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The War on Women's Sexuality

From New Dehli to the war on women here, sexual freedom has sparked a global conflict. An expert explains why.
 
 
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Women’s bodies have become a global battlefield. The brutal  New Delhi gang rape case, and the fierce protests it sparked, is just one example. From education of Afghan schoolgirls to veiling in France, female sexuality and freedom has come to symbolize a global conflict “over the nature of the self,” argues David Jacobson, a University of South Florida sociologist, in  “Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict,” which comes out later this month. It’s chiefly an ideological divide of “honor” versus “self-possession” — or, as he puts it in the book, “who owns and control’s one’s body, especially when it comes to women: is it the individual herself or the community, through enforced practices of honor, virginity, veiling, and marriage?”

What Jacobson does beautifully in his accessibly academic book is differentiate between politicized Islamist patriarchy and “the broader Muslim community,” the former being “a core expression of a deeper global fissure,” he explains. “In an honor society, patriarchal and tribal traditions dictate that a woman’s body belongs to and serves the community. … An interest-based society privileges self-determination, the sovereignty of the individual over her body, and ownership of one’s own capital, be it economic, cultural, or social.” As globalization improves the status of many women, it also incites a ferocious backlash against them.

The book offers hints on how to mitigate this divide not only in global conflicts, but also domestic battles over everything from birth control to prostitution. Jacobson spoke to Salon from his office in Florida about virginity, SlutWalks and even monogamy.

Why is female sexuality at the heart of some of our most significant global conflicts?

It’s extraordinary. What we’ve seen in Delhi recently is a horrifying symptom of this broader global phenomenon. The more patriarchal a society, the more vicious the backlash to the integration of women, not just in the labor market and education but to the growing autonomy of women in areas from fashion to consumerism to marriage. I think what’s happening is that women’s sexuality and women’s status has really become the hinge of two very different visions of society and visions of morality. What we’ve seen in recent decades is that women have been making these extraordinary strides in the aggregate. As a consequence, women’s sexuality has become this battleground and this backlash of the most patriarchal elements that control it. We can see women’s progress in these areas is dramatic, but it’s much more muted in the most patriarchal corners of the world from Southeast Asia, including India, down through the Middle East to North Africa. India’s an interesting case because, as has been seen in Delhi, it captures both the modern India and the patriarchal India, which get juxtaposed in what we’ve witnessed in these last weeks.

There’s a piece of this that’s something of an age-old phenomenon, right? Women’s bodies as sites of conflict and incitements for war?

Absolutely. If you go through conflict and war specifically, over time the issue of gender has been very significant. In the one sense, war has primarily been fought by men and the imagery of war has been very masculine. We use the language of the “rape” of cities, which also, of course, involves a lot of literal rape as well.

What has changed is where beliefs about women’s sexuality and status are so disparate between clashing parties. Conflict’s always been gendered in the ways you were alluding to, but I think it’s coming to the forefront in a way we have not seen historically. If we look at conflict in the past, say, for example, in Germany and France battling it out in the Franco-Prussian war of the 1870s, there was a rough consistency across the societies about the status of women and women’s sexuality.

 
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