It’s a most pleasant Sunday morning at the beach, one that started with a walk on the sand with two lucky dogs and a cup of coffee before everyone else got up – the time of day when I feel the most positive and optimistic, about the day ahead, and life in general. I scan the New York Times and, in the aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine and the escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas, I notice three separate stories in the World section.
1. A six-year-old girl is raped at school, on her way to the bathroom, in some remote corner of India. The parents refuse to send their children back to school until the culprits are found – they are rumored to be members of staff.
2. In a different corner of India, a group of soldiers, used to acting with impunity, walk into a house and drag a young woman out – her brother and mother come to her defense and are brutally beaten. The woman is tortured and raped for hours, and finally shot point-blank, her vagina obliterated by bullets to erase any sign of rape. The soldiers walk away and later recount their version as “being forced to kill an insurgent”.
3. But the most horrifying of the three stories, if shades of horror can be apportioned to such belief-defying violence, is the one of a 10-year-old Afghani girl taken inside a mosque by a mullah and so forcefully raped to cause a fistula (when the barrier between the vagina and the anus is torn) and who nearly bleeds to death. Her aunt eventually relents to the pleas of a female doctor to let the child be taken to a hospital, and then released to a women’s shelter. At this point, I don’t even know if I am more disgusted by the child’s family, who, in the face of having to care for an un-marriageable girl, want her back so they can kill her and put her to rest in the village cemetery, or by the justifications of the mullah who claims the girl was complacent and willing, and he is now prepared to marry her. In the end the girl is returned to her family, under assurances that no harm will come to her (!).
To any habitual news reader, such stories are nothing new although it’s a touch unusual to read three, back to back, on the same day. And it’s not as if we need any reminders that, in certain parts of the world, a girl’s life is worth less than dirt. Even the mother who is willing to have her daughter killed out of shame, is a victim of the lack of self-worth women in rural Afghanistan are accustomed to.
Plunged in a relentless news cycle of grimness, violence, death, incomprehension and bigotry I am left with a feeling of impotence and sadness at being unable to effect any significant change.
Even signing another petition for change.org or any of the thousands that appear in my inbox or cross my FB page has become an irritant: how am I expected to care about, research and sign my name to causes ranging from wolf extinction to child marriage?. Of course I know all of this is wrong but it’s also too overwhelming and often too manipulated. A wonderful commentary by Suzanne Moore of The Guardian ,that sofagirl posted to her FB page a few days ago, looks at this “moveable feast” of horrors we are subjected too on the conventional media feeds, and amplified by social media:
“But now on Twitter especially there are endless pictures of dead toddlers. These are tweeted and retweeted to convey horror at what is going on in Gaza. This is obscene. Yet the moveable feast of semi-aroused outrage that is Twitter alights on one injustice after another. A while ago my feed was full of butchered elephants bleeding where their tusks had been removed. Before that were lions accompanied by the grinning idiots who had killed them. None of these images persuaded me to think any differently than I already did. This stuff is disgusting. Of course.”
When I was 13, one of my Italian teachers asked me if she could tutor me – I didn’t need any tutoring per se, I was thriving in her class, but she saw something I could not yet see – I don’t even remember her name, although her face is as clear as day and her minute stature, that she enhanced with vertiginous platforms, is forever imprinted in my memory, as are the afternoon I trotted to her shady and cool apartment. She encouraged my writing, she prodded me on to stick with Latin and she gave me a book that changed my life: “On the side of girls”, my first encounter with feminism, I suppose, the book that initiated my journey to always stand up for myself and other women.
Yes, maybe it’s true that I am not the one who will effect tangible change: far out of my reach to negotiate peace in the Middle East, or prevent rapes in India, but I can dream that every woman be given the opportunity to enjoy a Sunday morning in peace, looking out to the beach, or to the hills of Rajasthan or just to the building across the street. What is within my reach is the ability to empower other women I come in contact with – even in my first world there are more than one can imagine: lending an ear; offering mentoring and advice; passing on a book that changed my life; finding employment, all in the hope of generating a cascading effect that will, one day, reach out all the way to India, and Afghanistan and to every corner where women are still walking up a too steep hill. I might not be able to leave a legacy for the history books but I can leave a small legacy of hope.
Image of Indian girls from heavenschildren.wordpress.com; other images found in the public domain