thrown in women's faces, but not in men's?” Americans, they argue, must spotlight widespread abuse in developing countries, in part by establishing more diplomatic roles for gender equity. One step would be a Women’s Global Development Office, included in the proposed International Violence Against Women Act, which will be reintroduced to congress yearly until passed.
Here, the authors locate their argument beyond the modern era and within greater human history. Mistrust, fear, and hatred of women have led to irrational accusations of witchcraft for centuries. That same legacy of misogyny makes women more likely to experience acid attacks today.
Misogyny, however, exists not only among men, the authors argue. Women, too, manage brothels, prioritize sons over daughters, and cut girls’ genitals. For instance, in the Sierra Leone civil war, women fighters assisted in holding women down to be raped, as a way for soldiers to bond. Further, the author’s report, women in some countries kill female babies under the husband’s threat of divorce. Many women support beating women, and mothers-in-law can be especially cruel purveyors of violence.
Concrete villains make an easier target to fight than does a deep cultural ethic. That is, if men were solely responsible for misogyny, the task of ending misogyny would be clearer. However, the authors give evidence to show that women also internalize misogyny and even assist in sexual violence. The fight is against cultures that condone violence against women.
This was the experience of Zoya Najabi from Afghanistan, who was married at twelve and beaten by all her in-laws, but especially her mother-in-law. Zoya describes to the authors being whipped by her mother-in-law until her feet “were like yogurt.” Zoya says that the beating was wrong because she had in fact obeyed her husband—not because beating women is wrong. Women, the authors explain, internalize misogynistic values, then perpetuate them.
Here, the authors use vivid descriptions of Zoya’s mother-in-law’s beatings to make the consequences of female misogyny concrete rather than abstract to the reader.
Mukhtar’s School. “The most effective change agents aren't foreigners but local women (and sometimes men) who galvanize a movement,” the authors begin. Mukhtar Mai is a good example. Growing up in a village in Punjab, Mukhtar never attended school and doesn’t know her age. When a higher-caste gang raped her younger brother Shakur, an early teenager, the gang accused him of having sex with a girl from their caste, to avoid punishment. Mukhtar had to apologize on Shakur’s behalf for this invented crime, and when the tribal council decided the apology wasn’t enough, they ordered Mukhtar to be gang-raped. After four men raped her in a stable, a crowd jeered at her while she stumbled home.
The authors’ focus on Mukhtar Mai underscores their argument that internal change ideally comes from within societies, not from intervening outsiders. Her story, beginning with her brother’s rape by other men, shows that boys also fall victim to rape. In places where rape is an assertion of masculinity, or of the culture’s predominant idea of masculinity, boys may also be victims of this perverse ethic.
Mukhtar prepared to perform the reaction expected of her: to kill herself. But, her parents prevented this and a village Muslim leader publically denounced the rape. Remarkably, Mukhtar then reported the rape, had her rapists arrested, and caught the attention of Pakistan’s president, who gave her $8,300 in compensation. She put the money toward building schools, what the village most needed. The authors describe Mukhtar, on Kristof’s first visit to see her, as a deferential girl sitting in the back of her father’s house, face covered, letting the men speak. When she finally opened up to Kristof, she spoke passionately about the need for education to prevent rape. Meanwhile, as she reported to Kristof, the police guarding the house were actually exploiting Mukhtar for her money.
It’s noteworthy that both Mukhtar and Woinshet found the wherewithal to fight their culture of rape with, initially, support from parents. Resistance is easier when trusted models or encouraging voices of resistance are nearby. This is further evidence of the infectious nature of advocacy—advocates inspire other advocates. Further, Mukhtar shows that appearances can be deceiving, especially when filtered through Western lenses: at first appearing timid and submissive, Mukhtar shows herself to be daring and vocal.
Mukhtar had already founded the Mukhtar Mai School for Girls, and Kristof’s column on the school brought in $430,000 in donations. But, it also brought resentment from Pakistan’s government, and the release of her rapists. When Mukhtar denounced the government, the president put her under house arrest, then ordered her kidnapped and cut off from outside contact. This happened while President George W. Bush was praising Pakistan’s president for “bold leadership.”
That President Bush praised the Pakistani government while it terrorized a champion of women’s rights shows the potential gaps between political rhetoric and political reality. Because Mukhtar was high-profile, her case became public to the U.S., but for lesser known cases, government oppression can go unseen.
After Mukhtar’s harassment became public, the embarrassed U.S. government pressured Pakistan to release her. By the time Mukhtar had permission to travel to the U.S., she had gained international celebrity. Lavished with attention from Glamour magazine and politicians, Mukhtar found the interviews and pageantry overwhelming. By contrast to her U.S. reception, her own work focuses on the underserved and largely unseen rural communities. The authors describe a commencement at one of Mukhtar’s school as having a thousand-person attendance and messages against domestic violence.
Mukhtar’s resistance to her extravagant reception by American magazines and politicians shows the ironic ways humanitarians can be greeted in the U.S. Mukhtar was treated as a celebrity, with a celebrity’s level of admiration and excess, but this ostentatiousness in fact alienated her. She advocates for virtually invisible rural communities, to which such fanfare wouldn’t resonate.
Some efforts fail, however, the authors stress—Mukhtar personally worked to keep one girl from marrying at twelve, but the family married her off nonetheless. Even so, her initiative has expanded to include a free legal clinic, a boys’ school, and other civic resources. Though Mukhtar didn’t have a sophisticated way of speaking, her resolve and willingness to both embrace victims and urge authorities to work for them made her extremely influential. Mukhtar herself changed, the authors describe, no longer deferring to the men in her family, despite murderous threats from one of her brothers. Her dress is less conservative, though she retains her Muslim faith.
Even with Mukhtar’s personal commitment to keep girls in school, some fall through the cracks. The authors bring in this example to temper any assumption that Mukhtar’s heroism is without failure. It’s also important for the authors to emphasize that, even as Mukhtar grew more confident and liberal in her attitudes, she maintained her Muslim faith. Progress and Islam, this implies, are not incompatible.
Yet the Pakistani government persisted in their attempt to terrorize Mukhtar, smearing her with the myth that she was money-hungry, and even targeting Kristof and WuDunn. The president warned her against spreading a bad image of Pakistan in the U.S., and threatened to imprison her for false charges of fornication. Desperate, her chief of staff told Kristof and WuDunn that, if they died even in a train accident, it would be a plotted murder.
Mukhtar’s story is a rather operatic tale—the president at first aided her, jumpstarting her education work, then resisted her success and viciously sought retaliation. The very real threat of state-sanctioned murder highlights just how dangerous becoming a powerful woman can be.
Mukhtar’s courage shows that leaders emerge not just from privileged backgrounds, the authors argue. Her leadership inspired other women, like sixteen-year-old Saima, to advocate against rape. After a group of men paraded Saima naked through her village and raped her, Saima chose not suicide, but to prosecute the attackers. Though there’s no data, rapes in Punjab reportedly have declined due to threat of prosecution.
Mukhtar’s self-advocacy was contagious, influencing other girls to follow suit. The saying, “empowered women empower women” appears in action here. Further, by raising the social and legal stakes of committing rape, Mukhtar and her allies reduced its prevalence.
Mukhtar’s tenacity is contagious to those privileged to know her, like a policeman once enlisted to harass Mukhtar but who grew spellbound by her commitment to helping others. He risked his career in order to support Punjabi local women, the authors write. After political shifts in Pakistan, Mukhtar Mai is now safe from government spying. She also married a former policeman as his second wife, “making Mukhtar an odd emblem of women's rights,” but with the first wife’s well wishes.
The effect Mukhtar had extends, notably, to men who changed their perspectives on women’s rights. This implies that Mukhtar and women like her can actually influence ideas of masculinity—a policeman forsook a very masculine job to defend the rights of women, perhaps including the idea of “integrity” in his new brand of masculinity. Also, Mukhtar’s role as second wife show that it’s possible to both champion women’s rights and adhere to some conservative customs.