Women lose and patriarchy wins when we ask “who’s more sexist?”

Check out these two pieces, and see if anything jumps out at you. The first, from Al Jazeera, is titled “Chronic Violence against European women” (3/15/14).

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In early March the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published a startling new study about violence against women in the European Union. Results show that abuse is pandemic: 62 million women, or one in three, have suffered from violent acts since the age of 15. It is clear that European women continue to endure high levels of violence.

Morten Kjaerum, director of FRA, said of the results: “Violence against women, and specifically gender-based violence that disproportionately affects women, is an extensive human rights abuse that the EU cannot afford to overlook.”

Findings confirm Kjaerum’s conclusions. According to the investigation, 55 percent of women have been sexually harassed and 18 percent have been stalked and 43 percent have faced psychological abuse. One in 10 has experienced sexual violence; one in 20 has been raped and 8 percent of women have been abused in the last 12 months. Of all the age groups polled, young women were found to be particularly vulnerable to violent acts. [Emphasis added]

Europe, like everywhere else on Earth, has a serious problem with violence against women. “Abuse is pandemic”… “high levels of violence” constitute “an extensive human rights abuse.”

Usually, reporting on sexism looks more like this–or, not so much like this, because this looks like an Onion headline:

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The latter, from NPR’s Parallels blog, (“Which place is more sexist: the Middle East or Latin America?” 3/16/14) is probably what American readers are more accustomed to seeing. Forget patriarchy’s global war on women, let’s talk Burqas vs. Bikinis. After you’ve scraped your mind off the back wall WHERE NPR JUST BLEW IT by contrasting women who are like, super covered-up to women who are totally naked (makes u think), we can parse the true nature of sexism: a struggle situated in the global south, embodied by the duality of sexually repressed Muslims against lusty Latinos. A yin-yang of nonwhite sexist depravity.

One of the most interesting things about analyzing media is how much coverage of other countries says about us. For instance, we celebrate other countries’s dissidents to tell ourselves we value their principles, no matter how transparently false that is. Our favorite way of embedding our own exceptionalism is to highlight crimes in other countries as a way to erase those crimes when they happen here. If the perpetrators are non-white, then racism and colonialism will get mixed in to implicate entire groups, and absolve us. Though the contrast between these two pieces is stark, the NPR post is typical of the way we talk about gendered violence.

In 2013, two rapes were heavily reported in the American media. One, the gang rape of a student that resulted in her death, took place in Delhi, India. The other, the gang rape of a high school student, took place in Steubenville, Ohio USA. Articles on the Delhi rape talked about India’s rape culture problem. Rape culture describes the misogynistic structure that configures rape as a unique crime: one for which the victim is at fault, and for which the (overwhelmingly male) perpetrators deserve understanding. The gang rape in Delhi was, for many American writers, a horrific outcome of India‘s rape culture.

Around the same time, an Anonymous-affiliated hacktivist group began leaking information about the gang rape of a 16-year-old in Ohio. Images of the girl’s abuse, which recalled the depraved sexual sadism of Abu Ghraib, had been captured and circulated by perpetrators who knew that their status as beloved athletes would grant them immunity in their community. Worried about consequences, the Steubenville rapists were assured by their star coach that he would “take care of it.” Following their convictions, CNN’s coverage focused on how harmful the 1- and 2-year sentences would be for the rapists. In India, then, the tacit cultural acceptance of rape was a cultural problem, while in Steubenville, rape culture was just boys being boys.

Andrea Ayres-Deets summarized the different coverage of the two cases at PolicyMic:

[U]nlike the story involving the 23-year-old Indian woman, American media has been slow to paint a realistic picture of our own rape culture and institutionalized misogyny.

Instead, what we see are instances like that in the Times piece that focuses the blame on “hero worship” in a small football town. But aside from some feminist bloggers, not once have we heard a mention of rape culture uttered as a contributing factor. When we hear stories of rape in America we focus on the individual or, at best, a group.

The difference between both cases is the most basic kind of racism and colonialism. Crimes committed by white men are “boys being boys” or guys “blowing off steam,” always worth minimizing and mitigating by circumstances, and never representative of a pathology essential to the whole group. In India, on the other hand, rape is indicative of a savagery inherent in its brown perpetrators. It’s only when perpetrators are non-white that people feel comfortable making sweeping statements about “cultural problems.”

The NPR piece is typical, then, for situating sexism as a competition taking place between two regions in the global south. As evidence of Latin American sexism, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro points out that “In Brazil, women are second only to the U.S. in the amount of plastic surgeries they have and in the number of beauty products they consume” [Emphasis added]. The plastic surgery and cosmetics industries are evidence of the objectification of women and impossible beauty standards in Latin America, but the size of those industries in the United States isn’t indicative of patriarchy in the English-speaking world.

Steubenville vs. Delhi: a tale of two coverages” lays out numerous ways that rape culture and violence against women in the US and Europe is rendered invisible by the double standard. There’s enough information there that, for the sake of being unconventional, one could write an article titled “Which place is more sexist: Europe or North America?” The author of this hypothetical piece could use some of the same data that Garcia-Navarro did, like the US’s first-place status in money spent on cosmetics and plastic surgery. Contrast the country that gave the world Barbie and Playboy to Ireland, where abortion is illegal and the Catholic church was essentially enslaving women until the 1990s. BAM, thinkpiece!

If one was going to honestly compare sexism in the United States to that in South Asia, the picture would be more complex than the picture painted by the American media. Both India and Pakistan have had female heads-of-state, for instance, and Pakistan has more robust protections of transgender rights than Texas. The subcontinent doesn’t boast the mandatory two-year paid maternity leave that the EU does, but India and Pakistan have more than America’s shameful 0-days of paid parental leave.

Patriarchy and the ways that it devalues women’s lives is a global problem, not one that is unique to one or another (non-white) region. By highlighting foreign crimes and ignoring them here, we erase our own problems while assuring ourselves that we are above them. Obviously America doesn’t have a rape culture, see how much we talk about India’s rape culture? The way we point to sexism in other countries is as much about our own exceptionalism as it is their violence. Sometimes exposing this narrative is very conceptual, but once in a while there’s a coincidence that perfectly captures this. At least NPR provided that.